Saturday, November 28, 2009

Vintage "Assault Rifles"...

The Firearm Blog's recent pieces on early "high capacity" repeaters had a picture of a Miegs rifle which, while interesting, would be no more than an extremely rare prototypical footnote if it hadn't obviously influenced the later rifles built by the Evans Repeating Rifle Company out of Maine, which were a qualified commercial success.

The Evans were manufactured from 1873 to 1879, and roughly fifteen thousand of the helical-magazine repeaters found buyers during that stretch of time, and were even endorsed by "Buffalo Bill". As a result, they're not terribly uncommon at gun shows today if you know where to look, and while premium examples bring premium prices, serviceable shooters can be had for well under a grand. The .44 Evans cartridge hasn't been commercially loaded for almost a hundred years, but the black powder rounds can be formed by cutting down .303 Savage brass.

Of course, "high capacity" is relative to the time and place: While the user of a later Evans, which due to its longer cartridges held six fewer rounds than the early models, had twenty-eight times as many rounds on tap as a contemporary U.S. soldier (who used a "Trapdoor" Springfield), he only had twice the magazine capacity of a Swiss private armed with a Gew. 1869 Vetterli.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

.32 Caliber: A rocket for the pocket...

When Smith & Wesson ushered in the metallic cartridge era in American handgunning, .31 caliber was already established as the de facto standard for repeating pocket pistols, with many thousands of Colt's Pocket Models and various small pepperboxes already on the market. It was only natural then, for Smith's second cartridge to be a rimfire .32; roughly the same size as the existing muzzle loading offerings.

RIGHT: S&W Model One-and-a-Half top break, in .32 S&W.

In the 1870s, the .32 made the jump to the centerfire era in Smith's tiny "Model One-and-a-Half", and when they went to solid-frame revolvers with swing-out cylinders, S&W retained the caliber, albeit with a lengthened case, as the ".32 Smith & Wesson Long".

LEFT: .32 Hand Ejector 3rd Model in .32 S&W Long.

When John Browning turned his attentions to self-loading pistols, his first commercial success in the arena was the Model 1900 produced by Fabrique Nationale in Belgium. It was a slim little automatic pistol that could fit easily into a coat pocket and although nearly everything else about it was new, the bore diameter was the old familiar .32; the bore size that had become popular with a muzzle-loaded lead ball seated over patch and powder now saw a pistol that used smokeless propellant to launch a jacketed bullet and then reloaded itself. Known as 7.65 Browning in Europe, the cartridge was sold as the .32 ACP (for Automatic Colt Pistol) in the USA, since its first appearance on these shores was in the Colt's 1903 Pocket Hammerless.

RIGHT: Colt's Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless in .32ACP.

.32, in both revolver and automatic formats, was very nearly the default bore size for pocket defensive guns for over a century and, as earlier competitors fell by the wayside, .32 S&W Long and .32 ACP became the default cartridges for .32-caliber pocket arms worldwide. Given that both revolvers and pistols of this type have been produced in nearly every country sophisticated enough to have an arms industry and even a few that aren't, there is no telling how many countless millions of these diminutive weapons lie forgotten in the sock drawers, sea chests, and sideboards of the world despite all the fantasy schemes of governments to control them; one may as well command the tide.

LEFT: Filipino blacksmith-made copy of S&W I-frame (top) and original S&W I-frame (bottom).

In addition to Smith & Wesson and Colt's (who called it the ".32 Colt New Police,) which were seen as the high end of the market, numerous other American companies manufactured .32 S&W Long revolvers: Iver Johnson, Harrington & Richardson, and Hopkins & Allen, to name but a few. Sold in hardware stores and via mail order, they were as common as Kleenex in purses and glove boxes.

During the early 20th Century, in addition to the well-known Pocket Hammerless model from Colt's, hundreds of thousands of which were manufactured over some forty years, pocket automatics in .32ACP were sold by Savage, Remington, and H&R; untold more were imported from Europe via regular importation channels as well as in the duffle bags of generations of American servicemen.

In postwar America, with the development of small .38 revolvers, often on .32-sized frames, and a general reduction in the pocket pistol market following the hostile legislation enacted in 1968, .32 in both "ACP" and "S&W Long" forms gradually became the caliber of the much-demonized "Saturday Night Special", found largely in extremely inexpensive revolvers and cheap cast zinc pistols. The fact that these guns served a valuable purpose in a market where a traditionally-made blued steel firearm, produced by union labor in New England and excise taxed to death, could cost half a month's wages for a night clerk went unmentioned.

RIGHT: The Beretta 3032 Tomcat, which hit the market in 1996, was one of a wave of new pocket pistols in .32ACP.

While .32 S&W Long lingers on mostly as a chambering for esoteric ISSF target pistols and a reduced load for various .32-caliber magnums, .32ACP has seen something of a revival in the last decades, with the reform of concealed carry laws and the introduction of truly tiny pocket guns from innovators such as Larry Seecamp and George Kellgren as well as established makers like Beretta. Whether the .32 will see its second century or not remains to be seen, but given its ubiquity, that would seem to be the way to bet.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cold War Heaters: Polish Tokarev and Czech CZ-52.

With the turn of the 20th Century, self-loading pistols began to see greater acceptance in military and paramilitary forces worldwide. The czar's government in Russia, long dependent on foreign arms designs, turned to the Belgian firm of Fabrique Nationale when seeking a pistol for its gendarmerie, acquiring several thousand FN Browning 1903's.

The FN1903 looked similar to the Colt Pocket Hammerless so familiar to American collectors, but was physically larger, being chambered for a 9mm cartridge. Also used by Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, both of which bordered Russia, the sleek pistol still looks modern today. The czar's pistols sported a frame slotted for a combination shoulder stock/holster, and featured an enclosed hammer.

Later, in the wake of the First World War, Bolshevik forces in Civil War-torn Russia acquired many “Broomhandle” Mausers from a German arms industry desperate for foreign sales to make up for the loss of income caused by the Versailles treaty. The Broomhandles were chambered for the classic “.30 Mauser” cartridge, a high-velocity bottlenecked number more like a carbine cartridge than a normal pistol round.

These two historical facts may go some way to explain why, when the victorious Communists sought a modern self-loader to replace the M1895 revolvers in their progressive socialist armies, the winning design looked an awful lot like an enlarged FN 1903 with a partially-exposed hammer and chambered for a hot-loaded version of the old .30 Mauser round.

The Tokarev TT-33, as the definitive version was labeled, was a short-recoil operated pistol with no manual safety and a magazine released by a thumb-activated button. Among its innovations was the fact that the lockwork was mounted in a chassis that could be removed from the frame in a single unit.

After WWII, as Eastern Europe fell into the Soviet sphere of influence, the Russians pressured their new satrapies to adopt weaponry in common calibers. Most countries tooled up to produce copies of the Tokarev, but the Czechoslovakians, with a sophisticated arms industry of their own, turned out a unique pistol chambered for the Soviet cartridge.

The CZ-52 was also operated on the short-recoil principle, but instead of using the common Browning tilting-barrel method of locking as used on the Tokarev, it used a roller-locking setup similar to that used on the German MG-34 and MG-42 light machine guns of the previous war. Also unlike the Tokarev, it offered an external manual safety which could also function as a decocker. While the Tok had a 1930s deco look to its shape, the CZ's lines had an angular ray-gun look that wouldn't have been out of place in a '50s sci-fi movie.

ABOVE: Cold War Heaters. Polish Radom wz.48 (top) and Czech CZ vz.52 (bottom).

Both pistols became widely available on the American civilian market when the Warsaw Pact had its big Chapter 11 sale in the early 1990s, and their low prices made them popular for shooters and collectors on a budget. Surplus ammunition was widely available, and new-production commercial ammo could be had from sources as disparate as Sellier & Bellot and Winchester on one hand and MagSafe on the other.

The examples in the picture are a basic Czech CZ-52 and a Radom-made Polish wz.48. In fit and finish, there's really no comparison: The CZ is a typical rough-hewn phosphate-finished example while the Radom is an elegant, polished blue. In use, though, the CZ points more naturally for me, since Fedor Tokarev managed to mess with the natural pointing qualities of the Browning design. It also has a better trigger pull (although that's damning by faint praise.) Combine this with the fact that the Polish heater didn't seem to like the S&B ammo used in the tests, as evinced by ragged groupings and a vicious Type III malfunction that required a Leatherman tool to clear, and of these two examples, the Czech is definitely the more practical sidearm.

ABOVE: Leatherman Juice was needed to pry the mangled cartridge case from the grip of the Radom Tokarev. Don't leave home without it.

Also the Czech pistol has a positive safety (it's even right-side-up to American thumbs,) while the Tok's safety is a jury-rigged afterthought which only serves to block the trigger, added to satisfy BATFE requirements mandated by the Gun Control Act of 1968.

RIGHT: Actual high-speed competition shooter with the Czech ray gun.

Both pistols can still be found for prices in the ~$200 range, although the Radom-marked Polish Tok is a sure-fire future collectible compared to the relatively dirt-common CZ. Surplus ammunition can still be found, and the fireballing high-velocity cartridge makes for a fun afternoon at the range. Any collector of Cold War-era arms would be advised to snatch up a copy of one or both while they're still available for reasonable prices.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Sunday Smith #48: .38 Double Action 2nd Model, 1882

By the mid-19th Century, the battle for the title of America's premier handgun manufacturer was pretty much down to two contestants: Colt and Smith & Wesson. Smith stole a march on Colt with their purchase of the Rollin White patent for bored-through cylinders and even before its expiration had introduced a second generation of cartridge revolvers using the new centerfire cartridges, and with a top-break mechanism that featured simultaneous ejection of spent cases.

In 1877, Colt returned fire, so to speak, by introducing a version of their solid-frame revolvers that had double-action lockwork. In other words, the trigger performed the double actions of cocking the hammer and firing the piece. Current Smiths were all single-action, requiring the user to cock the hammer with his thumb for every shot.

In 1880, S&W offered double action versions of their own small- and medium-frame revolvers in .32 and .38 caliber. While the large-frame .44s and .45s are more romantic and tend to feature prominently in the Hollywood dramatizations of the era, these littler revolvers were actually far more common and were the workhorses of the company's lineup. Over 300,000 .38 Double Actions of just the first three variants were made, as compared to about a quarter million large-frame top-breaks of all types, including those for foreign military contracts.

Pictured above is a .38 Double Action 2nd Model from approximately 1882. The 2nd Model is distinguished from the earlier 1st Model by its smaller sideplate, which made for a stronger frame than the large, straight-edged sideplate of the earlier version, which is much rarer, only being made in 1880. In 1884, production shifted to the 3rd Model, which eliminated the unusual “freeing groove” on the cylinder, made necessary by the earlier model's double set of cylinder stop bolts.

The pictured revolver is in the most common trim for a .38 DA, with a 3.25” barrel, black hard rubber stocks, and the nickel finish that was vastly more popular than blued steel for 19th Century American pocket guns. It was acquired at a gun show in Louisville for $100, which is a very fair price. A really nice example might fetch four bills, and one in like-new condition with the rarer mottled red stocks could bring as much as $800.