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Vintage Single- Actions At 100 Yards

Can You Hit ‘Way” Out Thar?

When “His Editorship” asked me if I had read his recent Insider column on shooting handguns at 100 yards, I warily replied, “… um …yeah.” The caution came because I suspected he had something in mind that would cause me actual work. You see, his Editorship has this idea his minions should actually earn our gun’riter bucks. Imagine that.

Anyway, I knew I was in for it when he next asked, “You have a bunch of cap-and-ball revolvers, don’t you?” I grudgingly admitted I did, but I had to, since I know he’s seen them. So he asked me to shoot them at 100 yards and write up a short article about it. My first thought was it would be short indeed, such as in “I missed.”

He was asking me to shoot 150-year-old designs, with barely discernible sights, loaded with black powder and pure lead round balls — at 100 yards. Next to the results he got — groups at 100 yards ranging from a few inches to a foot or so — I was going to look like an idiot.

But I had a brainstorm which could salvage at least a bit of my dignity. Instead of shooting these old percussion sixguns for groups — an idea I doubt any handgun shooter circa the 1860’s ever conceived of — I’d shoot them at 100 yards for hits!


These are the two cap-and-ball sixguns Duke fired
at Roy’s behest. Left is a .36 Navy Model 1861 and
at right is .44 Army Model 1860. Both are of Colt’s
2nd Generation.


For components, Duke used Swiss FFFg black powder with 80-gr.
.36 caliber round balls by Hornady and 148-gr. .44 round balls by Speer.

Hitting High?

Cap-and-ball revolvers of the mid-19th century are notorious for shooting high, well above where their sights are aimed, at the 25- and 50-yard distances we normally shoot at. The common wisdom is this fact was intentional. Sixguns back in those days had one purpose — fighting — and quite a bit of that was done “ahorseback.” The idea was a combatant’s aiming point should be his adversary’s belt buckle. Out to about 100 yards a well-aimed shot would get an enemy in the body. If distance was misjudged the ball might still catch him in the legs, or if mounted hit his horse — which was almost as good.

So my target was one of Action Target’s PT-Torso steel plates. They measure 13″x18″ for the “body” plus a 6″ square “head.” It just happened to already be setting precisely at 100 yards from my shooting house. Hah! No extra work there.

After some cogitation I decided to pick the two most modern of Sam Colt’s cap-and-ball sixgun designs. By collectors’ terminology they are a .44-caliber, Model 1860 Army and .36-caliber, Model 1861 Navy. With their rounded contours, long 8″ and 7½” barrels and curved grip frames they are two of the most graceful revolvers ever built. My ’60 Army and ’61 Navy actually date from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. They are considered Colt’s “2nd Generation” of cap-and-ball handguns but in truth their lineage consists of raw parts imported from Uberti in Italy, with fit and finish done by the now defunct Iver Johnson Company, then located in Arkansas. They are, nonetheless, very handsome handguns.


Cap-and-ball sixguns buck and roar when
their loads go off and immerse the area with
white smoke. Imagine trying to see the target now!


Let’s get one fact out in front here. Back in the 19th century a firearm’s caliber was determined by its bore diameter. Therefore a Colt cap-and-ball .44 uses 0.457″ pure lead round balls and a .36-caliber uses balls of 0.375″. Mine weighed 148 and 80 grains in the same order and were swaged, pure lead types as sold by Speer (.44) and Hornady (.36).

The hottest black powder in today’s market is the Swiss brand, and FFFg granulation is as fine as one should go for percussion revolvers. Ignition came with CCI #11 caps, which are real buggers to get on the guns’ nipples if you’ve got big, blunt fingers like I have.

One modern component was Ox-Yoke lubricated wads between powder and ball. Back in the heyday of these revolvers shooters generally smeared some sort of grease over each chamber for lubrication and to prevent flash-over. Flash over is when flame from the chamber being fired leaks into neighboring chambers causing all to go off together. That’ll get your attention. The wads serve that same purpose.

A little experimentation showed my .36 would hold 25 grains of Swiss FFFg and still have room for the wad and ball. The .44 held 33 grains in the same manner. Those loads were chronographed at 986 fps for the .36 and 884 fps for the .44.

Although I don’t think frontiersmen or cavalrymen shot their handguns for groups I do think they probably shot at a mark in order to determine exactly where their point of aim should be. These sixguns have a notch in the hammer for the rear sight, with a very tiny blade front. They cannot be (easily) adjusted.

My first shooting was at 25 yards just to see what was up. Sure enough, both guns shot high — about 9″ for the .36 but a full 16″ for the .44. Also both hit to the right, 4″ and 6″ in the same order. Something I also learned was both revolvers fired their first shot from clean barrels about 4″ (.44) and 2″ (.36) above the following shots.


For loading the .36 Navy Duke had this Navy-specific powder flask on hand.


Duke says applying these tiny percussion caps with big blunt
fingers is awkward. Imagine trying to do it on horseback!


Duke found his .44 Army Model 1860 put the first shot
from a clean cold barrel about 4″ high at 25 yards.

The Ultimate Test

Could someone actually hit an adversary with a cap-and-ball sixgun at 100 yards? The short answer is, “You sure wouldn’t want someone shooting at you with one!”
Using an Outers Pistol Rest to steady myself, but a bit handicapped with Medicare-aged eyesight, I was able to hit that PT-Torso steel plate a bit shy of one of every three shots. Twelve shots were fired with each handgun. I hit the plate four times with the .44 and three with the .36. My aiming point was the bottom left edge of the plate. Six shots were spread across the low middle area of the plate but one errant ball (.36) just caught the very top of its “head.”

A couple of fresh lead smears on the plate’s stand indicated an adversary might have also been hit in his nether-regions. An enemy with his horse would make a big, easy target if they weren’t running full tilt.

So yes, a cavalryman of our Civil War would have been a danger to enemies at 100 yards with his handguns. But there were two downsides. Once the revolver was empty it took me a solid five minutes to get it reloaded, and that was with all my paraphernalia spread on a table. No wonder they also issued a saber to Civil War troopers. And, during the shooting, each of the revolvers became tied-up because of cap fragments falling between the frame and hammer. Those had to be fished out before proceeding.

After a full afternoon of admittedly fun shooting, I then had to face actual work. Those sixguns had to be cleaned and I mean really, really cleaned because there was black powder fouling in every nook and cranny.

Roy made me earn my bucks on this one, although not how he thought I was going to!


By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

For more info:


The front sights on these accurate clones of early
cap-and-ball revolvers were tiny blades.


The rear sights on Duke’s cap-and-ball revolvers consist of nothing
more than crude notches cut into the tops of their hammers.

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Bond Arms ‘Back-Up’

A .45 ACP/9mm Pocket Surprise.

It’s been about 20 years since Greg Bond redesigned the classic Remington derringer of 1866. The old iron-frame original had a weak barrel-pivot, and the spring-tempered barrel-latch handle was also fragile. In both of these, breakage was not unusual.

In the Bond version, the massive barrel-pivot is good steel. The latch was moved to the left side of the frame and given a separate internal spring, and this was better in two ways. It offers more convenient operation, and a much stronger system.

There were several other improvements on William Elliot’s original design. One was Greg Bond’s patented rebounding hammer, allowing reengagement with the sear. Another was the relocation of the striker-block in the hammer to the left side. This enabled the added hammer-block push-button safety to have an off-safe movement from left to right, also much more convenient. In the top right of the frame, there’s also a small Allen screw that can secure the safety in on-safe position for storage.


Beauty and The Beast? The Back-Up and the more elegant
Bond Ranger. Both function identically mechanically.


In J.B.’s average-sized hand, the Back-Up is about J-Frame size.

The Back-Up

Their others, such as the Ranger and the Snake Slayer, are beautiful. High-polish finishes and fancy wood grips, with an “Old West” flavor. The Back-Up’s stainless-steel barrel unit and the small parts have a matte-gray finish. The steel frame is black, and the grips are rubber. The chambering also reflects its intended serious use — it’s .45 ACP. For those of us not of the big-bore persuasion, there’s also a 9mm barrel unit. Suggested retail for the extra barrel is a reasonable $109, and everybody who gets this little monster should have one.

At the Big Tree range, I used the 9mm barrel set for most of the test-firing. With the original .45 in place, I put on a shooting glove and fired only two shots. Hey, these bones have served me for eight decades. Why abuse them? At 7 yards, two-hand hold, the .45 rounds hit the top edge and lower edge of the 8″ black of the Champion VisiShot target.

With the 9mm barrels installed, the results were a lot better. A typical target had one well-centered, in the “1” ring, and one just 2″ below it, in the “3” ring. In a derringer with superposed barrels, shot placement is slightly affected by which barrel fires first. Also note in a gun of this type, the fixed square-picture sights are for reference only.

On my Lyman Electronic Scale, the crisp trigger pull averaged 4.5 pounds. Keep in mind because its pivot point is well to the rear, the trigger moves downward as much as rearward. In practice, compensate for this so you won’t pull the muzzle down and hit low. With a firm hold, some shooters may not even notice this.


The .45 ACP barrel delivered significantly
more recoil than the 9mm.


Bond Back-Up with 9mm barrels installed offers a business-like visage.

A Bit Of Recoil

Now, let’s address the subject of “felt recoil.” Yes, the old saying is true: if your life is in danger, you won’t notice it. However, as with any gun, you will need to do some practice firing. With the .45 Back-Up, even if you’re using ordinary loads, the comeback is fierce. Be sure to hold it firmly, and I’d recommend a padded shooting glove of some sort.

With the 9mm barrel installed, the felt recoil is markedly less. Still brisk, but not painful. To change the barrel units, you just have to remove and replace a single large Allen screw. In appearance, the Back-Up may not match the elegance of the other Bond derringers, but it makes up for it in practical use.
By J.B. Wood
For more info:, Ph: (817) 573-4445

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Diligence And Sophistication: A Stan Chen Custom 1911

A Definitive, Masterful Rendition
Of The Classic.

Thirty-two years ago, an 11-year-old boy would work all weekend on the family ranch — ignoring the blazing sun — so he could shoot a few magazines through his stepfather’s 1911. That young man went on to shoot PPC and USPSA at age 15. He later became captain of the UCLA pistol team during his college years, shooting international events like Free Pistol and Air Pistol.

He had the bug bad, just like the rest of us do.

But unlike most of us, Stan Chen — the “Stan” in Stan Chen Custom — was taken by the “why” behind guns. In his words: “American Handgunner was very influential when I was a teenager growing up in the late 1980’s. It was the heyday of the 1911 racegun. I marveled at the custom creations of the 1911 as ’smiths experimented, breaking new ground with compensators and ergonomic enhancements, advancing the 1911 well beyond a stock Colt.

“I often wondered how these pistolsmiths got their start, what their backgrounds were … and how could I become involved some day?

“But … I took the easy way out and went the traditional route, going to college, getting a degree, landing a good job. I was trying to be responsible. I spent my 20’s in the corporate world doing well, but was never satisfied with the work. I was the definitive square peg not fitting in the round hole.”

As Stan neared 30, his long-time dream of learning to build custom 1911’s resurfaced — hard. He had a sincere conversation with his wife, who supported him, simply saying, “A man needs a life’s work. You need to go for it.”

So he did.


Holster by 5 Shot Leather.

Full-Time Learning

Starting in 2001, Stan began in earnest to learn the gun. “Pure passion drove me,” he told me. “I spent two years, full-time, learning everything I could about building 1911’s. I supported myself doing consulting work, but my focus was to learn everything it would take to be the best at 1911 work.”

Stan learned where he could, however he could. He devoured everything he could about machine work, welding and metalworking in general. Later, he taught himself CAD design, CNC maching and CAM-driven programming. As he said, “I never wanted my building techniques and process to be held back by a lack of metalworking ability.”

Two years of self-made gunsmithing school flashed by and Stan hung out his shingle. Then a surprise occurred.

“After I built my first gun for a customer, five orders came in, and in very short order, I had a substantial backlog of work. I still do.” I could tell Stan was smiling in surprise, even now, as we chatted on the phone.

Stan admitted the process had been hard work, but he found he took to it naturally. Things simply clicked and he found not only was he good at it — he loved the work.

“The resources, talent, opportunity and relationships,” Stan said, “I see them all as a gift.”

Today, some 12 years later, Stan still does all the machine work himself, in-house. People assume he has a background as a tool and die maker, but Stan laughs, “Most are shocked to hear I’m largely self-taught. I do owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to master machinists Pete Single and Chuck Rogers, who gave me advice and were always there for me when I had questions. And while I admire many pistolsmiths, the two who most influenced me, especially in my early years, are Paul Liebenberg and Dick Heinie.”



Question Everything

Another thing separating Stan from most pistolsmiths is the fact he never assumes anything. He’s constantly testing conventional 1911 wisdom by proving things for himself. He learned right away simply because something had always been done a certain way, it didn’t make it right, or even good.
He said when he attended a very early class on basic pistol building the instructor said, “Okay, get out your hammers and let’s peen those frames so we can fit the slide.” Stan told me he was amazed that was how pistolsmiths were still fitting frames and slides! “I thought, surely there’s got to be a better way?”

Then he went on to find a better way.

Stan’s shop is full of sophisticed machine tools, and he’s enhanced his skills by learning precision TIG welding, milling, turning, precision grinding and intricate handwork with files and stones. He counts shelves of custom tooling and fixtures he’s made entirely from scratch as integral to his success.

“I simply couldn’t find the tooling I needed to get the kind of finished product I wanted, so I had to create it myself,” explained Stan. “I use 3- and 4-axis CNC machines and a battery of more traditional machines I have in my shop to create a pistol. The only work done outside my shop is the final dip in the bluing tanks done by Glenrock Blue. I also handle all the final polish and metal prop work before Glenrock sees the final product.”

This is, as Stan said laughing, “Not a pistol you build in the bed of a pick-up truck with a file and a hammer!”

Stan’s father was an artist, and Stan admits he inherited his father’s eye for detail and his creative talents. His dad told him, “No matter what you do, be the best at it and you’ll do fine.”

Stan’s doing just fine.


This Pistol

Stan and I met first on the phone and in emails many years ago. I finally got to chat with him at the SHOT Show some years ago, and we instantly hit it off. He’s smart, sincere, passionate about his craft — and about excellence in general — and listens intently when someone talks to him.

After meeting him I said, “Stan, build a gun I can put in the pages of Handgunner. I think our readers would really enjoy what you do. I think your guns are distinctive, handsome and represent a significant change in the way people need to think about how a 1911 goes together.”

I leaned on Stan for several years to come through, but he was busy moving, building his ASYM ammunition business and had his fingers in a dozen pies at once. I finally put the screws to him and he knuckled down and got it done. Until I got this test gun on my desk — Stan calls it a “full-build” by the way — I had never fired one of Stan’s guns. But by simply looking at one, I felt I had a sense of what it would be like.

I had underestimated things considerably.

There are some pistolsmiths whose work is so distinctive you can identify it across a room. Literally, if you’re familiar with the breed, you can pick out a gun Ted Yost, Terry Tussey, Paul Liebenberg, Chuck Rogers, Dick Heinie — Stan Chen — and a very few others have built … while it sits on a table 20 feet from you. Combinations of how they reflect light, angles, finishes, small touches and overall esthetics often differ very subtly among the greats, yet each is distinctive in their unique way.

Looking at the test gun Stan sent me I saw immediately this was something very special. And the unique Helical Fluted Kart Barrel jumped out at me — fast. A bit like how streamling makes a good auto design look like it’s going fast while sitting motionless.

Keep in mind, every single part of this pistol is tweaked and tuned in some thoughtful way so it functions better, operates more efficiently and because of that, will last longer. I could hardly wait to shoot it, which is not like me.


Chen Blueprint Fit

Stan uses a very scientific methodology when it comes to the 1911. While many “custom pistolsmiths” can kludge a 1911 together, put racing stripes on it, weld on daggers, lasers, electrodes or paint skulls on the sides, what’s on the inside is what creates the pistol. The outside of anything can be made pretty, but if the foundation is wrong, it’s like a $5,000 paint job on a fancy fiberglass-bodied custom car built on Yugo running gear. Once you turn the key, you know something’s not right. Suddenly, all that flash doesn’t mean a thing.

Stan cleared the table when he took his first really hard look at what makes a 1911 run. This “Blueprint Fit” is a comprehensive custom 1911 build process yielding a precision instrument, if you will, which happens, in this case, to be a 1911. Every critical dimension is built to optimal, precision-engineered tolerances. This approach entails precise machining, custom fabricating, meticulous hand-fitting and at times, even highly detailed welding. The result seems to be a pistol exhibiting a degree of reliability, accuracy and durability rarely seen in the breed.

The focus of all this is on three things: reliability, frame and slide fit and barrel fit. This process assures the assembly work as one unit, rather than a slap-dash conglomoration of parts which have been peened, beaten, filed, lapped and generally fudged hither and yon until the gun works — mostly. Stan makes everything work first, then fits them into a single cohensive unit.

Stan realized early on every dimension is critical to performance. How parts relate to one another as they move, not just as they sit idle, is of specific importance. The dynamic relationships between the parts in the firing cycle is the magic — when done exactly right — creating something to behold.

Even though Stan developed methods to blueprint Colt frames and slides, he still wanted the ability to start from scratch, rather than “rebuild” factory frames and slides. A few years ago Stan set out to build his own frame/slide combo sets. Starting with the best USA-made forgings he could find, Stan uses his in-house 4-axis machining center to do all the final critical-tolerance machine work on them, then meticulously finishes each by hand.

“Because I’m doing the work myself, in my shop,” explained Stan, “the frames and slides I use are in fact dead-nuts to my specs. No guess work, no rebuilding, no wondering … they are exactly right.”


Frame And Slide

I’m going to tell you something now you likely won’t believe. Stan holds frame and slide parallelism on all bearing surfaces to 0.0001″. That would be one ten thousandth of an inch. A piece of paper is about three thousandths. This fit is one tenth of one thousandth of an inch.

Now, this isn’t the distance between the bearing surfaces (it would be too tight and never work) but relates to the fact the bearing surfaces are, essentially, exactly parallel to each other. That means there are no high spots to wear off, and wear is even and predictable.

Stan created special tooling, custom jigs and fixtures, processes and even measuring techniques over two years until he was happy with the final beautifully smooth, honed finish on all bearing surfaces. It’s called a “gauge fit” and is something you won’t often — ever? — see on a custom 1911 built in a one-man shop. Stan also machines special relief cuts inside both the slide and the frame to allow lube to freely circulate and to allow firing debris a place to go. One of the benefits of making your own parts.

For perspective, let’s look at that peened frame and slide fit from a while ago. Lapping compound is not used in Stan’s fitting process — there’s no need. Lapping compound is usually used as a sort of crutch when fitting two parts together. A ’smith might not know exactly where two parts are binding during the slide/frame fitting process. Lapping compound is applied and the slide is run back and forth until it runs free. What is happening here is the frame and slide then runs on a few “high” spots which are supporting this fit. When these high spots wear — and they will — things loosen up.


Barrel Fit

Reliability, according to Stan, is all about barrel fit and timing. “Barrel fit is centered on blueprinted timing to ensure the very best in reliablity, accuracy, smooth function and durability,” said Stan. “The barrel, frame and slide are precisely laid out and machined to optimal specs so at every moment of the firing cycle, the barrel is positioned exactly where it was intended to be for optimum function.”

How the barrel’s lugs are cut and the arc of movement determined by the length of the barrel link (all in relation to the other dimensions of the pistol), are critical to timing. That’s why having a frame and slide to exact spec means there’s nothing left to guess at.

“Traditional methods of barrel fitting often leave this timing to chance,” explains Stan. “There’s often a lot of guessing and ‘gee, let’s try a shorter link, or cut the barrel legs more’ goes on. At times, correct barrel timing seems to be arrived at more by accident or almost as an afterthought.”

Having the timing correct affects feeding, extraction and ejection. If the barrel isn’t in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time, the extractor may be off, the ejector might strike the case incorrectly, or any number of other issues could crop up.

“A poorly timed barrel fit leads to unreliable, erratic function, poor accuracy, increased wear on locking surfaces and stress on parts, leading to failure,” said Stan. “This increased wear can also be seen in peened lugs, cracked lower lugs and broken slide stops.”

There are three bearing surfaces in the barrel’s upper radial locking lugs, those cuts on the top of the barrel in front of the chamber. Most stock (or even many custom 1911’s) have a fit allowing bearing on only one of those surfaces. As the pistol wears the fit changes and the gap between the barrel hood and the breech face opens.

Stan takes the time to machine the upper barrel lugs to match the recesses in the slide to bear on all three contact points. “This gives greater stability to the barrel as ignition occurs. It’s a more durable fit, and with triple locking lug engagement, the fit of the barrel hood does not loosen over time,” explained Stan.

I also like the radical 45-degree barrel crown, hidden behind the face of the bushing. It not only looks handsome, it completely protects the all-important barrel crown if the gun is dropped. And by the way, don’t even think about dropping this gun!

To make sure his blueprint process goes well, Stan fires each gun he builds a minimum of 500 rounds, with a variety of ammo. He makes any minor adjustments needed along the way, but doesn’t stop until he’s sure the gun is 100 percent. Most makers shoot a few magazines through their custom guns, with most factory makers shooting five to seven rounds as the final “test.” Just so you know.



Stan is a self-confessed trigger connoisseur. “A superlative-feeling trigger action whould be part of any high-end custom 1911,” said Stan. “I set my triggers at 4 pounds, but they feel much lighter due to the extensive tuning and exacting in the action parts.”

Our test gun had a smooth take-up, with no hesitation, no grinding and no grit, as if it were on rollers. The actual break was creep-free and with no perceptible movement. Frankly, it’s the best trigger I’ve ever felt on a 1911. There is a small handful of others who come close, and might even be on par with this one, but I predict you’d get this same trigger in every build gun from Stan.

“The whole process of tuning the trigger is very time-consuming,” explained Stan. “Every part in the action is tuned in some say, from the bottom of the mainspring tunnel, to the disconnector track in the slide, and everything in between. Careful stoning and handwork to perfect engagement and surface geometry is necessary in any system you install, but working with the best parts to begin with, makes the final result the best possible.”

Stan said he uses ignition parts from Extreme Engineering. He feels they make the finest trigger components in the industry, and the metallurgical integrity of their parts provides him with a solid platform to craft the action to perfection.


Beautiful Bits

The list of modifications and custom features on this pistol could take pages. From Stan’s “Progressive Traction Checkering” (or Pro-Trac as it’s called), his innovative magwell allowing a positive grip on a recalcitrant magazine, Herringbone checkered slide stop and slide top, 3D blended front sight (can you see it’s actually in a dovetail?!), sculpted safeties, angled mag catch, French borders and much, much more, Stan takes great pains to assure only the finest work makes it out the door.

“I want one of my guns to look like a work of art and perform like an extension of its owner. I want the pistol to melt into the shooter’s hands, and the sweeping high cut under the trigger helps by setting the pistol deeply into a shooter’s hand,” says Stan. “I give a lot of thought — and care — to how all the parts of my pistols integrate to create a cohesive machine and not simply a conglomoration of parts.”



Of course I shot it. Lots, as a matter of fact. I figured, if Stan can do it, so can I, so I put a bit over 500 rounds (more like 550) through this test gun — after I got it back from our crack photographer! An essential characteristic of this gun is consistency. It clearly operates as one unit, from the moment you pick it up, it fits smoothly into your hand, the Pro-Trac progressive checkering molding into your palm and fingers, the safety falling under your thumb and the sights aligning automatically as you target the gun.

Run the slide and you’ll find a smoothness that’s surprising, and terms like roller bearings or bank-vault door aren’t quite right. It’s more alive than that, more than simply mechanical movement. Many custom (and many factory) 1911’s tend, at least to me, to feel like a cobbled together set of parts being forced to work against each other. It’s almost like the gun is fighting to tear itself apart. And indeed, many do.

It’s easy to force two parts to mate and grind against each other, at least for a while. But inevitably they fail. Stan’s single-minded focus on assuring everything works as one, shows in this “integral” feeling his guns invoke. It’s almost biological, as if it had DNA and grew as one, polished unit.

Accuracy is as predictable as you might imagine. If I had good eyes and could shoot well, this gun would have delivered 1-hole groups at 25 yards. As it is, on a cold, blustery day, I shot group after group hovering in the 1″ and less mode. Aim, hold the breath, let out half, squeeze carefully, bang, and the bullet holes touch. The amazing trigger made it possible.

On a lark, I fired a 10-round group. One ragged hole. I kept at it, and at 50 rounds, it was still one ragged hole. More ammo (Stan’s ASYM 230 FMG at 750 fps) kept it going. At 150 I stopped. Note the photo. If you drop the two flyers the group size is about 1.40″. That’s 150 rounds at 25 yards from an old guy who can’t see, on a cold, windy day. If you don’t find that amazing, you need to reboot your operating system.


Closing Thoughts

Stan builds his guns one at a time, alone, with nobody hurrying him along. There’s no pressure to get a gun out the door — ever. It goes out when it’s perfect, or not at all. Stan admitted to me building 1911’s is his life work.

“I’ll likely leave behind a few hundred pieces representing my professional passion,” said Stan. “I’m grateful every single day there are those out there who appreciate what I do.”

Today, Stan builds pistols showcasing the highest level of refinement he can craft. From function and ergonomics to aesthetics, every detail of one of Stan’s 1911’s delights the eye and the hand. Indeed, while the outside resembles a 1911, the qualities representing Stan’s work results in a pistol which feels very different from the norm. It’s a 1911 — and it’s not.

Passion and perfectionism drive him. Stan’s always pushing boundaries, breaking new ground in performance, interface with the shooter and sheer elegance in metalwork.

On a personal note, it’s gratifying I’m able to see Stan’s work in the pages of Handgunner — the very magazine which first motivated him to raise the bar and challenge himself.

For more info:; Chen Custom: (970) 385-7900/ 5 Shot Leather: (509) 844-3969


By Roy Huntington

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SIG’s P516 Close Combat Weapon System

The Most Fun To Be Had In American — Without A Transfer Tax.

American gun laws are an arcane amalgam of tedious minutiae striving to describe and regulate consumer products not readily described or regulated. For instance, in the absence of some fairly onerous Federal paperwork and a $200 transfer tax, a rifle with a barrel less than 16″ is a felony good for 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Build that identical gun up from scratch with a short barrel but dispense with the buttstock and you have a legal pistol and no worries.

Now take that same pistol and affix a vertical foregrip on the front and you have an unregistered “Any Other Weapon” (AOW) and another felony. Angle that foregrip backward and you are good to go. Incorporate something looking a bit like a stock but actually just straps to your arm for stability, and you have a legal pistol again. Confused yet? It all seems fairly silly to me, too.

Perhaps more than any other major firearms manufacturer, SIG understands what American shooters really want. We want tools sufficiently reliable and effective to protect our families when the zombies come. We want guns representing the state-of-the-art in materials science and Information Age engineering. What SIG uniquely appreciates, however, is we also want guns that can be all those things and still look awesome, to use a technical term.

The folks at SIG have read those arcane regulations and have designed firearms representing the absolute apogee of what can legally be had in this country without a transfer tax. No firearm on the market exemplifies that axiom as well as the SIG P516 pistol with their nifty Pistol Stabilizing Brace.

The SIG P516 begins life as a piston-driven AR action available with either a 7.5″ or 10″ barrel. The SIG piston system runs much cleaner and cooler than a comparable traditional direct gas impingement design. Advanced metallurgy and low-friction, no-maintenance coatings yield an action that will keep shooting despite ridiculous amounts of abuse and neglect.

The lower half of the SIG P516 has all the bells and whistles. Built-in push button sling attachment points, a checkered magazine well and a clever ambidextrous magazine release take Gene Stoner’s already extraordinary ergonomics to the next level.


Were we to be completely honest with ourselves, what it really frequently comes down to is cool
points. Unlike some of this other iron that requires a tax stamp and costs the kids’ college fund,
the SIG P516 with its extraordinary Pistol Stabilizing Brace transfers like any other handgun and,
while spendy, is not ridiculously so.


The extraordinary AR-15 platform has sufficient versatility to prevail
through the ages. The new SIG P516 is the ultimate iteration of this
storied weapon system.

Just What Is That Thing?

The patented Pistol Stabilizing Brace incorporates a Velcro strap to affix the weapon rigidly to the operator’s shooting arm. While this device bears a striking resemblance to a collapsed M4 stock, a recent ruling by the BATF Firearms Technology Branch established that this brace, even if used as a short buttstock in tactical applications, does not classify the host gun as a short-barreled rifle. A copy of the BATF ruling accompanies the device in miniaturized form suitable for inclusion in a range bag just in case you have to prove that to somebody.


Happiness is a tricked-out SIG P516, an EOTech Holosight and a Beta C-mag stuffed
full of top-quality HPR ammunition. There is no better counter-zombie platform to
be had without a transfer tax.


A gun oozing this much concentrated testosterone needs some proper accessories. I mounted an EOTech 512 Holosight with an integral laser battery cap to keep it shooting in the right direction. The Holosight projects the same sort of holographic sighting reticle used by fighter pilots in modern strike aircraft and is a staple for the most advanced military units on the planet. The laser battery cap drinks from the same batteries as the Holosight and projects a 5 mw red laser for up-close work.

The gun feeds from a Beta C-mag 100-round drum magazine. Unlike the cheap imported knock-offs, the original American-made Betamag has its own national stock number for military issue and is sufficiently robust to have been used in combat in the Global War on Terror. It’s surprisingly compact and utterly reliable while being easily loaded via individual rounds or GI-issue 10-round stripper clips. Like most things, with drum magazines you get what you pay for.


The SIG P516 pistol is unimaginably cool. Compact, powerful and legitimately
effective, the P516 brings a whole bucket of awesome to the range.

Play Time

So what is the SIG P516 really like sporting an EOTech holographic sighting solution and a 100-round Betamag? Friends, words very nearly fail me. This is a thermonuclear handgun. With the stabilizing brace in place you sight the weapon with the firing arm rigidly outstretched á la the stockless HK MP-5K, or just shoot from the hip at bad breath ranges using the EOTech laser. Bracing the device from the shoulder is simply surreal. The Betamag will reliably keep you shooting until you get tired of doing it.
Running room-clearing drills, the gun is as effective when braced on the shoulder as a conventionally-stocked rifle. It points naturally and is compact enough to operate inside a vehicle without much more fuss than a traditional handgun. Muzzle blast is just nuts. Muzzle flash at dusk is simply breathtaking.

Even after extensive range sessions the receivers are still cool and tidy without the voluminous carbon spooge so typical of classic direct gas designs. My suspicions are that short of intentional abuse this gun is indestructible and would run forever with trivial maintenance.


So What’s It Really For?

You must be kidding. This is the coolest-looking firearm I have ever seen. The P516 will induce the vapors among your shooting buddies and can be owned almost anywhere in the country without any special government permission. On top of that the gun is a genuinely effective tactical tool. My tricked-out SIG P516 has now become the standard Dabbs family counter-zombie tool, displacing some pretty prestigious hardware to earn that coveted title.

Even with 100 rounds and a Holosight onboard the gun is maneuverable and even nominally concealable, while providing a simply shocking volume of firepower, whatever that term really means. So ask yourself if you are ready to take your shooting experience to the next level and then build up a SIG P516 Close Combat Weapon System of your own. Just get yourself mentally prepared in advance. Not just everybody can handle this much raw unfiltered awesome.
Okay, I just said awesome, but I actually meant it. Honest.
By Will Dabbs, MD
Photos By Sarah Dabbs

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Bustin’ Caps & Spendin’ Lead

The Ammo Drought Is Over!

We decided to go beyond handgun ammo this go-around, and are highlighing some rifle and a few shotgun loads too. We figure any good handgunner has some good rifles and shotguns handy, too — so why ignore the obvious?

What caught my attention this past year or so was the expolsion of small or “boutique” ammo makers, smaller 1-man shops or very focused small operations, often specializing in just a few loads. While the “big guys” take care of the majority of mainstream deer hunting, plinking, military and law enforcement, big box stores and such, some of the smaller companies really step up when it comes to special loads for special needs.

What you see here isn’t a comprehensive look at everything new, but more of a nose-around to give you a sense of what’s out there. I was particuarly pleased to note revolvers are not being ignored, and there are some pretty innovative rounds being created for this “still-relevant” technology.

We’ve also purposely left out commercial reloaders as it’s difficult to get a sense of their quality unless you have personal experience with the shop. There are thousands of regional shops reloading for mostly local markets, and some speciality loaders doing small runs of odd or classic calibers, especially for old English rifles, odd European calibers and Old West guns. A quick Internet search can likely turn up someone who can cater to a special need you might have there.

And keep in mind, we shoot tens of thousands of rounds yearly here testing guns and ammo. We’ve found, with extremely rare exceptions, modern makers do a predictable job of supplying high quality, reliable ammo in every common caliber. If you like the looks of a certain load from a major player, feel secure it’s likely going to perform just fine and worry more about your own skill shooting than how the ammo is going to perform.

Just make sure you match the ammo to the task at hand, and don’t ask full metal jacketed “ball” ammo to perform well as a personal-defense load. On the other extreme, don’t waste your money using expensive, high-performance “defensive” ammo for plinking at tin cans! Unless, of course, you’re rotating your carry ammo every six months and are shooting it up to keep in practice. You do rotate your carry ammo, right? Right?



Usually, proven-favorites are still favorites because they work. Federal’s 147-gr. Hydra-Shok JHP in 9mm is one of those. This load penetrates deeply, is exceptionally accurate and is the go-to for thousands of police agencies. Hydra-Shok is also available in about every other common handgun caliber. It’s common for ammo makers to use one-another’s bullets and Federal’s 170-gr. .30-30 using Nosler’s famous “Partition” bullet is a game-killer. We keep a couple of Model 94’s around our place here, and have found the 30-30 to handle any chore we toss at it. Federal’s Premium .30-06 180-gr. Trophy Bonded round can handle any game in North America and most you can find in Africa! If you think you have a special requirement in ammo, we’d bet Federal can help you out.


Australian Outback:

Made in Australia, one of the main features of this highly consistent rifle ammo is their “Ballistic Temperature Independence” (BTI) technology. Basically, through some miracle scientific mojo, their ammo is essentially impervious to temperatrue extremes. This is critical, as hot ammo (stored in a trunk or being hauled through the blazing Australian outback, for instance) is often much higher pressure than the same ammo at normal temps. Ditto at the other extreme of freezing cold (lower pressures). This translates to extremes of velocity, which affects terminal performance and point of impact. It’s not uncommon for some ammo to show hundreds of feet per second variances due to temperature changes. Outback ammo says, “No more worries.”




An “All-American” company if there ever was one. All of their ammo is made with American components and even inspected, according to their website, by “US Citizens.” HPR is a young, modern company, stressing innovative design, high performance and extreme attention to the quality of each round (every round is chamber-gauged and hand-inspected). Their line includes “clean” ammo for ranges, special ammo for supressed use, a wide cross-section of 5.56 loads using a mind-boggling array of different bullets, each for a special use, .300 Blackout and .308. Their “BlackOps” high performance line uses light-for-caliber bullets they call “Open Tip Frangible” (OTP), specifically designed for law enforcement or personal defense use.


Black Hills:

Black Hills has been around for more than 30 years now, and offers everything from mild “cowboy” loads to ultra-high performance defensive, hunting and speciality loads. Black Hills has also been loading match ammo and battle-proven loads for branches of the military for many years. While you might think of them as a “bigger” maker (and you’d be right), we know them personally and have visited their facility and know it’s run more like a small, limited run loading operation, as opposed to one able to pump out tens of millions of rounds if needed. Black Hills is that rare combination of high quality and production, combined with extreme attention to detail and personal service. Police agencies, hunters, competition shooters, home owners and millions of shooters in general rely on Black Hills for good reason.



For over 30 years now, Peter Pi and his family have created hard-hitting, mostly high-velocity ammo for police, military, hunting, self-defense and assorted special applications. Their “DPX” loads using 100 percent copper bullets have earned a reputation for reliablity and high performance and are the choice of police agencies and concerned shooters who chose it for personal defense. CorBon is also home to the famous Glaser Safety Slug and the Pow’Rball load which helps finicky autos handle HP loads. The extended CorBon family stands behind their products and are always trying to innovate and push the envelope. According to their website, shipping is free to those in the law enforcement community.



One hundred percent American made, ProGrade offers more than 250 variations in their line of handgun and rifle ammo. Because choosing ammo can be daunting for many, ProGrade has developed a very easy-to-understand way to categorize or “Grade” their loads, as they say. By doing the choosing for you, you can simply go to the category you’re interested in and then explore the loads in that section. It makes perfect sense, and those “Grades” (Hunting, Safari, Varmint, Bear, Cowboy, Tactial, Defense, Range and Match) each come with a careful explanation of what separates that grade from the others. Each Grade offers technology and load-matching best suited for the needs a shooter may require for that category of shooting.



Long known for their uncompromising bullet engineering and design, Nosler also loads ammo in several categories. Their new “Match Grade” and “Defense” handgun ammo showcases the high quality and predictable performance Nosler ammo is known for. They also offer “custom” loading for your rifle’s caliber, with all loading done by hand, by Nosler ballisticians. Ammo box labels can be personalized with your name and information at no additional cost. And don’t forget about Nosler’s benchmark loading manual! A great, family-owned company, not content to sit on their laurels. They consistently reach — and surprise their customers and competitors.



If you’ve never fired Aguila’s cool Colibri and Super Colibri .22 LR loads you’ve been missing out on a great deal of fun. Shooting a 20-gr. bullet, both the Colibri and the Super Colibri rely on just primer power to launch their bullets. The Colibri offers about 420 fps while the “super” Colibri spices things up to around 590 fps. They advertise them as only being suitable for handguns but I’ve found the Super to be great in a single shot .22 rifle. It’s more quiet than an air rifle and has enough punch to knock a small pest down in their tracks out to about 15 yards or so. They’re quiet enough for indoor practice, and a great tool to teach kids to shoot safely. Aguila also makes a wide cross-section of other loads in many calibers, including an interesting “short” shotgun shell allowing more rounds in some magazines.



Lots going on at Big Red this year. A couple of the main things are their new lines of “Train and Defend” ammo. Basically you have a choice of 50-round boxes of “training” rounds matched in velocity and felt recoil to their “brother” loads in the “Defense” line-up. So, you can practice inexpensively then switch to the higher performaning “Defense” load for your serious carry guns. This trend toward simplifying things for customers is great, and in this case you’ll know if you buy “this” training load it will allow you to become familiar with the recoil, point of aim, etc. of the matching defensive load. They’ve also made it easier to select hunting ammo with their new line of ammo matched to the game you’re going to take. For instance, their “Deer Season XP” .30-06 is a 150-gr. Extreme Point bullet specifically matched for deer. So, got a .30-06 “deer” rifle and you’re going deer hunting? Buy matching ammo that’s already been vetted and known to performan well on the right game. The line extends toward other game (Razorback XT for hogs, for instance) and comes in a variety of calibers, so keep your eye open for this line-up of very cool loads.


Buffalo Bore:

These guys have “Strictly Big Bore. Strictly Business.” on their boxes, but thank goodness Tim Sundles decided to expand things. While their big bore loads raise the bar in many calibers, their special loads in some surprising calibers create interesting new options for some gun/caliber combinations. Their new .32 S&W Long, .32 ACP and .38 S&W Special loads turn any of these elegant guns (strong autos and solid frame revolver models, no cheap break-tops, thank you very much) into small game plinkers and even defensive revolvers and autos. The .32 S&W Long sends a 100-gr. hard cast full wadcutter out at about 900 fps would would solve many problems. The .44 hard cast wadcutter at 1,000 fps is also a dandy. I particularly like the 150-gr. Barnes 30-30 load, sending that bullet out at about 2,350 fps. All of their velocity testing is done using real guns, not pressure barrels. Tim offers lots more, so check ‘em out.


Liberty Ammunition:

Liberty takes the “ultralight” projectile concept and pushes the envelope. If you’re a believer in the idea, here’s your holy grail. Their .45 ACP “Civil Defense” load is a 78-gr. copper, monolithic hollow-point, fragmenting “personal defense” round, being pushed out at 1,900 fps, according to their website. For grins, I checked it over my own chrono, and out of a 5″ 1911 it registered between 1,849 to 1,907 fps, over five rounds fired. Recoil was modest due to the light projectile. The 50-gr. 9mm clocks 2,000 fps, 50-gr. .380 does 1,500 fps and the 50-gr. .357 Magnum screeches out at 2,100 fps. The .40 S&W is also available. Liberty also loads the .223 in a 55-gr. copper mono HP called a “hunting” round, rated at 3,000 fps from a rifle.




From loading components, loading tools and accessories to high performance rifle and handgun ammo, Hornady is an icon in the business. Their “Critical Defense” line continues to offer reliable performance and their value-priced Steel Match ammo offers Hornady quality in a steel case. New is their American Whitetail slug load for smooth bore shotguns, Critical Duty Lite loads (offering reduced recoil) and a long list of other rifle and handgun loads. Their new “American Gunner” line is essentially a line-up of tried and true bullets and components, American-made, loaded in tailer-made combos to meet the shooting needs of just about anyone. Price points are also affordable and the use of Hornady cases means reloaders will have plenty to be happy about!



The .22 TCM, introduced by Armscor, has swiftly gotten the notice of handgunners. Delivering a 40-gr. bullet at close to 2,000 fps reliably from a 5″ 1911, this suddenly turns the platform into a serious varmint pistol with the right sight combo. There’s talk of them offering a rifle in the same caliber and it would be great for small game and plinking. Some may not realize Armscor is a large ammo maker too. Their factories in the US crank out millions of rounds of just about every common caliber. They have invested millions in ramping production up to help meet demands, and handle .30 Carbine, 9mm, .45 ACP — you name it — they make it. If your dealer doesn’t stock it, ask for it. It’s generally very affordable too.



Who hasn’t fired CCI Mini-Mag .22’s? Under the ATK banner, Speer and CCI are among the most respected ammo makers around. Their quality and performance are legendary and they continue to offer solid performing defensive rounds as well as plinker to speciality rounds for lots of calibers. Speer Gold Dot loads are the darling of thousands of police agencies and have a solid street record performing predictably, putting the bad guys down. The caliber list is extensive and you get to choose many different bullet weights. The Speer Gold Dot .22 Mag. 40-gr. “defensive” load is made specifically for short-barreled guns (think: NAA .22 Mag. mini-revolvers) and offers deep penetration while still espanding at lower velocties. The CCI line of shotshells for handguns includes 9mm and .45 ACP. While the rounds normally won’t cycle the action of a semi-auto, they can chambered from a loaded magazine and are perfect for pests. They’re also available in revolver calibers too.



Mike McNett, owner of DoubleTap, takes a hands-on approach to things. He creates new loads, hunts and shoots his ammo and answers customers questions personally. As he says, “Every single round that goes out the door has been touched by our hands and inspected by our eyes.” DoubleTap also has an easy to understand system categorizing their ammo. DT Defense, DT Hunter, DT Longrange, DT Safari, DT Tactical and DT Target pretty much point you in the right direction when you’re looking for just the right load for your needs. I also like the fact DoubleTap loads for the .45 Auto Rim (a hardcast 255 LSWC at 900 fps) and even has a very unique 255 hardcast LSWC for the .45 ACP at 875 fps from a 5″ 1911. If your 1911 is throated right, it can easily feed this interesting round. From rifles to handguns, DoubleTap delivers the kind of versatility only a smaller, almost custom loader, can offer.


ASYM Precision:

Custom pistolsmith Stan Chen, known for his no-limits 1911’s (check out the cover feature in this issue!), founded ASYM several years ago after being frustrated by the fact he could never find ammo that could shoot to the capbilities of his 1911’s. ASYM ammo is custom tailored and optimized for specific purposes. Their match-grade line-up delivers stunning, consistent accuracy and can help you find out just how well your own handgun can shoot. A 1.3″ 10-shot group at 50 meters using ASYM .45 ACP match ammo and one of Stan’s custom 1911’s shows what is possible. ASYM also takes that same care and attention to detail and produces defensive ammunition using several bullet designs known for their reliablity and performance. There are also several equally meticulous loads for .223, 5.56 and .308.


Dupleks Slugs:

We’ve included this as many of you use shotguns for defense. The technology used by Dupleks is relatively new but seems to have good promise. Basically they use steel slugs shaped speficially for certain roles, and encase them in hard plastic shells or bands. They are safe to shoot through any choke, offer no lead, and testing has revealed some remarkable penetration, especially in steel. These warrant a close look by law enforcement and hunters who want to explore accuracy and terminal performance. Sample velocities show 1,700 fps from a 435-gr. steel/plastic slug, and 1,650 fps from their 430-gr. controlled expansion steel/plastic slug, both in 12-gauge. They are also available in 20-, 16-, 28- and .410-gauges.


SIG Sauer:

SIG is expanding its Elite Performance Ammunition line, offering rifle shooters the subsonic 300 Blackout Elite Performance Match Grade ammunition featuring a 220-gr. Open-Tip Match bullet. They are also introducing the new 180-gr. 10mm SIG V-Crown JHP. It’s likely an excellent round for hunting with a semi-auto, in addition to personal defense. There’s also a 180-gr. Elite Performance FMJ target load. Other new offerings include additional bullet weights in the 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. All Elite ammo is being manufactured in the US by SIG SAUER.



Using a proprietary Brass Jacketed Hollow Point (BJHP), Remington’s new Ultimate Defense “Compact Handgun” ammo is specifically designed to work at the lower velocities small, short-barreled handguns deliver. The 9mm Ultimate Defense 9mm load uses a 124-gr. BJHP which they state will expand reliably from compact 9mm handguns.



Barnes pretty much rewrote bullet technology with their solid copper bullet concept. Today, they are much-copied, and many companies simply buy bullets from Barnes to load. However, Barnes also loads its own defensive ammo, and their TAC-XPD is specifically designed to deliver high performance with their all-copper bullet with its very large, deep hollow point. Barnes assures it expands well and penetrates deeply. From our own testing in gel and in the field on game, I can attest to this reliable penetration and predictable bullet behavior. The 9mm load sends a 115-gr. TAC-XP bullet out at around 1,125 fps; the .40 S&W offers up a 140-gr. bullet at 1,120 fps and the .45 ACP thumps out a 185-gr. TAC-XP at 1,000 fps. The large HP expands even at lower velocities, and the solid copper bullet tends to hold together while expanding reliably.
By Suzi Huntington

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Leather Restoration Tips

Saving Yer Hides.

You just went toenails-over-tea kettle down an otter slide with a resultant large and very untidy hole in the nastiest muckiest piece of swampland in your up-to-now most favorite hunting ground. You’ve resolutely squelched back to the truck, sloshed homeward, skinned down, showered, run the wash and made soothing “There, there” noises over your rifle, side arm and knife. Boots, holster, knife sheath and belt remain lying in a sodden pitiful little heap on the floor of the garage. What now?

Whimper ye not! Embolden yourself, gather up your gear and get ye hence to yon laundry sink!


I swizzled this old full-carved Buchheimer holster in a
mud puddle and then let it dry just to make the points
required for this article.

Dive In

Run water tepid to mildly warm and rinse everything inside and out! You’re not going to get anything wetter and the point of running it under fresh water is to get rid of as much corruption causing pestilence in the form of mold, mildew or other yuckiness later. Use a soft toothbrush in the seams and all nooks and crannies. Finally, pat everything off with an old clean towel and leave it to dry in a cool dry place where air is circulating. Not under a fan and not in the oven!

The next day get out a bottle of liquid glycerine saddle soap and a yellow sink sponge. Spray the soap on your leather and work that lather in like you’re sudzing your personal pelt. The lather works exactly like soap on your skin, lifting fine dirt out of the pores. Rinse it lightly with water and pat dry. Back to that cool spot to dry.


Follow the simple steps, and ta-da! Storage rules will be
judiciously followed, with no future swizzling sessions
in mud planned!

The Next, Next Day

The next day, things should not be nasty looking and you can begin smiling again because the situation is well in hand. Get out your leather conditioner and an old, clean tennis sock. If you haven’t got anything on hand, go and get any of these: Fiebings Aussie Leather Conditioner, Pecard’s Leather Cream or Skidmore’s Leather Cream. All of these have a bit of beeswax for water resistance, and magical stuff for softening and preserving leather.

The Skidmore’s is particularly useful if you live in humid areas or get into soggy spots regularly as it contains a mild fungicide. That’ll help keep stuff from growing green fur when you aren’t looking. And if you’re wondering why I’m not recommending stuff like neatsfoot oil, olive oil or Lexol, it’s because they are very easily overused. The principle of oiling leather means you get a molecule of oil — and no more — between the fibers. If you saturate the leather, the fibers will begin to separate. If you don’t understand the horrors this can unleash or have a poor concept of the words “very thin coat” you can do a lot more damage with these, than good.

Put a bit of dressing on your sock and work it with your fingers so it spreads deep into the fibers. Use that to swipe around on the leather. Work it into the seams and down into the areas where boot tongues, belt loops and tabs hide. You don’t want to glom it on, just a nice, thin even coat.

When finished put your sock up in a glass jar. Leave everything for a couple of hours to dry, then rub everything down with a soft cloth. Buff ’til you get a smooth-feeling, softly glowing surface. If it looks a little dull or feels harsh or crisp, get that sock out again and give it another swipe. Repeat if needed. The sock stays in the glass jar for future use. That way you don’t waste your conditioner or spend time looking for socks.


Holster abuse! This unfortunately was first barfed on by a cat
and then left by its owner to “air out” in a warm, moist garage
with no air circulation, pending “time” for cleaning. It did not
take long for green fur to grow long and shaggy.


After many days, some Clorox to kill the mold, all the
cleaning steps and a lot of elbow grease, it’s clean.
It’s not healthy as there is a lingering scent of mold,
but at least it’s clean. Frankly, unless it’s a family
heirloom, I’d say your goodbyes and toss one in this
sort of cat-barf condition.I just showed it to prove
you can clean just about anything!

Good As New?

This should get you out of trouble and should give you the skills to tackle ordinary care and feeding of all things leather except suede. Think of leather like it’s your skin. You clean it when it’s dirty and apply conditioner when it gets a bit rough or chapped. Under normal use, a cleaning and conditioning once or twice a year is correct policy. If you’re using your gear hard or are in very harsh parts of the world you might want to do it more often.

If you frolic in really dusty places, add a good dust cloth and a small upholstery brush attachment like the computer geeks use to your kit. Dust, plus gun oil, makes a lapping compound that’ll kill your blueing and melt edges on stainless! Dust is also insidious because it sucks the oils out of leather, leading to dry rot and cracking. Not to mention it also grinds away at stitching. Wiping dust out is easy and a good practice and will make that favorite pair of boots or a nice holster last a lot longer.

What about storage? Just a clean, cool and dry area where air can circulate all around everything is what’s needed. This and an occasional look-see with Mark I eyeballs to assure stitching is tight and snaps snappy. With timely repairs as needed, your gear will keep looking good and functioning well for a very, very long time. It ain’t rocket science.
By Karla Van Horn
Karla is the proprietress of Purdy Gear and a genuine national treasure when it comes to leatherwork, so says His Editorship.

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Owning Sub-Guns

Actual Human Beings Can Afford To!

Some time ago I did a column in Handgunner about the formalities one must attend to in order to legally own a full-auto, i.e., federal registration and transfer paperwork. In 2007 I developed a quest for the most famous submachine guns from World War II. After the necessary wait for Federal approval, I took possession of my first sub-gun in March 2008 and currently own six. In the ensuing years I’ve learned much more about actually owning full-autos.

Let’s get the most often asked question out of the way first. People invariably say, “How can you afford to shoot those things?” The answer stems from pure logic. Vintage collectible full-autos are tremendously expensive. If you can afford to buy one you can certainly afford to shoot it. I already handloaded for .30 Carbine, 9mm and .45 ACP, and 7.62×25 Tokarov military surplus ammo was so plentiful I haven’t worried much about that one.

There are many other factors involved in their ownership. The primary one is having a secure place for it. Mine occupy a wall in my walk-in vault. Another factor you must consider is having a location to shoot them. Many public ranges prohibit shooting full-autos. Shooting them on public land can be an option but also can be problematic. Some rural cops don’t know it’s legal for an individual to own such things. It probably wouldn’t hurt to notify them of your intentions to fire one in a certain locale so they don’t get unnecessarily excited.

When taking possession of a full-auto, the buyer receives a piece of paper called a Form 4. That piece of paper or an acceptable copy must accompany the firearm every time it leaves your residence. I made copies of my Form 4’s, put them in a watertight folder and carry them with my spare parts and tool kit whenever I leave this property.

Property is a key word as pertains to a place to shoot sub-guns. I own a piece of Montana containing my own 300-yard shooting range. In the middle of it I have set up a modest sub-gun range using Action Targets PT Torso steel targets. That shooting area cannot be seen unless you are on my property. Of course the noise can be heard, but no county deputies have arrived because the serving sheriff is a long-time friend.


These four World War II submachine guns were Duke’s first.
From bottom up: German MP40 9mm, U.S. M1 Thompson .45,
British STEN MKII 9mm and Soviet Sh41 7.62x25mm.


Duke shown shooting the Soviet Sh-41 7.62x25mm. Its RPM rate exceeds 1,000. Fast!

Travel Glitches

Once you have a sub-gun and the Form 4, what other restrictions should be observed? First off your Form 4 only makes it allowable for you to travel with your full-auto in your home state. So you must observe your state’s laws for traveling with firearms and you cannot cross state lines without another form. It is 5320.20 and can be printed off the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) website. You submit it to them well in advance via Fax or US Mail and it must also accompany the Form 4 during travel.

Additionally, you can’t travel through a state with your full-autos if that state does not allow ownership of them. For instance, I was invited to put on an informal shooting display of my World War II sub-guns in Arizona. From Montana my path led through Idaho and Utah so I was okay. But if my destination had been to Oregon, I would have planned my route to avoid Washington because we ordinary fellows can’t own full-autos there.

There was one other unforeseen factor raising its head on that trip to Arizona. It was a 2-day drive so I needed to eat and sleep. The first time I pulled off of I-15 to eat it dawned on me a very substantial portion of my and Yvonne’s lifelong treasure was sitting in that vehicle. Did I want to leave it unattended even to visit a restaurant? I did not and so visited many fast food drive-up windows during the jaunt. For motels, I only used ones where parking was just outside the door, making hauling everything inside easy. I was a nervous traveler on that trip.


An important factor in having full-autos is security. Duke adorns one wall of a
walk-in vault with his submachine guns. The US flag is one Duke took in Iwo Jima in 2008.

Clean It? Break It?

Other factors of which I was ignorant when diving into my first sub-gun were cleaning and maintenance. I hate to admit it but I am a lackadaisical gun cleaner, except after firing black powder. You simply cannot do that with submachine guns. With my first — an MP40 9mm — after a few hundred rounds had been fired through it I got a big surprise. Once I released the trigger after a burst and the thing kept running until the magazine emptied! Unburned powder and carbon had fouled the trigger mechanism. Oops.

And that brings us to my last but far from least important bit of advice for potential submachine gun owner — do not ignore spare parts. Full-autos are hard on parts, their actions slam fore and aft with tremendous violence. All of mine are 70 years old and there’s no telling how much they were fired before my acquisition. Spare parts kits keep you going and are surprisingly easy to find if you know where to shop.

My Soviet-era Sh41 7.62x25mm luckily came with an extra wooden stock. The first time I fired it the stock split, but the second has held now for six years. The first is repaired and ready to use in case the second one lets go. All sub-guns have some sort of buffer to keep the rear of the receiver from being pounded by their relatively heavy bolts. In that Sh41 the original buffers were made of leather. They were reduced to dust by the high cyclic rate of that thing. I found some modern ones made of neoprene on the Internet and the first one installed is still in fine shape.

My MP40 has been a special offender regarding broken parts. The bolt handle broke once, was fixed and is now preparing to let go again. I have a new one waiting. Also I found an extra bolt on the Internet so once the second handle parts company I can keep the MP40 shooting while the original bolt is getting its third handle attached. Keep this in mind: You cannot just drop off your full-auto at the local gunsmith. For one thing he will likely be ignorant of its workings and two it must always be in your possession. Again special paperwork must be obtained to send it for repair. Individual parts can be shipped out — only the receivers are a no-no.

My M2 .30 Carbine is now on its fourth extractor. I finally got smart and bought a dozen extras plus a spare bolt. That was no problem because most M1 Carbine parts are usable in M2’s. A special tool is needed to install these extractors so the spare bolt will keep me shooting until a friend who owns the tool replaces the broken one. As might be expected, parts for these vintage full-autos can be expensive. I add them to my box of spares only so often.


“How can you afford to shoot them?” is the most often asked question. If you are
already reloading for a host of .45 ACP pistols and revolvers then you shouldn’t
have trouble feeding a M1 Thompson (left) or an M3 “Grease Gun” right.


Because of the violence engendered in firing submachine guns, Duke considers
having a supply of spare parts a necessity. Stock is for the Sh41. Beneath
it from left are: MP40 bolt, M1/M2 Carbine bolt, MP40 extractor and firing
pin, M1 Thompson bolt, PPsh41 bolt, M1 Thompson barrel and Sh41 barrel.

Be Smart

Here’s a tip about spare parts. It helps to read about various submachine guns so when you do purchase spares you get the right thing. For instance, the bolts on M1 and M1A1 Thompsons are interchangeable but they cannot be switched with earlier versions. At one time Portugal issued a submachine gun called the FBP. Its bolt is a copy of the German MP40’s and drops right in. That’s what I purchased for a spare. On the positive side most military submachine gun parts are drop-in items, so even a mechanical klutz like me can usually keep one running.

Owning submachine guns is somewhat like having a pet dog. Before you acquire either you must make up your mind there will be expense involved along with considerable responsibility.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

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Colt M45 Marine Corps

The Original Big-Bore Battle-Buddy Is Back!

Well, dang … I’ve tried so hard — with 99 percent success — to always see guns as just tools; portable machines to be used and used hard, maintained properly and even cleaned occasionally, but tools which can always be replaced without regrets. I first learned that from my Dad. Later, while working in the field of “serious shenanigans,” I learned never to get so attached to a firearm you’d hesitate for an instant flinging it into a muddy ditch and walkin’ away whistling. After all, with a sharp stick, a rock or your bare hands, you could always get an acceptable replacement. The only exception, Dad made crystal-clear, with his “business finger” a half-inch from my nose:

“My Colt,” he said in his Navy chief voice, the one you could hear across a tin can’s gun deck with the 40 mike-mike twins barkin’. Then he leaned in closer and loaded his tone with a little more gravel: “My COLT!” I got the message.

I wasn’t prepared for my own reaction when I pulled the lock tabs on the olive drab Pelican case, swung the lid open and took my first peep at the new Colt M45 Marine Close Quarters Battle Pistol. Yeah, it was a modified Colt 1911 Rail Gun with a flat, non-reflective Desert Tan Cerakote finish. That’s what my eyes saw. What my heart saw, what played across my brain was something else:

Dan Daly, leaping to his feet with 1911 in hand, yelling at his pinned-down Marines, “Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?” then leading the charge into Belleau Wood — and glory. Herman Hanneken dressed in native mufti, sneaking into the camp of the Haitian bandit leader Charlemagne Peralte and shooting him dead on the spot — then repeating that feat five months later, shooting Peralte’s successor, Osiris Joseph. My Dad, kneeling behind me, his breath on my neck, adjusting my eight year-old grip and stance, that rain-barrel voice whispering instructions into my ear, guiding my first shots with his Colt 1911, then rumbling, “Good shootin’, boy …” Oh, and a whole lot more; tunes for another time, maybe.

There must have been some heavy cleaner-lube-protectant fumes trapped inside that Pelican case, because my vision got fuzzy and my eyes got wet for a moment. When that strange fog cleared, I read the muted, barely visible engraving on the port side of the slide. It read COLT, followed by three stars; an homage to retired Marine Lieutenant General William Keys, who is rightfully credited with pulling Colt from the quicksand of bankruptcy, slappin’ it into shape, kickin’ it in the slats and thrusting it forward to regain its honor as an iconic American arms maker. Then there are four more letters: USMC.

That might not mean much to veterans of other services, but consider this: Marines have been wielding 1911’s since 1911 — countless thousands of them. Marines continued issuing and using 1911’s for decades after the US military officially adopted the M9 9mm pistol across the board. They pulled old frames out of storage and, within harsh budget restraints and the limits of skilled manpower, rebuilt them and put them back into service. It’s no secret the Corps was never happy with the M9 for reasons so numerous we won’t go into them here, other than to say this: If limited to full metal jacket round-nose ammo, punching a nearly half-inch hole in your opponent with a big, slower-moving heavy slug beats the kapok outta ventilating them with zippy point-three-five-something ball rounds. Proof in abundance was supplied on battlefields around the world, over a century of conflicts large and small. Besides, scarred, worn-shiny old jarheads simply love their scarred, worn-shiny old slab-sided 1911’s — and they’re obstinate critters.

Despite this killer-karmic connection, not a single 1911 has ever left a factory on a military contract marked “USMC” or “Marine Corps” — not until the first Colt M45 rolled off the line last year. They have all been marked U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, United States Property or US Government, most of them being hand-me-downs or cast-offs purchased from surplus. It’s a historic pistol in many other ways too, but this one really hits home. After more than a century of carrying 1911’s “in every clime and place,” Marines have their own Colt 1911 pistol!

M45’s will not be issued Corps-wide. Only Marines serving in the MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) assigned to Special Operations Command (MEU-SOC) will have the honor and combat advantage of carrying them.


Starboard side of the M45: Note Colt suffixes the serial
number with EGA, which stands for Eagle, Globe and Anchor —
Semper Fi, Colt!


A close-up of the slide’s port side showing the M45’s
subtle — but meaningful — engraving.

Then and Now

The last Colt 1911’s destined for US military use left the factory in 1945. They incorporated the few changes made in the 1920’s, but many valuable enhancements have become de riguer since then, and the M45 wears the best of ’em: Lowered and flared ejection port, improved feed ramp and chamber; an extended, curved and dished beavertail grip safety to enhance grip and eliminate hammer bite, a “memory bump” on its lower end, and thankfully, the original mil-spec miniscule sights have gone the way of wrapped leggings and the doughboy helmet.

The Marines found almost every feature they wanted in Colt’s XSE Series 1911 “Rail Gun;” a tough stainless slide and frame, 1913 accessory rail, front and rear slide-cocking serrations, an improved and lightened hammer and a National Match 5″ barrel. Colt’s ambidextrous thumb safeties, in my opinion, offer the best combination of size and geometry available — just wide enough to assure a positive sweep while avoiding the clumsiness and “snag-catching” of overdone whale-tail thumb safeties the size of submarine diving planes.

The Corps also opted for a long solid aluminum trigger, a flat serrated mainspring housing with lanyard loop, and the superb Novak 3 Dot Night Sights with Trijicon tritium inserts. The grips are special too; almost indestructible G-10 done in alternating layers of light and dark earth tones, textured and contoured for a sure grip without any rasping effect. Removing the grip panels reveals another nice detail: rubber O-rings set in their own little pockets, where they exert constant pressure to prevent the grip screws from loosening and backing out.

Inside you’ll find the M45 has dual recoil springs which provide “staged” compression and expansion, minimizing frame battering and smoothing out the “recoil moment,” also adding more oomph to chambering rounds under dirty conditions. The barrel is rifled 1-in-16″, six grooves with a left hand twist, and the bore and feed ramp are very nicely polished. Unless you’re a skilled gunsmith with a keen eye and precision gauges, you may not see a small suite of “relatively minor enhancements” to improve corrosion resistance and lengthen the lifespan of the weapon. The Corps ain’t sayin’, and Colt simply says “The design details of the M45A1 CQBP are held in confidence between Colt and the Corps.” I could make some informed comments, but I won’t. Don’tcha just love a mystery?

The Corps specified Wilson Combat magazines of blackened stainless steel; 7-rounders versus eight, I’m guessing because given matching mag lengths, sevens are more forgiving of mud, blood, sand and spit, which also explains the elongated slots in their sides.

The most visible feature is of course the flat Desert Tan Cerakote finish. Far more than a paint job, Cerakote is an extremely durable anti-corrosive finish; just one more piece of “over the beach” survival insurance.


Regardless of what might be the case in the real world regarding stopping
power, the imposing .45 caliber bore of the M45 is confidence building.


Thanks to JJ Reich and Federal, the M45 was fed only premium chow.
The military ball shot beautifully, the HST’s are butt-kickers in
terminal performance, and American Eagle rounds were gratifyingly accurate.

Shooting Hot ’N Dirty

Can you imagine the pressure determining who gets to fire the first rounds from the M45? We decided to go by Marine Corps Birthday Ball traditional “birthday cake” rules: I presented the “slice of cake” to our oldest Marine present, Uncle John. For him, 2014 marks 50 years since he stood on the yellow footprints at Boot Camp. He then handed the slice to our youngest present, my cousin MacKenzie, who just grinned like a shaved ape, slapped in a magazine and commenced fire — while I fidgeted flat-footed, gawped an’ stared. I don’t know what was in their minds, but I was a-scairt half-sick that she might stutter, choke an’ puke …

So, how did she shoot, you ask? Sorry, melodrama lovers, she shot exactly as you would expect from a spanky-new Colt XSE pistol kissed an’ tickled by the Custom Shop crew before heading to the senior prom. Yup; that’s right: every M45 bound for the consumer market receives hand-fitting of critical mating parts before release — and it shows, big-time. The action is sure, silky and certain, the trigger breaks crisp and clean at just under four pounds on my Lyman electronic pull gauge, and function was monotonously flawless from the first round.

With the M45 contract, Federal ATK is back in the business of supplying .45 ACP ammo to the Corps, and our buddy JJ Reich there dug some up for us; classic 230-grain “punkin ball.” Along with it he sent some Federal Premium HST Tactical, a top Law Enforcement round loaded with HST hollowpoints, and some good news: HST is now available to consumers; same rounds, just with the “tactical” dropped from the packaging. Jump on it! We added a buncha sure-shooting Federal American Eagle FMJ’s from our ammo dump to round out the menu. From slow singles to staccato rapid-fire strings, the M45 digested them all con mucho gusto.

Under controlled conditions at the factory, Colt’s test-shooter punched out a 5-shot group measuring 1.125″x1.25″ edge-to-edge at 15 yards, using 200-grain semi-wadcutters. That gave us incentive to lean into gusting, dust-laden winds from 90 degrees right and hold ’em the best we could.

From 15 yards our “best of five” 5-shot groups one-handed ran (in inches, tenths and hundredths) 2.0×1.5 with military ball; HST Tactical went 2.0×2.0, and American Eagle turned in 2.0×1.75. From 25 yards shooting two-handed, mil ball yielded 1.625×1.375 — sweet! HST Tactical hung in there with 2.0×1.0 and Eagle shot into 2.625×2.875. That’s excellent performance from a fighting pistol, and some of you can do better, I’m sure.

We tossed one five-shot group due to “fluke factor.” It measured only 1.25″x.75″, creating a single oblong hole. That phenomenon was shot with military ball two-handed at 25 yards, and we agreed, we just ain’t that good. I’ll gladly take a group resulting from a big dollop of skill with a teaspoon of luck, but not one from the opposite — a spoonful of skill and a washtub of luck.

As we packed up, MacKenzie found five rounds of his 185-grain LSWC handloads and asked if he could burn ’em. At 25 yards shooting two-handed, his group measured 2.0Æx.75Æ. And remember, that’s all outer-edge to outer-edge. The point is, this devil-puppy will shoot about as tight as you can hold her — if you get to hold one.


Up front: A re-born legend, the Colt M45. Behind it,
John’s Colt Lightweight Government nestled in an
El Paso Saddlery 1942 “Tanker” holster.

Can You Get One?

Our latest info is about 2,000 M45’s will be released for consumer sale, with Marine Corps requirements taking first priority. Some have already trickled out. The list price is $1,999, but I’ve seen them auctioned off for $3,800 to $4,600. Sadly, I think 95 percent will never even be fired. They’ll be displayed under glass or shoved deep into safes as investments. A cruel fate for a superlative fighting pistol.

That evening we composed a plea to Colt for permission to keep this M45, at whatever price they deemed fit, you know, considering it’s all old and used now. Four of us were animatedly slingin’ words around about “custody” of this child if our adoption papers get stamped, but I noticed Uncle John didn’t join in. The Great Stone Face just sat there all slitty-eyed, flickin’ his knife open and closed. Well, I’m sure I’ll get to shoot it — on occasion, anyway … Connor OUT
By John Connor
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Duty-Driven Blades

Mil-Tac’s Serious Knives For Those Who Serve.

While it’s very common for custom tactical knife makers and manufacturers to design knives for military and law enforcement, no one has been more rabidly focused on these two user groups than MIL-TAC Knives and Tools president and founder Craig Sword. He could care less about catering to the average consumer-oriented offshoots of the tactical knife wave — like the “gent’s folders” genre. Rather, he’s hell-bent for leather when it comes to serious using knives and makes no bones about it. Sword is savvy enough to know if he makes damn good tactical knives, the consumer base will follow.

“MIL-TAC Knives and Tools believes in serving those who defend us on a daily basis: military, LE, first responders and EOD/IED teams,” Sword tells us. “This motto can be found in every single knife or tool model we manufacture. It begins and ends with our company’s four major goals: design, components, manufacturing and customer support.”

Sword founded MIL-TAC Knives and Tools in Wylie, Texas, in 2005 with one main mission: “We wanted to produce a near custom-quality knife or tool at a production knife price.” Prior to forming the company, he spent 14 years working with major suppliers to meet the requirements of military, LE and EOD units.

“Many of these are now MIL-TAC customers,” he says. “The foundation of our operation was easily accomplished in the North Texas area as it is home to a large manufacturing base — which has been supporting the US military and law enforcement communities with products from tools to major aircraft and combat systems for many years.”

MIL-TAC Knives and Tools officially made its debut in September 2005 at Blade Show West in Portland, Ore., by introducing just four products. Today the company has over 40 in their line with new fare on the way.


Top Knife: CE-2 Drop-Point
Bottom Knife: DET Detachment Knife


Top Knife: MTF-4 Folder
Bottom Knife: Nihiser Active Duty Combat Special Folder


Top Knife: MTF-3 Tanto
Bottom Knife: MTF-3 Drop-Point


Bottom Left Knife: MTF-3 Drop-Point
Middle Knife: CS-1 Drop-Point
Top Knife: DET Detachment Knife

The Tough Stuff

MIL-TAC’s growth has been steady and cautious with more emphasis on producing sound, duty-driven designs over short-term pageant ponies. Such an approach won’t get you in the limelight very often, but it’ll build you a force of dedicated customers who will come back for more. To make sure MIL-TAC’s designs are bulletproof and battle-ready, Craig has worked with an impressive list of custom knifemakers and renowned tactical users to help hone his wares. The list includes notables Jerry Hossom, Jason Breeden, Patrick Nihiser, Pat Cascio, Eddie Killian and Wiley Clapp.

To perform their best, MIL-TAC knives are built using top-shelf steels and handle materials. “All MIL-TAC products are designed with the finest components available to be ergonomic for long-term use and to be virtually indestructible to last a lifetime in very hard military and law enforcement environments,” Sword states. “We manufacture our fixed-blade knives with Crucible S30V and 154CM stainless steel and our MTF series folding knives use Bohler N690 stainless steel. All handle materials are super tough G-10 in various colors and our folders use a stainless steel liner lock with an additional safety lock to ensure the blade remains locked.”


MTF-4 Tanto Folder


CS-1 Drop-Point Fixed Blade

To Fix Or Fold

Regardless of whether you like your knives in a sheath at the ready or folded up in your pocket, MIL-TAC has you covered. “Our most popular fixed-bladed knife is the Combat and Survival 1, or CS-1,” Craig lends. “It was designed to be the ultimate fixed-blade field knife for combat and survival and was developed over a 6-year period.”

The design was honed from feedback from military and LE units and their desire for a fixed-blade knife to be extremely tough, yet comfortable to use for long periods of time. The result was a 6.5″ long (0.205″ thick) blade made of Crucible CPM S30V stainless steel. And at 12″ overall, the CS-1 is a beast with a bite.

“The S30V stainless steel was designed to offer the best combination of toughness, wear-resistance and corrosion resistance. The Vanadium content adds additional hardness and wear-resistance,” Sword adds. “The blade is thick with a very tough spine to give the user additional blade strength as well as tip strength. At the same time, the grind lines are high enough to produce a very lightweight blade with a razor-sharp edge.”

Other fixers in the MIL-TAC stable include the slimmer, trimmer CE-2 Combat and Survival knife and the cord-wrapped DET-2 Detachment Knife, available in two lengths.

MIL-TAC’s tactical folders also emphasize toughness in material and design. Their most popular folding knife is the MIL-TAC Folder, or MTF-3.

“The MTF-3 folding knife was designed to be a rock solid folding knife able to be used for military, law enforcement and outdoor activities — it’s light and thin enough for daily carry,” says Craig.

The MTF-3 has a stainless steel blade and liner lock combination with a safety lock for additional protection. It also has a hardened aluminum rear spacer, ambidextrous thumb stud and pocket-clip and G-10 handles available in various colors. The MTF-3’s blade is coated in Teflon for additional corrosion resistance. Most MIL-TAC folders have options of hard-use working blades or a more combat-oriented Tanto.
Pricewise, MIL-TAC checks in very reasonably. The well-appointed MTF-3 folder is priced at about $170; the CS-1 fixed-blade goes for $250. While Craig was tight-lipped about any particular new designs in MIL-TAC’s future, you can pretty much bet this energetic knife manufacturer won’t be sitting on his laurels. “MIL-TAC will continue to expand all areas of our product line to add new models and additional features required by our customers,” he said.
By Pat Covert
For more info:, (877) MIL-TAC6,

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They Didn’t Wear Polymer In The Old Days …

Marty Robbins could have written Texas Red hadn’t cleared his Kydex before the handsome ranger with a Big Iron on his hip dropped him in the street at twenty past eleven. Marty knew better …

Like walnut, bourbon and a handful of other things yet to be overtaken by substitutes, leather has enduring appeal. Besides its obvious place in holsters, it’s the first-round pick for belts, boots and bridles, saddles, slings, sheaths and scabbards. If you predate color television, you may recall leather scope caps and lace-on cheek-pieces for rifles and leather-looped panniers on sawbucks secured by leather rigging to the lathered backs of mules plodding up mountain steeps.

Those of us who shoot rifles competitively even dress in leather. While you can fire match-winning pistol scores in a T-shirt, a leather coat helps you steady a free-rifle or a prone gun. As a bankrupt college student, I saved a few dollars by buying one from a chap twice my girth and half my height. I never got the support a leather jacket affords when properly fitted. Leather begs to become personal; in sling or coat it remembers your shooting positions — as a belt, it automatically wraps your waist and in a billfold, molds to your butt.


Snaps on your leather holster will help secure a SAA when you’re
thrown by frisky horses or tripped up in the branding corral.


Form-fitted holsters, like this Galco for a Ruger Single-Nine,
help protect the revolver and minimize “rub”.

Skin In The Game

Holsters may not be the reason cattle have skin, but a better explanation eludes me. Leather is still, arguably, the best holster material around. It can be made stiff or supple, cut to fit any pistol closely and then molded quickly to shape by the weight and profile of the gun itself. Durable and protective, it has a rough inner surface able to grip the steel with just the right amount of friction. The hard, finished side of polished leather is handsome, slips easily against clothing and sheds water like glass. But even before handguns, leather had its uses.

Leather dates to the third chapter in Genesis: “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” Evidence of the earliest human life includes hide-scraping tools from Spanish caves. Because leather has been around so long, people have figured out how to transform it from skin to commodity, to make it pliable and finish it stiff and to give it rough and slick surfaces. They’ve learned to sew, mold, color and marry it with other materials. They’ve perfected ways to preserve and renew it — even keeping its distinctive smell.

By the time a slab of animal skin becomes a piece of leather it endures brutal treatment. It’s first done with caustic salts, which leave it hard as a sheet of plywood. In wet-salting, hides are stacked as a multi-layer salt sandwich and given a month or so to cure (brine solution acts more quickly). Dumped into vats containing disinfectant and brine, the skins reach salt saturation in about 16 hours. Soaking in water removes the salt and blood. Immersion in lime solution, with a pinch of sodium sulfide, loosens hair for a mechanical de-hairing machine. The skin is then scraped, died, stretched, sandpapered and treated with heavy metals. It looks and smells like sun-baked road kill.

De-liming follows, in an acid solution used to reduce the swelling caused by the lime and is often augmented with “bating” enzymes to render the skin soft and flexible.

Tanning stops decay and prevents shrinkage. The two most common tanning processes are vegetable and chromium. Vegetable tanning typically requires weeks or months. It produces firm, stretch-resistant leather — it’s also water-repellant. Chrome tanning can be done in a day, shrinking the material to make it longwearing and resistant to heat. Leather can be tanned by both processes, with the chrome treatment first to impart specific properties.

Vegetable tanning is named so for the tannins used. Chestnut wood is a popular source of tannins in the US. The same goes for the bark of oak and hemlock — though fibers from foreign plants account for 80 percent of the domestic supply. After bating, the hides move through a series of rocking frames and progressively stronger tanning solutions, called liquors. Weeks later, the process ends in vats of very stout liquors. Heat may be applied to speed up this step. Lightweight leather receives less tanning time compared to thicker materials.

Chrome tanning begins in a solution of salt and acid, which pickles the bated skins. They then go to a drum, which tumbles them in a basic chromium-sulfate solution. That’s it, albeit a longer process; two baths is used for some types of leather. Vegetable-tanned sole leather is bleached, and then immersed in Epsom salts, oils and glucose, and finally emulsions of soap, grease and sometimes wax. Finishing heavy leather includes a series of chemical and mechanical treatments. Splitting and shaving chrome-tanned leather reduces its thickness. Light leathers get buffed or sandpapered to erase imperfections. Rollers add firmness, providing a glossy finish. Waxes, shellacs, varnishes and emulsified resins (and glazing) also give leather a polished surface. Glossy patent leather results from several coats of oily varnish. Buffing the flesh side of leather raises the nap to produce suede.


Wayne favors this Galco rig for his Ruger Redhawk.
Note the polymer strap tab for quick access.


Form-fitted to the Blackhawk, this Galco holster has an adjustment
screw (right) to fine-tune tension — a handy feature.


A Ruger SR1911 is nestled quite snugly in this Don Hume holster.
The strap works with the hammer down or cocked.

Getting To The Gun

While most leather is a by-product of the meatpacking industry, skins from exotic creatures such as ostrich, kangaroo, alligator, even elephant and Cape buffalo, bring the highest prices. All appear in custom leather goods for shooters.

Some specialty products, like leather-covered recoil pads, require very thin material. Pigskin can be wrapped fully, front and back, as required. The stockmaker must carefully reduce pad dimensions, then stretch-fit and glue the skin. Screw holes must be plugged and the plugs covered too. It’s time-consuming, but leather adds a classy touch to any pad. It prolongs pad life and provides a perfect surface, with enough friction to stay on your shoulder, but not too much.

A new leather holster doesn’t know what to do with itself. You must train it to your firearm and body. It’s best to slide hardware into leather gingerly, until the material gets accustomed to it and then, like a shy teenager, decides hugging is okay. Even stiff leather is tractable; a day in the field cuddling your S&W will give the holster an affinity for it. A knife sheath needs more time to get familiar because knives are lighter … and sharp. An amigo once thrust his DiamondBlade knife through a chaste sheath when he joined them too quickly. You can wet new leather to help, but doing so is an unduly harsh introduction. As with bourbon, time improves results.

Here’s a caveat: Don’t leave firearms in leather. Even a knife is best stored separately, given possible salt and moisture residues in the leather. Also, vegetable-tanned leather turns brass cartridge hulls and belt hardware green with verdigris. This doesn’t affect nickel-plated metal.

Old, experienced leather, like the worn walnut of a vintage revolver, rifle or shotgun, deserves a modicum of care — and it adds both esthetic and market value to the gun. A tooled holster made long ago by a lawman for his 1917 Colt held onto it like a suitor would the palm of a maiden he wished to impress. I shouldn’t have ever traded that outfit away, and I no longer part with old leather — even my Latigo slings, which date to Ford’s first Mustang, and a Milt Sparks gun-belt, which has kept my pants up since bell-bottoms. The scabbard an Oregon saddlemaker made me has a permanent home, despite deep scars from the Eagle Cap, Bob Marshall and Frank Church.


SAAs and ammo may look good in leather, but Wayne warns
neither should be stored there permanently.


Here’s a cross section of shooting accessories, all made of top-grain
cowhide. Remember, you can’t go wrong with shoe polish to keep them
looking nice and shiny!

Caring For Your Leather

Oddly enough, after decades of using leather, I’ve found little consensus from leather gurus about caring for it. Most advise keeping leather from warm, sunlit places — which can dry it out. Many also suggest hanging it where air can circulate to keep rot and mildew at bay. A fellow who’s manufactured Harley-Davidson saddlebags told me to “keep leather supple but not over-oiled. Air-dry wet leather slowly; direct heat can cause shrinking and cracking.”

A bootmaker advised brushing off dirt before it can penetrate and abrade. “Scrub leather with saddle soap on a damp cloth. Then wipe the lathered surface dry. Apply Neatsfoot oil or wax, depending on the leather.” DeSantis advises no dressing on its holsters, lest they become soft. For hard-finished leather, you can’t go wrong with properly-tinted shoe polish!

To be fair, not everyone likes leather. “When you carry a pistol in triple-digit temps,” a patrolman told me in Miami, “you need a lightweight holster so it doesn’t stick to your body.” He said sweat makes leather smell bad, and it’s not as easy to wash as polymer. Acids and moisture in leather cause handguns to rust; heat accelerates damage. Oil deters rust, but over time gun oil weakens a leather holster.

Injection-molded, thermoplastic Kydex — like hard nylon and Safariland’s polymer laminate — serve as well as leather for most jobs. Holsters like these can also be adjusted for tension. Blade-Tech is a popular brand; same with BLACKHAWK!’s SERPA. Hard synthetic material is a boon to officers exposed to blood-borne pathogens and chemicals splashed during drug raids. Another polymer plus includes a modular, quick-release belt hook-up for holsters, magazine pouches and accessories.


Rifle scabbards are just big holsters. The best ones
cover the entire rifle — no need for a lightning draw …


“Kydex? Not hardly, Pilgrim.”


“Actually, in case you were wondering, we prefer
to carry outside the waistband.”

Movies And Makers

Leather’s rich history in the gun trade is largely responsible for its continued popularity. Polymer had no role at the O.K. Corral. Leather carried Hickock’s 1851 Colts, served William Bonney, the James Gang and Butch Cassidy. It also has a long affiliation with Hollywood, not just in early westerns, but also in movies like Dirty Harry and television shows like “Miami Vice”. Don Johnson’s shoulder holster on the series became as distinctive as its cinematography.

When the pilot aired in 1984, Galco had been making shoulder holsters for 14 years, 11 of those as The Original Jackass Leather Company in Chicago, where Founder Richard Gallagher built horsehide holsters for local police. Galco had been in Phoenix for just a year when Hollywood rang up for a holster to hide Johnson’s Bren Ten under his Armani suit. Rick Gallagher flew to Miami and the Jackass shoulder holster became the Miami Classic.

Though Galco holsters have often appeared onscreen, handgunners know them in less glamorous roles. The real function of a holster is to cradle a pistol securely and comfortably, then release it to the hand in an instant. Galco’s extensive line of leather, from pancake and Yaqui slide holsters to frontier belt and shoulder rigs, is distinctive for snug fit and beautiful finish. Fawn and oxblood remain alternatives to the black cataloged as the only color in competitive lines. In its custom shop, Galco fashions horsehide-lined holsters of alligator, shark and stingray.

Bianchi, another legendary name in leather, got its start nearly 50 years ago. John Bianchi, then a police officer in California, designed a duty holster to serve as a template for the firm’s 5BH and 19 models. Conflict in Vietnam inspired the X15 shoulder rig, followed by concealed and front-break belt holsters. In 1979, John founded the Bianchi Cup as his design team introduced “ballistic weave” nylon holsters. Five years later, Bianchi’s M12 became the first new holster for the US Armed Forces in nearly 70 years, replacing leather. Its leather Getaway and Path Blazer holsters for single-action competition feature hidden tension adjustments. Confidential and Assent belt models keep your 1911 close and comfortable, covering the muzzle.

I pair Don Hume belts and holsters with some of my S&W revolvers. The Oklahoma firm makes top-flight leather products. So does the Strong Leather Co. in Massachusetts, though its sales are largely to police. The holster house of Triple K began in a San Diego department store run by Herman Krasne and son Leo on the heels of WWII. When Leo’s son Jerry joined the business in 1952, he began selling sporting goods — later starting a new firm to make after-market magazines. Triple K Manufacturing Company (so named for his children, Kim, Kurt and Karen) grew its holster selection in the 1980s, then sold the retail business to tend catalog sales. Most Triple K products are still made in San Diego.

In Amityville, N.Y., DeSantis has cataloged an expanding selection of leather holsters since the early 1970s. It’s supplied U.S. Air Marshals, the FBI and the Secret Service. The current line boasts Kydex and nylon holsters as well as leather. Several belt models have triple slots to give you a choice of carry styles. The INNER PIECE, with or without over-hammer strap, has a stabilizing wing to prevent unwanted rotation. The TERMINATOR shoulder rig is among few made for S&W X-Frames.

Bianchi’s Wild Clearwater is one of the most appealing options for a 1911. It’s design and workmanship is first-rate. Like Galco and Bianchi, DeSantis also makes high-noon holsters for Peacemakers.

The best holster for your handgun keeps it secure as it keeps you comfortable. Unless you’re on a timer, staring down — or riding down — balloons, leather able to practically pop your pistol free at a touch is less useful than one that delivers a Super Bowl-sure handoff. After all, gun control matters, and you should have it as you lift your pistol from leather.
By Wayne van Zwoll

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