Turning A Beater Into A Beauty — For A Good Reason!
By John Higgs
Photos By Robbie Barrkman
As a pistol instructor and range safety officer, I see a lot of new shooters signing up for basic pistol classes. This surge in students is due partly to my state’s requirement for concealed carry permit applicants to provide proof of training and partly due to the student’s concerns about crime, terrorism and more gun control legislation.
Many of these new shooters step onto the firing line with their first handgun, a brand new compact or sub-compact semi-auto. Most of these guns are chambered for .380 ACP and 9MM cartridges and seem to be designed more for ease of carry and concealment than for intense shooting sessions. Compared to the larger service and competition pistols, the sights and controls are small, so as to reduce the chance of the pistol snagging on clothing, and the slides and grips are small for easy concealed carrying.
With less surface area to grasp, some people with reduced hand strength have trouble racking the slide. Some new shooters struggle to operate their semi-auto, with no knowledge of how it functions. Difficulty loading magazines and double feeds from racking the slide twice in succession are commonplace. The result is often a beginner shooter who has trouble loading, racking the slide, thumbing off the safety and shooting decent groups.
Unfortunately we were unable to take a photo of our sample gun “before”
the make-over. However, it looked to be in essentially the same condition
as this blued steel S&W K-frame fixed sighted .38 Special (with 3″ barrel),
also a police trade-in gun.
These are all things overcome with careful coaching and regular, quality practice. But I think the case can be made to introduce beginners to the fundamentals of safe gun handling and marksmanship with a first firearm much easier to operate.
I’ve had a lot of success with beginners shooting a medium size .22 caliber pistol such as the Ruger Mark III or the new Mark IV, or one of the Smith & Wesson K-frame revolvers in .22 or 38 Special with light target loads. The mild recoil helps the new shooter concentrate more on the fundamentals of marksmanship and safety, while larger controls and grips and a longer sight radius enhance accuracy. It’s important for beginners to get some good hits on paper as soon as possible to encourage them. Once the shooter has built up a little confidence and competence they can move on to a heavier caliber or a more complicated pistol.
Husbands and boyfriends take note: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched a guy walk onto the range with his lady and hand her his favorite blaster with no more instruction than point and pull the trigger. Women are analytical by nature. They want to understand the basics of marksmanship: position, grip, sight alignment, breath control, trigger press and follow-through. It’s hard to understand these things on a noisy range while wearing hearing protection.
My suggestion t? Find a quiet location and use a dummy pistol or even a dime store water pistol to demonstrate the fundamentals. She isn’t interested in what SpecOps carry or what customization you’ve done to the gun. She does want to know, “Will it be loud? Will it hurt to shoot? How do I load it? How do I aim it?” If the grips are too big for her hand or the trigger pull is too heavy, she’s going to get frustrated. Trust me on this.
There are times when I wish I could be involved with beginning shooters in the initial selection and purchase of their pistol. Certainly concealed carry is the driving force behind many handgun purchases, but there is also defense in the home and of course, recreational shooting. I think it’s a good idea to introduce new shooters to a medium size, medium caliber double action revolver as an adequate self defense gun. It may not be the most concealable, but it is arguably one of the simplest guns to shoot well. These guns, kept clean and loaded with good quality ammunition, seem to be some of the most reliable designs on the range — or anywhere.
The final result (and a remarkable change from the gun’s original condition)
shows the Model 64 to be handsome and reliable.
A Different Idea
I recently acquired a Smith & Wesson Model 64-5 K-frame revolver in .38 Special from an estate sale. K-frame revolvers are larger than S&W’s J-frame series and a tad smaller than the L-frame. The Model 64 was introduced in 1970 and is the stainless steel version of S&W’s Model 10 revolver, a direct descendent of the .38 Special Hand Ejector Military and Police Model of 1899. It is a single action/double action revolver with 6-round capacity. The trigger has a smooth face with no serrations, a 4″ heavy barrel (some pistols were produced with 2″ or 3″ barrels), walnut grips, fixed sights and no ejector rod shroud. New Model 64 revolvers are still available from Smith & Wesson.
This particular 4″ barrel Model 64 had been well-used, but not abused. It had plenty of scratches and minor dings on the surface and the original walnut grips were scuffed up, but the bore was bright and overall it was quite clean. In short, it had a lot of holster wear. I suspect that it was carried a lot by a law enforcement or security officer.
The revolver shot to point of aim with the factory fixed sights. However, after only a few rounds fired, the pistol quit rotating the cylinder in double action mode. It did, however still fire in single action (hammer cocked manually) mode. I removed the side plate and found the action was filled with some sort of grease lubricant, but otherwise I could not find the cause of the problem. I decided with a little maintenance, the Model 64 would make an ideal teaching gun, but first, this old veteran would need a little revolver rehab.
Six “sure” shots are the hallmark of a K-frame revolver and six good quality
factory loads can solve just about any problem you might encounter!
The Fix Begins
I enlisted the help of my friend, gunsmith Bob Ford at Rocky Mountain Arms in Longmont, Colorado. Bob began his evaluation of the revolver by soaking it in a liquid cleaner to remove all built-up gunpowder residue and old gun grease from the internals.
Each chamber was then power honed to smooth the minute burrs and cutting marks left behind when the cylinder was manufactured. Polishing the chambers makes it easy to eject fired cases and reduces time spent cleaning. However, if the inside of the chamber is too smooth, the brass cartridge case has nothing to momentarily grip onto during the firing sequence. Next, Bob polished the mating surfaces on the hammer, trigger, hand and rebound spring return in order to smooth up the action.
The factory springs were replaced with a Wolff spring kit which included a rebound spring, cylinder stop spring and Power Rib mainspring. The factory 18 pound rebound spring was replaced with a reduced (12–16 pound) spring to improve the double action trigger pull. The cylinder stop spring ensures as the cylinder rotates as part of the firing sequence, the locking tab will be pushed up into the next locking notch in the cylinder. The Power Rib mainspring supplies enough power to the hammer to reliably provide positive ignition when fired.
This also reduced the single action trigger to a weight of 2 pounds. This is a nice feature for training and target shooting as this particular pistol is intended, but I believe a 2 pound trigger is too light for a self-defense pistol. In a highly stressful self-defense situation, fine motor skills can deteriorate quickly and I would not want to have a trigger finger resting on the trigger of a cocked revolver with such a light trigger. For this reason, my own self-defense revolver has the heavier factory trigger and I’ve trained myself to shoot it in double action mode only.
The original factory walnut grips had seen better days, so we replaced them with a set of model C42C Magna style checkered polyurethane grips from N.C. Ordnance. These grips have the look of old ivory and are close to the size of the original factory grips and come with a grip screw, which replaced the damaged factory grip screw. The manufacturer cautions against over tightening the screw and cracking the grip. Since this pistol is intended as a training gun, I purchased a second set of grips to accommodate a different hand size. Hogue makes a one-piece rubber Monogrip with finger grooves for square butt K- and L-frame Smith & Wesson revolvers which should fit most students and will absorb what little recoil is produced from a 4″ .38 Special.
I’ve found novice shooters — particularly women — are more comfortable, and therefore learn easier, if the firearm is clean and looks nice. Nobody said training guns have to look mundane or boring, so I shipped the model 64 off to our friends at ROBAR in Phoenix, Arizona to have the external surfaces and the internal parts refinished.
The fixed sights on the Model 64 make perfect sense on a personal defense revolver or
one used for the sort of basic training John is going to put this one to work doing.
Durable And Attractive
ROBAR has an oxidizing process to apply a black finish to stainless steel through the use of blacking compounds. Technically, the coating is a black oxide. The chrome in the stainless steel reacts with the oxidizers in the solution to produce chrome-sulfide. Bead blasting the stainless steel surfaces before the oxidizing process reduces the minor abrasions on the bare steel that are the result of normal, daily usage and carry in a duty holster.
This oxidizing process definitely gives the pistol an added cool factor. It also increases its corrosion resistance (96 hours salt spray per Mil-C-13924B.) The process hardly changes any of the fine tolerances between the pistol’s moving parts because the thickness of the black oxide type coating ranges from a miniscule 0.00006″ to 0.0001″ depending on the type of alloy being treated.
The revolver’s internal parts were coated with Robar’s proprietary NP3 electroless nickel-based finish that co-deposits sub-micron particles of Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene), with electroless nickel. NP3 can be applied to steel, stainless steel and aluminum alloys and is ideal for firearm internals because it provides a high lubricity and low friction co-efficient. In other words, it greatly reduces friction wear between moving parts, which smooths out the pistol’s action. No liquid lubrication is required, which means the internal parts don’t collect the usual goopy residue of burned gunpowder and liquid lubricant as would occur with bare stainless steel.
Both the Black Oxide and NP3 coatings aid in preventing galling in stainless steel guns. Galling can occur between two metal surfaces sliding across each other. It may result in tiny flecks of metal from one surface becoming stuck on the other metal surface. Lack of proper lubrication is often the cause of a metal surface galling.
A few dings still show through the black finish (over the stainless steel original gun),
but the change is still huge. The two tone look comes from a combination of NP3+
(silver finish) and black oxide type finish on the frame, cylinder and barrel.
I intend to use this revolver primarily as a training pistol, so the range session was conducted with typical practice ammunition, rather than the higher priced defensive loads. The pistol has fixed sights, which I think are a good idea on a pistol primarily designed for training. Fixed sights pretty much shoot to point of aim, at least out to 20 to 25 yards if the ammunition is factory or factory-spec.
I have seen a lot of inexperienced shooters with adjustable sights on their guns become dissatisfied with their groups on the target and immediately reach for the screwdriver. Unless the sights really are way off, it’s more productive to adjust the shooter’s grip, stance and sight picture. The most common error I see on the range is shooters with only the tip of their finger on the trigger or the trigger resting across the first joint. Either way, the shot will hit low and off to the side of the bullseye. The trigger should rest across the center of the fingerprint.
As expected this gun shot great with groups and the performance/reliability S&W is famous for. If anyone says revolvers are dead, they simply have no idea what they’re talking about!
Total cost of rehabbing the Model 64 was less than the factory price for a new model — and it looks great.
The 2-tone finish from Robar is attractive, rugged and user-friendly in the real world.
Cost of Rehabbing the Model 64:
Purchase price: $100 Background check: $10 Gunsmith services and Wolff spring kit: $89 Polymer grips $35 Hogue Monogrips: $27 UPS Shipping to ROBAR $72 Refinishing by ROBAR: Chrome Sulfide (Satin Blue) Metal Finish complete with NP3 internals, Trigger, Hammer, Cylinder Release, $215
(See current prices at robarguns.com)
For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/index
And: Rocky Mountain Arms: www.bearcoat.com
NC Ordnance: www.gungrip.com
W.C. Wolff Co: www.gunsprings.com
Hogue Grips: www.hogueinc.com
Smith & Wesson: www.smith-wesson.com