Sunday, August 25, 2013

Cheap guns, the good the bad, and the ugly.

A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon-so long as there is no answer to it- gives claws to the weak 
      -George Orwell

Have you ever used a Hi-Point?  I’ve handled a few of them, and if it weren’t for a few Cook County busybodies I’d probably own one of their carbines.  Now I’m quick to say that their reputation as ugly ducklings is well deserved.  Their pistols in particular have an odd sort of top heavy look to them and aesthetics that are vaguely reminiscent of B movie scifi props.  But before you get the opinion that I don’t like them, let me make it clear that I’m actually a fan.  Not because of their looks or their performance, but because of their cost.  

As shooters, it’s easy for many of us to dismiss inexpensive guns as junk or Saturday night specials, but if you look at the firearms owned by ordinary citizens over the years, the importance of ‘cheap’ guns is hard to dismiss.  

Take the wild west for example.  The images we conjure up are full of iconic cowboys with six-shooters, lever actions, and coach guns; but for all the cowboys and horses in the west you also had merchants, book-keepers, tradesmen, and other townsfolk who weren’t likely to need a big six shooter on their hip, but still wanted something that they could use for self defense.  Many of these folks got a bulldog.

No, no...not even close.  we’re still talking about guns.

The “British Bulldog” was a basic double action revolver who’s design can be traced back to Webley.  These had a reputation as being good, reliable handguns.  But most of the “British Bulldogs” in circulation weren’t made by Webley, but rather by small shops throughout Europe, and particularly in Belgium.  A few gunsmiths with mostly hand tools, could turn simple forgings into functional firearms, have them proof stamped, and then send them off to foreign markets by the dozen.  

Most Belgian copies were not particularly long lived.  ‘Soft’ parts would wear quickly, giving way to timing and lockup problems, but as long as they were seldom used and kept clean, they were likely to work when called upon. They were usually small enough to fit into almost any pocket discreetly, and though they weren’t likely to be accurate at ranges much beyond arms reach, the stout looking big bore barrels gave plenty of incentive to leave the wielder alone.

The evolution of cheap guns paralleled their more expensive counterparts.  While Smith and Wesson turned out high quality top break revolvers, their neighbors at Harrington and Richardson turned out budget minded copies.  Many of these designs were nearly identical to their better known counterparts.  Their differences were most likely to be in fit & finish, metallurgy, and heat treatment.  

Like the (Belgian) British bulldogs, they were not likely to hold up well if shot regularly, but they still served a purpose. 

Someone of average means could save up a few dollars and order one of these from the Sears catalog, and have a functional sidearm for much less than the cost of a higher quality brand.  

This little example (if you choose to believe the story) spent most of its life under a cash register in a Chicago hardware store, just in case of ‘trouble.’  I don’t know if was ever called upon to protect its owner, but aside from a little cosmetic wear, it’s lovely, and quite functional.  I certainly wouldn’t choose it as a primary self defense tool, but I would be confident in its functionality as such.  

So, “EJ” you say, “These seem like short lived but functional tools.  Has the whole ‘Saturday Night Special’ thing been overblown?”

Not exactly.  Proponents of gun control often apply the SNS label a bit too liberally for my taste, but there are certain firearms that do constitute a safety hazard, and not just to people in front of the muzzle.  

Meet the Valor SM-11.  It belongs to a class of firearm which has only two design requirements: 1.  Be a firearm. 2. Be cheap.

I see these occasionally come up for sale, and they are usually in one of two conditions.  They’re either parts guns, or mint in box with a nearly full box of vintage ammo.  The way I see it, some people bought the gun, shot a magazine or two to see how it worked, then put it in a drawer for the rest of its life.  Anyone who continued to shoot one of these likely broke it a box or two of ammo down the line.  

The owner of this example lost the front of the slide downrange using ordinary factory ammo.  “What’s that?” you say…”Is that, pot metal?”  

No, it’s probably Zamak, which is just a fancy way to say high strength pot metal. 

Apparently in order to avoid the cost of forging or machining the frame and slide, they were die cast instead.  It’s a much faster, cheaper process, but Zamak is a lousy material due to its brittleness and corrosion problems.  The cost cutting didn’t stop there.  Compare the internal workings of the SM-11 to the much higher quality Colt 1908 parts.  

The moving parts in the Colt were milled, heat treated and usually ground to a good finish.   Now you may not need to have such a clean finish on every part of a more budget oriented gun, but remember, these are the bits that keep the gun from going 'bang' when it's not supposed to...they should at least be fairly rugged.

In the Valor, there are several parts made from stamped sheet metal and a few made from plastic (including the safety)  A quick check with a file makes it clear that the steel bits, maybe aside from the barrel, were not heat treated.
The design itself is not actually that bad.  It’s a rip off of the Walther Patent Model 9, which is a perfectly decent little pistol.  The Valor is easy to assemble, somewhat ergonomically sound, and (aside from the undersized safety lever) functional.  It’s the choice of materials that makes it a nightmare.  Between the brittle slide and the plastic safety block, I don’t think I would ever want to fire one of these, much less carry it.

Now contrast the SM-11 to the ‘cheap gun’ of today.  The Hi-Point is still an ugly duckling, but it’s quite rugged. Iraq Veteran tried to destroy one of these and pretty much had to turn it into a pipe bomb to do it.  

The pistols may not have a spotless reputation but from what I've both seen and heard they run great so long as you use hot ammo and don't limp wrist. And if you think the stock factory trigger isn't quite your speed, it's actually not too complicated to polish up the sliding surfaces to make them pull smoothly.  (Note: Use caution, just because you saw it on YouTube doesn't make it a good idea!!)  If you're still not confident, shoot one to prove it to yourself and practice clearing stovepipes just in case (you should be doing that anyway!)

No, Hi-Point doesn't do fancy, they aren't pretty, and they won't get oohs and aahs at the range, but they won't cost you a fortune, They're made right here in the USA, and they won't fall apart when you use them

When I look at it in that light, I’m actually quite glad that there are affordable guns like the Hi-Point.  
They make it affordable to have ‘claws!’