Push the Envelope- You Might Be Surprised.

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Custom S&W .38 Double Action Safety Hammerless (4th Model)

Lately my pistol shooting has largely been focused on shooting rapidly at 7 yards. OK, fair enough; most of the pistols I shoot are oriented towards self-defense and that’s a quite reasonable range. Pretty often I am testing a new gun or a gun I have modified, and I can be pretty sure of at least putting rounds on the paper at seven yards, no matter how badly I have messed the gun up.

I’ve picked up a couple of hunting revolvers since last fall, and naturally I tried them at 25 yards.   Results were not tragically bad, but not as good as I would want them either. I pretty much shrugged it off; after all, there’s plenty of time before next fall, right?

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25 yards single-action- not bad, or unexpected with a 6″ barrel and adjustable sights

Maybe I mis-remember how I shot decades ago but I had a general feeling that I had slipped with age. Happens to the best of us, right? The fact is that my skills have not deteriorated; I’ve just gotten sloppy… and lazy.

The other night I was at the range, and the gun that I was testing- the .38 S&W cartridge conversion- had ejected it’s firing-pin relatively early in the proceedings. Since I still had a bunch of ammo I started shooting the S&W top-break. I shot rapid-fire groups, strong-hand and weak hand and I was getting bored. I ran the target out to ten yards, then fifteen and was still getting good hits.

Of course the idea of shooting a century-old, double-action only gun with a 1-1/2″ barrel at twenty-five yards was ludicrous, so naturally I had to do that. I fired a string of five shots rather casually and reeled it in to look- three hits on the paper… interesting. I ran it back out and tried it again. Four more hits. Now I was wondering just exactly what I could do if I really tried… I ran out a fresh target and this time I really focused- front-sight, breathing, staging the double-action trigger… the results were surprising. Standing unsupported at twenty-five yards I shot a 4-3/8″ group, with a score of 45 out of fifty possible!

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What this shows me is that I need to stop underestimating myself, stop being lazy and start pushing the limits; I already know what I can do shooting rapid-fire at seven yards. I’d pretty much forgotten what I could do at a distance. Time to see what I can do at longer range- and there’s no reason not to go beyond 25 yards, either.

OK, maybe I’ll use a more suitable gun…

Michael Tinker Pearce, 30 March 2018

 

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The Astra Police- An Obscure Gem!

I recently picked up and Astra Police .38 from DJ’s for $220, and Linda liked it so well she immediately ordered one off of Gunbroker. I’ve actually already talked about these guns in range reports, but I thought they deserved their own post with all the info in one place.
The top gun is mine, and the previous owner bobbed the hammer and crudely turned the handle into a round-butt to fit a set of Pachymer grips he had on-hand. To do this he had to drill a new screw-hole and used a nut and bolt to hold them in place, so… yeah, no.  The gunbroker guns typically come with a slightly -damaged stock grip and an ill-fitting Hogue Monogrip. I snagged the stock grip because it was a great improvement over the misfit Pachymer.
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These are an interesting gun. They are a roughly L-frame size, came standard with a 3″ barrel and fixed sights. Both of ours are police trade-ins from Policia Municipal Vitorio in Spain, thus the ‘PMV’ stamped on the side of the frame. They are a whole other level of quality than most people associate with Spanish guns, and possess some unique features.
The first of these is the large screw just ahead of the trigger-guard- this is actually a button that allows the cylinder and crane to be removed. This is a plus for cleaning, but it was also to enable one to switch calibers from .38 Special to .357 Magnum or 9mm. These guns were sold by FN as the ‘Barracuda’ in either 9mm or .357.
Another interesting feature unique to Astra revolvers if the user-adjustable trigger-pull. There is a round device in the grip-frame that has different depth holes in it for the base of the mainspring; quite clever really. You simply pop it out sideways, rotate it a 1/4-turn and pop it back in for a different trigger-pull.
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The guns also have quality features like recessed chambers, a pinned front sight etc. For myself I cleaned up the hack-job on the grip frame and modified the stock grips to fit and to suit my hand, then refinished the wood. I like the feel of it much better now.
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I took the gun out for it’s first real range-trip the other day, firing a mix of 158gr., 173gr. and 125gr. bullets. All shot to point of aim at seven yards. I only fired the 125gr. at twenty-five yards, and they shot a little high at that range. At it’s lightest setting the double-action trigger pull is very smooth and not at all heavy, but is curiously easy to stage when desired. The weight of this gun easily soaks up the recoil, even of the heavy loads and the reworked grip was comfortable and secure.
Here’s a seven-yard rapid-fire target-
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This target was shot double-action standing/unsupported at twenty-five yards-
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Doubtless this will improve with practice.
Very happy with our purchase of these guns. Being trade-ins they are not in perfect condition, showing moderate holster-wear and typically some damage to the stock grips. But for what these are going for- typically $259 on Gun Broker- they are well worth it. These are high-quality revolvers and are easily robust enough for a steady diet of +P ammunition.
I originally got mine intending to convert it to .41 Special, but now I am not so sure; I really like the gun the way it is. Linda’s will remain a .38 Special regardless, and will be getting a custom grip to suit her hand as soon as I can get around to it.

Range Report for 27 March 2018

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Two guns and two new loads to test today.  Trying out a .356″ 125-grain RNL bullet in both .38 S&W and .38 Special, and testing the Astra Police .38 and the 1860 Army .38 S&W conversion.

First up was the Lyman’s 1860 Army that I converted to .38 S&W. Normally .38 S&W shoots a .361″ bullet, but I thought I’d try it with the .356″ bullet since the barrel-liner I used was a 9mm/.357 liner. This required a bit of adjustment in my reloading technique, but worked out alright. After researching the load I settled on 3.0Gr. of Unique with a CCI Small Pistol Primer.

Firing the gun was pleasant enough; it’s no lightweight after all. I’d not call this test a success though; rounds were key-holing regularly at seven yards; I suspect the barrel-liner became distorted when I was installing it. I’ll need to drill it out, ream and reline it. Ignition was also inconsistent with the newly modified firing-pin. I’ll make a new firing pin, install and test it. So, a bit more work on this one is needed.

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7 Yards, rapid-fire.

Next I tried the new load in the S&W .38 Safety Hammerless. It’s surprisingly peppy from the 1-1/2″ barrel, and recoil is snappier than my standard load in this gun and the report is quite a bit sharper. It shoots dead to point of aim at 7 yards. I think this load is fine in a good-quality solid-frame revolver but a bit hot for a top-break; excessive use would probably accelerate wear to an unacceptable degree. I think I might look into seeing if I can find a 125gr. LSWC; loaded over a lesser quantity of powder it could be a useful load for this gun.

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The original owner modified this gun by bobbing the hammer and rounding the grip-frame. I modified a set of factory wood grips to fit 

Last but not least was the Astra Police .38.  These were trade-ins from a Spanish police department. It’s an L-frame size gun that was available in .38 and .357. They were also sold as the FN Barracuda min .357 and 9mm.  Cylinders can be switched in seconds using a button-release just ahead of the trigger-guard on the right side of the frame.  Another innovative feature is the user-adjustable trigger pull- the mainspring terminates in a round section with four different holes, each of which provides a different trigger-pull.

This was the first serious outing for this gun, and a test of the newly modified grips.  The load used was the same 125gr. RNL used in the .38 S&W load, only this time on top of 5gr. of Unique. This was a very pleasant load to shoot in the heavy Astra revolver and shot to point of aim at 7 yards.

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Seven Yards, rapid-fire

The trigger is light and smooth, yet surprisingly easy to stage for precision work. I shot a standing-unsupported double-action group at 25 yards- the gun shot high but the group was not tragically bad, as you can see below-

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Likely this will improve with practice.  These guns come with a square-butt frame- this one had been crudely reshaped into a round butt to fit the Pachymer grips that came with the gun. I refined that work, polished and re-blued the frame then cut the grips to fit. I removed the checkering on the sides of the grip and rounded them quite a bit. I relieved the left-side grip for using a speedloader. After sanding them to 600-grit I refinished them with Minwax Red Cedar finish and then Minwax high-gloss clear.

The result feels good in my hand and provides a good grip. Pretty good looking too. I actually bought this gun with the intention of converting it to .41 Special, but honestly? I like it a lot as-is.  It might just stay a .38.

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The front sight is pinned in place, and a better front-sight would be a plus. I’ll look into my options, but I think a high-visibility front-sight is in this gun’s future.  Linda liked mine so well she bought one of her own off of Gunbroker. Hers still has the square butt and the hammer-spur is intact. I’ll be making a set of custom grips for her gun; maybe very similar to the grips on my gun.

Good afternoon at the range. I just wish I’d had more .38 Special to shoot.

*This .38 S&W load should only be used in good-quality solid-frame guns. Using this in S&W top-breaks will accelerate wear significantly, and in lesser-quality guns it might actually cause damage to the gun.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 27 March 2018

 

Wadcutters for Self Defense?

The purpose of this post is not to convince you to carry wadcutters or not to; it’s simply to present information so that you are better equipped to make an informed decision.

A wadcutter is a cylindrical bullet designed to punch a clean hole in a paper target. The are typically loaded to a relatively low velocity and have very mild recoil. They were not designed as a self-defense load, but are often recommended as such. One has to wonder why,  given that they have modest muzzle energy and expand little or not at all in testing.  The answer is a mix of realism, misinformation and logic.

The objective of self-defense shooting is to stop the attacker as quickly as is reasonably possible. Handguns, on the whole, are pretty bad at this. I’ve mentioned this a time or two. The most important things in stopping a person are penetration- the bullet has to reach the important bits, hit location- the bullet has to hit the important bits, and last of all the permanent wound cavity.

People used to waste a lot of time worrying about the ‘best’ bullet/caliber to produce a ‘stop’ with a single torso hit.  But as one Marine put it, “Who shoots them once?!”  It has been pretty obvious right the way along that multiple accurate hits to center mass was a pretty reliable way of stopping an attacker. Doing this with a service-caliber weapon was a useful way of going about it, and it was a good idea to use a good hollow-point.  But the most important thing was to do it multiple times as quickly as it was possible to maintain accuracy.

A .357 Magnum round, shot for shot, is pretty damned effective. But from the sort of guns people carry for self defense the recoil is brutal and slows down recovery time between shots. Most people are better off with a .38 Special +P hollow-point. But there’re people for whom even that is problematic; weak wrists, previous injuries etc. can make a person sensitive to recoil. It is in these cases that wadcutters are most often recommended.

There is also a common belief that the hard corners of the bullets cut the flesh of the target better than a round-nose bullet. The problem is that when these bullets are fired in tests using demin over ballistic gel there is no indication that this is true. The fabric crushes the corners into a slightly rounded or bevelled profile, and the wound track is similar to round-nose lead.

But this doesn’t tell the whole story. A few decades back the Army tested .38 Special wadcutters against .38 Special round-nose lead ammo by firing both into ballistic gel and measuring it’s velocity before it hit and after it exited the block. Despite starting with 15% less muzzle-energy the wadcutters deposited 25% more energy into the block. It seems to indicate that as both rounds passed entirely through the block (which was meant to represent adequate penetration in human tissue) the wadcutter delivered more damage. But no one has ever established a concrete connection between energy delivery and stopping power, not matter how intuitive it seems. There is a connection between permanent wound cavity and stopping power, and neither bullet fares anywhere near a good hollow point in that department.

They’re just wadcutters, but I am pretty sure this would do…

It seems likely that a wadcutter is more effective than a round-nose bullet, but not as good as a hollow-point. So why would anyone choose the wadcutter over the hollow-point? Recoil and  cost. The mild recoil makes them more pleasant to shoot, and that makes people more likely to practice. They are also cheaper than defensive ammo, which means people can afford to shoot more of them- which also means more practice.  Most importantly the low recoil means recovery time is shorter and more rounds can be accurately put on target faster. Yes, shot for shot they are noticeably less effective- but who shoots them once?

 

It can easily be argued that three wadcutters, rapidly and accurately delivered to center-mass, will be more effective than one .357 Magnum delivered to the same area. It is undeniable that three .38 +P hollow points will also beat a single magnum. What it comes to is this- if a person cannot handle the recoil of a hollow-point load it might be reasonable for them to try wadcutters. They aren’t the only game in town, or necessarily the best, but they just might do.

 

Michael Tinker Pearce, 14 March 2018

Range Report for 6 March 2018

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Astra .38 Special Police model

I had a couple of guns to test and several new guns to fire on the range today, so it was never not going to be interesting.

Linda and I recently procured a pair of Astra .38 Police model revolvers. These guns were made in 1985-86 and used by the Policia Municipal Vitorria in Spain. Some time back they switched to automatics and these guns are now being surplussed to the US. These guns are a heavy-framed .38 Special with a number of unique features- one of which is the crane and cylinder, which may be removed simply by pushing a button. The other is that the trigger-pull is user adjustable via a clever system that uses a wheel to provide four different settings for the mainspring.

These guns feature excellent double action trigger pulls, and they are easily solid enough to handle +P loads. Today was basically just test-firing them to make sure everything was in order. Both guns shot well and were quite comfortable, even with stout loads.

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‘Thumper,’ an ASM 1847 Colt Walker reproduction converted to fire cartridges

It was also time to finally give Thumper a good workout. This is a Walker repro converted to fire a proprietary cartridge, .44-50 Walker. Accuracy is good- I fired five shots at the target, and I guess they are all there; there certainly weren’t any other holes in the target. The gun recoils rather like a large-frame .357 Magnum- noticeable but not really unpleasant. It’s a pretty fun gun to shoot.

The brass used for this cartridge is made from shortened and expanded .303 British brass. The final shaping of the brass is done by fire-forming, and even though the previously used brass and the new brass bore identical loads the difference between them was obvious.  Previously-fired and reloaded brass was easy to eject after firing. Newly fire-formed cases had to be driven out with a cleaning rod. None of the brass showed signs of excessive pressure, and the theoretical maximum load is 13+gr. of Trail Boss- the current load is 10 grains. I may experiment with increasing the load, but I’d like to have more experience with this gun first

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The Dandy got a good workout as well- .44 Colt ammo is finally sorted and working properly.  I had thought the collet-crimp was the answer to my ammo issues with this caliber, but nope. It just doesn’t crimp hard enough for consistent results. The solution? Yep- glue the bullets in with blue Loctite and then crimp them. The combination works.

The load uses the same 200gr. LRNFP-HB bullet as the .44-50, this time over 6.5gr. of Trail Boss with a CCI300 primer. Just enough recoil to let you know you’ve shot something. I do need to adjust the front sight; the gun is shooting a bit low. That being said this gun is a pleasure to shoot.

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The Armi San Marcos .45 was a little disappointing, but only because it was shooting extremely low with the Winchester PDX1 225gr. JHP ammunition I was trying out. Like 6″ Low at 7 yards. The gun is consistent, easy to shoot and reliable but a conventional sight picture will have you plowing the dirt in front of the target at any real range. Fortunately it’s not a tough fix. I’ll shoot some of my regular ammo through it next time and see what kind of POI that produces.

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It was also the first time shooting the Taurus Model 608 .357 Magnum. This N-Frame 8-shooter has a 6″ compensated barrel. It’s a pussycat with Remington 158gr. SJHPs, and equally nice with my hand-loads using a 158gr TMJ-FP over 7.7gr. of Unique.  Recoil is less noticeable than the muzzle-blast, and a hundred rounds downrange didn’t leave my hand feeling even slightly abused.

I fired the three-shot group about standing unsupported/single action at 25 yards. I usually shoot a five-shot group, but after three I had no idea where I was hitting so I reeled the target in to look… except I didn’t. The trolley was stuck. They had to call a cease-fire to free it, and that was the end of shooting at 25 yards. Still, the 3 shots were sufficient to show there’s nothing wrong with the gun’s accuracy.  Yes, I know it’s not a S&W, but there’s not much to ask of this gun; it’s nicely finished, it has a nice action and trigger, it’s accurate and pleasant to shoot. I like it quite a bit.

Here’s an unpleasant surprise- the last cylinder of empties was sticky, and when I got them ejected I found this-

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Yeah, that was factory Remington ammunition. Not cool.

Lastly we come to the Fitz Special.  I fired this using two loads, a 158gr. TMJ-FP and a 173gr. LSWC over 4.0gr. of Unique. The Fitz is meant to be a close-range proposition but I started out at 7 yards and the results were alright-

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7 yards, modified Weaver stance, 10 rounds

Shooting a bit low, but not so bad that it isn’t easily compensated for.  I put rounds on a few targets and then decided to go old-school and shoot the gun as it was meant to be used. I ran a silhouette out to 3 yards and thrust the gun out one-handed and blazed away.  The result was quite satisfactory-

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5 rounds to 158gr. TMJFP

Feeling emboldened by my success I loaded up with the 173gr. LSWCs and had another go-

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5 rds. 173gr LSWC.  The bullet-hole below the grip is from the previous group.

I am really, really liking the Fitz! You need to mind that unprotected trigger, but I’d happily carry this gun.

Altogether it was a very satisfactory afternoon out.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 7 March 2018

It Fitz Me Just Fine

In the mid 1920s J.Henry Fitzgerald worked at the Colt factory. He modified a 4″ Police Positive for use as a concealment revolver and a legend was born. Several actually- the Detective Special was born out of his work, and the appearance of the S&W Chief’s Special was probably not a coincidence

What John Henry did was to cut the barrel to 2″ and remount the front sight, round the corners of the butt, bob the hammer spur and cut away the front of the trigger guard to ease access to the trigger while wearing heavy gloves.  In the years before World War 2 he applied this treatment to a pair of New Service .45s and he modified a number of guns for Colt’s customers.  These were popular guns with law enforcement officers and soldiers, and became quite well known to gun enthusiasts.

Since WW2 both Colt and S&W revolvers have been modified by other gunsmiths, and now any revolver with the trigger-guard cut away is called a ‘Fitz.’  The original guns are far outside my price range of course, but as my amateur gunsmithing progressed I thought it would be cool to do a Fitz.  I just could’t see doing this treatment on anything but a Colt, so for the last year or so I’ve had my eye out for a gun that possessed the right combination of mechanical function, trashed cosmetics and price, and I finally found it-

First

This is a Colt Army Special .38 made in 1924, and chambered in .38 Special. It had about 50% blue, a missing ejector finial, some light pitting and freckling. The front sight was damaged as well. When I first saw the gun there was dirt in the cylinder and bore. I mean actual dirt, like you would grow a plant in. Still, it locks up tight, there’s no end-play and the trigger was decent, so it seemed to fit the bill.

The first order of business was a thorough cleaning, then it was off with the side-plate to have a look. Um… Ew. More actual dirt and decades of accumulated crud.

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Not at all a pretty picture

All right, everybody out! I detail stripped the frame and cleaned the heck out of it. Not surprisingly this improved the trigger quite a lot. While things were apart I took the time to clean up and bob the hammer.

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Well, that’s better

I also cut the barrel at 1-3/4″. refaced and re-crowned it. I rounded the corners of the handle, mounted the grips and rounded everything nicely- the grip actually fits my hand better than the stock one did. It’s interesting to me because the D-Frame grips don’t fit me ideally without a T-grip adapter, but this somewhat larger frame works just fine.

I had studied the way the trigger-guard should be cut and frame modified, but making myself take the plunge and actually do it was harder than expected. I finally too a deep breath and applied the bandsaw, then ground the leading edge under the trigger and contoured the frame under the crane.

I used a cut-off wheel to make a slot in the top of the barrel, then mounted and silver soldered the original front sight in place. It was far too tall of course, so I shortened it by cutting a ramp at the back, as Fitz himself often did to adjust the POI on these guns. I carefully ground the cylinder to remove the worst of the corrosion and polished the barrel and sight a bit, then applied Van’s Instant Blue.  After that was done I touched up the bluing here and there, particularly on the frame of the gun. At that point the gun was basically finished.

I’m really happy with the way it has come out. I loaded up some Fitz-appropriate loads for it- 173gr. LSWCs- that I’ll try out at the range over the next couple of days. If I load this for defensive use I’ll use the Buffalo Bore  158gr. LSWCHPs formulated for short barrels. This gun is actually quite stout; I doubt it would have any difficulty handling +P loads, but I don’t really see any need to go there.

I’m a little mixed about using this gun as a carry piece. I know these were designed for that purpose, and a fair number of people did use them for exactly that for many years. I have a bit of trouble wrapping my head around the missing trigger-guard. but extending the trigger-finger along the side of the frame it does allow excellent access to the trigger. The real concern is holstering the gun- this needs to be done carefully so as not to catch the trigger. I suspect I can get used to it.

Even though I am fully aware that I finished this gun yesterday just holding it feels like a connection to a bygone era, to history. That of course is why we bother with old and old-fashioned guns- that sense of connection and tradition. I can easily picture slipping this into an overcoat pocket- and I may well do exactly that.

Now where can I get me a nice fedora…?

Michael Tinker Peacre,  4 March 2018