by L. Neil Smith
Note: I had a long Skype conversation last night with Neil. Right at the end, he pulled out a couple of his favourite guns. Such lovely objects they were – so cruel, perhaps, to show them to a man who could get five years minimum for possession of the same. But he is working on a plan to change that state of affairs. SIG
My Little Pony
by L. Neil Smith
Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
On the desk beside my keyboard lies an artifact that I have kept at my side for more than half of my life. We’ve been through a lot together. Both of us have undergone a lot of changes over the years, but both of us, deep down inside, remain essentially the same as we began.
The object in question started its existence as a “Colt Super .38 Automatic”, one of the first few — according to a letter I used to have from the company historian — manufactured by the Hartford armsmaker when they retooled to make civilian weapons again after World War II. I was born in 1946; the pistol and I are about the same age.
For those among my readers who aren’t conversant with firearms, this one is of a type generally known as “1911”, for the year Saint John Moses Browning’s nearly immortal design was finalized and adopted by the US Army. Those first 1911s were all .45s. Later, in the 1920s, it’s said the FBI urged Colt to make the same piece in a different chambering, old and strangely new at the same time. They took .38 ACP* (meant for the 1903 Pocket Hammer pistol) and loaded it up about 25%, to create .38 Super, which they believed could penetrate the armored cars and primitive “bulletproof vests” of gangsters in the Prohibition Era.
Early in my own career, I was extremely interested in .38 Super. It had a longer reach — shot flatter — than the .45, due to its much higher velocity and, in terms of kinetic energy, hit much harder. High performance hollowpoints and softpoints were coming into vogue (this was the SuperVel era), and that made .38 Super seem almost perfect to me.
My first .38 Super (my first “big” gun of any kind, as I’d worked my way up through .22s, .25s, .32s, and ,380s) was a Star Model AS, a handsome piece based loosely on the 1911, but with a much improved — and safer — ignition train (trigger to sear to hammer) interrupted by a better disconnector and a safety that is still unequalled in the business. Quite unlike the 1911, which merely blocks the sear (in my professional opinion as a gunsmith, Colt’s later bells and whistles only complicated a bad situation and did nothing to fix it), it lifted the hammer completely off the sear, taking it out of the ignition train completely, then set it down again gently when it was time to shoot.
Ironically, this wonderful arrangement is only found on two other handguns, both antiques, the 1911 Steyr, and the C96 “Broomhandle” Mauser.
We all used to shoot at an abandoned brick factory south of town, and I greatly enjoyed the fact that, whereas my earlier calibers only bounced off the loose bricks that littered the place, or, at best, cracked them into two or three pieces, .38 Super turned them into airborne dust. From that moment on, I was hooked on big, powerful handguns.
The .38 Super is not without defects. The principal one is the design of the back end of the cartridge, sporting what’s known as a “semi-rim”. This roughly refers to how a cartridge rests in the chamber. Revolver cartridges are stopped by a rim that keeps them from falling through the cylinder onto the ground. (Not really, but it works as an illustration.) Most auto pistol cartridges are stopped by — the cartridge rests on — a tiny, wire-thin shelf formed where the bullet enters the mouth of the case, an amazing feat of manufacturing precision.
The latter usually produces the greater accuracy.
Like tiny .25 ACP and .32 ACP, .38 ACP and its better-muscled clone .38 Super has a rim, but only a small, half-hearted one. Colt’s .38 Super chambers were originally cut to let the cartridge rest on this semi-rim, but in practice, it turns out that the cartridge mostly relied on the extractor — a spring-loaded hook that helps to throw the empty case out of the gun once it’s been fired — a terrible, unreliable, inconsistent non-system, simply fraught with potential problems.
Later, people experimented with .38 Super chambers that used the case-mouth, but by then I’d moved on to other calibers like .45 ACP, .40 S&W, and 10mm.
I don’t actually remember where I acquired my Colt (I have a good many old friends I can’t remember meeting for the first time). I swapped or bought it from somebody, I suppose. Although it was already more than 20 years old, it looked “new in the box”. I do remember that I had to sell the Star to get it, but for the most part, I never looked back. They were both finely-made weapons, but it was much easier to get magazines, grips, and other parts for the Colt. The Colt would readily accept the Ace .22 conversion system, and was easily convertible to other chamberings, as well. That last turned out to be important.
When I devised my system of calculating the relative self-defense”efficacy” of different handgun cartridges (kinetic energy times the cross-sectional area of the bullet — an attempt to account for all sorts of real-life phenomena observed by yours truly and others), I discovered that, unlike .45 ACP (which generates a 59) or .40 (63) or 10mm (81), .38 Super yields an Efficacy number of 47, higher than .38 or 9mm, but right along the border (50) of acceptability for self-defense. I’d take it in Harm’s Way myself any time (and have on more than one occasion) but I wouldn’t recommend it to others, and it isn’t 45 ACP.
From somewhere (again, I don’t recall) I acquired the top half of “Colt’s Mk IV/Series 70 Government Model .45 Caliber”. In case anybody wants to know, the Series 70 is the one with the “swamped” barrel and the “spring finger” bushing that everybody’s been told will break. This gunsmith has never seen a broken bushing in person or held one in his hand. I’ve heard from people who’ve heard from other people, and I’ve seen one photograph. Meanwhile “my little pony” has worked every time I called on it for the past third of a century. With a change of ejector (there’s a trick to that if anybody’s curious) I could now shoot .45, .38, or .22. With time, it was the .45 that stuck. The .38 Super slide and barrel and the .22 Ace eventually acquired their own frames, and the .45 lies on my nightstand (or in my holster) to this day.
But none of this happened before the biggest change of all. Louis W. Seecamp was a post-World War II immigrant from Germany. As a boy (this is coming from a gun magazine article dimly remembered 30 years or more later) he’d been thrilled to see actual bullet holes in wooden crates from South America on the Hamburg (I believe it was) docks.
Later, as a German soldier on the Russian front he’d had an adventure that had nearly killed him. A Soviet officer had popped up out the brush ahead of him, shooting him in the face with a .30 caliber Tokarev pistol. Going down, Louis had fired back with a 9mm Walther P-38, killing the Russian. The .30 bullet, as I recall, took out all of the teeth on one side of Louis’ head, and during the many months in the hospital that had followed, he had plenty of time to contemplate the usefulness of double action autopistols in large (for wimpy Europeans) calibers, as opposed to the rather small-caliber single action he’d been shot with. If his Walther 9mm couldn’t have been fired fast, from the trigger, or if the Russian had been toting something with a bigger hole in the front end, Louis would have been dead.
Louis came to America after the war and worked for a large eastern gun manufacturer (I think it was Marlin) long enough to acquire a love for lever action rifles. When he retired, he hand-made a couple of magnum lever actions that apparently never got beyond the prototype stage, and also designed a method by which a Colt 1911 could be retrofitted to become double action (like the Walther) on the first shot.
The system required that a channel be milled from the trigger to the hammer into the right side of the frame above the upper grip screw bushing. The channel contained a new “draw bar” and spring that could be used to bring the modified hammer to full cock, then cam off and release it. A new pivoting trigger was installed for this “double action” stroke, and the old trigger was cut down and used — the back of the new trigger pushed on it — for “single action” firing. The channel was covered with a thin steel cover plate held on by the right grip.
A new trigger guard, your choice of rounded or squared, was added (the old one had to be cut away) and the now-modified frame was then refinished.
The system was simple, elegant, and rugged. Louis offered to modify people’s pistols in gun magazine ads, and, as soon as I could scrape up the princely sum of ninety bucks (my wife at the time fumed about it, but the gun outlasted her and a second wife, as well), I sent my .38 Super off to him. I later learned that it and another .38 that arrived the same day, were the first in that caliber Louis ever converted.
Early in my relationship with the lovely and enchanting creature who was to become my third — she says my last — wife, the Colt .38 Super hung, in what served as a competition rig in those days, from a corner of our bedroom door. Cathy, to whom I will have been married for 25 years this July 2nd, was happy to have it there, which was one way I knew that she was (and remains to this day) the only girl for me.
But as usual, I digress.
In addition to a change of action type and caliber, I did other things to my Colt, which served as a platform for many experiments. I couldn’t afford an adjustable rear sight, but Colt’s factory sights were terrible, so I gave it a fixed rear sight and matching front sight from the Miniature Machine Company in Deming, New Mexico, sights that have now been on the gun and have served very well for almost three decades.
Somewhere along the line (after many experiments with rubber and spring-loaded mechanical recoil buffers), I installed a full-length recoil spring guide rod and the appropriate plunger. That it’s a once-piece rod will tell some of you its age. These were first reputed to improve accuracy. This hasn’t been my experience, but they do greatly enhance reliability of feeding, something I’d already worked on by reshaping and polishing the feed ramp and chamber mouth. I also funneled the magazine well, a change I probably wouldn’t bother with today.
Something I definitely wouldn’t do again is bob the hammer to about half length, as was the fashion at the time. On a double action piece it isn’t quite so bad, but I performed the same operation on my Gold Cups, and I’m really sorry every time I try to thumb the hammer back. Someday I’ll replace those hammers, probably with the wider kind.
Other changes include a King’s drop-in beavertail grip safety (my worst beef against the 1911 is that spike that sticks out the back and gouges the web of my thumb) and a tapered oversized thumb safety from the same fine outfit. Oversized safeties aren’t really necessary on double action guns, but they’re a nice option. I don’t care for the kind — I have one on my Grizzly — that stand out abruptly from the backplate.
With Jeff Cooper, I do not believe in extended slidestops.
I’ve used a variety of mainspring housings, including the original arched steel, Pachmayr flat rubber, flat steel, and even nylon. The flat housings are pretty, but I found when I shot NRA Falling Plates that the Army was right in substituting an arched housing. If you don’t have that extra length to lever the weapon upward in your palm (I have average-sized hands) you’ll shoot low in a hurry every time. I finally settled on a military housing with a lanyard ring, not because I plan attaching the weapon to my belt or a cord around my neck, but because it’ll make star fractures in a skull if absolutely necessary. Now and again I go back to a pretty flat housing, but arched is what works.
In case you’re curious, this is what happened to the top half of the .38 Super.
I’ve had every kind of grip imaginable, from distressed wood with a Colt medallion, to rosewood with an inset Mexican peso, to various smooth or checkered panels, to fake ivory (pretty, but too slippery), to Roger’s patent spacegun wraparounds. I had the first Pachmayrs with palm swells and a silly lip at the bottom, flatter Pachmayr “combat” grips, later with the center web cut out (I stippled the frontstrap of the grip frame long ago), and LaserGrips. I settled on the plain black checkered plastic “Navy-issue” type grips that Springfield Armory ships. They’re relatively thin, comfortable, durable, and cheap. Most of all, they’re plain, which is what I like best.
What’s left? I bought a dozen of the original K.A.R.T. magazines with removable floorplates when they first became available, some with a plastic “slam pad”. When I tried Chip McCormick’s eight-shot “Shooting Stars” a decade later, it was all over. They are well made, very reliable, and fit flush with the bottom of the grip. Except for one or two original Colt magazines in which I installed eight-shot followers and springs, they’re all I use in my 1911s now — except for the ten-shot magazines from the same company that I often carry as spares.
When I acquired my first EAA Witness, a Tanfoglio clone of the CZ-75, I realized that, over all the years I’d spent with “my little pony”, that’s what I’d been laboring to turn it into. I now carry a Witness — either a .40, a 10mm, or a .45 — as often as I carry the Colt.
Sometimes I even carry a Glock 10mm.
Some have argued against the double action pistol, saying it’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, when you can carry a single action pistol “cocked and locked”, and that it’s impossible to put the first two bullets from a double action in same hole. As a gunsmith, I don’t care for the Colt safety. And thinking about wound ballistics, I want to know exactly why putting the first two bullets in same hole is desirable.
That’s about all, except for a final thought.
Amidst all of the arguments from self-defense ethics, crimes statistics, and the history of government abuse, we tend to forget something I believe is important, and that is the aesthetic pleasure many of us derive from our guns. (There is a rare illustration of this in the 1990 movie Hard to Kill when Steven Seagall’s old partner brings him a favorite 1911 while he’s recuperating after being in a coma.)
H. Beam Piper writes with an enjoyable personal understanding about the warm light from a fireplace shimmering on the polished steel and wood of the weapons in his guncase. I noticed myself, a long time ago, that looking over my collection of guns fills me with the same pleasurable feelings as looking over my collection of banjos and guitars.
It is important for gun owners and freedom fighters to realize that it is this feeling of pleasure — quite as much as anything else — that drives those who hate us and our guns to try to take them away from us. H.L. Mencken famously wrote about neopuritans who awaken in the dead of night, trembling with the fear that somewhere, someone is happy.
Look closely at Sarah Brady, Charles Schumer, Michael Bloomberg, or Richard Daley next time their evil, insolent, inhumane faces are on television. The late, unlamented Howard Metzenbaum is said to have admitted “off the record” on more than one occasion that he knew gun legislation would do nothing to reduce crime — he just wanted to see the middle class disarmed. Mencken describes the victim-disarmers to a T.
Whenever you take personal, private pleasure in your ownership of weapons, it’s a mighty blow for freedom and against neopuritanism — as surely as any letter you might write to an editor, any boycott of some anti-gun corporation, even any generous donation to the pro-gun organization of your choice. For each adrenaline-filled fraction of a second you might spend defending yourself or your family or the Bill of Rights with your weapons, you will experience hundreds of hours of that pleasure, as long as we all continue to fight for the right to do so.
*ACP means “Automatic Colt’s Pistol”.
Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world’s foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches,Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website “The Webley Page” atlneilsmith.org.
Ceres, an exciting sequel to Neil’s 1993 Ngu family novelPallas was recently completed and is presently looking for a literary home.
Neil is presently working on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on Roswell, Texas, with Rex F. “Baloo” May.
The stunning 185-page full-color graphic-novelized version of The Probability Broach, which features the art of Scott Bieser and was published by BigHead Press www.bigheadpress.comhas recently won a Special Prometheus Award. It may be had through the publisher, atwww.Amazon.com, or at BillOfRightsPress.com.