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CHOOSING A HANDGUN

 

In selecting a handgun for personal protection, the potential buyer is faced with a variety of incremental decisions.  Initial choices relate to the following:

     Revolver or autoloader? 

     What type of action?

     What caliber?

Handguns are a popular means of self protection because their small size affords portability and ease of storage.  Drawbacks may include recoil and limited long-range accuracy.  To generalize, most people find that with practice it is relatively easy to hit man-sized targets out to about 25 yards or so.  Accurate target acquisition tends to decrease thereafter.

Recoil is the phenomenon that occurs once a shot is fired.  Based upon the law of physics that states "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction", recoil represents the reaction you experience when the explosive force propelling the bullet pushes back on your gun.  Some people may find the recoil associated with ammunition on the more potent side to be discomforting and distracting.  They sometimes develop a flinch in anticipation of the shot, a response which adversely affects accuracy.  

Recoil is minimized by two choices over which the handgun purchaser has control: weight of the gun and caliber or size of the cartridge for which the gun is designed.  

Modern cartridges or "rounds" hold the propellant (gunpowder) and projectile (actual bullet) together in an integrated case which most people simply refer to as a "bullet".  The cartridge also incorporates a means of igniting the gunpowder.  This consists of a primer centered on the cartridge base (center fired cartridges) or primer contained within the rim of the cartridge (rim fired cartridges).  Primer within the rim will ignite no matter where on the rim the cartridge is struck by the firing pin.  

Rim fired cartridges, also known as rim fires, are typically associated with .22 caliber bullets.  Cheaper to manufacture, rim fire .22's are the most affordable round available and provide bullet choices that are well suited to target shooting, plinking, and small game hunting.  The .22 is also available in bird shot and snake shot.  A rifle or carbine  in .22 is an ideal first firearm for young people and anyone new to the shooting sports.

The .22 rim fired cartridge is available in .22 Short, .22 Long and .22 Long Rifle (LR).  The .22LR is extremely versatile.  Ammunition manufacturers offer factory loads in a wide variation of bullet types, weights, energies and velocities.  Velocities range from "subsonic" to "high" to "hyper".  Some of the descriptions of velocities are marketing attempts to describe relative bullet speed among different .22LR cartridge products.  As far as the Armory knows, the terms "super dooper" and "warp speed" are still available.  Look for them soon at your local ammunition retailer!    

The attraction of center fired cartridges lies in their reliability.  They are less likely to misfire (not fire at all) or hang fire (delayed firing) than rim fired cartridges.

Warning!  Although rim fire .22's are inherently safe and reasonably reliable, their priming compound has a propensity to become less dependable with age and exposure to weather and temperature extremes.  As a shooter, if your firearm fails to fire when you pull the trigger on a .22, do two very important things.  First, keep the firearm aimed down range or in an otherwise safe direction.  (Recall the fundamental rules of Gun Safety). Second, WAIT.

Recommendations from various sources differ somewhat regarding length of time for shooters to wait and see if they are dealing with either a misfire or a hang fire.  There is no hard and fast rule or specification.  For for your personal safety,  it is advisable to err on the side of caution.  Be patient.  Wait.

Personal experience here at the Armory suggests that the shooter should wait at least two minutes.  Misfires or "duds" are not a problem.  Hang fires are a potentially lethal problem.  It is not apparent to the shooter which condition he or she is dealing with until either nothing happens or the round discharges at an unexpected, inappropriate moment on its own.  Be careful!

To "dispose" of a misfired round, many in the firearm community advise the shooter to attempt to shoot it again.  Often this works, and the bullet is successfully discharged.  The problem occurs when, once more, nothing happens.  What is the shooter dealing with now?  Is it a misfire or a hang fire?  The waiting process begins anew.

Attempting to shoot a round after it fails to fire can be a little risky, depending on the type of gun and action in which the round is chambered.  In this regard, the procedure with a double action pistol is the safest and simplest, because the shooter does not have to handle the failed round to chamber it.  It is already chambered, and the shooter merely pulls the trigger again.  Trigger pull cocks the gun and subsequently releases the hammer on the firing pin, which strikes the misfired cartridge.  

Single action pistols are somewhat trickier, because the shooter must manually cock the pistol in order for it to shoot.  This is accomplished by briskly retracting the bolt or slide to its rearmost position.  This procedure will have the secondary effect of extracting and ejecting the misfired round out of the gun and onto a nearby surface such as a bench rest or ground, depending upon the shooting environment.  The misfired round is replaced into an unloaded magazine, which is reinserted into the gun.  The bolt or slide of the pistol is then closed by manually releasing the bolt or slide stop, if the pistol is (hopefully) so equipped.  The trigger is then pulled in a new attempt to shoot the misfire.

 A misfire encountered when shooting a revolver is relatively easy to address.  Since the misfired round is already chambered in the cylinder of the gun, there is no need handle it.  However, the cylinder must be repositioned so that chamber with the misfired round will align with the barrel when the gun is cocked.

With both single action and double action revolvers, release the cylinder and align the misfired round one chamber to the right or left of the barrel, depending on the make and model of the gun.  Cocking the gun by pulling back on the hammer (single action) or pulling the trigger (double action) will rotate the misfired round into proper alignment with the barrel.

The direction of cylinder rotation varies among manufacturers, and even within a particular manufacturer based on the revolver model.  Know the specifics of your own gun.  As a generality, however, Colt, Charter Arms and Dan Wesson cylinders rotate clockwise while Smith & Wesson, Ruger and Taurus cylinders rotate counterclockwise.

One or more failed attempts to discharge a misfire can lead to creation of a hang fire.  The Armory is aware of an accident involving a single action pistol that occurred while the shooter was repeating the process of attempting to shoot the misfire yet again. Injury resulted, followed by a trip to the emergency room and an embarrassing police report.  (Law enforcement investigates gun shot cases).  This shooter was "lucky" in the sense that the self inflicted wound was not life threatening.  It could have been much worse.  

The shooter in question believed elapsed time between misfire and hang fire was about one minute.  A later reenactment of the steps leading up to the accident confirmed that this amount of time may indeed have elapsed. 

Based on actual incidents and Murphy's Law, the Armory advises that a shooter not attempt to dispose of a misfired round by shooting it.  It just isn't worth the risk.  It is also a good idea to wait several minutes before you attempt to clear a misfire.  

In addition to misfires and hang fires caused by faulty ammunition, the shooter may encounter difficulties due to firearm malfunction.  When compared to revolvers, autoloaders experience more mechanical problems.  A cartridge in a pistol will sometimes fail to feed, fail to fire, fail to extract or fail to eject.

When a malfunction or "jam" occurs, it is important that you use extreme caution in your attempt to clear it.  Use only your finger or wooden "tools", such as a short piece of dowel rod with a point on one end.  Wood will not tend to damage the chamber or magazine of the pistol and is not likely to ignite the cartridge primer.      

A failure to extract is sometimes caused by just a slight build up of gunk in the chamber of a pistol.  The gunk may consist of an accumulation of bullet lubricant, oil or grease, propellant residue and dust or dirt.  Life gets really exciting when the round that is stuck in the chamber is a misfire!

Should this happen to you, again wait!  Make sure the bolt or slide on the pistol remains closed on the misfire while you patiently pass the time.  Your gun will be pointed in a safe direction.  When you feel it is safe to do so, open the action on the pistol and pry the round out with your pointed dowel rod, stout tooth pick, or something similar.

Don't attempt to "pop" the misfire out from the muzzle end of the barrel with a cleaning rod.  The result would be disastrous should the misfire really be a hang fire, and ignite with an obstruction in the barrel.  Yes, the Armory is aware of a incident in which this exact event almost occurred!

Why is so much of the discussion regarding handgun selection devoted to safety?  The reason is that your health and well being is of paramount importance.  In order to enjoy, appreciate and properly handle your firearm of choice, you should be fully aware of  its merits, capabilities and limitations.

Although extremely reliable, both guns and ammunition can malfunction.  Therefore, it is necessary to become familiar with the concepts and associated terms which describe malfunctions, such as: misfire, hang fire, squib load (a faulty cartridge whose underpowered bullet gets stuck in the barrel), failure to feed, failure to fire, failure to extract and failure to eject, among others.  The knowledge and skill to safely and confidently deal with these types of malfunctions is acquired through an ongoing process of education, exposure and experience.  

Unlike rim fired cartridges, the "brass" or casing of a used or spent centered fired cartridge can be fitted with a new primer, propellant powder and bullet, and reused.  The ability to "recycle" brass is an attraction of center fired cartridges, and many shooters enjoy reloading both as a hobby and as an economical means of acquiring ammunition.  The gun industry has responded to this pastime, and various types of reloading equipment on the market make "loading your own" convenient and affordable.

Note that several types of center fired brass cannot be reloaded.  These include "budget" rounds marketed by the primary ammunition manufacturers under subsidiary enterprises such as UMC (Remington), Blazer (CCI/Speer) and American Eagle (Federal), as well as Russian and other types of foreign ammunition which may utilize either a steel (instead of brass) casing or the "berdon" two-holed primer (instead of the "boxer" one-holed primer).   

Caliber is the term used to describe the diameter of the actual bullet or projectile in the cartridge in terms of hundredths of an inch (English units) or millimeters (metric units).  Rounds expressed in metric terms often depict the length as well, with the diameter followed by the length.  The common range of handgun ammunition is .22 to .50 inches. The most ubiquitous European-derived handgun cartridge is the 9x19mm Parabellum (Latin meaning "for war"), also known as simply 9mm, 9mm Luger or 9mm NATO.  Another popular metric round is the 9mm Kurz (German meaning "short"), also known as the 9x17mm, 9mm Browning or .380ACP.  The "ACP" suffix appended to some cartridge designations refers to "Automatic Colt Pistol", meaning the design is intended for use in a self-loading firearm.  The 10mm is a round of relatively recent American origin.  

In addition to their diameter, bullets are characterized by weight.  The weight of a bullet is expressed in terms of "grains", the smallest unit of weight in the English system.  This method of measuring weight relied on the relationship between the number of grains of wheat that were equal to one pound: 7000 grains.  Within any given caliber, a wide range of bullet weights are offered by the various ammunition manufacturers. 

You will find that many of the parameters associated with firearms are described in archaic, but nevertheless traditional terms, reflecting a long and rich history.  For a different perspective on units of measurement, that of a cowboy, you may wish to visit Fun Stuff  to ascertain exactly what is meant by a "cowful".  

The performance of a bullet relates to its ability to satisfy a given purpose.  The design of the cartridge is typically a function of experimentation and experience.  Scientific and empirical methods are also used to measure and ascertain bullet performance.     

Factors which contribute to performance include cartridge shape and dimensions, type and amount of propellant (gunpowder), and bullet size, weight, shape, and composition.  Resulting performance  characteristics represent the ballistics of the bullet, which describe its motion and impact.  Parameters include energy, velocity, trajectory, as well as bullet penetration and potential for expansion.

The purposes for which various cartridges have been designed are almost infinite.  They run the gamut from hobby, recreation, sport,  competition, hunting, predator control and self defense to law enforcement and military.  Each intended purpose has a relatively small number of specific cartridges which have proven themselves over the years to be the most suited for that use.  However, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a shooter's attraction to a particular cartridge will involve a myriad of factors that are personal, intangible, and subjective as well as quantifiable and objective.  

"Wildcat" rounds are occasionally produced be either hobbyists or industry entrepreneurs.  These type of cartridges are experimental in nature because they incorporate new variations on casing dimensions, propellant loadings, and bullet calibers, weights, shapes and compositions.  Wildcatting attempts to produce a cartridge which will "better" satisfy a particular need or objective in terms of bullet performance.  Occasionally, a wildcat round may become popular to the extent that firearm and ammunition manufacturers decide to produce guns and factory loadings that bring it into the mainstream.

Some of the newer handgun cartridges introduced in this century that are finding popularity include the .327 Federal Magnum, the .480 Ruger and the .500 Smith & Wesson.

 

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Revolver vs. Autoloader

Type of Action

 

Selection of Caliber