Monday, September 16, 2013

There are .45s and then there are .45s.

As part of yesterday's delightful range experience with a new father-son team, I got my first chance to shoot a Smith X-frame in .460 S&W Mag.  When I found out that the dad was going to bring this, I figured I'd show some solidarity and try out the new Buffalo Bore load I had picked up for my Ruger Blackhawk some time ago.  As it turned out, this was a very smart move on my part.

He had acquired the huge Smith as a recommended bear backup, and had only put a few rounds through it thus far;  he was interested in my opinion on it, and was happy to let me shoot it with the full-house loads.  Curiously, the load recommended to him was a 200-grain expanding bullet with the sort of pointed polymer tip that Hornady first developed for leverguns;  we didn't have a chronograph to verify this, but the box claims--get this--2200fps velocity for this load.  Sectional density aside (and that's a very real consideration with really big critters, not a trivial attribute that you can ignore), that is hard on the heels of the .308 rifle round, for 200 grains of bullet.

As Jeff Cooper would say, that is indeed much gun, especially in beltgun format.

The dad also had brought some Federal hollowpoint .45 Colt loads, 225 grain, clearly antipersonnel in design;  they're probably running somewhere between 800 and 950fps.  He admitted to being a bit intimidated by the giant loads, and figured (correctly) that being confident and sure of placing the shot was a more important consideration than all that extra power.  His question to me was, would the lesser load be okay in the bear-protection role?

And suddenly I had the "duh" moment...yes, Smith's .460 Mag is simply an elongated .45 Colt, by design.  That meant he could safely chamber and shoot my Buffalo Bore loads, as well

Instantly I knew that was the right answer.  The whole reason I got that load myself was for bear protection, after all;  I'd followed raptly along as Ross Seyfried went through his experiments in the 1980s with heavy cast bullet loads in custom five-round .45 Colts...experiments which culminated in successful Cape buffalo hits that broke shoulders and otherwise penetrated like big-bore stopping rifles.  Seyfried's hunting load, IIRC, was a bullet of about 410 grains, running at a measured 1200fps.  Buffalo Bore's load claims 1325fps for a bullet of very similar design, at 325 grains weight, and from what I gather from others, Buffalo Bore often does actually hit their velocity claims in real, everyday guns.  Bears around here are big, but Cape buffalo are bigger, with thicker skin and heavier bones.  The short answer seemed to be:  this load should be nearly as good as anything you can carry on your belt, and crazy as it may seem, it's rated for my six-shot, box-stock Ruger Blackhawk.

So!  Experiment time.  The 460V revolver itself is certainly a beautiful work of metal;  its principal drawbacks for me are that it is so large and heavy (just shy of four pounds empty) that it would probably be a true nuisance on the belt--I'd probably invest in one of the specialized "Alaska-style" chest rigs to carry it--and that the DA trigger is noticeably heavy.  Stock is comfortable, balance with the 5" compensated barrel is actually pretty good, and the SA trigger is just what it should be.  The weirdest part about handling the piece, for me, wasn't the conspicuously long cylinder, but rather the comitant length of the ejector rod.  This ain't no stubby J-frame!  :-)

Click to embiggenate

I loaded two of the "regular" .45 Colt rounds into the big Smith, and of course they were complete pussycats in a gun of that weight, sporting an aggressive compensator.  (Interestingly, in a perfectly clean gun, the cases dragged moderately during extraction, and primers appeared slightly flattened.)  Next I loaded two of my Buffalo Bore rounds into the same two chambers, and the step up in power was obvious.  I had no idea what to expect here, and must confess that my trigger control was probably at least a bit...anticipatory.  Despite that, the two shots at 10 yards landed within a couple inches of each other, and I'm happy to report that the cases pretty much fell out of the chambers afterward, with no visual evidence of overheating at the primer, pocket, or the web of the case head.  (It's a "+P" load, after all, and one should always be careful to look and see how it does in one's own piece.)

Finally, two of the full-house 200-grain .460 rounds, this time in two unfired chambers.  Again, honesty compels me to admit that I did not achieve an instructor-quality surprise break on either shot, but I'm happy to say that, whatever the quality of compressed surprise break that actually occurred, still caused both shots to land within three inches of one another, centered on the target.  Case extraction was almost alarmingly tight (and remember these were deliberately clean chambers) and primers showed enough flattening that I'd back off if it were a handload.  Now I realize full well that most bear encounters that degenerate to gunfire will probably be decided within a five-shot cylinder, but I for one will not take the field without a reload, and iffy extraction is a big deal to me.  I'm already predisposed against this round for bear because it's the wrong bullet design and too light for caliber;  sticky extraction and signs of overpressure simply confirm that further.

As far as the sense at firing the .460, yes, it was much gun;  distinctly less pleasant than the Buffalo Bore load, with all the impressive flash and blast I'd expect with a light-bullet, high-velocity, heavy-charge-weight load going through an expansion port compensator.  Muzzle jump was noticeable even with a high grip and a strong Weaver stance, but it would be workable in action, especially with a little practice.  All in all, and granting that this load is not everything that the round is capable of, I think the piece is less fearsome than I was anticipating.

We had the dad try a couple of the Buffalo Bore rounds himself, in his Smith, and he seemed satisfied that they were less intimidating enough that he would be happy carrying them.  So I essentially insisted that he do that.  Everyone seemed much happier about this.   :-)

I think it's a much better bear-load anyway, than the fire-belching big brother.  A wide-meplat hard-cast bullet of 325 grains, at an adequate velocity, is going to penetrate Big Critter better than an expanding bullet of 200 grains in the same caliber, at nearly any velocity.  And at 325 grains, 1300fps, at last-ditch bear engagement distances, is as "adequate" as anything I've yet heard of.  In the unlikely event that he needs to use this against a bruin, if he keeps his head, things should turn out fine.

But my last test, to my considerable pleasure, confirmed for me again that the road I took myself is one I don't feel any need to stray from.  I put two more Buffalo Bore rounds through my box-stock, 4-5/8" Ruger Blackhawk.

Again, click and embiggen.

Again, a couple inches apart at 10 yards, centered, for two less-than-perfect test shots.  Cases fell out of chambers with no visible signs of overpressure.  Recoil was definitely heavier than anything I've put through this gun, but the hogleg gripframe design mitigates a whole lot of that, and I will be happy to balance the recoil with that power level.  

Comparing the Blackhawk to the big Smith tells most of my story nearly by itself.  The Blackhawk lists at 39 ounces, compared to 61 for the Smith.  That's over twenty ounces less to absorb recoil (and no compensator), but also over twenty ounces less on the belt;  the Ruger is a trim, comfortable beltgun that will be there when I need it.  The power level seems to be as effective as anything you can wear on your belt, and it seems to be a power level that can be applied effectively.

It was interesting to compare the DA design and the SA design side-by-side.  Muzzle rise in the Smith, even with the Buffalo Bore load and certainly with the full-house 460, was great enough that I don't think the DA trigger option is any sort of advantage.  The SA gripframe, in recoil, "rolls up" in the hand, which both mitigates heavy recoil and also presents the hammer into an excellent location for recocking a follow-up shot.  By the time I get either piece down from recoil, I can have that Ruger recocked and ready to go just as fast as the Smith.

So, I'm once again happy with my choices.  Now I need to acquire a usable stock of that ammo (yeeks, not cheap) and dial myself in to it.

Very well then!  :-)


MamaLiberty said...

Good heavens... I'm glad we don't have bears that size around here. :) I'm afraid I would likely not be able to fire such a thing without doing myself permanent damage, never mind hitting the bear!

Still love to shoot my XD .45, but I don't carry it anymore. Just not a good fit for me anywhere but on the range.

Kevin Wilmeth said...

ML, it probably wouldn't surprise you if I said that the subject of bear defense, here, is essentially identical to the larger subject of self-defense in general. Which means:

1) most people make way too much of gear, and way too little of awareness and mindset; and

2) most people get perfectly adequate gear, but have no real idea how to use it--and never bother to change that.

The quintessential Alaskan water-cooler argument over bear stopping centers around "45/70 levergun" vs. "12ga shotgun". Like most arguments of this type, it's mostly pointless, since these two approaches are essentially the same, and both seem to have proven records when it counts.

Among handguns, there are a lot of folks here who either advise that you don't bother at all, or that you should only consider the .45 Linebaugh/Casull level and above for the task, and frankly they annoy the crap out of me. I'm of the opinion that if all the upstream layers of my plan have failed, I'd sure as hell rather have 9mm ball than fist, stick and rock. Find the most powerful thing you can hit with, make sure it's available at a moment's notice, and then spend most of your energies on learning about the critter and its habits. (Again, sounds like self-defense in general, doesn't it? :-)

For me, that power level seems to be the .45 Colt at just below Linebaugh level, in a comfortable belt gun. (I now know I can shoot with more power, technically, but I'd rather go with a nearly-as-good power level and a better confidence in the follow-up shot.) For others, maybe that's the 500 Linebaugh with 500-grain loads (yeesh). For still others, maybe it's a 38 Special with a solid 158 or 180 grain load.

Really, the critical consideration, if you are sporting anything that is unlikely to break big bones, is the ability to penetrate the skull and get to the brain. And here, I suspect that a whole lot of things might be up to the task, if you select bullets of high sectional density ("long" and heavy for caliber) that will not deform or break up along the way, and drive them at moderate velocities. Hell, if you're cool enough to place rounds in the eye sockets, a .22 will serve you just fine. :-)

If I'm remembering previous conversations with you properly, ML, you might consider simply toting your nifty little SP. Figure out just how fast you can drive a 180-grain hard-cast .38 Special bullet before your ability to hit with it starts to suffer. I suspect that would do the job, if necessary.

I have to look at it this way, as well: although it's not likely, I certainly could meet up with a bear any time I walk out the door of my house--even in the driveway--so it just might come down to the gun I'm wearing at the moment. Almost invariably, that won't be the .45 Colt anyway; it'll be a 230-grain .45ACP or a 180-grain .40S&W, and hollowpoints instead of solids. Now I wouldn't trust either of those to break bear bones, so if that's what it has to be on the day I fail to avoid the fight, I'll go with the "get really close, and shoot very carefully" plan.

MamaLiberty said...

Yes indeed... my mantra for many years. Carry the largest gun/caliber you can reliably control, and will CARRY all the time. Anything else is not going to do you any good, no matter how powerful.

I carry the .357M revolver now only CC, and that not often. I use a .38+p JHP defensive round, and still practice with it regularly using semi-wadcutters or lead round nose. I do pretty well with it, either hand or both.

My primary carry gun is now the XD 9mm, since I can't reliably control the .45. It's just a little too large for my hands. I shoot the 9mm well with either hand. Practice is with FMJ rounds, but my carry stuff is alternating FMJ and JHP in the magazines. I figure if one won't penetrate, the other will... and so I carry that winter and summer.

I've never heard of anyone here who has seen a bear of any kind around, though the forest people say there are some in the hills. We have had two confirmed mountain lion kills of livestock in this neighborhood this summer, something new. The lions have been here all the time, but this is the first they've bothered domestic animals. Both kills were small stuff... a sheep and a goat, but worrisome anyway. It is possible the resident lion is getting old or got sick somehow. Anyway, everyone is on a little higher alert than before.

I never leave the house unarmed, for any reason. Don't know about my neighbors, but I fear most of them do not carry... especially the women. One elderly lady walks very early in the morning down and back up our road... without so much as a stick in her hands. I worry about her, and watch until she gets back home most of the time - though I couldn't do much to help, really. I can't move fast enough to get to her even if she was attacked right outside my gate. Need to keep the 30-30 upstairs here by the door, I guess.