Category Archives: Industry

“Smart” Guns: Potemkin Safety

space invadersThis dumb idea keeps regenerating itself like respawning enemies in a zombie game, or, given the age and technology behind this dumb old idea, like the bad guys in Space Invaders, the ancient arcade video game (if you recognize the screen on the left, “the hill” is something you’re officially “over”).

Fortunately, not everyone is as weary of battling this issue as we are, and comes Herschel Smith with what it would take to convince him, or any of us, that these things work:

[L]et’s talk yet again about smart gun technology.  I am a registered professional engineer, and I spend all day analyzing things and performing calculations.  Let’s not speak in broad generalities and murky platitudes (such as “good enough”).  That doesn’t work with me.  By education, training and experience, I reject such things out of hand.  Perform a fault tree analysis of smart guns.  Use highly respected guidance like the NRC fault tree handbook.

Armatix iP1: bulky, underpowered, and unreliable. And they say it's the wave of the future -- if their coin-op politicians command it so.

Armatix iP1: bulky, underpowered, and unreliable. And they say it’s the wave of the future — if their coin-op politicians command it so.

He’s got a good point there. If you run an Ishikawa diagram of potential faults in a Glock 17, there are not a hell of a lot of branches on your fault tree. There are more on the venerable 1911 (and the 1911’s general reliability illustrates how dogged engineering can sometimes overcome baroque design). Now imagine the fault tree diagram for an Armatix iP1. Don’t forget the various modes of battery failures, radio frequency interference, need to use a weapon weak-hand or by a third party, etc. (The diagrams may suggest why the failed iP1 never seemed to exceed about 90% reliability, failing at a rate of about one round per magazine, and that may suggest why Armatix’s honcho, Ernst Mauch of HK’s you-suck-and-we-hate-you days, tried to get governments to order people to buy the piece of dung. But we digress).

Assess the reliability of one of my semi-automatic handguns as the first state point, and then add smart gun technology to it, and assess it again.  Compare the state points.  Then do that again with a revolver.  Be honest.  Assign a failure probability of greater than zero (0) to the smart technology, because you know that each additional electronic and mechanical component has a failure probability of greater than zero.

Get a PE to seal the work to demonstrate thorough and independent review.  If you can prove that so-called “smart guns” are as reliable as my guns, I’ll pour ketchup on my hard hat, eat it, and post video for everyone to see.  If you lose, you buy me the gun of my choice.  No one will take the challenge because you will lose that challenge.  I’ll win.

Yep. What he is asking the Smart Gun proponents to do is resolve an asymptote to zero, which is mathematically impossible, and probably, in this non-mathematical but real-world-physical case, functionally impossible. If you want to know why adding “Safety Technology” to firearms has never banished mishaps, a good book is Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents.

Now, Perrow wrote the book as an anti-nuclear jeremiad, which may turn off some readers, especially those aware that a nuclear-power reactor control room is historically a safer environment than a Senator’s Oldsmobile, but he notes a very interesting thing: when you get the low-hanging fruit all plucked, that is, say, when the Air Force addressed items in the 1950s flying culture that had them pranging 1000 planes a year, you get a safety system that’s so optimized that adding anything more to it produces new, unintended and unanticipated points of failure.

We see this in aviation safety. American Airlines was concerned about loss-of-control accidents and so encouraged its pilots to seek “upset training” in aerobatic competition airplanes. One such pilot then tried the control inputs that worked in an Extra 300 (stressed to ± 12G in all directions, IIRC), in an Airbus whose tailfin was stressed to ± 1.5G. The result was a disaster, one caused by trying to increase the airline’s already very-high levels of safety!

Likewise, attempting to add safety features to firearms has led to fatalities and injuries. A classic example is the Glock “New York Trigger,” unquestionably a factor in several recent incidents of dreadful cop marksmanship, including incidents where bystanders were shot in addition to and even instead of armed criminals. The NY and NY2 triggers can be shot accurately by experts, but they greatly increase the dispersion of shots fired by average cops, and mandating them is tantamount to ordering your cops to shoot a few random citizens over the next decade or so.

But it looks like safety, to a superficial view (journalism, anyone?), and therefore it’s likely to spread. The “Smart Gun” is another example of this Potemkin safety. If it is discussed in your legislator (or, God forbid, your local police consider something like it), real experts need to come forward to counter the antis’ and interested manufacturers’ paid pushers.

Kalashnikov, Made in USA

That news has the gunosphere going nuts. For the range of comment, you can look at this thread on Reddit — sane and sensible commentary scattered like gold nuggets in a poor vein of, well, the more usual kind of comments. But to the delight of gunnies, the main thrust of the article is that “real Kalashnikovs” will now be made in the USA. That sets the Redditors, particularly, off on jags and spasms of hope and longing for SVDs, SVD-M, Groza, Val and on and on and on.

A Facebook fan site, the AK Operators Union, put it this way:

AK News BOMB!!!! Kalashnikov concern is in process of opening production here in USA. If everything will go well, we will see first, made in USA Kalashnikov Concern AKs later this year!!! All calibers will be produced, including Saiga 9 in 9mm.

(That’s a good site for new AK products at SHOT, by the way). Kalashnikov Concern, a renaming of long-struggling Izmash, is not one of the success stories of the Russian economy right now, thanks to sanctions. We haven’t seen 2014 numbers yet, but even in pre-sanctions 2013, the company lost almost $3 Billion (yes, with a B).

The firm’s US importer, or perhaps we should say, former importer, put a brave face on it at SHOT.

Kalashnikov USA

No idea whether she’s domestic or imported. But if you look closely, there’s a rifle in the picture, and it’s an interesting one, despite our usual disdain for “tacticool AKs”. Because it looks left-handed. We found the pic linked on Reddit.


It’s a nice imaginary parade and it must be nice to beat a drum in it.

Well, there’s nothing we like more than a parade. So here we come to rain on it.

What’s really going on here is simple: the US importer of Concern Kalashnikov arms, RWC Group, of Tullytown, PA, has the US rights to the name and to sell the guns, but RWC’s boss, Tom McCrossin, enjoined from importing anything from Russia, and even from contact with CK or Izmash under the latest sanctions. It can sell the guns it already had warehoused and approved before the sanctions hit, but anything in Russia, stays in Russia.

Russian guns stay in Russia. Russian tooling stays in Russia. Russian ideas and concepts stay in Russia. So the only possibility is for them to be reverse-engineered here, unless RWC got hold of that information antes de the sanctions declaration.

There’s no political solution to this

The US is unlikely to end sanctions on Russia, with Russia still occupying Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Russia is even less likely to depart from what they do not consider an occupation, but rather a correction of a historical error.  Looking at the Russian point of view, Khrushchev’s assignment of territory from one administrative republic to another in a monolithic, Russian-dominated Soviet Union wound up with long-Russian territories departing when the Republics grabbed their independence. The Donbass area and the Crimea have long been ethnically Russian (especially since Stalin ethnically cleansed the Crimea, but that’s another story). These policies, especially when sold as protection of ethnic Russians minorities ill-treated by locals in the Near Abroad, are enormously popular in Russia.

Russian demo dollies show off new Kalashnikov branding -- in Moscow. Here, it's contraband.

Russian demo dollies show off new Kalashnikov branding — in Moscow. Here, it’s contraband.

It’s much like the situation with Chinese imports, where an anti-gun Administration (In this case, GHW Bush) took the opportunity to get a twofer and punish the “gun nuts” and the Chinese at once for Tienanmen Square. Over a quarter-century later, those sanctions still stand and are not even an irritant in Sino-American relations. Nope, the Russian import ban is probably for good.

So here’s what’s possible

CK branding can apply to American-made Kalashnikov clones. This will be a delight of the sort of fanboy who thinks that an Armalite brand AR-10 is somehow the most “authentic,” because the company making it bought Armalite’s brands, whereas it’s likely that not a single part interchanges from an original Armalite-licensed AR-10. It’s a bit like a guy, behind the times in 1957, buying a badge-engineered Studebaker from his Packard dealer because he always bought Packards.

What determines whether these AKs are good is not the brand that goes on, but the construction that goes in. In the short term, the way for them to maximize profit is to build an el cheapo AK and slap Kalashnikov’s name all over it. Presumably they have some arrangement with CK for royalties, in which case they’ll have to escrow the money. Probably forever. This means they probably can’t be the low-cost provider in the legendarily price-sensitive US AK market. But they can market their clone with the, “Everything else is just a clone,” tagline and see how that works.

In the long term, they might build a better and more sustainable business by taking care to make premium AKs with processes as near to the Russian firm as they can reasonably replicate; this also would leave them in better shape if or when the sanctions regime falls, but we just don’t see it falling. And the market for premium AKs is some small subset of the market for generic AKs.

What’s not happening, and why

Here’s what’s not coming: US-made SVDs, Krinkov SBRs, and other exotics that the already-got-the-easy-stuff collectors of AK-pattern rifles are jonesing for. The business case for these weapons is unchanged since before sanctions, and the business case did not support manufacture beforehand. (Some specialists make a few Krinkovs up from parts kits, but the annual demand for these may be in the single digits of units, at least at the prices the specialists must charge, $3k and up). The regulatory compliance regime (and months-long delays involved) kneecap SBR sales already.

The only reason that the US plant is happening is because the importer has been regulatorily dropkicked out of the import market. They have to do something other than import Russian guns, or fold when their stocks run down. Their way out is to attempt domestic manufacture. We wish them luck; we’re among those guys who have enough basic AKs but if they make a good product, we can always make room for one more.

Are Smiths “Engineered?”

10x10_SmithWesson-Logo_V01This is a tale of Smith and Smith — Smith & Wesson, the 150-odd-year-old Western Massachusetts gunmaker, and Herschel Smith, noted gunblogger and friend of vets (and of this blog). Herschel noted this in his Captain’s Journal blog:

On another issue related to S&W, I received an e-mail notification today from S&W on new products for 2015.  It mainly looks like more variants of the M&P.  The e-mail said, and I quote, “Smith & Wesson Corp. announced today that the company has expanded its award-winning line of professionally engineered M&P Series firearms with new offerings for 2015.”  S&W may want to rethink this language.

When you use the words “professional engineer,” “engineer,” “engineering” or “professionally engineered,” you invoke all sorts of legal stipulations that the service or product was designed and specified by a registered professional engineer.  In the past, companies who have done this without having a registered professional engineer on staff with the work being performed under his responsible charge were fined and issued cease and desist letters from the attorney general’s office of the state in which the company does business.  Perhaps they don’t know this, but you can’t just throw around the words professional engineer, any more than you can throw around the words doctor or lawyer.  Moreover, the legal burden such language places on the product manufacturer (for product liability) is rather onerous.

While Herschel’s dead right about the significance of PE and degreed-engineer credentials (two separate things), we’re aware that Smith & Wesson  employs numerous engineers with these qualifications. We’ve been told that VP Mark P. Smith is a PE, for instance, and the company occasional advertises PE job openings. David S. Findlay, author of the Firearms Anatomy series of books (M1A1 Thompson; Mk II Sten) is an engineer and engineering manager who worked at Remington and H&R 1871 before joining Smith. We could probably find a lot more if we were to start with those guys’ LinkedIn pages.

Not everybody in an engineering management job there came out of a college of engineering, though. Dan Fontaine, director of manufacturing, has a bachelor’s degree but he came up starting as a high-school-educated shop foreman. This isn’t automatically a bad thing, as anyone, engineer or worker, who’s spent time on a factory floor can attest.

The bottom line: yes, Smith & Wesson’s weapons are designed and their designs substantiated by professional engineers, including Professional Engineers with capital letters. This is actually the standard among the large firms in the industry these days. The small, agile startups often have designers who are not engineers, but even they hire engineers when they’ve grown enough to support them: there are great advantages to having someone fluent in the language and arts of engineering on your design team, which is why graduates of engineering colleges are more sanguine about their student loans than their cohorts clutching liberal arts sheepskins.

Herschel Smith’s comment was not the main thrust of his blog post, so you owe it to yourself to click on over and Read The Whole Thing™. He was responding, as we’ve been meaning to do, to news stories stemming from a financial analyst’s statement that SWHC has the inside track in the Army’s Modular Handgun competition. We hope to address that in a separate post soon.

Is this the Pre-SHOT News Blackout?

Shot-ShowWe’re not seeing much in the way of gun tech news. Sure, we hit our usual places — especially The Firearm Blog and the two indispensable aggregators, The Gun Wire and The Gun Feed, but nothing really moves us.

Conclusion — all the happenings are enroute to The Big Happening.

Not, however, us. Family responsibilities keep us on the Right Coast for the moment. We’re sitting here with the floor map the NSSF sends to members, and we can’t even put it to use.

We do have some cool historical stuff to write about, and we’re hearing innn-ter-est-tink things about a large state’s AG who has used the office’s powers to implement gun control that wouldn’t fly in the state’s legislature… an AG who’s now had to hire an attorney.

A criminal attorney. Awwwwwww.

Still, we’d rather talk gun tech. Our best guess is everybody is sitting on something till the 20th, and SHOT. Where we won’t be… #%&U!!

Next year, in the gun world’s Jerusalem?

PA State Police Glock 21s in the Shops

Pennsylvania_State_PoliceWe recounted, based in part on news stories and in part on insider tips, the strange tale of what we called the Pennsylvania State Police’s Pistol OCD. If you feel the need to catch up, if you don’t there’s a one-line tl;dr at the end:

  • Everybody wants some other gun (5 Jul 2014): we teased that “a A Large State Police/Highway Patrol force in a populous state suffers from Pistol OCD. They’ve been through three official sidearms in two calibers in four years, and it’s their own fault…. Since 2006, they’ve been through six or seven guns in three calibers.” A commenter from the Keystone State (and not one of our sources on these stories) nailed this as a Pennsylvania State Police reference.
  • Pistol OCD: the Pennsylvania State Police (8 Jul 2014): We bring you up through the PSP’s wild gun changes: Beretta 92/96/Brigadier in 9mm and .40, to Glock 22 in .40, to Glock 37 in .45 GAP, to Glock 21 in .45 ACP, and finally to the SIG 227R in .45 ACP.  Each change was made for plausible, rational reasons, but they wind up looking like an outfit that just can’t make a decision.

We observed at the end of that article that the department’s 4800 Glock 21s would soon be hitting the market, as had all the pistols before:

At least the PSP allows its obsolete guns to be sold in the market. Since every PSP gun is engraved or etched with the force’s crest, they are popular with collectors, helping the vendor recoup the credit he gave for the trade-ins. PSP trade-ins also tend to be well-kept for cop guns, even apart from the Glock 37s scarcely having been shot due to the ammo problem, so they’re an attractive alternative to a new gun for a bargain hunter.

And the tl;dr of all that: PSP changes out their guns a lot, and had 4800 Glock 21 pistols in .45 ACP that were about to be dumped on the market.


PSP G21 Glock in CaseAnd dumped they have been. A Pennsylvania distributor got them and sold them at $425 dealer price. One has already shown up on GunBroker at an ask of $559.95 opening-bid / $609.95 Buy It Now .

Here’s how he describes the gun:

Up for auction is a USED Glock 21 Gen4 Pennsylvania State Police semi-auto pistol, 45ACP, 4.5″ barrel, 3-13rnd mags, 3 dot night sights, Black slide with PSP logo laser engraved, Factory hard case with thumb saver, Extra back straps (NO beaver tail straps).

Like other PSP guns, some of the guns have been reserved for troopers to buy. And here’s the result of that:

One dealer got 60 in for the troopers that bought. Most bought 3 or 4 and some bought 5 and 6. They got them for themselves and family members.

That suggests to us (as it did to our tipster) that the leadership may have lost confidence in the Glock 21, but the actual road troopers haven’t.

PSP G21 showing patch


Of course, it’s anyone’s guess how many of these G21s are Looking back, 2014 was a pretty awful year for the Pennsylvania State Police. We hope that they have a better 2015. And may all these orphaned Glocks find loving homes!q2


The Burned Out Barrel Problem

As we saw over the last couple of days, it’s possible for a very brief period of very high intensity firing to drive a weapon to catastrophic failure. The managers of US small arms programs have identified two additional failure modes that are exacerbated by high rates of fire (and therefore, high temperatures: bolt failures and barrel failures).

Let Us Propose a  Way of Viewing Malfunctions

If you were to classify failures, you might measure them by the seriousness of their effect, or by its permanence. For example, a malfunction that renders the weapon unfireable (like a broken bolt, for instance) might be a Class A malfunction . A malfunction that degrades its performance in a militarily significant way (a burnt-out barrel, causing misses) might be a Class B malfunction. A malfunction that is relatively trivial (loose flash suppressor) in its impact on combat readiness is a Class C. Then, we’ll add a numeric value for where the repair must be made. We come up with a matrix like this:

Malfunction Matrix

Malfunction Repairability


Irreparable / Depot Org Repair Field Repair

Class A (total dysfunction)




Class B (serious degradation)




Class C (mild malfunction) C1 C2


The most significant, as in urgently addressable, problems, are in the upper left; the most trivial, the lower right. It might make sense to prioritize the Class A totals (in numeric priority) and the B1, irreparable serious problems.

This 2006 power-point from that year’s NDIA small arms meeting reviews a wide range of small arms program highlights, but we’re going to focus on two problems it identifies, one of them being an A1 or A2 problem (depending on whether your unit was authorized to stock the repair part or not): the failure of a rifle or carbine bolt. The next is a potential B1 problem: the shot-out barrel.

Bolt Failure in the M4

There are two common places where the bolt fails: in the web, where the bolt has had a large hole hollowed out for the carrier key, and having lugs simply shear off. The first of these is always a gun-down, non-repairable failure. Sometimes it can be detected ahead of time by carefully inspecting the bolt, under magnification.




In a grimy, operational gun these small cracks can go unseen. If one starts on one side of the web, it will soon crack through, and the asymmetrical stress is now loaded up on the other side, which is as battered and worn as the first one was when it failed — so it soon lets go, too. The bolt in the picture above would still function in the rifle — right up until the moment it didn’t:


If this malfunction happened in combat, the weapon in question would be reduced to the status of “bayonet handle” for the duration of the fight, and hardly anybody carries a bayonet any more. Big time Class A-1 failure, weapon down for the count, and you can’t fix it here. (If you are authorized individual repair parts at unit level, your organizational armorer can fix it. If not, you’re screwed, dude. This is why some savvy guys bring an illegal stash of privately purchased common failure parts on deployments).

Two other problems commonly seen on M4 bolts are sheared lugs and burnt-out gas rings. The weapon may continue firing, after a fashion, with these failures. But it’s a sick puppy and needs a trip to the gun vet, or these problems will worsen until it’s an A1 failure, too.

m4-m16_busted_bolt_lugThe failure mode of that lug is really interesting. You would think that the lugs would fail on an angle from where the forces bear on its after surface, and this one seems to have done that, at first glance. But look at the shear surfaces. The smooth part (usually where the failure started as a crack) is in the bolt pocket for the cartridge head. It’s possible that the stress that failed this bolt was the radial stress from an expanding case head, not the locking force applied to the after surface of the AR bolt.

If the first lug fails, the load which had perhaps been divided seven ways is now divided six. (We say “perhaps” because, without lapping the lugs in, there’s no guarantee you have optimum contact, and in fact, you almost certainly don’t in a factory gun, which is fine: there’s a margin in the design). So the force that sheared one lug that was one of seven bearing it is now laid on only 6 lugs… we can’t say for certainty when the next lug or lugs fail, but we can say it will be a shorter interval, in terms of round count, than it took for the first one to let go.

Hard use will damage a bolt within 3,000 to 6,000 rounds; cracks will be visible on inspection. Almost all M16/4s will show damage by 10,000 rounds. The damage may not be mission-stopping: what no one knows is how long a cracked bolt can soldier on like that.

Now look at the burned-out gas ring on a carbine bolt:



There should be three small gaps in the rings, and they should never be aligned, instead, always, staggered. This is a safety-of-operation item: these gas-check rings keep the combustion gases in the internal cylinder of the bolt carrier. It also produces hard-to-diagnose failures to eject, extract, and/or feed: you should always inspect and, if necessary, rearrange or replace, the gas-check rings any time you have the sort of malfunctions that might be due to weak strokes and short-stroking.

The estimated life of a carbine barrel closely tracks that of the bolt; from 4,000 to 6,000 rounds if used hard, 10,000 plus rounds if gently treated. The problem with barrel life is that it’s had to know when you’ve reached it. One way to judge it is empirical: your shot groups get larger and larger over time, because the throat erosion that is the primary cause of accuracy degradation is a progressive thing.


At first, given good aim, it’s not much of a factor, as the weapon has an accuracy reserve at most combat ranges. But soon the normal shot-to-shot dispersion and the increasing size of the shot group mean that even perfect aim is frequently unable to hit the target.



Now, here’s the kicker: the normal tool we use to measure erosion, the taper erosion gage, doesn’t work reliably. According to the presentation, it’s right six times out of ten, but the other four times it can fail either way, identifying a good barrel as a reject needing replacement (false positive) or failing to identify a bad one (false negative). The first error wastes a fortune scrapping viable barrels, and the second may send a soldier into combat with a weapon that will make him miss his enemy.

A tool this inaccurate is worse than no tool at all. We would do better to measure throat erosion by chucking the rifle in a machine rest and measuring the size of a five-round shot group, than to rely on the meretricious promise of that solid-seeming gage.

In addition to the throat-erosion problem, there is a secondary gas-port erosion problem. This manifests as many different symptoms: cycling problems, failures to feed and eject, changes in weapon cyclic rate, and degraded accuracy.

What ties these problems together?

Ever single one of them is caused or exacerbated by heavy use, especially at cyclic rates. The weapon will last much longer if it is treated with care and allowed to cool between shot strings. If it’s fired as if you’re faced with a human-wave attack from the 3rd Shock Horde (or if you’re faced with such an attack and need to fire it that way) it is ripe for any of a number of interesting and troublesome failure modalities.

So What’s the Answer?

In the maintenance world, you can replace “on condition,” by inspecting things to see if they’re still serviceable, and rejecting them when they fail inspection, or fail in service, or “on schedule,” replacing them on time. We all use these concepts every day: we replace our light bulbs when they burn out, but we change the oil in our car every 5,000 miles. That makes a certain sense; there’s no great consequences to letting a bulb go our, but if your motor oil fails to lubricate you’re looking at a big repair bill.

The Army’s approach to weapons historically has been to maintain them “on condition,” with operator, organizational, and depot-level Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services that are outlined in the maintenance Technical Manuals. But since those inspections don’t work, at least insofar as they want them to ID their failing parts with high accuracy, they’re trying to move to maintenance on schedule.

The proxy they’ll use for wear on the weapons will be round count, and the Army’s plan is to make a round counter a component of every weapon.

We wrote about this before, last April (looking at this same presentation, actually, but from a different angle):

The trouble is, of course, that logging rounds is a great deal of work. But if the whole Army could do it, we’d get a lot more information about how long small arms and their components are good for, and we could begin to schedule inspections and overhauls more intelligently. Too many inspections waste money, and some percentage of overhauls go and rebuild guns that don’t need it, while some other percentage of guns that need overhaul, based on their condition, don’t get picked up. (Army ordnance experts think that both of these numbers, the false positives and the false negatives, are about 40%).

You don’t have to wait for the Army to beat this problem; while automated round counters are in the future for most of us, some of them are coming online; and there’s really nothing wrong with the old-school approach of logging every round with a pencil and notebook. (That works fine for personal weapons. For issue ones, that may get swapped around a lot, it’s not so good).

Any and every weapon can be made to fail. The better its career is logged, the more likely the career will be long; the more operators (in the “users” sense, not “ninjas”) understand it, the more they will rely upon it. The better it’s understood, the more it can be improved.

And that all starts with a #2 pencil….


The SIG Brace / Not a Stock / ATF Letter Trip

donovan leitch 1967Remember the old Donovan song? Eh, unless you’re like us, old enough to remember the introduction of that new “dirt” stuff, maybe you don’t. The trippy 60s songwriter sang the very zen line:

First, there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
First, there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.

To which we’ve always mumbled, “Don’t take the brown acid….” (Sorry, another cultural flashback). Anyway, Donovan’s flickering mountain is a bit like the various ATF letters explaining their attitude to arm braces on AR pistols over the last couple of years, since they first provided a Firearms Technology Branch blessing to the Sig Brace.


First, it was a stock that made the gun an SBR, then it wasn’t a stock, then it was.
Then, it wasn’t a stock that made the gun an SBR, then it was a stock, then it wasn’t.

We’re not sure what to make of the ATF apparently taking up the recreational herbs and spices of the Sunshine Superman his ownself, but we’ve been whipsawed by the letters and haven’t written about them. Regulatory stuff is kind of boring, at least until ATF shows up looking for someone to feed their stats machine and settles on you. (And trust us on this: every Federal law enforcement agency has a stats machine, and it looks just like the one in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.)

Fortunately, the Prince Law Firm’s blog has been on it, and these guys are, like, real lawyers with bar cards, and ostentatious diplomas, and continuing education credits, and everything. Adam Kraut, Esq:

Well, it appears very clear that FTISB and ATF as a whole are paying very close attention to what people are doing and how they are utilizing products, including reviewing internet postings, pictures and videos. All of the stabilization/cheek enhancement products on the market have a legitimate purpose and have assumedly been approved by FTISB at some point. But, it appears that some individuals are not looking to purchase these products for their legitimate purpose and use and instead intentionally intend to misuse them from the moment they are purchased.

As was noticeably absent in the letter discussed in my blog post Cinderella and ATF’s Determination: The Fairy Tale of an AR Pistol to SBR through Magic, this letter does mention intent, in fact several times.

ATF didn’t appreciate people purchasing various stabilization products/cheek weld enhancements for the purpose of avoiding the payment of the NFA tax (which could constitute tax evasion). This is why the intent aspect, as stated in the definition, is important. If an individual purchases one of these products intending to use it in the manner for which it was made and then misuses it, as ATF previously held in the Bradley letter, he/she has done nothing illegal. There is no law dictating the end use of a product. However, if an individual purchases one of these products to install on their pistol and intends to use it as a faux stock, he/she has very clearly created an illegal SBR.

We think the consigliere has done a good a job as anyone can hope to of reading the ATF tea leaves, so we’ll leave it at that (do go Read The Whole Thing™).

Now, we’d like to make some comments about the ATF technology evaluation process in general. Kraut notices that they did something they usually don’t do, explicitly warn that this paper really isn’t worth more than the paper it’s printed on. He quotes commentary on the latest “brace” letter, this one to Thorsden Customs. What the letter itself (hosted at Prince Law) says, is:

In closing, we should remind you that the information found in correspondence from FTISB is intended only for use by the addressed individual or company with regard to a specific scenario described within that correspondence.

This is apparently new boilerplate. But the fact is, that is the nature of all ATF determinations. They are ephemeral, have no precedential value, and are only binding on citizens, not on the ATF. The ATF can, and does, overturn them at any time on nothing more than a whim, and the courts have rules that these will-o-the-wisp whims require near-absolute deference.

ATF-Molan Labe

Finally, a couple of exit thoughts: If the ATF didn’t take an elephant’s gestation to process SBR paperwork, maybe so many people wouldn’t be looking for an end-around. Want to increase compliance with the law? Make it easy and convenient. If somebody’s not making it easy and convenient, maybe they’re not really interested in increasing compliance with the law.

Gun-Builders’ Info Deal! From Home Gunsmithing.

There are several good gun-building forums out there. One of them is Home Gunsmithing, sponsored by Roderus Custom Gunworks, which offers some interesting gunsmithing and gun-building plans and threads.

Each forum has its own strengths and weaknesses. This one is strong on hardcore machining and machine building. Some of you guys like that, yes?

One of the cool things they do is offer to sell you their archive, complete, every year.

Home Gunsmith Forum Archive (NEW)

This archive is our largest ever – 2 DVD-ROMs, packed with gigabytes of great information, CAD files, PIctures and blueprints. MANY new prints and diagrams have been added. A must-have item for home gunsmithing. Think of it like the encyclopedia of Home Gunsmithing knowledge. 2 DVD set….it’s BIG. Covers everything from the very first post up to and including December 31, 2014.

You get it all for only $54.95.

If you ever wanted to have the whole forum, offline, including all the resources that forum members have posted, here it is.

So you’re ready for a WROL situation where you can’t get this info off the internet, or the day a numbnuts Nork hacker transposes two octets in an IP address and accidentally nukes the router serving your town.

Order here. Tell ‘em Hognose sent you.

The Case of the Purloined Pistols

ATF BadgeOne of the best polymer pistols is the Smith & Wesson M&P series, which show that old dogs really do learn new tricks. Smith was slow to respond to the threat of the Glock to its bread-and-butter police business; its first responses were halting screwups, followed immediately by the Sigma debacle1. But with the M&P they finally got it right. And it’s a common pistol among concealed carriers and in the holsters of cops nationwide.

Like most high-quality pistols, it doesn’t turn up in criminal hands all that often, and when it does, it’s usually a stolen example. ATF exhorts local cops to submit recovered guns for tracing (.pdf); even when the chain of possession is broken by a theft or lack or record, they can trace the gun from manufacturer or importer to point of initial sale and initial buyer’s ID, and even if that’s a dead trail, they can learn some facts and make some useful analytical inferences2.

File Photo showing a S&W 9mm serial number location

File Photo showing a S&W 9mm serial number location — not the recovered gun or any of the fraud guns.

So in February, 2012, when Plainfield, Connecticut, police seized a Smith & Wesson 9mm from an owner that could not produce a Connecticut “permit to purchase,”3 they entered the details into ATF’s eTrace system. The ATF’s National Tracing System contacted the manufacturer of the firearm, Smith & Wesson, to get a very surprising reply: “We never manufactured that pistol!”4

Sure enough, Smith’s records did not record the serial number at all. But the acquisition and dispositions records of a Smith supplier, Tri-Town Plastics, of Deep River, Connecticut, did.

They showed the serial number as manufactured, and scrapped, in March, 2011. Yet it was sitting in an evidence locker in Connecticut, mute testimony that the Tri-Town books were not right.

Tri-Town had had a fraught record with ATF’s Industry Operations. After a 2009 inspection, they had been given a punchlist of deficiencies to correct and improvements that the inspectors suggested. Whether the company took action or not is not clear. What is clear is that in preparation for the company’s next inspection, in 2011, Tri-Town employees found a dagger pointed at the heart of the company:

23 missing frames, or as the ATF would see it, 23 missing firearms. 

One or two missing frames is alarming, but it may be an inventory problem. A couple of dozen missing frames is another matter entirely. The employees realized that having the ATF find 23 firearms missing could be a company-killer; Tri-Town had become dependent on Smith & Wesson work for three-quarters of its revenue. For which work, it had to maintain a clean Manufacturer’s Federal Firearms License.

Whether the workers thought beyond the license implications is not clear. Whether one or both of them knew the disposition of the “scrapped” frames is unknown. Who is the criminal, still at large, that diverted at least one and possibly 23 modern handguns from lawful, regulated commerce into the black market is a mystery at this time. But even if the two workers had been entirely on the up-and-up to this point, what they (the two workers) did next was indubitably a crime: they falsified Tri-Town’s A&D records, recording the 23 missing frames as scrapped. (Crime 1). They did not report the lost inventory to the ATF (Crime 2). And they — as far as the legal case made clear — apparently did not report the case to their superior, Tri-Town General Manager Robert Brinkerhoff.

As a result, the ATF’s 2011 inspection observed the loss of parts to scrap, and didn’t note the inventory discrepancy — on the papers the ATF inspectors saw, it didn’t exist. They had no way of knowing the papers were fraudulent.

ATF didn’t come back to Tri-Town until the 2012 trace on the phantom 9mm. When they did, one of the two employees who falsified the records confessed to Brinkerhoff what he had done. What happened next was a fresh crime: Brinkerhoff did not report the lost frames and falsified records to the ATF, either.

What happened next is unclear, but in June, 2012, some four or five months after learning of the loss and deception, Brinkerhoff finally reported the loss of the 23 firearms. This five month delay was extremely costly for Brinkerhoff. In addition, the report he filed did not notify ATF that the firearms had been previously recorded as scrapped, a material omission.

Brinkerhoff must have been well-represented; in the end, he was initially charged with several felonies times 23 missing firearms, but ultimately was able to plead guilty to two misdemeanors: failing to file a theft/loss report and making false statements in a theft/loss report, one count each. He was sentenced to a year of probation, and as a condition of his probation the judge imposed 90 days’ nonparticipation in any firearms business.

To day, Brinkerhoff is the only individual charged in this interesting case, and the Plainfield pistol is believed to be the only one of the up-to-23 phantom Smiths that are “out there somewhere” to be recovered. The other serial numbers have been noted in the ATF Suspect Gun Database and NCIS, and the investigation continues.

We may speculate as to why the two Tri-Town workers who falsified the original records have not been prosecuted, but only the investigators know.

One wonders if the Brinkerhoff case and the fact that Tri-Town Plastics was then on the bubble (at best) for retaining its FFL was a factor in SWHC’s 2014 acquisition of Tri-Town, which is now “Deep River Plastics, a Smith & Wesson Company.” Not only was Tri-Town completely dependent on SWHC (75% of its business went to the Massachusetts firm), but SWHC was completely dependent on Tri-Town for M&P frames and other parts.


  1. Then-head of Smith & Wesson Steve Melvin famously directed his engineers to “Copy the mother******!“, and they dutifully did, producing the Sigma. Glock unsurprisingly sued, and unsurprisingly won. Melvin, who knew little about firearms, is also the guy who brought the company near death with a dope-deal with the Clinton Administration to enforce anti-gun “laws” Clinton couldn’t get through Congress.
  2. “Time-to-crime” is a useful one, although it should probably be called “time-to-recovery” as many traces are not associated with a particular crime. Average times to recovery are pretty long, five or seven years, as few guns break right out of the legit market into the black market early. Short times to recovery are indicative of diversion or trafficking.
  3. Connecticut, where police and politicians tend to oppose private gun ownership, does not register guns, except for so-called “assault weapons.” Instead, it achieves the same end another way: it registers owners.
  4. ATF did not tell Plainfield this, by the way. ATF does not share trace data as widely as it might, as a matter of policy; while some ATF agents and inspectors blame this on “the Republicans in Congress” or “the Tiahrt Amendment,” ATF’s Ross Arends has admitted this is not the case, and that the decision is driven by concern about exposing u/c investigations.

These are the ATF press releases related to this case:



Ghost Gunner Update

You guys may remember the Ghost Gunner, the open-source CNC mill that we ordered a couple of months ago. According to the makers, the initial units should be shipping RSN1. Cody Wilson hasn’t been on the blog since November, but we didn’t share that update with you guys yet.

The first news is that the machine itself has been tweaked since it was announced.

Ghost Gunner Mk III

Improvements in our Mark III design:

* Single piece powder coated 1018 steel exoskeleton to improve rigidity per unit weight
*Reinforced A36 steel end plates to further improve rigidity
*A new open source GrBLDC brushless motor controller shield for Arduino.
*Oversized 125W NEMA 23 BLDC motor, electronically throttled to 72W.
*Spindle incorporation of industry standard ER11 collet system, supporting tools up to 5/16”

Those are all good improvements, although the steel exoskeleton looks like a manufacturing twofer that saves weight and reduces cost, with no net change to rigidity over the original design. Hey, if it can make the specs he claims, we’re all for it. But the ER11 collet is a big improvement over any proprietary system, as quality ER toolholders are readily available.

The ER system was developed by the Swiss company Fritz Weber Maschinenbau AG (now Rego-Fix) in 1972 and has become a standard. It allows a range of tools to be held in a single holder, which is nice; there are several ER sizes (larger number is larger) and ER11 handles a tool shank to 1/4″ / 6.5mm or so (Wilson says 5/16″). For a ½” shank, you’d need ER-20s. It is not a quick change tool holder, but the holders can be changed in the collet fairly quickly. This thread on Practical Machinist has some details (they’ve had some good luck with import tool holders, and discuss how to check them for run-out).

Back to GhostGunner, here’s what’s up:

For the rest of November we are setting up our work shifts and finishing our packaging. We begin assembly the first week of December and are still on pace for our Holiday fulfillment. Not too shabby, eh?

As for new orders, we’re thinking we will open them again in January. But you can always reserve a spot for the next round of machines on our waitlist.

This has been really fun. Ghost Gunner is still an open source project, and we will be releasing the designs and software as soon as possible. Stay tuned, ghost gunners.

via Ghost Gunner.

We’re a little concerned that we haven’t been contacted, because their lame order page ate the Address 1 line for Hog Manor (& Rong Brothers Aeroplane Works), and replaced it with the digit “4”, and we’ve been unable to reach anybody to make a correction. A bit discouraging, but it’ll work out.

They had no problem charging our credit card the same day, that’s for damn sure. Since it’s Wilson, we’re just glad we didn’t have to pay him in Bitcoin.

Still and all, we are in (IIRC) the third hundred or so — the $1299 batch.

Ghost Gunner Mk III w gun

What excites us about Ghost Gunner is not routing out AR lowers, the one canned application that comes with it, but the potential of using it to automate other small manufacturing gigs. We’re already thinking about setups for engraving and for modifying an A2 forging receiver to A1 profile. We’re going to need Wilson to fulfill his promises of open-source file formats, etc. A .dd format is a useless thing if it’s not documented and there’s no software that writes it. We’d feel a little more comfortable if the machine would take GCode.

But then again, it seems to be all open-source built, Arduino, GRBL, etc., so it probably can.

It may wind up being an expensive toy that gets used as a sweater rack, like a fat guy’s treadmill (wait… we just described our exercise room right now. And us). It wouldn’t be the first.

If there are developments from GhostGunner, they’ll probably be tweeted by the Defense Distributed or Cody Wilson accounts:

The FOSSCAD channel is unrelated, but also worth watching. Apparently the real goings-on go in in IRC, and only announcements pass in Twitter.


1. RSN – Silicon Valley/Startup Culture acronym for “Real Soon Now.” Sometimes serious, sometimes ironic. Here, we’re not sure. They seemed to be on track in November, so we think maybe serious.