Monday, November 23, 2015

Some thoughts on longer-barreled handguns

After my recent review of several Taurus Tracker revolvers, two of which had 6½" barrels, I received a few e-mails from readers questioning my fondness for the longer-barreled guns.  They pointed out that it made them very difficult to conceal, rendering them unsuitable for daily carry.  I'm forced to agree with them, of course:  but that doesn't mean there's no place for longer barrels.  In fact, I suggest that for many people, they may be a better all-round choice than shorter barrels.

In the first place, a longer barrel lets you take full advantage of the powder in the cartridge case.  If you've ever watched the muzzle flash from a short-barreled handgun, you'll have noticed it's usually rather larger and brighter than the flash from a longer-barreled gun.  That's because in the shorter barrel, not all the propellant is burned inside the bore.  When the bullet exits the barrel, some of the powder is still burning, creating the larger, brighter flash.  That means the propelling power of that powder is wasted - it's not accelerating the bullet at all.  In a longer-barreled gun, it's usually almost fully burned by the time the bullet leaves the bore, converting all of its potential energy into kinetic energy imparted to the projectile (and usually giving it a higher muzzle velocity as well, and hence more muzzle energy).  In the hunting field in particular, that's an important consideration.

Second, the longer barrel automatically gives you a longer sight radius - the distance between front and rear sights.  This makes it easier to sight more precisely and shoot more accurately.  Look at it like this.  If you have a 4" sight radius (typical of short-barreled pistols and revolvers), and your line of vision is just ¼" off at the rear sight (not unusual in a snap, hurried shot), that translates to an alignment error of ¼" in every four inches the bullet travels.  If your target is seven yards away, that means the bullet will arrive about 17" off target (i.e. the point you wanted to hit).  That's enough to clean miss a human size target at that range!  It happens more often than we care to admit . . . just look at examples where multiple shots were fired, but only a few hit their target - or some of them hit innocent bystanders.  There are many more such examples.

Given a longer sight radius, the error becomes considerably less.  For example, given an 8" sight radius (typical of a 6"-barreled revolver), and the same error in your line of vision, that translates to an error of ¼" in every eight inches the bullet travels.  That would halve the error in the example above, to only 8½".  At seven yards range, that's more likely to still impact somewhere on a human-size target.  I'm not saying a longer barrel is a cure for poor marksmanship, of course.  That takes decent training and repetitive practice, both to gain the necessary skills and then to keep them sharp.  Nevertheless, you'll generally find it easier to get a good sight picture and alignment on the target with a longer sight radius than with a shorter one.  In that scenario, the longer-barreled revolver is your friend.

If concealed carry is not your immediate priority, but home or vehicle defense is a requirement, there's a definite intimidation factor with a larger handgun.  A bad guy is likely to take serious notice of a firearm that looks as if it means business, whereas a snub-nose revolver or tiny pocket-sized semi-auto pistol has been known to evoke laughter and mockery instead of fear.  (The late, great Jeff Cooper is alleged to have said, "If you have a .25, don’t load it.  If you load it, don’t carry it.  If you carry it, don’t shoot it.  If you shoot it, you might hit someone, and make them mad."  On the other hand, even a lowly .25 can be better than nothing.)  I've not heard of similar reactions among bad guys to a big, long-barreled revolver when it was produced in the heat of the moment . . . rather the opposite, in fact.  (I know of one man who turned and fled straight through a French window, without bothering to open it first, rather than face such a revolver a moment longer than necessary.  He nearly bled to death before the EMT's and emergency room personnel managed to stop the bleeding.  He then spent several years in prison, giving ample time for his many scars to heal.)

As for carrying such a revolver, there are many options.  I prefer a cross-draw holster, as that covers many bases:  concealed carry beneath a longer coat, driving (where the barrel can be tucked between the seat and the door), and field use.  Others prefer a shoulder holster beneath a coat, or (for field use while hunting or hiking) a chest holster, keeping the belt free for knives, water-bottles, etc. while positioning the firearm for rapid withdrawal if necessary.  Obviously, inside-the-waistband carry is a lot more difficult with a longer-barreled weapon, but it can be done if you're a tall person.  I agree that a shorter-barreled weapon is significantly easier to carry concealed, and therefore I usually don't use my longer-barreled handguns for that purpose;  but if you only have one handgun, and that long-barreled, it's by no means impossible.

A big part of successfully carrying (and, if necessary, concealing) a big revolver is choosing the right holster.  There are many options out there, but I caution against using cheap nylon versions.  They tend to flop around on your belt, they sag, they don't protect the gun very well, and they're generally a waste of money.  I own and use some, but only at the range for short periods.  For serious use with larger revolvers, I highly recommend the Simply Rugged Sourdough Pancake holster.  It can be carried strong-side and cross-draw, and fitted with inside-the-waistband straps, and equipped with a harness for chest carry as well.  It's the most versatile design I've yet found, and is now the only leather holster I buy for my longer-barreled guns.  (No, Simply Rugged isn't giving me any incentive to advertise their wares:  I just really like their designs and handiwork.)

I own several shorter-barreled revolvers, and value their convenience, concealability and flexibility.  However, I also own a number of longer-barreled revolvers, and I wouldn't be without them.  They occupy a very useful place in my collection.



Jim said...

I have a soft spot for the 7 1/2" single action revolvers. I tend to shoot them better and they do look cool.

Scott in Tucson said...

My all time favorite carry sidearm for several years was a 6" stainless Ruger GP100 in .357 - I say "was" because when the Mrs. finally got around to trying it, it suddeny became "hers" and now I'm stuck looking for a good deal on another one.

Peter said...

@Scott in Tucson: Are you aware that Ruger offers the GP100 in a 5" version nowadays? I like its balance very much. Seems to me to offer the perfect balance between the more-concealable 4" and the nice-handling but harder-to-conceal 6". Details at:

Scott in Tucson said...

Yeah, but,,, $800?! That's literally twice what I payed for the 6", admittedly about a decade ago, but still. I'll have to make due with my second favorite until I can find a deal that I can live with.

Peter said...

@Scott: Street prices are lower. I paid about $550 for mine a couple of years ago at a Nashville gun shop.

Mad Jack said...

I don't agree with Mr. Cooper's statement about the .25. If you really think the .25 isn't lethal, you're deluding yourself. During WWII, my uncle served with the OSS and worked in France. He was captured several times but managed to shoot his way free, with a .25.

Uncle Lar said...

Any gun is better than no gun. But remember the purpose of a handgun is not to kill but to stop which requires some measure of transfer of energy. And the .25acp has precious little of that. You really are better off with a good high velocity .22 rimfire. The only saving grace of the .25 is that the cartridge functions better in a tiny pocket pistol than the longer .22lr
As to barrel length, I'm with Peter within reason. I would remark however than the infamous Ned Buntline was a writer and thus a professional liar, not a shootist.