I'd actually had something else planned for today's blog, but it was pretty lame compared to this!
Over at Forgotten Weapons, Ian posted this video about how to remove Cosmoline: that sticky, nasty, smelly but highly effective rust prevention grease so commonly used on military arms.
Some people really get addicted to the stuff; me, I hate it. I admit that it does its job remarkably well, however, and even though I generally admire things which work well I still can't work up much enthusiasm for this!
Everyone has their own little tricks and techniques for dealing with Cosmoline, but the hot water bath method is the easiest and quickest way I know to get rid of the petroleum goo. If you've never had the pleasure, here's your introduction!
When I was visiting with Massad Ayoob up at Firearms Academy of Seattle last spring, he mentioned that he was doing an article for GUNS Magazine about the hammerless S&W J-frames, and asked me for some opinions. Gail Pepin took some pictures, and today you can see the results over at GUNS Magazine.
It's odd, really. This is the time of year that I pine for the long days of summer that are sure to come, and in the heat of that season I wish the early darkenings of winter would get here sooner. I guess I'm just never happy with the here and now!
The whole zombie schtick has long since jumped the shark, and my thoughts on the utility of a .410 shotgun revolver are well known. It shouldn't have come as a surprise that someone would combine the two, and likewise it won’t be a difficult task to figure out what I think of the thing. (Thanks to Tam for ruining my breakfast with this news.)
Trying to catch up with emails, snail mails, parts orders, and everything else around the shop isn't being helped lately. You may remember that my wife decided I needed someone to keep my company during work hours, so she brought in Shop Kat. Turns out that SK is a girl, which we learned when she finally grew up enough to go into heat. When that happened I decided to take her in for a little surgical modification, but as it happens that can't be done until she's out of heat. I thought that if I kept a close eye on her during her infrequent and short outings during that time things would be under control, as I'd seen no stray cats in the neighborhood. You can guess what happened next.
I now have a pile (seven, to be precise) balls of fur who are about six weeks old. They're constantly underfoot, seem to think everything exists for their own amusement, and are generally making the shop difficult to work in. I wear an apron while I work and they seem particularly amused by the parts of it that they can reach. Anyone want a free kitten (or two?)
I've got a couple of interesting articles by Ed Harris which I'm going to run on coming Fridays in place of the Friday Surprise. Ed's got some great stuff and addresses areas of the shooting world that aren't in my normal purview. I think you'll find them interesting.
In the next month I'll be working on my teaching schedule for 2012. If you'd like to book a class now's the time to start the process!
Of course I'll be teaching my flagship Revolver Doctrine course; if you liked my book, you'll love this class! I take you through the revolver, showing you how to shoot it, reload it, manipulate it with one hand, and more. It's a one-day class that can be held on nearly any range, and doesn't require drawing from a holster. It's a great introduction for anyone who is new to the revolver, regardless of their past shooting experience.
I'm also available to teach Combat Focus Shooting classes, both one- and two-day. CFS teaches you the most efficient ways to defeat a threat, ways that work with what your body does naturally. CFS classes are open to revolvers and autoloaders (much as I hate to admit it, I do know how to run an auto. Let's just keep that between the two of us, OK?)
A great combination is what I call the Defensive Revolver Weekend, which combines Revolver Doctrine on the first day and Combat Focus Shooting on the second. RD teaches you how to operate the revolver, while CFS teaches you how to use it to protect you or those you love. This is a great way to take these classes, as there is some overlap which is eliminated when they're back-to-back. The result is that we get in more material than we would if the classes were separated. (This combined version of Revolver Doctrine does require drawing from a holster.)
I’m available for classes all over the western U.S. How do you go about booking a class? It's easier than you might think, and you can train for free just by hosting at your local range! Email me for the details.
Looking even further ahead, I'm considering teaching a master class on Colt revolver gunsmithing. This wouldn't happen until at least 2013, but I'd like to throw out some feelers now to see if anyone might be interested. If so, drop me a note; if I have enough interest, I'll develop the course tailored to your interests.
Well, I think that's enough for one Monday. I'm going to return some emails then go do battle with some very intimidating kittens!
Over the last few months I've gotten several emails about light primer strikes -- and attendant misfires -- with the S&W 686SSR revolver.
The 686SSR is from Smith & Wesson's "Pro" line, which sits between the semi-customs of the Performance Center and the run-of-the-mill production items. The 686SSR has, among other features, a 'bossed' mainspring (which looks suspiciously like a Wolff 'Power Rib' spring.) The idea behind the spring design is twofold: first, reduce the spring force at the beginning of tension, making for a trigger which feels more progressive; second, preserve the mainspring arch at reduced spring weight.
The second point probably deserves an explanation. A common method of lightening the hammer spring on a S&W is to shorten the strain screw slightly. When done with a standard flat mainspring the arch is reduced, which often leads to interference between the grip screw and the spring. Having a higher arch, which the ribbed springs provide, allows for full grip screw clearance even at reduced trigger weights.
The problem is that even with the so-called 'full power' ribbed springs misfires occasionally happen. This seems to be due to the slightly lessened spring force at the beginning of hammer travel, which is also the end of the hammer travel -- when ignition occurs. This is exacerbated by the new California-compliant firing pins that S&W uses, which are shorter and lighter than the old versions. This presumably allows the gun to pass California's drop test, as I can fathom no other reason for the part to exist.
The short firing pin can easily be replaced by an extra-length version from Cylinder & Slide or Apex Tactical. This usually solves these kinds of ignition issues, though thorough testing needs to be done with any individual gun to verify reliability.
Every so often I work on a gun that I personally want, and this is one of them.
Three-inch GP100s are a little uncommon in the typical stainless, but the blued versions are downright scarce. The owner of this gun wanted something special, and I think he got it!
We started with a Super Action Job, which took the DA pull down to a reliable 9.5 lbs and the single action to 3 lbs. The muzzle was recrowned, the chambers were chamfered for more efficient reloading, and the trigger was rounded and polished smooth (with the sides finished in a contrasting satin sheen.) The back edges of the trigger were radiused to prevent pinching; a trigger stop was installed, which I adjusted to .010" of overtravel in single action.
The hammer spur was dehorned and rounded, and the sides of the hammer were finished to match the sides of the trigger.
The entire gun was dehorned (all sharp edges and corners removed) and finished in my Black Pearl blue. When it came out of the bluing tanks, a Gemini Custom fiber optic front sight was pinned into the front barrel, and to complete the two-tone look a stainless ejector rod was substituted for the blued part. The rod was satin finished to match the trigger and hammer.
To tell the truth, I didn't want to send it back to its owner. My personal stainless version seems so sterile in comparison!
Over the years I've gotten a number of inquiries that sound something like this: "I was reading a forum about Rugers locking the trigger when shooting fast. What's with that - any truth?"
This is a question that comes up often enough that I've actually written a boilerplate answer that I paste into my email replies. I think it's worth discussing here.
First, the wording of the question (and the complaint that engenders the question) implies that the gun is somehow at fault. It's not! It's an operator issue, pure and simple: the shooter is not letting the trigger reset fully before commencing another cycle. If the trigger is reset all the way forward, the problem doesn't occur. It matters not how quickly the gun is fired as long as the trigger is properly reset.
If the trigger isn't reset on a S&W revolver, the common sequence is the cylinder rotating to the next live round but the hammer not being activated. This is called a 'short stroke' and results in a skipped round. The trigger then has to be reset and pulled again to get another round under the hammer and fire. If the same thing is done on a Ruger, the trigger locks in the forward position, not advancing the cylinder or firing a round, until - again! - the trigger is allowed to reset.
The net result with both systems is the same: if the shooter wants another shot, he/she must let the trigger reset fully before commencing another pull. The only difference is that the S&W will skip a round and the Ruger won't. The cause and remedy are the same with both guns; only the symptoms are different.
(It's possible Ruger designed their action specifically to avoid the S&W 'short stroke' issue. Perhaps Ed Harris will read this and chime in as to the design philosophy behind the Ruger's lockwork.)
That having been said, there is a difference between the way that Ruger approaches the trigger reset sequence and the way that S&W does it, and it does have a small influence on shooter behavior. As the Ruger resets, at one point it transmits a unique and very discernible "click" through the trigger. At the point the 'click' happens, the cylinder bolt - the little thing at the bottom of the frame that pops up to lock the cylinder - hasn't yet reset, which means the cylinder is still locked and the trigger isn't yet be able to unlock it. The hand, which rotates the cylinder and is attached to the trigger, is trying to rotate something that's held solid. It's a little like trying to turn a doorknob that's locked, and that's what the shooter feels through the trigger.
Again, it doesn't matter how fast the trigger is operated as long as the operator allows the trigger to reset completely. This seems to be a particular issue with shooters who have a lot of experience with autoloading pistols, where it's commonly taught to feel for a click denoting trigger reset and immediately commence another trigger press. It works with autoloaders, but not with revolvers. (This is yet another example of autopistol techniques being inappropriately applied to revolver shooting, hence my saying: a revolver IS NOT a low-capacity autoloader!)
When I do action work on the Ruger guns I do some things to reduce that false reset indication. It's not possible to make it go away completely, but I can reduce it enough (and change the initiation point just a bit) that most shooters no longer notice.
Still, it's worth remembering that the Ruger 'problem' is only a problem if the shooter doesn't understand the idea of trigger reset. S&W has a problem too, but for some reason it's not a bone of contention to the same extent as Ruger's behavior. Both are a consequence of inadequately experienced shooters, not any design fault with the guns.
One of the features that Chiappa touts about the Rhino are the roller bearings used in the action. The Rhino has four such bearings, two each on the hammer spring lever and the return lever:
The picture shows the back (underside) of the two parts, because the rollers are not visible when installed in the gun. (Please refer to pictures from previous episodes showing these parts installed in the Rhino.)
Each lever has a captured roller bearing on which an arm of the mainspring rides. The other roller on each is on an open pin, and the rollers are easily removed. (They're also easy to lose when installing the parts in the gun, unless they've been greased ahead of time and thus stuck to their pins as they're assembled.)
The mainspring rollers ride along the surface of the wire torsion mainspring. As the parts move they slide up and down the mainspring; if the rollers weren't there this sliding would a source of significant friction. This approach isn't completely successful, however, due largely to how the rollers are constructed.
Because the surface of the rollers is flat the mainspring can ride from side to side. At virtually no time does the mainspring not rub on the sides that contain the rollers, and this means friction. If the roller bearings are designed to reduce friction, they are only partially successful.
There is another potential downside to this design. Though I had no problems in testing, there exists the possibility - however remote - that the mainspring could "jump the tracks" and come off the roller. If that happened the gun would be non functional until disassembled. This is not dissimilar to a rare condition faced by the trigger return spring in the small frame Dan Wesson revolvers, which on occasion would slip off its saddle on the trigger, tying up the gun. Again, I haven't seen or heard of any problem, but having experience with a revolver which on occasion does exhibit such a weakness I'd prefer that Chiappa err on the side of prevention.
The solution found for the Dan Wesson may be useful in the Rhino: make the part with a groove in which the mainspring can ride. This would ensure that the mainspring is always following the most friction-free path, and would make it much less likely that the mainspring could be forced off track.
The other two rollers transmit the mainspring power to other operating parts. The hammer spring lever's roller rides in a slot on the hammer (clearly visible in earlier pictures.) The roller bearing is always pushing on the side of that slot to power the hammer, and sliding back and forth as the hammer moves. Were it not for the roller bearing, this sliding - under the full force of the mainspring - would make the gun much more difficult than it already is to cock in either single or double action.
The other roller, on the return lever, pulls the lifting lever (hand) back to the rest position as the trigger is released. This force is transmitted back through the action, working against the leverage of the parts, to reset the entire lockwork. Excess friction at this point could cause the trigger to stick during reset, and that's what the roller is designed to prevent.
Given their importance to the design, I was surprised to find that the machining quality wasn't as good as the rest of the gun. The operating surfaces of the bearings were surprisingly rough and no doubt generated more friction than they probably should. In addition the bearings were quite sloppy on their pivots, which raises the possibility of backlash and attendant friction losses. This sloppiness also contributes to the mainspring friction problem detailed above, as the rollers get pushed to one side and create a trough in which the mainspring rides.
Closely fitted bearings with perfectly smooth surfaces should result in small but noticeable changes to the operating effort that the Rhino requires, as well as helping to smooth the very gritty trigger return the gun exhibits. Though I haven't analyzed this from a strength of materials standpoint, replacement bearings carefully made from impregnated bronze might be an excellent choice to improve the Rhino's function.
I hope this teardown of the Chiappa Arms Rhino revolver has been useful to you! If you haven't listened to my ProArms Podcast interview about the Rhino pop over to their site and listen - there's a lot to say about my shooting experience with this unusual revolver. If you're a United States Concealed Carry Association member, check out my review in the next issue of Concealed Carry Magazine. (Not a member? You should be!)
First let's take a look at the assembled action for some perspective:
The mainspring serves two functions. Through the Hammer Spring Lever, it powers the hammer to fire the rounds, and through the Return Lever it resets the trigger and all the internal mechanisms. This is not different conceptually than the single spring used in a traditional "V"-spring Colt, or the single coil spring used in the Ruger Redhawk - though it is substantially more complicated than either of those.
The Hammer Spring Lever and the Return Lever share a common pivot pin, and the mainspring is held under tension between them. The mainspring forces the Hammer Spring Lever to rotate counter-clockwise, while it simultaneously applies force to the Return Lever in a clockwise direction. Taking out the unnecessary parts for clarity, we can get a better look at how the Return Lever functions:
The Return Lever's force is clockwise, and as a result is always trying to pull the Lifting Lever (what everyone else calls a 'hand') downward. The Lifting Lever has a hook shape at its bottom end, which curls around a projection on the underside of the Return Lever. The Interlink Lever has a projection on its left end, which also has a peg on the underside. This peg fits into a hole in the Lifting Lever.
The Cylinder Stop Lever projects up through the frame and engages the notches on the cylinder, locking it in place so that the chamber is aligned with the barrel. As the trigger is operated, the Interlink Lever rotates clockwise; a rounded projection on its right side fits into a semi-circular recess in the Cylinder Stop Lever. As the projection moves downward it pulls the Cylinder Stop Lever with it, releasing the cylinder so that it can turn.
The Interlink Lever, connected to the Lifting Lever through the hidden pin on its backside, also transmits its clockwise rotation to the Lifting Lever, causing it to rise. The Lifting Lever has a finger that projects through the frame (in a more-or-less conventional fashion), engaging the unlocked cylinder and rotating it.
As the trigger completes its travel and the gun has fired, the shooter relaxes pressure on the trigger. The Return Lever - now under a fully tensioned mainspring - rotates clockwise, the projection on its right side engaging the large "C" on the Lifting Lever and pulling it back down to the rest position. The Lifting Lever pushes the Interlink Lever downward (counter-clockwise), which in turn pushes the trigger back to its home position.
If your head isn't swimming yet you may have a future as a Rhino gunsmith!
The mechanism is full of friction points, and the only way this guns works as well as it does is because of how those friction points are handled. In the final installment of this series, we'll look at what makes all this complication possible: the Rhino's unique roller bearing system.
As I mentioned last time, the Rhino's double action is a little more conventional - but not a whole lot!
First, we need to take a look at the left side of the hammer. It sits against the inside of the frame, and without seeing it you won't be able to grasp what's happening.
The 'hammer sear' is referred to by other makers as a 'double action strut'. In most revolvers a sear protrusion on the trigger sits under this piece, and when the trigger is pulled that protrusion lifts the strut upward, which rotates the hammer back. At some point the trigger extension slips out from under the strut, and the hammer falls. When the trigger is released, the strut (which is spring loaded) allows the trigger protrusion to slip back under the strut. The Rhino’s hammer sear does serves the same task in the same way.
(One thing about the Rhino’s hammer sear I found a little concerning: every other revolver manufacturer makes this part significantly larger and thicker, as well as orienting it to the sear extension at a nearly vertical angle of incidence. In the Rhino the part is smaller, thinner, and the force applied to it puts significant upward strain on the part’s bend. Given the generally good construction and material choice in the rest of the gun I suspect it’s not going to be a problem, but it does give one pause when considering what it’s asked to do!)
Anyhow, back to the action...
The operation on the Rhino is similar to what I’ve described, except the extension isn't on the trigger. Just as in single action, the trigger connects to the interlink lever via the connecting rod and the interlink lever is doing the actual work. Other than that, the operation is fairly close to what we're used to.
(I've removed the mainspring and some of the Rhino's parts so that you can see this a little more clearly.)
With the trigger partway pulled, you can see that the hammer is being pushed back. In the red circle (yeah, I know - it’s a poor excuse for a circle) you can see the extension of the interlink lever reaching back behind the hammer to engage the hammer sear. The hammer spring lever, which is usually under tension from the mainspring, wants to rotate counter-clockwise; a pin with a roller bearing rides in the wide slot milled in the hammer (previous picture), which gives the hammer it desire for forward movement. As the hammer is pushed back by the interlink lever, it rotates the hammer spring lever clockwise, against the mainspring tension.
The hammer is now back as far as it is going in double action, and is about to slip off the protrusion on the interlink lever.
The hammer starts to fall.....
...and hits the firing pin, igniting the round. The trigger is now ready to reset; where does it get the spring power to do so? We'll look at that next time, along with the hand - the two are linked together, and I can't talk about one without going into detail about the other!
I've gotten the hint! People have reminded me that I've been neglectful in posting pictures. I remembered this as I was packing a gun up for shipment today, and decided you might like to see it. I stepped out the door, threw down a piece of corrugated aluminum, and took this quick snapshot.
The Model 13 with the heavy 3" barrel is one of my very favorite Smiths, and yet I've never owned one. This one came in with a gorgeous original finish, which the owner wanted changed to a Black Pearl finish. I talked him out of it (and cost myself some revenue), but it would have been a shame to destroy this beautiful, very shiny factory blue. There is a very small spot of holster wear at the front of the muzzle, but other than that it is nearly flawless.
The gun did receive a Super Action Job, along with chamfering the chambers and converting the gun to DAO. I had no problem with the conversion, as simply replacing the hammer - a common "K" frame part - is all that it would take to return the gun to a stock appearance.
I must apologize for being a bit late with this one. Last month I was interviewed on the "Meet the Smiths" segment of the Personal Armament podcast. I'd planned to put a note on the blog when the interview was published, but forgot about it until yesterday. That’s when I fired up iTunes for the first time in several weeks, refreshed the podcast list, and -- there it was!
The podcast is a good listen even when I'm not the guest. (Hmm. That sounded vaguely conceited, didn't it?) Rob Robideau is a solid interviewer; he asks great questions, and is flexible enough to pursue different lines of inquiry when they show promise. Most interviews are heavily edited, but he's polished enough that what you hear is pretty much how we recorded it.
As I find time I'm downloading and listening to his back episodes, and they are terrific.
A recent email asked my help with a problem. The writer, who had purchased a new gun to compete in the IDPA revolver class, had taken the strain screw out of his S&W 686 and shortened it to reduce the trigger pull weight. When he put his grips back on, he found that the grip screw wouldn't go through the frame, and he could see that the mainspring was now blocking the screw's path.
He asked why this happened, and what could be done about the problem.
When the strain screw is shortened, the mainspring arch is changed. The strain screw is very close to the bottom of the spring, near the pivot point where the spring contacts the frame, and has tremendous leverage. Because of that leverage, small changes in the screw's length make big changes in the amount of arch the spring exhibits. This in turn lowers the pull weight.
The problem is that the grip screws are all positioned on an assumption of the mainspring remaining in the stock position. As the arch of the spring is decreased, it moves toward the muzzle of the gun and ultimately intrudes on the path of the grip screw. This is why reduced rate mainsprings are produced by Wolff (and one or two others.) These springs are designed to have a reduced weight while maintaining a close-to-stock arch profile.
The solution to this problem is to get a reduced power mainspring and a new strain screw (which will need fitting to achieve the desired pull weight.)
Changing the function of any part in a mechanism can have undesired side effects, and it is best to proceed cautiously unless you know with certainty the outcome.
Over the years I've gotten a number of inquiries about becoming a gunsmith. I've dashed off short answers to some, but was forced to ignore many others simply due to the amount of information that the answer demands. Here in full (or as full as I'm going to get) is my advice on becoming a gunsmith.
First let's consider what kind of gunsmith we're talking about. Some "gunsmiths" are really nothing more than parts changers - people who can disassemble a gun, manage to figure out what part needs replacing, order one from Brownell's, and reassemble the gun with the new part. It might even run when they're done! At this level there is very little money to be made; most such people are employed at minimum wage, perhaps slightly better, by sporting goods and "box" stores. They'll usually spend most of their time mounting cheap scopes on cheap rifles - that is, when they're not stocking shelves and attending to other rather menial retail tasks. This is the kind of job that a mailorder "gunsmithing" course qualifies one to hold.
The next step up is the ability to fit ready-made parts and make minor adjustments to actions. If the timing of someone's S&W revolver is off, people at this level can drop in a new hand, do the necessary minor fitting, and hand the customer a gun which functions again. A person with these skills might be able to do simple action work, smoothing out the roughest parts of a trigger, do bedding jobs on hunting guns, or perhaps assemble an AR-15 from parts and perhaps have it function correctly. The money's a little better, but one is still spending a lot of time putting scopes on WalMart rifles. Such people are most likely working for someone else - perhaps a local gun store - because there isn't enough value in what they do to run a specialty shop.
This intermediate level MIGHT be learned via correspondence, IF the person is mechanically inclined, inquisitive about the results, and motivated to buy many broken guns and learn on them. It does require hands-on experience, but the driven person can probably learn on his/her own as long as enough reference materials are procured.
At the top you have true gunsmiths. These are the talented men and women who can make and fit stocks from scratch, who can fabricate metal parts when necessary, who can diagnose complex problems and correct them the first time, who can make a worn out and abused gun look and work like new again. These people can actually make a living as gunsmiths, sometimes a quite decent living, and virtually always work for themselves.
It takes a broad range of skills and interests to be such a gunsmith, though most (like me) specialize in one area. At this level the most important skills are not necessarily gun-specific: machining, welding, polishing and heat treating of metal, woodwork, and finishing for both wood and metal. These are skills that need a certain amount of equipment, and can't be learned from a mailorder course.
Many such gunsmiths acquired knowledge from one of the dedicated gunsmithing schools, though you'll find some very well-known gunsmiths either came from a related field and self taught the relevant firearms knowledge, or apprenticed to a Master in the trade.
I'll confine the rest of my comments to becoming a true gunsmith as I've defined the term. If you're serious about making a living, this is the level to which you need to aspire.
First off, understand that you'll need excellent mechanical aptitude, an inquisitive nature, and a drive to do nothing but the best in order to succeed. Without each of those, you simply won't make it in this field.
If you are starting from scratch, the best course of action is probably to attend one of the dedicated gunsmithing schools. There are perhaps a half-dozen around the country, but the two I'm familiar with are both in Colorado: Trinidad College and Colorado School of Trades. I've met graduates from both schools and have been impressed with their skill and professionalism. This isn't to say that the other schools don't turn out good graduates, only that these are the schools whose graduates are familiar to me.
If for some reason you can't make it to such a school, all is not lost. It will take a little longer, and you'll have to do it piecemeal, but it can be done with resources that are likely to be in your area. What follows will sound roundabout, but should serve to impress upon you the wide range of skills a gunsmith must have.
If you're not mechanically inclined, you'll need to be introduced to the principles of mechanical devices. Auto repair courses are available in every community college and are a great way to get used to seeing how parts interact, anticipating and diagnosing problems, and generally getting comfortable with complex mechanisms. (On a personal note, I find many people today surprisingly averse to getting their hands dirty. Gunsmithing can be a dirty job, and if you're at all squeamish about such things an automotive course would be a good attitude adjuster.)
Many adult education programs across this country feature courses in clock repair, usually taught as a hobby to retired folks by retired watch & clockmakers. These classes have most of the advantages of an auto repair class, along with getting accustomed to working with small parts. Starting this way will put you in good company: I learned my mechanical skills as a teenager when I became a clock and watchmaker, and another gunsmith you may have heard of - Bill Wilson of Wilson Combat - started out as a watchmaker, too.
The next step is to develop some relevant skills in metalwork. The best way to do this is by taking every machine shop and welding class your local community college offers. Learn how to work with metal: forming, machining, hardening and tempering, finishing. If you plan to do serious rifle work, you'll probably need to take classes in woodcarving and fine furniture building too. The things you'll learn in those classes are the things I do every single day, and without that breadth of knowledge I could never accomplish the work that I do. The "gun stuff" is relatively easy in comparison, as long as those basic skills are in place.
If a tool and die making course is available to you, it would be a great advantage to take it.
Once you have those skills in hand, you'll need to get some extensive firearm-specific knowledge. You have several avenues; first, you can attend some specialized (limited duration) classes at the aforementioned schools to learn how to apply those skills to guns. Another avenue is to take classes from a well-known gunsmith. Ron Power and Bill Laughridge, for example, both offer weekend classes on specific topics. Finally, you could apprentice to a master gunsmith and work for him/her on an occasional basis to pick up what you need. (Before anyone asks, no - I'm not currently interested in taking on an apprentice!)
An extremely talented and motivated person could, possibly, get this information from books, but not without the base skills discussed above, and certainly not without mechanical aptitude.
Because most of the good gunsmiths work for themselves you'll need to have some talent in business management and sales/marketing. Since this is a people business, those with unpleasant personalities or poor communication skills will be at a disadvantage. You have to like guns and you have to like gun owners! These days a working knowledge of using the internet as a business tool is almost a necessity, as is a good website.
To get started will require some capital investment on your part. You'll need a suitable lathe, milling machine, welding equipment, a wide variety of hand tools, air compressor, benches, tooling for the lathe and mill, and a seemingly endless list of specialized - and expensive - gunsmithing tools. A skilled machinist (which you should be if you've followed my advice) can make many of them, but there are many more that really need to be purchased. That runs into money!
How much money depends on what you plan to do and how good you are at bargain hunting, but you're unlikely to get in for less than $20,000 unless you run into a string of screaming good deals. (That’s on top of your schooling, of course.) I’ve heard from a couple of gunsmiths who’ve done it recently, and they tell me that two or three times that figure may be more realistic if you’re buying mostly new tools. What you specialize in will have a dramatic effect on your investment.
You'll need to have the resources to make that level of financial commitment, plus the additional resources to weather the inevitable startup phase. Plan on being without a solid income for at least a year as you build your business. Every truly capable gunsmith I've met has done it in a matter of months, but that's not a guarantee that you can or that your market can support such growth. Plan for the worst, and if it doesn't happen so much the better!
Finally, you'll find lots of failed "gunsmiths" in the internet forums who will be glad to tell you how hard the gunsmithing trade is: how expensive it is to get started, how you can't make a living at it, and so on. Keep in mind that you won't find too many successful gunsmiths hanging around those places, because we're frankly too busy to bother!
Yes, it's a tough business. Guess what? All businesses are tough. I've owned a number of business concerns in my life, and helped start several others, and none of them were easy. Gunsmithing is no different. Don't listen to the naysayers who got in thinking it would be a sure thing, who thought that they could succeed despite being ignorant and obnoxious. If you have the skills and the business acumen, if you like dealing with people, and finally if you like guns and shooting, you can be a successful gunsmith. All it takes is hard work!
In the past I've mentioned that I don't spend much time on the various gun forums ('fora', to be excruciatingly correct.) My free time is too precious to spend wading through such drivel as "my instructor can beat up your instructor" or "the .45 is so powerful it knocks people off their feet!" The only time, in fact, that I look at a forum is when I'm eating breakfast or lunch and have nothing better to read.
It was at lunch last week that I came across one of my personal favorites: the statement that stacking (increase in trigger pressure toward the end of the stroke) is a function of the mainspring used. It's usually stated in the form "don't buy a revolver with coil springs - it causes stacking. Buy leaf spring actions to avoid stacking."
Hogwash, and what's more it's easily illustrated to be such.
S&W revolvers, particularly the 'N' frames, are known for having pretty linear trigger pulls. They use leaf springs. Colt revolvers such as the Python and Detective Special use leaf springs as well, yet are (in)famous for their stacking triggers.
On the other hand, the GP100 has a relatively linear trigger, similar in travel to an 'N' frame Smith. It uses a coil spring. Wait a minute, though - the earlier Ruger "Six" series (Speed-Six, Service-Six, etc.), despite having a very similar action design, stack noticeably.
Simple. The type of spring, coil or leaf, has very little to do with the amount of stacking in a trigger. The real culprit is the geometry of the double action sear. The stacking on a Python, for instance, can be eliminated by changing the geometry of the sear surfaces. The Ruger "Sixes" can likewise be modified to produce a linear pull through the simple expedient of reshaping certain parts of the sear. If stacking were caused by the spring alone, this kind of modification wouldn’t be possible.
Of course this doesn't address the implicit assertion that stacking is bad and linear is good. Some folks prefer their triggers to stack and seek out those guns that do. The one thing they don't have to consider is the type of spring!
I have a bad habit of picking something up, walking around with it, then putting it down in an inconspicuous place and forgetting about it. Causes no end of problems around my house!
For instance, yesterday I was working on someone’s S&W. I picked up a tool, then remembered something I needed at the other end of the shop. Instead of putting this tool down on my bench - which is where it came from - I carried it with me. Somewhere between my bench and my destination I managed to lose the thing!
It’s in there, somewhere, but after an hour-and-a-half of searching yesterday I still hadn’t found it. Today I’m going to tidy up the shop (a task I’m not at all fond of) and see if that doesn’t turn it up. If not, I’ll have to get another one.
This is why I have two of everything. I only know where one is at any given time, however.
Do you have a recurring task that you put off because it's just so...annoying? For many people paying bills falls under that classification; for others, doing the dishes. In my job, it's tracking down parts.
If I'm working on a gun of recent manufacture, it's just a matter of popping onto the website of one of the parts houses and ordering up as many as I need. For guns that are out of production, or are of a vintage when the parts were of a different configuration, I have to hunt them down. With Colts everything is discontinued, and the very small number of used parts that are available are hard to find and are often not serviceable. I have to hunt those parts down.
I hate parts hunting.
Hunting takes up a lot of time, especially because many of the better parts houses don't have their inventories online. I have to call them up, in some cases multiple times because their phones are always busy, ask for the part, wait for them to check if they have the right one, and if they don't I have to repeat the procedure with the next company.
It chews up a lot of time, time which I'd rather spend working. It's also often unproductive, so I end up making the same calls for the same parts over and over. Is it any wonder I put it off?
Today is parts hunting day, which I've been putting off for several weeks. Now I have even more parts to hunt down, which makes it worse!
Wish me luck. Not in terms of finding parts, but that I don't go stark raving mad in the process!
I get lots of strange emails, and sometimes a patten emerges in the subject matter. A year or so ago, I was getting frequent inquiries as to the cost of custom making a top-break revolver in .44 Magnum or .454 Casull. My stock answer was a) you don't have the kind of money it would take, and b) I'm not the guy to be asking. After a while even that became tedious, and I round-filed every subsequent one that came in.
Those emails finally stopped, but they've been replaced by emails asking if I can modify a S&W to have a gas seal mechanism like a Nagant. They invariably mention that they would like to be able to suppress such a gun.
The first couple I answered in the negative; after they started coming in every week or so (yes, from different people), I decided to go into “ignore” mode. There’s just something odd about such a request, particularly coming in quantity, and I rather not encourage continued dialogue.
Why the sudden interest? The only explanation I can come up with is that some video game or movie features such a gun, prompting the impressionable to send emails to the first few hits that Google gives them. (I should be checking my referral logs...)
Since I'm not of the sort that often goes to the movies, let alone plays video games, perhaps someone out there could tell me if they've seen such a thing in either of those venues?
Many people tell me that they'd love to have my job: "it must be fun to play with all those cool guns and get paid for it!"
Lest others be deluded into thinking that this business is all fun and games, allow me to supply a dose of reality: somedays it literally doesn't pay to get out of bed.
Last Thursday was just such a day. It started with the need to make a 'spud'. No, not a potato - a 'spud' is a metal pilot that aligns a cutter with a bore. They're used as guides for such things as chamfering chambers and crowning barrels.
You can buy them ready made, but they come in one size per caliber-specific application. The problem is that if the spud is even .001" off, the quality of the cut will be destroyed. They need to be fitted precisely to the hole in which they will be inserted, and the ready made variety never are. If good work is to be done, they have to be custom made to fit the work.
Over the years I've made a wide range of spuds in various sizes, and because of that selection I usually have one that will fit properly. Occasionally, though, I run into a situation where I need to make yet another one, which is what happened on Thursday. I needed a .216" spud, and the closest I had was .214" - not nearly good enough to properly crown the .22LR barrel on which I was working.
Not a problem! I picked out some appropriate metal and chucked it in the lathe. I made a couple of cuts to get close to finished size, but when I measured the diameter I found that it tapered by roughly .002" throughout the length of the piece! The spud is only a couple of inches long, so a .002" variance in that length is huge. It renders the part unusable.
It's also not supposed to happen.
Annoying, but not insurmountable. I thought that the lathe probably just needed to be re-leveled, which hadn’t been done for a couple of years. I leveled the lathe (which takes a couple of hours if done very carefully), made a test cut, and....it was still off!
Grrrrrr. The next step was to check the lathe’s tailstock for alignment. The tailstock, which supports the end of work in a lathe, has to be precisely aligned along the lathe's longitudinal axis. Otherwise, it pulls the end of the piece left or right, which leads to a taper such as I was finding. I spent the time aligning the tailstock, and a quote from the movie "Ruthless People" poured from my mouth: "Now THAT oughtta do it!"
I went back, tweaked the lathe level, and aligned the tailstock again. The problem persisted.
Put yourself in my place: I've got a top-notch Austrian lathe, the best Swiss measuring instruments, and I'm making parts displaying precision more appropriate to a Kalashnikov clone produced in an unlit cave factory outside of Jalalabad. Something was wrong, and I had to find it. The only hitch was that it was now dinnertime, and due to skipping lunch I was as hungry as could be. The problem would have to wait until the next day.
Friday morning I came into work determined to find the cause. Double checking everything revealed no clues. I replayed the issues in my head, while at the same time resting my hand on the tailstock. I looked down, and it came to me: the live center in the tailstock must be the source of the problem. It was the only thing I'd not checked.
A live center looks like this:
The cone-shaped bit is inserted into a hole in the piece being machined, and the other end goes into the tailstock. The cone revolves on precision ball bearings, keeping the piece aligned as it's rotated by the lathe. Any rotational error will result in inconsistencies in the finished part.
A quick check with a quality (Swiss) test indicator confirmed my fears: .0025" wobble. I checked the piece I'd machined, in several orientations, and sure enough - not only was it tapered, it was also slightly oval, which is exactly the error a worn live center would produce. Bingo!
I ordered up a new live center from my favorite online tool supplier (www.mscdirect.com), and on Monday the smiling UPS man delivered it to my door. The center quickly proved to be the answer; the rotational error was less than .0001", compared to the .0025" wobble of the old one.
With the new center a perfect spud was easily produced, the barrel was beautifully crowned, and the gun will soon be on its way back to a happy shooter.
It only took me a day and a half, plus a not insignificant amount of cash to find and fix the problem. So, want to tell me again how you wish you had my job?
One of the hardest things to predict in this business is workflow. The shop will be humming along, work flying out the door, then suddenly a few large projects (total customs or heavy restorations) come in and the work slows to a snail's pace. Those bottlenecks seem to come in groups, when they're most difficult to deal with. It makes mincemeat out of the most conservative projections!
Occasionally someone will suggest that being a one-man shop is limiting the amount of business I can do, and that I should take on employees. Aside from not wanting the hassle (I was once a corporate lackey with a pile of employees to handle - I know of what I speak), there's also a bit of personal pride involved: if my name is on the work, I think it's important that I actually do said work. If it's good, I want the accolade, and if it's bad I don't want to be reduced to pointing like a 5-year-old and screaming "but it's HIS fault!"
There exists today a well-known gunsmithing concern whose very talented owner used to do all his own work. He "progressed" to having employees, but supervised their work closely. Judging by the recent experiences of several of my clients, he's been reduced to sending out emails explaining why their shoddy work is actually better than the quality product he used to provide.
Personally, no amount of money (or time savings) will convince me to do that - my clients deserve better.
Dog people, I need some advice. We have a year-old Shepherd/Newfoundland mix who won't sleep in the spacious, insulated doghouse we've provided. He'll go in to eat, and he's been known to voluntarily pile his toys in it, but he sleeps on our porch exposed to the rain and wind. One would think that sooner or later he'd get cold enough and wet enough to use it for the intended purpose, but it has yet to happen. Should I just leave him to his misery, since it appears to be of his own choosing?
I'm currently working on a special project based on a Ruger GP100. One of the client's desires is for custom grips made to his specifications. This is where I'm hitting a dead end!
I've spent countless hours looking, with no results, for a custom gripmaker who will work with the GP100. This is why I'm asking my readers, who are some of the most savvy gun enthusiasts around, for help.
The client wants true customs with top notch fit and finish. This automatically disqualifies all of the mass producers, as well as places like Eagle and Ahrends. Since he wants grips made to his desires, the "pattern makers" like Spegel are out, as well.
Are you aware of a custom gripmaker who is not widely known, and perhaps isn't even on anyone's radar? The ideal candidate MUST:
1) Produce first-class work - nothing less. 2) Be able to make grips for the GP100. 3) Understand the unique needs of concealment ("combat") grips. 4) Be able to produce a grip to fit the client's desires/hands.
Beyond that, someone who works in non-traditional materials (micarta, stabilized spalted wood, etc.) would be most welcome. The client isn't set on any specific material; as long as it complements the gun, he'll consider it.
Price is not a concern, as long as it isn't significantly out of line for work of the caliber required. The client knows what first tier work is (this is not his first custom gun), and is willing to pay appropriately.
Now, understand that I've been looking for a while; if the person appears in the first 10 or 15 pages of a Google search for "custom revolver grips", I've probably already contacted him/her. Yes, I've heard of the smaller custom shops like Herrett's, and have contacted countless makers who list Rugers - just to find that they only do grips for Cowboy shooters using guns such as the Vaquero. So, before you send that email, please re-read the criteria above and be sure that your candidate can meet all of them.
As an incentive, the person who supplies information leading me to the right maker will get his/her choice of any shirt in my CafePress store collection! For the gripmaker, in addition to becoming a customer I'll do my best to get his/her name in front of a much larger audience. It's a win for me, the client, the gripmaker, and you!
Getting a late start today, and that means I'm already behind for the week. Sheesh - where does the time go?
Tam talks about the checkering on her gun. While this would seem to be an issue limited to autoloaders, sharp edges on the trigger and frame (particularly inside the cylinder window) have the same effect for wheelgunners. When people ask "what's the best modification I can do to my revolver?", I usually say round the trigger and dehorn the gun. It makes shooting much less of a chore.
Every so often a client will send me one of the S&W Scandium guns for work, and I'm always reminded of how much I dislike shooting the little beasts. Even with standard pressure Specials, the recoil gets to me very quickly. I can't imagine actually shooting one with Magnum loads, and I intend to never find out!
For me it's merely discomfort, but for others the experience could prove more serious.
I constantly encounter women who've been sold those guns, because the sales clerk wrongly assumed that "light" was synonymous with "best for the little lady." This weekend I ran into yet another such case: a thin, older lady. She wanted to know if the Magnum rounds the shop had sold her with the gun would be good for her to shoot! (My immediate thought was "only if you use them on the idiot who sold you this thing!", but I held my tongue.) I cautioned her that the combination of those rounds with her very thin, somewhat frail build could result in permanent nerve damage to her hands. I hope she got the message.
The best recommendation I have for such cases is a box of the 125gn Federal Nyclad standard-pressure Specials.
Serendipity...I wrote last week about a 2" Model 15 I'd recently worked on, and since then I've run into several of the things. The latest was yesterday, when buddy Jim Jacobe opened a case and said "weren't you just talking about how much you liked these?" I swear, if I wrote about a .577 Tranter he'd pull one out of his safe to show me...
Now it's time for me to get some work done. Happy Monday!
Occasionally someone will ask me if the muzzle crown is all that important. In the past I'd probably say something like "only if you want the bullet to go where you're aiming!", but I'm trying to reduce my percentage of flippant answers. Today I'd put it more lawyer-like: "it depends..."
The crown is the edge of the bore at the muzzle. It's important to point that out, because it's not unlike the edge of a cliff. Once you've fallen over the edge, you have no chance to change your path (unless you're Icarus, in which case I'd really like to talk to you.) The edge of the bore, where the rifling ends, is likewise the last chance for the barrel to properly direct the path of the bullet.
The edge needs to be perfectly perpendicular to the axis of the bore; if it's not, as the bullet leaves the barrel one side might be clear of the barrel, but the opposite side will still be touching. This can introduce instability to the bullet, reducing the accuracy of the shot.
Even when correctly squared, a crown with a nicked edge can have the same effect. If the last thing that touches the bullet imparts any directional friction, like a nick or burr, the bullet path will be compromised.
It's amazing now small an imperfection can affect the accuracy of a barrel. I recently had a battle of wills with a Mossberg M44US rifle. This was a target .22 that Mossberg sold on contract to the U.S. military back in the late 1940s. They have a reputation for being quite accurate, and every example I've ever shot held up that reputation - except this one.
I could not get a decent 5-shot group out of the gun to save myself. I tested 15 different loads in the gun, went over it with a fine-tooth comb, and still got flyers in every group. I looked at the crown, and it seemed perfectly fine, but still the gun wasn't accurate. After exhausting every other possibility, I decided to recrown the barrel.
The edges of the bore seemed fine, but the first pass with the crowning reamer told the story: the crown was ever so slightly crooked. We're talking perhaps a couple of thousandths of an inch, which isn't a lot. I cut a perpendicular crown, and took the gun to the range.
Night and day.
The gun now shot like a 44US is supposed to! Beautiful groups from Wolf Match Target (aka SK Standard Plus, aka Lapua SC), which had shot no better than cheap Remington bulk prior to the recrowning. The crown had seemed to be a non-issue, even under magnification, but before and after targets proved that even tiny imperfections can make a huge difference.
If you've read my Lubrication 101 article, you know that I'm a big fan of the Lubriplate SFL series of greases. Unfortunately, they are hard to get; there are no consumer-quantity online sources that I know of, and even the company that once supplied me is no longer.
There is another good choice: the Lubriplate FGL line of greases, which are available in more consumer-friendly packaging - but still hard to find in anything less than case quantity. I remain amazed that Lubriplate makes such terrific products, then makes it so hard to buy them!
Reader Chris S. sent me an email regarding an alternative: Dow-Corning G-0050. It looks good; while technically not quite as robust as the SFL or FGL products, it's a close second - and is still head and shoulders above any lithium-based product that you'll find on the shelves at your local gun store. It's available in single tubes from McMaster-Carr - who have one of those annoying sites that won't let you link directly to an item, but their catalog number is 1445K41.
I recently received an email asking my thoughts on Taylor Throating - the procedure where a reamer removes the rifling for roughly a half-inch past the forcing cone, and the edges of the lands are chamfered to match. The concept is to make an area that allows the bullet to 'stabilize' after jumping the barrel gap, but before entering the rifling.
Taylor Throating is somewhat controversial, with some holding it to be the greatest thing since peanut butter, while others claim that it is pure snake oil. In the interest of full disclosure, I don't offer the service - even though I've invested in the equipment - simply because I remain agnostic regarding its value.
Reports of miraculous results seem not to have occurred under controlled conditions. By that, I mean tested on a gun without any changes other than the throating. The glowing reports tend to be from those who had a lot of other work done at the same time, including timing and forcing cone changes. It's hard to say if the positive reports are in fact due to the throating, to other work, or to something subconscious on the part of the shooter doing the testing.
I've experimented with Taylor Throating on a properly maintained Dan Wesson .357, using several 6" barrels, and shot by two different people (one of whom was your author); the results were inconclusive. When a barrel with just the throating was tested, there was a slight increase in accuracy - but it was not consistent, nor large, enough to rule out normal shooter performance variation. A barrel prepped with a proper crown and an 11 degree forcing cone (as pioneered by Ron Power) achieved a definite positive result, roughly equal to what is said to be expected by some Taylor advocates.
My preliminary opinion, based on my admittedly limited experience with the technique, is that a proper forcing cone and a perfect crown still produce the most noticeable accuracy improvement. Of course, this is assuming that the gun is in perfect condition (timing, cylinder/barrel alignment, etc.) to begin with.
There are a couple of specific conditions where Taylor Throating might prove useful as a salvage technique: when the barrel/cylinder alignment is just a hair off in the vertical axis, or where there is a noticeable constriction in the area where the barrel screws into the frame. In those cases accuracy changes in excess of what would normally be expected have been reported, and may be legitimate. There are also some indications that it may extend the useful life of a severely worn barrel, where replacement is difficult or economically unwarranted.
Some specific downsides have been identified, however. If the throated area is even a tiny amount bigger than the chamber throats (or the bullet diameter), lead bullets will suffer "blow by" and gas cutting - severely leading the barrel, and definitely decreasing accuracy.
In the end, it's your choice. I'm not ready to call it a fraud, but neither do I see a definite positive benefit to having it done. When I come up with solid evidence on either side, you can bet I'll report it here!
It occurs to me that not everyone who stumbles into my little corner of the internet necessarily knows whether he or she needs my services. I receive quite a number of emails that essentially ask "should I have a trigger job done on my revolver?"
(I am aware that asking a gunsmith that question is tantamount to requesting that the fox guard the henhouse. Still, I'd like to take a crack - hopefully a fairly objective one - at the topic.)
There are a lot of factors involved in this decision. Are you happy with the action of the gun as it is? Do you have a frame of reference to really know if you're happy with it? Are you able to tell the difference? Is your experience level such that you can take advantage of the results?
Believe it or not, it's the second of those questions - having a frame of reference - that is the most important. Without it, the others can't be addressed in any meaningful way. Simply put, have you had the opportunity to handle (and preferably shoot) a revolver whose action has been tuned by a good gunsmith? I don't mean a factory "custom" gun - I mean a real custom from someone who knows their stuff. The difference can be like night and day, and until you have one in your hands everything might seem good.
It's a little like eating a great steak; if all you've ever had is hamburger, you can't imagine how good a steak is. Once you've had the steak, though, the hamburger is far less satisfying than it used to be. Your ability to judge has been expanded by your experiences, and the same is true with the action on your revolver.
True story: I was at the gun counter of a large outdoor retailer one day, and they had just gotten in a then-new S&W "Performance Center" wheelgun. (If memory serves, it was a 627.) I'm always interested in what's coming out of the P.C., so I asked to see it. Right away I noticed serious shortcomings in the fit and finish, but when I pulled the trigger I was taken aback: the double action quite literally felt like someone had stuck a playing card in a bicycle's spokes! I shook my head as I handed the specimen back to the clerk.
Before he could put it away, however, someone else came to the counter and asked to see it. This fellow and his buddy gushed enthusiastically as they looked the gun over, finally pulling the trigger. The guy holding the gun said "man, you have got to feel this trigger - it's like butter!" The second fellow tried it and concurred that it was the "best trigger I've ever felt - boy, you sure get what you pay for with a Smith & Wesson!"
Propriety forbade me from educating them and possibly ruining a sale for the store, but the incident serves to illustrate that some people perhaps don't know that there can be something better. (In some cases, a whole lot better!)
Once you have a standard - a frame of reference - against which you can judge, you can then answer the first question: are you happy with what you have now? You may in fact be quite happy; your gun may be good enough for the task at hand, even if it isn't the very best. For instance, my wife and I have gotten along for many years - quite happily, I might add - with a plain old RCA 21" television. (Yes, a twenty-one-inch!) Your children probably have better televisions in their bedrooms, but for us it is good enough. We don't watch much TV, rarely play a movie (we own exactly 3 DVDs), and thus for our use it is perfectly fine. On the other hand, someone who likes to watch lots of sporting events, or is a movie buff, would find it annoyingly limited.
Can you appreciate - and take advantage of - a highly tuned action? Can you tell the difference between what you have now and what it could be? This isn't as silly a question as you might believe.
Case in point: I'm not much of an oenophile. I can count the number of bottles of wine I've drank in my 40-plus-years on one hand, with fingers left over. (Yep, I'm a lightweight.) I have, however, tasted some very expensive and special wines at various functions over the years, and therefore have the necessary frame of reference. On me, though, the differences between a good wine and "Two Buck Chuck" are lost. I simply can't appreciate the difference, and what's more I don't care because I don't drink enough wine to enable me to care!
The same is true with revolvers. Many people, some of them very good shooters, really can't feel a difference between a factory action and a tuned one. One day at the range I handed my personal Colt Detective Special to a fellow who had been shooting a bone-stock example. They were like night and day - the factory one stacked horribly, was rough as a gravel road, and weighed in at roughly 12 pounds. Mine? Buttery smooth, no stacking, and broke right at 9 lbs. This fellow, however, couldn't tell the difference - he handed it back with an apologetic look and said that he was sorry, but it didn't feel any better to him!
As you might surmise, I was a bit disheartened. But it illustrated to me that not everyone cares about this stuff as much as I do, and it would be unconscionable of me to talk them into something that they really don't need - at least, not right now.
The foregoing is a long-winded way of saying that if you don't know there is a difference, can't feel the difference, or don't care about the difference, don't feel pressured to spend money - with me or anyone else. Whether it comes from shooting magazines, gunstore commandoes, or even my website, don't buy what you know in your heart you can't use. Spend the money on ammunition instead, and enjoy yourself.
(Boy, I hope I haven't talked myself out of a job!)
First, I'd like to thank everyone for reading this series, and for the terrific emails I've been getting. I'm gratified that many of you share my interest in good looking revolvers, and in what garners that appellation for each of us.
While not exactly part of the series, I'd like to take some time to convey my thoughts with regard to customization, and the kinds of work that adds to, or detracts from, the look of a wheelgun.
To start, I consider very carefully what I do to a revolver before taking file (or anything else) to metal. I think the project through; how will my work affect not only how the gun functions, but how it looks? In some cases the work helps (or at least doesn't hurt) the aesthetics of the gun, while in other cases it looks horrid.
For instance, let's take the act of bobbing a hammer. Not only does the result have to work correctly, but it has to serve the same visual function as that which it replaces. For the Colt and S&W guns, I've come up with two different approaches to the problem, which I believe look good on their respective marques. (Can you believe that I don't have a single picture to show? I've been quite negligent in documenting my own work!) Both are different than what most others do, and both are harmonious with the overall design of the guns.
In the case of the Ruger revolvers, I haven't yet hit on just the "right" modification. I do a lot of them, and have come up with something that isn't too bad, but it's no different than any number of people already have done - and I'm not really happy with the look. I've recently gone to the extent of scanning a Ruger hammer in to Photoshop so that I can "play" with the design - which I hope will lead me to the nirvana I seek. Wish me luck, as there isn't a lot to work with in their existing design!
Sometimes clients ask me to do things which I believe in my heart will look awful. A common request of late is to mill flats on the sides of barrels, ostensibly to shed weight. (I think the real motivation is a desire to make it look "modern" and "custom" and - dare I say? - "racy.") Sadly, in every example I've seen - and I've seen a LOT of them - the look is at odds with the rest of the gun. (Remember the concept of unity we discussed in Part 3?) Consequently I shrink from the prospect of doing them, and gently steer the client to something else. (In some cases I've sent the most intractable to another gunsmith, rather than be the proximate cause of yet another ugly gun!)
Are there instances where that type of embellishment might be appropriate to the overall design, and where I might consent to doing the job? Perhaps - but off the top of my head, I can't think of one. (Save, perhaps, for the already-blocky Dan Wesson heavy barrel shrouds - but I think there is a better approach to that particular assignment.)
This is where the marketing and customer relations parts of my head chime in, no doubt in concert with a few readers: "it's your job to do what the client wants, not what you want!" Yes, that's true - but the selfish part of me wants to ensure that a decade from now, people won't be referring to my work as "butchery." I confess to giving in to my selfish side, though in this case I believe that it is in the best interests of the client to not butcher his/her gun!
On down the line the deliberations go, each part of the work carefully considered both on its own merits, and in tandem with the other parts of the design. It has to work well, and it has to look good; I can't bring myself to do either separately. Perhaps I'll never become a huge gunsmithing conglomerate with such an attitude, but at the end of the day I can look back at what I've done, and smile with the knowledge that I've contributed - in a small way - to making the world just a bit better looking.
Life is too short to shoot - or to make - ugly guns. We'll leave that to the autoloader brigade!
The latest argument from the "experts" delves into Colt advertising history. Way back when, Colt's advertisements stated that their small revolvers were suitable for use with the .38-44 "Heavy Duty" round, which was the predecessor to the .357 Magnum - but in a Special-length case.
When the Magnum was introduced, the .38-44 went away. It wasn't until many years later that the more hotly loaded .38 Special +P made its appearance. It wasn't a throwback, however - it was still lighter than the .38-44. (Think of the +P as being between the regular .38 Special and the .38-44 in terms of power, and you won't be terribly far off.)
The "experts" quickly point out that the .38-44 is far more powerful than the .38 +P, and the fact that Colt advertised the use of .38-44 ammo in their guns is some sort of “proof“ that Colt's last factory recommendations for proper loadings are somehow “wrong.“ They conclude from all of this that using unlimited amounts of +P ammunition in small frame Colts is perfectly fine.
Such opinions, aside from flying counter to those of the people who actually designed and constructed the gun, ignore certain realities of the times involved.
Yes, Colt did say in print ads that their guns were rated for the .38-44 round. It doesn't say that the guns wouldn't experience increased wear, however, nor did it say that they could use that load regularly! When one examines the ads, it is obvious Colt was saying the guns wouldn't suffer catastrophic failure from firing those rounds, and not that there would be no long-term consequences from doing so. There is a difference!
It's important to remember that, at the time, a) there were a huge number of trained Colt gunsmiths; b) Colt was producing, and had available, parts for all of the guns (including the frames); c) shipping restrictions, as in sending guns back to the factory, were non-existent making factory service far more affordable.
Finally, there was a different gun culture in existence. Today we think nothing of shooting a hundred rounds just in a quick trip to the range, but back then it just wasn't like that. A Colt revolver, even in police service, might only see a hundred rounds a year. Outside of that, it was extremely common - perhaps the norm - to buy a new revolver and a box of ammunition, and a decade or two later still have more than half that box of ammo!
Handguns just weren't shot all that much back then. Handgun hunting was virtually unknown, handgun sports (outside of regulation bullseye) didn't exist, and handgun shooting as recreation wasn't common. Handguns simply weren't used as frequently, and under those conditions the very occasional cylinder of .38-44 rounds wasn't going to hurt anything.
That's why Colt makes the 3,000 round recommendation for the use of +P ammunition in their recent production revolvers. 3,000 rounds doesn't sound like a lot to us, but even a police officer back in those days wouldn't expect to shoot that much in his entire career.
Once you consider all of the facts, it becomes clear that there is no contradiction between what Colt said then and what they say now. Times have changed, and their recommendations have changed as well.
In the Gunsmithing pages of this site, I endorse the practice of rendering defensive revolvers double action only (DAO.) Many people ask why, and I thought I'd give you my thoughts on the matter.
Let's start with the usual argument for retaining single action capability, which I call the "Walter Mitty scenario": the mythical need for making precise long range head shots. Let's face it, folks - this just never happens in real life!
However, let's say that you're having a Jack Bauer kind of day and are now facing just this scenario. Mightn't that be just a tad bit stressful? Wouldn't that make you even more nervous, knowing that you'll be trying the toughest possible handgun shot under the worst possible conditions? With all that adrenaline now flowing through your system, is this really the time that you want a light, short trigger pull that is very easy to accidentally release? Not me, bunky!
This is the reason for DAO: light single action triggers are great on the calm shooting range, but pose a liability risk for unintentional discharges under stress. As Massad Ayoob says, single action triggers are great shooting tools, but lousy threat management tools.
Now I I know what you're thinking: "OK, but I promise I'll never use it!" I'm sure you mean that sincerely, but It's been well established over the decades that people tend to do in combat what they do in training.
It's human nature to practice what we're already good at, and to do that which is easiest for us. At the range, it's not uncommon to watch someone shoot a revolver at, say 50 feet and become disenchanted with their groups. At that point, they usually switch to the easier pull of the single action, and shoot that way. This imprints their subconscious to use single action when they are unsure of their abilities, and this may be what they revert to under stress.
Once that act of thumbing back the hammer has become habit, another problem crops up: the Hollywood-inspired (and reinforced) act of cocking the gun to show the bad guy that you "really mean it!" I'll refer you back to the second paragraph, with emphasis.
(Yes, I know you'll promise not to do that either. But if you've told your subconscious that cocking the hammer is accepted shooting technique, do you think it'll ask your conscious mind for permission when the time comes - especially if decades of TV and movies has told it otherwise? Of course not! "Besides", your subconscious thinks, "if Tyne Daly can do it, why can't I?")
Removing the SA capability eliminates the chances of any of this happening. (If you make the conscious decision to carry a gun with SA capability, I recommend that you attend the Lethal Force Institute's "LFI-1" class, where you will learn how to defend that choice - and counter any false claims that may arise from it - in court.)
From a gunsmithing perspective, I've found that eliminating the SA capability can, on some guns (Colt and Dan Wesson), give a bit more leeway in terms of honing the double action. Without the need to worry about the single action sear, the double action can be tuned far more radically than is otherwise possible. In S&W and Ruger guns, reducing the DA pull to the barest minimum (as some request) will result in an unconscionably light SA pull - often below 32 ounces. Eliminating the SA notches means that this ceases to be a worry.
Speaking for myself, I didn't start to shoot DA well until I'd gotten rid of the SA capability completely. True story: one day (many years ago), shortly after transitioning to shooting only revolvers, I was participating in a match (Bianchi type.) I was having trouble with missing those little round steel plates they use for one stage, and it was making me madder and madder. At one point the buzzer sounded, and I drew the gun (a Python) and cocked it for each plate. I downed all of them, but my happiness was shattered by a taunting voice of a 1911 partisan that said "hey, Grant, I've got a gun that does all that for me!"
After that I removed the SA from my revolvers and started shooting DA exclusively. It wasn't long before I was beating the guys (including the loudmouth in question) who were shooting 1911s with crisp single action triggers. It can be done!
If you have any doubt as to how accurately a double action can be shot, go watch your local PPC match - there's one just about everywhere in the country. You'll see lots of folks shooting DAO revolvers at up to 50 yards and producing groups that can be covered by your hand. That should be good enough for any defensive use, and you too can do it with just a bit of practice!
I may have mentioned that I spent a period of time in the early 80s as a commercial photographer. Honestly, I didn't make it all that far; though a good technician, I wasn't creative enough on demand to sustain a career. I did learn a lot, though, and I took some of those lessons and put them to good use in other areas of my life.
One of those lessons - and one of the most important - came in the form of an article written by Ben Helprin. I have a copy of this hanging above my workbench, where it serves to inspire me. I don't know that I'm yet at the "master" stage of revolversmithing, but I work every day to get a little closer to that ideal.
While obviously photography-centric, this is a profound article for which you will no doubt find applications in your own life. Enjoy!
-=[ Grant ]=-
Expert or Master - What's the Difference?
by Ben Helprin
At the top of every craft, there are masters and experts. The difference between the two was defined by Will Connall (master photographer, photography teacher, and former head of photography at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California) this way:
"Let me", he said, "use the exacting art of platemaking as an example." (Platemakers are the skilled craftsmen who produce printing plates for books and magazines.) "If you ask an expert how he produces the negative for a fine plate, he'll answer: "that's easy. First I choose the correct size glass plate for the negative I want. Then, I compute the surface area of the plate and, holding it absolutely level, I pour exactly one ounce of emulsion for every 40 square inches of surface precisely onto the center of the plate. Then I rock the glass side-to-side and front-to-back, exactly the same amount each way, to spread the emulsion evenly. When the plate is dry, I load it into the copy camera, adjust my lights so that the original art work is absolutely evenly illuminated and, with the level of illumination that I use, expose the plate for 20 seconds. I develop the plate for precisely five minutes, process it normally, the end up with a perfect negative for reproduction.
"Now," said Connall, "let's ask a master the same question. He'd reply: Oh, that's easy. First I choose the correct size glass for the negative. Then, I compute the surface area of the glass and, holding it exactly level, I pour one ounce of emulsion for every 40 square inches of surface exactly onto the center of the plate. Well, no, that's really not true. Sometimes I use more than an ounce of emulsion per square inch. Sometimes less. It depends on the original copy. And sometimes I don't pour the emulsion exactly on center. I'll swirl it across to get a different spread. That also depends on the copy. Anyway, after I pour the emulsion, I rock the plate side-to-side and front-to-back, exactly the same each way, to spread the emulsion evenly. But sometimes, of course, I don't want the emulsion spread evenly. Again, it depends on the copy. I might want to rock the plate more to one side to get the emulsion heavier there, or rock it more to the front...anyway, I rock it, dry it, load it in the camera, and light the copy exactly evenly - unless of course I want to slightly shade a corner to knock it down, or highlight a portion of the copy to lighten it up. I'm not sure exactly how I'll light it until I do it. But after it's lit, I give it a 20-second exposure. Well, not always 20 seconds...."
And so it goes. Each step of the master's procedure depends, not on a set series of exacting rules, but on the interrelationship of the medium, the copy, and the desired final product.
What does this have to do with photography? Well to begin with, it doesn't mean that you can forget technique or be sloppy in your execution of it. As Will Connall noted, every master had first to be an expert. Without that initial perfection of technique, they could never advance to the master's stage.
Will's apocryphal examples were, however, meant to point out that technique is by no means the be-all and end-all of photography. Technique is the base from which you build. But the product itself, the photograph, must go beyond set rules of technique or composition, or anything else that says "this, and only this, is the correct way of producing a photograph."
Look at the work of master photographer Ansel Adams and compare it to the thousands of technical experts who attempt to imitate him. The large majority of Adams' imitators do not understand expressive content, they understand only technique. The do not trust their inner feelings, the trust only a rigorous set of technical rules.
A creative photograph is a very unique personal statement, and the technical aspects of that statement must depend on what you, as an artist, want to say. Thus, the perfect exposure isn't always one the reproduces the tonalities of a scene in exactly the same manner they originally appeared, but one that reproduces them in exactly the manner you want them to appear. Nor is the perfect print the one that always exactly matches the contrast of the paper to the density range of the negative, but the one that exactly matches paper and film to the contrast as seen by your inner eye. As Paul Klee said, "the purpose of art is not to reflect the visible, but to make visible."
So, look at your recent photographs. Are they technically perfect? If not, you still have a lot of work to do to reach the "Expert" stage. On the other hand, if your work is technically perfect and perfectly boring, if it is indistinguishable from everyone else's technically perfect work, then you have a lot of even harder work to reach the Master's stage.
Stacking is defined as an increase in trigger pull weight toward the end of the trigger's rearward travel. Some people like it, some don't, and different guns have varying amounts of it. What causes it?
Some people come up with odd explanations. I recently got an email asking about stacking; the writer had read "on the internet" that stacking was caused by the type of spring - coil or leaf - used in the action. It's a simplistic answer, and it's not terribly accurate.
An "L" frame S&W uses a leaf spring, and has little to no stacking; a Colt uses a leaf spring, and has lots of stack. A Dan Wesson uses a coil spring and it's trigger stacks horribly, where a Ruger GP-100 uses a coil spring and stacks very little.
The cause of stacking isn't the spring itself; the biggest determinant is the geometry of the double-action mechanism. In general, guns using a design where the hammer strut does double duty as the double action sear (Colt and Dan Wesson) will display lots of stacking, while those that use a separate strut and sear arrangement (S&W, Ruger) will display less.
(Some nomenclature: a sear is any pair of surfaces from which the hammer is released; a strut is the pivoting piece on the hammer, which the trigger pushes on in order to start the hammer moving backward. In some guns, the trigger pushes on the strut, and at some point the sears come into contact and the strut leaves contact with the trigger; after some additional hammer movement, the sears slip out of engagement and allow the hammer to fall. The other design is where the strut actually pushes the hammer all the way back, at which point it slips off of the trigger and releases the hammer.)
This isn't a guarantee, though, because there are still a number of angles between surfaces and pivots that can introduce stacking into the mechanism. It is possible to design either system to have the characteristics of the other, though in practice it doesn't happen all that often.
That's how it all stacks up! (Sorry, couldn't resist the pun.) -=[ Grant ]=-
Spent part of last Tuesday at the range, schmoozing with A Famous Gun Writer Who Wishes To Remain Anonymous (hereafter referred to as "AFGWWWTRA".) We tested a few guns, talked about revolvers - the kinds of things you'd expect a gunsmith and a gun writer to do on a range.
AFGWWWTRA happened to have a Ruger Alaskan model in .454 Casull that was being evaluated. Since I hadn't yet gotten the chance to shoot one, I really wanted to see what it was like with full-house loads. I elected to shoot a couple of cylinders worth while AFGWWWTRA took pictures of the whole debacle. (AFGWWWTRA, it turns out, is easily amused by masochistic idiots. I'm sure it was meant as a compliment.)
The first cylinder was fired, sedately, in single action from the 25-yard bench. At that point I was thinking "heck, that wasn't bad. I wonder what it'd be like in rapid fire?" The second cylinder full, standing from about 7 yards, was fired as quickly as I could get the gun back on target between shots.
Just to retain my machismo cred, here I am in the midst of that sequence, the mighty .454 loads in full fireball-producing glory:
Courtesy of AFGWWWTRA Note the flash from the round just fired, and yet the gun is back on target and the hammer is about to drop again. Yes, I am just that damn good! (I must be - I tell myself so all the time!) -=[ Grant ]=-
This is a term used by tool & die makers to indicate unobtainable levels of (perceived) precision. Why do I bring this up?
Last week, I was advising a reader on selecting pin gages for use in measuring chamber throats. The discussion revolved around which gages to buy, and whether or not he needed both plus- and minus-tolerance gages (no, in case you're wondering.) He was concerned about their variance of .0002" (that's 2/10,000th of an inch, or 1/20th of the thickness of an average human hair. In machinist parlance, that would be "2 tenths.") As I explained to him, in practice it's not really possible to measure to that level.
As I thought about my answers to his questions, I flashed back to a conversation related to the posts I've made about measuring tools. A fellow who identified himself as a gunsmith contacted me to argue about my advocacy of quality measuring tools. "I don't need any of them overpriced tools - I use [insert name of well known retailer of low end Chinese tools here], and I can measure down to a ten-thousandth!" I asked him if what he was measuring was under the same environmental conditions as the calibration on his micrometer, and he replied "my mic reads to a tenth - it don't need to be calibrated!"
When a measuring instrument is calibrated - that is, checked against known standards and certified as to accuracy - the environmental conditions of that calibration are recorded. The calibration is really only valid for those same conditions; if the temperature goes up or down, that accuracy is not guaranteed.
How much different does a change in temperature make? I did a little experiment. I got out my Grade 2 Brown & Sharpe gage blocks, and picked out the .125" block. (The tolerance for Grade 2 blocks is +/- .000002", or two-milliionths of an inch.) On the calibration certificate, it gives you the deviation from the nominal dimension in millionths of an inch for each block. In the case of my .125" block, it has no variance - in other words, it is guaranteed to measure .125000" at 68 degrees F. Coincidentally, that is the temperature that my shop generally maintains outside of the coldest winter and warmest summer months.
After checking the temperature, I pulled out my best Etalon (Swiss) micrometer and the .125 block. I handled the mic with gloves while I secured it in its stand; the block was handled with insulated tweezers (yes, there are such things.) I measured the block under these conditions, and not surprisingly it measured .1250" on the nose.
I took the block out of the micrometer, and held the non-measuring surfaces between by thumb and forefinger for about a minute, then remeasured. Guess what? Just that small amount of heat had caused the gage to grow to a bit more than .1251" (a typical mic only measures to a ten-thousandth, and this fell just between the .1251" and .1252" marks.) Had I held on to it longer, it would have grown a bit more. Had I held the mic in my hand while measuring, it too would have been "off."
That's why they're called "bullshit tenths" - because, without knowing exactly the temperature of both the micrometer and work, and at what temperature the micrometer was last calibrated, you really don't know to the ten-thousandth of an inch how big that part really is. In other words, until you've met all of the above, you can't measure to a ten-thousandth of an inch, no matter how optimistic you are!
Since pin gages are usually held in the hand, as is the piece to be measured, it would not be possible to get closer than several ten-thousandths. Factor in the other environmental variables, it's clear that a) the gages are more accurate than they need to be for the job asked of them; b) you can't measure to the limit of the gages, so you don't need both the plus and minus coverage; and c) worrying about their allowed +/- .0002" isn't at all productive. Save your stomach lining for more important things.
Those who have highly polished guns - Royal Blue, nickel plate, or bright stainless - often ask about the best way to keep these fine finishes looking good.
My recommendation: Selvyt. It's not a paste or a wax, it's a cloth - a pure cotton, non-impregnated cloth that jewelers have been using for many decades to give the finishing touches to highly polished gold, silver, and platinum.
The Selvyt cloth is simply a specially woven cotton that has a unique nap. That's it, there is nothing more! The process used to make the Selvyt results in what can only be compared to a cross between fine velvet and chamois. The result is hundreds of thousands of miniature "brushes" on the surface that gently polish without harming the finish in any manner whatsoever.
Selvyt's special cloth also suspends any dust or microscopic grit inside the nap, so that it doesn't contact the surface being polished. This is in stark contrast to chamois, which seems prone to scratching if someone even mentions the word "dust" in the vicinity in which it is being used! (I'm exaggerating, of course.)
The Selvyt is especially good for the Colt "Ultimate Stainless" finish, which is notoriously soft. The Selvyt brings back the high shine without harming the surface of the steel; it's really remarkable.
When the Selvyt gets dirty - and it will - just wash like any other cotton fabric. It will come out of the dryer like new, ready for more use! I've had one of mine for more than a decade, washed several times, and its performance is unchanged.
So good is the Selvyt that Purdy - the makers of hyper-expensive shotguns - sells them under their own name for polishing their fine pieces. If that isn't an endorsement, I don't know what is!
You can find it at many jewelers, any jewelry supply house, many silversmiths, and (of course) online. Be careful - you want the genuine Selvyt cloth, made in England (there are pretenders out there.) Selvyt also makes an impregnated cloth for tarnish protection on silver; you do not want that model! Ask for the plain, un-impregnated, original Selvyt cloth.
The Selvyt comes in several sizes, from 5x5" on up. I like the 14x14" size, which will probably set you back around $10 or $12 these days (I haven't had to buy one in years, so no hate mail if I'm wrong!) It may seem like a lot for a small piece of cloth, but it's worth every penny.
This is an expansion on an email I replied to recently. A loyal reader noted that my name had been brought up on one of the forums (sadly, he couldn't remember which one) regarding my blog article on measuring chamber throats.
Apparently, the gist of the discussion was that the forum's "expert" (every forum has one) opined that I was full of it for suggesting that throats couldn't be measured accurately with a caliper. What's more, someone expressed the thought that a caliper would show an out-of-round condition, whereas a pin gage wouldn't, and therefore anyone who didn't use a caliper didn't know what he/she was doing.
Sheesh! Let's start from the top.
A caliper - whether vernier, dial, or digital - is most assuredly not a precision measurement tool. Feel free to ask any tool & die maker the question: "how accurate is a caliper?" I have yet to meet one who would trust a caliper for anything less than 2/1,000ths of an inch (.002") For reference, this is the difference between measuring, say, .357" and .359". On a good day (meaning a very experienced operator) with good equipment (meaning not a Harbor Freight special) one might be able to do a bit better, but most people aren't all that experienced, and most do not possess the top-quality equipment necessary.
This is actually extremely easy to test: take a caliper to a local tool & die shop, and ask the owner if he'll let you measure his certified, calibrated toolroom gage blocks. If he lets you (he probably won't), you'll probably find that getting to within .002" with any consistency is not possible. I have a set of said blocks, and I can't do much better - even though I'm experienced, and have top-end Swiss Etalon calipers with which to work!
There's a reason watchmakers measure parts that must be fitted to incredibly close tolerances with micrometers, and not calipers. The same goes for precision machinists. Do I need to keep flogging this deceased equine?
(I haven't even touched on the need to hold the calipers perfectly perpendicular to the axis of the bore, and to get the jaws as close to centered on the inside surface as possible. It's darned difficult to do under the absolute best toolroom conditions, let alone at a kitchen table! Errors multiply under less-than-ideal conditions.)
Let's tackle the second criticism: that one can't measure an out-of-round condition with a pin gage, therefore the best way to do it is with a caliper. By now, the answer should be obvious: if a hole is, say, .002" out of round, and the measuring system can't get within that range to begin with, it follows that one can't measure the condition because it's within the amount of "slop" already present!
In other words, if a caliper indicates that the hole isn't round, we can't trust it because we don't know if what we're seeing is real or simply the result of the errors inherent in the device. Conversely, the absence of a round error doesn't mean that the throat is round - because it may be within the normal error of the caliper being used! (This is why one does not use imprecise instruments when one expects a precise result.)
The exception is if the condition is sufficiently severe that it exceeds the error of the tool - but if it's that far out, it can be easily spotted with the pin gage anyhow. While we can't measure an out-of-round condition with a pin gage, we can certainly identify that an out-of-round condition exists, and elect to measure it with more accurate means.
Now I'd like to expand on the recommendation in my earlier article. The reason I suggested using calibrated pin gages for measurement is because they're cheap (a set to cover, say, the range of a .357 cylinder costs less than $20), readily available, and last forever. There are other tools that can be used, but all are much more expensive and require occasional testing & recalibration, as well as a certain amount of technique.
The best choice is a "tri-mic", made by various companies, which measures holes at 3 points spaced 120 degrees apart. This is extremely accurate - the most accurate way to measure a hole - but that accuracy comes with a price tag of several hundred dollars for the least expensive example. That's why I didn't recommend them, though in hindsight I should have at least acknowledged that they exist.
Bottom line: there is no substitute for knowledge, experience, and the proper quality tools when one is doing precision work.
I hope this puts the matter to rest - though I somehow doubt it!
John Linebaugh is a custom revolver maker who specializes in caliber conversions on Ruger single actions. Not just any conversions, mind you - he is the originator of the fire-breathing .475 Linebaugh and .500 Linebaugh cartridges.
John first became famous for his modified revolvers that would should heavy .45 Colt loads (250 grain bullets at 1,700 fps.) His work with those heavy loads lead him to develop the .475 Linebaugh and the mighty .500 Linebaugh: 435 grains traveling at 1,300 fps!
Now I just know that some wag is reading this and saying "So? The .500 S&W shoots those slugs faster!" You bet it does, Pilgrim - at insanely high chamber pressures, in guns that are big enough to qualify as crew-served weapons. The Linebaugh cartridges do this at moderate pressures, and in guns based on nice, relatively lightweight Ruger Bisley frames.
John has a new website that, sadly, isn't linked to his old site and doesn't yet show up in the search engines. Here it is - be sure to bookmark it:
So, you're in the market for a S&W 625, and you're torn between the "standard" 625 and the Jerry Miculek edition 625. Which to choose?
Well, you have to decide whether the "niceties" - such as the Miculek grips, interchangeable front sights, and the serrated trigger - are worth the extra money. There are some internal differences, though, which you may want to consider.
The Miculek edition is a little unusual, in that it uses a mix of MIM (metal injection molding) and forged parts. As you may know, S&W has been using MIM technology for several years now, and overall it's been a successful transition. However, in order to get the serrated trigger that Jerry specifies, they decided that to use one of their "old fashioned" forged parts.
There are a couple of problems with this. First, the interface of the forged trigger and MIM cylinder stop makes the trigger feel a bit rough at the very beginning of the trigger stroke - and it's difficult to get rid of this feeling. Second, the MIM hammer is given a flash chrome treatment to match the chromed finish of the trigger. Unfortunately, chrome applied to an MIM part doesn't seem to stick as well as it does to a forged part, and I've seen several where the chrome started flaking from the sear surfaces! As you might imagine, this makes the action quality degrade quickly, and the problem can only be fixed by replacing the hammer assembly with a non-chromed version, as comes on the "plain" 625.
Of the 625JM models I've worked on, all of them came in with a request to remove the trigger face serrations - one of the major features that Jerry insists on! It seems that serrated triggers, as much as he likes them, do not fit well with everyone.
Once the hammer has been replaced and the trigger face smoothed, you're left with the JM grips and an interchangeable front sight - and the grips are widely available as an accessory. I guess the whole thing boils down to this: how important are those interchangeable front sights?
To a person, every one of the JM model owners I've talked with said that if they knew ahead of time that they were going to put in the money for custom work anyhow, they'd have bought the "plain" 625 and saved themselves a few dollars. I agree!
A common complaint about the old-style Colt Detective Special is the unshrouded ejector rod. Many people believe that the exposed ejector rod is a liability; should it get bent during a struggle, the theory goes, it will tie up the gun and make it inoperable.
Many folks have experienced this problem with a Smith & Wesson. Since their ejector rods are locked at the front and rotate about the front latch pin, any small amount of runout (deviation from true) will impose an inordinate amount of friction to the system. This usually manifests itself as an action that locks up, being completely useless in double action (and often in single action as well.)
The unshrouded Colts, however, are a different matter. Since the ejector rod doesn't have any function other than the ejection of spent casings, even a large amount of runout has no effect on the action. In fact, you would have to bend the ejector rod to the point that it actually hits the underside of the barrel before you would encounter a problem! Because of the plasticity of steel, about the only way you could do that would be on purpose, with the cylinder open - I honestly cannot conceive of any accidental way to get it into such a sorry state.
I would be remiss if I didn't address the effect of small bends on the ejection process; a relatively modest bend in a Colt ejector rod can cause the ejector to stick in the cylinder, so that the ratchet (ejector star) is stuck in the extended position. This isn't as much of a problem as you might think - just shove the ratchet back into the cylinder and the gun is usually ready to be reloaded.
Every gun has strong and weak points in its design, but in the case of the unshrouded Colts the exposed ejector isn't one of them!
I hear the advice all the time: "buy a stainless gun, because they won't rust." This kind of comment is what prompted General Norman Schwarzkopf to say "bovine scatology!"
Yes, stainless will in fact rust under the right conditions. What are those conditions? Generally, if you get moisture trapped in a place where it doesn't evaporate normally (say, under a grip panel or inside the action), you have a situation that is ideal for corrosion. The situation is worse in very corrosive (salt water, perspiration) or very humid conditions.
That's not the only thing; even if the frame of your gun is stainless, there will be some parts in the action that aren't, or are made of a much less resistant stainless. It's not unusual to find springs, some screws, cylinder parts, and more that are made of plain carbon steel. These are just as susceptible to rust as they would be in a blued gun.
I see quite a number of stainless guns that have corrosion. One commonality of those I've encountered is that, since the rust is usually hidden (and less likely to be found because of the belief that stainless "doesn't rust) it usually does more damage. Stainless corrosion tends to be deeper, leaving surface pitting that is more serious than it might be on a blued gun.
If you live in a harsh environment - near the ocean, or in a very humid climate - or if you perspire heavily, you should treat your stainless gun more like a blued equivalent. Take the grips off every time you clean the gun and look for any signs of corrosion; use gun oil on the entire surface of the gun; clean the bore immediately after shooting; take the sideplate off occasionally and lubricate the interior; and always remember that the term is "stainLESS", not "stainFREE"! -=[ Grant ]=-
Someone recently asked me what gunsmith(s) I admired or respected, or that I would allow to work on my own guns. I gave him a few names, and thought you might be interested as well!
My first entry in this occasional series is Hamilton Bowen. Bowen is perhaps the gunsmith that the rest of us aspire to be; he combines technical ability, commitment to quality, and a definite style that is hard to define but easy to recognize. Bowen does it all - sophisticated caliber conversions, unusual high-tech customization, and superb restorations.
Bowen has been building superior revolvers for many years, and his work has become well known from appearances in various gun magazines. His fame doesn't stop there, however - he also wrote what is the definitive book on the subject, titled simply "The Custom Revolver." If you're into revolvers, this is a book that you simply must own. (You can buy it through my Amazon store here.)
Hamilton Bowen is truly the "gunsmith's gunsmith." I'd love to have him work on one of my guns!
An often misunderstood aspect of revolver construction is the idea of endshake. Endshake is nothing more than the amount of back-and-forth movement (or front-to-back, if you prefer) that the cylinder is allowed to make.
Measuring endshake is easy: using a set of feeler gages, the cylinder is pushed forward and the barrel/cylinder gap is measured. Then, the cylinder is forced backward as far as it will go, and the gap measured again; the difference between the measurements is the endshake. (When making the second measurement, it is important to push the cylinder all the way back - even past any cylinder latch resistance.)
How much is acceptable? That varies depending on the gun; Colts are the most stringent, and need to have no more than .003" of endshake for "factory level" condition. A S&W is generally allowed a bit more leeway.
The amount of endshake any given gun will experience will vary a bit over the life of the gun. As the cylinder pushed backward by the force of the firing round, the ratchet (aka "ejector star") ultimately hits the rear of the frame opening, which stops the cylinder movement. With each round fired, the ratchet/star is slightly deformed, and the frame is very slightly stretched. Over a long period of time, this results in more space between the ratchet/star and the frame, which increases the endshake.
As the endshake increases, the amount of "free run" the cylinder has will increase the battering effect against the frame, resulting in even more wear - which increases the endshake, and the cycle repeats itself, getting progressively worse.
Why should endshake be a concern? Under the best of conditions, the revolver cylinder would have zero movement. Of course, that rarely happens in the real world; some endshake is inevitable. As endshake increases, though, several things happen: first, the impact on the frame, and frame stretching, increases; this can, in extreme cases, result in the frame becoming unsuitable for use.
The immediate effects can be more visible. In a Colt revolver, excessive endshake results in increased hand wear, which causes the timing to fail prematurely; in extreme cases, it can also cause bolt (the little "pop up" half-moon shaped piece in the bottom of the frame window) to wear to the point of replacement. In a Smith & Wesson (and to a slightly lesser extent Ruger), excess endshake manifests itself as an inconsistent trigger pull which gets worse as the endshake increases. These guns can also experience increased bolt wear, though not nearly to the degree of the more closely-fitted Colt.
(Interestingly, the Dan Wesson guns are very robust in terms of their endshake handing; the spring-loading bearing detent at the rear of the frame locates the cylinder at the forward-most position every time, and also serves to absorb a bit of the recoil force of the cylinder.)
An excessive amount of endshake can also affect accuracy. Not only does it change the relationship between the chamber and the forcing cone with every shot (and not necessarily consistently), but it also changes the barrel/cylinder gap; both can have a negative effect on the accuracy of the gun/load combination.
Setting the endshake to as close to zero as possible results in increased frame and ratchet/star life, better action quality in S&W guns, extended service intervals on Colts, and better accuracy on all guns. That's why it is one of the first things I check on any revolver that comes in to my shop!
It's surprising how little attention is given to the back of a revolver's trigger. I recently came across a gun that had been worked on by another gunsmith (more on this in a future blog post), and one aspect of the gun illustrated the limited understanding of revolver shooting by many 'smiths.
The face of the trigger had been polished smooth, but done in such a way that the sides tapered to meet the back, leaving an untouched knife edge. For anyone with more meat on their bones than Nicole Richie, manipulating the trigger results in a very nasty "pinch" as the sharp edge traps flesh against the frame.
So, what should the trigger look like? The back edges of a proper double action trigger should be slightly rounded and polished, to prevent pinching. The larger the radius of the back edge, the less chance the trigger will trap flesh. This allows the shooter to concentrate on the act of shooting, not on avoiding pain.
This is similar to the "biting" problem that many shooters experience on a 1911 with the standard grip safety. On that gun, for some reason, everyone "knows" about the situation, and beavertail safeties are expected equipment. Sadly, this same level of knowledge has not yet filtered down to the revolver-buying public - perhaps this will help spread the word!
When doing action work, I ask my clients how they'll be using the gun. For instance, a competition shooter who handloads their own ammunition can utilize a lighter action than someone who needs the gun to work with a variety of factory ammunition.
Why is this? Well, primers are not created equal - the brands vary in terms of their sensitivity. Some of this is due to the type and thickness of the metal that the cup is made from, but there is also some difference in the primer material itself.
In general, Federal primers are the easiest to ignite; their cup material is slightly thinner, and softer, than their competitors. Combined with a primer mix that is well known for its sensitivity, they require less force to "pop." This translates to being able to use a hammer with a lighter mainspring, which allows for a lighter trigger pull.
The primers generally conceded to be the most difficult to ignite are CCI brand. Their cups are hard and thick, and require a real "wallop" to work properly. This means that the action is going to need full-power springs, with the increase in trigger pull that they bring. Winchesters fall in the middle, slightly more to the Federal half than the CCI.
In any brand, the magnum version of the primer will be more difficult to ignite. This is because they typically have harder and/or thicker cups to withstand the higher pressures that heavier loads deliver.
This isn't the end of the story though. The Czechoslovakian Sellier & Bellot ammunition uses what may be the hardest primers made. Sometimes even the heaviest, hardest-hitting hammers are insufficient to set this ammunition off, and is one of the reasons I recommend you stay away from it. CCI Blazer ammunition is known for being unreliable with lighter actions, as is the "green" or non-toxic ammunition that's on the market today.
Back to action work...when someone tells me that the gun is for self-defense, that usually means that utmost reliability is desired. To get such reliability, it's imperative that the gun work with any kind of ammunition that one might find on the shelf. In these cases, I test the gun with CCI Magnum primers - the hardest-to-ignite primers that you can get outside of the aforementioned Czech fodder. If the gun will reliably detonate the CCI Magnums (with zero failures), it should ignite anything you're likely to encounter.
On the other hand, if the requirement is for a light competition action I'll test the gun with Federal primers; if I've done my job right, such a gun will shoot Federals perfectly, Winchesters somewhat less reliably, and CCI primers very badly. That's the price for a low trigger weight!
This brings up another topic: that of live fire testing. I'll leave that for another day, as I've got a story to tell!
Heard about "MIM" parts? MIM is an injection molding process for metal parts, and it has been revolutionizing many industries. In the revolver business, both Smith & Wesson and Taurus have made use of MIM parts. Like any new process, however, there are those who decry the new technology; some gunsmiths spread the misinformation that MIM parts can't be worked on, and refuse to take in guns using MIM parts. Adding fuel to the fire are a few well-publicized parts breakages, most notably with 1911 autopistol sears.
Is there something inherently wrong with MIM parts? No, but the story is a bit more complex than that.
I have some experience with MIM parts in revolvers; I'm not at all averse to the use of MIM parts, where appropriate. Note those last two words!
MIM is just another metalworking method, like forging and casting. Like those well-established metalworking methods, it has strengths and weaknesses. Far too few engineers apparently understand them.
First off, a steel MIM part can be treated like any other steel part; it can be welded, soldered, blued, hardened, and tempered. This is important to understand, as there is a perception out there that the parts are not "real" steel. They are!
The advantages of an MIM part do not generally include raw cost; the material is expensive, and the molds are horrendously expensive. The benefits come in the area of post-fabrication. The MIM part, as noted, can be heat treated - the benefit is that they don't need to be, as the hardness of the part can be engineered in when the part is made. The parts come out ready to use; no additional surface finishing is generally needed. Finally, the parts can be made in shapes that would be extremely expensive or nearly impossible to economically machine.
The downsides? Cost, as already noted. Additionally, the tolerances for an MIM part generally need to be larger; it's hard to hold them to .001" in all dimensions (though they're getting better all the time.) Another problem is that the technology doesn't work all that well for parts that are more than about 3/8" thick (again, this gets better on an almost monthly basis), nor on stressed parts that are very thin.
There are other, less obvious pros and cons of MIM parts, but you get the idea - MIM, like anything else, is a balancing act.
Now here's the part that those of you who aren't fond of MIM should understand: the problem isn't with the technology, but with the engineering behind the part itself.
As noted, MIM on a per-part basis is pretty expensive, but since they can be engineered with specific traits they can eliminate some expensive secondary operations - hardening, for example. Here's the problem: let's say that you are building 1911 sears, and MIM seems a good method for producing them. You decide that the sear has to have a certain hardness (so that it doesn't wear), and since the surface finish is good "as produced" you think you're home free.
The trouble is that the MIM part is the same hardness all the way through, since that's how it was engineered. This is great for reducing sear face wear, but with hardness comes brittleness - and that thin edge is quite brittle. What you need is a surface hardening of some sort for wear resistance, with the underlying material left softer for strength. You COULD do that with an MIM part, but if you did you'd negate one of the primary benefits of the method: the elimination of secondary operations. So the company chooses to continue to use the MIM part as designed, and which is a poor choice for the application. No wonder some people don't like them!
The bottom line: if you have trouble with MIM parts, it's not the part's fault - it's the fault of the engineers in the company that designed the part. (Frankly, I wouldn't want to buy an entire gun from a company that botched the engineering that badly, regardless of whether or not I replaced the parts in question. I'm funny that way!)
I had an interesting email recently. The writer said that he'd contacted a number of gunsmiths to inquire about action work. In every case, he said, all he could get out of them was "we can make it lighter." Occasionally I'll get an inquiry from the other side of this phenomenon - someone whose only question is "how light can you make it?" Why this fixation on pull weight? I believe it's because people just haven't been properly educated!
If you've read my essay on "What makes a good trigger?", you already know about the factors that go into a quality action job. (If you haven't read it, go ahead and do so now; I'll wait.)
Back already? OK!
When having action work done, there are three competing performance criteria: weight, reliability, and return.
Weight is self explanatory, and is what most people relate to. I've covered this in the article referenced above, so I won't go into more explanation - except to say that weight isn't the only thing you should consider, and if that's all your gunsmith can talk about you might want to re-think having him work on your gun!
The second performance criteria is reliability. When I speak of reliability, I mean the expectation that the gun will ignite primers from all common ammunition 100% of the time in both single and double action. That means even the hardest primers being made (currently CCI Magnum primers) will light off every time that the hammer falls; anything else is less reliable. A gun that fires off Federal primers all the time, Winchester most of the time, and CCI Magnums about half the time isn't reliable; it may be acceptable for the use that the gun will be put to, but it is not reliable. (As it turns out, the more reliable the ignition, the more accurate the gun will be. There are a number of reasons for this, which I'll go into in a later article.)
Finally, there is return, or the action of the trigger resetting itself. In the article I referenced above, I talked about the qualities of trigger return - but there is more to consider. One way of lightening the overall pull weight of the action is to reduce the spring tension that powers the trigger return. This can introduce a couple of undesired side effects; first, the return spring tension can be so low that the trigger "sticks" and doesn't return (most prevalent on guns where the quality of the trigger return, in terms of smoothness, isn't understood or is ignored.)
The second side effect is that the return speed is lowered. This results in the shooter being able to "outrun" the trigger, shooting faster than the trigger will reset itself. This can cause premature cycling of the cylinder (the cylinder rotating without the hammer being cocked and dropped) or action locking (requiring the shooter to stop his/her pull, let the action reset, and then restarting the pull - most common on Rugers.) In a competition, these side effects can lose points - in a self-defense scenario, they might cause you to lose something more precious!
Here's the "kicker": when getting action work done, you get to choose any two of the three performance criteria, but not all three. For instance, if you want light pull weight and good reliability, you're going to sacrifice return. If you want light pull and good return, you're going to sacrifice reliability. If you want reliability and fast trigger reset, you're going to have to learn to deal with heavier pull weights!
There is no free lunch, and there isn't a gunsmith in the world who can repeal the laws of physics; you get any 2, but not all 3 in the same gun. You have to make the decision as to what is best for your intended use!
Let me illustrate: I am starting work on a Ruger SP-101 that is to be shot by an older lady. She only shoots reloads that her husband makes for her, and only at the range (this is not a defensive or competition piece.)
The primary concern is ease of cocking the gun in single action; it won't be used in double action at all. So, the criteria that is important in this case is action weight; we don't care all that much about return (other than it actually do so - the speed isn't a consideration), and since the fellow can load the ammunition to shoot in this specific gun (he will use whatever primers necessary to make the gun run), reliability is not a concern. This is a great example of tuning the action to fit the use!
For a defensive gun, reliability is the first consideration, with return second. For a competition gun, say for ICORE or USPSA (or even IDPA), the speed of the action reset is paramount - followed by a light pull weight. The competitor will usually select or reload ammunition to suit the gun, which makes reliability (in the sense that I use the term) less a concern.
If all a gunsmith can talk about is how light he can make the action, he's ignoring fully two-thirds of of action performance. This is a two-way street, though - its not just gunsmiths who don't understand this stuff! Shooters raised on the typical gun rag articles never learn about this either, because all most writers know how to discuss is pull weight.
When I get an inquiry from someone whose only question is "how light", I try to educate him or her to make more informed choices. I hope I've been able to do that here!
There is a huge amount of misinformation regarding revolver accuracy. Folks, assuming that you have a gun in proper repair - timing, lockup, chamber-to-bore alignment - the most important factor in accuracy is the chamber throat dimension.
What is the chamber throat? It is the slightly constricted opening in the chamber, just in front of the cartridge mouth, that the bullet passes through on its way into the forcing cone. The throat gives the bullet its first stabilizing guidance, and many people better than I have demonstrated that it is critical to good accuracy - perhaps more than the bore itself!
The best accuracy is obtained when the bullet diameter and the throat diameter are exactly the same; in the case of lead bullets, it can be up to .001" smaller than the bullet diameter with good results. If the throat is larger than the bullet, then the bullet sort of wallows through the throat and never does get that initial guidance. Accuracy will suffer.
It is therefore important to serious shooters to know what their throat diameters actually measure. Now, I took heat from some internet experts recently when I stated that one cannot get proper measurements of throat diameters using calipers - dial, vernier, or digital. One fellow wrote me that he'd been doing it for years with nothing more than a cheap dial caliper, and the readings were always "nuts on!" While I don't wish to argue with anyone, let me relate a little test I did.
I took a cylinder that happened to be on my workbench - a S&W Model 60 "J" frame cylinder - and measured its throats with calipers, then with a set of certified pin gages. There were three different calipers - a vernier, a dial, and a digital electronic - all of Swiss origin. The Swiss make the finest calipers on the face of the earth, and substantially better than the Chinese tools most stores sell. In addition, I've been measuring very precise watch and clock parts since I was a teenager, and have more experience using quality measuring devices than the vast majority of people you are likely to meet. In other words, I know what I'm doing and I've got the best tools to use!
I started by checking the throats from several angles, to eliminate the possibility that they were oval instead of cylindrical. Since this is a brand-new cylinder, the readings were identical, showing that the throats were indeed machined correctly.
What did I find? The vernier caliper indicated the throat diameter was .355+", the dial caliper showed .3560", and the digital read .3555". Now for the moment of truth: the certified pin gages, which are the most accurate method of determining a bore size, proved that the bore was in fact .3585" ! That is between .0025" and .003" discrepancy!
Precision machinists will quickly tell you that a caliper - even the best, like I have - are only good to a "couple of thousandths" (.002"), and not reliable at all for inside measurements under a couple of inches. (Frankly, I was surprised that I got as close as I did!) The verdict? One simply cannot measure throats precisely with a caliper, even using the best that money can buy - they aren't sufficiently accurate.
(It should not come as a surprise that I'm not a big fan of calipers; I don't use them for anything remotely critical. I consider them to be "ballpark" instruments at best, and rely on best-quality Swiss micrometers for about 90% of my work. What does your gunsmith use??)
As previously mentioned, I acquired one of the recently imported FN "Barracuda" revolvers, and am in the midst of determining what to do to improve the action. I have to make a living, too, so this isn't on the top of my priority list....be patient!
In the meantime, I have managed to develop some information about the lineage of this gun. Some less-informed sellers have been insisting that the Barracuda was made in Belgium, and that the very similar Astra was either a rip-off or a licensed copy. To quote one internet 'expert': "The FN Barracuda was the only revolver FN ever made. They were made a little over 20 years ago and dropped as they never sold as FN thought they would. They are not Astra's nor are they copies, they are entirly FN made."
Trouble is, that is a complete untruth. If you have a Barracuda, pull the grips off; on the left side of the grip frame, next to the mainspring adjustment ring, you'll see the gun's proof marks. You'll note that the proof marks are all from Eibar, Spain - there are no FN Herstal or Liege (or any other Belgian) proof marks on the gun.
Serendipitously, I also have a cross-check: I recently came into possession of an Astra-badged version of this gun. Guess what? Same Spanish proof marks, in the same spots, as the FN version.
Conclusion: The FN Barracuda revolver was definitely NOT produced in Belgium, and was definitely NOT made by FN. It was in fact made in Spain by Astra, for it is their proof marks that adorn the gun. I hope this settles the controversy once and for all!
Occasionally someone will call or email: "I'm looking for a good gunsmith - do you work on Taurus revolvers?" When I politely inform the person that I do not, the result is often indignance, as if to say "how dare you decline to work on my fine possession! You have insulted me, suh!" (Delivered in the best antebellum manner, of course.)
Taurus revolvers possess many positive traits: they're available in a wide variety of calibers and configurations, they are usually fairly reliable, and they are priced right. Unfortunately, it's that last bit that gets me into trouble.
You see, the most expensive part of building a handgun, particularly a revolver, is the finishing work. You can't automate the polishing process, and Taurus revolvers are generally very well polished and finished. Given their low price point, this means that finishing is a large percentage of the purchase price. This means that they have to skimp somewhere, and the place that they do is in parts fitting.
Taurus guns have parts that simply do not fit as tightly - as precisely - as some other manufacturers. Yes, you can do a shadetree action job, maybe swap springs, and improve the action - but it will never be truly 'great' without rebuilding the gun.
I've purchased a couple of Taurus revolvers (Taurii??) to work on, to evaluate. While I like the guns (the now-discontinued model 445 is really neat, and I carry it occasionally) the effort to put a truly world-class action job on one results in huge labor costs.
Look at it this way: if you want a top-end wheelgun you have to pay for fitting parts at some point. With a Taurus, it doesn't happen at the time of purchase; it can only occur in the gunsmith's hands, which drives the cost up considerably. Like the folks who commissioned custom Norinco 1911s about a decade ago, what you end up with is a really expensive $300 gun that no one wants to buy.
I have a finite amount of time to spend, and I’d rather spend it working on revolvers that will actually see an increase in value after quality work has been done. That may sound arrogant, but I suspect their owners share my point of view. That value increase just won't happen with a Taurus, because after all is said and done it'll still be a Taurus: a good gun for the money you spend, just not a good candidate for customization.
Many people have been following the situation with the North Carolina Dep't of Corrections and their self-destructing S&W revolvers. If you haven't,here's a link to the story.
These pictures of one such occurrence have been floating around the net:
I've been exchanging emails with C.E. "Ed" Harris, who many will remember from his days as the head of Q.C. at Ruger - when they experienced a similar problem. Here's what he had to say:
"Old problem rearing its ugly head again, not really a new problem. A troublesome sporadic one when people forget about good shop practices and get sloppy.
Stress corrosion cracking is generally caused by contamination by solvents or cutting fluids too high in chlorides. Over-torquing barrels barrels creates a stress rise at the root of the thread which makes the problem worse. Microscopic examination of the failed barrels would be obvious to a competent engineer, especially familiar to those with aerospace or nuclear power systems experience.
Ruger had a short run of this back in the 1980s when they first starting making stainless magnums. I saw a few dozen guns come back when I worked there. All were traced to one guy on night shift who was over-torquing barrels on Redhawks which didn't quite line up, instead of taking a pass off the front of the frame on a Blanchard grinder as he should have done. He also used a wrong, slippery high sulphur thread lubricant intended for chrome-moly instead of the anti-seize compound used with SS.
This condition is aggravated by tight fit of barrel threads, such as when using a class 3A, combined with high stress, high temperature, and high barrel torque. Ruger fixed their problem by changing to a looser 2A fit on the barrel threads and assembling barrels to the frames using a Loctite product to cement them solidly while reducing stress on the threads and positively preventing any seepage of cleaning solvents into the barrel threads after they left the factory."
If true, this wouldn't be the first time S&W has over-torqued a barrel: the Model 442 Airweight Centennials, particularly in nickel finish, are somewhat notorious for frame cracks under the barrel. A phone conversation with a S&W representative confirmed to me that the cracked frames were caused by barrels that had been screwed in "too tightly."
However, there's always the possibility of user error, such as the use of certain products that contain chlorine compounds (brand name removed for obvious reasons):
"Use of [lubricants containing chlorine compounds] "could" do it, as could any number of other cleaners, especially if used with an ultrasonic which enhances thread penetration." There are certain "miracle" gun lubricant products out there that contain chlorine compounds, and have become popular amongst the more "martial" crowd. In addition, ultrasonic cleaners have been very popular at many police agencies over the last decade or so.
Well, I got an email from one of the employees at the agency, and he claims that they use Hoppes bore cleaner, and that they do not have an ultrasonic!
So we're back to the first possibility. Given Ed's expertise, I suspect that his analysis is the correct one.
There is an assertion that comes up with surprising frequency, particularly in the internet age where everyone is an expert: the Colt Python (and all other Colt revolvers) are "delicate", "go out of time easily", or "not as strong/durable as a S&W."
Let's start with the construction: a Colt revolver, for any given frame size, is as strong as any gun with that frame size. Their metallurgy is absolutely the best, and their forged construction is of superior quality. They are superbly made, and their longevity is a testimony to that fact. You are never compromising when you choose a Colt!
How about the charge of "delicate" or "goes out of time easily"? In my work, I see a lot of Colts; I shoot them extensively myself. With proper maintenance, I've seen no tendency for any Colt to go out of time. Yet, the rumors persist!
Why do such opinions exist if there wasn't some basis to them? Is there some amount of truth? I think I can answer that!
Let's start with some facts: Colt revolvers have actions which are very refined. Their operating surfaces are very small, and are precisely adjusted to make the guns work properly. Setting them up properly is not a job for someone who isn't intimately familiar with their workings, and the gunsmith who works on them had better be accustomed to working at narrow tolerances, on small parts, under magnification.
Colt's design and construction is unique; it uses the hand (the "pawl" which rotates the cylinder) and the bolt (the stop at the bottom of the frame opening) to hold the cylinder perfectly still when the gun fires. The action is designed so that the hand - which is the easiest part to replace - will take the majority of the wear, and is expected to be changed when wear exceeds a specific point.
This is considered normal maintenance in a Colt revolver, which is not the case with any other brand. To get their famous "bank vault" cylinder locking and attendant accuracy, you have to accept a certain amount of maintenance; it goes with ownership of such a fine instrument.
I've often made the statement that a Colt is like a Ferrari; to get the gilt-edged performance, you have to accept that they will require more maintenance than a Ford pickup. Unlike gun owners, however, folks who own Italy's finest don't complain that they are more "delicate" than an F-150!
I truly think that the negative reputation that Colts have in some quarters is because their owners - unschooled in the uniqueness of the Colt action - apply the same standards of condition that they would to their more pedestrian S&W guns.
What standards? A Colt, when the trigger is pulled and held back, should have absolutely no cylinder rotation. None, zip, zilch - absolutely no movement at all! Not a little, not a bit, not a smidgen - zero movement. A S&W, on the other hand, normally has a bit of rotational play - which is considered absolutely normal and fine.
There's another measurement to consider: at rest, a Colt cylinder should move front-to-back no more than .003" (that's 3/1,000 of an inch.) This is - in the absolute worst case - about half of the allowable S&W movement!
Now, let's say a S&W owner, used to their looser standards of cylinder lockup, buys a Colt. He goes and shoots it a bit, and the hand (which probably has a bit of wear already, as he bought it used) is approaching the normal replacement interval. He checks his gun, and finds that the cylinder has just the slightest amount of movement when the trigger is back, and half of his S&W's longitudinal travel. Heck, he thinks, it's still a lot tighter than his Smith so it must be fine to keep shooting it.
WRONG! It's at this point that he should stop shooting, and take it to an experienced Colt gunsmith to have the action adjusted. Of course, he doesn't do this - he keeps shooting. The cylinder beats harder against the frame, compresses the ratchet (ejector), causing the hand to wear even faster, and the combination of the two leads to a worn bolt. If left unchecked, the worn bolt can do damage to the rebound lever. When it finally starts spitting lead and misfiring, he takes it in and finds to his astonishment that he's facing a $400 (or more!) repair bill, and perhaps a 6 month wait to find a new ratchet.
Of course, he'll now fire up his computer and declare to anyone who will listen that Colts are "delicate" and "go out of time easily" and are "hard to get parts for." That, folks, appears to be the true origin of these fallacies.
Colts do require more routine maintenance, and a more involved owner; that's a fact. But, as long as the maintenance is performed properly, a Colt will happily digest thousands upon thousands of rounds without complaint. The owners who take care of them will be rewarded with a gun that is a delight to shoot, wonderfully accurate, and visually unmatched. Those who don't will sell them off at a loss and complain on the internet.
I sincerely hope that you will choose to be the first type of Colt owner. If, however, you are the second, please drop me a note - I'm always in the market for Colt revolvers at fire-sale prices!