9mm vs. .45- Who Cares?

Kahr E9 9mm and Detonics Combat Master Mk.1 .45ACP

This debate has been going on for at least as long as I have been aware of guns, and it’s likely to continue long after guns have been replaced by phasers or whatever. At which point it will be just as stupid and pointless as it is today.

Bullet design has come a long way in the last 30-40 years. Hollow-points have become hugely more reliable in terms of expansion and penetration, and 9mm has benefitted from this a great deal. Perhaps this argument was more relevant in the 1980’s when hollow-point expansion was much more hit-and-miss? You might think so… but you’d be wrong.

In the 1980’s Evan Marshall took the radical approach of looking at actual, documented real-life shootings to determine what worked. This study was flawed by focussing on one-shot stops, but it was the first public scientific study of real-world shootings. (I call this approach flawed because, as one Marine quipped during the recent war in Iraq, “Who shoots them once?”) When comparing 9mm ball and .45 ACP ball he was rather shocked to discover that there was no significant difference in their ability to produce one-shot stops- and neither was all that good at it. This is not anecdotal evidence, war stories or what have you- this was documented in actual shootings.

The Miami shootout of 1986 prompted the FBI to adopt first 10mm, then .40 S&W. But it also launched a thirty-year comprehensive study of handgun stopping power, which reached the conclusion that handgun stopping power sucks. What matters is breaking things the suspect cannot operate without. This means that the bullet has to penetrate deeply enough to reach those things, and you have to be accurate enough to hit them. Everything else is icing on the cake. Well… almost everything else.

More recently Greg Ellifritz¬† ( https://www.activeresponsetraining.net/ ) did a study of real-world shootings, and it does seem to indicate that caliber has some importance, but the difference isn’t heavy & slow vs. small & fast. All calibers had instances where they simply failed to stop an attacker with any number of hits, but common calibers below 9mm/.38 had this occur significantly more often; far, far beyond the statistical margin of error. That’s .32, .25 and .22. 327 Magnum and 7.62 Tokarev may buck this trend, but it seems there was insufficient data to determine this.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, for calibers .380 and above, there was no statistically significant difference in stopping among the calibers surveyed- which included all major commercially available calibers chambered in defensive firearms.

This is not to say that no one should carry a .40 S&W, .45 or what have you- just that you shouldn’t do it with any expectation that the caliber will give you a margin for error. No matter what you are shooting you need to be able to place your shots where they will do the most good- and need to fire a bullet that will penetrate deeply enough to break the things it needs to- those being the heart, spine, aorta and brain.

So everyone should carry a .380? Not at all. On average there is little difference between these rounds, but conditions differ. Can you reasonably expect your assailant to be wearing heavy winter clothing? Do you need the ability to deal with dangerous animals? In these cases a more powerful round with better penetration may be advisable. In a very hot climate you might need to carry a smaller handgun- but this is balanced to a degree by the fact that people wear less (and thinner) clothing.

So caliber is less important than previously thought, but that’s no reason not to ‘stack the deck’ by buying high-quality, modern defensive ammo. In this day and age information about bullet’s terminal performance abounds; Youtube can provide FBI-style test information about all of the common bullets used in modern defensive ammunition. Pick a good one in the caliber of a gun that you like, shoot well and, most importantly, will actually carry and likely you’ll be just fine.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 30 June 2019

Swaging Bullets

It’s no secret that I shoot some odd-ball stuff; cartridge conversions, antiques etc. These, naturally, come in some odd calibers- .380 Revolver, .32 Colt Long, .44 Colt, .38 S&W etc. None of these take ‘normal’ bullets; the first three I listed use Heel-Base bullets like a .22, and the third uses a .361 diameter bullet rather than the ubiquitous .357-.358 bullets used in .38 Special and .357 Magnum.

Heel-base bullets are not common or inexpensive when you do find them; they are a specialty item with a very tiny niche in the market so they tend to command a premium. The solution for most people is casting their own bullets, but that is a can of worms I just don’t want to open. One thing I have as a result of my day-job is a lot of scrap steel- it occurred to me that I could swage my own from my go-to .45 bullet, Aaadvark Enterprises 200gr. LRNFP bullet. I already used these in .45 Colt and .45 ACP, so why not?

I got a small chunk of steel, bored a hole in it, then reamed it to .429″, then ran a .451″ reamer partway down to make a swaging die. I turned a steel rod down to .450″ for a punch, dropped a bullet in, set it on the anvil and hammered the punch in. Then I flipped the die and used a 1/4″ punch to drive the bullet and punch out and- voila! – I had a heel-base bullet.

.44 Colt with a swaged bullet. This on has the lubrication band outside of thje cartridge, which is problematic as it will collect dust and can even melt in extreme temperatures.

Loaded into .44 Colt cartridges this worked pretty well. I went through several iterations of this basic set-up, and eventually came up with a bullet that worked very well in both .44 Colt and my own .44-55 Walker cartridge.

My eventual bullet design replaced the lubricating ring with a lubricated felt patch loaded into the cartridge behind the bullet, which eliminated the issues of dust and melting lube.

It’s useful to have a drill press and metal lathe to make a simple swaging set-up like the one above, but in fact it could be made with a hand-drill, Dremel Tool and vice.

Over time it occurred to me that heel-base bullets were not the only use for swaging. My Webley Royal Irish Constabulary revolver in .450 Adams prefers hollow-base bullets when using smokeless loads, and it was relatively simple to construct a punch and die to create them.

More recently bullets for .38 S&W have been an issue; this caliber uses a .361 caliber bullet rather than the ubiquitous .357 caliber bullets of modern .38s. The simple fix is to use hollow-base wadcutters, and this actually works quite well. But I have to order these on the internet, and shipping boxes of lead gets expensive in a hurry. By happy chance for a time Pinto’s had a stock of .361 150gr. LSWCs from an estate purchase, but I ran through those in fairly short order. Fortunately I discovered that Aardvark Enterprises .357 158gr. LRNFP Cowboy bullets were soft enough to bump up a few thousandths to .361, and work quite well. I experimented with some .355 124gr. RNL made for 9mm, but the slightly smaller diameter combined with a harder alloy meant that they would not bump up and properly engage the rifling, resulting in low-powered shots that tended to key-hole. The solution was at hand, fortunately. I invested $8 in a .361″ reamer and with a bit of lathe-work I was in business!

I’m not sure what the name is for this bullet shape… but they are .361 caliber and make lovely, clean holes in paper targets.
This is the swaging set-up for turning 124gr. .355 RNL into .361 caliber bullets. In front is the swaging die, with the punch that creates the bullet profile. In the middle of the block behind it is a punch for driving the bullet out of the die to remove the profiling punch, and a 1/4″ brass rod for pushing the swaged bullet out of the die.

It’s all a bit labor-intensive, but it’s not hard. In fact it’s sort of meditative to listen to the radio and swage out a supply of bullets one-by-one.

This sparked an idea- it was pretty easy to up-size .355- to .361… How far could I take that? I had some .240gr. .429 bullets for my .44 magnum, but I’m not shooting that much at the moment. Yep, they swage to .451 just fine. What about those 210gr. copper-washed .41 caliber bullets I bought by accident? Yep- 210-gr .451 bullets, perfect for .450 Adams loads.

Former .41 caliber bullets, now .451!

This is a pretty good deal- I often come across ‘clearance’ bullets that aren’t a caliber I shoot, but this opens the door to repurposing some of those inexpensive bullets.

Another new (to me) swaging innovation appeared in Pinto’s clearance bins- a Herters bullet-swaging die for the paltry sun of $5.

Herter’s swaging die.

This handy device screws right into my RCBS reloading press and produces semi-wadcutters. I had to make something to replace the shell-holder to use it, but that was not difficult. Put a bullet on the plate, center it and run it up into the die. Tap the top with soft hammer and a lovely, fresh-minted SWC pops out. Brilliant!

Home-made base-plate for use with the Herter’s die.
200gr LSWCs made from 200gr. LRNFP (right) punch cleaner holes in paper- useful for target shooting etc.
Swaged 240gr. LSWCs punch nice, clean holes in the target!

Since making that base I’ve discovered that what I need is a ram that actually enters the die with the bullet, so I’ll be making one of those shortly. I’ll also be making swaging dies for heel-base .32 Colt Long bullets, and I’ve recently completed a set for .380 Revolver; essentially a .38 S&W with a heel-base .375 caliber bullet. (In the 20th Century British .380 Revolver cartridges reverted to using .361″ inside-lubed bullets.)

If, like me, you insist on shooting oddball, obsolete cartridges, swaging could be a viable alternative to casting your own. Worth looking into- there’s significantly less investment than getting into casting, and less concern about toxic fumes, molten metal etc.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 29 June 2019

Guns Aren’t Dangerous- Ignorance and Criminal Intent are Dangerous

A hammer is a tool. An ax is a tool. An electric hand-drill is a tool. A gun is a tool. All of these objects are harmless. They are incapable of causing harm without direct human intervention. Left to their own devices they just sit there, and maybe rust.

OK, this is genuinely scary.

A hammer, an ax, or a gun are frightening only in the hands of a criminal bent on mayhem. The electric hand-drill in the hands of a criminal intent on mayhem is fucking terrifying. The common element of all of these things is that they are rendered dangerous by human action. Whether that action is due to malevolence or ignorance is immaterial- it is human action that makes the difference. None of these objects are inherently harmful or dangerous.

‘But guns are designed to kill!” I hear you cry. It’s mostly true, but again irrelevant. Someone who has had their head bashed in with a hammer is not magically ‘less dead’ because of the tool used… and the tool is not responsible for how it’s used.

It’s true that repeating firearms offer a greater potential to produce more casualties more quickly than the other tools mentioned. This is why their ownership is restricted to citizens over a certain age, and without a significant criminal history. It’s why we require a background check for persons to own one, and why certain types of military arms are under tight restrictions or are banned from private ownership. BUT a firearm is just a tool. It is not evil, it is not malevolent. It is frightening only to the ignorant. It creates havoc only by virtue of direct human intervention. Perhaps the practical solution to gun violence is to work on the humans, not the guns.

If you find firearms frightening educate yourself. Take a gun safety class. Understanding relieves fear. Even if you continue to dislike guns you will at least be informed enough to make sensible decisions about them. If you study actual, honest to God crime statistics and are informed about the operation and safe use of firearms you will at least be able look at proposed laws and regulations with an informed eye, so you are better able to judge their potential effectiveness.

Ignorance creates fear. Fear creates bad decisions and bad laws. Break the cycle.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 27 June 2019

The Webley Mk.1- Going Strong 130 Years Later.

The Webley company has roots extending into the 18th Century, and changed names a few times over the years. Initially a maker of bespoke firearms of a variety of sorts, they dipped their toes into the emerging revolver market in 1853 with the percussion ‘longspur’ revolver.

This was a very high-quality, hand-made weapon. Webley had hoped for an Army contract, but in the end they could not compete with Adams mass-produced pistols, which were less expensive and could more easily be produced in the numbers required.

In the 1860s they produced a solid-frame, double-action revolver, and in 1868 a variant of this was purchased by the British government for the Royal Irish Constabulary, causing the model to be named the RIC. A few years later they made a more compact version of the RIC called the Bulldog, and these became one of the most widely copied handguns of the 19th C., with versions being made in Belgium, the USA and Spain.

In the early 1880s the British army was dissatisfied with their Enfield revolvers, and issued a specification for a new gun. Webley’s response was the Mk.1, a large-caliber top-break with an auto-ejector similar to those used by S&W. This robust, large-caliber weapon was adopted by the army in 1887, and the first lot of 2000 guns was delivered within eight months. In subsequent years they made improvements to the design, which culminated in the Mk.6, which was produced in large numbers for WW1.

The Webley Mk.1. Chambered in .455, it fired a 265gr. bullet at approximately 700-750 fps.

Earlier weapons, like the Mk.1, were re-issued to the Royal Navy at the outset of WW1, where some examples remained in use until the end of WW2.

After WW2 a large number of these guns were sold as surplus and found their way to the United States. .455 was not a common cartridge in America, and it was thought these guns would sell better in .45 ACP. To accomplish this the cylinders were cut back to use spring-steel clips to hold, and allow the extraction of, the rimless cartridge, similarly to earlier Colt and S&W New Service revolvers.

This proved problematic; .455 developed chamber pressures from 13,400-15,000 CUP; .45 ACP factory loadings run from 19,000-21,000 CUP. Effectively standard .45 ACP ammunition was the equivalent of a ‘proof-load’ for the Webley. In rare instances this actually caused the cylinder to fail, but more commonly it produced what came to be known as ‘Wobbly Webley’ syndrome, where the gun loosened up enough to render it unreliable. Another common malady of shooting surplus ‘GI’ jacketed ammo was excessive wear of the rifling. These guns were made for lead bullets, where the relatively soft steel of the barrel was not an issue. But the copper-cased surplus and commercial loads wiped away the rifling is fairly short order.

The use of copper-jacketed, stock .45 ACP ammo cause these guns to develop an undeserved reputation for being weak, unreliable and inaccurate. A steady diet of +P+ ammunition might produce similar results in many perfectly good modern firearms. Sadly most imported Webleys were damaged to one degree or another by shooting factory .45 ACP ammunition.

Last month I was contacted by a fellow and offered a Webley Mk.1. It was in reasonable condition and mechanically sound, and like most such guns had the cylinder cut for .45 ACP. We came to an arrangement and a couple of weeks ago the Webley arrived. It came with a single 6-round clip, so I immediately ordered 16 more. These are made by Ranch Products, and are robust, high quality and quite affordable.

An excellent clip for .45 ACP revolvers. I got 16 clips for about $1 each including shipping.

The first thing you notice about the Mk.1 is that it is big. It makes a Colt Single-Action Army look positively svelte. I checked the revolver thoroughly, and was impressed with the fit, and the wonderfully smooth and stage-free double-action trigger. It’s not what you’d call a ‘light’ trigger, but it is so buttery-smooth it doesn’t really interfere with accuracy. The bore and chambers are in excellent condition. The gun’s original finish has aged into a mottled gray with bits of brown. there is little evidence of pitting, and most of that is on the grip-frame. The original horn grips are missing a chunk at the bottom of the left-side grip panel, which is somewhat uncomfortable in my hand. The serial number appears on the frame, barrel and cylinder, and indicates that this is an early gun, likely manufactured in 1888.

The Webley Mk.1, as it arrived. Notte the chunk missing from the grip-panel.

I’ve had a number of well-meaning folks tell me that I should only shoot black powder in this gun, but I believe this to be unnecessary for two reasons: One, the British switched to smokeless ammunition for these guns in 1892, four years after this gun was made. Two- among the various proofs is one that indicates this gun was Nitro Proofed at some point. Mind you, it very much needs to be shot with low-pressure, lead-bullet loads, but it will be fine with smokeless rounds within the proper pressure range.

While I don’t think I am going to refinish or otherwise alter this gun, I did need to do something about that grip. I have a chunk of dense, close-grained hardwood of an unknown type, that I bought at a building-supply salvage place. It makes pretty nice grips, and I made a set for the Webley. They look nice and are quite comfortable.

The Webley’s new ‘mystery-wood’ grip

I researched the loads that people were using successfully in these guns and determined that my .45 ACP ‘Match Load’ ought to be fine. I took the gun to Champion Arms indoor shooting range at the first opportunity and tried it out. The load seemed to work well and shot to point-of-aim at seven yards,producing very reasonable double-action groups.

7 yards, double-action, standing/unsupported. Not bad- especially when you consider there are three bullet holes in the X-ring.

The new moon-clips arrived Thursday, and I decided to shoot this gun in Saturday’s Action Shooting International match. I needed a holster and a way to carry extra clips, so Friday was devoted to making those. These came out well and were very useful at the match. Surprisingly concealable for a large man such as myself, too.

My new ‘half-pancake’ holster and moon-clip holder. I’ll discuss the construction of the clip-holder in a future post.

The gun performed flawlessly at the match. I didn’t, but I did alright. Reloads were fast and smooth and accuracy was excellent if I did my part. I’m really quite enamored with this revolver!

This Webley is accurate, easy to shoot and can be reloaded as quickly as a modern revolver. While there are undoubtedly better choices, this gun would be a viable option for self-defense even in the 21st century. There aren’t a lot of 19th C. guns you could say that of!

Michael Tinker Pearce, 11 June 2019

P.S.: I’ll discuss the specifics of using this gun in an action shooting match in a future post, as well as more information about the clip-holder and how I made it.

Iver Johnson .38 Automatic Safety Hammerless

Another old-school Roscoe- this is an Iver Johnson .38 Automatic Safety Hammerless (2nd Model) made in 1897 or so. It is a five-shot double-action only top-break revolver. It is chambered for the .38 S&W cartridge, similar in power to a .380 ACP. Around 1900 the Sears Roebuck catalogue sold these for $6. Not a cheap gun, but not expensive either.

Iver Johnson was trained as a gunsmith in his home-country of Norway and emigrated to the US in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. He worked as a gunsmith and designer, and eventually entered into a partnership in a business that became Iver Johnson Arms and Cycle Works in 1891 and began production of top-break double-action revolvers starting in 1895. These were very popular mid-priced guns, with over seven million made in .32 S&W and .38 S&W calibers. In 1909 Iver Johnson adopted the trade brand name US Revolver Company, in part to use up remaining stocks of parts for their 2nd Model top-breaks when the line was upgraded for smokeless powder in 1909.

Initially the only differences between the Iver Johnson line of revolvers and the U.S. Revolver Company guns was that the hammer version does not have the transfer-bar safety of the regular line and the hammerless version does not have the safety trigger.

It’s interesting to note that while IJ upgraded their top-break guns ‘for smokeless powder,’ the USR guns were all rated for smokeless… even though they used cylinders and barrels from the supposedly ‘black powder’ guns, indicating that the ‘upgrades’ were made for reasons having little direct connection to the sort of propellant used in their cartridges. More on this later.

IJ revolver opened for loading. HKS Model 36 speedloaders work quite well with this gun.

The ‘Automatic’ refers to the auto-ejection feature. The ‘Safety’ refers to the transfer-bar safety and the hammerless part is pretty obvious (and a lie- it has a hammer under the shroud.) It also has a safety-bar on the trigger identical to a Glock Safe-Action trigger. The cylinder free-rotates when not being fired; it’s lock system is similar to the older Webleys- when firing the cylinder is pinned between the hand and a fixed stop mounted on the trigger assembly. The gun is fully locked when the trigger is pulled all the way to the point where it releases the hammer. The design is quite clever; the action-bar that works the hammer is also the transfer bar.

When I got this the hand-spring was broken, and since both the hand and the action-bar that operates the trigger depend on this it was non-functional. I fabricated a replacement and the gun is surprisingly good in several respects.

The first surprise is that the internal parts are heat-treated and tempered, which is often not the case in inexpensive firearms of the period. The second is that while this gun appears to have been fired quite a bit it is tight and the cylinder lock-up is tight and solid with zero play. The last and most pleasant surprise is the trigger- the pull is short, smooth and surprisingly light.

While these guns aren’t up to the standards of fit and finish that Colt and S&W revolvers of the period maintained they are really decent quality.

This is a ‘Black Powder Gun:’ it does not incorporate the changes made in 1909 to accommodate the new smokeless powders- or, to be brutally honest, to allow for the mistakes of stupid hand-loaders. Factory smokeless ammo for these guns was originally, and remains, tailored to not blow up even poor-quality guns, and was designed to be safe in older guns. But handloaders in the early 20th Century, used to black powder, often didn’t do their research when switching to smokeless.

You can’t fit enough black powder into a pistol-cartridge case to blow up a reasonable quality gun. You can fit enough smokeless powder, and people did. By 1909 smokeless powders had pretty thoroughly edged out BP, and Iver Johnson introduced the slightly beefier 3rd Model which was ‘proofed’ for smokeless powders. Of course what this really meant was ‘less likely to be blown up by idiots.’

Regardless, I have always fired smokeless loads in my cartridge-firing antiques. Mild, conservative loads to be sure, but I have never experienced an issue from doing so.

So how does it shoot? Honestly I am not sure… I ran across an old box of .38 S&W that I had loaded with 125gr. LRN and took that to shoot through the IJ. I very shortly remembered why that box was sitting around- they suck. About 3 out of five bullets from this load keyhole at seven yards, no matter what gun I shoot them through. The few bullets that hit properly were reasonably on-center, but the key-holed hits were all over the target. OK, the targets were 5-1/2″ circles and even the bad hits were in the circle, but a 5-1/2″ group at seven yards is no one’s idea of good. I need another trip to the range with some proper loads, then we’ll see what is what.

All in all I am quite pleased with this little gun. I think I am likely to get creative with this one; even in excellent condition they aren’t worth much or particularly collectible, and this one is not in excellent condition. I am likely to strip the nickel off and rust blue it at least… perhaps some fancy grips too.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 4 June 2019