Awww geeze, not another blog!

Welcome to A Fine Blade!

This blog will focus one of my lifelong passions and one of man's most basic tools - the knife!

As time and events permit we'll tiptoe into other territory where we can use the knife as a metaphor in discussions about current events and have a little politically incorrect fun.

Because you see, knives rank just below guns as the most politically incorrect subject on the web today.

Guns & Knives = Bad. Gay Marriage & Recreational Drug Use = Good

We'll see if we can't have some fun with that.

So stay tuned, and welcome aboard!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Airweight Chronicles

One of my particular interests is small pistols designed for discreet, or concealed, carry. The State of Georgia has some of the least restrictive concealed carry firearms laws in the nation. (Yet there's no rivers of blood running in the streets from western-style 'shoot 'em ups' as the anti-gun liberals would have you believe. Georgia's concealed carry permit holders are a remarkably law abiding bunch, with criminal activity rates well below even that of sworn police officers.) This means trying out different small pistols for their 'carry-ability' can become an interesting pastime. Over the past 10 years I've tested a wide variety of pistols under concealed carry conditions, from miniature little .380 pocket guns to compact 9mm's to full size 45 ACP pistols that made a mockery of the very concept of 'concealable'. But the one style of pistol I haven't tried to carry concealed is the revolver.


Well, in the past 15 years or so the firearms manufacturers have flooded the market with new small handgun designs, virtually all of them semi-auto pistols.  Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Springfield, Beretta, Kel-Tec, Kimber, Kahr, Sig, Taurus, Glock and several others have each put out at least one, some several, new designs in compact semi-auto pistols in calibers ranging from .32 ACP to 40 S&W. There was a lot to choose from and I spent virtually all of my small pistol time and money investigating a number of these little 'krunchentickers' (as the venerable Jeff Cooper used to call them). Did I have any interest in revolvers?  Well yes, but it tended towards the large frame single action models from Ruger. Whenever I looked at a double action revolver my thought was, "that's nice, but it really really doesn't fit any of my needs and besides, it's too 'fat' to adopt as a concealed carry weapon." I have always appreciated the aesthetics of a fine revolver but never thought of one as suitable for concealed carry.

A few months ago my friend Bill showed up for a range session with an early model Smith & Wesson Airweight. This little revolver had belonged to his late father-in-law and Bill wanted to see how well it shot. Although I have a lot of experience with handguns I could honestly say that I had never pulled the trigger on a loaded Airweight revolver, so I didn't know what to expect. I was intrigued by the light weight of the little gun but expected a harsh recoil experience even with the low power range loads we were shooting. I was pleasantly surprised to find the recoil was not bad at all but the stiff trigger had me printing all over the paper (I wasn't so much as 'grouping' my shots as I was 'clustering' them). I was only mildly intrigued. I had other small handguns with better triggers that I knew I could shoot better so I moved on.

The pistol we were shooting was a Centennial model. This is S&W's aluminum framed snubnosed revolver first introduced in 1952. It is based on S&W's small J-frame design and sports a five-shot cylinder, a stubby little 1.75" barrel, shortened grip and simplified sights consisting of a fixed front sight blade and a sight channel cut into the frame's top strap. S&W identifies all of their aluminum framed revolvers as part of the 'Airweight' line, and that's how they have come to be referred to in American gun culture. When you say "I'm toting an Airweight" to another gun aficionado he knows immediately what you are talking about.

S&W Centennial Airweight in .38 Special (Model 642).
This is a 'hammerless' design that can only be fired double action.
The current production pistols are rated for +P ammunition

Bill was interested in using this revolver as a home defense and concealed carry piece, so it came up often in our discussions. My opinion was that its a perfectly suitable little gun but it would need some trigger work. That started a bit of an odyssey into the inner workings of the J-frame trigger via the internet and discussions with a well known local gunsmith.

It quickly became evident that nobody likes the stock Airweight trigger, and I mean nobody. Even the shills that write for the gun rags and are paid to like S&W products will reluctantly admit that the Airweight triggers suck. While the stock double action trigger is relatively short and smooth, it is extremely heavy. I found this surprising since these little pistols are specifically marketed to women who generally have smaller hands and a weaker grip. Yet S&W must be doing something right because they sell these little guns by the truckload, and as recently as 2006 the Airweight Centennial was S&W's #1 selling firearm.

The internet also reveals the storied history of the Airweight series and it's obvious that there was a time when the triggers on these little snubbies didn't suck. For the first 20 years or so of production S&W put a lot of effort into making sure it's J-frame pistols, including the Airweights, left the factory with good triggers. Most of these little revolvers were going straight into the holsters of police officers around the country as back-up weapons. S&W made sure the triggers were good enough to satisfy that very demanding customer base.

The little snub nosed revolver carried nicely in ankle holsters worn by many police officers

But times change and in the 1980's police forces started a mass migration away from the revolver as a duty weapon. This had an impact on the market for back-up guns. A young officer issued a shiny new Glock or Sig doesn't want to be seen carrying a back-up gun based on 19th Century technology.  He wants something that operates in the same manner as his duty weapon. The market for small frame revolvers slowly dried up and at one point S&W considered stopping production of the little guns. Then something remarkable happened. In the late 1980's, beginning with Florida, states began to liberalize their concealed carry laws that applied to the common citizen. Thousands of law abiding citizens lined up to get the permits that previously were available only to the rich, the famous, the privileged and the connected. Shoppers clutching their new concealed carry permits flooded the gun stores looking for something small, light and easy to carry. Gun shop sales weasels and gun writers began touting the small five-shot revolver as the perfect concealed carry gun. It was easy to check to see if it was loaded or unloaded and had a very simple manual of arms - just point and shoot.  No safeties or little switches or levers to manipulate. No slides to rack, no hammers to cock, no magazines to insert. The simple, reliable little snub nosed revolver found a new home in the purses, pockets and pants waists of hundreds of thousands of newly minted concealed carry permit holders.

S&W couldn't produce their aluminum framed Airweights fast enough. Literally. Demand outstripped supply for a few years, and any J-frame snubbie was a rare sight in a dealer's gun case. The little aluminum framed revolvers hit a sweet spot. The were well made, light weight, fired a 'real' cartridge (.38 Special), relatively small and were offered at a very good price point. But to meet the price point something had to give.  What S&W dropped was the labor intensive hand fitting that used to be applied to the guts of these little guns to give them a smooth and reasonably light trigger pull. In the 1990's S&W began to introduce MIM-produced parts on its firearms as a way to save production costs and improve parts consistency. Since MIM parts can be manufactured to tighter dimensional tolerances than forged or cast parts the need for final hand fitting on the internals of a revolver was virtually eliminated. But those same human hands, trained in the fitting and mating of intricate fire control components in the guts of a revolver, would also take the time to make sure all the mating surfaces were smoothed and that the trigger pull was at least reasonable. Labor is any company's #1 expense, so to meet the expected price point I'm sure S&W decided that the Airweights didn't need any hand fitting beyond what was necessary to ensure the little things were assembled correctly and would go bang when the hammer falls on a live round.

Virtually all of the interior parts of the S&W J-Frame revolvers are manufactured
using metal injection molding (MIM) processes

Sign of the times I guess.

As Bill and I continued our conversation about his particular Airweight my other friend and fellow gun nut Jim chimed in with his opinion about snub nosed revolvers. In his mind it was borderline criminal that I didn't have at least one example of this classic design in my collection. Like Jim, I'm a big believer in history and tradition. Heck, my gun safe is full of history and tradition in the form of classic old lever action rifles and single action revolvers. Jim knew just where to poke. I started to think that my collection did need at least one classic snub nosed revolver. But which snubbie should it be?

Now, I may be a spendthrift, but I'm a cheap one. I do have a budget and these days it's a zero sum gain - sell a gun to buy a gun. I'm also not afraid to get into the guts of a gun and tinker. My light gunsmithing skills are pretty good and I have most of the tools to do the job right. I very quickly concluded that a S&W Airweight Centennial in stainless steel was the right starting point. The Centennial (Model 642) is a 'hammerless' design. That's not entirely true - the revolver does have a hammer but it's completely enclosed in the frame of the gun, which means it can only be fired double action. I also knew the trigger would need work, but the necessary parts and instructions were readily available on the internet.

I visited a few local gun stores and quickly found a Centennial at the price point I was willing to pay. I hurried off the the range to test fire it and my fears were confirmed.  While the trigger pull may seem stiff but manageable at the gun counter, on the range it was all but unmanageable if your goal is any semblance of accuracy at 7 yards. And the lousy sights don't help, especially if you are a 58 year old astigmatic who wears bifocals.  But all of this was known and expected, and viewed as challenges to be addressed and overcome.

The trigger was first. The damned thing was so heavy I couldn't measure it on my trigger pull gauge (which tops out at 10 lbs). I'm guessing it's 13 or more pounds as it came from the factory. I ordered a J-frame spring kit from Wilson Combat. The kit includes an 8 lb. hammer spring and trigger rebound springs in 13, 14 and 15 lb. weights. It's generally accepted that the trigger rebound spring is the #1 culprit in the heavy trigger pull issue so I decided to start with the lightest spring - the 13 lb.

Next, I studied the work being done by Terry Gardner, the gunsmith in this video.  There's several videos on YouTube showing how to work on a S&W J-frame, but Terry offers solid, adult-level advice on what you can, and can't, do with a S&W trigger (you just have to get past the usual 'Nutnfancy' nonsense and shaky camera work, but I do commend him for getting permission to film Terry at work and putting the video together).

It was time to get to work! Last Friday I had some free time so I assembled all the parts and tools and went at it.

The first thing that struck me is how complex the internals of a revolver are. and all the things that are going on when the trigger is pulled. With a semi-auto pistol like a Glock all the trigger does is release the striker to ignite the primer in the cartridge.  The recoil impulse petty much takes care of everything else - it extracts and ejects the spent casing, strips and loads a new round from the magazine and resets the striker and trigger for the next shot. A double action revolver is fundamentally different.  Everything happens while the trigger is being pulled, and it all happens simultaneously - the hammer is pulled back against the hammer spring, the trigger rebound spring is compressed, the cylinder stop is dropped and the cylinder is rotated so a new round is brought into alignment with the barrel. This is all dependent on the mechanical force applied against the trigger. S&W has been building revolvers for over 150 years and they got their trigger designs figured out long ago. Where the modern J-frame trigger stumbles is the fact that the internal parts are not as smooth as they could be and the springs are too stiff.

The guts of my Centennial. The factory springs are sitting below the revolver, having been replaced with
lighter versions from Wilson Combat

The inside of the Centennial is very clean and crisp. The machining is all well executed and there's no metal chips, flakes or other residue left over from the milling process. The parts are well molded, the edges are sharp and well formed. Everything is as clean as a whistle and lightly lubed. The fit of the major components is also excellent. Because it is so precisely fitted the side plate can be tough to get off and when back on the seam between the plate and the frame is almost indistinguishable. Overall I'm impressed.

Out came the major components - the hammer, trigger rebound slide and trigger assembly - and most of the engagement surfaces got a light stoning using ceramic polishing stones. I'm here to tell you, the MIM parts are as tough as woodpecker lips and I'm certain I didn't stone them as thoroughly as I could have. Everything was cleaned up and reassembled along with the new Wilson Combat springs and given a light lube with Break Free. Next it was off to the range!

So here's the interesting part. Solving one issue just served to highlight another. The trigger is a good bit smoother and about 2 lbs lighter with the new springs, hovering just a bit over 10 lbs. on my trigger gauge. It is much easier to manage and is no longer the huge distraction it used to be. The big issue now is the sights, or rather the lack of them. At 7 yards I was consistently shooting high, way high. In danger of hitting the target frame high. After about 15 rounds I finally figured out that the point of aim with this little revolver is with the very top of the front sight blade precisely aligned horizontally with the top of the trough engraved in the top strap (aka, the 'rear sight'). Misjudge just a smidge and you'll be shooting over your intended target's head. The problem is, both the front and rear sight are all but indistinguishable from each other. Because they are the same color - silver - they meld into an almost indistinguishable blob at arm's length. I tried to improve things with a quick swipe of White-Out from a bottle I carry in my range bag, but that didn't make much difference. Next I tried running alternating white and red stripes down the back of the sight blade. That may help, but I won't know until my next range visit. I may have to finally admit I've found a pistol where Crimson Trace laser grips are absolutely necessary.

Alternating red and white stripes may help.
Or I'll just take the nuclear option and get some laser grips.
(For all you safety nazis out there hyperventilating over what looks
like live rounds in the cylinder, relax. They are inert snap caps)

So, a lousy stock trigger, lousy sights, only five rounds. Just what does the Airweight offer that makes it so compelling for concealed carry? Here's your answer:

Just over a pound, loaded.

And how does the competition compare? How's about a perennial concealed carry favorite, the Glock 26 with a 10 round magazine at 26.2 ounces:

Or even my current 9mm carry favorite, the Beretta Nano sporting a 6 round magazine at 23 ounces:

It's clear the 'Airweight' term isn't just marketing hype. I carry the pistol in a DeSantis Nemesis pocket holster and it's so light it all but disappears into my pocket.

But still, the lousy sights. The lousy stock trigger. The limited capacity. Aren't those strong enough reasons to pass the Centennial by in favor of more user friendly handguns? Well yes, I actually agree with that argument. Based on my limited experience with this little revolver I feel it is absolutely the wrong gun to put into the hands of a new shooter who is looking for their first concealed carry pistol. You would be doing them a potentially grave disservice by recommending this particular gun.

But I'm not a new shooter and I find this little wheelgun compelling in an odd way. It is quirky and full of compromises, but I've seen enough of it to know that it has a lot of potential. Remember my comments (above) about finding the correct sight alignment? Well once I got that figured out I was able to produce 3-shot strings averaging about 4" at 7 yards. That proves that if I do my job this little snubbie has a lot of accuracy potential.

I guess that's where I'm going with this post. I haven't had to put this much work into a firearm to uncover its potential since I bought a Dan Wesson Model 15 revolver back in the early 80's. I knew there was a lot of accuracy in that quirky revolver, I just had to find ways to squeeze it out. I eventually did, and that Dan Wesson remains the most accurate 38/357 revolver I've ever shot. I feel much the same way about this little Airweight. It is worth the effort to work with it to see just how well it can shoot, and perhaps learn some lessons along the way.

So welcome to the Airweight Chronicles.  And stay tuned.

- Brian

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