Friday, April 6, 2012

A young student should have access to a serious .22 pistol.

I suspect this is going to become a bit of a series.  It just has that feel about it.

My oldest daughter is now three years old, and I'm trying to think ahead about how to start her shooting, and to a lesser extent when.  Obviously I hope she likes it, and takes off on her own, but at a minimum, even if she doesn't, she's going to learn how to safely run pistol, revolver, bolt rifle, lever rifle, autoloading rifle, and slide shotgun.  In the field, not just on the "square range".  A basic education, and beyond that the space to let her figure out whether she wants to pursue it further on her own.

In trying to reconnect with the state of the industry, to find out what is available for kids, I'm actually quite amazed at how limited the choices are for serious kid-sized learning guns.  And I'm thinking of .22s here:  something that one can learn technique on, without the consideration of recoil or the expense of centerfire ammo.  Once basic gunhandling and marksmanship is there, centerfires are another ball game, with far more available options. 

There's a couple of niches that are covered very well:  the Chipmunk .22 rifle for the first gun, the Henry Youth Lever .22 for the first repeater, and arguably the Ruger Bearcat to cover the SA revolver, although that all-steel piece is, for a kid, a bit large and heavy at 24 ounces.  The .22 DA revolver market does have some possible contenders, with Smith's AirLite M317 (which suffers only a heavy DA trigger), and Ruger's SP101 (a beautiful wheelgun which is even heavier than the Bearcat at 30 ounces) or LCR (a nice option if DAO is not a limitation on your desired skill set).

But when you get to the "serious" .22 auto pistol, things just seem to get stupid and stay there.  As far as I can tell, you can go one of the following routes:
  • Full-sized service pistol or conversion kit.  (1911, SIG, etc.)
  • Full-sized traditional pistol. (Ruger Mark II/III, Browning Buck Mark, etc.)
  • Mousegun knockoff. (Beretta 21, Taurus PT22, etc.)
  • Questionable design for a general-purpose, gunhandling-skills-building pistol. (Ruger SR22, Walther PP or P22, etc.)
None of these are going to work well for a small kid with small hands, just learning the basics of trigger control and administrative handling of an auto pistol, who will be fighting the weight and balance of even a 25-ounce piece, and the girth and layout of a grip designed for adult fingers.

I think the full-sized service pistol in .22 is a great idea, as a low-cost training aid--but that doesn't make it a kid's gun.  With a slimlined 1911 frame you're doing about as well as you can do with a full-sized pistol grip, but that is still going to be ridiculously large in a kid's hand.  The classic Ruger Mark II/III and Browning Buck Mark are exquisite pistols to learn on, but they're likewise huge and heavy.  (Consider how then-nine-year-old Brandon handled a loaned Buck Mark while visiting us in Palmer in 2009.)  Confusing designs like the SR22 or even the famous Walther PP are not what you want to be learning the basics of gunhandling and marksmanship with.  And then there's the mousegun designs.  Although, oddly enough, Mas Ayoob actually went the mousegun route (Taurus PT22 DAO) for one of his daughters, going so far as to have some custom modifications and fully custom leather made up for the "serious" .22, which she used in action shooting competition.  It seemed to work, but it still struck me as more "cute" than "serious".  At least Mas was thinking seriously about kid-sized ergonomics, and he also concluded that nothing in the industry really met the need.  Apparently that hasn't changed in the more than 10 years since that article appeared.

Why is that?  I can't think of a good reason why not, and in thinking about it a bit, I may have to approach a few people about a custom project to remedy the problem.  What will follow, then, in this series, will probably be more technical observations about what the ideal implementation might look like, based on what we'd want the pistol to do.

Here's a very simple first stab.  What about a truly miniaturized 1911 design?  The premier pistol design for adults could be proportioned for kid-sized hands.  It's not like this hasn't been approximated before--it just hasn't been done in a rimfire variant (that I know of).  The Colt Government Model 380 and old/new Mustang go back a number of years, and SIG has taken up that torch rather nicely, lately, with the P238 model.  Sure, these are not "pure" 1911 designs, but the manual of arms is the same, leather designs and customization techniques are well-understood, and it seems like a great combination of the right size, the right operation and the right performance for the young student of the pistol.  I find it hard to believe that these 380s could not be rendered as a .22, with a little attention.

Look, just consider this piece here, available right now from SIG:

That's the P938, not the 238;  it's very slightly longer in the barrel and dustcover than the 238, is identical in width and height, essentially identical in weight, and is available in 6+1 9x19mm instead of 6+1 380.  (For an actual carry piece, that's a no-brainer upgrade.)  Knowing SIG, the gun is probably solidly made of good materials, reliable and accurate. 

Now, take that gun and replace the locked-breech barrel and slide, with a fixed barrel and simple blowback slide.  Use a fluted chamber a la the old HK P7 to make extraction so reliable you may not technically need an extractor.  Tweak ejection, magazine (the .22's OAL is comfortably shorter than the 9mm's), spring weights and rates, slide mass, and whatever else you might need to do to get reliable function with the sometimes-fussy .22 cartridge.  Make it run 100%, period.  (If anyone should be able to do this, SIG should.)

After that, start optimizing for a kid's hands.  Do a "slim-line" job to reduce the circumference of the gripframe as much as possible.  Employ ultra-thin stock panels.  Offer a very slightly extended, but still low-profile, safety lever that allows firm contact with the thumb knuckle--and if you can get the lever to register the positive snap! of the plunger-tube-based 1911, that leaves no doubt in your mind that the lever has been engaged, by all means do it!  Aggressively bevel the magazine well (but don't add any sort of ridiculous funnel).  Then dehorn the snot out of the entire piece, add in a little texturing on front and back straps, bring the trigger to about five pounds, and include at least three magazines with the gun itself. 

Leather choices for the young student should include a standard strongside belt loop, and OWB and IWB designs for either traditional behind-the-hip or appendix carry, depending on preference and body type.  Kydex, leather, whatever, as long as it's a good design that permits a solid firing grip and one-handed reholstering, retains the gun during activity, and protects the trigger guard.  And of course carriers for at least one reload and flashlight (I still think Comp-Tac has the best designs for both of these).  More specialized holster designs would have to follow later;  the building of skills starts on the "square range", which imposes a few restrictions that are worth observing. 

With the above equipment, a young student is probably as well served as she could be to successfully "learn the pistol", and could be freed up to focus on the even more important matters of technique and attitude, rather than struggling with a piece designed for Mom or Dad.  And with the above approach, when she's ready she could easily make the transition from the .22 pistol to the actual P938 in 9mm centerfire, with the same leather, manual of arms, etc.

This is the sort of thing that training is supposed to be like.  Why on earth isn't there a whole market for it?

More to come, I'm sure.  Sabre's not getting any younger.  :-)


Kent McManigal said...

That would be very cool!

Of course, you realize in today's political climate making and marketing a gun for kids would get about the same reaction as "Little Cleetus' First Meth Lab".

I guess that means we need to keep working to cause more "Libertogenic Global Political Climate Change".

Matt said...

That niche, for revolvers at least, used to be fillex by Charter Arms, High Standard, H&R to name a few. Reasonable prices, reasonable quality. I think the current Charter Arms still sells the Pathfinder in .22lr, a good gun and good value.

Browning is now marketing a small .22lr 1911. I think it is 3/4 or 2/3 the size of a regular 1911.

Bersa als makes a .22lr version of their Thunder series pistols. Good if you have one of their .380's.

American Arms used to import a slick little 1911 inspired .22 auto. Can still find them used here and there but spare magazines are almost impossible to find.

Kevin Wilmeth said...

Kent: yeah, I know. But that same mindset will probably blow a gasket much sooner than that; just the words "...she's going to learn how to safely run pistol,..." may produce spontaneous aneurysms among the PSH crowd. WTF-ever. (Imagine, someone learning how to safely operate a power tool. Horrors!)

I hope to start writing a lot more technique and education posts, for those who want or need to know, and with PC sensitivity level set to "ignore with extreme contempt". The business of safety has nothing to do with law or politics. First, learn to run the gun safely. Then we can deal with the tiresome but necessary art of chew-toys for the willfully clueless.

Like you, I'm always working toward infesting the beast with VLNs (Viral Liberty Nuggets). Any way, any how. For my girls at least, I can at least ensure a basic competence and education, and hope that I've lived and set a good enough example that they'll voluntarily carry it forward when they're ready. Ultimately, that's not my call, but if they choose otherwise they're going to do so with full knowledge of what they're choosing.

I can do no more than that, for anyone. So, I'll do it! :-)

Tam said...

As Matt suggested: Check this one out.

Kevin Wilmeth said...

Matt: thank you for your thoughts here.

I forgot about the Pathfinder, and will think to comb the used market a bit more thoroughly. (I admit that my thinking in this post was confined largely to current production items.) I've been out of the gun-show market for a while and haven't really sorted out the best way to approach it in Alaska yet, but that may be a great way to investigate other, older designs I may not be aware of.

I did just recently see some info on the slightly-scaled-down Browning 1911 .22; nothing yet in person, but I'll have to manage that somehow--maybe a trip to Anchorage. At 2/3 the size of a 1911, that might be quite meaningful. The problem with Browning's website, at least, is that the flashy "interactive" presentation they use is spectacularly unhelpful for someone who is looking for actual, you know, specifications. :-) Do you happen to know anything further about it? I'd want to know about things like replacement and upgrade parts, available gun- and leathersmiths, etc.

I've never been much impressed with the Bersa designs, but I'm unfamiliar with your American Arms reference. In the quickest of searches I ran across this and this; can you confirm that this is the gun you're talking about? That appears to be the general shape of a 1911, but with a trigger and slide-mounted lever that says "Walther-style DA/SA fire controls" to me.

Kevin Wilmeth said...

Thanks Tam for the link. That got me an answer right away--I can calculate against 85%, and will cogitate a bit.

If nothing else, here's hoping that Browning does sell enough of 'em that we start seeing replacement grip safety/hammer arrangements, better sights, and good leather. :-)