Saturday, September 15, 2007

I just got back from the range, which was very crowded this weekend. It seems a bunch of college students decided to come in and learn the ropes of basic handgun safety. Good. There wasn't any macho posturing, it was all "keep your mouths shut and listen" type of training. Sure they compared shots, but they did so safely and carefully. It's nice to see someone come to the range and find out that they're a better shot than they thought they were.

I managed to grab a lane and load up. My Springfield XD40 is still in good shape, and I managed to keep almost all of my shots in the "A" zone of a standard IPSC target at 7 yards. Some were just flyers I didn't control as well. They hit the IPSC target, just not in the highest-scoring part of the target. For further assistance, I tacked up some 8" diameter bullseye targets. I kept most of them in the center, though I could see that after about 50 rounds I was pulling low and to the right. That meant it was time for the XD to go back into its case while I brought out my other handgun.

My other handgun is a Smith & Wesson model 649. It's a five-shot revolver in .357 Magnum. The barrel is pretty short as well at 2 and 1/8 inches. It's got a shroud that covers the hammer so it can be drawn more easily from concealment, but still allows you to pull the hammer back and fire single-action shots if you like. That configuration is what S&W calls a "bodyguard" configuration, and it's no surprise that the original version which was (.38 Special only, not .357/.38 like mine) was marketed towards bodyguards and other personal security types.

Now, .357 Magnum is known for having a kick, especially in small revolvers like mine. The .357 was designed back in 1934 as an answer to FBI and police needs to shoot through the engine blocks and bulletproof glass of its day. Either way, the .357 is designed as powerful ammunition, and is very good for personal defense.

So I warmed up with a few rounds of Remington .38 Special. I'm not very happy with this ammunition as a round for my revolver because it throws out a lot of flash. The powder doesn't burn completely, it seems. If anything, the tiny black sight on the 649 made me happy that my XD40 has a sight that is at least slightly more visible in low-light conditions. If I modify my 649, it will be to get a high-visibility sight installed. I managed to keep most of my shots inside the 8" target. Short-barreled guns like the 649 aren't designed for long-distance shooting, they're designed for about 7 yards at best for us lesser beings, though a skilled and well-practiced shooter can make the gun effective out to 25 or so yards.

So next, I fired off ten rounds of .357 Magnum, from Speer's Gold Dot line of personal defense ammunition. The bullet size, a 135-grain jacketed hollow point, and the powder were designed to create a good balance of speed, stopping power and less muzzle flash. Less muzzle flash is good for low-light conditions since it won't affect your night vision as much. One thing I noticed about the Gold Dot bullets compared to other .357 Magnum rounds is that the opening of the bullet is much wider than other jacketed hollow point rounds. Hollow points are designed to expand, so the Gold Dot probably starts out wider to help jump-start the expansion when it hits. The Gold Dots are my standard .357 round, so I used those as a base line for testing out another brand of ammunition. These rounds will cause the 649 to jump more compared to the .38 rounds. The flash wasn't super noticeable like the .38s, and the recoil is solid but not uncontrollable. Again, I got a decent enough shot out of 10, though only one of my ten-ring shots grazed the bullseye. My first string of 5 shots was double-action only, and the accuracy was okay. Not great, but okay. The second string was 5 shots using single-action. Single action shots are easier, if only because you don't have to fight the heavy trigger pull (2 pounds of force compared to about 11 pounds for double-action). I did substantially better, with four of five shots going into the 9 and ten rings. The fifth flew off to graze the bottom of the target. I flinched on that one. Overall the Gold Dot ammunition is good self-defense stuff.

I had that as my baseline. Now it was time to compare something to it. So, I looked along the shelf of the ammo counter at the range and found Black Hills 158-grain jacketed hollow points. How would it fare compared to the specifically-formulated-for-snubnose-revolvers Gold Dots? I decided to give it 15 rounds instead of 10. 10 would be shot double-action and five would be single action. My first double action shot was about 95% in the bullseye, but even with my single action shots I never got in the red again. I was expecting a lot more flash from unburned powder, and possibly even a lot more kick since these were for use in any .357 revolver. I didn't get blinded by the flash and could reacquire just as fast with the Black Hills as I could the Speer ammo, and there was no perceptible difference in the recoil. I was expecting the heavier bullet to generate more pressure and maybe cause more recoil. That wasn't the case.

Upon comparing the targets I noticed that the wider openings of the Gold Dot bullets made a larger hole in the target than the Black Hills. My guess is that expansion would start much faster had I hit a solid target because of the increased surface area. That's also something to think about when considering self-defense ammunition. What stops your opponent faster? The kinetic energy of the bullet or the tissue damage from the more rapidly-expanding bullet?

The final comparison is price. It's around $25 for 20 of Speer's Short Barrel Gold Dots, and about $19 for 50 Black Hills Jacketed Hollow Points. Black Hills wins that easily.

So let's summarize it.

Price: Black Hills wins here.

Flash: No discernible difference.

Recoil: No discernible difference.

Extras: The Gold Dots start out making bigger holes.

The Black Hills 158-grain Jacketed Hollow Points are a cheap and effective alternative to Speer's Short Barrel Gold Dots.

Other things found out at the range: shooting with a bunch of new shooters is fun, and high-visibility sights would probably improve the 649 for use in darker conditions.

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