Ballistics by the inch

Reprise: the *other* perfect concealed carry revolver(s).

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 11/26/2011.  Some additional observations at the end.


The Smith & Wesson models 442 and 642 revolvers have their roots back more than 60 years ago. Needless to say there have been any number of variations on the J-frame theme over time (there are currently 49 versions offered on the S&W website), but perhaps the most popular has been the Airweight 642 (in stainless steel or brushed aluminum, and a variety of grips). The 642 certainly has been a very good seller, and has been at or near the top of S&W’s sales for most of the last decade. The 442 and 642 models are identical in every way except finish (the 442 is blued), but the 642 is more popular.

Why is this gun so popular? Well, it does everything right, at least as far as being a self-defense tool. It’s small, lightweight, hides well in a pocket or purse, is intuitively easy to shoot, and it handles the dependably potent .38 Special cartridge.

But let me expand on those points.

The first three are all tied together. For anyone who is looking for a gun to carry concealed, the J-frame size has a lot going for it. The 642’s barrel is one- and 7/8-inches. Overall length is just a bit more than six inches. Though the cylinder is wider than most semi-autos, the overall organic shape of the gun seems to make it hide better in a pocket or behind clothing. The Airweight 642 weighs just 15 ounces unloaded, and not a lot more loaded. For most people, this is lightweight enough to carry in a pocket or purse without really noticing it. Put it in a belt holster and you’ll not even know it is there.

Easy to shoot? Well, yeah, though it takes a lot of work to be really accurate with one at more than close self-defense distances. The 642 is Double Action Only (DAO), which means that the hammer is cocked and then fired all with one pull of the trigger – nothing else needs to be done. There’s no safety to fumble with. Just point and click. Almost anyone can be taught to use it with adequate accuracy at self-defense distances (say seven yards) in a single trip to the range.

The modern .38 Special +P cartridge is more than adequate for “social work”. From my 642 we tested five different premium defensive loads and four of the five were between 900 and 1000 fps. Tests from Brassfetcher have shown that these cartridges both penetrate and expand well, too.

One more thing – the design of the Centennial models, with the internal hammer, means that they are snag-free. You don’t have to worry about some part of the gun catching on clothing or other items when drawing it from concealment. This can save your life.

With all the good being said, I do have two criticisms. The first one is minor, and easily fixed: the trigger. Oh, it’s good, but it could be a little bit smoother right out of the box (like Ruger’s LCR). The good news is that this can usually be worked out with just some dry-firing exercises.

The second is the front site. S&W is still offering the guns with just a simple ramp sight. They should switch over to some variety of tritium sight or fiber-optic (or combination), as they have done with many of their other J-frame models. This is one change which would help in low-light conditions.

So, there ya go. Want the nearly perfect pocket pistol? You’d be hard pressed to do better than a 642 or 442.


There’s not a lot I would change in the seven years since I first wrote this, which in itself says a hell of a lot about the popularity of the 442/642 models. They’re still ubiquitous, high quality, and effective self-defense guns.

After that was written we did another large BBTI test which included the .38 Special cartridge, which confirmed what I already knew: that while there are indeed some better and some worse performing brands of ammo available for the snubbie, for the most part all decent ‘self-defense’ ammo performs adequately. While my friend Grant Cunningham recommends the Speer 135gr JHP Short-barrel ammo (which I used to carry and still like), I now prefer Buffalo Bore’s 158gr LSWCHP +P for my M&P 360 — I’ve repeatedly tested that ammo at 1050fps out of my gun, which gives me a muzzle energy of 386 ft-lbs. But it’s not for the recoil-shy, particularly out of a 11.4oz gun. As always, YMMV.

While S&W hasn’t changed the sight offerings on the 442/642, there are lasers available for the guns, which some people like. Personally, at the range which these guns are likely to be used, I don’t see the benefit. But if you like a laser, go for it.

Bottom line, the 442/642, like the Ruger LCR, are nearly perfect revolvers for concealed carry in either a pocket or a belt holster.


Jim Downey


March 11, 2018 Posted by | .38 Special | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reprise: Is the Ruger LCR a perfect concealed carry revolver?

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 5/3/2012.  Some additional observations at the end.


The Sturm, Ruger & Company line of LCR composite-frame revolvers have been available for a few years now (2009) and since expanded from the basic .38 Special that weighs 13.5 ounces, to a 17-ounce version that can handle full .357 magnum loads, and a slightly heavier one that shoots .22 Long Rifle.

Ruger makes excellent firearms and I have grown up with them, but I was more than a little skeptical at the prospect of a revolver with a composite frame when I first heard about it. And the initial images released of the gun didn’t belay my skepticism.

But then the first Ruger LCR revolvers were actually introduced and I found out more about them. The frame is actually only partly composite while the part that holds the barrel, cylinder, and receiver is all aluminum. The internal components like the springs, firing pin, trigger assembly, et cetera are all housed in the grip frame and are well supported and plenty robust. My skepticism turned to curiosity.

When I had a chance to actually handle and then shoot the LCR, my curiosity turned to enthusiasm. Since then, having shot several different guns of both the .38 Special and .357 LCR models, I have become even more impressed. Though I still think the LCR is somewhat lacking in the aesthetics department. But in the end it does what it is designed to do.

Like the S&W J-frame revolvers, the models it was meant to compete with, the LCR is an excellent self-defense tool. It’s virtually the same size as the J-frames and the weight is comparable (depending on which specific models you’re talking about). So it hides as well in a pocket or a purse because it has that same general ‘organic’ shape.

The difference is, the LCR is, if anything, even easier to shoot than your typical J-frame Double Action Only revolver (DAO, where the hammer is cocked and then fired in one pull of the trigger). I’m a big fan of the Smith & Wesson revolvers, and I like their triggers. But the LCR has a buttery smooth, easy-to-control trigger right out of the box, which is as good or better than any S&W. Good trigger control is critical with a small DAO gun and makes a world of difference for accuracy at longer distances. I would not have expected it, but the LCR is superior in this regard.

Like any snub-nosed revolver, the very short sight radius means that these guns can be difficult to shoot accurately at long distance (say out to 25 yards). But that’s not what they are designed for. They’re designed to be used at self-defense distances (say out to seven yards). And like the J-frame DAO models, even a new shooter can become proficient quickly.

I consider the .38 Special model sufficient for self defense. It will handle modern +P ammo, something quite adequate to stop a threat in the hands of a competent shooter. And the lighter weight is a bit of an advantage. But there’s a good argument to be made for having the capability to shoot either .38 Special or .357 magnum cartridges.

My only criticism of the LCR line is that they haven’t yet been around long enough to eliminate potential aging problems. All of the testing that has been done suggests that there won’t be a problem and I trust that, but only time will truly tell if they hold their value over the long haul.

So, there ya go. To paraphrase what I said about the S&W Centennial models: “Want the nearly perfect pocket gun? You’d be hard pressed to do better than a Ruger LCR.”


It’s been six years since I wrote this, which means the early versions of the LCR have now been around for almost a decade. And as far as I know, there hasn’t yet been a widespread problem with them holding up to normal, or even heavy, use. So much for that concern.

And Ruger has (wisely, I think) expanded the cartridge options for the LCR even further. You can still get the classic 5-shot .38 Special and .357 Magnum versions, as well as the 6-shot .22 Long Rifle one. But now you can also get 6-shot .22 Magnum or .327 Magnum versions, as well as a 5-shot offering in 9mm. Each cartridge offers pros and cons, of course, as well as plenty of opportunity for debate using data from BBTI. Just remember that the additional of the cylinder on a revolver effectively means you’re shooting a 3.5″ barrel gun in the snubbie model, according to our charts. Personally, I like this ammo out of a snub-nosed revolver, and have consistently chono’d it at 1050 f.p.s. (or 386 foot-pounds of energy) out of my gun.

For me, though, the most exciting addition has been the LCRx line, which offers an exposed hammer and SA/DA operation:

I like both the flexibility of operation and the aesthetics better than the original hammerless design. But that’s personal preference, nothing more.

The LCR line has also now been around long enough that there are a wide selection of accessories available, from grips to sights to holsters to whatever. Just check the Ruger Shop or your favorite firearm supply source.

So, a perfect pocket gun? Yeah, I think so. Also good for a holster, tool kit, or range gun.


Jim Downey


February 25, 2018 Posted by | .22, .22WMR, .327 Federal Magnum, .357 Magnum, .38 Special | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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, and it originally ran 3/22/2012.  Some additional observations at the end.


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

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

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.

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.


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.


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


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

Reprise: Model Creep — When Guns Aren’t So NEW and IMPROVED

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 3/29/2012.  Some additional observations at the end.


Whenever I read or hear the ad terms “new”, “improved”, or “now with even more features” I find that another cliché bubbles up inside of me:  you damned kids get off my lawn!

It makes my ass twitch.

That’s because I’m feeling a bit like a crotchety ol’ coot these days and I think I know the reason. I have been reviewing a lot of classic guns recently and during my research for these articles I have been noticing entirely too much model creep in these vintage offerings. What is model creep? When you take a basic, functional item, and keep adding ‘extras’ and ‘improvements’ every year or two in order to make it the “new hotness”, only to find you’re slowly sacrificing all those simple qualities that made it a classic to start with.

Manufacturers do this in order to keep their product line fresh and exciting. It gives the ad wizards something to hype. It gives the dealers something to push. Hell, it even gives gun writers something to review (I’m as guilty as anyone).

But it still makes my ass twitch. Why? Because often, the “NEW!” “IMPROVED!” features are just bloat. Sometimes they take a perfectly fine gun and needlessly complicate it or change the design just enough that parts are no longer interchangeable between models. Or maybe accessories you had for one model will no longer work with a new model. The frame is just a little bit bigger, thanks to that rail they added. So the holster you love and have finally gotten broken in just the way you like it no longer fits. Or those special exotic wood grips that have been something of your trademark at the range won’t mount on the new gun. Or the stockpile of magazines you’ve built up is now useless.

To my thinking, these changes effectively render the previous model obsolete for a frugal person like myself And it makes finding parts for it difficult or impossible. I just want to grab the manufacturer and holler in their ear that the damned gun was fine, and to leave it well enough alone.

What makes my ass twitch even more though than the degradation of classic firearms is the torrent of tacticool “novelty” guns currently being released by many gun manufacturers. Sometimes I feel like a maker will produce a gun, just to have their name in that niche market and without really intending to make a quality product.  Half a dozen pistol-grip pump shotguns, one of them for shooting Zombies?


At what point is it just overload? At what point does the average consumer have their eyes glaze over because of a thousand different choices, most of which seem to be nuanced beyond all reason? No, thank you, I do not need the bayonet option for my J-frame. I’ll pass on the modular Picatinny rail system on my muzzle-loader. And I don’t want to have to select from 33 different finishes for my carry gun.

And then there are the inevitable changes from year to year:

“Oh, sorry, that style laser grip is no longer available, but there’s a new *green* laser that you can get which should fit your gun.”

“Apologies, but that basic trigger has been replaced by this new titanium trigger which weighs three grams less and is Very Cool Looking!”

“Your old rubber grips have been discontinued, but the replacement silicon-rubber grips with Grippier Grip Dots will work at just slightly more $.”

My ass is twitching. Gah. When did I turn 107?

Usually though, when I see the words, “new!” “improved!” in glossy script in gun magazines, it just means that the gun makers figured out a new way of making a part for a penny less. Though they may hype it as such, the technology isn’t as much of an improvement to the gun’s ability to shoot as you may believe and though the Mad Men aren’t lying when they say it’s “better” (yeah, sure, whatever) what they really mean is just that it is “cheaper”.  And usually not cheaper for you because rarely, if ever, do we see this lower cost of production passed along to the consumer.

But hey, it is the new hotness, so tradition dictates the gun makers are gonna charge you a bit more for their newest products. You’ll like it. Really! Trust us!

The truth is that this has been going on forever — but it is also one of the basic ways that long-term improvements are made to the firearms we own and shoot. A little change here, a little tweak there. A slight modification to the grips. A new sight which is better for low-light situations. A finish that protects better and reduces glare. An honest-to-goodness improvement to the recoil spring which means more reliable operation as well as reduced recoil.

These improvements wouldn’t have been made if not for manufacturers trying new things. It’s a kind of evolution, driven by competition. Each manufacturer wants to make their product just a little more appealing to the customer, so that they will sell more and make more money and all these tiny little steps add up over time (even if some of them are in the wrong direction), creating substantial improvement when you look at the long arc of history. Lord knows that just about any of the current ‘micro .380s’ are a hell of a lot better than the .25 or .32 pocket guns of my youth – they’re smaller, lighter, more reliable, and pack a bigger wallop.

OK, my ass is twitching a little less.


Gods, I’m glad the whole Zombie thing seems to have finally run it’s course. I’d much rather ignore the spate of “NFA-compliant non-shotgun firearms” which are suddenly so popular. I think *those* things were sponsored by the Guild of Orthopedic Surgeons, to make sure that their members would have more wrist repair operations to do. But at least they’re marginally less obnoxious than the Zombie crap.

Yeah, OK, I’m as much of an old coot as I was when I wrote the article six years ago.


Jim Downey



February 4, 2018 Posted by | .25 ACP, .32 ACP | , , , , , , , , , | 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, 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.

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.


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.


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.


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

Looking back over 2017

Time for the traditional New Years post …

Looking back at last year’s post, I see that not a lot has changed. BBTI had a total of 433,673 visitors in 2017. That’s about 14,000 fewer than in 2016, though there was a significant uptick in the monthly numbers towards the end of last year. And there’s a slightly different mix of referring sites this year:

  3. MechTech Systems
  4. The Firearm Blog
  6. Survivalist Boards
  7. reddit
  8. Rimfire Central
  9. Active Response Training
  10. M4 Carbine

I decided to drop Wikipedia this year (along with the various search engines), but it would have been in about the same position as last year. And we saw one of last year’s referring sites — The Firing Line — drop from the list. The two new names are Rimfire Central and M4 Carbine, both active discussion sites. That continues to indicate that BBTI is being cited by real people who are discussing firearms, who are recommending firearms, who are using our data to help make important decisions. Thanks to you all who share our site with others!

As we head into our tenth year, we currently don’t have any plans for new testing. But who knows? If you have a favorite handgun cartridge which you would like to see us revisit … or a new one to recommend … let us know.

And have a great 2018!


Jim Downey


January 1, 2018 Posted by | Data, Discussion., Links | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Reprise: Review of the finest revolver ever made — the Colt Python

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 1/12/2012.  Some additional observations at the end.


Who in their right mind would pay $1,200 . . . $1,500 . . . $2,000 . . . or more for a used production revolver? Lots of people – if it is a Colt Python.

There’s a reason for this. The Colt Python may have been a production revolver, but it was arguably the finest revolver ever made, and had more than a little hand-fitting and tender loving care from craftsmen at the height of their skill in the Colt Custom Shop.

OK, I will admit it – I’m a Python fanboy. I own one with a six-inch barrel, which was made in the early 1980s. And I fell in love with these guns the first time I shot one, back in the early 1970s. That’s my bias. Here’s my gun:


But the Python has generally been considered exceptional by shooters, collectors, and writers for at least a generation. Introduced in 1955, it was intended from the start to be a premium revolver – the top of the line for Colt. Initially designed to be a .38 Special target revolver, Colt decided instead to chamber it for the .357 Magnum cartridge, and history was made.

What is exceptional about the Python? A number of different factors.

First is the look of the gun. Offered originally in what Colt called Royal Blue and nickel plating (later replaced by a polished stainless steel), the finish was incredible. The bluing was very deep and rich, and still holds a luster on guns 40 to 50 years old. The nickel plating was brilliant and durable, much more so than most guns of that era. The vent rib on top of the barrel, as well as the full-lug under, gave the Python a distinctive look (as well as contributing to the stability of shooting the gun). It had excellent target sights, pinned in front (but adjustable) and fully adjustable in the rear.

The accuracy of the Python was due to a number of factors. The barrel was bored with a very slight taper towards the muzzle, which helped add to accuracy. The way the cylinder locks up on a (properly functioning) Python meant that there was no ‘play’ in the relationship between the chamber and the barrel. The additional weight of the Python (it was built on a .41 Magnum frame for strength) helped tame recoil. And the trigger was phenomenally smooth in either double or single action. Seriously, the trigger is like butter, with no staging or roughness whatsoever – it is so good that this is frequently the thing that people remember most about shooting a Python.

The Python had minimal changes through the entire production run (it was discontinued effectively in 1999, though some custom guns were sold into this century). It was primarily offered in four barrel lengths: 2.5-, 4-, 6-, and 8-inch, though there were some special productions runs with a three-inch barrel. Likewise, it was primarily chambered in .357 Magnum, though there were some special runs made in .38 Special and .22 Long Rifle.

The original grips were checkered walnut. Later models had Pachmayr rubber grips. Custom grips are widely available, and very common on used Pythons (such as the cocobolo grips seen on mine).

The Python was not universally praised. The flip side of the cylinder lock-up mechanism was that it would wear and get slightly out-of-time (where the chamber alignment was no longer perfect), necessitating gunsmith work. Mine needs this treatment, and I need to ship it off to Colt to have the work done. And the high level of hand-finishing meant that the Python was always expensive, and the reason why Colt eventually discontinued the line.

If you have never had a chance to handle or shoot a Python, and the opportunity ever presents itself, jump on it. Seriously. There are very few guns that I think measure up to the Python, and here I include even most of the mostly- or fully-custom guns I have had the pleasure of shooting. It really is a gun from a different era, a manifestation of what is possible when craftsmanship and quality are given highest priority. After you’ve had a chance to try one of these guns, I think you’ll begin to understand why they have held their value to a seemingly irrational degree.


On average, for online gun sellers, the Colt Python sells for more than $2,000, but there are occasions where you’ll find it for less than a grand.


The value of the Pythons has continued to rise in the almost six years since I wrote that, and I’m just glad I got it before the market went nuts. I haven’t seen one sell for less than a thousand bucks in years.

I did send my Python off to Colt to have it re-timed before the last of the smiths who had originally worked on the guns retired, and it came back in wonderful condition. I don’t know what all they did to it, but it cost me a ridiculously modest amount of money — like under $100. It was clear that there was still a lot of pride in that product.

Whenever I get together with a group of people to do some shooting, I usually take the Python along and encourage people to give it a try. More than a few folks have told me that it was one of their “Firearms bucket list” items, and I have been happy to give them a chance to check it off. Because, really, everyone who appreciates firearms should have a chance to shoot one of these guns at some point in their lives — it’d be a shame to just leave such a gun in the safe.


Jim Downey


November 7, 2017 Posted by | .22, .357 Magnum, .38 Special, .41 Magnum, Discussion., Revolver | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reprise: Steyr M/S handguns.

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 about six years ago, and it originally ran without a byline as an “Editor’s Review” for just the M-series guns. But everything I said in that applies to the S-series, which are just a half inch shorter in the barrel and grip, so I have tweaked the content accordingly. Images used are from that original article. Some additional observations at the end.


The first “plastic” handgun I purchased was a Steyr, an original model S9. Since then I’ve owned or shot almost all the different models that have been available in the United States. I love these handguns — just want to get that bias out in the open first thing.

The Steyr M and S-series was first available here in the late 1990s. Initially they were available in 9mm and .40 S&W (the M/S9 and M/S40 models, respectively) and then later in .357 Sig. Minor revisions were made to the design in the mid 2000s, which eliminated the manual safety, tweaked the grip shape slightly, and included an integral rail system under the barrel housing. These models were given the “-A1″ designation. Just recently Steyr made some additional minor changes to the operating mechanism, but maintained the “-A1″ designation.

A lot of handgun owners and reviewers actually considered the Steyr to be very competitive with the Glock guns, their equal if not superior in design and manufacture, and of a similar size, weight and capacity – in the case of the M-series, to the compact Glock models. But Steyr Mannlicher really screwed up their introduction into the US market, leading to shortages, unreliable service support, and few available parts and accessories. For this reason the guns didn’t catch on with the general firearm-owning public, the brand was tarnished, and these guns went for a substantial discount. When I bought my first Steyr new, I got it for about half what a similar model Glock was going for. Twice now Steyr Mannlicher has tried to re-introduce these handguns, and I think this time they may have gotten it right. Currently the M-A1 series is going for about the same price as similar Glock models.

So, what do I like about the Steyr handguns? They shoot great. They have a very low bore-axis, meaning that the position of the barrel relative to your hand is close – this minimizes muzzle flip, allowing for less perceived recoil and easier follow-up shots. I consider the ergonomics superior to the Glock – they have a different grip angle that just points more naturally for me. The unusual trapezoidal sight system is very intuitive, and leads the eye to quicker target acquisition.

The guns are very well made, with excellent fit and finish of all parts. The trigger is a DAO – what Steyr calls “Reset Action”, which means that it is partially pre-cocked (about 72 percent) giving a shorter trigger pull with about 5.5-pound pull. This makes for faster shots with less motion. The -A1 series has multiple safety systems – internal, external, and a key-lock for access control. The older series also have a manual safety, which I personally like, but it can be ignored or even removed without presenting operating problems.

Dislikes? Well, as far as I know, there is no option for lefties – no way to easily operate the slide lock or magazine release with the left hand only. Accessories are still pretty limited, though the folks over at the Steyr Club have pretty good lists of what is available and adaptable. And one odd thing – once when racking the slide on my M357 my hand slipped, and my thumb caught in the rear sight – the trapezoidal structure snagged and ripped my thumb up pretty good, putting my shooting for the day to a nasty end.

So, if you get a chance, give a Steyr a try. Everyone who has shot mine has really liked the guns a lot, and more than a few have gone on to get their own.


I now only have the original S9 I got, having passed along the other models I had. But I still carry this gun a lot, I find it so reliable and comfortable. I have upgraded the sights to TruGlo TFOs, which I have done for most of my CCW firearms. I loved the original trapezoidal sights, but the TFOs are much easier for my aging eyes in any light conditions, so it was a good change.

Steyr has added a couple new models to the line — an “L” for Large/Longslide, and a “C” for Compact/Concealed (basically, an S barrel and an M frame/grip) — but they still haven’t really figured out how to market the guns for the American market. So they’re still relatively unknown, which is a shame. I’ve come to appreciate Glocks in the last few years, and own several, but still think that the Steyr line of handguns are at least as good and usually a better price deal. YMMV, of course.


Jim Downey



November 3, 2017 Posted by | .357 SIG, .40 S&W, 9mm Luger (9x19), Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reflections upon a reflex sight.

I recently came across a really good sale on a Trijicon RMR reflex sight, and decided to take the plunge and add it to my Glock 21. I had handled and shot some other competition handguns with a reflex set-up, but I hadn’t yet tried one on a more-or-less stock gun intended for routine use, and wasn’t sure how well it would work or how I would like it.

My G21 had been set up to handle the .460 Rowland cartridge, complete with compensator, so it wasn’t exactly stock. You can see it here:

Converted G21 on left, G30S on right.

As I have previously noted, I have now changed over to using the .45 Super cartridge rather than the .460 Rowland because the .45 Super offers most of the benefits of the .460 Rowland without some of the disadvantages. But I have kept the conversion kit in place because it gives me more flexibility in ammo selection and more control of the gun. And since I don’t carry the G21, the extra mass/length of the compensator doesn’t make a difference in day-to-day use. Thinking along those lines, I figured that adding a reflex sight to the G21 wouldn’t cause a problem, and might make it an even better home defense firearm.

So along with the RMR I got an adapter plate which just slides into position where the rear sight of the Glock mounts. Mounting the optic just took a few minutes and no special tools other than a light hammer and brass punch. Here’s the result:

And this morning I had a chance to take it out to the range for testing, to see what I thought of it.

I like it. A lot.

It took a little getting used to, since I have about 50 years of shooting experience which has conditioned me to always look for the front sight on a gun, and place that on the target. The RMR sticks up too much for that to work well, and if you can see the front sight through the RMR you probably won’t see the red dot. Rather, you have to tilt the front of the gun down for the red dot to appear. This actually puts the gun back to the normal position you shoot it in, but you’re just looking above the front sight — parallel to the slide, as it were.

The RMR I got was the one with the 6.5 MOA dot, which I figured would be easier and quicker to get on target even if I wasn’t wearing my glasses, and would give me adequate accuracy at any distance I was likely to use the gun (say 25 yards or less). At 10 yards distance at the range, the dot appeared to be about half-an-inch across, perhaps a bit more. For my purposes this was more than accurate enough to knock down steel plates consistently. As I get more used to the RMR, moving out to 25 yards should give similar results.

Now that I’ve tried it on this gun, I can understand why others have decided to have a mount for the RMR milled into the slide of their gun. That would bring down the location of the dot and make everything more consistent with previous shooting experience. It would also make the gun more compact and more suitable for either duty or concealed carry. I doubt that I will go to the trouble or expense to have this done on the G21, but it is something I would consider for the G30S shown above, particularly if the next generation of reflex sights are even more compact and suitable for a handgun. It’s something to think about, anyway.


Jim Downey


September 27, 2017 Posted by | .45 ACP, .45 Super, .450 SMC, .460 Rowland | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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: 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: 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

2016 in the rear-view mirror.

Happy New Year!

A quick recap of the last year: surprisingly active.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jim Downey



January 1, 2017 Posted by | .45 Super, .450 SMC, Data, Discussion., Links | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Velocity is great, but mass penetrates.

OK, kiddies, it’s time for SCIENCE!

Ballistic science, specifically. I promise to keep the math to a minimum, because I don’t like it much, either. Jim Kasper is the one who thinks in terms of equations, not me.

If you look at any of the various pages for test results on BBTI you will see that each caliber/cartridge also has a link for a Muzzle Energy (the kinetic energy of a bullet as it leaves the muzzle of a gun) graph for that set of results. That’s because Muzzle Energy can also give an idea of the effectiveness of a given ammo, since it is a calculation of both the weight of a bullet as well as the velocity it is traveling. This calculation, specifically:

E_\text{k} =\tfrac{1}{2} mv^2

Here’s what that says in English, taken from the explanation that goes with that image on Wikipedia:

The kinetic energy is equal to 1/2 the product of the mass and the square of the speed.

In other words, you multiply the weight of the bullet times the square of the velocity, then take half of whatever number you get. And that gives you the Muzzle Energy, usually (as on our site) expressed in foot-pounds of energy.

So there are two ways you can change the result: change the amount of weight, or change the amount of velocity.

But since it is the square of the velocity (the velocity times itself), changes to the velocity have a larger impact on the final amount of Muzzle Energy. That’s the reason why how the velocity changes due to barrel length is such a big deal, and why we’ve done all the research that we’ve done over the last seven years.

But while Muzzle Energy gives you a good way to compare the power and potential effectiveness of a given cartridge as a self-defense round, there are a couple of other factors to consider. A couple of VERY important factors.

One is the shape and composition of the bullet itself. There’s a very good (surprisingly good, in fact — I heartily recommend you read the whole thing) discussion of the basic shapes and how they interact with the human body in this online teaching tool intended for medical students. The relevant excerpt:

Designing a bullet for efficient transfer of energy to a particular target is not straightforward, for targets differ. To penetrate the thick hide and tough bone of an elephant, the bullet must be pointed, of small diameter, and durable enough to resist disintegration. However, such a bullet would penetrate most human tissues like a spear, doing little more damage than a knife wound. A bullet designed to damage human tissues would need some sort of “brakes” so that all the KE was transmitted to the target.

It is easier to design features that aid deceleration of a larger, slower moving bullet in tissues than a small, high velocity bullet. Such measures include shape modifications like round (round nose), flattened (wadcutter), or cupped (hollowpoint) bullet nose. Round nose bullets provide the least braking, are usually jacketed, and are useful mostly in low velocity handguns. The wadcutter design provides the most braking from shape alone, is not jacketed, and is used in low velocity handguns (often for target practice). A semi-wadcutter design is intermediate between the round nose and wadcutter and is useful at medium velocity. Hollowpoint bullet design facilitates turning the bullet “inside out” and flattening the front, referred to as “expansion.” Expansion reliably occurs only at velocities exceeding 1200 fps, so is suited only to the highest velocity handguns.

Now, while that last bit about needing to exceed 1200 fps may have been true, or a ‘good enough’ approximation a few years ago, it isn’t entirely true today. There has been a significant improvement in bullet design in the last two decades (and these innovations continue at a rapid pace), so that there are now plenty of handgun loads available which will reliably expand as intended in the velocity range expected from the round.

The other REALLY important consideration in bullet effectiveness is penetration. This is so important, in fact, that it is the major criteria used by the FBI and others in assessing performance. From Wikipedia:

According to Dr. Martin Fackler and the International Wound Ballistics Association (IWBA), between 12.5 and 14 inches (318 and 356 mm) of penetration in calibrated tissue simulant is optimal performance for a bullet which is meant to be used defensively, against a human adversary. They also believe that penetration is one of the most important factors when choosing a bullet (and that the number one factor is shot placement). If the bullet penetrates less than their guidelines, it is inadequate, and if it penetrates more, it is still satisfactory though not optimal. The FBI’s penetration requirement is very similar at 12 to 18 inches (305 to 457 mm).

A penetration depth of 12.5 to 14 inches (318 and 356 mm) may seem excessive, but a bullet sheds velocity—and crushes a narrower hole—as it penetrates deeper, while losing velocity, so the bullet might be crushing a very small amount of tissue (simulating an “ice pick” injury) during its last two or three inches of travel, giving only between 9.5 and 12 inches of effective wide-area penetration.

As noted above, the design of the bullet can have a substantial effect on how well it penetrates. But another big factor is the weight, or mass, of the bullet relative to its cross-section — this is called ‘sectional density‘. Simply put, a bullet with a large cross-section and high mass will penetrate more than a bullet with the same cross-section but low mass moving at the same speed. It isn’t penetration, but think of how hard a baseball hits versus a whiffleball moving at the same speed. They’re basically the same size, but the mass is what makes a big difference. (See also ‘ballistic coefficient‘).

With me so far?

OK, let’s go all the way back up to the top where I discussed Muzzle Energy. See the equation? Right. Let’s use the baseball/whiffleball analogy again. Let’s say that the baseball weighs 5.0 ounces, which is 2,187.5 grains. And the whiffleball weighs 2/3 of an ounce, or 291.8 grains. A pitcher can throw either ball at say 60 mph, which is 88 fps. That means (using this calculator) that the Kinetic Energy of a baseball when it leaves the pitcher’s hand is  37 foot-pounds, and the whiffleball is just 5 foot-pounds. Got that?

But let’s say that because it is so light, the pitcher can throw the wiffleball twice as fast as he can throw a baseball. That now boosts the Kinetic Energy of the whiffleball to 20 foot-pounds.

And if you triple the velocity of the whiffleball? That gives it a Kinetic Energy of 45 foot-pounds. Yeah, more than the baseball traveling at 88 fps.

OK then.

Now let’s go look at our most recent .45 ACP tests. And in particular, the Muzzle Energy graph for those tests:

What is the top line on that graph? Yeah, Liberty Civil Defense +P 78 gr JHP.  It has almost 861 foot-pounds of energy, which is more than any other round included in those tests. By the Muzzle Energy measure, this is clearly the superior round.

But would it penetrate enough?

Maybe. Brass Fetcher doesn’t list the Liberty Civil Defense +P 78 gr JHP. But they did test a 90 gr RBCD round, which penetrated to 12.0″ and only expanded by 0.269 square inch. Compare that to the other bullets listed on his page, and you’ll see that while the depth of penetration isn’t too bad when compared to other, heavier, bullets, that round is tied with one other for the least amount of expansion.

Driving a lightweight bullet much, much faster makes the Muzzle Energy look very impressive. Just the velocity of the Liberty Civil Defense +P 78 gr JHP is impressive — 1865 fps out of a 5″ barrel is at least 50% faster than any other round on our test results page, and almost 400 fps faster than even the hottest of the .45 Super loads tested.

But how well would it actually penetrate? Without formally testing it, we can’t say for sure. But I am skeptical. I’m not going to volunteer to getting shot with one of the things (or even hit with a whiffleball traveling 180 mph), but I’m also not going to rely on it to work as it has to in the real world, where deep penetration is critical. I want a bullet with enough punch to get through a light barrier, if necessary. Like this video from Hickok45, via The Firearm Blog:

Personally, I prefer a heavier bullet. Ideally, I want one which is also going to have a fair amount of velocity behind it (which is why I have adapted my .45s to handle the .45 Super). All things being equal (sectional density, bullet configuration and composition), velocity is great, but mass is what penetrates.

Jim Downey


November 8, 2015 Posted by | .45 ACP, Data, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The illusion of precision.

Got an email which is another aspect of the problem I wrote about recently. The author was asking that we get more fine-grained in our data, by making measurements of barrel lengths by one-eighth and one-quarter inch increments. Here’s a couple of relevant excerpts:

what more is really needed, is barrel lengths between 1-7/8 and 4-1/2″.
because of the proliferation of CCW and pocket pistols, and unresolved
questions about short barrel lengths that go all over between 2 and 3.75″,
and snubby revolvers that may be even shorter.

* * *

with that amount of precision, not only would you have data covering all
lengths of short barrels, but you could fabricate mathematical curves that
would predict velocities for any possible barrel length, metric or
otherwise, given the particular ammo.


It’s not an unreasonable thought, on the surface. Our data clearly shows that the largest gains in bullet velocity always come in length increases of very short barrels for all cartridges/calibers. So why not document the changes between, say, a 4.48″ barrel and a 4.01″ one? That’s the actual difference between a Glock 17 and a Glock 19, both very popular guns which are in 9mm. Or between a S&W Model 60 with a 2.125″ barrel and a S&W Model 360PD with a 1.875″ barrel?

Ideally, it’d be great to know whether that half or quarter inch difference was really worth it, when taking into consideration all the other factors in choosing a personal defense handgun.

The problem is that there are just too many different variables which factor into trying to get really reliable information on that scale.

Oh, if we wanted to, we could do these kinds of tests, and come up with some precise numbers, and publish those numbers. But it would be the illusion of precision, not actually useful data. That’s because of the limits of what we can accurately measure and trust, as well as the normal variations which occur in the manufacturing process … of the guns tested; of the ammunition used; of the chronograph doing the measurements; even, yes, changes in ambient temperature and barometric pressure.

That’s because while modern manufacturing is generally very, very good, nothing is perfect. Changes in tolerance in making barrels can lead to variation from one gun to the next. Changes in tolerance in measuring the amount of gunpowder which goes into each cartridge (as well as how tight the crimp is, or even tweaks in making the gunpowder itself) mean that no two batches of ammunition are exactly alike. And variations in making chronographs — from the sensors used, to slight differences in positioning, to glitches in the software which operate them — mean that your chronograph and mine might not agree on even the velocity of a bullet they both measure.

All of those little variations add up. Sometimes they will compound a problem in measuring. Sometimes they will cancel one another out. But there’s no way to know which it is.

This is why we’ve always said to consider our data as being indicative, not definitive. Use it to get a general idea of where your given choice of firearm will perform in terms of bullet velocity. Take a look at general performance you can expect from a brand or line of ammunition. Compare how this or that particular cartridge/caliber does versus another one you are considering.

But keep in mind that there’s no one perfect combination. You’re always going to be trading off a bunch of different factors in choosing a self-defense tool.

And never, ever forget that what matters most — FAR AND ABOVE your choice of gun or ammunition — is whether or not you can use your firearm accurately and reliably when you need to. Practice and training matters much more than whether or not you get an extra 25, or 100, or even 500 fps velocity out of whatever bullet is traveling downrange. Because if you can’t reliably hit your target under stress, no amount of muzzle energy is going to do you a damn bit of good.


Jim Downey

If you want more information about how accuracy and precision can be problematic, this Wikipedia entry is a good place to start.


September 6, 2015 Posted by | .357 Magnum, .38 Special, 9mm Luger (9x19), Data, Discussion., General Procedures | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

No matter which way you look …

…whether back over 2014, or forward into 2015, things are pretty good vis-a-vis BBTI.

Yeah, 2014 was pretty good. We didn’t do any formal testing, though I did some informal testing and a fair number of reviews of new guns or guns which were just new to me.  Having the chance to do those now and again is enjoyable, without having the same deadline pressures I had when I was doing regular columns and reviews for

The numbers also look pretty good for 2014. This blog went from about 12,000 visits in 2013 to 22,000 last year – nearly double. And the BBTI site itself jumped from 243,230 visitors in 2013 to 318,304 visitors in 2014 — an increase of about a third. Visits have also continued to climb pretty steadily from day-to-day, with typically about 1,250 or so daily by the end of the year. Given that we didn’t do any new testing, that’s pretty impressive.

And of course, we’d like to thank all who linked to us over the past year. Here’s the top ten referring sites for 2014, excluding search engines and Wikipedia:


How about the year to come, then?

Well, we’re planning on doing one largish series of tests, to cover .45 Super, .450 SMC, and a number of additional .45 ACP loadings. We haven’t yet set a date for this sequence, but I will post a note about it here and on our Facebook page once plans solidify.

And behind the scenes, improvements continue at the BBTI website. We recently upgraded our hosting set-up, to shift over to more modern software technology. We’ve started discussing how we can do better presentations of our graphs and spreadsheets. I would still very much like to work with someone to develop a mobile app — if you have the necessary skill set to do that, please drop me a note. And whenever someone finds a glitch in our data or how the site renders for them, we try and make the corrections. None of this is very obvious, but it is all a lot of work, and I’d like to once again thank our web guru (and my lovely wife) at Coeurbois Graphic Design for her efforts.

Lastly, thanks to all who use the site regularly, who cite us in online discussions, who help to spread the word. And especially, I would like to thank all who have donated to BBTI in the last year — your tangible contributions make a difference, and help to offset our ongoing costs.

Happy New Year!


Jim Downey


January 2, 2015 Posted by | .45 ACP, .45 Super, .450 SMC, Boberg Arms, Data, Discussion., Links | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment