Category Archives: Rifles and Carbines

Snipers: feeling obsolete yet?

Young girl (she’s 12, and obviously a good sport). Four ranges (250, 500, 750, 1000). Four rounds. Four hits.

Note that, because of the way TrackingPoint automates range-finding and atmospherics, this is without putting dope on the gun.

Then, she takes a 500-yard target with a single shot — it’s a 3″ plate. Dingg.

The TrackingPoint "Tag" button locks the gun on target.

The TrackingPoint “Tag” button locks the gun on target.

One suspects the video is edited to remove some fiddly creating and erasing of tags. (The way TrackingPoint works is that you “tag” the target with the laser, and the weapon fires when the target and the trajectory are aligned. If your tag is not on target, you don’t have to fire; stay off the trigger, and you can erase it and place a new one as necessary).

Still, if you’re not impressed with this, you haven’t spent time trying to train hard-headed guys to hit targets at these ranges.

There are still things that only an experienced and trained sniper can do. Any SF or Marine sniper will tell you destroying targets with precision rifle fire is only one small part of a very big job. But TrackingPoint does take a lot of the art, and all the voodoo, out of making a long-range shot in real-world conditions.

We’d like to see how it works in the next thousand meters. The first thousand is the milieu of the mountain hunter and the conventional military sniper. Let’s go out where SOF snipers sometimes shoot, out beyond the first mile. That is, of course, of limited utility to hunters (I can’t imagine many in the Western US/Canada, Alaska, or Africa that would want to take 2000-m shots) but it would really be a sweet spot for military sniping.

When did the XM16E1 become the M16A1?

Phillys Missing M16A1For some reason, this seems to be a mystery to many people on internet forums. Worse, many more people in internet forums think they know, but are wrong.

The M16A1 was type-classified on 28 Feb 67. Some time after that Colt changed the rollmark on its lower receivers.

You will never see an authentic H&R or GM Hydra-Matic Division XM16E1. By the time their contracts were concluded in 1968, the M16A1 nomenclature was standard.

Also, the change from XM16E1 to M16A1 is not associated with any of the running changes in rifle production. These changes were very many, and they happened for several reasons. In rough order of the reasons for making a change request, which took a couple of different forms:

  1. The drawing was wrong, and had to be changed to conform to what it should have been. This was the case with a number of the Fairchild Armalite drawings and these changes were mostly made in 1964.
  2. The manufacture of the part had diverged over the years from the drawing, and Colt and the Army agreed that the change was immaterial to the part’s function, so the drawings were altered to conform to the current production part.
  3. Changing the drawing allowed faster, cheaper, or less wasteful production.
  4. This full-fenced XM16E1 was produced between the Lower Receiver Forging change and the nomenclature change -- 1966 to January 1967.

    This full-fenced XM16E1 was produced between the Lower Receiver Forging change and the nomenclature change — somewhere between 5/1966 and 1/1967.

    The Army or another customer asked for a change. An example of this is the improved lower receiver forging, with a protective boss around the magazine release. The Army asked Colt for this, Colt asked permission on 14 Jan 66, and received permission on 16 May 66.  This change is very commonly associated with the change from XM16E1 to M16A1 by online savants, but it’s completely independent. (Colt used its supplies of older forgings on export, law enforcement and semi-auto guns for decades). The closed-end flash suppressor was another one of these. They tended to be approved rapidly, since the Army asked for them in the first place — the closed-end flash suppressor was requested by Colt on 1 Sep 66 and approved on 8 Sep 66.

  5. Parts or guns had been produced which didn’t meet the spec, but were still arguably serviceable. These “after-the-fact waivers” were usually approved after testing documented that the non-compliant parts or guns were OK.
1960s Colt M16 mag (l.) showing spot welds (mag on right is Armalite 25-round prototype).

1960s Colt M16 mag (l.) showing spot welds (mag on right is Armalite 25-round prototype).

Not all requests were approved. Colt and the Army squabbled for years over high cyclic rates, caused when the Army substituted gunpowders, for example. The Army also denied a Colt request to salvage magazines with one or more questionable spot welds by seam-welding the magazines in 1964.

Some changes were very rapid. In 1965, bolts and bolt carriers went quickly from chrome-plated (“electrolized” in Army speak) to Parkerized (actually, “parco-lubrited”) in hopes of getting more durability (actually, they’re parco-lubrited outside, but internal surfaces are still chromed). The bolt carrier keys were still chrome — for a couple of months.  Within three months, they, too, changed to parco-lubrite out and chrome in. So a parkerized bolt carrier with a fully-chromed key, that appears from the staking, etc., to be original, dates itself to early 1965.

three-prong FH 2What happened to the old parts when these changes took place? It depends. If the change wasn’t a big deal, Colt may have been permitted by the contract overseers to use the old parts till exhausted. If the change was a safety or reliability issue, the Army would insist on the better parts. In this case, Colt set the noncompliant parts aside, where possible, to use on export and civilian guns.

This is one reason the three-prong open-end flash suppressor persisted on Colt SP1 rifles for many years after its 8 Sep 66 sunset in military production. Uncle Sam didn’t want them any more, and there was a bin, or drum, or pallet full of the things in the factory already.

What to shoot when there’s nothing to shoot

The ammo box is empty again! Oh noes!

The ammo box is empty again! Oh noes!

Ammunition is coming back into stock, even popular calibers that were hard to find like 9mm and 5.56. The last one to recover is the fundamental .22 Long Rifle rimfire cartridge, but there’s starting to be stock again. What’s got people still feeling like there’s no stock, is that prices remain elevated. For example, .22LR is back in stock, but according to’s bargain aggregator, it’s nowhere near pre-crisis prices. It will vary depending on when you click that link, and where you live (you need to enter a ZIP to get shipping estimates), but for us prices for available ammo ranged from roughly 15¢ per round to well over 50¢ delivered. And some of the low prices required commitment to high quantities of ammo.

Any Econ 101 student could tell you that the high prices are a marker of elevated demand relative to supply. Yet it’s not that busy at the range. Everyone is still stocking more than shooting, we think. There’s still a palpable fear of other shortages, which may be partly paranoia, but it’s also in part the consequence of our shared 2012-13 experience. It’s reasonable to assume that, given some future crisis or new attack on the 2nd Amendment by hostile politicians, ammo supplies may completely dry up again.

A lot of shell-shocked (or maybe it’s lack-of-shells-shocked) or sticker-shocked shooters have just given up. You know we’re not going to recommend that. So what’s the action plan to allow one to continue training when ammo supplies are tight? We have five things for you to think about.

Step I: Recalibrate your Assumptions

Previously, survivalists and high-volume ammo consumers assumed that some ammo would get tight, but that hunting rounds (.22 LR, common centerfire non-military rifle rounds like .30-30, and 12 and 20 gauge shotgun) would remain common, and that ammo produced in large quantities for the military would remain available. The Crunch of 13 shows that’s not the case. You gotta bring your own date to this dance.

That means that the guys stocking up are acting rationally. Just like you should have six months’ wages in the bank (or otherwise set aside) for unexpected contingencies, you should have six months’ ammunition. Indeed, a far-sighted stockpiler might want to bridge the four or eight years of a hostile administration. This is true even if you don’t  consider yourself a prepper — just a shooter. Ask yourself, Am I shooting less? If the answer is “yes,” and for most shooters it is, you need to get the max training benefit from the reduced training time you’re actually getting. The tendency here is to plan around the training time you wish you were getting; be alert for that error and resist it.

Step II: Plan to Rotate Stock

This IS our war stock. What?

This IS our war stock. What?

More people than ever before are keeping large supplies of ammunition on hand. But the guys who have done this all along do something you don’t do: consciously rotate stock. Most shooters I know work on a sort of LIFO logistics: “last in, first out” and when they go out to shoot, take the ammo off the top of the stack — which is usually the most recently purchased. The problem with this is that the contingency ammo further down the stack never gets used. Until it’s really needed.

Now this shouldn’t be a really serious problem, because ammo should last for decades. (Indeed, shells and cartridges that turn up after a century have still been live). And you should store it so that it’s never degraded in any way. But you might not want to count on it.

There is an exception: if you are in a situation where newer ammunition is degraded in quality, you might want to retain pre-crisis ammunition for defensive and other high-priority uses, and blow off the low-qual stuff in training. But generally, you want to run FIFO (first-in, first-out) logistics on your ammo stockpile.

Step III: Obvious Substitutes

There are many substitutes for shooting, some of which are cheap, easy and low-tech.

  • Dry firing is one excellent example. There are many variations of dry firing, including penny drills (balance a penny on the front sight whilst firing for follow-through and flinch control); pencil drills; ball-and-dummy reload drills. There are entire books of dry-fire drills. You will be better at shooting if you follow the procedures in one of these.
  • Air- and bb-guns are a natural substitute that has several benefits. These can be especially good when you’re doing early stages of team tactical training; back in the bad old days when we did HR/CT/CQB and generally cleared buildings with handguns, it was SOP to run the drill first with Crosman or Daisy CO2 pistols. They’re cheap, less likely than even .22s to be subject to shortages or cutoffs, and require very little in the way of protective gear. For rifles, a simple .177 gas-spring single shot gives you a lifetime of shooting for short money; here are a few recommendations from a survivalist blog.  In our experience, airguns styled to look like firearms are less good as guns, meaning less accurate and powerful, than airguns where form follows function.

Here’s a Defense Review video on SIRT pistols and their AR bolt. It was taken in the susurrus of the SHOT show so there’s a mountain of background noise, but it shows you some pros of the SIRT products:

We haven’t tried to use a SIRT with a LaserLyte target. That might be interesting, although it would be nice to see NLT develop a bespoke target for their products.

Step IV: Less Obvious Substitutes

Less obvious substitutes include:

  • Wax bullets, which can be used in pistols and rifles (manually cycling the action) or, where they really shine, revolvers (this gives a new lease on life to those cheap .32 Police Positives cluttering up gun stores). Downsides: you need some minimalist reloading gear and a supply of primers, which in the past year has been as constrained as ammo, and — here is a big one — you need to modify the cases you use with wax bullets in a way that renders them unsafe for live reloading. If you can live with that, especially if you have a centerfire revolver you can use with wax bullets, there’s a number of how-tos like this one out there. We’d want a more positive way of ID’ing the modified casings, is all.
  • Archery, which while it trains different eye-hand specifics, employs very similar brain circuitry to the mind-wiring shooting uses. It requires the same purity of focus, ability to read wind, and mental (often unconscious) time/speed/distance calculations. Archery is inexpensive, has especially low recurring costs, and is deep: you can get as involved in it as you like, or simply fire field points at a bale of straw for a couple of hours. Humans have used bows for at least 8,000 years, and sensibly used, they’re extremely safe; so much that the Boy Scouts permit even Tiger Cubs (the youngest Scouts) to use bows under supervision.
  • Airsoft, which allows mechanical training to a point, and marksmanship training to a point. One of the most excellent uses of airsoft we have seen was by a clandestine cell in an area where firearms possession itself was a serious (i.e. not quite capital) offense. The cell only had a small quantity of firearms. All cell members trained with airsoft replicas of the handguns that were cached “against the day.” That meant that, had the cell been tasked to shoot someone, the actual pistol could be retrieved and handed over to someone who had a good chance of accomplishing his or her mission, even though he or she never even saw a real gun before. This is part of why totalitarian governments tend to ban imitation firearms some time after they ban actual ones.
  • Computer (and computerized) Simulators. This is a field in which computer simulation has received unconstrained funding, made great boasts and shown great promise, but has yet to produce even a single-purpose target simulator that provides measurable skills transference to actual firearms. Simulation can be useful in use-of-force and engagement dynamics training, but most such simulators are out of the reach of a small club, department, or individual.

Things like Simunitions are useful to military units conducting crawl/walk/run training, but are not a reasonable substitute for live-ammo training. Likewise, blanks have very limited utility (for force-on-force training, or for live-and-blank variations of ball-and-dummy drill).

Step V: There’s Still No Substitute

In the end, there’s no substitute for getting out there and shooting. So what you can do, in times of restricted resources:

  • Make every shot count. Don’t just plink or burn ammunition. Have a purpose for every magazine and every round, and evaluate how you’re doing. It’s just as much fun to shoot if you have a reason for doing it, and know what the reason is. Plus, you will be able to see improvement in your shooting, which is pleasant in itself.
  • Increase your focus, concentration and deliberation. This is a subset of the above, of course.
  • Plan each range session before leaving home or office, and shoot to the plan. Only the government can end every range trip with a full-auto, hip-fired SPENDEX. On the other hand, maybe you want to develop hip-shooting skills. Well, make a plan for it. And make the plan at the desk or loading bench, not onsite. Then you’ll never launch a bullet you haven’t already imagined launching (and hitting the target with).
  • Substitute cheaper (but safe) ammo. Do not go to no-name reloads or third-world surplus. (If it’s a financial stretch to buy ammo, it’d really stink to have to replace a kB!’d gun). We’re also hostile to steel-cased ammo; maybe in a junk gun. Constrained availability of popular calibers might be God’s way of telling you it’s a good time to practice a little using the guns and calibers you seldom shoot. Last year, when we couldn’t get 7.62 x 51, we were able to get some soft-point 7mm hunting rounds and have some fun with a wall-hanger FN49.
  • One gun at a time per range session. Having dissimilar weapons divides your concentration and means some percentage of your ammo expenditure is wasted. (There are some obvious exceptions: if you duty-carry a Glock 22 and off-duty a 27, they’re close enough). If you must shoot dissimilar guns on the same day (maybe your range is a long drive or hard to schedule), take a non-shooting break to clear your mind and your muscle memory in-between, say, the pistol and rifle sessions — and accept that you’re not going to get 100% of your potential training benefit.
  • Stop shooting when you stop improving. If you seldom go to the range, you may be tempted to stay longer each time. Don’t do it. A good session is 45 minutes to an hour. Don’t burn out.

Finally, all these recommendations are enhanced by having a coach, instructor or buddy to help you see the things you’re overlooking. The guy doesn’t need to be a champ; just someone reasonably knowledgable and, well, not you. 

Summing Up

Just cause ammo’s hard to come by, or expensive, is no reason to let your perishable (or at least, degradable) shooting skills atrophy. There are cheap and available alternatives.

The most cost-effective ones for a heavy shooter are the ones that have no variable costs. Consider that the SIRT Pro pistol seems expensive at $350. But… if you normally practice at, say, 200 rounds / week, at the best price of 9mm these days being around 30¢ a round with shipping (let’s use another deal-finder for this one, gunbot 9mm deals), you’re spending $60 a week on proficiency. So this is six week’s proficiency ammo.

But that’s probably not what’s going to happen, complete substitution of live-fire training with laser training. If you replaced half of your life ammo with SIRT training, the break-even on the training pistol is three months. But even that’s probably not going to happen: instead, you’re almost certain to continue shooting the same amount, eat the cost of the training device, and practice more when the dry-firing with the practice pistol is considered… your scores should improve markedly, as will your self-confidence.

The most cost-effective of all, of course, is plain old dry fire, which achieves much of what dry-fire with a SIRT unit does, and does it with fixed and variable costs of $0 each. All that stands between you and better marksmanship is a dry-fire program and a little self-discipline.

Authenticated Little Bighorn Carbine at Auction

This has to be one of the Holy Grails of collecting… or at least a matching saucer. The well-preserved 1873 .45-70 cavalry carbine is not just a representative example of the guns the 7th Cavalry carried into the jaws of a far superior Sioux and Comanche Cheyenne force — it’s one of the very guns. Very few guns with provenance are known to exist — Custer’s element’s guns were all taken by the Indians, except for three revolvers left behind, and Reno’s and Benteen’s detachments’ guns were still working combat weapons for years to come. So as you can imagine, with that historical imprimatur, it’s a little pricier than your average trapdoor.


You might ask, how can auctioneers James D. Julia and company be so sure about it? We’ll get to that in a minute, but first we’d like to show you some more of their photography (and yes, kind of like the force Custer faced, they get bigger — in this case, just click, and you can keep your scalp). Here’s the other side:


She’s looking pretty good after 139 years since manufacture, and 137 years since participating in one of the greatest defeats in the history of American arms. (Since then, we’ve been lucky enough to have the Indians on our side). Custer tried to surround 10,000 Indians (mostly noncombatants, but there were at least 2,00 warriors) with 700 men, and got his ass handed to him — his own section of the command was wiped out to the last man, 200-odd of them, and about 50 other troopers fell in several other desperate fights. OK, how about a close-up of her lock? Done:


So how do we know this particular carbine was there? Well, they couch it fairly cautiously, but here’s the meat of their argument:

The SN of this carbine indicates that it was manufactured in the Apr-Jun period of 1874 & is in the prime serial range of known Custer battle carbines.

Julia-auction-Trapdoor_BigHorn_14This is where the speculation regarding Custer battlefield use of this carbine ends. In 1981 US Government archeologists found 18 cartridge casings on the Little Bighorn Battlefield on the west flank of Sharpshooter Hill, between the hill and a low knoll and in the vicinity of the knoll which is located about half the distance between the Reno/Benteen defensive perimeter and Sharpshooter Hill, all of which were forensically matched to the firing pin & extractor impressions of this carbine.

Julia-auction-Trapdoor_BigHorn_15Most of these 18 cartridge casings were picked up in 2 separate locations, one group on the flank of Sharpshooter Hill and another near the north boundary fence. In 2004, additional excavations were conducted during road work on the battlefield and an additional 18 cartridge cases forensically matched to this carbine were found in the Reno/Benteen defensive line.

He goes on to make some further plausible deduction about the shooter’s actions in the battle, and some informed and reasonable speculation about what unit he was with. The very long description has an excellent technical run-down on the carbine and its history, and we recommend it.

Stereo image of the Custer battlefield, taken in 1879. The remains visible appear to be equine.

Stereo image of the Custer battlefield, taken in 1879. The remains visible appear to be equine.

We’ve been interested in this weapon since Ian at recommended the book Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn last month. His recommendations are always good, so when we don’t have the book (and it’s not a crazy expensive out-of-print airplane payment or something) we ususlly buy it. It was not a straight-read-through for us like it was for Ian, but we’re really savoring it.

(Here’s a Smithsonian timeline map of the battle which might clarify the location of this carbine in the fight a tad. It draws on Indian legends as well as cavalry memoirs so it might suffer from recovered-memory-itis, but it’s a reasonable timeline).

Along with that, we’ve been watching, in fits and starts also, a movie set in a slightly earlier period, Sam Peckinpah’s “vandalized masterpiece” Major Dundee. That may never show up as a Saturday Matinee (or it might be today’s), but it had us thinking about Indian fighting, the US Army’s original and most successful COIN campaign. It was a campaign of savagery on both sides, not the one-sided chivalry customarily shown in 20th Century saddle flicks. And you know what? If insurgents go to the savagery place against a modern nation, they can’t win. They can only hang in and help the moderns quit. White settlers were not going to quit coming west. (The whole reason the Sioux were displaced in 1876 in the first place, Aracheological Perspectives explains, is that whites found gold on their reservation and uprooted them again). The Indians were going to lose: that was evident in the correlation of forces. The sensible thing would have been to seek terms, and the sensible thing would have been to grant generous ones. But blood was up, emotions were high, and no one was being sensible that spring of ’76.

An awful lot of war decisions are fundamentally emotional, and only rationalized ex post facto. That’s true at every level from heads of state to infantryman. You’re lucky if you hang onto your scalp, then and now.

And you’d better be prepared to part with your scalp if you want this historic, museum-ready Trapdoor: Julia estimates it will sell for $100,000 to $150,000, and like most auctioneers, his estimates tend to run low vis-a-vis realized prices (to encourage bidders, perhaps?) There are more pictures at the site. Enjoy.

What’s so special about John Moses Browning?



If you take that question the wrong way, you’re thinking who is this bozo to diss Saint JMB? But we’re not putting the emphasis on the JMB side of the sentence, but the What’s so special? end. As in: we really want to know. Why is this guy head and shoulders above the other great designers of weapons history? What made him tick? What made him that way?

Browning was not a degreed engineer, but he is, to date, the greatest firearms designer who has ever lived.  Consider this: had Browning done nothing but the 1911, he’d have a place in the top rank of gun designers, ever. But that’s not all he did, by any means. If he had done nothing but the M1917 and M1919 machine guns, he’d have a place in the top ranks of designers. If he’d done nothing but the M2HB, a gun which will still be in widespread infantry service a century after its introduction, and its .50 siblings, he’d be hailed as a genius. One runs out of superlatives describing Browning’s career, with at least 80 firearms designed, almost 150 patents granted, and literally three-quarters of US sporting arms production in the year 1900 being Browning designs — before his successes with automatic guns.

He did all that and he was just getting warmed up. He didn’t live to see World War II, but if he had, he’d have seen Browning designs serving every power on both sides of the war. If an American went to war in a rifle platoon, a Sherman tank, a P-39 or P-51 or B-17, he and his unit were gunned-up by Browning. If he made it home to go hunting the season after V-J day, there were long odds that he carried a Browning-designed rifle of shotgun, even if the name on it was Remington or Winchester. Browning’s versatility was legendary: he designed .25 caliber (6.35mm) pocket pistols and 37mm aircraft and AA cannon, and literally everything in between. He frequently designed the gun and the cartridge it fired.

A lot of geniuses have designed a lot of really great guns since some enterprising Chinese fellow whose name is lost to history discovered that gunpowder and a tube closed at one end sure beats the human hand when it comes to throwing things at one’s enemies.  But nobody comes close to Browning’s level of achievement; nobody matches him in versatility.

So why him? As we put it, what’s so special? 

We think Browning’s incredible primacy resulted from several things, apart from his own innate talent and work ethic (both of which were prodigious). Those things are:

  1. He was born to the trade
  2. He was prolific: his output was prodigious
  3. He was a master of the toolroom
  4. He lived at just the right time
  5. He could inspire and lead others

Born to the Trade

John M’s father, Jonathan Browning, was, himself, a gunsmith, designer and inventor. He made his first rifle at age 13, and despite being an apprentice blacksmith, became a specialist in guns by the time he was an adult. From 1824 he had his own gunshop and smithy in Brushy Fork, Tennessee, and later would move to Illinois (Where he befriended a country lawyer named Lincoln). He joined the Mormons in Illinois and fled with them to Utah, making guns at each way station of the Mormon flight.

Jonathan Browning Revolving Repeater

Jonathan Browning Cylinder Repeater. Image from a great article on Jonathan Browning by William C. Montgomery.

Very few of Jonathan’s rifles are known to have survived, but he made two percussion repeating rifles that were, then (1820s-1842), on the cutting edge of technology. The Slide Bar Repeating Rifle  was Jonathan’s term for what is more widely called a Harmonica Gun. The gun has a slot into which a steel Slide Bar is fitted. The slide bar had, normally, five chambers; after firing a shot, the user cocked the hammer and moved the Slide Bar to the side to move the empty chamber out from under the hammer, and a loaded chamber into place. When all five chambers had been discharged, the Slide Bar was removed, and each chamber loaded from the muzzle and reprimed with a percussion cap. Jonathan Browning’s gun differed from most in that it had an underhammer, and that an action lever cammed the Slide Bar hard against the barrel to make a gas seal. He also made a larger Slide Bar available — one with 25 chambers, arguably the first high-capacity magazine.

The second Browning innovation was the Cylinder Repeating rifle. This was a revolver rifle, with the cylinder rotated by hand between shots. Like the Slide Bar gun, the cylinder was cammed against the barrel to achieve a gas seal — the parts were designed to mate in the manner of nested cones.

Young John M. Browning. From the Browning Collectors web page.

Young John M. Browning. From the Browning Collectors web page.

The designer of those mid-19th-Century attempts to harness firepower sired many children; like other early Mormons, he was a polygamist, and his three wives would bear him 22 children. From age six one of them apprenticed himself, as it were, to his father. Within a year he’d built his own first rifle. This son was, of course, John Moses Browning.

(Aside: the last gun made by Jonathan Browning was an example of his son’s 1878 single-shot high-powered rifle design, which would be produced in quantity by Winchester starting in 1883).

Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of hard work to become an expert — that’s roughly five years of fulltime labor. JMB had exceeded this point before puberty.

If you aspire to breaking Browning’s records as a gun designer, you need to acknowledge that, unless you started from childhood, you’re starting out behind already.

Prolific Output

Browning worked on pistols, rifles, and machine guns. He worked on single-shot, lever, slide, and semi-automatic actions, and his semi-autos included gas-operated, recoil-operated, direct-blowback, and several types of locking mechanism. Exactly how many designs he did may not have been calculated anywhere: it’s known he designed 44 rifles and 13 shotguns for Winchester alone, a large number of which were not produced, and some of which may not have been made even as prototypes or models.

His military weapons included light and heavy infantry machine guns, aerial machineguns for fixed and flexible installations, and several iterations of the 37mm aircraft and anti-aircraft cannon, the last of which, the M9, would fire a 1-lb-plus armor-piercing shell at 3000 feet per second; an airplane was designed around it (the P39 Airacobra, marginal in US service but well-used, and well-loved, by the Soviets who received many via lend-lease). All the machine guns used by the US from squad on up in WWII and Korea were Browning designs. But these were only his most successful designs; there were others. At his peak, he may have been producing new designs at a rate of one a week. 

If you want to to be the next John Browning, you need to start designing now, and keep improving your designs and designing new ones until the day you die. (Browning died in his office in Belgium).

Master of the Toolroom

The Browning workshop, back in the day.

The Browning workshop, back in the day.

From an early age, John learned to cut, form and shape steel. This is something common to most of the gunsmiths and designers of the early and mid-20th Century — if you remember our recent feature on John Garand, the photo showed him not a a drawing board by at a milling machine.

Browning could not only design and test his own prototypes — he could also design and improve the machinery on which they’d be produced, a necessary task for the designer in his day. Nowadays, such production development is the milieu of specialized production engineers, who have more classroom training, and probably less shop-floor savvy, than Browning brought to the task.

A reproduction of Browning's workshop in the Browning Museum in Ogden, UT.

A reproduction of Browning’s workshop in the Browning Museum in Ogden, UT. (From this guy’s tour post).

In Browning’s day, processes were a little closer to hand-tooled prototype work, but it still required different kinds of savvy and modes of thinking .

If you want to be Browning, you have to master production processes, for prototypes and in series manufacturing, from the hands-on as well as the drawing-board angle. There may never again be a designer like that.

Living and Timing

John M. Browning in 1921 with Mr Burton of Winchester and the category-creating Browning Automatic Rifle.

John M. Browning in 1921 with Mr Burton of Winchester and the category-creating Browning Automatic Rifle.

John M Browning lived in just the right time: he was there at the early days of cartridge arms, when even basic principles hadn’t yet been settled and the possibilities of design were wide-open and unconstrained by prior art and customer expectation. No army worldwide, and no hunter or policeman, really had a satisfactory semi-auto or automatic weapon yet (except for the excellent Maxim)

It’s much easier to push your design into an unfulfilled requirement than it is to displace something a customer is already more or less comfortable with.

If you’re going to retire some of John M. Browning’s records, you’re going to need the right conditions and a few lucky breaks — just like he had.

Inspiration and Leadership

To read the comments of other Browning associates of the period is to see the wake of a man who was remarkable for far more than his raw genius. Browning was admired and respected, to be sure, but he was also liked. At FN in Belgium, the gunsmiths called him le maître, “the master,” and took pleasure in learning from him.

M Saive at the drawing board. Image: FN Herstal.

M Saive at the drawing board. Image: FN Herstal.

His Belgian protégé, M. Dieudonne Saive, went on to be a designer of some note himself. While he did not achieve Browning’s range of designs, he, too, is in the top rank for his work finalizing the High-Power pistol (also known as the GP or HP-35) that Browning began, and for his own SAFN-49 and FAL rifle designs, and MAG machine-gun, all of which owed something to Browning’s work as well as Saive’s own.

If you want to be the next John Moses Browning, you have to know when to step back, and how to share the burden — and the credit.

Just because it’s graphic, doesn’t mean it’s good

The Armory Blog had a “pretty cool” graphic that purports to show what country uses what weapon. It would, indeed, be “pretty cool” if it was correct. As they said:

Here’s a pretty cool map of the rifles used by all the various militaries around the world. Guess which rifle is used the most around the world. Click the link for a full-size version of the map to find out.

via World Map Of Military Rifles | Armory Blog.

Here’s the graphic; you can click to embiggen (and will need to do so if you want to read who’s running what — or who the makers of this graphic think is running what).

military-gun-mapFirst, it’s a gross oversimplification, listing only one rifle per nation. (Note the Army and Marines have some divergent rifles). But even given that, it just ain’t right. It’s all messed up, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

  • Afghanistan? The US and Canada have given them some M16s, M4s and C8s, primarily for their SOF, but for every M16 they have, there are dozens of AKs.
  • Bolivia? They have some M16 series rifles, but mostly still run ancient FALs. Some of their units have AKs.
  • Czechia? They’re running the Bren 805 now.
  • India? The INSAS has been a rather spectacular failure, and India’s seeking a COTS replacement that will almost certainly be an M16 platform weapon.
  • Zimbabwe? SA80? Well, according to guys who’ve been there, and Jane’s Infantry Weapons, the Zims run a mix of UDI-era South African small arms (R1 FALs) and AKs, with the AKs beginning in the Nork-trained units in the late 80s and now predominant.

Trying to figure out the source of this, and why it so badly off and so strongly biased towards the M16 platform. The source link at Armory Blog went nowhere. One probable source for some of it is Steve Johnson’s post on The Firearm Blog, which includes a nicer, if M16-series-specific, map.

m16-world-map21This one may not embiggen for technical reasons. You can always check it out at Steve’s blog post, which is five years old (and so probably understates AR global distribution).

But the thing is — Steve’s post is not showing countries where the M16 series is the main combat rifle of the nation. He’s showing countries that use M16 series guns for any purpose. Those are two different things. Steve’s source for many of the countries listed was Colt (as he shows at the linked post) and Colt’s criterion seems to be, “did these guys ever buy an M16?” With the popularity of the M4 among SOF — even Chinese SOF train with their domestic knockoff, although they didn’t at the time Steve made his map — naturally the AR platform seems to be near-universal.

Again, we don’t know who did the original map as featured at The Armory Blog. We’d have a lot more faith in Steve, who had the confidence to put his name on the map! But his map isn’t really an equivalent.

Almost 30 years ago, noted firearms writer Edward C. Ezell tried to address the who-uses-what knowledge gap with the book Small Arms Today, which made the 1984 state of world gun issuance fairly well-documented. The plan was for this to be to the Ezell-edited Small Arms of the World what annual yearbooks were for hardbound encyclopedias. There was a second edition of Small Arms Today in 1988, which can be picked up (at this writing) for under a buck, plus shipping, at Amazon. (The 1984 version is a few bucks, no more). Unfortunately, Ezell’s plans for the continuation of the series ran headlong into his mortality, leaving the 2nd edition hopelessly out of date as the Iron Curtain fell, a wave of democratization surged over Latin America, and Ezell himself passed away in 1993.

Nowadays, the best guide to who-runs-what is still the ponderous Jane’s Infantry Weapons, but the desk reference is priced for government agencies, as is the website, and both are out of the hobbyist or even small-scale professional’s price range. We do find outdated copies, particularly in used bookstores in Northern Virginia and near Columbia, Maryland, reasonably priced.




A little fake history for your gun rack

Dillinger 1907 02People always are attracted to guns associated with history. Enough so, that when the historic gun is not available, people will replicate it. This gun, now available on GunBroker, is one of those replicas.

We could say a lot more about it, but the description from the auction is actually pretty comprehensive:

An exact copy of the Winchester Model 1907 .351 WSL as built by San Antonio gunsmith Hyman Lebman in the 1920’s and 1930’s and used by the likes of John Dillinger, Homer Van Meter, Pretty Boy Floyd, and other gangsters and law enforcement people. No one knows for sure, but Mr Lebman probably built no more than 5-6 of these unique “assault” rifles.

The story goes that Dillinger and his cronies hung out in the San Antonio area posing as oil men and commissioned Lebman to build these special rifles as well as other armament. Lebman always denied knowing that he was creating these guns for a bunch of gangsters.

Dillinger 1907 04

The hardest part of this project for Lebman to overcome was mounting the Thompson SMG foregrip on the thin fragile forearm on these rifles. There was no way to attach a TSMG fore grip to the existing wooden forearm with any degree of durability. Lebman’s answer was to build metal forearms which would be strong enough to support the TSMG grip and be essentially impervious to damage. These metal forearms were most likely zinc or aluminum and were hand painted upon completion.

Barrels were cut to 16 inches, and Lebman created a special compensator to finish off the project.

Dillinger 1907 01

Buck Rogers called from the 25th Century. He wants his compensator back.

The 1907 Winchester was a state of the art firearm in its day. When combined with a high capacity magazine it provided a lot of firepower with much better penetration capability than the .45 ACP when fired from a TSMG.

This Winchester 1907 / Lebman copy started life as an original standard Winchester Model 1907 rifle serial number 7XXX. It has been disassembled, cleaned thoroughly, barrel cut to 16.5” , threaded, custom muzzle break built and installed, aluminum forearm machined and Duracoated, blued, TSMG grip installed, and test fired. The Duracoated aluminum forearm is built to duplicate the original Lebman guns. The original wooden butt stock is in good shape. This particular rifle is being supplied with an original Winchester 10 round magazine.

via Winchester 1907 Hyman Lebman Dillinger rifle .351 : Curios & Relics at

The Remington Model 81 had attractive lines and an effective cartridge.

The Remington Model 81 had attractive lines and an effective cartridge.

We covered the Remington Model 8 before, a John Browning designed early semi-auto rifle to which this Winchester was a direct competitor. The Winchester differed from the Remington in one major respect, which had several consequences. It was blowback-operated rather than having a locked breech. This meant that it could only fire much lower-powered cartridges than the Remington did. It also meant that the gun was much less expensive.

Both of these semi auto guns were widely used by law enforcement in the early years of the 20th century, as a backup to their six-shot .32 or .38 revolvers, especially when facing dangerous armed criminals. In the violent years of Prohibition, only the most lavishly-funded police departments could afford Tommy guns or Colt Monitors (civilian BARs). The rest of them made do with Remingtons and Winchesters, just like everybody else. Police supply firms and gunsmiths like Lebman altered the guns to increase their magazine capacity, handiness and controllability. They wound up building something, in its Remington Model 8 Special Police or Winchester Lebman special model, that prefigured the semi-auto modern sporting and defensive carbine.

The Winchester was simpler and cheaper.

The Winchester was simpler and cheaper.

There are very many more Winchester Model 1907s than Remington Model 8s out there. As a result, an ordinary 1907 is quite reasonably priced. This one, with its custom compensator and trick aluminum-and-Thompson foregrip, is quite a bit higher. The ammunition is a bit hard to come by (a surprise to us… 30 years ago .351 Winchester was still fairly common among deer hunters).

But this one lets a collector of 2013 have a little bit of vicarious Dillinger in his life. Hmmm… would you believe, in his gun rack?

He invented the world’s deadliest rifle

The title of this post was the title of this article in the December, 1940 Popular Science magazine. “He” was John C. Garand, and the “world’s deadliest rifle” was, of course, what would turn out to be the best semi-auto of the Second World War, the U.S. Rifle .30 Caliber M1.

The article opens by backpedaling, a little, on its headline claim: “The United States government is laying a $15,000,000 bet that the new girlfriend so my automatic rifle is the deadliest firearm ever invented.” They mention the breakneck production and plant expansion underway (the US began rearming and instituted the draft in 1940), but the point of the article is not the Garand but the man, Garand: “Who is this Garand, and what is he like?”

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 5.22.17 PM It turns out that John C., who emigrated with his family to the USA at age 8, was not just a builder of rifles, but an avid user:

As soon as he began making money, Garand started saving toward a rifle. With one of his brothers, he used to spend evening after evening poring over the gun pages of a mail-order catalogue, debating the merits of the different firearms. Finally, the boys pooled their resources and sent off a money order for a Winchester .32-20.

…As a sideline, he and his brother ran a shooting gallery at Norwich, Connecticut. That was a lot like a boy with a sweet tooth managing a candy shop. Their enthusiasm for target practice ate up most of the profits.

…Garand came to New York. Sundays invariably found him alighting from the subway at Coney Island with a target shooters like in his eye. He was the star patron of all the galleries along the boardwalk. …[H]e shot to his heart’s content.

Like many a gun-happy yout’ before and after, Garand began to test the limits of his ability. What could he do?

Firing a rifle from the hip so accurately that he could hit a swinging target seven times on a single swing, he always attracted a crowd that overflowed onto the sidewalk and kept the cash register ringing.

Garand took a 50% wage cut to leave a micrometer manufacturer and go to work for the Naval Board (not the Bureau of Standards; it was the Navy that set him up in the Bureau’s building), where he worked on his first design, a machine gun. When he finished in 1919 there was no demand for the gun, with thousands of war surplus MGs in stock; in 1920, the Army asked him to come to Springfield Armory to work on a semi-auto rifle.

The M1 rifle took a great deal of work and went down many cul-de-sacs and blind alleys during the next two decades, but by 1936 it was accepted, and at the time the article was written, Springfield was producing 500 a day. (Garand not only designed the gun, but much of the tooling and the industrial processes that manufactured it). Garand’s major concern was weight reduction; his mantra was simple enough, strong enough, and light enough.

There were many times when the rent was positive the weight requirements set by the Army could never be reached. Eventually, by saving an ounce here and announce there, without sacrificing strength, he attained the goal. Most of the weight elimination was accomplished by reducing the number of parts. For example, one spring in the hammer mechanism now does the work that originally required five springs. That mechanical shortcut, alone, clipped a whole pound from the weight of the gun.

… [M]odel after model was designed and worked out with infinite care, only to be rejected after grueling tests. Nearly a dozen kinds of gun steel were tried, and the rear sight alone was redesigned 50 times. The present Garand gun combines the best features of half a dozen discarded designs.

At one time or another, along with Garand’s own design, the Army considered at least 50 other designers’ weapons, including Garand’s Springfield colleague, Pedersen’s. The article is obviously based on a rare interview with Garand, and also includes a great deal of information about rifle production at the time, and some Springfield photos. Unfortunately it’s not easily downloaded from Google Books thanks, perhaps, to Google having lost rather thoroughly on the terms of a lawsuit settlement some years ago. But it can be read at the link, and you owe it to yourself to Read The Whole Thing™. (It jumps to several pages… the internal links work fine).

Is a CAR-15 worth $45k?

In particular, this CAR-15? We’ll know the answer soon, perhaps. This auction ends today at GunBroker.

CAR-15 Model 639 02

The gun in question is a very rare export or commercial XM177E2, a Model 639. The seller explains its history and rarity in the auction:

This auction is for a NEW, NEVER FIRED Colt Model 639 transferable machine gun (the export / commercial version of the XM177E2, or “Commando” CAR-15). I am the second owner. I have a signed, notarized statement from the original owner attesting that [1] he is the original purchaser and that [2] the gun is “new, never fired” and [3] in “factory original” configuration. I will provide the original of that document to the winning bidder plus a similar attestation from me. Original box will also be included.

CAR-15 Model 639 03

The gun’s serial number is 4 790 100. The gun’s moderator is registered and stamped with the same serial number (preceded by “SU” for “suppressor”): SU4790100 Having a matching moderator is rare because Colt’s recalled all the moderators (in February 1975) after the ATF ruled that the moderators are sound suppressors and must be registered as NFA weapons in and of themselves. Of the small numbers of Model 639s that had already been sold, many owners complied with the recall and returned their moderators to Colt’s. A few folks resisted, but had to register them as NFA weapons and pay the extra tax stamp. Anyone who purchased a Model 639 after February 1975, or those who returned their moderators during the recall, had to purchase a moderator separately, and thus ended up with a random “ATF” or “IRS” serial number or a random Colt’s number on their moderator.

This gun was manufactured by Colt’s in 1972 (according to a Colt’s representative who ran the serial number for me) and was originally purchased in June 1974 (according to the original Form 3). Recall letters for the XM177 moderators (which had been ruled as suppressors by ATF) went out from Colt’s in February 1975 to previous non-military purchasers of XM177s (according to a gentleman with first-hand knowledge of that effort). The moderator for this gun was registered in October 1975 (according to the original Form 3). (NOTE: This is a two-form, two-stamp gun—one for the gun and one for the moderator.)

NOTE: This is a 5.56mm (.223) rifle-caliber machine gun (the real deal), not the 9mm pistol-caliber version sometimes referred to as Model “639” (NOTE: the 9mm guns are actually roll-marked “SMG”, not “MOD. 639”. They also had bird-cage flash hiders instead of XM177 moderators.).

The gun and moderator are currently at a Class III dealer in Maine and will transfer to your C3 tax-free on two Forms 3.

via New, Never-Fired Colt 639 (XM177E2) EXTREMELY RARE : Machine Guns at

Entry price: $43,999.00. Buy it now: $44,999.00. But hey, there’s no reserve.

We wish there was a right-side picture, as this appears to be a no-forward-assist gun, making it identical to some of the Son Tay CAR-15s. It’s possibly in the same serial number block as some (the XM177s, though, were in the 9 million block if we recall correctly). The owner presents a statistical analysis extrapolating from known Model 639s that alone is worth the click through. His conclusion:

My personal belief is that Colt’s made S/Ns 4,790,001 through 4,790,100 in 1972 (100 guns total). When 1975 came around and they still had dealers with unsold 639s and they also had to recall all the XM177 moderators, they decided not to make any more “MOD. 639″ guns and just used spare parts from then on to make generic short-barreled M16s (for the commercial, non-military market), with no special roll-mark or special designation, and with a bird-cage flash hider instead of an XM177 moderator. That’s purely conjecture on my part, though.

It’s unlikely a gun like this will move on GunBroker, but it might. More importantly, the GB ad gets word out to the best-heeled among the Class III community that there is a rare and exotic weapon on the market. There’s enough information in the ad for someone to figure out who is the Class III dealer holding the weapon.

We love the CAR-15, but not $45k worth of love. (We’ve never spent that much on a car. Don’t ask about home repairs, though). And we wouldn’t really want a Class III weapon that was NIB unfired… at least, not a rare one that we’d feel obligated to keep in new condition (we’ve bought factory-new SBRs, that’s different). But for a collector of modern MGs who displays rather than fires them, this would be a fine centerpiece.

A short history of toggle locking

In the early days of semi- and automatic weapons, one very common locking mechanism was a toggle lock. This lock works like a human knee joint: it would bend freely once bent, but when “straight” it was over-center and pressure on the “bolt face” (or sole of the foot) just locked it more firmly. This somewhat kitschy video does show the classic form of toggle-locking, the Pistole 08 Parabellum, known to generations as the Luger after its designer.


John Browning's gas-operated, toggle-locked pistol of 1895. Was it ever built?

John Browning’s gas-operated, toggle-locked pistol of 1895. Was it ever built?

A knee bends on the volition of its owner; a gun toggle-joint when recoil cams the “knee” up or down, away from its over-center, locked position. All successful toggle-locked systems have been recoil-operated, although as far back as 1895 John Browning proposed a gas-operated variant, complete with a pistol design and a gas tap much like that of the Colt “potato digger” machine gun, connected directly to a locking toggle. He received a patent on this dead-end design in 1897.

Military arms enthusiasts usually ascribe this design to Maxim, who used a long-recoil variant; and note that Borchardt and Luger made it compact and portable (theirs is a short-recoil variant). And it is true that Maxim’s machine guns used the toggle before any other automatic weapon.

Maxim lock (toggle's off screen left) and feed

Maxim lock (toggle’s off screen left) and feed mechanism.

Maxim’s fiendishly complex lockwork (later simplified by many improvers, inlcuding Maxim himself) had to withdraw a (rimmed) cartridge from a cloth or metal belt, position the cartridge, ram it into the chamber, lock, fire the cartridge, unlock, extract the spent cartridge, and eject it. And it had to do all this off the recoil impulse of a rifle-caliber cartridge. That’s a lot of things to do and it’s not surprising that the first designers to do it didn’t achieve optimum simplicity.

The toggle lock wasn’t simple, but it was two things more important in a fledgling MG design: safe and reliable. But Maxim wasn’t the first to use the toggle lock by any means.

The toggle lock was a standard mechanism known to all mechanical engineering graduates in the mid to late 19th Century. It found its way into small machinery like machine tools, and large machinery like steam engines and movable bridges. It was used in a number of iconic guns of the period, including the Henry rifle and the Winchester ’66 and ’73. (The Henry/Winchester version was prone to toggle pin deformation from fatigue or overload; in the Winchester 1886 a new version, the Winchester 1886, basically solved this problem for itself and Winchesters going forward. The ’86 was designed by John M. Browning).

Winchester '73 (this is the current version, made by Miroku in Japan for Winchester).

Winchester ’73 (this is the current version, made by Miroku in Japan for Winchester). Click to embiggen a little. Didn’t know it was a Luger’s cousin, did ya?

Indeed, the earlier Henry/Winchester toggle lock came over more or less intact from the then-radical Volcanic lever-action repeating pistol and rifle, which used a unique cartridgeless projectile that carried its powder inside the bullet skirt. The rimfire of the Henry and centerfire cartridges of the Winchester were considerably more advanced and practical than the Volcanic’s self-contained rounds, but the mechanism was adequate until it became necessary to make lever guns in stronger calibers and for smokeless powder, both of which brought higher chamber pressures.


George Luger’s rifle toggle-lock patent. The mechanical setup and mechanical advantage of the recoil spring are changed but it’s otherwise very close to the pistol.

Toggle locks spread from lever-actions to the above-mentioned Borchardt and Luger pistols. Luger also designed a rifle based on a toggle lock very similar to the P.08 and other Luger pistols’, but it was never accepted. The almost-last hurrah of the toggle lock, if we discount Maxims and Vickers guns which served well into the last quarter of the 20th Century, was the Pedersen rifle made for US Army trials in the experimental .276 Pedersen caliber. has a little bit on the Luger and Pedersen rifles, and they’re riffing off this post over at Forgotten Weapons, which includes a link to a Luger patent for the rifle. FW also has plenty on the Pedersen and even a feature on a Japanese copy of the Pedersen.

Almost last? Yes. The toggle lock came back with the Kriss submachine gun/SBR in the last few years. Workable technology never dies, it just falls out of fashion until somebody figures out a new way to exploit it.

Remember, for about 80 years they thought the Gatling gun was dead. But that’s another story.