Ballistics by the inch

Reprise: The Dark Side of the Force? Black Guns vs. Classic Wood & Steel Models

Caution: this is somewhat political. Again.

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 3/22/2012.  Some additional observations at the end.

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I was having a Facebook chat with a non-shooter friend and at one point I mentioned something to her about firearms. The conversation that ensued got me thinking about the strange emotional divide that exists between “classic” guns made of wood & steel and “black guns” made of polymer, and then ultimately about how the aesthetic appeal of a weapon really influences the public perception of firearms (even helping to dictate public policy in the form of gun control).  Here is an excerpt from our chat that illustrates a bit better exactly what I’m talking about:

Me: I’ve doing the Ballistics by the Inch project for some time now but I’ve also been writing for Guns.com.

FB Friend: O yeah, I forgot you are a gun person. I think guns are lovely.

Me:
Yeah, that’s a big aspect of why I’m into them: an appreciation of the engineering and innovation that went into making them.

FB: lol. I meant more than that. But sure.  I think guns bring something gratifying to the table, and I don’t mean in some lame Freudian way. They feel good in the hand, like their heft is sensual almost. They look pretty.  Even the way they come apart and reassemble is also pleasing in a way that’s not only aesthetic, it’s almost physically gratifying.

Me: All true. I think that may be one of the reasons that some people don’t like the so called ‘plastic’ guns. Hmm. Food for thought.

FB:
Yeah, metal and wood feels much better than plastic.

There was a time not that long ago when all guns were pretty much one-of-a-kind works of art, created by highly skilled craftsmen for clients willing to pay for their quality.  That is to say, at one time guns were really tools or toys for those Americans with substantial means. In the US, these cottage gunmakers were often located in Pennsylvania or Kentucky, hence the name Kentucky or Pennsylvania long rifle.

File:John Spitzer - Kentucky Rifle - Walters 511434 - Side B.jpg

This price point exclusivity changed drastically though when the confluence of two major events—the settlement of North America and advent of industrialization—presented a blossoming firearms industry with both the demand for affordable and functional small arms and the means to lower costs and increase production rates.  The resulting market surge flooded the United States with firearms (and gun tycoons’ bank accounts with profits).  It also made American makers like Colt, Winchester, Browning, and Smith & Wesson household names and perhaps represents the genesis of when firearms and American culture and iconography first became enmeshed in the imaginations of so many around the world.

However, not withstanding these historical factors, I think one reason why guns were so readily accepted (and remain largely accepted) by the public, was because, even though 19th and early 20th gun manufacturers experimented widely with design, they still incorporated the older cottage industry thinking when it came to both the level of craftsmanship and the material selection.  After generations of watching small arms “evolve” into something personalized and beautifully crafted, the average person expected guns to have a look that complemented the deadly seriousness of what the weapon was capable of (i.e. killing people) and this meant finer materials and engineering.

Consider this: even the mass-produced Colt Peacekeepers had an elegance and beauty about them with their rounded edges, high quality ornaments and ergonomic versatility. Today revolvers have been generally relegated to role of concealed carry guns and become plainer and more utilitarian—designed for specific function rather than general use by the shooter that owns it.

S&W29 gravé.JPG

It also seems to me that our emotional attachment to wood and steel charts much of our basic firearms vocabulary.  For example, if I say “Dirty Harry” or even just “.44 Magnum” most people will envision something like the S&W Model 29 with a long barrel.  If I say “Tommy Gun,” almost anybody would be able to conjure up an image of a classic Thompson submachine gun.  Even if you say something a little more vague like “hunting rifle,” chances are folks will picture a bolt-action gun, something along the lines of a Remington Model 700.

All of these iconic guns have classic lines and wood stocks. And I would bet most anybody would be able to recognize them to some degree.  This familiarity works to make them “warm,” almost “friendly” in people’s minds.

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Now, say “black rifle” and what mental image do you think most people have? Rarely a comforting one.  It’s usually a generic AR-15 or M16, and associated with military weapons (though the term “modern sporting rifle” is how many gun owners refer to them). How about the name “Glock”—which has almost become a generic term for ‘any plastic gun’?  I can tell you with all the bad press Glocks get, the homely little gun doesn’t generate much warmth on looks alone.

Don’t think it’s only people who don’t shoot who are susceptible to these aesthetic judgments. Hell, most gun writers and even owners call Glocks “ugly” – as in “ugly as sin, but very functional.” I’ve done that (see just above) and I’ve even taken the position many times before that I dislike polymer stocks of almost any sort, while I have gone out of my way to praise wood stocks on many guns.

And why not?  If you were planning on buying supposedly a high-end gun, wouldn’t you expect that it would have a nice wood stock? I do. In fact, many premier gun manufacturers offer different quality levels for their wood stocks, with fancy or exotic wood commanding a higher price. And there’s a huge number of after-market manufacturers of grips for all manner of revolvers, not to mention 1911s.

As my Facebook friend said: “Metal and wood feels much better than plastic.”

Overall, this thinking is pretty harmless; most people are smart enough to recognize their aesthetic bias and not import it to other areas of their life. However, in the case of firearms the bias has been, well, weaponized.

One excellent example of this is the absurdity of the Assault Weapons Ban in the early ’90s.  To the thinking of many gun owners, this ban effectively criminalized a certain aesthetic – polymer functionality – while ignoring the more genteel “steel and wood” guns that were no different in terms of firepower or effectiveness.  People who actually understand guns were appalled by the ridiculousness of the AWB’s emphasis on superficial features, but it was passed because of how easy it was to garner support “against these evil (looking) weapons.” Another example was the bullshit stories about a “ceramic Glock” which didn’t contain enough steel parts to be detectable by X-ray machine or metal-detectors.

I’m not saying that firearms manufacturers should get away from the use of polymers. I own a number of guns with polymer stocks, and think that it is decidedly superior for many applications, not the least of which is helping to keep the cost down on many firearms. But I still love the warmth and familiarity of wood stocks, and I think that it is understandable that many people who don’t understand guns, who don’t own them, feel the same way. Historically, that’s what they’re used to.

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I’m not going to step any further into the political debate about guns here, and I’m turning comments off for this post.

But I thought that it was important to point out that some of that debate is driven by the aesthetics of guns, and our aesthetic bias is rooted in history and class perceptions. Perceptions that people may not even realize that they hold.

 

Jim Downey

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February 18, 2018 Posted by | .44 Magnum, Revolver | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reprise + New Review: Uberti Lightning and Taurus Thunderbolt pump carbines.

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, 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 2/27/2012. In addition, I am including a new but related review of the Taurus Thunderbolt following the original review.

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I have owned several lever guns over the years—a style I deeply enjoy. Currently, I have a Winchester 94AE in .44 magnum, which I love. However, I always keep my eyes open for a lever gun in .357 mag. It’s a cartridge that really begins to shine when paired with a carbine length barrel. Based on BBTI testing, it gains upwards of 50 percent velocity and pushes 1,200 foot/pounds of muzzle energy. But then the Uberti Lightning came into my life—a .357 pump carbine—and I wasn’t quite sure how to feel.

Don’t Forget Where You Come From

It’s a reproduction of the original Colt Lightning, originally manufactured in 1884 (but, curiously, listed as the Model 1875 by Uberti), and a pretty faithful reproduction at that. The only changes it has are to meet modern safety demands. Specifically, there’s a new hammer safety (of the transfer-bar variety), which eliminates the option to fire the gun just by pumping new rounds while keeping the trigger pulled. This also greatly reduces the chance of an accidental discharge.

Uberti Lightning

The Uberti Lightning I shot was the ‘short rifle’ version, meaning it has a 20-inch barrel, with a case-hardened frame and trigger guard. It’s a very attractive gun with a top-notch fit and finish, a beautiful walnut stock—smooth in back and checkered on the slide—and good detail work. The case-hardening is quite attractive, but the gun is available in just a blued version if you prefer.

When first loading the gun I experienced a common problem that Uberti cautions about (and something I was warned about by several other reviewers): it is relatively easy to get a cartridge wedged under the carrier that loads a round from the tubular magazine into the chamber. This can also happen when you cycle the gun, if you’re not careful to push the slide grip fully forward and fully back. I wasn’t the only one of the three of us trying the gun who had this problem, and each time we had to stop, dislodge the cartridge with a small screwdriver, then cycle the action fully.

It’s a flaw in the design, there’s little doubt about that. However, once we all got the hang of it, we had no problems firing the gun quickly and accurately.

And I think that is the nicest thing about the Lightning: once you learn how to use it, it is faster and easier to stay on target than using a lever gun, at least for me. And I have a fair amount of experience shooting lever guns. You can run through 10 rounds almost as fast as you can pull the trigger.

Shooting

The gun shot well, and was very accurate. At 25 yards (the longest distance we had available) it was no challenge to keep rounds in the X. Others have reported that it is just as accurate out to 50 yards, and I have no difficulty believing that.

Recoil is minimal, even with ‘full house’ 158 grain loads. The gun does have a curved metal buttplate, so the recoil-sensitive shooter could easily add something there to cushion recoil if necessary.

The gun is built robustly enough that it should handle just about any .357 magnum load out there without excess wear, and of course you can shoot .38 specials if you’re looking at reduced power needs or want to save a little coin at the range.

Conclusion

The Uberti website no longer lists the Lightning as available for sale, so if you’re interested in one of these guns you’ll need to hunt for it on your favorite firearms auction/sale site. The MSRP was $1259 last I saw.

So, if like me you’ve been thinking that you need to get a .357 lever gun, broaden your horizons a bit and consider the Uberti Lightning pump, instead. I am.

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And about a year ago, I found one. Well, kinda.

What I found was a Taurus Thunderbolt:

That’s a 26″ barrel, and the tube mag holds 14 rounds of .357 mag (I think it’ll hold 15 of .38 special, but I would have to double-check that). Stainless steel, with walnut stock and fore-grip. The MSRP was $705, and I got mine (new, unfired, but it had been a display model for Taurus, so it had been factory reconditioned) for about 2/3 that price. You can still find them on various auction/sales sites for about $600 and up.

The Taurus isn’t as nice as the Uberti was, in terms of the finish. Still, it’s quite nice enough, and the mechanical aspects all seem to be fine. Particularly after breaking it in (say 3-400 rounds), there’s much less tendency for the design flaw mentioned above to trip you up, and most of the people who have shot mine have gotten the hang of it quite quickly.

It really is a slick-shooting gun, and once you’re used to it you can fire the thing almost as fast as a semi-auto carbine. It’s also easy to keep the gun shouldered and on-target, which I find difficult to do with a lever-action gun. I’ve found the gun to be quite accurate, easily as good as the Uberti version.

Being able to ‘top off’ the tube mag is nice, and there’s no need to fuss with magazines — though reloading it is definitely slower, and an acquired skill. Also, you have to carry loose rounds in a pouch or pocket.

My Thunderbolt weighs more than the Lightning (8+ pounds compared to less than 6 for the Lightning), due to the 6″ longer barrel/magazine. That makes recoil even more manageable, and I haven’t had anyone complain about shooting it even with hot .357 magnum loads. With mild .38 special loads it’s like shooting a .22, and a lot of fun for plinking.

I’m really happy I found this gun, and again I find myself saying what I did in my original review six years ago: if you’re in the market for a lever-gun in .357 mag, consider opting for a pump version, instead. And definitely, if you get a chance to shoot either of these guns, take it. You’ll be glad you did.

 

Jim Downey

 

January 14, 2018 Posted by | .357 Magnum, .38 Special, .45 Colt | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment