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It’s an unfortunate facet of human nature to take for granted a great many things. That tendency has caused those who support the Constitution — particularly the Second Amendment — to have to fight many long, and figuratively bloody battles over what has only recently, in the 2008 Heller decision, been recognized as a fundamental, unalienable right to keep and bear arms. Even though this right, based in the equally fundamental, unalienable right to self-defense, is now acknowledged as the law of the land, taking it for granted would be a deadly mistake. Those who fear firearms, and actually hate those that own them, never rest, and are in the battle for the long term. Particularly statists, who want to rule all for their own good, understand that their desires will go unfulfilled unless they can deprive the common man and woman of arms . . .

Even so, there is much for those who honor and recognize not only the rule of law, but the art and science of firearms, to appreciate. A few examples:

The Reliability of Modern Firearms

I began my career as a police officer in the mid 1970s. Very few police agencies carried semi-automatic handguns in those days, and the few that were widely available suffered from significant reliability problems. It was an article of faith that revolvers were flawlessly reliable and accurate while semiautomatic handguns weren’t, and there was more than a little anecdotal evidence to support this contention.

As a result, I carried only Colt Pythons, and eventually a stainless steel Ruger Security Six, but not until it had been Mag-na-ported and treated to a substantial action job. It wouldn’t be until 1996 that the law enforcement agency for which I worked transitioned to the GLOCK 22 in .40 S&W.

In the meantime, I owned and fiddled with a variety of semi-autos, including various 1911s, a Browning Hi-Power, a Browning BDA .380, and a S&W Model 59 that was so highly modified as to be barely recognizable as the original handgun. Of those handguns, the Browning DBA was the most reliable out of the box. I didn’t have to alter it at all.

For shooters of a more recent generation, this may sound odd. In those early days of development, out of the box semi-autos were notoriously rough and unreliable. Absent a loosely fitted, full-sized 1911 shooting ball (round-nosed, essentially military specification) ammunition, virtually everything else needed, at minimum, to have the magazine well beveled, the action polished and smoothed, far better and higher profile sights installed, all sharp corners rounded and smoothed, the ejection port enlarged and the feed ramp polished. Magazines were also commonly treated to rubber pads on their floor plates, the better to ensure retention in the mag well.

Compared to modern handguns, the weapons available to the budding semi-auto fan in the 1970s and early 80s were crude indeed. When I refer to lack of reliability, I mean that it wasn’t uncommon to experience at least one malfunction per magazine. My little Browning BDA .380 was absolutely reliable, but others that tried examples of the same gun–or its Beretta sister–had substantial troubles.

I eventually settled on the first GLOCK 19 I could find and haven’t looked back. I still shoot several hundred rounds through any new GLOCK before carrying it for serious social purposes, but that’s probably unnecessary. In many thousands of rounds of all brands and bullet configurations, I have yet to experience a single malfunction with any GLOCK. I don’t suggest all GLOCKs are flawlessly reliable. I have seen such malfunctions in friends’ and students’ guns, most attributable to limp-wristing and similar foibles. Still, that’s a remarkable record. And GLOCKs, of course, aren’t the only highly reliable semi-autos available.

There are those of us in the shooting fraternity who remember the days when one just didn’t take the reliability of any semi-auto for granted unless we spent thousands of rounds, and hundreds–sometimes even a thousand or more–of dollars on the ministrations of a highly competent gunsmith. There weren’t that many. I don’t think back fondly on those days, at least not when thinking on all the trial and error and expense I was forced to endure.

The Reliability of Modern Ammunition

Back in the 1400s when I was a police pup, the only way I could afford to practice and develop my skills sufficiently was by reloading. I did spend much time balancing a coin on the front sight of my Python–in dry fire mode–while pulling the trigger double action. Factory loaded ammunition–particularly with jacketed bullets–was expensive, and the profusion of factory reloaded–commonly called “remanufactured’–ammunition we now take for granted was rare indeed.

In those days, ammunition-related malfunctions were far more common than they are now. I suspect most were due to people doing a bit of shade-tree gunsmithing, particularly on S&W revolvers. I knew many officers that lightened their double action trigger pulls by the quick and easy expedient of clipping a coil or two off a mainspring, resulting in light primer strikes and no “bang” on command from time to time and unpredictably. My fellow officers that carried Pythons had no need of such butchery and didn’t experience that problem, but I’ve seen more than a few malfunctions with virtually every make and model.

I’ve seen just about every problem one can imagine. Faulty primers, loosely seated bullets, fouled powder, and even in one case, a cartridge that obviously had no powder, as the primer had only enough juice to lodge the bullet in the barrel of a revolver. Fortunately, it was the first round fired in a freshly cleaned gun, so we could tell no powder had been ejected or burned, and none was left in the empty brass, and this from a major manufacturer.

It has been many years since ammo has failed me. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I had a malfunction attributable directly to ammunition. That said, the combination of ammunition, shooter and handgun can often cause difficulties.

My wife and I own Smith and Wesson Bodyguard .380s. Mine is completely reliable with every cartridge I’ve fired in it, including inexpensive steel cased ammunition of Russian manufacture. My wife’s is finicky with that ammunition, but shoots everything else reliably. Why? Not a clue.

During the age of Obama, Americans have suffered through several ammunition and firearm shortages, driving prices up and availability down. Most of those shortages and soaring prices, with the exception of .22LR, now seem to have mostly abated, and with the utter failure of Mr. Obama’s run at gun control, it’s unlikely we’ll experience similar shortages and price hikes in the remaining two years of his term in office. But even through those troubles, ammunition reliability has apparently remained high and consistent.

I suspect my good fortune with ammunition has to do with my habits. I keep my weapons scrupulously clean and well maintained. I store all ammunition properly in the appropriate environment. I regularly rotate to new ammunition in my few carry handguns, and practice with the ammunition I’ve replaced. I even regularly change magazines, every magazine I carry, with fresh magazines, allowing the springs to “rest.” Of course, all of this may be nothing more than superstition, but if so, they are superstitions that have served me well.

The Profusion of Accessories

Returning to the 70s, the accessories available for any class of small arm were few and small in scope. For revolvers, perhaps colored front sight inserts–usually orange–and a few models of differing grips were about all one could hope for. Speedloaders were all the rage, and action jobs and Magna-porting were available, but parts and enhancements that were truly useful, inexpensive and easily installed by the user were not nearly as common as they are now.

The state of the art for semi-auto sights for a time was a small, fully adjustable rear sight manufactured by the Miniature Machine Company. I had one on a Colt Commander and it worked well. Night sights were in their infancy and weren’t nearly as sharp and useful as contemporary models, and electronic sights simply weren’t available. Those few that were finding their way to the civilian market, such as the Armson OEG, were expensive and figuring out mounts was a pain.

Rifle accessories were equally uncommon. Some police agencies were beginning to pick up a few AR-15s, usually with the full length 20” barrel and even the original triangular hand guards, but apart from the small Colt optical sight that came with a mount for the carrying handle, there was little available. Twenty round magazines were as common, and for a time, more common, than 30 round magazines, most of the production of those going initially to the military. Flashlights, slings, lasers, different hand guards, grips, and the contemporary profusion of magazine types were also uncommon, and in many cases, just not available.

Contrast this with what confronts the shooter looking for an AR-15 variant in gun stores today. Not only do many models come standard with a wide variety of accessory rails and other features that once would have been unimaginable, the options, including in various colors(?!) are staggering. Anything one can imagine, and quite a bit one can’t, is available, actually useful and usually, inexpensive.

The Internet

Many Americans have been born into a world that has always had the Internet, and its convenience in shopping. Because I was born into a world without cassette tapes, I’ve never taken the Internet for granted. Even residents of the smallest towns have access to the same accessories, ammunition and related goods as the residents of major regional population centers.

I take no small amount of pleasure in knowing that those that would gladly destroy the Second Amendment, and following that, the rest of the Constitution, find this happy state of affairs most distressing. May it always be so.

There are many more things in the world of firearms for which to be thankful, things we so often take for granted. The ease and lack of expense with which one can be better equipped than the best equipped soldiers or police officers of only a decade ago is amazing, but a great benefit to those that take seriously their duty to protect themselves, those they love, and their communities. This too makes would-be tyrants, petty and great, very angry and restless.

May we take nothing for granted, and may the discomfort of despots never be relieved.

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  1. i think the thing we all take for granted in the firearms culture these days is Professional Firearms Training. I know quite a bit of shooters and none of them have taken or even know anyone that has taken a tactical training class. I am one of those but my hurdle is cost not ignorance or stubbornness. i have 2 different instructors i am looking at going with but man, these classes are not cheap.

    • I too took a long time to take quality courses then I did the math and thought, geez, I spend the same amount of money on guns and accessories all the time. Isn’t it better to put that money towards mastering what I already have? Also, as long as you have access to open shooting grounds you will gain a lot of great drills and stuff you can then practice on by yourself or with friends. I didn’t learn a lot of new info with courses but it definitely made my solo trainings much more effective. Take classes, you won’t regret it.

    • I’d say not even cost, but simply the location. Many people might be willing to shell out a few hundred dollars for a class, but having to travel several hundred miles, pay for a hotel, food, gas, possibly take off work, etc in addition to the cost of the class makes it far too difficult for a lot of people.

  2. “In those early days of development, [the 1970s and early 80s,] out of the box semi-autos were notoriously rough and unreliable.” I beg to differ. Here are a few representative early service semi-autos capable of smooth reliability with all sorts of ammo: Mauser C96, Roth Steyr M1907, Steyr Hahn M1912, Tokarev TT30/33, Radom ViS wz. 35, Walther P38, Star Model B Super, SIG P49, Beretta M1951, MAB PA-15, and Beretta 92. All were developed and adopted before 1973.

    • But were they universally reliable and did they function well with the ammo widely available back then ?

        • Yes, I had a PA-15 in 1974. Wonderful weapon, fit my hand perfectly, would shoot anything (although there wasn’t much available… ever see a 9mm round nose soft point? S$W made them…short little buggers.)
          I started working for a gunsmith when I was 13, most mods to semiautos were of the comfort variety- better grips, better sights, trigger jobs, refinishing.
          Not much was reliability oriented, other than feed ramp polishing and magazine feed lip shaping.
          Between 1968-1973 I owned the MAB, a Hi-Power, a Sysetma Ballista 1911 clone, a Sterling .380, a Security-Six, a Ruger MK I, a S&W 39, an alloy 59, and a steel 59.
          The only ones that I recall with reliability problems were the three Smiths.
          But even they were fixed with minimal work, I believe just polishing the feed ramps and modifying the magazine lips.
          “at minimum, to have the magazine well beveled, the action polished and smoothed, far better and higher profile sights installed, all sharp corners rounded and smoothed, the ejection port enlarged and the feed ramp polished. Magazines were also commonly treated to rubber pads on their floor plates, the better to ensure retention in the mag well.”
          If we are talking about reliability here, then very little of this was needed “at minimum”.
          Action polishing, better sights, melting sharp edges and beveled mag wells do not address reliability, but ease of use. An ugly 1911 with a rough trigger and GI sights, all else being equal, will be just as reliable as one with a smooth trigger, melted edges and better sights.

  3. Your right to keep and bear arms will outlast anyone’s right to take it away.

    The founders wanted you to have a gun for the end of America, so that you would be able to have a say in what comes next.

  4. I think the author is mistaken about semi-auto handguns being unreliable or inaccurate in the 70’s and 80’s. I personally shot and / or owned semi-autos by Ruger, Browning, CZ, HK, Sig and Colt during that time frame and I did not find any of them unreliable or inaccurate (not even the Colts). The insanely large Desert Eagle is finicky about ammo and how you hold it, but is still accurate.

  5. I have a CZ 75 from the ’80s. Sadly it’s a recent acquisition, and I did not own it while in elementary school. It functions flawlessly, and it groups really well.

  6. Good post. I was around then but only shot my dad’s 22’s and shotgun. I also had a 1965 Mustang, a $75 /month apartment and a rotary phone. So I sure as h##l don’t take anything for granted. I can’t believe how f###ed up this country has become…

  7. In those days, ammunition-related malfunctions were far more common than they are now. Not my experience and yes I did shoot a lot in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

    • Indeed. I blame the quality and variety of ammo available from commercial loaders today for the reason why so many younger shooters can’t/don’t/won’t reload.

      It used to be that you reloaded if:

      1. You wanted more accurate ammo.
      2. You wanted more lethal ammo with better bullets. (“better” being any one of several factors).
      3. You wanted cleaner burning powder, hotter/slower/whatever powder.
      4. You wanted to use better primers.

      Today, you can find premium ammo from nearly a dozen commercial houses and boutique ammo from a dozen more, as well as better bullets than were ever available back in the 60’s.

  8. It’s three golden age of everything lately. Firearms accessories, photography, computing devices, etc…

  9. Nice picture, it’s the same one that my dad ownes. Can’t wait for him to pass it on to me, especially since he’s been eyeing a new Sig.

  10. How does one clip a coil off a S&W mainspring to cause reliability problems. S&W service size revolvers have leaf springs, not coil springs. Methinks a 40 year old Colt Fetishist penned this.

    • You can still file down the leaf spring on a Smith, but you’re right, the premise here is ridiculous. Rugers used coil springs, so that makes a bit more sense.

      One thing people did/do to try and reduce the DA trigger pull on Smiths is to loosen the strain screw in the grip that pre-tensions the leaf spring. Too much of that and the thing will give you misfires.

      On reliability, I think there were plenty of reliable service type semi-auto pistols available in the mid-1970s to early 1980s for anyone interested in finding one. In practice most of these were European designs, so they weren’t necessarily inexpensive, nor suitable for large-scale departmental police issue, but they were certainly out there.

      CZ 75 came out in 1975. These Czech pistols were pretty scarce in the USA until after the Cold war ended, but my mid 80’s manufacture one has performed absolutely flawlessly with thousands of rounds of ammo of all conceivable types.

      Browning/FN Hi-powers were available in the 70s; those are an 80+ year old design that’s not only highly reliable, but actually still in fairly wide service use today. Obviously full and compact 1911s were around in the 1970s and with ball ammo, every bit as reliable as today. Austrian Glock 17 came out in 1982, and I remember trying one in the mid 1980s, wondering why the hell the safety was built into the trigger!

      SIG p210/Danish m49 was around in the 1970s, and those guns are highly reliable, not to mention match-accurate, and wallet-drainingly expensive! SIG P220 in .45 is highly reliable, that one came out in the mid 1970s. Ditto for Beretta 92, with an upgraded version of same in current use by the US military, as well as a number of domestic police, among other agencies.

      Although an unusual design, the HK “squeeze cocker” P7 is reliable, was available in the 1970s, and was actually adopted by a fairly large number of military and police forces. In fact, NJ State police adopted it in the early 1980s and used it for many years.

      And there are many others.

  11. “May we take nothing for granted, and may the discomfort of despots never be relieved.”

    +1Mike – you and Samuel Adams: “If you love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home and leave us in peace. We seek not your council, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.” (Speech at the Philadelphia State House, August 1, 1776)

  12. The 70’s; how different things were.

    I carried the “Beretta sister” Model 84 Cheetah for plain clothes work and off duty. Outstanding weapon, particularly for the time. In my hand, very well balanced; 13rd. mag, .380, easy to carry IWB, worked flawlessly when fed good ammo, which was the only issue I’ve ever had with the gun. I found that my Beretta 84 and much newer 92FS seem to have recoil springs on the stiffer side, so if the round isn’t packing adequate charge the slide wouldn’t cycle sufficiently for the ejecting spent casing to cleanly clear the ejection port. In the 70’s that was a regular issue with the 84. Now, with modern ammo there has been no further issue for the 84 Cheetah, ever. These days, that little Cheetah fires and cycles without any hang-ups. Better ammo.

    With the newer 92FS I have to feed it ammo with a ‘healthier’ charge. I’ve considered replacing the spring, but am satisfied with simply feeding it ammo it likes (which is now my go-to ammo in 9mm).
    I’ve had no issues at all with my M9 which is of more recent manufacture. It eats all my ammo, even the stuff that didn’t have enough juice for the 92.

    Nice line of weapons these Beretta automatics are.

  13. ” In many thousands of rounds of all brands and bullet configurations, I have yet to experience a single malfunction with any GLOCK. I don’t suggest all GLOCKs are flawlessly reliable. I have seen such malfunctions in friends’ and students’ guns, most attributable to limp-wristing and similar foibles. Still, that’s a remarkable record. And GLOCKs, of course, aren’t the only highly reliable semi-autos available.”

    Since Glock reliability was brought up, I still think it is absolutely important to run 300-500 rounds through any weapon before carrying the weapon. This includes function testing with AND without any accessories on the rail. The Glock 22 3rd generation initially suffered FTF issues when a light was mounted to the new accessory rail (that wasn’t a polymer Glock light). The solution was for Glock to go from a 10-coil magazine spring to an 11-coil magazine spring.

    I replace the magazine springs on my duty Glock 21 pistol every few years. As they weaken, I’ll start to experience FTF issues, only when my TLR-2 is mounted. The empty will eject and the new round will be stripped from the magazine. As the slide runs forward, it will stop just prior to the breech locking. A quick slap of the magazine will return it to battery. It usually occurs on the 11th or 12th round. When it starts to occur, I know the springs need to be replaced. Replacement fixes the issue. Just something to consider when function testing a carry weapon. Accessories can make a difference with function reliability.

    Overall, great article! Thanks for a look back in history in a very well-written manner!

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