Category Archives: Handgun Design

The Three Ps

Want to get a fight started? Go to a gathering of gun nuts and shout, nine mil or forty-five? Immediately afterward, get behind cover.

When I was entering the gun nut forest for the first time, the writings of Col. Cooper showed me the way. He favored the M1911 in .45 ACP. Even though I have committed heresy at times, I still hold a fondness for single-action self-loaders that pitch a half ounce of lead at the gentle speed of 850 ft/sec.

The question remains, though: What caliber is the best in a handgun? Oy vey, here we go. It’s an old debate. Back in the early years of the twentieth century, the Army was embarrassed by the poor performance of its .38 Long Colt revolvers in the Philippines and wanted something better. Two fellows by the names of Thompson and LaGarde were commissioned to come up with the answer–in other words, were told to find that .45 was best. A careful reading of their study, however, shows that the data support no particular caliber as being any good out of a handgun. (The .30 Luger performed better than many other rounds, ironically.)

More recently, we keep hearing that the .22 Long Rifle is the round that kills the most people in a given year. Or perhaps it’s the woebegotten .25. So what’s a gun-toting person to choose?

Here, submitted for your consideration, are my three desiderata of cartridge and gun:

1. Placement

If the gun’s too heavy to manipulate or the recoil is so much that I develop a flinch, the thing’s useless to my purpose. There’s no miss that’s good enough, no matter how much noise it makes or how deep a hole it makes in the scenery. Now it’s no good saying that standard calibers are too hard to manage. I’m telling you that I don’t carry a .500 S&W.
44-500comp
Dirty Harry’s round is the one on the left.

The key here is to find something that you can put on target in a hurry. And I’m not talking ten rounds through one hole. What good does that do? You need to be able to empty a magazine or cylinder into the area covered by a sheet of typing paper or a two liter bottle in short order and at whatever distance you expect to have to defend yourself. Also, the smaller the bullet, the better your aim has to be.

2. Penetration

The FBI standard is that the bullet has to penetrate twelve inches of tissue to be good enough. That really is the minimum, since people come in all sizes and don’t always cooperate by standing at the right angle when they’re trying to kill you. These
800px-Hollow_Point
don’t penetrate as well as these
KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
do. Generally speaking, for small calibers–.22 LR, .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .380 ACP, and 9mm Makarov–the bullets are too light or the powder charge is too low to get enough penetration out of hollow points, presuming they even expand at the typical velocities of those rounds. By contrast, .38 Special rounds on up are heavy enough to keep on going, so expanding bullets are better–the bullet does no good once it leaves the bad guy.

Whatever your choice of handgun, the round it spits has to get in deep enough to do what needs accomplishing.

3. Punch

As I said above, the good ole .22 LR and .25 ACP hit way above their class, but that’s probably because those are common guns. I might rely on a .22, but that’s only because I know what I can do with mine. The safer answer is to go with something that’s going to do a lot of work where it’s going. Yes, an icepick can be used as an effective weapon, but your chances of success with that are far higher if you start the fight first and have trained yourself to drive the shaft exactly where you want it every time. In other words, it’s not all that useful for us good guys who aren’t going about starting animosity. We have to react to someone else’s bad choices in life, rather than picking the time and place to act.

Here’s where the 9mm vs. .45 ACP argument really gets thick in the weeds. In days gone by when semiautomatics worked best with hardball, a 9mm wasn’t such a good choice. Just like the icepick, it was small and ran in a hurry straight on through whatever it hit. But we live in interesting times, as the Chinese would say. It’s true that while hollow points don’t always expand, there ain’t no such thing as a shrinking bullet, but expansion is highly likely with today’s ammunition. This means that .38 Special, .357 Sig, .357 Magnum, .40 S&W, 10mm, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, and .45 ACP hollow points are probably going to get big enough to discourage a bad guy. Of course, little bullets also do a lot, but as I said above, the smaller the round, the smaller you’d better be able to aim.

I’ve mentioned a number of rounds in this discussion. I’m not endorsing any of them. I carry several of them and have at my disposal several others. I gravitate toward .38 Special, 9mm, and .45 ACP, but that’s just because my guns that shoot those are the easiest to carry. My Colt Pocket Hammerless is elegant, and now and then I grab my Polish copy of the PPK, but those tend to stay locked away these days.

The takeaway message here is get something that’s easy to carry and feels good in a common caliber, and you will have nothing to feel ashamed or apologetic about, so long as you’re good with it. The caliber wars are endless, and the only certain conclusion from the data about shootings is that it’s bad to get shot. The only real confidence comes from having close air support and a company of Marines at the ready. Short of that, the handgun you can operate well is likely to be good enough in an emergency.

(By the way, there are a pun and a piece of firearms history buried in this article.)

Real Pistol Competition

While pistol competitions can be a good promoter of gun ownership and shooting skills, they too often end up becoming a battle among rich guys who show up with race guns that look like these. A dingus of those feathers may be easy to shoot, but of what practical value are those toys?

Here’s my suggestion for a pistol competition that would be a genuine test of skill: Participants are all given handguns supplied by the organizers. The same model will be given to everyone. Ammunition will be whatever the organizers can find at the local bigbox store. No add-ons, strap-ons, modifications, or whining allowed.

Nobody said it would be easy. But that’s the point, no?

Heresy, Heresy!

Heresy in ancient Greek meant choice. The idea here is that a person chooses a belief or a course of action without reference to what some authority decides is correct. Readers of this weblog will know that in many senses, I’m a heretic. But many of you probably didn’t imagine that I’d stray from one true faith, namely the right and holy doctrine of St. Jeff of the Corps. (Jeff Cooper, for those of you not in the know.)

Hold on one minute, I hear some saying. Didn’t you already wander outside the pale by accepting a pocket 9mm as a worthy sidearm?

Well, yes, but, um, all right. I told you I’m a heretic.

Today’s heresy involves a handgun whose caliber, at least, would please Cooper. It’s a Sig Sauer P-250, chambered in .45 ACP. It’s also available in 9mm Luger, .357 Sig, and .40 Short & Weak, but more on that later.

If it shoots the sacred round, what’s the problem? It’s double-action only. There are no safeties, just about six long pounds of pressure to squeeze off a round. The trigger breaks right at the end of the line with no overtravel, and it goes all the way back to reset. If you imagine the smoothest double-action revolver, you’ll get the idea. The long reset does make a second shot slower than what a single-action trigger can give, but it’s fine for what I can do.

And what’s that? As I’ve said in other articles, I don’t care much for bull’s eye shooting. If pieces of paper take a notion to attacking me, I’ll use scissors. My practice enemy of preference is soda bottles, and those evil containers of death (or so says Mayor Bloomberg, but I drink diet) are in mortal danger if they’re within twenty yards of me while I’m armed. That’s true even with the long double-action of the Sig. Well, when I’m shooting using both hands. One-handed, I’d pull the muzzle off target a lot, but that’s a matter for more practice, not the gun’s fault. The sights are the three-dot variety, and since mine’s relatively new, they still glow in the dark.

The recoil is stiffer than my other .45s. That’s because the Sig has an all-polymer frame with a steel slide. The guts are just a light metal rectangle with some springs and other parts. In fact, those guts are the gun. That’s where the serial number is. Take out one set of guts (done by removing a single pin) and insert a different set with the matching magazine and slide, and you have a new pistol in whichever of the four calibers you want. One of these days, I’ll get myself the .357 Sig guts, since I’ve been itching to try that round for a while now.

The frame is also easy to change. I may do that sooner. I bought this gun in a pawn shop, so I didn’t have a choice in frames, but after wearing the beast for a litte bit, I realized that the sandpaper texture of the grip wasn’t going to cut it. (Scrape it, yes, but not cut.) I got after it with my own piece of sandpaper and smoothed down the surface, but I’ll leave abrasive grips to those who need them.

So what’s my heresy? I’ve been an M1911 man ever since I got into guns. My 1911 was my first self-loading pistol, and that design’s the gold standard for all others. But now, at times, I’m carrying a Sig Sauer DAO P-250 instead. It’s a bit fatter than Browning’s slim model, but it holds the same 8 + 1 rounds and slides nicely into an inside-the-waistband holster. As I told you, heresy is about choice, and I like choice.

I still don’t have a Glock, though.

Is That a Gun in Your Pocket, or Oops–It Is!

I must confess to breaking the laws of Jeff Cooper.  As you know if you’re well-versed in the Colonel’s writings (and you are, aren’t you?), the standard for judging handguns is the 1911 in .45 ACP.  (Look for a celebration of the same on the 29th of this month.)  He consistently referred to the 9mm cartridge as a minor caliber and had no use for double-action pistols.  As someone who has learned much from what Cooper taught, what am I doing with a double action nine?

Have a look at what I’m talking about:

http://www.mouseguns.com/ideal.htm

The weapon featured is the Kel-Tec P-11.  Its trigger requires a long and somewhat heavy pull for each shot (double action only), and it spits out a bullet of .36 of an inch in diameter.

Let’s deal with the 9mm bullet first.  On a discussion board, I read that Cooper opposed the 9mm because he only dealt with the full metal jacket rounds that the military is required to use.  (The United States isn’t a signatory to the Hague Convention, but we abide by it.)  A 9mm bullet that doesn’t expand tends to zip through the target without doing much.  A hollowpoint round, on the other hand, is generally much more effective.  I don’t know what the Colonel knew about expanding bullets, having not seen him discuss the subject in his writings, but he did say that a .22 revolver could be a good self-defense handgun if shooters can put their rounds into the tear ducts of their attackers.  The conclusion that I’ve reached about caliber effectiveness is that bullets have to be placed where they will do something useful and have to be heavy enough to get in deep enough to do good work.  Expansion keeps a higher velocity or greater mass bullet from punching through.  The power of the cartridge affects how well a given shooter can control the weapon.  But the bullet has to go in deep enough where it needs to go, and if it does, it likely will do the job.  (Remember that for self defense, we’re talking about stopping an attacker, not killing someone.)

So I’ve accepted a 9mm pistol as a carry weapon.  What about its double-action trigger?  The P-11 is a pocket gun with no safety.  That being the case, it needs a trigger that is like a double-action revolver–long, weighty, but smooth–and that’s what the P-11 has.  It won’t fire when I put it in my pocket.  My complaint against Glocks is that they have a light trigger with no safety (Plaxico Burress, anyone?).  The Kel-Tec doesn’t have that problem.

Despite its weight, I can control the trigger well enough to hit targets in rapid fire within self-defense distances.  While dry-firing, I was concerned about the trigger reset–the trigger moves a long way back and has to go all the way forward again–but that wasn’t a problem at the range.  I did have one or two cases when my finger didn’t let it reset, but most of the time, the recoil is enough to take care of that.  My question with any self-defense handgun is whether I can use it to place multiple hits into a soda bottle at ten yards, and the answer for me is yes with the P-11.

So how does it shoot?  I put about two hundred rounds through it–hollowpoints, hardball rounds, American-made quality, and cheap Russian steelcased cartridges–and nothing made it stop.  The manufacturer recommends against using +P ammunition too often (higher pressure cartridges), so I haven’t those yet, but my P-11 wasn’t picky about regular rounds.  I could hit bottles rapidly, and even scored on a clay bird that Sharie, the love of my life, tossed across my field of fire for me.  (I missed two other clays, so I need to practice more.)  The sights are good, especially for a pocket gun, three white dots that are easy to pick up.

The recoil was interesting, and I say that as someone who shoots a Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum with one hand for fun.  The P-11 kicks hard.  It weighs under a pound unloaded, and even with eleven rounds on board, it’s about as light as a cellphone.  After emptying a magazine, my left hand was sore for a bit.  The temperature was in the thirties, but I’ve shot many times in that kind of weather without a similar feeling.  The closest that any other gun has come to this is my Radom P-64, about which I’ve written in the past (see the Categories column to the right).

The P-64 is a good weapon to compare to the P-11.  The Kel-Tec holds eleven rounds of 9mm Parabellum, while the Polish gun has only seven rounds of 9mm Makarov.  The P-11 is much lighter, but nearly the same size–slightly shorter (front to back), slightly fatter.  The American gun’s trigger weight is 8.5 pounds as opposed to the P-64’s factory twenty-seven pounds (seventeen, now that I put a new spring in it), and its better sights make aiming much easier.  It’s also cheap, under $300, tax included.  The one advantage that the P-64 has is a loaded chamber indicator.  It’s hard to do a brass check with the P-11, and I like being able to see that there’s a round ready to fire.

The P-11 isn’t a target gun, and it’s not nearly as easy to shoot as a service-size, single-action pistol, but it’s ideal as a pocket rocket.  I can conceal a full-sized .45 when I can wear a shirt outside my pants, but when wearing business casual, I needed something smaller, without giving up rounds or power.  (My .38 snubby is a five-shot, after all.)

Now I have to restrain myself, or I may run out an buy a PF-9. . .

The Cheap Bastard Shoots Again

Those of you who have known me for a while are aware that I’m cheap. I dislike parting with money, unless I know that I can rely on the thing that I’m buying. That being said, I do occasionally take a risk, when the possible reward is great enough. In May of 2008, I bought a Charles Daly 1911 for a bit over $300. I knew that it was the low end of that design of handgun, but that was what I wanted: an introduction to the invention of John Moses Browning (blessings be upon his name). It’s been a long journey since then, but finally I can say that the purchase was worth it.

Have a look at the model in question:

http://www.m1911.org/ezine/CDEFS.htm

Mine has black rubber grips, but otherwise, it’s identical in appearance. It’s functioning, on the other hand, differs from the reviewer in the link above.

Hollow points are the ideal defensive ammunition, but my Charles Daly wouldn’t shoot them for a long time. No matter what brand, it would fire one or two and then jam. That gave me plenty of opportunities to practice clearing drills, but would have been no good in time of need, and it was bloody annoying even at the range. So for much of our time together, I’ve fed mine hardball, full metal jacket rounds. Those can work, especially considering that our military has fought many wars using exactly that kind of ammunition, and hardball is cheap. But there’s the danger of overpenetration that a responsible shooter has to take into account.

But just the last couple of times at the range, all of the sudden, my 1911 is cycling Winchester White Box (read cheap) hollow points. In two and a half years of owning and shooting the gun, I’ve probably put 3,000 rounds through it, and it seems that it has finally been broken in. The lesson here is that you need to test your ammunition choices in your carry weapon, but don’t give up.

There’s more to the story, naturally. The first item that broke on mine was the barrel bushing. In the pictures on the link, it’s the oval piece of metal that fits around the muzzle. Its job is to compress the recoil spring as the slide retracts. This means that it endures a lot of force during firing, and the bushing on mine cracked early on. That was a simple part of replace for $10 or so. I had to smooth out the inside of the new bushing to make it fit, but that was easy.

Now look at the larboard side picture. You’ll see a tube that goes between the thumb safety and the slide stop. That’s the plunger tube. It has spring-mounted pins on either end that hold the two levers in place and a pair of pins that attach the tube to the frame. Those pins are a common point of failure in the 1911, and mine sheared off after a few months. That cost around $60 for the part and the work (I didn’t have the required tools for that job).

That’s the complete list of problems that I’ve had. Two repairs and a lengthy breaking-in period, and now my cheapo gun is a workhorse. In case you’re thinking that somewhere around $400 for a 1911 sounds like a lot, a Springfield model starts at over $500 on the low end; a Kimber doesn’t even open the bidding until about $800, and Les Baer or Wilson Combat–well, do you have any bars of gold lying about?

What do you get for the high end models? (I wish I knew. . .) Um, from what I have read and heard, you get much better finishing (better bluing, no tool marks, etc.) and somewhat more mechanical accuracy from a tighter fit of the parts. I have two responses to those:

1. My mother had a useful chair. We stood on it when we needed something from a high shelf or wanted to paint the ceiling. Then one day my grandmother stripped off the layers of paint and discovered that the thing was a Polish 1920s antique that was valuable! Now it sits in my parents’ living room collecting dust because it’s too important to use.

That’s how I look at fancy guns. If they’re too pretty, I’ll be afraid of sweating on them or getting dirt in them or getting gunpowder residue on them and won’t shoot them. The fancy fitting is also a problem from the standpoint of reliability, since the tighter parts have to be cleaner to work. If you want to race on a closed track, a Ferrari may be the car for you, but if you need to cross a muddy field, you want an old truck.

2. The increase in accuracy is only slight anyway, and I’m not good enough to notice the difference. My goal with a carry weapon is to be able to hit a 20 oz. soda bottle within reasonable self defense distances, and I can do that with any of my handguns. I’m not trying to put one hole through a piece of paper at fifty yards with thirty rounds. That kind of shooting requires far more practice than I have time or money to give to it, and it has little application in the everyday world.

Besides, if astonishing mechanical accuracy is what is required, Browning’s pistols are not the best. No, I’m not casting aspersions on the genius of the firearms world. All handguns that follow Browning’s design use a barrel that tilts downward to unlock from the slide in the firing cycle. Most locked-breech pistols have that. There are designs, though, that use a fixed barrel, and that is supposed to give some increase in mechanical accuracy (in other words, how accurate the gun would be when fired from a rest). Again, I’m unlikely to know the difference, especially since I don’t use a rest to practice with handguns. I imagine that there are people in this world who could tell the difference, even when shooting off hand, and much good may that do them.

To sum this up, it’s taken a while, but my Charles Daly 1911 is finally operating reliably and desirably. It was a cheapo and remains so. I removed the rubber bumper from its magazine’s base, and I’d like to change out the issue hammer with the original GI design, but other than that, it looks to have years of service left to give me.

Bondowski, Jakub Bondowski

Today, I’m continuing to show my fascination with military surplus weapons from the old Commie Bloc. Have a look at this first:

http://pdf.textfiles.com/manuals/FIREARMS/random_p64.pdf

It seems familiar, doesn’t it? Various sources disagree as to how much it’s a clone of the Walther PPK, but there are many obvious similarities. Its dimensions are within fractions of an inch identical; it has the same general shape (except for the grip tang, but more on that later), and to the shooter, it has the same manual of arms–decocker, takedown procedure, double/single action trigger, and blowback operation. My impression is that the Polish gunsmiths who designed it told their bosses that “Oh my Marx, we never looked at that inferior product of capitalist imperialism.”

Here’s the PPK for comparison (go down the page a bit–the PP is also shown):

http://world.guns.ru/handguns/hg13-e.htm

Perhaps the smiths ought to have looked a little closer.

1. The first time I shot mine, the grip panels popped off. This was because the retaining bolt wasn’t long enough or the end threads had stripped. This was simple to repair. I just took the panels and original bolt to a hardware store and found a new bolt and nut that fit.

2. The grip tang on the P-64 is shorter and rounder. Why does that matter? When the slide reciprocates, it has more of a chance of leaving two grooves in the web of the shooter’s hand at the base of the thumb if the shooter doesn’t hold the weapon just right. This is known as slide bite. This isn’t really a cause for complaint, though. Real shooters don’t whine about minor pain, and the P-64 is good for teaching a proper grip.

3. Speaking of teaching lessons, the P-64 is a good learning tool for correct trigger squeezing. If you want to know if your trigger finger is the only thing moving during the firing stroke, try this weapon. That’s because the pull weight from the factory is around 27 lbs. I ended up having to aim somewhat to the right of where I wanted the bullets to impact to take that atrocious pull into account. Eventually, I changed out the main spring for an 17 lbs. one. That’s still heavy, but much more manageable.

4. But the new main spring made another problem worse. When firing, the magazine tended to pop out after a round or two. That’s bothersome at the range; in action, that could be fatal. It did this with the original spring, but the new one made it fail every time. The main spring not only gives tension to the hammer; on this weapon, it also holds the magazine release catch tight. I put a small spring inside the grips at the base of the catch to keep it secure.

Note that these repairs and corrections all sound simple, but they were actually tricky. The P-64 has a lot of sharp internal edges, so changing or adding springs involves much cursing and bloody fingers. Again, no real shooter pays any attention to that.

Given the difficulties, why do I love this gun?

1. It’s cheap. Mine, taxes included (spit), came in under $200. Try that with anything from Walther. There’s also plenty of surplus ammunition for it at gunshops.

2. It shoots a decent cartridge. The P-64 shoots the 9 x 18 Makarov round, which is about as strong as a simple blowback weapon can handle. It’s no .45 acp; it’s not even 9mm Parabellum, but it compares favorably to .380 (9 x 17).

3. It’s reliable. Yes, I mean that. It did need some modifications, but that’s part of the fun of military surplus weapons. The one guarantee is that my P-64 will shoot anything that I feed it, so long as the round is any bit functional. It has never jammed. Now that I’ve tinkered with it, it works.

4. It’s easy to conceal. Remember that it miraculously came out like the Walther PPK, the gun that Bond packs. It’s about the size of my open hand. That means that it fits nicely into my pocket. There’s no cylinder to bulge, and with a pocket holster, it looks like a wallet. The trigger pull here is an advantage, since it’s too heavy for an unintended discharge.

5. It works for me. My standard of accuracy is whether or not I can hit a 20 oz. soda bottle anywhere within a reasonable range for the weapon in question, and with the P-64, inside of ten yards, Diet Coke had better take cover.

That’s the P-64. It’s cranky, but when its limits are taken into account, it does what it claims to do and does it well. In that way, it sounds like me.

Resurrecting the Broomhandle

The now retired blogger Kim du Toit loves it; Han Solo shot a laser version of it; Winston Churchill used it to good effect, so whatever happened to the Mauser C-96?  What’s that, you’re asking?  Have a look:

http://www.surplusrifle.com/pistolc96broomhandle/index.asp

Now that’s a beauty.  It’s a puzzle literally.  The parts are interlocking, with no screws to hold it together.  It comes in a wooden carrying case that doubles as a shoulder stock.  It fires a cartridge that has pretensions of being worthy for a rifle.  The rear sight, to take a line from Jeff Cooper, is graduated out to Fort Mudge (1,000 meters on a pistol!).  It was the first successful semiautomatic handgun.  What’s not to love?

Well, a few things.  I’ve held one in my hand, although I’ve never had the chance to fire one.  As others have observed and as my hand could tell, it has an odd feel with the broomhandle grip and strange shape.  It’s cartridge, 7.63 x 25, is not so easy to find (and the 7.62 x 25 Tokarev round will blow up a C-96).  Carrying one would be a challenge, especially if it had to be concealed.

That being said, I still want one.  Actually, what I want is a current production copy, since the originals are antiques and probably not to be fired all that often anymore.  What I’d like to see is a company like Pietta or Uberti, companies with experience reproducing classic firearms of the nineteenth century, bring out a new version.  Make the design the same.  With modern steel, it could be built to handle the Tokarev cartridge in one model and the 9mm Luger in another (just as some of the originals could).  $400 would be a good sale price.

Do I need one?  No, not really.  Can I think of a practical use for one?  Nope.  But do I want one?  Absolutely!  Come on, gun makers, you have a ready customer here.