Ballistics by the inch

Reprise: Plinking — An American Tradition

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, and it originally ran 6/29/2011. Some additional observations at the end.


I once saw a good ol’ country boy shoot the little brass deer button out of a hunting cap at about 50 yards when he was barely sober enough to stand.  Not good safe-handling practice, of course, but this was about 40 years ago, way back in the Missouri woods.

I doubt the fella who did it ever spent a single day at a real gun range, and I’d bet good money that he’d probably never shot an “official” NRA target. Or any other kind of printed paper target, for that matter.

I mean, why would he bother? There were plenty of cans and bottles to shoot. Or maybe bottle caps or spent shotgun shells, if you wanted to make it harder.

I think this may be an essentially American tradition. And I think that getting back to it (in one form or another) may well be part of the solution to getting more people involved in the shooting sports.

The reason I say it’s an American thing is that in Europe “shooting societies” have long been established as the only real option for someone to go shooting. You belonged to a shooting society, you went to a formal range, shot at formal targets in a very controlled manner.

When I was in High School, I was involved in a foreign exchange program, and each year we hosted an exchange student for a while. And each year we arranged to take any of the visiting students who wanted to go out for a very informal shooting session on private property. That meant some basic safety training, close supervision, but just plinking at cans (first with a .22 then going on to other guns as the students got comfortable with how to handle a firearm safely). The German students always thought that it was insanely fun – the idea that you could just go out shooting in the country was completely alien to them, but they enjoyed the hell out of it.

This is the way it’s been for generations here in the US. Think back to any iconic image you have of the West – of gunslingers practicing. Were they shooting little paper targets at a formal range?

Hell no.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of respect for the folks that can drop round after round into the bullseye, from any distance. And you certainly don’t get to be able to pop a target at a thousand yards unless you spend some serious time learning your craft on a range. But you’ll note that even then “reactive targets” are commonly used rather than paper targets.

And really, how is that different than shooting at tin cans? That’s what “reactive targets” have been for generations. Put some out on a log, or just on the ground. Hit ‘em, and they move. Probably further away. Hit ‘em again, and they move again. You get the idea.

Heck, I thought I had really gotten fancy when I bought a couple of these things a few years ago:

But it was great because it meant that I didn’t need a heavy leather glove to protect myself from the jagged edges of the torn-up cans when I cleaned up after shooting.

I took those swinging targets to a nearby state range last summer. There’s a big open area where I could stick ‘em in the ground. The place was mostly empty, and I just had fun shooting. Then after a while, a nice fellow who is something of a care-taker for the park wandered over and told me that I couldn’t do that. I could only shoot paper targets, put up on the proper holders.

I looked at the holders down range. The framework was all shot up, hanging limply. No big deal – just heavy use – but they needed to be replaced. I looked back at the guy. “How?”

He shrugged, said it wasn’t his rule, and left.

I was done, anyway, so I got my spinners and packed up. But as I was leaving, some young guys were arriving, and I heard them grumbling about the fact that they wouldn’t be able to even hang a paper target.

I wished I had some tin cans I could leave them.


Since I wrote that I’ve joined a formal shooting club here in my area. You may have even heard of it. It’s where they shoot the Bianchi Cup. Yeah, I get to use the fancy moving targets and all that stuff if I want to.

But you know what? The club also has their old range here in the area. And there they have an old-fashioned falling plate range, just simple steel targets you reset with the pull of a somewhat worn rope.

Guess where I prefer to shoot.


Jim Downey



August 7, 2017 Posted by | Discussion., Anecdotes | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reprise: Give in to the Power of the Dark Side — Converting Non-shooters

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, and it originally ran 8/5/2011. Some additional observations at the end.


I swear, sometimes I feel like a Sith Lord.

Friends and acquaintances will find out that I’m “into” guns. We’ll be chatting and there will be this odd moment where I can see it in their eyes: attraction, mixed with not a little fear.

If they know me at all, either through interaction or by reputation, they probably have a certain expectation. I’m a professional book & document conservator. I used to own a big art gallery. For years I wrote a column about the arts for the local newspaper. I even gained some small measure of fame as a conceptual artist.  I was the primary care-provider for my elderly mother-in-law, and have been praised for my gentleness and compassion. I’ve published two books, and am working to complete a third. Based on that, they have probably put me into a nice little box in their mental map of the world.

That I am a gun owner, someone with a CCW, and even one of the principals behind the world’s premier handgun ballistics resource usually comes as a bit of a surprise.


Yes, I like this reaction. I like what it does to people: forces them to reconsider some of their stereotypes.

And I also like that it gives me the opportunity to tempt them. To corrupt them. By taking them shooting.

What can I say? I’m evil. You know, like a Dark Lord of the Sith.


I don’t know how many people I have done this to. Not enough. I want to turn more of them. To have them hold a gun in their hands, to learn how they can control it, to use it safely.

Because I have found that this is key – turning their fear of something they do not understand into a tool that they can use. I tap into the strong emotion of fear, subvert it, direct it. It becomes a motivator. It helps them understand that a gun needs to be respected and handled safely.

We go through the formula of the Four Rules. They handle the revolver, the pistol, and the rifle before the ammunition ever comes out of storage. We study cartridge, and bullet, and caliber. And then I reveal the mysteries of sighting, breathing, and trigger control.

We go to the range. There is the ritual of eye and hearing protection. A review of safety commands. An invocation of the formula of the Four Rules.

I take out a .22 rifle. Load it with one round only. Tension builds. I am down range at a simple target and fire the gun.

Now they’re almost hooked. There’s anticipation, almost a hunger as they watch me.

I check the gun to make sure it is unloaded. Hand it over, have them check it. Give them one round, have them load it. Carefully, they seat the rifle, take aim. When they are ready, I have them click off the safety, put their finger on the trigger and squeeze.

You can see it in their eyes. A part of them has come alive. A part they feared. Because they did not understand it.

Usually, they get a big smile on their face. Or maybe that comes later, when we shoot one of the handguns. Sometimes it takes until we get to one of the magnums, something with a real kick to it. A big badda-BOOM! But when that happens, every one of them is hooked.

Oh, not necessarily hooked in the sense of going out and getting their own guns, and taking up shooting sports as a lifetime activity. No, hooked in the sense of understanding at an almost cellular level what the appeal is: the ability to control a kind of power they never had before.

I have opened up a whole new world for them. Shown them possibilities they didn’t know existed. Gave them a taste of the potential they had locked away.

Some of them do get hooked in the sense of wanting to learn how to use that potential. They start asking me about the nuts and bolts of getting their own gun, what it takes to pass the state CCW requirements, the advantages of this caliber or that design. They become a convert.

But even if they don’t, they no longer have an irrational fear of guns because they now know something about them – something practical and hands-on—you can almost watch their stereotyping melt and wash away. They understand that guns are not inherently “evil” – they’re just a tool, which can be used by anyone willing to put in the time to learn how to do so.

And as we pack up from our trip to the range, I’ll usually joke that I have “turned them to the Dark Side.”

Like the good Sith Lord that I am.



Yeah, OK, now you know why I’m not the “Jim Downey” who was an SNL writer.

But I was trying to have a little fun with the idea of ‘turning’ someone on the subject of firearms, because it is a very real experience I’ve had countless times.


Jim Downey

July 30, 2017 Posted by | .22, .44 Magnum, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reprise: Love me, love my gun — Gun Ownership and Your Non-Shooting Significant Other

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, and it originally ran 10/10/2011. Some additional observations at the end.


Many years ago, as we were packing up our gear after a successful hunt, one of my buddies confided to me that this might be the last pheasant season that we shared.

“Why? You OK? What is it, heart problems or cancer or something?”

“Worse. Joan doesn’t like guns, doesn’t want any in the house after we get married.”

* * *

I was lucky. When my wife and I got together, she already owned a gun. Granted, it was an old Winchester Model 63 she had inherited from her dad, but still it meant that guns weren’t an issue for us at all, and haven’t been for the almost 24 years we’ve been married.

But like my buddy above, I’ve had any number of friends who have had to navigate this issue with a spouse or ‘significant other’ (SO henceforth) – and it hasn’t always broken down along predictable gender lines, either.

It’s a tough problem. Sure, you can try to educate, or get your SO interested in shooting or hunting or self-defense, but that doesn’t always work. Chances are they may well see the problem in the same light: as requiring education to “enlighten” you as to the dangers of having a gun in the home. It’s always worth keeping in mind that someone who is ‘anti’ may be operating from their position with as much conviction and good intent as you have in being ‘pro’.

So, what do you do? Just move along to see if you can find another fish in the sea? That seems to be the first instinct, judging from how I have seen this topic discussed on countless gun sites over the years.

But love doesn’t always work out that way. It’s messy. It’s sometimes unpredictable. And every relationship I’ve ever been in or seen has required some compromises and accommodation of another’s likes and dislikes. My wife hates hot spices, while I grow super-hot varietals of Habaneros which I love in almost every dish. And I cannot grok her love of musicals of any stripe. It’d be silly, or at least short-sighted, for us to give up on our marriage over either of these trivial things.

Where do you draw the line, though?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? How do you decide what is more important: your love for another, or your love of guns. Your happiness in sharing a life, or your fundamental belief in the 2nd Amendment.

I know that none of my guns are more important to me than my wife. I’d give up every single one of them, if it was a matter of her life or them, just as I would give my life to protect her. Those who have given an oath to defend the Constitution may well feel the same way about the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.

But is that the right way to think about it? Do you really need to put this question into such absolute terms?

If anything, a relationship is about nuance. Trying to define everything in terms of black and white is unlikely to be productive to a long and happy marriage. The trick is to find a way to make the relationship work without compromising your principles. To go back to my trivial examples, I have a variety of hot sauces and ground Habanero powder that I add to dishes after I’ve taken my portion. My wife enjoys musicals on her own or with a friend.

And my buddy kept his guns at his parent’s place. Well, for a while. It wasn’t long before his wife got comfortable enough with the notion of his hunting that he started just bringing them home with him at the end of a day out in the field. I think that it helped that she decided she liked the taste of pheasant.

So, it might work to just get a safe (which you should have, anyway). Or to give your SO the key to your safe so they don’t have to fear anyone getting to the guns without their approval. Or to keep your guns at someone else’s abode. Or maybe to only have long guns, not those evil evil handguns. Or some other compromise.

Things change over time. So do people. The danger in any relationship comes from trying to change your SO, rather than just growing together and seeking to enrich one another’s lives. Trying to indoctrinate is unlikely to work, whereas sharing information may very well. Isn’t sharing the joys and sorrows of life what it is all about, anyway?

Like I said, I was lucky. Not only did my wife not have a problem with guns in our home, she’s come to share some of my enthusiasm for the shooting sports. Now we enjoy getting out to the range together whenever we can. The only thing I have to watch out for is her deciding that she likes some of my guns better than I do. But I don’t mind sharing. Don’t mind it at all.


My wife and I are now closing in on our 30th anniversary, and if anything she’s more supportive of my interest in guns now than when I wrote this.

And in the intervening six years, we’ve also seen something of a shift in the culture.  Now more people are interested in guns, and it is easier than ever for the law-abiding to carry a weapon for self-defense. Sure, there are still plenty of problems with violence and crime, some of which involves firearms. But as a general thing the perception is that firearms don’t automatically mean more violence, and owning them doesn’t carry the same stigma that it did. So I think that perhaps it is now easier for people who have a non-shooting SO to make an argument for their having firearms.

Your thoughts?


Jim Downey

July 23, 2017 Posted by | .22, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reprise: Is Muzzle Energy Really a Measure of Handgun Effectiveness?

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, and it originally ran 2/13/2012. Some additional observations at the end.

Would you rather be shot with a modern, Jacketed Hollow Point bullet from a .32 ACP or have someone throw a baseball at you? Seems like a silly question, doesn’t it? But did you know that the ‘muzzle energy’ of the two is about the same? Seriously, it is and that’s just one reason why trying to use muzzle energy as a measurement of handgun effectiveness is problematic.

Calculating Muzzle Energy

First off, what is ‘muzzle energy’ (ME)? Wikipedia has a pretty good description and discussion of it. Here’s the simple definition:

Muzzle energy is the kinetic energy of a bullet as it is expelled from the muzzle of a firearm. It is often used as a rough indication of the destructive potential of a given firearm or load. The heavier the bullet and the faster it moves, the higher its muzzle energy and the more damage it will do.

For those who are trying to remember your high school physics, kinetic energy is the energy (or power) of something moving. You can calculate kinetic energy using the classic formula:

E = 1/2mv^2

Which is just mathematic notation for “Energy equals one-half the mass of an object times the square of its velocity.”

Doing the actual calculations can be a bit of a pain, since you have to convert everything into consistent units, but the formula is there on the Wikipedia page (and can be found elsewhere) if you want to give it a go. Fortunately, there are a number of websites out there which will calculate muzzle energy for you – you just plug in the relevant numbers and out comes the result. We also have muzzle energy graphs for all the calibers/ammunition tested at BBTI.

Batter up?

If you go through and check all the muzzle energy numbers for handguns with a 6″ or less barrel which we’ve tested (BBTI that is), in .22, .25. or .32, you’ll see that all except one (and you’ll have to go to the site to see which one it is) comes in under 111 foot-pounds.

Why did I choose that number? Because that would be the kinetic energy of a baseball thrown at 100 mph. Check my numbers: a standard baseball weighs 5.25 ounces, which is about 2,315 grains. 100 mph is about 147 fps. That means the kinetic energy of a baseball thrown at 100 mph is 111 ft-lbs.

Now, we’re not all pro baseball pitchers. And I really wouldn’t want to just stand there and let someone throw a baseball at me. But I would much rather risk a broken bone or a concussion over the damage that even a small caliber handgun would do.

The Trouble with Muzzle Energy

And therein lies the problem with using muzzle energy as the defining standard to measure effectiveness: it doesn’t really tell you anything about penetration. A baseball is large enough that even in the hands of Justin Verlander it’s not going to penetrate my chest and poke a hole in my heart or some other vital organ. If I catch one to the head, it may well break facial bones or even crack my skull, but I’d have a pretty good chance of surviving it.

Now, I think muzzle energy is a useful measure of how much power a given handgun has. That’s why we have it available for all the testing we’ve done on BBTI. But it is just one tool, and has to be taken into consideration with other relevant measures in order to decide the effectiveness of a given gun or caliber/cartridge. Like measures such as depth of penetration. And temporary and permanent wound channels. And accuracy in the hands of the shooter. And ease of follow-up shots. And ease of carry.

I’ve seen any number of schemes people have come up with to try and quantify all the different factors so that you can objectively determine the “best” handgun for self defense. Some are interesting, but I think they all miss the point that it is an inherently subjective matter, where each individual has to weigh their own different needs and abilities.

Sure, muzzle energy is a factor to consider. But I think the old adage of “location (where a bullet hits) is king, and penetration is queen” sums it up nicely.


In the five years since I wrote that, my thinking has evolved somewhat. Well, perhaps it is better to say that it has ‘expanded’. I still agree with everything above, but I’m now even more inclined to go with a relatively heavy bullet for penetration over impressive ME numbers. I think that comes from shooting a number of different brands of ammo where the manufacturer has chosen to go with a very fast, but very light bullet to get an amazing ME, with the argument that this is more likely to cause some kind of terminal shock, citing tests showing significant ‘temporary wound channels’ and such in ballistic gel.

But you really can’t cheat physics. If you dump a lot of kinetic energy very quickly into creating a temporary wound channel, then you have less energy for other things. Like penetration. Or bullet expansion. And those are factors which are considered important in how well a handgun bullet performs in stopping an attacker. That’s why the seminal FBI research paper on the topic says this:

Kinetic energy does not wound. Temporary cavity does not wound. The much discussed “shock” of bullet impact is a fable and “knock down” power is a myth. The critical element is penetration. The bullet must pass through the large, blood bearing organs and be of sufficient diameter to promote rapid bleeding. Penetration less than 12 inches is too little, and, in the words of two of the participants in the1987 Wound Ballistics Workshop, “too little penetration will get you killed.” Given desirable and reliable penetration, the only way to increase bullet effectiveness is to increase the severity of the wound by increasing the size of hole made by the bullet. Any bullet which will not penetrate through vital organs from less than optimal angles is not acceptable. Of those that will penetrate, the edge is always with the bigger bullet.


Now, you can still argue over the relative merits of the size of the bullet, and whether a 9mm or a .45 is more effective. You can argue about trade-offs between recoil & round count. About this or that bullet design. Those are all completely valid factors to consider from everything I have seen and learned about ballistics, and there’s plenty of room for debate.

But me, I want to make sure that at the very minimum, the defensive ammo I carry will 1) penetrate and 2) expand reliably when shot out of my gun. And if you can’t demonstrate that in ballistic gel tests, I don’t care how impressive the velocity of the ammo is or how big the temporary wound cavity is.

So I’ll stick with my ‘standard for caliber’ weight bullets, thanks. Now, if I can drive those faster and still maintain control of my defensive gun, then I will do so. Because, yeah, some Muzzle Energy curves are better than others.


Jim Downey

April 16, 2017 Posted by | .22, .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .45 ACP, .45 Super, 9mm Luger (9x19), Data, Discussion., Links | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reprise — Storing Ammo Long-term: Because without Rounds, Your Gun Is Just a Poorly Designed Club

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, and it originally ran 8/17/2011. Some additional observations at the end.


It’s a classic scene: Mad Max rolling a shotgun shell between his fingers, trying to see whether it is still any good.

Will it crumble? If it doesn’t, will it still fire?

Only his script-writer knows for sure.

But how much does it have to do with reality? How long will ammunition stay good, and under what storage conditions? Talk about classics – that basic question has been a standard of firearm discussions online going back to before there even was an “online”.

Whether you’ve just found an old box of shotgun shells in the back of your closet or you’re planning ahead for the Zombie Apocalypse, it’d be good to know whether you could trust those rounds to go bang when needed.

So, what’s the answer?

Well, it depends.

Chances are, if the ammunition has been made in the last century, and has been stored reasonably well, then it’ll still be good.

OK, let’s qualify, qualify, qualify that statement. Chances are, if it was a quality factory ammunition, made in the last century, and has been stored reasonably well, then it’ll still be good.

Chances are, if it was a quality factory ammunition, made in the last century using modern smokeless powder, and has been stored reasonably well, then it’ll still be good.

Chances are, if it was a quality factory ammunition, made in the last century using modern smokeless powder and with a non-corrosive primer, and has been stored reasonably well, then it’ll still be good.

Chances are, if it was a quality factory ammunition, made in the last century using modern smokeless powder and with a non-corrosive primer, and hasn’t been immersed in water or subject to prolonged sub-freezing temperature, then it’ll still be good.

Hmm. That makes it sound like there’s not a good chance, doesn’t it?

But I don’t mean to say that. The truth is, if you come across a box (or can or pallet) of ammo made after WWII, and the exterior doesn’t show signs of obvious damage or corrosion, it should be fine. I’ve shot plenty of such ammo over the years – stuff that is older than I am. And it’s likely that if the ammunition was made after the shift to non-corrosive primers in the 1920s – which covers most non-military ammunition – it’ll also be fine. In the West, even military ammunition made since WWII has predominantly been made using non-corrosive primers, and is likely very stable. Eastern bloc countries used corrosive primers until much, much later, which meant not only could they present a problem with barrel damage if the firearm wasn’t cleaned properly, but that there was a chance that the primer would become weak with age and wouldn’t completely ignite the gunpowder in the cartridge.

How about storage? I mean of ammo made recently – how should you store it to increase the chances of it staying good?

The biggest thing is to keep it from resting in water. Sounds like a no-brainer but you’d be surprised.

Some ammunition is sealed (tracer rounds, for example) after manufacture. But most of it just relies on the mechanical qualities of manufacturing to keep moisture out. This is actually pretty good, and serves fairly well in the case of metallic cartridges. You don’t have to worry about a brief exposure to water, from rain or dropping a round into a puddle or something. You should avoid allowing non-sealed rounds from sitting in water for a prolonged period, since such exposure could allow water to seep into the cartridge and compromise the gunpowder. It could also lead to case or primer corrosion, which could weaken the structural integrity or loading problems. So, if you want to store ammo for a long time, keep it in some kind of waterproof container. Double-bagging, using a vacuum sealer, and related strategies should all work fine.

Oh – did you notice that I specified “metallic cartridges” above? Yeah. That’s because plastic shotgun shells are not as water-tight. They’re still pretty good, given modern manufacturing tolerances, but you probably want to be a little more careful with them for long-term storage. Just sayin’.

One other thing to be aware of: freezing can cause some gunpowders to “crack” – to make smaller particles. While it may not seem to be a big deal, it can greatly increase the surface area of each small particle of the propellent. Which can cause it to burn faster. Which can cause over-pressure. Which can cause case rupture or even potentially the dreaded “ka-boom.”

So, there you have it, whether you’re wanting to have a rainy-day stash, just stockpile ammo when you find a good sale, or are wanting to be accurate for your next screenplay – take these things into consideration and you should be fine. Modern ammunition is generally of very high quality, and very reliable. A little planning ahead on your part should maintain that reliability for as long as you want.

Because it’s better to have a gun than a club.


There’s isn’t a lot that I would add to this piece regarding old ammo. But since I wrote this we’ve tested something like an additional 20,000 rounds of new commercial ammo from the biggest manufacturers to boutique ammo from small shops. And I continue to be impressed with just how uniform the quality has been — it’s easily in the 99%+ range. It’s to the point where if commercial ammo fails to fire reliably, I would always first inspect the gun to see what the problems was, because it’s much more likely that the gun has some kind of problem than the ammo.

Which isn’t to say that all ammo will work reliably in all guns. I still advocate that for self-defense firearms in particular, you should always run at least a couple of boxes of a given type/brand of ammo through the gun before considering it sufficiently reliable enough to depend on to save your life. YMMV, of course.

Jim Downey

April 9, 2017 Posted by | Anecdotes, Data, Discussion., Shotgun ballistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reprise: Levering the Playing Field: a Magnum Opus

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, 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.


Jim Downey

April 2, 2017 Posted by | .22WMR, .32 H&R, .327 Federal Magnum, .357 Magnum, .38 Special, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .45 ACP, .45 Super, .450 SMC, Data, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Reprise: It’s Not the Length of Your Barrel, It’s How You Use It

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, 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.

Jim Downey

March 26, 2017 Posted by | .327 Federal Magnum, .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .45 ACP, .45 Super, .450 SMC, .460 Rowland, Data, Discussion., Revolver | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reprise: So, You Say You Want Some Self-Defense Ammo?

My friends over at the Liberal Gun Club asked if they could have my BBTI blog entries cross-posted on their site. This is the second 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, and it originally ran 2/16/2011. Some additional observations at the end.


You need to choose self-defense ammunition for your gun. Simple, right? Just get the biggest, the baddest, the most powerful ammunition in the correct caliber for your gun, and you’re set, right?

Wrong. Wrong, on so many levels.  For a whole bunch of reasons. We’ll get to that.

Shooters have earned the reputation as an opinionated breed and arguments over ammunition are a staple of firearms discussions, and have been for at least the last couple of decades. Much of this stems from the fact that every week it seems, you’ll see “fresh” claims from manufacturers touting this new bullet design or that new improvement to the gunpowder purportedly to maximize power or minimize flash.  And the truth is there have been a lot of improvements to ammunition in recent years, but, if you don’t cut through the hype you can easily find yourself over-emphasizing the importance of featured improvement in any given ammunition.

Perhaps it’s best to consider it by way of example.  While the basic hollowpoint design has been around since the 19th century, I remember when simple wadcutters or ball ammunition was about all that was available for most handguns. Cagey folks would sometimes score the front of a wadcutter with a knife (sometimes in a precarious manner—please don’t do this Taxi Driver-style with live ammunition) to help it ‘open up’ on impact. Jacketed soft point ammunition was considered “high tech” and thus distrusted. And yet, these simple bullets stopped a lot of attacks, killed a lot of people and saved a lot of lives.

I’m not saying that you don’t want good, modern, self-defense ammunition. You probably do. I sure as hell do. I want a bullet designed to open up to maximum size and still penetrate properly at the velocity expected when using it. If you are ever in a situation where you need to use a firearm for self-defense, you want it to be as effective as possible in stopping a threat, as quickly as possible.

Modern firearms are not magic wands. They are not science-fiction zap guns. How they work is they cause a small piece of metal to impact a body with a variable amount of force. That small piece of metal can cause more or less damage, depending on what it hits and how hard, and how the bullet behaves. Here’s the key that a lot of people forget: as a general rule, location trumps power.  All you have to do is meditate on the fact that a miss with a .44 magnum is nowhere  near as effective as a hit with a .25 ACP.  And when I say “a miss” I’m talking about any shot which does not hit the central nervous system, a major organ, or a main blood vessel (and even then it matters exactly which of these are hit, and how). Plenty of people have recovered from being shot multiple times with a .45. Plenty of people have been killed by a well-placed .22 round.

Hitting your target is what is most important and for most of us that is harder to do with over-powered ammunition we’re not used to shooting regularly. Chances are that under the stress of an actual encounter, your first shot may not be effective at stopping an attack. That means follow-up shots will be needed, and you’d better be able to do so accurately. If you can’t get back on target because of extreme recoil, then what’s the point of all that extra power?  If you can’t get back on target because you’ve been blinded by the flash of extra powder burning after it leaves the muzzle, well hell, that’s not good either.

Nestled up alongside power is having an ammunition that will actually work well in your gun. Some guns are notoriously ammunition sensitive and you  don’t want to just be finding out  your gun doesn’t particularly care for an ammo when you really need it to go boom. Check with others (friends or online forums) who have your type of gun, and see what ammo works for them. Then test it yourself, in your actual gun. Some people won’t carry a particular ammunition until they have run a couple of hundred rounds of that ammunition through their gun. Personally, I’ll run a box or two through the gun and consider that sufficient;  you’ll know after that if your gun generally handles  that ammunition with any problems.

So, once you have an idea of what ammunition will work in your particular gun, how do you choose between brands? As I’ve previously discussed, you can’t necessarily trust manufacturer hype. So, how to judge?

Well, you can do some research online. The fellows at The Box of Truth have done a lot of informal testing of ammunition to see how different rounds penetrate and perform. The Brass Fetcher has done a lot of more formal testing using ballistic gelatin. Ballistics By The Inch (which is yours truly’s site) has a lot of data showing velocity for different ammunition. And most gun forums will have anecdotal testing done by members, which can provide a lot of insight.

But don’t over-think this. Handguns are handguns. Yeah, some are more powerful than others, but all are compromises – hitting your target is the single most important thing. And like I said, ammunition can help, but only to a certain extent. We’re talking marginal benefits, at best, whatever the manufacturers claim. So relax;  all of the big name brands are probably adequate, and you’d be hard pressed to make a truly bad decision, so long as the ammunition will function reliably in your gun and you can hit your target with it.

Of course, as you do more research, and get more experience, you’ll probably find you like some ammunition more than others, for whatever reason. That’s fine. It just means that you’re ready to join in the (generally genial) arguments over such matters with other firearms owners. Welcome to the club.


Some additional thoughts, six years later …

Bullet design has continued to improve, with new and occasionally odd-looking designs and materials being introduced regularly. Some of these are *really* interesting, but I keep coming back to the basic truth that the most important factor is hitting the target. No super-corkscrew-unobtanium bullet designed to penetrate all known barriers but still stop inside a bad guy is worth a damn if you miss hitting your target.

And that means practice (and training, if appropriate) is more important than hardware. What I, and a lot of shooters concerned about their self-defense skill, will do is to use practice ammo for training when they go to the range, to keep their basic skill set honed. And then supplement that with a magazine or two (or a cylinder or two) of their carry ammo, so they refresh their knowledge of how it feels and behaves in their gun. This can help keep practice costs down (since good SD ammo can be expensive), but also keeps carry ammo fresh.

Jim Downey

March 18, 2017 Posted by | .22, .25 ACP, .44 Magnum, .45 ACP, Data, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Reprise: Ammo by the Numbers: What Do All Those Numbers on My Box of Ammo Mean?

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, 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.

Jim Downey

March 14, 2017 Posted by | .357 Magnum, .357 SIG, .45 ACP, .45 Colt, 9mm Luger (9x19), Data, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2016 in the rear-view mirror.

Happy New Year!

A quick recap of the last year: surprisingly active.

It’s interesting to see how things have evolved with BBTI over time. The last test sequence we did was the .45 Super /.450 SMC tests, with the data published in October 2015. So without new test results last year, we didn’t have the usual big spike in site visits. But we still saw a total of 447,203 visitors last year, which ain’t too shabby.

And last year we saw an evolution in who were our biggest referrers, as well. Excluding search engines, here they are in order:

  3. MechTech Systems
  4. Wikipedia
  5. The Firearm Blog
  6. reddit
  7. Active Response Training
  8. Survivalist Boards
  9. The Firing Line

All but four (, MechTech Systems, Wikipedia, and The Firearm Blog) are discussion forums, and of those four The Firearm Blog also has a very active discussion community. MechTech Systems sells conversion kits for pistols, allowing you to turn your pistol into a carbine, so it makes perfect sense that they would link to us showing the advantage you can gain with a longer barrel.

In other words, most of the referrers are places where BBTI is being cited as a reference to help people make decisions about their firearm choices. That just makes sense, and corresponds to the email we get, thanking us for our site or asking for clarification/recommending new ammo to test. After 8 years, and with no new tests, there’s not much reason for the ‘news’ sites to mention us — but there’s still plenty of interest in the firearms community in the data we provide.

So thanks to all who share our site with others! You’re the real reason our site is a success!


Jim Downey


January 1, 2017 Posted by | .45 Super, .450 SMC, Data, Discussion., Links | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Comparison shopping.

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.


Jim Downey

December 26, 2016 Posted by | .357 Magnum, .357 SIG, .380 ACP, .44 Magnum, .45 ACP, .45 Super, .460 Rowland, 10mm, 9mm Luger (9x19), Data, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Big eight.

Thanksgiving weekend is the ‘traditional’ anniversary of BBTI, since we initially launched the site on Thanksgiving in 2008. That first weekend we had something like 300,000 hits, as word of the new reference site spread around the world.

The site, and the awareness of it, has grown by leaps and bounds since. Even though we haven’t added any new test results in the last year, routine visitors to the site typically run between 1,000 and 2,000 a day, with spikes of 10 times that fairly regularly. Because of changes in how such things are counted, we’ve lost track of exactly how many visits we’ve had, but it is something in excess of 25 million. Maybe half again that much. To be honest, it still kind of freaks us out that it has had that kind of popularity.

So, in keeping with the theme of the day, on behalf of the entire BBTI team, I want to say: Thank you. It is because of you sharing and referencing the site that it has become so popular, and become such an important reference site for gun owners and enthusiasts around the world.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Jim Downey

November 24, 2016 Posted by | Data, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Working within your limitations.

I love my Cx4 Storm carbine, as I have mentioned and reviewed. Particularly once it was set-up to deal with the additional power of the .45 Super cartridge, it has proven to be a reliable and formidable home defense gun.

But there is ONE thing I don’t like about my Cx4: in .45 ACP/Super, the magazines only hold 8 rounds. Beretta doesn’t offer a larger capacity magazine.

Wait — let’s make that TWO things I don’t like about my Cx4: the standard magazine fits up inside the mag well, such that it can be hard to extract and may pinch your hand if you try to do a quick change of mags.

Wait again, there’s a THIRD thing: while there’s ample room for it in the composite buttstock, Beretta didn’t see fit to include storage for one or more additional magazines.


OK, so here are some solutions I came up with to deal with these problems.

The first two problems are fixed by an after-market product which extends the standard mag by two rounds, and is designed such that it fits with the bottom of the mag well and won’t pinch your hand during a fast magazine change: Taylor Freelance Extended Magazine Base Pad. They’re not cheap, but they’re well made and work fine.

To deal with the storage problem, I picked up an inexpensive 4 pistol mag storage pouch, intended to go on a belt or MOLLE system. With three simple snap-on extensions, I was able to fit it so that it held snug to the butt of my carbine, as shown:


Here’s the back, showing the snap extensions:


And lastly, I positioned the pouch ‘upside down’, so that when the velcro tab is pulled, the mag slips out, positioned ready to insert into the carbine. As you can see:


Since I am right-handed, the mag pouch doesn’t get in my way, and it puts an extra 40 rounds immediately available such that I don’t even need to take the carbine down from my shoulder in order to quickly reload.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a good workable solution to the limitations of the Cx4. And now I love my little carbine even more.


Jim Downey

October 16, 2016 Posted by | .45 ACP, .45 Super, .450 SMC, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Join the party.

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


Jim Downey

September 9, 2016 Posted by | .22, .223, .22WMR, .25 ACP, .30 carbine, .32 ACP, .32 H&R, .327 Federal Magnum, .357 Magnum, .357 SIG, .38 Special, .380 ACP, .40 S&W, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .44 Special, .45 ACP, .45 Colt, .45 Super, .450 SMC, .460 Rowland, 10mm, 9mm Luger (9x19), 9mm Mak, 9mm Ultra, Anecdotes, Data, Discussion., General Procedures | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Effective shotgun ranges.

One of the questions we get regularly is asking whether we’re going to do some velocity/chop tests on shotguns. For a variety of reasons (both logistical & legal) we’ve decided that such tests are beyond the scope of what we want to tackle.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s not something of interest to us, collectively and individually. I’ve previously posted about tests which John Ervin at Brassfetcher has conducted showing the effectiveness of buckshot at 50 yards. And from personal experience, I knew that slugs from a 12 gauge are effective for hunting (or self defense) out to 100 yards, depending on the skill of the shooter.

But how about slugs at 200 yards? And how about DIY ‘cut shells’, which mimic slugs? And, say, if you did happen to hit a target at 100 yards with buckshot, would it be lethal?

Via The Firearm Blog, this video explores all these questions, and provides some VERY interesting answers:

It’s well worth the time to watch the whole thing. But the bottom line is that 00 Buckshot pellets would still be lethal at 100 yards, if you could connect with your target. And slugs? Easily to 200 yards, with a fair amount of control on hitting your target. At 300 yards, they’re still effective, but the trajectory is such that it’s much more difficult to reliably hit the target. And at 400 yards … well, watch to video to see for yourself.

Kudos to Iraqveteran8888 for conducting some really solid and informative tests, and sharing that information with the public.


Jim Downey

July 16, 2016 Posted by | Anecdotes, Data, Discussion., Links, Shotgun ballistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Security on a budget.

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).

Good luck!


Jim Downey

*Ammo Selection I will keep on hand for this gun in the emergency kit (representative examples):



June 5, 2016 Posted by | .357 Magnum, Discussion., Revolver | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An absurd comparison. Or is it?

We had another of those wonderful & rare mid-50s January days here today, so I decided to get out for a little range time.

In addition to the other shooting I did (basically, practice with some of my preferred CCW guns), I also did a little head-to-head comparison between a Smith & Wesson M&P 360 J-frame in .38 Special and a Colt Anaconda in .44 Magnum.

Wait … what? Why on Earth would anyone even consider trying to do such an absurd comparison? The S&W is a very small gun, and weighs just 13.3 ounces. The Anaconda is a monster, weighing in at 53 ounces (with the 6″ barrel that mine has), and is literally twice as long and high as the J-frame. The .38 Special is generally considered a sufficient but low-power cartridge for self defense, while the .44 Magnum still holds a place in the popular mind as ‘the most powerful handgun in the world‘ (even though it isn’t).

Well, I was curious about the perceived recoil between the two, shooting my preferred loads for each. The topic had come up in chatting with a friend recently, and I thought I would do a little informal test, just to see what I thought.

So for the M&P 360 I shot the Buffalo Bore .38 special +P, 158 gr. LSWHC-GC which I have chrono’d out of this gun at 1050 fps, with a ME of 386 ft-lbs.

And for the Anaconda I shot Hornady .44 Remington Magnum 240gr XTP JHP, which I have chrono’d at 1376 fps, with a ME of 1009 ft-lbs. (Actually, I don’t have a ‘preferred carry ammo’ for this gun, but this is typical of what I shoot out of it. Were I going to use it as a bear-defense gun, I’d load it with this.)

My conclusion? That the M&P 360 was worse, in terms of perceived recoil. In fact, I’d say that it was *much* worse.

It’s completely subjective, but it does make sense, for a couple of reasons.

First, look at the weight of each gun, compared to the ME of the bullets shot. The J-frame is 13.3 ounces, or about 25% of the 53 ounce weight of the Anaconda. But the ME of 386 ft-lbs of the .38 Special bullet is 38.25% of the ME of the .44 Mag at 1009 ft-lbs. Put another way, the J-frame has to deal with 29 ft-lbs of energy per ounce of the gun, where the Anaconda has just 19 ft-lbs of energy per ounce of the gun. That’s a big difference.

Also, all that recoil of the J-frame is concentrated into a much smaller grip, when compared to the relatively large grip of the Anaconda. Simply, it the difference between being smacked with a hammer and a bag of sand, in terms of how it feels to your (or at least, my) hand.



Jim Downey

January 31, 2016 Posted by | .38 Special, .44 Magnum, Anecdotes, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Dealing with power, part II: Recoil.

Yesterday I took advantage of the unseasonable warmth to get out to the range and have a bit of fun & practice:


Yeah, those cans jump pretty good when popped with .45 Super rounds, particularly out of my Cx4 Storm.

Which, this time out, was a lot more fun to shoot than when I last took it out. Because I had gotten around to adding a slip-on recoil pad to it. Specifically, one of these: Pachmayr Decelerator® Slip-On Recoil Pads (Not a paid ad, and I got mine from a different seller.)

Because while you want to take steps to manage the power of a round like the .45 Super on the INSIDE of your firearm, you also have to take steps to manage the recoil you experience on your body. Or you’ll avoid practicing. Or will develop bad habits (flinching, grimacing & closing your eyes, etc). Or you’ll be spending money on painkillers, bruise ointments, and massages that you can more profitably spend on ammo/components.

While I like the overall design and ergonomics of the Cx4, the thin rubber ‘recoil pad’ it comes with doesn’t actually do much to tame the recoil, particularly out of .45 Super rounds. So I spent some time looking over different products to help with that, and settled on the Decelerator. Here’s how it looks on my gun:




I was really pleased with the difference it made. Easily knocked off at least half of the felt recoil. Probably more like 3/4ths. And the added lengthening of the stock isn’t at all a problem for me with my long arms.

And of course, if one of my friends wants to prove how macho/masochistic they are, it’ll slip right off … 😉

However you do it, take into consideration how best to manage recoil in your firearms. I’m not recoil-shy. Never have been. But it just makes sense to be kind to your body over the long haul.


Jim Downey

PS: the optic is a Vortex Venom holographic red dot sight. So far, I really like it.

December 23, 2015 Posted by | .45 Super, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Four .380 CCW guns compared.

Had a chance to get out in the cool and do some head-to-head comparisons of four different .380 ACP pistols. Here they are:

All 4

From left to right: Remington RM380, Rohrbaugh R380, Glock 42, and Sig Sauer P238.

I’m going to discuss the RM380 and the R380 together, since the first is the latest version of the latter. See, Rohrbaugh was sold to Remington about a year ago, and shortly thereafter Remington began to tweak the design of the R380 a bit, which I think was mostly an improvement.

The original Rohrbaugh was designed to be the perfect pocket pistol, with smooth edges in a *very* compact yet ergonomically-friendly package. And as my original review indicates, I thought it was a great gun.


The new RM380 is essentially the same design. They’ve changed the mag release from the European-style butt plate to a conventional side-button. They’ve given the grips more texture which make it easier to hold onto (many people who owned a Rohrbaugh added either a slip-on grip or some grip tape to accomplish the same thing). And they’ve added a slight beaver-tail to help keep the external DA hammer from pinching the web of the hand. They’ve made it so the slide locks back after the last round in the mag is fired. And they’ve made an additional magazine with a small extension which makes it even easier to shoot the gun. In my opinion, these are all improvements.

Changes which aren’t improvements? Well, the gun is lighter, at about 12.2 ounces (the Rohrbaugh was 13.5), and that contributed to increased felt recoil. The fit & finish are not nearly as nice as the R380. But then again, the Remington now costs about 1/3 what the original Rohrbaugh did.

Both guns have very basic sights. They are not guns to take to a competition at 25 yards. But both of them would pop 6″ spinners consistently at 7 yards. Both operated reliably, though I was just using hardball ammo — you’d want to select your preferred SD load and make sure that it shot out of your gun consistently and reliably.

The trigger on the Remington was still a VERY long pull. First time I shot it, I thought it was even worse than the Rohrbaugh in that regard. But after going back and forth between the two, I think it just felt longer, because in addition to being long it was fairly gritty and rough. That might clean up over time (this gun had less than 100 rounds through it), but it was noticeably worse than the Rohrbaugh.

I’ve done a brief review of the Glock 42 previously. What I said then still stands:

Comments: I did not expect to like this gun. I was REALLY surprised when I did. Seriously, it is the best-shooting Glock I’ve ever handled. For such a small gun, it fit my large hands comfortably and was easy to shoot well. With Glock quality and reliability, this may be the first .380acp I would seriously consider as a CCW gun.

I had done a previous review of the P238 with the classic 1911-style grips, which can be found here. This one was brand-new … literally, it had just been picked up at the store and then brought out to the range. And it has the Hogue-style grips and the finger extension on the mag, which I really liked.

Sig 238

The large front fiber optic sight made target acquisition fast and easy. The grips fit my large hands very well, and made it easy to shoot the gun accurately.

So, how did the four guns feel, shooting them head-to-head?

Jim and Sig

OK, a couple of notes first. We shot Remington UMC 95gr hardball ammo. We loaded up 6 rounds into each mag, then shot first one gun, then another, then another, then another. We mixed up the order of which followed which. And we shot at both 7 yards and 10 yards.

My personal preference for shooting? This order, with notes:

  1. Sig P238. Had the least perceived recoil and greatest accuracy. For fast, multiple hits it was great, getting back on target with minimal fuss. Very crisp and clean trigger.
  2. Glock 42. Slight sting from the recoil, accuracy almost as good as the Sig. Again, getting back on target was fast and easy. Trigger not as good as the Sig, but familiar to anyone who knows how any other Glock shoots.
  3. Remington RM380. The worst recoil of all four guns, but the improvements to the grips and the mag extension really make a difference for accuracy. The long, rough trigger almost moved this to #4.
  4. Rohrbaugh R380. The least accurate and the most difficult to get back on target for follow-up shots.

Now, I want to stress that all four guns were adequately accurate at 7 yards. Shooting fast, I could get at least 5 out of 6 within about a 12″ circle, and hit at least one or two hits on a 6″ spinner. Consistently. Since I don’t own any of these guns, I would expect that I could improve on that with practice. Of course, most Self Defense ammo is usually hotter, and would present more of a problem for recoil and target re-acquisition. But I still think all four guns would perform well.

That’s how I would rank the guns for shooting. But that isn’t the only factor in considering a gun for concealed-carry.

As I noted in my review, I don’t like having a “cocked & locked” pistol in my pocket. And if I’m going to have a CCW weapon in a holster, then I might as well step up to a full 9mm as opposed to a .380. So that’s a big strike against the P238 in my book, as nice a gun as I actually found it to be.

It also depends on exactly what you want out of your minimal CCW gun. Do you want the lightest? The thinnest? The smoothest? Or does shoot-ability matter more?

It’s a matter of personal preference. I think that I would rank my selection for concealed carry this way, with some brief explanation for each:

  1. Remington RM380. A really good choice for a light, thin, pocket pistol intended to be used as either a back-up or deep cover gun. But I’d spend some time working on smoothing out that trigger.
  2. Glock 42. Not as small or as light as the RM380. But much better sights, and a most stable platform in my hands. Meaning that I would consider it as a primary CCW, not just as a back-up.
  3. Rohrbaugh R380. Weighs about what the Glock does, but is the smallest/thinnest of all four.
  4. Sig P238. A great shooter. And if you’re willing to carry it cocked & locked in your pocket, then I can easily see how this could be anyone’s first choice. But for me, I’d want it in a belt holster (or shoulder rig), and that’s a big disadvantage — I might as well carry a much more powerful gun.

But hey, that’s just my calculation. Feel free to weigh in with your own.


Jim Downey


December 17, 2015 Posted by | .380 ACP, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Lucky seven.

Thanksgiving weekend 2008, we launched the BBTI website and blog. So while the 28th is the actual anniversary, I tend to think of the start of this journey on Thanksgiving each year.

Seven years. Wow.

And in that time so much has changed. As I’ve noted previously, BBTI has become a standard reference world-wide, and I think that we’ve actually helped create some changes in how ammo manufacturers market their products, providing customers with more reliable & useful information.

But there’s so much more which has come about because of BBTI. I’ve met and made friends with a lot of people. I’ve had interesting discussions & correspondence and learned an incredible amount from people who are much more knowledgeable than I am. People from almost every walk of life, and from all around the world. It’s been fascinating.

In my traditional year-end review I’ll get into all the numbers, but it has been a very good year in terms of visitors to the BBTI page and this blog. So for now I’ll just repeat what I said last year:

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.



Jim Downey

November 26, 2015 Posted by | Data, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment