Friday, February 15, 2008

What I Like in Firearms -- I

Recently Elder Son wrote a blog post about being shown a friend's new 1911-type pistol. More specifically, Matt told us what he liked and did NOT like about it. As I read, I thought, what a good article it was. Reality check: Certainly I should think so. He could hardly help having some of my personal firearms preferences rub off on him. Please understand – it's not as if we agree on everything. In fact, we have a few definite disagreements, and we've learned to just chalk it up to reasonable men sometimes drawing different conclusions.

I did a post recently on choosing one's own carry handguns, and why I believe it's unwise to tell another person what he should or should not carry. In this installment, I'll address some of my personal preferences on the use of sidearms. I won't try to talk you into doing it my way, but I'll give my reasons and you can decide. I've had handguns around me since I was 15. I've carried them on my person daily for the past 41 years, except for a few weeks outside the USA. That doesn't make my opinions infallible but it should give me standing HAVE some.

In handguns, I like the basic 1911-type pistol. If need be, I could get along with a Colt Commander from now on. It is a near-ideal combination of ease of operation, size, weight, and manageable power. It is flat, compact, and a proven design. It is a material savings in bulk and weight compared to the full size 1911, but large enough to use easily and to retain excellent reliability.

I'm not particularly fond of the tinier variants. The more the size of the original is reduced, the more problematic becomes function.

I have a Colt Officers ACP lightweight which is tried and true, but I wouldn't trust another one until I personally put 500 rounds through it.

There was a time - - Oh, yeah, there was indeed a time - - when I was one of those who thought I could equip myself into pistol mastery. If an accessory was offered, I kinda felt like I wanted to try it out. I had big hands, so I wanted extra full stocks. I went through big thick stag, hand filling ivory, thumb rest custom wood, and presentation grade, big heavy sterling silver overlaid with gold trim. They all looked good, too. I had extended ambidextrous safeties, and even got an extended slide catch from a M1914 Norwegian .45. I tried two different types of adjustable sights. I ruined two good barrels with my home gunsmithing, hogging out the lower chambers to "better" feed hollow points and SWC bullets. I went through spring loaded recoil spring guide shock absorbers, fiber and neoprene buffers.

After a time, though, I grew tired of all these bells and whistles. Then I fell in with a group of the early practical shooting competitors. I was humbled by their expertise and was mildly astounded to see what superb work they did with what appeared to be rather plain-Jane pistols. By the time I went to Gunsite Academy in early 1980, I had gotten rid of most of the bolt-on “improvements.” It was a rather rapid process, realizing that generations of users had taken the .45 automatic into battle for nearly 80 years in essentially the form first designed by John Browning. One's time and money are far better spent on ammunition and range time, and good, careful practice.

I want my 1911s to have a good trigger and decent sights, with standard thickness and profile stocks. I prefer checked wood or ivory but can manage with Micarta, carbon fiber, or even GI plastic. Stag is attractive but it is impossible to find it with good figure without it being too thick. The same is true of sterling silver. The stocks on my 1911s are held in place with slot head screws. Not as sporty as Torx or hex-heads, but I can manage them without a special tool. I specifically do not want rubber stocks on any auto pistol. They are too “tacky,” and tend to make a cover garment adhere to them. I like rubber slightly more on revolvers.

I do NOT want a “full length guide rod” (FLGR) for the recoil spring. Since I don't care for extra heavy .45 loads, the recoil spring and mainspring are of standard weight. I want only the standard slide latch and magazine catch button. I can live with either standard or slightly extended safety thumb piece, but I don't like an ambidextrous safety. I learned to shoot a .45 with an arched mainspring housing (MSH) and prefer this, though I can manage with a flat one. Since we're talking everyday carry pistols, I want no trigger lighter than about four pounds and 4.5 or even five is just fine, if crisp.

Sights on my carry pistols are fixed, high profile. I used to need to have these installed. Thankfully, Colt and most other makers now install such sights as standard, except for “GI” style and some special pieces. I carried a Colt National Match “Gold Cup” for a few years. Believe me, the adjustable sights are NOT worth the trouble. Unless they are “melted” extensively, they tear up jacket or suit coat linings, and they're easy to knock out of adjustment.

In short, but for non-factory stocks, it is hard to tell my carry pistol from hundreds of others at large gun shows or well stocked dealers. The greatest side benefit to this minimalist trend is the utter simplicity. The nearer to box stock the pistol that I shoot most, the easier it would be to pick up another of the same type and do decent work with it. I can take a Commander, a Government Model, a Gold Cup, or any of several clones by other manufacturers, and they'll all operate and even feel about the same.

Aside from the endemic FLGR, there are three other “modern improvements” without which I can do very well, thank you. The ski jump shaped grip safety tang leaves me utterly cold. A slight polish on the standard tang, and perhaps bobbing off the rear of the hammer spur, or replacement with a rowel type Commander hammer serve quite well. I realize there are some who feel they need the swoopy tang, but I am not one.

I have a deep dislike of forward slide serrations. These may serve a purpose when some sort of optical sight must be installed over the rear of the slide. Otherwise, they are a needless hassle, pulling leather fibers from the inside of a holster and abrading my pants in some modes of carry.

Finally, the magazine well funnel attachment has considerably more drawbacks than benefits. For every IPSC/USPA contestant who MAY trim a tenth of a second off his reload with the well, there are a hundred installed just because someone thinks they look cool, and most likely NEVER have sought any training on how to do a speed load. The wide-open maw of the funnel adds to the pistol's height, and materially increases the width at the bottom. It makes a sharp, hard line beneath a cover garment when the pistol is carried "concealed."

Happily, it's NOT necessary to limit myself to one handgun, and I have a real appreciation of other types. Being an adaptable human being, I could live out the rest of my days relying on a K-frame S&W revolver for a defense gun. I have a real affection for various revolvers, and hope I'll always have some.

This post has grown longer than I intended, and I haven't even started on other types of handguns. I think I'll leave other autoloaders, and revolvers, large and small, for later installments.


lainy said...

I love the information you give on various guns and mechanisms. I'm very interested in taking a shooting class and my question is- what should I know about self defense and the type of handgun I should use? I would rather have a handgun that's not to big. Any suggestion would be appreciated.

J.R.Shirley said...

Good article, Johnny.

James E. Griffin said...

I thought long and hard before commenting on this one. The perfect for-all-occasions concealed carry gun only exists in the mind of God.

I've been carrying for 29 years, and, not all of that every day 24-7. Like others, I've carried and am comfortable with a variety of handguns. And I'll concur that what any individual carries is a deeply personal decision. The real weapon is the Homo Self-styled Sapien.

As the tool has to fit the job at hand, so the the tool has to - within reason - fit the individual. Naturally, we seem to take the point of fitting the tool to an extreme. The trick, as JPG alludes to, is realizing what's really useful, and what's less than necessary.

What works for me may not work for thee. I've trained intensively in various martial arts for 44 years. And, guess what, there's at least as many tweaks to martial arts as there are to a 1911! Some of those need examination too!

My martial arts training affects how I use a handgun in personal defense. My handgun is but one of the tools I carry, and for the past decade or so I've been carrying a 1911a1. But I'm also a practitioner of various forms of Silat, combined with a Kung fu varient known as Kun Tao. So I'll go from open hand to chokes to throws to knives to gun and back again, depending what's the most appropriate necessary force.

In a civilian personal defense situation, I'm extremely comfortable in smell your opponent's breath distance. Which is most definitely NOT where most folks should be!

Call me a heretic, but I once found a full length guide rod useful. I'll keep mine, while acknowledging that others see no reason for one. That's fine. The allen wrench lives in my wallet with my civilan concealed carry card.

For whatever reason, a "ski jump grip safety tang," combined with relief under the trigger guard, and slight palm swells on the stocks helps me shoot a similar point of impact with either hand. Those modifications seem most for my off hand, go figure.

I'm a fan of a well fit match barrel. But fit for concealed carry, not shooting paper targets. What'll make me smile is, with the gun unloaded, rack the slide so the barrel's in battery, and press down with your thumb on the barrel hood. Does the barrel move? A little yes is ok, but with no movement, if I press long enough I might just convince myself that there's a hint of give, that makes me smile. Check the lower barrel lugs for contact with the slide stop, use lay-out fluid, should have appropriate contact without "barrel bump."
A proper fit match bushing, fitted finger tight.

With the barrel fitted this way, a little crud won't disable the gun, and the slide-frame fit can have a surprising amount of play, and maintain excellent accuracy. A 1911 set up this way will function, wet or dry, in temperature extremes from so hot you can't hold it, to so cold the steel rips the frozen flesh from your hand. For as long as you have ammo and mags.

Understand, however, proper lubrication saves wear and tear. Shooting dry and dirty is for save-your-life emergencies.

For civilian carry, I concur with JPG on triggers - crisp, please - sights, and mag wells.

I once drew a long barreled revolver from a shoulder holster, lo many years ago, with sharp-cornered adjustable rear sights. Ripped the pocket cover right off my shirt, intact pocket cover hanging from one corner of my rear sights. Sort of ruined the intimidation effect. De-horned that sight THAT night.

Relieving the sharp corners on the receiver's mag well is all the mag well work I want.

I do have a last major peeve. Expensive custom guns that only function reliably with the magazines the gunsmith/factory provides for THAT gun. When you want another magazine, you have to send the whole works - gun and all magazines - for back for custom fitting.

phlegmfatale said...

This is all great to consider as I make my choice of my first carry gun. Thanks for this post!

James E. Griffin said...

I'm looking forward to JPG's comments with respect to revolvers and other autoloaders. I've had little experience with the alloy revolvers of the past 15 years or so, and reliability and/or stopping power issues crop up, as JPG stated, with extremely small autoloaders.

Where I am, we're an open carry state, and not so strict as Texas on the concealment angle. As hot and humid as it gets in the Lone Star state, I'd be interested in how various concealment options work in practice over a period of years.

SpeakerTweaker said...

Well, I tell you what. They can bolt on all the gimmicks that they like, for one reason or another, but here's two facts:

1. The 1911 has lasted 100 years with nearly no modification;


2. The two pictured 1911's in the post are a couple of MIGHTY FINE specimens thereof.

I don't personally dig bobbed hammers, but that Officer's is one nice piece of machinery.


Matt G said...

Speaker, I arrived at JPG's residence the night he had obtained that OACP. He was probably the first cop in the county to have one.

In a shocking display of recklessness (to me), he had that same day ground off and polished the hammer spur with his Dremel, and had then cold-blued it.

"How do you cock it?" I asked. (I was 18, and can't be expected to have been thinking clearly.)

"You rack it," he answered.

"How do you let the hammer down?" I asked.

"You pull the trigger," he responded, patiently.

Dawn washed over me. "And it either goes click or bang, and why in the world do you need to thumb-cock a 1911 type pistol, anyway, except for dry-firing?"

"Right," he answered, a little relieved that the water on my brain had receded somewhat.

"But, won't the loss of mass on the hammer make it unreliable, in that it will result in light hammer strikes?" I asked.

"Trust me-- it will work FINE. I have established that the hammer strikes are sufficient," he said confidently.

I looked around his apartment for holes.

Matt G said...

Mr. Griffin, I can tell you that he does it just fine-- Several times this last summer, I ran across JPG carrying a blued revolver, perfectly concealed.

Heh-- more than a few of those times, I had a well-concealed blued revolver on my ownself.

JPG said...

James E. Griffin --
Thank you for your well-thought-out observations. I don't see why you hesitated to comment. Yes, we differ a bit on certain details of our carry pistols. Again, my purpose was not to argue and try to change anyone's strongly held opinions or habits. I simply submit my thoughts for consideration.

Maybe we can meet at the range some time. It wouldn't surprise me a bit to find that you could shoot my pistols well, and vice-versa.

I perceive that you make more stringent accuracy demands than I. I don't require two inch groups at 50 yards - - or even at 25. They are nice, sure, but I'm not a bullseye target competitor. I just want to be able to put a bullet within four inches of the point of aim at 50 yards, ie, an EIGHT INCH group.

Yes, the requirement that magazines and gun be fitted together is ridiculous. Sure, I fully test my mags, but I want my pistol to work with any decent quality mag, right out of the bag.

'tweaker - -
I appreciate your nice words about “my” pistols. They work fine, but obviously have “been rode hard and put up wet.” Actually, Beloved Bride has firmly adopted the OACP as HERS. And, indeed, we went out and found her a wide, stiff belt, and she carries it in a Galco holster a lot of the time.

As to the bobbed hammer - - I did that advisedly, knowing that I might mess up. I'll probably write the whole story sometime. And how I knew it'd hit hard enough? I had a pretty good loading setup. Empty, reprimed cases test hammer strikes as well as loaded ca'tridges.

Best - - -

James said...

Lainy - there are too many variables to tell you what kind of handgun YOU should get. My advice is to find a basic handgun course where the instructor can provide a variety of handguns to try, allowing you to decide what fits YOUR hand best. I've carried a variety of handguns, to include Glocks, 1911's, S&W revolvers, SIG's, etc... I NORMALLY carry a Glock 36, if I can, or a Kel-Tec P380 if I can't, but depending on my mood, I may carry a 1911 or my wife's .357 revolver, or even my SIG 229. But I'm a big guy, it may be that most of those are too large for you, or have more recoil than you like, or otherwise doesn't fit you, or can't reasonably be accommodated by your wardrobe (since you mention self-defense usage, I'm assuming you may intend to carry).

James E. Griffin said...

JPG, I'd love to go shooting. Circumstances and geography, well, one day. I'll send you an e-mail using the blog contact address.

On accuracy in handgunning: (I expect JPG's more than aware of what I'm gonna say in the rest of this post.) 8 inch groups at 50 yards is damn fine defensive handgun shooting. I don't expect to shoot up to my handgun's theoretical limits.

A defensive handgun is completely and utterly reliable. Within those parameters, a gun capable of shooting smaller groups allows for more operator error. I sometimes need that. Stress, fatigue, injury, and a whole host of factors will cause your target groups to expand in size.

Predators pick their prey, and a smart predator will jump you when you're vulnerable.

Active in the martial arts, I'll get dinged up occasionally. My friends and colleagues will see me walking with a stick, first on one side, then the other. (And seeing me with my blackthorn stick will make security folks squirm.) Or I'll have an injured finger, hand, wrist, arm, whatever.

Then add stuff that just happens in life. You've got a black eye from an 8-year-old hitting you with a whiffle ball bat. Your horse stepped on your foot. You've just had surgery; You've got a cold, the flu, you generally feel bad. You're just generally distracted by events in your life.

Having to go to my handgun in a social situation is my definition of an emergency, and all the above effects my ability to defend myself.

There will be days when I'll be lucky to shoot 16 inch groups with a handgun at 50 yards. if I've sufficiently planned around the above parameters, I'll still be able to walk away from a defensive situation, with a little luck, and perhaps the Grace of God.

JPG said...

OOops - -
James G., I realize I wrote, I just want to be able to put a bullet within . . . What I meant was, I want my pistol capable of holding that degree of accuracy, with a rest, from a bench. No, I won't represent that I can do it standing on my hind legs under ideal conditions, far less in a match or simulated lethal scenario.

lainy said...

James, thanks for the advice. Oh yes I do intend to carry.

James E. Griffin said...

JPG, understood, and oops, I meant to say there are circumstances when I'm lucky to hold 16 inch groups at 20 yards. It's a humbling experience the first time you discover the real world isn't a shooting range!

Matt G said...

I've had some very pleasurable shooting time with that old Commander, plinking at rocks 350-450 yards off. Mostly because of the trigger, but also due to the good sights, it's pretty damned easy to shoot that Commander well.

Tam said...

The sight of that worn Commander warms the cockles of my heart... A gun looks so much better with honest wear. (Actually, I've reached a point of irrational chauvinism where the bearer of a pristine sidearm is subconsciously written off as a twink and a poser.)

And yes, I've gotten to where I've realized that what works for me works for me.

~Fathairybastard~ said...

ooooh, those are purdy. Me loves some cool old shooters. Very nice. Huge envy.