by Frank Winn, Guns & Gear Editor - Friday, March 10, 2017
If you’re a Carry Lifer and sleeping well, we’ve got a fix for that. After years of soul-searching (and perhaps waiting for the appropriate legal climate), you’ve invested in training, certification, background check(s), licensing and firearm(s). Maybe special insurance, and stand-by legal council, too. You’ve likely had half a dozen holsters/carry methods, and discovered one or two that actually work. Nowadays, you practice and train, train and practice, lucky enough to enjoy the acquisition of a skill you hope never to need, but fear even more not to have.
Now imagine that the dreaded moment finds you, and the result is “click.”
Sleep through that, if you can.
We’d hope that any Carry Lifer has been through this thought experiment, and preferably more than once. And despite (apparently permanent) media histrionics to the contrary, such isn’t paranoia, but prudence. Since you’ll be accountable for something that will be mostly bad regardless—even in a completely justified, successful defense—an actual grown-up takes the only course available to steer the outcome: Limit the variables as much as possible. One that’s almost totally in your control is “not-bang,” and we hope you see it less than we do.
In this frame of mind, think back to your last range session. We’d be a little surprised if your eyebrows don’t go up. How many neighboring shooters came and left unpunctuated by a “well, phooey,” or worse? More chilling perhaps, how was yours? Now imagine that the dreaded moment finds you, and the result is “click.”
There can be lots of reasons for less-than-perfect performance in a firearm. In the present era, we tend to forget—or at least take for granted—just how reliable handguns have become. Barring a really overt failure, it used to be hard to get a truly good gunsmith to take interest in minor laments until you had 500 rounds through a handgun, particularly a new auto-loader. Call it “de-burring,” “wearing in,” or whatever, but they were right. A whole series of 1911s we recall acted as though a metering process was a work: Nothing but “bang-dammit” up to that 500-round mark, then sublime, near-perfection for hundreds of rounds at a time thereafter, and for no obvious reason. Even the modern icon of reliability—the Glock 17—was not always quite so incredible. But today? Our latest sample hasn’t stumbled a single time in over 3,000 rounds. By modern standards, that’s barely warming up.
Ammunition plays a big role in performance, as we discussed vis a vis some special defensive considerations here. It is also where the rubber really meets the road in terms of being “carry ready” in the sense we mean to convey: Whatever firearm and ammunition you decide on, how or when are you sure they’re ready for carry? Here are our minimum criteria:
Round Count (Brand New Guns Especially)
We generally don’t test defensive rounds—at costs between 75 cents and two bucks a stick—until we pass that 500-round mark with easy-feeding “ball” (round nose) or similar ammo. We also baby new guns a little: As fresh metal surfaces work one another, metal particles may be loosed. It’s best to clean these out so they don’t take on the function of lapping grit in the wrong locations.
The flip side of this coin is lubrication, and there are lots of good choices in our view. We prefer lighter-and-more-frequent to heavy-but-seldom, but this devolves into special cases and attendant quasi-religious fervor in a hurry. Most important is to know what is recommended for your handgun and follow that; they are not all the same, and for good reason. We don’t care for multi-purpose products much. Cleaning, lubrication and protection are different jobs, and optimized in different ways.
Don’t get into a lather if a new gun isn’t initially flawless, but keep careful track of anything adverse that repeats. There are myriad factors at work, and not all of them are metal and polymer. You’ll be adapting your mechanics/ergonomics to a new system, and this can contribute to functioning issues. Naturally, this is less likely if you’re very experienced, but even then, not unknown. If problems run beyond two sessions (depending on your endurance), or 200 to 300 rounds, however, start to worry. Also consider serious single threading with a new rig. It has benefits beyond the obvious. Keep in mind that many defensive circumstances will bear little resemblance to most of your shooting.
We think the end of this process should include a minimum of 200 consecutive rounds without malfunction—chambering to slide-lock, with mag drops and reloads thrown in. Cut it short if your handgun is performing exceptionally well? NO, repeat, NO: Do the entire round count, and divide it between the magazines you plan to use. Remember, you’re vetting these, too. If you’re working with more than three, break-in round count needs to grow as well. 100 rounds per additional magazine is the absolute minimum. (Mags, by the way, should be marked for differentiation in case uneven performance does pop up.)
Defensive Round Count
This one hurts a little, mainly because this ammunition doesn’t tend to be costly, it simply is. Seventy-five to 100, however, are generally enough to know that such ammunition will reliably function in a defensive pistol. As a consequence, however, the standard is very high: Any malfunction means a restart.
There’s good news here, as long as you did the 500 full-function rounds: A sensible shortcut can keep the billfold pain bearable. The vast bulk of feeding problem occur in the first three (if you top-up) or last two rounds to cycle. In-between problems are generally associated with no-go models and will flunk in the first 500, or signal a common, fixable flaw in you—interference with the slide (unlikely and painful, if you actually succeed in doing it), or inadvertent activation of the slide stop/lock (very common, but tough to self-diagnose).
Back to those first/last rounds. Put two defensive rounds in the mag first (they’ll be shot last, in other words), then “top up” minus two with target rounds. Last two (top two) should be defensive, as should be the “+1” you’ll chamber. If you break this down, math-wise, 75 rounds yield three runs with each mag, plus one defensive-all-the-way pass. Note this doesn’t change with capacity as you’re filling the middle with target rounds each cycle. And yes, we know this adds to total round count. Sorry (but not very).
Run At Speed
If you’re thinking “master blaster,” hold on. Don’t trash good technique by overdoing this, especially if you’re acclimating to a new style of carry gun. But don’t play “bullseyes only,” either. Use those first 500 rounds to cement good architecture and mechanics without dawdling. The Confidence Drill is a good mechanism here.
Vary Hand Position
Keep in mind that many defensive circumstances will bear little resemblance to most of your shooting. Our admonition is to expect the unexpected, and train accordingly. Try strong/weak hand only; try awkward positions (if you safely can); shoot an IDPA, USPSA, GSSF (Glock only) or Steel Challenge match if the first 200 or 300 rounds have gone well. Some of these will put pressure on those reloads we recommended, and tell you an awful lot. Many seemingly good pistols just aren’t up to this.
Magazines … Remember that minimums are what we’ve talked about here, and address only “kit” fitness.
Uneven performance is always a bad sign, and something to be checked out before a purchase. It’s a smart use of the internet, though leavened with your own good judgment. Some folks just hate certain marques, and will voice their opinions any way they can, whether they’re right or wrong. After-market magazines are an obvious special case, and except in the 1911 world, these are rarely (but not “never”) a good idea. For totable 1911s, they’re often superior, but do your homework and don’t assume expensive is automatically better.
Twenty or even 10 years ago, the entire process of wringing out a carry pistol was chancy at best. Unless you could avail yourself of kind, knowledgeable friends, there was little in the way of “try before you buy” to be had. It is a happy, very 21st century circumstance that options are better, including commercial venues in which to try various firearms. Getting to one of these is worth a drive or two (or 10, even), or other extra efforts. Just remember the scope and importance of the challenge you are resolving when the search starts to seem like work and energy runs low. This is easier by far than facing up to the costs, irritations—or much, much worse—of a bad choice.
Last, remember that minimums are what we’ve talked about here, and address only “kit” fitness. A responsible, prepared Carry Life means stepping up to many other obligations—chiefly “train” and “avoid”—but we trust you’ll conduct your own due diligence as you proceed.
Now Carry On.
Frank Winn has been studying arms and their relationship to tyranny, meaningful liberty and personal security all his adult life. He has also been a competitive shooter and firearms safety/shooting instructor for more than 20 years, though he won’t admit how many more.
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