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 Gunbroker.com, 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.