1911, American Small Arms Academy, AR-15, Browning Hi-Power, Chuck Taylor, Col Jeff Cooper, combat shotguns, double action, double action only, Glock 17, Glock 43, H&K MP5, Revolvers, semiautomatics, single action, striker fired
This article focuses on the general characteristics of revolvers and semi-automatic handguns. I’m making the assumption readers contemplating what I’ve had to say in the first nine installments intend to do more than purchase a firearm exclusively for home defense. Our lives don’t lose their value outside the home–though some “gun safety” laws embody that bizarre idea–-and one is, depending on a variety of factors, arguably more, rather than less, likely to need to defend their life—or the lives of others–-outside their home.
All the articles in this series may be found by entering “guns and liberty” into the SMM homepage search bar.
As with the first article in the series, I write primarily for those whose knowledge of firearms and related terminology is limited. As the information I’m providing here is covered in a wide variety of articles–print and online–and books, I’ll be providing primarily an overview rather than an exhaustive exposition of the issues. I recommend as a basic text The Complete Book of Combat Handgunning by Chuck Taylor. It contains the fundamentals necessary to develop essential basic skills. Full disclosure: I am one of the few certified an instructor by Taylor’s American Small Arms Academy, and I am also certified by the NRA as a range safety and handgun instructor.
Why a handgun? There’s an old story about a reporter who asked an appropriately sun baked Texas Ranger why he carried a .45. He replied, in a slow drawl (what else?): “Because they don’t make a .46.” The point is that one should always carry the most effective weapon they can efficiently manage. Anyone who knowingly enters a gunfight armed with less than a rifle (or submachine gun) is asking to die. Long guns are much easier to shoot accurately at much greater than effective handgun ranges and are far more effective. Carbines such as the AR-15 family can also serve as excellent home defense firearms. However, since it is practically difficult or impossible to carry such weapons on a daily basis, a handgun is the best alternative.
But what about shotguns? Aren’t they more effective than handguns? Yes, particularly when employed against enraged, terroristic waterfowl. Seriously, despite what Hollywood(and former Vice President Gropin’ Joe Biden) would have one believe, they must be aimed like any firearm. Maximum effectiveness of shotgun ammunition depends largely on keeping the shot column together, as close to the diameter with which it left the muzzle of the shotgun as possible, which means that to be truly effective, shotgun range is essentially the same as handgun range: Out to around 25 yards, and the closer the better. At close range, many types of shot are arguably more effective than the most powerful handgun cartridges, but that calculation changes with distance. Generally speaking, the shorter the barrel (18″ is the legal minimum without a federal stamp similar to that required to own an automatic weapon, suppressor or short barreled rifle) the shorter the maximally effective range of the shotgun.
Some claim that shotguns are more flexible than handguns because they accept a greater range of cartridge types, including various kinds of shot and slug cartridges. This is true to a point, but it is the larger calibers of buckshot, such as the standard 00 (“double ought”) buckshot, which are most potentially effective on human beings at beyond generally effective handgun range. While some slugs can increase reasonable shotgun range to 50 yards and more with some weapons, accuracy will always be lacking compared to rifles because shotguns are, with few exceptions, smoothbore weapons. They have no rifling in their barrels to impart “spin” to a projectile, thus stabilizing it and greatly increasing accuracy. In many cases, shot can be stopped entirely, or its effectiveness greatly reduced, by nothing more than heavy winter clothing. This is particularly true at greater ranges.
Shotguns are also generally limited in magazine capacity, even with extended magazines, to around 6-7 rounds–those with longer barrels can squeeze in a few more–essentially the same capacity as small, concealed carry handguns. Recently, manufacturers have been marketing “shorty” or “mini” shotgun shells. 04-19 Kel Tec KDG pump action shotgun, dual magazine tubes
They are much shorter than standard shells, but this means less velocity and striking energy as a trade off for more rounds in a given tubular magazine and less recoil impulse. Such shells may or may not cycle reliably in a given pump action shotgun, and won’t cycle at all in semiautomatic shotguns, though at least one manufacturer is making a semiauto designed for them.
Some recent designs, such as the Kel Tec KSG, are called “combat” shotguns and are designed with larger magazines, usually dual magazine tubes, in the KSG’s case, holding up to 15 rounds. Mossberg, and Remington are now marketing more conventional models with detachable magazines. Mossberg offers magazines up to 20 round capacity, but they are very wide–wider than the receiver of the shotgun–very long, and affect the handling qualities of the standard shotgun design, though their much greater weight might help to reduce muzzle flip. Remington’s model, the 870 DM, features magazines of only 6 round capacity, no more than a conventional shotgun with an extended magazine tube. They are, however, much faster to reload than a conventional shotgun. In any case, large capacity does not alter the range and accuracy limitations of shot.
I am not denigrating shotguns, which can be very effective in a variety of applications within their range and design limitations, nor do I suggest smaller shot, such as varieties of birdshot, are entirely ineffective. I suggest only that one be fully informed of the limitations of a given class of weapon and make effective choices for differing needs. We are responsible for every projectile we launch, whether multiple shotgun pellets or single bullets. Shotguns are also, like rifles, long guns. They’re not practical for daily carry.
I mention 25 yards as a more or less universal standard. Experts can deliver accurate handgun fire at greater ranges, but for most, 25 yards is the outer effective limit. Twenty-five yards may not sound like much, until you’re trying to place a bullet on a human-sized target that looks surprisingly small at that range. Distance can be tricky. If you’re not convinced, pace off 25 yards and see how far it actually is. It is fortunate–and frightening–that the overwhelming majority of gunfights take place at much, much closer ranges.
The choice of a personal, defensive handgun must take into account many factors, but ultimately one should choose a handgun that is powerful, concealable, reliable, that they can shoot well, and with which they are comfortable. Ultimately, the most effective handgun is one with which one regularly practices and that one is willing and able to carry each and every day. That said, the choice is simpler, and more difficult, than many imagine.
REVOLVER OR SEMIAUTOMATIC?
Revolvers predate semiautomatics. Revolvers are so called because cartridges are loaded into a steel cylinder commonly holding 5-6 rounds, though some major caliber, full sized revolvers hold 7 and some .22LR revolvers hold more. Pulling the trigger and/or cocking the hammer mechanically rotates–revolves–the cylinder bringing a fresh cartridge into precise alignment with the barrel. Revolvers come in two action types: double action and single action.
Single action revolvers are like the Colt .45 handguns of cinema westerns. Cocking the large, exposed hammer, usually with the thumb of the strong (the same hand holding the revolver) hand, rotates the cylinder. Internal mechanical linkage simultaneously rotates the cylinder to align the next cartridge with the barrel while holding the hammer fully back, ready, with a pull of the trigger, to be released to fall forward. The resulting short and light trigger pull (the trigger moves backward as the hammer is cocked) serves only to release the hammer to strike the primer of the cartridge; pulling the trigger does not cause the cylinder to revolve. The firing pins of such weapons, particularly in original or older designs, are often fixed to the hammer.
This revolver is the modern Ruger Vaquero, however it faithfully reflects the general configuration of the genre, including no real, truly useful rear sight.
Such weapons are generally inappropriate for personal defense. Experts can indeed do amazing things with these designs, which are more than a century old, and manufacturers continue to produce modern versions of these weapons, which are completely safe to use with modern cartridges, have fully adjustable sights, and have some modern safety features that allow them to be safely carried and handled with fully loaded cylinders, but they are large, cumbersome, slow to fire and even slower to reload. They’re wonderful for target shooting, handgun hunting in the larger calibers, or western style shooting competitions, but modern weapons have greatly surpassed them in convenience and effectiveness.
NOTE: Original single action revolvers like the famous Colt Peacemaker design should have only five out of six chambers loaded and should be carried with the hammer down–at rest–on the empty chamber. This is necessary, because lacking any kind of firing pin safety a blow on the hammer–which can be something as simple as dropping the weapon–can drive the firing pin into the primer of a cartridge, firing the weapon. Anyone owning such weapons should be absolutely certain of its safety features, or the lack thereof. And of course, very old weapons may not be safe with modern ammunition.
Double action revolvers are generally more modern weapons, and can be fired in double action mode, with a long, relatively heavy trigger pull that rotates the cylinder, cocks and ultimately drops the hammer to strike the primer and fire the cartridge. As a result, such revolvers do not have mechanical safety devices that must be manipulated in order to fire the weapon. Most also have a single action mode—very much like single-action-only revolvers–-where manually cocking the hammer rotates the cylinder and pulls the trigger back, producing a short, light trigger pull. Owners of double action revolvers should always train to use their weapon in double action mode. It is very easy indeed to, when under stress, accidentally fire a cocked revolver in single action mode.
This small revolver—the Ruger LCR in .38 special caliber—is state of the art in revolver design with its polymer frame, relatively low bore axis—the height of the barrel above the top of the hand–relatively smooth action and relieved/lightened cylinder. Notice that it uses an internal hammer. It cannot be cocked, or fired, in single action mode.
This is a Smith And Wesson Model 19 Classic .357 Magnum revolver. This was once a very common duty handgun for American police officers. It is a medium framed revolver, substantially larger and heavier than the Ruger LCR or similar revolvers, and is generally intended to be carried on a duty belt on the strong side. A very well made weapon, it sells (MSRP) for $843.00 (circa March, 2020). Such revolvers are so expensive because they are labor intensive and require at least some hand fitting. Virtually all revolver manufacturers make models in this general size/caliber range, but fewer than ever before, focusing instead on more compact revolvers for the concealed carry market.
SEMIAUTOMATICS are sometimes incorrectly called “automatics.” An automatic weapon fires multiple rounds for each pull of the trigger. As long as the trigger is pulled and held back, the weapon will continue to fire until the trigger is released or its ammunition supply is exhausted. Expert machine gunners can fire single rounds, or bursts of two-three rounds or more simply by means of manual trigger manipulation. Some automatic weapons mimic this ability with burst features that fire short, predetermined bursts–usually three rounds–with a single pull of the trigger. A semiautomatic weapon fires only one round for each pull of the trigger.
My most recent submachine gun primer is here. Semiautomatics hold their ammunition in magazines. Magazines are often incorrectly called “clips.” The only currently manufactured, widely available firearm that actually uses ammunition clips is the M1 Garand battle rifle. Most semiautomatic pistols hold more rounds than revolvers; in many cases, a great many rounds more. The Glock 17 in 9mm, for example, is a full-sized duty-type handgun with a normal magazine capacity of 17 rounds. With one round in the chamber, the capacity of a Glock 17 is exactly three times that of a six-round revolver. With a single spare magazine, 35 rounds are available. To equal this, a revolver shooter would require five (actually 6) speedloaders.
All semiautomatic pistols work on the same principle: firing a cartridge uses the energy of firing to push a heavy metal slide back, compressing a powerful spring. On its backward travel, the slide extracts the fired case from the chamber and ejects it through the ejection port of the slide. When the slide hits the rear stop, it is propelled forward under spring tension, pushes a fresh cartridge forward out of the magazine and guides it into the chamber. This slide action also cocks the hammer or internal striker. The process is very fast and appears as a blur to most. A powerful spring in the magazine pushes each fresh cartridge upward, ready to be fed into the chamber. In most designs, when the last round has been fired, the magazine spring pushes the magazine follower upward to engage the slide lock, forcing the slide to lock fully open (back) to notify the shooter he has shot his weapon dry. This cycling may be accomplished by a blowback system of several kinds (the most common in contemporary handguns), a gas system, or some combination of the two. Many semiautomatic pistols have an external, manual safety device of some kind.This well-designed animated graphic illustrates the function of a Browning-designed model 1911 pistol, and is illustrative of the process, which is virtually identical for all semiautomatic pistols, allowing for slight variations in mechanical design. Semiautomatic pistols, however, have a greater number of trigger types than revolvers.
Single Action: this is the oldest currently available pistol mechanism, characterized by John Moses Browning designs, and is the mechanism employed on the Model 1911 .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) and the Browning Hi-Power (1935) in 9mm Parabellum (Latin: “for war”). In these pistols, an exposed hammer is manually fully cocked and a safety lever mounted on the left side of the frame engaged. To fire, the shooter clicks off (pushes down) the safety and pulls the trigger, which commonly has a light and short travel, greatly enhancing accuracy.
NOTE: The study of John Moses Browning is fascinating in and of itself. Browning was an authentic American genius, though much neglected in contemporary history classrooms because he invented firearms. Browning’s contributions to winning WWII, for example, were irreplacable.
Depicted earlier in this article, is a much-modified 1911 by Ruger known as the SR 1911. The proper means of carrying these pistols, commonly known as “cocked and locked,” frightens the uninitiated, but is perfectly safe when done by those properly trained who use proper holsters. With this action type, each trigger pull is short, light and consistent, significantly contributing to ease of use and accuracy. Such weapons employ the manufacturing methods and materials–-heavy, high-quality steel–-available a century ago and are expensive and labor intensive to make. Like everything designed by Browning, they are effective, reliable and mechanically brilliant designs, but they can be expensive, particularly if loaded with accessories.
Double Action: A second action type is the double action mechanism that mimics the trigger and hammer action of the double action revolver. European weapons such as various Walther pistols with this mechanism (the P-38, the PP and PPK) were in use before WWII. American manufacturers, most notably Smith and Wesson, produced double action pistols in large numbers beginning in the 1970s to increase sales of semiautomatics to police forces, which at the time almost exclusively used double action revolvers. Col. Jeff Cooper called this invention “an ingenious solution to a non-existent problem.” He was referring to the fact that double action semiautomatics are not designed to be carried “cocked and locked,” which was a selling point to uninformed and skittish police executives horrified by the sight of cocked hammers. They reasoned double action semiautomatics are just like double action revolvers. They are not.
This double action semiautomatic pistol is a standard model Walther P-22 in .22 LR. It is available in a variety of configurations. While the caliber is generally inappropriate as a self-defense gun, its action is identical to its larger caliber cousins. My article on an earlier model of that handgun can be found here.
The inherent problem with this type of trigger mechanism is, because it must cock the hammer, the first trigger pull is long and heavy, but because the cycling of the slide cocks the hammer with the second and every subsequent shot, only a light, single action trigger pull is required–in other words, a much shorter, lighter pull of the trigger. This commonly results in widely varying impact points between at least the first two shots on any target, and while experienced, capable shooters can overcome this “feature,” double action mechanisms are a less than optimum solution, just as Col. Cooper suggested.
Why work harder than necessary to achieve the same, or lesser, results than those available with more modern designs? Unnecessary trigger complexity is also a safety issue.
Double Action Only: another action type is a hybrid of the double action mechanism, which seeks to address the inherent shot to shot accuracy problem of such actions. In this case, manufacturers produce weapons incapable of single action fire, so that each pull of the trigger mustbe double action. In other words the trigger recycles fully forward after each shot–pulling the trigger never produces a light, short trigger pull–making a long, relatively heavy trigger pull necessary for each shot. While this method might be a theoretical improvement on double action mechanisms, any action that requires a long, heavy trigger pull will be inherently less accurate and harder to consistently shoot than a lighter, shorter trigger, and also a potential safety issue.
An article, the third in a series of police handgun problems (it has links to the others) in the New York City Police Department, is available here.
This double action only handgun—a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard in .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol)—is representative of the genre. My article on that handgun is available here. An interesting feature of this weapon is its integral laser sight, activated by the ambidextrous red button on the front of the frame. Despite have a double-action-only mechanism, the Bodyguard also features a manual safety lever, likely as a means of defense against lawsuits. The little handgun is safe to carry with the safety disengaged. Its hammer, which functions conventionally, does not protrude from the slide, and cannot be manually cocked.
Striker Fired: the most modern mechanism is the striker-fired pistol, typified by the Glock design. These weapons do not have an exposed external hammer or an internal hammer, but instead employ what is essentially a larger than usual, heavier firing pin driven by a strong spring, known as a “striker.” When recoil cycles the slide, the striker spring is compressed—cocked–until it is released by the next activation of the trigger. Trigger pulls with this type of weapon are shorter and lighter than those of double action pistols, and are consistent from shot to shot. While the triggers do not have the very short travel of a single action mechanism and they are not quite as light (Glocks can be reduced to a 3.5 pound trigger pull with drop-in parts), they are far superior to any double action or double action only mechanism, and are also superior to double action revolver triggers. Glocks employ a unique system of three independent integral safety devices. There is no external safety, which must be manipulated by the shooter. As with revolvers, one must really want to fire a Glock to make it discharge.
This particular Glock is my daily carry handgun, a Glock 43 (link here) in 9mm. The only aftermarket accessory is a Crimson Trace flashlight/laser module, which is reviewed in the article. My article on the first Glock handgun, the Glock 17, is available here.
One of the many and significant advantages of the Glock design is that trigger pull weight can be easily changed-standard Glock triggers are 5.5 lbs–merely by changing drop-in parts, an easy process with the modular Glock which uses not a single screw. Glocks and copycat weapons are made with polymer (plastic) frames and many other polymer parts. This method of manufacture has many advantages, such as low cost, accelerated speed and lower cost of manufacture, long life, no rusting, and the ability to absorb some recoil energy that would otherwise be imparted directly to the shooter. To contain the inherent firing pressures and recoil forces, however, such weapons must have steel barrels, slides, and slide rails.
There is no such thing as a “plastic gun” that can’t be seen on x-rays. This is a favorite, and often repeated media lie. A Glock–and any other partially polymer firearm–under x-ray looks exactly like what it is, and some 80% of a Glock’s weight is, in fact, steel. Polymer is not invisible to x-rays.
Another interesting Glock feature is the ability to “catch the link.” When firing a round, the shooter holds the trigger fully back as the slide cycles, and after the slide has returned to battery (is fully forward and closed) slowly allows the trigger to move forward until an audible and easily felt “click” occurs. This allows the next shot to have a much shorter and lighter trigger pull, enhancing long-range accuracy. But this is not a true single action mode as it does not function in the same way, and it requires a conscious effort on the part of the shooter to reset this function for each shot. The primary advantage of the Glock-–and similar—mechanisms remains their relatively short trigger travel, light pull weight, and shot to shot consistency. Small Glocks like the 42 (.380 caliber) and 43 also have the advantage of small size and light weight while retaining reasonable magazine capacity. Glocks are also available in virtually every popular handgun caliber from .380 ACP to 10mm.
Next week’s article will focus on the advantages and disadvantages of revolvers and semiautomatic handguns. As always, I hope to see you there.