Sunday, December 19, 2021

Don't Blow Up Your Pistol--Consistent Powder Charges

With the current ammo shortage creating challenges for many shooters, some are turning to reloads and or reloading. While reloading can be rewarding and fun, you must be very careful to follow proper procedures. 

I was recently recording a shooter on video for training purposes when a round he fired had a substantially louder report and a great deal of smoke. The blast of smoke hit him in the face and he flinched away automatically. We looked at each other and both of us said almost in unison “Well that was not good.” (See picture sequence below)

I asked him if he was OK and he said yes. He only had some soot spots in several areas on his hands that coincided with openings in the Springfield XD-M grip such as the area around the magazine release button. The XD’s slide was jammed about halfway to the rear and the remains of the cartridge were still in the chamber. Later examination showed that the extractor was severely bent and blocking the slide’s movement. There was no obstruction in the bore.

The Instant the Round Fires 

Cartridge Ruptures

He eventually disassembled the pistol and everything was intact except the extractor. The barrel showed no bulge nor was the frame cracked. The only damage to the frame was one spot where the rail had a small gouge.

Gouge in Rail

We used a FreeBore to remove the cartridge case from the chamber. It was clear that when the round fired, the pressure completely ruptured the case and all but obliterated the head stamp. Two circumstances could cause this amount of over pressure, either the bore had an obstruction or there was too much powder (i.e. an overcharge) in the cartridge.

Blown Case

I believe that this was an overcharged round and not the result of an obstruction in the bore. The video showed that the previous round had fired and the cartridge case ejected normally (see below). I also believe that the incident in question was not the result of the cartridge case weakening. I have seen cartridges fired in unsupported chambers resulting in the cartridge web failing; however, the damage to the cartridge in those instances was not the cartridge's full destruction.

Previous Round Firing

Reloading can be a safe and cost effective way to augment our ammunition supply; however, improper or inconsistent powder charges can cause serious problems. For example, when you fire a round with no powder or too little powder in the case you will typically have a bullet lodged in the barrel. If you hear a slight “pop” instead of a bang when firing a round, stop, properly clear the firearm, and make sure the bullet exited the bore.

With pistols and rifles, be careful about automatically doing a “tap/rack” and trying to fire another round during a match or in training. If the bullet did not exit, firing another round will create unsafe pressure that may cause a bulge in the barrel at best and may destroy the firearm and cause injury if the barrel bursts. I’ve seen shooters destroy four barrels (and two pistols) due to reloaded ammunition with no or too little powder in the case and the shooter automatically performed a “tap/rack.” 

The other side to that coin is an overcharge. An overcharge can also destroy your firearm and may cause serious injury. If you believe you have overcharged a case and it got by you, you must not shoot any rounds in that batch of reloaded ammunition.

How do we prevent this? Consistency in the reloading process is critical. The ideal procedure when using a single stage press is to confirm that the powder measure is dropping the correct charge and is stable. Then visually confirm that the powder level is consistent in each case as you load. This is not always practical with a progressive or an automated reloading machine however.

When using progressive or automated reloading machines, I weigh the powder charge when I first begin the reloading process. I weigh as many powder charges as necessary to be certain that the powder measure is stable and dropping the correct powder charge before I begin reloading. I then stop and repeat the weighing procedure for every 100 rounds the machine loads. I do not mix that particular batch of 100 rounds with other rounds until I confirm that the powder charge is still correct. Although mildly tedious, this prevents me from loading hundreds of suspect rounds when vibration or other factors have caused the setting on the powder measure to drift slightly.

You must also be careful if you have a stoppage or jammed case in progressive or automated reloading machines. As you work to clear the jam, you can inadvertently cause the powder measure to drop another charge into a case. If this goes unnoticed, you can end up with an overcharged round. My solution is to completely clear all cases before restarting the machine.

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Saturday, December 4, 2021

RIA VR82 Pattern Testing

A friend and I have been evaluating the 20 gauge Rock Island Armory VR82 shotgun as an alternative to the commonly-used 12 gauge as a home defense shotgun. The 20 gauge Rock Island Armory VR82 may be an acceptable solution for smaller statured people. We are still experimenting with the VR82s and have not reached a solid conclusion concerning their suitability and reliability. 

Recently I did some pattern tests with three 20 gauge #1 buckshot loads out of my VR82 using a full choke. I tested the Rio Ammunition Group 20 ga Game Load with nine pellets of #1 buckshot at 1345 foot per second (FPS) velocity , the Monarch High Velocity load with nine pellets of #1 buckshot at 1345 FPS, and the Nobel Sport nine pellet #1 buckshot at 1300 FPS. I was not able to obtain any Federal #1 buckshot nor any other US-manufactured 20 gauge #1 buckshot.

Over a couple of sessions, I fired five rounds of each manufacturer’s #1 buckshot load. Additionally, since I noticed the mis-labeling of 12 gauge commercial buckshot loads, I opened shells from all three manufacturers and measured the diameter and weight of the pellets. All actually contained #1 buckshot.

The pictures below show a representative shot from each load at the indicated distance--they are not to scale with each other. 

At ten yards all of the loads demonstrated an acceptable pattern. The Rio load’s average pattern size at ten yards was 4 inches. The Monarch was 6.25 inches and the Nobel load was 8.5 inches.

At fifteen yards, the Rio load opened up to an average of 9.25 inches. The Monarch load was 10.75 inches and the Nobel load was 11.5 inches. These are average measurements so the Monarch and Noble load did throw larger patterns. The Rio load was pretty consistent between 8-10 inches.

At twenty yards, the Rio load opened up to an average of 12 x 12 inches. The Monarch load was 22 x 14 inches and the Nobel load’s pattern was so large that I did not bother to continue with that round at that distance.


Within normal urban house distances, at ten yards and below all of the loads throw an acceptable pattern.  The Rio load is probably acceptable out to about 12 yards.

It is low light training season in Texas and I did the VR82 pattern testing on an afternoon just prior to beginning a low light practice session with a fellow shooter. As an experiment, we both fired Rio, Monarch, and Nobel loads in low light and after dark. The muzzle blast from the Rio and Monarch loads was pretty tame; however, the Nobel load’s muzzle blast was impressive.

That being the case, we recorded several examples of the Nobel Sport #1 buckshot load. I have seen flares of sparks when shooting shotguns (bird shot and buckshot) at steel targets previously, but these were impressive. I believe that it is some metal in the alloy other than lead causing the sparks. At the time we were shooting, I thought the streak of light in one of the stills was material coming back off the target. When I looked at the video I realized it came out of the ejection port. Also the flame coming out of the ejection port in one of the stills surprised me. I'm guessing burning powder grains.

Linked below are two short video compliations of a two-shot and a three-shot sequence with the Rock Island Armory VR82 20 gauge shotgun against steel targets just for fun.

Video of Two Shot Sequence

Video of Three Shot Sequence

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Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Home Defense Shotgun Clinic

Home Defense Scenario
My friend Steve and I recently taught a shotgun clinic introduction to using shotguns for home defense. The students were a group of women shooters. Most are regular participants in our Sensible Self Defense Short Range Match and some have attended previous pistol classes. All were comfortable with pistols; however, they had little to no experience with defensive shotgun skills.

We had a discussion of the essential skills necessary to effectively use shotguns as a defensive weapon in the home. After we demonstrated the various techniques for mounting, firing, reloading, and dismounting the gun, the student dove into learning these skills.  We finished the class with a home defense scenario based on the design of my house and what I would need to do to defend it against armed home invaders.

Steve and I brought a variety of defensive shotguns for the class including a Berretta 1301, various Mossberg pump shotguns, a Remington 870 police version, a Mossberg 930 SPX, and two 20 gauge RIA-VR82s. All of the shotguns with the exception of my Beretta, my 870 police, and the VR82s had stocks with standard 13-1/2 to 14-1/2 inch or longer lengths of pull.* 

The students had no trouble with the 12 gauge’s recoil; however, all had issues with the way the various shotguns failed to fit their body types. The standard pull length was simply too long. The Magpul stocks on my 1301 and 870 have 12-inch lengths of pull and most were able to mount my 1301 shotgun without too much difficulty. Even with a 12-inch pull, the Remington 870 still posed a challenge for most students to work the slide easily. The VR-82s we had on the range have AR-style adjustable stocks and the AR stocks solved the length of pull problem for most students.

The shotguns that Steve and I own are set up for large males (Steve is 5’11” and I am 6’2”) so cheek weld was also a problem. The comb height on our guns prevented some students from placing their face in a comfortable cheek weld while still being able to see the sights. **

A competent gunsmith can cut a stock or shooters can install aftermarket products such as the Magpul SGA stock to fix length of pull problems. Other aftermarket products such as padded butt cuffs can help achieve proper cheek weld. Magpul for example, offers cheek riser kits that allow the user to configure their firearm to the ideal comb height to accommodate a range of iron sights, optic configurations, or shooter preferences.

This introductory class was a success. All participants did well and indicated that they were impressed with the defensive shotgun’s utility. All students also commented on the challenges they had with the excessive length of pull on most of the 12 gauge guns. The 20 gauge Rock Island Armory VR82 may be an acceptable solution for smaller-statured people. We are still experimenting with the VR82s and have not reached a solid conclusion concerning their suitability and reliability. More to follow. 

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* Length of Pull (LOP) on the shotgun or rifle is the distance from the trigger to the back center of the butt plate or recoil pad. This is one of the primary measurements to fit the gun to the shooter.

 ** The comb is the top portion of the stock where the shooter rests his or her cheek while shooting. The comb height determines how low or high the shooter’s eye-line is in relation to the sights.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Bumps and Other Contraptions on Top of Our Pistols

Simple Sights on an Early S&W Revolver
Why do we have these bumps and other contraptions on top of our pistols? Regardless of whether the sights on your pistol are literally bumps or you have a sophisticated electronic or mechanical sighting system, they are there for one reason—to align the pistol’s bore with the point in space where you would like the bullet to impact.

However, if the target is close enough, the sights are often unnecessary. Although the definition of “close” is dependent upon the shooter’s skill and other factors like the size of the target, the body mechanics of pointing the pistol will allow you to align the bore and hit the target absent some intervening factor such as severely jerking the trigger. Precision and distant shots are where sight selection becomes important whether you are looking at the width of the front sight blade on adjustable iron sights or the minute-of-angle or MOA* diameter for a miniature dot sight or MDS.

When it comes to iron sights, the typical 0.125-inch blade width found on most factory pistols with iron sights is an acceptable compromise between accuracy and speed. I prefer a thinner front sight blade (say 0.115 or even 0.110 inches) because the thinner blade covers less of the target at longer distances and is therefore more precise. I personally believe that front sight blades wider than 0.125 are unacceptable because such a wide blade covers too much of the target at 20 yards and beyond. Manufacturers of tritium night sights often use blades that are 0.135 or wider to accommodate the tritium capsule. While these sights work fine up close, the excessively wide front sight makes precise distant shots difficult.

The same holds true with the dot size in an MDS. I started my MDS training with a 6.5 MOA dot in a Trijicon RMR 06 red dot and still use the RMR for steel matches and other short range, fast action events. The RMR 06 dot size works well out to ranges of 25 yards or so; however, I discovered that the 6.5 dot covers too much of the target for precise shots at longer distances. I now use a Holosun MDS with a 2 MOA green dot on my carry pistol and the smaller dot works very well for short range as well as longer shots.

Some MDS brands have multiple reticle systems including a dot within a circle, solid triangles, open triangles with a dot in the center, etc. Personally, I find these reticles too busy and distracting with a triangle reticle being the one possible exception. If you zero the pistol/rifle for the point of aim/point of impact coinciding with the apex of the triangle, then you have a precision aiming point (the apex) for longer distances and a gross aiming point (the entire triangle) for short range engagements.

The MDS does have limitations; however, if you understand these limitations it will work for you. But what if it’s raining? I carry concealed and rain is typically not an issue since the cover garment protects the sight from rain until you draw the pistol. I used an MDS during a Gunsite 3-day class and it rained hard every day—all day. The initial MDS sight picture with water present was a bit fuzzy; however, first shot cleared the water away. How about batteries? With modern battery technology, the battery in your MDS is unlikely to fail. If you replace it every six months with a quality battery, you will almost entirely eliminate this possibility.

I’ve heard discussion concerning whether iron sights or the MDS is faster. In my experience, for short-range engagements there is no practical difference. I recently shot a Sensible Self Defense Short Range Match twice—once with a SIG P320 Carry pistol equipped with an MDS and once with a SIG P320 Carry pistol equipped with iron sights. The match consisted of five stages with an average of nine target engagements per stage and movement between shooting positions, etc. Distance to the targets ranged from arm’s length to 20 yards and non-threats or hard cover rendered many targets only partially visible.

My match total raw time with the MDS was 78.94 seconds and my raw time with the iron sights was 78.00 seconds. A difference of .94 seconds in favor of the iron sights. Another IDPA Master, Steve also shot the match with substantially identical Springfield XD-M pistols, one with iron sights and one with an MDS. His times were 69.60 with the MDS­­ and 71.66 with the iron sights.

I have become a firm believer in the miniature dot sight on carry pistols and with the variety on the market today the shooter has a wide range of choices. I will discuss some of these choices in a future article.

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*One minute of angle or MOA equals one inch at 100 yards. Therefore, a six MOA dot would cover 6-inches at 100 yards.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Home Invasion Response--Dress Rehearsal

Home invader Jonathan Perales fatally shot homeowner Michael Clayton Robinson early one morning in Universal City, Texas. According to Perales' arrest warrant affidavit, Robinson had armed himself with a 9mm Glock after his wife noticed a strange vehicle in his driveway. Robinson opened his bedroom door and moments later confronted Perales who had entered the Robinson home through an unlocked back door. As Robinson yelled, "Get out of my house," the men exchanged gunfire. Perales shot Robinson once in the torso and Robinson shot Perales in the arm and upper chest.

Doctors later pronounced Robinson dead at Brook Army Medical Center. Robinson's wife and two of his children who were inside at the time were not injured in the gunfight.

What is your protocol for a possible home invasion? Have you rehearsed it, at night, under circumstances similar to those you might encounter in a real home invasion? One of the best techniques the military uses is immediate action drills. The immediate action drill encompasses all of the tasks necessary to prepare you to respond rapidly to a specific set of circumstances without the application of a deliberate decision-making process.

As an example, let’s say my house cameras detect a disturbance and then my alarm begins to sound indicating a possible home invasion. Among my immediate actions is to secure my pistol, move to a location in the bedroom area where I will don a relatively heavy set of body armor, and then secure my shotgun as the primary defensive weapon.

A friend of mine suggested that we rehearse our home invasion protocols or immediate action drills on the live fire range. We performed each task to prepare and arm ourselves and then engaged randomly designated targets to simulate our response to a home invader using unlawful deadly force.

I immediately had difficulty quickly donning my body armor. I had never actually tried to don it in the rapid manner I would use during a home invasion. The design of my armor’s cummerbund when coupled with side plates caused the cummerbund to twist and made securing the armor very difficult. Upon further reflection, I decided the side plates were unnecessary and I removed them. This solved the cummerbund twisting issue and allowed me to don the armor in less than 30 seconds.

I then practiced securing and charging the shotgun with my eyes closed to simulate doing the task in the dark. My friend was monitoring my actions from a safety perspective to ensure I did not inadvertently do something unsafe. I am familiar enough with my "house ready" shotgun storage that I was able to perform this task easily.

I then moved to the target area and engaged the specified targets with the buckshot rounds I keep with the gun. Although this was the first time I had conducted live fire with this armor combination, my defensive shotgun’s 12-inch length of pull allowed me to manipulate the shotgun and fire it effectively with the body armor in place. (Note: A shotgun with typical 13-14 inch length of pull may be too long to manipulate effectively with while wearing body armor. This is particularly true for pump guns.)

This is one example of my home invasion protocols. My wife and I rehearse the others periodically; however, this was the first live fire immediate action drill that I have conducted with the actual armor and shotgun combination I keep for home defense. I learned a few lessons in the process and made some modifications to my armor. I have subsequently dry practiced it at home several times with dummy rounds in the shotgun and my modifications were sound.

My friend forgot to bring his body armor to our live fire rehearsal and the shotgun he brought was not his home defense shotgun. As a result, he decided he would do a dry practice run in his house one evening in the dark. He keeps his shotgun and body armor under the bed. His immediate action is to roll out of the bed, reach under it, secure and don his body armor, and then retrieve the shotgun.

He rolled out of the bed, reached under it—and no body armor, no shotgun. He stretched as far as he could reach and still no body armor, no shotgun. He got a flashlight and discovered that his wife had shoved the armor and shotgun to the center of the king-sized bed because she did not like seeing it and bumping into it when she vacuumed. He had to get a cane to fish the armor and shotgun out from under the bed. Imagine discovering this during an actual incident. Until that moment, he did not know that his home invasion response protocol had a serious flaw.

Periodically checking your equipment, doing dry runs to test your home invasion immediate action drills, and rehearsing with your family is a very good idea. My friend and I both discovered that our home invasion response plans required modification to ensure we could effectively execute them.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Least Amount of Physical Force?

Training exercise (AP Photo/Ted S. Warre)
With the defund the police movement in some large, more liberal leaning cities and other feel good measures some state legislatures are considering or adopting, the private citizen who is involved in a self-defense incident may face the flawed concept of “the least amount of force” necessary to resolve an incident. 

On the surface, it would appear that the requirement to use the least amount of force necessary to resolve a problem has merit; however, when you consider the actual application of this concept in the heat of the moment, it is clear that the idea is impossible to implement.

In Washington State for example, recent legislation requires police to: “use the least amount of physical force necessary to overcome resistance under the circumstances, which includes a consideration of the characteristics and conditions of the person for the purposes of determining whether to use force against that person and, if force is necessary, determining the appropriate and least amount of force possible to effect a lawful purpose.”

The difference between police use of force versus a private citizen’s use of force under the law in most states is that police may use necessary force – i.e., force that is one-step above that of the criminal when is necessary to mitigate an incident, make an arrest, or protect themselves or others from harm. 

Private citizens on the other hand may only use equal or proportional force to stop a threat. In other words, a private citizen may only respond to another’s use of unlawful non-deadly force with non-deadly force and may only use deadly force in response to the threat or use of unlawful deadly force.

When deadly force enters the equation, there is no difference between police use of deadly force and a private citizen’s use of deadly force. 

The thoughtful article linked below discusses the challenges inherent in determining how one would identify the "least" amount of physical force necessary to resolve a situation. This is a good read and is particularly useful if you live in a state adopting or considering such legislation.

Article here

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Saturday, October 9, 2021

Winchester, Herters, and Browning 115gr 9mm Ammunition Recall

If you have purchased any Winchester, Browning, or Herter’s, or 115 grain 9mm ammunition after 25 March 2021, the ammunition may be subject to recall. (Note: apparently Winchester loads/loaded this ammunition for Browning).

According to Winchester, some lots of 9mm Luger 115 FMJ and JHP ammunition may contain propellant that may not properly ignite and burn when the cartridge is fired. Even if the cartridge propellant does not fully ignite, it may still generate enough pressure to cause the bullet to enter the barrel and lodge in the pistol's bore.  Commonly known as a squib, if the cartridge's failure causes a bullet to be lodged in the barrel, subsequently loading and firing another round with the bore obstructed will very likely cause firearm damage and may render the firearm inoperable or destroy it. It could also injure the shooter and potentially bystanders.

Since squib loads generally fail to expel the bullet from the barrel, you must use a metal rod or wooden dowel and some impact (e.g. a hammer or hard surface) to drive the bullet out before the firearm can be placed back into action.

I have witnessed a squib load result in the destruction of a pistol. The competitor believed she had failed to chamber a round when she reloaded the pistol, she then executed a Tap-Rack malfunction clearance, immediately came back on target, and fired another round. This round was noticeably louder (I heard the unusual report) and the pistol jammed with the slide locked in place. The Safety Officer said he didn’t realize the competitor had a squib due to the noise from nearby shooting bays and because the shooter’s body was obstructing the SO’s ability to see the pistol (a tight corridor in the stage—a poor stage design).

The competitor had trained herself (as many of us have) to clear the malfunction automatically. The Tap-Rack maneuver chambered a fresh round, which when she fired it blew the stuck bullet free, caused excessive pressure that bulged the barrel, stressed the slide rails out of specification, and jammed the pistol solidly in a partially open position. The local gunsmith had to cut the barrel in half to get the slide off the pistol. Smith and Wesson later x-rayed the plastic frame and determined that it was stressed as well—the pistol was essentially a total loss. If this happened in a self-defense situation instead of during a competition, the competitor would have had a serious problem; a problem only a backup gun could likely have solved.

So if you have any of this ammunition, go to the Winchester and Browning websites and determine if the lot numbers of your ammunition match the recall. Note: If ammunition was purchased before March 25, 2021, it is NOT subject to recall.

Shameless plug: We manufacture the FreeBore titanium squib removal tool and key chain designed to remove squibs, cartridges stuck in the chamber from a broken extractor, or jammed cartridges in a revolver. You can buy one here: FreeBore

I also did a video demonstrating what a squib sounds like and how to remove the stuck bullet: Squib

Friday, September 24, 2021

Buckshot or Bullshot?

As I was conducting research for a series of articles on buckshot ammunition, I was surprised to discover that most of the #00 buckshot loads I encountered were not actually loaded with #00 buck. Has this always been the case and no one told me?

I initially noticed what seemed to be a size difference in the pellets when I cut apart buckshot loads from two manufacturers for some pictures -- even though both were supposed to be #00 buckshot loads (a standard #00 pellet is 0.330 inches in diameter). At first I thought it was the color difference playing visual tricks; however, when I measured the pellet sizes from each shell, the pellets in the shell shown on the left in the picture were larger than the standard diameter of a #00 pellet and the pellets in the shell on the right were smaller.

Once I discovered the discrepancy, I acquired as many factory 12 gauge #00 buckshot loads that I could put my hands on and a bag of #00 nickel plated buckshot pellets from Ballistic Products, Inc. I cut five shells open from each manufacturer and measured the diameter and weight of all the pellets in each shell. I then averaged the diameter measurement and the weight for all pellets from each manufacturer including 45 pellets I randomly selected from the bag of Ballistic Products #00 buckshot pellets.

The #00 buckshot loads from all U.S. manufacturers (except one) had an average measurement of just over .320 inches or the diameter of #0 buckshot. Remington was the exception due to what I suspect is an issue of “roundness.” The Remington pellets were almost oblong with some measurements over .33 inches and others well under .32 inches. I averaged the Remington measurements to the best of my ability.  I discuss this in more detail below.

All of the Fiocchi “00” buckshot rounds were loaded with #1 buckshot. The Tornado #00 was the only round actually loaded with #00 buckshot. Tornado is a brand name from the M90 Ammunition Factory in Croatia. The Ballistic Products buckshot and the Sterling and the Luce #00 buckshot shells all had pellets larger than #00 buckshot. Sterling and Luce are brands that appear to be loaded in Turkey. The table below details the average size for each manufacturer’s pellets.

* Update: I received some Hornady TAP Light Magnum #00 loads, some Nobel Sport #00 Law Enforcement 12-pellet shells, and some Tunet (made in France) #00 Law Enforcement 9-pellet shells.  The TAP pellet's average diameter is 0.318, the  Nobel Sport #00 pellet's average diameter is 0.328, and the Tunet #00 Law Enforcement pellet's average diameter is 0.325.

The weight averages for the pellets that each manufacturer loaded tracks with the normal weight for the specific buckshot sizes with some exceptions. In other words, the Fiocchi #1 buckshot pellets weighed an average of 41.0 grains which is close to the standard #1 buckshot weight of 40 grains. Federal, Speer, and Hornady pellets weighed in the 48 grain range that was close to the #0 standard weight of 48.3 grains. The table below details the average weights for each manufacturer’s pellets.

* Update: The Hornady TAP Light Magnum #00 pellet's average weight is 48.8 grains. The Nobel Sport #00 Law Enforcement 12-pellet shell pellet's average weight is 58.5 and the Tunet #00 Law Enforcement 9-pellet average weight is 57.3 grains.

As you can see, Remington, Winchester, Nobel Sport, and Tunet were the exceptions when it comes to pellet weight. This is where “roundness” seemed to enter the picture for the Remington buckshot loads. As I measured the Remington pellet’s diameter, I noticed that they were far from perfectly round and this may account for the weight of the Remington pellets.

From a roundness perspective, pellets from Ballistic Products Inc, Federal, Speer, and Hornady as well as the pellets from foreign manufacturers were all very close to spherical and their weight range reflected this consistency. I am guessing that lead alloy in the Winchester, Nobel Sport, and Tunet pellets might play a role in accounting for the above standard weight.

Does the target object to the size or weight of the pellet hitting it? Probably not. However, I do find it interesting that many manufacturers are not loading the #00 pellet size that they are advertising. If you think about it, a pellet that weighs 5 grains less than the norm per pellet saves a pound of lead for every 1400 buckshot pellets produced.** This is a significant amount of lead when we consider the hundreds of thousands of buckshot pellets that manufacturers produce.

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**There are 7,000 grains to a pound.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Is Flite Always Controlled?

This is part III in a series of articles concerning a recent qualification where I noted some erratic behavior in the form of “flyers” from the Federal LE133 00 round with the FliteControl® wad system. (I define a flyer as one or more buckshot pellets that take a different trajectory than the one that the majority of the pellets in the load follow. From a home defense perspective, when these flyers fall outside of an acceptable target area at a given distance they pose a danger to innocent people who may be nearby.)

In that qualification I had one shot at 25 yards put all eight pellets in the center of the target and a second shot that put four of the eight pellets in the bottom of the target. I believe the other four pellets went into the target’s center. I suspect that the flyers I experienced are the result of FliteControl® wads that did not perform as advertised.

The difference between the FliteControl® wad system and the traditional wad is the way the wad releases the pellets as the buckshot exits the barrel. The traditional wad has forward facing petals that open when they exit the barrel. High speed videos show that often the petals on traditional wads open unevenly. This in turn causes the traditional wad to release the shot load unevenly and can disrupt the shot pattern.

Shot Separating from a Traditional Shotgun Wad

In contrast, the FliteControl® wad system has a set of petals six facing rearward and a set of three petals in the body of the wad facing forward. As the buckshot load in the FliteControl® wad leaves the barrel, the gas pressure from the powder forces the rearward facing petals to open. These petals then act as a sort of air-brake and begin to slow the wad. Simultaneously, the air pressure forces the forward facing petals to open to assist with the buckshot separating cleanly from the wad—ideally without producing flyers. 

Unfired versus Fired FliteControl® Shotgun Wad


Buckshot Separating from a FliteControl® Shotgun Wad

During the qualification I was able to recover the FliteControl® wads from fifteen Federal 8-pellet LE133 00 shells that I had fired through my Beretta 1301. Three of the wads had deformed when they struck the ground or target frame; however, twelve were fully intact.

I grouped the fired FliteControl® wads in roughly three different behaviors. Some wads evidenced little to no opening from either the rearward facing petals or the forward facing petals. Other wads showed the rearward facing petals opening partially and the forward facing petals opening very little. Some of the wads performed as designed with the rearward facing petals opening fully and the forward facing petals opening to varying degrees.

I fired all of these rounds in one sequence. I do not know if what I observed is a quality control issue or some other factor is causing the difference in wad performance; however, there clearly is a difference.

Patterning your particular gun with the ammunition you would like to use is a good idea. Patterning your load lets you know exactly where the gun shoots and at what range you may experience flyers or where the pattern is too large for acceptable home defense purposes. I now view the Federal 8-pellet LE133 #00 load as a 25 yard or closer load in my shotguns. That is not necessarily a problem, in an urban setting a justifiable shot beyond 15-20 yards is probably rare.

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Friday, September 3, 2021

Not Enough Oomph! Lightly Loaded Shotgun Shells

In a recent Sensible Self-defense shotgun match, one of the female competitors suddenly began having intermittent failures to eject with her Beretta 1301 Tactical shotgun. This caused her a great deal of frustration as your might imagine. As we were exploring the cause, I initially wondered if the shotgun might be dirty or if she was failing to exert enough resistance to the shotgun’s recoil.

She said her 1301 was essentially new and the she had only fired it during a recent Range Master shotgun class which typically is 200 rounds. She said she had not cleaned the shotgun since the class and that it had worked fine during the class so I didn’t think a dirty gun was the culprit.

I then looked at her stance and asked her to fire a few rounds. Some of the shells ejected, some did not. I asked what type of ammunition she was using and she stated she had switched to some Winchester AA target loads that she had just purchased at the range that morning. I initially didn’t think the AA loads were the problem because I have literally fired thousands of AA target loads through my Beretta 1301 without a hiccup.

As I continued to eliminate variables, I tested some of her AA target loads through my 1301 and immediately began experiencing intermittent failures to eject. I asked to see the ammunition box and learned something new—Winchester manufacturers a AA round they characterize as a “low recoil, low noise” target round. The specifications on the box stated that Winchester loads the round with 26 grams of shot and a “Min” dram equivalent. Given that I had no idea what the gram to ounce conversion was at the time and was equally clueless concerning what I presumed was the minimum dram load, I looked at the velocity. (See below for more information on the term dram equivalent).

The box indicated a velocity of 980 foot per second (fps) which was the lowest I had ever encountered in AA ammunition. We switched to a more common load of 1-1/8 ounce of shot and a 2-3/4 dram equivalent load at 1145 fps. She finished the match without any additional failures to eject.

Prior to that morning, a velocity of 1145 fps was the slowest Winchester AA round I had encountered and these functioned fine in my Beretta 1301. A little research demonstrated that 26 grams of shot was 0.917 ounces or almost 10% less that the typical “lightly” loaded 12 gauge target round with one ounce of shot—I’m guessing Winchester used a gram weight measure to hide this fact. I presume the min dram equivalent specification was the amount of powder needed to get .917 ounces of lead moving at 980 fps.

The Winchester low recoil, low noise AA loads would be pleasant to shoot in a pump or other manually operated shotgun without a doubt. However, very lightly loaded shotgun shells may not successfully function in gas operated or recoil operated semi-automatic shotguns. When you purchase shotgun ammunition for training, ensure that the shot weight is at least 1-1/8 ounce and the stated velocity is a minimum of 1100 fps if you plan to run them through a semi-automatic shotgun.

Trivia: The term “dram equivalent” is a holdover from the past when black power was the only powder available. At that time, black powder was measured in “drams” and 16 drams equaled one ounce of black powder. The dram equivalent is the amount of smokeless powder that would match the performance of a similar amount of black powder with a given load. A shotgunner in the black powder era would have known how a 3 dram load would have felt recoil-wise in their shotgun.

Manufacturers currently load modern shot shells with smokeless propellants and these powders weigh much less than black powder for a given volume; however we still use the dram equivalent measure. If my math is correct, a 2-3/4 dram equivalent would equal approximately 0.17 ounces of black powder while a 3-1/2 dram load would be almost 0.24 ounces. I have some Remington #000 buckshot loads that are 3-3/4 dram equivalents and you certainly notice the recoil when firing these loads.

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Thursday, August 26, 2021

Buckshot Flyers?

This is part II of a series of articles concerning buckshot loads for home defense (you can find part one here). This series resulted from a shotgun qualification I fired using the Federal 8-pellet LE133 00 buckshot load. For reference, a 00 buckshot pellet is .330 inches in diameter--almost the same size as a 9 mm bullet. 

In this qualification I noticed some erratic behavior in the form of “flyers” from the Federal 8-pellet LE133 00 buckshot load and its sister product the Speer 8-pellet LE 00 buckshot load (Federal manufacturers both). I define a flyer as one or more buckshot pellets that take a different trajectory than the one that the other pellets in the load follow. From a home defense perspective, when these flyers fall outside of an acceptable target area at a given distance they pose a danger to innocent people who may be nearby.

The typical buckshot load for military and police uses the traditional wad system and is normally loaded with nine 00 buckshot pellets when loaded in a 2 ¾ inch standard 12 gauge shell. This number allows three layers of three pellets per layer. Nationally known instructor Tom Givens and many others have noted a phenomenon of the “9th pellet flyer” with the standard 9-pellet load. For a given distance from the muzzle, typically eight pellets will be in the same general area with one pellet following a different trajectory.

Givens and others have expressed theories concerning this 9th pellet behavior. If you examine the way the nine pellet load is stacked within the shell you will notice a lot of pellet to pellet contact. This contact increases the likelihood of one or more pellets deforming and developing one or more flat spots somewhere on its surface when the shot load is fired. As the pellets exit the shotgun’s barrel, differential air pressure on the pellet’s deformed surface may cause the pellet to fly off at an unpredictable trajectory.

I say may cause the pellets to change trajectory. As I was researching this article I disassembled several Federal and Speer reduced recoil buckshot loads and noticed a flat spot on the pellets that likely resulted from Federal’s manufacturing process. The degree of deformation and the pellet’s hardness (plated or not for example) may make a difference.

In any event, shotgun shell manufacturers have added buffering material to cushion the buckshot pellets in an attempt to mitigate the flyer phenomenon with mixed results. Many shotshell manufacturers now load 8 pellet 00 buckshot loads to reduce recoil and change the way the pellets stack in the shell. Fewer pellets also allows the manufacturer to add more buffering material which equates to more cushion between pellets. In the picture below you can see a standard 9-pellet 00 buckshot load and a Federal 8-pellet 00 buckshot load. The 8-pellet load has room for significantly more buffering material.

The defender is responsible for every round fired in self-defense—with a buckshot load, you are responsible for every pellet. Even one pellet can kill as occurred in the example of Police Officer Gordon Silva on 20 January 1989 in San Jose, California during an exchange of gunfire between police and a suspect. After the firing ceased, police found Officer Silva approximately 60 yards from the shooting incident lying in the street. The coroner later determined that Officer Silva had been struck by a single shotgun pellet another officer had fired during the shootout with the subject. 

If you are using the shotgun to hunt deer or other game, this is not normally a serious problem. However, if you are using the load for self-defense, this 9th pellet flyer’s unpredictability can be a serious concern. 

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Tuesday, August 17, 2021

A Family of Pistols

Have you considered training, competing, and carrying within a family of pistols? I define a “family of pistols” as pistols that have similar grip angles, controls, sighting systems, etc. For example, Glock pistols, SIG P320’s and P365, 1911’s, and the Springfield XD series would all fall within the same family of pistols.

In late 2014, a friend of mine and I set a goal of shooting Master in every IDPA Division. By the end of 2016 we achieved that goal within the divisions available at that time (six as of 2016—IDPA # A32998). Facing this challenge, we were generally practicing 1-3 times a week and firing an average of 200-300 rounds per practice session. We competed in the IDPA division that we were striving to master (no pun intended). As we achieved Master in each division, we moved on to the next. Through the course of our training, we developed a feel for the differences between the pistol types we were using in the different divisions and realized that staying within the same platform or family of pistols was extremely important for consistency.

For me this fact slammed home when I decided to experiment with a Glock 19 equipped with a Trijicon RMR while simultaneously training and competing with a Springfield XD 4-inch model with a match trigger and fiber optic sights. IDPA had no carry optic division at that time. Attempting to train with two different platforms set me back considerably as my brain tried to adjust to the differences between grip angle, sighting systems, slide and magazine release, etc. for the two different pistol families. Rather than progressing, my shooting actually began to suffer. I stopped using the Glock and concentrated on training with the XD.

We both routinely carried concealed and realized that our carry pistol and holster needed to match the IDPA Division we were working on or we were very likely to foul the draw if we had to present the pistol in a self-defense situation. We started carrying revolvers when we were working on the Revolver Division, Back Up Guns when training for that division—you get the idea.

After completing the IDPA master challenge and competing in the 2016 IDPA Nationals, I focused exclusively on improving self-defense skills and maintaining skill with my carry pistol for the next couple of years. I set up two essentially identical SIG P320 carry pistols with the same sighting system, holster, and trigger pulls. I trained and competed with one pistol and carried the other, rotating the pistols and carry ammunition every six months. I used the old carry ammunition to reconfirm the new carry pistol’s zero. I used my training pistol and my every day carry (EDC) holster in all of my practice, training, and competition.

The same concept applies to holster tilt, angle, positioning, and other characteristics. Ideally, the holster should be in the same place and approximately the same height on the belt for competition and carry. My EDC concealed carry holster rides higher on the belt and is not as fast as the typical competition holsters which generally sit 1-2 inches lower. I once discovered that after a period of training for competition that I often missed my draw with my EDC holster when my hand automatically went to the lower location where the competition holster would have been on my belt. This poses a challenge to those who wish to use appendix or abdominal carry since many competitions do not permit appendix carry for liability reasons. Consistent and routine dry practice with your appendix carry rig is very important if you compete with a strong side holster.

Another option is to compete with and carry a holster that meets IDPA standards. For a number of years my EDC holster was the same IDPA-legal holster I used in competition. I eventually found this to be problematic because it protruded far enough out from my belt that I routinely bumped the pistol/holster into things. I stopped using the IDPA holster in favor of one that pulled the pistol closer to my body and solved this problem.

Choosing a pistol family and then sticking within that family for competition and carry will go a long way toward improving our shooting skills. I routinely see students and competitors practicing, training, and competing with multiple pistol families and holster positions. They will bring a SIG P320 X5 to a class, use a 1911-based fully tricked out race gun with optic in competition, and then carry a Smith and Wesson Shield in an inside the waistband holster. Several years ago I had a student attend multiple classes and he brought a different pistol family to every class. Needless to say, he never mastered any pistol and his shooting ability did not appreciably improve.

Regardless of your shooting goals and which method of carry you chose, consistent and regular dry practice with your ECD pistol family and holster will endure that it is where you expect it to be if you must draw it in an emergency. 

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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Home Defense Shotgun Qualification

Since I use a shotgun as a home defense weapon, I periodically fire qualifications with my shotguns. It is a good idea to demonstrate and document your competence for record with any firearm you might use for self-defense.

Pursuing that goal, I fired the Department of Energy Shotgun Qualification Course twice (click here for the DOE Shotgun Qualification Course of fire). One time with my Remington 870 pump that has a cylinder bore using the Speer Law Enforcement 8-pellet FliteControl buckshot load and once with my Beretta 1301 which also has a cylinder bore using the Federal 8-pellet FliteControl using the standard DOE target.

The 870 qualification target contained 79 pellets which is 98% and a passing score. The Speer load threw a one pellet flyer off the target from one of the 25-yard shots (see left picture below). The Beretta 1301 target contained all 80 pellets for a 100% score; however, four 00 buckshot pellets landed low on the target from one of the 25 yard shots as you can see in the picture on the right.
I believe the other four pellets from that round likely struck the target’s center.

Remington 870 Pump                                      Beretta 1301

The shotgun’s power makes it a great choice for a home defense tool. When you employ it correctly and within its proper range envelope the shotgun is very effective. However, you must know your shotgun's range limitations with the load you are using. 

Multiple projectile loads require particular attention to what is behind your target. YOU are responsible for every pellet you fire. This is where target distance and the pattern of a particular load in your shotgun come into play. 

Ideally you should pattern your shotgun at 5, 10, 15, 20 yards, and perhaps beyond targeting an 8-inch circle. The distance where your gun with the particular load you are using throws pellets outside of the 8-inch circle is the maximum range for your shotgun with that load. 

My Remington 870 and my Beretta 1301 have both patterned acceptably out to 35 yards with the Federal FliteControl in the past. However, I have noticed some erratic behavior from the Federal 8-pellet FliteControl load at times and it causes me some concern.  I will post some additional thoughts after some research.

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