Monday, September 21, 2009

Why the .38 is Still Great! Advocating the .38 Special, Part 1

This is a two-part series by David Armstrong looking at the .38 Special round and the snub-nose revolver, indicating that they are still perfectly acceptable for self-defense, quite capable of doing what they have done for a century...effectively provide a package that will protect the carrier in hostile situations. The myth is that the revolver is no longer a good choice for self defense, but we make the case that the .38 snub is an excellent CCW choice for many.

It has become fashionable in recent years to bash the .38 as a feeble and ineffective cartridge, particularly in light of all the new advances being made with bullet design in the 9mm, 40 S&W, and .45 ACP calibers. Well, guess what? That advanced bullet design has been going on with the .38 Special also, and far from being washed up, the .38 might just be the ideal round for the typical defensive shooter, especially in a 2" snub gun. Few other cartridges have the versatility the .38 does, and few guns offer the historical defensive fighting effectiveness of the 2" snubbie.

Let's look at the round itself for a moment. In the original 158-grain lead roundnose configuration, the .38 was somewhat well-known for anemic performance. However, when we took that same bullet weight, changed the design to a semi-wadcutter profile, and beefed it up a little, the first early "wonder cartridge" was found. Referred to as the Chicago load or the FBI load, the 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint .38 Special +P quickly became the standard for American police. Using Marshall and Sanow's findings (I realize the controversy but they do provide some basis for comparison) we find this load with a 78% rating from a 4" barrel. Not too shabby when one considers that the same source gives the infamous .45 ACP Black Talon an 81%! Recent modern loads utilizing the newer designer bullets have yielded even higher numbers for the .38. But, let's be honest about it, friends---anything the 4" .38 can do, the .357 Magnum can do better in the same package. Where the .38 has an advantage is in its comfort factor for the shooter. A good load out of a 4" .38 gives the shooter a nice little push to the hand, rather than the abrupt crash that comes from the .357 mag. This ease of shooting takes us to where the .38 is the King of the Hill---the "pocket gun"!

The 2" .38 Spl., as characterized by the quintessential S&W "J" frame, is without a doubt the most common firearm utilized for concealed carry. Some carry it as a secondary gun, others use it as their primary piece, but it seems like almost everybody that carries has a J-frame. The simplicity of the revolver, coupled with increased reliability in some CCW situations, give the nod to the .38 snub. In airweight form it provides 5 or 6 rounds of a recognized fight-stopping cartridge in a package that weighs less than 1 pound. It can be fired from inside the pocket if need be without jamming, something rather doubtful with any of the autoloaders. It also strikes many, if not most, as being more ergonomic for concealed carry than comparable semi-autos, riding easily in a pocket or in an ankle holster as well as traditional belt carry. However, one might ask just how much effectiveness do we give up in exchange for this light, comfortable package? Will the 2" snub be enough to save us in a fight? Well, ask yourself this--"If I had a 1911 model in .45 ACP, loaded with military hardball, would it be enough?" If you answer yes, then it might surprise you to know that further comparison using Marshall and Sanow shows that almost all of the +P modern "designer bullet" .38 loads in a 2" snub equal or exceed the results achieved by .45 ACP hardball!

Is the .38 the best of the fighting cartridges? I don't think so. But fortunately we usually don't need the best in any situation. Being good enough works fine, and the .38 Special is good enough. In a 4" K or L-frame type revolver, it provides a comfortable round that almost all shooters can shoot well. From a 2" gun, it loses some comfort and becomes a bit of an exacting taskmaster, but still controllable by most shooters. It is an inexpensive round, allowing one to practice a lot. It can be found in a weight, style, and charge to suit just about everyone. The .38 has come a long way, and is still perhaps the ultimate in "average"...and that is all that most people will ever need.

Looking at Lasers: Myth and Reality

This article was originally done by Todd Green for his CALIBERS site, and lightly edited for this site. Although done in May 2000, Todd's experience with lasers is still a valuable presentation for those with questions and, as usual, a good example of how the myths of guns and gunfighting fall before real-world testing.

Put Up, or Shut Up
Like most people, whenever I heard people talking about lasers for handguns -- or worse, saw some dope at the range playing with one! -- I thought it was a silly high-tech gadget which was worthless at best and counterproductive at worst. And as anyone who knows me knows, I was not the least bit shy about sharing my opinion.
Then one day, good friend and fellow Tactics List participant David Armstrong asked me a pretty straightforward question. "Have you ever tried one?" No, I hadn't. David recommended I give the Crimson Trace LASERGRIPS a try, and even helped arrange for Clyde Caceres of Crimson Trace to send me a set to evaluate for my Beretta. That was more than a year ago. Now, fourteen months and about 10,000 rounds of dedicated laser practice and training later, I'm perhaps just a bit more qualified to offer an opinion ... and write a review.

Experience Counts

I've been wearing the Crimson Trace LASERGRIPS on my gun since I first got it. You couldn't begin to count the number of times someone has walked up to me, noticed the grips, and said, "Hey, you don't really use those things, do you?" Everyone pictures the scene from Terminator ...
What I've learned very quickly is that I wasn't the only person who had a strong but unfounded opinion about laser aiming devices. Most people who dislike lasers have never used one. The rest generally sum up their experience this way: "Well, ole Bob has one on his forty-five, and the one time I tried it the darn dot kept dancin' all over the place!"
Hopefully, it will come as no surprise to anyone that the laser, just like any other piece of equipment, requires a little bit of time and practice to use properly, especially if you want to try target practice with it ... because it wasn't designed for target practice, it was designed for combat. That's why some of the most prestigious law enforcement and military units in the country have Crimson Trace LASERGRIPS on every handgun they use. So the next time someone tells you he doesn't like lasers and explains all the "faults" to you, ask him how many months of shooting he's done with a laser; ask him how many thousands of rounds he's shot using a laser; ask him how many classes he's taken using the laser; ask him how many live force-on-force training scenarios he has run through using a laser. Then, at least, you can weigh his knowledge and experience accordingly.

What It Is

So what exactly are we talking about? In technical terms, Crimson Trace LASERGRIPS are user-installable laser aiming modules which actually replace the standard grips (more properly referred to as "stocks") on a revolver or semiauto handgun. As you can see from the picture at left, the grip is essentially the same size as the factory standard grips, except for the small bulge near the top where the laser diode and lens actually reside.
How sensitive is the pressure switch? Apparently, it depends at least a little bit on the particular unit you get. For example, the set CTC sent me in early 1999 for T&E requires more "squeeze" than the one I bought for my 96G Elite. According to Crimson Trace, they can adjust the sensitivity to your specific wishes if you ship the grips back to them in Oregon.
The 5mW 633nm beam (the strongest, brightest beam allowed by law) is activated when the momentary pressure switch on the grip is squeezed. So whenever you hold the gun in your normal shooting grip, the laser comes on. However, most models (including the Beretta) have a master power switch so that you can practice without the laser.
This is a very important point. When you grip the gun in a shooting stance, the laser comes on. You don't have to find a switch, press a button, etc. You grip the gun, the laser comes on. This is in stark contrast to such devices as the Lasermax guide rod laser, which uses an on/off switch replacing the takedown lever on a gun. So with the Lasermax, you have to draw, locate the switch with your finger, press the button, get your normal shooting grip, and fire. With the Crimson Trace, it's just simple draw-and-shoot. There is no extra step to learn and remember, no extra movement to take time and maybe even fumble. With the LASERGRIPS, if you can point your gun and pull the trigger, you can use the laser.
The laser is powered by two small quarter-sized lithium batteries (included) which provide more than four hours of continuous (beam on) operation and have a 5 year shelf life. You can buy replacement batteries at just about any drug store for between one and two dollars each. I usually have to replace a set every four months or so, but as I mentioned, I do a lot of shooting using the laser. There is noticeable degradation of the beam as the batteries wear out, so you have to be pretty stupid to let them die completely. By the way, the LASERGRIPS will work even if you have only one battery. So even if one battery goes dead, the system still works.

The Many Myths
There are more myths associated with laser aiming devices than I ever thought. Here is just a short sample.
Myth #1: The laser isn't visible against anything red.
FALSE. Just like you can see a flashlight shine on a white wall, you can see the red laser when it shines on a red object. When I worked at the NRA Range, we wore red polos as part of our "uniform." The laser was easily visible on the shirts. Just for grins, I took pictures of the laser shining on three different colored pieces of rough plastic. As you can see, the beam is easily visible against any color.

Dot on right reflecting off blue plastic

Dot in middle reflecting off yellow plastic

Dot on left reflecting off red plastic

Myth #2: In a fight, the laser beam will be a bright line showing the bad guys where you are.
FALSE. In Hollywood (and on the Crimson Trace web site, unfortunately) you might be able to see the laser beam. In the real world, it doesn't happen that way. Just take a look at the picture to the right. As you can see, the pressure pad is pushed down. If you look closely enough, you can even see a red glow coming from the laser diode. But no visible beam.
Still not convinced? Take a look at the second picture.

Even in the dark, there is no visible "beam" from the laser. All you can see is the diode itself and, in the case of the Beretta, some of the beam splashing off the trigger bar.
The only time the beam itself becomes visible is when there is enough particulate matter in the air (smoke, dust, etc.) to be visible itself. Even then, the beam is only visible within a 10-15 degree arc. In other words, the guy you're shooting might be able to see the beam when the gun is pointed at him, but no one else will. In scores of force-on-force encounters using Simunition training systems and the Crimson Trace LASERGRIPS, I have never once had an opponent see the beam from my laser.
Myth #3: The dot moves around too much, no one could shoot accurately with it.
FALSE. I use the LASERGRIPS to do accuracy testing, and I regularly get 2" or better improvement in my group size. I also get a big improvement when doing offhand accuracy practice or when I'm shooting for speed. The fact is, the dot simply shows you where your bullet is going to go. If the dot is moving around a lot, you need to practice holding the gun more steady, and you need to understand how to shoot inside your "wobble zone" as the top shooters like to say. At a COMTAC tactical pistol class in March 1999, for example, I was able to rapid-fire 10 shots into the head A-zone of an IPSC target from seven yards away, with all my shots going into a group about the size of a quarter.
Myth #4: If I use the laser, I will forget how to use my front sight.
FALSE. Just as many IPSC Open-class shooters see improvement in their iron sight shooting after spending some time working with a red dot scope, those who spend dedicated practice time on the laser find that they learn trigger control, sight tracking, and follow through much more quickly than they did using "just" iron sights. Even if you don't believe in the tactical benefits of the laser, the benefits it can have on your training regimen are tremendous.
I find that when I am using the laser, I naturally bring the gun up a little lower so that I can look over the top of the gun and see the laser clearly. When the laser is off, the gun comes up to normal height. Either way, my eye looks for the aiming system ... whether that means the laser dot or my front sight. By having a friend flip the master on/off switch a few times at random, I even get to practice "laser failure" drills; since I expect the laser but sometimes it isn't on, I practice transitioning immediately to the front sight. In my experience, the time lost even in this unlikely situation is less than a tenth of a second.
Myth #5: It only works indoors or at night.
FALSE. Even though we know that something like 85% of all gun fights occur in conditions of reduced lighting, that doesn't mean we should ignore the possibility that we might some day fall into that other 15%. But even in direct sunlight, the high-intensity 633nm beam from the Crimson Trace is visible 10-25 yards away. It is certainly powerful enough to project across my "yard" ... backyard that is.
See the dot on the fence? It's just to the left of the dark plank, about two thirds of the way up. It looks like a small white dot.

A little closer, but here you can see that the dot is still extremely visible in direct sunlight even when projected onto a broken surface like this bush.
Myth #6: It's hard to find the dot.
FALSE. This one is my favorite. Anyone who says this might as well hold up a sign that reads, "I have zero experience using a laser." The fact is, if you have the training to bring your gun up with the sights aligned each time, then the gun is going to be pointing where you want it to. In that case, if your eyes are looking at the target, the dot is going to be there. In numerous IDPA stages, house clearing drills, and force on force scenarios I have never once "lost" my little red dot. And if I did, you know what? I'd use my iron sights, at least enough to get the dot back where it belonged.

Speed and Hits
Okay, so we have debunked a lot of myths. Just what is the laser good at?
First, the obvious. The laser lets you shoot faster and more accurately, particularly under stress. I'll be the first to admit that this requires practice. You cannot expect to slap a LASERGRIP on your gun and become Jerry Barnhart overnight. If I spend a significant amount of time (like a whole month) doing all my practice without the laser, then I find that when I come back to the laser, I am a little bit slower doing standard range drills. A good solid range session working with the laser fixes that, of course.
While lasers are not legal for IDPA competition (at least at present), I have participated in a few matches using my laser by disqualifying myself from the competition. Every time I've done so, my score has been excellent because I've been able to shoot at nearly top speed without dropping points (which means shooting accurately every time). At one match, I had the best overall score at 84.29 seconds, while the next best score was 108.31 seconds, a huge margin of more than 24 seconds. Lower is better for IDPA score, by the way.
I've also done some basic head-to-head testing comparing my speed and accuracy with and without the laser. For example, draw and fire two shots to center of mass of an IPSC target: my speed improved by 0.18 seconds and my accuracy improved by 15%. Two head shots at the same range: 0.26 seconds faster and 20% better accuracy. Bill Drill (6 shots rapid fire at target) turned out 0.58 seconds faster without dropping a single point. That is real, definite improvement with the laser.
Part of the speed advantage comes from being able to focus on your targets rather than on the gun. In competition, this makes target to target transitions faster. In a fight, it could mean the difference between life and death. Ask any martial artist, cop, or law enforcement trainer what he looks at when confronted by someone, and he'll answer, "His hands." The hands are the source of danger. But if you're looking at the other guy's hands, how can you be looking at your front sight? Conversely, if you're looking at your front sight, how can you be looking at his hands? It just doesn't work.
If you focus on the target (like this deadly jungle cat), you cannot see your front sight.

But if you focus on the sight, the target becomes much too blurry to see clearly. Can you even tell which way the cat is looking?
More importantly, there is a natural physiological and psychological phenomenon known as "threat focus." This means that, when under stress and confronted by a threat, your eyes will naturally and automatically focus on that threat. So if your natural reaction is to look at the threat, why force yourself to do something totally unnatural by dragging your vision back to the front sight if you don't have to? With the laser, your focus stays on the threat, but you still have a definite, exact aiming point. It's the best of both worlds.
As a Simunition instructor, I've run students through scenarios letting them use my laser-equipped Beretta. With only one exception, every student has commented that he saw the laser dot on the target and was able to use it to aim even under the stress of a dynamic close-range fast moving encounter. They also told me that in other Sim scenarios using their own guns which were not equipped with Crimson Trace LASERGRIPS, they were still looking at the threat rather than their front sight, but they were just point shooting under stress.

Another major advantage you have with the laser is that you can really maximize your use of cover. While sanitized gun ranges usually provide you with lots of room to maneuver, the real world often puts you in places which can really challenge your ability to stay well protected but still engage a threat.

Take a look at the two pictures to the right. The top picture shows me in my office, pieing out around the corner just enough to get a good sight picture on a small object over the fireplace mantel. The bottom picture shows me doing the same thing, but this time I'm using the laser as an aiming device.
As you can see, using the laser allows me to keep much more of my body behind cover, especially my head. Why? First, I can turn the gun in my hands so that the barrel sticks out past cover, but my hands do not, by canting the gun ninety degrees. Second, because I am focussed on the target rather than the sights, it is natural for me to use just one eye to look out. That means my other eye can stay back behind cover. But to be honest, you could do that with the iron sights, too, with enough practice. The real difference is that the laser allows me to change the alignment between my gun and my eyes.
With iron sights, the only way you can achieve accurate, aimed fire is by bringing the gun up to your eye level. Your eyes and the sights have to be in alignment with your target. So if you angle your gun in such a way that just the barrel is out from behind cover while your hands stay safe, you necessarily must be putting the front sight farther out from cover. If you want to use that front sight, then, you have to stick your face farther out. But with the laser, the position of the gun has nothing to do with the position of your eyes.

More Pros
Another advantage of the laser which is mentioned pretty regularly is the intimidation factor of having that dot on your chest. You might scoff at the idea, but Crimson Trace and many other laser sight manufacturers have mountains of testimonials from police officers relating stories in which that little dot made all the difference in a violent felon's decision whether or not to attack. It's no guarantee, but if it reduces the chance that you'll have to fire a shot and go to court and possibly jail, certainly it's worth considering.
I also mentioned the training benefits. Obviously, using the laser during normal practice will help you identify any bad habits you've picked up, like trigger jerk or milking your grip. You can also use it during dry fire to perfect your trigger control, making sure that the dot does not move as your trigger breaks each time. Another great dry fire benefit involves shooting on the move, because you can watch the dot to see how much the gun is (or hopefully isn't) moving as you walk, run, crawl, climb stairs, etc. Back to live fire, you can learn to watch the dot as it moves during your gun's recoil, which in turn will help teach you to track your front sight when shooting rapidly.
The other major area of improvement with a laser is low-light shooting. Police agencies all over the country are seeing their "night fire" qualification rate going way up simply by adding a laser like the Crimson Trace to officers' guns. In the dark, targets become even more blurry when you're focussing on the front sight. With the laser, that isn't a problem and the target/sight acquisition speed is incredible.

You knew there had to be at least some disadvantages, right?
The biggest one is also the worst. I've seen a number of shooters get a good laser like the Crimson Trace and suddenly they stop practicing their normal iron sight shooting. That's just bad. You must not let the laser become a crutch. The laser is a plus, a tool which can help you tremendously. But it is not going to shoot the gun for you. If you do not learn proper trigger control, you can't shoot well regardless of your sight picture. You also have to accept the fact that Mr. Murphy might just steal your laser (break it, kill the batteries, whatever) at the moment you absolutely need it. If you haven't learned to shoot without it, I can guarantee the one time it really matters, your laser won't be there to help you.
Another problem is light discipline. There are going to be times when you'll want the gun in your hands but the laser beam off. A little experience goes a long way here, because with practice you can learn to grip the gun properly without activating the laser ... but the second you need to fire, your grip tightens and the dot appears. Another good technique for right handed shooters is to keep your trigger finger registered above the trigger guard along the frame, directly in front of the laser diode. This will block the beam even if it comes on inadvertently.
Along the same lines, as mentioned earlier, the beam does reflect a little bit off the grip panel and/or the frame of the gun. So once the laser is on, you are no longer invisible. Of course, I rarely walk around invisible to begin with, but this is obviously a huge concern for some people. In my experience running force-on-force scenarios, we rarely find a situation where the student's position is a surprise to the guys he has to defend against. But if you are a handgun sniper worried about being caught out in a moonless night, well ... practice light discipline. (see previous paragraph)
Speaking of right handed shooters, if you're a lefty, you might have problems with some of the Crimson Trace LASERGRIPS, especially if you shoot with a "high thumbs" grip style. My advice would be to try one at the gun shop or a gun show before plunking down $300+ as an experiment. Note also that at present, the 1911 Government Model version of the LASERGRIPS do not allow for an ambidextrous safety.
The Crimson Trace LASERGRIPS are also pretty expensive ($250 to $500 depending on gun model), while some competing brands are even higher. You need to assess your shooting ability and training time in order to determine whether you might be better off spending that money on professional training or practice ammunition instead.
Finally, it's not always easy to clean the lens, which is a necessity from time to time. To keep it from getting damaged, the lens is recessed into the housing about a quarter of an inch, so you need the right cotton swabs and some glass cleaner to do the job right.

Hey, what can I say, I put my money where my mouth (er, keyboard) is. I now have one set on the gun I keep next to my bed, and another on my day to day gun which is used for carry, practice, competition, training, and just about everything else. At least a small part of my time each month is spent reminding the folks at Crimson Trace how much they desperately need to make LASERGRIPS for the Browning Hi-Power (so my wife can get a set).
You can check out Crimson Trace's web site at LASERGRIPS are made for a wide variety of Smith & Wesson and Taurus revolvers, Berettas, SIGs, and 1911s. There is also a factory-installed laser for Glock pistols which is a permanent modification made by CTC in Oregon.
It's easy to speculate and listen to gun store commando know-it-alls. But before you jump to any conclusions, find someone who really understands the benefits and techniques of using a laser aiming device and get some intelligent instruction. I've yet to find anyone who has given the Crimson Trace LASERGRIPS a fair chance without falling in love with them.
Stay safe!