A Magnum Autoloader On The Cheap

August 8th, 2014

Ask any person from the United States who is involved with the shooting sports and they will tell you that the very first Magnum handgun put into general production is the .357 Magnum revolver.

model 686 357 magnum revolver

The three-fifty-seven has long been admired, and for good reason.  It is an extremely powerful handgun, certainly powerful enough to harvest all but the largest game in North America.  So far as self defense goes, it has a proven track record of effectiveness.  One could do worse when choosing a caliber to fit a wide variety of roles.

But there is a problem with the claim that the .357 Magnum, introduced in 1934, was the first handgun of its type to be manufactured in great numbers.  That honor goes to the Russian military handgun most commonly known as the Tokarev, which was issued to the troops beginning in 1931.


(Picture source.)

Also known by the official name as the TT-30, this military handgun was developed to replace the rather odd revolver that the Russian armed forces had been relying upon since 1895.  It is certainly emblematic of Soviet design philosophy in that it is robust, powerful, ugly as sin, and uncomfortable to use.

The TT-30 was chambered for the 7.62x25mm Tokarev cartridge, a bottleneck design that was loaded to some very high pressures.

762x25 tokarev cartridges

The most powerful loadings offered by the Soviet war machine launched a teensy tiny .30 bullet at a blistering 1600 fps, which is just as fast as some of the modern defensive loads available for the .357 Magnum.  Such high velocity, with such a small bullet, meant that penetration is extremely good.  The bottleneck design also has another advantage in that it is very friendly to autoloading mechanisms, with the chances of fail-to-feed jams much less likely than with straight wall cartridges.  The gun itself is well designed for ruggedness, with the improved TT-33 withstanding extreme abuse during WWII and still functioning.

But that pretty much is all the good points for the design I can find, as there are some serious drawbacks to the gun as well.

There was no trigger block safety or safety catch in the original design, making the gun unsafe to carry with a round in the chamber.  Magazines had a tendency to drop free without warning if there were damaged in any way.  The sights were very dark, and hard to make out in anything other than well lit conditions.  The simple grips, as well as the squared off beavertail, meant that many shooters find it to be uncomfortable when firing.

But there is one overriding advantage, and that is the very low price asked for fully functional versions on the surplus handgun market.  One can find a perfectly good gun for about 20% to 30% of what it would take to buy a shiny new .357 Magnum from one of the better known manufacturers.

Can I recommend a Tokarev for concealed carry?  Not really, as the lack of what I consider to be adequate safety features in original models from Communist countries gives me pause.  Guns imported into the United States are required to have a trigger block safety installed, but crappy workmanship in the extra parts means that many collectors disassemble their guns and return the guns to their original condition in the interest of improving reliability.  In other words, you won’t know if you bought a gun which can safely be carried with a round in the chamber unless you know how to pull it apart and check to make sure the extra parts have been correctly installed.

The reason why I am mentioning this particular gun is because a Tokarev might just be the perfect handgun for those looking to enjoy the vast wilderness areas in North America.  They are rugged enough to be reliable in extreme conditions, as well as have the punch to deter most aggressive animals.  The small bullet is a concern, but it shouldn’t be a problem as long as bears or moose are avoided.  If you should find that your Tokarev has developed some rusty spots while you were backpacking in the Rocky Mountains, who cares?  Just sand it down and apply some oil.  It looked like a piece of Soviet era crap before you left, the shiny spots just lend it some character.

worn tt-33 with holster


Ed Harris was kind enough to share his experiences with the 7.62x25mm Tokarev round, and he also sent us some pictures!  Thanks, Ed!



Multi-Round Revolver Pattern

July 25th, 2014

In my last essay, I discuss how stuffing shortened wadcutter bullets into long revolver cases can increase the firepower of wheelguns.  It must have generated some interest, as a question was asked ….

What did the groups look like?”

If my faulty long term memory serves, the first round looked something like this.

bullseye target with pattern from a revolver multiround

(Please click on the picture for a larger version.)

The target was two feet across, and set 35 feet or so from the firing line.  The center hole was made by the projectile with the traditional bullet shape, and the other four by the light wadcutters.  I didn’t actually hit the exact center of the target, of course, or even the ten ring.  But I figured you would forgive me a little poetic license in the interest of clarity.

I can’t say what the pattern looked like for any of the subsequent 49 rounds, as I was just firing at the paper to get rid of them.  There were more holes than paper hanging downrange by the time I was done, so at least we know that ammo like this does a bang up job of tearing apart targets!

One would think that the lighter bullets would tend to rise above the point of aim, not fall below.  So why did things turn out this way?  Dunno.  Maybe it has something to do with the turbulence caused by the projectile out in front.

Machine Gun Revolvers

July 23rd, 2014

When it comes to handguns issued to the military, the very first autoloader that I am aware of which found its way into holsters worn by soldiers was the Mauser C96.


The Turkish government bought 1,000 of the guns in 1897.  Hardly enough to equip all of their officers, it is true, but you have to start somewhere.

It took a lot longer for civilians and police forces to join the late 19th Century.  I remember a lot of old wheelgun aficionados back in the 1970’s who would deride the popularity of autoloaders, holding forth whenever anyone seemed to be listening on how only revolvers were reliable and jam proof.  I suppose they were lucky to have never suffered a poorly seated primer.

Nothing wrong with revolvers, of course.  I’ve carried them myself for my defense, and never felt less than adequately protected.  I just never saw the need to give anyone else grief if they didn’t see things my way when it came to choosing their own defensive tools.

But, all that aside, there were people who bitterly opposed the rising reliance on semi-automatic handguns.  Revolvers or nothing for them, and anyone who didn’t agree was a fool!

hard used 357 magnum and 38 snubby in seoia tones

One could say that I affectionately called these people “The Revolver Boys” for their lack of acceptance of the choices of others.  Except I wasn’t really being all that affectionate.

There was one problem that the revolver boys kept coming up against, and that was a matter of firepower.  Autoloaders beat revolvers every day of the week when it comes to putting a large amount of lead downrange in a hurry.

taurus millenium pro

Was there a way to increase the number of shots in a handgun that could only hold five or six rounds?  Actually, there is!

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Shooting Pointy, Shooting Flat

July 14th, 2014

Most people are aware of the standard bullet shape.

(Please click on all pictures to see a larger version.)

standard 9mm ball bullets waiting to be reloaded

It is so common, such a well known touchstone in our culture, that things which have nothing to do with firearms are described as “bullet shaped“.

bullet shaped electric car

goblin parasite fighter plane

woman with pointy bullet shaped hair

The shape provides superior aerodynamics over traditional round ammunition, allowing modern bullets to travel further than a simple lead ball.  But is that why they started to shape ammo like this?

I have no idea if it is true or just a legend, but the story is that the bullet shape was hit upon by cannon designers in order to get a heavier shell while still using the same diameter barrel.  The obvious advantage in reduced air resistance was just a happy surprise.

picture of fort barrancas interior, florida circa 1861

(Picture source.)

Bullets shaped like this have several advantages, but punching clean holes in paper targets isn’t one of them.  The nose of the bullet splits the paper, allowing it to tear open in a ragged shape.  The edges are ill defined and sloppy.

paper target with ragged bullet holes

This isn’t a subject of concern if you are working on improving your self defense skills, as a round striking a tiny fraction of a millimeter off center just doesn’t matter.  It does matter a great deal when people are competing in handgun bullseye matches, however.

If a bullet should strike on one of the lines, the judges have to be able to carefully measure the hole made in order to see where the majority of the projectile landed.  That one extra point awarded, or one point less in the score, might just determine who goes home with the trophy that day.

And that is why we have the wadcutter bullet.

wadcutter bullets ready to be reloaded

wadcutter rounds

Completely flat nosed bullets.  There is no pointy nose, so the paper is snipped off very cleanly and precise.  The holes produced are very clear and sharp.

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I Think That Fence Has Been There A Very Long Time!

July 13th, 2014

Please click on the pictures for a larger version.

tree and fence 1

tree and fence 2

tree and fence 3

tree and fence 4

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Cap And Ball Conversions

July 12th, 2014

Revolvers using percussion caps were all the rage during the American Civil War.

cap and ball

It had only been a few decades since they had appeared, and most handguns up to that time were single shot affairs.  But now you had six shots before reloading!  Amazing!

It must have seemed to the people at the time as if they had Thor’s hammer in their holster.

The biggest problem with cap and ball revolvers, however, is that it took a great deal of time to reload.  Loose powder had to be measured and poured into each chamber, with a round lead bullet forcibly pushed down on top.  After all of the chambers were stoked up, then percussion caps would have to be fitted to the rear of each.

Sometimes the caps would not want to stay put, and so they would have to be carefully crimped.  Even so, it was common for percussion caps to come loose.  This would not only mean that one of the loads would not go bang, but the cap could also work its way into the mechanism of the revolver and jam the cylinder to a stop.

That is why the introduction of cartridge technology was greeted with joyous glee by anyone who used a handgun.

standard 9mm lead ammo

The powder, bullet, and primer all in one convenient package?   Just slip a new one into the chamber to reload, instead of measuring powder and forcing bullets into cylinders?  And, what is even more amazing, no percussion caps going walkabout in the guts of your gun so it doesn’t work?  Give me some of that!

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Shooting Far

July 5th, 2014

I recently posted an essay where I mentioned my desire for a handgun suitable to be legally carried by someone with a concealed carry license, but which could also be used to reliably and accurately hit a target at 100 yards.

Is there anything that would fit the bill?  Maybe so, but I have yet to find it.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  Even handgun bullets, less powerful and accurate than those fired from rifles, will travel more than a mile before air resistance will scrub their velocity down to nothing.  So it is certainly within the realm of the possible to strike a target at 100 yards with the compact autoloader I normally carry for my defense.

In fact, the best shot I ever made was when I killed an adult coyote at 280 yards with a single round fired from this gun, which is chambered for the powerful .357 Magnum cartridge.

model 686 357 magnum revolver

357 magnum with some spent brass and a speed loader

Conditions were absolutely perfect, however.  The coyote was moving directly away from me at a trot instead of a run, there was no cover or obstructing brush, the air was still with no breeze to push the bullet off target, and I was able to rest the barrel on a fence post to steady the gun.  None of those are likely to be present if one has to defend themselves against a crazed criminal wielding a rifle.

So anyone with good marksmanship skills can hit a target at 100 yards with a standard handgun, as long as they are calm and take a fair amount of time to set up the shot.  But to draw your weapon under stress while someone is trying to take your life, and deliver fast and accurate fire at that distance?  I’m sure there are some superlative shots who can do that, but the rest of us need some special equipment.

What kind of special equipment?  Read on and we will see what others have tried.  Please click the name of the gun to see more information, and click on the pictures for a larger version.

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I Want My U.N.C.L.E. Gun!

July 1st, 2014

When the first James Bond movie came out, the public went wild.  To cash in on this popularity, a TV show titled The Man From U.N.C.L.E. started to air in 1964.


The formula for the success of the show was based on gorgeous women and absurd fight sequences.  The stars of the show almost always prevailed against the bad guys when the bullets started to fly, the reason being that they had the coolest guns.

man from uncle stars with gun

The special effects department tasked with creating the futuristic guns bought low cost Walther P-38‘s, cheap and plentiful at the time, and heavily modified them.  The poster below from a Japanese toy company shows all the stuff they dreamed up.

man from uncle gun

Extended magazine, suppressor, barrel extension, shoulder stock, telescopic sight, and flash hider.  The flash hider was for standard carry, the rest of the parts would be screwed on when trouble arose.  So all the agents would have to do would be to remove the flash hider, and then put all of the rest of the parts together to create a nifty carbine that doesn’t make enough noise to wake the neighbors.

assembled man from uncle carbine

That is pretty nifty!  But the one aspect of the gun that I found fascinating was how a handgun small enough for daily carry could be transformed into something with increased range and accuracy.

I’ve been looking for something in the real world which could do the same thing ever since.  A handgun suitable for concealed carry, but which can also reach out to at least 100 yards and reliably produce acceptable accuracy.  So far my quest has not produced any results.

Frustrated search aside, are there handguns that could produce fast, aimed shots out to 100 yards?  There have been a few, but most have proven to be less than successful as concealed carry guns.  This essay has already run on too long, so I’ll save the discussion of actual far shooting handguns for the next post.

See you there!

British Spy Stories Go Off The Rails

June 30th, 2014

The modern spy genre has been a staple of mainstream fiction since at least 1900, which was the year that Rudyard Kipling serialized his espionage novel Kim.

cover of the novel kim by rudyard kipling

There are many things to recommend the novel, as Kipling drew up0n experiences gained while he worked as a journalist in India.  It does great service to impart the impressions of a British citizen thrust into the bustling, overcrowded, wildly diverse and exotic East.

The novel also was a seminal work in the spy genre as it depicts a secret government effort to recruit, train, and deploy otherwise average people in what is known in the British Empire as The Great Game, a deadly serious rivalry between Russia and the United Kingdom to advance their agendas and gain an advantage over the other.  The novel Kim might have some overly dramatic moments, but in general it was a thoughtful and realistic portrayal of what a seasoned journalist turned fiction writer might imagine efforts to gather intelligence would entail.

The title character of Kim was a teenaged boy who grew up on the streets.  His main talent besides confidence and self reliance was to be able to blend in with the teeming millions that thronged India, passing unnoticed and invisibly in the crowd.

The spy novel advanced closer towards what modern audiences appreciate with the publication of The 39 Steps in 1915.  The plot concerns an everyman who is accused of a murder committed by spies to cover up their nefarious work, with the protagonist then forced to go on the run in a desperate effort to both clear his name and foil the enemy operatives.

cover of the spy novel the 39 steps

The description of the plot will have many of my readers rolling their eyes.  Aren’t stories concerning some average and innocent Joe who has to evade the authorities and bring the true evil plot to light a cliche in action literature?  That is very true, but this is where it all started.  Worth a read for that alone, I would say.

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Coming Apart

June 25th, 2014

I recently wrote an essay where I discussed the popular impression that hollowpoint ammunition can not overpenetrate, or punch completely through a target with enough velocity to still be dangerous.

expanded hollowpoint bullets

The answer, of course, is that anything which is intended to borrow deeply enough into a human body to reach the vital organs can also come out the other side at speed.  Hollowpoint rounds might reduce this possibility, even reduce it a great deal, but it doesn’t eliminate it completely.

a variety of hollowpoint calibers fired into ballistic gel

So we have to wonder: Are there types of lethal ammunition which reduce the chance of overpenetration even further?

There are, and they are known under the blanket term of “frangible ammunition“.

Sounds pretty exotic, doesn’t it?  But it just means that the bullets are designed to break up into itty bitty pieces, instead of staying in one lump like all the other bullets out there.

Why would anyone want that?  The idea was to reduce unintended casualties and ricochets if the police or military had to shoot at someone in an urban environment.  It is all well and good if a SWAT marksman takes down a desperate criminal who is holding hostages, but it wouldn’t be acceptable if innocent people got hurt when the bullet bounces off of concrete walls and zips around a bit.


(I chose the image above solely due to the “Bullet From Nowhere” story, which I thought was topical.)

(No, really!  I did!)

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