Prompted by my friends over at the Liberal Gun Club, this is another in an occasional series of revisiting some of my old articles which had been published elsewhere over the years, perhaps lightly edited or updated with my current thoughts on the topic discussed. This is an article I wrote for Guns.com, and it originally ran 3/26/2011. Some additional observations at the end.
In an earlier article, when I said you’d get about a 15% increase in bullet velocity when using a pistol caliber carbine over a handgun, I lied.
Or, rather, I was neglecting one particular class of pistol ammunition which can develop upwards of a 50% increase in velocity/power in a carbine over a handgun: the “magnums,” usually shot out of a lever-action gun. This would include .327 Federal Magnum, .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, and .44 Magnum.
These cartridges are rimmed, initially developed as powerful handgun rounds, and have their origins in black powder cartridges. This history is important for understanding why they are different than most of the other pistol cartridges and the carbines that use them.
We’ll start with the .357 Magnum, the first of these cartridges developed.
Back in the 1930s a number of people, Elmer Keith most notable among them, were looking to improve the ballistic performance of the .38 Special cartridge. This had been a cartridge originally loaded with black powder. Black powder takes up a lot of space – typically two to four times as much space as smokeless powder of a similar power. Meaning that when people started loading .38 Special cartridges with smokeless powder, the cartridge was mostly empty.
Now, if you were looking to get more power out of a .38 Special, and you saw all that unused space in the cartridge, what would be the obvious thing to do? Right – add more smokeless powder.
The problem is, many of the handguns chambered for the .38 Special using black powder were not strong enough to handle .38 Special cartridges over-charged with smokeless powder. And having handguns blowing up is rough on the customers. Heavier-framed guns could handle the extra power, but how to distinguish between the different power levels and what cartridge was appropriate for which guns?
The solution was to come up with a cartridge, which was almost the same as the .38 Special, but would not chamber in the older guns because it was just a little bit longer. This was the .357 Magnum.
There are two important aspects of the cartridge as far as it applies to lever guns. One is just simply the ability to use more gunpowder (a typical gunpowder load for a .357 magnum uses about half again as much as used in a .38 Special.) And the other is that you can get more complete combustion of the gunpowder used, perhaps even use a much slower burning gunpowder. This means that the acceleration of the bullet continues for a longer period of time.
How much of a difference does this make? Well, from the BBTI data for the .357 Magnum, the Cor Bon 125gr JHP out of a 4″ barrel gives 1,496 fps – and 2,113 fps out of an 18″ barrel. Compare that to the .38 Special Cor Bon 125gr JHP out of a 4″ barrel at 996 fps and 1,190 fps out of an 18″ barrel. That’s a gain of 617 fps for the .357 Magnum and just 194 fps for the .38 Special. Put another way, you get over a 41% improvement with the Magnum and just 19% with the Special using the longer barrel.
Similar improvements can be seen with other loads in the .357 Magnum. And with the other magnum cartridges. And when you start getting any of these bullets up in the range of 1,500 – 2,000 fps, you’re hitting rifle cartridge velocity and power. The low end of rifle cartridge velocity and power, but nonetheless still very impressive.
There’s another advantage to these pistol caliber lever guns: flexibility. Let’s take that .357 again. On the high end of the power band, you can use it as a reliable deer-hunting gun without concern. But if you put some down-loaded .38 Special rounds in it, you can also use it to hunt rabbit or squirrel. I suppose you could even use snake/rat shot loads, though most folks don’t recommend those loads due to concerns over barrel damage. Shooting mild .38 Special loads makes for a great day just plinking at the range.
One thing that I consider a real shame: you can get good quality lever guns for the .357, the .41, and the .44 magnums. But to the best of my knowledge, no one yet makes a .327 Magnum lever gun. I would think that such a gun would meet with a lot of popularity – properly designed, it should be able to handle the .327 Federal Magnum cartridge, the .32 H&R cartridge, even the .32 S&W Long. Again, with the right powder loads, this would give the gun a great deal of flexibility for target shooting and hunting small to medium sized game/varmits.
So, if you like the idea of having a carbine in the same cartridge as your handgun, but want to be able to maximize the power available to you, think about a good lever gun. It was a good idea in the 19th century, and one that still makes a lot of sense today.
Some additional thoughts …
I’m still a little surprised that no manufacturer has come out with a production .327 mag lever gun, though occasionally you hear rumors that this company or that company is going to do so. But I must admit that as time has gone on I’ve grown less interested in the .327 cartridge, since firearms options are so limited — definitely a chicken & egg problem.
One very notable absence from the above discussion is the .22 WMR (.22 Magnum), for the simple reason that we hadn’t tested it yet when I wrote the article. You can find a later article about it here.
Something I didn’t address when I wrote the article initially was ammunition which was formulated to take greater advantage of the longer barrel of a lever gun. Several manufacturers produce such ammo, perhaps most notably Hornady and Buffalo Bore. A blog post which includes the latter ammo out of my 94 Winchester AE can be found here, with subsequent posts here and here.
And lastly, there’s another cartridge we tested which really should be included in the “magnum” category, because it sees the same increasing power levels out to at least 18″ of barrel: .45 Super. This proved to be more than a little surprising, since it is based on the .45 ACP cartridge. Most semi-auto firearms which shoot the .45 ACP should be able to handle a limited amount of .45 Super, but if you want a lever gun set up to handle the cartridge you’ll have to get it from a gunsmith.
My friends over at the Liberal Gun Club asked if they could have my BBTI blog entries cross-posted on their site. This is another in an occasional series of revisiting some of my old articles which had been published elsewhere over the years, perhaps lightly edited or updated with my current thoughts on the topic discussed. This is an article I wrote for Guns.com, and it originally ran 3/7/2011. Some additional observations at the end.
“What is the best barrel length?”
It’s a question I get a lot, thanks to my involvement in Ballistics By The Inch. And invariably, I say in response: “it depends.” As in, it depends on what you’re going to use it for.
OK, first thing: I’m talking about pistol cartridges, not rifle cartridges. Got that? Pistol cartridges.
That’s what we studied with our BBTI project (actually, continue to study, since we’ve done several expansions of the cartridges and ammunition tested already, and have another big expansion coming up the beginning of May.) Now that we’ve cleared that up . . .
Different barrel lengths are good for different purposes. The longer the barrel, the longer the sight radius, and so the easier it is to be accurate with the gun. The shorter the barrel, the easier it is to conceal.
And barrel length has an effect on the velocity of a bullet (and hence the power of that bullet.) How much of an effect? Well, it depends.
No, seriously, it depends. Do not believe it when someone tells you “oh, the rule of thumb is about 75 (or 25 or 100 or any other number) feet per second for each inch of barrel.” That number may be right for one given ammunition in one given gun for one given inch of barrel length – but it will not hold true as a general case. Don’t just take my word on this – look at the actual numbers from tests we conducted, using almost 10,000 rounds of ammunition. You can go to the BBTI site and see the data for yourself (it’s all free, with no advertising or anything), but here are two examples:
Cor Bon 165gr JHP +P .45 ACP ammo was tested at 1001 fps with a 2″ barrel. That jumps to 1050 fps with a 3″ barrel, or an increase of about 50 fps. Going to a 4″ barrel you get 1163 fps, or an increase of 113 fps. But when you go from an 10″ barrel to a 11″ barrel, you only get an increase of 23 fps.
Let’s look at Federal Hydra-Shok 230gr JHP .45 ACP. It starts at 754 fps with a 2″ barrel, and jumps to 787 fps out of a 3″ barrel – an increase of 33 fps. Go to the 4″ barrel and it tested at 865 fps – an increase of 78 fps. And when you go from an 10″ barrel to a 11″ barrel, you only get an increase of 4 fps.
Do you see my point? It not only varies by ammunition, it also varies by which inch of the barrel you are talking about – the inch between 3 and 4 sees a lot more increase than the inch between 10 and 11.
Almost all handgun cartridges show this effect, and it makes sense: pistol cartridges use a fast burning powder, but it still needs a little bit of time to completely combust. The highest acceleration comes at first, and then usually handgun bullets plateau out somewhere between 6″ and 10″, with little additional velocity with longer barrels past that point. The graph of our first example shows this very well:
Some cartridges even show velocity starting to drop off with longer barrels, as the friction of the bullet passing through the barrel overcomes any additional boost from the gunpowder. Notably, the “magnum” cartridges (.327, .357, .41, and .44) all show a continued climb in velocity/power all the way out to 18″ of barrel length (the maximum we test), though the amount of increase tends to get smaller and smaller the longer the barrel.
So, back to “it depends”: if you want a lever-gun or carbine, which uses a pistol cartridge, you’re best off using one of the magnums if you want maximum power. If, however, you want to use a carbine for an additional power boost and better aiming, one with a barrel length somewhere in the “plateau” for a given cartridge makes sense (and this is why subguns typically have barrels in the 8 – 10″ range).
For a hunting pistol, you probably want to have a barrel of 6″ to 8″ to get a lot of the additional power and still have it manageable. This barrel length will also give you a nice big sight radius for accuracy, making it good for hunting or target shooting.
How about for concealed carry? The shorter the barrel, the better, right? Well, if you look through all our data, you’ll see that usually, most cartridges see the greatest jump in velocity (and hence power) from 2″ to 4″. Now, the smaller the caliber and the lighter the bullet, the more the big jump tends to come right up front – from 2″ to 3″. The larger the caliber and the heavier the bullet, the more it tends to come a little later, from 3″ to 4″. Still, you can decide for yourself whether the trade-off in less power for ease of carry is worth it.
And good news for the revolver fans: because the cylinder basically functions to extend the barrel, your 2″ snubby actually functions more like a gun with a 3.5″ – 4″ barrel. Though there is some velocity/power loss due to the cylinder gap. How much loss? That is actually the next thing we’ll be testing, but I’d bet that . . . it depends.
Since I wrote that six years ago, we’ve done a LOT more testing at BBTI, and have now shot more than 25,000 rounds and greatly expanded our data. The cylinder gap tests mentioned above did indeed show that the amount of loss did vary according to a number of factors, but for the most part established that the effect wasn’t as large as many people thought. And we found an interesting exception to the “magnum” rule in one of our most recent tests: it turns out that the .45 Super cartridge behaves like a true magnum, by continuing to gain more power the longer the barrel, until at carbine lengths it is on a par with (or even exceeds) the .460 Rowland cartridge. Since the .45 Super is based on the .45 ACP cartridge, we expected it to perform like that cartridge and level off at about 10″, but it clearly continues to gain out to at least 18″.
I also want to add a couple of quick comments about how concealed-carry guns have changed, though this is more just personal observation than any kind of rigorous research. I think that as concealed-carry has continued to expand, more gear is on the market to make it easier to do, and I think for that reason some people are able to carry slightly larger guns and there are more guns available with barrel length in the 4″ – 5″ range. In addition, sight/optics/laser options have continued to improve, making simple sight radius less of a factor — meaning that for those who do want to carry a smaller gun, it is easier to use it well (though having better sights/optics/lasers is NOT a substitute for practice!) I expect that both these trends will continue.
My friends over at the Liberal Gun Club asked if they could have my BBTI blog entries cross-posted on their site. I said yes, and got to thinking that perhaps I would revisit some of my old articles which had been published elsewhere over the years, perhaps lightly edited or updated with my current thoughts on the topic discussed. This is the first article I wrote for Guns.com, and it originally ran 2/9/2011. Some additional observations at the end.
One of the most bewildering moments for a relatively novice shooter is selecting ammunition. Go online, or into a big-box store, or even into your local gun shop and you can be confronted with a huge array of choices in any given caliber or cartridge design. Most of the boxes have a sort of ‘code’ on the side; some have little charts or even graphs on the bottom. But which one do you want? What does this stuff even mean? Do claims of a certain velocity or energy tell you anything?
Let’s take a look at some terms, first.
Most prominently displayed figure on the box, is the cartridge: .45 Auto, .357 Magnum, 9mm Luger and so forth. There can be some confusion on this, so be sure to check your gun to see what it says on the side of the barrel or slide, or is specified in the owner’s manual – that’s the only kind of ammunition you want. There is a difference between a .45 Colt and a .45 Auto, or a .357 Magnum and a .357 Sig, just for a couple of examples – make sure you get the kind of cartridge that your gun handles. It may seem silly to bring this up, but even experienced shooters can accidentally grab the wrong box of ammo sometimes – I have made this very mistake myself.
Next you’ll find a number, listed with either “grain” or just “gr.” This tells you the weight of the actual bullet.
Then there will be some variety of description of the bullet, indicating intended use. It could say “target” or “range” or just “ball” – all of these mean a basic bullet, probably with a slightly rounded nose, or perhaps a conical shape, or just a simple cylinder which might also have a small flat conical front (sometimes called a semiwadcutter or “SWC”). The actual bullet may be just lead or may have a “full metal jacket” – a thin layer of some harder metal such as a copper alloy. “Hunting” usually means a “JSP” – jacketed soft point. “Self-defense” usually indicates some variety of “JHP” – jacketed hollow point. Some premium self-defense ammunition uses proprietary terms such as “DPX,” “Hydra-Shok,” and “GDHP” but these are largely marketing terms you don’t need to worry about too much, at least at first.
Terms “+P” or “+P+” indicate that the cartridge is somewhat more powerful (“over-pressure”) than standard for that cartridge. Most modern guns can handle a limited diet of such cartridges, but older guns may not. If in doubt, check your gun’s owner’s manual or ask a gunsmith.
Particularly on premium defensive ammunition you may see some indication of the “velocity” or “energy” of the cartridge. Here in the US, velocity is given in “fps” – feet per second. “Energy” is given in “ft/lbs” – foot-pounds (the amount of energy needed to lift one pound one foot off the ground, not the confusingly similar term used to measure torque). The faster a bullet, and the more it weighs, the more kinetic energy it has. Sometimes a little chart will be given, showing velocity and energy at the muzzle of the gun, then at one or more distances (bullets lose velocity and energy due to air resistance).
While more velocity and more energy are generally good things for defensive ammunition, don’t get too hung up on these numbers. Why? Because the manufacturers don’t really give you enough information to compare one ammunition to another one easily. They don’t tell you what the barrel length used was (and this can have a huge impact on velocity). They don’t tell you the type of gun used (a revolver and a semi-auto both have different effects on the speed of a bullet). And they don’t tell you the type of barrel used (some barrels are known to be ‘faster’ than others.)
Then why bother at all with this information? Because it can help in some instances. If all you’re going to do is just use your gun for ‘plinking’, you can probably get whatever ammunition is cheapest and suitable for your gun.
But if you’re after accurate and consistent target shooting, or use your gun for hunting or defensive purposes, you want to be choosy. Once you find ammunition you and your gun like, you want to try to stay as close to that ammunition as you can. What do I mean by ammunition you and your gun like?
Some guns will feed and fire some ammunition better than others. The shape of the bullet can make a difference. The weight of the bullet can make a difference. The amount of energy can make a difference.
Ammunition with greater energy will cause your gun to have greater recoil (‘kick’), and that can make it more difficult to shoot. Ammunition which is touted for being “reduced recoil” likely has less energy than other ammunition, that can make it less effective for hunting or self-defense.
Using the same amount of gunpowder, a lighter bullet will go faster than a heavier one. But a heavier bullet will generally slow down less due to air resistance, and will generally penetrate deeper into whatever you are shooting at.
“Target,” “ball,” and similarly-termed ammo is usually less expensive, and is good for practice. It is less ideal for self-defense purposes, because the bullet does not expand the way a hollow point or “JHP” is designed to when it hits flesh. “Hunting” ammunition is usually designed to expand some, but to still penetrate deeply.
Where should you begin? Start out seeing what ammunition others who own a gun like yours use. None of your buddies shooting a gun like yours? Maybe do a little checking online – many firearms forums post anecdotal information showing testing members have done, and there are some good sites that do more rigorous testing for velocity and penetration. See what is recommended, and give it a try.
So, beyond the numbers, what’s a good general rule when pairing ammo with a gun? I’m of the opinion that, ideally, you should try out a box or two of different types of premium ammunition first to see which brands and type your gun likes. Using this as your guide, you can then launch the search for less expensive practice ammunition that is similar in weight and velocity, because that will behave similarly to your premium ammo in terms of point-of-impact and felt recoil.
Since I wrote this six years ago, there have been some noticeable changes in the ammunition industry, and now most manufacturers provide at least some basic information as to how the numbers they use were gathered — what barrel length, sometimes what gun they used — to make it a little easier for a consumer to know what they are buying. I have been told directly by some engineers and sales people at different companies that this is due to BBTI‘s testing and publication of our data, which has forced manufacturers to be more forthcoming.
Something else we’ve experienced in the intervening years was the Great Ammo Shortage (which for the most part has now passed). But it taught the wisdom of always keeping a bit more ammo on hand than you might otherwise need for a single trip to the range, to help ride out similar shortages in the future. I’ll address ammo storage issues in a future blog post.
Remember this graph comparing Muzzle Energy (ME)?
Well, a discussion elsewhere got me to thinking …
So, let’s take a look at .45 Super:
See what I see? Yeah, at 3″ and 4″ all the .45 Super loads are superior in terms of ME over all the other cartridges in the top graph. At 5″ the .357 Mag catches up with some of the .45 Super loads, and at 6″ it is in the center of the pack.
To really do the comparison right, I’d need to average all the .45 Super loads, then add them directly to the first graph, but that’s more time and trouble than I want to take. But my point is that of all the ‘conventional’ CCW-caliber/size guns, it looks like the .45 Super is at the top of the pile. We did formal testing of just one .460 Rowland, and it is comparable to the .45 Super at those barrel lengths (though I know from informal testing that some other loads are more powerful). You have to step up to full .44 Mag to beat either the .357 Mag or .45 Super.
All along, we’ve said that if someone wanted to take the time, trouble, and expense to do some additional research along the lines of our protocols, that we’d be happy to include their data on our site. This is particularly true if it helped expand the selection of “real world guns” associated with the data for a given caliber/cartridge. Well, for the first time someone has expressed an interest in doing just that, prompting us to come up with an outline of what standards we feel are required for making sure it relates to our previous tests.
The biggest problem is that ammo manufacturers may, and do, change the performance of their products from time to time. This is why we have on occasion revisited certain cartridges, doing full formal chop tests in order to check how specific lines of ammo have changed. That gives us a benchmark to compare other ammo after a period of several years have passed, and shows how new tests relate to the old data.
But without going to such an extent, how can we be reasonably sure that new data collected by others using their own firearms is useful in comparison to our published data?
After some discussion, we feel that so long as any new testing includes three or more of the specific types of ammo (same manufacturer, same bullet weight & design) we had tested previously, then that will give enough of a benchmark for fair comparison. (Obviously, in instances where we didn’t test that many different types of ammo in a given cartridge, adjustments would need to be made). With that in mind, here are the protocols we would require in order to include new data on our site (with full credit to the persons conducting the tests, of course):
- Full description and images of the test platform (firearm) used in the tests. This must specify the make, model number, barrel length, and condition of the firearm. Ideally, it will also include the age of the firearm.
- That a good commercial chronograph be used. Brand isn’t critical — there seems to be sufficient consistency between different models that this isn’t a concern. However, the brand and model should be noted.
- Chronographs must be positioned approximately 15 feet in front of the muzzle of the firearm used to test the ammo. This is what we started with in our tests, and have maintained as our standard through all the tests.
- That five or six data points be collected for each type of ammo tested. This can be done the way we did it, shooting three shots through two different chronographs, or by shooting six shots through one chronograph.
- All data must be documented with images of the raw data sheets. Feel free to use the same template we used in our tests, or come up with your own.
- Images of each actual box of ammo used in the test must be provided, which show the brand, caliber/cartridge, and bullet weight. Also including manufacturer’s lot number would be preferred, but isn’t always possible.
- A note about weather conditions at the time of the test and approximate elevation of the test site above sea level should be included.
We hope that this will allow others to help contribute to our published data, while still maintaining confidence in the *value* of that data. Please, if you are interested in conducting your own tests, contact us in advance just so we can go over any questions.
If you’ve got a couple thousand dollars available, it’s relatively easy to select one or more firearms for home defense, or for your bug-out bag, or what have you. You’ve got plenty of choices, and just need to sort through the options available and find the gun(s) which best fit your needs.
But what if you only have a couple hundred bucks?
A good used pump shotgun will serve most people pretty well for home defense. But what if you want something more compact for your bug-out bag or emergency kit? Then your options are much more limited, and you have to prioritize. You have to decide just what you want your firearm to be able to do, and then see what is available to best meet those goals.
This is one such solution. By no means do I think that it is the only solution. But how I went through the decision-making process and then how I put it into practice might provide some insights.
I wanted a fairly versatile firearm for an emergency kit, the sort of thing which could get taken along on a long drive, or to have when vacationing away from home. I wasn’t thinking of the firearm as a combat weapon, but something which would be suitable for emergency hunting or self-defense. I wanted it to be compact, reliable, and with a wide enough selection of loadings* (whether factory or my own reloads) to meet a range of uses from hunting small game to protecting against large predators.
After thinking it over, I decided to look for a good used .357 magnum revolver, with a 3 – 5″ barrel. I didn’t already have such a handgun, so it would also give me a chance to fill in a gap in my collection. After some shopping around, I found a 40 year-old Ruger Security Six with a 4″ barrel in my price range. The gun looked and felt mechanically sound, but was kinda beat-up. There was a fair amount of holster wear on the bluing. The walnut grips had been abused, with scratches and part of the bottom finger groove broken away. The bore looked fine, but there was a lot of built-up lead around the forcing cone, and the trigger and cylinder barely moved from what felt like built-up gunk.
I decided to take a chance, and brought it home. Yesterday I had the time to take it apart and completely rework it. What I found was that while the gun had been reasonably well cared-for, seemingly no one had ever bothered to do more than just a basic quick cleaning. I pried out/off about a 1/16″ layer of accumulated dirt, burnt powder residue, and old oil from most of the internal surfaces, particularly around the trigger assembly. Little wonder it felt almost frozen in place. I went ahead and did a thorough cleaning of the rest of the gun, and was even able to remove the lead deposits with minimal work.
The grips were first slightly reconfigured with a wood file then sanded thoroughly. I refinished them to a satin finish for slightly better tactile control.
Here’s how the gun looks now:
It’s not gorgeous. It could certainly stand to be reblued, or at least have the bluing touched-up. But I’m not going to worry about it — for my needs, it’s just fine as it is now.
The moral of the story is to think through what you want your firearm to do, then do your research to see what the range of choices are. Shop around. If you have modest skills with hand tools, you should be able to make dramatic improvements in the performance & appearance of a gun (perhaps with some help from online videos and instruction).
*Ammo Selection I will keep on hand for this gun in the emergency kit (representative examples):
Got an email which is another aspect of the problem I wrote about recently. The author was asking that we get more fine-grained in our data, by making measurements of barrel lengths by one-eighth and one-quarter inch increments. Here’s a couple of relevant excerpts:
what more is really needed, is barrel lengths between 1-7/8 and 4-1/2″.
because of the proliferation of CCW and pocket pistols, and unresolved
questions about short barrel lengths that go all over between 2 and 3.75″,
and snubby revolvers that may be even shorter.
* * *
with that amount of precision, not only would you have data covering all
lengths of short barrels, but you could fabricate mathematical curves that
would predict velocities for any possible barrel length, metric or
otherwise, given the particular ammo.
It’s not an unreasonable thought, on the surface. Our data clearly shows that the largest gains in bullet velocity always come in length increases of very short barrels for all cartridges/calibers. So why not document the changes between, say, a 4.48″ barrel and a 4.01″ one? That’s the actual difference between a Glock 17 and a Glock 19, both very popular guns which are in 9mm. Or between a S&W Model 60 with a 2.125″ barrel and a S&W Model 360PD with a 1.875″ barrel?
Ideally, it’d be great to know whether that half or quarter inch difference was really worth it, when taking into consideration all the other factors in choosing a personal defense handgun.
The problem is that there are just too many different variables which factor into trying to get really reliable information on that scale.
Oh, if we wanted to, we could do these kinds of tests, and come up with some precise numbers, and publish those numbers. But it would be the illusion of precision, not actually useful data. That’s because of the limits of what we can accurately measure and trust, as well as the normal variations which occur in the manufacturing process … of the guns tested; of the ammunition used; of the chronograph doing the measurements; even, yes, changes in ambient temperature and barometric pressure.
That’s because while modern manufacturing is generally very, very good, nothing is perfect. Changes in tolerance in making barrels can lead to variation from one gun to the next. Changes in tolerance in measuring the amount of gunpowder which goes into each cartridge (as well as how tight the crimp is, or even tweaks in making the gunpowder itself) mean that no two batches of ammunition are exactly alike. And variations in making chronographs — from the sensors used, to slight differences in positioning, to glitches in the software which operate them — mean that your chronograph and mine might not agree on even the velocity of a bullet they both measure.
All of those little variations add up. Sometimes they will compound a problem in measuring. Sometimes they will cancel one another out. But there’s no way to know which it is.
This is why we’ve always said to consider our data as being indicative, not definitive. Use it to get a general idea of where your given choice of firearm will perform in terms of bullet velocity. Take a look at general performance you can expect from a brand or line of ammunition. Compare how this or that particular cartridge/caliber does versus another one you are considering.
But keep in mind that there’s no one perfect combination. You’re always going to be trading off a bunch of different factors in choosing a self-defense tool.
And never, ever forget that what matters most — FAR AND ABOVE your choice of gun or ammunition — is whether or not you can use your firearm accurately and reliably when you need to. Practice and training matters much more than whether or not you get an extra 25, or 100, or even 500 fps velocity out of whatever bullet is traveling downrange. Because if you can’t reliably hit your target under stress, no amount of muzzle energy is going to do you a damn bit of good.
If you want more information about how accuracy and precision can be problematic, this Wikipedia entry is a good place to start.
Well, well, well, BBTI made it to six years of shooting fun and research!
Yup, six years ago today we posted the first iteration of Ballistics By The Inch, and included data for 13 different handgun cartridges. Since then we’ve continued to expand on that original research, including some extensive testing on how much of an effect the cylinder gap on revolvers has, what performance differences you can expect from polygonal over traditional land & groove rifling, and added another 9 cartridges, as well as going back and including a very large selection of real world guns in all the different cartridges. This blog has had 100,000+ visitors and the BBTI site itself has had something like 25 – 30 million visits (the number is vague because of changes in hosting and record-keeping over time).
We’ve had an impact. I’ve seen incoming links from all around the world, in languages I didn’t even recognize. There’s probably not a single firearms discussion group/blog/site out there which hasn’t mentioned us at some point, and our data is regularly cited in discussions about the trade-offs you make in selecting one cartridge or barrel length over another. I’ve answered countless emails asking about specific points in our data, and have been warmly thanked in return for the work we’ve done. And on more than a few occasions people have pointed out corrections which need to be made, or offered suggestions on how we could improve the site, sometimes providing the results from their own crunching of our data.
When we started, it was fairly unusual to see much solid information on ammo boxes about how the ammunition performed in actual testing. Now that information is common, and expected. Manufacturer websites regularly specify real performance data along with what kind of gun was used for that testing. And the data provided has gotten a lot more … reliable, let’s say. We’ve been contacted by both ammo and firearms manufacturers, who have asked if they can link to our data to support their claims of performance — the answer is always “yes” so long as they make it clear that our data is public and not an endorsement of their product. And we’ve never taken a dime from any of those companies, so we can keep our data unbiased.
And we’re not done. We have specific plans in the works to test at least one more new cartridge (and possibly revisit an old favorite) in 2015. I try to regularly post to the blog additional informal research, as well as sharing some fun shooting and firearms trials/reviews. There’s already been one firearms-related patent issued to a member of the BBTI team, and we’ll likely see several more to come. Because we’re curious guys, and want to share our discoveries and ideas with the world.
So, onward and upward, as the saying goes. Thanks to all who have cited us, written about us, told their friends about us. Thanks to all who have taken the time to write with questions and suggestions. And thanks to all who have donated to help offset the ongoing costs of hosting and testing — it makes a difference, and is appreciated.
Last weekend I had the chance to revisit a couple of old friends, and try out something new: pump rifles. These guys:
From top to bottom:
If you check those links, you’ll see that I have written formal reviews for both the Uberti and the USFA previously. So I won’t spend much time talking about them.
But the little Taurus deserves a quick review. Because I found it to be a *very* nice little pump gun. The action was slick and didn’t have any problems, even though it was basically brand new. The Buckhorn sights are classic for a reason: they’re intuitive and work very well at modest distances. And even though the gun is relatively lightweight (compare the neck of the stock to the other two pump rifles above), there’s more than enough mass there to tame the recoil from the .22magnum cartridge. That means that you can get very quick and tight groups out of it even just standing and shooting it unsupported. Shooting it is just a blast, though one which doesn’t come with a lot of muzzle flash.
And the wood & finish on this gun is surprisingly good:
I also want to share a couple of detail pics of the engraving on the USFA:
And the other side:
I *do* like pump guns.
I got a nice note from Jason at Leaf Technologies, who had been curious about how different cartridges compared in terms of Muzzle Energy (ME). So what he did was take the data from BBTI and average the ME curves for the cartridges he was interested in, then plot them head-to-head in one Excel graph. He sent me the result, and with his permission I am sharing it here:
(Click to enlarge.)
I always love to see how others use our data, and the conclusions they draw from it. It’s EXACTLY the sort of thing we hoped would happen, and why we’ve made the data freely available. If you would like to read some of Jason’s conclusions, and the discussion they engender, pop over to the Northeast Shooters Forum.
And if you have your own interesting spin on how our data can be used in a new way, drop me a note. If I think it’d be of interest to others, I’ll be happy to post it here/link to it. Just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Some weeks back I put up a post about my preliminary experiences with a .460 Rowland conversion for my Glock 21 Gen 4. In it I mentioned how much I like the resultant gun, but also how I was having some problems with magazine wear when shooting full-force .460 loads.
Well, after thinking a lot more about it, as well as discussing it with people online and with the other BBTI members when they were here for the recent tests (one of whom has been a Glock armorer for 15+ years) a couple different strategies emerged for me to test. Briefly, those were:
- See whether putting in a heavier mag spring would help
- See whether the problem was due to the case length of the .460 Rowland cartridges (they’re 1/16″ longer than .45 ACP).
- See whether the problem was due to the *power* of the cartridges rather than the length of the cases.
To test the first, it was a simple matter to get a more powerful mag spring and test it in one of the magazines. I picked up a Wolff magazine spring from Midway and did so.
To test whether it was the simple case length of the .460 Rowland cases, I made up some .460 Rowland rounds using .45 ACP reloading standards.
To test whether it was the *power* of the .460 loads but not the case length was another matter. Here’s where we get to the Don’t Try This At Home part of today’s blog post: I made up a number of .45 ACP rounds which were loaded to .460 Rowland specs.
Let me repeat that again: Don’t Try This At Home. These are wildcat rounds, and potentially dangerous. Shooting them in a gun not rated for .460 Rowland stresses could very well result in catastrophic failure of your gun, of the “KABOOM!” variety. Even shooting them in a gun designed to handle .460 Rowland power was risky, since the .45 ACP cases do not have the same strength as the .460 Rowland cases. I made up just 10 rounds of each of these loadings, and was careful to make sure I shot them all, so that they didn’t accidentally wind up in a .45 not strong enough to take the punishment.
Here are each of the loadings I made up, just for reference, along with their approximate chrono results:
- 185gr XTP bullet, .45 ACP case, .460 Rowland power 1480fps
- 200gr RNFP bullet, .45 ACP case, .460 Rowland power 1440fps
- 230gr RNFP bullet, .45 ACP case, .460 Rowland power 1350fps
- 250gr LFN bullet, .45 ACP case, .460 Rowland power 1250fps
- 230gr RNFP bullet, .45 ACP case, .45 ACP power 920fps
- 230gr RNFP bullet, .460 Rowland case, .45 ACP power 925fps
- 185gr XTP bullet, .460 Rowland case, .460 Rowland power 1490fps
- 200gr RNFP bullet, .460 Rowland case, .460 Rowland power 1420fps
- 230gr RNFP bullet, .460 Rowland case, .460 Rowland power 1355fps
- 250gr LFN bullet, .460 Rowland case, .460 Rowland power 1265fps
No, I’m not going to give the specific powder amounts for any of those. I used Hodgdon Longshot powder, and you can look up the specs if you want to know more.
In addition, I had these factory loads on hand for comparison, along with their approximate chrono results:
11. 185gr DPX .45 ACP +P 1110fps
12. 230gr GDHP .45 ACP 850fps
13. 230gr JHP .45 ACP +P1040fps
14. 230gr JHP .460 Rowland 1380fps
15. 255gr LFN .460 Rowland1260fps
.460 Rowland loads
OK, a couple of comments before I go further: those are “approximate” chrono readings because I wasn’t being anywhere near as careful as we are when we do formal BBTI testing. To wit: I was just using one chrono; I wasn’t worried about getting the exact same number of readings (so long as I got three or four, I wasn’t too worried about it); and I didn’t do anything to control for consistent lighting or suchlike. But they should all be in the right ballpark.
So, looking over all those, you will see what I see: that there was a remarkable consistency in power levels, whether you’re looking at my reloads or factory loads, and between those rounds which used either .45 ACP cases or .460 Rowland cases. That tells me that following the published data for .460 Rowland reloads, and making some intelligent decisions on how to adapt those to the .45 ACP cases for purposes of this experiment, was by and large successful. Meaning that I can use those loads to fairly evaluate what makes a difference on the basic problem I was investigating: what is causing the magazine damage and how to resolve it.
So, what conclusions did I draw from all this?
First, the more powerful magazine spring seemed to help with consistent loading. I will be swapping out all the Glock 21 mag springs I have. This makes intuitive sense, since the slide is moving faster when shooting the more powerful rounds.
That doing a little customizing on the magazines also seems to help a great deal. Here’s a pic showing an unaltered magazine and one I have taken a Dremel tool to:
Glock 21 magazines
Note that these are just the magazine ‘boxes’ — the guts (spring, follower, etc) have all been removed for clarity.
With the altered magazine and stronger spring, any problems I had with Failure To Feed was minimized.
And most important, it is the *power* of the round, not the case length, which seems to cause damage to the unaltered magazines. Shooting the .460 Rowland power loads in the .45 ACP cases demonstrated this. Conversely, shooting the .45 ACP power loads in the .460 Rowland cases didn’t cause any magazine damage at all.
Two additional notes I want to add: the first is that I had pretty consistent problems with the heavy Lead Flat Nose rounds in all configurations. They kept getting jammed up in transitioning from the magazine into the chamber. I’ll probably continue to experiment with this in the future, but I’m not too worried about it, since many guns run into some ammo specific problems.
The second is that once again I was really impressed at just how well this reconfigured Glock 21 did with .45 ACP loads. Seriously, with the .460 Rowland conversion in place, there was very minimal recoil (more than a .22, but not much) and it was VERY easy to control and shoot the gun well. I suspect that going forward the vast majority of the shooting I will do with this will be using standard .45 ACP reloads, saving the much more powerful .460 Rowland rounds for occasional practice. In this sense, I am thinking of the .45/.460 relationship the way I think about .38/.357 — it seems to be a perfectly appropriate analogy.
Now that I have all this sorted, I can go ahead and write up a formal review. But I thought I would share a little of the process of how I got to this point.
My .22 Magnum article looking at our data and my conclusions is now up over on Guns.com. Here’s an excerpt:
For me, the take-away lesson from these tests is that the .22 Magnum is a cartridge that is best served out of rifle barrel. At the high end we were seeing velocities that were about 50 percent greater than what you’d get out of a similar weight bullet from a .22 LR. In terms of muzzle energy, there’s an even bigger difference: 100 percent or more power in the .22 Magnum over the .22 LR.
But when you compare the two on the low end, out of very short barrels, there’s very little if any difference: about 10 percent more velocity, perhaps 15 percent more power. What you do notice on the low end is a lot more muzzle flash from the .22 Magnum over .22 LR.
While you do see a real drop-off in velocity for the other magnums from very short barrels, they tend to start at a much higher level. Compare the .357 Magnum to the .38 Special, for example, where the velocity difference is 30 to 40 percent out of a 2-inch barrel for similar weight bullets, with a muzzle energy difference approaching 100 percent. Sure, you get a lot of noise and flash out of a .357 snubbie, but you also gain a lot of power over a .38.
Go check out the whole thing!
I haven’t mentioned it here yet, but last weekend I launched a Kickstarter project to support my next novel:
Prequel to the popular novel Communion of Dreams. Get an early release download or a hand-bound copy in your choice of cover material.
So, *why* am I mentioning it here now?
Well, yesterday I got an unexpected box in the mail. Sometime a few weeks back I contributed a few bucks to a firearms-related website, and was entered into a drawing for various goodies. I never win these things, but participate just to be supportive of groups I like. Anyway, as you might have guessed, I actually won something for a change. This is what the box contained:
Here’s the holster with my Springfield EMP in it:
This is a perfectly nice holster, made by Woodenleather.com. It’s marked as being for an “L-frame” S & W revolver with a 2.5″ barrel, but as you can see it isn’t molded specifically for that, and seems suitable for IWB use with a range of medium-to-small guns. I also tried my Steyr S9 and M357 guns, which fit perfectly, and smaller guns such as a Bond Arms derringer would also work, but ride deeper in it. A full-size 1911 and my Colt Python both fit fine, but the barrel protrudes out the end.
Now, the thing is, while this is a mighty fine holster, it’s made to be either used IWB or OWB left-handed. Note the position of the clip in the second image above. To me, it’s useless (or almost so). As I was thinking of how to find a new home for it, I also got to thinking about several other holsters of varying quality I have which I have wound up with but which I never use and I had another idea: use them for a promotion for the Kickstarter.
So, here’s the deal: make any kind of contribution to the Kickstarter (as little as $1.00 – I won’t mind), and enter into a drawing for a holster. Please note that this is *IN ADDITION* to the other rewards there on the Kickstarter – all perfectly good and valuable rewards. Then just come here and leave a comment, or post it on the BBTI Facebook page, or send me a Tweet. I’ll enter your name into a completely separate drawing. And each week or so while the Kickstarter is going I’ll select a name and send that person whichever holster is up for grabs. Each winner’s name will go back into the hat for the next drawing, so you have multiple chances to win (meaning that the sooner you enter, the better for you).
If you’ve already contributed to the Kickstarter, just let me know and your name will go in the hat for the first drawing (and subsequent ones).
So, what are you waiting for? Go – get entered!
I mentioned the other day that we are offering brass from the recent Cylinder Gap tests as a ‘premium’ thank-you for donations received.
Well, that info, as well as recognizing those who have made a donation to BBTI, are now listed on a new page for donations on the site. Of course, only those who wish to have their name listed do – others who prefer to remain anonymous can (and have) done so.
So far I’ve sent out 1,000 cases of .357 brass. I still have something like 1,100 of that cartridge remaining. And about 500 cases each of .38 Short, .38 Long Colt, and over 2,000 cases of .38 Special. I’d love to find homes for all of it.
Edited 2/3/2012 to add: Thanks for the response! All the once-shot brass has now been spoken for.
OK, as everyone knows, we’ve just put up a whole bunch of new data, most of which was generated during the early part of this past summer.
The bulk of that was generated during the Cylinder Gap tests, shooting .38 Shorts, .38 Longs, .38 Specials, and .357 Magnum rounds. And as a result we had two five-gallon buckets filled with spent brass.
Over the weekend I started doing some re-arranging of my reloading stuff, and it was time to tackle all that brass. I sorted it all. Then started cleaning it. So far I’ve run about 3000 .38 Special cases through the tumbler. And there’s a whole bunch (like 1600) .357 Magnum cases up next. Then the .38 Shorts and the Long Colt cases. This is more brass than I’d use in a couple of lifetimes (and I already have a couple thousand cases from previous tests and my general shooting).
So, here’s the deal: make a donation to BBTI, get some cleaned brass. Yup. For each $10.00, you get 100 cases of your choice (so long as supplies last, postage-paid in the US). This is all premium, brand-name brass, fired once. You can reload it. Or trade it. Or just keep it as proof of your support of our project. Frame it, for all I care.
So, help me out – take some of this brass off my hands.
*with apologies to Chrissie Hynde.
Check out the post on The Firearm Blog titled: Fascinating Phenomenon in Cylinder Gap Data.
As I noted on our Facebook page, this is exactly the sort of discussion & analysis we hoped to engender by collecting all the data. As I have noted in the past, none of us on the BBTI team are statistics geeks, and all of us have busy lives to demand our attention elsewhere. I am perfectly happy to just do the grunt work, then turn the data loose in the world for others to play with.
The new Ballistics By The Inch site is now up and running! Bigger, Faster, And with More DATA! Take a look, spread the word, let us know if there are any glitches or problems.
It’s been . . . a long month. Well, no, not this one. The last one. And the one before that, to be honest.
So, while I know that a lot of folks have been eagerly awaiting the new data, let me say . . . just a little longer. Really. My Good Lady Wife, who takes care of the website, has had her hands full with a couple of other projects (including a big one of mine).
The good news is that she tells me that the new website tools she’s learned to use will help make BBTI better than ever. We’ve talked about the website redesign, and I think everyone will be pleased with the new look, the new functionality, and the new data (including .22 and .223 as well as the massive .38/.357 Gap Tests). So hang on – we’ll get it all up as soon as possible.
A quick report on site numbers, while we’re at it: August we had 290,998 hits, bringing us to a grand total of 7,155,801 hits.
For the quickest notification when the redesigned site goes ‘live’ with all the new data, subscribe to this blog, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.
Nice graph and discussion about muzzle energy comparisons over barrel length using our data over on The Firing Line:
Full thread here: Light rounds in short barrels.
So, all last week we were finally conducting the Cylinder Gap tests. For this test alone, it was over 6,000 rounds. I thought as part of documenting the whole process I’d share a buttload of images and a brief description of each.
Given the size of this sequence of tests, we knew we needed to make a number of upgrades to our equipment and set-up. Jim Kasper did most of this work in advance. The Ransom Rest was mounted to a plywood platform which fit perfectly over one of the banquet tables, so we could just snap it into place each day.
To minimize problems with getting good readings from the chronographs, Jim K built a framework to support 250w lights which shined down into the sensor positions. After a couple of hours use, we decided to adapt a fabric panel from the new EZ Up we got to protect the chronos from weather as a diffuser.
Jim K also built a couple of racks to hold boxes of ammo. That way we didn’t have to sort and arrange everything each morning – just make sure the racks were filled before we left for the site each day, and then draw what was needed as we did the testing.
We had to run the generator continuously, so as to power the lights for the chronos. I designed a simple sound box out of 2″ construction insulation which would go together with a little duct tape, and would shield us from the excess noise while allowing the generator to operate.
The test platform was an Uberti Single Action Army clone in .38/.357. For other reference points, we also tested a number of ‘real world’ guns – shown here are a 2″ Chiappa .357, a 16″ Winchester 94 AE lever gun, a 4″ S&W 586, and a 3″ Bond Arms derringer. In addition we used a 1.875″ Ruger LCR in .38, a 1.875″ S&W 642, and a 6″ Python.
The Uberti worked remarkably well. We used a Ransom Rest in order to give consistent aiming and minimize hand trauma (when you’re going to shoot 6,000 rounds in the course of a week you’re going to suffer if you actually do it all by hand.)
Each day we’d take the lights, the chronographs, the guns, and the ammo home so as not to risk theft.
Our backdrop, same as with the previous tests, was a wall of railroad ties that is part of an old cabin. We used fresh-fallen Locust logs as a target, going through one or two 18″ logs a day, and replacing them as they got chewed up from so much shooting.
As we emptied boxes of ammunition, they got tossed under the tables, out of the way. All the cardboard was latter flattened and recycled. The plastic and styrofoam, unfortunately, was not. I must admit, as much as I like Buffalo Bore ammo, I hate their oversize boxes.
After we finished a round of shots, doing all of the ammunition with a set cylinder gap, we’d unscrew the barrel, change the shim (which changed the cylinder gap), and then did another round. With the Ransom Rest mounted in position, and the gun mounted in the Ransom Rest, there was an accumulation of gunpowder and particles from the cylinder gap. You can see this in the marks on the board under the gun, as well as the discoloration of the foam on the ‘blast shield’.
Here’s another shot which shows the gas/particle effect, with Jim Kasper in the background, a clipboard ready to record more of the chrono readings.
After we finished all the cylinder gap testing, we did the classic BBTI ‘chop tests’ on .223 Remington and .460 Rowland.
Even with the Ransom Rest, and using a Weaver Rail with a laser sight, it was easy to allow shots to creep up a little too high. In this case, the fabric used as a diffuser over the chronos served as a warning before we hit any of the lights.
7,000 rounds is a *lot*. Here’s a shot of a bucket about half filled with spent brass cartridges, taken towards the end of the testing. And this was the second of these 5-gallon cat litter pails used (the first was filled completely).
Testing the .223 Remington cartridge was the first real rifle round we’ve tested. The protocols we decided on were a bit different then in our previous chop tests of handgun cartridges. But we did go ahead and get down to a 3″ barrel, since we had a Bond Arms derringer in 3″ in that cartridge to test as a reference – this thing only has about a quarter-inch of rifling in the barrel. And it made a most impressive fireball when shot.
Just for giggles, we chopped the .223 barrel down to 2″, to show what would happen if you tried to go to that length. Here’s the result:
That should give a sense of what it was like this round of tests. I’ll have more to say about the testing, but thought it would be fun to share the images right away. We hope to have the data crunched and ready to post sometime later this month, but watch this blog for some previews.