By: Mike McDaniel
This is the second article in a two-part series intended to inform those considering their first handgun purchase, and those needing basic information on handgun types. The first article “A Revolver Primer,” dealt with revolvers. As always at TTAG, the comments were lively and interesting. “Shawn,” apparently a revolver fan, reminded me of the intrinsic accuracy vs. practical accuracy issue, also a topic of lively commentary, when he wrote, “Real men are wheel men.” As I noted in the first article . . .
I began my police service with Colt pythons. One of my early supervisors carried a Ruger Security Six in .357 magnum, and used to joke that one had to be a real man to carry a Ruger–referring to the less than smooth, and very heavy, double action trigger pull. Rugers have always been sturdy and reliable. I always replied smugly, certain of my Colt’s superiority, “yeah, preferably two real men.”
But I was intrigued and eventually bought a stainless steel Security Six. Pythons weren’t available in that lovely metal then. After a very professional trigger job and Magnaporting, as well as quite of bit of grip revision, I ended up carrying that weapon happily for many years. I could shoot it as accurately as the Python, the trigger was as smooth and (relatively) light, and it was lighter and more compact that the Colt. However, the real selling point was that the Ruger broke down for cleaning far more easily and was far easier to clean properly. In those days, with all of the shooting I did with reloaded lead bullets, that was a significant concern.
The point? There is no “perfect” handgun–revolver or semiautomatic–superior to all others. We are all different. That Security Six perfectly met my needs for many years, even though it was a homely beast compared to my work of art Pythons, and it cost a great deal less as well.
If there is one primary lesson to impart regarding revolvers, it would be that the smaller the weapon and the shorter the barrel, the more difficult it is to shoot accurately, particularly if it does not have a competent action job. With any firearm, what matters is accurate shot placement. A solid hit with a .380 ACP is far more effective than a near miss with the largest handgun cartridge available.
On to the world of semiautomatics.
Semiautomatics are sometimes incorrectly called “automatics.” An automatic weapon fires multiple rounds for each pull of the trigger. As long as the trigger is pulled and held back, the weapon will fire until the trigger is released or the ammunition supply is exhausted. Expert machine gunners can fire bursts of two-three rounds or more simply by means of manual trigger manipulation. Some automatic weapons mimic this ability with burst features that fire short–commonly three round–predetermined bursts with a single pull of the trigger. A semiautomatic weapon fires only one round for each pull of the trigger, just like a double action revolver.
Semiautomatics hold their ammunition in magazines. Magazines are often incorrectly called “clips.” The only currently manufactured, widely available firearm that actually uses clips is the M1 Garand battle rifle. Most semiautomatic pistols hold more rounds than revolvers; in many cases, a great many rounds more. The GLOCK 17 in 9mm, for example, is a full-sized duty-type handgun with a standard magazine capacity of 17 rounds. With one round in the chamber, the capacity of a GLOCK 17 is exactly three times that of a six-round revolver. With two spare magazines, nearly nine times. My article on that handgun is available here.
This is a significant factor that has caused–in part–most American police agencies to transition to semiautomatic pistols. While the majority of police shootings are resolved at very close range with few rounds fired, the necessity of having a great many rounds at hand is very real. One can never know when they’ll be involved in the firefight that requires a great many rounds and magazine changes. So it is for civilians–as the police commonly call non-police officers.
NOTE: Those that claim that any magazine over 10 rounds–7 rounds in New York–is a “large capacity magazine,” are uninformed or deceptive. A substantial number of commonly available semiautomatic handguns have standard capacity magazines of substantially greater capacity, which is nothing new or unusual. The Browning Hi-Power first distributed in the 1930s had a 13-round 9mm magazine.
All semiautomatic pistols work on the same basic principle: Firing a cartridge harnesses the energy of firing to push a heavy metal slide back against a powerful spring that keeps the action closed until pressure drops to a safe level. On its backward travel, the slide extracts the fired case from the chamber and ejects it through the ejection port on the slide. When the slide hits the rear stop, it is propelled forward under spring tension, picks up a fresh cartridge from the magazine and inserts it into the chamber. This process is very fast and appears as a blur to most.
A powerful spring in the magazine pushes each fresh cartridge upward, ready to be fed into the chamber. In most designs, when the last round has been fired, the magazine spring pushes the magazine follower–the plastic part between the magazine spring and the cartridges–upward to engage the slide lock, forcing the slide to lock fully open (back) to notify the shooter he has shot his weapon dry. This cycling may be accomplished by a blowback system (the most common in contemporary handguns; there are several variations of the basic principal), or a gas system. Many semiautomatic pistols have an external, manual safety device of some kind.
This You Tube video animation of the direct blowback cycling of a GLOCK pistol is illustrative of the process, which is virtually identical for all semiautomatic pistols, allowing for slight variations in mechanical design. Warning: The music accompanying the video may be annoying.
Semiautos, like revolvers, come in several more or less standardized sizes. Full sized pistols like the Colt M1911 and the GLOCK 17 are generally considered duty pistols, though even they may be carried concealed by most people. Smaller pistols, such as the GLOCK 19 with a 15 round magazine, are meant to be lighter and more easily concealed, and “baby GLOCKs,” like the original model 26, are smaller yet while still having a ten round, 9mm magazine capacity. And finally, there are what are commonly called “pocket pistols,” normally in .380 ACP caliber (essentially a shorter and less powerful 9mm cartridge) or smaller. These pistols like the Ruger LCP or the S&W Bodyguard actually do fit in a pocket and are quite small, light and easily concealable while still firing a reasonably powerful cartridge.
The Bodyguard, for example, with one spare magazine, fits in a space no larger or thicker than a standard man’s billfold. My article on that pistol is available here.
Semiautomatic pistols, however, have a greater number of trigger mechanisms than revolvers.
Single Action: This is the oldest currently available pistol mechanism, characterized by John Moses Browning designs, and is the mechanism employed on the Model 1911 .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) and the Browning Hi-Power in 9mm Parabellum (From the Latin: “ii vis pacem, para bellum”–if you wish peace, prepare for war). In these pistols, an exposed hammer is manually fully cocked and a safety lever mounted on the left side of the frame engaged. To fire, the shooter clicks off (pushes down on) the safety and pulls the trigger, which commonly has a light and short travel, enhancing potential practical accuracy.
This 1911 is a much-modified model by Springfield Armory known as the“Range Officer.”
This means of carrying these pistols, commonly known as “cocked and locked,” frightens the uninitiated, but is perfectly safe when done by those properly trained who use proper holsters (particularly those that fully cover the trigger and trigger guard). With this action type, each trigger pull is short, light and consistent, significantly contributing to ease of use and accuracy. Such weapons employ the manufacturing methods and materials–-heavy steel–-available a century ago and are labor intensive to make. Like everything designed by Browning, they are effective, reliable and mechanically brilliant designs, but they can be expensive. While they are “parts” guns, and theoretically any part made to proper tolerances will fit, for maximum accuracy, some degree of hand fitting is required, which, of course, adds to the expense. The number of aftermarket accessories available for this old and popular design is truly amazing.
Double Action: A second action type is the double action mechanism that mimics the trigger and hammer action of the double action revolver. European weapons such as various Walther pistols with this mechanism (the P-38, the PP and PPK) were in use before WWII. American manufacturers, most notably Smith and Wesson, produced double action pistols in large numbers beginning in the 1970s to increase sales of semiautomatics to police forces which at the time almost exclusively used double action revolvers. Col. Jeff Cooper called this invention “an ingenious solution to a non-existent problem.” He was referring to the fact that double action semiautomatics are not designed to be carried “cocked and locked,” which was a selling point to uninformed and skittish police executives horrified by the sight of cocked hammers.
This double action semiautomatic pistol is a Walther P-22 in .22 LR caliber. While the caliber is generally inappropriate for a self-defense gun, its action is identical to its larger caliber cousins. Keep in mind that a great many bad guys have succumbed to the .22LR. My article on that handgun may be found here.
The inherent problem with this type of trigger mechanism is the first trigger pull tends to be long and heavy, but because the first, and every subsequent shot fired causes the cycling of the slide to cock the hammer, the second and every subsequent shot requires only a single action trigger pull, in other words, a much shorter, lighter pull of the trigger. This commonly results in widely varying impact points between at least the first two shots on any target, and while experienced, capable shooters can overcome this “feature,” double action mechanisms are a less than optimum option, just as Col. Cooper observed.
Even so, I’ve yet to meet the new shooter, particularly women, who didn’t find the P-22 easy and delightful to shoot and shoot with a high degree of accuracy. It has very little recoil, mild report, and excellent ergonomics.
Double Action Only: Another action type is a hybrid of the double action mechanism that seeks to address the inherent shot to shot accuracy problem of such actions. These weapons are incapable of single action fire; each pull of the trigger must be double action. In other words the trigger recycles fully forward after each shot–it does not cock the hammer–making a long, relatively heavy trigger pull necessary for each shot. While this method might be a theoretical improvement on double action mechanisms, any action that requires a long, heavy trigger pull will be inherently less accurate and harder to consistently shoot than a lighter, shorter trigger.
This double action only handgun—a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard in .380 ACP—is representative of the genre (take the earlier link in this article). An interesting feature of this weapon is its integral laser sight, activated by the ambidextrous gray button on both sides of the front of the frame. The integral laser does not allow the lines of the little handgun to be very racy, but it works very well indeed.
Striker Fired: The most modern mechanism is the striker-fired pistol, typified by the GLOCK design as illustrated by the aforementioned video. These weapons do not have an exposed external hammer or an internal hammer, but instead employ what is essentially a larger than usual, heavier firing pin driven by a strong spring. When recoil cycles the slide, the striker spring is compressed—cocked–until it is released by the next activation of the trigger. Cycling the slide to chamber the first round does the same. Trigger pulls with this type of weapon are shorter and lighter than those of double action pistols, and are consistent from shot to shot. While the triggers do not have the very short travel of a single action mechanism and they are not as light, they are far superior to any double action or double action only mechanism, and are also superior to double action revolver triggers. GLOCKs employ a unique system of three independent integral safety devices. There is no external safety to be manipulated by the shooter. As with revolvers, one must really want to fire a GLOCK to make it discharge.
This particular GLOCK is the model I carry daily, a GLOCK 26 (commonly called the “baby” GLOCK). The only two additions I’ve made to my personal G26 are a Pearce Grip magazine finger rest and a Crimson Trace LG-436 laser.
One advantage of the GLOCK design is that trigger pull weight can be easily changed from seven to five pounds, for example, merely by changing drop-in parts, an easy process with the modular GLOCK which uses not a single screw. Such weapons are often made with polymer (plastic) frames and many other polymer parts. This method of manufacture has many advantages, such as low cost, speed of manufacture, long life, no rusting, and the ability to absorb some recoil energy that would otherwise be imparted directly to the shooter. To contain the inherent pressures and recoil forces, however, such weapons must have steel barrels, slides, and slide rails. There is no such thing as a “plastic gun” that can’t be seen on x-ray machines. A GLOCK under x-ray looks exactly like what it is, and most of its weight is, in fact, steel. An article on that issue, including an x-ray image of a GLOCK, is available here.
Another interesting GLOCK feature is the ability to “catch the link.” When firing a round, the shooter holds the trigger fully back as the slide cycles and after the slide has returned to battery (is fully forward and closed) slowly allows the trigger to move forward until an audible and easily felt “click” occurs. This allows the next shot to have a much shorter trigger pull, enhancing long-range accuracy. But this is not a true single action mode as it does not function in the same way, and it requires a conscious effort on the part of the shooter to make the weapon function in this way for each shot. The primary advantage of the GLOCK-–and similar—mechanisms remains their relatively short trigger travel, light pull weight, and shot to shot consistency.
ADVANTAGES OF SEMIAUTOS:
The primary advantages of semiautos are that they are more easily concealable, tend to have lighter triggers, have greater ammunition capacity than revolvers–in many cases, much greater–and are more quickly and easily reloaded than revolvers. Semiautos also, in most common calibers, have much less recoil effect and muzzle blast than revolvers, and have a bore axis much lower than revolvers. With polymer frame construction, some semiautos can be substantially lighter than revolvers yet hold substantially more ammunition with no deficit in ruggedness and longevity.
Because of their very nature, semiautos are subject to more common malfunctions than revolvers, but each of these common malfunctions can be cleared in the field, without tools, in four seconds or less by those without expert levels of knowledge and skill. Because they do not have cylinders, as long as there is a round in the chamber–and this is the way modern semiautos should be carried–semiautos will virtually always fire at least one round even if they malfunction thereafter.
The only exception is those designs with a magazine disconnect, a system that prevents the weapon from firing unless a magazine is fully inserted. This is a “feature” that should never be a part of any handgun carried for personal defense.
One interesting advantage that is of little use to most shooters is that semiautos can accept suppressors (there is no such thing as a “silencer”). Suppressors are useless on revolvers–despite what Hollywood would have one believe–because of the gas that escapes through the gap between the cylinder and the forcing cone. Suppressing firearms is primarily about gas control.
Contemporary designs often have accessory rails that allow the easy installation and use of flashlights, and more importantly, laser sights. Revolvers may also be equipped with laser sights, but semiauto owners will generally find that equipping their weapons is easier and that there are more choices available.
Semiautos, many of which are designed with military service in mind, usually break down without tools and are easy to clean. Even non-military designs are generally easy to break down, clean and reassemble, and generally without tools. They also tend to have few parts to disassemble. GLOCKs, for example, break down into the frame, barrel, recoil spring/guide rod assembly and slide. No further disassembly is required for normal cleaning, and reassembly is quick and easy.
As previously mentioned, semiauto trigger mechanisms—even double action mechanisms—tend to be much lighter and more easily manipulated than revolver triggers.
DISADVANTAGES OF SEMIAUTOS:
There are two primary types of malfunctions common to semiautos: failures to feed and failures to eject. Each has several commonly known variations, but as previously mentioned, proper training will show anyone how, within mere seconds, to clear such malfunctions. One of the most common problems with semiautos is “limp wristing,” or not giving the handgun a firm grip with a straight, rigid wrist. Semiautos need a solid grip against which to cycle the slide. If the weapon is held limply, it may lack the force to complete the cycle and may not fully eject an empty casing, or may not fully chamber a fresh round. Proper technique can easily sort out this common problem.
A number of readers of the first article in this series suggested that revolvers do not suffer from limp wristing, which is true enough, however, learning the manual of arms with any handgun, and becoming comfortable with it to the point of allowing good accuracy takes time and effort. All weapons have their peculiarities, and not every weapon is an optimum choice for everyone.
Semiautos generally come in only one grip size, so some may simply be too large for smaller hands, a not uncommon issue with full-sized 1911s, for example. However, some manufacturers are now shipping models with easily switched backstraps to address what may or may not be a problem. In addition, weapons with polymer frames like GLOCKs allow magazines with substantial capacity while still keeping the grip relatively small. Semiautos are generally more ergonomically pleasing to more people than revolvers, particularly with out-of-the-box, unaltered weapons.
One cannot normally tell whether a semiauto is loaded merely by looking at it, though some, such as GLOCKs, do have mechanical loaded chamber indicators (which can be checked by touch), or like the S&W Bodyguard, a small notch cut in the breach that allows a chambered cartridge to be seen. However, this can be addressed with a simple “pinch-check,” or retracting the slide just enough to see brass in the chamber. Some people also experience accidental discharges when, after removing the magazine, assume that the weapon is empty and fire the round in the chamber. This too can be easily addressed by using the proper, basic safety drill of always removing the magazine, cycling the slide several times, locking it back, and looking and using a finger to verify that the magazine well and chamber are empty. Of course, keeping one’s finger off the trigger until milliseconds before firing is also helpful.
Some semiautos, due to their unique design, have very stiff recoil springs. Some people with weak hands or limited strength may have difficulty cycling their slides. My article on correct technique in dealing with stiff recoil springs may greatly simplify this issue for most people. In reality, few people truly lack the ability to cycle semiauto slides; it is primarily a matter of proper technique.
Another common problem is loading magazines with stiff springs. However, inexpensive magazine loading tools that essentially eliminate this problem are widely available–GLOCK includes one with every handgun sold–and it is a very small portion of the population that cannot learn how to use what strength they have to cycle a slide, or with proper tools, to load a magazine. Even so, some few people, due to disability or illness may find such tasks daunting.
The greatest single weakness of semiautos is the magazine. They are generally easier to damage than the guns themselves, and if a magazine won’t properly feed due to fatigue or damage, the shooter suddenly has a hard to load single-shot handgun. To address this problem, at least one spare magazine should always be carried, and all magazines should be regularly rotated with a complete set of spares to allow the springs to “rest.” I grant that this may be an old shooter’s superstition, but it surely cannot hurt anything, and in more than three decades of daily carrying handguns and following this procedure, I’ve yet to have a magazine malfunction. This may be attributed to nothing more than my care in ensuring my magazines aren’t exposed to damaging conditions and are regularly cleaned and otherwise maintained.
Though this is a much smaller issue than it was only a decade ago, some semiautos are ammunition sensitive; some brands and/or configurations of ammunition may make some guns more prone to malfunctions. My wife’s S&W Bodyguard .380, for example, doesn’t like inexpensive steel-cased Russian ammunition, but mine feeds and fires it without fail. Both cycle higher quality full metal jacket and defensive–hollow point–ammunition without complaint. Most guns designed for self-defense will fire just about anything with little or no difficulty, but some guns, particularly those built to very tight tolerances, such as guns intended for competition, may take a bit of trial and error to find ammunition that is completely reliable. On the other hand, brands such as GLOCK have a well-deserved reputation for reliability right out of the box and require no alteration or modification at all. I have never had a malfunction of any of the GLOCKs I’ve owned, or of their magazines. Dumb luck? Perhaps, but I practice malfunction drills just in case.
Semiautos generally have less intrinsic accuracy than revolvers. This is so because their barrels–with a few notable exceptions, many in .22LR only–are not fixed to the frame and thus, unmoving as the slide cycles. Designs with both a fixed barrel and the sights attached to that barrel, tend to have intrinsic accuracy no less than the best revolvers, the Ruger Mark III and 22/45 pistols in .22LR being cases in point.
Defensive pistols must have looser tolerances because the need for maximum reliability is greater than the need for maximum accuracy. This will generally produce slightly less overall accuracy. However, for general defensive use, this is not at all an issue for most people, whose practical shooting ability is not up to the optimum intrinsic accuracy of their semiautos, particularly at the kinds of ranges at which gunfights virtually always take place.
What kind of difference is involved? A target semiauto tuned to the tightest tolerances without sacrificing the reliability necessary for the sport might shoot a 2” group at 25 yards, while a daily carry pistol might manage 4”. Proper ammunition will also have an effect on group size. Some handguns simply shoot more accurately with some configurations of cartridge and bullet. This is true with any firearm, and is why long-range competition riflemen and snipers are meticulous about developing loads that maximize the accuracy of their weapons.
Obviously, all semiauto owners should shoot a number of the cartridges they plan to carry in their weapons daily to ensure they work properly. How many? At least 20, and the more the better, not only to ensure they function properly, but to develop a feel for them and to gauge their accuracy and the necessity of changing sight (perhaps laser sight) settings.
One additional caveat is that, like revolvers, the smaller the pistol, the more difficult it tends to be to shoot accurately. My wife shoots her GLOCK 26 with greater ease and accuracy than her S&W Bodyguard, for example. Substantially smaller than the GLOCK, the Bodyguard has a longer and heavier trigger pull than the GLOCK, and a shorter barrel, and is therefore harder to shoot well. It’s not impossible to shoot well by any means, but it does require more practice, including dry fire off the range, to maintain proficiency. Of course, anyone choosing to carry a handgun has a duty to practice enough in dry and live fire to maintain proficiency sufficient to ensure they will hit only what they intend to hit.
There is no question that semiautos are, by their very nature, somewhat more complex to operate than revolvers. This makes accidental discharges somewhat more likely for some people. Keep in mind that during my police days, there was no shortage of ADs with revolvers (or shotguns). However, learning the proper manual of arms is far from rocket science, and I’m tempted to wonder about the fitness of anyone unable to safely handle a semiautomatic handgun—given proper training–-to handle any kind of firearm.
I own all of the guns I need, but not as many as I want. These days, the only revolvers we own are tiny, North American Arms mini revolvers. My semiautomatic handguns meet my–and my wife’s–needs very well. We don’t own semiautos exclusively out of a lack of appreciation for the qualities of revolvers. The issue is more one of a conscious decision to stock as few different types of ammunition as possible. I’m of the mind that it’s always better to shoot fewer weapons more than to have an enormous number of different guns and cartridges that I can’t afford to fire as often as necessary to attain a high level of skill and confidence.
I carry a GLOCK 26 most of the time, and in those few circumstances when I need a weapon smaller than even the little GLOCK, a S&W Bodyguard takes its place. I have no hesitation recommending GLOCKs in general (unfortunately, they don’t pay me for such recommendations, drat!), recognizing that no weapon works for everyone. I carry them because they meet all of my needs, and I’ve found them to be flawlessly reliable and as accurate as necessary for any defensive handgun.
Many ranges allows brief rentals of handguns, and many shooters and instructors are more than willing to allow neophytes to try their guns. Finding a handgun that feels good in the hand and is reliable is not a difficult matter in 2014. The reliability difficulties common in semiautomatic handguns in the 70s and 80’s are a thing of the past. However, keep in mind that it may take at least 50 rounds with any handgun to get a real idea of how it will work for any individual. Some guns just tend to feel right for some people while others don’t.
As I previously mentioned, while my wife–and I–shoot our S&W Bodyguards accurately, after shooting them, switching to our GLOCK 26s makes a world of difference. The GLOCK triggers seem ridiculously light and of very short travel, the weapons, being larger and heavier, have less recoil, and it is much easier to shoot with great accuracy. Friends we teach to shoot switching from the Smith to the GLOCK are shocked by the difference.
Obviously, shooting as often as possible is a good idea. Few people who remain shooters for any length of time own only a single gun. Shooting is fun and different weapons meet different needs and provide different experiences. It’s all a part of shooting.
The old axiom that the man with a single gun is often the most dangerous remains true. He’s likely to know how to shoot that gun very well indeed. Finding a handgun that works, performing correct, regular practice, and reaching a high level of proficiency should be every shooter’s basic goal.
Mike’s Home blog is Stately McDaniel Manor.