Category Archives: Weapons Education

Land of the Lost… Guns: Afghanistan

So, we saw this at Miguel’s, which led us to Fox News, which led us to the Washington Times, which still didn’t give up the primary source document. We wanted the primary source document because the numbers in the Times’s story didn’t add up.

The essential claims in these media versions of the story are:

  1. The Afghans have lost or sold off tens of thousands of the guns we gave them; and,
  2. The databases are poisoned with many duplicates; and,
  3. Most or many of the US-provided weapons were never entered in the database; therefore:
  4. Accountability for weapons in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANA/ANP) is nonexistent.

Here are the numbers as we pulled them from the report, and as the media spun ‘em:

The narrative is that the Afghan National Army has lost tens if not hundreds of thousands of small arms, and that as a result We Are Doomed. It took some doing (anyone who thinks Obamacare’s website was uniquely mishandled has spent no time among the web gardens of the .gov or .mil) but we did unearth the document.

Two Databases Stood Back-to-Back, Refusing to Say a Word…

The problem is at once more complex, more nuanced, and more interesting than that. And for gloom and doom fans, we’re probably still doomed. The bottom line is that the US’s incredibly complex and inefficient inventory systems, which famously do not talk to one another, also don’t mesh with the inventory system we provided to Afghanistan. Three completely different (and fundamentally incompatible) IT systems track US-provided small arms in OEF. Those systems include:

  • SCIP, the Security Cooperation Information Portal, used in the USA by logisticians supplying materiel to American allies worldwide.
  • OVERLORD, the Operational Verification of Reliable Logistics Oversight Database, developed in-country by the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), the latest of several names for the US training HQ in-country.
  • CoreIMS, the Core Inventory Management System, a US-spec COTS inventory database that has been foisted off on our valiant Afghan allies.

Here’s a graphic from that famous primary source document that the Times and Fox wouldn’t show you, preferring to predigest your informational meal. (Here’s a link to the document: SIGAR 14-84.pdf. We’ve saved a copy in case the link goes  tango uniform). This shows what the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction thinks the process is:

dod_weapons_inventory_process

 

So what we have turns out to be, not vast numbers of guns vanishing as they take each step along the pipeline, but three different and incompatible databases having data that are at odds with one another.

Which database is right? Who knows? Could be any of them. Or none of them! In fact, all three databases could have wide discrepancies, and yet none of them have totals close to what actually exists in inventory.

But it turns out, if you actually read the SIGAR report instead of act like a Media Luminary and Skim Until Shocked, the auditors did that, and as it turns out, some of the numbers are before they deep-dove the data, and some of the numbers don’t represent what they appear to represent. Yes, Afghan inventories are a mess, but they’re not the mess the news stories describe. A spot check of weapons in storage at the ANA Kandahar depot, for example, found the weapons in the crates the database said they’d be in, and traced every weapon back in inventories that matched the weapons on site. A similar exercise at the ANP 22 Bunkers Depot appeared to have similar results, but the inspectors didn’t have time to complete the inspection.  True, other depots and units had more fragmentary records, and the ANA Central Supply Depot’s records were far off from what was inventoried on site. But by Afghan standards, it wasn’t all that bad.

Remember that the idea of weapons inventories was something that Afghans have never done, except when compelled by Soviet or NATO allies. That they don’t do it as well as the US DOD, while using a stack of incompatible and user-hostile systems imposed from outside, shouldn’t shock anybody.

If you’re an old Afghan hand, one fundamental error in this whole process will have jumped out at you from the very beginning: trying to impose a sophisticated Western computer system (actually, multiple systems; a fourth incompatible database called ULTRA, Universal Listing of Transactions for Record Accounting, is under construction for the ANP) on a nation of Iron Age illiterates. Illiteracy was 94% to 97% when we first went into Afghanistan (the Taliban had closed all schools except madrassas). Illiterates make weak computer operators, something that American loggies never considered for a minute before deciding to spin up the Afghans in Microsoft World. Results predictable:

According to CSTC-A officials, efforts to develop the capabilities of ANSF personnel to manage the central depots have been hindered by the lack of basic education or skills among ANSF personnel and frequent turnover of Afghan staff.

Gee, there’s a shocker. We impose US-style personnel turbulence and military bureaucracy on an ally where most of the population is illiterate and borderline innumerate, and as Wilkins Micawber might say, “results, misery.”

The Duplicate Serials Problem: Not Such a Big Deal

Then, there’s the duplicate serial numbers problem , which comes to rise for two reasons:

  1. The procurers, developers and operators of the system did not understand that different weapon makes and models may indeed use the same serial numbers, and different manufacturers may use the same serial numbers for their versions of the same firearm, and so they erred in trying to use serial number by itself as a unique key;
  2. Lack of communication between databases

Even the authors of the report don’t seem to find that their discovery of some duplicate numbers is meaningless. Here’s their table from the report:

sigar_serial_number_dupes

¡Ay, Chihuahua! (Old Afghan phrase). Yes, it’s not just an Afghan thing to have two weapons with the same serial number. Heck, the USA did it:

M1 Rifle Serial 1,608,803: these two receivers were sold by CMP at auction recently.

M1 Rifle Serial 1,628,802: these twin receivers were sold by CMP at auction recently.

Someone who knows weapons can clear these three discrepancies in about two tenths of a second. Like this:

  • DX2383 needs to be reconciled by eyes-on physical inventory, because it’s possible that this represents two different guns, but because an AMD-65 is a variant of AK-47, it’s equally possible that this is one gun described two ways. Several manufacturers made AK variants using serial numbers of this pattern, so only physical inventory can establish whether we’re talking about one gun or two here.
  • 178203 is obviously two different weapons, and a properly constructed database would not confuse an M203 with an M249 of the same serial number.
  • A598 is the very same problem, Russian-designed-weapons style.

As anyone who’s ever accounted for any significant quantity of firearms can tell you, serial numbers are only likely to be unique on a single type (i.e. make/model/caliber) of weapon made for a single customer by a single manufacturer. Now, we’re not sure what other US arms have duped serial numbers like the M1 example above. (We know M16A1 rifles and XM177 “submachine guns” had absolutely unique numbers because manufacturers had independent sN blocks).

But this duplication is spun by SIGAR, in their ignorance of firearms, as a major problem, and it is spun in turn by the media as a Chicken Little sky-is-falling moment. It’s only a problem because the database designers and auditors are ignorant of the limits of serial numbering.

We certainly admit that the SIGAR report does identify some real challenges facing Afghan services on weapons-inventory issues, and it points up the poor visibility into those issues that US service elements, including CSTC-A, have into Afghan inventories. As far as the weaknesses of Afghan inventory controls are concerned, this is news to us in which way? We were pleasantly surprised to see that some Afghan National Police elements are tracking their assigned weapons using Microsoft Excel. This means they have some literate cops, who can even use computers — that’s miles ahead of 2002, let us tell you. But the SIGAR is shocked by this, and by the fact they’re not using some high-dollar, centralized, fiddly data management system instead of Excel.

Crawl, walk, run, people. Trying to drop Afghans into RDBMS management when they not only haven’t got the hang of Excel, but are largely utterly unlettered, is asking for trouble.

One is reminded of Lawrence’s maxim not to do things for the locals, but to let them do it themselves, however imperfectly.

What would a WWII US Weapons Collection cost?

soldier with M1One of the questions that a novice collector faces is: what to collect? While it’s good to follow your heart, the fact is that unless you”ve got the resources of an oil sheik you can’t actually buy one of everything. Even a millionaire has a finite budget, even if his is larger than, say, a grocery clerk’s.

So it helps to follow your head as well as your heart, and it helps to have a theme for your collection. Some collections can be deep and entertaining with a single subject, if it’s a big one: Lugers, for instance, or Springfield rifles. But right now, American World War II weapons are riding a wave of great popularity. With the WWII generation themselves gradually going the way of rifle clubs in middle school and the 48-star flag, you’d think interest in World War guns would wane, as did, say, collector interest in Model A Fords when the elderly car collectors who remembered them from new passed on. But WWII weapons haven’t seen such a collapse in interest. If anything, more people are interested than ever before, thanks perhaps to the availability of new books and movies on the subject.

A Theme: First Step on the Way to a Plan

So let’s take up the US World War II theme, and imagine a collection. A theme is the first step on the way to a plan. A plan is the theme made concrete with priorities and a budget. The collection itself becomes, then, the plan executed. One practical way to proceed (especially for a young collector just starting out) is to get “representative” pieces at first, and then later upgrade them for higher-quality and better-condition guns. This approach will cost considerably more than just buying the very best quality example you can right from the outset, but if you are young and just starting out, you may not have the resources to do so.

Best of all: every one of these guns is available, uses readily-acquired ammunition, and is safe and fun to shoot.

M1_Carbine_Mk_I_-_USA_-_Armémuseum

In this post, we’ve defined a core collection, a complete collection, and an extended collection of World War II US Arms, and we’ll cover each set in turn. The core collection are the most important and familiar weapons used by US forces in the 1941-45 war: rifles, carbine, and pistol. The complete collection adds the remaining Title 1 standard arms that were issued by midwar, according to our reference: War Department Technical Manual, TM 9-2200: Small Arms, Light Field Mortars, and 20-mm Aircraft Guns, dated 11 October 1943. (As a bonus, we’ll provide the reference as a download. Its table of references defines the period Standard Nomenclature Lists and Technical Manuals for all standard WWII weapons to that date). The extended collection gets you the Class III individual weapons, some unusual variants and oddball weapons that were used without being standard.

Core Collection

The most important and familiar weapons used by US forces in the 1941-45 war.

Weapon

Type

Estimated Cost

Collectors’ Notes
M1 Garand

Rifle

$1,300

A lot of M1s are post war. Try to get a wartime one, but you can always start with a later gun as a “representative M1″and work your way to a wartime example. Best value is still with CMP.
M1 Carbine

Rifle

$1,200

Again, you can save with a postwar, reimport, or reproduction. But they don’t have the collector appeal, and may not hold value.
M1911A1

Pistol

$1,300

For generations these pistols were commodities, and a lot of them have been Bubba’d. Take your time to find an original one.
Totals

3

$3,800

That’s the basic weapons of the D-Day rifle squad for you, minus the BAR.

M1911A1bSo there you have it: you can have the basics of WWII collecting, average pieces, for under $4k. If you want to add something exotic, you can pluck one “halo gun” from the next installment of this story, like a semi BAR as a collection centerpiece. (We will include the BAR in the next installment of this story — the Complete Collection). You could make your collection tentpole a 1919A4 in semi for a similar amount, maybe a little less. Or you could spend a little over a thousand for a repro semi Thompson, but again, a repro is not going to keep pace with inflation the way an original gun does. The problem is, the originals are NFA weapons, meaning that some people can never own them in their home states, and that they are extremely expensive, compared to Title I firearms of the same value. Hence, the appeal of semi reproductions.

These three guns are not only of great historical significance, they are also, each one, remarkable pieces of industrial history, and there’s a great deal to be learned about their design and manufacture, with two of the greatest gun designers who ever lived being represented here, John M. Browning and John Garand. Browning was extremely prolific and Garand is remembered almost exclusively for the M1 Rifle, but that’s enough. The third gun, the M1 Carbine and its designer David Williams, is a bit of a sleeper. Williams is an interesting character, the only major gun designer to be a former convict.

Each gun made an impact historically, as well. Few guns have inspired more copies than the M1911; the M1 Rifle provided much of the design of the follow-on M14, still in limited service today; and the M1 Carbine’s gas system was also widely copied, including in that same M14.

This little collection is enough to get anyone started in a fine collection of World War II weapons.  The guns are extremely likely to hold their value, if maintained, and they can be shot for fun, making history come alive. The collection can be acquired one gun at a time, if $4k is beyond your immediate reach. We’d recommend the pistol first, carbine next — not the other way round because carbines are in a bit of a bubble right now — and then the M1, but really, you should buy them as the opportunity strikes or in the order that you like the guns. You will find that together they tell a more coherent and complete story than they do individually.

Do they seem expensive? That depends. Are you looking at 2014 prices from the viewpoint of 1984 prices, or 2044 prices?

Tune in tomorrow for the second of three installments, the Complete Collection.

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Soldier Systems

Screenshot 2014-07-23 22.17.21If you were to Google soldiersystems site:weaponsman.com, you’d see we’ve cited this useful site from time to time, but it’s never been our W4. How we overlooked it, we’re not sure. Time to rectify that oversight.

About 90% of what’s on Soldier Systems.net is press releases from military, weapons, tactical-gear (and “tactical” gear) vendors, and that kind of thing. Think of it as a kind of heads-up, a PEO Soldier for the rest of us. There’s also a little filler or crap — airsoft and other toys and novelties. Hey, their site, their rules, and it’s easy enough to scroll past the greasy kid stuff and on to useful things.

But while they usually just deliver the facts as they’re given ‘em, it’s on the occasions when they go into depth that they’re most interesting to us. An example is their SHOT Show coverage.

Still, they have incredibly weird and wonderful stuff all the time, because the range of press releases they suck in include not only the usual guns, and knives, and 300 variations of crap made of Cordura, but also oddities like Chain Mail Shoes (why? Well, why not?) and the Cash Cannon (a clever idea, but it’s either out of stock or vaporware).

Chill out, it’s only ionizing radiation

radioactive_symbolRecommended from the Comments — straight talk about soi-disant Dirty Bombs.

Recently we read a novel that climaxed as the heroes tried to stop a hostile force from using a radioactive weapon in an American City (think it was NYFC). And the radiation from this thing… had flesh falling off their bones in minutes as they tried to set it up, and then it set the building on fire.

With its radiation, you see.

There are novelists who do research, and then… there was that guy.

Anyway, Larry Grimm, who comments here from time to time, is a health physicist. We think it’s fair to say he’s learned more about the physiology of ionizing radiation than we have, and we know we know it better than that novelist fellow. Here’s a repost of a Q&A with Larry from seven years ago.

Q: What is the biggest concern from a radiological dispersion device?
A: Two things: the irrational fear it can induce and the expense of cleanup. The possibility of the radiation actually hurting anyone is quite small. We fear what we do not understand, sometimes irrationally. The concepts of radiation are poorly taught in high school, and the only other radiation information we get has been sensationalized by Hollywood, politicians, and those looking to make a buck off of our lack of education. You can beat the fear by learning how radiation works and how to manage it safely (protection techniques). Fear and panic kill people, as any good Marine knows. Radioactive materials are chemicals. Sometimes it is easy to clean them up, sometimes hard. For example, cleaning oil off concrete is hard, but picking up chunks of metal is easy. Fortunately, it only takes a radiation detector to find the radioactive material, so it is easier to find and clean up than a non-radioactive chemical. Likely, the biggest problem will be economic disruption while cleanup takes place. Radiation dispersion devices are really disruption, not destruction, weapons.

Q: What steps should I take if a radiological dirty bomb goes off in the area?

A: There are four simple protection techniques: Contamination control, distance, shielding and time. Contamination control and distance are the most useful techniques in a bomb situation.

Remember to help others first. Radioactive materials are rarely immediately life threatening. The worst-case terrorism scenarios indicate that there would not be enough radioactive material to cause immediate harm. Did you ever feel anything or see an effect from getting an X-ray? In 99.999% of radiation exposures, no effect is felt or seen. If I went towards the blast area to help someone, I would not fear the radiation. However, I would be cautious and respectful of the radiation. Therefore, I would use the following techniques no matter if I was escaping the area, trapped in the area, or going in to help.

Contamination control: Keep the radioactive chemical off and out of your body. Button up clothing and wear a mask (or anything to cover nose and mouth.) A radioactive material is always a chemical, which behaves like the chemical wants to behave. The distance technique is the best protector in a dirty bomb scenario. However, if I need to be near the source, or if I am downwind of the blast, I will first practice contamination control. If I suspect that I swallowed or inhaled the chemical, but do not feel ill, I would later seek professional help. Radiation effects take a long time to show up, and I wouldn’t want to add to the congestion at the hospital. However, there could be a nasty chemical associated with a radioactive bomb, so if I felt even slightly ill, I would seek medical help in a hurry.

Distance: In even the worst bomb scenario, you would be safe from the radiation if you get just a couple blocks away and get upwind of potential airborne material. Think of it as standing next to a campfire – get too close to the heat radiation, and it could burn you, but if far enough away, you do not get any heat. Exactly like a campfire, you do not want to be in the smoke, so get upwind. The most likely radioactive material in a dirty bomb would be Cobalt or Cesium. If the terrorist could somehow manage to get 10,000 Curies in the bomb, you only need to be about 300 yards (three football fields) away to be safe from the radiation. If you are not downwind or near the dispersion area, you are safe. Do not “head for the hills”. Leave the roadways open so emergency responders can get through.

Shielding: Anything acts as a shield – a building, a car, a hill, et cetera. Your major concern is gamma radiation. Imagine the gamma as a radio wave. When don’t you get a radio signal? When you are in the middle of a building, in a basement, behind a hill, et cetera. Whatever shielding decreases a radio signal will decrease gamma rays. I handled 12 million curies of Cesium (a 1000 times more than a possible bomb) with a mere 20 feet of water for shielding, and I got no dose!

Time: The less you are around the radiation, the less dose you will get. As most people would use distance, and get away in a hurry, they already used the time technique by not hanging around the radiation. Emergency responders may need to use this technique, and all across the US, they are receiving training on how to use it.

“LEARN ABOUT RADIATION, AND THE FEAR OF IT WILL MELT AWAY. TERRORISTS FEED ON FEAR. FEAR IS BONDAGE, KNOWLEDGE IS FREEDOM.”

Emphasis was Larry’s, but we concur about 10 thousand percent. Do Read The Whole Thing™, as there’s a lot more sense in there, and it’s a bugle in a wilderness of nonsense.

For what it’s worth, we’re not ready to die, but we live about six or seven miles from a known nuclear target. We understand that Risk = Probability X Severity. Assuming a hit on the target, and a typical strat warhead, Severity is less than you’d think; and Probability is one of those things that really rounds to zero, especially when you figure the CEP of the bomb and the fact that it has only perhaps a 1 in 4 chance of its error from baseline bringing it closer to the Manor.

We used to live just about in the shadow of a coastal nuclear power plant. (Actually, we’ve lived near a few of them over the years). But you know, decades after the nuclear age was rung in, there are still more deaders from riding with Senator Kennedy, or falling off the high-wire, or being hit by a falling Concorde, than from nuclear power plants.

Does radiation need respect? Yes. Does it need fear? No. More of the people reading this are going to die from bad choices with respect to diet and exercise than just about anything else. We take a lot bigger risk when saddling up the bicycle (with or without a helmet, latest stats seem to say it’s about a wash) than we do living near strat nuke targets, or nuclear power plants.

Can you die from radiation? Hell, yes. Rare but it happens, like when uneducated people go fooling with abandoned radiomedical equipment, in this case in Brazil (.pdf) in 1985. But even most of the exposed people in that case lived. Unfortunately, an awful lot of people were subjected to nuclear war terror propaganda back in the 50s through the 80s, and now have a completely unrealistic idea of what radiation does.

Like make your skin fall straight off, and set you on fire.

 

It’s time to show Jerry Miculek being cool

Now, our usual reaction to Hollywood dual-wielding gunplay is the same kind of sneering that Simon Pegg’s character gets to early in Hot Fuzz, when he’s still a responsible police officer who takes firearms seriously, not influenced by Hollywood tropes, unlike the character asking him.

But if you’re Jerry Miculek, you can pull it off. And actually hit stuff:

Frankly, we wish we shot like this guy back when we shot as much as this guy.  (Of course, we had never heard of Jerry then, and just wished we could shoot like Paul Poole. Whose reaction was: “Bwah-haw-HAW! Boy, you ain’t gonna ever shoot like me. Instead, we gonna make you a 79 gunner — you need an AREA FIRE WEAPON! Bwah-haw-HAW!” RIP, Paul; YSMFDYND, ‘cept you did).

Anyway, can you do what Jerry does here? Don’t think we can. Pretty sure we’re not gonna try.

True, he didn’t do it “whilst leaping through the air,” as Nick Frost’s character asked Pegg, but we’d hate to call Jerry on that, ’cause he might pull it off, too.

Best supporting role: the SIG arm brace (or equivalent), which turns any AR pistol into an effective cousin of the innovative but commercially unsuccessful Gwinn/Bushmaster Arm Pistol.

The Brief Moment of the Revolving Carbine

This past weekend, the 200th anniversary of Samuel Colt’s birth (19 July 1814) was celebrated by a bunch of Connecticut arts types, in nearly gun-free Connecticut fashion. If any of these professional irony enjoyers noted the irony, they didn’t say anything about it. But that’s got us looking at some of Sam’s accomplishments, and that brought us around to one of Colt’s least successful products: revolving carbines.

In the middle of the 19th Century, the best and greatest means of rapid fire was the revolving pistol. It seems like a natural idea to extend that to a revolving rifle or carbine; and this, Sam Colt did, as early as 1839. This brief (minute and a half!) video shows an extremely rare 1839 .52 caliber Colt that actually was one of a mere 360 acquired by the US Navy, and is now in the possession of the National Firearms Museum:

This Paterson Colt carbine was made from 1838 until 1841, and apart from the Naval guns, which may have been used by the Marines at the Siege of Veracruz in the Mexican War, too late to do that version of Colt’s company any good: the Paterson firm went bankrupt, and Colt had to start over. He retained his patents, so that whatever happened to his companies, the crown jewels were safe with him and his family. (This was prescient of him, for he was to die young).

The Mexican War not only gave the Marines a new direction (the landing at Veracruz was the first of what would become a standing Leatherneck specialty, amphibious landings on defended shores), but it resuscitated Colt, due to a military order for 1,000 revolvers, which were delivered before war’s end and are known as the Colt Walker revolvers.

The refreshed Colt Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company had a new, improved carbine by 1855, incorporating all of Colt’s new patents, and was producing it, and the more popular revolving pistols, in a new Armory building that was the marvel of Hartford, in a planned industrial community on an area of reclaimed land (note the berms or dikes in the image below). The area that encompassed all of the Colt factory, its workers’ housing, and Colt’s own grande manse was officially called the “South Meadow Improvements” but came to be known as Coltsville.

colt-armory-color-retouch-H

 

The carbine had two problems, both insurmountable from the military point of view. It was very expensive (the 1855 carbines cost the military $44 each, $1,189 in 2014 dollars), and, while it was safe if loaded and fired with care, a flash-over that was not usually that big a disaster with a revolving pistol had the potential for shredding a rifleman’s support hand. If there is a right way and a wrong way to load a weapon, no organization made of humans will ever be able to train 100% of its people to do it right 100% of the time.

When the Armory burned down in 1864, a $2 million plus ($54M plus 2014) loss of inventory, machinery and jigs to Colt, of which about $1.4 million ($38M) was excess to insurance carried, the remaining plant was used to manufacture pistols exclusively; the demand for Colt revolvers was inelastic, and repeating cartridge firearms on the horizon rendered the revolving rifle or carbine obsolete. The total production of the Colt carbines was very low; the 1855 was scarcely more produced than the 1839 version.

After the Civil War, Remington produced a version of its revolver as a carbine, also finding it disappointing in sales, although not as much so as the Colt version had been.

Since the 1960s, several versions of replica Colt and Remington carbines have been made. These are more frequently collected, from what we’ve seen, than fired; used ones usually have far more handling marks than they do indicia of firing.

The great Cap and Ball Channel from Hungary has posted three great videos on two carbines, an original Colt and an Uberti copy of a Remington.

Part 1, about the Colt (~6 minutes). The music is pretty awful, especially when it isn’t ducked under the voice, but the analysis of the unique mechanics of the gun makes it well worthwhile:

Some of the unique features of this .44 caliber Colt 1855 include progressive depth rifling, and a cylinder that is rotated by a ratchet on the rear end of the cylinder pin. This gun may be a bit off the military norm, as it appears to have been a sporting gun originally sold in Europe (it bears English proofs).

Part 2, about the Uberti clone of the Remington (~3 minutes):

Part 3, both are taken to the range (yes, even the very valuable original Colt) and shot for accuracy. If you’re only going to watch one video, this is the one. It also shows loading with loose powder and conical bullets, but also with period-style paper cartridges, which is how the real Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs would have done it. (Not to mention everyone else who went to war with percussion, like the British, French and Russians in the Crimean War, all manner of 19th Century naval riflemen, and the British in the Afghan Wars). This one’s about six and a half minutes.

The Capandball.eu site and associated YouTube channel is a real find, but we didn’t want to wait for a TW3 to show it to you.  If we have any beef with the chance to watch the two percussion revolver carbines on the range, it’s that he didn’t quantify their accuracy. But they look like fun, and one’s a sample of a moment in time that will never be repeated — the other shows us that the artifacts can be repeated, even if the times can’t be.

These firearms were an interesting evolutionary dead end (sure, there are cartridge versions, even a Taurus Judge carbine, but these are dead ends, too — curiosities). They came about because they were the logical progression combining proven examples of a known technology (the percussion rifle and the percussion revolver) into a hybrid that seemed like it had a bright future. (After all, if you were a cavalryman, or a Pony Express rider, another customer for the Colt ’55, wouldn’t you rather have six shots before facing the difficulty of reloading on horseback than one?). But unbeknownst to Sam Colt, and to his designer and right-hand-man Root, a technological disruption was on its way: new cartridge repeaters were coming that would eliminate all the disadvantages of the revolver carbine.

Root kept Colt relevant with cartridge revolvers, and even before the Colt family sold the company in 1901 new managers were embracing the novelty of the automatic pistol. Like Apple 100 years later, the company had a knack for grabbing hold of a technology that was about to take off in time, before its customers even knew that that was what they would want. But you don’t get to that kind of position without tripping down a few blind alleys. And thus, we have the Colt Revolver Carbine and its clones and imitators, a novelty for collectors and curiosity seekers.

Three Reasons Not to Use the Blackhawk Serpa Holster

100 of these wound up in a landfill. Not doing that risked a lot more of the taxpayers' money.

100 of these wound up in a landfill. Not doing that risked a lot more of the taxpayers’ money.

It is our considered opinion that you should not use this product. Last SF company before retirement bought 90 or 100 of them circa 2003 (an SF company has 84 officers & men if at full strength, plus operational floats) and we discovered the same thing everybody else has: the Serpa has three serious safety-of-use problems, either of which alone would be enough to recommend retiring and destroying the holster and using anything else. Even Mexican carry.

We understand why the Serpa holster was designed. Pistol retention is a serious problem for anyone that tangles hand to hand with hostile persons. The police are more likely than armed forces to throw down mano a mano, but any soldier or Marine in ground combat can wind up in that place, the good old unsought fist fight or grapple-for-the-gun game. Many police forces, and some military units, specify a retention holster for just that reason. But there are a number of ways to design a retention holster. There are three reasons that the Serpa is the wrong way:

Safety of Use Issue #3: Stuck Pistol Syndrome

The Serpa does provide positive retention — sometimes too positive, especially if grit, sand, gravel or mung in general gets into it. If it gets into the retention release mechanism, Jesus Christ Himself isn’t getting that thing open. That’s rather a problem, because if you’re like us, you don’t generally go to unholster a gun until the situation has already gone uncomfortably nonlinear. The only thing worse than pulling your gun too soon is pulling it too late. The only thing worse than pulling it too late is attempting to pull it, and then failing to pull it at all, after signalling that you were going to. This problem by itself should be enough to disqualify this holster family.

Safety of Use Issue #2: It’s Slow

No matter how much you drill, the trigger-finger release is going to be slower than some of your other options. Worse, it’s going to be less consistent, because from time to time you may address the holstered firearm a little differently, and it doesn’t take much change in alignment to miss the flipping catch. If you miss the catch, you have to grope around, all while the clock is ticking. There are holsters that don’t make you do all this, so this problem by itself, also, should also suffice to disqualify this holster family.

Safety of Use Issue #1: Increased ND Risk

This is the biggest Serpa problem that people talk about. By using your trigger finger to disconnect the gun, and then having that finger fall on your trigger you great we increase the odds you’ll touch off a round with the pistol aligned somewhere other than at the proper target.

This video (NSFW but understandable language) shows an experienced shooter having a very typical Serpa ND. In the slo-mo at about 0:57-59 you can see exactly how it happened.

In this case, there was a combination of negative transfer of training from the more conventional 5.11 holster that this shooter used with another pistol, and the Serpa putting his index finger too close to the projectile initiator, too early in the draw sequence. Tex says he doesn’t blame the holster, he blames himself; fair enough, you can’t have an ND without human input. But his tools made the ND easier, instead of raising obstacles to an ND.

As we’ve said, every one of these issues is serious enough to warrant discarding the Serpa holster (and any holster that works like it, with an index-finger release paddle). But the increased ND risk with the Serpa is, in our opinion, the most consequential of these issues and the one that, even if you dismiss the other two, needs to sink in before you have a mishap like Tex’s.

We’re not sure even he knows how lucky he is. Mere inches from the channel that .45 slug dug in his thigh is one of the superhighways of the circulatory system, the femoral artery. A bullet in that artery would have led to his incapacitation in minutes, and ultimately, death, unless the right first aid was available extremely rapidly. He seemed to us to be alone on the range. How often have you shot, alone? It’s a calculated risk.

Doing it with a Serpa makes the calculation all wrong.

It’s not just us

We aren’t the only ones who just say no to Serpa. For example, Paul Howe wrote in 2005:

Another problem … a recent student …. exerted excessive pressure from his trigger finger to the unlock button and when drawing the weapon, drug the finger along the holster and into the trigger guard, discharging the airsoft weapon prematurely into his leg during his draw sequence.

Trigger fingers are just that, for the trigger. I think it should remain straight and have one function, to index the trigger.

Larry Vickers says:

I have banned for almost two years now Serpa style (trigger finger paddle release) holsters from my classes – several other instructors and training facilities have done the same. …. I understand many shooters use Serpa holsters on a regular basis with no issues whatsoever. However an open enrollment class environment has its own set of challenges … and a trigger finger paddle release holster is asking for trouble.

Todd Green in 2011:

At this point, pistol-training.com is going to follow the lead of other instructors such as Larry Vickers and ban the SERPA (and the various cheap knockoffs on the market) from classes beginning in 2012. I have been suggesting to students that they bring something else to classes up until now and will continue that for anyone who is already registered for a class in 2011.

And earlier that year, in reference to the Tex Grebner accident video posted above:

[T]he SERPA retention mechanism certainly lends itself to such accidents more than most other holsters. Instead of keeping your trigger finger well clear of the gun during the initial part of the drawstroke, the SERPA and its clones require you to press your trigger finger toward the trigger as you draw.

A lot more instructors say about the same thing. Travis Haley, Chris Costa, and a lot of guys you never heard of but that have seen these things cause one problem after another even on what should be a routine flat range. Rational Gun has a list of some of them, but Google will find you even more. (For example, RG has a link about the FLETC ban, but we don’t believe he mentioned the IDPA ban on the Serpa).

Yet this thing is still on the market, and people (and worse, agencies) are still buying them. Don’t Be That Guy™.

Three Contenders for the Belt (belt of 5.56 in M27 links, that is)

Here’s Jeff “Bigshooterist” Zimba on belt-fed ARs. You know you’re in for detailed, accurate information and a lot of enthusiasm when Jeff steps up to the camera. You also will get better than the usual YouTube signal-to-noise and filler-to-fact ratios with Jeff on the job:

Jeff’s just slightly mistaken about the original belt-fed, backpack AR-10: it was a pre-Colt Armalite project, and wasn’t picked up by Colt. The video he refers to was a Fairchild promotional video, and here is a version of it. We apologize for the poor quality. The belt-fed version shows up (initially, in Gene Stoner’s hands!) at about 12:30. The weapon’s belt feed does resemble the later Ciener AR-15 conversion, but uses a nondisintegrating belt feed.

Returning to Jeff Zimba’s presentation, his technical points on the Ciener conversion, which is mechanically similar to at least one of the Armalite prototypes, are accurate and informative. It had a number of features that made it rather fiddly, dependent on some design oddities, and generally flawed. Nonetheless, it worked; it could just do with some improvements. Jonathan A. Ciener has been many things in the firearms community, including an innovator; but nobody ever accused him of being keenly attuned to customer sentiment, and the modifications and improvements were left as inspirations to others.

The Valkyrie BSR Mod 1 (BSR = “Belt-fed Semi-automatic Rifle”) is fundamentally an improved Ciener mechanism. The improvements are significant in convenience and function, and Jeff explains them in great detail.

The ARES Shrike is a completely different mechanism that uses a MG-42-like feed mechanism. This gives it some significant advantages over the others. It uses standard links, feeds like every standard belt-fed out there for the last 60-plus years, and can be moved to any standard lower with only one reversible modification (unlike the surgery the Ciener and Valkyrie belts require). Unlike the Ciener and Valkyrie, it alters the AR system to be gas-tappet operated. The operator interfaces with the ARES by a folding, nonreciprocating charging handle on the left side, and an extended bolt release that is the only part that must be changed on a standard AR lower.  The ARES also has quick-change barrels, a necessity for high sustained rates of fire.

All of the weapons Jeff demonstrates also can fire from magazines. Ares Defense does make a version of their belt-fed for military and LE customers that lacks magazine feed, the AMG-1 (the version with both belt and mag feed is the AMG-2. There’s also an AMG version with the quick change barrel and tappet gas system, but mag-fed only).

Jeff doesn’t say, but the Valkyrie and ARES belt-feds are still available. Valkyrie Armament also has the modified M27 links, and belt start and stop tabs that are required by its rifle (they should work with a Ciener conversion, but we’d call Valkyrie to check, before ordering).

Hat tip, the Gun Wire.

Jerry Miculek meets the Original AR-10

The ace competitive shooter briefly got hold of an original AR-10, thanks to Reed Knight of Knight’s Armament Company.

And he shoots it, a little, in this video. He records 633 RPM in a burst, which is about right. The AR-10 is much more controllable in auto fire than other 7.62 NATO firearms, but that’s only relative to such horrid muzzle-climbers as the M14, the FAL, and the G3. (What’s the worst of the bunch? The para G3A3, by miles).

The gun is a “transitional” model with mostly Portuguese features, but the charging handle resembles that used in the Sudanese gun (and is a lot like the ones on Nodak Spud’s AR-15 “prototype” upper receivers) rather than the more complicated Porto one, and the upper lacks a serial number, which all Portuguese guns had.

We’ve known about the original AR-10 for a long time, and like Jerry and Reed, we really like it for its light weight and high quality. We have a semiauto gun built with a billet alloy receiver and an original parts kit, and enjoy it a lot.

Those guns are robust military rifles, and the surviors, mostly Portuguese guns, were subjected to all kinds of abuse in the field. The sophistication of the design is indicated by the fact that the only parts that didn’t hold up were the fiberglass furniture and the barrels — a lot of ex-Porto barrels are pitted, or shot out, but others are in fine condition. The difference was probably the maintenance they got — by and large, Portugal gave these rifles to elite paratroops, which is usually a maintenance plus, but they were used far from home in African guerrilla wars, usually a maintenance minus. It’s a risky gun to buy sight unseen.

Knight is quite correct about the limited production. Artillerie Inrichtingen never earned out the money it invested in AR production, with the only two sales being the small ones to Portugal and Sudan. Its sales arm seemed to be snakebit by bad luck — for example, they negotiated a deal with the armed forces of Cuba, just before Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by Communists. The Cubans not only never paid for the few ARs delivered, they distributed them widely to guerrillas and terrorists. (Indeed, a number were recovered by Cuban-sponsored rebels in the Dominican Republic in 1965. Apart from one or two retained for Army museums, they were destroyed).

By the best estimate, a couple of thousand of original AR-10s survive in whole or in part, mostly in nations that allow or did allow conversion of full- to semi-auto weapons. A number were destroyed in Australia when that country passed several gun bans about 10 years ago. The numbers of AR-10s in the USA may be as low as a hundred registered automatic weapons, and a few hundred semis like ours. So Jerry’s right to be excited about the privilege of firing an original. It’s not like today’s nine and ten pound .308s.

Once, there were millions of original AR-10 magazines available (AI overproduced them), but Knight used them in his initial SR-25s, causing the supply to evaporate. An original magazine now is probably worth more than some guns.

The airplane that Reed Knight talks about after the range session was the Swiss-made Pilatus Porter, which Fairchild manufactured as the Fairchild Porter and, in prototype and short-run mode, as the AU-23 STOL gunship. Oddly enough, the AU-23 production tooling and rights are for sale right now. Drop us a line in comments if you’re interested and we’ll put you in touch with the sellers.

Amateur SWAT is Worse Than Regular SWAT

Fly SwatterA post at Extrano’s Alley reminds us that we’ve been remiss in following up the issues with a Georgia SWAT wrong-house raid that left a child hovering near death for days. The Stranger quotes a gut-wrenching paragraph from an article by the kid’s mother, in Salon:

I heard my baby wailing and asked one of the officers to let me hold him. He screamed at me to sit down and shut up and blocked my view, so I couldn’t see my son. I could see a singed crib. And I could see a pool of blood. The officers yelled at me to calm down and told me my son was fine, that he’d just lost a tooth. It was only hours later when they finally let us drive to the hospital that we found out Bou Bou was in the intensive burn unit and that he’d been placed into a medically induced coma.

via Parents Report On The Child The SWAT Team Blew Up With A Grenade | Extrano’s Alley, a gun blog.

There are some serious training deficiencies evident with these County Mounties from Gaptooth County, GA, and their Good Ol’ Boys SWAT Team an’ Mixed-Race-Kid Huntin’ Club.

Flashbang 101

Let’s begin with what a flash-bang is, what it was invented for, and how to use it. It is an offensive grenade providing a disorienting less-lethal (as we’ve seen in this case, not necessarily non-lethal) explosion that is intended to distract a hostage taker long enough for a CT team’s assaulters or snipers to kill him before he can target them. It was developed for national-level CT assets and Is the sort of weapon you use as an alternative to seeing hostages murdered — it’s a lesser evil.

Here’s the employment scheme for a flash-bang.

  1. With eyes on target, locate an area to throw the grenade in that does not have anyone in it (except perhaps a hostage-taker).
  2. Arm and throw the grenade at that exact spot, while maintaining eyes on target.
  3. Take eyes off target and shield them for blast.
  4. Instantly after blast, make entry. Locate the hostage taker and kill him before he reorients himself.

The weapon was never designed to be used in a case where you are trying to take your opponent alive. Those safety measures (eyes on the place you’re throwing the flash-bang) are there because of the probable presence of individuals who are not your opponents (the opponents are designated to die in any case).

To pass flash-bang certification (required in ethical units/departments to be able to throw the things “for real”), an assaulter has to run that cycle or something very similar, usually involving an instructor on the target making eye contact and seeing that the student’s eyes are searching the room. Throw a flash/bang blind? Never get certified.

Team Operations Require Team Training

Here’s the key to clearing buildings and/or rescuing hostages: it’s a team sport, and apart from individual skills, the team needs the kind of teamwork that only high-intensity and frequent drills produce. The drills only work with the same guys in the same position — the position you play is as important here as it is on, say, a football team or rugby side. You can’t be a lineman one day and a receiver the next, and quarterback some other time. Not if you aspire to membership in the ranks of the professionals.

And Here’s What You Get When You Skip That:

Here’s a few fun facts about the incident that wounded “Bou-bou” Phonesavanh.

  • The individual who threw the grenade in Georgia had no such flash-bang certification. Neither did any of the SWAT members.
  • The thrower had not had any formal training on how to use the grenade, or its capabilities.
  • He’d never thrown one before.
  • The individual never looked in the room, but threw the grenade blind into the toddler’s crib.
  • The SWAT members didn’t just lie to the child’s stressed-out mother, Alecia Phonesavanh. They also lied to their superiors about the incident. Many departments will countenance the former, but not many have much toleration for the latter. (There’s also some question of the integrity of the officers in charge, who have previously been found to falsify records in other cases).
  • The SWAT team was all new and had conducted almost no individual and collective training.
  • They claimed they “knew” there were no children in the house, but no policeman had been in the house, and even their informant had not been inside. They actually had to move a baby stroller and walk past a minivan with four child seats to stack up on the house. Four child seats and a stroller are what an intelligence officer might call “indicators.”
  • News stories say the target of the raid was arrested “later,” but supposedly the investigation has uncovered that he was already in custody when the raid initiated. So the raid took place to grab a guy who was already in the back of a cruiser elsewhere. “Why waste a good (?) raid plan?” seems to have been their rationale.

A previous team with some of the same officers shot an innocent man in 2009, and investigation then determined that some of the officers had had no training but did have pencil-whipped training records. That one cost the taxpayers $2.3 million despite DA Brian Rickman’s efforts to cover it up. He was working to cover this one up, too, so the investigation has been taken out of his untrustworthy hands. There were no consequences to Rickman or county police leadership over the falsified records and cover-up attempt. In retrospect, that was probably one of the errors that led directly to the grave injuries visited on this innocent kid.

Now, the system is going all-out to protect these guys, who are enjoying the traditional non-charged vacation. But if you’re a serious cop who doesn’t want your department to star in a story like this, here are a few pointers:

  1. Know your limitations. If you’re a rural, small department with a tight budget, maybe a SWAT team is not for you, and you’d be better off relying on regional assets or coming up with more creative ways to collect your fugitives and serve your warrants,
  2. Don’t let your desire for shiny war toys from the Pentagon write a check that your training budget can’t cash. Bare minimum proficiency at clearing simple, small buildings can be achieved in three weeks of 16-plus hour days, with the same guys in the same positions. And that assumes that they’re already proficient with the guns they’ll be using. Any more than bare minimum proficiency requires more than this bare minimum training schedule.
  3. Never, ever, turn an officer loose without him having documented and complete training on his weapons systems. Trust, sure, but verify. Not having done that is about to bite the taxpayers of this jurisdiction in the wallet for the second time in four years. At some point, they’ll get tired of writing checks and shake up police leadership.

If you read #3 above and your approach is to make up fictional training and write it in your officers’ personnel jackets, you’re doing it wrong — you’re doing what these clowns did. Don’t be that guy.