Ammo Properties

All types of ammunition share certain properties which can be important to the user, and these are described below.

Primer Type:
While there are several distinctions that can be made here, most of them are only important to reloaders. For others, the only ones that matter are rimfire vs. centerfire, which describes in which part of the cartridge base is the primer installed.  All normal self-defense calibers (pistol and rifle) are centerfire. Only .22 and smaller are rimfire.  Do not dry-fire any rimfire firearm, unless the manufacturer says it is alright to do so.  Very few do.

This refers to the amount of gunpowder in the cartridge, which varies by caliber.  A standard loading has no designation.  If marked +P, the cartridge is overloaded to the first level, which is a somewhat “hotter” firing cartridge.  If marked +P+, that has even more gunpowder, and is hotter still.  Most modern firearms can handle +P without damaging the gun, but they should only be used in defensive ammo, not practice ammo.  The .380 ACP is not rated for +P.  Check your owner’s manual for advisability of using +P.

Bullet Type:
The choice is between expanding bullets (hollow-point, or HP), or non-expanding bullets, variously referred to as full metal jacket (FMJ), total metal jacket (TMJ), wad-cutters, round nose, flat nose, and other marketing terms.  Hollow-points will expand dramatically during flight, or when hitting a solid surface, and the others will not.  Hollow-points will minimize the possibility of over-penetration and danger to the public, and create a bigger wound channel, which maximizes stopping power.  Hollow-points should always be used for self-defense purposes.

Bullet Weight:
This refers to the weight of the bullet, not the cartridge, and is expressed in grains.  One grain is 1/7000 lb.  A heavier bullet will hit the subject harder (more energy transfer), but will also generate slightly more recoil.  For smaller calibers, that difference is negligible, but for .40, .45, or most revolvers, that could be a consideration, in terms of handling that gun.  If accuracy inside 10 yards is not an issue, a heavier bullet maximizes stopping power (except for .40 S&W).  Typical bullet weights are shown below:

.22 rimfire         40 gr
.380 ACP            85, 90, 95, 100
9mm Luger       115, 147
.40 S&W             165, 180
.45 ACP              185, 200, 220, 230
.38 Special         125, 158
.357 Magnum    125, 158

Trigger Types


In a similar manner to revolvers, modern semi-automatic pistols can be divided into three categories by the manner in which their triggers operate.

1. Single-action (SA)
This system offers the same short, crisp trigger pull for each shot. In order to fire the first shot quickly, single-action pistols must be carried with a round in the chamber, the hammer cocked and the manual safety engaged (the so-called “cocked and locked” condition). Although not comfortable for all shooters, this is currently being taught in most schools as a safe mode of carry. Nearly all single-action pistols are equipped with an exposed hammer.

2. Double-action/single-action (DA/SA)
In this type of fire-control mechanism, the first shot is fired in a double-action mode using a long, heavy trigger pull to cock and release the hammer. Subsequent shots are fired in a single-action mode. This system allows the pistol to be carried safely with a round in the chamber and the hammer lowered, while still allowing a rapid first shot. However, the different modes of trigger operation involve different grip positions, thus consistent accuracy is difficult to maintain. Most double-action pistols have an exposed hammer and a decocking lever that provides a fast, easy and secure system to lower the hammer on a loaded chamber.

3. Double-action-only (DAO)
The double-action-only trigger system is preferred by many law enforcement agencies as it is felt to be safer and “defensive” in nature. However, the long, heavy trigger pull of most DAO systems is not conducive to accuracy. This led pistol manufacturers to devise various ways of reducing the DAO trigger pull without sacrificing the inherent safety and perceived defensive nature of the system.

Such systems are now common and essentially operate by partially pre-cocking the striker to reduce the heavy double-action trigger pull and reducing trigger travel.

Most DAO pistols are hammerless with a striker firing pin system.


Instruction, Fundamentals, Equipment, Practice

Let’s assume you learned (or are learning) to shoot a pistol for purposes of self defense (that is the usual reason).  The problem for most people is that they are unlikely to ever have to prove themselves; statistically, the odds are against them (you) being a victim of a violent crime.  Therefore, they only try to gain a basic skill level.  After all, how much time would you devote to learn parachuting, if you never flew in a plane?  Unfortunately, due to fear, adrenaline, blood pressure, and other factors, most people in a crisis will lose half their gun-handling skills, and end up being a victim anyway.

The secret is to over-train, to the point that many of those skills become second nature.  Many casual gun owners only go to a range 2-6 times a year, and shoot 50-100 rounds each time.  Competitive shooters, on the other hand, shoot thousands of rounds per week.  How can we achieve a reasonable skill level without spending $1000/month?

Make no mistake about it, there is an investment of time required.  Most gun ranges sell memberships that, like gyms, assume you will not use it enough, so they can oversell their facilities.  If you buy a membership that allows you to shoot free, then go to the range twice a month, you will probably come out ahead.  If you’re not shooting at least twice a month for the first year, you’re not really serious.  Do you work out twice a month and expect to lose weight?

Now that you have a routine, let’s look at four areas that require your attention:

INSTRUCTION.  Being self-taught is not the short-cut, but having a guide is.  There are many options.  You can take private lessons from an instructor, you can buy very good DVD programs on various aspects of shooting and self-defense, and you can also find many free tutorials and videos online.  Sometimes you get what you pay for, but all of those resources can be helpful, except the ones that don’t apply to your situation.  You probably don’t need to know what trick shooters or snipers teach.  In most cases, if you pay for any type of instruction, you will probably get your moneys worth.

FUNDAMENTALS.  Safety rules, Stance, Grip, Aiming, Breathing, Working the trigger, Follow-through.  Those never change.  Research each one, and read everything you can find about them.  Allow for slight differences from people with different types of backgrounds.  You will begin to see a pattern, learn some tricks that help, and some that don’t.  Practice the fundamentals as if your life depended on them.  Read that again.

EQUIPMENT.  When I started collecting Cold War period weapons, I read some advice: “You will make mistakes. Accept it and move on.”  The same is true here.  The gun you own is likely not the one best suited to you, your hand, or your plans.  Borrow or rent other guns to try out.  When you find one you like better, buy it, and sell the old one (or not).  If your goal is concealed carry, you will likely find out that you can develop your skills better and faster with either a duty-size gun or a 1911 style.  Then transfer those skills to the smaller gun.  Longer barrels are better than shorter ones; heavier guns are frequently better than lighter ones.  If the sights are not optimal for you (age is a factor), replace them with fiber optic or other styles.

PRACTICE.  Optimize your practice sessions by having a goal each time.  It could be slow, pinpoint accuracy at 3 yards, hitting an 8-inch target at 15 yards, timed fire at a silhouette at 10 yards, one-handed shooting, timed rapid fire with a reload, etc.  There are thousands of excellent drills available online.  Pick some that are within your skill set, and some that are just beyond your skill set.  A stopwatch or timer will put pressure on you that will show up weaknesses.

Remember the tortoise and the hare: slow and steady wins the race.


Breaking in that new pistol

Few things are as disconcerting as discovering that your new semi-automatic has a jam, misfeed, or stove-pipe 2 out of every 10 shots.  AARRGGHH!!

However, don’t despair yet.  If it is a very inexpensive gun, well, you get what you pay for.  Bargain guns may have loose tolerances, short-cuts in the casting or milling processes, or other issues that cause this, but read on.  In many cases the rest of this article can resolve those problems.

While some manufacturers seem to not have this problem, others do, at any price point, and will usually warn you about the need to break in the gun.  Kahr is a well-respected gun maker, but the owner’s manual clearly states that the gun cannot be considered reliable until you have shot 400 rounds through it.  The issue is metal-against-metal friction, such as the rails and grooves on the slide and frame.  Even when the metal looks smooth and machined, at a microscopic level, it is not.  Those surfaces have to be worked down (polished) slightly, preferably by the matching piece of metal against which it runs.  That process is called lapping, and is common in many industrial applications.  Breaking in a pistol, then, is  simply running the reciprocating action (the slide) enough times to polish those mating surfaces.  Most people do that by firing the gun.  A cheaper way is to rack the slide 200-300 times.  That can be made easier by removing the recoil spring.  It will be more effective if you don’t lubricate the slide.

By the way, this is not a problem for revolvers, as they do not have any rapidly reciprocating mechanisms.

I have had several semi-autos, made by CZ, Smith & Wesson, Walther, and Dan Wesson, that worked flawlessly right out of the box, but some perfectly fine guns have needed that break-in period.  I bought a Ruger recently that would not fire 3 shots in a row without a malfunction, until I got to about 300 rounds.  After that, it worked fine.  It still will not consistently feed and extract Federal brand ammo, but 5 other brands work fine.  That is not a break-in issue, but ammo sensitivity.

The reasons are complicated, and not easily understood, but some guns will not consistently handle certain brands of ammo.  The design and angle of the feed ramp, the slope and contour of the bullet nose, and sometimes issues related to the width and shape of the cartridge rim can all contribute to this.  The short answer is, if your gun won’t work right with a certain brand of ammo, don’t buy that brand.

If no brand of ammo will work at least 99% of the time with a gun, contact the manufacturer.  Most of them will make every effort to make it right, often at no charge.

When I was a kid, automobile manufacturers used to tell buyers to keep their new car under 50 mph for 500 miles, to break in the engine.  Now, they are essentially broken in at the factory.  Some semi-autos will need a break-in period, but some will not.  If yours is acting up, clean it well and lubricate it, and put mileage on it.  That will usually solve the problem.


The 2nd Amendment Survives

As you might expect, I am a big supporter of the 2nd Amendment. I believe that without the 2nd, there would not be a 1st Amendment. Critics (gun grabbers) say that this is not the 18th Century anymore, we don’t need guns everywhere; a bad amendment can be reversed by another amendment, as when Prohibition was overturned. Those people clearly do not understand the history of the Constitution, as it was written in 1787. The very first complaint about the new Constitution was that it over-centralized government (a big issue, after having just escaped British tyranny), and did not clearly delineate the rights that the people wanted. The members of the Constitutional Convention (including Washington, Madison, and Hamilton) maintained that those rights were included, although perhaps too much by implication. Since there was some question that they could get the nine states needed for ratification, the “Bill of Rights” (the first 10 amendments) was added in toto to assuage those fears. The first 10 amendments are actually part of the document that was ratified, and were not added piecemeal, as with amendments 11 to current times. The 2nd Amendment does not represent a correction to the Constitution, but an annotation, a clarification. It was no more an afterthought than was the 1st Amendment. The two of them represent the very core of the American Experiment.
Why was it necessary at all? Because the first battle of the Revolution was spurred by the first attempt in North America at gun control. The British dispatched forces to Concord, MA, to capture weapons stored there by the colonial militia.  They were intercepted at Lexington green, and the game was on.
For 25 years, gun grabbers have maintained that no American should be able to own a semi-automatic rifle, as they could be better armed than police or military.  Again, they do not know history.  The American colonists were better armed than the world-famous British Army.  They had muskets with rifled bores (built by immigrant German gunsmiths) with a range of 300+ yards, while the British had smooth-bore muskets (Brown Bess) with a range of 50-80 yards.
It was clearly always the intention of the Constitutional Convention that Americans would have the right to own weapons to check the power of a tyrannical government, and that those weapons could be equal in capability to what the government could have.  True, the National Firearms Act of 1934 prohibited full-automatic weapons (machine guns), but for technical reasons, that is not as big a disadvantage as you might think.
Why am I writing this article?  Because last week we dodged a bullet (so to speak).  A Clinton election would have ensured that the Supreme Court, for the next 40 years, would be populated with judges who would have, little by little, dismantled the 2nd Amendment.  We can now expect that any major gun control is dead for the next several decades.
Along that line, I have long been a supporter of the 2nd Amendment Foundation, and encourage you to do the same.  Instead of being activists/protestors, these folks are lawyers, and work within the system to protect our rights, by bringing lawsuits against local governments.  They have been very effective at curbing encroachments.

Carrying a handgun: cocked & locked, decocked, unlocked?

There are now over 1,000,000 Texans licensed to carry a handgun in public.  As to how many of them actually do, no one knows.  Some carry every day, every place that is legal; some carry only on rare occasion; and some carry only in a vehicle, and use the license to prove to police that they have demonstrated the required firearm proficiency.

Whether or not one carries regularly, there is never-ending debate on the subject of carry condition: round in the chamber or not; cocked or not; safety on or not.  Those experienced in carrying a gun debate these points mostly for fun, but for those new to carrying a gun, this raises some serious questions.

First, let us set some context.  Some guns are hammer-fired (all 1911s, most revolvers, and some other guns), and some are striker-fired (probably most easily-concealable guns).  While it is true that some guns use an internal (shrouded) hammer that is not the same as a striker, that is a distinction without a difference in this discussion; the real question is whether or not a gun can be cocked with your thumb.  Any gun when cocked is in single-action mode (fireable with minimal effort).  If it has an external hammer, it can be decocked (uncocked), either through a decocker lever, or manually (safety hazard).  If the gun is a double-action model (DA/SA), it can still be fired immediately while decocked (with more effort), but if it is a single-action model (SA), it cannot.  Never decock an SA gun, as it is then useless.  Many of these models are difficult and dangerous to cock manually.  Except for the hammerless models designed for concealed carry, all revolvers are DA/SA, and without a safety, so these should never be carried (or left anywhere) cocked.

To complicate this discussion more, there is the empty chamber issue (this applies only to semi-autos).  While it is true that in many cases, one would have time to rack the slide (hearing reports of an active shooter nearby, for example), in some cases one would not (walking into a robbery in progress, or being car-jacked).  In my view, it is a mistake to carry without a round in the chamber.

Since putting a round in the chamber necessarily means the action is cocked, one must then consider whether the gun has a safety at all, and if so, whether to use it.  Besides internal safeties over which you have no control, and grip safeties which are automatic (1911s), you basically have two types of safeties extant on some pistols: trigger safeties and thumb safeties.  Trigger safeties are really marketing gadgets, and are unlikely to prevent most accidental discharges.  All hammer-fired guns will have a thumb safety, and it is mandatory that you use it.  Striker-fired guns may have a thumb safety, but usually don’t.  If it does not, then carry it as it is; the triggers are usually not so light in pull that this is overly dangerous.  If it has a thumb safety, then use it only if you can take it off easily during presentation, otherwise leave it off.

The bottom line is that you need to be prepared to draw your gun from the holster and get to the High Ready position, with a sight picture, and the gun in immediately dischargeable condition, in about 3 seconds.  If that requires taking off the safety during presentation, then practice that way, and always carry the gun in the same condition.  Pulling the trigger, finding out the action is locked, taking off the safety, and pulling again, could take the rest of your life.


Focus On The Trigger

What, really, is the difference between defensive shooting and competitive shooting?  Most people would suggest that competitive shooters take a lot of time to make a surgically precise shot at a small target, and the defensive shooter needs to get a shot off within 3 seconds.  True, but the real difference is that many defensive shooters do not have the same understanding of mental focus as do competitive shooters.  That focus, or psychology, is as important for the 3-sec shot as for the 10-sec shot.

In pistol shooting, there are some basic fundamentals like stance, grip, extension, sight alignment, and breath control.  While those are important, you can do those incorrectly (within limits) and still make that defensive shot that might save your life.  Trigger control, however, is a different story.  I have seen students who did the other fundamentals reasonably well, yet could not consistently put shots within an 18-inch group on a paper target at 7 yards.  When you factor in the effects of crisis (panic, adrenaline, blood pressure, tunnel-vision), it is likely that person would have less than a 20% chance of making that shot.  In fact, the FBI says police officers in a crisis only hit their target 25% of the time.

The other fundamentals require a mastery of the physical self, but trigger control requires a mastery of the psychological self.  Most shooters know that the biggest perceived problem is recoil.  In fact, recoil is not the direct problem, but an indirect one.  By the time you feel recoil, the bullet has already left, so the real problem is anticipation of recoil.  It is a natural human tendency to prepare for the coming dramatic event, so at the last moment, people grip the pistol harder, or change their stance, which causes the muzzle to move very slightly, and ruins the shot.  This is a very common problem for all shooters, but especially newer shooters, who also often jerk the trigger so they will have a more precise idea of when the shot will break.

Instead, one must adopt the “tortoise and the hare” concept of the competitive shooter: slow and steady wins the race.  Prepare the trigger (gently take up the slack in the trigger until the connector touches the sear; you will feel a stopping point), then gradually put pressure on the trigger until it breaks.  Try to have no idea when the break will occur, and be surprised when it does.  Continue to pull past that point until the trigger bottoms out on the frame.  Do not respond to recoil until it happens; you can’t stop it anyway.

That last point is counter-intuitive, which is where mental focus comes into it.  Imagine that you are standing against a wall, and someone is shooting an arrow at your head; I just told you to not duck until after the arrow hits you.  That would make no sense, but that is exactly what I am telling you about recoil.  Do not allow any change in the shooting process until the shot breaks.  Yes, you know it is coming, but you can’t stop it.  Learn to “ride the wave” up and back down, reacquire the target, shoot again.  Always include these steps:

  1. Take up the slack
  2. Slowly squeeze, even when shooting rapidly

Bringing relaxation, calmness, and mental focus into the process has another benefit: besides allowing a more surgical precision and tighter groups, you will be better able to block out fear and debilitating physical responses, and create a mental tunnel-vision that may allow you to deal with the crisis at hand, and perhaps save your life.


Worried about bears? Consider the Glock 20.

Recently I had occasion to test fire a Glock 10mm pistol, the Glock 20 Gen 4.  While I am normally lukewarm toward Glocks, I’ll have to say this was a great experience.  They have recently re-engineered the recoil spring into a triple spring, and it does a stellar job of mitigating recoil, so that this beast was only a little more stout than a .45.

Some years ago, some FBI agents were involved in a shootout in which several agents were killed, and the investigation revealed that if the criminal’s wounds had had a little more penetration, the battle might have been stopped sooner.  As a response, the FBI upgraded to the 10mm as a standard issue.  Several years of experience showed the agents were too often unable to qualify on those guns, so they recently downgraded back to the 9mm.  The theory is that the ability to rapidly reacquire the target and make follow-up shots trumped stopping power.  Critics of this change have suggested that the real problem is that many FBI agents come from a background of law or accounting, and were not properly trained with handguns.  The U.S. military changed a few years ago from the traditional .45 sidearm (various versions of the Browning 1911) to the 9mm, and the results have been mixed.  While it is true that magazine capacity is increased, many soldiers in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars have complained about the stopping power of the 9mm, especially at distances greater than 30 yards.

Ballistics: 9mm vs .45 vs 10mm

At this point, some physics is required.  Stopping power is not a function of caliber alone, but of energy transfer.  The greater force applied to the target, the quicker he is stopped.  Energy transfer is mass X velocity (E=m*v), so a lighter bullet traveling faster can impart the same energy transfer as a heavier bullet traveling slower.  The .45, due to its weight and defined case pressure, travels relatively slowly, and has a fair amount of bullet drop after 50 yards.  Many police departments have changed to either the .40 or .357 SIG, because the lighter bullets and higher case pressures result in more energy transfer over longer distances.  The Soviets (experts at killing) figured this out in 1930; the famous Tokarev pistol (7.65×25) used a bullet smaller than a modern .32, but traveling at warp speeds.  It would drop a man at 100 yards.

Romanian Tokarev

Romanian Tokarev, c. 1955

The 10mm cartridge captures the best of both worlds.  While the bore is only equivalent to a .40 cal, the weight of 180-200 grains is closer to a .45.  The increase in power comes from a much longer case, more powder, and higher case pressures.  Penetration tests on a gel block measured 24 inches, which is about 10 inches more than a .357 Magnum.

Self Defense in the Forest

Several times, students have told me that they were interested in a handgun for hiking or camping; one that could protect them from wolves, boars, or bears, as well as the traditional two-legged varmints.  I was previously of the opinion that, unless one was strong enough to handle a .44 Magnum, the obvious choices were the .45 Semi, or .357 Magnum revolver.  While those are both show-stoppers, I would have to now add the 10mm to that list.  If that won’t stop the threat, then you had better be able to climb a tall tree!

Glock 20 Gen4 10mmGlock 20, Gen 4

Firearms Training: setting goals

Firearms training, pistol training, and related disciplines, are like embracing any other skill; it requires an organized approach, study, and setting both long-term and short-term goals.  For some people, goal setting is a nebulous, “touchy-feely” part of the process, but in fact, it’s a very pragmatic step.

If, like many people, you are learning to shoot a handgun to protect your family from a home invasion, then you would want to be able to hit the bad guy at a distance of at least 10 yards.  Why would you think that accuracy at 3 yards is sufficient?  Especially given that the FBI, and all law enforcement sources, estimate that, under crisis pressure, the average shooter only performs at 50% of his/her skill level.  In fact, according to the FBI, police officers in crisis mode only hit their target 25% of the time.  Accuracy is an issue under the best of circumstances, but when someone may be shooting back at you, blood pressure and chemical changes in the body are a major problem, and are only exacerbated by greater distances.

The solution is to be better trained than necessary, and by a substantial amount.  Then, if half your skills evaporate under pressure, you still have a fighting chance.  A few months ago, in a Dallas suburb, a police officer was faced with two terrorists in body armor, carrying rifles.  He took out both, with one shot each, saving many lives.  Head shots, at night, under pressure.  If he missed either, he had about 4 seconds to live, but his superior skill level saved the day.

So, how do we get to that skill level?  Consider these steps:

Long Term Goal

Set the final goal, perhaps the ability to hit a human-sized target at 25 yards, center mass, 50% of all shots.  Put a date on it, at least 6-12 months out.

Short Term Goals
  1. Hit a 3×5 card at 3 yards, a 5-shot group (all 5 shots).  When you can do that 3 times in a row, move to the next goal, but not before.
  2. Same thing, at 5 yards.
  3. Hit a paper plate at 7 yards, a 5-shot group.
  4. Same thing, at 10 yards, then 15 yards.
  5. An excellent goal is to put 10 out of 10 shots into a paper plate at 15 yards, then 8 out of 10 at 25 yards, but you can’t skip any of these steps.
Dry-firing practice

Most authorities support the belief that dry-firing will not harm a modern center-fire pistol, but there are skeptics.  If you want to be certain, buy some snap caps (dummy cartridges) for practice.  Cock or prime your pistol, aim at a spot on the wall not more than 2 feet away, and practice pressing the trigger to the break while seeing no movement at all of the muzzle.  The gun needs to be as stable as if in a gun vise.  Do 10 minutes a day for 30 days.

Live Fire practice

While all the fundamentals of shooting are important, supreme importance should be attached to

  1. Sight-alignment
  2. Trigger pull
  3. Time in the saddle

Sight-alignment requires a very precise view of both sights, to the accuracy of a hair’s width, and intensely focusing the vision on the front sight.  If necessary, shift focus to the target just long enough to verify position, then shift back to the front sight, like a TV camera changing subjects.

Trigger pull requires studious attention to the part of the finger on the trigger, the gradually increasing pressure on the trigger, and balancing lateral forces on the trigger so the muzzle does not move.  Dry-firing helps that immensely.  I also let my students practice some with a SIRT Training Pistol, which is a great tool.

SIRT Training Pistol

Finally, there is time in the saddle (this is Texas, after all).  If you can find ammo on sale, buy 1000 rounds.  There is no reason to think that you can achieve the kind of gun-handling skills, poise, and accuracy that will not desert you in a crisis without having shot at least 1000 rounds.  In addition to dry-firing, go to a range once a week for 2 months, and shoot at least 50 rounds.  Then go every 2 weeks for 2 months, then monthly from then on.  To accelerate the process, go every week for 6 months.  You will see the results.