by R.K. Campbell
After 30 years of examining handguns and carrying them on a daily basis, I have acquired some skill in predicting performance.
I have also become a fair parts replacer, with some acumen in the steel/somatic relationship. I don't have X-ray vision, but a glance at a new pistol's frame and slide give every clue necessary to guess its direct progenitor. Trigger, locking and feed style is transparent to the learned eye. Mechanics aside, I have to admit the essence of a gun is style. Looks count for me in this age of blocky slides and polymer frames.
A pistol such as the CZ 75, with a combination of American- and European-developed mechanics in a flowing, purposeful style is irresistible. I'd rather shoot than do research, but a gun's shape is what first attracts my attention. If the gun shoots well, I am even more impressed.
Mind you, I am not a boulevardier of the range, going to show off my newest acquisition. My guns must work and shoot well. I'm modern enough to appreciate the influence of design in modern pistols, but old fashioned enough to prefer solid working pistols. The shape of a gun's frame and how it fits my hand is important. Using an ill-fitting gun is like playing baseball with a 2 X 4.
Some handguns have reached a position of mythic prominence. The Hi-Power, the 1911 and the CZ 75 are among them. This position is based on long, hard service. But today's handgun must not only perform, its ability to make a profit is important. After all, the military market is finite and the police market has narrowed to a handful of black guns.
I have observed many shooters on the range. The most common mistake they make is choosing a handgun that is too large for their hands. These big guns aren't Desert Eagles; they are standard double-column magazine pistols a bit wide for the average hand.
Some shooters value capacity over hand fit. This preference is based on the theory of firepower. Firepower means an infantry squad to me. More important is a well fitting handgun with a minimum of sharp surfaces to abrade and irritate soft flesh.
Based on shooting history study, I don't see a need for a lot of shots in most cases. Four or five quickly delivered rounds can be important, but must be delivered with accuracy. The handle of the gun and the manner in which it is held has a great deal of import on the question of accurate, fast shooting.
I've often wished the makers had slimmed down the grips of guns instead of developing new 10-round magazines after the crime bill!
A firm, positive grip is important in deliberate fire, but all the more important in rapid fire. Some guns don't have stocks, but the grip is part of the grip frame. Stocks as opposed to grips are terms from the days in which handgunning was a sport reserved for the wealthy. Handguns were simply short rifles.
Today, handgun grips or stocks come in many styles with flares swelling from ver tical to flat stocks, and reverse angles guaranteed to induce muscle tremor. Some fit most of us well; others do little to encourage control of the handgun. While some grips appear to be opposite-engineered.
A prominent flare at the base of the handle is preferred by most shooters, as the reverse angle contributes to degrading the grip and twisting of the wrist. The grip should blend naturally into the action or receiver, making the gun a natural extension of the hand. Early guns lacked even rudimentary sights. Stock work was everything to hitting-if hitting was limited to just past saber range.
It should not be overlooked today. Small and large hands must be addressed equally. Some shooters like a checkered or stippled grip. With more men spending time on the keyboard than in endeavors that callous the hand, a heavily abrasive grip may not be indicated. Skateboard tape works in the absence of Pachmayrs for certain models. If you use this pebble grain aggressively, keep some Band-Aids handy. (I like the ones with Mickey Mouse on them.)
Under stress, with mud, rain or blood on our hands, a firm, positive grip may be difficult to maintain. Checkering helps. Some prefer serrations to checkering as it is easier on clothing. For me, the handle means a lot. Fast handling means rapid acquisition of a firing grip, facilitating a fast strike on target. Fast shooting can save your life if it is also accurate. Relying upon the Great Spirit, Glock and Cor-Bon is fine, but personal training must pass muster as well.
Trigger leverage is an important consideration often overlooked by the novice. Trigger leverage and handgun control cannot be compromised by shifting the hand to try and find a proper grip. Sight alignment (not sight picture) depends upon a proper grip. The gun may malfunction if a solid grip is not properly applied. Semi-auto actions-whether locked breech, blowback, or gas retarded-must have a solid platform against which to recoil in order for the firing cycle to continue properly. The pistol must recoil in a straight line. Stoppages, bobbles and choking don't help us deliver fast, accurate blows.
I have enumerated some contextual meaning, which can be experienced by the reader easily. Take your handgun in hand after triple checking the gun to be certain it is empty. If the hand fits well, with the sights lined up properly in a straight line with the bones of the arm, you are in good shape. If the hand is off center, control will be difficult. The hand must ride high, with the top strap pressed into the hand. Take the gun in a relaxed grip and place the first joint of the finger upon the trigger. A long fingered shooter may be able to wrap the second pad of his digit around the trigger. Average shooters may have difficulty reaching the face of a long, double-action trigger.
Double-action-only triggers are in the median, with a twist. They are much like double-action revolvers. Two-stage triggers take getting used to, but it can be done. Trigger reach is measured from the face of the trigger to the rear center of the backstrap. The trigger reach may not necessarily reflect upon how well a human hand fits a particular gun. Best to try as many handguns as possible in live fire. There are truly small guns and some too large for anything but slow, deliberate fire. Between the extremes are shootable handguns with fine features.
The grip angle can make a handgun feel right in the hand. The 110-degree rake of the Heckler and Koch P7M8 is very well designed. But aimed fire is one thing; it is another to bring a gun to eye level and fire rapidly under stress. Recoil control must be considered a function of the grip angle and bore axis.
We would want the handgun to help us control exuberant recoil and muzzle flip. Some pistols have a high bore axis as a requisite of design. The bore axis is the height of the bore above the hand. An example of a high bore axis might be the SIG P220, while an example of a low bore axis is the Colt 1911. Muzzle flip is limited by a low bore axis. The lower the axis, the more straight back is recoil and the less muzzle flip. There is no leverage for the muzzle to rise, in simple terms.
A revolver has a high bore axis, which results in more difficulty in control. There are other subjective ingredients, but a low bore axis is beneficial to any design.
We have covered handguns from front to back, but let's look at trigger actions. There are two basic types-single-action and double-action. All double-action designs incorporate a single-action component. Double-action-only pistols are usually modified forms of the double-action.
Each type needs a little different frame design to work well. That is why converted double-actions such as the Double Eagle Colt don't always work out right. Some single-action pistols have pivoting triggers. These triggers can be controlled well, once the shooter learns to place his finger on the lower tip or outside edge of the trigger.
The single-actions I prefer have straight to-the-rear trigger press. Witness that the Smith & Wesson 52 and the CZ SA designs, derived from double-action pistols, have turned out well. In contrast, converting a DA to an SA often works out much better than the reverse.
The single-action allows the finger to extend to the trigger guard in a pointing aspect. Few single-action designs fail to accommodate even the shortest finger. Double-action pistols require the finger higher on the frame. The trigger finger travels in an arc, reaching down to pull the trigger through a 10- to 15-pound trigger compression and to the rear. The designer had best position the hand further up the grip strap than in the case of a single-action handgun.
It is easy to tell which handguns are properly designed by this criteria. But wait, aren't there design compromises? There are, and the need for a high capacity handgun brings about several. We must live with a fat grip.
The modern handgun is less likely to use the Browning locking lug and swinging link pivoting barrel system. The Hi-Power uses angled camming surfaces, now a standard in the industry. This finished Browning's evolution from twin links to one link. Then there were none.
The angled surfaces can be adjusted as the needs require. As an example, the EAA Witness 10mm features camming lugs which are angled to keep the barrel locked longer than in the case of the .45 auto version, and to direct the barrel downward to absorb recoil. A lot of guns now use a single locking lug.
The Smith & Wesson 457 I have used extensively works quite well with one lug. Modern SIGs and Glocks and some Smith & Wessons use a locking system that butts the barrel hood into the ejection port. It works well. The ultra reliable Glock and the accurate SIG use this system-it works. The Beretta continues to use the oscillating wedge lockup first used in the Mauser C 96. But with modern adaptations, such as smoothing the Model 92's 'wings' to avoid eccentric wear, this system has stood the test of time.
There are those who say the SIG system requires a blocky handgun with a heavy slide. No one told Justin Moon. His Kahr is a truly compact pistol. This pistol is one that shows the Europeans that Gun Valley can get it right!
Feedway design has evolved from the two-piece feedramp of the Colt, to the single ramp Browning to the straight line feed of the Beretta. Modern handguns must be reliable above all else-there is too much competition. Again, the Kahr shows us how it is done. The Kahr features an offset locking lug or camming surface in order to save room in placing the trigger beside the barrel. The feed ramp is actually offset. There is no more reliable small gun in its present rendition than the Kahr. Here is a remarkable handgun with much to recommend it.
The features we wish for in a handgun are available if we find what they are. I like pistols that preserve the character of the original, while featuring design and engineering refinements. This is what Bill Wilson has done with the 1911 and what Beretta has done with the new Beretta Elite II. These guns are top flight instruments. As with all modern handguns, cost of manufacture and market conditions must be weighed against the ability to make a profit. But quality handguns are proving profitable.
We would be remiss not to mention Space Age material. Ferrous metals are now popular. Titanium and Scandium have lowered the weight threshold for .38 snubs to below 12 ounces. Autoloaders may be next. Polymer was to the '90s what aluminum was to the '50s and stainless was to the '60s. What's next? We'll see some interesting pistols.
I have included a chart with the relative characteristics of my favorite defense pistols. The differences seem small, but make quite a bit of difference in handling. And the equation can be changed.
As an example, I have a pistol ( a 1911 ) from the Action Works, which has been given a Smoothout Package. With thin grips, it feels quite a bit different than many 1911s. Grip circumference is getting down to about 5 inches. Add the cut out notch under the trigger guard first offered in factory form in the Colt Enhanced Model, and you have a superior handling 1911. You can shave the factory grips of a Beretta 92 and change the grip circumference.
There are important differences in handguns, but what is most important to the shooter is practice. Repetition is the mother of skill. Quality handguns are not inexpensive. Skill at arms is purchased with a different coin. Study the idioms of the handgun and decide which is best for your personal scenario. Diversity and quality have never been higher.
|Grip Circumference||Width of Grip||Trigger||Reach||DA/SA Bore Axis*||Handgun Tested|
|2-1/2" (short trigger)|
|5||1-1/8"||2-15/16"||2-1/2"||7/8"||Beretta 21 .25 auto|
|4-7/8"||7/8"||3-1/4"||2-1/2"||2-1/4"||Smith & Wesson Model 10 Special Revolver|
|*Height of bore above hand, measured to middle of bore|
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