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Handgun Cartridges on the Brink of Oblivion.

An article on this topic was pointed out to me and I was asked my opinion of the cartridges specified. I started to answer, but thought, ‘Hey, I should do my own version for my blog.’ So here it is. I might add a cartridge or two even.

Mind you I am restricting myself to cartridges that were once popular or were recently introduced but fell flat. There are a host of others that are clearly already obsolete, never attained any real popularity or were never offered in a commercial platform. I’ll be building one of those very soon, so you’ll get to read all about it before too long.

So, in order of diameter…

.25 Auto/ 6.35mm

People like small, clever things. These days it’s electronics, but at the turn of the 20thC. it was pistols.

The Colt Junior- a typical .25 auto. Small, clever, well-made and reliable.

.22 revolvers had been around since the mid-19th C., but semi-autos were the New Hotness. Sadly .22 LR of the time was not a good choice for tiny autos; no one had any depth of experience adapting it to the platform and a rimmed cartridge in a semi-auto isn’t an intuitive match. John Moses Browning designed a cartridge specifically to fill the role of .22LR in tiny self-loaders, and it worked. By that I mean that tiny guns could be made to function with it. Like the .22LR it was always a marginal prospect for self-defense.

But as time marched on people largely lost interest in micro-pistols, and had learned to make .22 LR work in them for the small market that remained.

Since the GCA68 basically killed the importation of these guns the cartridge has been fading into obscurity. .25 ACP has received no meaningful development since it’s introduction, and while it can be improved on there’s been little impetus to try. Given the millions of guns chambered for it in circulation it’s likely to continue to hang on for a long time, but it is definitely fallen entirely out of relevance.

.32 ACP/ 7.65mm Auto

Famous for equipping a fictional spy and killing a dictator far too late, this was the first wildly successful semi-auto pistol cartridge.

The Mauser 7.65mm model of 1914. Sure, the PPK is more famous, but I haven’t got one of those.

This cartridge has a long and storied history, and was used as a duty weapon well into the 1970’s. It was replaced in service by 9x19mm, not because it wasn’t working but because it was felt to have inadequate penetration against emerging threats.

.32 ACP has two issues: One, it doesn’t quite have the power to make hollow-points both work and penetrate deeply enough for reliable use and two, it only works effectively if you can shoot. Ball ammunition has to be placed precisely to be effective regardless of caliber. and people are convinced that they can substitute diameter for skill. They can’t, but since they almost never have to actually shoot anyone the idea persists.

.32 ACPs final problem is .380 ACP. It has just enough power to make hollow-points work and penetrate deeply enough if you shop around, and you just can’t make a .32 enough smaller than a .380 to justify the perceived lesser effectiveness of the smaller round. Let me be clear- a modern hollow-point bullet that both expands and penetrates adequately is better than ball ammo, but that doesn’t mean non-expanding ammo can’t do the job… if you can shoot.

Like the .25 Auto there are millions and millions of these pistols in circulation, and while ammo is likely to remain available for decades this cartridge’s day has passed.

.32 H&R Magnum

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear from the start. This is a fake magnum that only exists because Harrington & Richardson didn’t want to admit their normal .32s weren’t capable of realizing the full potential of .32 S&W Long without suffering a premature death.

An NEF .32 H&R Magnum (an H&R in all but name.) NEF was the successor to H&R and continued producing their firearms.

Older reloading manuals show loads that equal or exceed the power of .32 H&R Magnum for .32 S&W Long, but there were a lot of crappy guns sold that wouldn’t hold up to prolonged use with these loads. These .32 S&W Long loads are decent, low-recoil equivalents (in power) of .38 Special, and in a J-frame you get an extra shot. So H&R made the cartridge slightly longer, made a gun as good as it should have been all along and pretended they’d done something new.

It’s hung on by it’s figurative fingernails for decades, but the death-knell was struck when the .327 Magnum came along with 150-200% more power in the same size package. While .32 S&W Long remains a popular caliber for target shooting, small game and even self-defense in the rest of the world it’s popularity has waned in the US. Despite being more recent the .32 H&R Magnum isn’t as popular even in the USA, let alone the rest of the world. Buy one if you like, but be prepared to handload for it, because it’s slipping away.

.357 Sig

At some point it occurred to someone at Sig that they could bottleneck a .40 S&W to .357 and have an equivalent to .38 Super that would fit in a 9mm frame.

Sig P229 in .357 Sig.

Once again it worked pretty much as planned. They overlooked one small thing though. Except for competition shooters in the 1980’s that figured out they could use .38 Super to game the rules of IPSC nobody wanted a .38 Super, and they didn’t want .357 Sig either. More expense, muzzle blast and recoil than 9mm without a demonstrable increase in effectiveness sufficient to justify it.

Various Law Enforcement agencies flirted with it for a time and it has its fans, but essentially it’s dying of apathy. There’s nothing wrong with it really, it’s just that no one cares. It might not vanish from the scene, but it’s well along the path to obscurity.

.40 S&W Auto

No photo for this one… the only .40 S&W I own is a HiPoint I bought for $75, and I’m embarrassed to show you. Just imagine a 9mm; that’s what they all look like anyway.

This cartridge is the answer to a question that would never have been asked if people had better sense, or at least it’s parent cartridge the 10mm Auto was. In the 1980’s the 9mm was perceived as having failed the FBI in the 1986 Miami shootout. It didn’t; tactics, training and doctrine did, but we needn’t go into that here. It was felt it was easier to address caliber than training and culture, and so the 10mm auto was adopted.

Essentially this was a .41 magnum that fit in a Government model or other service-sized handguns. Like .41 Magnum (which we’ll discuss later) it was too much for the job for most people. It’s an excellent cartridge, but it’s recoil demands serious training to master. S&W shortened the 10mm to fit in a 9mm magazine and lowered it’s power to make it easier to train with and a star was born. The FBI and other LE agencies adopted it in droves. It did the job and everyone and their sister Sally was enamored of it. But…

It offered slightly fewer shots than 9mm, with more recoil, greater cost and a steeper training curve without any evidence that it actually worked better… at least not enough better to justify it’s deficiencies. Eventually the FBI threw it under the bus and went back to 9x19mm. Law enforcement agencies followed in droves.

Thing is, it’s a perfectly good caliber, and with the glut of surplus duty guns flooding the market it’s not going away any time soon… but it’s another peg without a hole and it’s likely to fade away in time.

The .41 Magnum

Despite owning the distinction of being nearly the only cartridge that is actually the diameter it claims to be, the .41 magnum was never supposed to be.

The original- the S&W Model 57 .41 magnum

In the 1960s hollow-point ammunition was not well developed or particularly reliable, and a bunch of boffins got together and said, ‘wouldn’t it be great to make a gun more effective than a .38 Special with less recoil than a .44 Special or .45 Colt for police duty?’

It wasn’t a bad idea, and they proposed a .41 caliber cartridge that would launch a 200gr LSWC at 900 fps from a duty revolver. Remington agreed, and took up the idea and ran with it… straight down a rabbit hole. They upped the power enough to negate the cartridge’s advantages as a police duty round, but not far enough to really compete with their .44 Magnum. Well played, Remington. Well played.

A few agencies adopted it briefly, but recoil and penetration were excessive and it took dedicated training to master… all to do nothing that .357 magnum wasn’t already doing just fine, thank you.

Again, it’s a great cartridge. It can be loaded light for self-defense, heavy for big game or anything in between; it’s quite versatile. I personally love this cartridge and think it’s wonderful, but while it has always had its fans it never set the world on fire. A lot of younger shooters have never even heard of it. It hangs on as a niche cartridge, developing just enough new fans to keep staggering along. Predictions of it’s demise have been made routinely since the 1970s and it’s still with us. I’m not sure it’s ever going to completely go away.

.45 GAP

At some point it occurred to the folks at Glock that with modern propellants there was no need for .45 ACP to be as long as it is. Consequently if they made it short enough to fit in a 9mm magazine they could easily adapt their existing platforms to it.

Picture of the cartridge here, because Glocks all look like Glocks so why bother.

It worked just fine. The problem was basically people that wanted a .45 didn’t want a Glock. The operation was a success, but the patient died. Not much more to say about it.

That’s my round-up of cartridges teetering on the brink of the dumpster of history. I hope you enjoyed it and maybe found it educational.

Take care and stay safe.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 15 may 2021.

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“Seriously Dude, You’re Over-Thinking This.”

I admit it, I am. I’ve put an inordinate amount of thought into a scenario even less likely than being involved in a self-defense shooting. I’ve spent a great deal of time putting together a ‘Pooping-In-The-Woods-Oh-My-God-Is-That-a-Bear?’ gun.

Taurus Model 415 .41 Magnum with subdued, tasteful over-sized grips.

Here’s the scenario: I’m out in the woods with no rifle or shotgun within reach, and some hostile wildlife comes by to have a look. I want to have a gun on hand to discourage their curiosity.

Locally we have Black Bears, which are inquisitive creatures. We also have cougars (oh grow up) that are known to wander deep into cities to gaze hungrily through the fences around elementary schools. In The Scablands it is not un-heard of for these critters to contest the ownership of a fresh-shot Mule Deer. It seems prudent to have a potent sidearm handy.

All of which is, of course, just a cheesy way of justifying getting a big-bore snubby. Which I did, and have written about here before.

Selection Criteria

Black Bears aren’t Grizzlies, but they can get up to 200-300 lbs. and are extremely strong. They generally aren’t aggressive and will often flee an approaching human. But Black Bears, well, they’re notional. Most likely they’ll make themselves scarce, but they might decide to join you in your tent for a little snack, or decide to play with you until you break. Or just eat you. A momma bear can decide you’re too close to her cubs when you had no idea they were within a mile of you, so it’s not totally ridiculous to be prepared.

People have defended themselves from bears of all kinds with all sorts of handguns, but the smart money has traditionally been on a magnum that begins with ‘4.’ Whatever people choose, penetration is a must, and I mean a lot more penetration than self-defense ammunition offers. A heavy bullet stepping out fast is the ticket; something that will blast through heavy bone and still have enough penetration to reach the important stuff.

S&Ws Model 29 and 629 .44 Magnum ‘Mountain Gun’ was specifically designed as a defense against dangerous game animals

The long-running favorite for the role is the .44 Magnum, and it suits the bill, but they are expensive (for my budget) and you have a choice between ‘really heavy’ and ‘really brutal to shoot.’ The first is undesirable because I’m old and fat, and the second is so unpleasant that follow-up shots may be too slow, and a gun that hurts is a gun few people will practice with.

The Ruger Alaskan .454 Casull is the King Daddy of this sort of gun, but despite weighing approximately 4-1/2 tons it is still unpleasant to shoot with full-power loads.

So, high penetration, not too heavy but not excessively painful to shoot, easily packable, fast follow-up shots and launching a heavy bullet at reasonable speed… sounds like a perfect reason to buy that Taurus Model 415 .41 magnum I’ve always wanted but could never justify. “But honey, you don’t want me eaten by a bear, do you?”

The Taurus Model 415

In 1999 Taurus decided that what the world really needed was a compact, stainless, snub-nosed 5-shot double-action .41 Magnum based on their Tracker series. This was offered with a 2-1/2″ ported barrel, fixed sights and a ribbed rubber grip to help take the sting out of the not-insignificant recoil. The steel version of the gun weighs in at 30 oz. and is sized like a slightly beefy K-frame. For comparison my 3″ pencil-barrel .38 Special K-Frame weighs in at 28 oz. (Taurus also offered a Titanium version for people that hate themselves that was a full 9 oz. lighter.)

The 415 in stock trim, with a matte stainless finish and ribbed rubber grips.

The smallish, relatively light magnum was not, as it turns out, what the world was looking for at that time and production was discontinued in 2003. These guns can still be had, however, though if you don’t want to search around you might wind up paying a premium for it.

The rubber grips do a fair job of managing the recoil, but they don’t make this a pleasant gun to shoot with full-power ammo. I also don’t like the way they can snag on cover-garments. I tried some home-made grips, and while they offered excellent control and fast follow-up shots they hurt. I needed a better solution. This came in the form of a pair of fancy grips I got for Christmas one year. They are quite large, and are covered in black enamel with inlays of abalone and mother-of-pearl. Subtle they are not, but they tame the recoil better than even the factory grips.

Seven-yard rapid-fire with .41 Magnum Silvertip hollow-points. These custom grips did the job, but my hand hurt for days after a practice-session.

Further Foolery

Of course that matte stainless finish just looked wrong with those fancy grips, so I polished the gun to a ‘bright’ finish, stopping short of a full mirror-polish. Much better.

With a need to get off an accurate shot fast I relieved the right-side of the trigger-guard, as I do on most of my carry revolvers. This lets me get my trigger-finger from safely on the side of the frame to a proper position on the trigger without interference.

The trigger guard is partially cut away on the right to allow faster access to the trigger while retaining decent safety. As a bonus the bright finish shows every tiny speck or fingerprint. It’s a feature!

The stainless ramp sight was sub-optimal, so I coated it with my mix of enamel and lacquer to make it bright orange. This is great; highly visible, quick to acquire… and black after the first shot because of the three ports running along each side of the sight. No problem if I want to wipe off the front sight between shots. Yeah, no.

OK, I figured, if the sight is going to be black anyway make it black. I cut a step in the sight and carefully filed it to shape, then covered the sight and rear sight-notch with a mixture of soot and lacquer, which I have found holds up quite well.

The newly-reshaped front sight, complete with gunk from the barrel vents.

OK, this works pretty well. The grip works, the sights are better. The DA trigger, while not awesome, is good enough. A proper holster, and it’s time to consider what to shoot out of it.

The Ammunition

Usually when contemplating defensive ammo I have concerns about over-penetration. Not this time; a I want all the pen I can get while remaining manageable. Factory ammo tends to be less-than-common in this caliber at the best of times, but since I reload I can tailor it to what I want.

I opted for J&J’s 210gr. copper-washed hard-cast LSWC as a staring point, and after consulting the reloading data opted for a charge of 9gr. of Unique with a Federal large pistol primer as a starting point. The Taurus launches this bullet at 1085 fps. for 549 ft./lbs. of energy at the muzzle. Not a screamer, but decently potent and relatively easy to shoot.

This turned out to be a pretty good choice; recoil is manageable and not unpleasant, and penetration? Yeah, it does that.

Zipped through 25 inches of gel and nailed the back-plate hard enough to leave a significant dent.
After exiting the gel the bullet hit sideways and produced a dent deeper than the bullet is long. The bullet shown is unfired and is included for size comparison.

The bullet zipped through 25″ of Clear Ballistics 10% ordinance gel, just missed the final block of gel and smashed into the steel backstop hard enough to dent the hell out of it. It’s hard to tell in the picture, but the dent is deeper than the bullet is long. I’m guessing that will do the job if push comes shove, as long as I can actually put lead on the target.

Pretty impressive wound-track for a non-expanding bullet, and it didn’t streamline in 16″…

Bears Beware!

Last fall it turned out a bear or two had moved onto the property I hunt, but they stayed well away from me. Obviously they was skeered of mah gun. I mean sure, I was also packing a 7-1/2″ .44 Magnum for deer, but I’m convinced it was this gun that kept me safe. *Nods earnestly*

But seriously, between a stout gun belt and a good holster I never even noticed I was packing the Taurus, and that’s what I really want. Out of sight, out of mind… but there if I need it.

Hmmm… now what kind of cheesy rationalization can I come up with for the next cool gun I have no use for?

Stay safe, and take care.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 9 May 2021

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A Tale of Two Inches

In our last episode we discussed the Mauser 6.35mm and the effect of it’s three inch barrel on performance, which prompted a reader to ask about the performance of factory ammunition in a two-inch barrel .25 auto. As it happens Linda has a Colt Junior with a 2″ barrel, and I happened to have some factory… Oh. No, I don’t. But I did have some just-arrived 50gr FMC-RN bullets from PPU, so I consulted the reloading data and came up with a load I thought would approximate factory ammo.

Our test guns- Linda’s Colt Junior and my Mauser 6.35mm, and a little something extra…

As it happened I also had some Speer 35Gr Gold Dot hollow-points, so I thought I might try those as well.

Put Not Your Faith In Reloading Manuals!

Lee Precision’s reloading data suggested a 50gr. FMC-RN Loaded over 1.1gr of Red Dot would yield a velocity of 740 fps. and 61 ft./lbs. of energy. This nearly duplicates the performance of American Eagle 50gr. TMJ ammunition fired from a 2″ barrel, so that ought to do for the ‘factory ammo’ equivalent. Or so you would expect…

I set up the Caldwell chronograph and had a go. It seems Lee was a tad optimistic. From the Colt Jr.’s 2-inch barrel this gave 619 fps. and 43 ft./lbs. That’s, uh, interesting. Just for giggles I tried it from the Mauser’s 3″ barrel. Huh. 712 fps. and 56 ft.lbs. Gotta wonder what sort of gun Lee was testing this load out of…

So what was performance like in Clear Ballistics 10% ordinance gel? From the 2″ gun it was uninspiring.

Low energy, shallow penetration and the bullet tumbled and ended base-first.

9″ of penetration. The bullet did tumble and maintained a relatively straight wound track, so that’s in it’s favor. The load fared somewhat better out of the Mauser, and is reasonably close to the performance listed in the manual so it gives us a better idea how factory ammo might behave in a 2-inch gun.

The bullet didn’t tumble when fired from the Mauser, but the wound track did curve upward.

A bit over 13″ of penetration in the gel, with a slightly curved wound track. The bullet did not tumble. I think this gives a decent idea of how factory ammo would perform from a 2″ gun.

It has been noted that the FMC-RN bullet is an uneven performer in this caliber, with the round nose sometimes causing the bullet to be diverted by bones such as the ribs or skull if it does not strike squarely.

Let’s Rev It Up Some

So, about those Gold Dots… Looking over the available data I found a load tested in a 2″ Beretta, and thought that would be a good place to start. This had the 35gr GDHP loaded over 1.7gr. of Red Dot with a CCI500 small pistol primer, yielding a velocity of 946 fps. and 70 ft./lbs. of energy.

From the Colt Junior this actually gave 994 fps. and 77 ft./lbs. The bullet even mushroomed a bit.

The bullet actually expanded to approx. .337″

But there’s trouble in paradise; with low-energy bullets generally you can have expansion or penetration, pick one. This load was no exception.

Shallow penetration and a sharply curved wound-track. Not a recipe for success!

The bullet penetrated about 8″ of gel, which is generally considered far too little for reliably damaging critical structures in the human body. This does closely approximate the results of tests I’ve seen of factory Gold Dot ammo, so no real surprises here.

The Mauser’s extra inch imparted a significant improvement in velocity and energy. 1067 fps. and 89 ft./lbs., and three recovered bullets showed excellent, uniform expansion.

Bullets expanded in a range from .340 to .359″

That’s the good news. The bad news is that while penetration was better it still wasn’t good. The most expanded bullet stopped at around 7-3/8″. The other two made about 8-1/2″ and 9″. Given that 12″ is the FBI’s specified minimum penetration this must be considered, inadequate, or marginal at best.

I think I should test this load against FBI-standard and fire it through four layers of denim; I think it would actually perform better if the hollow-point was plugged and expansion was limited or prevented.

The Take-Away

Energy doesn’t tell the whole tale. The most powerful of these loads also offered the worst performance as it’s expansion limited penetration.

.25 ACP was one an extremely popular caliber for small pocked pistols, but since the GCA1968 made it problematic to import the tiny pistols that chamber it the caliber’s popularity has waned and it’s market-share has diminished. Today very few companies offer guns in this caliber. This means that ammunition companies have little incentive to improve on it, and by-and-large haven’t.

From left to right: Rimrock’s 55gr (actually 58gr.) hard-cast lead RNFP, the 35gr GDHP, and PPU’s 50gr. FMC-RN

The venerable .25 is considered inadequate for self defense these days, and not without reason. It could be useful for jobs like pest control or small game, but at it’s best it duplicates the performance of .22 LR, which is offered in guns more suited to such roles, is notably less expensive to shoot and (in normal times) more readily obtainable.

Of the rounds I’ve tested my handload using the Rimrock 55gr (actually 58gr. in the box I purchased) shows the most promise; it tracks straight in gel and penetrates consistently to about 12.5″ when fired through four layers of denim from a 2″ barrel. I also feel the hard-cast flat-point is less likely to be defected by bones in self-defense scenario.

I think a FMC flat-point, or even a a slightly concave point (to provide an edge to catch on bone and prevent deflection) weighing 55-60gr. might be the best one could reasonably do in this cartridge, but again there is little incentive to go to the difficulty and expense of developing new bullets.

A few folks have suggested that perhaps I should look into the idea of a .25 Super Auto, perhaps driving that 58gr. LFP bullet at 1150 fps. but that would require building an entire new gun to fire it, which might be a bit much. Hmmm…

Stay safe and take care.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 8 May 2021

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