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.