Monday, August 31, 2009

Reliability and Recoil

A very important quality of a good self-defense handgun is its reliability. Despite the rhetoric employed by the anti-gun crowd, a firearm is simply a tool. It is no better, nor no worse than the individual employing it. In the case of a self-defense handgun, it is a life-saving tool. Therefore, by definition it is a tool which must function properly each and every time it is used. If you are confronted by a life-threatening attack (on you, or another individual such as a friend or family member) and your firearm malfunctions it could easily result in your death or serious injury, or the death or serious injury of those whom you wish to protect. In a very real sense, you are laying down a wager on your life. I don’t know about you, but under such circumstances, when I make that bet, reliability is damned important to me.

Now, it is true that there are a large number of very reliable handguns being sold by reputable firearms dealers today. Manufacturers like Colt, CZ, FN (Browning), Glock, Heckler & Koch, Kahr, Kimber, Ruger, SIG, Smith & Wesson, Springfield Armory, Steyr, Taurus, and Walther (to name but a few) all produce highly reliable firearms. I could try to list them all, but it’s a lengthy list and that is not why I am writing this piece.

There are many other places you can go to research the reliability of a particular make and model of handgun. Good sources of information include reputable firearms dealers, articles by leading gun authors, self-defense and firearms instructors teaching in your area, and the members of local gun clubs. They can all give you an opinion, and undoubtedly will if asked. However, they cannot do your thinking for you. Seek a number of opinions by asking about a particular handgun. If you simply throw out the question I started this blog with, you will get a predictable result. Lots of opinions and precious little in the way of specific facts.

But, it is important to remember that this is a manufactured piece of equipment. And what other piece of equipment do you rely upon that is manufactured? Your car. And what do we know about cars? We know that even the best manufacturer turns out the occasional lemon. So, this is why it is imperative that you test your self-defense handgun before betting your life on it.

You cannot rely upon the general reputation of the Glock pistols for reliability, you need to know that the Glock you have selected is reliable. This means going out with the handgun and burning up several hundred rounds of practice ammunition and a minimum of fifty rounds of your chosen self-defense ammunition before you bet your life on that handgun. Are you going to be willing to accept anything less than 100% malfunction free performance? I won’t. But you have to decide for yourself. Its your life you’re betting, not mine.

If you do experience a malfunction, then you must figure out what the problem is and correct it or take it to a reputable gunsmith (and I don’t mean your brother-in-law Ted, who managed to take his Wingmaster apart to remove the magazine plug and was able to put it back together without a bunch of “extra” parts) and have the gunsmith look it over. Some manufacturers actually recommend a break-in period before placing the handgun in critical service. Malfunctions that occur during a break-in period on a new gun are not necessarily cause for alarm, but you need to be sure that you are experiencing malfunction free use before relying on the gun to save your life, or that of your family members.

There can be any number of reasons for malfunctions., I will save that subject for a future discussion. Now I want to talk about recoil.

The concept of recoil is a very subjective issue. Quite seriously, the deer hunter who just scored a trophy buck might respond to a question by admitting, “I never felt the gun go off.” Likewise, individuals involved in an exchange of gunfire, or drawing and firing to save their lives from an onrushing attacker, may later have no appreciable memory of either the report from their handgun, or the recoil of the gun going off. Adrenaline has interesting effects on sensory excusion.

The most important issue in examining recoil is not the force being applied rearward at the point the projectile leaves the barrel. It is the tendency of the muzzle of the handgun to rise upward at the point the projectile leaves the barrel. This is often referred to as “muzzle flip”. This is important since with a proper stance, you are using your entire body to absorb the rearward force of recoil. However, how well you control the vertical rise of the muzzle is going to be dependent on how well you can grip your handgun. Controlling muzzle flip is vital to the placement of multiple shots on target. Why is this vital? Because, despite what you see in the movies, the average meth-head, with no teeth and weighing 120 lbs. soaking wet, charging you with a knife, is not going to go down with one shot. This is undoubtedly bad news if you have been led to believe (as many trusting souls have – by the media and other idiots with no experience with the issue) that with one well-placed shot, you can disarm your attacker without causing him any serious harm.

(More on that issue at another time)

And that muzzle flip is going to depend upon not only your stance and your grip, but also to a high degree upon the caliber and the design of your handgun. Its no secret that the more powerful a handgun cartridge is, the more recoil it will produce. But it is also true that the perception of recoil can vary depending upon the design of the cartridge. High velocity cartridges such as the .357 magnum and .40 S&W can be described as having a sharp recoil. Lower velocity rounds like the .38 Special and .45 ACP are usually experienced as a “push”. Many people (including a large number of female self-defense students I have worked with) are surprised to find that the recoil of the .45 auto cartridge in a full frame 1911 is easier to handle than that of the .40 S & W, despite the fact that the .45 is a larger, more powerful cartridge.

However, the handgun the cartridge is fired from also plays a big part in this calculation. The heavier the handgun, the more it will absorb the cartridge’s recoil. Handgun manufacturers commonly make the same gun in a variety of frame materials, and this will affect, to a great degree, how much they weigh. Guns are available in steel, aluminum alloy and polymer plastic frames. The alloy and polymer-framed guns are lighter and easier to conceal and carry, but they are more difficult to shoot (accurately). Longer barrels also help to reduce recoil and muzzle flip by adding greater weight and moving the gun’s center of gravity further forward. But again, longer barrels make the gun harder to carry in a concealed fashion.

Another often overlooked factor affecting recoil is the “bore axis” of the handgun.This is the measurement of the vertical distance between the top of the shooter’s hand and the imaginary centerline of the barrel running from the chamber to the muzzle. Guns with a higher bore axis measurement have more muzzle flip than a handgun with a low bore axis measurement. But at the same time, the handguns with a low bore axis also will have a more pronounced direct backward recoil into the web of your hand. Because of their design, revolvers have a higher bore axis that some semi-automatic pistols. Glock pistols are an example of a semi-auto that is known for their low bore axis due to their design. Semi-automatic pistols also have less recoil than revolvers because some of the recoil energy is used to cycle the slide. Effectively, the slide functions as a shock absorber.

So, by way of example, a .38 special cartridge, fired from a snub-nosed lightweight alloy frame revolver with a high bore axis will have a much more punishing recoil than a .45 fired from a long barreled, steel framed, semi-automatic. If you don’t believe me, go to a range where you can rent both models. It will not take many rounds for you to understand the concept.

Next we are going to talk about self-defense ammunition. In connection with the concepts of stopping power and also reliability and practicality.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Wanna start a fight? Easily done. Just walk into a room filled with avid handgunners and ask in a loud voice, “Hey, what’s the best all-around self-defense handgun?” Then stay low, and hug the wall until you can beat a hasty retreat. The ensuing battle will be awe-inspiring. Everyone will have an opinion, emphatically stated, often with little agreement amongst the contenders and with precious little in the way of sound advice for the novice shooter seeking guidance and direction in choosing a handgun to own and use for self-defense. Actions, calibers, brands, size and materials. A bewildering array of arguments pro and con and more information than any one person could possible find useful.

The truth is you can’t answer this question, because it is a trick question. There simply is no best, all-around self defense handgun, because there are too many variables involved to allow for such a stand out, one size fits all, best of show response. The purpose of this series of articles is to digest the wisdom of experienced experts on the issue and try to provide some useful information.

Size Does Matter

Most thoughtful experts agree, however, that the most important factor in
selecting a defensive handgun is finding one that you can shoot well. This means a gun that fits your hand in combination with recoil you can handle. No matter what the caliber, or ammo capacity a handgun might have, if you can’t fire it accurately enough to hit an attacker with the number of shots necessary to stop an immediate threat, it will be of little use in protecting you from harm.

Another facet of the “shoot well” requirement is that the self-defense handgun must be reliable. A gun that jams in a fight, or experiences some other type of malfunction, is far less useful than a claw hammer and might very likely get you killed. A corollary of this concept is that it must be a firearm that you can operate without hesitation in an extremely fast-moving situation while you are subject to intense emotional and physiological stress accompanied by an inevitable loss of fine motor skills.

A final issue in this analysis is that the handgun needs to fire ammunition that is powerful enough to stop an attacker and it needs to hold enough of that ammunition to stop all the attackers. You may not be “lucky” enough to be facing just one.
Okay, with those ideas in mind, how do you go about selecting a handgun which is a good one for you?

To determine whether a gun is a proper fit for you, you must first examine it to determine its trigger reach, or the distance between the back of the grip and the trigger. To do this, grip the gun with your index finger extended and resting on the trigger guard, the trigger should be next to the index finger’s middle knuckle. If the trigger reach is too long, a shooter will attempt to compensate for this by using an incorrect grip on the gun. To grip the gun correctly, you must have the barrel aligned with the long bones of your forearm. Since it is very important to pull the trigger straight back when firing the handgun, if your grip is not aligned properly, it can result in “pushing” or “pulling” in which act of depressing the trigger causes the gun to move out of alignment with its intended point of aim, and, as a result, moving the point of impact.

If you are shooting a single action handgun (which requires that the hammer be manually moved to the cocked position before pulling the trigger to fire the gun) the pad of your trigger finger must rest on the trigger. With a double action handgun (where the act of pulling the trigger accomplishes cocking of the action and release of the hammer, discharging the round) the trigger should be contacted by the distal joint of the finger (the one closest to the tip of the finger). If the reach is too short, the contact point will move away from the tip of the finger, and a right handed shooter will pull the gun to the right. A left handed shooter will pull to the left. You can check this by “dry firing” the gun. Make absolutely sure you have the gun unloaded (check it twice, human beings make mistakes) and pointed in a safe direction. Then aim at a distinct target and pull the trigger through to release. Watch to see if the sights stay in alignment or if they move as you pull the trigger. On the range you can also check this by examining where you are hitting the target. If your point of impact is consistently to one side or the other of your point of aim, then your trigger reach may be too short or too long.

It is equally important that you are able to manipulate the gun’s other controls while gripping the gun. On a revolver, the cylinder release should be within easy reach with your thumb. On a semi-automatic pistol, you must be able to activate the magazine release and slide lock lever easily. If the gun has a decock mechanism or a manual safety, you must also be able to use these features without altering your grip on the gun. It is not an acceptable alternative to try to use these controls using your support hand. In a confrontation, you may be unable to use both hands to operate the handgun for a variety of reasons. Effective one-handed operation is a critical skill that may not be possible if the gun is too big for your hand.

If, alternatively, your hands are too big for the gun, you will have difficulty finding enough gun to hold on to, either because the grip is too short or the circumference of the grip is too small. While it is quite easy to determine if the grip is too short, it is often harder to determine if the circumference of the grip is going to pose a problem for you. If the grip is a proper size, there should be a gap between the tips of your fingers and the base of the thumb on your grip hand.

The base of the thumb on your support hand should fit into this gap when using a two hand grip to lock the support hand into your grip. This assists in managing recoil during firing and permits proper follow through so that you are able to fire multiple shots rapidly and accurately. In a situation where you cannot use a two hand grip, proper fit is even more important since the grip hand must also act alone to provide support for the firearm during operation.

You actually need to try a number of different grip sizes and styles to find a good grip, just as you would try on clothing to ensure that your purchase does fit you. A number of handgun manufacturers have come out with guns with adjustable backstraps which can alter the circumference of the grip to some degree by replacing a plastic insert that attach to the back of the grip. However, these also tend to alter the trigger reach to some degree. If you are looking at a gun in a gunshop and the grip seems too large or small for you, ask which backstrap is on it at the moment, and if they could let you hold it with a larger or smaller one attached.

In the next installment, I am going to discuss issues relating to firearm reliability and the various types of actions that are available on the market. From there we will move to the selection of the caliber of the handgun you are considering and the effects of size, weight and the caliber of the handgun you are considering on recoil and accuracy.