Oddly enough, I’ll begin this article on semiautomatic pistols with a revolver anecdote. I began my police service with Colt Pythons. We had to buy our own weapons, and that was my first choice. But one of my early supervisors carried a Ruger Security Six in .357 magnum, and used to joke that one had to be a real man to carry a Ruger–referring to the less than smooth, and heavy, double action trigger pull. Rugers have always been sturdy and reliable. Certain of my Colt’s superiority, I smugly replied: “yeah, preferably two real men.”
But I was intrigued and eventually bought a stainless steel Security Six (the Ruger in the photo heading this article closely resembles that gun). I wish I had it today. Pythons weren’t available in that lovely metal then. After a very professional trigger job and Magnaporting, as well as quite of bit of grip revision, I ended up carrying that weapon happily for many years. I could shoot it as accurately as the Python, the trigger was as smooth and (relatively) light, and the gun was lighter and more compact that the Colt. However, the real selling point was the Ruger was far easier to thoroughly clean. In those days, with all of the shooting I did with reloaded lead bullets, that was a real issue.
There is no “perfect” handgun–-revolver or semiautomatic–-superior to all others. We are all different. That Security Six met my needs for many years, even though it was not nearly as pretty as my Pythons. However, it cost much less, which is its own virtue.
If there is one primary lesson to impart regarding revolvers, it would be that the smaller the weapon and the shorter the barrel, the more difficult it is to shoot accurately, particularly if it does not have a competent action job. Interestingly, however, I also owned a Security Six identical to my duty handgun other than its 2 ¾” barrel and no Magnaporting. I could shoot that shorter barreled gun as accurately as the 4” barreled gun, and with a bit more ease. It produced more muzzle flash, but perceived recoil seemed identical. One would think a lighter gun without Magnaporting would have greater recoil. Go figure.
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 fire until the trigger is released or the ammunition supply is exhausted. A semiautomatic weapon fires only one round for each pull of the trigger, just like a double action revolver.
Modern semiautomatics hold their ammunition in magazines. Magazines are often incorrectly called “clips.” The only currently manufactured, widely available firearm that uses 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—very much a standard police sidearm–is a full-sized duty-type handgun with a standard magazine capacity of 17 rounds. With one round in the chamber, the capacity of a Glock 17 is three times that of a six-round revolver. With two spare magazines, nearly nine times. My article on that handgun is available here. A more recent article about the Glock 17 mated with A Crimson Trace Railmaster Pro is available here.
Enhanced ammunition capacity is a factor that has caused-–in part–-many American police agencies to transition to semiautomatic pistols. While the majority of police shootings are resolved at very close range with few rounds fired, the necessity of having a great many rounds at hand is very real. One can never know when they’ll be involved in the firefight that requires many rounds, and magazine changes. So it is also for civilians–-as the police commonly call non-police officers.
NOTE: Those that claim any magazine over 10 rounds a “large capacity magazine,” are uninformed or deceptive. A substantial number of commonly available semiautomatic handguns have standard magazines of greater capacity, which is nothing new or unusual. The Browning Hi-Power first distributed in the 1930s had a standard 13-round 9mm magazine.
All semiautomatic pistols work on the same basic principle: Firing a cartridge harnesses the energy of firing to push a heavy metal slide back against a powerful spring that keeps the action closed until pressure drops to a safe level. On its backward travel, the slide extracts the fired case from the chamber and ejects it through the ejection port on the slide. When the slide hits the rear stop, it is propelled forward under spring tension, engages a fresh cartridge from the magazine and inserts it into the chamber. This process is very fast and appears 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–the plastic part between the magazine spring and the cartridges–upward to engage the slide lock, locking the slide open (back) to notify the shooter he has shot his weapon dry. Many semiautomatic pistols have an external, manual safety device of some kind.
This You Tube video animation of the cycling of a Glock pistol is illustrative of the process, which, allowing for slight variations in mechanical design, is essentially identical for all semiautomatic pistols.
Semiautos, like revolvers, come in several more or less standardized categories. Full sized pistols like the Colt M1911 and the Glock 17 are generally considered duty pistols, though even they may be carried concealed by many people. Medium sized pistols, such as the Glock 19 with a 15 round magazine, are meant to be lighter and more easily concealed, and “baby Glocks,” like the original model 26, are smaller yet while still having a ten round, 9mm staggered magazine capacity. The Glock 43 in 9mm, is a much narrower handgun with a single stack magazine, but gives up four rounds to the Glock 26 to achieve this.
Recent years have seen a boom in what are commonly called “pocket pistols,” normally in .380 ACP caliber (essentially a shorter and less powerful 9mm cartridge). These pistols like the Ruger LCP and LCP II, or the S&W Bodyguard actually do fit in a pocket and are quite small, light and easily concealable while still firing a reasonably powerful cartridge. Modern .380 cartridges are generally more effective than those marketed even five years ago.
Semiautomatic pistols, however, have a greater number of trigger mechanisms than revolvers.
Single Action: This is the oldest currently available pistol mechanism, characterized by John Moses Browning designs, and is the mechanism employed by the classic Model 1911 .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol). In these pistols, an exposed hammer is manually cocked and a safety lever mounted on the left side of the frame engaged. To fire, the shooter clicks off (pushes down on) the safety with the thumb and pulls the trigger, which commonly has a light and short travel, enhancing practical accuracy.
This 1911 is a modified model by Ruger known as the SR1911. It’s available in a variety of configurations, and circa May, 2020, retails at $939.00 as illustrated. 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 that fully cover the trigger guard and trigger. 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 labor intensive to make. Like everything designed by Browning, they are effective, reliable and mechanically brilliant designs, but they can be expensive. While they are “parts” guns, and theoretically any part made to proper tolerances will fit, for maximum accuracy, some degree of hand fitting is required, which, of course, adds to the expense. The number of aftermarket accessories available for this old and popular design is truly amazing.
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.
This double action semiautomatic pistol is a Walther P-22 in .22 LR caliber. While the caliber is generally inappropriate for a self-defense gun, its action is virtually identical to its larger caliber cousins. Keep in mind that a great many bad guys have succumbed to the .22LR. My article on that handgun may be found here.
The inherent problem with this type of trigger mechanism is the first trigger pull tends to be long and heavy, but because the first, and every subsequent, shot fired causes the cycling of the slide to cock the hammer and retain the trigger toward the back of its stroke, the second and every subsequent shot requires only a single action trigger pull, 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 option, just as Col. Cooper observed.
Double Action Only: Another action type is a hybrid of the double action mechanism that seeks to address the inherent shot to shot accuracy problem of such actions. These weapons are incapable of single action fire; each pull of the trigger must be double action. In other words the trigger recycles fully forward after each shot–the cycling of the slide does not cock the hammer–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.
This double action only handgun—a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard in .380 ACP—is representative of the genre (take the earlier link in this article). Its hammer is visible, but cannot be manipulated by hand–no single action mode. An interesting feature of this weapon is its integral laser sight, activated by the ambidextrous red button on both sides of the front of the frame, which activate its Crimson Trace laser. The integral laser does not allow the lines of the little handgun to be very racy, but it works well. The Bodyguard is also available without the laser, making an already small package even smaller. The laser equipped Bodyguard, circa May, 2020, retails for $499.00.
Striker Fired: Arguably the most modern mechanism is the striker-fired pistol, typified by the Glock design as illustrated by the aforementioned video. 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. When the slide is cycled either manually or by firing, 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 as light, they are generally superior to double action or double action only mechanisms, 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 to be manipulated by the shooter.
This particular Glock is the model I carried daily until purchasing a Glock 43: a Glock 26 (commonly called the “baby” Glock). The only two additions I made to my personal G26 were a Pearce Grip magazine finger rest and a Crimson Trace LG-436 laser.
One advantage of the Glock design is trigger pull weight can be easily changed from seven to five pounds, for example, merely by changing drop-in parts, an easy process with the modular Glock, which has not a single screw. Polymer-framed weapons have many advantages, such as low cost, speed and simplicity 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 pressures and recoil forces, however, such weapons must have steel barrels, slides, and slide rails. The springs, pins, magazine liners and other small parts are also steel.
There is no such thing as a “plastic gun” that can’t be seen on x-ray machines. A Glock under x-ray looks exactly like what it is, and most of its weight is, in fact, steel. An article on that issue is available here.
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) allows the trigger to move forward until an audible and easily felt “click” occurs. This allows the next shot to have a much shorter trigger pull, enhancing long-range accuracy. 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 make the weapon function this way 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.
ADVANTAGES OF SEMIAUTOS:
The primary advantages of semiautos are that they are more easily concealable, tend to have lighter triggers, have greater ammunition capacity than revolvers–-in many cases, much greater–-and are more quickly and easily reloaded than revolvers. Semiautos also, in most common calibers, have much less recoil effect and muzzle blast than revolvers, and have a bore axis much lower than revolvers. With polymer frame construction, some semiautos can be substantially lighter than revolvers yet hold substantially more ammunition with no deficit in ruggedness and longevity.
Because of their very nature, semiautos are subject to more common malfunctions than revolvers, but each of these common malfunctions can be cleared in the field, without tools, in four seconds or less by any trained shooter. Most malfunctions take only a second or two to clear. Because they do not have cylinders, as long as there is a round in the chamber–-this is the way modern semiautos should be carried–-semiautos will virtually always fire at least one round even if they malfunction thereafter.
The only exception is those designs with a magazine disconnect, a system that prevents the weapon from firing unless a magazine is fully inserted. This feature should never be a part of any handgun carried for personal defense.
One interesting advantage is semiautos can accept suppressors (there is no such thing as a “silencer”). Suppressors are useless on revolvers–despite what Hollywood would have one believe–because of the gas that escapes through the gap between the cylinder and the forcing cone. Suppressing firearms is primarily about gas control. There is no such thing as a “silencer,” and all suppressors can accomplish is to lower the sound pressure levels of gunshots so they don’t immediately cause hearing damage. A suppressed gunshot still sounds like a gunshot.
Contemporary designs often have accessory rails that allow the easy installation and use of flashlights, optical and laser sights. Revolvers may also be similarly equipped, but semiauto owners will generally find that equipping their weapons is easier, less expensive and there are far more choices.
Semiautos, many of which are designed with military service in mind, usually break down without tools and are easy to clean. Even non-military designs are generally easy to break down, clean and reassemble, also generally without tools. They also tend to have few parts to disassemble. Glocks, for example, break down into the frame, barrel, recoil spring/guide rod assembly and slide. No further disassembly is required for normal cleaning, and because Glocks have no screws, reassembly is quick and easy.
DISADVANTAGES OF SEMIAUTOS:
There are two primary types of malfunctions common to semiautos: failures to feed and failures to eject. Each has several commonly known variations, but as previously mentioned, proper training will show anyone how, within mere seconds, to clear such malfunctions. One of the most common problems with semiautos is “limp wristing,” or not giving the handgun a firm grip with a straight, rigid wrist. Semiautos need a solid grip against which to cycle the slide. If the weapon is held limply, it may lack the force to complete the cycle and may not fully eject fired brass, or may not fully chamber a fresh round. Proper technique can easily sort out this common problem.
Revolvers do not suffer from limp wristing. However, learning the manual of arms of any handgun, and becoming comfortable with it to the point of attaining good accuracy takes time and effort. All weapons have their peculiarities, and not every weapon is an optimum choice for everyone.
Many semiautos come in only one grip size, so some may simply be too large for smaller hands, a not uncommon issue with full-sized 1911s, for example. However, most manufacturers are now shipping models with easily switched backstraps to address what may or may not be a problem. In addition, weapons with polymer frames allow magazines with substantial capacity while still keeping the grip relatively small. There is no metal frame to which grips must be attached, increasing the size of the gripping surface.
One cannot normally tell whether a semiauto is loaded merely by looking at it, though some, such as Glocks, do have mechanical loaded chamber indicators (which can be checked by sight or even touch), or like the S&W Bodyguard, a small notch cut in the breach that allows a chambered cartridge to be seen. Even without these features, this can be easily addressed with a simple “pinch-check”–retracting the slide just enough to see brass in the chamber.
Some people also experience accidental discharges when, after removing the magazine, they assume the weapon is empty and fire the round in the chamber. This too can be easily addressed by using the basic safety drill of always first removing the magazine, cycling the slide several times, locking it back, looking and using the tip of a finger to verify that the magazine well and chamber are empty. This procedure should always be followed whenever picking up or accepting any semiautomatic handgun, rifle or shotgun. Of course, keeping one’s finger off the trigger until milliseconds before firing, and always keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction is mandatory for all firearms.
Some semiautos, due to their unique design, have very stiff recoil springs. Some people with weak hands or limited strength may have difficulty cycling their slides. My article on correct technique in dealing with stiff recoil springs may greatly simplify this issue for most people.
S&W is marketing .380 and 9mm versions of its popular Shield handgun with slides that are very easy to cycle. They’re designated “EZ” models. In reality, few people lack the ability to cycle semiauto slides; it is primarily a matter of proper technique.
Another common problem is some magazines have stiff springs, making extended loading potentially fatiguing and difficult. Brand new magazines are generally harder to load until worn in. However, inexpensive magazine loading tools that essentially eliminate this problem are widely available–-Glock includes one with every handgun sold–-and it is a very small portion of the population that cannot learn how to use what strength they have to cycle a slide, or with proper tools, to load a magazine. Even so, some few people, due to disability or illness may find such tasks daunting. One can’t help but imagine such people would also find pulling the trigger of a double action revolver a challenge.
The greatest single weakness of semiautos is the magazine. They are easier to damage than the guns, and if a magazine won’t properly feed due to spring fatigue, or damage, the shooter suddenly has a hard to load single-shot handgun. To address this problem, at least one spare magazine should always be carried, and all magazines should be regularly rotated with a complete set of spares to allow the springs to “rest.” This may be an old shooter’s superstition, but there is no downside, and in more than three decades of daily carrying handguns and following this procedure, I’ve yet to have a magazine malfunction. This may be attributed to nothing more than my care in ensuring my magazines aren’t exposed to damaging conditions and are regularly cleaned and otherwise maintained.
Though this is a much smaller issue than it was only a decade ago, some semiautos are ammunition sensitive; some brands and/or configurations of ammunition may make some guns more prone to malfunctions (A “jam” can’t be quickly cleared in the field and requires tools to repair). Most guns designed for self-defense will fire just about anything with little or no difficulty, but some guns, particularly those built to very tight tolerances, such as guns intended for competition, may take a bit of trial and error to find ammunition that is completely reliable. On the other hand, brands such as Glock have a well-deserved reputation for reliability right out of the box and require no alteration or modification at all. I have never had a malfunction with any of the Glocks I’ve owned, or of their magazines. Dumb luck? Perhaps, but I practice malfunction drills just in case.
Semiautos generally have less intrinsic accuracy than revolvers. This is so because their barrels–-with a few notable exceptions, many in .22LR only–-are not fixed to the frame and thus, unmoving as the slide cycles. Designs with both a barrel fixed to the frame and the sights attached to that barrel or frame, tend to have intrinsic accuracy no less than the best revolvers, the new Ruger Mark IV pistol in .22LR–which features a much improved take down/reassembly process–being a case in point.
Defensive pistols must have looser tolerances because the need for maximum reliability is greater than the need for maximum accuracy. This will generally produce slightly less overall accuracy, however, for general defensive use, this is not an issue for most people, whose practical shooting ability is not up to the optimum intrinsic accuracy of their semiautos, particularly at the kinds of short ranges at which gunfights virtually always take place.
What kind of difference is involved? A target semiauto tuned to the tightest tolerances without sacrificing the reliability necessary for the sport might shoot a 2” or better group at 25 yards, while a daily carry pistol might manage 4”. Proper ammunition will also have an effect on group size. Some handguns simply shoot more accurately with some configurations of cartridge and bullet. This is true with any firearm, and is why long-range competition riflemen and snipers meticulously develop loads that maximize the accuracy of their particular weapons.
Obviously, all semiauto owners should shoot a number of the cartridges they plan to carry in their daily weapons to ensure they work properly. How many? At least 20, and the more the better, not only to ensure they function properly, but to develop a feel for them and to gauge their accuracy and the necessity of zeroing the sights for the specific cartridge carried.
One additional caveat is that, like revolvers, the smaller the pistol, the more difficult it tends to be to shoot accurately. My Glock 43, for example, is much easier to shoot accurately than my S&W Bodyguard. Repeat shots are much faster, and effective range, greater. The same is true to a lesser degree with the Glock 19 and 17. Substantially smaller and lighter than the Glock, the Bodyguard has a longer and heavier trigger pull and a shorter barrel. It’s not impossible to shoot well, but it does require more practice, including dry fire off the range, to maintain proficiency. Of course, anyone choosing to carry a handgun has a duty to practice enough in dry and live fire to maintain proficiency sufficient to ensure they will hit only what they intend to hit.
There is no question semiautos are, by their very nature, somewhat more complex to operate than revolvers. This makes accidental discharges somewhat more likely. Keep in mind that during my police days, there was no shortage of ADs with revolvers (or shotguns or rifles). However, learning the proper manual of arms isn’t rocket science, and I’m tempted to wonder about the fitness of anyone unable to safely handle a semiautomatic handgun—given proper training–-to handle any firearm.
I own all of the guns I need, but not as many as I want. Our firearms well meet our needs. We don’t own semiautos exclusively out of a lack of appreciation for the qualities of revolvers. The issue is more one of a conscious decision to stock as few different types of ammunition as possible. It’s always better to shoot fewer weapons more than to have a large number of different guns and cartridges one can’t afford to fire as often as necessary to attain a high level of skill and confidence.
I carry a Glock 43 most of the time, and in those few circumstances when I need a weapon smaller than even the little Glock, a S&W Bodyguard takes its place. I have no hesitation recommending Glocks in general (unfortunately, they don’t pay me for such recommendations, drat!), recognizing no weapon works for everyone. I carry them because they meet my needs. I’ve found them to be flawlessly reliable and as accurate as necessary for any defensive handgun. That said, I also own or have owned, S&Ws, Brownings, Colts, Walthers and Rugers.
Many ranges allows brief rentals of handguns, and many shooters and instructors are more than willing to allow neophytes (the correct term for beginner) to try their guns. Finding a handgun that feels good in the hand and is reliable is not a difficult matter in A.D. (anno domini: “in the year of our Lord,” not “after death”) 2020. The reliability difficulties common in semiautomatic handguns in the 70s and 80’s are a thing of the past. Keep in mind that it may take at least 50 rounds with any handgun to get a real idea of how it will work. Some guns just tend to feel right for some people while others don’t. This may often be determined by a broad grin on the face of a shooter finally discovering the “right” gun.
I’ve no doubt some may find my frequent mention of Glocks distressing. Again, I gain nothing from my mentions of that line of handguns, and find them an excellent choice. However, Colt, Sig, Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Kimber, Walther and other manufacturers make excellent weapons, and I’ve owned—and own—weapons from many different manufacturers.
Obviously, shooting as often as possible is a good idea. Few people who remain shooters for any length of time own only a single gun. Shooting is fun, and different weapons meet different needs and provide different experiences. It’s all a part of shooting.
The old axiom that the man with a single gun is often the most dangerous remains true. He’s likely to know how to shoot that gun very well indeed. Finding a handgun that works, performing correct, regular practice, and reaching a high level of proficiency should be every shooter’s basic goal.
Next Tuesday: A Basic rifle primer. I hope to see you there!