I Always Value New Experiences…

…but I could have lived without this one!

I traded a fella for an Iver Johnson Viking .38 recently. These were a top-break in .38 S&W, and look like a near-copy of Harrington & Richardson’s Defender. Like the H&R these are manually ejecting via a rod under the barrel. They were made from 1963-1974 as an inexpensive self-defense pistol. They have a rep for being very stout little guns.

Not my specific gun, but identical.

This one arrived with some blemishes on the frame, holster wear and a genuinely pretty nice double-action trigger-pull. The ergonomics are neither great nor tragically bad, and I was eager to give it a whirl. I finally got it to the range today, and on the third shot pieces followed the bullet downrange.

Honestly it wasn’t even scary; it happened so fast I was like, “Well, that happened. Crap.”

Revolver cylinders tend to blow up and sideways when they go, and since I was on an indoor range with dividers between the firing positions neither I nor anyone else was injured.

Upon reflection I am afraid I cannot recommend this particular revolver.

My first thought on seeing a cylinder like this is ‘overpowered handload,’ and indeed that was my first thought here. Anyone can make a mistake, but I am an extremely meticulous handloader. I calibrate the powder scale before each loading session, and visually verify the powder charge in each case before seating the bullet. No, it could not have been a double-charge; a double-load won’t even fit in the case, and I would have noticed the powder overflowing…

The load used was a 125gr. .361 caliber lead SWC over 2.7gr. of Unique. This is far, far under the maximum recommended load for a top-break. Actually 2.7gr of Unique under a 148gr. lead bullet is not over the maximum for a top-break revolver. I fired this identical load in two other revolvers today without a problem, and in the past have fired it from an Iver Johnson revolver made in the 1880s, so the load itself is not at fault. The specific cartridge might have somehow been overloaded, and while I doubt it it’s possible.

There might be another answer- the steel of the inner chamber wall shows a dark area. This is caused by carbon precipitation when the steel cracks in heat-treat. This most often happens when the steel is overheated during the process, which produces a characteristic pattern of large grain-growth.

In this photo you can see the grain-structure of the steel along the fracture lines, and (though it didn’t show well in the photo) a dark area in the inner cylinder wall indicative of carbon precipitation in a crack formed in heat-treatment.

OK, that’s definitely some large grain growth, and this indicates a very weak structure. Look at the image below- the top is the cylinder wall in close-up. On the bottom is the edge of a broken piece of properly heat-treated steel. There is a pretty major difference!

That is some seriously ugly steel in the top picture. Yes, these pictures are to scale!

Also when a cylinder blows it tends to only take out the chamber being fired and one of both of the adjacent chambers. But if there was a pre-existing crack in the inner cylinder-wall it would explain why the cylinder cracked relatively neatly in half.

Regardless of whether the individual cartridge was over-powered, I think the real culprit is a very bad heat-treat and micro-cracks in the cylinder; this gun was a time-bomb from the moment it left the factory, and I just drew the short straw.

So what now? Well, what is not going to happen is me blaming my buddy for sending me a bad gun. No way he could have known about this. Hell, it might have blown up on him as easily as me. I can replace the broken latch with a part from Numerich arms, but unfortunately they are out of .38 cylinders, so if I decide to repair this I’ll make my own… out of properly heat-treated 4140 steel!

I got this gun because I thought it would be interesting… well, it surely has been that! Though not, perhaps, in the way I had hoped… You win some, you lose some. If or when I get around to repairing this gun I’ll keep you posted.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 26 August 2019

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