This time we’re departing from the gun world into a topic that does not directly relate, but one near and dear to many of our hearts.
Beer and social gatherings go together like ham and cheese, peanut butter and chocolate… you get the drift. But alcohol and guns? A world of NO. Which is a shame in some ways; there are few common experiences more satisfying than an ice-cold IPA or Lager on a blistering summer afternoon. But when the guns are out the beer isn’t. Period.
Sure, there are non/low alcohol beers (traditionally know n as ‘small beers) like Sharp’s and O’Douls, but they are barely palatable. Caliber from Guinness is better but it’s still not great, and since they’ve ‘improved’ the flavor I’ve pretty much stopped bothering. Until recently you were pretty much out of luck finding a genuinely good beer with 0.5% alocohol or less. Now, however, craft brewing has come to NA beers, and I am one happy camper.
Traditionally the way that Near beer has been made has been to make beer and boil off the alcohol. This massacres the complex flavors and and subtle tones that beer-lovers treasure. Guinness discovered that they could circumvent this by reducing the pressure, and thus the boiling temperature, so that these subtleties were not entirely lost. Craft brewers have taken to employing this method (with varying degrees of success) and produced some pretty decent brews. Others have utilized strains of yeast that produce very little alcohol, and by not distilling the beer it retains the full range and character of a true beer.
At Christmas one of my kids brought over a selection of NA craft brews. I learned to drink beer in Europe, and loved a good stout. I liked a Bud or Miller OK, but my true love was European beers. Unfortunately the craft brew revolution occurred after I quit drinking. He’d been listening to me lament this fact for years, and took it upon himself to find a solution, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t. Let me share what we discovered, then and since.
Bravus Brewing Amber Ale
Bright yet full-bodied, roasty maltiness with a hint of sour and brown-sugar sweetness. It has a distinctive, pleasant aroma that is characteristic of Bravus, possibly a result of the strain of yeast they use. A friend who is quite the beerficianado, pronounced that he would drink it in preference to many of the craft-brew ambers he likes.
Bravus Brewing Oatmeal Stout
A very satisfying stout, bursting with chocolate and hints of coffee and smoke, with a smooth, carmelly mouth feel. This is a damn good stout, and never mind the lack of alcohol.
Surreal Brewing 17 Mile Porter
This is a strong, tasty Porter. Up front is chocolate and roasted malt, with smoke and a hint of coffee in the background. Pleasantly light carbonation completes the experience. A little watery in the finish, but I really, really like this one.
This is the least of the beers I am reviewing, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It has some hoppy bitterness to it, but lacks the maltiness you expect in an IPA. It’s also rather watery. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, and having only ten calories to a can it has an argument in it’s favor. Overall I’d say it’s very drinkable, but only about 90% of where it would ideally be. Still, if presented with an ice-cold can on a hot summer day I’d be happy enough.
People’s tastes vary, and I can only recommend based on what I like. But if you like beer these are worth trying. One peculiarity I have discovered with the stout and porter; these beers are usually served at room temperature, but these NA brews really shine when cold. Another thing to note- these beers are all pretty low calorie, usually 50-100 calories; that’s less than a can of soda.
Guns and alcohol absolutely do not mix… but maybe guns and beer can now. I’m looking to exploring this world more, and of you folks are interested I’ll report my findings.
ADDENDA: From the response I have received on social media I did not make myself clear. This applies to the social events surrounding a range day; you should not drink anything while actually on the range, unless your favorite drink recipe includes particulate lead. This would be for times when you might legitimately be drinking soft drinks or hot beverages.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 24 Feburay 2020
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Years back I got out of .44 Magnums. I didn’t reload, I wasn’t hunting and commercial ammo had gotten too bloody expensive to shoot them for pleasure. Times change though- I’ve taken up reloading and am hunting again. The property I hunt has a lot of brush and heavy cover- typical shots are 7-20 yards and you almost never get a shot over fifty yards. A handgun seemed a natural choice for the conditions, so I decided it was time to get another .44 Magnum.
A couple of years ago I went looking. The budget was, as always, limited so I expected a long search for something cheap enough but suitable. Nope- first time I walked into Pinto’s there it was- a US Arms Abilene .44 Magnum with a 7-1/2″ ported bull-barrel. It’s in remarkably good condition- the finish looks like it’s made out of black glass, there is no end-play and the cylinder locks up super-tight. The cylinder gap is .002 inches, and when you cock it the clicks are super-sharp and almost musical. Moreover these guns were popular with silhouette shooters for their accuracy and durability. $375? Shut up and take my money!
In the 70’s and 80’s long range silhouette shooting was the big game. In 1972 Sig Himmelmann founded United States Arms and designed the Abilene revolver. United Sporting Arms and United States Arms were originally one company, but in 1977 the company split, with United sporting arms producing the Seville, and United States Arms producing the Abilene. Unfortunately U.S.Arms did not prosper, and in 1980 Mossberg’s AIG division bought them out. They continued producing the Abilene from parts on hand, and people immediately began noticing quality-control issues. Production stopped when the parts on hand ran out, and the Abilene faded into the past. Though mostly forgotten now, in their day these were a top-quality premium revolver. Now they go cheap because nobody remembers what they are. On the one hand that’s a shame, because these really are superb revolvers. On the other hand it meant I could afford one, so it’s not all bad.
I’d been thinking I’d shorten whatever I got to 4-5/8″ for packability, but I think I’m going to leave this one alone. Despite the bull-barrel it hangs very nicely in the hand. I tried it out at the range and using Sellier & Bellot 240gr. JSPs I was able to shoot a 2-5/8″ off-hand group at 25 yards with one flyer-
Unfortunately I had issues with the Sellier & Bellot ammo- I had a misfire about once per cylinder. The primer strikes looked good, they just didn’t go off until I re-struck them. I tested the gun with primed brass and it got 100% ignition. I’m a little surprised; S&B ammo has been my go-to cheap ammo for years. I suppose anyone can have a bad day, even ammo manufacturers. I said cheap ammo, but this stuff is expensive- after tax it was going to be $40 for a box of suitable ammo. Thor and I (yes, that’s his real name) poked around the store and came up with a set of used RCBS steel dies, a can of case-lube and 100 bullets for total of $55. What the heck, I was going to buy dies anyway.
The bullets are 260 grain HC-LSWCs at about 15 Brinell hardness. This is about right I think; Hard enough to retain weight well but not so hard it acts like FMJ. I loaded this on top of 9.3gr. of Unique with a CCI Large Pistol primer. This ought to get 1175-1200 fps. for around 800ft./lbs. of energy. More than adequate for local Blacktails.
Works a treat- recoil is not trivial but not bad at all; like a stout .357 magnum in a medium-frame revolver.
The gun isn’t perfect- the grips are very fat. This handles recoil well but isn’t all that comfortable in my hand. I narrowed them at the front and center but left the back fat for recoil management. I also refinished the grips with British Tan leather dye and a hand-rubbed wax finish. Much more comfortable. I made a holster for it- nothing fancy, but functional. It’s been hunting with me a couple of times, but no luck yet. Next month I’ll be east of the mountains hunting coyotes, and the Abilene will be coming along.
I really love this gun; great shooter, very good looking and it practically oozes quality. And for the price? Very happy indeed!
Michael Tinker Pearce, 20 February 2020
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Around the turn of the millenium I encountered a most curious creature at my local gun shop; a compact, 5-shot stainless revolver chambered in .41 Magnum. I’m a sucker for a big-bore snubby, and it’s not overstating things to say it was lust at first sight. This was the Taurus Model 415, and I wanted it bad. I did not get it. Finances were tight, the ammo was bloody expensive and… well life and all that.
Flash-forward to early 2020. I walked into McCallen Defense and there, in the case, was a pristine Model 415 at a rather stunningly good price. This was even more stunning when Chris informed me that the gun came with ammunition, new brass and carbide reloading dies! A short ‘shut up and take my money’ later it was all over but waiting for the background check.
I picked up the gun today. Since it came with ammo and Champion Arms indoor range is on the premises, I decided that a little ‘getting acquainted’ session was in order.
.41 Magnum is, to all but hardcore wheelgun fans, a somewhat obscure cartridge these days, so perhaps a bit of history is in order. In the early 1960s several of the big names in handgun circles, namely Elmer Kieth and Bill Jordan, felt that a better police cartridge was needed. Hollow points were not readily available or in use at the time, and they felt that .357 Magnum was not as effective as a service cartridge should be, but that .44 Magnums were large and heavy, and the cartridge was a bit much for the average cop. Mind you, I have not uncovered much in the way of confirmation of their belief that .357 magnum was in any way insufficient , but that’s not really relevant.
These gentlemen, reportedly with some assistance from the renowned gun-detonator Skeeter Skelton, approached Remington with the idea of a .41 caliber cartridge, which could have a ‘mild’ law enforcement load that would propel a 200gr. LSWC at 900 fps., or a more powerful load pushing a 210gr. bullet around 1400 fps.
Remington, perhaps a bit magnum-happy at the time, produced the cartridge, but with a significantly more powerful ‘police’ load. S&W came on board, but rather than the intermediate sized weapon the boys had envisioned, simply chambered their N-frame revolver in the new cartridge. It was a perfect storm of bad implementation of a worthy idea; a cartridge with excessive recoil compare to .38 Special and .357 magnum revolvers but lacking the power of a .44 Magnum, chambered in a gun that was actually slightly heavier than a .44 magnum built on the same frame.
A few agencies adopted this new cartridge, but overall the reception was lukewarm. If Ruger hadn’t promptly chambered their popular Blackhawk revolver in this cartridge and introduced it to sportsmen, the .41 Magnum might have become just another footnote in firearms history. Thompson Center added it to their line of Contender barrels, handloaders explored and expanded the round’s potential. The cartridge was quite capable of taking any North American game, and some favored it because of it’s lighter recoil and flatter trajectory compared to .44 Magnum.
As a result the cartridge has survived, though it has never attained anything resembling the popularity of either .357 or .44 Magnum. As of this writing Smith & Wesson, Charter Arms, and Taurus all offer revolvers in .41 Magnum.
Enter the Taurus Model 415. Produced from 1999-2003, it features a drop-forged stainless-steel frame, a 2-1/2″ barrel with a full under-lug and six circular ports in the barrel, flanking the front sight, to assist in managing the gun’s not insubstantial recoil. It is fitted with a Taurus Gripper neoprene grip, which looks a bit odd but is secure and comfortable in the hand, and also helps the shooter to cope with recoil. The gun weighs 30.4 ounces according to my scale, and while Taurus made a Titanium-framed version for masochists, you really wouldn’t want it much lighter than it is. In size it’s a bit larger than a S&W K-frame, but not so much so that it doesn’t fit in my K-frame holster.
The stainless gun is a ‘frosted’ matte silver color, and the fit and finish is very good. The fixed sights are clear and sharp, but the front sight might benefit from a colored surface; I’ll attend to that presently. The double-action trigger is not heavy, quite smooth but not exceptional. The single action has a tiny bit of creep, but I didn’t even notice it until I really looked for it.
The ammunition that came with the gun was Winchester’s 175gr. Silver-tip hollow-point. If my math is close it should be leaving this short barrel in the neighborhood of 900fps., yielding about 315 ft.lbs. of energy. More on that later.
So what’s it like to shoot a short-barreled, medium-frame .41 Magnum? Well, with this ammo it’s a lot like shooting a short-barreled, medium frame .357 Magnum. OK, I won’t kid you; it’s a hoot. There is a definite rush, for me at least. The jets of flame shooting up next to the sight were quite visible in the indoor range and a bit disconcerting on the first shot, but after that I ignored them. Recoil is substantial, but if you are used to shooting powerful revolvers it’s quite manageable. The neoprene Gripper grips do a good job of keeping things from becoming uncomfortable.
Let’s talk about that recoil for a moment, and the ported barrel. Ports do not reduce recoil. If you propel a bullet of x-weight at y-velocity it produces z-recoil, and ports do not change that. What ports do do is to bring the muzzle back on target faster, and on this gun that seemed to work well. I shot a couple cylinders at a brisk pace, then did a full-on rapid-fire string. It was slightly brutal, and while there was no timer in use I think I put five rounds of 41 Magnum on target in roughly the time it takes me to put six .38 Specials downrange.
The gun shoots a little high and right for me, but that could be me as easily as the gun. We’ll see what happens with more practice. I did run a target out to 25 yards, and careful double action shooting produced… well, let us draw the curtains of charity over the group that resulted, and hope that will improve with practice. I’m really pretty sure it was me, not the gun. It usually is…
Make no mistake, this is not a gun for everyone, but it is a gun for me. I only had a few cylinders full to shoot today, but I had an absolute, uh… blast.
When I try to be a sensible adult and apply my years of study and experience, big bore snubbies really don’t make a lot of sense. Oh, I totally adore them, don’t get me wrong. For a companion gun when tromping our local wilderness it arguably has a place; with the right load it will handle anything of the four-legged variety that I am likely to run into, and it’s compact packaging and double-action are an argument in it’s favor in that role.
How about as an EDC? OK, let’s look at that. My 3″ K-frame .38 has a loaded weight that is just shy of two pounds, the Taurus has a loaded weight about 2 ounces heavier. Not much to choose between them there. The Taurus’s grip is noticeably larger, but not too big to accommodate, particularly at this time of year when I normally wear a coat.
The 415 is a fair bit more powerful; the .38 +P HST Micros in my .38 make about 204 ft./lbs. compared to the 315 ft./lbs from the .41. But I am a disciple of The Holy Church of Hit Location, and am unconvinced that five rounds of .41 Magnum will serve me better than six rounds of .38 Special. OK, it’s not that likely they’ll serve me worse, either, but that isn’t an argument for switching.
There is one argument, though- if I am going to use this gun as a sidearm for wilderness excursions I want to be as familiar and comfortable with it as possible. Besides, it already fits my holster… Five-Star Firearms makes an excellent billet-aluminum speed loader for this gun, and as I write this there are two on order, so when those arrive and I’ve had a bit of practice with them I’ll start packing this gun.
When you want something for a long time and finally get it, there’s always a little fear that it will not be all you had hoped. In this case it is, and I’m delighted that I was able to finally pick one up.
This could be the start of a beautiful friendship…
Michael Tinker Pearce, 15 February, 2020
ADDENDA: OK, as Jim Downey has pointed out, my math is NOT correct. I suffered a rush of excrement to the brain and failed to take the length of the cylinder into account as part of the ‘barrel’ for test purposes. Oops.
The revised energy figures are complicated by the muzzle-gap and porting, but my energy figures for both the .41 Magnum Silvertip and the .38 +P HST Micro are about 30-35% low, meaning the Silvertips are likely closer to 400 ft./lbs and the HST is getting more like 275 ft./lbs. I’ll need to chronograph these loads to produce a more exact figure.
Good catch, Jim, and thank you!
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In 1889 Colt jumped-started the new age of revolvers with their New Army/New Navy models. These established the template for the modern double-action revolver was we know it today, with the ability to be fired either double or single action and a swing-out cylinder with it’s own ejector.
Many claim that the swing-out cylinder is Colt’s invention, but this is patently untrue. Some Belgian gun makers were making swing-out cylinder double action revolvers as early as the 1860s, but Colt can certainly be credited for refining this into the revolver we recognize today.
The Navy was quick to adopt Colt’s new revolver, and the Army followed shortly after. Yes, these were the Colt .38s that famously failed to stop charging warriors in the Philippines. This lead to the rapid development of the New Service in larger calibers, though it is unclear that this had the desired effect. These native warriors were hard to stop with a .30-40 Krag rifle, so adding a few hundredths of an inch to pistol bullet was unlikely to have had a significant effect.
Colt continued to develop this revolver, giving a new year/model designation to each upgrade, resulting in one gun with a bewildering variety of model names.
Colt introduced the Army Special in 1908, with an improved mechanism based on the New Service and New pocket models, and it was an instant success with both law enforcement and civilians. This new models was stoutly made and able to handle more powerful cartridges like the .32-20, .38 Special and .41 Colt Long.
This model formed the basis for every medium-framed Colt up to the Python. So few changes were made during this period that some parts from a 1908 Army would function in a Python made nearly a century later.
The Army Special could be had with a blue or nickel finish, with barrels ranging from 4-6 inches. The original grips were hard black rubber, but these were changed to checkered walnut in 1923.
The Army never officially adopted the Army Special. There are some indications that some were purchased as ‘second standard’ revolvers, but I have been unable to verify this. In 1927 Colt changed the name to the Official Police, and it remained popular with law enforcement well into the 1980s.
These are a quite robust revolver; Colt claimed they could fire .38-44 loads, and this claim is to some degree substantiated by the introduction of .357 Magnum models based on the same frame.
It’s important to judge these guns as artifacts of the period in which they were introduced. 19th Century Americans were slow to embrace double-action triggers on service pistols, though they were common on pocket revolvers, and both Colt and Smith & Wesson had double action service revolvers. In 1908 the orthodoxy for police agencies was that these guns were treated as single-actions, with double-action reserved for point-blank emergency use. It is not surprising then that these guns are at their best when used as such. Any fair review should take this into account.
The New Service revolver was notorious for a heavy double-action trigger pull. The famous Fitz cutting away the front of the trigger guard was not as reckless or dangerous as it seems today; there’s very little likelihood that this trigger can be pulled by anything but a fair amount of deliberate effort! The single-action pull isn’t light either, but there is no creep and very little over-travel.
There were early pioneers of double-action gunfighting, but it was not uncommon for some police departments to treat their revolvers as primarily single actions as late as the 1950s.
Our specific review gun is a 6″ barreled example in .38 Special, manufactured in 1911. Little is left of the original blue finish; there is an overall uniform patina and no evidence of rust or pitting. The timing is excellent, but there is some slight endplay and sideplay in the cylinder. Nothing unsafe, mind you, or even close to it. Certainly not out of the ordinary for a well-used gun of this vintage.
Grips are of the correct type for it’s year of manufacture; no way to tell if they are original to this gun. The bore and forcing cone are excellent; the gun appears to have been well maintained.
The trigger pull is… well, let’s not mince words here. It’s bloody heavy. Heavy enough that a modern trigger gauge couldn’t measure it, placing it at something over 12 lbs. On the other hand it’s glass-smooth, with no stacking, so while it is heavy it’s not difficult to achieve accuracy. This single action pull is also heavy; I’d put it at around 6 lbs., but it has no take-up or creep, and very little over-travel.
The fixed sights are typical for it’s era, that is to say awful. A narrow half-round front sight, and a narrow groove milled into the top of the frame above the hammer. Not easy to pick up quickly, and not very precise; the front sight almost completely fills the rear aperture. The good news is they shoot dead-on to point of aim at 7 yards, and a six-o’clock hold gives good results at 25 yards.
The grip works well for my rather large hand and the gun balances nicely. I was shooting some peppy (but not +P) loads, and while recoil was easily manageable, I found that if I wasn’t paying attention my hand would slide upwards on the grip. I expect that this is owed to the lack of significant re-curve in the back-strap of the grip frame. Once I realized it was an issue it was easy to counter. Your results may vary, of course, depending on your hand.
A funny moment in conjunction with that last target. Since I am now a member and have been qualified I can now shoot as rapidly as I like, and on that last target I did. A fellow from another lane saw what I was shooting and did a double take. “You’re shooting a revolver?!” He’d been sure it was a semi-auto. I’m no Jerry Mikulec, but I do alright…
This is my second Army Special, and that fact alone is revealing; I like these guns. Within their limitations they shoot well and hold up to heavy use. You’d pay twice as much, or more, for a comparable revolver new… though you’d definitely get better sights! Parts are not a problem owing to the longevity of the design, nor are aftermarket grips.
Despite the ultra-optimistic Gunbroker sellers, if you shop around you can probably find a gun in this condition for $275- $400. Nicer guns are liable to run more, and top-end collector pieces with letter, box etc. will probably put you into four-digit prices.
For an affordable fun shooter with some character you could do a lot worse. If the price is right and the gun is sound I can’t think of a single reason not to pick one up, and I doubt you’ll be disappointed if you do.
I ‘Fitzed’ the first Army Special I bought- in fact I bought it for that purpose. Of course a buddy of mine back east fell in love with it, so… Anyway, not going to do that to this one. An idea that does intrigue me is to get a .41 Colt Long barrel and ream the chambers for .41 Special. Might make a fun and interesting gun…
Michael Tinker Pearce, 13 February 2020
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The gun hobby- or more properly hobbies- take in a lot of territory. Muzzle-loading, long-range rifle, cowboy action shooting, antiques, three-gun competition, collecting… there is a screw for every nut, and with the advent of the internet we can all find like-minded souls to share these interests with… and people that simply can’t resist telling that your particular interest is stupid. There is a technical term for these individuals.
We call them ‘assholes.’
As unfair as this is to that useful and worthy aperture, it is appropriate. Shit comes out of both of them. In the one case it’s a necessary function of biology. In the other it’s a function of disrespect, insecurity and a desire to feel superior.
Meet Brandon Wallace from Outlaw Innovations. I don’t know Brandon, but seems like a nice guy with some real talent. Among these talents is gun-spinning.
Gun-spinning is a uniquely American art form, with roots reaching back 150 years into a romanticized and colorful period of American history. It’s akin to juggling or, more appropriately, sword-dancing. It bears as much resemblance to a martial pursuit as those arts, but it is in the realm of firearms interests. It requires safety, practice and dedication. It may not be your thing, but it is a complex and impressive art worthy of respect, and deserves to be judged as what it is- a performance.
Brandon posted the video you see above to a Facebook group for revolver enthusiasts, and there was some interest… but there were also some assholes who just had to make themselves heard. One particular fellow said, and I am paraphrasing here, “When I draw my revolver it’s to get a good sight-picture and put rounds center-mass as quickly as possible, not to do some stupid shit with it.”
OK, the dude’s entitled to his opinion. I think it’s a stupid opinion, but I’m entitled to mine too. What I question is why he felt it was necessary to publicly express that opinion, particularly in social media. What purpose was served by this blatant show of disrespect and contempt?
If this were an isolated incident I’d be more inclined to shrug it off, but I see it all the time on social media, online forums etc. I seldom see it in person; maybe it’s less fun when faced with the immediate prospect of being punched in the nose.
“You have a Taurus? You’re stupid to trust your life to that!”
“You haven’t done force on force training, then your opinion is useless.”
“You don’t have the (flavor-of-the-month-Tacti-cool-thing)? Hard to take you seriously…”
“That fantastic plastic crap sucks. I like REAL guns!”
“You carry a .38? Real men carry calibers that begin with Four.”
“You’re real-life experience means nothing! I’ve been to classes!“
It goes on and on, and it never stops being boring, hurtful, pointless and divisive. I wish it was hard to fathom the motivation for this behavior, but it’s simple and obvious. They want you to know that they are better than you… and they want everyone else to know it too.
In a less enlightened age we might have attributed this to doubts about the size and quality of a certain male attribute, but in this more egalitarian age we have to acknowledge that women are as capable of being dicks as men are of having them.
This sad state of affairs is not limited to our community, of course. Whether you make jewelry, collect model trains or knit there’s always someone just aching for the chance to express their superiority by pointing out that they are better than you. But these communities are not under attack, facing the constant threat of having their rights limited, constrained or outright denied. The people in our community are. Nobody doing Crossfit, cosplay or quilting needs to worry that their pursuits will be outlawed. We do. In this day and age it would strongly serve our interests to hang together so that we do not hang separately. We need to be more inclusive and tolerant of our differences, not less. Don’t like ‘cowboy’ guns? Don’t like trick-shooting, Glocks, 1911s, revolvers? Then do what your mother taught you, and if you can’t say something nice keep your damn thoughts to yourself.
I know, I know… displaying respect and common courtesy is a lot to ask, especially when you subscribe to the pathetic notion that tearing down others makes you look better. It really doesn’t, but the argument that pointing out to others that you are an asshole is a public service is not sufficient to justify it.
Next time you feel the need to tear someone down to prop yourself up, keep your mouth shut, your fingers off the keyboard and consider what is wrong with you that you think this is the thing to do. Maybe a little honest self-examination will lead you to become a better person… someone that doesn’t need to be an asshole to feel better about themselves.
Check out Outlaw Innovations on Facebook; they do gunsmithing and some pretty darn nifty leather-work. Pretty good gun-spinner, too.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 11 February 2020
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It never ends, does it? I suppose if the dead horse insists on popping up all we can do is continue to beat it.
A lot of very good information and very bad misunderstanding are available on the topic of stopping power. This is a subject that has been of great interest to me for over thirty-five years, but I am not an expert or ‘guru’ by any means. I’ve some real-world experience, I’ve read a lot accounts of real-world shootings, talked to medical examiners and emergency room personnel and watched hundreds, if not thousands, of videos of actual shooting events. The conclusions I have come to are not the results of a scientific study, but include the results of scientific study. Nevertheless all they are is an opinion. Arguably an informed opinion, but an opinion all the same.
In this article I am applying this knowledge specifically to stopping a human attacker; game animals or dangerous critters are a different problem. You still need enough penetration to break things that matter and good enough accuracy to hit those things, but this may be best done with a different bullet than you might use for self-defense against a human.
A lot of discussions involve the results of ballistic gel tests, so let’s start there. These represent the Gold Standard for bullet testing, but it is misunderstood and sometimes knowingly misused for marketing purposes. Let’s start by discussing it’s appropriate role in testing bullets.
Ballistic Gel was originally formulated to simulate pork tissue, and attempting to predict real-world bullet performance was using it was a dismal failure. This was partly because it does not include variable densities, variables of elasticity, density or bone. It was also because of the mistaken (and somewhat ludicrous) notion that bullet performance was the most important criteria for stopping a human attacker. But since the eighties ballistic gel has been used differently by informed researchers.
At some point someone asked the right question, which was, “Do bullets that work well in real life perform similarly to each other in ballistic gel?” In fact they do, and looking at it from this perspective they were eventually able to establish a standard of performance in ballistic gel that more or less corresponded to results in the real world. The presence or absence of bone etc. is irrelevant in this application, because the gel is a comparative media, not a representation of an actual human body.
The standard that was established was that a bullet needs to penetrate at least twelve inches of gel after passing through an anticipated barrier. For civilian self-defense the best analogue was determined to be four layers of stout denim, because the anticipated barrier is clothing. Some hollow-point ammunition is more easily clogged by clothing than others, which can dramatically affect not merely expansion, but penetration as well. Maximum desirable penetration was established at eighteen inches, because bullets that over-penetrate in real life tend to penetrate more than that in gel. Experience has shown that a bullet that meets these performance standards is likely to work well in real life.
Ballistic Gel is often used for marketing bullets, because not only is it the Gold Standard, it is also an excellent media for producing beautiful, predictable and uniform expanded bullets. These look great in advertising copy, but seldom reflect real-world results. Real life is messy, and so are expanded bullets recovered from human tissue. Yes, a pistol bullet that expands well in ballistic gel is more likely to create a good result in real life, but it ain’t necessarily gonna be a perfect, pretty metal flower when they remove it.
So, now we know about ballistic gel, how and why it is used and what it probably means in real life. Next we’ll discuss why this is of limited importance in actual civilian self-defense shootings.
Handguns, of any kind, caliber or bullet configuration, suck at rapidly incapacitating an aggressive human being. The only way to reliably incapacitate an attacker instantly is to hit the central nervous system or upper spine. That’s it. You can shred someone’s heart, liver etc, and they might not die fast enough to save your ass. There is no magic gun, caliber or bullet that can change this. Under stress against a moving target it’s fantastically hard to reliably hit the skull or spine.
While handguns aren’t very good at incapacitating a determined assailant, they are moderately good at stopping an aggressive human being, if by ‘stopping’ you mean getting them to quit doing whatever it was that made it necessary to shoot them. They might drop in their tracks, drop after running a hundred yards or walk into an emergency room three hours later, but the important thing is that they stopped doing what they were doing, I.E. trying to harm or kill you or another innocent.
In civilian self-defense that is the goal- make them stop. They can fall over dead, run away or surrender; it really doesn’t matter which. If they do any of these things you have achieved the goal. The best way to accomplish this is to damage them rapidly and effectively, and the best of the best is to rapidly incapacitate them… which handguns aren’t that good at. You need to stack the odds.
The best, most consistently effective way to stack the odds is to break something they can’t live without. Experience has shown that the best way to do this is to put multiple rounds in the middle of their body. This is the easiest point target because it moves slower than the extremities. Also, the heart, liver, aorta and spine live there, and the more rounds you can put there the more likely you are to break something that matters. It follows logically that you want a gun that allows you to fire rapidly and accurately so you can do this, firing bullets with enough penetration to reach those things. This should outweigh caliber or bullet configuration. Fortunately in this day there are a lot of effective bullets in practically every handgun caliber, so there probably isn’t a need to choose between a gun that works for you and a good, modern defensive bullet.
Bullet design is only one ‘force multiplier’ that you can avail yourself of. If you have the physical capacity and finances there is all manner of training available, and some would argue that a good ‘force on force’ class will improve your odds more than picking the right miracle bullet. Training to draw and acquire a sight picture rapidly can be done at zero expense in the comfort of your home, and from nearly any position. It doesn’t cost more to practice strong and/or weak hand shooting than it does with your high-speed thumbs-forward isosceles stance.
Just as being truly Tactical is about planning, not cool gear, stopping power is more about ability than caliber or bullet design. This does not mean you shouldn’t research which bullets are effective and make sure to use them if it is practical and legal to do so; you absolutely should. It’s dumb not to stack the deck any way you reasonably can. Just remember that a good, effective modern bullet is the icing, not the cake.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 27 January, 2020
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There are differing schools of thought as to what constitutes and ‘adequate’ or even ‘ultimate’ concealed carry pistol. People are different; they have different ages, sizes, physical abilities or limitations. The places they live are different, as are the type and level of threats they face. People’s situations vary, with differing levels of income, job requirements, whether they have children in the household or not, relations with family members etc. Then there are local laws and ordinances… It makes it hard to advise someone as to what the best choice for them is.
For the purposes of this article we’re going to assume that the reader lives in a place where there is a legal mechanism for concealed carry, and that the weapon will be carried legally.
People are all created equal, but their needs and situations aren’t. Likewise not all guns are created equal, and what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to be ideal for another. In practice there are few universal rules about concealed carry pistols (CCPs) but there are some:
*It has to be with you and accessible
It’s axiomatic, even a cliche, that the gun you have with you is better than the gun you don’t. A gun that you left at home is useless for self defense. Depending on your individual circumstances this can have a significant effect on your choice for a CCP; size, weight, even shape can constrain your choices. A gun that is uncomfortable to carry is very much more likely to be at home when you need it.
*It has to go bang when you pull the trigger
Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? A reliable gun is essential, and this can affect your choice not only in terms of quality, but in the configuration and safety features of your CCP choice. Also- the less you are willing or able to train the simpler the gun’s operation needs to be.
*You must be able to reliably hit the target with it.
As addressed in a previous blog, being able to hit a stationary target doesn’t mean you’ll be able to hit a target under self-defense conditions… but not being able to makes it a certainty that you won’t. If you cannot put in enough practice reliably shoot a good group at 5-7 yards the chances of failure, or worse, damage to innocents, are simply too great to risk carrying a gun in public.
OK, that’s the basics. Every CCP is a compromise, but none of these things matter if your choice doesn’t meet these three standards. I’m going to limit the scope of this article to, as the title says, things you need to consider, but I think those three rules are absolutes.
There’s a lot more to think about, of course, and we’ll address some of those concerns now.
It’s easy to say, “What’s your life worth?” when encouraging people to spend a disproportionate amount of their income on a gun or training, but this disregards the needs and considerations of real life. What is it worth to not disappoint your children, and to build memories that will last a lifetime? What is it worth not to watch your child go hungry? What is it worth to be safe, warm and well fed? For most of us affordability is an issue, and it needs to be considered.
Yes, you should buy the best-quality gun that you can reasonably afford, and it’s pretty easy to watch reviews on YouTube to see what works, and what might work for you. You absolutely should, if it’s possible, go to a local range that rents guns and fire a variety to see what works in a hands-on situation. A gun can be fantastic, but not good for you.
A gun is a capitol purchase; once you have it you don’t need to spend the money again. But you need to bear in mind that you will need to practice, and that the affordability of the ammunition to do so may also be a consideration. A 9mm is relatively cheap to shoot. A .22 LR is really cheap to shoot, but unarguably less effective and arguably less reliable. You might find comfort in the large bore and heavy bullets of a .44 Special… but at $35-$60 a box can you afford a reasonable amount of practice?
A Gun For All Seasons
This is another area where affordability enters the equation; can you afford more than one gun? People dress differently in different seasons and different social settings. If you can afford only one gun that needs to cover everything from heavy winter clothing to shorts and a t-shirt at the beach, it’s going to limit your options to the lowest common denominator. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the market is flooded with different types, styles and sizes of guns. With modern defensive ammunition the gun that works at the beach can still work in the dead of winter, even if it’s not ideal. A good quality sub-compact .380 will get the job done, even if there might be better choices for the particular circumstances.
You know your finances and situation. It might be better to to spend less on each individual gun so you can afford multiple guns for different seasons or settings. You need to balance whether you will be better served by a single, expensive gun that does everything well enough, or two (or more) somewhat lesser guns that do specific things very well.
In this day and age we are fortunate that there is no dearth of guns that work very well indeed. But how they operate varies wildly. Running any of them isn’t rocket science, but how much effort you are willing to put into training matters.
Revolvers are about as simple as it gets. Fill the holes with cartridges, aim and pull the trigger. Take the empty cartridges out. Repeat. But… while revolvers practically never jam, if it does you have a blunt object until you get it home or to a gunsmith. Another consideration is how easy it is to fire; some people find it difficult to reliably get good hits with a double-action revolver without extensive practice. Revolvers generally hold fewer shots, and are slower and more difficult to reload. Learning to reload efficiently, even with speed loaders, will require more dedication than shoving a magazine into the handle of a semi-auto.
Semi-automatic pistols are pretty damn good these days, and are pretty easy to operate at the basic level. They reload faster and easier than revolvers, and generally hold more shots… but they do jam. Not often, but often enough that you’d be a fool to carry one without extensively practicing clearing jams. Malfunctions, rather than capacity, are why it is essential to keep an extra mag handy, because the fastest way to clear a jam is to drop the magazine, clear the chamber and reload. Another advantage of the auto is that jams can usually be cleared on the spot, fast enough to keep you in the fight.
In terms of carry, autos are flatter and in some ways better suited to discreet carry. On the other hand a revolver’s more rounded shapes can be more comfortable to wear, and less obviously a gun than the angular shape of most autos. It’s a balance, and one that is strongly individual.
Lastly we’re back to affordability. Both revolvers and autos have their good and bad points, but if we’re talking about buying new there’s a real difference in the entry price, especially if we limit ourselves to options that are generally considered viable for self-defense. A good, reliable entry-level semi-automatic pistol can be had for $200 if you shop around. A good, reliable entry level snub-nose revolver (which will be more difficult to shoot well for most people) starts at about $300 if you hit a good sale. Across the board, these days new revolvers cost more than semi-autos of comparable quality… just another of many compromises you need to consider. You can, of course, buy used, but you’d best be well informed and know what you are looking at if you do.
The average defensive use of a handgun by a civilian generally requires 1-3 shots. Cases where a civilian in a self-defense shooting needed, and had the opportunity, to reload are vanishingly rare. Most agree that the minimum capacity of a defensive pistol should be five shots, and having more isn’t likely to be worse. A reload is a good idea if you are carrying a revolver, and essential if you are carrying an automatic (as stated above.) Given that multiple center-mass has has historically been the best way to stop an attacker, you might want to consider the likelihood of multiple attackers when selecting your CCP.
I’m listing this last because it is literally the least important consideration. Stopping a fanatically determined attacker with a handgun, any handgun of any caliber or bullet type, is a pretty dubious proposition. The main advantage of pistols is that you are likely to have it when you need it, and it’s better than throwing rocks. Yes, good quality, modern defensive ammo increases your odds and should be employed whenever possible. But the simple fact is this: if someone wants you bad enough and all you have to defend yourself is a handgun, if you don’t hit the central nervous system (brain or spine) there’s a good chance they can get you, regardless of the caliber of your weapon or the type of bullets used. They might not live to bask in the glory of their victory, but that’s not going to help you. Fortunately most people that instigate criminal attacks are not fanatically dedicated to taking you with them.
People have been dropped in their tracks by a single hit from a .25 ACP. Others have failed to stop after taking multiple torso hits from hollow-point .44 magnums. These are outliers of course; people don’t like being shot, and experience suggests that in most cases it is likely that getting shot three times with anything will make an attacker reconsider their life choices. But there are always exceptions. Taking out the spine or brain is the only sure thing.
Head-shots being difficult to reliably achieve in self-defense scenarios, the best, most reliable method of stopping a determined attacker has proven to be hitting them multiple times in their center of mass. Not only the spine, but all sorts of other stuff people can’t live without are clustered there. Things that bleed a lot, and running out of blood does stop people. Not super quickly, but it works.
I’m not saying caliber is irrelevant; statistically a .22, .25 or .32* is significantly more likely to fail to stop an attacker regardless of the number of times you hit them. It’s possible that they just don’t reliably have the penetration and damage potential to rapidly incapacitate a truly determined attacker. While an argument can be made that these smaller calibers allow you to put more hits on target quickly, If you can reliably put hits on target reasonably quickly with a larger caliber in a gun you will routinely carry you’d be well advised to do so.
*This statement is limited to .32 ACP and .32 S&W long; the .32 Magnums, with modern ammunition, are likely to be considerably more effective, but there is insufficient data to say for certain.
Not for nothing, but decades of law enforcement experience has shown that, with modern defensive ammunition and for the average person, 9mm Parabellum provides the best compromise of effectiveness, capacity and ease of shooting accurately. Recoil can be prohibitive in the smallest CCPs in this caliber for some people, but it’s a pretty good place to start. Even in bear country 9mm has proven effective with the correct bullet choice and good shot placement. .38 Special occupies a similar niche on the revolver side of things (though maybe not for bears!)
In the End…
..there are always other things to consider. CCPs should always be carried in a secure holster that covers the trigger- even when pocket-carried. The Kydex vs. leather debate rages on, but since I make all of my own holsters I’m ill equipped to weigh in on that.
You may need to shift your manner of dress to accommodate a CCP. You may even need to decide where you will or will not do business based on whether they allow concealed carry. It would be prudent to obtain a safe to secure your weapon in a vehicle for those instances you can’t avoid going to into places that don’t allow it.
The choice to carry a weapon for self defense is an individual one, and the choice of what to carry is equally so. Put some thought and research into it before you spend money on something that might not suit your needs in real life.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 25 January, 2020
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Continuing the series of ballistics tests on old cartridges, this time testing .32 S&W Long, .38 Short Colt and more tests with .38 S&W. Some data from the previous post will be duplicated for comparison.
I’d like to note- the longest barrel used in these tests is 4″, and several are significantly shorter. Ammunition companies tend to fire their tests through special barrels, which are far longer than the sorts of guns these cartridges were generally used in. I’ve deliberately selected the kind of guns people actually carried to give a better picture of the ‘real world’ performance of these cartridges.
Of course before we get to it we need the standard disclaimer- use of the reloading data presented in this article is attempted at the user’s own risk; the author assumes no responsibility for the use or misuse of this data.
.32 S&W Long/ .32 Colt New Police
The first newcomer to the test is .32 S&W Long. Introduced in 1896 for the new S&W Hand Ejector revolver, cartridges were originally loaded with black powder with a round-nose lead bullet. By the time the Model 1903 was produced the transition to smokeless powder was made. Colt adopted the cartridge, but used a flat-nose bullet and called it ‘Colt New Police.’
While it has fallen out of favor in the US, .32 S&W Long remains popular internationally, particularly for target shooting. Not surprising, as the cartridge has always had a reputation for exceptional accuracy.
Modern commercial loads are low-velocity and low-powered. While light hollow-point bullets are offered they do not expand at these low speeds.
The test guns for this cartridge are a S&W Model 1903 Hand Ejector with a 4″ barrel, and a Colt Detective Special with a 2″ barrel.
98gr. LRN, Remington commercial ammunition
S&W- 4″ barrel- 694 fps. 105 ft/lbs SD: 18
Colt- 2″ barrel- 643 fps. 90 ft./lbs SD: 32
Definitely what I call a ‘lawsuit load,’ well under SAAMI pressure limits for this cartridge. Pretty much designed to punch holes in paper and not break really bad guns.
96 gr. LRNFP, 4.3gr. Unique, CCI500 primer
S&W- 4″ barrel- 1089 fps. 253 ft/lbs SD: 31
Colt 2″ barrel- 984 fps. 206 ft/lbs SD: 53
This load was taken from Sharpe’s 1937 ‘The Complete Book of Reloading,’ and does not exceed SAAMI pressure limits for this cartridge. Quite a difference from factory loads! Still, I would restrict the use of this load to good quality firearms in good condition… and fire them sparingly.
96gr. LRNFP, 4.0gr. Power Pistol, CCI500 Primer
S&W- 4″ barrel- 1148 fps. 281 ft/lbs SD: 41
Colt 2″ barrel- 1090 fps. 253 ft/lbs SD: 45
While I don’t have access to scientific pressure-measuring equipment, I think this is almost certainly a +P load, and would only use it sparingly in the strongest revolvers.
As you can see from the results above, particularly the Unique load from Sharpe’s book, there is a lot of un-tapped potential in this cartridge. At these velocities I think it very likely that a well-designed hollow-point would both expand and penetrate adequately, even from a 2″ barrel. When we get to the gel tests we shall see…
.38 Short Colt/ .380 Revolver
This cartridge was introduced at the dawn of the 1870s for .36 caliber Cap-and-ball revolvers that had been converted to fire metallic cartridges. It used a heel-base .375 bullet in a cartridge very similar to .38 S&W. It found some popularity in Europe for use in compact ‘bulldog’-style revolvers, and in that role remained in use into the early 20th Century. I understand that this ammunition is still in production from various makers, but no longer uses a heel-base bullet. Instead they use a hollow-base .358 bullet in the hopes that it will expand enough to engage the rifling. By all accounts this is not entirely effective.
My test gun for this cartridge is a tiny, anonymous Belgian Bulldog with a folding trigger, most likely made in the 1880s or 1890s. The barrel is 2-1/8″ long. Despite having a hammer-spur the gun seems to be double-action only, though whether this is be defect or design I couldn’t say. One of these days I’ll have it entirely apart and see what’s what.
Not at all an impressive cartridge, but rather fun to shoot. Not going to push this one; this load is quite sufficient for recreational shooting, Cowboy Action shooting etc.
We’ve already gone over the history of the .38 S&W, so we’ll not repeat that here. I will note that although they share a cartridge-case, I consider this to be, for practical purposes, a different cartridge than the British .38-200. Revolvers using the British cartridge will fire ordinary .38 S&W, but that is a one-way street. Firing .38-200 ammo through an American top-break revolver is liable to quickly put it out of order if it doesn’t break it outright. Webley and Enfield service revolvers are a great deal more robust than even the best of the American-made offerings, and should be treated with separately when it comes to reloading for them.
I’ve also changed out one of the test guns this time; in the last round the Harrington & Richardson turned out to be a ‘slow’ gun, consistently turning in lower velocities than the S&W, despite have a barrel twice as long. I’ve replaced the H&R with a S&W .38 Double Action (2nd model) made around 1884. This has produced the expected result, as you will see below.
We’ll start with re-listing the Winchester factory ammo for comparison.
Winchester 145gr. (modern) factory ammunition
S&W- 1-5/8″ barrel- 535 fps. 92 ft./lbs SD: 39
H&R- 3-1/4″ barrel- 478 fps. 74 ft./lbs SD: 42
Deeply unimpressive, and one of the reasons for this became plain when I pulled several of the bullets to try a different load under them. They are not .361″. They are not .357″. They average .352″! This was consistent across all fifteen bullets that I pulled, and may go a ways towards explaining the results of this first load-
Winchester 145gr RNL, 2.8gr. Unique, CCI500 primer
S&W 3-1/4″ barrel- 540 fps. 94 ft/lbs SD: 28
This performance is similar to the results for firing the factory ammo through the 1-5/8″ gun last time, and the bullets keyholed at 7 yards. I didn’t even bother to test them out of the shorter gun. Next…!
160gr. .361 LSWC, 2.7gr. Unique, CCI500 primer
S&W 3-1/4″ barrel- 754 fps. 202 ft./lbs SD: 24
S&W 1-5/8″ Barrel- 722 fps. 185 ft/lbs SD: 31
This load, while still considered safe for top-break revolvers, doubles the power of the factory load, and is my new defensive load for this caliber. I will restrict this to my S&Ws, though. They are of high enough quality to handle this load, but even they won’t be getting it as a steady diet; there’s simply no need to risk beating up an antique gun when practice and recreational shooting can be accomplished with milder loads.
That is very much a thing to bear in mind; a couple of these loads are pushing the boundaries, notably the two .32 S&W long handloads. It’s nice to know what the cartridge and gun can do, but unless you are employing the weapon for self-defense there is absolutely no reason to load to that level of power. If you are shooting for pleasure or even hunting small game, a factory-level load will do just fine… and be a heck of a lot less hard on your gun.
Next time we’ll be heading further down the black powder path, attempting to replicate the original loads for .32 S&W and .38 S&W. Gel tests will happen further down the road; setting up to do them is a not inconsequential expense, for me at least.
…but it can get you to do it right, and right is fast.
Training is good. If you have the money and interest to take courses, well that’s great… if it’s good training. Because if or when you need to defend yourself, you will fight as you have trained. If you have trained well and had good training it will significantly increase your odds of surviving. If you’ve had bad training… well, you know the saying, ‘Garbage in, garbage out.’
Unfortunately training is expensive, and it should be; this is serious stuff. A good instructor has spent a lot of time and energy to learn their skills and how to impart them to you. The fact that something is worth it, however, doesn’t mean you can afford it. The good news is that there are many things you can do to train yourself that don’t cost a fortune.
A lot of people don’t have access to a facility where they can practice defensive shooting. Many ranges have prohibitions against working from a holster, rapid fire etc. This needn’t handicap you entirely; there are still useful training methods you can employ. These methods are far from comprehensive and will not turn you into any kind of ace pistolero… but they will help.
First Things First
All sorts of people will tell you that being able to hit the target at the shooting range is very different from shooting in an actual confrontation, and they are correct. Being able to hit the target doesn’t mean you will be able to hit an attacker… but being unable to hit a target pretty much guarantees you won’t. The most elementary skill you will want for self defense is the ability to hit what you aim at, and every round you fire at the bullseye will work in your favor if the worst happens.
Get it right, then get it fast.
In his 1403 treatise, ‘The Flower of Battle,’ Fiore advises us (paraphrasing) ‘Train slow; in the fight anger (stress and adrenaline) will give you speed.’ Essentially it’s more important to train to do it right, and let speed come to you when it’s needed. This actually works; I never practiced a ‘fast-draw’ in my competition days. Instead I focused on doing it right every single time, drawing slowly and raising the gun to eye-level to obtain a sight picture. I repeated this thousands of times, grinding it into my muscle-memory. Despite the fact that I didn’t train for the quick-draw when the buzzer went off to start a stage I got my gun out and into action plenty fast.
It’s a good drill, and you can do it anywhere you won’t scare someone. Unload the gun and put it in your carry holster. Have a small target set across the room. Verify that the gun is empty (or better yet loaded with a Snap Cap dummy round,) then grasp the handle and draw the gun, raise it to eye-level. Focus on moving the gun in the shortest path, without extra movement and have the muzzle slightly up so that the first part of the gun that enters your line of sight is the front sight. Center this in the rear sight notch as the gun come on target and squeeze the trigger while maintaining sight alignment.
Do this enough times- maybe several thousand repetitions- and you will be able to get a sight picture very quickly when drawing the gun, and at need you will draw quickly.
There are useful drills you can use even if your range is quite restrictive, and they should be used in conjunction with standard target shooting. Maybe you can’t work from the holster of rapid-fire, but these exercises will help. These names are what I call these drills; there might be other names for them but I don’t know them; I’m just some schmuck who does what he can, not as highly trained combat pistol expert. All of these drills are done slowly; after all, in training there’s no point in shooting faster than you can hit the target. The idea is to train to do it right every time. Note that these are all about basic shooting skill; you still need to consider tactics etc. in an actual fight. These drills are designed for a revolver, because that’s what I usually carry, but are easily adapted to a semi-auto.
7-3-2 (Seven yards, three positions, two shots each)
With a standard pistol target at seven yards, fire two shots holding the gun with both hands, then two shots from your strong hand, then two shots from your weak hand. Don’t shoot any faster than you can keep all six shots in the black. This will insure that you get enough practice in all three modes of firing.
Same as the drill above, but for each shot you start with the gun pointed downrange at waist level, then bring it to eye level, get a sight picture and fire a single shot, then lower the gun and do it again. This is simple training on acquiring a sight picture.
3-3-6 (three yards, three positions, six shots)
This is a point-shooting drill. I’m not a huge fan of point-shooting, but it is undeniably useful at very close range. With the target at three yards, keeping both eyes open, raise the gun to mid-chest level, point it at the target without using the sights and fire six shots. Watch where the bullets strike and walk them into the center of the target. Do this two-handed, with your strong hand and with your weak hand. Don’t try to rush it- be conscious of the feel of the gun and how it points naturally in your hand. look at the gun at first to be sure it’s pointed at the target. The goal is to consistently get all six shots in the black. If you haven’t tried this before, it’s harder than it sounds.
3-2-1 (Three Shots, Two positions, One shot at a time)
After you’ve gotten good at the drill above it’s time to step it up. With the target at three yards, start with the gun in your strong hand, pointed downrange at waist level, with both eyes open. Raise the gun to mid-chest and fire a single shot at the target. Switch to the left hand and repeat. Keep switching hands until you have fired all six shots. Once again the goal is to land all shots in the black.
Of course you also need to practice reloads, clearing jams etc. Like the draw, though, these actions can be practiced nearly anywhere. Well, anywhere you won’t freak out bystanders… Anyway, a lot has been written on those subjects and we don’t need to rehash them here.
These simple drills will not turn you into the ultimate gunfighter, but they can be practiced by anyone in almost any shooting venue… and they might just help save your life.
Guns were made to be used. It doesn’t matter if they are brand new or more than a century old, and I buy antique guns to shoot them. There are a variety of reasons to do this; a sense of connection to history, the ability to buy a better quality gun without paying modern prices, curiosity to see what they can do, or even just because it’s fun. But these are not modern firearms with modern material science; they have limitations, and you ignore these at your peril.
I am nobody’s idea of an ‘expert.’ I don’t have access to high-tech scientific equipment. I’m not a material scientist, a chemist or any other relevant sort of ‘ist.’ This is not ‘The Received Gospel,’ it’s my opinion. It’s based on experience, research and observation… but at the end of the day it’s just an (arguably) informed opinion.
I’ve been mucking around with firearms for a good few decades now, and for the last few years I’ve been shooting antiques a lot. I routinely ignore the advice against using smokeless powders in these guns, and it has never even once proven to be an issue.
Mind you, I’ve seen more than one antique broken, and I can say when I have seen this occur it has almost always been a gun that was in no condition to shoot to begin with, or it broke under circumstances that would have been equally lethal to a modern firearm. Plugged bores, double charges, wrong caliber ammunition… a gun doesn’t have to be a ancient to fall to these things!
Another thing to recall is that not all guns were created equal. In my recent ammo test my 3-1/4″ barreled H&R routinely fired the same loads at significantly lower velocities than my S&W… despite the S&W having 1/2 the barrel length! This was owing to sloppy tolerances on the H&R, which was an economy brand in the way-backs.
My Smith & Wesson .38 Safety Hammerless, for comparison is still tight and right after more than three-thousand rounds of comparatively ‘hot’ ammo. I doubt the H&R would be unscathed after two or three hundred rounds of the same ammo.
Some guns were set up for failure, notably surplussed Webley .455 revolvers. Most of these had the cylinders cut to take .45 ACP in moon clips, since .455 was not a popular caliber in America. Unfortunately while this ammo can be made to fit, commercial ammo is significantly overpowered for these guns, and quickly reduced most of them to loose, wobbly junk. Which brings us to the crux of this conversation…
We make much of the difference between the pressure of black powder rounds versus smokeless rounds, but in a sound antique gun this really isn’t what makes the difference. Pressure is not directly responsible for a fine antique double going off-face, or a revolver loosening up. It’s recoil that does it. The metallurgy of these old guns is not up to modern standards, and repeated hammering with high-recoil loads stretches and deforms the metal.
Yes, high-pressure loads are likely (but not guaranteed) to recoil harder. Heavy projectiles or shot loads will also accomplish this. Some ammunition, like .32 S&W or .38 S&W, are commercially loaded with this in mind. These loads are deliberately anemic to avoid breaking old and/or poor quality guns. You can safely shoot them in any sound gun chambered for these cartridges.
If you reload your own cartridges, black powder or black powder substitutes can be a good option. In the 19th century if you wanted to make a cartridge more powerful you made it hold more powder. Black Powder needs to fill all the empty space in the cartridge, and ideally it should be compressed. You can’t fit enough FFg in a cartridge to blow up the gun it was designed for, provided that gun is in sound, shootable condition.
Reduced black powder loads can be obtained a number of ways; you can insert spacers to take up room, allowing you to use less powder without creating a dangerous air-space in the cartridge. You can use light-for caliber bullets seated more deeply in the case. You can even physically shorten the case so that it holds less powder. Any of these methods or combination of them can be used to produce reduced-recoil loads.
For shotguns RST produces a wide range of ammunition in a large variety of bores and lengths tailored to be used in antiques. They aren’t cheap, but they are excellent ammunition; extremely reliable and consistent. Despite the lower pressure and power of these loads they are so good that most users don’t feel they have given anything up compared to modern shells.
You can of course reload your own, and there are websites devoted to this; a little Google-fu could be well worth your time! RST tends to use light-for-caliber loads in their shells, and if you load your own you’d be well-advised to do the same. Look for light slugs, load 1/4-ounce less shot… your gun will last a lot longer.
Another thing to remember with antique shotguns is to use the correct length of ammunition; antique shells were often not quite the same length as modern shells. These days cartridges like 12-gauge have pretty much settled in to 2-3/4″, 3″ and 3-1/2″. In antique guns, however, the chambers can be 2″ or 2-1/2″. While it might not be disastrous to shoot modern 2-3/4″ shells in a 2-1/2″ gun, it could be… and it certainly won’t be good for the gun!
The most important factor, both for safety and to preserve your guns and insure you can enjoy them for years to come, is to know what you are doing. Educate yourself; there are vast resources online, including not merely blogs and forums, but also out-of print books that can be downloaded, often for free, in .pdf form. Sharpe’s 1937 ‘Complete Guide to Handloading’ is excellent; Google it. You’ll be glad you did!
If you are mindful, educated and careful antique guns can provide years or decades of great enjoyment and satisfaction. I recommend it highly… provided that you are prepared to do the footwork to do it sensibly and safely.