Montana Gold Bullet, Inc.: Gold Indeed

There’s no question that Speer, Hornady, Sierra, Barnes and so on make really great projectiles for the hand-loading community. In fact, some of the current bullet designs are simply brilliant. My hat is off to them all for all the improvements in projectile performance that have come in my lifetime. There are bullets that have precisely the right performance for a multitude of hunting and shooting disciplines. Bravo. However, for those of us with an interest in practical shooting sports (USPSA/IDPA/Cowboy Action) there’s a need for a different kind of performance, namely price/performance.

MG 124gr Jacketed Hollow Point

Handgun shooting, especially on the move, with moving targets and occurring at very high speed, is an extremely challenging sport. Shooting accurately is very difficult and differences in ammunition may play a relatively small part in the overall accuracy achieved. Even so, nobody wants to give away any advantage. The rounds have to fire reliably, fly straight and meet the minimum velocity for the given power factor. In terms of the bullets themselves, they don’t have to be very complicated for our sport. Cardboard and steel don’t really require reliable expansion or any other fancy terminal ballistics. They do need to be well-made and utterly consistent.

MG 115gr Complete Metal Jacket

Enter Montana Gold Bullet, Inc. This small bullet manufacturer in Kalispell, Montana has been one of the favorites among practical shooters for quite some time. They manufacture outstanding bullets with their iconic gold-colored jackets that look remarkably similar to highly-polished brass. In fact, when I tumble my completed reloads (Yes, more OCD, I know this) the bullet and case are the same color. The rounds have a very distinctive appearance.

So, why are these folks so popular? Zero Bullets and Black Bullet International are also popular for bulk bullets but Montana Gold has developed into a small company that does

MG 147gr CMJ

one thing supremely well: manufacture, sell and deliver high-quality, metal-jacketed bullets. They don’t sell anything else. They are incredibly easy to deal with and because they ship based on USPS Priority Mail flat-rate service, they can include the shipping in their per-case pricing and the resulting value is amazing. I just received a case (3750) of 9mm, 124 grain, jacketed hollow-point bullets for $305, shipped to my home. That’s just over eight cents a bullet! This year  I’ve loaded around about 13k of these fine bullets. I’ve also bought and loaded 2,000 .45acp FMJ bullets from MG and loved those too.

MG 55gr FMJ with Cannelure

MG ships on Tuesday so make sure you order by Monday morning so that your bullets will arrive on Thursday (at least here in New Hampshire it only takes two days). Given the high round counts most of us require, MG makes it easy and affordable to get all the trigger time we need.

I love ’em!

Hearing Protection: critical component of any shooting experience

My friend Neil has been after me to write this post for some time and for good reason: his wife has extensive experience in the world of audiology and he is keenly aware of just how precious the sense of hearing truly is. We all probably know someone who has significant hearing loss. It may be an inconvenience to us but to the person with the hearing loss it can be a profound hardship. The good news for us as shooters is that there is no need to compromise our hearing just because we want to enjoy firearms. All it takes is common sense and careful selection of hearing protection.

The first thing to remember is to always have some form of hearing protection with you whenever you go to the range. No exceptions! When you arrive at the range, make sure you have your “ears” available in the car before you even open a door or window. That way you can’t get surprised by the guy with his elephant gun on the next range over! This is doubly important for indoor ranges: never take off your ears while on the range! I’ve seen this happen a hundred times. Some person finishes a string, takes off their ears and BLAM, the guy grabs his ears in pain when the person he didn’t see down the line breaks a shot. Only take them off/out when you are well away from the line and nobody is handling any guns.

So, you probably get it at this point: protecting your hearing is your own responsibility, not the range master’s, not the RO’s, not your mom’s or your spouse’s. It is up to you and you alone to follow protocol to protect your hearing.

So, how do we do this? Cotton balls? .45 cartridges, like Gunny Sgt. Ermey? I sure hope not. Please at the very least keep some of those bright orange expansion foam plugs in your range bag. I keep some in my ammo box, glove compartments and even in my hip pack. I’ve given them to people numerous times when I spotted them on the range without. Likewise, if you are bringing new shooters to the range make sure you provide them with appropriate hearing and eye protection or assist them in getting these items for themselves.

A word should be said about expanding foam plugs. If you don’t insert them correctly they will not provide adequate protection. I have found the best way to use them is to use two hands to roll/twist them between your thumb and index finger while simultaneously stretching them lengthwise (hence two hands). I liken this to turning a Play-Doh “marble” into a Play-Do “worm”. This makes a very long, thin plug. If you then quickly insert them deeply into your ears they will slowly revert to their original shape, thereby filling completely the outer portion of your ear canal. This makes an excellent layer of protection against dangerous acoustic events. The only trouble is that you can’t hear anything else either! This beats hearing loss so keep them in unless you are absolutely certain it is safe to remove them.

There is some evidence that plugs alone may not fully protect against very loud noises. Apparently the sound can travel through bones in and around the ear and still damage the hearing organs. For this reason a better solution is in the form of quality, good fitting ear muffs. The good, old Winchester specials from Walmart are actually quite good at attenuating noise and I keep at least two or three extras in my range box to have on hand for those who might need them. With muffs it is much easier to put them on and take them off compared to foam plugs, but as I have mentioned, it’s not always a good idea to remove your “ears” while still at the line.

Beyond basic plugs and muffs, there’s another class of product that is very popular within competitive shooting circles: amplified muffs. These are ear muffs that have microphones on the outside, usual one on each side pointing forward, and speakers on the inside. They have amplification circuitry that picks up sound from the outside and reproduces it on the inside. The key feature of these devices is that they will attenuate any sounds above a certain level, usually 85db. The newer models will do this so quickly that the perception is that the shot is simply not very loud. All this while hearing all the range commands and any other conversation or incidental sounds that occur on the line. In fact, your hearing can become downright bionic if you turn up the volume.

At this point I want to make a plug for my current choice for amplified muffs. The Howard Leight Impact Sport is an excellent choice for comfortable, reliable hearing protection. These muffs are rated at -22db noise reduction. They are slim and fit well and they have a single, easy to use thumb wheel on the left side that turns on the muffs and then manages the volume. A great feature found on these muffs is the automatic power-off function. If you leave the muffs on for four hours, they turn themselves off even though the thumb wheel is still in the “on” range. To turn them back one you simply turn the thumb wheel down until it clicks off, wait a few seconds and turn it back on again. I have had a pair for over six months and have not needed to change the batteries yet. This contrasts sharply with other units that have required new batteries almost weekly due to my leaving them on. Another nice feature that I like is that there’s an accessory jack for plugging in your iPod or iPhone. While shooting alone I do enjoy listening to music and more importantly, I can hear the phone ring. I can in fact answer a phone call without taking off my “ears”, which may look goofy to others at the range but again, my hearing is what matters most.

Are these the best muffs around? Certainly not. Pro Ears are arguably the best muffs on the market but they also cost 4-5x what the HLIS units do. I will say that if I’m shooting rifles I will always wear plugs under the muffs then turn the volume all the way up on the muffs. My main use for the HLIS muffs is for pistol shooting, for which they are perfect.

It doesn’t take much to produce permanent hearing loss so please, take the time to put those ears on and keep them on until you know it is safe!

Reloading 101: brass preparation

The first step in reloading for most folks is to get a supply of brass ready. If you have any desire to reload, start saving your brass immediately. I could kick myself for all the brass I’ve thrown away but such is life.

Unless you are buying new brass, you are probably saving your own or picking up “free range” brass at your gun range. The first step is to sort the brass. I like using an old lunch tray. I typically use large plastic coffee cans into which I sort the various cases. Kevin reloads .40S&W, Glyn reloads his beloved .38 Super and I reload 9mm, .45acp and .223 Remington. The rest goes in the trash. There are usually some aluminum and steel cases in there also and those are discarded as well. I try and knock the dirt and sand out as I sort them. If a case is really gunked up or damaged I will discard it. Resizing dies can work miracles on a misshapen case but I would rather toss them than deal with the possible problems and wear on the die.

When I have a fair amount of one type of brass, or I simply need more for reloading, I move to the cleaning phase. I like to use those nylon lingerie laundry bags for this step. They can be found at any dollar store for a couple of bucks. I dump about 500 rounds of 9mm (about 300 .45) into the bag while holding it over a trash can. I then proceed to hold the bag by either end and then lift each end alternately, kind of like you do with a slinky. This causes the cases to tumble back and forth which dislodges most of the remaining dirt and debris. Once I see little or no more stuff falling out the bottom, I dip the bag into a bucket with cleaning solution in it. I really like the Birchwood Casey Brass Cleaner solution. You mix 1/2 bottle with 1 gallon of hot water and it’s ready. I do the slinky routine with the bag while it is in the cleaning solution and let it sit for 3 minutes. I normally slinky them a couple of times during that 3 minutes then I lift the bag out of the solution and slinky it several more times to get the solution out of the cases.

After the cleaning solution I normally dip the bag into a sink full of clean hot water. I then slinky the bag a bunch of times but this time I am lifting the bag out of the water each time, then once the cases have tumbled to one end I dunk them again. Then I drain the water out of the sink and empty the bag into a colander. I use a plastic one because it makes less noise. A word of caution: the cleaning solution is non-toxic but it does etch metal so don’t put it in a metal container and do NOT leave the cases in there longer than three minutes. If you do it really weakens the brass. You can tell because it looks really dull.

With the cases in the colander, I rinse the brass with a sprayer while mixing them around with my free hand. Yes, that’s a lot of rinsing but it gets all the cleaning solution out of the cases and that’s the goal. I then turn off the water and continue mixing the cases, then I begin drying them with a hair dryer. I don’t try to get them completely dry, only mostly dry and the cases hot. This makes them dry out on their own pretty quickly.

I then remove the cases from the colander and stand them on the kitchen counter so they can finish drying out. If you shake the colander, the cases will tend to orient themselves case mouth-up. This makes it easy to grab them 5-10 at a time and set them down in the right orientation. I then usually repeat this process with another bag of brass so that I have about 1k cases on the counter.

cases_on_counterAs you have no doubt deduced by now, I am not married 😉

This process takes about 20 minutes total. I then leave the cases for about an hour to dry out thoroughly. If there’s a lot of moisture on the counter I will use the hair-dryer to blow down on the cases while slightly moving them around with my free hand.

Once the cases are dry, they could be reloaded at that point but I like my brass to be really clean and really shiny so I then put them in a vibratory cleaner for a couple of hours. My RCBS cleaner holds about 500 9mm cases. I use the Lyman’s Green treated corncob media. It works great and there is no dust like with the walnut stuff.

When the cleaner’s timer goes off I dump the contents into a neat little device from Frankford Arsenal called a Standard Media Separator. It sits down inside a five gallon bucket. It has holes to allow the cleaning media to fall through but not the brass. (NOTE: the item in question is the one on the right on the linked page). I then dump the remaining brass into an RCBS media separator that tumbles off the remaining bits of cleaning media. You really do want all of that stuff gone because if there’s any left, it will clog the case feeder on your press. Trust me on this one.

I then place the finished brass into a suitable storage device until it is needed. I like to use clear plastic storage boxes, about shoebox size. This allows me to see the brass so I can tell what type it is and also how much is left.

This might sound like a lot of work but really it isn’t. Once you get the process grooved, it takes little time or effort. Mostly it’s a matter of managing She Who Must Be Obeyed while you invade the kitchen, but I can’t help you guys on that one.

Hornady Critical Defense ammo: when it really counts

I have a lot of fun shooting firearms but let’s face it, we really do this for a much more important reason than simple pleasure. While it is true that many people hunt with guns, most hunting is done with long guns so time spent shooting pistols has a more profound purpose: self-defense. The handgun is the great equalizer, allowing almost anyone the ability to wield deadly force. This makes it much tougher for an assailant to justify risking their own safety by jeopardizing that of a would-be victim. So, if all this is true then the only remaining question is: how effective will I be when it really counts?

My skills as a shooter ultimately serve to give me every possible advantage in a lethal force scenario. I simply will not give an advantage to an adversary If I can avoid it. Life is precious and I’ll be damned if I will let someone take it away from me, my loved ones or any innocent person. In order to be most effective it takes a reliable, accurate weapon, skills, preparation and perhaps most overlooked of all: the best ammunition available.

I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus (well, mostly I don’t) or any magic bullet that through mystical properties is perfectly effective against any and all adversaries. I believe, as do most experts in the field, that Marshal and Sanow’s famed study was deeply flawed and that the holy grail of firearms science, “stopping power”, is at best an incredibly complex phenomenon. Stopping Power, Knock-Down Power and One-Shot Stop Effectiveness are all really constructs of fertile imaginations and perhaps over-zealous gun writers. They are really just efforts to reduce data almost to the point of no meaning.

Does this mean that the famed .357 magnum is no better than a .380acp? Not at all. What it means is that whenever we discuss terminal ballistics we have to keep in mind that this is only a fraction of what goes into making ammunition truly effective. Above all else, shot placement is absolutely the most critical factor of effectiveness.

So, with all that said, the specific ammunition chosen for defensive/carry purposes is more important than most people think. Winchester White Box 115gr. FMJ rounds are great for practice but when life is at stake I want the very best I can buy. You will notice I said “buy” and not “load”. I make match ammo myself, which is very reliable and carefully constructed, but when life is on the line, I want rounds that are made in large batches with intense quality control before, during and after the process. I want those rounds to be made from the highest quality materials with the best properties for the application. And arguably nobody does that better than Hornady.

Typical JHP vs. Hornady Critical Defense

After looking over the usual suspects for defensive rounds, I recently selected Hornady’s Critical Defense line of ammunition for my personal carry rounds. They are Jacketed Hollow-Point bullets (Hornady’s patented FTX model) in nickel cases with fast-burning, low flash powders. This powder selection permits full velocity to be achieved even in short-barreled pistols while minimizing muzzle flash and thereby visibility. They also have a rubber plug in the slug cavity to keep lint, etc., out of the nose of the bullet. This material is designed to keep stuff out but to completely disintegrate upon impact, leaving the bullet to do its job. The nickel case is designed to reduce tarnishing and allow easy chamber checks even in low light.

As with any defensive rounds, you should always fire enough of them through your gun to insure they will function properly. I put about 100 through each gun and they were flawless. The cost is inline with other defensive rounds and for me is a bargain at twice the price.

I like this round, especially for smaller concealed carry pistols and with Hornady’s commitment to excellence I would bet my life on it.

Springfield XD: Striker-Fired Excellence

Marketing is a funny thing. Sometimes it can get folks to buy something they really shouldn’t and sometimes it can help them buy something that they really should but otherwise might not. Such is the case with the Springfield Armory XD series of pistols.

Springfield Armory, the self-proclaimed “oldest name in American firearms” or something like that, is actually a relative newcomer to the industry. Yes, the name is old but unlike the US government-owned armory, these folks haven’t been around for over 100 years. Nevertheless, they make some outstanding guns. I’ve already written about my 1911 TRP and how much I love it. I will shortly be doing a piece on the M1A rifle, also one of my favorites. The funny thing about the XD is that SA doesn’t actually make it. It isn’t even an American design. It is however a fine pistol, deserving of its recent accolades.

In the late 1990’s the Croatian IM Metal Company developed a pistol for the Croatian army. This design was released in 1999 as the HS2000. The pistol made its way to the US in 2000 but it did not sell very well. Late in 2001 S.A. became the sole importer of the pistol and began marketing it as the XD (Extreme Duty) series of pistols. The XD had some very minor design changes but is functionally and cosmetically identical to the HS2000.

I first bought a .45 Tactical and then later an XD9 sub-compact. I liked both pistols very much. At first glance they can be mistaken for Glocks, especially if you don’t look at the grip closely. The slide is very blocky and wide which is in sharp contrast with the grip which is impossibly thin and incredibly comfortable, even with my small hands. In fact, the ergonomics of the pistol are what seems to be the favorite feature among owners everywhere.

Even with the double-stack .45acp rounds inside the grip, my XD45 Tactical was comfortable and easy to handle and shoot, even with one hand. This is a testament to modern polymer technology. The walls of the grip must be very thin but I never noticed any problem, nor have I ever heard of a crack or break in the grip.

In terms of safety, the XD has both a grip safety, like the 1911, and a trigger safety, like the Glock. Later models also have an external thumb safety. There is thankfully no mag disconnect.

The triggers in these pistols are typical of striker-fired guns. Long take-up with short over-travel and reset. Not bad at all but if you want better, Springer Precision can “Springer-ize” the action for you. SA’s custom shop also offers carry/duty and competition action jobs.

I think the XD and its progeny the XDm will be around for a very long time. They are accurate, reliable, easy to field-strip and clean, and above all they are very comfortable to shoot. Lucky for most of us those marketing folks steered us right this time!

Dillon Super Swage 600: cure for mil-crimp brass

Dillon Precision Super Swage 600

When I started reloading I had three calibers in mind: 9mm, .45acp and .223 Remington. These are the calibers I shoot the most and I had a lot of brass saved up in anticipation of reloading. Many manufacturers of ammunition use a military crimp, or mil-crimp, around the primer pocket. This is a circular stamp that creates a crimped connection between the primer and the bottom of the shell casing. This keeps the primer from easing out of the pocket. This is commonly found on rounds with some sort of waterproofing sealant around the primer pocket, usually military surplus ammo. One common commercial manufacturer that also uses mil-crimps on their brass is Federal .223 in the 100-round bulk packs.

Having a mil-crimp on a pistol round is usually not a problem as the primer seating die will normally just shove the primer right in past the crimp without issue. I would guess that around 1 round in 100 doesn’t seat properly and that is almost always a result of a mil-crimp piece of brass. One notable exception I’ve seen is with Speer brass. I can feel immediately when the primer die tries to set into a Speer case and I stop, back out slightly and remove the case from the priming die and sure enough, it will always say “Speer” on the headstamp.

Unlike pistol rounds, the mil-crimp on rifle brass is a much tougher problem. I’ve certainly loaded a bunch of mil-crimp brass and it can work but the failure rate is much, much higher (I would bet around 25-45% are unusable) and the force required to seat the primers is enormous. This doesn’t do the press any good either.

RCBS Tim-Mate Case Prep Center

So, what’s the solution? For many reloaders the simple answer is to cut away the crimp using a reaming tool either manually or by using a brass prep machine like the RCBS Trim Mate Case Prep Center. This does work but the problem is that it involves removing material from the case. The evidence lies in the accumulated brass shavings around the tool. Any time material is removed, the case is less than when the process began. With the high pressures in rifle rounds this is really not a good thing, especially as the brass ages and is reloaded several times.

Another solution that many reloaders prefer is to swage the crimp back from the primer pocket, pressing the brass back into its original form. Dillon Precision has (of course) an ideal tool to accomplish this: the Dillon Super Swage 600. This small, simple device is basically two pivot hinges on a metal base, one housing the brass holder and the other holding the swaging rod. The rod rolls the primer pocket back such that it ends up with a perfectly radiused edge, transitioning from primer pocket to case head smoothly. No material is lost and the pocket accepts primers perfectly.

I bolted mine to the reloading bench on an angle so that the handle comes out and over the edge. This has proven to be a great way to use the device because it is still sideways enough to allow one hand to position the brass and the other to operate the handle while still standing essentially facing the bench. Even though the process is one-at-a-time, the design with its thumb flip case holder and bullet-proof construction is very quick at processing a large amount of brass.

I consider the SS600 an essential part of my reloading system and recommend it to anyone who reloads mil-crimp brass.

Blackhawk Serpa CQC holsters: a singular achievement

I’ve made several references to the Serpa holsters but I think it is high time I talk about them directly. They certainly deserve it. I have one for every semi-auto pistol I own except for the diminutive Ruger LCP.

I’ve tried many different holsters, including in-waistband (IWB), outside-waistband (OWB), shoulder, ankle, drop-leg, tac vest, pocket, etc. I’ve tried many different manufacturers including Fobus, Uncle Mike’s, Bladetech, Blackhawk, Safariland and a host of other less-known brands. I have found that while many of these companies have fine offerings, there are some key features that are critical.

The fit of holster to weapon is absolutely essential. If the gun doesn’t fit the holster its finish can be damaged and in a worst-case scenario, the gun can fall out of the holster. Also critical is the ability to draw and re-holster cleanly and quickly, the former being most important. I have found that while many of the plastic holsters on the market are OK, the best are made from Kydex or carbon fiber. These are very lightweight, hold their shape forever and typically are very kind to the gun’s finish.

The Blackhawk CQC Serpa is distinct from its contemporaries in several major ways. First, it is flawless in its basic design and manufacture. The holster comes with both a belt and paddle attachment system. I really like the paddle since it spreads the weight of the gun across a large area of my waist, allowing greater stability. This is especially important for larger, heavier pistols. The paddle also has “teeth” that hook under the wearer’s belt from the paddle and holster side, making it virtually impossible to dislodge without great effort. The only downside to that is that I usually have to remove my belt to take the holster off. That’s a small price to pay in my opinion for the security the system brings.

All this is great but the most amazing feature of the Serpa, and what puts it head-and-shoulders above its competitors, is the namesake locking mechanism. When holstering the weapon one hears a distinctive “click” when the gun reaches the bottom. This is the Serpa lock that holds the front of the trigger guard. Once this lock is engaged it is impossible to pull the gun out without first releasing the lock. This is accomplished by pressing a release lever that is right under your index finger when you grasp the pistol. This assumes that you are holding your index finger high “above” the trigger as standard training dictates. There is an adjustment screw on the side of the holster to produce the perfect amount of tension in the holster. I like mine to be buttery-smooth so that there is essentially zero force required to insert or remove the pistol. Once this setup is achieved the holster is simply marvelous. The gun will never come out unless you want it to.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a problem experienced with the early design of this holster. There were a few cases of law enforcement trainees inadvertently shooting themselves in the leg while drawing a weapon using the first generation design of the holster. It is believed that the problem was a result of finger pressure on the release button that transferred to the gun’s trigger as it cleared the holster resulting in the accidental discharge (AD). I can only say that having used the earlier design that I can’t imagine this happening unless the person was incredibly uncoordinated and/or experiencing some sort of extreme physical distress. Honestly, I would question whether such a person should be handling firearms at all. As a result, Blackhawk redesigned the holster to include a finger groove that guides the trigger finger as the weapon is drawn and deposits said finger on the frame above the trigger guard as the gun clears the holster. While I don’t think this is a bad idea, I really wonder if this would have helped these unfortunate souls mentioned above. In any case, I have both versions still in use and I see no difference.

With its superb design, excellent fit-and-finish, carbon-fiber construction, and of course, the Serpa lock, the Blackhawk CQC Serpa holster is my hands-down favorite for open or concealed carry. I also have a Level-II version on my drop-leg 1911 holster.

It’s just that good.