Handgun Stopping Power- What Really Matters?

An expanded Hollow-point bullet next to an unfired bullet of the same type. Effective? maybe, maybe not.

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.

Very pretty bullets recovered from gel. In real life? Maybe not so pretty or uniform.

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.

Putting the bullets where you need them in a hurry will work better than just having the latest, greatest bullet… but make no mistake; putting the latest, greatest bullets where you need them in a hurry will work even better.

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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Concealed Carry Pistols- Some Things to Consider

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.

The Sig P238 Legion .380. High-quality, reliable, reasonably effective caliber, excellent accuracy. Good choice for a CCP? For some, certainly. For others? Not so much. Probably not the best choice in bear country…

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.

Detonics Mk.1 Combat Master .45, one of my absolute favorite CCPs… and it’s not a gun I would recommend to most people.

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.

*Affordability

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.

The HiPoint C9 9mm. Heavy, bulky, ugly, cheap… but they work, and for $70-$100 used for some people it might be the only choice.

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.

Operation

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.

The used market can hold many bargains… and not a few disasters. Know what you want and what you are looking at! This 1970’s-vintage Taurus Falcon .38 was a good one… and a bargain at $150.

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.

Capacity

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.

Caliber

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.

Is a .22 better than nothing? Yes… but it’s far more likely to fail to stop an attacker than larger calibers, regardless of the number of hits.

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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How Obsolete Are They? More Results

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.

Today‘s test guns- S&W, Colt and , uh… Belgian.

.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.

S&W Model 1903 Hand Ejector (top) and a Colt Detective Special (bottom)

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.

At 11.3 oz., this tiny gun is quite a handful in .38 caliber. Recoiil tends to lick the muzzle up about .45 degrees, causing my finger to slip right off the trigger. I have to significantly shit my grip to recover between shots.

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.

125gr. dry-lubed heel-base LRN, 10gr. Triple-7 (black powder substitute,) CCI500 primer

544 fps. 82 ft/lbs SD: 19

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.

.38 S&W

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.

A pair of S&Ws for this test- a 4th Model .38 Safety Hammerless on the left, and a .38 Double-Action (2nd Model) on the right.

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.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 19 January 2020

Slow Isn't Fast…

…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.’

It’s axiomatic that the gun you have is better than the gun you left at home… but no gun is going to help if you can’t do your part.

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.

Whatever you carry, however you train, it all starts with accuracy.

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.

Shooting Drills

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.

7-3-2-1

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.

My first attempt, and I did it wrong. I was going for speed, and my left-handed shots were all over the place. Avoid the temptation to just ‘dump’ the cylinder. Takes your time, get it right.

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.

Results of my last 3-2-1 drill. Again, I did this wrong by pushing for speed; I have to wonder if I’d just slowed down a bit I might have gotten them all where they belong.

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.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 17 January, 2020

Shooting Antique Firearms: Recoil is The Enemy

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.

C96 Mauser ‘broomhandle,’ a WW1 Civilian Model. Chambered in 7.63 Mauser… but it will chamber 7.62 Tokarev… which will break this gun in short order.

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.

H&R .38 Safety Hammerless- beautifully refinished with lovely mother-of-pearl grips… but it was still a cheap gun, with specifications and tolerances that reflect that.

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…

Webley Mk.1 .445 cut for .45 ACP. Excellent revolver, but if you shoot factory .45 ACP in it it won’t be excellent for long.

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.

L.C.Smith damascus double- the barrel material isn’t the issue, it’s the condition of the bores that matters. In it’s day this was very nearly a top-of-the-line shotgun… but a steady diet of high-powered modern loads will put it off-face, necessitating expensive repairs, or worse, consigning it to wall-hanger status.

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.

Two options in .450 Adams- on the left a 210gr. bullet ( instead of the more typical 225gr. bullet) seated deep over a slightly reduced charge of BP. On the right is a 138 gr. round ball, seated deep. Even though the powder charge is significantly larger that the round on the left, the light projectile causes dramatically less recoil, and consequently less wear on the gun.

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.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 20 January 2019

How Obsolete Are They? Chronograph Results

Last autumn I said that I would be testing several obsolete calibers with both factory and hand-loaded ammunition. This afternoon I went to Renton Fish & Game to start the process. Buckle up, this is a long one!

The test guns, from top to bottom: Webley Model 1883 RIC in .450 Adams, Colt Police Positive Special in .32-20, Iver Johnson .32 Safety Hammerless (1st Model) in .32 S&W, Smith & Wesson .38 Safety Hammerless (4th Model) in .38 S&W, and a Harrington & Richardson .38 Hammerless (2nd Model) in .38 S&W

This being the first trip the results are quite incomplete; I did not have original factory-style bullets to do black powder loads for .32 & .38 S&W for example, or suitable bullets to do proper handloads for .32 S&W, and will have to come back to those.

I’d like to thank Greg Ellifritz for providing much of the antique and commercial ammunition used in this test.

.38 S&W

I started out with .38 S&W. Introduced in 1877 for S&W’s compact top-break single-action revolver, this used a case very similar to .38 Colt Short. Instead of using the Colt’s heel-base .375 bullet, however, it used a .360-caliber bullet that fit inside the case. Initially this was loaded with round-nose lead bullets weighing 145-147 gr. over a charge of 12 grains of black powder. The British loaded this case with a 200gr. bullet for military use, and this works well enough in robust Webley and Enfield top-break revolvers, or in solid-frame revolvers, but it is too stout for American-made top-breaks designed for concealment.

Initially the cartridge was used primarily in concealable revolvers, but a number of service-sized revolvers were produced by or for the British.

.38 S&W is still commercially produced, almost entirely using round-nosed lead bullets at modest velocities to render them safe to shoot even in frail antiques. Buffalo Bore does make defensive loads, and Fiocchi still produces British military loads, but these are very much the exception, and their use should be limited to stronger, service-type revolvers.

I had a box of modern 145gr. round-nose lead Winchester factory loads, and two different hand-loads using a .357 125gr. truncated-cone lead bullet and a .361 150gr. semi-wadcutter. The test guns were my 1-5/8″ barreled S&W and my 3-1/4″ barreled H&R. I fired five rounds each of all three loads through both guns; the results are an average of those loads.

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

This modern factory ammunition is very under-powered, probably to make it safe to shoot in even the poorest-quality antique handguns.

125gr. TCL, 2.7gr. of Unique with a CCI 500 small pistol primer

S&W 1-5/8″ barrel: 621 fps. 107 ft./lbs SD: 21

H&R 3-1/4″ barrel: 566 fps. 89 ft./lbs SD: 11

This is a deliberately light load meant to be ‘top-break friendly,’ in the interest of being kind to antique guns of this type.

150gr. LSWC, 2.7gr. of Unique with a CCI 500 small pistol primer

S&W 1-5/8″ barrel: 672 fps. 150 ft./lbs SD: 14

I only had five of these with me, so I decided to shoot them out of the shorter gun as these are the loads I use when I carry this as a pocket-gun.

It’s interesting that the much shorter barrel on the S&W consistently produced significantly higher velocities than the longer barrel on the H&R; I can only presume that the tolerances on the S&W are significantly tighter.

.32 S&W

This cartridge was introduced as a center-fire replacement for .32 Rimfire in 1878 by the union Metallic Cartridge Company, and was widely used in small, concealable pistols. Typically such guns had barrels of 2-3″ in length, though longer-barreled examples were made.

Original loads used an 88gr. lead round-nose bullet over 9 grains of black powder (measured by volume, as was customary for black powder.) This supposedly yielded around 700 fps., but we do not know the length of barrel used to arrive at this figure. In the early 20th Century the cartridge was typically loaded with black powder long after the adoption of smokeless, but since World War 2 it has been loaded exclusively with smokeless. The round remained popular for purse and pocket guns long after most manufacturers had ceased to produce firearms chambered for it, and is still commercially available.

This cartridge was used in several notable assassinations in the early 20th century, including among the victims President William McKinley, who was shot twice in the abdomen and later succumbed to infection.

The cartridge has never been considered powerful enough for police service, but many a lawman might have kept one tucked away on their person as a last-ditch backup.

Two boxes of Remington factory loads- one modern and one from prior to WW2!

I had two different boxes of ammo for this caliber, both Remington and both loaded with 88gr. RNL bullets. The Iver Johnson test gun has the standard 3-1/4″ barrel, and like the .38s it’s double-action only.

Remington Kleanbore 88gr. LRN

615 fps. 74 ft./lbs SD: 14

Remington Target 88gr. LRN (modern)

611 fps. 73 ft./lbs SD: 17

Not a nickel’s worth of difference between these two loads.

.32-20 (.32 Winchester Center Fire)

Introduced in 1882 as a small game cartridge for Winchester rifles, it was shortly thereafter adopted as a revolver cartridge, and was briefly popular as a police service cartridge. Originally loaded with a 100grain flat-point lead bullet over 20 grains of black powder, it made the transition to smokeless powders at the end of the 19th. century. Many iconic revolvers, such as the Single Action Army and Police Positive Special from Colt, and the S&W Hand-Ejector, were produced and remained popular until World War 2. It’s popularity waned in the post-war years, and few if any commercial rifles and no commercial revolvers are produced for it today, though ammunition is still available.

While intended as a small game cartridge many a deer has been taken with it since its inception. These days commercial ammunition is typically loaded to modest levels of power in deference to the antique firearms it was made for.

The test gun is an early Colt Police Positive Special with a 4″ barrel.

I had four loads to test in this caliber, two antique loads of unknown origin, a smokeless handload and a black powder handload, both using a 96gr. LRNFP from Aardvark bullets.

100gr. copper-washed LRNFP (unknown if this is commercial or handloaded.)

779 fps. 135 ft./lbs SD: 23

115gr. LRNFP (unknown if this is commercial or handloaded.)

761 fps. 149 ft./lbs SD: 13

96gr. LRNFP, 3.7gr. of Unique with a CCI500 small pistol primer

744 fps. 118 ft./lbs SD: 35

This load is rather light, as you can see. I usually load this bullet over 4.0 gr. of Unique; I’ll be testing that load in the future.

96gr. LRNFP, 12.7gr. Hodgden Triple 7 FFFg (black powder substitute) with a CCI500 small pistol primer

837 fps. 149 ft./lbs SD: 12

This powder charge is measured by weight, not volume (as was more typical with Black powder.) Triple-7 yields slightly higher velocity than black powder, but cannot be compressed as much. On the balance this load is probably a fair approximation of the original load for this cartridge.

.450 Adams

This cartridge was the first centerfire cartridge adopted by the British military for their Beaumont-Adams cartridge-conversion revolvers, but it’s use spread rapidly to the Webley RIC revolver, the Webley Bulldog and to countless copies of the Bulldog made in Belgium. While the British military replaced it in service in 1880, it remained a widely used revolver cartridge into the early 20th century. In fact it was in use as a ‘second standard’ cartridge for the British until at least the end of WW1, as it could be fired in .476 and .455 revolvers.

It has been known as .450 Adams, .450 Boxer, .450 Corto, .450 Colt, .45 Webley and maybe even a couple others I have missed. It is out of commercial production, though Fiocchi occasionally does a small run of .450 Corto.

Webley RIC revolver with a 2-1/2″ barrel used as the test gun.

It’s original loading was with a 225gr. RNL bullet over 13gr. of black powder, yielding a muzzle velocity of 725-750fps. from the long-barreled Adams revolvers.

I am using Hodgden Triple-7 FFFg black powder substitute in my loads. This typically generates slightly higher velocities than black powder, but modern cartridges hold rather less powder than the original ‘balloon-head’ cases used for this cartridge, so I think it makes for a fair approximation. I was unable to obtain 225gr. bullets in time for this test, but I will be reproducing the original load and testing it at a later date. I had two loads available for this test.

138gr. .451 lead ball, 10gr. of Triple-7 FFFg and a CCI550 large pistol primer

628 fps. 121 ft./lbs SD: 16

This was made as an ‘antique-friendly’ light target load. It proved accurate at 7 yards, and ought to be gently on old guns.

210gr. copper-washed LSWC, 7.5gr. of Triple-7 FFFg and a CCI 550 large pistol primer

551 fps. 142 ft./lbs SD: 9

In the near future I will be developing more smokeless loads for this cartridge.

So what does it all mean?

This test is meant primarily as a baseline for comparison purposes in future tests. Eventually as finances allow I’ll be testing these rounds in an equivalent of FBI-standard ballistic gel tests, both to see what they were capable of, and to see what they can be safely made to do now.

I’ll also be testing .32 S&W Long, but I wasn’t prepared for that today. It’s going to be a bit catch-as-can as I work this in around my ‘day job’ and finances, but I’ll keep you updated as I go along.

As usual, all loading data contained in this post is used at your own risk. Load data should be approached cautiously, especially when it heralds from a dubious source such as the internet!

Michael Tinker Pearce, 8 January 2020

Range Report for 3 January, 2020: Trials and Errors

Another early evening trip to Champion Arms shooting range in Kent, WA. A bit of test shooting, some practice and drills. A good time overall, but not without issues…

Issue number one, I used the bullseye targets they print on-site, and I don’t know if they’ve changed the paper they’re using, but this time they were tearable. No, that’s not a typo; the targets had a marked tendency to tear when the bullets hit them. A pretty minor quibble; if the problem persists I’ll mention it to them.

Southern Comfort, my Frankengun .38 Sort Colt cartridge conversion, had an issue with punching holes in the primers. I replaced the firing pin and that fixed that. So of course now there’s an issue with the hand spring; the gun has decided to only rotate the cylinder if I point the muzzle up. Bugger. The good news it it has turned out to be surprisingly accurate!

Yes, there really are five bullet holes there, but you have to look very, very close. Target was shot at seven yards. You can see what I mean about the target tearing.

Next up was the Colt Detective Special .32. I did some drills at seven yards and noticed a couple of keyholed hits. Not a good thing… and it got worse. I ran the target out a bit further and accuracy was out the window, and practically every bullet that didn’t keyhole exhibited yawing. These bullets don’t normally do this, but the most recent box has shown this tendency. I’ve contacted the manufacturer.

Drilling with the Detective Special. This is what I call the 7-3-2 drill. At seven yards fire two rounds using a two-hand grip, switch to strong-hand and fire two more, then switch the gun to the left hand and fire the last two shots. Note that several of the bullets have keyholed.
Adding a bit more range and things quickly go to hell. Accuracy is right out the window and more bullets are keyholing than not. Very disappointing!

The Old Dog- a Model 1902 .38 Special- was in fine form, and liking the mid-range 125gr. loads.

More of the 7-3-2 drill. I really like this old gun. I should mention that the point of the 7-3-2 drill isn’t speed- though that comes eventually- but to insure you are competent in all three modes. Don’t shoot this drill any faster than you can get hits; build the muscle memory right!

I tried something different this evening too- the Panic Shot drill. It’s simple- target at three yards, gun in a single-hand grip pointed downward. Point the gun (without raising it to eye level) and get a shot off as fast as you can, alternating strong and weak hand. If you have a partner have them signal you when to fire. It can be very revealing.

Yeah… need some work on this one!

Aside from the minor issue with Southern Comfort’s hand-spring and the keyholing bullets it was an enjoyable and productive session. I’ll get the hand-spring fixed, dead easy really, and get some different .32 bullets.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 3 January 2020

Oh, and Happy New Year!