Saturday, August 05, 2006

Star Pistols

By Stephen Camp

Though Star pistols are no longer made, there appears to be many out there and at reasonable prices. The pistols do generate some interest among shooters so I'll pass along my experiences with them, good and bad.

The first centerfire pistol I purchased as an adult was a Star Model B 9mm. It was bought in the early '70's and I think cost around $70 or $75 NIB. I just couldn't come up with the extra thirty or so dollars for a new Colt Government Model .45 ACP. As it turns out, I'm kind of glad I tried the Star.

That first Model B had the very small military fixed sights common to most automatics at that time, but they were spot on with 115-grain JHP ammunition. The pistol fed handloads using Speer 125-grain JSP bullets, but the short 90-grain Super Vel ammo would regularly fail to feed. Their 112-grain JSP ammo did a little better, but the gun was basically reliable only with ammunition having a round nose profile.

Eventually I sold the pistol and to this day I wish I hadn't, but only for sentimental reasons.

Several years later, I saw an ad in the American Rifleman for a chance to buy some of the last Star Model B and Model B Supers in 9mm. Supposedly, these were from a military overrun and no more would be produced. I ordered one of each NIB for something under a couple of hundred dollars each. Upon receiving the guns, I noticed that the feed ramps had been "throated" and were pretty well polished and both fed most JHP rounds well. In the meantime, I'd seen a couple of Star aluminum frame lightweight pistols essentially ruined by the use of hot handloads combined with doses of Super Vel factory ammunition. I'd also spoken to several gunsmiths who counseled me to shoot only standard pressure ammo in the Star handguns.

Accuracy was fine with both pistols and both were nicely blued with some kind of gray phosphate finish on the sights, barrel, barrel bushing, thumb safety, slide stop lever, grip screws, magazine release and lanyard ring. The sights were more "high visibility" than my original Model B, but hit far too high at any range you care to mention until you get out to about 150 yards! To remedy this, when I would shoot the guns, I'd put a targ-dot at 6 O' Clock about 8" below the X-ring on a standard NRA 25-yard pistol target. This let me shoot the pistols some, but really was not satisfactory. I wound up using the pistols less and less and wound up selling the Model B Super, keeping only the plain Model B. Along the way, I'd been picking up spare magazines and bought a few spare parts, as is my habit with about any handgun I own.

Eventually, I had Lou Williamson of Williamson Precision Gunsmithing in Hurst, TX customize the Star Model B. I have more in the pistol than it is worth, but "worth" can be a frame of mind. The pistol was not being shot and was one I liked so I figured I might as well get it "fixed" so that I could use it for more than shooting at paper…and then only with the targ-dot thing I mentioned.

Here's the customized Star Model B as done by Williamson's Precision Gunsmithing. Though taken to Lou, the "old man," his son, Scott, did the work. The gun's front strap has received 20 LPI checkering and a new front sight was silver soldered in place. Millett adjustable revolver sights were added and hold the firing pin retaining pin in place. Scott made the wooden grips shown and though smooth, with the factory checkered rear grip strap and the 'smith-checkered front strap, the pistol offers good purchase. I do not shoot "hot" loads in this pistol and the ammo pictured is Federal 115-grain standard pressure JHP. The hammer spur was bobbed and the gray-finish seen on the trigger, magazine release, etc, is as it came from the factory. The slide and frame as well as the barrel were blued. The Model B is lightly sprung and while Wolff Gunsprings does not offer a replacement spring for the Model B, I found that I could substitute those for the 9mm CZ-75 just fine. The gun has such a recoil spring in place along with a buffer. The buffer was cut down slightly from one meant for a 1911. The combination's worked fine.

With either cast bullets loaded to the 1050 to 1150 ft/sec velocity range, the gun groups pretty well and does fine with most FMJ or JHP. Again, I do recommend using standard pressure ammunition in any of the Star pistols made before the Firestar Model 43 compact.

I'm satisfied with these groups from the Star Model B. None of these are "hot," but serve just fine for shooting holes in paper and are fine for plinking, informal competition, or just knocking around in the boonies.

Somewhere I wound up with a smaller version of the Model B. It's called the Model BM and is sort of like a "Commander" version of the gun. Both use an 8 round single-stack magazine. Though the Model BM has an unfortunate name, the little gun's been satisfactory and has been used on occasion as a "loaner" in CHL classes I instruct. Though visually similar to the 1911, these guns are very different internally and thinner as well. They have been described as "graceful" in feel and I do find them most pleasing in this regard. The Model BM is stock, other than my bobbing the hammer spur to avoid hammer bite and dressing down the front sight just a small amount to adjust POI with POA at 15 yards.

For those not familiar with the Star Model BM, here it is pictured with the Taurus PT-92, a gun the size of the more familiar Beretta 92 series pistols. The BM is all steel and heavier than one initially thinks, but it does shoot pretty well. I find that I get better groups with the Model B, but don't know for sure if this is due to better mechanical accuracy or just the longer sight radius!

Both of these single-action automatics come with a magazine safety, but one that is easily removed if desired. Unlike the Browning Hi Power, removal does not affect the trigger pull, but does allow magazines to fall free. Should you desire to remove the magazine safety, which is entirely your decision, you start by removing the grips. On the left side of the frame and at the rear of the magazine well which is normally covered by the grip, you will see a flat piece of spring steel that runs parallel to the rear of the opening in the frame. It's secured to the frame with an attached hollow tube at the bottom. From the right side, simply drive out the tube and the magazine safety is gone. It can be replaced just as easily if desired. Both my Model B and BM have had theirs removed.

One evening at the police department, I was working evening shift when a detective friend called me aside and said, "Got something you might like." Knowing he was a "gun person," I got pretty interested. He produced the smallest little 9mm single-action pistol I'd ever seen; it was a Star Firestar Model 43 9mm and had the "Starvel" (E-Nickel) finish. Grips were checkered rubber and unlike my Model B and BM, the frame was cast. The fixed sights were easy to see and it had ambidextrous thumb safety levers that were very positive in either "on" or "off" position. Trying not to seem interested, I asked, "How does it shoot?"

He advised that it did fine and was reliable with anything.

"Where did you get it?"

"Gun show."

"How much."


At this point, he mentioned that "Doc Avery" over in a nearby town had them for sale. I told him I liked the little thing and we went about our respective rat killing. That night at home, I continued to think about the little gun.

Anyway, I got up early, called Doc's phone number and bought one before 10AM, an ungodly hour for me to even be out of bed during that time of my life. I also bought 4 extra magazines. Like the detective's, my M43 had the Starvel finish. I removed the magazine safety and took it to the range. My particular pistol hit about 2" low at 15 yards, but this was satisfactory as I meant it for a back up pistol. I wore it for quite a long time in an ankle holster. The little all steel M43 is quite the little brick in weight and I wouldn't have been able to carry it this way except that the top of my duty boot supported the thing as the end of the grip rode on it. Unlike earlier Star handguns, the M43 did have an internal firing pin safety as well.

Another Star I really like is the Model 28. This is a full-size, all steel, 9mm pistol that sported a 15 round double-stack magazine. It is a conventional DA/SA automatic and has reversed slide rails ala CZ-75, but incorporates a take down feature from the SIG P-210. With the slide and grips removed, a spring-loaded detent at the lower rear of the rear grip strap can be depressed while lifting upward on the (uncocked) hammer. The hammer, sear, and mainspring will lift out of the frame as a unit. The front grip strap is vertically grooved similar to a Colt Gold Cup and the gun's fixed rear sight is screw-adjustable for windage. Unfortunately, it is not for elevation and the darned gun hit about a foot high at 25 yards. So did the second one I bought! Internally, the pistol works much like a CZ-75 and the front of the trigger guard is hooked and has vertical grooves for anyone still trying to shoot with such a hold. I'd have preferred a rounded trigger guard. They do have magazine safeties, but they're removed in a different fashion, but I left them in place as they do vigorously eject empty magazines, but mainly because their removal from the forged frame leaves a void with very thin walls. The pistol also has an interesting thumb safety set up. Slide-mounted like those from S&W or Beretta, depressing the safety does not drop the hammer. Cocked and locked carry is available, but there's really nothing "locked." All the safety does is to retract the rear of the firing pin below the rear surface of the retaining plate so that the hammer does not hit it. With the safety on, pressing the trigger will drop the hammer. I've tested it at the firing range and there's never been a problem, but since the thumb safety has to be moved the "wrong direction" anyway, I just carry this one and either thumb cock the hammer for target work or use the very smooth double-action for the first shot.

I had Scott Williamson ply his magic to the guns and had the following done to my brace of Star M28 pistols:

· Narrow the trigger to the same dimensions as the CZ-75 and round the edges

· Install Millet adjustable revolver sights as had been done on the Model B

· Hardchrome the barrel, hammer, external controls and guts of the guns

· Refinish with a matte blue on the frame and top of the slides, but with polished slide flats

Here's one of my Star Model 28 pistols after the custom work from Williamson Precision Gunsmithing. The gun shoots better than might be expected.

I normally don't fire much of the hot stuff in my Star pistols, but this group fired using Corbon 124-grain +P XTP is plenty tight enough for me. That load is no longer available as Corbon uses Sierra's 125-grain Power Jacket Hollow Point these days after replacing the XTP bullet with the Gold Dot Hollow Point.

Though I never owned one, I've been favorably impressed with Star's PD, a very compact, aluminum-framed single-action pistol in .45 ACP. While forty-five velocities from short barrels is more greatly reduced than from 9mm pistols in the same barrel length, the PD was more accurate than I'd expected and fed about anything. I do believe that they were somewhat "fragile" and meant for much more carrying than shooting. Like the BKS and BKM 9mm Stars, the lower portion of the feed ramp was part of the aluminum alloy frame and very subject to nicks, gouges, and wear from blunt or sharp-edged JHP ammunition. While this can be a problem with any pistol having an aluminum feed ramp, the Star pistols are the only ones I've really seen it regularly.

Such was not the case with Star's Firestar in .45 ACP. Bigger than the 9mm, this pistol had a one-piece feed ramp and was reliable with everything I tried, including handloaded CSWC, JHPs, and ball. It fed all manner of factory JHP ammo reliably and the thing would group. Recoil was minimal for caliber, no doubt because of its all-steel, robust construction.

Today, many Star pistols can still be found and with some reservations, I do recommend them if you understand that:

· Spare parts can be a problem to find.

· Dry-firing the Model B or BM will break the firing pin eventually.

· Recoil springs can be a problem in replacing unless you know which to substitute.

· Spare magazines, still readily found NIB, are relatively expensive.

· No aftermarket parts exist.

· Except for the Firestar versions as well as those with polymer frames, I'd counsel against very much +P ammunition being used in these pistols.

On the other hand, if you like these little things as I do and find one "right," I'd get it, but would not do any dry-firing with other than the Model 28, 30M, or 31PK as these had their firing pins retained via the traditional retaining plates and did not have any internal firing pin safety such that the firing pin would have to be notched.

I keeping my eyes open for a Model S .380 ACP myself!




Friday, August 04, 2006

More Articles By Stephen Camp

.38 Snub Vs. .357 Snub

By Stephen Camp

For as long as I can remember, the question of whether or not the .38 Special snub is as potent as the .357 magnum in a snub-nose revolver has been debated again and again. This is not an extensive article, but I think the answer becomes pretty clear.

I didn't have a .357 with a barrel as short as the 1 7/8" barrel on my snub thirty-eight's so I just fired the .38 Specials out of a 2 1/2" Model 19. The magnums were fired from the same revolver. It is true that .38 Specials will lose a little velocity when fired from a revolver chambered for the slightly longer .357 Magnum. The figures are slight, but later on, we'll "give" another 50 ft/sec (which is a generous amount) to the measured thirty-eight special velocities.

A stock S&W Model 19 2 1/2" revolver, except for the stocks, was used for the chronograph results shown below.

Velocities are based on 10-shot strings of fire about 10' from the chronograph screens.

Ammunition Average Velocity (ft/sec)

Federal .38 Special 129-grain Hydrashok +P 846

Winchester .38 Special 158-grain LSWCHP +P 858

Remington .357 Magnum 125-grain SJHP (Full-house load) 1243

Handload: Rucker 158-grain CSWC 1100

7.0 grains Unique

Winchester Small Pistol Primer

Starline Case

At this point, I'll have to ask you to accept that the 129-grain .38 bullet is approximately the same as the 125-grain .357 and that the 4 grains would not make any real difference. Also, the handloaded .357 round was used simply because I had no data on any factory magnums in that bullet weight. Note that this is not a "hot" handload in that caliber and bullet weight.

Now add the 50 ft/sec we spoke of earlier to each of the .38 average velocities and we get an "adjusted average velocity" of 896 ft/sec for the Hydrashok and 908 ft/sec for the LSWCHP. Compared to the 125-grain .357, we see that the magnum bests the .38 by 347 ft/sec. I find this a significant gain. With the heavier .38 Special bullet compared to the same weight slug from a .357 handload, we find a difference of 192 ft/sec in favor of the magnum and a medium handload.

The data provided was not extensive, but based on it and what I've seen on more than one occasion in the past, the little .38's main advantage as a carry gun or BUG is that it's light, small, and easy to conceal. Its ballistic payload is not equivalent to the .357's in most cases. While it is true that both S&W and Taurus offer .357's in very nearly the same size package, it's been my experience that they border on being uncontrollable when shot in rapid-fire. Others may have had better luck. I'll take my .357 magnums in a K, L, or N frame.

Little in this world is a hard and true fact and the same applies here. I note that out of a 1 7/8" barrel S&W Model 642, Corbon's 115-grain +P+ JHP averages an amazing 1188 ft/sec. This is in the .357 range of velocities and might be thought of as a "quasi-magnum" load. A Ruger SP-101 averages 1278 ft/sec with Triton 125-grain Quik Shok +P ammo, so we see the magnum winning again, but the .38 load does surprisingly well. Sadly, both of these loads are discontinued, as Corbon no longer uses and Triton's out of business. Out of the 2 1/2" Model 19, Winchester's 110-grain .357 JHP averaged 1166 ft/sec so the Corbon .38 Special load beat it slightly in both velocity and bullet weight. These are exception to the rule. FWIW, with the thin forcing cone in the J-frame S&W, I've quit using the 115-grain load for fear of cracking it.

The notion that the .357 is so inefficient in the two-inch guns that it's no more effective than a hot .38 Special just doesn't seem to be true. While neither is at its best in the snub, the magnum is the more potent of the two with most ammo.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

A Critical Look at the SIG P-210 9mm

By Stephen Camp

Generally regarded as the most intrinsically accurate "service" pistol extant, the SIG P-210 has always commanded a hefty price. While part of this can be due to both import tariffs and exchange rates, the fact is that the gun's always been expensive. I bought my first one in the mid-'70's for the princely sum of $350.00 which would have bought two Browning Hi Powers and left change or nearly three Colt Series 70 forty-five automatics! A kindly gun dealer, Mr. Wilford Pierce, let me pay it out "on the book," as it was commonly called. At that time, the model designation was P-210-6 and it came with a very good trigger and a fine click-adjustable rear sight with a post front sight. The stocks were finely checkered and almost blonde. I don't recall what kind of wood, but the pistol appeared elegant.

Foolishly, I traded it off for a new S&W Model 66 with 4" barrel, an extra set of grips, a buck knife, and $35 cash!

I bought another on 03/26/96. Surprisingly, mine is marked "P-210-6," but is a fixed sight pistol. Perhaps model designations changed or the guns were originally intended to be for an adjustable sight pistol. I flat don't know.

This is my second SIG P-210. It's put together very well and its POI exactly matches POA for me with most ammunition. I've read that its spectacular intrinsic accuracy is limited to but one load, a 147-grain Swiss FMJ round made for maximum accuracy performance in this model pistol. I've never shot any of it so I don't know, but reports that the P-210 "is no more accurate than other quality automatics" has not been proven true in my experience. I have some other pistols that group as tightly as the P-210 for me, but none that group better and I'm not capable of shooting well enough to tell the difference. The pistol is 8.5" in overall length with a barrel measuring 4.72." It weighs 2.14 lbs. and is all steel. The single-stack magazine holds 8 rounds of 9mm ammunition. It has a FLGR and a captive recoil spring and uses a one-piece feed ramp like the Browning Hi Power and other pistols. Rifling twist is listed at 1:10 in most places, but it's actually closer to 1:9. It has internal slide rails, i.e., the slide rides inside the frame and this allows for longer slide rails. Like the Makarov, it has its magazine release at the pistol butt to the rear of the magazine well. There is no internal firing pin safety, nor is the external thumb safety ambidextrous. The extractor is external and pinned. It does have a magazine safety.

I do not know if the trigger, slide release, and hammer are hard chromed with a matte finish or some other finish has been applied or if they're matte finished stainless, but on the well-done blued slide and frame, they make for an attractive appearance.

This pistol's front sight is a serrated ramp that's steep enough to be almost a "semi-ramp" and is dovetailed in place. The top of the slide is nicely serrated.

The rear sight is a "U" shape that I find mildly annoying, but must say that it has not affected being able to get both a good sight picture in slow fire. Its front sight is thin and fine for precise, slow shooting, but hard for me to pick up at speed. You can see the finish on the hammer and slide stop in this picture as well as the thumb safety in front of the grip. Note also the reversed slide rails and the fit between slide and frame.

An unusual feature of this pistol is that the entire hammer, sear, mainspring assembly can be removed from the frame as a single unit for ease in cleaning.

In this picture, you can see how well the stocks fit the gun as well as the almost invisible seam where they meet. Under the tang, you can see a screw head. Removal of this screw allows for the hammer, sear, and mainspring to be lifted out of the frame when the slide is removed.

The interior finish on the P-210 is better than the exterior finish on many of today's pistols.

The SIG P-210 is well finished both inside and out. Though they cannot be seen in this photo, the slide grooves in the frame run the full-length of the frame and there's very little movement either vertically or horizontally between the slide and frame.

The barrel is precisely machined and fitted to the pistol. This feed ramp has not been polished nor have any "tool marks" been removed. What you see is how the P-210 comes out of the box.

The pistol feels "graceful" to me an in a way similar to the Browning 9mm Hi Power. I do wish that from the factory, the Browning/FN Hi Power had either fine stippling or serrations to improve the grip when hands are wet or sweaty.

The P-210 has a finely serrated front grip strap. It provides ample purchase and is quite comfortable in firing.

So, it's a well-made, very expensive pistol in 9mm, but how does it shoot and is it reliable? The two that I've owned were with ball and most JHP rounds but do hang up now and again with the short 90-grain JHP 9mm cartridges. This really doesn't bother me as I seldom shoot anything less than 100-grains and most often, 124-grain bullets are my choice.

This 10-shot group was fired using a rest from 25 yards with the shown handload that's proven accurate in several other 9mm pistols including Browning Hi Powers and CZ-75's.

If you happen to mortgage the house and buy one of these, you'll at least find that it groups the widely used Winchester 115-grain USA FMJ very well. The flyers in both targets are my fault, not the gun.

Also fired from a rest and with wrists sandbagged, this group was fired at fifty yards. It's the handload shown above and uses Hornady's excellent 124-grain XTP over 6.0 grains of Unique.

I killed this javelina using the same handload from the SIG P-210 in far south Texas a few years ago.

As shown in the preceding picture, I've used the P-210 in the field on a couple of occasions. I did not find the smallish sights to be a problem, but I do think they would be in dimmer light or if trying to use them very quickly…at least for my eyes. (I'm also happy to report that I've lost about 35-lbs. since that picture was taken!)

The P-210 does not have a "slow" barrel and here are the velocity figures for some loads I've tested in the pistol. As usual, they're based on 10-shot averages with the gun's muzzle being about 10' from the screens.

Load Velocity (ft/sec)

Handload: 115 gr Hornady XTP/6.0 gr Unique/Starline Cases/ WSP primer

LOA: 1.11" 1238 (ES: 9, SD: 6)

Handload: 124 gr Hornady XTP/6.0 gr Unique/Starline Cases/WSP primer

LOA: 1.11" 1280 (ES: 81,SD: 34)

Handload: Speer 124 gr GDHP/6.0 gr Unique/WSP/Starline Cases

LOA: 1.115" 1195 (ES: 62, SD: 26)

Winchester USA 115 gr FMJ 1242 (ES: 38, SD: 15)*

(*This is much hotter than previously checked loads. No Nato marking on cases.)

Remington 115 gr +P JHP 1291 (ES: 17, SD: 7)

Federal 115 gr JHP (9BP) 1173 (ES: 42, SD: 18)

MagTech 115 gr FMJ 1148 (ES: 50, SD: 18)

Notice that in the two XTP handloads, everything is identical except for the bullet weight. The slightly heavier, slightly longer 124-grain causes more pressure and in this case, higher velocity than the 115-grain load.

While this P-210 will group decently with cast and plated bullets, for me it has done its best with jacketed ammunition be it factory or home-rolled.

The pistol is a very good one, but it does have its less than stellar features as do all handguns. First, it is very expensive. Even used or refurbished ones run from about $800 and upward. Its importation is an on again - off again sort of thing and spare parts can be hard to find and they will be expensive. For example, a spare factory magazine costs around one hundred dollars. They're certainly well made, but I just don't see the single-stack 8-shot magazine being a hundred bucks' worth! As mentioned earlier, the recoil spring is captive so changing or replacing is not so easy as it might be was this not the case. In my case, the hammer routinely bites me and due to cost of replacing it, I'm very hesitant to try and bob the spur or alter the pistol very much at all. Unfortunately, as a result I don't shoot this gun as much as I would otherwise. When at the range, I take a bit lower grip on the pistol and usually have a piece of duct tape covering the web between my thumb and forefinger. When hunting, I just get bitten!

Though I've never really considered this pistol for a defensive arm, some might. While it absolutely has more accuracy than most could ever put to use, it does have some drawbacks in my experience. With eight rounds on tap, it has sufficient magazine capacity (some will disagree on this), but the butt release on this pistol is pretty stout and the magazine must be pulled from the gun. I really don't mind this for hunting or range work as a speed reload is not a necessity and I'm not so likely to drop, damage, or lose those high-dollar magazines, but it would be slow in a fight. For others, and myself the thumb safety is a bit too far forward for easy on and off manipulation and the smallish sights, slow to pick up in a hurry. Because the design uses the reversed slide rail set up, there's less of the slide to grasp in a hurry should you have a malfunction (very rare) or need to chamber a round in a hurry. While the trigger does have the usual military type take up, the actual trigger pull is light and crisp. I've not measured this one, but I'd estimate it at about 3 1/2 lbs. A momentary lapse of proper gun handling and a finger on the trigger with the safety off when not immediately preparing to fire might just result in an unintended firing of the pistol under stress.

I came pretty close to selling this pistol a short time back, but when I got it out and began photographing it from all angles for the prospective buyer, I realized that I really didn't want to…so, I didn't. I'll keep the thing and enjoy it for what it is, recognizing that while not perfect, it is very well made and try to appreciate it for its strong points. I am not interested in another unless at a ridiculously low price and in very good condition. I might consider some customization to such a P-210.

If they're still being imported, some of the complaints I've mentioned have been addressed by SIG in another version of the pistol. It has an extended tang, oversized thumb safety, better sights, and a push button magazine release. The last time I heard, it had a price tag near $5,000, too!

For me, the two P-210's that I've shot were extremely accurate with a wide variety of loads in several bullet weights. They've been reliable and easy to carry in the hunting field, too, but I remain quite concerned with the price and scarcity of both accessories and spare parts. That said, they do have a certain "style" or "class" about them and if you truly want high quality, this might be a viable choice. It will help if you have smaller hands to fully appreciate the pistol as you're less likely to get smacked with the hammer spur. If not, try and love a lower grip with this gun at the range!

Being perfectly honest, was I interested in another highly accurate and reliable 9mm, I'd probably get another FN Competition Model or STI Trojan 1911. The latter can be had in standard 5" barrel length or in the 6" long slide. All three of these have more built-in accuracy than I can wring out and I flat cannot tell you which is the most accurate. Even though I prefer the Hi Power in many cases, I'd probably go with another STI, but that's for another time.

For those still reading, I did buy the gun with the optional .22 conversion unit. While the conversion is quite accurate, mine has not proven reliable. Extra magazines are even more expensive than those for 9mm.

The finish and tool marks on the .22 barrel are much more visible than on the 9mm barrel.

Except for the magazine, this is the conversion unit. It, too, has fixed sights that are well regulated.

I like the P-210-6 and appreciate it for its extremely precise fitting and closely held tolerances, but in a fight and for general use with the 9mm, I'd take a lightly modified Browning Mk III Hi Power. For pure bullseye shooting, I prefer the FN Comp or the STI Trojan 6" and for hunting small game with a 9mm, I'll take the Trojan the vast majority of the time.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Best Buys in Handguns

By Stephen Camp

After some pretty extensive use and careful observation, I'd like to pass along what I believe are best buys in the handgun market. Nothing will be mentioned that I've not personally shot on several occasions and while what I "like" is subjective and may not match your preferences, they might at least provide food for thought.

In the .380 ACP automatics, I think that the Bersa Thunder represents the best buy for the money in a light, concealable automatic. I have the "Duo-Tone," which has an E-nickel aluminum alloy frame with the rest of the pistol being blue steel. These can be purchased for around $200, but they do come with but one magazine. Grips are a black, checkered polymer and the front strap is grooved nicely for good purchase with wet, sweaty, or even bloody, hands. The pistol holds 8 rounds fully loaded and has a 3 1/2" barrel. It weighs 19 ounces. The DA trigger pull is smooth and not nearly as heavy as that of the well-known Walther PPK and variants. Though my use of this pistol is limited but to one example, my experience is mirroring that of others. I've got nearly a thousand rounds through this particular pistol now with zero failures to feed or extract. In other words, no malfunctions! I've owned and shot SIG-Sauer P230's, Walthers, and Berettas. I prefer this one for carry. Sights are very decent out of the box. I think that the really, really small .380 pistols are a mistake as their abbreviated barrels simply lose too much velocity for my tastes. The .380 doesn't have an excess to begin with so unless you just must have one smaller, I'd go with a .380 in the size range of the Bersa, PPK, or P230. Of the three, the Bersa is significantly less expensive while providing very good accuracy and reliability. It does NOT bite the hand as can the PPK.

The Bersa Thunder Duo-Tone fed PPS, Corbon, Federal Hydrashok, Federal 90-grain JHP as well as ball and did so flawlessly.

I did note that when going to its 3 1/2" barrel from another pistol's 3.83" barrel, Corbon's +P 90-grain JHP did not have nearly so significant an edge in velocity. Based on 10-shot average chronographed speeds, the Federal 90-grain "Classic Hi Shok" JHP averaged 969 ft/sec while the Corbon averaged 1015 ft/sec. After testing for accuracy, reliability, and performance, I've opted to use the plain Federal Classic 90-grain JHP in the Bersa. Another reason for this is that the feed ramp on the Bersa is of the E-nickle aluminum alloy as it is part of the frame. Though not yet any kind of problem, it is possible for blunt JHP bullets to eventually ding and gouge such feed ramps. This is something to consider with any automatic having aluminum feed ramp. Again, I really think this is the one to beat for a "carry three-eighty."

Unless you're just not a wheel gun fan, there are still excellent buys out there in used Smith & Wesson revolvers. Most will be in .38 Special or .357 Magnum as thousands hit the market as police trade-ins some years ago. While the revolver has fallen a bit in terms of defensive preference with many, the double-action S&W can still hold its own in a fight and they are just plain fun to shoot. Most are exceptionally accurate as well. I've seen Model 10's, 19's, 686's, 28's, and even Model 27's at pretty decent prices. While we all would have particular favorites within the models listed or variants, any of them will normally represent extreme value for the money spent. With the exception of the Model 27 (depending upon condition), most of these can be had for $300 and less, again depending upon finish and overall shape.

This S&W Model 28 "Highway Patrolman" .357 Magnum was in "like new" shape and is an old 4-screw model. The action is smooth, timing perfect, and finish almost blemish free. It's served well for several years now. I paid $200 for it as a local gun shop. Don't overlook a good revolver just because automatics are in vogue.

The 1911 design that has been with us for nearly a century and new and used ones can be had for prices that truly cover the gamut. This can run from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, depending upon the options as well as if the pistol was factory manufactured or "built" by a custom gunsmith.

For a 1911 that can serve as a really good base for a custom gun or just as a shooter as is, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for a used Norinco. Like so many others, I was initially put off at the though of a Chinese 1911, but I was wrong. Dimensionally, they're very well made and the steel is of high quality. Reliability is normally excellent and frankly, better than many 1911's costing more! Accuracy will not meet Camp Perry requirements, but is usually less than 3" @ 25 yards with most loads. Unless you're very lucky, any of these you find will be used. Clinton barred their import some years ago. For those having political arguments against them, I'd just say that the communist importers made their money on the guns when they were initially imported. They'd not be making a dime on a used one you buy today.

As they come, while fit, reliability, and accuracy are very good, the fixed sights are smallish and hard to see. If this is to be a modified, customized pistol that's of no importance, but if you plan to use it as is, it might be a consideration. I bought a like new one a few years ago for $250.

Doing most of the "customizing" myself with parts already in my parts bin, I wound up with a very dependable shooter in the Norinco. I did have a gunsmith install fixed sights zeroed for a specific load and refinish the slide. The external finish on Norinco pistols will not match that of others, but if that's a major consideration, a gunsmith can "fix" this "problem" and you might still have a pistol of equivalent ability at less money. I think I've got about $400 to $450 total in this pistol.

At 15 yards, this Norinco 1911 groups plenty good enough for me. The barrel comes chromed.

Printed with Permission. Visit Stephen Camps Excellent website

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Feeding the .38 Snub

By Stephen Camp

With their abbreviated barrels, usually about 2" in length, the little revolver's effectiveness is less than its counterparts having 3" tubes and certainly those with 4" or longer barrels. This is just one of life's compromises when going for a small revolver that is extremely easy to conceal…and therein lies the rub.

Between serious students of "stopping power," a debate rages right now concerning the "best" ammunition for carry, solid or expanding. In the past, there were few rounds that would actually expand out of the snub so proponents suggested hot loaded SWC's as the "best" load. Today, the main argument against using expanding ammunition results from most failing to expand when fired through four layers of denim. Some involved in this research have stated that the denim barrier is a "worst case scenario test" of how the ammo performs when passing through barriers. What seems to be forgotten is that the ammunition may work fine with one, two, or three layers of denim or when passing through a T-shirt or sports jacket. Some have stated that the "best" load for the snub is the lightly loaded target 148-grain wadcutter since the others don't work when fired through denim and the wadcutter has light recoil. Others may opt for this recommendation, but I disagree with it.

This S&W Model 638 is shown with handloaded hard cast SWC ammo. This is probably not the "best" choice for defensive ammunition. Of ammunition that can be readily found, my choice would be Remington 158-grain LSWCHP +P.

I'd estimate the velocity of the factory target .38 wadcutter to be between 650 and 700 ft/sec from the average snub-nose thirty-eight. Most are of soft, swaged lead, which means that "sharp" edges really aren't and they can round off as they pass through tissue. Hard cast bullets can have sharper edges, but these are not loaded by major factories as new, commercial ammunition and most believe that the civil aftermath can be negatively impacted by the use of handloaded ammunition. There was a jacketed wadcutter offered by Speer, but it's my understanding that it's no longer produced. On top of that, who can say that the sharper edged wadcutters would have any significant increased terminal effect?

The following shootings are not enough to be statistically meaningful in any study, but I am familiar with them and they do give me pause to reflect on this matter.

Several years ago, a young adult male athlete was shot outside a local bar during an argument. He was hit in the heart with a factory loaded .38 wadcutter fired from a snub .38 Special. I don't recall the make of the gun nor the brand ammunition, but the young man proceeded to cuss out the guy who shot him as he sat himself down on the curb. He was lucid several minutes later, but died.

An off-duty state officer lived a few blocks from me. While home, he became aware of screaming and yelling outside and when he looked into it, he found himself in the middle of a violent domestic dispute. He tried to calm things down, but was attacked by the male participant, who advanced on him with a knife. Refusing to stop, the officer shot him in the chest with his .357 magnum. On the second hit, the man dropped and died. The .357 magnum ammo was Remington 158-grain SWC and was fired from a 4" S&W Model 28. The second shot struck the man's heart.

A woman who'd been diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic decided she needed to kill her husband…for reasons only she knows. While he was asleep, she shot him five times with an S&W Model 13 4" revolver.

She did this while he was sleeping and the first four rounds stitched him from the pubic area upward into the center chest. After the forth shot, he sat up! She shot him through the eye (don't remember which) and he was down for the count! The ammunition was the same brand full-house .357 SWC used by the state officer.

Though not involved nor seeing anything "official" on the following, over the years I had occasion to speak with two police officers who had shot felons with snubs. Both were using lead semiwadcutter hollow points. I believe that one had his revolver loaded with Remington while the other used Winchester. Both shot their attackers at close range, center chest, and neither required a second shot. I can only assume that these felons were not wrapped in four layers of denim…and that's my point; why limit yourself to something that will not expand in any scenario when you can load it with ammunition that can expand in at least some? In those where it doesn't, you're at least as well off as if you'd loaded with non-expanding ammunition in the first place.

Would any of the immediate terminal effects in the "failure" incidents have been changed? Probably, but maybe not; I'd still roll the dice with expanding ammo if given a choice.

The main advantage I see for the target wadcutters in the snub is reduced recoil. Most of the expanding ammunition and certainly that loaded to +P levels will have more recoil. The now discontinued Federal 125-grain Nyclad hollow point was a nice compromise round. Recoil was not "bad," and it expanded well in gelatin … until required to penetrate the 4 layers of denim first. Some expressed concern that due to its weight and rapid expansion in bare gelatin, penetration would be lacking, but for frontal shots, I suspect it would be fine. Probably the most recommended expanding ammo for the snub today from folks opting for expansion is the LSWCHP +P as loaded by Winchester, Remington, or Federal. Its 158-grain weight is sufficient for decent penetration and it's made of pure, dead soft, lead. Based on 10-shot averages about 10' from the muzzle, it chronographs at 800 ft/sec from my S&W Model 642 and just a little faster from a Model 042. Recoil is there, but is not "bad"…at least for a few shots. It would be more difficult to control than the factory 148-grain wadcutters. I think this is probably the best load for those willing to practice with their snubs. It should penetrate plenty deep even if passing through an arm first while in route to the torso and has more weight and velocity than the target wadcutter. Under most scenarios, it is capable of expansion, but even if it doesn't, it still impacts the target with more energy and momentum than the lighter wadcutter loads and I'm not convinced that the larger meplat on the wadcutter significantly adds to its effectiveness in the velocity range to which this ammo is loaded. (A hard cast or jacketed wadcutter at 900 or 1,000 ft/sec might be quite something different, but then over penetration becomes a concern.)

The snub is a compromise; we accept less power and usually but 5 shots before having to reload in exchange for a handgun that's likely to be with us when unexpectedly needed or as a back up to more potent handguns. True for any defensive sidearm, placement remains the primary determinant in "stopping power," and this is especially true for the snub. Though I've cited a couple of cases in which a heart shot failed and multiple torso hits with solid 36 caliber ammo were required to get a "stop," you still stand the best chance of surviving a deadly encounter if you can hit where you need to…possibly more than once or twice!

Despite the call for snubs being loaded with target wadcutters, mine will be loaded with expanding ammunition, but more importantly, mine will be used in regular practice. IF I can hit where I should, I think I'm likely to do better with either wadcutter or expanding ammunition.


Monday, July 31, 2006

Stephen Camp - Makarov

Makarov! Well Worth the Money!

This is not a "range report" on the Makarov. I have a couple of those out there on and as well as other sites if interested. This concerns my observations of the little jewel after fair use over a bit more than a year.

With other than the 115 and 120-grain JHP loads, these pistols are normally dead-bang reliable and I was truly surprised at the pistol's mechanical or intrinsic accuracy, especially when using the cheap surplus ammo we all buy. At prices now ranging in the $150 - $200 range, you get one heck of a good pistol. Even with the two loads mentioned above, but a minute's careful attention to the bevel at the lower end of the feed ramp solves their reliability problem, at least in my guns.

I place high regard for things that work and the Makarovs work! For a defensive arm, I'm not as partial to 9x18mm Makarov as other calibers, but I'd much rather have a Makarov that I could count on than a larger caliber handgun that usually was dependable.

For those who may not be familiar with the Mak, what you get is a conventional DA/SA single-stack automatic in the ". 380 +" power range. Its magazine release is at the butt rather than behind the trigger guard and the fixed sights are miniscule. I find them hard to pick up at speed. The magazine holds 8 rounds for a total payload of 9 shots before having to reload. The DA trigger pull on my Bulgarian is smooth, but heavier than on my E. German. Both are very usable "as they come", but could be made better with some work at home if you're into such things or by a gunsmith if you're not. I highly recommend dropping by if you're a fan of these little gems or think you might be. One thing I do like about them is that even though they have the slide-mounted, single-side thumb safety, down is for fire and up is for safe, just the opposite of most autos having the safety on the slide. Because the pistol is not large, it is easily manipulated with the thumb for those wanting to carry the pistol with the safety engaged. The thumb safety also acts as a decocker. The pistol weighs 1.7 lbs. and has a barrel length just under 4."

This is an E. German Makarov that is stock. It has not been altered in the least, but does have one of the "CCW magazines" from in it. They work great and are inexpensive with high quality.

Here's some chronograph data on the 9x18mm fired from the Makarov. The figures listed are based on ten-shot averages about 10' from the chronograph.

9x18mm Makarov Ammunition Average Velocity (ft/sec)

LVE 115-grain JHP 1025

Sellier & Bellot 95-grain FMJ 924

Barnaul 95-grain FMJ 1058

Fiocchi 95-grain FMJ 1020

Corbon 95-grain JHP 1100

Hornady 95-grain XTP 984

Not in the same league as the 1911 with regard to aftermarket parts, they do exist and the Makarov lends itself quite nicely to some upgrades, but I find that some folks simply will not do this even if it's financially feasible for them!

I believe that the pistol is plenty good enough to sink the cost of the gun in upgrades! Let me explain why.

At my age, I have trouble seeing small, military-type fixed sights and the Mak certainly has those. While the plastic grips that come standard on the pistol are fine for concealed carry, I personally like the Pearce rubber ones better as I have large hands. Many will add the grips, but just "get along" with the sights, which while fine in slow, deliberate fire are hard to pick up at speed or see in less than good lighting…at least for me! Some have problems with the DA pull, but rationalize it with something like, "It's OK for the money."

Really? I don't think so. IF the pistol is to be used for self-defense, there's a good chance that the thing will have to be fired double-action for the first shot and with its lesser ballistic payload, placement becomes even more critical than with say a .357 SIG. While I would not have any springs lightened or bent for this effect, I would get as smooth a DA pull on my protection Makarov as I could. While my Bulgarian Makarov has a pretty good DA pull, it's not as smooth as my E. German, but were either just too rough or heavy, I'd gladly invest in my own chances for survival in a lethal force scenario. While it was not necessary on my pistols, better sights were and I went ahead and bought a Wolff conventional 19-lb. recoil spring as I have shot and intend to keep shooting the pistol quite a bit. (These can be found at and work fine with all the ammo I've tried.)

Shortly after I bought my new Bulgarian, I noticed an ad for what was called the "Beast Conversion Slide" over at the Makarov site mentioned previously. For $150, I'd get a new Bulgarian slide that was fitted with Novak high-visibility fixed sights with the familiar 3-dot arrangement. Even though this cost as much as the pistol, I feel it was well worth it. The pistol has very close POA vs. POI and the slide is nicely finished in a black matte of some sort. While the conversion is no longer available, one can send their slide to the good folks at (You CAN trust them) to have the Novak sights added for about the same price. Assuming a fellow did this and then had a gunsmith do a trigger job and perhaps added Pearce grips, I'd reckon, he'd cough up about $250 to $275, well over what he paid for the gun.

This is my Bulgarian Makarov fitted with the Novak sights. It makes sight acquisition at speed much easier.

"I would never be able to get my money back out of the gun with that kind of money in it."

So what? If you're not planning on selling the pistol, you won't anyway, but consider this: With Makarovs getting harder and harder to find, prices continue to rise. Who can say that in a few years, another shooter might not be willing to pay your price if you decided to sell? A collector wouldn't, but a shooter just might.

I personally would do it even if I knew I could never get my money back out of it as I do not intend to part with my Makarovs. They're built like tanks and should last through many thousands of rounds and you can afford to feed them with the inexpensive ammo we can now get. In centerfires, 9x19mm and 9x18mm Makarov are probably the least expensive calibers available in many loadings. In a gun that I intend to shoot lots, I want it to suit me and the Mak is worth shooting in my opinion.

"For that kind of money, I could get a CZ-83 and a couple of spare magazines and maybe some .380 ammo."

That's true and you'd be getting a very fine pistol and one that's capable of cocked and locked carry, if desired. It would have the magazine release behind the trigger guard and would have at least a 10-round magazine, but it is a larger pistol and .380 ACP costs more on average than 9x18mm Mak. Either is a fine choice in the larger pistols for these calibers and you might just be able to find one of the CZ's in 9x18mm Mak, but if you really like the feel of the Makarov pistol and it won't be too hard financially, I'd get it fixed up to suit me and allow more effective use of the gun. Spare parts and extra magazines will be much less costly than for any other centerfire pistol…including the CZ.

The fact that the Makarov is initially inexpensive does not mean that it doesn't make a fine "base gun" upon which to do some specific refining. It's a good gun as it comes, but can be a great gun with a minor investment in money and time.

These things beg to be shot, so why not have yours where you can really squeeze out its potential and maybe enjoy it even more? It might also be very good in the event that you are in "the dark place" and need to be able to get the hits.

Printed with Permission. Mr. Camp is a WORLD CLASS GUN WRITER OF OUR TIME. Please visit his website and review his excellent books that are available. I posted the link to his website at the very top of this page.