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Ed Harris: Building an accurate .22 field rifle!

(Editor's Note: Ed Harris is back! He recently sent me a big archive of his older articles, and there are some real gems in there. I'll be featuring one of these treasures every other Friday! Today Ed talks about rebarreling a .22 rifle to turn it into a budget tackdriver. Some of you may remember that I love playing with .22 rifles, and you can bet I was taking notes as I read this!)

RE-BARREL YOUR 22 BOLT ACTION AND... Make an accurate smallbore silhouette or squirrel rifle!
by C.E. 'Ed' Harris (Rev. 3-1-94)

The idea of an accurate, .22 rimfire rifle weighing 7-1/2 or 8 lbs. with scope, having the same sleek good looks and steady handling as my center-fire varmint rifles was very appealing. We could have used any quality .22 bolt-action for this project, but my Ruger M77/.22 rifle was a natural choice. It was available, and while serviceable, it was an ordinary grouper. Arlington, VA gunsmith Jim Coleman suggested a heavier barrel with SAAMI-dimensioned "Match-type" chamber, and pillar bedding and minor tuning up. The result is very satisfying, and more useful than the original rifle.

My customized Ruger is highly accurate, being capable of 3/4" 10-shot 50-yard groups with good high velocity and approaching 1/2" with the best match ammunition. (See the article "Getting the Most from Your .22 Rimfire" in the 1992 Gun Digest for more details). It weighs 7-1/2 lbs. with a hunting scope, or 8 lbs. with my 10X Unertl, handy enough for field carry when after squirrels or close-range woodchucks. It is now the most-used rifle in my gun rack. I am truly surprised that Ruger still hasn't offered a heavier-barrel M77/.22 with match chamber.

Rebarreling a sporter with a heavier barrel can be done economically if you can find a good used target rifle barrel. Used .22 target rifle barrels with bright, sharp bores, in serviceable condition, can be set back and rechambered successfully. These can often be found at gun shows for $10-40, depending upon local supply and demand, but some luck is involved.

If you know a gunsmith who rebarrels rimfire target rifles, ask him to save you a used Remington 40X, Winchester 52, BSA-Martini or Anschutz barrel. Even if it has been shot a lot, when cleaned up, carefully inspected, set back, rechambered to a SAAMI-dimensioned "match" chamber, and cut to a handy length, a used target rifle barrel will yield a stiff, accurate, 22-24" steady-holding sporter barrel which will group well.

Setting back the typical 26-28" target barrel to 22-24" barrel will remove all of a worn or eroded breech, and leaves plenty enough to cut and recrown the muzzle, giving a handy field gun which is heavy enough for proper balance. However, if you want a flyweight tack driver, this can also be done. My buddy Nick Croyle put a piece of used Hart target barrel on his M77/.22 and had Jim Coleman turn it to the proportions of a buggy whip, and that 5-1/4-lb. rifle with 19" barrel will shoot 1/2" , ten- shot bugholes at 50 yards with Eley Tenex, his squirrel load!

Rebarreling .22 rimfire bolt-actions with threaded barrels such as the Kimber 82, Remington 40X, or Winchester 52 are done much the same as a center-fire rifle, except that excessive tightening of the barrel must be avoided. Otherwise the smaller shank on the softer rimfire barrel (typically 1137 steel of Rockwell B80-90 hardness) may become constricted at the root of the thread where the barrel shoulder stops against the receiver.

For non-threaded barrels, such as Anschutz, the barrel pins must be removed to free the old barrel. The ends of the pins are often polished before bluing cheap rifles, and may be hard to see. They are obvious on Anschutz and other European match rifles.

The Ruger M77/.22 barrel is the easiest to remove, and is accomplished by removing two cap screws which hold the barrel retainer. The Ruger M77/.22 barrel is retained in the receiver by a V-block shaped retainer held by two cap screws. The retainer engages a 45 degree cut in the underside of the barrel. You can copy the old barrel fairly easily. The retainer slot can be rough cut with hacksaw and filed to final dimensions or machined in a milling machine or using the milling attachment in the lathe. The Ruger 10/.22 autoloader barrel is attached similarly, but requires careful attention to the chamber for safety reasons.

The barrel shank at the breech of non-threaded replacement barrels should be turned one half a thousandth of an inch (0.0005") less than the diameter of the barrel hole, so that it is a snug fit, without having to force it home. You should be able to insert the barrel by hand with slight resistance, pick up the action with the barrel in place, and shake it without loosening. A "forced fit" must be avoided because it may cause a constriction near the chamber which will hurt accuracy.

The looser fit of .002" less than the barrel hole, as found on factory Ruger barrels is normally satisfactory, but may influence accuracy if heavy stock fore-end pressure, common as the rifles from the factory) exerts pressure against the barrel. For that reason we prefer free floated barrels.

Nearly all .22 rimfire barrels require clearance cuts for the extractor and cartridge supports. These can be cut by hand with a hacksaw and finished with small files, but it is best if they are done in a milling machine, or using with a milling attachment in a lathe. Extractors and cartridge supports are semi-circular in shape, and factory clearance cuts are radiused, not straight as a file cut would be. These cuts are located by coating the extractor and cartridge support with lipstick or Prussian blue, and gently inserting the bolt and closing it only enough to "mark" the points of contact to show where the cuts are to be made, which then copy the factory barrel.

Best accuracy in bolt actions with a variety of ammunition requires the use of the .22 Long Rifle SAAMI-dimensioned "Match" chamber. Testing indicates that the "Match" chamber gives a truly dramatic improvement in grouping compared to the common "sporting" chamber. To prove to ourselves we took two match-chambered barrels of established accuracy and reamed them to the normal "sporting" chamber, with no other change. The average extreme spread of fifty consecutive 10-shot groups at 50 yards, firing ten groups each with five different ammunitions, actually doubled when a match chamber was enlarged with the sporting reamer!

Semi-auto .22 rifles can also be rebarreled successfully, but it is dangerous to use the tight SAAMI-dimensioned "Match" chamber in an autoloader, because it WILL slam-fire and blow case heads off. However, the typical "Sporting" .22 LR chamber is too large in diameter, and also too long for best accuracy. In an autoloader the "Winchester 52D-Type" chamber (discussed in my article "Building an Accurate .22 Autoloader" in the 1993 Gun Digest) is what you should use. If you plan to do all types of.22 rimfires, boltguns, autoloaders and handguns and only want to buy one reamer, get the "Winchester 52D-Type." JGS Precision, 1141 South Sumner Road, Coos Bay, OR 97420 can provide these.

If the barrel is to be pinned permanently in place, rather than using a Ruger-type retainer, first cement it in place with "service removable" (Blue #241) Loctite prior to function test firing to ensure the extractor slots line up and do not bind on the bolt. This permits brief test firing and removal for adjustments, if needed. Once feeding and extraction are proven reliable, use the existing barrel pin holes in the receiver as guides to drill and ream new holes for somewhat larger straight pins, or tapered pins to secure the barrel.

The Ruger M77/.22 magazine feeds rounds almost straight into the chamber and requires only minimal breaking of sharp edges on the chamber entrance. A crowning ball with 320 grit abrasive works well to just remove the wire edge. On other makes of rifles which tend to shave lead, chamfering of the chamber entrance must not be over-done, lest it cause bulged case heads, which may cause burst cases, risking personal injury!

I have have found that almost all .22 sporters group more consistently when the barrel is free floated. It is also necessary to ensure that the receiver is evenly supported. If the rifle shoots tight, round groups without significant change in point of impact as the barrel heats and after taking the action in and out of the stock several times, the bedding should not be changed. Otherwise, "pillar bed" the action exactly as done for a center-fire rifle.

This is done by machining through the stock screw holes with a 3/8" drill or end mill, and fitting brass or aluminum bushings which are epoxied in place. Using metal bushings avoid the possibility of shrinkage voids which may occur when trying to "pillar" the guard screw holes with bedding compound. Solid pillar bedding positively prevents wood compression when the screws are drawn snug, holds the action in alignment without bending or twisting, and ensures free clearance of the action screws in the stock so they work in tension, as intended, rather than applying a shear force to the receiver.

Scope bases must be firmly attached. We prefer either Ruger rings on the M77/.22, or Unertl Posa-Mount bases with Unertl external adjustment scopes. Scope rings for internal adjustment scopes should be lapped after mounting on the receiver, to correct for any machining irregularities in the scope bases or rifle receiver. This ensures that the scope tube is not bent or misaligned when the mounts are drawn up snug.

Lapping of scope rings is done by turning a bar of round mild steel, brass or aluminum to .998" diameter on centers and about 10" long. The lower halves of the scope rings are firmly attached to the bases in the normal manner, then lapped with 240 grit to obtain at least 2/3 surface contact.

As for choosing the scope itself, years of experience in the Virginia Blue Ridge on squirrels has proven the value of a 6X scope on small game rifle. For a hunting rifle we suggest having the parallax corrected for 50 yards, but smallbore silhouette shooters should have it optimized for the 75m turkey, which is the most difficult target. A higher magnification is OK for a pure silhouette rifle, but is harder than a 6X to hold steadily in a field position when you have been climbing ridges, is less bright on dark days or in heavy foliage, and usually has too small a field of view for tracking a fast-moving bushytail!

For hunting a 2-minute dot at the center of the crosshairs provides a highly visible aiming point, in poor light, but one which does not obscure small game targets at realistic ranges. An additional 1/2 minute dot centered 7" below the crosshairs provides correct 100-yard holdover for standard velocity target, or sub-sonic hollow-point hunting ammunition. Set the second dot at 6" if you favor high speed ammunition. Dick Thomas at Premier reticles can provide this service on most scopes for a reasonable charge, with about 3-6 weeks turnaround time.
(Editor’s Note: Since this article was written, Premier Reticles has stopped offering aftermarket reticle services, having transitioned to manufacturing scopes exclusively a few years ago - see my SHOT show recap for a discussion of their new product line. At this moment the only place I know that can provide an aftermarket reticle such as Ed describes is the T.K. Lee Company in Alabama.)

Many people have wanted the address of Jim Coleman, who built my rifles, I guess because they have seen the copious volumes of accuracy data featured in American Rifleman and the Gun Digest. I am happy to do this, but point out there are plenty of competent gunsmiths who can do this work. I am pleased with what Jim did for me, but I have no financial stake in this whatever.

James C. Coleman can be reached at Coleman's Custom Repair, 4035 North 20th Rd., Arlington, VA 22207, telephone ( 703) 528-4486. It is best to query him by phone first to see what his current work load is, as he is a one-man shop.

Now that you have some ideas on how to make a really serious rimfire, we better warn those bushytails to jump fast and stay hidden!

Ed Harris: The .32ACP in a rifle??

Editor’s note: today I’m pleased to bring you another great article from Ed Harris, experimenter extraordinaire. This time he’s built a couple of rifles for some common .32 caliber pistol rounds, making for handy and quiet woods rifles. Enjoy!

Tiny Handgun Cartridges Are Also Small Game Rifle Rounds!
by Ed Harris
Gerrardstown, WV

After fooling around with a pair of chamber inserts using .32 S&W Long and .32 ACP ammunition in the .30-30, I thought about building a light “walking rifle” which would be handy and quiet. I wanted something more effective than a .22 LR, something which could also approach the ballistics of the .32-20 Winchester. The .32 S&W Long and .32 H&R Magnum cartridges are ideal for such use, but the only factory produced rifle is the Marlin 1894 Cowboy which is neither inexpensive, nor very handy. I wanted something which carried more like a fly rod than a wrecking bar.

Because I frequently carry a .32 revolver or .32 ACP pocket pistol around our country place, I wanted to use those same rounds in a light small game rifle. I would have two barrels made to compare results obtained with the .32 ACP and .32 Smith & Wesson Long. My reasoning was that for very light, quiet “.30 cal. CB cap” loads, that the tiny .32 ACP case would have advantages, whereas the larger .32 S&W Long or H&R Magnum case would had more capacity if I wanted more energy.

My gun safe contained a seldom used H&R .410 single-shot, on the tiny pre-war action, which weighed 4 pounds. John Taylor made two rifle barrels for me, chambered for the .32 ACP and .32 S&W Long (which I later rechambered to H&R Magnum). The .410 barrel remained intact, and the entire package cost less than a new Marlin Cowboy lever-gun. I opted for an 18” barrel chambered in .32 ACP for the most-handy configuration and a 26” barrel in .32 S&W Long for optimum sight radius and minimum noise.

The .32 ACP barrel was fabricated from a pulled-off M1 Garand barrel, cutting off the muzzle behind the gas port and the breech at the chamber neck, turning the OD, fabricating and beam welding on the shotgun underlug and fitting the ejector. The bore is of standard 4-groove .30 cal. Government form with ten inch twist and was chambered with a custom reamer resembling the front half of a .30 M1 Carbine chamber. It headspaces on the case mouth instead of the semi-rim.

The .32 S&W Long barrel is rifled to normal .32 revolver specs with six grooves, right twist, one turn in 16 inches with a bore of .302 and .312 groove diameter.

Firing indoors and comparing both barrels with iron sights, I am satisfied that any handgun ammunition averaging an inch or so over a series of 5-shot groups at 25 yards is adequate for hunting small game. I managed to do so fairly easily with several loads to prove the concept. Winchester .32 S&W Long 98-grain LRN, and .32 ACP Fiocchi and RWS 73-gr. hardball all averaged just under inch groups at 25 yards.

Lead 98-gr. LRN factory loads from the .32 S&W Long 26 inch barrel gave 884 f.p.s. From the 18 inch .32 ACP, Fiocchi 73-grain hardball clocked 943 f.p.s., and RWS hardball was 1214 f.p.s. Fiocchi 60-grain JHPs, which gave 1200 f.p.s. from a 3.5 inch Beretta pistol, screamed out at 1463 f.p.s. in the 18” H&R.

Handloads were next. My goal was not high velocity, but subsonic, quiet small game loads approximating the .32 Long rim fire (from .32 ACP brass) or standard velocity lead .32-20 loads (from .32 S&W Long brass). These objectives were met handily using the Saeco #325 98-grain SWC and the #322 122-gr. flatnose .32-20 bullets.

The RCBS 32-90CM is a good choice for a common production mold suitable for either caliber. Those not casting their own bullets can buy commercial Meister 94-gr. LFN bullets of .312 diameter. These have the same profile as the flat-nosed factory bullet for the .32 Colt New Police and works well as a heavy .32 ACP bullet. Its ogive length enables a .98” overall cartridge length when taper-crimped in the .32 ACP and when so seated its base does not protrude so deeply into the case that it bulges cases.

Velocities of the .32 ACP cast bullet loads with the 94-grain Meister and 1.7 grains of Bullseye fired from my Walther PP, CZ27 and Beretta 1935 pistols approximate the performance expected from a 4” revolver using the same bullet in the .32 S&W Long with 2.5 grains of Bullseye. When fired from the 18” .32 ACP rifle, the minimum 1.7 grain charge which reliably functions my WWII-era Euro auto pistols approaches the velocity expected of standard .32-20 Winchester factory lead bullet loads fired from a four-inch barreled revolver.

Trying to drive a non-expanding cast bullet intended for small game to supersonic velocity in a rifle is a waste of powder. This is not a 100-yard rig, but a woods “walking gun.” Its iron sights have a hard 50 yard zero, coupled with reliable 4 moa grouping (2 inches at 50 yds) and greater striking energy and penetration than a .22 LR. It shoots clear through critters, making reliable kills on raccoon, groundhog, wild turkey or the occasional marauding feral dog. The rig is practical in its simplicity.

The 26 inch long .32 S&W Long barrel is noticeably quieter than the shorter .32 ACP. After initial testing I rechambered it to .32 H&R Magnum and shot it again. My reasoning was that doing do would enable using HRM brass and factory loads, but wouldn't significantly hurt the grouping with my .32 S&W Long revolver ammo. After rechambering, the tiny 4.5 lb. rifle still shoots one-inch groups at 25 yards with .32 S&W Longs using either the 94-gr. Meister .312" LRN or the LBT .312-105FNBB with 2.5 grs. of Bullseye.

The longer chamber permits seating heavier bullets out in S&W Long brasss to increase powder capacity. With the 122-gr. Saeco #322 bullet for the .32-20, seated to 1.32” overall length in .32 S&W Long brass, crimping in the top lube groove using either 2 grains of Bullseye or 6 grs. of #2400, either load will shoot an inch and half at 50 yards with iron sights over a long series. The same loads fired in a relined English rook rifle I built later approach an inch when using an old Unertl 6X Small Game scope.

Some .32 H&R Mag loads listed in manuals caused ugly looking fired primers in the converted H&R shotgun because of its large shotgun firing pin and un-bushed breech face. I found this a useful indicator of chamber pressure, so I use no load which causes hard opening or smeared primer cups upon opening the rifle when using standard small pistol primers. Firing trials quickly reveal when a load is “too hot,” because hard opening occurs before primer cups noticeably flatten compared to firing the same loads in my revolver. Federal factory .32 H&R loads rub a shiny ring around the firing pin indent, but the action opens with little effort. I therefore presume that a load causing hard opening is over 20,000 psi.

My general purpose load for use in modern .32 S&W Long revolvers and the single-shot H&R uses either the 115-gr. Ideal #3118 or 122-gr. Saeco #322. I cast these of soft scrap, 10BHN, tumble in Lee Liquid Alox, size .314, and load in .32 S&W Long cases with Federal 200 primers and 2 grains of Alliant Bullseye at 1.32" OAL. This gives not quite 850 fps in the rifle and 720 fps in various 4-inch revolvers. It is accurate in both the Ruger Single Six and S&W Model 31. An added benefit is that this load pokes out the front of the cylinder of my old I-frame S&W .32 Hand ejector, which keeps me from putting this warmer-than-factory load in the old gun.

A flat-nosed, solid lead bullet, with large meplat at subsonic velocity is fully adequate in energy and penetration against feral dogs or coyotes. My testing of the Saeco #322 at 850 f.p.s. gave 30 inches of water penetration. If you want a bit flatter trajectory to reach out to 100 yards at the expense of a bit more noise, you can increase the charge to 2.5 grs. of Bullseye in S&W Long brass or 3 grains in H&R Magnum brass. It shoots well at a little over 1000 fps in the rifle and 800-850 fps in the revolver.

I have not fooled much with slower powders, because specialized rifle-only loads defeat the purpose of using the same ammo in both the walking rifle and revolver. I briefly tried #2400 in H&R Magnum loads, up to a nominal “case full” in the .32 Long case. While faster, it was very much louder and less accurate than my mild loads with Bullseye.

The final journey in my search of “Bunny Gun Nirvanna” was in obtaining a real English rook rifle and having it lined to .32 S&W Long. I located an Army & Navy Cooperative Society rook rifle in .255 which had been inexpertly rechambered to .25-20 Winchester. With some botched scope block holes and jackleg barrel restamping, I was able to get it cheap. I sent it to John Taylor to have it relined and rechambered to .32 S&W Long, then upon its return it went to Connecticut for Lucas Geiger to do a full exterior restoration. I now have a plain walking rifle for rough use, and a pretty art piece for yard and range shooting. Both shoot equally well, an inch and a half or less at 50 yards with my chosen loads, with low noise which doesn’t disturb the neighbors. Now to walk the garden!

Wherrrrrre….. arrrrrre…. Yoooooou…. Nooow…Mister. Waaaaaaaaaabbit?

Ed Harris: Revisiting The Full Charge Wadcutter

Happy Black Friday! Today I am pleased to present another great article from Ed Harris, this time about an old load that he’s finding useful in the modern era. It’s helpful to note that Ed lives in a very rural area, and regularly hunts small game with his handguns. This gives him an enormous amount of experience, the kind that is getting hard to find in these days. Sit back, relax, and enjoy his article on the “full charge wadcutter”!

Revisiting The Full Charge Wadcutter and the “FBI Load”
By C.E. “Ed” Harris; pictures by the author

Several friends and I have been re-thinking our decision several years ago to pack semi-auto .22 target pistols in our survival rucks. We normally carry .38 snubbies as EDC. Having an extra, longer barreled .38 Special revolver in the ruck with extra ammo useable in either gun seemed like a good idea.

We decided to standardize on the .38 Special because it had better anti-personnel and defense animal potential than the .22s. We all owned several fixed sight, “service revolvers” which were reliable, accurate enough, readily available and familiar. A wheelgun is simple anyone to operate and requires less training and practice to maintain proficiency than an auto pistol. We have confirmed to our satisfaction that four inch service revolvers, fed good ammunition are accurate enough to make 20-25 yard head shots on small game. There is no doubt that a .38 is a more sure killer than a .22 on larger varmints such as coyotes and larger small game animals such as raccoons or groundhogs.

I started carrying my four-inch .38 Special Colt Official Police in one ruck and a 4 inch Ruger Police Service Six in the other. Both revolvers are sturdy, reliable, and accurate. The .38 Special is not your first choice as a bear gun, but a more likely threat is an upright, 2-legged human criminal actor or large dog such as a pit bull. This thought process was initiated by an experience in which an acquaintance had difficulty stopping a pit bull attack with a .22 handgun despite multiple hits, several of which were well placed

Animal control officers stated that in their experience that .38 Special +P would have probably likely stopped such an animal attack quickly. Had the first .22 hit been a head shot which penetrated the skull, the outcome would have been different, but little data is available on how well .22s penetrate a large dog skull at oblique angles and frankly, my experience with .22s does not inspire confidence in hot-blooded situations with large toothed animals.

Today I now carry 100 rounds of .38 Special ammo in the ruck in addition to the six rounds in the gun and an A.G. Russell belt pouch with three Bianchi Speed Strips. This "Blackberry" carrier does not look like an ammo pouch, fits flat on the belt, tight against the body, and is low profile, yet holds eighteen .38 Special rounds. Just unzip, grab the center strip first, then the others won’t drag against the zipper in the event that you do need another. See it here Speed Strips are loaded with Federal 147-gr. HydraShok +P+.

Our boxed spare ammo is a full-charge 146-grain double-end wadcutter, Saeco #348, which we cast ourselves from wheel weights. A charge of 3.5 grains of Bullseye gives 850-870 fps from a four-inch revolver, which falls between standard pressure 158-gr. SWC and +P lead HP FBI loads in energy. This load groups as well as target ammo and penetrates 30 inches of water. The bullet does not expand, but its blunt profile gives full-caliber crush and has proven effective.

The choice of a full charge wadcutter sounds strange today, but the load has an interesting history. During the 1970s and into the early 1980s 158-gr. lead RN and SWC standard velocity loads were issued by D.C. MPD, Baltimore PD, NYPD, LAPD and many others. Hollowpoints were deemed unacceptable during that era due to political concerns. I knew well several now-retired officers who were involved in shootings, and who had consciously carried wadcutter ammo, because it was “more effective.”

While this was strictly against regulations, it was not an uncommon practice. The officers involved seemed to get away with the excuse "we had just come from the range and that was the ammo we had." A friend who is a retired Major in the Military Police reported the same, because wadcutter ammo obtained from the MTU pistol team was better than the Army’s M41 Ball. Unlike today, it was common for cops to shoot wadcutters on the range and change to LRN or SWCs for carry, as they were not required to practice with “duty ammo.”

Observations in the ER and on autopsy table from that era confirmed that a wadcutter makes a larger hole than the LRN and SWC and penetrates deeply, without tumbling. Entry and exit holes produced by LRN are smaller, bleed less and show less damage in the wound track. Tumbling improves the performance of RN bullets, but is unpredictable. Fackler and others have stated the performance of solid SWCs is little better than LRN loads.

The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) conducted "energy deposit" studies in 1970s in which rounds were chronographed near the muzzle, and again after the bullet exited a 20cm (7.8") gelatin block. A standard velocity 158-gr. lead round-nose .38 Special bullet fired from a 4-inch revolver at 755fps produces 200 ft-lbs of energy, and exits the gelatin block at about 655 fps with a residual energy of 150 ft-lbs.

Permanent crush cavity volume in gelatin is measurable and in direct proportion to kinetic energy. A round which deposits twice as much energy in the gelatin block produces approximately double the crush volume. A target velocity factory 148-gr. hollow based wadcutter fired from a 6 inch K-38 which strikes the gelatin at 780 f.p.s., produces the same 200 ft-lbs of kinetic energy as the LRN load fired from a 4 inch gun, but it exits the gelatin at 474 fps, having a residual energy of only 74 ft-lbs and depositing 126 ft-lbs! This compares to many common .38 Special JHP +P loads, but with deeper penetration approximating .45 ACP hardball.

To produce a "full-charge" wadcutter load 3.2 grains of Bullseye and a Remington HBWC factory bullet, or 3.5 grains of Bullseye with the Saeco #348 cast double-ender. These approximate the 6 inch revolver velocity of factory target loads, but do so when firing from a 2-inch snub. Velocity from a 4 inch revolver exceeds standard velocity 158 gr SWC and LRN loads by about 50 fps. We have confirmed the effectiveness of the full charge wadcutter on game in 30 years of field use.

In the mid 1970s the FBI started using Winchester's 158-grain all-lead hollow-point load X38SPD. Federal followed with its 38G and Remington the R38S12. Of these, the Winchester and Remington loads performed best. Federal went through several design changes using several different bullet alloys and cavity geometries before they got their load working. To get reliable expansion requires softer alloy which causes +P loads to foul bores and impair accuracy after 18 rounds or so. The Federal 38G load in particular which used a dry lube with no cannelures on the bullet caused severe cylinder binding in revolvers which do not have a cylinder gas shield.

A gas shield or cylinder hub prevents gases carrying vaporous lead residue out the cylinder gap, from being deposited between the crane arbor and the cylinder recess on which it rotates. Remington and Winchester versions of these loads had grooved bullets with a heavy, waxy lube were less cranky in that respect, but you still have to be careful about cleaning and lubrication.

At Ruger, revolvers were assembled with a proprietary lubricant similar to Militec to help prevent the lead from binding. Applying a few drops of Mil-L-63460B (Break Free CLP) in the crane arbor each time you clean also helps. Ruger developed a "hubbed cylinder" version of the Security Six, Speed Six and Service Six revolvers to mitigate the binding problem.

This required milling a small flat across the barrel extension, which protrudes into the frame opening at the 6:00 position, to clear the hub on the cylinder. Machining the flat reduces the cross section though the barrel extension, which caused heat cracking problems when those revolvers were shot extensively with .357 Magnum ammunition. The hubbed cylinder was used only for law enforcement contracts for revolvers to be fitted with .38 Special cylinders when the lead +P ammo was specified.

In designing the GP100 revolvers, the charge hole spacing, and distance from the bore to cylinder axis was increased so that the cylinder gas ring could be incorporated without reducing barrel wall thickness through the exposed forcing cone region.

Today's best .38 Special hollowpoint load by a major US manufacturer is probably the Speer Gold Dot 135gr +P. Richmond PD issues this load to officers who carry .38 snubs off-duty and they have history on a number of officer involved shootings where it performed well.

The lead "FBI load" is still produced by Winchester (X38SPD) and Remington (R38S12), if you can find them, and will perform well and expand even from 2 inch barrels. No argument there. Federal discontinued the 38G, but their 147-gr. JHP +P+ law enforcement load gives similar performance and gives 900 f.p.s. from a 2 inch Ruger SP101, if you can find any.

While jacketed +P loads do not suffer from the cylinder binding problem, getting a jacketed bullet to expand reliably from a barrel shorter than 4 inches requires +P pressures. High volume use of +P and +P+ ammo is proven harder on the guns, particularly blue steel S&W K and J frames having a frame hardness of less than Rc20, (typical values for non-magnum revolvers of 80-90 "B" scale were common of Model 36 and Model 10 production before about 1990).

If money were no object my friends and I would be happy to buy 2000 rounds of Gold Dot to divide among us. To be realistic, however, the cost, about $1 per shot, and spotty availability of proven .38 Special factory defense loads is a real issue.

We would like to practice with the same ammo we carry, but have to satisfy ourselves with a well-established hand load we have experience with, and confidence in, which works well in the field and shoots to the same place from fixed sight revolvers as our +P factory loads. We have decided to carry a limited, (though 24 rounds is probably adequate) supply of +P law enforcement loads for actual personal defense use. Our extra ruck ammo is intended for shooting meat for the pot or for protection against aggressive animals. The non-expanding, but deep penetrating, full-charge wadcutter load has the advantages of less meat damage, but has great crush cavity characteristics and deepest possible penetration. It works. Reliable, predictable, accurate, and economical.

Col. Fackler's observation, and one with which my friend “ER Doc” agrees, is that the hollowpoint .38 Special is not the "magic bullet." When a bullet expands in the classic mushroom fashion, it reduces penetration. The best JHP defense loads such as Speer Gold Dot meet FBI penetration criteria. Not all JHPs do.

We believe that maximum frontal area and tissue crush, combined with deep penetration adequate to defeat reasonable cover (a defensively positioned arm or heavy clothing), which can still penetrate the breastbone and get through ribs into vital organs, is important. Particularly in calibers of "marginal" energy, (200 ft-lbs or less) it is important to have the maximum meplat diameter (frontal area) consistent with reliable feeding. The wadcutter in a revolver makes the most of this.
You also need adequate sectional density to ensure through and through penetration. Our reasoning is that if the FBI considers 14 inches of gelatin penetration adequate, we'd like 20+. Being able to shoot through both shoulders of a deer and exiting is desired.

Yes, the wadcutter is a compromise, but I would rather use a wadcutter handload of proven reliability on groundhogs, feral dogs (or putting down the occasional stock), than a jacketed hollowpoint which may not go through a pit bull's skull. Which begs the question: why don't the manufacturers produce a full charge wadcutter like they used to (before WWII)?

Cast double-ended wadcutter bullets awaiting loading. Note the full-caliber face (meplat.)

The finished product: the full-charge wadcutter ready for shooting!


Monday Meanderings

This morning I read the news that Governor Moonbeam Brown in California signed off on legislation that prohibits the open carry of handguns (even if unloaded) by the general populous. Given that some of the more vociferous proponents of OC were from CA, it would seem that their “in your face” methods may have backfired.

While I don't live in that state and thus may not be intimately familiar with the timelines involved, it seems that OC came onto the legislative radar when local news outlets got wind of the movement via confrontational videos posted on YouTube. From there it was a short step to getting lawmakers to deal with this major "problem".

Despite my general objection to the way that OC is promoted in certain circles, I take no pleasure in their predicament. It seems to me, though, that if you poke the bear hard enough sooner or later he's going to bite - and the bite is sadly predictable.

It will be interesting to see if those OC advocates who arrogantly compared themselves to Rosa Parks will actually dare to do what she did now that their opportunity is at hand.

As my Dad once told me: nothing good comes from frightening the herd. I just hope this doesn’t spread to other states. (Even as I write this I know the absurdity of that statement.)


On the opposite end of the spectrum...who would think that
firearms would make an appearance on a seemingly left-leaning design blog?


Over the weekend I had a talk with a relative who was interested in the possibility of rechambering his rifle to something a little more potent than the .30-06 it currently fires.
I found myself recommending the .35 Whelen. His eyebrows darted skyward, amazed that I wasn't recommending some sort of SuperTinyShortenedUltraPowerful Magnum.

Though I've never owned one, I have passing familiarity with the Whelen. It is just a good, effective caliber that's not going to beat the shooter up nor destroy half the animal being shot. Someone once told me that it was "superbly balanced", which I understood to mean that it occupied a serendipitous intersection of power, accuracy, and shootability. It's capable of taking any North American game and doing so without excessive chamber pressure or throat erosion.

(The short-action version, the .358 Winchester, shares those same attributes and is one I've wanted for a while now. Someday I'll find a Savage 99 in .358, though I'd settle for a Browning BLR.)

This is evidence that I've come full circle on rifle calibers. When I was younger and convinced that more power was the answer to everything, I thought fire-breathing Magnums were the way to go. As I've grown up and gotten some experience under my belt I've come to appreciate the cartridges that have been well tested over many years and lots of game: the .30-30 Winchester. The 6.5 Swedish Mauser. The .30-06. Yes, the .35 Whelen.

There are more, but you get the idea. As I said recently on my Facebook page: Sometimes newer is in fact better. Sometimes not. The key is knowing why.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Deer season opens, and thoughts turn to rifles.

I've mentioned once before that the .357 Magnum is a surprising cartridge. Its performance from a handgun is legendary, if not always deserving of the status, but when stuffed into a rifle it turns into another beast entirely.

Over at
The Truth About Guns they took a variety of loads and fired them from a revolver and a rifle, as well as comparing them to the venerable .30-30 cartridge. While the .357 will never replace the .30-30, and their data proves it, it's remarkable how much the little cartridge gains from the longer barrel of a rifle. They're showing a (rough) average 40% increase in velocity and just about a doubling of energy with every load tested; Magnums or Specials, there is a huge performance gain.

(Their results with the S&B 158gn suggest a very weak loading; my handloads, which are not at the maximum of any reloading manual, perform as well from a revolver as the S&B does from a rifle!)

The .357 Magnum makes for a decent short-range deer rifle (say, 50-75 yards) and a remarkably effective arm for things like coyotes up to about a hundred yards - perhaps a touch more if the individual rifle has sufficient accuracy. I've used mine on live game and never cease to be amazed at what it can do.

Recoil is extremely mild compared even to the .30-30, a cartridge not known for excessive recoil. In the hands of a decent shot there's no reason it can't harvest deer. Keep the shots under roughly 75 yards, which is typical of woodland hunting, and the .357 rifle will bring home the venison.

My experience has been that the 158gn JSP is as light as you should go. At the velocities achieved in the longer barrel, a bullet designed for handgun use is a little fragile. I've seen the 158gn JSP fragment on frontal shots of things like coyotes when it hits bone; a better choice would be a 180gn JSP, which seems to be a little tougher.

A 158gn hollowpoint simply explodes when it hits flesh, and I shudder to think what a 125gn HP screamer - already known for occasionally expanding a little too rapidly when fired from a handgun - would do out of a rifle. It might make a dandy pest control round.

This performance cements my view that the .357 Magnum revolver/rifle pairing is perhaps the most versatile set of guns one could ask for. You can shoot Specials from the handgun as target and plinking fodder, higher energy +P loads as defensive rounds, and Magnums for defense and handgun hunting. Those same loads in the rifle can be used for everything from small game to deer.

It’s hard to conceive of a wider range of activities from just two arms. I’m not usually one to play the “what if TSHTF” scenario game, but if I were restricted to one handgun and one rifle I’d be quite comfortable with a 4” .357 revolver and a matching lever-action carbine.

Of course a lever-action .357 Magnum makes a dandy defensive arm too, but that's another topic for another day.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Monday Meanderings.

Back on track - I hope: My apologies for not getting a post up on Friday. Thursday evening our dog fell ill and the very first thing Friday morning I made the half-hour drive to the vet, dog in tow. They put him under the knife shortly after arrival, and I made it back home with him in the late afternoon. We're still awaiting the results of a biopsy but at this point things are looking pretty good. Amazing how much of a scare a sick dog can be. (He now weighs in at 96 lbs. No wonder I can’t easily pick him up any more.)

Maybe not quite: This weekend I was working on a number of projects around the place. I've got three retaining walls to build this summer as well as lots of general land clearing to do (a perennial task here in the rainforest.) As I was hooking a brush cutter up to the tractor to work on the latter I managed to smash the middle finger of my right hand between a drag link and the tractor. This morning it's still quite painful, especially when typing. (When you're as bad a typist as I am you need every finger you've got!)

This just in: As I was preparing to upload this post an email from Ed Harris alerted me to a company selling free range squirrel in a can. Certainly less messy than doing it the old way, but less fun as well. (Don't think of them as cute - think of them as delicious!)

Happy Monday.

-=[ Grant ]=-

What I did on Spring Break.

It wasn't really Spring Break, but this last weekend was our annual Sage Rat Hunting Trip to the dry half of Oregon. Sage rats, for those of you who may be new here, are actually ground squirrels, the exact species varying depending on location. Belding's Ground Squirrel is grey with a tan underside, while the Richardson's Ground Squirrel has a brown back with a buff belly. I have seen both varieties in eastern Oregon, but the Richardson's seems more common as one travels south, and the Belding's more common in the central part of the region.

Sage rats are incredibly destructive creatures. They eat seeds and grasses, and in large populations make it extremely difficult for a rancher to raise feed for other animals. Their extensive burrows drain scarce water away from alfalfa roots and stunt growth. As hard as it is to make a living as a rancher, the sage rats make it all the more difficult.

As recently as a couple of decades ago the populations were kept in check by a combination of predation and poison, but in the mid-90s legislative pressure curtailed to use of poisons to protect the raptors that feed on the squirrels. The sage rat turned from a minor annoyance to a full-blown infestation, and it's almost impossible to find a field in eastern Oregon that is free from the prolific pests.

The populations exploded almost immediately, and by the turn of the century shooting the pests had become something of a sport. Today there are sage rat shooting competitions and outfitters who put together tour packages for hunters who like shooting a lot during the day.

The preferred weapon is a rimfire rifle. The .22 LR has long been the dominant caliber, but today the .17 HMR is on the verge of taking over that title. It's not unusual to shoot 500 rounds in a couple of days (sometimes two or three times that in a good field), and the cost advantage of the rimfire - as well as its relative safety due to shorter ranges - keeps centerfire rifles at home in the safe.

We and a group of cousins go over to one of our other cousin’s ranches in an effort to help him keep ahead of the alfalfa-killing pests. Our efforts seem to be paying off, as over the past several years his fields are consistently less populated than those of his neighbors. Pest control is not a glamorous part of hunting, but when you grow up on a farm you learn that it is a necessary part.


One of the best things about being in the sparsely populated high desert of eastern Oregon are the people you meet. Folks are just friendlier out there, largely because a smaller community requires more cooperation and deference. In a large city you can get away with treating people poorly, but when everyone knows you - and you in return depend on them for your livelihood - you're going to be more polite. The occasional visitor is the beneficiary of that ecosystem.

There are exceptions, of course, and unfortunately we ran into one of them this weekend.

For nearly two decades our party has stayed at a little place called Crystal Crane Hot Springs outside of Burns, OR. The hot springs fill a small pond, and over the years it's been developed a bit: there's a bath house with soaking tubs and a series of very rustic (to put it charitably) cabins for rent. Between us we've stayed there every year for two decades, through a succession of owners (my brother actually considered buying the place at one point.)

A few years ago a new owner took over and started making changes. The accommodations didn't get any better (though they did add a wireless internet connection), but prices skyrocketed. It's the only place to stay in the middle of nowhere, and the new owners apparently figure that they've got themselves a captive audience. Between the sage rat hunters and the earthy types who travel the hot springs circuit there is a seemingly endless parade of new people to be bilked.

Pricing to what the market will bear is one thing, and I can accept that. What I can't tolerate is rudeness, and we got a heaping helping of sheer nastiness from the owner this weekend.

Suffice it to say that I have never in my entire life endured verbal abuse like we did this weekend. This wasn't the "I'm having a bad day and you're unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time" sort of rudeness, it was an active and surprisingly vitriolic attack on a lucrative long-time paying customer. At one point the proprietress said that we "must be new here", at which point my brother informed her that we'd been staying there every spring for many years longer than she'd owned the place! Repeat customers don't seem to be a concern of hers, as she blew the comment off with yet another round of harsh language.

We won't be staying there again, which breaks a long tradition for me, my brother, his son, and our cousins. If you're traveling in eastern Oregon and are tempted to spend money at Crystal Crane Hot Springs, don't. There are many other places in this state that would welcome your patronage, especially in economically hard-hit Harney County. Crystal Crane Hot Springs doesn't deserve your (or anyone else's) business.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Monday meanderings.

Back To Work - Returned last night from a rare (for me) three-day weekend. I spent the time in the eastern half of the state (the desert part) to visit relatives and do some shooting. The last such trip was two years ago, and I'd forgotten what it was like to relax!

Somewhere Steve Wozniak Is Crying - The Firearm Blog brings us news that an Aussie company has developed a sniper moving target system using Segways as drones. I was pretty pumped about that - shooting a Segway would be almost as satisfying as perforating a Prius - but alas the little things are armored. Still, it's a neat concept. (I like the part where the Segways run for their lives at the sound of a gunshot!)

Shooty Goodness - One of the topics of discussion amongst my cousins this weekend was their desire to go to Knob Creek for the annual machine gun shoot. Turns out it was happening literally while we were talking about it, and Tam was there.

Pest Control - The shooting part of my trip involved helping to rid my cousin's ranch of the dreaded sage rat. Sage rat hunting has become a Very Big Thing out here in the West, and despite hundreds of thousands of the things being dispatched every season the population continues to outbreed the hunters. Damage to crops from sage rat infestations is staggering, and it doesn't look like the problem is going to end any time soon.

There are a couple of schools of thought regarding the hunting of sage rats. One school likes to set up a shooting bench and snipe the things from long range with a .22-250. The other prefers to use a .22 rimfire, and just get closer. I belong to the latter group, as using a rimfire is significantly cheaper and still quite challenging. (In a good field it's not unusual to go through 500 rounds a day, and I'm just not wealthy enough to afford to do that with a centerfire rifle!)

Another benefit of using rimfires is that it's easy to get kids involved. It's important that children learn early the necessity of responsible wildlife management. The reason we shoot the sage rat is because a) the population is out of control, and b) poisons aren't an option in areas with large raptor populations. (How many of you have actually seen a bald eagle hunting prey? I saw a half-dozen just this weekend, which is the case every time I go out there. With poison, that wouldn’t be the case.)

Happiness Is A New Gun - My nephew Roman came with us on this trip, and I presented him with his first “grown-up” rifle. Up to this point he'd been using one of the little Chipmunk rifles, and it was time for him to upgrade. I gave him a Glenfield Model 25 with some special touches: I shortened the barrel to a more kid-friendly (yet legal) length, tuned the trigger just a bit to get rid of the horrendous grittiness, floated the barrel, and mounted a 3/4"-tubed scope. It turned out to be a fast handling, accurate little gun which he quickly put to good use, making some excellent shots in very challenging (windy) conditions.

Some Thoughts On Equipment - It's normal to think that a beginner doesn't need top notch gear on which to learn how to shoot. My nephew reinforced my belief in the opposite view: the novice is more in need of quality equipment than the experienced shooter. It's hard to learn all the nuances of good shooting when one is fighting with substandard gear, and good quality guns and ammo don't stand in the way of skill development. Regardless of the age of the student, If one is just starting out it's important to buy the best equipment one can afford. It is only after the basics are mastered is one able to rise above his/her equipment, but poor equipment can keep one from truly mastering even the simplest techniques.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Everything has a purpose.

Even the .32ACP.

Many of you are familiar with Ed Harris, firearms engineer and ballistic experimenter. One of Ed's passions is the hunting of small game - squirrels, rabbits, etc. - and the guns that facilitate that activity.

(Before we go any further, it seems that a lot of folks today don't have any experience with serious small game hunting. There are an awful lot of people who consider it somehow inferior to the taking of large game, but they are sorely mistaken. In virtually every respect, hunting wily little creatures is just as demanding of one's hunting skills as taking a trophy elk. Fieldcraft and marksmanship are just as difficult, but since you get more than one chance per trip you can hone your skills over a larger number of animals. Because of the increased experience, a good small game hunter is almost invariably a good big game hunter, but the reverse - at least in my experience - is rarely true.)

Ed has made up a number of dedicated long guns for the task, but has recently been experimenting with purpose-built handguns to go along with them. What he and John Taylor have come up with is a modified Beretta Model 70 in .32ACP, which Ed calls "the Third Level of Bunny Gun Nirvana".

Now I've never thought much of the .32ACP cartridge except for use as a deep concealment backup gun, but Ed had other ideas. He started by fitting his Beretta with 7- and 13-inch barrels, then developed a subsonic heavy bullet loading:

The barrels are supplied with a very interesting scope mount:

Ed talks about the performance of the combination:

Using 94-gr. Meiser LFN .312 cast bullet and 1.7 grs. of Bullseye velocity just shy of 900 f.p.s. Very low noise, from 13 inch barrel slightly louder than H-D military with can (suppressor), no muzzle flash, the 7 inch barrel sounds like .22 match pistol with standard velocity. Indoor range groups were shot at 25 yards. Not the best range light and targets oscillate a bit, so like it's trying to head-shoot the pirate from pitching deck of a destroyer, but shows potential.

It looks to be a formidable little game-getter!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Systems analysis and the sighting-in of firearms

This weekend was the opening of general deer season here in Oregon. I could tell it was opening weekend, because our normally deserted gravel road, which leads into the mountains, has been turned into Interstate 5 for deer hunters! The parade of all the hopeful woodsmen (and perhaps not a few woodswomen) going after Bambi made me realize I'd missed something this year: hunter's sight-in at our gun club.

You see, last January my wife and I bought a new place. When we moved we gave up our club memberships, as a) the club is now 60 miles away, and b) we can shoot all we want on our own property. I don't miss the club, but I do miss the circus-like atmosphere of sight-in days. I actually enjoyed helping out those whose shooting skills were not, shall we say, fully developed. They needed all the help they could get!

(Sight-in days at our former club is a big event. It occupies every full weekend for a solid month; it's not unusual to have several hundred guns per day go through the system, as the club is one of the few rifle ranges within easy driving distance of the Portland, OR metro area. Working at sight-in means long days and lots of activity.)

In recent years I worked sight-in alongside my friends Georges and Maurice, who got the same kick out of the event that I did. We kept a running tally of the best, worst, and most over-gunned shooters on the line. During the lulls we'd trade stories of the unusual incidents we'd had, and not all of them were with customers!

One particularly busy day I had a run-in with one of the folks who served as Assistant Chief Range Officer for the event. I was helping a middle-aged fellow who'd arrived toting a .30-06 of unremarkable (though completely serviceable) pedigree. He showed me his gun, his ammo, and sat down at the bench. The club provided sandbags and front rests for the guns, but this fellow didn't want to use them. "My zero is different if I shoot from a bench than from my hands, so I'd just like to rest my elbows on the table." That was fine with me; this fellow had obviously been around the block more than once and thus knew what he was doing. (His target would later prove my analysis to be correct.)

He had just fired his second round when the aforementioned RO came rushing up. "He needs to use the rest", he sputtered. "He'll never know if he's properly zeroed shooting from his hands!" I told him that the customer knew his own needs, and that I admired the fellow for obviously knowing more than the average schmuck who came through the door.

This annoyed the RO to no end; he wanted to argue with me, insisting that I was a complete fool for letting the customer do this. I simply smiled, waved him away, and went back to my job.

The RO in question, like many, was confused about the reason we sight in a firearm. The goal of sight-in is to get all parts of the weapon system - the gun, ammo, sights, and shooter - in alignment so that the bullets land where desired. If we take away - isolate - any part of that system, we have removed a functioning part that will affect the outcome. The outcome is what we're testing! We're not testing the scope (which is what this RO was convinced we were doing), or the ammo, but the results that they - together with the shooter - produce. We have to test all parts of the system in concert, so that we can see if the goal is being met.

Let's say that we were to test the system using sandbags and a bench. There are very few rifles made that will have the same zero point no matter how the gun is suspended; the points at which the suspension occurs, the amount of pressure on the suspension points, the direction of that pressure, and even the resulting direction of recoil will all change when the gun is taken off the bench and shot from a field position. All of those will change the landing point of the bullet, sometimes dramatically.

Now consider the shooter's input. The head position from a bench is different than it is from standing (or even sitting or kneeling, and especially from prone.) The shooter's eye will not be in the same place relative to the sights or scope; the cheek weld point will be different; the shoulder will be further forward or backward, depending on the physique of the shooter. The shooting hand will shift position slightly, leading to a different grip pressure and direction of pull on the trigger. Think any of those might affect the outcome of the shot? You bet they will - all of 'em.

Change enough of those inputs, and you'll end up with a system that won't shoot to the same point of aim under the expected conditions. We need to check the system's alignment (gauged by the impact point of the bullet) under the conditions in which it will be used. For hunting, that means "not from a bench rest."

An extreme example of this can be found simply by looking at G. David Tubb's rifle. For those who don't know, he shoots with the rifle held at an angle, which is very different than what we were all taught to do! That doesn't matter, though, because he's set his sights to hit correctly with that unorthodox hold. Imagine we "isolated" his rifle; put it on a bench, cradled it level in sandbags, and proceeded to "zero" the gun. Guess what? It wouldn't hit the correct point, because it wouldn't be held in the position in which Tubb shoots the thing. Given his modest success at highpower competition (!), I'd say he knows what he's doing!

One day I was visiting one of the very best handgun trainers I know. I picked up her gun and was surprised to see her sights drifted quite a ways to the right. I thought that odd, but she pointed out that they were that way because that's where they had to be to allow her to hit where she wants the gun to hit. Given that she can regularly clean the clocks of just about any male shooter - some of them state and regional champions - at will, I'd say her system is working perfectly. That's all that matters!

Are there times when we want isolation? Certainly - when we're testing specific parts of the system. Comparing one load to another, for example, demands an isolated gun; we don't care exactly where the rounds hit, because we're interested in the differences between two inputs of the same type. In order to see those differences, we have to eliminate all other variables that might obscure them.

Sighting in, on the other hand, is all about the whole system. To align the system, we need all of its parts to be working as they normally do. The fellow on the line that day understood the concept; the RO didn't.

There is no substitute for thinking about what you're doing, and why you're doing it.

-=[ Grant ]=-