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.

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