Ballistics by the inch

What a difference just an eighth of an inch makes.

Recently I came across on a surprisingly good deal on a Taurus Tracker .44mag snubnose. This one:

Taurus isn’t my first choice of firearm brands, but I’ve owned them and generally liked them, and the price on this one was a little too good to pass up. So I got it, figuring that it would be an interesting addition to my collection, occasionally using it as a carry gun.

After shooting it with a variety of .44special and .44mag loads that I had on hand, I decided that what I wanted to use as a carry ammo was something we’d tested: Corbon’s 165gr JHP.  The lighter weight bullet would mean a lower felt recoil. And I knew how it would perform out of a short barrel, and estimated that I would get about 1150fps and just under 500ft/lbs of muzzle energy from the round. I checked locally, and the ammo wasn’t available, so I ordered in five boxes from a source online.

When it arrived, I did the logical thing and inserted five rounds into the Taurus, then closed the cylinder.

Er, make that I *tried* to close the cylinder. Because it wouldn’t. Huh?

I examined the gun. I had not noticed that the cartridges hadn’t gone completely into the chambers. The rims of the cartridges were all about 1/16th inch out.  Oops. That was a mistake on my part — I should have been paying closer attention when handling the new untested ammo, rather than just assuming that it would load properly. This is what it looked like after I removed one cartridge for contrast:

 

Even lightly tapping the cartridges wouldn’t get them to load properly (where the rim is down on the rear cylinder face). I removed the rest of the cartridges, examined the gun to make sure everything was otherwise functioning properly. It seemed to be. I looked over the cartridges, and they seemed to be fine, as well. So I got a couple of different .44 loads — a mix of .44sp and .44mag — and put them into the cylinder. They all loaded just fine, the cylinder closed, and there were no problems. Here are a Hornady and a Winchester .44mag round in the cylinder, with one of the Corbon; note the difference:

 

Hmm.

Next, I got my Colt Anaconda .44 out of the safe. I tried the same ammo in it, and this is what I found:

Exact same problem. So, presumably, it was the Corbon ammo. I removed the rounds from the gun.

And grabbed my digital calipers. I started checking all the dimensions on the Corbon ammo. In fact, I went through and checked several sample cartridges from all five boxes. As far as I could tell, everything was in spec. The cases were the exact correct length. And width, both at the mouth of the case, along the body, and just above the rim. The bullets were the correct diameter. And the over length of the cartridges was well within the normal range of .44magnum rounds.

WTH?

I set the conundrum aside, so my subconscious could chew it over for a few hours. The likely explanation hit me while taking a shower the next morning. Here, look at the images of the three different rounds mentioned above, and see if you can spot it:

Here’s a hint: the Corbon cartridge is in the center.

Got it?

Yeah, if you look very carefully, you’ll see that the SHAPE of the Corbon bullet is different than the others. Note how it almost swells a bit, going up from the mouth of the case, to about an eighth of an inch, before narrowing down. Whereas the Winchester (on the left) and the Hornady (on the right) both have a smooth ogive right from the mouth of the case until coming to a flat nose (actually, the Hornady, like the Corbon, is a hollow point, but you can’t see that from this image).

So why did this cause the problem?

The explanation requires a bit of detailed knowledge about how a revolver works. If you already know all this, my apologies. For those who may not …

Each chamber in a revolver has to be big enough to accommodate the case of the cartridge. But the bullet is slightly smaller than that, so that it fits inside the cartridge case.

Now, when a chamber on a revolver rotates into position aligned with the barrel, there’s always a chance that it might not be perfectly aligned. Just a few thousandths of an inch misalignment can lead to all kinds of bad things happening, from parts of the bullet being shaved off and spit out the sides of the ‘cylinder gap‘ to the gun going KABOOM in your hand. So revolver manufacturers have come up with two nifty ways to deal with this:

  1. Narrowing the chamber in front of the cartridge case slightly by tapering it.
  2. Having a ‘forcing cone‘ before the barrel that is just a little bit bigger than the bullet, to funnel it into the barrel.

So, the problem with the Corbon ammo was that shape of the bullet in the pic above. Note how it doesn’t smoothly curve in like the other two bullets. Rather, that slight swelling is probably hitting the taper inside the chambers, stopping the cartridge from seating properly.

And before you say that this is a problem with the Taurus being poorly made, note that I ran into the exact same problem with my Anaconda — widely considered a very good quality gun.

Now, the folks at Corbon are smart. I’m sure their engineers actually tested this ammo in some typical .44magnum revolvers. But all it would take is for slight differences (think a couple thousandths of an inch) in the rate or position of that chamber tapering from manufacturer to manufacturer to cause this problem. Chances are, they just didn’t test it in a Taurus .44 of this model, or a Colt Anaconda. It is also possible that this batch of bullets (all five boxes I got are from the same lot — I checked) is just slightly out of spec, but no one has yet noticed it in their guns, because the tolerances in other manufacturers are a little bit different.

Either way, I’m fairly sure that I could just take some sandpaper or a fine file to that slight swelling on the bullets, and they’d fit right into my gun. But first I’m going to wait and see whether I hear back from Corbon about this issue (yeah, I sent them an explanatory email a couple days ago).

Oh, one last thing: in the process of going through all of this, I noticed that the cylinder length (from the front face to the rear face of the cylinder) on the Taurus was 1.625″, or 1 5/8″, whereas the cylinder length on my Anaconda is 1.75″, or 1 3/4″ — an eighth of an inch difference. As I recall, 1.75″ is standard for .44magnum revolvers. Interesting that the Taurus is slightly shorter, and that may indeed have had something to do with the shape of the chambers on the gun.

Edited, 2/27: Just a quick note. I’ve had some friends check other brands of .44mag revolvers. Seems that Smith & Wesson makes theirs with a cylinder length of 1.6875″ (1 11/16th”), and Ruger 1.75″ (1 3/4″). So there’s more variation than I thought.

 

Jim Downey

February 26, 2020 Posted by | .44 Magnum, .44 Special, Anecdotes, Data, Discussion., Revolver | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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 Guns.com, and it originally ran 3/22/2012.  Some additional observations at the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S&W29 gravé.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jim Downey

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