American Pistol Shooting (2015)
ACCURATE pistol shooting is largely dependent on good ammunition. Obviously it is very poor policy to spend considerable time and effort on learning the technique of shooting and then sacrifice one’s success by using poor shooting equipment and inaccurate ammunition. The inaccuracy of a cartridge may be due to being unbalanced ballistically or to defects caused by deterioration in powder resulting from old age, or improper storage.
In the great variety of pistol ammunition available today we find cartridges intended for military purposes, for police work, for use in guns made for self protection, and some that is suitable for accurate target work. There are many obsolescent cartridges still being manufactured to meet the demands of owners of weapons of “ancient vintage.” This will continue no doubt for many years, for some men will still practice with their old models rather than buy more modern and up-to-date weapons. Granted that there are a few old revolvers that are still great favorites of many members of the pistol shooting fraternity because of their balance, grip, caliber or some other desirable feature, there are a few that should be discarded primarily because of the ammunition for which they are chambered, which is neither accurate, adequate nor effective as judged by modern standards.
To find an ideal all-around pistol cartridge is much like trying to find an ideal all-around pistol, and we must expect to sacrifice something when we are selecting either of these articles. If we desire a cartridge with maximum accuracy, that is pleasant to shoot and is suitable for indoor use because of the absence of excessive noise and recoil we must go to the smaller and medium bores, but if we want something that has stopping or shocking power we must use the large calibers. If we wish to find a cartridge to use in either rifle or revolver as our pioneers did, we can still select the same ones they used if we are satisfied with them. The 32-20 or .32 Winchester, the 38-40 or .38 Winchester and the 44-40 or .44 Winchester cartridges were originally rifle cartridges loaded with black powder, and made for use in Winchester rifles. As such they proved quite successful, especially the two larger calibers and several of the old model six shooters were chambered for these cartridges in order to simplify the ammunition supply of our early western settlers, who found it advisable and necessary to possess both rifles and revolvers. They were formerly loaded with 20 and 40 grains of black powder, respectively, from which they derived their common designation. After the invention of smokeless powder the loads were materially changed and the results in general not so good, especially in revolvers. Within very recent years these cartridges have been put in the high velocity class as a result of loading them with a more powerful powder charge. These new loads are not safe for use in revolvers or pistols and great care should be taken when buying any of them to see that only the low velocity kind are purchased. Realizing the danger of using the high velocity type in revolvers the ammunition companies have carefully labeled the boxes with the precaution, “Not for use in revolvers” or similar warning. The low power loads can still be obtained and these cartridges are popular with many pistolmen, especially the 44-40 with its 200 grain blunt nose bullet and effective shocking power. The popularity of this cartridge may also be due to some extent to the fact that the old favorite, Colt Single Action revolver, known as the Frontier Model, was originally chambered for it and the Single Action as sold by the Colt firm today is chambered for any of the three cartridges as well as for several others.
The selection of the most effective cartridge of heavy caliber involves the question of accuracy, and of stopping or shocking power. Accuracy of high degree is not so essential in a weapon intended for military or police use, but the power to stop or instantly disable an enemy, even though it may be temporary, is what is desired. The wound from a small caliber bullet may eventually prove fatal but the paralyzing shock from a heavy, large sized bullet is much more effective at the critical time of an emergency. The factors of weight, diameter, velocity, shape, construction and composition of a bullet all affect its stopping power and these combined with the place and nature of the impact on a body make it impossible to state absolutely which cartridges and bullets are the best for the purpose. Jacketed bullets with round or sharp points and having great penetration are not as effective as a general thing as blunt nosed, lead bullets with low, rather than high velocity.
It is not the author’s intention in this book on pistol shooting to fill the pages with discussions on the killing or shocking power of bullets about which much has already been written, but rather to offer such suggestions as his experience and study has taught to be of value to the shooter. It is believed that the .45 Colt cartridge with its 255 grain, blunt nosed bullet, as loaded by most of the cartridge companies, or with the 250 grain bullet as loaded by the Remington Arms Co. is the best “man stopper” made. There is, however, sufficient stopping power in the 38-40, the .44 Special, and the 44-40 and the .45 Automatic pistol and revolver cartridges to answer the purpose and no one will go wrong if he selects any of these for use in a good weapon. If one wants to get the most accurate large caliber cartridges he should by all means select the .44 S. & W. Special and next to that the Service Automatic cartridge with the 230 grain bullet as made by Frankford Arsenal since 1924.
In the selection of ammunition for target practice one must consider the class of shooting in which he is to engage, and then study the ammunition question, keeping in mind that there is no need of trying to secure cartridges that will shoot closer than the best shots can hold. Due to the targets used, the ranges at which firing is done and the time factor in the firing, military and police practice is not expected to be as accurate as very deliberate shooting at the Standard American target at fifty yards or as free pistol shooting at the International target at fifty meters. It is in the latter style of shooting that the greatest care should be taken in choosing ammunition, for a defective cartridge or bullet can certainly ruin a good score very easily when firing is done at the 2 inch center and closely spaced rings of the International target. For this work the .22 caliber single shot target pistols are used and the .22 long rifle cartridge. This particular cartridge has been developed to such an extent in the last ten years that it is recognized as the finest for the purpose and is universally used. The two inch ten ring is about the limit in accuracy that one should expect when using the most accurately made target pistol at the 50 meter range. Of course the best target pistols with high grade ammunition will shoot closer than this when fired from a machine rest, but most shooters are far from human machine rests. Inasmuch as this form of shooting is the most highly refined, it behooves the marksman to make every possible improvement in his shooting and if he uses the best pistol he can secure then the only other thing he can do is to use the most accurate ammunition available. This usually gets down to the question of which brand to use, and therein the matter of psychology enters to no small degree. There are five American makes of .22 long rifle cartridges that are suitable for pistol work, and any of them will give excellent results. With many marksmen the use of a particular make of cartridge is a good deal like voting. They have been taught that one make was the best and so they stick to that kind as they stick to their political party regardless of the fact that occasionally there are poor lots of ammunition just as there is poor material among the candidates for election. Our ammunition firms have had to put their best efforts into the development of .22 long rifle ammunition as the demand for this cartridge is much greater than for any other and the super-excellent shooting that is done now-a-days with our best small arms makes it necessary for the ammunition to keep pace with the guns. Up to about ten years ago this cartridge was used for short range work entirely and its accuracy was not nearly what it is today, but about that time the U. S. Cartridge Co. brought out what they called the .22 N.R.A. long range cartridge good for rifle work up to two hundred yards. Since then the other manufacturers have specialized on similar ones so that we now have a most excellent assortment of accurate small caliber cartridges from which to select.
There are now available two classes of .22 long rifle cartridges. One is the ordinary garden variety known as the regular .22 long rifle ammunition and the other is the .22 match ammunition, which is put out by each firm under a special trade name. If one goes to a sporting goods store and asks for .22 long rifle ammunition the chances are he will be given the regular kind unless he specifies the match cartridges. The former is cheaper and for short range work is quite satisfactory, in fact it frequently shoots quite as well as the match stuff, but there is not the uniformity to be found in it that there is in the other grade. Another reason for using the match cartridge is that there is quite a difference between the muzzle velocities of the two. Take Remington for example,—the regular cartridge has 930 foot seconds velocity and the “Palma” cartridge has 1070. One who can hold well and can call his shots very accurately with the pistol will probably detect the difference in accuracy between the regular and the “Palma” cartridge, but to do this he must be able to see exactly where his sights are aligned at the instant the pistol fires. The difference in cost between the two is three dollars a thousand and is made necessary by the additional handling required in its manufacture. The Palma cartridge is accurate for any range up to 200 yards. The United States Cartridge Co. call their match cartridge the .22 N.R.A. “Marksman” is the title used by the Western Cartridge Co. The Peters Cartridge Co. have two match cartridges both called “Tackhole,” but one is designated as the Indoor and the other as the Outdoor cartridge with a difference of 120 foot seconds in muzzle velocity. “Tackhole” Outdoors is credited with 1065 f. s. “Precision 75” and “Precision 200” are the terms used by Winchester in designating their short and long range match cartridges, the former meaning feet and the latter yards. The muzzle velocities claimed for these two cartridges are about 1000 and 1100 foot seconds respectively. Some recent accuracy tests made for me by Winchester’s ballistic engineer indicate that slightly better accuracy was obtained with “Precision 200” than with “Precision 75” when used in a S. & W. target pistol, and a Colt revolver. Western claims 1115 foot seconds for “Marksman” cartridges. All the above match cartridges are loaded with Lesmok powder except Peters, which uses a Semi-smokeless charge. Any of these cartridges will shoot closer than any pistol shot can hold provided they are used in an accurate target pistol. Experts of long experience have their favorites, and their choice is usually based on sound reasoning, good results and some psychology. There are variations in the diameter of different makes of cartridges of the same caliber and there are variations in the chambering of pistols and revolvers for the same cartridges. Both of these details affect the grouping or accuracy of the weapon and ammunition. With a pistol or revolver it is more difficult to test the accuracy of ammunition than it is with a rifle, but by using a muzzle and forearm rest or for some pistols a six point rest, we can determine whether the ammunition is shooting as well as we can hold. We can also compare the accuracy of different makes in the same pistol. There is no doubt that some weapons will do better work with a certain make of ammunition and if we can determine which this is we will then have a logical reason for using that particular brand. And once we feel confident that one kind suits our pistol better than any other we should stick to it until we find it is failing to group properly. It is safe to assume, however, that the average pistol shot can accept any of the standard match cartridges and know that they are as accurate as need be for his practice. When he gets to the point where he can shoot above 90% on the Standard American target it will be time enough for him to worry about super-accuracy and refinements.
In spite of everything that is done to make ammunition uniform in every way there is a variation in different lots of the same cartridges. Sometimes this variation is great enough to show material inaccuracy. This is likely to happen in any brand. In one indoor season a team I was associated with fired about 50,000 rounds of one kind of .22 long rifle ammunition without evidence of a single erratic shot, such as a keyhole or flier, to indicate defective ammunition and less than a half dozen misfires occurred to mar the season’s record. Yet, the following fall at Camp Perry (1923) this same make grouped so poorly that a number of its users had to switch to another brand. In the case of the ammunition that seemed to suit my target pistols the best and in which I have always had the greatest confidence I have found only one lot that seemed to be below standard in accuracy over a period of nearly fifteen years. At times I was influenced to try other brands, but in each case went back to my old favorite because of getting some unfortunate fliers that affected my scores most adversely. Other marksmen swear by their favorites as strongly as I do mine so we are all happy when we can get the brand we want, and the chances are we shoot better with it than we would with one in which we have less confidence. If the time ever comes when you lose faith in your ammunition do not condemn it for its poor groups until you try it out thoroughly with a rest. Frequent hang fires, keyholes and fliers are sure evidence of poor stuff and are sufficient cause to drop any lot of ammunition.
The latest improvements in long rifle cartridges are to load them with a non-rusting priming mixture which prevents the rusting and corrosion of the barrel. If this is accomplished—the “if” is inserted because all of the new priming mixtures are not entirely successful yet—it will be, from the shooter’s standpoint, one of the most profitable developments ever made in small arms ammunition. The Remington Arms Co. was the first to bring out a new cartridge with the non-rust priming mixture and they gave it the name of Kleanbore. Its adoption makes it possible to use smokeless powder in small bore arms which in the past was not considered good practice if one thought anything of his guns. If the new combination proves as accurate as the old Lesmok cartridges there will be several advantages in its use in addition to the big one of eliminating work and worry over the care of the bore of the pistol. It will improve indoor shooting conditions by preventing the accumulation of smoke in the range, an occurrence that can be quite unpleasant at times and which has a material effect on the appearance of the bull’s-eye in the course of an evening’s practice on a crowded range. The cartridges available at this time with non-rusting priming mixtures are:
U. S. Self Cleaning.
All are loaded with smokeless except Peters, which are charged with semi-smokeless.
In the realm of medium calibers, the most accurate revolver cartridge is the .38 S. & W. Special, in fact there is little doubt that it is second only to the .22 Long Rifle match cartridge, for any kind of target work. The full factory loads when used in a good target revolver are very pleasant to fire, though they are a little noisy for indoor work. For the latter purpose there are several mid-range cartridges that can be used in lieu of the full loads and they will give good accuracy up to 20 yards. For competition work in which revolvers of greater than .22 caliber are prescribed the .38 S. & W. special cartridge is one’s best bet, for it will be found that the most accurate target revolvers are made to take this cartridge and its contemporary, the .38 Colt Special. The latter has the same ballistics except for its blunt nose, which probably gives it greater stopping power.
No discussion of ammunition problems, however sketchy, would be complete without a few paragraphs on that all important item of shooting expense, and ways and means of securing all the practice we can for the funds we have available. There are many pistol men who prefer big bore shooting to small caliber practice and to do much of this kind of work involves considerable expense. There are two solutions to the problem. The first is to substitute small caliber for big gun practice and the other is to reload one’s ammunition. Obviously the “gun bug” who is addicted to the use of the heavy artillery of pistol work will scoff at the idea of giving it up and using small bore pistols. The only other legitimate means of getting the practice he desires is to join a National Guard unit armed with the pistol and take advantage of the opportunities to use government ammunition or to buy a set of reloading tools, a good book of instructions on how to use them and spend his spare time making his own gun fodder. Reloading is a very practical solution to the problem of getting a maximum amount of shooting for a minimum expenditure of money, but it is not the easy get-rich-quick method that one is led to believe when listening to an enthusiastic advocate of reloading talk about its strong points. Its greatest advantages are to the rifleman who uses high powered ammunition that costs from nine to twelve cents a shot when purchased from commercial manufacturers. It has been stated by persons who should know, that the ammunition bill can be reduced to half or one third that of commercial make. This is the big argument in favor of reloading, although there are others of more or less import. The reloading game is very interesting to those with an experimental bent who wish to study its problems and gain a knowledge of the use of powders, bullets and loads for various purposes. It is not for the careless man who thinks he can load a shell approximately correct and get away with it. The factors of safety are so small when it comes to loading revolver ammunition that the addition of a few grains in weight over a full load may result in extremely dangerous pressures and the probable bursting of the cylinder and the damage of other parts of the weapon. In order to avoid dangerous pressures factory ammunition has a factor of safety such that the loads do not always give the maximum power or accuracy that it is possible to get out of a particular gun or cartridge, and in certain calibers an improvement can be made by a skilled re-loader. This is true of the .38 and .44 Special cartridges. When these are desired for such purposes as long range target practice, they can, by careful hand loading, be made to give better results than are forthcoming from factory loads, provided always that the loader knows what he is doing.
This illustration shows the cartridges adapted to Colt pistols and revolvers. (Courtesy Colt Pat. Fire Arms Mfg. Co.)
No. 1—.22 Short
No. 2—.22 Long Rifle
No. 3—.22 W. R. F.
No. 4—.32 S. & W. (Short)
No. 5—.32 Colt Police Positive
No. 6—.32 S. & W. Long
No. 7—.32-20 (Winchester)
No. 8—.38-40 (Winchester)
No. 9—.44-40 (Winchester)
No. 10—.38 Colt Police Positive
No. 11—.38 S. & W.
No. 12—.38 Short Colt
No. 13—.38 Long Colt
No. 14—.38 S. & W. Special, Mid Range
No. 15—.38 Colt Special
No. 16—.38 S. & W. Special
No. 17—.44 Russian
No. 18—.44 S. & W. Special
No. 19—.455 Eley
No. 20—.45 Colt
No. 21—.25 Automatic
No. 22—.32 Automatic
No. 23—.380 Automatic
No. 24—.38 Automatic
No. 25—.45 Automatic
For him who has a hankering to play with the reloading game, and who does not at some time in his shooting career, it is well to mention a few of its disadvantages or we would not be playing fairly with the uninitiated novice. To begin with, the cost of a suitable set of reloading tools will be more than that of a good revolver and to use poor ones courts failure and even disaster. To learn the game to the extent of getting really good results requires a lot of time, study and patience which might in many cases be used to better advantage in shooting practice. It has been my experience that the men who have gone the farthest in the pistol shooting game are those who put the time they have for the sport into shooting and not into side lines that develop men into cranks rather than shots. The country is full of pistol fans who like to play with all the accessories of the game and who get a lot of real pleasure out of them, but when it comes down to shooting they are only in the average class. If they would put half the energy they spend on side issues, into studying the technique of shooting and in actual practice they would be of much more value to the sport as coaches and instructors and would find greater rewards and benefits for themselves than they do by becoming authorities on the side issues of pistol practice. My advice to shooters is to get all the practice they can from the funds they can afford to expend and if it is a case of spending only a nominal amount on ammunition then spend that on small bore cartridges until the time comes when the personal budget will permit greater appropriations to be made for big bore shooting. Large caliber enthusiasts should know that members of the National Rifle Association can buy service .45 caliber pistol ammunition at government prices from the Director of Civilian Marksmanship.
For a further comparison and study of the ballistics of pistol cartridges the reader is referred to the ballistic tables published by the several cartridge companies.