web analytics

Uncategorized

What makes a good firearm/handgun?

I have looked at this question long and hard, and I have consulted with some people who I feel are endowed with clue, and I have come to some conclusions.

I suppose in retrospect the conclusions are pretty common sense, but in case you haven’t noticed, common sense is not so common.

Firearms do not have to be expensive or handmade to be accurate and function, it is a foregone conclusion that most firearms, even the cheapest, are capable of more accuracy than their operator. And literally millions of rabbits, ducks, geese, quail, deer, bear, coyote, fox, wolf, squirrel have been taken, or even taken to the table, with very plain and mass produced firearms. There are millions and millions of them in gun cabinets, closets, nightstands, and pickup trucks all over the country, and the lot of them aren’t anything to look at. No, what I’m talking about are the customs, the one off or limited production firearms that are sought after for their form and function.

And I’m not talking about engraving, though engraving can be nice, a lot of the time guns are engraved as presentation pieces that are never really meant to be shot. With the general exception of cowboy action shooting, very few heavily engraved firearms are also extremely fine tuned, and the reason is simple: Ordinarily, you don’t want to shoot a work of art, and you don’t want a work of art to shoot. That may not make a lot of sense but the more you think about it the more apparent it becomes. (This is directed at handguns only, long guns are another discussion altogether. LOTS of fine long guns are beautiful works of art and also shoot like a house afire) And yes, a well made firearm in itself is a thing of beauty, but you know what I’m talking about.

So, in mostly random order, with the critical point saved for very last, here are what I have come to consider the criterion for fine firearms.

The first I’d like to address is materials. To give an example, in 1909 Iver Johnson started making their little break top revolvers to deal with smokeless powder. Prior to this time, most of their revolvers were made of iron; after that, they were made of steel. The difference in the durability of the material was astounding, and revolvers made of steel at that time can still be fired safely today. I have an Iver Johnson top break in 38 Smith and Wesson that I have shot perfectly safely with modern ammunition. You can tell which are which, by the way, by looking at the hammer spring. The old ones have leaf springs, the new ones, coil. Never shoot a leaf spring gun, and have a competent gunsmith inspect a coil spring gun. Bob Goforth, who we lost in 2011, was the expert on this, and while he is gone his knowledge isn’t, he left us two books in the form of Iver Johsnon and Hopkins and Allen reference manuals.

Anyway, I digress. The advent of good quality steels meant that firearms could be made that were of a much higher quality and the steel would last longer and wear better, and deal with higher powered ammunition. Add a little Chrome and a little Vanadium and it got even better, the material could be made stronger but still machined easily. Add a few more substances and the steel could be easily heat treated, and resist warping. And new steel alloys and ways of treating and preparing them have not slowed down, new alloys are being developed all the time. Additionally, alloys of other metals and composite plastics that are as functional as, or even more functional than their machined counterparts have showed up and they are going to stay.

The next criterion is machinery. When John Browning was alive, there were a short handful of machines available, and they mostly consisted of lathes, and mills, and variations therof. JMB had to confine his designs to things that could be manufactured on the machinery at the time. Anything that could not would result in a lot of expensive and intricate handwork. To this day most of the original JMB designs can be made on very minimalist equipment. This is why everyone and their brother “Customizes’ handguns.

Now, there are machine tools and processes that JMB could not have possibly dreamed of. It is now possible to use chemicals and electricity to rifle a barrel, and many are indeed made that way. It is now possible to accurately machine ports in a barrel without leaving any kind of a burr whatsoever. It is possible to control the heat treatment of materials so that some parts can be hard enough to scribe glass while the core is still malleable. Not to mention the multiple axis machine tools that are lathe and mill and grinder at once, capable of beginning with a piece of raw stock and ending up with a completed part capable of being fitted into a firearm. Think of a Broomie mauser. The barrel section is a complex piece of machining involving many many operations on many many custom built machines. Now imagine if you could push a button on a machine and just make thousands of them without even thinking about it. Well, now, you can. But still, that material is expensive and the finished product would be expensive, so just about every manufacturer has found a way to use other materials to make it easier and faster to produce a functional firearm. Advancements in casting and forging Aluminum alloys, advancements in molding composite plastics, advancements in making stamped sheet metal parts, MIM, all techniques that get you from point A to B as quickly as possible and provide a fully functional reliable product. This tech is here to stay.

Next, lets look at Craftsmanship, or more succinctly, skill. A lot of firearms are being made right now in the Khyber pass, and are being made with the crudest of tools in the most minimal of workshops. And some of the quality is really not bad at all. Anyway, they shoot, which is saying something. The craftsmanship may not be up to our standards, but they are manufacturing to their market. And they are, for all intents and purposes, a bunch of primitives with hammers and files. So what is good craftsmanship, or workmanship? It clearly isn’t what goes on at Savage or at Marlin. That is manufacturing, and while it is just fine, and yields good functional firearms that will literally last many generations, it isn’t where I’m going with this.

Harry Pope, one of the world’s most famous custom barrel makers, apocryphally said “There isn’t any secret. You just have to be willing to take the pains to do nice work”. If the primitives with files and hammers in the Pakistani gun district can make decently functional firearms with almost no equipment, a motivated and dedicated individual with a good skillset and modern equipment at his disposal can do incredible work. He just has to want to. Craftsmanship is boring a barrel after it has been contoured, secure in the knowledge that your bore will be concentric with the breech and the muzzle. Even experienced machinists have issues with this, and it is for this reason that tooling manufacturers and their representatives are very knowledgeable about their art. Welding an extension onto a pistol slide without making the weld noticeable in bluing, or requiring the removal of so much material as to eliminate the original rollstamp, that is spectacularly difficult to do by machine, let alone by hand. Doing that kind of work requires extensive practice and nearly infinite patience, and above all, time. And that is the primary reason good quality gunsmithing is expensive, and it is generally a bargain. If the gunsmith was making $50 an hour doing what he’s doing for you, you could not afford his work unless he was very productive and used his time very efficiently.

So, if you have good, modern materials and high quality, accurate equipment and processes, and you have a well developed and practiced skillset, you’re going to make fine sidearms, right?

No. Because the absolutely critical factor is vision. The vision to take an existing design and modify it in a way that makes it legitimately better is a rare thing, and to be able to invent something that never existed before, and have that invention leave the starting gate at full gallop and be immediately successful is even more rare. But it exists.

Some of it is persistence. Certainly there are false starts, certainly there are people who had a vision that was, frankly, dumb. But the ones with a good vision rapidly gain a following, and the price of their product rapidly increases, and their time becomes more and more valuable. Towards the end of his life Harry Pope had a cardboard sign on his shop wall that read as follows:

“NO DELIVERY PROMISED. TAKE YOUR WORK WHEN DONE OR TAKE IT ELSEWHERE. IF YOU MUST KNOW WHEN I WILL BE THROUGH WITH YOUR WORK THE ANSWER IS NOW. TAKE YOUR WORK AWAY. I DON’T WANT IT. I HAVE NO WAY OF KNOWING WHEN I WILL BE THROUGH. I WORK ELEVEN HOURS A DAY. DAILY INTERRUPTIONS AVERAGE ONE AND ONE-HALF HOURS. DARK WEATHER SETS ME BACK STILL MORE. THERE IS BUT ONE OF ME. I’M HUMAN AND I’M TIRED. I REFUSE TO LONGER BE WORRIED BY PROMISES THAT CIRCUMSTANCES DO NOT ALLOW ME TO KEEP. YOU’RE A LONG TIME DEAD. IT IS TIME TO BEGIN TO LIVE.”

Winter is coming

Supposedly this is a catchword from GOT, but I’ve never seen it. But winter is coming, and living in the midwest, that means battening down the hatches. I have a new roof, and have recently rebuilt the west facing wiondows, so the critical issue has been water, and having had water pipes freeze, I am extrra careful about that. So the long life rough service bulb is in the well pit and the thermometer as well, and I have covered the well pit with foam to keep it from the worst of the cold.

Hopefully nothing new will manifest itself. Hopefully this winter is mild and mellow.

So it took twelve tries

But I finally found someone who would mow the yard. Beginning with cutting down the very tall weeds in the back. The first day cost me more than my first car, and I was happy to pay that. Because it’s done. And while it’s raggedy it will get better with time. And hopefully I will be able to make it much less of a problem in the long run by simply paying someone to do it for me.

Next »