ASAA   Europe

1

IS THERE A BEST PISTOL?

For nearly forever, it seems, the arguments as to which kind of pistol is best, single-action, double-action or some hybrid form of either. Yet, the criteria upon which such pronouncements of superiority are based vary greatly. So much, in fact, that they often bear little resemblance to reality as we know it. So, like most controversial issues, the perspective from which we view the subject tends to influence our opinions more than anything else and, when viewpoint clash, often prevents us from "seeing the forest for the trees."

Such is certainly the case with this particular issue, for emotions often tend to run high when it is discussed. Still, in and of itself, the question is intriguing and, for its own sake, worth investigating. For me, the criteria boil down to a simple question -- which type provides the best balance of the essential elements needed to best fulfill the pistol's tactical mission and, exactly what are those elements?

However, before we can proceed further, let's first define the pistol's actual mission. In other words, we cannot realistically expect to find answers until we first identify the questions, right? Though I am perennially astonished at the number of people with an interest in defensive weaponcraft who haven't done this before they buy guns, ammo and ancillary equipment and begin developing tactics and techniques, the fact is that some serious thought on this subject is in order before any such decisions are made.

So, what is the mission of the defensive handgun? To provide its wearer with the means by which to regain control of his immediate environment when attacked, quickly and with as few shots fired as possible. This means that we must view the issue from more than one direction. First, obviously the more "user-friendly," it is, the better, e.g. the more quickly and easily it can be presented and used under stress, the more useful it is. This means that the weapon's controls must be located for efficient operator manipulation, that the gun itself isn't excessively bulky and/or heavy for convenient carry/concealment and that it "points" and fits the hand reasonably well.

Next, within reason, it must be mechanically reliable and sufficiently accurate for the purpose. Third, it must be powerful enough to incapacitate -- not necessarily just kill -- the attacker with minimum shots fired, preferably one, if possible. Whether of not the adversary dies is, from a tactical standpoint, academic. However, his ability to project lethal aggression, i.e. to continue to threaten us with or utilize Deadly Force against us, is of the greatest importance.

Yes, safety is important, too, but that's part of mechanical reliability. The single-action (SA) self-loader is without question easier to use quickly because it is meant to be carried in Condition One (loaded, cocked and locked). The oft-repeated claim that it is inherently unsafe because the safety doesn't block the hammer is just so much drivel, as are claims that it requires special training and armorer support. A quick look into history discloses that many legendary weapons -- such as the M-1 Garand, Beretta BM-59 and M-14, AR-10, M-16 rifles and .30 caliber M-1 carbine, for example -- utilize this same concept but no one claims them to be unsafe. As far as training and armorer support are concerned, the SA auto has thus far enjoyed a worldwide military career than has spanned over eight decades. Obviously, if it required special treatment or was unsafe, et al, this could not have been the case.

Double-action (DA) pistols were created with the idea of keeping the hammer down on a loaded chamber, allowing the gun to be cocked and subsequently fired by a pull of the trigger, then reverting to standard SA operation for subsequent shots. In theory, this allows it to be kept ready for action with less preparation and operator "fussing around," often the cause of accidental discharges (ADs). One had only to present the weapon, aim, pull the trigger and...boom! -- he was in business.

However, the use of two different operational systems makes such weapons more complex and, often, less mechanically reliable than SA autos. More importantly, from a "human engineering" standpoint, the long, heavy DA trigger pull required to initiate that first shot is tough to handle quickly under stress without loss of first-shot accuracy. As well, that many DA designs require the firer to shift his trigger finger from one position on the trigger to another as the weapon reverts to SA operation proved to be both time-consuming and annoying.

Failing to realize just how quickly defensive handgun encounters tend to take place, many shooters mistakenly think that the DA auto is better because they assume it to be "safer." Thus, they ignore the fact that it is considerably slower and more difficult to operate under stress.

Of the two designs, which do I favor? Well, strictly speaking. I prefer the SA. However, because I'm a professional instructor and consultant, I don't have the luxury of predicating my entire instructional program around a single design. For whatever reason, many people, at least initially, prefer the DA auto and, if military or police personnel are considered, many simply don't have a choice -- they must use whatever type of weapon they're issued! Since I deal with students from many different walks of life, my instructional program must produce superior results with all designs, whatever they may be. Thus, I created a program that works, regardless of the kind of pistol the student uses. In other words, my job is to teach to use their weapon to its maximum potential. What kind of gun the choose is their business -- and their responsibility.

There have been other attempts to deal with the problem: (1) the selective DA or SA; (2) DA-only (with every pull of the trigger being long and heavy), and; (3) the "semi"- DA, in which the loaded pistol is actually on half-cock, thus, pulling the trigger completely to the rear completes the cocking process and fires the gun. Of the three, neither the selective DA/SA or DA-only have achieved much popularity. However, the "semi" - DA, particularly as represented by the Glock¸ is taking the law-enforcement community by storm because, from a tactical, criminal and civil liability standpoint, it offers a viable alternative.

Is "semi" - DA really better? Technically, yes; but let's not forget the most important element -- the shooter. In spite of the irrefutable fact that some guns are easier to use well under stress than others, if the weaknesses aren't too great, operator skill can sometimes overcome a system's inherent deficiencies and produce good performance.

And it was from this perspective that I undertook a research project to find out if there really is a "best" pistol. In consultation with my senior instructors, it was decided that we'd shoot the most efficient --and coincidentally, the most famous -- examples of each design in a test designed to simulate the major tactical functions for which the pistol is used. Subsequent inquiry at several gunshops as to which designs they sold most showed that three were predominant -- SA, DA and "semi" - DA. So, we selected what we considered to be the best of each and to the range we went...

And went...and went, because, due to its thoroughness, the evaluation took many months to complete.

The guns selected? A Smith & Wesson M-39 9mm (DA), Browning P-35 9mm (SA), Colt Government Model .45 ACP (SA), Glock M-22 .40 ("semi" - DA) and, to round things out, a Colt lightweight Commander .45 ACP (SA). How he carried the weapon of his choice, i.e. open or concealed, was left entirely up to the shooter, as was his choice of holster and spare magazine carrier(s).

All five participants in the test were highly skilled combat pistol shooters, three having successfully completed the American Small Arms Academy Handgun and 4-Weapon Combat Master program. The remaining two were not far behind, having been Distinguished Graduates of the ASAA Basic, Intermediate and Advanced Defensive Handgun Courses with the weapons they chose to utilize in the test. Thus, all concerned were well-versed on and highly skilled in the most progressive and effective handgun techniques now known to exist.

The test format was simple -- eight simulations of typical handgun situations. Specifically, they were:

(1) Single Targets X 5, at ranges of from 7 to 25 meters, weapon presented from Holster. 2 hits required.
(2) Single Targets X 5, at ranges of from 50 to 100 meters, weapon presentation from Holster. 2 hits required.

(3) Multiple Targets (5), placed one meter apart, center to center, at ranges of from 7 to 25 meters. Weapon presentation from Ready. 1 hit on each target required.

(4) Multiple Targets (5), placed one meter apart, center to center, at ranges of from 7 to 100 meters. Weapon presentation from Ready. 1 hit on each target required.

(5) Tactical Multiple Targets (5), placed at various ranges and in various configurations at from 7 to 50 meters. Weapon presentation from Holster. 1 hit required on each target.

(6) Partially Obscured Targets (2 left & 2 Right), 40% obscured, at ranges from 7 to 25 meters. Weapon presentation from Ready. 2 hits required on target.

(7) Small Targets X 2. Head Only showing from behind cover, at from 7 to 25 meters. Weapon presentation from Ready. 1 hit required on target.

(8) Hostage Situations (2 left & 2 right). 40% of target's head obscured behind hostage, at from 7 to 15 meters. Weapon presentation from Ready. 1 hit required on target.

Instead of paper, we elected to pursue maximum realism, using 25 lb. 18x30-inch knockdown steel silhouettes. Why? Because they respond much like people. Good hits will take them down, while peripheral or low hits sometimes don't or, if they do, sluggishly so. Scoring was kept simple -- each target was worth 10 points and there were time-block penalties if the target was not hit the requisite number of times as dictated by the drill or a hostage was hit. Moreover, to insure a truly useful perspective was achieved on the data obtained, we decided on three categories of scoring: (1) Elapsed Time; (2) Points-Per-Second, and; (3) Points-Per-Round-Expended.

Since the test was intended to determine if any particular design was indeed "better" or, if so, whether or not the shooter could make the difference, instead of naming each participant, we simply called them Shooters A, B, C, D, & E. Here is a list of what gun and holster/spare magazine carrier they utilized:

Shooter A -- Smith & Wesson M-39 9mm (DA). M-D Labs Taylor-Thunderbolt holster and spare magazine carrier.
Shooter B -- Browning P-35 9mm. Standard M-D Labs holster and spare magazine carrier.

Shooter C -- Glock M-22 .40 S&W. Glock plastic belt-slide holster and magazine carrier.

Shooter D -- Colt LW Commander .45 ACP. Gordon Davis "Taylor-Omega" holster and .45MP dual magazine carrier.

Shooter E -- Colt Government Model .45 ACP. Gordon Davis "Taylor-Omega" holster and .45MP dual magazine carrier.

Each gun was in "duty" configuration, meaning that all weapons had high-visibility fixed sights, a trigger of from 3.5 to 5 lbs. and an appropriate finish. No super-tuned match guns were used. to insure international continuity, we used 124-grain NATO 9mm and WCC-62 .45 ACP ball and Winchester 180-grin FMJ .40 S&W ammunition throughout the entire test. Furthermore, each shooter carried realistic a "basic load" of ammunition/spare magazines appropriate to his weapon. A listing of this follows:

Shooter A -- 9 rds. in gun; 2 spare 8-rd. magazines.
Shooter B -- 14 rds. in gun; 2 spare 13-rd. magazines.

Shooter C -- 15 rds. in gun; 2 spare 14-rd. magazines.

Shooter D -- 8 rds. in gun; 2 spare 8-rd. magazines.

Shooter E -- same as Shooter D.

As the testing ran its course, a number of Failures To Stop (targets that did not fall due to peripheral or low hits, thus requiring follow up shots to complete the problem) were experienced with all calibers, even at close range, thus dispelling the widespread, but erroneous, notion that velocity (9mm) or bullet mass (.45 ACP) alone could somehow compensate for marksmanship. It quickly became clear to all concerned that these occurred most often when the shooter failed to properly balance accuracy and speed, the two hallmark principles of combat shooting and gave us all a graphic re-education in what we at ASAA call, "The Three Secrets" -- Sight Picture, Sight Alignment and Trigger Control, the rock-bottom fundamentals of shooting itself!

As the ranges reached 50, then 75 and a full 100 meters (after all, there are a few "big-name" writers who claim the pistol is quite effective out to that range!), the absolute important of these fundamentals made itself even more obvious. If you don't believe this, take a look at the results of all three evaluative categories of Tests 2 & 4 and see for yourself! Even though all five shooters chose to use the highly stable Rollover Prone position, on those occasions where execution of any one of "The Three Secrets" did not take place, the results deteriorated correspondingly.

If you don't feel that such long range shooting is a fair challenge for service pistols, then simply ignore all of Test 2, the 50, 75 and 100 meters portions of Test 4, and concentrate instead upon Tests 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and the 7 to 25 meter portions of Test 4. See what I mean? No matter what the tactical problem, the fundamentals of marksmanship influenced results more than any other single factor.

Past that point, bullet mass was a factor in that we could readily see that 180-grain .40 S&W FMJs and .45 ACP 230-grain "hardball" hit substantially harder and took the targets down faster than 124-grain 9mm Ball. On the other hand, the faster 9mm load shot noticeably flatter, thus simplifying the marksmanship problem at longer ranges.

So, is there really a "best" pistol? Technically, if we eliminate shooter skill from the equation, yes. When interviewed after the tests, all participants agreed that the big Colt Government .45 (SA) had the best all-around combination of power, "user-friendliness," accuracy and functional reliability, while the Glock M-22 .40 S&W ("semi"- DA) and LW Commander .45 (SA) tied for second. The Browning P-35 9mm (SA) was rated fourth and the Smith & Wesson M-39 9mm (DA) last.

However, regardless of weapon design, if the shooter is willing to put in the required extra work to achieve the necessary skill levels with his weapon, the equation changes. The least popular design, the DA S&W M-39 9mm, performed sufficiently well in the hands of a Combat Master to not only successfully complete the extremely difficult ASAA Handgun Master Course, but also handily defeated the other weapons used in the tests in all three evaluative areas -- Elapsed Time, Points Per Second and Points Per Round Expended. Does this make the DA better? Not in my view, because of the extra effort needed to achieve this level of performance. Putting it in another way, think of how well Shooter A would have done if he'd been using a pistol that was easier to shoot well under stress! How did he and the DA auto outperform the other shooters and guns? Look at the scores again and the answer is clear. Regardless of weapon, they simply didn't concentrate as hard on discharging the fundamentals of marksmanship! Could they present a pistol as quickly as Shooter A? Yes. Could they assume field shooting positions as quickly? Yes, without a doubt. Clearly, the most influential factor was the operator, not the weapon itself. Obviously, the weapon design was sufficiently efficient that Shooter A could overcome its weaknesses and, in this case, even turn in a superior performance! Were the weapon a piece of junk, this would have been impossible.

So, when we consider that the operator is really the weapon, while the gun is merely a tool, we can conclusively state that a skilled operator can indeed get by and even produce superior results with a less-than-optimum weapon design, if he is willing to do whatever he must to achieve the necessary skills with that weapon. If the design is harder to work with, then the shooter must simply put in more time and effort to accomplish the goal.

On the other hand, the tests also showed the truth of the often-stated premises that: (1) some designs are better than others, and; (2) why struggle more than absolutely necessary -- the tactical problem is already difficult enough...why make it worse?

Again, as stated in the opening paragraphs of this text, it all depends upon your perspective on the subject of defensive handgunning. The data discovered in the test is most enlightening and confirms what I've believed all along -- that the shooter is more important than anything. And, a quick review of Points Per Round Expended score confirms something else of interest -- that, when the chips are down, magazine capacity, too, means little, something else I've been saying for the last fifteen years!

But a warning here...we must be careful not to lose our perspective. To me, all other things being equal, when "push comes to shove," the weapon that allows me to "get the job done" the most quickly and efficiently is the "best."

How about you?

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Additional information about ASAA is available. Please email me directly at:
chuck@chucktayloramericansmallarmsacademy.com

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