It’s no surprise that small, pocket-sized handguns are the hot ticket items these days, as they appear to be THE answer to being able to be discreetly armed under almost any circumstance.
Overlooked in this rush for comfort and concealment are several important facts. These small pistols require more attention to keep them running and more effort to learn to shoot – and ongoing practice is absolutely necessary to shoot them well. And, then there’s the matter of choosing between a semiauto or a revolver.
Items to Consider
On this last point, both action types have their own pluses and minuses – some are apparent and some not so much. Historically, the small double-action revolver is almost guaranteed to allow you to empty the gun without a malfunction while, with all else being equal, a similar-sized semiauto can malfunction. The trouble is, usually not all else is equal. A revolver can fail to fire right along with the best semiauto. Both will stop working if bullet “jump” is encountered.
“Jump” is when the bullet pulls forward in its case due to the abrupt and heavy recoil of one or more rounds already fired. (In fact, Smith & Wesson® makes particular mention of this in the owner’s manual for .357 Magnum chambered small, lightweight revolvers.) The same effect happens with any semiauto, but worsens as the gun’s weight decreases and recoil increases, such as with a .40S&W or a .357SIG chambered gun. All the cartridges in the magazine are subject to this. With the revolver, the bullet protrudes from the cylinder face. Then, when the cylinder tries to turn to line up another round, the protrusion butts up against the side of the rear of the barrel and stops the cylinder from turning.
How to Clear?
Clearing this jam is difficult in both types of guns. With the revolver, the cylinder has to be un- locked and turned in the opposite direction such that you are able to swing it out and turn it so that it will pass through the frame window. In a semiauto, when a feeding round has become too long to function through the action, the round most often is angled and wedged between barrel chamber and breech face, with either the magazine lips or extractor or both still grasping the round. This, coupled with recoil spring force pushing the slide forward, has the round held and wedged quite firmly. To clear this, the slide must be locked or held back, taking the pressure off the round, the magazine ripped out and the slide manipulated, clearing the gun. Preferably, a fresh magazine should be used to reload, but, if you lack one, the original magazine can be used after insuring the offending round is gone. This should clear it (along with, hopefully, not breaking or displacing the extractor).
Bullet jump in the semiauto can also be caused by bullet setback which occurs when a round is repeatedly chambered, causing the bullet to be pushed into the cartridge case by repeatedly hitting the feed ramp and chamber wall. Setback can also happen to the cartridges in the magazine as they bump against the magazine wall as the gun moves. Setback also does not lend itself to quick clearing, but worse can happen. When the bullet sets back, it increases chamber pressure. I read a report from Hirtenberger AG Austria, a major ammunition manufacturer, where it was determined that a 1/10″ setback with a .40S&W cartridge raised chamber pressure to a dangerously above proof test load level. This same observation was also made by CCI using a 9x19mm cartridge, with the same results.
The more common semiauto pistol malfunctions, such as failure to fire, extract, eject or double feeding, also occur with small semiautos, but are much more difficult to clear. The clearing drills can be nearly impossible to do with the smaller arm, particularly if you have large hands or fingers, since you have less gun to grab when doing the manipulations. And, depending on the gun’s design and its caliber, the recoil spring system will be heavier than the one used in the comparable full-sized version. All of these complicate, or preclude, some of the drills which are effective with the full-sized pistol. What works is the previously described drill of locking the slide back, ripping out the magazine and manipulating the slide to clear the gun; then, reload with a fresh magazine.
Other Potential Problems
Operator error can also jam the revolver, as the double-action trigger must be released fully forward in order to fire another round. For those who were taught to ride the trigger (catch the reset) with a semiauto, this can be a problem.
It’s a given that the small, powerful handguns are more difficult to shoot well with the accentuated recoil. The shorter sight makes sighting more difficult, along with good muzzle control. For me, this translates into having less “feel” as to where the gun is directed. (This is one good argument for having a laser on the small guns.)
Adding to this, the shorter grip often means that you can only take a two – not three – finger grip which also decreases gun control generally. This can be ameliorated with a finger rest magazine floor plate or a slightly extended magazine, such as by using the GLOCK® 19 magazine in the shorter grip GLOCK 26. If you do this, though, take care not to grip the gun so that the longer magazine pushes past the magazine catch. This pushes the top of the mag up far enough to interfere with slide movement. Also, if you do a slide lock or empty gun reload with the longer magazine, you can drive the maga- zine in far enough to block the slide from moving forward (this can, literally, be a pain to clear). Also,
while a magazine collar is a great way to negate these overinsertions, if the collar allows a means of tightening it to prevent slippage, overtightening will constrict the magazine tube which then stops cartridges from feeding.
Another problem with the smaller handguns is that the mag catch or cylinder release can be accidentally activated when the smaller gun is held with two hands and, sometimes, even with one hand; there is just too much hand for the gun’s size. The buttons get tripped and leave you with a one-shot or a no shot at all gun when the mag drops out or the cylinder opens, spilling cartridges. With a revolver, sometimes the cylinder moves out of alignment, but it stays in the frame and you don’t notice it until you find the trigger will not move. Rounding the release is a good idea since, with the smaller frame, the catch is more likely to dig into your hand. Some small semiautos have a ledge around the catch, added to help prevent these problems. Another problem to watch out for – an ambidextrous magazine catch which, for me, is an accident which will happen. Another inadvertent malfunction is when you overdo your high grip on the gun and the web of your hand is now up far enough to slow or stop slide movement (and get cut in the process).
Take a Look
In addition, safe gun handling is more difficult with the small semiautos, such as doing a visual and tactical inspection, for ejection port windows are naturally smaller, making the chamber area harder to see. To the good, the minuscule port window helps keep crud out, but the best I manage to do is “look,” as the port window is too small for my fingers to “feel” the rear of the chamber. And, with these small semiautos, it is even more important to try not to catch a live round when clearing the gun, particularly if the pistol design uses its firing pin as the ejector. The “Baby” Browning in .25ACP is one such example of this. The firing pin/ejector can strike and fire the cartridge being extracted.
All of these problems are at worst an irritant if you spend time getting past the initial awkwardness of working with everything being smaller. The key here is spending the time! I probably don’t need to suggest it, but using dummy rounds is the best and safest way to learn the idiosyncrasies of these smaller handguns.
In review, whether you choose a revolver or a semiauto pistol, keep in mind what your goal is – selecting a handgun with which you can protect yourself, not perform your law enforcement du- ties. You’re choosing an emergency tool which will only be used when all other options are either ex- hausted or not available.
About the Author: Upon receiving his BS de- gree from Carnegie Tech and completing service as a Special Agent in U.S. Army Intelligence, Walt Rauch was a Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service and an Investigator with the Warrant Unit, First Judicial District, PA.
Rauch is also a writer and lecturer in the firearms field. He is published regularly in national and international publications.
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