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THOUGHTS ON COMBAT HANDGUN FINISHES

As a professional weapons & tactics consultant, instructor and writer, I receive daily via the mail and telephone inquiries about a great many topics. Naturally these cover a wide range of topics, from trigger pull weight, to sight combinations, to calibers, accuracy, stopping power and action types, to say the least. Virtually every day, several such inquiries arrive at my office here at The American Small Arms Academy, but by a substantial margin, the most common subject of these inquiries is "What is the best for a combat handgun?"

This isn't an easy question to answer, especially when one doesn't know the inquiree's life style, weapon mission and other relevent details. And, as a result, it is equally easy to upset the inquiree with a less than specific answer. Like preferences in automobiles, works of art and nearly everything else, the subject of handgun finishes can get uncomfortably subjective; so subjective, in fact, that specific statements of preference are often impossible.

Still, the sheer volume of inquiries dealing with the subject demands some kind of an answer, and in what follows, I'll attempt to deal with the issue not as a detailed discussion of every handgun finish currently available, or even as an overview of the subject in general. Instead, I'll simply give my thoughts on the matter and my own resulting preferences, leaving any final decisions up to the reader himself.

Conceptually, perhaps the most important criteria for a handgun finish is that it appropriate for both the mission and natural environment in which the weapon is to be carried and utilized. This can mean that certain colors, for example, might not be acceptable. A handgun intended for military or other serious field use should, because of its light-reflective tendencies, not be "white," (really bluish or brownish silver) with black or some other "earthy" color being more desirable. On the other hand, a police officer or self-defense oriented civilian who carries his weapon concealed need not worry about such things.

A handgun carried in a salt and/or high humidity environment or constantly exposed to body chemicals will need extra protection against corrosion, making some kind of hard finish an absolute must. And, finally, for maximum efficiency, a fair amount of both dry and live-fire practice with the gun is necessary, thus necessitating the best possible resistance to internal part wear.

Somewhere in this labyrinth is the best combination for your needs. But, before you can pursue the answer, you must first clearly and in detail define your needs. What is the mission of the weapon? In what kind of environment will it be carried and used? Will it be in a holster or waistband? Will it be carried openly or concealed?

And so it goes...

One thing we can safely say is that standard bluing, the typical finish of most handguns as they come "from the box" isn't the best choice. In fact, it's a very poor choice because it resists neither wear nor corrosion. Even its dark color is offset by a glossy, light-reflective polish. Why do they come that way? Manufacturing economics. Steel left "in the white" will quite literally rust while you watch, so some form of finish is needed. Bluing is in itself a form of oxidation, so why not? Bluing is eye-pleasing and inexpensive to apply, making it far and away the preference of most gun-makers.

Roughing up the finish via bead or sand blasting will certainly eliminate bluing's light-reflectiveness, but will actually hasten its wearing off "high points." Parkerizing, being a dull gray substance, also eliminates light reflection and, due to its "honeycomb" composition, traps lubricants and preservatives, making it a better choice. However, it, too, will quickly wear from contact surfaces, albeit not as quickly as blue, making it suitable for functions and environments in which the weapon will not be subjected to lots of holster presentations and so on.

Simple stainless steel is often overlooked these days, but it does resist corrosion, at least, considerably better than normal ordnance steel. There are those who dislike it because it is "white," and therefore fairly light-reflective, but a quick bead-blast will minimize the problem and produce an eggshell textured gray appearance, making it a good choice for many missions. Unfortunately, it doesn't resist wear especially well and regular maintenance is still required.

There are lots of hard chrome and nickel finishes around these days, but most demonstrate considerable surface buildup. This negatively affects tolerances and requires semi-extensive gunsmithing to prevent. Too, both are "white," the chrome-based types exhibiting a slight bluish tinge while the nickel-based variety appears vaguely brownish or straw-colored. Thus, if your piece is to be carried openly or is intended for a military mission, both lack appeal.

My own choices are:

1. Stainless steel -- I carry my handguns concealed, thus the "white" appearance of stainless is of no concern to me. I do not, however, care for stainlesssights, as quick visual acquisition and sight alignment is negatively affected by light reflection. I also bead-blast all my stainless guns to minimize glare and shine.

2. SS Chromium M, by Metalife Industries, Inc. (Box 5 Mong Avenue, Reno, PA 16343; 814-436-7747) -- My absolute favorite. An extremely hard coating, which demonstrates virtually no surface buildup to interfere with tolerances. Thus, I can have an "action job" done, then have the entire gun plated and fully expect everything to remain the same for virtually forever. SS Chromium M, too, is white, but nearly impervious to moisture, chemicals and abrasion. The 4-inch Colt Python shown along with this text, for example, has fired over 25,000 rounds and been in and out of a holster more than 100,000 times, yet looks brand new. If its brightness bothers you, then bead-blasting will tone SS Chromium M down to a dull gray.

3. NP-3 by Robar, Inc. (21438 N. 7th Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85027; 602- 581-2648) -- Another one of my favorites. A fine finish combining electroless nickel (which exhibits low buildup) and teflon, with a dull medium-gray appearance. Due to its hard nickel content, it resists wear and corrosion very well and its teflon content provides a certain amount of self-lubrication. Again, due to its "white" appearance, avoid having the sights done, if possible. NP-3 also resists wearing from "high points" quite well. The custom M1911 .45 ACP shown with this text has been presented from a holster many thousands of times, yet looks nearly new. Many preferred gunsmiths also prefer NP-3.

4. Roguard -- Another hard coating from Robar that, while not as wear- resistant as NP-3, provides excellent protection against the elements. A pleasant dull black finish, Roguard give excellent general-purpose field service and has become quite popular in the last five or so years. If you're carrying the gun in a fanny pack, purse or shoulder holster, Roguard is sufficiently resistant to holster wear. However, if you're dry-practicing weapon presentations from a duty-rig every day, wear on "high points" will eventually appear.

5. Bear Coat by Bear Coat, Inc., (600 S. Sunset St., Suite C, Longmont, CO 80501; 800-375-0846) --This teflon finish is unique in that it is available in both black and olive drab, making it a good choice for general-purpose military or hunting missions. Because Bear Coat is teflon-based, it is softer than some of the other finishes and cannot protect as well against wear, but is highly self-lubricative and resists moisture and corrosion well.

I find that one of these five finishes will satisfy almost anyone's needs. Together they offer viable, effective solutions to a wide spectrum of handgun finish problems and shooter preferences. Of the five, SS Chromium M is probably the toughest. I had perhaps ten handguns coated with SS Chromium M, many of which have seen extensive use in very hostile natural environments like Alaska, Africa and Latin America. All of them have been presented from a holster thousands of times, yet exhibit no visible external wear and have kept their original "action jobs" perfectly though fired many thousands of times.

NP-3 is also a particular favorite of mine. Although it isn't as hard as SS Chromium M, it is a great finish and a fine choice, offering excellent resistance to wear and corrosion. Its self-lubricative characteristic is also a nice bonus.

I also feel that high quality stainless guns are also worth having. Although stainless isn't nearly as wear and corrosion resistant as SS Chromium M or NP-3, it is still considerably more so than either bluing or Parkerizing and has the advantage of already being completed "from the box" as opposed to the additional expense and time of having a new finish applied. As well, even though most stainless guns come with a bright, brushed texture, a quick and economical bead-blast will dull them and reduce light-reflection to acceptable levels.

Note that all three of these finishes are "white," a characteristic that may not be satisfactory to everyone. Their appearance isn't an issue to me because I carry my weapons concealed but, if you prefer a darker finish, then Roguard or Bear Coat might be a better choice. Regardless, any handgun used for serious purposes should have some kind of finish that is better than simple bluing or Parkerizing. Otherwise, maintenance requirements are higher and the risk of damage to the weapon from wear and corrosion is much, much higher.

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