Sunday, November 20, 2011

USAC Reloadable Plastic Cased Ammunition

While cleaning up in my basement the other day I came across this box of odd .38 Special ammunition. It contained six cartridges, two of them fired, that I received as a sample from my favorite fishing and hunting shop in 1984. Unless you're a collector of ammunition you've probably never seen these before. They were introduced to the market and disappeared in less than a year.

Back in 1984 a company called USAC (not to be confused with the former Indy Cars sanctioning organization) came out with another of those brilliant solutions for which there was no existing problem- in this case, a highly simplified reloading system. In principle, it sounded impressive. Reusable plastic cartridge cases with snap-in bullets that used standard primers and powders, and a simple, inexpensive reloading press you could hold in the palm of your hand. No sizing or priming was required, so all the press had to do was deprime, seat a new primer, and snap the bullet in place.

In theory this was a great idea. In practice, it had a few problems. For one, it was very inflexible. There were four "full metal jacket" bullets offered ranging from 148 to 158gr which were in fact just copper flashed lead. No hollow points, no real jackets. Because of the snap-in feature, the rear half of the bullet didn't engage the rifling, so they had to be fairly long.  USAC only recommended a very few powders and loads.

Shooters reload for one of several reasons: To save money, for better accuracy, to get loads not commercially available, or just for the pleasure of developing new loads and experimenting. The USAC system was aimed at the shooter who wanted to save money. Problem was, you didn't really save enough to make it worth while. A box of standard 158gr .30s had a retail cost of around $9 in 1984, and commercial reloads cost half as much A box of USAC .38s cost $11, and replacement bullets were $3.30-3.50 per 50. USAC ads say that the reloader could get started for around $60.

Ideally, using the USAC system a reloader could turn out a box of cartridges for around $4. Buying new cases would push that up a bit. Using traditionally reloading methods and cast bullets a box of 50 would have cost no more than $2.50. It was unclear how many reloads you could get out of the plastic USAC cases. Brass, if loaded to modest levels, can be used dozens of times.

In the end, the economics of the USAC system just weren't attractive enough to interest shooters, and the limited options didn't interest reloaders.  USAC went bankrupt, and the ammunition and components were sold off. If you come across a box of these, they make a nice addition to a collection. They're not rare enough to be valuable, but they are interesting.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reloading Again

After a few trips to the range with my new Ruger Blackhawk it slowly dawned on me that if I was going to shoot this thing regularly I'd better start reloading again. White box Winchester .38 specials were running $17-18 for a box of 50, and .357s were pushing $30. More importantly, I couldn't buy the loads I wanted. Everything at the local stores was so-called "target" loads that were like the old police standard 158gr RN, or 125gr semi-jacketed magnums.

When I started reloading for my two Dan Wessons back in the 80s my impulse was to see how hot a load I could safely shoot. That meant jacketed bullets over a max charge of Allient 2400, producing screaming velocities, massive muzzle energy, and a tongue of flame two or three feet long. But gradually it occurred to me that I wasn't likely to be facing grizzly bears at the range, and it made more sense, and was a lot more fun to shoot low-powered .38 special and .44 special wadcutter loads.

These light loads- what my PPC-shooting pal Ric calls "bunny fart" loads- are a not only more enjoyable to shoot, and a lot more accurate, they're also lot more practical for a lot of hunting uses, too. Sure, if you're hunting deer with a revolver it makes  sense to use a .357 or .44mag, but low power .38 special loads are perfect for a wide range of small game. A 148gr wadcutter over 2.7 grains of Bullseye yields around 670-700 fps, depending on your barrel, and around 140 foot-pounds of energy. That's about the same as a hot .22LR in a rifle barrel, or an old .36 percussion revolver. The heavier, slow moving bullets are very effective, and do a lot less meat damage than the high-speed HP .22s.

At any rate, having decided to get back into reloading, I started out by digging into some boxes packed away many years ago and retrieving a .38SPL Lee Loader, Lee primer seater,  cans of Bullseye and Unique, and a few hundred primers. I ordered a box of 148gr wadcutters and a week later set to work loading cartridges. Now using a Lee Loader is the simplest and most fool-proof way of reloading cartridges that here is. It's also the slowest. It's fine for rifle reloading, where you might only need 20 cartridges for a season of deer hunting, and I'm told some benchrest shooters swear by them,  but pistol shooters tend to burn up ammunition at a much faster rate.

After loading two boxes worth I realized that if I wanted to keep shooting I'd better upgrade by reloading gear, starting with a proper press. A number of friends who shoot .45acp and 9mm in competition like the Dillon progressive presses, which will run you about $370 for their basic Square Deal press. I wasn't going to be loading the same kind of volume they were, and I'd started with a Lee turret press, and liked it, so I went ahead and ordered a Lee Turret Press and a set of .38 special carbide dies (which can also be used for .357 mag) from Factory Sales, an outfit that supplies Lee products mail order at a healthy discount.

For $150 I got the Deluxe Pistol Kit, which includes a press, powder scale, auto powder measure, primer pocket cleaner and case trimmer. Another $33 and change bought a deluxe carbide 4 die set for a total outlay of around $183.  (That's the box from FS in the photo above.) I ordered 500 hard cast 148gr wadcutters and a similar number of 158gr SWCs from from Dardas Cast Bullets. I've got a fair supply of powders, including some left over from my earlier reloading, and some powders like Unique and 2400 that I've been using for shotgun reloading, and enough small pistol primers to get started. The only remaining step is to set up my reloading bench... and that's where I started to run into a few roadblocks.

My basement, which used to be a very well organized workspace, became a random storage area during a remodeling project a few years ago, and it's remained that way. This seemed like the perfect reason to clean it up, reorganize, and make room for a number of projects. I started to move sotrage boxes away from wall, and discovered a lot of blistering paint and effervescence. Hmm. I should scrape and paint that. Maybe do some patching with a little hydraulic cement, too. I need room to work, so I've been boxing old books, tossing bits of metal in the recycling bin, putting unused hobby and sports gear on eBay, and in general doing everything but reloading. But with luck, I hope to be turning out custom loads in time for when the snow melts at the outdoor range next spring ;-)

Monday, October 31, 2011

DIY Firearms

Did you know that it's perfectly legal to make your own modern, cartridge firing firearms? Here's what the BATF has to say about it, from their FAQ page:
With certain exceptions a firearm may be made by a non-licensee provided it is not for sale and the maker is not prohibited from possessing firearms. However, a person is prohibited from assembling a non-sporting semi-automatic rifle or non-sporting shotgun from imported parts. In addition, the making of an NFA firearm requires a tax payment and approval by ATF. An application to make a machine gun will not be approved unless documentation is submitted showing that the firearm is being made for a Federal or State agency.
Some thirty or more years ago there were a series of small ads in the classified sections of Popular Mechanics and similar magazines offering plans for the home gunsmith from an outfit that went by the acronym JACO. Most were simple, single shot pistols, like the one displayed above, and the sellers stated that all could be made with no more tools than a hacksaw, files, and a drill. Today, I see that a number of websites have resurrected these plans, and at least one enterprising soul has been selling them on eBay!

To make it even easier, JACO also sold plans for a filing fixture that was clamped over the workpiece, and used hardened steel rollers to guide a file. The claim was that with this fixture it was possible to get the kind of accuracy you'd otherwise need a milling machine to obtain- although of course it would take longer with the fixture. I don't doubt it. Such fixtures were more common in earlier centuries, and I seem to recall that Guy Lautard had a design for one in one of his Machinist's Bedside Reader books.

While the Federal laws on constructing firearms are no hindrance to this sort of project, state laws may be. Here in Michigan, handguns must be registered with the state, and only a gun already registered to a licensed dealer or another individual may be transferred. I'm not sure how this affects home made guns, though I'm tempted to drop a line to the State Police for clarification.  If your state laws do permit this sort of thing, it does look like a great hobby project for the shooter with patience and an aptitude for craft.

UPDATE: Here's a complete PDF, with instructions, of the JACO mini pistol plans. (link fixed!)

UPDATE: Some creative Google searching indicates a number of patent applications- but no patents granted- to a John Kasselman and Albert Blatter (hence the name JACO) for a filing fixture, three pistol designs, and a method for bluing steel.

Two more Jaco pistols: the JACO Western Pistol and the JACO Derringer.

Even more: The JACO Childs Campers Pistol and The JACO Horse Pistol

Ambitious home gunsmiths can find a wealth of info and a clever design in The Handgun. Home gunsmiths with access to a lathe and the willingness to navigate the complex applications needed to legally make automatic weapons will find The Do-it-Yourself Submachine Gun both interesting and useful.

(Less well equipped hobbyists looking for fun projects will find Backyard Ballistics: Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars, and More Dynamite Devices a great source of entertainment.)

Find this useful?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Rossi Tuffy

Back when traveling by automobile was an adventure, a number of companies marketed guns especially for use by travelers, much as they had marketed bicycle pistols for early cyclists to defend themselves against wild dogs. These automobile guns were typically short barreled shotguns like the Ithaca "Auto & Burglar Gun." The Ithaca, like most similar guns, was nothing more than a short (12.2") barreled variant of a standard Ithaca 20 gauge double, with a pistol grip replacing the shoulder stock. But in 1934 the National Firearms Act made the transfer of such guns subject to a $200 transfer tax- about $3143 in 2011 dollars- and Ithaca, realizing that it would be impossible to sell a $30 guns with a $200 tax, quit making the Auto & Burglar.

The idea of a short shotgun has hung on, as it's a very useful arm, and not just for the Prohibition-era gangsters targeted by the NFA. As Ithaca noted, it's a good choice for home protection, being easier to maneuver indoors than a full length gun, and the shot from an unchoked barrel is far less likely to penetrate a wall than a slug from a 9mm pistol. The compact size means they can make good survival guns, too. H&R used to make a short stocked single shot shotgun called the "Snake Charmer" and variations of it have been made off and on by H&R's successor, NEF. These guns are really more like long barreled pistols with a stub of a stock added to bring them to a legal length. Often they're marketed as youth guns, but their real market is as defensive and survival guns.

The most recent entry in this market is a clone, in .410, of these H&R guns from Rossi. It's called the Tuffy, and it's a tiny, light, and apparently well made gun. I was handling one over at Gander Mountain the other day, and when I saw the price- $149- I was sorely tempted to buy it then and there.  I've been looking,, casually, for a single barrel .410 for use as a squirrel or rabbit gun, and it occurred to me that the Tuffy might be a handy gun for just that purpose. Then I found an interesting video on YouTube of a fellow who says he lives in the woods, and who modified his by attaching a stock extension with Gorilla tape:

Might just have to go back to Gander and buy one.

More on the guns of James Bond

Previously I wrote about my personal 007 guns- the .22 Beretta (okay, Bond carried a .25) and the Walther PPK. Here's an interesting excerpt from a BBC documentary in which very proper English firearms expert gives his opinions on Bond's choice in pistols:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Charter Arms Explorer II Pistol

At one point during the time  Charter Arms was making the AR-7 survival rifle they introduced a pistol version called the Explorer II. A lot of hobbyists and collectors- myself included- bought one, based on the Mauser Broomhandle-like appearance and the inexpensive price. It came with a 4", 6", or 10" barrel, though I seem to recall that mine came with two barrels.

The receiver wasn't identical to that of the rifle version in that you couldn't attach a shoulder stock, and the alignment lug for the barrel was different from that of the rifle version. This was to prevent someone from intentionally or accidentally mounting a shoulder stock on the pistol or attaching a short barrel to the pistol, either of which would have resulted in a violation of the National Firearms Act (and not incidentally the commission of a Federal felony.)

What many owners discovered was that the Explorer II pistol had all the faults of the AR-7 rifle, like problems with feeding and mediocre accuracy. In addition, it would fail to cycle reliably if you limp-wristed it. Still, it's a pretty neat pistol, and I can't help but wonder if it might sell well if Henry, who now make the AR-7, came out with an improved model. I'd sure buy one.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The AR-7 Explorer

Just about every shooting sports hobbyist I've ever known has owned one of these at one time or another; I've owned three, at various times. It was designed by Eugene Stoner at Armalite for the civilian market as a semi-automatic .22 version of the bolt-action AR-5, a .22 Hornet survival rifle that Stoner designed for the USAF. Armalite sold the tooling and rights to Charter Arms, who made most of the guns that are out there now. Charter Arms had a reputation for uneven quality back then and the AR-7 was certainly no exception. The guns were often fussy about ammunition,  magazine feed lips often needed tweaking, and owners reported numerous jams. As a survival weapon it had questionable value, as the sights were crude and the waterproof stock, which was designed to hold the disassembled rifle, often leaked. I sold my last Charter Arms gun, complete with original box, for around $125.

The rights to the design passed to Survival Arms in 1990, who I don't think made very many. In 1997 Henry Repeating Arms, who do have a reputation for quality,  picked it up, and improved it, using a new ABS material for the stock, and supplying new guns with two magazines. The gun itself is Teflon coated for better moisture resistance, and the receiver is grooved for a scope. The barrel is steel, covered with a synthetic coating. All of this makes for a much more practical and reliable rifle that you might actually consider packing for a backwoods trip. For me, personally, my preferred survival gun is my customized Ruger Mk-III hunter. It's more rugged, and more accurate- but it did cost almost three times as much as a new Henry AR-7.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Dan Wesson Revolvers

The very first centerfire revolver I owned was a Dan Wesson. So was the second. I had a pair in .357 and .44mag, respectively, back in the late 1980s, and like a lot of guns and guitars that have passed through my hands, I'm sorry I sold them. These guns were of exceptional quality, and had a novel feature- interchangeable barrels- that was part of the reason they were also some of the most accurate revolvers ever made.

The actual barrel was a threaded, rifled tube  that was surrounded by a shroud. One end of the barrel screwed into the frame. The shroud was slipped over the barrel, and a nut was then screwed on to the end of the barrel, holding it in tension between the frame and the end of the shroud. A feeler gauge was used to set the barrel-cylinder gap. You could get a wide range of barrel lengths and shroud weights, as well as barrels and shrouds with an integrated muzzle brake. (My .44 had an 8" bbl with brake.)

Back in the 1980s my eyesight was pretty sharp (I was in my 20s), and I used to regularly shoot my .44 off a sandbag at 50 yards at my local outdoor range. At that distance, using handloads and iron sights, I could easily keep all my shots in the black at 50 yards. 

The company that made these great guns made the decision, after a few changes of ownership, to concentrate on making 1911 clones,  and revolver production was de-emphasized. CZ bought the company in 2005, and luckily (for us) they've decided to bring back the original Dan Wesson 715 interchangeable barrel revolver.  Prices start at around $1160 for a stainless .357 with 6" barrel.

Ruger SP101 in .22LR

Wouldn't you know it? Just after I buy a new Beretta Bobcat, I learn that Ruger is introducing a .22 caliber version of their SP101 revolver. At $600 list, it's $159 cheaper than the S&W Model 317 Kit Gun, and Ruger's quality is certainly right up there with Smith & Wesson's. (Ruger does the investment casting of the Walther PPK and PPK/S frames for S&W.) I've owned at least four Rugers in my time (three .22 auto pistols and an Old Army) and I never had a moment's trouble with any of them.

The .22LR revolver is the classic sportsman's sidearm, and before State and Federal laws made it difficult to do so, it wasn't at all uncommon for every hunter and fisherman to carry a pocket .22- just the thing for bagging a grouse, or a slow rabbit, for the dinner pot. But with the surge in "shall issue" laws across the country, it's now relatively easy to get a carry permit, and I suspect more outdoorsmen (and women) are carrying a sidearm in the field. While it's always been legal (in most states) to carry a sidearm exposed, in a holster, while carrying a hunting license, a lot of us prefer to keep it concealed for various reasons. Among other things, it's less confrontational these days, when you're increasingly likely to come across people in the woods and streams who aren't comfortable around guns.

Although I own a few semiauto .22s, I think the revolver has a lot of advantages for the sportsman. Accuracy (in single action fire) of a high quality revolver can be every bit as good as with an auto. A quality revolver is the most reliable handgun you can find, short of a single-shot pistol.

There aren't nearly as many quality double-action revolvers in this country as there used to be. H&R quit making their low-end revolvers years ago. There's Charter Arms, but their stuff is pretty low end. That leaves S&W and Ruger. The general consensus is that S&W guns are better finished, and the Rugers are stronger. S&W uses forging, which requires more machining and hand finishing, while Ruger uses investment casting, which produces a ready-to-assemble, but less highly polished, frame. Both make guns that will last a lifetime.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Guns of the Carnival Midway

When I was a kid my family would take periodic trips down to Sandusky, Ohio, home of the Cedar Point amusement park. Cedar Point is known for their roller coaster- something that has never held any attraction for me- but they also had things like shooting galleries, which I wasted a lot of time and money on. There were two types of shooting galleries in those days, my favorite being the one in which even a kid could fire a real gun at moving target.

The only gun I ever saw used at one of these stalls was a Browning .22 Automatic, chambered in .22 Short. They didn't make much noise, but they did have a very satisfying CRACK when fired, along with a wisp of real smoke. These were the genuine made in Belgium Brownings, too, from before Browning moved a lot of their production to Japan. When I was a kid I thought a Browning .22 Auto would be just about the best rifle ever, so I wonder why I never bought one. One reason, I suppose, is they're not exactly cheap.  The Grade I rifles list for $670-700 and can be had for around $600.  Grade VI guns list at $1500.  (Browning used to offer six different grades, but now only the Grade I and Grade VI are offered.)

The other gun on the midway wasn't a firearm, but for a lot of kids it was something even cooler- a machine gun! So what if it fired BBs? You'd get 100 shots for your dime (or, as time went time, your quarter or dollar.)

The guns at these galleries were Feltman BB guns, a design that went back to the 1930s, as did many of the guns. They've actually been manufactured more of less continually since then. Today, the same basic gun can be purchased as part of a package from Shooting Star, the current owners of the tooling. Some of you may be familiar with the MacGlashan BB gun, which was used as a trainer by the Army Air Force and the US Navy in WWII. That gun actually got its start as a carnival shooting gallery gun, too. I've often wondered if Feltmans were ever used for military training.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Why I Like Cabela's

Many years ago, before the name was sold to a retailer of clothes for teenaged fashion slaves, Abercrombie and Fitch was a legendary sporting goods store. This was a shop where you could walk in and buy everything from a simple fly rod to full kit for an African Safari. A fine English double gun in .450 Jeffries? Certainly, sir, we have a wide selection, and if you don't see something you like, we can have it made for you.

For those of us whose disposable incomes weren't quite in the same range, there were plenty of local Sporting Goods stores that could outfit the outdoorsman (or sportswoman) with fishing and hunting kit. My favorite for many years was a little shop in Ferndale, Michigan, called Geakes Sporting Goods. It was owned by a gentleman by the name of Neville Geake, and for many decades it was where I purchased all my hunting and fishing supplies. Ice fishing augers? No problem, they have a full selection.  Barbour waxed canvas coats and vests? These two racks.  Reloading supplies? Right here. Gunsmithing services? Mr. Geake had a full machine shop, and he could handle repair, rebarreling, chambering, custom bluing- whatever you needed.

I bought my first high quality air rifle (a Beeman R7) at Geakes, my first fly rod, my first reloading press, and a wide assortment of curiosities, like the AR-7 Explorer pistol I owned for a time, and the blowgun that hangs on a rack in my basement. Mr. Geake was an exceptionally friendly man, and free with advice, whether or not you were buying. He taught me the right way to use a file, and how to shape the follower in a P17 Enfield so the bolt would close on an empty chamber.

Eventually Mr. Geake decided to retire, and the property was sold.The new crop of chain "sporting goods" stores, if they did sell hunting and fishing gear, marketed to the low end. If you wanted fly fishing gear it was either the Orvis shop, which was by then more of a clothing store, or mail order. The gun shops in the area catered mainly to fans of high capacity 9s and AR-15 clones.

Then Cabela's came to Michigan. I was familiar with their catalog, but visiting their store was a revelation. Here was a gun department the likes of which hadn't been seen since the great days of A&F. Row upon row of fine rifles, shotguns, and pistols,  new and used, and a "gallery" of high end and collectable arms, including some very fine British double guns. They bought guns, too, usually at  reasonable prices- that's where I sold my S&W 442. The staff were all well informed, and friendly- just like the old days.

Cabelas also has a pretty decent selection of reloading equipment, ammunition, targets, safes... just about everything you need and can't find at your local discount hardware store. Prices aren't as low as you'll find at Midway or Sinclair, but then you're not shipping when you buy at a store. I suppose it's a good thing they're 65 miles from me. If they were any closer I'd probably be dropping in every week.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The .22 caliber Beretta Bobcat 21a

As regular readers know, I like miniatures, be they guns or anything else. I've always been interested in the small double action Beretta "mouse pistols," which appear to combine function with well thought out ergonomics and safety features. They're not cheap, but they are exceptionally well made. And they're made in the US, as a consequence of the factory Beretta had to build to get the US Army's sidearm contract- a good thing, not only for our economy, but for the availability of guns and parts. A small gun like the 21a probably wouldn't make it in as an import under current BATF rules and regs.

The 21a Bobcat  and the slightly larger .32ACP Tomcat share an interesting feature- a tip up barrel. To load the chamber on most autos, you rack the slide, and then you have to either carry a cocked (and hopefully locked) gun, use the decocking lever (if your gun has one), or very carefully lower the hammer and hope your thumb doesn't slip. With the Beretta guns, you release the barrel, which flips up, exposing the chamber:

You can then insert a round and snap the barrel closed, leaving the gun uncocked. Simple. I've often heard this described as a feature for older people with weak hands who can't rack a gun, but I doubt that's why Beretta came up with it- it's really a safety feature. And speaking of safe, the Tomcat and Bobcat both have thumb safeties, another feature I am a strong believer in. Thumb safeties are easy to engage and disengage with practice, and they're one more thing keeping a curious child or adult from an accidental discharge should a loaded weapon fall into their hands- or should someone take it from you.

Anyway.... I was shopping for reloading supplies at a local Gander Mountain not long ago when I spotted a used Taurus PT-22 in the display case with a $149 tag, which led me to ask the clerk if I might examine it. The PT-22 is a near-clone of the 21a and has a lot of fans, but after examining one close up I have to say I'm not one of them. It has a spurless hammer, and is designed to be fired double action only. That's a safety factor, but it also means it's not a gun you can fire accurately. Judging from the example I saw, it's also a piece of junk. A search of the web reveals a lot of fans- but also a lot of horror stories of broken guns. While looking at the PT-22 I idly asked if they had a 21a in stock... and yes, they did- a nice Stainless steel slide version. Comparing the two side by side, well, there's simply no comparison. And I'd just gotten paid for a guitar I sold...

So it followed me home. I've only had it to the range once, where I put 70 rounds of CCI Minimags and one magazine of Aquila SSS Subsonics through it (see the previous article). I had a few jams in the first few dozen rounds with the Mini-Mags, and then a pattern emerged: The first round would fire, and partially cycle, and a push with the thumb was needed to push the slide forward about 1/4" into battery. I had a few more jams, but the frequency of jams diminished as I worked my way through the box of ammunition. Curiously, I had no problems with the Aguila SSS, a round that has a reputation of being notoriously fussy about what semiautomatic guns it will cycle in. Based on what I've read on line, another 100 or so rounds should be enough to fully break in the gun, and a slight polish of the feed ramp may help, too. I suspect a slight adjustment of the lips on the magazine might help, too.

Accuracy is not bad, considering the very primitive sights- a tiny blade and a notch in the slide. I was able to get 6" groups at 25', and kept them all well within a foot at 50'. I suspect this could be improved with practice (and maybe some improvements to the sights.) Guns like this are designed for close-up defensive use, but better accuracy is always something to aspire to, especially as this gun is a lot of fun for plinking, too.

Summary: A very well made gun, albeit with a few break-in issues. Small enough to carry everywhere, and fun to shoot.

Postscript: Since writing the above, I've read that the 21a with the stainless steel slide is fussier about ammunition than is the blued model, a difference that some ascribe to higher friction from a rougher finish on the slide. I spent a few minutes a few nights ago gently polishing the slide on a very hard Arkansas stone with plenty of oil, but that didn't change the gun's behavior with MiniMags. I did buy a few boxes of CCI Stingers, which a lot of Bobcat owners say are the single best round for the Bobcat- and after yesterday's range visit, I have to agree. 100 shots with not one FTF or FTE.  At first, I thought this might be a consequence of the plated cases of the Stingers having less friction, but I found that  non-plated CCI Velocitors, and they worked just as well. My next step (when I have time and remember!) will be to polish the feed ramp with the Dremel and some rouge. (Read about that here.)

Post-Postscript: I later briefly replaced the stock plastic grip panels with a very attractive set from Altamont in Super Rosewood- see this link for details. Also see this link for my efforts on improving the feeding of the gun.

Aguila SSS Sniper Subsonic .22 Ammunition

Some years ago, the big excitement was the new hypervelocity .22 ammunition, like the Stingers from CCI, which used lighter weight bullets (32gr rather than 40) and slower burning powder to get velocities of 1400fps or more out of rifle barrels. Three years ago, the shooting blogs were raving about something different- a new heavier, slower round from Mexican ammunition maker Aguila. At 60 grains, the Aguila projectiles were 50% heavier than the typical solid .22, and velocities were down around 950fps. Subsonic ammunition is nothing new; you can buy CCI 22 CB Long cartridges that come out of the barrel at a plodding 750fps and delivers a piddling 32 foot-pounds of energy. What's new is a subsonic round that delivers the same kind of energy as the hottest .22LR rounds- in this case, 120 ft-lbs. This caught the attention of hunters, who liked the idea of a quieter cartridge that didn't give up anything in the way of power, and fans of silencers, who saw a cartridge that would work especially well in silenced guns.

Aguila accomplished this, simply enough, by using a heavier bullet. Nothing unusual about that. What's unusual is how they did it.  Compared to centerfire cartridges, .22LR cartridges are limited in the range of bullet sizes that can be used. Because of its black powder heritage, the .22LR uses what's called a "heeled" bullet. This means that the part of the bullet seated in the case is smaller than the nominal caliber, and because of that, doesn't engage the barrel's rifling. You can't extend the bullet forward of the case because the length of the cartridge must fall into a very narrow dimensional range.

Some historical perspective is called for at this point. Younger shooters may not be aware that not long ago there there were three common .22 cartridges: The Short, the Long, and the Long Rifle. .22 Short cartridges are rarely seen, as almost almost all .22 guns are designed around the LR these days. Its only real use in the last 50 years has been in rapid-fire competition guns (prior to 2004), where the low recoil of the Short made accurate rapid fire easier. The Long, which uses the bullet of the Short in the LR case, has been obsolete for decades, and never really filled any particular need.

What Aguilar did was to put a very long bullet in the Short case, resulting in a cartridge the same size as a standard .22LR. So how do they get enough powder in a tiny case? Simple: The .22 LR case is far bigger than it needs to be. Remember, it started as a black powder cartridge, and black powder is much bulkier than modern smokeless powders. The Short case has more than enough room for a full LR charge.

So how well does it work? Very well... with some caveats. Long bullets need more spin to stabilize them than do shorter bullets. I've read that a spin of at least 1 in 9" is required for good stabilization of this round, though that may be overly conservative. (A rate of 1 in 16: is typical in .22 rifles.) My personal experience has been mixed. I've seen good trajectories indoors at 50' ranges, but some keyholing at 25 yards in the one gun I tested these in outdoors.

These rounds won't reliably cycle all semiautomatic actions, though it's hard to predict what will work and what won't. My Bernardelli 60, which digests CCI Mini-Mags with no difficulty, regularly jammed on these. But a brand-new Beretta 21a with only 50 rounds through it had no problem at all cycling- not a single jam or FTF. YMMV, as we say on the net. One other caveat: This is the dirtiest, smokiest round I've ever fired. (For the reloaders out there, this is smokier than Original Bullseye.)

So what's it good for? Hunting, first of all. Trajectory is not as flat as you'll get with a high speed cartridge, but at typical small game ranges it's no problem. It's a lot quieter than most .22LRs, and it should have good energy transfer without the excessive destruction a .22HP might have on smaller game. I think it might also be a good minimal self-defense round when used in short barrel .22 pistols like the NAA mini revolvers, and a number of bloggers have suggested this. It's an interesting cartridge, and something that .22 fans can enjoy experimenting with.

Update: I tested it in a North American Arms .22 revolver, and  discovered that firing resulted in setback of the fired case and jamming of the gun. A search of the web revealed that other shooters have experienced that as well. I suspect the short case doesn't grab the cylinder walls well. On the other hand, it feeds very reliably in my Beretta 21A Bobcat auto, a gun that tends to be picky about ammunition. Go figure.

Friday, August 19, 2011


My friend and sometime competition partner Ric got back into PPC not long ago. He had this gun custom made, and then less than a year later moved up to an even nicer custom wheelgun, and offered me this one at a very good price... I spent an hour firing it, going though several boxes of my handloads (and his!)  I decided to pass on it, even though it was the nicest DA revolver I'd ever fired, as I didn't see myself getting involved in PPC competition. (The last time I did competitive shooting it took up all my weekends, and I realized I'd need to devote even more time if I wanted to break into the top levels, and I couldn't really make that kind of time commitment.)

PPC- or  Police Pistol Combat- began as a practical exercise designed to test many of the skills in actual police shooting. Like most shooting sports it went on to become highly competitive and impractical- but it's still a lot of fun. Since most police carried .38 revolvers when PPC was created, and most departments trained in double action fire, the rules called for .38 special revolvers fired double-action.

Today's PPC pistols often have lightened, bobbed hammers and can only be fired double action. Actions are usually modified S&W Target revolvers with heavy barrels and ventilated ribs. Increasingly, semiautomatic pistols- target 45s or 9mms- are also being used, but most shooters still use the revolvers, at least at the local level. Ammunition is typically a handloaded 148gr wadcutter over a few grains of Bullseye. (You can buy wadcutter loads, but they're expensive enough, compared to most .38spl, that your reloading gear pays for itself after a dozen boxes of ammunition.) Between the light load and the mass of the pistol, recoil is almost non-existent. These guns are an absolute pleasure to fire as well as being exceptionally accurate.

If you're interested in PPC, this is a good site for basic info. Michigan shooters  should check out the Michigan Police Combat Pistol Association site.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Walther PPK


As any real James Bond fan knows, this is the gun that Q equipped 007 with after he was forced to give up his mouse pistol- a Beretta .25. This wasn't much of a step up, by modern standards; the .25 ACP develops around 65 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, and the .32ACP used by the original PPK comes in at 123 foot-pounds. Yes, it's twice as much as the .25ACP, but the .380 ACP, which this gun is chambered for, develops around 200 foot-pounds of ME, or almost twice as much again.

I admit that the Bond connection did play some role in my selection of this pistol, but my main reasons for choosing it had more to do with reliability, accuracy and safety. I was looking for a replacement for the S&W 442 that was more accurate, easier to control, and if possible, just as reliable. I was also looking for a gun with a safety- the gun should be difficult or impossible to fire if it's picked up by the wrong person, whether it's someone trying to do you harm, or a careless child or adult.  Yes, there are people who on picking up a gun will pull the trigger to see if it's loaded, as I noted in a previous entry.

I chose .380 as it develops as much ME as does a .38Spl in a snub nosed barrel, and there are a lot of .380 guns to choose from these days. Most of them are double action only (DAO) though, and almost none have a safety. I wanted a gun with double action, so it didn't have to be carried cocked and locked (should I decide to carry it), and one with a positive safety, for reasons already mentioned.  That still left a few guns, but I also limited myself to the top quality makes. Saving a few hundred dollars on the purchase of a gun doesn't mean much when it misfires at an inopportune time.

I looked at two from SiGARMS, the P238 and the P232. The P238 is a downsized Colt 1911, and while it's a very high quality gun, it's single action, which means, like the 1911, it has to be carried either cocked and locked, or with an empty chamber. The P232 is a modern double action guns, with a de-cocking lever, but no safety. Uncocked, with a round in the chamber, it only takes a pull of the trigger to fire.

That left the PPK. Interestingly enough, the PPK- or rather, the PP, which preceded it- is really the father of almost all modern double action autos, dating back to 1929. Every double action gun since then owes a debt to the Walther. What particularly appeals to me is the integrated safety/decocking lever. Put the safety on, and rack the slide. It'll load a round, and then drop the hammer on a hammer block. Pull the trigger, and nothing happens. Flick the safety off, and now when you pull the trigger it'll fire. This is second nature with a little practice, but should slow up someone not familiar with the gun.  Once fired, it will continue to cycle and fire in single action mode. Flip the safety/decocking lever, the hammer drops on the hammer block, the trigger is locked, and it's in safe mode again.

Importation of the PPK was banned by the 1964 GCA as it was just a little too small to meet the (arbitrary) standards set by that law. Walther responded by creating the PPK/S, which combined the shorter barrel and slide of the PPK with the longer grip of the original PP. Today, all PPKs and PPK/Ss are made in the US by S&W, under license from Walther, so the size is a non-issue. The PPK/S is the more popular model, probably because it fills the hand a bit better, and you can find more accessories, like aftermarket grips, for it. (Or maybe you can find more accessories because it's more popular)

Another nice feature of the PPK is the fixed barrel, a consequence of the straight blowback design. While this doesn't absorb recoil energy as well as the delayed blowback design used by most modern autos, it is somewhat more accurate. Not that you're going to be shooting bullseye competitions with a PPK, but 4" groups at 25 yards are better than 8" groups.

Having been designed for the .32ACP, the PPK in .380 does bite a bit, and as noted, no one's making rubber aftermarket grips for it,. There's a simple enough solution, though. Cut a 3" section of bicycle tire innertube and slip it over the plastic grips. That will provide a non-slip grip while still protecting your skin from the serrated teeth on the hard plastic grip. (I later replaced the plastic panels with a great looking set of walnut panels from Altamont.)

If you find yourself shopping for a PPK or PPK/S, be advised that some of the early models made by S&W suffered from a very serious defect- engaging the decocking lever could result in the gun firing! Check any used S&W PPK or PPK/S against the serial numbers at Smith & Wesson's web site. If the gun in question falls into that range of numbers, look for a center punch mark  on the frame behind that hammer- that's how S&W marks guns returned to the factory for modification.

Update: I eventually sold the PPK, as it was very unpleasant to shoot. I replaced it with a Ruger LCP that is smaller, lighter, and much more comfortable to shoot. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Ruger Blackhawk

The Ruger Blackhawk was the gun that reintroduced single action revolvers to the shooting public. Sure, Colt had periodically made their Single Action Army on and off since it was introduced in the late 19th Century, but the Ruger was the first modern single action- though that does sound like a bit of a contradiction.Single actions seem like a curious affectation to many; why not buy a double action revolver? After all, you can still fire it single action, if you like. But a single action is a simpler design, with a lot less to go wrong. And it's a connection with history.

My first single action Ruger was their percussion version, the Old Army, in stainless steel. I bought it in stainless as I figured it would be a lot easier to maintain, and it was; just pop off the grips and put it in the dishwasher. (Seriously!) But in stainless it just didn't look right. I know stainless steel guns are more practical, and increasing in popularity, but I like blued guns- particularly when it comes to classic designs.

I'd sold the Smith and Wesson 442 that I wrote about previously which left me with a lot of .38 special cartridges and reloading components and no way to shoot them. I could have sold them as well, but the .38 and its big brother the .357 are just about the most versatile cartridges out there. You can buy one gun that shoots both, and buy or load ammunition ranging from mild wadcutter target loads up to heavy  magnum loads suitable for hunting deer and large razorbacks. 

A few weeks after selling the 442 I visited a small mom-and-pop gun shop to look at a single-shot Anschutz rifle (more on that later) when I spotted a Blackhawk in .357 with a 6.5" barrel. To me, this is just about the perfect length; long enough for good accuracy and reduced muzzle blast, and still short enough to carry in a holster afield.  Sure, you can't do quick draws the way you can with a 4" barrel, but I'm not into Cowboy Action shooting.

I spent some time checking the gun out. It showed signs of use, but no dings or other obvious damage. Bore and cylinder? Clean, no signs of erosion. No gas cutting in the backstrap. Cylinder didn't wobble when turned. Locked up solid when the gate was shut. We negotiated a bit on price and came to a mutually agreed upon figure.

So far I've only had it to the indoor 50' range, where it did a fine job grouping the commercial Winchester white Box .38 Specials and the old .38 wadcutter handloads I had on hand. I'm anxious to take it outdoors when it warms up, and see how it does at 50 yards shooting off a rest. Might even take it deer hunting one day.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Spanish Side by Side Doubles

If you've always admired the beautiful English double guns, but can't budget the $25,000 or more that even the plainest of these costs, you might want to look at a Spanish gun- an engraved gun like this AyA sidelock 20 gauge can often be found for as little as $4,000, and plainer box locks for even less. The gun pictured belongs to a friend of mine, who sold me his previous gun 15 years ago when he found this gun fit him better.

I think he paid about $3,000 at the time, which is certainly a bargain for a hand fitted, hand engraved gun in a custom fitted leather case. But there are a still lot of deal out there to be had. 

Light doubles are just about perfect for upland game hunting, which is what we mainly do around here. Barrels are chocked open and improved cylinder, which makes them perfect for 10-30 yard shots (though I've dropped birds at 40). The short swing length and light weight  make it easy to bring the gun up quickly at a fast moving pheasant or partridge. Light loads are the rule- 3/4 or 7/8oz of plated #6 pellets in a 20 is the perfect load for pheasant at close range.

If you're not pass shooting at ducks and geese there's little reason to carry a heavy auto or pump loaded with 12ga 2-3/4" or 3" magnums. You may have read that British shooters typically use 12 gauge guns for upland shooting, and that's true, but many of those guns- particularly the older ones- have 2-1/2" chambers and are loaded to 1oz or less; their upland 12ga. loads are pretty close to our 20ga. loads.

Airguns for Pistol Practice

I'm a great proponent of airguns- not just for simulated firearms practice, but for shooting in their own right. I shot Airgun Field Target for several years,  I have an airgun blog, and I use air rifles for small game hunting. The gun shown above, though, I bought specifically for firearms simulation and training. It's a Makarov replica, and it's very close in size, design, and weight to the actual gun.

This is the second version of the Makarov BB pistol made. The first was made in the same Russian factory that produced the Makarovs, and was dreamed up as a way to use up the surplus frames and other parts after production of the pistol was discontinued. It was not a cheap gun, selling for over $100, but it was probably the best BB pistol ever made. It was so much like the firearm version that the BATF decided it could be converted into an actual pistol without too much effort (though I don't know that this ever actually happened)  and so after two years of production it was banned. If you can find one, expect to pay at least $200 for it.

The Umarex-made Makarov CO2 BB Pistol air pistol replica seen above sells for a more reasonable $59, and has a working slide and safety lever that closely mimics the functioning of the firearm. Pulling back the slide cocks the hammer, and the safety locks the gun so it can't be fired or cocked. BBs load via a magazine that slides into the grip, just like a magazine on the real gun. If the hammer isn't cocked, it fired with a realistic double-action trigger pull.

If you're just getting started with pistols, or introducing a family member to shooting, something like this is a good way to teach safe gun handling at home, with low risk of injury. Eye protection and a good backstop are still necessary, of course.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Smith & Wesson 442 Airweight .38spl Revolver

I bought this gun on the advice of a friend in the local big city PD. He's carried a similar gun when off duty for decades, as have many of his fellow officers- the .38 Special snub-nosed revolver is a style that goes back to at least 1927 with the appearance of the first Colt Detective Special.

The .38 Special is a cartridge that goes back to black powder days, having been introduced as an improved version of the US Military's standard sidearm, the .38 Long Colt, in 1899.  The .38 special was simply a lengthened version of the .38 Colt case, much as the .357 magnum is a lengthened .38 Special.  (The Special case was lengthened to increase powder capacity, whereas the .357 case was lengthened to prevent higher-pressure .357 loads from being inserted in guns designed for the low pressure .38 special.) Within a year smokeless powder versions were introduced, and the modern .38 Special has been with us since- 112 years this year.

Few handgun cartridges have withstood that test of time. The .25ACP,  .32ACP,  .44 special,  .45ACP  and .45 Colt come to mind, and of these, only the .45 Colt is older, having been launched in 1872. Most of these older handgun cartridges are considered somewhat marginal for their original use by modern standards. The .45 Colt is popular with Cowboy Action shooters, and some hunters, and the .32ACP is making a bit of a comeback with its use in ultra-compact automatics, but the .38 special is far and away the most popular of these by far. It's used by hunters, target shooters, police officers, security personnel and homeowners. For many decades it was the standard sidearm for police officers in the US. You can buy loadings that range from mild target wadcutters up through 1400 fps +P defensive rounds. It can be handloaded with bullets ranging from 85-175 grains, and it's one of the few handgun calibers for which shotshells are commonly available.

Even though it's no longer the standard police sidearm cartridge it once was (most departments having switched to automatics) it's still popular as a backup gun in the form you see above- the compact "snub-nosed" revolver. Easily concealed, and having about as fail-safe a design as any ever made, the revolver is still the most reliable repeating arm ever made. Pull the trigger, and it goes bang.  If it doesn't, pull the trigger again, and a fresh cartridge is moved into position.

Short barreled guns like the 442 above give up a lot of power and accuracy in return for their compact size; you lose 30-40% of muzzle energy compared to the same cartridge in a 4" barrel. A load that would deliver 300 foot-pounds of muzzle energy in a 4-6" barrel will only produce 200 foot-pounds from a 2" barrel, which brings it down to the level of a .380ACP fired from a 3.75" barrel- or a .22 magnum fired from an 18" rifle barrel.

Fixed sights and a very short sight radius means that this is a close-up gun, but that's what these guns are designed for. The shrouded hammer insures that it won't snag being pulled from a pocket. The light weight (14oz) makes it that much more comfortable to carry, but again, there's a tradeoff: Recoil in a 14 ounce gun is going to be twice as nasty as the same load in a 28 ounce service revolver. This is the least comfortable to shoot handgun I've ever owned, and that includes a Dan Wesson .44 mag I had in the 1980s. Even the 148gr target loads (swaged wadcutter over 2.7gr Bullseye) I made up were uncomfortable, and a lot of the bullets were keyholing downrange.. The most comfortable (if you can call it that) load I tried was the 110gr +P Hornady "Critical Defense" load, probably because a lot of the powder was still burning when it left the gun.

This isn't a gun you shoot every day, of course, but like any gun you want to rely on, you need to shoot it often enough to be both familiar and reasonably accurate with. For me, no gun is interesting unless it's both accurate and enjoyable to shoot- so this one is probably going up for sale soon.

UPDATE: I took it back to the store where's I'd bought it, to see if they'd consign it for me. No, but they offered to  buy it for less than half of what they sold it to me for. Uh, thanks just the same. I took it to Cabelas, where they gave me a very fair price.

Fobus Holsters

Used to be that all holsters were made out of leather, and the best ones were custom made, and molded to the shape of the gun they held. Then came the padded nylon holsters, which weren't molded, but were inexpensive and provided good protection. The latest thing in holsters is the molded plastic holster, a concept pioneered by Fobus, a company that got their start making holsters for the Israeli military. Seen above is a Fobus "Paddle Holster" designed for the S&W J-frame revolver.

Fobus holsters are inexpensive, provide positive retention, and are made of a material that should last pretty much forever. They're designed to hold a gun securely, and only release when the gun is drawn sharply straight out of the holster. Pulling at an angle won't work- a feature designed to prevent someone else from grabbing your gun.

These holsters aren't just made for police and self-defense carry. I have one designed for the Ruger Mark-III I use for hunting that's the best holster I've ever seen for these guns. Once snapped in, a gun is absolutely not going to fall out of a Fobus holster. You can shake it and jiggle it all you want, but it's not going anywhere. They're custom made for dozens of different guns, and can be had in belt or "paddle" mount (seen above). The Paddle mount quickly snaps over any belt, and stays securely in place.There's also a "Roto" variant that allows you to change the angle.

I see Fobus holsters being sold in more and more shops, but if your local gun shop doesn't carry them, you can find them by clicking on this link to Amazon.

Monday, January 24, 2011

North American Arms Mini .22 Magnum Revolver

I like miniatures of all sorts, and I've been interested in this revolver ever since I saw the first version, a four-shot revolver that was sold as the Freedom Arms Boot Gun back in the 1980s. The current version is made by North American Arms, who sell (at last count) eight different versions in .22 Short, Long Rifle, and Magnum. There are two long barreled versions, convertible .22LR/Mag versions, and even a break-open version. I thought about buying one for a year before buying mine- I'd read a lot of articles about how terribly impractical it is, but when it came down to it, I just thought it was a very neat gun.

The first impression you get on picking one up is that while it may be tiny,  this is a very solidly made gun. There are no stampings or alloy castings; every part is machined out of stainless steel with great precision. It has the feel of a much larger gun, which is not surprising, as it was designed by Freedom Arms founder Dick Casull, whose more famous guns include some of the biggest, strongest, and most powerful revolvers ever made.

Everything I'd read about the gun said that it was difficult to shoot, and suffered from a lot of muzzle flip, but my experience has been that this is a very easy gun to shoot with very little flip- even in .22mag. You do get a lot of muzzle flash, thanks to the short barrel, but there's little recoil as that short barrel also means that the projectile has much less energy than you'd get out of a longer barrel. You do have to be careful to keep your fingers away from the cylinder-barrel gap, as the gun will spit a bit of hot gas there. This is true of all revolvers; it's just that the Mini's small size means it's much more likely that your fingers will get in the way.

The sights on this gun are about as simple as it gets- a blade in front and a groove at the rear of the frame. The rear sight is so much higher than the front that if you line up the sights you'll hit a foot low at 20 feet. You've got to line up the rear sight with the base of the front sight, and then you'll pretty much shoot to point of aim at that distance. For those looking for a good high-tech sight system, you can buy a laser system from Laserlyte that clamps on the backstrap and looks as cute as the gun. (Laserlyte also makes a clamp-on Bayonet for the NAA revolvers that's about as silly an add-on as I've ever seen- but they sell a fair number of them.)

Some shooters like the Mini as a sort of backup backup gun- the gun you carry when you can't carry a a gun, as some have said. The .22mag fired out of a barrel this short has only about 150 foot-pounds of energy, but it does make a lot of noise and flash, and while it's no .45 ACP I don't think anyone would want to be shot with one. The increasing popularity of .22Magnum as a self defense cartridge (S&W makes a J-frame .22mag snubbie) has resulted in a number of ammunition makers producing a cartridge optimized for pistol barrels of 4" or less. These cartridges use a faster burning powder to try and get more complete combustion inside the gun instead of spitting out a cloud of hot, glowing gas that's still burning. I've tried the CCI/Speer Gold Dots, and they do seem to generate less flash than the CCI Maxi-Mags I've been using. The Gold Dots are said to come out of a 1-5/8" barrel at around 1100fps as opposed to around 850fps for the MiniMags.

There are a lot of interesting holsters made for the gun, including a very practical pocket holster from Galco. North American makes a folding Holster Grip that replaces the stock grip panels, and turns the gun into something resembling a bulky pocket knife. And for those who remember the Mattel belt buckle derringer of the 1960s, North American makes a big cast aluminum belt buckle that the revolver snaps into- perfect for open carry in, say, Texas.

Personally, I like mine as a neat collectible and a plinker with a high degree of difficulty. When it gets warm enough to hit the outdoor range again I'm going to see what it can do at 100 yards.

Update: I eventually sold it, four years later. It didn't take up much space in the safe, and it is kinda cute, but after a few months I never shot it again... so out it went, to be replaced by something more interesting.

An Inexpensive Pinfire Pistol

I'm not sure exactly why I bought this. I walked into my favorite sporting goods store around twenty years ago, and the son of the owner, who knew me well, said "I've got just the thing for you..." This usually meant there was something under the counter that he had put aside, waiting for one of his regulars who couldn't resist an unusual bauble. One time it was a blowgun, another an AR-7 Explorer pistol, and on that day it was an old pinfire pistol.

The pinfire system was the first successful metallic cartridge system, and a great many guns of varying qualitie were built on the pinfire system  between around 1850 and the end of the 19th Century. Pinfire shotguns were popular from around 1850 to 1860, but pinfire revolvers were made for many decades after. While some very high quality pinfire guns were made, pinfire handgun cartridges were of very low power when compared to both muzzle-loading revolvers and the new cartridge revolvers.

Pinfire guns pretty much disappeared by the early 20th Century, except for one category: Blank guns. 2mm pinfire blank guns are still being made, and earlier examples are highly collectible. New old stock or sometimes newly made versions of the Xythos pinfire blank revolver and the Berloque single shot blank pistol still  pop up for sale now and again, often with flare firing attachments.

This gun was in better condition when I bought it than the way you see it here. I oiled it and put it away, and there it sat, in a corner of the safe, for over a decade, ignored. When I came across it again it was covered with a good deal of new rust. I gave it a coat of phosphoric acid gel, let it sit overnight, and then rinsed off the gel and gave it another good coat of polarized oil.

It never was worth very much, and today I doubt a collector would pay more than a few dollars for it. There are plenty of inexpensive French and Belgian pinfire revolvers in much better condition on, most of which never receive a single bid. Maybe I'll clean it up a bit more, mount it in a shadow box, and hang it over the fireplace.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Ruger Mark III Hunter

I've owned several Ruger Mark series pistols over the years, but this is certainly the nicest one yet. I bought it from a friend who did a few customizations that make it even better.

The stock gun is pretty impressive, with a fluted 6-7/8" barrel that provides stiffness and light weight, and attractive Cocobolo grip panels. It also has some annoying features, like a magazine safety, and a plastic "loaded chamber indicator" that was added to the III series. The first mod my friend did was to remove the magazine safety. This is installed in many guns as a safety device, but it's only a safety device for people who are not skilled at handling firearms- and even then, it's not much of a help. If you assume all guns are loaded- as you should- then it makes no difference whether or not a magazine is inserted. To a practiced, experienced shooter, a magazine safety just makes it much more difficult, and possibly less safe, to uncock a gun.

The next mod was the removal of the plastic loaded chamber indicator, which was replaced with a custom made stainless steel insert, courtesy of an amateur gunsmith who made up a run of parts for some readers of the RimfireCentral forum. This eliminated a part that could break and jam the gun. The absence of the indicator doesn't inconvenience a careful shooter.

The last and most important mod was the installation of a Clark hammer and Volquartsen sear and trigger.  The result is a trigger that breaks cleanly, with minimal overtravel that could upset your aim. Pictured above you see an inexpensive red dot sight on it that appears to have no problem standing up to the gun's recoil, but I've since replaced it with an Ultradot, which Ruger bullseye shooters tell me is an excellent combination of quality, reliability, and price.

Update: After four years, various grips, and various scopes and dot sights, I've decided to sell it. I discovered that I shoot better with pistols have a 1911-anged grip, like my 22/45, my High Standard Supermatic, and my S&W 2206.

The Winchester Model 06 pump gun

This was the very first gun I ever fired- a Winchester Model '06, in .22. My father picked it up sometime before I was born, and I think it was pretty much in the shape you see it in now. We used to take it out to our farm property, where I'd line old corncobs up on a stump and shoot them off. Sometimes I'd load it up with .22 shot shells and shoot sparrows in the barn. Not easy, as these were the old crimped .22 shotshells- not the modern CCIs with the plastic shot capsule. They carried 25 grains- that's 1/17th of an ounce- of #12 shot. Not very useful beyond 5 yards or so, but safe to shoot without a solid backstop.

The '06 was a less expensive version of an earlier gun, the Model 1890, which had an octagonal barrel and was chambered for the now-obsolete .22WRF cartridge. The 06 was originally chambered for the .22 short, but after a few years a simple modification was introduced that allowed the 06 to shoot .22 shorts, longs, and long rifles interchangeably. This involved a simple stamped metal piece- I've heard it called an "interrupter"- in the cartridge carrier, the assembly that picked up cartridges from the tubular magazine and lifted them up to where the closing bolt would push them into the chamber. The interrupter would catch in the space between two cartridges, and block more than one from entering the lifter. Simple and effective.

With none of the original finish left, it's probably worth about $250-275. It's not a particularly rare gun; it was made from 1906 to 1932, and over 800,000 units were produced. Mint specimens might fetch $600-800, but a gun would have to be flawless to reach that high level. Most examples you'll see are well used, like mine.

The H&R 622 Revolver

This was my father's revolver, the only one he ever owned, as far as I know. I first shot it when I was around 10 years old. We owned a small farm when I was young which we rented out, and in between tenants we'd go work on the house and the grounds, and in between work I was allowed to do some plinking with this pistol and an old .22 rifle. It wasn't terribly accurate (note the 3" barrel and fixed sights) but it did teach me safe gun handling. It was rather clumsy to load and unload, too. There's a cutout in the rear shield on one side where one can hypothetically load and unload the cylinder, in the manner of a single action, but there's no ejector. I suspect the cutout was added by an amateur gunsmith. [n.b. See the comments below- I'm told this is a "witness slot" to see if the gun is loaded]  Practically speaking you had to remove the cylinder to load and unload, using the cylinder pin as an extraction tool.

The firing pin is a part of the hammer, as is common with cheap .22s. It's not a rebounding hammer, which means that you have to be careful lest you have the hammer resting on cartridge in the cylinder. That's an accident waiting to happen unless you leave one cylinder empty- not a big problem, as this is a 9-shot revolver, but still a safety hazard for the unwary.

My father kept the gun in his bedside stand, and later in his basement office in my parents' new home. When he died, I searched for it, but couldn't find it. A few years later, a woman who cleaned house for my mother found it, and in the manner of people unfamiliar with guns everywhere, she pulled the trigger. Bang! The bullet luckily didn't hit anyone or strike where it could do great damage (like a gas line, or my Mom); instead, it punched through the side of an old ironing mangle, where I found it several years later.

My mother phoned me and asked me to come over and get the gun, which I did, and transferred it to my name. I don't think I've fired it since then, and that was about 14 years ago. It's not accurate, it's impractical, clumsy, unattractive, and only worth about $50, if that. I don't want to sell it, because I think it's unsafe- an accident waiting to happen in the hands of someone not familiar with the problems in this design. Part of me thinks I should just take it down to the State Police for disposal, but it is sort of a family heirloom.

UPDATE: As heirlooms go, it's a pretty cheesy one, so I sold it. The new owner plans to use it as firearms training with beginners.

The Bernardelli 60

The Bernardelli 60 is a perfect example of the kind of "pocket pistol" that was once very common here and abroad, but was killed off by the Gun Control Act of 1968.  This particular gun came from the estate of a good friend and mentor, who taught me just about everything I know about fly fishing and bird hunting. It was first made in 1959, and could be had in .22LR, .32ACP or .380 versions.

The 60 failed the new post-68 laws on account of being just a bit too small, and not having various sporting-appropriate features as defined in the GCA. Bernardelli replaced it with the Model 80, which was otherwise identical but included a de-cocking lever and grips with a molded in thumb rest, which gave it more points under the GCA import restrictions. (The thumb rest made it more of a "target pistol.) The 80 was made into the 1970s.

It was once common for fishermen and hunters to carry a small .22 pistol, the classic example being the Smith & Wesson .22/.32 Kit Gun. You might be on a fishing trip, or deer hunting, traipsing through the woods, when you'd come across a rabbit or a grouse you could bag for that evening's dinner. Or you might need to administer a coup de grace to a wounded animal. A gun like the 60 could come in handy.

But rules and regulations changed, and carrying a .22 in your pocket, even in the woods, became a felony. Game seasons were tightened up, and the typical deer hunter was as likely to be staying in a motel as in a wall tent. And tastes changed. The classic styling of this pistol evokes an earlier time; these days, the popular style seems to be squared off guns with hard edges. The only high quality guns still on the market that evoke this style, as far as I know, are the SIG 232 and the various Walther PPK variants. (There are still a few cheap guns based on old designs, like the Jimenez and Jennings .22 pistols.)

This is, incidentally, a fantastic pistol in .22. Recoil is modest, as you might expect, and accuracy is exceptionally good for a simple auto with fixed sights. The only flaw, to a modern shooter, is the heel magazine release. It's much slower to use than a button release and it makes it hard to reload. Based on my experience with the PPK and other straight blowback pistols in .380, I would think a model 60 in that caliber would be very unpleasant to shoot. A .32 would probably be comfortable enough.

As  I mentioned, this particular pistol came from a friend's estate, and was given to me. I brought it to the range (after complying with my state's registration laws) and put a few bricks of CCI Minimags through it. It's a pretty accurate shooter, despite the tiny fixed sights. At  25' I could keep all my shots in a 6" circle, which was not too shabby considering the dim lighting and the tiny sights. It spends most of its time in the safe, but still comes out occasionally to accompany me on jaunts through the woods.

Update: Here's an ad for the 60 I found while searching for more information on the pistol:

A web search for more information led me to the July 1971 issue of The American Rifleman, and this two-page piece on maintenance and assembly/disassembly of the 60. I then found a used copy for sale and scanned that in. I hope my readers appreciate the ends I go to for them! ;-)

What It's All About

Sometime between my childhood and today, something happened to the sport of shooting. The average shooter used to be someone who had a few hunting guns, maybe a target gun, a plinker, the odd collectible. Those of my father's generation might have a WWII souvenir, or a Springfield they bought from the DCM. Now it seems that all anyone wants is a high-capacity 9mm or .45 and some sort of M16/M4 clone.

It's not enough to have military style weapons; the new gun hobbyists have to have military style clothing, too. I still find it kind of odd when I'm at the outdoor range or in the woods to see shooters dressed up in NATO camouflage, with full web gear. Uh, guys, the deer aren't shooting back. Yet.

I suppose it's TV and the movies, which have greatly glamorized these sorts of weapons, and portrayed a very romanticized view of battle and war. Not that I begrudge anyone their 5.56mm poodle shooter (as a friend calls these pseudo-military guns), but there's a whole world of shooting that has nothing to do with military style gear, and that's what this blog is about.

I like shooting, collecting and learning about interesting guns, whether it's the latest  in new technology, or an interesting artifact from the past. I like sharing that information with readers- and hearing from readers about interesting guns they may have as well.

And now that I've probably alienated half my possible audience, let's move on to a few favorite toys.