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Evaluating Pistols for Personal Defense

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Article first appeared at Ammo Land.

So, I’m at the range with a friend, getting his feedback on a gun I’m reviewing, when he asks “Have you ever thought about setting up some kind of standardized course of fire to run these guns through? Maybe get three people of different skill levels to do it and record all of their scores?”

Well, I hadn’t, actually. I don’t really have any experience designing courses of fire, so it was time for some crash research. Fortunately, my range buddy is not just a retired cop, but a retired LAPD tactics instructor with plenty of experience in these matters, and he turned to the task with a vengeance.

Designing a course of fire that would do what I wanted it to do was trickier than I thought. I’m still torn on how best to set up scoring the thing. Configuring it as a duty-type qualification with par times and scoring rings seems easiest, and there’s plenty to crib from out there, so we’ll try that avenue first.

It needed to be, by necessity, pretty quick and dirty. If two or three people went to the range with a few hundred rounds of ammo, a timer and a couple target stands, everybody should be able to run through it at least twice in the space of an hour, hour-and-a-half, tops. The LAPD qualification course could serve as a pretty decent jumping-off point from which to structure things.

It needed to reflect that guns which are broadly the same are going to perform broadly the same under such coarse measurement. The idea that there are going to be meaningful differences in actual performance between, say, full-size, striker-fired duty semi-autos from quality manufacturers is largely a creation of marketing departments. (A hundredth of a second here and a tenth there is not necessarily a meaningful difference, although they can definitely add up.)

At the same time, it needed to be granular enough to highlight the differences between vastly different types of guns. A course of fire that’s easy to clean with a full-size duty semi-auto might be a real challenge with a single-stack pocket nine. The difference in triggers might show up in scoring the longer, more difficult shots.

Since it’s all done with test guns, plus the fact that I’ll be roping novice friends in to shoot it, I want to avoid drawing from the holster on the clock. I may not have a holster for the gun in question, and they may not be trained in how to safely work from one (and I’m no teacher; don’t have the temperament for it.)

Cribbing from the LAPD qual, we kept the pairs of targets at each distance, but we offset one 3 yards farther away. This isn’t meant to simulate anything, but transitioning between the targets is something that tends to make people rush shots and hopefully will magnify gross differences in ease of handling between different firearms and their trigger systems.

We dropped the 25-yard portion of the thing, mostly in the interest of brevity, but adding the 3-yard separation between targets puts one of the 15-yard targets at 18 yards. Making the shots at that stage all in the “head box” is another place where the difference between a long-slide and a subcompact is really going to stand out. Furthermore, juggling par times at that distance could wind up massively favoring lighter triggers with less travel.

It was decided that no more than six rounds be required between reloads. This required a little bit of juggling of round counts at each stage, but it kept things “revolver neutral.” I know, I know—it’s not a revolver-neutral world, but for the purposes of this course of fire it is. This does wind up excluding five-shot snubbies, but the course of fire itself wouldn’t be very pocket-gun friendly, anyway.

Depending on how things play out with this, and once we have some data to work with, maybe it’ll be cool to design a separate course of fire for pocket .380s and J-frames and such. The idea being that setting a par time that allowed one to reload a Beretta Pico would mean that you could have your CZ Shadow already put away in the range bag and be halfway back to your car. You can only stretch a course of fire so much without it losing the granularity I mentioned above.

So we’re getting ready to give the thing some test runs this week, and I’ll get to see if it works. Hopefully, it does and I’ll go ahead and put it here in the column. If it doesn’t, it’s back to the drawing board, but I think we’re on the right track, at least.

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