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, August 14, 2016

Is Being Different A Good Thing?

For almost two years I've been mildly interested in the sad tale of the Remington Arms Company's attempts to introduce an updated version of their early 20th century Model 51 pistol built around the Pedersen delayed blowback system ('hesitation-locked' as it's officially known). I won't go into details about how the recoil system operates other than to say it ain't your daddy's Browning-designed locking breech system. If you want more information you can check out the Remington Model 51's Wikipedia page. The Pedersen system to me appears to be an answer in search of a problem. But to be fair, Pedersen was a smart guy (and he actually worked for a time with John Browning), made a lot of contributions to firearms technology in the first half of the 20th century and his delayed blowback system worked quite well in the original Model 51, and it was a fairly popular pistol in its time.

Fast forward almost 100 years and Remington is struggling. It still makes great shotguns and bolt action rifles, but has largely missed out on the concealed carry pistol craze of the first decade and a half of the 21st century. In fact, Remington had zero pistol offerings of any type, and didn't really seem interested in playing in the market. It sat by and watched competitors like Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Glock, FN, Springfield Armory, Kimber, Kahr, Beretta, and even second tier manufacturers like Taurus and Kel-Tec and (gawd help us) High Point raked in truck loads of cash as consumers rushed to buy something - anything - with a hole in the barrel. Most of these makers were selling out their entire annual production within a few weeks of opening their order books at the start of each fiscal year. I'm just speculating here, but one of the things that likely caught the Remington execs' attention was the fact that an old line gun maker like Smith & Wesson was able to achieve dominance in the concealed carry market in large part by simply ramping up production of a 60 year old revolver design - the iconic J-Frame Airweight series. For several years running the S&W Model 642, a simple hammerless aluminum frame revolver in 38 Special, was the company's #1 seller. They couldn't make them fast enough. The little revolver was a cash cow for the once ailing company.

Maybe the Remington guys thought the way to break into the market was to introduce an updated version of a popular pistol the company used to make. After all, if it worked for S&W it should work for Remington, right? I'm guessing they took a look around their gun room and quickly lighted on the Model 51. The original models were well liked (and somewhat collectible), the design was unique - there wasn't another pistol being made that used the Pedersen delayed blowback system - and the gun could be scaled up to handle the more powerful 9mm cartridge.

Original Remington Model 51 in 380 ACP caliber

There was only one problem. Remington hadn't made a pistol in over 85 years. Sure, a company called Remington (actually Remington-Rand) made the bulk of the 1911A1 45 caliber pistols the US used from World War II through the 1990's, but that was a typewriter manufacturing company, spun off years earlier from the Remington Arms Company to maintain the 'purity' of the firearms side of the business. The gun maker Remington made its last conventional pistol, the Model 51, way back in 1927. I say 'conventional pistol' because for decades Remington made the XP-100 pistol, but that was little more than a shortened rifle action fitted to a plastic grip. It was a very successful design, but it was not a pistol in the conventional sense.

So we have a rifle and shotgun manufacturer with no institutional pistol design or manufacturing expertise deciding to produce a pistol based on a complex design dating back to World War I, a design that no other arms manufacturer has deemed reliable enough to put into production. What can go wrong? Well as Remington found out, plenty. Here's where the sad tale starts, and I'll just supply the Cliff Notes version:

  • Remington announces the new R51 pistol at the 2014 SHOT Show in Las Vegas. The press is invited to shoot the available examples. Everybody's excited. The pistols seem to shoot well. The Pedersen design is unique in today's market and it represents a historic tie back to when Remington last manufactured handguns. The gun industry press begins its usual fawning. Soon the pistol is gracing the covers of virtually all the popular gun magazines and YouTube videos are popping up all over the internet praising the pistol
  • Remington ships a limited number of pre-production R51s out to gun writers and internet celebrities for more extensive shooting sessions. Remington assures everyone that although these pistols are pre-production, they represent the final approved production design and the pistols soon to come off the line at their North Carolina plant will perform exactly the same as these T&E models. The fawning continues. Everyone is excited that America's oldest gun maker is getting back into the pistol business, and with a historically significant design that is not John Browning's
  • Production pistols begin to make it out into the hands of the gun buying public and immediately problems crop up. Complaints of poor manufacturing quality, loose fitting parts (like sights that shift around in their dovetails!), inconsistent triggers, slides that are all but impossible to rack, poor accuracy and, worst of all, frequent reports of the pistols firing out of battery. The gun press stops its fawning and goes silent on the R51. The problems with the pistol are simply too obvious for even the most in-the-tank industry shill to ignore
  • To Remington's great credit they stop production after the first few thousand pistols ship, acknowledge the problems and claim they are going to fix the QC issues and do a re-design to address some of the performance issues. The also make a very generous offer to those who had already purchased the R51 - Remington would either buy back their pistol for a full refund, let them trade their pistol for one of the new models when it ships, or let them trade the pistol for a new Remington R1911 pistol. This is in 2014 and Remington estimates it'll take about a year to get the problems ironed out and the re-designed pistols into production
  • It actually takes Remington over two years to get things squared away. Part of the delay was due to moving production from North Carolina to Alabama. Finally a few weeks ago Remington announced the new pistols were shipping, first to those original buyers who had waited patiently for their replacement R51s and then to retailers. They were scheduled to be in dealers hands around August 12th. 

The Remington R51

Just earlier this week I was catching some of the internet chatter regarding the newly released pistol (now known as the 2nd Generation R51). A few folks who had received their replacement pistols were already posting YouTube videos. Reviews still seemed a bit mixed, but nobody was reporting the kinds of dangerous issues the first generation pistols exhibited. I told myself that if one ever appeared in my local gun range rental case I'd give it a try.

Well yesterday I went to the range and sitting there in the rental case was, surprise of surprises, a shiny new R51! The gal behind the counter said they got it just yesterday and it was unfired. I told her I'd be more than happy to put the first few rounds through it.

First impressions? The quality looked good. The fit and finish was well done. This is a sub-$500 pistol so we can't expect too much embellishment, but overall it looked nicely done. Visually it's an interesting pistol, sort of like a cross between a Walther PPK and Flash Gordon's ray gun. I think it works. I even like the 'reverse sloped' rear sight, which I think is actually a pretty good idea.The sights are the conventional 3-dot style and target acquisition is fast and easy. If you like Novaks you'll like these. The grip angle is good and the pistol points naturally. One of the features of the Pedersen design is that the recoil spring surrounds the barrel, allowing for a very low bore axis. The rear of the slide sits right at the web of your hand, and I'll talk more about that in just a moment.

2nd Generation R51. A nice looking pistol

Actually firing the pistol is a somewhat different experience compared to other hammer fired semi-autos. The R51 sports a very aggressive grip safety. I say aggressive because unlike the grip safety on a 1911-style pistol, where the simple act of gripping the pistol deactivates the grip safety, on the R51 you have to consciously squeeze the grip safety until you feel it click, and then you'll be able to pull the trigger. You can't just 'grip and pull' (the trigger), you have to 'grip, squeeze until click, then pull'. It is a very deliberate process to get on the grip safety and squeeze until it clicks.

Next is the trigger itself. It doesn't 'click' when the sear releases, instead it 'pops'. Other reviewers have noticed this too. It's hard to describe, but once you pull the trigger a few times you'll understand. It's as though the tripping of the sear is wrapped up in a series of other simultaneous mechanical events going on inside the pistol when the trigger is pulled, so you don't get the crisp 'click' of the release, instead you get a more ambiguous 'pop'. I'm not sure if this is directly related to the Pedersen design or just the way Remington designed the trigger mechanism and its relation to the grip safety. I'll just say that it's different.

Accuracy. In this department it's OK. Not bad, not great. But an accuracy evaluation at this point is unfair. I only put 30 rounds through the pistol, it was brand new and I was unfamiliar with it. I'll just say that it does show potential and I'm confident that if I shot it more and got used to the trigger I'd get much better groups. Here's how it does at 12 feet:

About a 4 inch center group at 12 feet

I should also add that while I only put 30 rounds through the R51, these were the first rounds fired through it since it left the factory and it was 100% reliable.

So does the somewhat unusual grip safety and trigger make R51 so odd that it is not a viable product in today's market? Well they shouldn't. The handgun market today is full of 'odd' examples that don't just work, but have succeeded spectacularly. Glock is the best example. It is also valid to point out that the R51's trigger and safety are much less different from a traditional Browning design semi-auto pistol than a 1911 is from a double action revolver. I think what I'm trying to say is that there's enough elbow room in today's handgun market for the R51 to gain some traction and succeed.

Yet, sadly, the pistol doesn't work for me. Let's get back to the low bore axis issue. While it is great for controlling recoil it puts the rear of the slide uncomfortably close to the web of the shooting hand. If you are like me and you have somewhat 'beefy' hands you are going to get slide bite, and it hurts.

No blood, but plenty of scraped skin. And yes, I'm a southpaw

Is the R51 worth taking a look at for concealed carry? I think so - but shoot one first to make sure you don't have the problem I encountered.

Would I ever own one? I think if Remington ever did a re-design of the frame to add a slight beavertail to protect the shooter's hand I'd go for it. It's a unique design that seems to work. As a firearms enthusiast and amateur historian I applaud Remington's efforts to bring the Pederson design back into production. I could see plunking down cash for one if they ever fix the damned slide bite issue.

Stay sharp!

- Brian

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