Ballistics by the inch

Reprise: The Secret to Concealed Carry Comfort

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 8/10/2011. Images used are from that original article. Some additional observations at the end.



Psst – wanna know the secret? The real secret to carrying a concealed weapon comfortably?

It’s not the kind of gun. Almost any kind (well, within reason) will work.

It’s not the kind of holster. Again, almost any kind will work.

It’s not even the location of the holster/gun combination.

It’s the belt.

Yeah, the belt.

No, seriously. It’s the belt. I’m not kidding. It seems really trivial – a belt is a belt is a belt, right? Except it’s not. No, I didn’t believe it either, when I first started trying to sort out my preferred concealed carry set-up. But really, it’s the belt. So, save yourself some grief, and get a good belt. It makes a huge difference.

It makes sense if you stop to think about it. A properly fitting belt, and one designed not to just hold up your pants but to hold up your gun, makes a world of difference.

What do I mean by “designed to hold up your gun”? Easy – the belt needs to be both wide enough to distribute the force of your holster hanging off of it, and reinforced so as not to twist even a bit. If it twists, then the holster won’t have a chance to work properly. A high-riding OWB (Outside the Waist Band) holster will tend to lean away from the body if the belt isn’t a good one. That’ll push the grip of your gun away from you, sticking out where not only will it be obvious that you’re carrying, but may actually get in the way of everyday activities. And it’s damned embarrassing to have your gun banging off of doors and tables all the time.

A low-riding OWB holster (including all varieties of pouches and packs) won’t have that particular problem with an improper belt, but it may have a different problem: sag. Sad, saggy, sag. And if you have to keep pulling your belt up, you’re gonna look like a little kid who’s wearing hand-me-down clothes that are too big for him. Ugh. Not subtle.

If you wear an IWB (Inside the Waist Band) holster, then not only will you have sag, but your pistol may not even be secure. Because a lot of IWB holsters rely on the belt to keep the gun close to the body, and the pressure between the belt and the body as a retention aid. Without it, the gun may go flopping out. And you know what a faux pas it is to have your EDC skittering across the floor.

OK, you’re a special snowflake who only pocket carries, and the holster (you are using a pocket holster, right???) has no contact with your belt. Why should you care about having a good belt? Once again, because of the weight. Yeah, sure, there are guns out there in the sub-half pound weight class. OK, if you’re going to carry something that small and light and useless, you have my permission to not have a good belt. But if you carry something more than an itsy-bitsy pea-shooter, you still want a decent belt to avoid the “pants falling down” problem mentioned above.

Sure, there are carry methods which don’t really require a good belt. Off-body carry (say in a purse/man-purse, attache case, and so forth) doesn’t need it. Neither does a vest designed for concealed carry (I actually have one of these and love it). Some shoulder-holster rigs don’t use a belt-anchor, some do. If you use one of these methods, sorry I’ve wasted your time. Well, it’s not really a waste, because you should know this in case you ever want an alternative carry option, which would involve a belt. And besides, you want to be able to tell your friends to stop messing around and get a good belt.

Seriously – get a good belt. It should be at least 1.5″ wide. It should be long enough that you’re not on the last set of holes for the buckle. It should be reinforced in same way, either with a stiffener of plastic or some heavy leather inside/behind the decorative outside. It should come from either a custom holster maker (almost all of them either carry them, or recommend where you can get one), or from one of the big manufacturers of quality factory holsters – no, just getting a “stiff belt” at WalMart will not suffice. Yes, you’re going to pay more for a good belt – probably $50 on up.

But it is worth every penny. It will mean that your holsters work properly. It will distribute the weight around your waist correctly, not have it localized in one spot. It will stop your pants from drooping/pulling down.

I don’t know how many times I have told people to stop screwing around with trying to get a holster to do something it can’t without a good belt. It seems absurdly basic, but the right belt makes a huge difference. Huge.

That’s the secret: get a good belt.

There, did I say it enough times that you believe me?


This is still one of the pieces of advice I give out regularly. And it is still the one that people dismiss most readily. Until they try a real belt with their carry rig, and see just how much of a factor a proper belt really is. So, no kidding: get a good belt. Do it sooner rather than later. You’ll be glad you did.

Jim Downey


October 1, 2017 Posted by | Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reprise: When is it Time to Take Away the Keys to the Gun Cabinet? — Alzheimer’s and Gun Ownership

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 7/29/2011. Some additional observations at the end.


I’m not an expert on geriatrics. Nor do I have any formal training in psychology, therapy, or law. But I did just publish a book about being a care-provider for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, so I guess that gives me at least a little cred to address a very difficult subject: age-related mental decline and guns.

This is a hard topic to talk about. We all want to respect our elders, to acknowledge that they have more experience, perhaps more wisdom than we do. There’s a good chance that this issue concerns an aging parent, someone who perhaps even taught you how to safely handle a firearm. Or maybe it’s an aunt/uncle. Or even a spouse. Someone you care for. Someone you don’t want to see hurt.

Here’s a passage from the introduction to a chapter in my book discussing this:

Adults, almost by definition, are responsible for their own decisions and choices. And when you’re dealing with someone who you respect – someone you love – who had a long history of being a responsible adult, there is a natural reluctance to take that responsibility away. Even when it is clear that they are no longer capable of responsibility. Or even rational decisions.

There’s a whole range of ways this plays out. There are myriad legal and ethical considerations. Should the Alzheimer’s patient still be in charge of their own finances? Should she still be driving? Is she capable of signing legal documents?

Those are the big ones, but it’s the small ones which are harder. Harder on you, and on the patient. You don’t want to take away anything prematurely. Like decisions about what to wear. Or what to eat. Or what to read. Or even when to go to the bathroom. Each of those steps seems to be a diminishing, a loss of adulthood, even a loss of dignity.

This problem is most commonly seen in the “when do we take the car keys away?” question, which usually comes up well before someone has traveled very far along the road to dementia. And many states have mechanisms in place to address it – by requiring people over a given age to take driving tests, or putting the onus on doctors to report when a patient should no longer be driving. But to the best of my knowledge, there is no mechanism in place in any state that addresses the question of aging as it relates to gun ownership. So this is left up to the friends and families.

As I think it should be, ideally. The problem is that too often those friends and family members are unwilling to have that hard conversation. Going back to the matter of driving, I have known people who would refuse to allow their own children or spouse to ride with an elderly person who was still driving, and yet were still not willing to discuss the matter with said elderly person. Yeah, they were willing to risk the life of the elderly person in question, as well as strangers on the road, when they knew full well that the person should not still be driving. All because they were unwilling to have an uncomfortable conversation and perhaps intervene.

So, when should you have that very difficult discussion?

Preferably, before it becomes an issue. Well before. If it is someone you respect, then it is someone you should be able to talk with about this in a non-confrontational way, well in advance of any problem. Ask them if they have thought about it – the chances are, it has crossed their mind. Put it in terms of “Have you thought about this? How are you going to handle it?” Because that shows that they are the ones still in control, and that you respect their decision. See what they have to say.

What if things are already past that point? Well, then it depends. If they are not very far along the road, then you may still be able to talk with them about the matter (many different kinds of age-related dementia manifest sporadically, with periods when the person is more lucid than others). Try it, see what you think. With luck, you can gain their cooperation in making a decision. If that goes well, then there’s no problem.

If it doesn’t go well? Then you have some very hard choices to make. First, are you in a position where you can act legally (that is, do you have Power of Attorney?) or can work with whoever is legally responsible for the well-being of this person? If so, then you have to decide whether the person is safe with access to firearms or not. If so, chances are you can just make plans for them for the future when/if their mental condition deteriorates.

If they’re not safe having guns around? Then you have to do something about that. “Lose” the keys to the safe/trigger locks. “Clean” the guns and remove the firing pin. Persuade them that the time has come for them to pass their guns on to others who will cherish them. Something. If they are no longer capable of being responsible, then you have to be responsible for them.

And if you are not in a position to act legally? Then talk with the person who is. Tell them your concerns. Offer to help them, particularly if the responsible party is someone who doesn’t understand firearms. They may not know what to do and will welcome your help. It’s heartbreaking to hear of someone turning an heirloom or collector’s piece over to a police “gun buy-back” program, where it’ll just be destroyed.

Lastly, for all of us who are of a certain age – start thinking now what should be done with your firearms in the event that you start to suffer from mental deterioration due to age or illness. Who can you trust to see things objectively, perhaps come to you with some hard questions? Talk to that person, preferably now. Put something in writing, perhaps in your Will. It’ll save everyone a lot of heartache later.


It’s been six years since that piece was published, and there is very little else I would add to it. I’m glad to see that this topic has gained some attention recently, as it deserves it.

Above all, I’d say be sensitive. But also be willing to have that difficult conversation before tragedy strikes.


Jim Downey

PS: the first of each month I make Her Final Year available for free download from Amazon. Please feel free to share that with anyone who may benefit from it.

September 17, 2017 Posted by | Discussion. | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reprise: Clean Up Your Act — Get Rid of Your Dirty Magazines

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 3/8/2012. Some additional observations at the end.


OK, we’re all adults here. I think that the time has come to talk about something a little filthy, something that has plagued shooters for decades and something we need to put a stop to, for the good of all of us gun owners.  The time has come to clean up our act and get rid of all of our dirty magazines.

No, not *that* kind of dirty magazine (jeez – get your mind out of the gutter!).  I’m talking about the kind of magazine that goes into your firearm. Sheesh.

Now, be honest: when was the last time you inspected and cleaned out your magazines? I mean took them apart and cleaned them thoroughly inside and out? Examined the parts for unusual wear? And then lubed ‘em properly with gun lube before putting them back together?

Seriously, this is one of those details that a lot of people just never think about: that to function properly, a semi-auto firearm (or a select-fire one, for that matter) needs a working magazine and while the magazine is usually a pretty simple component of a pistol, it too needs to be cleaned and maintained regularly (just like any other mechanical component of your gun). Otherwise it can impede smooth functioning of your firearm, and that can lead to very bad things called “weapons malfunctions” and “failures to feed”. Which can lead to the dreaded “oops, I’m dead” problem in a self-defense situation.

Happily, almost all modern handguns magazines have been designed so that the average person can disassemble and then easily reassemble them, though over the years I have known plenty of people who either didn’t know this or didn’t care (or really just forget to check/clean their magazines regularly).


Magazine Components

Some terminology before we go any further. Your typical magazine has four main parts:

  1. Body – this is the overall housing.
  2. Spring – the internal part that pushes cartridges up into the pistol.
  3. Follower – a small metal or plastic plate on top of the spring which guides cartridges.
  4. Floor plate – the bit at the bottom of the body that holds the spring and follower in place.

One other part I want to mention, though it is not a ‘component’ is the (feed) lips. This is the upper part of the magazine body that helps to position cartridges properly within the pistol so that they can be transferred from the magazine into the chamber of the gun.  Sometimes these can become pinched, which could lead to failure to feed.


Taking apart Your Magazine

The good news is you should be able to disassemble most if not all pistol magazine designs out there.  The bad news is that methods for this vary according to the style of magazine (i.e. Glock versus Colt 1911 magazines), so you should definitely consult your manufacturer’s instructions before attempting to take one of your handgun magazines apart.  In general though, here’s how you do it:

  1. Remove all the cartridges from your magazine.
  2. Examine the magazine, looking for obvious wearing or breakage (rare, but it happens).
  3. Look at the floor plate. There should be some variety of clip or clasp that keeps it in place and it might need a small part to be moved, or a little spring latch tripped (usually with a small rod or nail).
  4. Slide off the bottom of the body once you remove the floor plate. Be careful when doing this, since the spring inside the magazine will be under some pressure and may want to shoot out (finding this smaller piece once its been lost can be a challenge too).
  5. Take out the spring and follower from the bottom of the magazine. The follower may be mounted to the top of the spring, or it may be free and just held in place by spring tension. Try to pay attention to this as you remove the spring.



Now that your magazine is completely disassembled, you should be able to look up inside the body and see out the top where the lips are located. The interior sides of the body are where dirt can accumulate. This can interfere with the smooth movement of the follower. It can also retain moisture, and that can cause rusting.  Here’s how you should proceed:

  1. Clean the inside of the body thoroughly, using your usual gun cleaners and tools.
  2. Look at the top of the body, where the lips are. Make sure that these are cleaned inside and out as well.
  3. Examine the spring, checking for built-up dirt or rust. Wipe down with a rag & some cleaner, then lubricate lightly.
  4. Do the same for the follower and floor plate.
  5. Lightly lubricate all surfaces.

Now you’re ready to reassemble the magazine. Just reverse the steps for taking it apart, being careful that the follower and spring go in correctly (this matters on many, but not all, magazines). Hold the spring in place and snap the floor plate back into position.

Check the magazine to make sure that the follower moves freely when under pressure, and that the empty magazine fits back into the gun properly, and locks into place. Now you’re ready to use it again.

Words of Wisdom

There are two additional items I want to mention. One, and this is a discussion that comes up frequently in firearms forums, is whether you will hurt the springs in a magazine by leaving the magazine full of ammunition. Everything I know about springs, and every engineer I’ve ever talked with about this, both say “no.” It should be perfectly safe to load a magazine fully, put it into proper storage, and then leave it for years without causing a problem.

And two, I no longer “top off” my magazines. “Topping off” is where you fill a magazine, place it into a pistol, then chamber a round, and then remove the magazine and place another cartridge into the magazine before replacing it. You’ll see a lot of people refer to a given gun as “10 + 1″ or “14 + 1″. This is what they mean, and it is tempting to do in order to have an extra cartridge.

I used to do this regularly and usually I didn’t have any problems with my various pistols when I did. But every once in a while I’d get a failure of a gun to cycle properly after the first shot. I discussed it with friends, and one buddy who is an armorer for a SWAT team said that he’d stopped “topping off” for his department, and that it eliminated these rare but occasional problems. His theory was that the additional pressure of a completely full magazine on the underside of the bolt/slide operating mechanism slowed it down just enough to mess up the timing of the gun when it was fired, and so presented a problem.

Since I’ve adopted the practice of regularly cleaning my gun and filling my magazine only to capacity, I haven’t had any feeding problems and, if only for my own peace of mind, I’ve just made it my routine. Personally, I’d much rather have a gun which will reliably shoot the second round than have ‘one extra’ round in the mag. Your preference, like your mileage, may vary.


About eighteen months after I wrote the above, I ran into some unexpected problems with mags for my Glock 21, which I had upgraded to handle the .460 Rowland cartridge. The whole thing is discussed here, but basically what was happening was that the additional power/speed of the .460 Rowland was causing damage to the front of the body of the magazines I was using. To the best of my memory, this is the first time I had actually had this kind of problem with a firearm. Had I not had this article still kicking ar0und in my head, it might have taken me even longer to sort out what was going on. (Now that I have shifted over to using .45 Super instead of .460 Rowland, I haven’t had any subsequent problems with this.)

I don’t take apart and clean my magazines after every trip to the range. But I try to remember to do it after a couple of trips, and that seems sufficient.

I have also learned the wisdom of cleaning *new* mags when I first get them (or when I buy a new firearm) — they’re often surprisingly dirty, and on a couple of occasions I have found mild corrosion on either the spring or inside the body of the magazine, because they had been stored in improper conditions or there was a minor problem with their manufacturing process. So, it doesn’t hurt to check.


Jim Downey

August 20, 2017 Posted by | .45 ACP, .45 Super, .460 Rowland, Discussion., General Procedures | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 | Anecdotes, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , | 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: Share and share alike — swapping weapons at the range.

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 6/09/2011. Some additional observations at the end.


Colt Anaconda

“Wow! What the hell was that?”

I smiled, looked over at the young guys two lanes over at the public range. They had been shooting one guy’s Glock 19. I’d kept an eye on them, as I do whenever anyone else is there the same time I am. They’d been safe in how they had handled the gun, how they conducted themselves. “.44 Magnum. Wanna try it?”

“Really?” asked the one guy while the other cleared the Glock, set it down on the bench with the slide open . We were the only people on the pistol side of the range. They came walking over.

I popped the spent casings from the cylinder, dropped them in a plastic bag. Leaving the cylinder open, I handed my Anaconda to the first guy. “Sure. Ever shot a revolver?”

* * * * * * *

I don’t often go shooting at the public range. Oh, it’s close to my house and therefore convenient, but I also belong to a private club about the same distance away. However, now and then I’ll want to get out to do some shooting, but the private club will be reserved for training/classes, so I’ll slip out to the State range for a bit of recoil therapy. It’s a nice set-up, with concrete paving and nice large concrete shooting benches/tables under protection from the weather.

When I do go there, in addition to what I want to get some practice with, I’ll usually take along something a little bit unusual. Maybe a flintlock. Or the Anaconda. A derringer. My Sub2000. Something most people don’t see regularly.

It gives me an excuse to talk to people, if they express an interest in whatever it is I have with me.

* * * * * * *

“Ever shot a revolver?”

“Um, no,” said the first guy. He looked at his buddy. His buddy looked at me, shook his head.

“Well,” I said, “they’re old-school, but a lot of people still like ‘em. They’re simpler to shoot in some ways, and you can get more power in a revolver than most semis. ”

“Is this the gun that Dirty Harry used?” asked the second guy, holding the gun that his buddy had passed to him.

“Close. This is a Colt Anaconda. Dirty Harry had a Smith & Wesson Model 29. But they’re the same caliber – both .44 Magnums – and about the same size.” I took the gun back, gave them a quick lesson in how it worked, how to shoot it safely. I started ‘em with light practice loads, then a cylinder of full magnums.

A few minutes later they were both grinning like kids on Christmas.

* * * * * * *

It’s not so much that I want to meet people. There are plenty of ways to do that, and I have a lot of friends and acquaintances.

Rather, it’s a way of sharing something I know about and enjoy. Maybe do a little teaching. Maybe do a little learning. I do know a bit about guns, but there’s always more to learn.

And usually I find that if I offer to let people try my guns out, they’ll return the favor. I don’t care how good a collection you have – no one has everything.

* * * * * * *

The boom of the last full-house .44 Magnum echoed around us as the fellow opened the cylinder and handed my gun back to me. Like I said, he and his buddy were grinning like crazy.

“Man, that was great! Thanks!”


“Wanna try my Glock?”

“Yeah, if you don’t mind.” I’ve shot plenty of Glocks before, and own a couple in .45 ACP, so this was nothing new to me. But it was a way of showing my respect for these guys.

We walked over to their lane. He handed me the third-generation Glock 19. It’d been well used, but seemed to be in pretty good shape. “It’s my concealed carry gun.”

“Nice. Good gun for that.”

“Thanks,” he said. I swear, he stood a little taller.

* * * * * * *

Maybe it’s a Midwestern thing. I haven’t been to shooting ranges at a lot of places elsewhere in the country. But here, whenever you go out shooting with people, everyone has to try everything. And if people seem sane at the range, many times I’ve seen folks share guns with strangers. Yeah, you wanna be a bit careful about who you hand your guns over to, but if they’ve been dangerous or inept, I’ll usually find a reason to not stick around the range very long anyway.

I’m curious – how is it in your neck of the woods? Do people share? Do you offer to let others try your guns, or ask to try theirs?


When I originally wrote this, I hadn’t yet been to New Zealand. But as noted in this series I did for, I discovered that sharing guns with strangers is common there as well. And since then I have also been out to other parts of the US, and seen much the same. It’s not always the case, and as noted above you have to exercise some judgment, but it seems to be a fairly widespread practice. I consider this to be a good thing.

Jim Downey

July 2, 2017 Posted by | .44 Magnum, .45 ACP, 9mm Luger (9x19), Revolver | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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