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Patrick Sweeney

Big-Block Glock: The Guncrafter Industries .50 GI Conversion

If you want your Glock to have momentum en masse, look no further than the Guncrafter Industries .50 GI conversion.

Quick question: which do you favor—kinetic energy or momentum? If you favor KE, then a 9mm +P+ with 115-grain JHPs is your measure, your option. But if you favor momentum, then something chambered in .45 is what you want. Like a .45 ACP with a 230-grain bullet at 850 fps, or a .45 Colt with a 255 grainer at 750 fps. We’re talking the equivalent of high-compression small engines versus big-block V-8s. (We won’t speak of alcohol-burning race engines at 12,000 rpm.)

But what if you want even more momentum?

How about we halve the 9mm+P+ velocity and more than double the 9mm weight? Or even exceed the .45 weight? A 300-grain JHP at 700 fps should be just the ticket. How do you get that? Here comes Guncrafter Industries to the rescue with the .50 GI.

The Guncrafter .50 GI conversion upper on a Glock G21 lower.

Massive Momentum

The .50 GI is all of that in a self-loading pistol. In this case, a Glock that left the factory in .45 ACP but somewhere along the way to me lost its .45 identity and now sports a .50 GI conversion upper.

As conversions go, this is dead-simple. Unload your .45 Glock, this being a G21. Remove the complete upper assembly and set it aside. Pick up the .50 GI upper and run it onto the frame just as you would if you were reassembling your .45. You’re done. In my case, as I mentioned, there’s no .45 upper so it’s a simple assembly job.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: Yes, it’ll work on your G20 in 10mm. Plus, the G40 and G41.

Guncrafter simply made a barrel and slide that’d accommodate the .50 GI, then added the standard Glock internals and provided a recoil spring to handle the extra slide mass and momentum generated by the .50 GI. Everything works just as you’d expect. And if you feel the need for some other kind of sights, they’re standard Glock dimensions, so swap to your heart’s content.

Now you see the benefits of proper engineering and planning. The Guncrafter slide is set up to take regular Glock sights, so you can swap in whatever ones you want or favor.

The .50 GI case uses the same rim diameter as that of the .45 ACP, so you could simply drop in or fit a .50 GI barrel to your G21 should you wish. Guncrafter makes conversion barrels for those who want to go that route. Your choices are a 4.6-inch barrel, a 5.3-inch barrel threaded 5/8-24 … and a 6-inch barrel if what you want is a bit more velocity. The case is larger in diameter to hold the .500-inch diameter bullet, while the full-up length of the .50 GI cartridge is the same as that of the .45 ACP, so converting Glocks is easy.

The .50 GI loaded round has the same length limitations as the .45 ACP, since it goes into the same magazine. This is a flat-nose 300-grain FMJ and, at 700 fps, knocks down steel and brooms pins with brio.

Just as an aside, converting 1911s isn’t so easy. The single-stack magazine simply can’t hold the .50 GI; there isn’t room side-to-side. So, to get a .50 GI 1911, you’ll have to get a custom 1911 from Guncrafter. I’ve tested those in the past, and you’re in for a treat if you spring for one. But this is about the Glock.

Since the G21 uses a double-stack magazine, fitting the .50 GI into a mag is easy. They just hold fewer rounds, but hey, that’s the not-very-great price you pay for a bigger bullet, right? Oh, and a minor detail, but one you should pay attention to: Mark your mags. If you have a Glock in .45 ACP that you’re putting your .50 GI onto, then you have Glock 45 magazines. Be sure and mark your 50 mags so you can tell them apart, because it isn’t easy otherwise.

The dedicated .50 GI Glock magazines are modified by Guncrafter, because a wider-diameter case needs a different feed lip spacing and geometry than a smaller one does (were that not the case, every magazine would be the same). Now, theoretically, you could take .45 Glock mags yourself and cut them to match the feed lips of a .50 GI mag. You have to be either extremely bored or really, really incorrectly cheap to do that. I mean, you’re going to use a thousand-dollar milling machine (the cheapest to be had) to machine $25 Glock mags, rather than buying ready-to-go modified-to-.50 GI magazines for $60? Even if you don’t screw up any mags learning how to do the cut (and you will, I have no doubt), you wouldn’t break even until you had machined your 29th magazine. And in talking with the owner of Guncrafter, Alex Zimmerman, I found out it’s more than just passing an end mill cutter over the feed lips. Nope, don’t be fooled, buying is a much better bargain.

While the Glock .50 GI conversion uses a Glock frame, the magazines are modified to properly feed .50 GI cartridges. The modified magazines hold nine rounds of .50 GI, compared to the 13 of the .45 ACP mags.

Feeding Momentum

Loading ammo, on the other hand, is easy. The .50 GI runs at much the same pressure as the .45 ACP, which means your brass will last … well, a very long time. The resizing force needed is minimal. The cases and bullets are large and easy to handle, and you’ll only lose cases by not finding them at the range or being ham-handed in loading and crushing one.

The process is the same as any other handgun cartridge, but those of you with progressive presses will find one small roadblock: the rebated rim. The rim is smaller in diameter than the case. This makes it possible to fit it to a .45 slide. If you’re in the habit of using an automatic case feeder to get empties into your press, you aren’t going to be able to do that here.

This is a problem with any rebated-rim cartridge, not just the .50 GI, and it’s a simple problem and situation: The rebated rim falls into the case mouth of the case underneath it in the feed tube and, as a result, can’t be shuttled out by the mechanism. So, you’ll have to feed the empties in by hand. It’s not a big deal, and you probably won’t be loading 5-gallon buckets of .50 GI.

The options for bullets aren’t as great as some cartridges, but you do have choices. And once you find what you (and your pistol) like, how many choices do you need?

Bullet weights that can be used range from 255 grains on the light end to 350 grains on the heavy end. Velocities are in the moderate range but, again, we’re after momentum here. A 300-grain bullet at a “mere” 700 fps generates a 210 power factor, and that’s more than a lot of .45 ACP+P loads generate.

The low operating pressure gives you more “head” room, should you want to pump up the ballistics some. It’s possible, with the proper powders and a willingness to endure recoil, to push bullets faster than you might think. The 275-grainers can be run up just over 900 fps, the 300s to the mid-800s, 325-grain bullets up to 800 fps and 350-grain bullets to 750 fps. Those range from a power factor of 255 up to 262. If you mean to thump, then those are real thumpers. As far as momentum goes, the brisk .50 GI loads are equal to a mild .44 Magnum, and that’s out of an auto-loading pistol that doesn’t have a sharp bark.


The late sci-fi author Robert Heinlein made famous the acronym TANSTAAFL: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” So, what’s the cost of the .50 GI? Aside from the conversion barrel or conversion upper?

First, there’s the brass. It’s available only from Guncrafter. As a proprietary case, Guncrafter controls who makes it for them—and makes sure only them. It can’t be made from some other case, and even if it could be, the cost of doing so would be greater than buying GI brass. At the moment, .50 GI brass from Guncrafter is $60 per hundred new empties. That’s twice what other high-performance brass would run you. Unless you’re in the habit of using your .50 GI pistol in “lost brass” matches (one where you aren’t allowed to pick up your fired cases), the initial cost really isn’t much since they’ll last through dozens of loadings.

This loading die set came from Hornady, but there are others. With low-pressure cases and tungsten-carbide sizing dies, loading is easy work.

Your bullet options will be limited, but not as much as the brass purchase. Guncrafter offers bullets as well as cases. A quick search shows a handful of other bullet providers. What you need are cast, coated, plated or jacketed bullets of .500-inch diameter, and ones short enough to fit in the case and under the cartridge-overall-length of the .45 ACP and .50 GI. This precludes some of the offerings for the various other .50 handgun cartridges.

You’re simply not going to be able to use the heavyweights you might load into a .500 S&W magnum into a .50 GI case. The weight range of usable bullets in the .50 GI is going to be 255 grains up to 350 grains. As with the brass, once you have a supply of bullets and brass, settled on a particular bullet and the powder charge to run your .50 GI, it’s like any other firearm. You get what you need, when you need it and load up as you want to shoot.

The caliber of this beast is quite clearly more than a mere .45 ACP.

Once you have the components and settled on a load, it isn’t like you’re going through the fuss of loading for benchrest. Nor do you have the R&D arcana of trying to craft .38-40 cowboy loads that actually work. Loading the .50 GI is simple.

Since the case has a .45 ACP rim, the shell-holder or press shell plate for a .45 will work. And dies? Mine are from Hornady when they made a run back a while ago. There are others who make dies, like Lee (available from Guncrafter), and since the case is straight-walled, you can opt for a tungsten carbide sizer, keeping things simple and speedy.

One place the .50 GI excels is in pin shooting. A 300-grain or heavier bullet, at 210 PF or more, brooms pins off with efficiency and speed. Be nice to the brass rats and, when they pick up brass, you’ll get your .50 GI empties back. If you want a thumper, but not one that’s also suitable as a backup to your Jurassic Park long-gun (and with recoil to match), then you need a .50 GI.

Pistolsmith Ned Christiansen with his .50 GI (correct, not a Glock) and the epic muzzle brake he built for it. Note that while there’s an empty in the air, the slide is closed and he’s back on target.

My friend and fabulous 1911 pistolsmith Ned Christiansen runs a set of .50 GI pistols on pins. One of them has a truly epic muzzle brake on it—not because he has to have it to deal with the recoil of the .50 GI (it isn’t much more than others). When you’re trying to win and stay the best, you don’t leave anything to chance.


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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Carry Guns: Does Size Matter?

The pros and cons of ultra-subcompact, subcompact, compact and full-sized handguns for concealed carry.

I grew up immersed in the car culture. Brands, models and trim packages were all background information to me, as well as the relative sizes of the models. When I got old enough to drive, that information was important, because it gave me a clue as to what I could fit into. At 6 feet 4 inches, some were simply impossible. (A friend once offered to give me a lift. I took one look at the Karmann Ghia he drove and said, “Got something in a 42 long?” He didn’t get the joke until I tried to get in.)

Well, handguns come the same way, if in a different direction. There might be something too big to carry concealed. Let’s take a stroll through the racks and see what sizes we can cover, and give you a quick idea of their pros and cons.

Big revolvers used to be common. Now, they are really big, and don’t hold as many rounds as big pistols. But they can still do the job.

Ultra-Subcompact Handguns

Here reside the ultra-small guns. In the old days, that meant .22s and .25s, but today no one would risk the man-card deductions, and we see only .32s (rarely) and .380s (more common).

The examples here are the Beretta Pico and the KelTec P32 or P380. The Pico is a .380 and holds 6+1 rounds, and the KelTec is (obviously) a .32, and holds 7+1. Both are flat, light, easy to pack and meant for deep concealment. While some might use it as a main gun (often only because anything bigger would be noticed, and they work and live someplace where they absolutely cannot be found out), both of these are usually backup guns.

A KelTec P-32. Photo: Wikipedia.

I view the ultra-subcompact pistols as tertiary blasters, not the second one. Well, I did when I was packing daily at the gun shops. Now I’d be like most of you: It’s the backup when something bigger just won’t fit the daily routine.

The pros are obvious: ease of carry and ease of keeping concealed. The cons? They don’t hold much ammo, aren’t hard-hitters … and they’re tough to shoot, with small grips, tiny sights and short sight radii.

Subcompact Handguns

The difference between the ultra-subcompact and the subcompact is caliber. Subcompacts are all 9mm or .38 Special, not .380 or .32. A subcompact would be something like a Taurus GX4, and not only do you get something more in caliber, but you also get more in capacity. Subcompacts often now have 10- to 11-round magazines, where only a few years ago they would have single-stack 7-round magazines. An example there would be the Walther CCP, with eight shots but a single-stack magazine.

The Walther CCP in .380 is a single-stack carry gun that can be an ultra-subcompact or a subcompact, depending on your needs and clothing ensemble. It’s a single stack, however, so you’ll be giving up a few rounds to the wide-body subcompacts.

The modern one here, and one I have kept around, is the Springfield Armory Hellcat. They call it a micro-compact, but it’s the size I have always thought of as a subcompact pistol at 6 inches in overall length. The magazine holds 11 rounds, and you can, if your clothing choices permit, use a 13-round magazine in place of the 11-shot version.

The pros here are the bigger caliber, but subcompacts can be tough to shoot. The fatter grips of the double-stack mags make it easier, but if you’re using defensive 9mm ammo out of a pistol that tips the scales at 17 ounces, it’ll be work.

Compact Handguns

The compact category is perhaps the most commonly seen (or not seen, this is for concealed carry, after all) pistol because it offers the goldilocks option: enough size to be shootable, but not so big that it’s a hassle. It has enough rounds to be useful, but again, not so big that it makes life difficult. And it’s big enough—but not too big.

OK, let’s just get this right out front: The example of compact carry pistols is, and has been for a long time, the Glock G19. There, I said it. That they were the first does not mean they are the best, as you have to put up with the Glock trigger, but a lot of people seem to not have a problem with that. If you want a better trigger, then the Sig P365 is the same size with a better trigger. If you’re looking to get more value for money and put the savings into ammo, then the Taurus G3 is your choice here. For accuracy, nice trigger, price and availability, the Springfield Armory XDm in its compact size should be one of your top choices.

The sleeper here is the S&W M&P Compact. It’s the same more-or-less 7 inches overall, with a 15-round capacity like the others, a nice trigger and interchangeable backstraps that you can build to suit your hands.

A S&W M&P M2.0 Compact.

Since this is a popular size, the offerings make for a crowded field. And this is a historically popular category, so there have been choices since, well, pretty much forever.

One is the Colt Lightweight Commander, an alloy-framed 1911 with the slide and barrel shortened by three-quarters of an inch. The trick here, if trick there be, is that the 1911, as is the next pistol, a single-action design, and thus must be carried “cocked and locked.” That is, with the hammer back and the safety on. Holding 7+1 in .45 ACP, and 9+1 in 9mm, it was the mainstay of carry for pistoleros in the pre-Glock days. The other is the Browning Hi-Power, a 9mm holding 13+1 rounds, which has been brought into the 21st century by Springfield Armory, among others.

The pros of the compact pistols are many. They are a lot easier to shoot than the smaller guns, and many now can be had with optical sights … or be ready for one. They hold a more than useful amount of ammunition, and their slightly longer barrels (generally 3.5 inches to the sub-compacts 3-inch bore) gains you a bit more velocity. The cons are that they start to become a bit more difficult to conceal and keep concealed.

Full-Size Handguns

Now we’re up to the G17, the XDm in its full size, the Taurus G3, the Beretta (pick one, from the original 92 to the present day) and the Sig P320. All of these offer big magazines, with 16, 17 and 18 rounds or more. If you thought you were spoiled for choice in the compact category, you have an overwhelming set of options here. Because everyone who made a 9mm pistol (or 40, back in the days when that was cool) made one that was full-sized.

If you want big, then Glock can do that. This is a G21SF, and despite the “small frame” designation, it’s a big gun.

Also called “duty” sized, these have barrels more than 4.5 inches long, full-sized grips, are easy to shoot well and soft in recoil. They’re also a real bear to carry concealed. Well, the concealing part isn’t so hard; you just have to use the correct holster. What makes them hard is their weight and size, which can wear on you in the course of a day. If your comfort starts to flag, you’ll move differently, start adjusting the fit and location without realizing it … and a sharp observer will notice.

You can go even bigger, and pack a Glock, a G20 or G21, or an XDm in 10mm or .45 ACP, if you want both big bores and lots of bullets.

In the classic, this is where the 1911 enters the picture. Even if you find a model with an aluminum frame, the government-sized 1911 is going to be big and bulky. We carried them in the old days, but it was because there weren’t many other choices.

I was at the range recently, testing some firearms and doing video work, when one of the members of that club came by. In the course of talking, and within the first few minutes, he adjusted what he was wearing several times. The second time he did so I realized he was test-wearing a hard armor rig under his winter coat. That’s the sort of thing that attracts the attention of those who know, and those whom you don’t wish to know.

The classic carry gun in the compact size is a Browning Hi-Power. This—in a good holster, with a spare mag and a tactical folder—is easy to carry all day long.

So, if you’re going to pack a full-sized pistol, the first thing is to have a proper holster, and the second thing is to have a proper holster that’s comfortable to wear.

The pros are obvious: They hold lotsa bullets, they’re easy to shoot … and easy to shoot well. The cons are just as obvious, as they’re the biggest options to be had in an EDC pistol.

Revolvers for CCW

Wheelguns don’t have ultra-subcompacts, because the smallest to be had, the S&W J frame and the Taurus 605 or 856, are subcompact handguns. The J and the 605 hold five rounds, while the 856 holds six. The example here is the S&W 442, a hammerless .38 holding five shots.

Small- and medium-sized revolvers are a lot easier to carry than big revolvers. But for the size you don’t get as many rounds as a similar-package 9mm pistol holds.

If you move up to the compact, you’re in the region populated by S&W K-frames, the .357 M-19 and the Taurus 65 and 66. These hold six rounds and are the smallest you’d want to shoot in .357 Magnum. Oh, you can get smaller ones in .357, but you won’t enjoy shooting them. If you want more, you can opt for the Taurus 608, holding eight rounds of .38/.357.

And finally, the full-sized, or duty sized: that’s the S&W N-frame, in .357, .44 and .45. While I know of people who in the old days carried those, and even carried those in the 6-inch barrel versions, can we get real? You have to be dedicated to packing an EDC revolver, to manage an N-frame. Yes, it can be done. Will it be easy? Hardly.

Oh, and if you want to go light, be careful. The most obnoxious firearm I ever shot was an airweight .44 Magnum—easy to carry, but murder to shoot.

The worst range experience was shooting an airweight .44 Magnum. Yes, it carries easily and shoot small groups, but boy was it work to shoot.

You Gotta Know You

You must always keep in mind that, when it comes to EDC, it’s not simply a matter of “what size can I carry?” That depends on where you live, how hot or cold it is, what socioeconomic level you are dressing to and how “permissive” the environment might be. An ER doctor, working in scrubs, in an inner-city hospital where getting caught means finding a new job, might decide that, despite all the shortcomings, an ultra-subcompact is the only choice.

Someone working a mostly rural area, who might have to deal with not just people but wildlife, livestock and sturdy intermediate barriers could pack a 4-inch .44, and since most people wouldn’t care, not worry as much about keeping it absolutely concealed.

The Browning Hi-Power is all steel, and that seems a bit quaint in today’s world of polymer, but with magazine options from 10 to 20 rounds, you won’t lack for ammo capacity.

The rest of us are somewhere in-between and have to make choices. What worked on a cool October day might not pass on a steamy, humid August evening.

You might not—and you probably won’t—find a “one choice fits all” handgun, holster and wardrobe. Welcome to the real world.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2023 CCW special issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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Armscor STK100 Review: Rock Island Rocks

There are a lot of Glock-like 9mm pistols out there, but among them, the all-metal Armscor STK100 stands out as something different.

The marketplace is full of 9mm pistols with capacious magazines. So, why Armscor? Why the STK100? Simple: no polymer. The STK100 not only looks like a Glock (let’s just get the “G word” right out there, shall we?), it uses Glock magazines and even has parts interchangeability with Glock pistols.

And why not?

On the subject of magazines alone, there are probably more Glock magazines extant, and made by a whole host of companies, than there are 1911 magazines. And that’s despite the 70-plus years and two World Wars head start the 1911 had.

The STK100 looks at first glance like a G17, but there are major differences. And good ones, at that.

Similar, But Different

So, the STK100 doesn’t use polymer. What does it use, then? Aluminum. And steel. The frame is a pair of aluminum shells. The shells are crafted by milling out 7075 alloy aluminum blocks, and then the two halves are bolted together with six strong fasteners. You can see the screws/bolts holding them. There are two in the grip frame, back where the backstrap would be. There are two across the accessory rail, on the dust cover. And the other two are on the front and rear of the trigger guard.

The interior is steel, a one-piece steel chassis, and you can see that by the serial number poking through the aluminum shell on the right side. This means that the STK100 runs on actual rails, not the four stamped tabs that a Glock uses as bearing surfaces.

The STK100 has all the same controls as on a Glock, so if you know how to run one of those, you’re all set here.

But Armscor didn’t simply clone the G17 in aluminum, because what’s the point? First, the grip is machined to be at the 1911 grip angle, not the Glock angle. Those who have spent time with 1911s will find that the Glock doesn’t point the same. Not that we should be indulging in point-shooting, but when you’re trying to groove in your index on the draw, different angles create problems in transitioning from one pistol to another.

Then, they aggressively machine in nonslip textures. The rear of the grip has diagonal and deep grooves to engage the fleshy part of your hand. The sides have checkerboard panels to give your fingertips purchase and the rest of your hand a grabby surface. The frontstrap has horizontal grooves, and the combination makes for an effective setup.

The backstrap has diagonal grooves to grip into the fleshy part of your hand and resist recoil movement. They work.

Additionally, when machining the frame halves, Armscor also went and added an extended tang. The stubby little nub of polymer on Glocks doesn’t always do a lot to prevent muzzle lift. There’s just no leverage there for your hand to resist the roll. Well, with the lengthened tang, the STK100 does a much better job. And the greater density of aluminum, compared to polymer, also helps here.

The G17 (which the STK100 is the clone of) is listed as weighing 22 ounces. The STK100 tips the scales (OK, it flexes the torsion bar in my electronic scale) at 28 ounces. Now, 6 ounces may not seem like much, but it’s not in the reciprocating mass of the system, and therefore acts as dead weight to resist inertia. It helps.

Also helping is the slide. The block Glock slide has been improved by Armscor. First, they rounded the edges and corners, so it isn’t so blocky, and that shaves off some weight. Then, they machined clearance slots in the slide, forward of the chamber area, to take more weight out. The top and sides get some cosmetic sculpting, and the front gets some cocking serrations on the widest part. The reduced weight means there’s less reciprocating mass and less to slam to a halt at the rear end of the cycle. With less bottoming-out weight, there’s less impulse to drive the muzzle rise component of recoil. This was noticeable in test-firing.

The sights also get upgrades. The front is the now-standard (for Glocks, anyway) blade set in an oval socket and fastened by a hex-headed screw from underneath. Anyone who has spent any time with Glocks knows that you check this first before shooting your new pistol. The tiny threads (I swear there are something like 60-70 tpi in there) can’t muster a lot of torque to tighten, so Loctite is definitely your friend here. No slam on Armscor, that’s just the design we all have to use.

The rear sight is also an optics mounting plate cover. Remove the screws, pry the plate off and you can put a Shield on the slide.

The rear sight is part of a removable plate that permits the installation of a red-dot optic. The plate, when removed, takes the rear sight with it, which to me is a small oversight, as there’s room to have the rear sight stay and still mount a red-dot. The footprint is set up for the Shield sights, and all the other red-dots that use the same screw pattern and base size and shape, which is a lot of them. I would’ve tested the STK100 with a red dot, but every single one of my red-dots of that pattern were already on something else being tested. But I did remove the plate and found the fit to be quite tight, which bodes well for having a red-dot fit and stay in place.

The sample STK100 came with a pair of KCI magazines, which are Glock clones made in Korea. I checked the fit with a fistful of Glock mags (they all fit) and Magpul and ETS mags as well. All fit, and all that were designed to drop free did so when required. I have some crusty old original Glock mags, back before American shooters made it clear they didn’t want “won’t drop” magazines. Those fit and functioned, but they wouldn’t drop free. They never were intended to, so I’m neither surprised nor disappointed.

How’s it Shoot?

Test-firing was … interesting. First up, the weight and its distribution, combined with the grip tang, does a great job of keeping muzzle rise under control. Even with the +P ammo, it wasn’t any big deal to just hammer the various steel plates, falling or otherwise.

Armscor sculpted the slide to remove weight, make it less bulky and look good. Points on all of those to Armscor. The sample gun came with two KCI made in Korea magazines, holding 17 rounds each. Standard Glock mags work because that was the plan from the start.

The STK100 right out of the box hit to the sights, and the white dot front with plain black rear worked just fine. The grip angle fit me well, but then I’ve done a lot of shooting of 1911s, so we’d expect that. In recoil, the front sight dropped right back down into the notch of the rear, so the nonslip grip texture is doing a good job of combating recoil squirm.

The one drawback, and this is something that may or may not be a problem for you, was the cold. My range days with the STK100 coincided with a cold snap (like 7 degrees overnight) and grabbing an all-aluminum grip when the temps moved up to 20 was … interesting. After a bit of handling and shooting, it warned up, but the first magazine out of the STK100 was informative.

My usual process is to do the chronograph work first, to get velocities and check basic function. Had I done the accuracy work first, the first few groups would’ve been pretty shabby. But by the time I was ready to shoot groups, the STK100 had warmed some, the sun was out and I knew what to expect. Accuracy? Really good.

Accuracy results from four, five-shot groups fired at 25 yards with sandbags as a rest. Velocity derived with a Labradar chronograph, programmed to read velocity 15 feet from the muzzle. Velocity is an average of 10 shots, fired at 20 degrees F.

So, what’s the STK100 for? If you’re looking for a lightweight carry gun, it’s not the one. The extra weight puts it in second place to other pistols. If you want a heavier-than-polymer pistol for competition, again, not the one. You can easily get an all-steel competition pistol for USPSA or IDPA that runs 40 ounces or more.

The frame is machined into a nonslip pattern, and how the pattern runs depends on where on the frame it is.

However, if you use competition as a means of staying in practice with your everyday carry gun, and you’re not necessarily a slave to “it has to be the lightest,” then the STK100 will fill the bill. A great trigger (a function of the stiffer frame assembly) and soft in recoil (weight and the tang) makes it fun to shoot in a match. And the extra ounces, while combating recoil, aren’t going to be noticed in a proper holster. And might I add, once again, if you’re not using a proper holster, you’re doing it wrong.

Disassembly? If you know how to do it to a Glock, you know how to do it to an STK100. If not, the process is easy to find.

Armscor has hit a home run with this one.


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2022 CCW special issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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Pass The Turkey: Canik 9mm Handgun Line Review

A review of the Turkish company Canik’s line of inexpensive and exceptional 9mm pistols.

Canik is a line of 9mm pistols being imported by Century Arms. Century, a U.S.-based company situated originally in Vermont, moved the operation down to Florida almost a couple of decades ago.

It had to be those Northern winters.

Canik pistols are manufactured in Turkey in a plant filled with modern CNC machining centers. You might think that, because a country hasn’t been seen as a long-time known manufacturing center, it can only be making low-rent products. Let me make the younger readers aware, especially those driving a Japanese car: When I was growing up, “made in Japan” was synonymous with plastic crap. Now look at how far they’ve come.

Well, when the Turks decided to get with the 21st century and make things for themselves (the Canik line is used by the Turkish military and police), they decided to do it right … so new buildings filled with new machines, making firearms that are the amalgamation of the best designs extant.

The basic Caniks, from old to new. Top is the Canik 55, middle is the TP9SA and bottom is the TP9 Elite SC. And there’s still the METE to consider.

Future Collectibles

Covering the whole line of Canik pistols—the TP9 being the current model name—would take more space than we have here. As the line evolved, and as Century Arms and Canik evolved the line to meet customer demands, they inadvertently created a wide variety of what will be, at some future time, collectibles.

The Canik line of pistols blends various features, depending on which particular model you select. Let’s start with the magazines—because all self-loading pistols are dependent on magazines.

The Canik line works with all Canik magazines, assuming you have the proper length. If you’re trying to use a flush-fit magazine from a Canik TP9 Elite subcompact in the full-sized guns, you’ll fail. But the longer magazine will work in the shorter pistol, and all models with similar length of frames will use the other magazines.

Century and Canik offer magazines, so you don’t have to worry there. Plus, the Canik line originated with magazines based on the Walther PPQ series, so if you have a source of those, go for it. (I suspect that Walther magazines will cost you more than Canik, but sometimes you score a deal.)

If you want extra capacity, it isn’t difficult to find magazines for your Canik with up to 20 rounds, and you can always go to Taylor Freelance and get bolt-on magazine extensions that’ll give you more, more, more. They make Plus-4 and Plus-9 extensions in aluminum and brass. The Plus-4 is just a new baseplate; the Plus-9 includes a replacement magazine spring, because you’ll need it.

The TP9 Elite SC is a compact carry pistol, and the modern iteration (Canik has been making pistols, and Century importing them, for a few years now) has a top plate for mounting a red-dot optic. This is a sub-compact size and holds 12 rounds in the magazine, unless you opt for an extended magazine. That makes the frame a compact size and bumps capacity up to 15 rounds.

The TP9 Elite SC comes with a 12- and 15-round magazine, holster, backstrap and lockable case, and is ready to accept a red-dot optic. All this in a sub-compact 9mm, for just over $400? That’s crazy talk.

The firing system is the one many shooters expect, a striker-fired system with a trigger-blade safety and internal safeties to prevent discharge when dropped or otherwise roughly handled. If nothing hits the trigger, there’s no bang. And when you do go to install a red-dot optic, Canik has got you covered. A small box resides in the carry case, with the tools and screws you’ll need to bolt on the optic of your choice. Well done, guys.

My second Canik is the TP9SA. The first one was an all-black 9mm when they were referring to the pistols as the “Canik 55” line, the start of the pistols that were taken right from the Walther 99 series. The TP9 is the name now, and this one has several details changed from the earliest.

Here, the striker system is still wedded to a striker-drop pressure plate in the slide. If you don’t want to leave the unloaded TP9SA with the striker cocked, press down on the decocking plate, mounted in the slide. This safely drops the striker without discharge. (Still, keep it pointed in a safe direction, if for no other reason than to maintain good habits.) This requires the slide to be worked to re-cock the striker, but you’d have to do that anyway to chamber a round.

Why do it this way? You get a better trigger for one thing. The striker system was now turned into an almost single-action or 1911-like trigger pull. You still got the trigger blade safety and the internal drop safeties, but you get a crisper trigger with a shorter reset than is on my Canik 55. (By the way, I still like the 55.)

Now, the TP9SA I have is the Desert Tan model. Here, Canik used a dye in the polymer mix to create the tan color in the frame and matched it with a Cerakote finish on the slide. The backstrap is left black, as are the controls. That’s the sort of thing that Canik and Century are very responsive to. The TP9 Elite SC has a gray/silver Cerakote slide over black. Other models offered different color options in the past, and they do now as well. How about a two-tone TP9? Or, the Signature Series TP9SFx Whiteout done in a white Cerakote with black accents?

So Many Extras

And, the TP9SA came with a pair of magazines, magazine loader, holster and holster mounts so you can choose from inside-the-waistband or outside-the-waistband carry. As a matter of fact, they all do. If you get a Canik, you get a pistol that’s ready to go right out of the box, including a lock and extra backstrap.

Every Canik comes complete—holster, magazines backstrap, carrying case you can lock, and there’s even spare magazine baseplates in there, in case you want to change those.

This leads me back to Taylor Freelance. The Canik is popular in competition (cost, great triggers, accuracy and reliability are all big selling points for competition shooters), and in addition to the magazine extensions for the Canik, Taylor can provide you with magwell funnels, weighted brass backstraps, mag-release buttons and slide-rackers.

Slide-rackers? Yes, if you’re using a Canik with a red-dot, you might want an extension on the slide to rack the slide without using the red-dot itself. It also props the pistol up off a table, for those stages where you have to start with the pistol on a table and not in a holster.

All the Canik pistols have Canik-made barrels that have, in all instances, proven accurate. This is one of those details on which competition shooters are unforgiving, and everyone, even those who only have a pistol for everyday carry, have benefited from. An accurate pistol is a must in competition; an accurate pistol barrel is also a more-reliable pistol as a result. A tighter, centered chamber means the extractor is more consistently positioned to grab the rim. And a bore with more consistent dimensions means a more-consistent combustion and bullet-bore transit time, which keeps the cycling of the pistol in a smaller window of variance. They all also have a loaded chamber indicator, a lever on the top of the slide.

Speaking of competition, that leads me to the METE. This is a full-sized Canik, but it’s set up for competition as well as duty. The two magazines it comes with have an 18- and a 20-round capacity, backstraps, optics plate on the slide and a competition-improved trigger. Unlike the slightly curved trigger of earlier Canik pistols, the METE has a flat-faced trigger. There’s still a safety in the trigger blade, but the geometry is designed so that when you bring the trigger back to fire the METE, the point of release has the pivoting trigger oriented straight down. Your trigger press is thus straight back to less-disturb your aim.

Now, the METE line is set up for competition, so you might think you have less need of aftermarket upgrades. You could be right, but the serious competition shooter won’t leave anything to chance. So, even with a METE, you might want to investigate upgrades … but one that you probably won’t be looking for is a trigger upgrade.

Cloned from Walther pistols, the Canik line already has an excellent trigger system, regardless of which model it’s in. However, and as I mentioned, serious competition shooters leave nothing to chance. As a result, you can find aftermarket trigger upgrades, whether to install yourself or pistol smith upgrades to make the trigger even nicer. However, that won’t be necessary on the METE.

So Much Value

And as if all of this wasn’t enough, the cost is entirely bearable. In fact, it’s a deal most of the time. For instance, the current version of my TP9SA, the TP9SF, in Desert tan, has an MSRP of a penny less than $400. That’s a ready-to-go pistol, with two magazines, holster and accessories, in a lockable case, for less than four bills.

If you’re looking to get a sub-compact carry gun and must have a slide ready for a red-dot sight, then the TP9 Elite SC lists for a mere $40 more than the TP9SF … and it has all the gear as well. For daily carry, target shooting, plinking or competition, it’s hard to beat the Canik combo. With Canik from Century Arms, you get accuracy, reliability, accessory availability—everything in one box—and at a reasonable price. Compare that to the big names everyone at the gun club knows and tell me there aren’t advantages to not owning the same gun everyone else at the gun club owns. 

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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Custom Is As Custom Does: Infinity Single Stack Review

This custom single stack Infinity 1911 in .40 S&W helps prove that one-of-a-kind never goes out of style.

This gun is perhaps one of a kind. It certainly has a unique build history.

We like to think of custom as bespoke, purpose-made dream guns, if you will. However, this one just sort of happened.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a serious and persistent competition shooter. Each year, I’d shoot at least two club matches a month, the Second Chance Pin Shoot, a couple (or more) USPSA Nationals and The Steel Challenge. I was shooting a lot, and I was winning a lot. One of the prizes (I think from a USPSA Nationals) was a certificate good for a hi-cap frame from SVI/Infinity.

Infinity single stack
The custom single stack Infinity in .40 S&W.

Well, I already had a slew of hi-cap frames. So, I put on my best smiley-face, good-guy, serious competitor look and asked the Infinity guys if they could, pretty please, do it as a single stack. In .40 caliber. Because at the time the Single Stack Nationals was getting spun up into being as a USPSA Nationals, and all the big dogs were winning it with .40s. I later found out that the big dogs were winning with .40s not because it had any inherent advantage, but because they had all been loading and shooting .38 Super and .40 ammo for so long that they either no longer had a .45, or they couldn’t find the dies and components in their loading rooms.

While talking the project over with the builder, I mentioned that I already had a basket full of SVI/Infinity parts, and I was going to build it up with those, once the frame arrived.

“What do you have?” he asked. Oh, a slide, barrel, a selection of grip safeties, some odds and ends, enough to assemble a 1911. “Forget that; box up what you have that is SVI, ship it and we’ll put in the rest.”

Well, an offer like that doesn’t come along every day, so of course I boxed up and shipped.

The fit of the slide to frame, and the barrel to slide, are exemplars of smooth and tight. And you’ll be wasting your time trying to find any looseness or wobble in the fit. Yes, it’s gold in color. That’s the TiN coating.

Have It Your Way

A few weeks later, I get an email. It seems that the build process involves more than just assembling parts; there’s a laundry list of choices I have to check off. So, I go down the list. A stainless slide, done in two-tone, with a recessed panel ahead of the rear cocking serrations. No front serrations, thank you very much, and the top done in a tri-top configuration, not a standard radius. A red fiber-optic front sight and Infinity adjustable rear.

The bushing is standard Browning, but the guide rod is as big a stainless rod as Infinity can fit in there.

The barrel would be the Infinity Classic .40 S&W AET I had sent, which was then (and probably still is) the primo barrel to have. The frame was to be a carbon steel single stack, blued, with extended dust cover and snub-nose ball-end cut on the slide to match. Underneath the barrel, there’s a full-diameter stainless steel guide rod, full-length, and it adds a nice bit of extra weight to dampen felt recoil. The barrel isn’t a bull barrel, but a bushing barrel, in part because I was expecting to run this both in IDPA as well as USPSA, and bull barrels weren’t entirely kosher at the time. (At least, that’s what I recall. Rules change and things could be different today.)

The Wilson magazines and the integrally ramped barrel ensure ultra-reliable feeding. And the Infinity AET barrel works fine with lead bullets, so practice can be inexpensive.

The barrel is integrally ramped to provide maximum case support for the .40 caliber. What we had found out back then was that the .40 could be pretty grumpy at the edges of the performance envelope. Loading the heaviest bullets, with the fastest-burning powders, to make Major (but not any more than the barest of margins) could mean blown cases.

Also, the chamber is reamed to a long-lead dimension. This is where the 180-grain (we all gave up on 200-grain bullets after blowing enough cases, it wasn’t worth the minuscule advantage) bullet is seated long, halfway between the length of the stock .40 cartridge and the 10mm length. This promotes reliable and smooth feeding and still allows the use of then dirt-cheap .40 brass. Back then, a lot of police departments had switched to .40, and you could buy once-fired brass almost by its weight as scrap metal. The rifling is further forward that it would be on a stock .40, but the longer bullet seating places the bullet up to the rifling, and so there’s no loss of accuracy.

Here you can see the long straight trigger, the big-head mag button and the VZ Grips G10 double diamond, with custom grip screws.

The front strap checkering is 30 lpi, with the top of the front strap lifted to provide a higher grip. On the back end, the Ed Brown grip safety and thumb safety are fitted perfectly. The gap (a fine line, really) of the grip safety is even all the way around its fit to the frame. The bottom curve of the thumb safety matches the curve of the frame at that point. The thumb safety positively clicks up and down, and stays down during recoil, even if my thumb isn’t riding on it.

The SVI/Infinity hammer is one option, and the recessed panel in front of the cocking serrations is another. The fit of both the thumb safety and the grip safety is superb.

To give you another idea of the attention to detail that the Infinity builders watch for, the shaft of the thumb safety, where it comes through on the right side of the frame, is fitted to be flush with the frame. The mainspring housing is flat and checkered, at 20 lpi. I didn’t opt for a magazine well funnel, as I had my own ideas as to what constituted an appropriate mag funnel and planned to take care of that myself when the time came.

Infinity single stack magwell
I didn’t have Infinity install a mag funnel, because I had my own ideas on that subject. I never got around to it, because writing crowded out competition, and so it remains as a plain magwell opening. Someday …

Topnotch Trigger

The hammer and trigger system is exemplary. First of all, the fire control parts are, for the most part, wire EDM manufactured. This is where they take a plate of pre-hardened steel and use a wire to cut the shape of the hammer (and other parts) out of the plate, to the utmost tolerances.

How good is this? If you’re old-school and you go to “tune up” the hooks of the hammer, or the nose of the sear, with a stone, you are making it worse. You’re not improving it. The Infinity trigger comes as a two-piece assembly. There’s the bow and its seat; they deliver your trigger-press pressure back to the sear. And then there’s the bow, or face, of the trigger. The two-part assembly allows Infinity to make triggers any size and shape you desire, and in colors as well. I opted for a flat-cased trigger at the long length, long enough that someone with smaller hands probably can’t reach the trigger face.

Infinity single stack trigger
The lifted front strap isn’t just a tighter curve, but it extends out into the trigger guard. This single stack Infinity is a competition gun built by competition shooters.

The grips are double-diamond VZ Grips in black G10 and secured in place by Torx-head grip screws that have been serrated around their borders.

Oh, and as one last bit of custom work: I requested a special serial number. You can do all, or most of all this, by simply jumping into the Infinity gunbuilder section on their webpage. Pick what you want; they even have photos of what is what, and when you submit it as a build, they’ll send you a price and delivery time quote. What I ended up with was essentially a tailored jacket, one that wouldn’t fit anyone else but me.

Custom? You bet. And it’s easy to tell who this one belongs to.

You might notice that the magazine that came with it (and the matching set I assembled from my 1911 magazine bin) is a Wilson Combat .45 magazine. Yes, a .45 magazine to feed .40s. Why? Because it works.

The fit of the slide to frame and barrel to slide is superb—which you’d expect from the guys at Infinity. We’re accustomed to checking the fit of a slide to frame in the 1911 by trying to wobble the slide on the frame. That’s a complete and utter waste of time here.

But the real 1911 mavens expect that and check fit a different way: We feel for the friction when the slide moves as we rack it. When slowly moving the slide back and forth on the frame, you can feel how many toolmarks might be present, how big they are and what kind of differential they have to the base dimensions.

Again, a waste of time here. The slide might as well be running on well-greased ball bearings, for all the feel of toolmarks you might try to garner. And the amateur test of trying to press down the barrel when the slide is locked in place? Pu-leeze.

Infinity Single Stack On The Range

I’d love to regale you with tales of matches entered and won with this superb bit of firearms art. Alas, soon after its arrival here, I began my career as a full-time writer, and as far as I can recall, never shot it in a Single Stack Nationals. I shot it enough to discover that it shoots one-hole groups out to 25 yards, with ammo it likes—which is pretty much everything I could feed it. It hasn’t failed to work properly at all, and on top of that, it’s a cool-looking 1911 in an understated sort of way.

Alas, it’s also semi-obsolete. The .40 has a ticking clock on it.

Infinity single stack mag
The single stack Infinity feeds .40 S&W from Wilson Combat .45 ACP mags.

Yes, the ammo companies are making ammo for it (trying to keep up, anyway) but there are no new .40 pistols being designed or made. When I had this pistol built, there was no hint, nor even a suggestion, that the .40 would go the way of Caesar, albeit more slowly. Thanks for nothing, FBI. Had I gotten it made with the replaceable breechface Infinity offers on some guns, I could simply have a 9mm breechface and barrel fitted, and motor on. (Oh, the serial number would be a small problem, but hey, what can you do?)

So here I am, with the problem of a custom gun in a cartridge that has a use-by date on it. And making it work with something else would be a lot of work. Such is life. My plan is to enjoy using it, loading for it and marveling at it, and letting my heirs worry about what to do with it when that day (long time from now, hopefully) comes.

You can simply do yours up in .45 ACP or 9mm and solve that minor problem.


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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Geissele Super Duty Review: Pulling Major G-Force

A closer look at Geissele’s complete (almost) Super Duty system.

People often toss around some terms without really knowing what they mean, like “complete weapons system.” Complete means just that—everything that’s needed to run, feed, maintain and inspect a weapon. It comes from one source. That’s not easy, but Bill Geissele comes really close on that.

Bill is a nice guy and a great engineer. His start in the firearms field was making triggers. Instead of simply making the same triggers as everyone else, he made better triggers. Soon, the top shooters and the guys who go places to deal with nasty people were beating a path to his door, wanting triggers.

Then, he made scope mounts—beautifully machined, structurally rigid, essentially unbreakable scope mounts. From there, it was a straight path to complete rifles because, well, if you’re going to make the world’s best triggers and scope mounts, you might as well make everything else in between, right?

Oh, and then he went into scopes.

Geissele Super Duty feature

The Complete Rifle

The intended audience of the Super Duty is the bearded gents who go to dusty laces. As a result, the upper and lower receivers are machined from forgings. Could Bill make a better upper and lower? Almost certainly. But the powers-that-be have some firm rules, and forged receivers are one of them. So, he builds on that and installs an improved bolt-carrier group.


The carrier is made from the current best steel for that, 8620, while the bolt is made from an improved Carpenter 158, called 158+. Yes, Virginia, it is possible to make a better steel but still call it Carpenter 158 … if you go directly to Carpenter and ask them. And that’s what Bill did. He opted for a better steel for the cam pin; he decided that cold hammer-forging barrels was the only way to go, so he acquired the equipment and makes his own.

The barrel isn’t lightweight, but instead a medium-weight profile designed to handle hard use and heat, and has a 1/7 twist. The gas block is Bill’s own Super Compact Block, and the installation is, in the words of Geissele, “bomb-proof.” As in, the gas block is pressed onto the barrel with both the barrel exterior and gas block interior closely matching in size. It’s then locked in place by means of two setscrews, each nestling into recesses dimpled into the barrel. Then, it gets a cross-pin through the block and the bottom edge of the barrel itself.

Here, you see the SureFire mount and flash hider. It’s a first-class flash hider and a great mount for SureFire suppressors.

I pity anyone who thinks they’ll simply snatch the gas block off of a shot-out Geissele barrel (who knows how long that would take) to install it on another barrel. Good luck with that. It then gets a gas tube and is ready for its handguard.

Before they’re all assembled, all the internals and the barrel, as well as the SureFire flash hider/muzzle/brake/suppressor mount, are all given the Geissele Nanoweapon coating. This is a solid lubricant coating that’s available only from Geissele. It’s a matte finish black coating that you cannot rub off short of going to power equipment—and aggressive equipment at that. It has a surface hardness in the same league as synthetic diamonds. You aren’t going to wear it off cleaning, shooting or tossing it into your ultrasonic cleaner. It makes parts rust-resistant, easy to clean and slick in use.

The barrel gets a Super Modular Mk16 handguard, with M-lok slots. M-lok has won the accessory wars so far, and this is what the future portends. Until something better comes along, buy M-lok unless you have a legacy KeyMod to feed.

The Mk16, like all SuperMod handguards, use a proprietary barrel nut. This doesn’t have the flanges of a regular barrel nut, and thus there’s no problem with the gas tube touching the barrel nut. To hold the handguard on, and to keep the barrel nut in place, Geissele uses a pair of heft bolts crossway through the bottom rear of the Mk16. These pass-through grooves on the barrel nut and keep the whole package tight and properly aligned.

The handguard locks into place by means of a pair of hefty Torx-head bolts that are threaded into a steel anchor plate. You’re not depending on the strength of threads cut into aluminum here.

And the attention to detail that is Geissele is right here to be seen. Notice that the Mk16 clamping bolts pass through the aluminum handguard, but they’re threaded to a steel plate inset on the far side. The tensile strength of aluminum is half that (at best) of steel. It’s entirely possible to strip the threads of an aluminum handguard, by over-tightening the steel bolt. Geissele won’t let that happen.

Another Geissele detail is the bolt stop. Instead of the small mil-spec lever, we get a two-headed extended lever that’s plenty big without being in the way.

Building Up The Lower

The ambi selector/safety, the extended bolt stop lever, the A2 pistol grip, all on view, and all first-rate quality.

The lower gets a Geissele SSA-E X with Lightning Bow, which is a first-class two-stage trigger that has a straight bow for consistency in trigger pull. There’s a Geissele pistol grip behind that, and again, Geissele gets it right. Perhaps the one detail that I find not to my liking on modern ARs is that I’m not a fan of pistol grips that fill the upper back end of the lower receiver, but Geissele installs an A2 here (kudos, Bill). In-between is an ambidextrous selector/safety.

The end users Bill has in mind want the SopMod stock, so that’s what comes on your Super Duty. Don’t like it? It’s easy to change and there are plenty of people who’ll be happy to take it off of your hands.

On the back of the lower receiver, there’s a VLTOR B5 Systems buffer tube and SopMod stock. The B5 System assembly has a longer buffer stroke than a carbine system; this makes for a softer and less-bouncy felt recoil.

To charge the rifle, you grab a hold of the Airborne Charging handle, an ambidextrous version of the super Charging handle, but with a bit lower profile, so it’s less likely to get hung up on your gear.

The Geissele Airborne charging handle, which is an ambi handle.

Remember I mentioned optics? Well, there’s now a Geissele scope, the Super Precision, a 1-6x riflescope with a DMRR-1 reticle, allowing for quick range estimation and hold-over. The Super Precision isn’t made by Geissele. However, they told an experienced Japanese (not China, that’d be egregious, and Geissele doesn’t do egregious) optics company what they wanted, and the standards they’d test the optics to—and, knowing Bill, the penalties for failure on the part of the optics maker would be epic.

The Geissele 1-6x optic comes in a Geissele (what else?) scope mount that’s tougher than a $2 steak.

Now, to be a complete systems provider, Bill would have to offer ammunition and magazines with his rifles. When I suggested that, with a big grin, he just laughed. We agreed that maybe two decades ago it might have made sense. But now, with so many good magazines and plentiful ammo choices to be had, there’s no point.

Well, Does She Shoot?

First-class manufacturing is one thing, but the real test is in the shooting. So, I volunteered for the boring task of seeing if I could make a Geissele rifle choke.

I failed.

I had an opportunity to test the rifle not just at my gun club and its 100-yard range, but on another range with elbow room out past 500 yards … and I was able to ring steel with boring regularity as long as the wind cooperated. I can shoot, but calling the wind every time is a voodoo level of skill I haven’t yet perfectly mastered. I did manage to shoot a 500-yard group that spanned just a smidge over 2 inches, which is something I’ll be bragging about for a long time.


You can have the Super Duty as a rifle with a 16-inch barrel, or as a pistol with a 10.3-inch barrel. Again, Bill is making them for the bearded gents as well as us. Sixteen is easy for us, and 10.3 inches is what the guys who want really short blasters are accustomed to using.

And, so you know, you don’t just “buy” a Super Duty—you order it built to your specs. You pick rifle or pistol, barrel length, scope or no scope, and color. Color? Yes. Mine came in DDC (Desert Dirt Color), which I find to be a far better descriptor than FDE. You can also opt for Luna Black, Gray, 40mm Green, OD Green and Iridium. Place your order and wait. Your rifle is built to your specs, not just snatched off an inventory rack, wrapped and shipped.

I love this country.


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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Nighthawk Custom Drop-In Trigger System Review

A review of the near-fool-proof 1911 Drop-In Trigger System from Nighthawk Custom.

It used to be hard to get a good 1911 trigger. Then, in the 1980s, it got a lot easier. And in the early 1990s, it got even easier. Now, it’s dead simple.

We used to stone parts. Then, we bought better parts. Later, we bought the best. Now, we don’t even have to time the parts.

Enter the Nighthawk Custom Drop-In Trigger System (DTS). They took the packet trigger idea and perfected it for the 1911.


The idea is simple: The relationship of the hammer and sear to each other depends in no small part on the locations of the hammer and sear holes in the frame. If they’re off by a few thousandths or crooked to each other, your sear and hammer engagement won’t be what you think it is. That’s where we spent our time, fitting and stoning.

So, Nighthawk Custom takes the hammer and sear, makes them to exact dimensions and fits them on pivot tubes that are in precise locations. Then, they wrap the whole thing in a sleeve and fix it together, so the precise engagement they worked so hard to create isn’t changed.

How does this fit into a 1911 frame, then?

Simple. The holes for the packet have just enough give in their size (they’re a smidgen larger than the pins they’ll ride one) that it can “float” in the frame. Their relationship to each other never changes. The packet rides in the frame, and everything is fine.

Well, almost everything. The packet design can’t use a regular three-finger sear and grip safety spring, so Nighthawk provides a special one that works the grip safety. The rest of the spring action is handled by the internals of the packet itself.

And, you’ll still have to fit a thumb safety to the packet. It’s drop-in as far as trigger pull is concerned, but the thumb safety still needs to be fitted. Compared to the work we went through in stoning sears and hammer hooks, that’s easy. And a small price to pay for a drop-in clean and crisp trigger pull.


A Good Trigger Job

Now, cutting-edge technology doesn’t come cheap. And good trigger jobs aren’t common nor cheap. The Nighthawk drop-in at $300 seems steep, but I just priced the full set of parts needed for a 1911 trigger job (that’ll still require some fitting and tuning), and they easily ran $100. Not a lot of people are willing to take $100 in precision parts and experiment with installing and tuning them, especially if it risks turning their 1911 into a runaway.


Hand those parts and your pistol over to a competent pistolsmith, and it’ll come out just fine, but that eats into the cost difference … and then there’s the time waiting. I’m reminded of a radio commercial I heard a long time ago, and I can’t help but change it a bit for this: “It’s my trigger job, and I want it now.”

With the Nighthawk Drop-in Trigger System (DTS), you can have it 5 minutes after you sign for the delivery from Nighthawk.

The hardest part is waiting.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

Raise Your 1911 IQ:

3D Printed Suppressor Tools

Niche tools for items like silencers can often be out of stock right when you need them, but 3D printed suppressor tools can fill the gap.

Ever need a tool, only to find out there seems not be any for that specific task? Or the manufacturer is temporarily out? Welcome to the club. When it comes to suppressors, and disassembly of the same, you’re pretty much locked in. If you buy the Whiz-Bang suppressor, then the W-B Co. LLC is likely the only company that makes the tools to take them apart.

Well, almost.

Warren Innovative Technologies makes 3D printed suppressor tools to fit any suppressor. No, really. By my count, 33 different spanners, sockets, splined or cap-fitting tools. These are all made from injection-mold grade ABS, but 3D printed. Where there are pins needed, the pins are held in place during the printing process, so they’re firmly held by the finished product.

I know what some of you are thinking: ABS? How is that going to hold up to my leverage with a breaker bar?” My first thought is: If you need a breaker bar to get your suppressor apart, you’ve done something wrong already. My second thought is: Warren will replace busted tools, so you’ll have some thinking to do while the box wends its way to you.

After all, suppressors are supposed to be hand-tight. Yes, the mounts should be torqued on to a certain level, one that ABS might not withstand, but we already have perfectly good steel wrenches for that. If you want more than hand-tight, Warren makes a wrench handle/spanner to do that.

Warren Tech 3D printed suppressor tools are light, non-marring, inexpensive … and you can actually get them when you need them.

The ABS Advantage

The two big advantages of the ABS printed tools are that they’re unlikely to mar your suppressor, and they’re readily fabricated. The ABS-M30 won’t leave scars on your aluminum tubes. By being readily fabricated (once all the engineering, R&D, etc. has been done, of course), Warren can make them when you need them. If they were made from forged aluminum, machined to fit, you’d have to wait until the next batch of that suppressor was made. If not a commonly owned one, that wait might be a while. This way, everything is either in-stock or made so quickly it might as well have been.

Oh, and do you have the spring-loaded workroom strips, the ones used to click your other tools into? Well, the Warren tools click into those. For those of you who aren’t one to leave tools behind when tired, there’s also a dedicated hole to put a loop of 550 cord (aka “dummy cord”) on it, so you can keep track of your tools.

Here’s a TiRant wrench and the Warren Tech spanner that makes it easier to use.

Also, once the printing software has been generated for each tool, it was easy as pie for Warren to integrate the suppressor type name into the instructions. So, each one is clearly marked as to what it fits.

Now, if you only own one suppressor, or own several, but all from the same maker, this might not be needed. But what do you do when your .22 rimfire, your .223 and your .308 are each from a different maker? Or, you lose your one-and-only tool, and the suppressor maker is in-between production runs of that tool?

Why, you just track down Warren Innovative Technologies (SuppressorTools.com) and order up what you need.

As an example, the first tool I clicked on proves the point. It’s a socket tool to tighten or loosen an AAC three-prong mount. AAC is gone, and they aren’t around to make a tool for you.

But Warren is.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2021 Buyer's Guide special issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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Kel-Tec: Beyond Blued Steel And Walnut


The innovative designs of Kel-Tec go beyond blued steel and walnut and redefine what “made in America” can look like.

I’ve always been impressed by the ingenuity and engineering of the people at Kel-Tec and the products they offer. They’ve always been pushing boundaries, testing limits and making firearms that are more than (or where desired, like weight, less than) other designs.

And the looks? If you’re into “modern industrial,” Kel-Tec is where you go. Now, I grew up in an era when “made in America” was a given, imports were rare, expensive and oftentimes an ergonomic hot mess, and blued steel and walnut were the baseline assumption of “looking good.”

As much as I still respond favorably to blued steel and walnut, there are times when a clearly industrial-look approach is just the ticket.

As an ultra-compact everyday-carry gun, or as a backup to a bigger gun, the Kel-Tec PF9 is just the ticket.

Swedish Roots, American Soil

Thus, we have Kel-Tec. Founded by George Kellgren (a Swede, but the U.S. has a lot of Swedes and those whose parents and grandparents came from Sweden) in 1991, the idea wasn’t to make firearms like everyone else. After all, if you’re a small company—a brand-new upstart—do you really want to be making rifles just like Ruger, Winchester and Remington? (OK, Remington would be a special case, but in 1991, not so much an outlier.) Do you want to go head-to-head with handgun makers like Ruger, Glock, Sig, etc.? Not if you want to stay in business.

And since you’re doing it all right here in the good-old US of A, you’ve got to be cleverer and you have to have a distinct look. It doesn’t hurt to go after specific segments of the market that have heretofore been underserved.

The first Kel-Tec firearm was the P-11, a compact 9mm pistol that held 10 rounds in a flush magazine, but it also cleverly accepted magazines from the S&W 59 series. Magazines are a specialized subset of design and manufacture, and the cleverness of a brand-new company, with a new design, using an existing magazine as the feed mechanism cannot be overstated.

Another, later in the line of 9mm pistols, is the PF-9. We’re now accustomed to super-compact EDC 9mm pistols, but back in 2006, when the PF-9 came out, this wasn’t so much the case. So, from Kel-Tec we have the lightest and flattest 9mm, it being a single-stack DAO pistol, one that’s so light that it can be actual work to shoot with hot defensive ammo.

The PF9 is an ultra-compact 9mm. You can use the standard flush magazine or gain extra rounds by using the extended version.

That very lightness makes it valuable as a sidearm in certain uses. As an ultra-compact backup for those of us who insist on packing heavy, it’s da bomb. If you have a PF-9, you have 12 ounces of made-in-the-USA insurance. I have knives that weigh more than that, and they aren’t as long as the reach of a PF-9.

Made properly … and here? Of course. The slide and barrel are both heat-treated 4140 steel. The chassis is machined from a billet of 7075 aluminum. The frame is high-strength polymer and all the making happens in the Kel-Tec plant in Cocoa, Florida. Why the emphasis on “Made in the USA?” If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that long supply chains can be a problem.

Not long ago, a super cargo container ship was freed after being aground in the Suez Canal. It was so big that it literally wedged across the channel, blocking the canal. Over 300 ships were stuck until it got freed. With ships now commonly transporting 14,000 containers or more, each, that’s more than a half-million containers stuck in traffic. Billions of dollars worth of goods, waiting in the hot sun of the Mideast. Don’t tell me that American made doesn’t matter.

Back to Kel-Tec. One very cool pistol they make (the P11 is no longer in the lineup) is the PMR30. It’s a pistol in .22 Magnum that holds 30 rounds in the magazine. For someone looking for a home-defense pistol that doesn’t have a lot of recoil, there’s your solution. People might sneer at a .22 Magnum round, but 30 of them—and 30 more after a fast reload—is a real emergency-solving handful.

The PMR30 is a pistol chambered in .22 WMR, and it holds—you guessed it—30 rounds in the magazine.

So, making things here in the USA sounds a whole lot better, and it doesn’t rely on the now-constrained (there’s a shortage, apparently) supply of shipping containers. And true to the 21st century, Kel-Tec now does their design and dimensional standards work on computers. That info can be fed directly to CNC-machining centers, and a modified firearm, or an entirely new prototype, can be created right away. Then, once extensive testing shows need, an updated one can be produced that afternoon and fed right into the testing process. Computers are great; you just have to know how to use them, and Kel-Tec sure does.

They Have Long Guns, Too

The design efforts of Kel-Tec are also bent toward rifles and shotguns. And it isn’t enough that they give free rein to the industrial-look polymer and steel design imperative, they also offer practical and usable bullpups. The rifles, the RFB and the RDB, use common-capacity (20 rounds or more) magazines, but provide carbine-length barrels in firearms that are as compact as a rifle can be. The trigger on the RFB they sent me was so good that I simply told them they weren’t getting the gun back.

The RFB is a stout .308 Winchester that’s compact (it’s a bullpup, after all) and ejects the empties forward. You want a compact sledgehammer? You got it.

The shotguns, the KS7 and the KSG, are even more trick. The KS7 looks like it came right off of the set of Aliens, and the KSG, while the same size, has nearly double the capacity. Kel-Tec doesn’t consider the traditional design, look or mechanism when building any of these firearms. And that’s the usual Kel-Tec method.

Kel-Tec’s P50

A case in point, and the current Kel-Tec “gotta have it” firearm is the P50. The P50 uses the 5.7x28mm cartridge, developed by FN back in the late 1990s for a NATO requirement. Now, I love the FN line of firearms, and they’re a first-rate crew, but they also don’t seem interested in responding to price competition. If you want to shoot something made by FN, using 5.7 ammunition, you’re in for spending no less than $1,200. The quality is there, but so is the price.

The P50 is the new kid on the block in 5.7x28mm. It uses the same magazines as the FN carbine, for less money and less bulk.

The Kel-Tec P50 has an MSRP of $995. Some might say that $200 isn’t much of a price difference, but even with today’s inflated ammo prices, that gets you a bunch of ammo. And as far as ammunition capacity goes, the P50 uses the same magazines as the FN PS90, so you have 50 rounds on tap once you’ve loaded up.

The design of the P50 is … not traditional. As in, telling the designers after their first attempt: “We don’t make firearms that look like other people’s firearms. Go back, chug a few Red Bulls and try again.”

There’s the customary Kel-Tec dependence on strong and well-proportioned polymer moldings. There’s the usual (and properly engineered) assembly of sheet-steel stampings and machined aluminum. And there’s a charging handle on the back end that works just like the one on an AR-15, so you know how to get it ready to rock. And true to the Kel-Tec process, it looks like it was designed tomorrow—as a tool that Corporal Hicks would’ve clipped to his body armor—and it was designed and made here in the USA.

The action hinges open at the front, the PS90 magazine rides horizontally inside the action and there’s a thumb safety for your use, convenient to your firing hand. What’s really different is that the top half of the receiver set has a full-length rail, and there’s enough room there to park more accessories, by weight, than the P50 itself weighs.

Ammo of any kind might be hard to get, but the P50 can be fed ammo from several sources, and it works like a champ.

Underneath the location of the magazine, on the lower receiver half, there’s a rail section long enough to let you mount a light, laser or whatever is the en vogue item of the tacti-cool set. Just ahead of the trigger guard is a sculpted hand-hold, one that allows you to get a second hand on the P50, just under the balance point. On the back end is a QD sling socket, so you can use a short sling, à la SAS style, to keep the P50 steady while shooting.

Now, being nontraditional can have some drawbacks. Reloading the P50 is a two-handed affair. You’ve got to unlatch the upper, then swing it open and pluck out the old magazine. Insert the new magazine not into the space in the lower where it looks like it’ll go, but press it into the upper receiver, and then swing the lower up to the upper. Work the charging handle, and you’re good to go.

To load the P50, open the action and stuff the magazine unto the upper. Don’t lay it in the lower; it wasn’t made to work that way.

To shoot, press the safety to Fire (forward until it is vertical), push the P50 out in front of you to either line up the iron sights (nestled in the gutter of the top rail) or get the red-dot on target and press the trigger. Repeat as necessary. It takes a bit of time, but you’ve got 50 rounds at the ready once you do.

’Merica! You get choices, so take advantage of them.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2021 Made In USA special issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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Mag Pump: The Thumb Saver

Thumbs raw and sore from loading too many magazines? There’s a solution, and it’s called the Mag Pump.

Oh, for the good old days when you didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to afford a day of range time. Why I remember when a five-day class was an occasion to practically toast a barrel. Now, the ammo costs are greater than the enrollment fee or the travel costs.

But it’s still mind-numbing labor to load a magazine. It’s hard on thumbs, it takes time from building skills and this is America, where life is supposed to be better for us than it was for our forebears. Which leads us to the Mag Pump.


Mag Pump It Up

The Mag Pump is the device that many of us had thought of, even dreamed of, while spending time in the sun on a range, thumbing ammo into magazines. The process is simple: Lock a magazine into the Mag Pump (there are pistol and rifle versions, and adapters for the pistol mags), then dump ammo into the hopper. Pump the lever, and there’s a round in the magazine. Repeat until the magazine is full, remove and replace, and continue.

The hopper holds more than enough for a magazine or two, and the feed system orients each cartridge as it passes through the mechanism to be pointed properly and then inserted into the magazine.

Oh, and do yourself a favor and get in the habit of counting as you pump the lever. The Mag Pump doesn’t have a way of knowing the capacity of the magazine you’re loading, so you’ll find it annoying to have the system crash to a halt as you try to get that “plus one” cartridge into your magazine.

The basic system of the Mag Pump is composed of injection-molded high-impact plastic. From the look and feel, I suspect there’s a good dollop of glass fibers in there, acting as rebar for the polymer.


The pistol version comes with six adapters for various magazines, those being Glock, Sig, S&W, Springfield, CZ and Ruger. There’s an arm-long list of additional adapters, for those of you who use something other than the most common magazines.

Rifle loaders are made in either AR-15 or AK47 versions.

The Pro versions of the loaders have some of the high-stress parts replaced with parts made of aluminum or steel, in case you’re loading for a gun club, a rental range or just won the lotto and have a literal warehouse full of ammo to consume. (If you need help, remember, there are eager volunteers to be found.)

The base models of AR-15, AK47 and pistol are listed at a penny short of $150 each. The Pro model for AR and pistols lists at $250, and the Elite AK47 model is $399. If you get tired of using a C-clamp to hold the Mag Pump to your shooting bench, then you can invest 10 bucks into a mounting plate. That one you bolt to the bench to, and then the Mag Pump simply self-clamps to it.

Ammunition is hard to find, and extremely expensive right now. But if trends hold true, as they have in the past, ammo prices will come down, and availability will increase. We’ll be back to actually shooting instead of dry-firing in the basement, and when the day comes that you say to yourself “I’m tired of loading magazines” you’ll know where to turn.

Mag Pump: Because life’s too short to spend it simply stuffing magazines by hand.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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Reloading Pistol Cartridges On A Budget

When ammo supplies are tight, keep on training by reloading pistol cartridges yourself.

This ammunition crunch is, quite possibly, the worst in living memory—surely worse than that of 2013. I receive numerous inquiries each week from folks who’ve become accustomed to sending a healthy amount of pistol bullets downrange, regarding how they can get into reloading pistol cartridges in an affordable yet effective manner. Let’s take a look at a minimalist setup for someone looking to make their own pistol ammo, keeping costs as low as possible.

Reloading tools don’t need to break the bank. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

One Piece At A Time

You’ll need projectiles, powder and primers, but you can reuse spent cases. While many of the bullet and powder companies publish their data online, I still love the reloading manuals. The manual will indicate the specific powder and its charge weight range, as well as the type and brand of primer used in the data published.

You’ll need a specific set of tools to get rolling, and while entry-level tools will suffice, I’ll wager you’ll upgrade once the reloading bug bites you. I’m outlining the simplest way to get going, simply to feed your handgun. And I’m concentrating on the most popular handgun cartridges, such as the 9mm Luger, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, etc.

The first tool is a reloading press, and while I most definitely prefer the additional strength of an “O” frame press for rifle cartridges, a “C” frame press will suffice for the straight-walled pistol cases. The Lee Breech Lock Reloader Single Stage press can be yours for under $40, and the Lyman Brass Smith C Frame—a bit more rugged and made of cast-iron—is just shy of $90. Both are sound choices, though I’d choose the beefier Lyman model.

Lee reloading dies are a great entry-level choice, as they come with load data, appropriate volumetric powder scoop and shell holder. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

Reloading dies serve several functions, including reducing a spent case back to the original dimensions (before expansion), knocking out a spent primer, flaring the case mouth for bullet seating, pressing a new bullet into the case and crimping that bullet in place. Lee offers dies that are a great value for the beginner, and I recommend them for this application.

In addition to the proper dies, Lee includes a shell holder (which works with any press) and a polymer scoop for measuring powder volumetrically. They even include load data based on their scoop volumes. So, while there might be fancier dies available, the Lee set will get the job done, at usually less than $50. And I definitely prefer the carbide dies—they won’t require any case lubricant.

You’ll need a reloading scale, and for the beginner, the balance-beam is the only way to go. There are many models at varying price points, but don’t go with the lowest bidder here. I like the RCBS M500 at around $75, and the Redding Model No. 2 for just under $100. This is an important piece of gear, as an incorrectly weighed powder charge could be catastrophic.

For trimming your cases, look to the Lee Case Length Gauge and Trimmer (about $8) of trimming cases to the appropriate length, though it might cost you some elbow grease. Trimming cases is especially important for the rimmed revolver cartridges because the roll-crimp needed to keep the bullets in place will be directly dependent on the case length.

You’ll need a pocket cleaner to scrape the residue out of the primer pockets, and for that I like the Lee Primer Pocket Cleaner. It’s two tools in one, with a scraper on either side to handle both large and small primer pockets. At a street price of about $6, you can’t go wrong. I’d also grab a Lee chamfer/deburring tool for $5 to take any sharp edges off the inside and outside of case mouths after trimming. It’ll result in ammunition that feeds better in semi-auto handguns.

A means of measuring cases, assembled cartridges and other associated items is necessary, look to a dial caliper or digital caliper. Frankford Arsenal makes a digital caliper that runs about $20, Hornady makes a dial caliper at around $40, and there are others. I have an RCBS digital caliper (about $80), which has been reliable for years, and there are much more expensive (and precise) models, but the inexpensive models will suffice if you handle them with care.

The affordability of some reloading tools is offset by the need for good old-fashioned elbow grease. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

To seat new primers in your cases, you can use the priming arm and cup on your press—if it’s equipped with one—or you can use a hand primer. I like the RCBS Hand Priming Tool (about $40) or Lyman E-Zee Prime Universal Hand Priming Tool ($35 or so) to handle the priming of my cases, as they’re easy to use, give a great, consistent primer seating depth.

Dispensing powder can be done by hand with the Lee scoop, or even a simple spoon, directly into the pan of the balance beam scale, and I definitely recommend weighing each powder charge. If you so choose, you can spend the money on one of the mechanical powder throwers—the Lyman Brass Smith Powder Measure can be had for about $45—though for years I used a Lee scoop and an RCBS Powder Trickler (about $20) to fine-tune the charge.

To hold your cases while loading them, you can use a drill and a bit of appropriate diameter to drill holes in a block of wood, like a scrap of 2×4 or something similar, to create homemade loading blocks.

Feel The Powder

Powder choices for pistol cartridges are rather wide, as there are many ways to get the job done. Hodgdon’s Titegroup and Alliant’s Unique are but a couple of powders that’ll go a long way. There are 7,000 grains to the pound, and many pistol loads run on less than five grains of powder; this equates to around 1,400 shots to the pound of powder. Let’s say the average price of a pound of powder, before shipping and the HazMat fee, is $25, so you’ll pay less than $0.02 per shot. Primers will cost about 3 or 4 cents apiece, and bullet costs can vary widely.

Universal Powder feature
Photo: Massaro Media Group.

The huge obstacle, at least at the time of this writing, is that the components and tools are selling like hotcakes as well, with many places out of stock. However, this dissertation sheds some light on what the minimum investment is to get up and running, and at the least, you can begin to collect the necessary tools for reloading ammunition—and hopefully, none of us will be caught in this predicament again.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2021 CCW special issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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Carry Guns For The Modern Era

Top picks for your first, or fifth, carry gun.

I can hardly recognize the modern world. All of a sudden, everyone wants a gun, everyone wants to carry and everyone wants to buy ammo. It’s hard to remember when we were all loners—the odd ducks even at our own gun clubs.

With that in mind, here’s a few carry guns that you might want to consider, assuming you can find anything to buy. Despite the slim selection at times, the important things to remember are: it fits your hand, it’s common enough that you can find a holster and it’s common enough that there are magazines for it.

Max Capacity:

Springfield Armory Hellcat

The Springfield Armory Hellcat is plenty accurate, for being a compact pistol that holds lots of rounds. The Shield RMSc red-dot optic on top doesn’t hurt, that’s for sure.

The Hellcat is the current high-water mark of daily carry technology. You’ve got 11+1 or 13+1 rounds, depending on using the flush or the extended magazine. You can have a red-dot sight on top if you wish, or you can stick with regular iron sights, if you’re a retro kind of shooter.

It’s chambered in 9mm, which right now is both good and bad. Good, in that there’s usually a wide, almost expansive selection of ammunition and loadings for it. However, since that’s the first thing everyone wants to buy, when 9mm ammo shows up at the local gun shop, it gets swarmed, bought and taken home. 

The Hellcat doesn’t use a magazine found in any other pistol, but Springfield is quite aggressive in making sure there’s a sufficient supply. And because it’s a Springfield product, every holster maker offers something for it.

MSRP: $620

The Slim Option:

Walther CCP

Walther knows how to make accurate, reliable pistols. And the CCP is a soft-shooting one as well.

Not everyone wants a 9mm pistol that holds half a box of ammunition. So, for those who want something a bit slimmer, Walther makes the CCP M2. (The M2 means a regular magazine release button, not the europaddle release on the first models Walther USA brought in.)

The CCP also has another trick up its sleeve: their Softcoil recoil system. This is a gas-delayed piston system that buffers the slide in recoil. That makes the slide easier to retract and the recoil softer. The first time I fired one, I had to stop and inspect the CCP, certain that it failed to cycle. Nope, it had. Plus, it has a thumb safety as well.

So, if you want a soft-shooting and easy-racking 9mm, here you go. If you don’t want a thumb safety, then the quality and utility of the Walther might not be enough to overcome that prejudice.

Magazines might be a bit pricey (and maybe not), but one thing is for sure: They’re durable enough to last the rest of your life.

MSRP: $469

The CCW Revolver:

Kimber K6s

Kimber went from bolt-action rifles to 1911s, to double-action revolvers. And each step of the way, they outdid themselves. If revolvers are your carry “thing,” then you’ll like the K6s. And the 3-inch-barrel model is even easier to shoot than the 2-inch one.

Not everyone worships at the altar of the 9mm. And, some people want a bit of versatility in their carry gun. The latest K6s is the 3-inch version of the Kimber revolver, and it’s really sweet.

The FBI, back when they were in the headlines for catching bank robbers and such, decided the best carry gun was a .357 Magnum with a 3-inch barrel. The .357 chambering means you have the choice you desire in power, from .38 wadcutter target ammo on the bottom, to the stoutest .357 Magnum loading you can stand to shoot.

For precision, thumb-cock the hammer. For fast shooting, it’s hard to beat double-action (DA). And no, you don’t have to give up accuracy for double-action shooting, you just have to practice.

Revolvers don’t need no stinking magazines. For fast reloads, you use speedloaders, and Kimber makes them for the K6s, of course. And holsters? Holster makers have been making holsters for six-shot DA revolvers since before Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill.

MSRP: $985

The Underrated:

Canik TP9

The Canik TP9 Elite SC, with a name almost as big as the pistol, is a first-class choice in your daily carry ensemble. Twelve shots for the flush-mount mag, 15 here and 18 or 20 shots as options on the reload. What’s not to like?

When it comes to hi-cap 9mm pistols, you have plenty of choices. One that you might pass over, if you haven’t gotten the word, is the Canik TP9.

Made in Turkey, the Canik, has gotten quite some traction on the competition circuit (well, the bigger models, the one here is definitely a carry gun) for their excellent triggers. That and reliability, which is always foremost in the practical competition shooter’s mind. No matter how accurate, how fast-shooting, how good a trigger it is, if it isn’t reliable, it won’t get a second look from the competition crowd.

The Sub Elite here has a 12-round capacity magazine, but all the Canik TP 9mm magazines will work in it, so you have your choices of 12-, 15-, 18- and 20-round magazines. And that’s even before you use a capacity-extending basepad.

The Sub Elite also has a top plate you can remove and install a red-dot sight in its place. Now, magazines are Canik-specific, but a quick look at the Canik web page shows a wide selection at competitive prices. So, you can readily add to the ones that arrive with your pistol. And holsters? When I went to look for holsters, my computer practically exploded with choices. Don’t have any fears there.

MSRP: $439


The FN509 series have changeable backstraps, so you can adjust the frame to fit your hand more readily. If you’re fondling one, try it with each size.

The Compact model of the FN509 comes to us courtesy of the U.S. Army. They decided they wanted a new pistol, but they also decided that they could only pick one. So, when some other company won the military contract, FN got busy making pistols for the rest of us.

The compact version is a lot smaller than the full-sized duty pistol that FN submitted to the Army, but it has many of the same features. There’s the cold-hammer-forged barrel, the replaceable backstraps, the frame-mounted accessory rail, the ambidextrous slide stop and magazine release. Not swappable, as some are, but a button that works to release the magazine, regardless of which side you push on.

The swappable backstraps mean the FN509C actually comes in two sizes, so try both for feel.

Since it’s the compact version of their full-line 509 series, you can use any of the magazines they make for the 509, from 10 shots per, up to 21 shots in a magazine. Yes, a magazine bigger than the pistol you can use it in. And just to be different, FN offers the 509 Compact in black of FDE, also known as Flat Dark Earth. The rest of us call it tan.

As far as ruggedness and reliability go, FN makes belt-fed machine guns for our armed forces. They’d be embarrassed to offer a pistol that wasn’t as tough as that, so they make sure their pistols measure up.

MSRP: $719

Must Do: Test Drives

The important thing to keep in mind, when you’re looking to invest in a daily carry gun (pistol or revolver), is that it fits your hand. You really should spend some time at the gun counter, handling pistols (don’t be surprised if they only let you have two at a time out of the counter, the authorities frown on losing track of pistols) and seeing how they fit in your hands.

In this, a gun shop with a range and rental guns to try is invaluable. “But it costs a lot of money to rent several pistols and buy range ammo to see what fits,” you say. Yes, it does. Look at it this way: You buy a pistol on the recommendation of a friend and find out that it doesn’t agree with your hands. It isn’t comfortable, it points wrong and it pinches you. Even setting aside the paperwork hassle of buying, then selling and buying again (and in some jurisdictions, the paperwork hassle is monumental), the financial hit can be painful.

Defensive Handgun training aiming

Let’s say you bought your 9mm pistol for $600. Now that you’ve shot it and find you don’t like it, what will the gun shop buy it back for? Or give credit on a trade for something else? You could end up with a $100 to $200 loss. That’s a lot of range time, pistol rental and range ammo, to find the one you won’t take a loss on.

Rental guns are good things. And there’s another thing: durability. If you walk into a range with rentals, you can count on what you see in the counter being there for one of two reasons: They’re unbreakable, or they’re so movieland bling-worthy that they’re in the counter even though they aren’t reliable or durable. If you’re interested, ask. “Oh, that one? We have it here because everyone wants to shoot a few rounds out of it. If you want a daily carry gun, try this one over here.”

The guys and gals who run the rental counter know what works and what doesn’t. The ones I’ve listed here all work, so you can be safe starting with these. Check them for fit. But if they don’t fit you, they don’t fit you; move on and try something else.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2021 CCW special issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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Beware The Beast: The .458 SOCOM AR-15

Turning the twenty-two-caliber AR-15 into a big-bore beast with .458 SOCOM.

Ever wonder just how big a bullet we can hurl out of the standard AR-15 package? Well, Marty Ter Weeme was at a backyard barbecue a couple of decades ago with some guys who can’t put on their résumés where they’ve been and what they’ve done. You know, the lads who now sport beards, go to dusty places and bring surprises to the miscreants they meet.

The question arose because those present had experience at shooting people and weren’t entirely happy with the results they were getting from the M855.

Call Me Thumper

The requirements were simple: It had to be an upper, or a rebuild, that’d work on a standard AR-15/M16/M4 lower. It had to use standard AR-15 magazines. And it had to hit like a sledgehammer.

458 SOCOM feature c
The .458 SOCOM feeds from a single position in the magazine, and the magazine holds 10 rounds.

Since the users wanted bullet choices that left out the usual suspects back in the pre-9/11 days, those rejected being potential cartridges that used pistol bullets. So, they chose the .458-inch bullet diameter. Next up, the case. What was the fattest case that’d fit through the barrel extension opening?

A .50 AE

However, that case was too short, and the rim too big. So, for the .458 SOCOM, Marty and Tony Rumore of Tromix chose lengthened .50 AE cases and had the brass maker trim the rims down from the .50 AE diameter of .514 to .473 inch.

If that latter number looks familiar, it is. It’s the standard rim diameter of the .30-06 family of cartridges, along with the 8mm Mauser and such. It’s also as big as you can make the AR-15 bolt face and still have enough locking lug metal left to be safe to shoot your rifle.

AR Bolts c
Here you can see how much the bolt face has to be opened up to accommodate the rim of the .458 SOCOM (Right). Any more and there wouldn’t be a bolt face.

The next step was to decide how much of a case neck to provide and what kind of case capacity, all while keeping one idea in mind: It had to hit like the news of an impending IRS audit. What really decided the case neck dimension were the heaviest bullets—at 500 or 600 grains, you need a lot of neck tension to keep a bullet in place in the case, even if you’re hurling it at less than elephant-whacking velocities.

And the cleverness of the design means it’s a relatively easy build. Heck, it’s as easy as any of them, because you can count on the parts makers keeping things inside the AR-15 envelope. You don’t have to invest in special, proprietary buffer weights or springs. The gas tube you use is the same gas tube you’d use for any other build of the barrel length you’ve chosen.

And magazines are simple: You use regular AR mags. Now, that last part is a bit more, shall we say, variable, than the others. More on that in a bit.

Starting the Mission

I grabbed a Brownells barrel and bolt off the shelf and looked for build candidates. Oh, hey, there’s a complete rifle on the end of the rack with a shot-out bore. (Yes, Virginia, ammo used to be cheap enough that you could wear out a barrel just by shooting.) Out with the old, in with the new.

458 Barrel c
Brownells’ barrel is clearly marked as to caliber and twist rate.

Old handguard off (so old it’s a quad-rail) and old barrel out. Then, plug the Brownells .458 SOCOM barrel into the upper, tighten the barrel nut (tight-loose-tight-loose-tight to alignment), install a gas tube into a gas block and then install that and tighten it into place. Pick the handguard back off the bench, install, align, tighten.

Grab a scope out of the scope drawer, in its mount, and put on top. Check alignment and also check eye relief. The .458 SOCOM comes back with a certain amount of authority, and you don’t want to be crowding the scope when you touch off one of the robust ones. The likely candidate that was up in the rotation was a Hi-Lux 1-4 in a LaRue QD mount.

458 SOCOM AR c
Once you get your .458 zeroed and learn to deal with recoil, you can easily find a load that shoots this well.

Luckily, the lower came with a stock on it that has a rubber recoil pad, because cushioning rubber is a handy thing to have on a rifle chambered in .458 SOCOM. The Magpul UBR stock and its rubber recoil pad promised to keep the .458 SOCOM from being too much of a good thing, unlike the hard plastic checkered buttplate you’d find on a mil-spec carbine lower.

Feeding the Beast

The .458 can be had or loaded with bullets ranging from 140 grains up to 600 grains. The lightest-weight ammunition (if we can consider something that tips scales at 140 grains as “light”) leaves your immediate vicinity at more 2,400 fps, depending on barrel length. If you’re using a carbine with a 16-inch barrel, you might fall a few fps short of that. If you’re using a rifle and a 20-inch barrel, you can step on the heels, or even elbow aside, 2,400 fps. That’d be with the Polycase ARX ammunition.

458 SOCOM Ammo c
The spectrum of weights you can hurl from a .458 SOCOM. Well, almost. There’s a 140-grain ARX loading that’s speedy to the max.

Up in the midrange bullets—300-, 350- and 400-grainers—you can jar your fillings with velocities in the 1,500- to 1,700-fps range. We’re talking about a 575 to 600 PF momentum.

It gets really interesting when you opt for the real heavyweights. If you move up to 500 grains, you can go for all the gusto, and generate some 1,300 fps out of a full-length barrel for a power factor of 650. Yowza! By comparison, a 12-gauge slug with a 1-ounce projectile at a listed 1,600 fps generates 700 PF, with a trajectory like a softball. The .458 SOCOM treads hard on its heels, but with a flatter (albeit still arcing) trajectory.

458 Table
Accuracy results are the average of four, five-shot groups, over a Sinclair shooting rest, at 50 yards. Velocity is the average of five shots, measured by a Labradar chrono, programmed to measure velocity 15 feet from the muzzle.

And This Out Of An AR-15

Where the .458 SOCOM gets to be giddy fun is when you go with heavyweight subsonics. A 600-grain JSP (which has no hope whatsoever of expanding, just to be clear) in the subsonic velocity region becomes an entertaining range time. The thump is impressive. The noise, not so much. And whatever you’re shooting at gets thumped…hard. If you then team it up with a suppressor like the Wilson Combat Whisper (which is built to withstand the .458 HAMR, so no worries about your .458 SOCOM), then you won’t even need hearing protection.

458 Muzzle Brake c
It’d be wise to install a muzzle brake or suppressor when you go to shoot your .458 SOCOM.

Well, actually…you might want some. If you’re shooting on a relatively short range, say a 25- or 50-yard backstop, the thump of the bullet hitting the hill might be loud enough that you want a bit of audio suppression.

Odds, Ends

Reloading isn’t difficult. The .458 is like any other bottlenecked rifle cartridge, so you’ll have to lube cases for resizing. Then, clean the lube off for loading. It uses large pistol primers and slow-burning pistol powders or fast-burning rifle powders. For the speedy loads and the heavyweights going through your suppressor, you’ll want to use jacketed bullets. For the heaviest-recoiling loads, you’ll also want to trim cases and apply a firm crimp along with good neck tension.

If you’re interested in lower-cost fun thumping, then you can use coated bullets and load subsonic. Acme bullets makes a .458 SOCOM-specific bullet that’s 576 grains in weight and given a bright red Hi-Tek coating. I have to point out that, unless you’re shooting at steel plates that are both rifle-rated and placed 100 yards away, you shouldn’t be shooting steel with any .458 SOCOM load. As stoutly as it thumps you, it hammers what it hits. Non-rifle-rated steel will be dented. Steel less than perfectly smooth may bounce back fragments—which is why you want to be 100 yards away.

458 DuraMag c
Make life easier, invest in .458-specific magazines and don’t spend expensive ammo testing others.

Oh, and the magazines? Yes, the idea was to make the .458 SOCOM feed out of standard AR magazines. And they usually do. But magazines can vary. You can burn up a lot of ammo determining if the mags you have and are already using will play well with your .458 ammo and rifle. May I suggest investing in 458-specific magazines? DuraMag makes .458-specific magazines, and the rounds are single-stack in the tube (as in any AR-sized magazine) but with .458-shaped feed lips and follower.

Go ahead, nickname your .458 SOCOM AR-15 “Thumper.” That’s what it does—on both ends.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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How To Improve DA Revolver Skills

With the right revolver skills, one can be a formidable adversary even when armed with antiquated technology.

If you’re to believe the local gun shop expert, revolvers are 19th century technology and utterly useless for anything other than making noise. When you run into someone who says this, what you do is simple: ignore him. (If he also says “IPSC will get you killed,” move to the other side of the gun shop. Staying too close to such a concentration of mall ninja-ism can be dangerous to your brain cells.)

Yes, double-action revolvers are old, but as I’ve pointed out before, the gladius used by the Roman legions is also old. If you meet someone who knows how to use it, he’ll be a dangerous adversary—even with “obsolete” technology. Skill is what matters.

So, how do you improve your DA revolver skills?

Get Good Grips

First, get the right grips. The customary, classic and good-looking ones are almost always not suited to good shooting. The classic “cokes” on a high-gloss blued S&W .44 Magnum are a beauty to look at, but they’re generally a misery to shoot.

Revolver Classic Wood Grip
Yes, it’s classic, looks good and sometimes feels good. But it’s a miserable grip to try and shoot well, especially if you’re using magnum ammo. Get better grips.

A few good choices are the Miculek grip, Pachmayrs and VZ Grips. I used a set of Miculek smooth wood grips on my .45 ACP revolvers when I competed in IPSC. They were just what I needed to bring me home each time, with a pair of Team Gold medals to show for the trips. You can order yours checkered, but the smooth lets your hand slide on the grip to get properly located on the draw, and they’re shaped to stay in your grip when you shoot.

Here, personal preference rules. The Pachmayrs are made of rubber and that softens the recoil. They have a variety of styles to choose from. When I’m shooting pin loads or magnum ammo, I change to the Pachs, because, well, recoil hurts.

For compact carry, especially EDC concealed carry, a set of VZ Grips (they make an almost overwhelming set of choices) are just the thing—especially if you’re using a snubbie for backup or deep concealment, a VZ boot grip is just the ticket. And if you’re in a hot climate, the VZ grips are made of nearly indestructible materials.

Revolver Grips Spread
Get the grip that fits you and lets you shoot comfortably. That varies depending on your hand size, the size of the revolver and how much power you’re dispensing. There’s no such thing as “one size fits all.”

Get a Good Grip

Second, grip it right. Take your unloaded revolver and wrap your shooting hand on it in a firing grip. Look at the web of your hand. Where is it compared to the top of the backstrap of the frame? If there’s any space between your hand and the top corner, you’re doing it wrong. Get your hand up as high as you can and still reach the trigger.

Now, if you have small hands, this might limit which revolvers you can use—but you don’t gain anything by keeping your hand down on the frame. In fact, you make recoil worse, as you give the revolver better leverage to create muzzle rise. I grip a revolver so high that some of them have the hammer touching the web of my hand as it comes back in the DA cycle.

The wrong advice is to grip lower to get your trigger finger in line with the trigger. Supposedly, pressing the trigger from an angle is bad. I haven’t seen it being bad while winning piles of loot and two Gold medals. Grip high and stay away from the guy I started this article describing.

Revolver Skills High Grip
Get your hand up as high onto the frame as you can. The higher the better, until the hammer doesn’t have enough room to pivot.

Utilize The Clicks

When it comes to dry-firing, pistols get one click. On pistols, one striker falls and then you have to hand-cycle the slide to do it again. Despite the Foley artist (the guy who does sound effects) in movies making a pistol click repeatedly, we all know they don’t. Well, with rare exceptions, anyway. Revolvers? You can click all you want. My boss at The Gun Room, Mike Karbon, spent the slow times at the shop dry-firing his Colt Python. Click, click, click went the wheelgun…

He did this to the point that it became background noise…something we didn’t notice unless it stopped. He even broke the firing pin on one—which was unheard of—and happened so rarely that no one we called had a spare. “Those things don’t break” was the response from one pistolsmith.

You’re highly unlikely to break your firing pin either (rimfires excepted, don’t dry-fire those). You’ll get a whole lot better in the practice, and you’ll be burnishing the parts against each other that’ll slick up the action even before you pay someone to do more to it.

Learn On The Cheap

Speaking of rimfires, that’s fourth on our list. Yes, all ammo is pricey these days, but rimfire is still less expensive than centerfire. Even reloaded centerfire. So, get a rimfire, and use that as a sub-caliber trainer at the range. Yes, yes, yes, that can cost. When Jerry Miculek suggested this to me, I went out and invested in an S&W M-617 (a big help it was, too).

Revolver Skills Feature
If you want to get really good with the M-19 (above), then you’d be wise to invest in the M-617 (below). Shooting a metric carload of .22 LR will really improve your revolver skills and is cheaper in the long run than buying .38 or .357 ammo.

Yes, the MSRP on that one is just over $800. OK, let’s say that .22 LR ammo costs you $140 per thousand rounds. (With ammo prices right now, these will vary, but the relative costs won’t much.) If we only compare it to the .38 Special, currently running $650 per thousand, we can see what’s up. Bigger bores will cost even more. The cost of a .38 Special means a difference of $510 per thousand rounds fired compared to a .22 LR. As a result, you start getting your investment back after 1,500 rounds.

Yes, reloading would make the .38 less expensive, but you’re trading cash for time at that point. As prices come down, the difference shrinks, but even at the old prices, you’d get your M-617 cost back in 2,500 rounds.

So, 1,500 rounds to get your investment back. The gain after that means a lot of double-action practice at the range, at speed or for accuracy, resulting in you becoming a much better shooter.

Reload For Your Revolver

It isn’t just that loading your own ammo is less expensive than buying factory ammo (provided you stocked up on components, so you can laugh your way through ammo panics.) You can also tune your ammo to your gun and to your practice or match needs. If you need power, you can have it. If you need mild recoil, that’s simply a matter of correct loading data.

And you save money either way.

I did a quick search for components recently, and while some can be tough to find, for a .38 Special, I found powder, primers and bullets that would let me load factory-equivalent ammo for about $150 per thousand. (Hint: Buy in bulk…5,000 primers, 8-pound kegs of powder, bullets in multiple-thousand shipments.) A good press will let you load 400 to 500 rounds an hour.

These .44 Remington Magnums are loaded with Barnes XPB lead-free hollow-points, and the crimp is set perfectly.
These .44 Remington Magnums are loaded with Barnes XPB lead-free hollow-points, and the crimp is set perfectly.

At the cost savings over factory (about $500 per thousand), you’ll get your reloading press investment back in a couple of thousand rounds. I know…this and the rimfire represent an investment. But if you want to get good, you aren’t going to do it with just positive thinking.

Other Considerations

There are other things you can do, and while they do make a difference, they don’t give you the immediate return on investment that the previous tips do. Save them for later.

You can have a pistolsmith slick up your revolver—and in due time you should. But that comes after the dry-fire practice and the range trips with the rimfire. A slicked-up action improves your shooting, but only by a small amount. If you’re 2 percentage points behind the match winner, and you’re using a box-stock action, getting yours slicked up will make the difference. If you’re still working your way out of “C” class, a slicked-up action won’t make enough of a difference to get you up into “B” class.

And porting? I love the guys at Mag-na-port, but like a slicked-up action, it won’t make a difference until you’re near the top or shooting magnum loads. In some instances, it’s essential. I’m not going to shoot pins with a revolver that hasn’t been Mag-na-ported…no way. But, in my case, I’m looking to win, and I’ll have to elbow some pretty enthusiastic shooters out of the way if I’m to do so. And they’ll have all gotten the advantages they could with practice and gear as well.

I’ve made a comparison with auto racing before: You can argue all you want about what tires are best for making the turns at 220 mph, but if your skill level isn’t at the point where any tire at all will keep you off the corner wall at 110 mph, then you need to be looking someplace other than tires for improvements.

The author’s S&W 625, a prize gun and a prized gun.
The author’s S&W 625, a prize gun and a prized gun.

Put It All Together

So, get grips that fit and are comfortable. Learn to grip it right. Dry-fire your revolver until you can work it fast, and keep the sights buried in the center of the “A” zone or locked onto the “X” ring. Go to the range with your rimfire and validate those revolver skills in live-fire; then, beat the falling plate rack with your reloads.

Once you do that for a number of practice sessions and have started to throw your weight around in matches at the gun club, then think about having your wheelgun slicked up and ported. (If the match rules allow porting, of course.)

Skills are what win matches and fights, not just equipment—however good. Only when two competitors are evenly matched does equipment begin to enter into it. Build your revolver skills and then when you upgrade your equipment, you’ll turbocharge those skills. Technology from any century is still relevant, but only if you have the skills to use it.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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The Achilles’ Heel Of The AR Bolt

A great option for beefing-up your mil-spec AR bolt.

Ever notice that the AR-15 bolt has a great big, honking hole drilled right through it? And that hole has sharp edges that have to be carefully de-angled or it’s not fun to work with? If that edge gets nicked, the bolt will die and soon. Why do we use it? Because the government cast that design in stone back in 1968. If you stick with mil-spec, you stick with the bolt. But, should you?

HM Defense AR Bolt vs MilSpec
HM Defense bolt (center) versus mil-spec (right).

How about we improve that? HM Defense did just that. They took the simple measure of not drilling the hole all the way through. I know, simple, right?

The HM Bolt simply has a blind hole for the cam pin. This does, of necessity, require a new cam pin—one short enough not to stop short in the hole—but that’s easy. How does this make a bolt stronger, and why do we care?

Simple: By drilling the bolt body through, the bolt makers (who have no other choice) drastically weaken the bolt body. With most of it gone, there are only two thin webs to support the gas rings, firing pin guidance and hold the bolt together. I’ve seen bolts cracked and broken at the cam pin hole. It isn’t a subnuclear detonation, but it does stop the rifle from working.

Broken AR Bolt
A mil-spec AR-15 bolt broken at the cam pin hole.

By stopping short of going through, HM Defense gives the thin side walls support from the far side of the bolt. Even if the stresses try to crack the bolt at the thin webs, the webs are supported by the far side being solid.

Also, regular bolts have to have the cam pin hole edges staked on the far side or else they could be assembled backward. I saw it—once—and the stream of invectives from the owner (he had fired the one shot he’d get on the rifle stage of a 3-gun match) was impressive.

The bolts are made to be a drop-in fit or replacement to all mil-spec bolt/carrier setups and given the proper heat treatment, testing and finish to provide lots of use. Each one comes with an appropriately shortened cam pin, so you won’t have to try and grind one down on your bench grinder to make it fit.

Does this matter? Sure. We all try to make our equipment as durable and reliable as we can. We test things, we check regularly and some worry (more than others) over what might go wrong.

HM Defense HMB Bolt

Anything we can do to reduce the number of things we have to worry about is a good thing.

Plus, the price of the HM Bolt is right in line with regular AR-15 bolts (MSRP is $175). Yes, parts are hard to come by right now, but when they get a bit easier, you might want to upgrade the parts list on your next build.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

More On Upgrading The AR-15

Zero Problems When Zeroing Your Rifle

Zeroing your rifle is one of the most fundamental skills a shooter can have, yet many still lack the knowledge to do so.

A rifle that doesn’t hit to the sights isn’t of much use. I saw a lot of those as a gunsmith, and I spent a lot of my time handling that chore for customers. No, really: You’d be surprised how many hunters back then (and for all I know, today) buy a rifle, scope, mount and ammo, and ask, “Can you sight it in for me?” Sometimes, they even have detailed instructions for that outcome: “I want it 2 inches high at 200 yards.” (No idea why that was a common request, but it was. Someday, I’ll run the math and see what it gets you.)

Zeroing Feature
If you do a proper job at 25 yards, your 100-yard target will be close enough to the center that it’ll take just a few clicks to get it on zero. If you start at 100 yards, it might be several boxes of ammo before you see something like this.

So, once a week, leading up to Opening Day, I’d load up my pickup truck with guns to be sighted in and head off to the gun club. Zeroing a rifle (or shotgun or handgun) ends up being one of two processes, one of them easy and one of them hard.

The easy one? Checking something that was already sighted in and hadn’t been changed since then. A previously zeroed rifle that has been in the rack or gun safe since the end of last hunting season isn’t likely to have changed its zero. So, you just post a target (usually at 100 yards) and shoot as many rounds as it takes to determine to your satisfaction that it was still zeroed. For me, that was a grand total of three rounds.

The hard ones? Those where the scope has just been mounted. Or the owner says, “I don’t know where it’s hitting.” On those, posting a target at 100 yards was almost always a waste of time.

Before we get started, here’s a reminder: There’s no such thing as “offhand zero.” You don’t check the zero of a rifle standing, kneeling, sitting…and rarely even prone. Get a solid bench, use sandbags or a shooting support. Get the rifle as solid and unmoving as you can. Then, you can shoot.

There are two ways of dealing with this. Both are easy at some ranges and really tough at others, for different reasons.

You want to have a solid, comfortable and stable position when you go to zero. No doing it offhand or in a “handy” rest. Get solid.

The 25-Yard Approach

Post a target at 25 yards. Carefully shoot a group (three shots will do) and see where it’s hitting. Given a foot-square target, on a 2-, 3- or 4-foot square target holder, you’re going to get hits somewhere. Then, you crank the sights or scope around until you’re as close to your point of aim a 25-yard target can get you.

Quick tip: You probably want to be about an inch or so low at 25 yards, to be dead-on at 100.

Oh, and remember: The scope units of adjustment are predicated on a 100-yard distance. So, if your group is 1 inch from the point of aim at 25 yards, you have to crank in 4 inches of scope adjustment. If the scope instructions read “four clicks per inch,” that means 16 clicks. And don’t be bashful—don’t “sneak up on it.” If the group looks an inch off at 25 yards, give the scope the full 4 inches of correction for your 100-yard target testing.

Now, you can go out to 100 yards and do a final check.

Eye relief is important. If you’re too close, the scope will hit you in the face. If you’re too far away, you don’t get the full field of view through the scope.

When doesn’t this work? When the range setup or organization doesn’t permit a 25-yard rifle target check. If it’s 100 yards or nothing, then you have your work cut out for you.

The ‘Getting Dirty’ Method

The other method is what I called the “dirt splash” method.

First, I’d post a half-dozen targets at 100 yards and set up my spotting scope. I’d then set up my gear (and the pile of rifles) at the 100-yard firing line of my gun club, and as soon as shooting time rolled around in the morning, I’d get started. I’d pick a spot on the backstop (our club had a 60-foot backstop, with mature pine trees on top), and from a sandbagged shooting position, I’d fire a shot. I’d compare the hit to the aiming point and crank the scope over. If the next one obliterated the dirt clod, I’d then pick one of the targets and fire a shot.

Scope Mount Base Zeroing
Make sure the scope mount, or base, is solidly attached to the rifle. If not, your zero won’t be. This is a Scout Rifle setup, but the same rule applies: It must be solid.

From there, it was simple: Plot the hit, make a correction and fire another shot. I could, when things worked out, get a rifle on-center in three shots. If it took more, then I’d shoot more. When a target got too many hits on it to keep track (even plotting the hits on a chart on the shooting bench, it got messy), I’d switch to the next target. Each target was good for two, three or four rifles.

It’d take me a couple of hours to zero a truckload of rifles. I’d stack them back in their cases, in the truck, and get back to the shop to write them up and put them in the rack.

When doesn’t the dirt-splash method work? When the light or the condition of the dirt doesn’t let you see the splashes. Back before cheap digital video, this was sometimes a problem. Now, I’d just set up a camera, video the shot into the dirt and play it back. Sometimes, technology is wondrous. Sometimes.

Scope Rings Zeroing
The scope rings must be tight enough to hold the scope securely. If not, it’ll slip or vibrate, and both mean a non-zero zero.

Last-Resort Troubleshooting

What if a rifle just won’t zero? There are a few reasons that are simple … and one that you don’t want to be telling people about. First, check the action screws. If it’s a bolt-action rifle, are the screws holding it in the stock all tight? If it’s a two-piece stock, is the stock tight and the forearm snug? Loose screws cause problems. Yes, obvious, I know, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t check.

Next, check the scope mount and ring screws. Anything loose here causes problems.

I was at a gun writer event and took a few shots on a manufacturer’s .338 Lapua, at a steel plate in the next zip code. My third shot was high-right. “Hmm, I held center on that.” My spotter remarked, “It did the same thing, low-left, to me.” Yep, a loose scope base was the problem.

So, check those screws and make sure they’re tight. A busted scope? There’s nothing you can do about that but send it back to the manufacturer.

Action Screws
The action screws must be tight or your accuracy will go away. It might not change the zero, but a “zeroed” rifle that shoots 10-inch groups is rarely useful.

The last one is simple: wrong ammo. In an AR-15, putting “green tip” 62-grain ammo in a 1:12 twist rifle will get you keyholes at 25 yards and nothing on paper at 100. There are some rifles with too-slow twists, and if you aren’t careful, using a bullet that’s too heavy can cause problems.

But the classic instance I experienced was a customer who brought in his Marlin lever-action because “it won’t hit the target.” I checked it out, took it to the range, and printed three shots touching at 50 yards, on-center. He picked it up and, later that afternoon, came back saying, “Won’t hit the target.” I finally got around to asking about his ammo, and he produced an ancient box of .30-30 170-grain soft-points. That’s great deer ammo, but it’s not at all suited for a rifle chambered in .35 Remington. He had only ever known of lever-action rifles being chambered in .30-30 Winchester, so that was the ammo he bought for his new rifle. No wonder it wouldn’t hit the target. A .308-inch bullet going down a .358-inch bore isn’t going to receive much in the way of guidance or stabilization.

In a pinch (but I don’t recommend it), you can get a good zero from prone, with a support under your off-hand … but do it only if that’s the only choice.

You Get to Define Accuracy

Oh, and how much is “enough” accuracy?” That depends. I had another customer who, by the 1980s, had gotten a deer each hunting season since the Eisenhower administration. His kids were embarrassed at how grubby his rifle was, and finally prevailed on his bringing it in for a cleaning and checkup.

It was a worn-to-white-steel Winchester 94 rifle in .32 Special. I scrubbed it up, checked the bore and, just out of curiosity, took it to the range. That rifle shot 8- to 10-inch groups at 100 yards. When he picked it up, I mentioned that I had range-tested it. “You didn’t change my sights, did you?” Nope. But how did he get a deer each year with accuracy like that. “I neck-shoot them in the swamps” was his reply.

Zeroing Target
If this is your 25-yard target, then you are in business. From this, you can adjust to be on paper at 100 yards.

Well, 8 to 10 inches at 100 yards doesn’t seem like much, but if you’re ghosting in the swamp and shoot a deer at 50 feet, you have plenty of accuracy. The man was a hunter, not a rifleman.

So, when you’re fussing over your zero, trying to get the last half-inch of precision at 100 yards, keep in mind that the “A” zone of a whitetail is about the size of a basketball. If you can keep your shot within 3 or 4 inches of your point of aim, you’re going to get the job done. Well, the shooting part. Then, there’s the tracking, tagging, cleaning and hauling.

Once your rifle is zeroed, the rest, of course, is on you.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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