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What is an efficient handgun, and why is it important in self defense?

Last Wednesday we talked about inefficient handguns, namely the Beretta 92 (and variants.) It wasn’t that I was picking on the Beretta, you understand, only that (as I explained) I’d gotten an email about that specific gun. Also, as I pointed out in the article, the Beretta was hardly alone; the older S&W autos were very similar in operation and deficiencies, yet for some reason they don’t have nearly the vocal following!

Let’s start today by talking about efficiency as applied to the handgun. An efficient handgun, as I pointed out, is one which requires the least amount of handling to employ, the least amount of training time to become proficient, and imposes as little on the shooter as possible. In other words, it’s a gun which consumes the least amount of resources in both training and use (resources might be things such as time, energy, money, ammunition, attention, and so on.)

There are two facets to this notion of efficiency: use of resources in training, and complication during an actual shooting incident. Let’s start in training: an inefficient gun uses more of a student’s time, effort, ammunition, and money to get to (and maintain) any given level of proficiency. I’ve had more than one person (here on the blog, on my Facebook pages, and in the comments on other blogs) say that difficulties with DA/SA guns are “just” “training issues”. YES! That’s my point!

None of us have unlimited resources for training. Even if a person is incredibly, obscenely wealthy he or she still has limits on available training resources, like time and energy. (Most of the rest of us have to factor in money, which is no small concern these days.) If you’ve read my latest book (
Defensive Revolver Fundamentals), I go into this idea in a chapter titled “Managing Scarcity” - because that’s what we’re doing whenever we train or practice: managing our scarce resources to get the best return possible. Combat Focus Shooting students will recognize this as the “Plausibility Principle”.

A gun which uses more of those resources in training leaves us fewer of those resources for other things. Now you may think that the resources used for, say, learning to consistently decock the gun or to manage that transition between heavy double action and lighter single action don’t seem to be all that burdensome, but that’s time, effort, money and attention which you can’t spend on the important parts of defensive shooting: recognizing and responding to the attack. Using resources mastering a more-difficult-to-handle gun means those resources can’t be used to learn your balance of speed and precision under a wider range of circumstances, which is perhaps the most basic and vital aspect of all defensive shooting.

When actually shooting in self defense, those inefficiencies cause some very specific and concerning issues. Forgetting to off-safe the gun when the need to shoot arises, for instance, is a common error among both new and seasoned shooters. I’ve have many responses to last week’s article testifying that they had practiced with their gun so often that its operation had become “automatic”; yet, I’ve seen USPSA Master-class ranked shooters, put into a training environment where they were mentally off-balance, forget to take their safeties off and spend precious time trying to figure out why their gun wouldn’t shoot! (This is far more common than shooters of such guns can ever admit; I had one very experienced shooter deny that it happened even after being shown the video of his error!)

Even the most experienced shooters of DA/SA guns such as the Beretta often drop shots in those same kind of training drills. I’ve watched more than one extremely skilled shooter using a DA/SA auto pull their first shot low, or their second shot high, during a drill designed to put the shooter into an unpredictable environment. That transition between DA and SA is more difficult than most people believe it is, especially when taken out of the calm and predictable training environment and put into one a little more like an actual incident.

Yes, it’s all about training: a DA/SA gun, such as the Beretta, takes more of it than guns which are simpler - and still hold out the possibility of operational error because of their more complicated nature.

An efficient gun would be a one which has a consistent trigger action from shot to shot; a gun which is in the same firing condition after a shot as it is when it’s in the holster; a gun which has a minimum of extraneous controls; a gun which requires no action other than manipulating the trigger to fire.

What guns are simpler and therefore more efficient?

If we were to make a list of the most efficient defensive handguns, the modern striker-fired autopistol would be at the top of that list. Guns like the Glock, Smith & Wesson M&P, Springfield XD series, Steyr, and some of the Walther models have a consistent shot-to-shot trigger, no extra levers or buttons to manipulate in the course of operation, and no extraneous safeties. They’re also extremely reliable (reliability is an often overlooked contributor to efficiency) and have a low bore axis, which aids recoil control and makes them easier to shoot.

Right under those would be the very few double-action-only autoloaders still being made. Some of the SIG-Sauer guns fall into this category, as do some of the HK pistols. They have external hammers which may make some people feel a little better about their safety, particularly with reholstering, but those hammers also raise the bore axis. As a result the guns tend to be a little larger and, in my experience, a little harder to shoot.

What’s next? Believe it or not, the double action revolver. Think about this: consistent triggers, no external safeties, no decockers (and if they’re double action only, no provision to even be cocked to single action - my preference.) They are, in use, extremely efficient. It can be argued that the Glock has more in common, conceptually, with the revolver than with other autoloaders. The only place where the revolver is less efficient is in reloading; however, it’s more efficient at the primary task (shooting) than any of the autoloaders listed below which makes it overall a more efficient tool.

Next would be the single action autoloaders, such as the 1911, Hi-Power, and the CZ-75 series when carried “cocked and locked”. Their need for constant manipulation of the manual safety makes them less efficient in both use and training, and their older designs are in the aggregate less reliable than the newer striker-fired guns. (That isn’t to say you can’t find individual examples which are perfectly reliable, only that they occur less frequently.)

At the bottom of the list are the DA/SA autoloaders, about which we’ve been talking. They require more resources in training and practice, and have more to deal with in actual shooting, than even the single action autoloaders. This group is, collectively, the most complicated type of handgun and requires the most training and practice to maintain proficiency.

Finally, remember this: the foregoing is not to say that an inefficient gun is bad or can’t be used to defend yourself, because that clearly isn’t true. People have used, and continue to use, DA/SA guns to protect themselves and their families with success. What this is saying is that learning to use one, and maintaining your ability to use one, will take more of your limited training resources and carries a slightly higher risk of operator error during a critical situation than a more efficient choice.

I believe that your choice of defensive handgun is yours, but that choice should always be as informed as possible!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Some thoughts on round counts and reliability.

What follows came up in a discussion about the reliability of 1911 pistols, but is actually universally applicable: to Glocks, SIGs, HKs, rifles, shotguns - and, yes, revolvers.

The context of the discussion was the validity of looking at failures during a training class as indicative of larger problems. It usually takes a form similar to "I'm not going to fire 1,000 rounds in self defense, so a gun problem in a class proves nothing; my gun is reliable enough for the 10 rounds it's going to take."

The statement is valid - no one is going to fire 500 or 1,000 rounds in self defense - but the conclusion isn't.

A gun which is carried for self defense continuously deteriorates in terms of its operational condition. Lubricants ooze out and evaporate, while lint and dirt work their way into and onto the operating surfaces. A gun which has been carried without stripping, cleaning and re-oiling for a few weeks may in fact be at the same level of cleanliness, and the oil and grease at the same level of lubricity, as a gun which has just fired 500 or more rounds. (Yeah, yeah, I know - you clean your gun every night and twice on Sundays. You get a gold star that says "I'm the extreme exception!")

Now you might say that a failure at 600 or 700 rounds is immaterial because you never will shoot it that much in real life, but consider this: the gun that's been riding around in its holster for a while may in fact be a lot closer in terms of operational condition to that 600 round mark than you might believe. Since malfunctions are, at some level, random, that gun may be at the brink of malfunction with the first round - or second or third - that's fired in defense of its owner. The shorter the interval between malfunctions, the more concerning this becomes. Different story now, isn't it?

This is why it's important to test your self defense gun thoroughly, and yes - that means a days where you shoot 500 or more rounds through it without cleaning, oiling, or otherwise pampering the thing. It's not to prove that the gun will shoot that many rounds without malfunction; it's a way of helping you determine whether the gun will function in the non-pristine condition in which it probably always exists. The goal should be zero malfunctions, because that's what's necessary when our lives are on the line.

Regardless of the make or model.

-=[ Grant ]=-

An opportunity for a discussion.

Over the weekend Rob Pincus - never one to shy away from a firestorm (I was going to say another kind of storm, but this is a family-friendly blog) - posted a video on YouTube. In it, he details the failure of yet another compact 1911-pattern pistol and expresses his disdain for the breed in general.

The online response was immediate and predictable. Many people agreed with Rob, but a very vocal portion of the shooting public disagreed vehemently. I don't have a problem with the disagreement, mind you (Rob and I discovered some time ago that we share the same feelings about the 1911 pistol, which is probably why we get along), but I do have a problem with the nonsensical responses given by those who disagree. Here are a couple of the most annoying, and they apply not just to the present discussion but all discussions about guns, cars, or darned near anything else on the planet.

More to the point, they apply to the kinds of responses I receive when I talk about the virtues of the revolver versus an autoloader as a defensive tool; I've heard these same arguments to my opinions, gotten them in emails, and seen them plastered over the 'net. That's probably why they're annoying.

"My is perfectly reliable, so your opinion is baseless/stupid/meaningless." Aside from the issues with making claims about an entire population based on a single data point, there are a couple of problems with this statement. First, the two sides may not agree on the definition of "reliable". I've proposed one such definition, but not everyone agrees.

I had a fellow once who told me his particular AR-15, a brand for which I don't care, was "completely reliable". I picked it up, inserted a magazine of fresh factory 55gn ball ammunition, and it failed to feed the fourth round. "Oh, it doesn't run with Federal ammo. That stuff is crap, and everyone knows it." Really? Seriously? If an AR-15 can't feed SAAMI-spec ball ammo (XM193 in this case), it's not reliable - period. The owner disagreed, his definition of "reliable" obviously divergent from my own.

The more interesting facet of this argument is that partisans frequently have selective memories. This is closely related to the phenomenon of confirmation bias: a person simply forgets those data points which disagree with his/her position. I've watched, more than once, a shooter clear a malfunction and promptly forget that he had one. When later he claims that his gun is perfectly reliable, and then is reminded of the incident(s), he can't/won't acknowledge that they ever happened. I don't watch much television, but one of my favorite lines from a TV show comes from "House": "everyone lies." Perhaps not intentionally, but they do.

I was in a class some years ago with a guy who had a malfunctioning Para-Ordnance. (This is not a shock to me, as I've never seen a reliable Para. Please, don't write and tell me about how Todd Jarrett's Paras are so reliable that he made a YouTube vid; he's a sponsored shooter, and both he and his handlers have a vested interest in making sure those "demos" go without a hitch.) A couple of weeks later he was on a forum talking about the class, and mentioned that his Para ran without a hitch. Funny, what I remember was picking up the live rounds that he was ejecting every few minutes!

Remember that there is a difference between extrapolation (from one to many) and representation (one of the many.) Picking a single example to illustrate a broader concept that has statistical validity, as this video does, is not the same as using a single example as the basis for a self-referential supposition. The former has data behind it; the latter has no data other than itself.

"All guns can fail." This is a particular favorite of mine, because it combines a lack of understanding of both engineering and statistics with a dollop of third-grade playground bravado. This statement attempts to get people to focus not on evidence, but on speculation; sadly, it works - as any political candidate can attest. If all devices can fail, then logically it doesn't matter which one you own, correct? If all cars break, why bother to look at repair statistics? Of course it matters, except when the partisans and fanboys get to talking - then the logic just flies out the window.

Yes, all mechanical devices can potentially fail. That's not the point. The point is that some devices fail more than others, and we can chart and often predict those failures based on past experience.

(I hear a variation of this when I talk about revolvers: "I've seen revolvers break too!" So have I - probably an order of magnitude more often than the person writing/talking. The difference is that for every mechanical failure I've seen on a revolver, I've seen hundreds on autoloaders. There is a difference which cannot be wished away.)

might break is a very different thing that what actually does. When we look at failures, patterns emerge that help us make both buying and engineering decisions. Smith & Wesson, for instance, looked at failures of their Model 29 .44 Magnum and made running engineering changes that dramatically improved the longevity and reliability of that gun. They couldn't have done so had they not looked at the pattern of failures that field experience had provided.

Availing ourselves of field data, from people who have seen more of it than us, is one way we can make good decisions. Striking out at the messenger because the message disagrees with some silly loyalty one has developed makes no sense at all.

(Oh, BTW - I do have some experience with short-barreled 1911s in the form of two Detonics CombatMasters, which some day I'll sell to one of those rabid 1911 fanboys. And laugh all the way to the bank.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

Smoke detectors and your rifle.

I recently read an ongoing discussion about red dot sights on defensive rifles, and it got me to thinking about their utility to the defensive shooter.

First off, I like red dot sights when I'm shooting. My eyes are unable to focus cleanly on the front sight of a 16-1/2" barreled AR-15, and the red dot makes it easier for me to shoot. Not that I can't shoot with irons, only that it takes a little more effort. Red dots are a great invention, and they’re fun (and almost obscenely easy) to shoot.

Despite that, none of the rifles that I use for serious purposes carry red dot sights. Why? For the same reason that most building codes don't allow battery operated smoke detectors in new construction.

Hard wired smoke detectors have been required in new buildings for nearly thirty years (depending on the locale.) It's not that battery operated detectors don't work, but rather that they require maintenance. It's not a whole lot, mind you: check the batteries twice a year, replace once a year. Despite not being a huge burden, it often doesn't get done and the consequences are dire. Hard wired detectors eliminate that maintenance and guarantee that the devices are always ready to operate at any time. They should still be tested, but the risks associated with not doing so are reduced to nearly zero.

The cost (in terms of effort and attention) of keeping a battery-operated detector operational is therefore higher than that of the hard-wired variety. Not a lot, but it's enough that lives are routinely saved. Because of that cost, the predictability of operational readiness is lower with the battery operated detector than with the hard wired variety. (This predictability is the reason the trucks and engines in your local fire station are hooked into "shore power" when they're not in use, even with trained firefighters there at all times to check them.)

The same principle applies to the red dot sight. Yes, some models have batteries that can last years, but that means one has to remember to check them frequently. There is a risk it that the batteries will have failed since the last check, or that the electronics may have failed even if one has been extremely vigilant about the batteries. Though I handle my handgun on a daily basis, it's often many months between the times I pick up the rifle and thus many months can elapse between the necessary maintenance checks.

Here in rainy Oregon, we have increased risks due to the climate: when in use, optics occasionally get obscured by water drops and we're often discovering that a device's waterproofing has failed. I could go on, but you see the point: unpredictability.

Iron sights suffer no storage degradation nor do they suffer unexpected or unpredictable failures. Unless they're damaged to the point of not being usable (in which case I can tell before I fire a shot that they're not working), there is no doubt that they'll be there and ready to work when I need them. They're predictable, and predictability is a Good Thing in defensive firearms.

It's not Luddism, just an admission of the increased difficulty of keeping a complex device ready for use at all times and under all conditions. I want the rifle to be ready, now, regardless of the last time I checked the batteries or remembered to turn it off/on or any electrical/mechanical faults it may have suffered since I last shot the thing. I'm not claiming that I'm "just as good" with irons as with the scope, only that the mechanism of the iron sights is more reliable under more conditions for a longer period of time.

I can hear the refrain now: "but guns break, too!" Yes, they do. We accept that as part of the risk of using the things, but I see no reason to compound that risk by an order of magnitude (maybe several) for what is really a small benefit.

I like red dots, I like shooting them, my eyes thank me when I do, but for the gun that has to be capable of being run hard without warning or preparation? Give me iron sights.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Light primer hits with factory guns?

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.

-=[ Grant ]=-

The sacred cows of Austria.

Seems that Todd Green over at caused a bit of a stir last week with
his report that the newest Glocks aren't quite as reliable as we've come to expect. While his sample size (of two examples) isn't statistically meaningful by itself, it parallels many other reports of failure-to-feed and failure-to-eject problems with Gaston's latest models.

I've personally seen it happen to students in class, and I've received reports of many others with the same issues. Glock built their reputation largely on reliability, but it appears they may be resting on those laurels just a wee bit. Here’s hoping that they address the problems in a timely manner.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Monday meanderings: "back to the grind" edition.

I hope everyone enjoyed their Independence Day holiday! I've been burning the candle at both ends lately, so I took a long weekend, during which I managed to overexpose myself to the sun. (The weekend was hot by Oregon standards - we hit 100 degrees at our house on Friday, and only slightly cooler on Thursday & Saturday.) What's that line - "feel the burn?"


Since it was so warm, I drank a huge amount of water. Having been in the ER more than once for severe dehydration (and accompanying heat exhaustion), I'm a little more attentive to this detail than most. For several years, my choice of liquid container has been the
classic Nalgene bottle - the translucent white variety, made of #2 HDPE, free of those nasty plasticizers currently suspected of causing cancer. A side benefit is that HDPE is flexible, making it more suitable to hard use than the much more rigid clear varieties. This proved beneficial this weekend, when I ran over my Nalgene with a tractor. Smashed it nearly flat, and collapsed the bottom inward. I managed to squeeze the walls back into roughly cylindrical form, but wasn't able to fix the floor. I filled it with water, threw it in the freezer, and in a couple of hours the expanding ice did the trick! Good as new (more or less), and none the worse for wear.

I just wish they'd make the things in "earth colors" - OD, coyote tan, etc. Nalgene, are you listening?


The S&W "J" frame is a generally reliable piece, but lately I've gotten reports of ignition issues with newer examples. S&W has transitioned to a new firing pin, which is much lighter and much shorter than the previous varieties. (This may be their solution to the drop testing standards in California.) They seem to be the source of the problem.To insure reliability, I replace all those I encounter with the
Cylinder & Slide Extra Length firing pin. Highly recommended, and an easy "do it yourself" modification for those so inclined.


supply chain is finally starting to recover; AR-15 rifles are becoming a common sight in the stores again, and I'm receiving reports of ammo shelves being restocked. Shortages of certain products (most notably .380ACP ammunition) can be expected to continue for the next few months, but by and large we're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

-=[ Grant ]=-