Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Effectiveness of Old Firearms - IV

In our last post, we looked at a series of penetration tests done in Graz, Austria, to weapons from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, compared to modern weapons. But what about accuracy, the reader asks? Today, we will study the accuracy of those ancient weapons against modern weapons.


As was mentioned in the earlier posts in this series, the firearms were typical mass-produced weapons used by infantrymen in the past. The testers also picked two modern rifles and a modern pistol to test against. For testing the accuracy, the firearms were all mounted on a frame and sighted to a paper target at 100 meters (330 feet) distance for rifles, and 30 meters (100 feet) distance for pistols. The paper target measured 167 x 30 cm. (or 5.5 x 1.0 feet), simulating the frontal area of a standing enemy, with an even larger secondary paper target behind it, to track where the bullets were hitting (even if they hit outside the primary target). The actual number of shots fired per weapon varied, but there were about 18 shots fired from each. The table below presents the results:

Results of accuracy tests. Click on the image to enlarge.

As before, a few notes on the results:

  1. The modern weapons are highlighted with yellow background at the bottom of the image.
  2. The height and width refer to the dimensions of the smallest rectangle that could be drawn around all the bullet holes. The next column is the area of the this rectangle. The last column is the probability that the primary target was hit at all.
  3. In keeping with the spirit of the original tests, results are in metric units. To convert cm. to inches, multiply the numbers by 0.3937. To convert the area from sq. cm to sq. inches, multiply the numbers by 0.155.
  4. To eliminate human inaccuracy, all weapons were fired from a frame and triggered electronically, bypassing their normal firing mechanisms.
  5. Muskets and rifles were tested on targets at 100 meter (330 feet) distance, whereas pistols were tested on targets at 30 meter (100 feet) distance.
  6. The flintlock barrel that was used as a pressure tester, was not fired at targets for these tests, therefore it shows up in the chart with green background and the words "no applicable data".
  7. The wheellock musket made in Southern Germany in the first half of the 17th century shot so inaccurately, that the tests for it were cancelled. This is shown in the chart with pink background and the words "Tests cancelled due to excessive scatter".
  8. The three best performing ancient weapons are highlighted in gray background.

As can be seen from the above figures, long-barreled weapons performed very poorly in the accuracy tests. Only one musket (The 9th weapon - flintlock musket from Austria, made in the second half of the 18th century) showed any good probability of hitting the target (83%). Not surprisingly, this happened to be a rifled barrel. However, two other rifled weapons (the 1st one and the 6th one) performed really badly. In fact, the 6th weapon (the wheellock musket, South German, from the first half of the 17th century) scattered its shots so badly that the test was cancelled for it. For 4 out of the 13 guns tested, the enclosing rectangle's area was larger than the area of the primary target, and for 2 others, it was nearly the area of the primary target. This means that a total of 6 of the 13 long guns shot so inaccurately at 100 meter distances, that they only hit their targets by pure random luck! This is why battlefield commanders of the 16th-18th centuries ordered their troops to shoot at smaller distances, such as 50-70 meters (160 to 230 feet) or even closer than that, in order to be effective. One of the primary reasons for inaccuracy of the ancient firearms is the shape of the bullet, which is a round ball. At distances of 100 meters, the Magnus effect, which we studied earlier, plays a significant role in the ball deviating away from the target. By contrast, modern bullets are tapered and are more stable when flying in the air.

On the other hand, the two ancient pistols fared much better at 30 meter ranges. While they had much larger enclosing areas than the modern pistol, they did manage to put most of their shots into the human-sized target. In fact, one of the two ancient pistols had a 99% probability of hitting its target. Therefore, at closer distances that pistols were used at, they could be pretty deadly. At closer distances, the deviation caused by the Magnus effect is not large enough to cause the ball to miss its target. This explains the number of injuries and deaths in pistol duels, as well as the effectiveness of pistol cavalry units, such as the German Reiters troops.


Sunday, January 31, 2016

Effectiveness of Old Firearms - III

In our last post, we looked at a study done in Graz, Austria, that compared mass-produced soldier weapons from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries against modern weapons used by soldiers today. In the last post, we studied the velocities of the various firearms. Today, we will study how the various weapons fared in penetration and accuracy tests.

For the penetration tests, the testers used different types of targets: gel blocks, wooden boards, modern steel plates and 16th century armor plates. Gel blocks are one of the modern ways to evaluate penetration, since it approximates muscle tissue. If the gel blocks are prepared carefully, they can be produced repeatedly with the same consistency, thereby providing for more reliable comparative tests with multiple firearms.

Results of Penetration Tests. Click on the image to enlarge.

As before, a few notes on the results:

  1. The modern weapons are highlighted with yellow background at the bottom of the image.
  2. The flintlock barrel that was used as a pressure tester, was not fired at targets for this series of tests, therefore it shows up in the chart with green background and the words "no applicable data".
  3. The targets were placed at distances of 30 meters (100 feet) and 100 meters (330 feet) and the penetration was measured in millimeters (mm.). In keeping with the spirit of the original tests, your humble editor has not converted these into imperial measurements, but can be easily done as follows: To convert meters into feet, multiply the numbers by 3.3. To convert mm. into inches, multiply the numbers by 0.039. To convert cm. to inches, multiply the numbers by 0.39
  4. The targets were made of steel and wood. For the wooden targets, they were made using wood from spruce trees.
  5. The theoretical maximum range of the weapons was determined by firing each weapon at 60 degree angle. 
As the chart shows, the pistols, whether modern or ancient, all have similar penetrative properties at 30 meter range. Although the modern Glock had the best penetration on both steel and wooden targets, it didn't outperform the ancient pistols by that much in the penetration tests. On the other hand, it has a much longer range than the other pistols (and even the ancient muskets). This is because the tapering bullet does not lose velocity as quickly as a spherical ball does. 

On the other hand, the modern rifles simply outperformed the ancient muskets by a large margin in the penetrative tests, as well as the maximum range test. The AUG firing the NATO 5.56x45 cartridge penetrated about 2x to 3x the depth of the ancient muskets and the FAL firing the NATO 7.62x51 cartridge penetrated about 3x to 5x the depth of the ancient muskets. The maximum range of the modern rifles also far outperformed the ancient muskets.

However, there are other interesting results that became apparent by this series of tests.

Since the ancient weapons all fire larger spherical balls, (the calibers are listed in our previous post) they left larger volumes of wound cavities at shorter ranges. This is because, at close distances, the spherical balls were moving fast enough to do some serious damage. For instance, the flintlock musket that was made in Suhl in 1686, fires a 17.8 mm. diameter ball weighing 30.93 grams and at 9 meter distance (about 30 feet), it left a cavity of 530 cm3. Similarly, the flintlock musket from Austria that was made in the second half of the 18th century, fires a 16.4 mm. diameter ball weighing 26.73 grams and left a cavity of approximately 369 cm3 at a distance of 9 meters.

By contrast, modern weapons fire much smaller tapered bullets, which generally do less damage. At the same 9 meter distance, a modern Steyr AUG rifle firing a 5.56x45 mm. cartridge only left a cavity of 101 cm3.

On the other hand, as the distance increased, the tests showed that the wound cavity made by spherical balls decreased much more significantly. The same musket that made a 369 cm3 cavity at a distance of 9 meters, made a 155 cm3 cavity at 100 meters distance. In contrast to this, the Steyr AUG rifle which made a a cavity of 101 cm3 at 9 meters range, left a cavity of 70 cm3 at 100 meter range. This means that the modern rifle only lost approximately 30% of its penetrative powers at this distance, whereas the older weapon lost about 60%. Still, the older weapon left a much larger cavity, even at 100 meters distance. This explains the extremely horrific wounds experienced by soldiers in the 16th to 18th centuries.

Additionally, the tests showed that the shapes of the wound cavities are also different. Spherical musket balls leave trumpet-shaped wounds. They are widest at the point of entry and taper steadily down in diameter as the ball slows down and loses energy. By contrast, modern bullets leave cavities of a completely different shape:

Cavity left by a 5.56 mm. bullet.

The above image shows the cavity left by a NATO 5.56 mm. bullet in ballistics gel. As you can see, the bullet first creates a smaller hole in the beginning as it enters the target, but as it moves deeper into the target, it starts to tumble and fragment and leaves a much wider hole than the bullet diameter as it moves further in.

The tests also measured the protection offered by body armor. Modern mild steel plate of 3 mm. thickness of the same steel grade as those used for the penetration tests tabulated above, was lined with two layers of linen and then placed before a gel block. The entire target was mounted at a distance of 9 meters. The flintlock musket from Austria that was made in the second half of the 18th century, was fired again. Remember that this same musket had left a 369 cmcavity at an unprotected target at the same distance earlier. When fired at the protected target, the bullet did manage to penetrate through the metal and linen and entered the ballistics gel. However, it only penetrated for a short distance and left a cavity of 25 cm3. The bullet and the armor plate both splintered and some of these splinters penetrated into the gel block up to a depth of 80 mm. (or about 3.15 inches).

Incidentally, the testers also fired the flintlock pistol made in Ferlach in the 1700s, into a gel target with no protection at the same 9 meter distance and it left a cavity of about 23 cm3. This shows that the 18th century flintlock pistol fired at an unprotected target produced a wound pretty similar to the wound produced by the 18th century musket fired at a protected target.

The most interesting result of the Austrian tests involved a pistol shot at a breastplate made in the 16th century, at a distance of 8.5 meters. The breastplate was part of an armor set made to protect horses. It was manufactured in Augsburg sometime between 1570 and 1580 and made of mild steel, which was cold-worked. The thickness of the plate was approximately 2.8 to 3.0 mm throughout and had a Brinell Hardness Number of 290. The plate was mounted on a sandbag, covered with two layers of linen cloth, to simulate what a typical knight on the battlefield would wear. The pistol used for this test was the wheellock pistol made in Nuremberg ca 1620, firing a 12.3 mm. ball weighing 9.56 grams. At the point of impact, the ball was measured traveling at around 436 meters/second. The ball completely penetrated the breast plate, but it lost all its kinetic energy in doing so. The ball became heavily deformed, lost about 24% of its mass and got stuck in the linen cloth. No part of the ball managed to penetrate to the sandbag and there were no secondary splinters from the armor to cause any damage either. This means that our 16th century knight would have probably survived a pistol shot at close range with nothing more than a few bruises on his chest. This shows that the 16th century armorers actually had some pretty good skills and understood cold-working techniques well to provide such hard armor.

In our final installment of this series, we will study the accuracy results of the same weapons.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Effectiveness of Old Firearms - II

In our last post, we looked at some tests done against many early firearms, mostly arquebuses and muskets. While we studied some of the tests, it might be a good idea to actually present some of those results in a bit more detail, so we can understand it better.

Examples of arquebuses. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

As was mentioned in the previous post, during 1988 to 1989, staff members of Steierm√§rkisches Landeszeughaus (Steyr Provincial Armory)  in Graz, Austria, conducted tests using 16 firearms dating from 1571 to post-1750, with equal numbers of specimens from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The guns were mostly mass-produced specimens, such as might be typically issued to infantry troops. Three of the weapons had rifling, the others were smoothbore guns. A couple of the guns were rejected after early inspection revealed that they had potentially dangerous weaknesses in the metal. The remaining 14 weapons were test fired 325 times under controlled conditions, in a testing range operated by the Austrian Army. As part of the tests, they also brought two modern production assault rifles and a modern pistol used by the Austrian military, so that they could compare the results against modern firearms.


The following charts below summarize the various firearm dimensions and the results of velocity measurements:

Physical Characteristics of the various firearms. Click on the image to enlarge.


Velocity measurements of the various firearms. Click on the image to enlarge.

A few notes on the results presented above:
  1. The modern weapons are highlighted in yellow background at the bottom of the images. 
  2. The "Spanish" weapons are actually made in Austria, but the Spaniards were the first to equip their troops with heavy muskets in the 1520s, which is why heavy muskets of that era are generally called "Spanish muskets", irrespective of where they were actually made.
  3. The results presented above are in metric units, in keeping with the spirit of the original tests. To convert mm. to inches, divide the numbers by 25.4, to convert weights from kg. to pounds, multiply the numbers by 2.2, to convert grams to pounds, multiply the numbers by 0.0022, to convert grams to grains, multiply the numbers by 15.43 and to convert velocity from meters/sec to feet/sec, multiply the numbers by 3.3
  4. Caliber is actually the nominal caliber of the bullet (i.e the bore diameter). We read something about this when we discussed 5.56 mm. vs. .223 ammunition earlier.
  5. Pistol weapons were shot at targets at 30 meters (100 feet) ranges, whereas rifles were shot at targets at 100 meter (330 feet) distances. This is why rifle velocities are measured at both 30 and 100 meters.
The first thing we note is that all the older weapons have much larger dimensions than modern weapons. In fact, the only two older weapons that are smaller in length are the two pistols, which are shorter than modern rifles, but not by too much. The modern pistol is much smaller in size than everything else. Similarly, older weapons are generally much heavier than modern weapons, especially the ones from the 16th and 17th centuries. Advances in metallurgy have made it possible for modern firearms to be both stronger and lighter than the ancient firearms. The calibers of weapons have also significantly reduced in modern times. Powder weights are somewhat harder to compare, because the older weapons use black powder, whereas modern weapons use smokeless powders, which are much more efficient in propelling bullets. However, they are still listed above, so that the reader can see how much less weight of powder modern weapons use.

Now on to the muzzle velocities, which are shown in the second chart above. The interesting thing is that the slowest muzzle velocity measured is actually from a modern weapon (the Glock 17 pistol). Of course, it should be noted that this Glock pistol was the shortest weapon in the test with the smallest barrel. It also uses a lot less powder (0.4 gm.) versus the other firearms (albeit, smokeless powder, which produces more thrust). The ancient firearms are all generally between 450 and 550 meters/sec., with the exception of the two ancient pistols, which clock in at 385 and 392 meters/sec. The two modern rifles shoot much faster than the others, exhibiting nearly double the muzzle velocity compared to the ancient firearms. It must be noted that all the weapons are firing at supersonic velocities initially, even the ancient weapons using black powder (speed of sound at sea level is about 330 meters/sec. (or 1125 feet/sec.))

Also, note the change in velocities when measured at 30 meter and 100 meter ranges. As we studied in the previous post, round balls lose velocity at almost 3 times the rate that conical bullets do. The modern weapons all fire conical bullets, whereas the ancient weapons all fire round ammunition balls and we can see the results clearly. For instance, at 30 meter range, the FAL rifle only loses 20 meters/sec velocity (835 vs 815 meters/sec.), whereas the ancient weapons lose velocity a lot quicker. In fact, at 30 meter range, some of the bullets from ancient weapons are slower than that fired from the Glock 17, which had the slowest muzzle velocity initially. At 100 meter range, the velocities of older weapons are significantly less, with many of them travelling at under 300 meters/sec. (about 1000 feet/sec.) This means they also lose penetrative power much more rapidly than modern weapons do. This is the reason why most ancient commanders told their men to not shoot until about 60-70 meter ranges or even closer than that.

The interesting thing is that the two older pistols, while they shot at lower velocities than the muskets, they still retained a good bit of their velocity at 30 meters range, which means that they could inflict a fair amount of damage at shorter ranges. This explains the popularity of pistoleers on horseback, such as the German Reiters of the 16th century. These troops could quickly ride close to the enemy, discharge their pistols and then ride back. Some military writers of that era noted that a squadron of Reiters could easily beat a comparable squadron of traditional cavalry

In our next post, we will look at the same weapons and compare their respective penetrative powers and shot dispersion.


Monday, January 11, 2016

Effectiveness of Old Firearms - I

When this blog first started, we talked about the accuracy (or rather, inaccuracy) of old firearms, especially those of the muzzle-loading variety. Back in the day, military commanders would line up their troops and tell them to shoot at the enemy at close range, with the hope that at least some of the shots would hit their enemies. However, trials on weapons of the day showed they seemed to be more accurate during controlled tests, but not so accurate under battlefield conditions. So what is the cause of this inaccuracy, when used in the field?? Was it because of the limitations of the weapons technologies? Was is because of the training of the soldiers? We will study the causes in the next couple of posts.

For the purposes of today's discussion, we will consider two early firearm types today: the arquebus and the musket. These were generally muzzle-loading weapons using matchlock technologies.

Examples of arquebuses. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The arquebus is one of the oldest types of firearm used in Europe. The first use of arquebuses in large numbers was in Hungary in the late 1400s by King Matthias Corvinus. The idea spread westwards, and soon, Italian troops and then, Spanish and Portuguese troops started using arquebuses in the early 1500s, followed by the French around 1560. Typically, the weapon weighed about 5 kg. (11 pounds) and fired a ball about 12 - 20 mm.  (about 0.5-0.75 inches) diameter.

The musket was simply a larger version of the arquebus, with a longer and heavier barrel. Since the barrel was heavier, a typical musketeer would also carry a couple of sticks to rest the end of the barrel on. A musket also has more recoil than an arquebus, therefore its user needed to be correspondingly stronger to withstand this recoil. Specialized troops, such as the Turkish Janissaries, Russian Streltsy and the French Musketeers, were formed to use this weapon. These soldiers were paid more than ordinary soldiers.

We will also consider early handguns in our study today.

During 1988 to 1989, staff members of Steierm√§rkisches Landeszeughaus (Steyr Provincial Armory)  in Graz, Austria, conducted tests using 16 firearms dating from 1571 to post-1750, with equal numbers of specimens from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The guns were mostly mass-produced specimens, such as might be typically issued to infantry troops. Three of the weapons had rifling, the others were smoothbore guns. A couple of the guns were rejected after early inspection revealed that they had potentially dangerous weaknesses in the metal. The remaining 14 weapons were test fired 325 times under controlled conditions, in a testing range operated by the Austrian Army.

The results were summarized in a paper by Dr. Peter Krenn (Steiermärkisches Landeszeughaus) , Colonel Paul Kalaus (Austrian Army), and Dr. Bert Hall (University of Toronto), in a paper titled "Material Culture and Military History: Test-Firing Early Modern Small Arms". Dr. Krenn and Col. Kalaus conducted the firing tests and did the original study and Professor Hall edited and translated their work and added his own conclusions to the end of the paper.

The guns were mounted on rigid frames (to absorb recoil consistently), sighted on to the target, fired using electrical means (bypassing their original firing mechanisms) and velocities measured carefully using modern electronic chronographs. Modern black powder ("Koln-Rottweil Number 0" grain 0.3-0.6 mm.) was used for these tests. The exact weight of powder charge was determined to be approximately one-third of the ball weight, but this varied from piece to piece, so they determined the optimum charge of each one experimentally and reported results with that charge. As part of the tests, they also brought two modern production assault rifles and a modern pistol used by the Austrian military, so that they could compare the results against modern firearms. The modern firearms used for this test were:

  1. Austrian Army Assault Rifle model 1958 (basically, a licensed version of the FN FAL rifle using the 7.62x51 mm. NATO cartridge).
  2. Austrian Army Assault Rifle model 1977 (Steyr AUG A1 rifle using 5.56x45 mm. NATO cartridge).
  3. Austrian Army Semi-Automatic Pistol model 1980 (Glock model 17 pistol using the 9x19 mm. cartridge)
Targets were shot at distances of 30 meters (about 100 feet) for pistols and 100 meters (330 feet) for the muskets, arquebuses and rifles. Target size was 167 cm. tall and 30 cm. wide (about 5 feet 6 inches tall and 1 foot wide), basically the frontal area of an average standing human soldier. Accuracy tests were done by measuring the scatter pattern of the bullet holes in paper targets. For penetration testing, the targets were generally made of spruce or mild steel, and additional penetration tests were also done to blocks of soap, gelatine, modern steel plate and 16th century armor plate. 

First, most of the older weapons had velocities measured at between 400 to 500 meters/sec (or about 1300 to 1640 feet/sec). Compared to this, the two modern rifles clocked in at 835 meters/sec (approximately 2740 feet/sec) and 990 meters/sec (approximately 3250 feet/sec), and the modern pistol fired at around 360 meters/sec (approximately 1180 feet/sec). Moreover, the round balls of the older weapons tended to lose velocities much more rapidly. A spherical ball loses speed about three times faster than modern bullets do on average. Therefore, the effective range of these older weapons were much less than modern weapons, as they lose penetrative power much more quickly. This is one reason why historical commanders told their soldiers to shoot at closer ranges.

Now what about accuracy of these weapons? The Graz tests showed that the smoothbore muskets were pretty inaccurate at 100 meters, with most showing about 50% chance of hitting the target at 100 meters. Only one rifled musket (an Austrian rifled musket from the second half of the 18th century) showed a "better than random chance" probability of hitting the target. The other two rifled muskets showed much poorer results. The scatter area of four out of fourteen guns tested was larger than the target area and two more had a scatter area nearly as large as the target. By comparison, the modern rifles (the FN-FAL and the Steyr AUG) both had a 100% chance of hitting the target at the same distance. 

The ancient pistols fared much better in the tests: they were much more accurate at 30 meters, scoring hits with 85% and 99% probability (by comparison, the modern Glock pistol scored at 99.5%). Of course, bear in mind that these tests were done at 30 meters, rather than 100 meters, so the accuracy of older weapons seems to depend on the distance to the target.

It is interesting to note that these tests show that the accuracy of these firearms did not significantly improve between the 16th to the 18th centuries. Note that human error was completely eliminated in these tests, as the guns were all fitted to rigid frames and sighted into the target and the ignition was done by electrical means. Also, the gunpowder used for testing was made with modern methods, so it was much more stable and consistent than the gunpowder used in the 16th to 18th centuries. So what was the cause of this inaccuracy over longer distances then? Well, one of the primary causes is the Magnus effect, named after Gustav Magnus, a German physicist who studied it in 1852.

The Magnus effect, on a backspinning ball in an airstream. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

The Magnus effect causes the round spinning sphere to experience an aerodynamic lift, which changes the direction of travel of the sphere. Anyone who has watched or played ball sports such as tennis, golf, baseball, paintball etc. has observed this effect. For instance, any time a tennis player or golfer hooks or slices a shot, the ball will start curving in some direction. Baseball pitchers use this same effect to throw curve balls. The effect becomes more apparent, the further the sphere moves.

For a smoothbore weapon, nothing can be done to eliminate the Magnus effect. Other features in the gun can make it more inaccurate, but even the best quality smoothbore weapon cannot overcome this fundamental problem. The inherent ballistic qualities of such smoothbore weapons meant that they were only effective when used in mass formations and at close ranges. 

In our next post, we will also study the results of the penetration tests conducted for the same weapons. As it happens, the penetration tests also have a factor in determining the effectiveness of a weapon.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The FitzGerald Special Revolver

Here's wishing the readers of this blog a very happy and successful 2016. In today's post, we will study a particular type of snub-nosed revolver in history, with some very interesting and unusual features. We will study the FitzGerald Special, otherwise known as "Fitz Special", "Fitz Colt", "Fitz" etc.

A Fitz Special Revolver. Public domain image.

The first thing that the reader will no doubt notice, is that part of the trigger guard is missing. This was actually deemed "a feature" by its creator, who we will study about first.

John Henry Fitzgerald. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

John Henry Fitzgerald was born in 1870 in Manchester, New Hampshire. As a teenager, he developed a passion for firearms and became very good with revolvers and pistols. He grew up to become a large man with big hands (which we will see the importance of, soon enough) and joined the New York Police Department (NYPD) as a street cop. During this time, he also participated in several shooting competitions and became well known as a champion shooter.

In 1918, he retired from the NYPD and was promptly hired by Colt, because of his fame as a shooter. During his first few years at Colt, Fitzgerald worked to test new handgun models that were being developed by Colt. Because of his reputation, Colt also used him for marketing their handguns. They regularly sent him around the country to give shooting exhibitions using Colt products. As part of his job, he also gave training lessons and demonstrations to various police departments around the US.

Fitzgerald's work with police departments made him start thinking about concealed snubnose revolvers, which were much needed by plainclothes policemen and detectives. At that time, most of Colt's revolvers were models with longer barrels, frames and grips. While these models were good for accuracy in competitions, their large weights and sizes made them less suitable for defensive situations. In the 1920s, he began working with existing Colt revolvers such as the New Service, Police Positive and Police Positive Special models, modifying them to be more easily concealed. In 1926, he revealed his first prototypes.

Among his modifications, he shortened the barrels down to 2 inches or less, shortened the ejector, changed the front sight to be smaller and more rounded, shortened the revolver's butt and made it more rounded, completely filed down the hammer spur and serrated the top of the hammer instead, improved the double-action trigger and finally, cut away the front half of the revolver's trigger guard. All sharp edges of the revolver were filed down and rounded off.

There were some good reasons for all these modifications. First, he reasoned that a shorter barrel would make the revolver easier to conceal and also pull out more quickly out of a pocket or holster. Also, since most police shootouts happened at relatively short ranges, he determined that a 2-inch barrel gave sufficient accuracy for most of these situations.Also, a short barrel could be used more easily in confined spaces, such as from the inside of an automobile. Finally, he thought the short barrel would actually increase the reliability of the weapon. His idea was that while the ammunition quality at that time was quite unreliable, it would be impossible for a bullet to get stuck in such a short barrel!

The front sight was also reduced in height, because he determined that short-range gunfights didn't need taller sights. Also, rounding off the corners of the front sight, filing down the hammer spur and rounding the grip made the revolver less likely to snag on clothing, when drawing out the revolver. Removing the hammer spur also made the revolver's primary use as a double action model, which is faster than firing in single action mode, a benefit for defensive shooting. However, for people that wished to use the revolver in single-action mode, he serrated the top of the hammer instead, so they could still use it as a single action revolver if needed.

Finally, the most controversial feature: the removing of the front part of the trigger guard. It must be remembered that Fitzgerald was a street cop earlier in his career and he had walked several winters in New York in the snow. He knew from experience, that it was hard for a man with big hands and wearing gloves, to be able to pull a trigger easily under these conditions. Therefore, he removed the front half of the trigger guard, so that the trigger would be much more accessible. Some accounts say that this modification also made it possible to fire the revolver from the inside of a pocket if needed. As it happened, Colt used to stamp their proof mark on the left side of the trigger guard, so sawing off the guard removed this marking. Therefore, genuine Fitz specials generally had the proof mark restamped elsewhere: usually on the frame behind the serial number under the cylinder crane, or on the rear of the trigger guard.

In 1927, Colt introduced their Colt Detective Special model, which was a snub-nosed version of the Colt Police Positive Special revolver. It rapidly became popular with police departments and became easier for Fitzgerald to modify, as it already came with a short barrel by default.

Several Fitzgerald Special revolvers.

The Fitzgerald Special models were very custom guns modified by Fitzgerald himself and carried by some very famous people. For instance, Colonel Rex Applegate, who worked for the OSS (a precusor to the CIA during World War II) carried one, as did Charles Lindbergh. Notorious bank robber Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde fame) also carried one, which was believed to have been stolen from a police officer, and was recovered when he was killed by the police. Fitzgerald allegedly also modified a few M1911 pistols as well, two of which were gold-engraved models carried by legendary Texas Ranger, Manuel T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas, which are now on display at the Texas Ranger Museum in Waco.

Fitzgerald himself only modified about 100 revolvers or so, and since every one of them was customized, they are very rare these days and worth quite a bit of money. Part of the reason for the high prices have to do with the fame of their creator, as Fitzgerald was a well recognized authority on firearms and was an in-demand instructor for defensive shooting tactics. In 1930, Fitzgerald even wrote a book called Shooting, where he discussed various handgun shooting techniques and tactics. A genuine Fitzgerald modified revolver can easily be worth about $10,000 at auctions today and double that, if its previous owner was also a famous personality.

However, other people made the same modifications themselves and there are many fakes out there. In fact, the practice of sawing off the front part of the trigger guard is called "Fitzing" and a weapon thus modified is referred to as being "Fitz'd". For many decades now, amateur gunsmiths have been making this particular modification in their home workshops. Not only have Colt revolvers been "Fitz'd", so have models from other companies such as Smith & Wesson, and other weapon types such as pistols and rifles.

It must be remembered that while Fitzgerald himself was an expert shooter, removing the front part of the trigger guard makes it easier to accidentally pull the trigger, therefore extra special care must be taken while handling one. Also, a genuine Fitz Special often had the trigger pull lightened as well, so a much smaller force is required to discharge it.

For safety reasons, large firearm manufacturers don't offer handguns with part of the trigger guard removed. However, the rest of Fitzgerald's innovative modifications (short barrel, shorter grip, bobbed hammer etc.) are still being offered as standard on production revolvers made by different companies.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Famous Guns: Lucretia Borgia

Take a look at the two rifles in the image below:

Click on the image to enlarge.

The one we are going to study today is the one at the bottom. "Wait a minute", the reader says. "The rifle at the bottom seems badly damaged. Heck, it is even missing part of its stock!" Well, there is a bit of history associated with this particular firearm, which is why we are going to read about it today. First, here's another close up of this rifle:

Click on the image to enlarge.

It is a Springfield Model 1866 trapdoor rifle, otherwise known as the Springfield 2nd Model Allin Trapdoor Conversion Rifle, firing a .50-70 black powder cartridge. As you can see, there is extensive damage and wear or the rifle and the barrel is even a little bent. However, that doesn't mean that this rifle is worthless. In fact, it may be more valuable than the one above it, because of the fame of its original owner. Here's a picture of the person that owned this rifle in the past:

Public Domain Image

Yes, that is the famous American legend, William Cody, a.k.a Buffalo Bill Cody, holding the same rifle when it was in much better condition.

Even though this rifle is a single shot model, Buffalo Bill preferred using this to the faster firing lever action .44 Henry Rifle and the Sharps 'Big Fifty' rifle. Buffalo Bill Cody never revealed how he came upon the rifle, but it is believed that he was issued the rifle when he served in the US Army during the Civil war and took it with him when his service ended. This is certainly possible, as thousands of Springfield Model 1866 rifles were issued to US troops during that time.

Buffalo Bill used this rifle in many encounters with Native American tribes, as a scout and as a commercial hunting rifle, when he worked as a contractor to supply meat to the railroad workers. It was used in a famous shooting contest between him and William Comstock, to see who could shoot the most buffalo in a given time. After this contest, people began calling William Cody as "Buffalo Bill".

So, why the name "Lucretia Borgia"? Well, the real Lucretia Borgia (or Lucrezia Borgia) was a famous Italian lady, from the powerful Borgia family, who were very politically connected and even had a few members serving as popes and cardinals in the Vatican. The Borgia family had origins in Spain and became prominent during the Renaissance period in Italy. Lucretia Borgia was known as a beautiful woman, with a reputation for being deadly (she was alleged to have poisoned several people). Many stories were written about her, including a famous play by French playwright, Victor Hugo, called Lucrezia Borgia. This play was staged at various places during the US Civil War, including Leavenworth, Kansas, where Buffalo Bill is alleged to have seen it.

For hundreds of years, it has been common tradition for men to bestow female names to their favorite tools and possessions, and Buffalo Bill was no exception in this regard. Buffalo Bill saw his rifle as beautiful, but deadly. So, when it came to naming his rifle, he named it after a famous woman who was known to be beautiful and deadly: Lucretia Borgia! In fact, he had the name inscribed in the lock plate of his rifle, where it may still be seen today. This seems to have been his favorite rifle as he mentioned this rifle in several interviews and in his autobiography and has even been photographed with it.

As to how part of its stock disappeared, there are a couple of stories associated with it. One story is that Buffalo Bill had shot an elk or a bison with his rifle and tried to finish it off with a blow to the animal's head, but the stock broke when he did this. Another story says that when he was employed as a hunting guide to Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, he loaned this rifle to the Grand Duke to use. Apparently, the Grand Duke got a little excited after shooting a buffalo during the hunt and threw his rifle in the air to celebrate, but failed to catch it on the way down and his horse stepped on it after it hit the ground.

Lucretia Borgia may be seen today on display at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum in Cody, Wyoming.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

High Quality Winchester Model 1873 Rifles

A long time ago, we studied lever actions and one of the most famous lever action weapons was the Winchester Model 1873 rifle.

Winchester Model 1873. Click on the image to enlarge. Image courtesy of http://www.adamsguns.com/

This rifle was extremely popular with settlers and cowboys in America and became known as "the gun that won the west". It was manufactured for 46 years between 1873 and 1919 and during this time, 720,610 rifles were made. Bear in mind that the entire population of the United States was around 70 million people at that time, so this means it was an extremely popular rifle.

The reader should note that this was not a long-range rifle at all. The cartridges it used weren't very powerful and accuracy was not the best -- your average Model 1873 rifle couldn't put 5 shots into a dinner-plate sized target at 100 yards. So what was good about this rifle that made it so popular then? Well, it was a rugged design, and it used the same cartridges as revolvers, so that the user only needed to carry one type of cartridge for both weapons. Also, many users didn't need pin-point accuracy and the rifle was powerful and accurate enough to be used to hunt deer or for self-defense. The lack of accuracy and power was more than made up for by its ability to shoot rapidly and the large capacity of its magazine. It was also relatively cheap.

However, in 1875, Winchester began to offer higher grade versions of the Model 1873 for sale. Every Winchester rifle barrel was test-fired in the factory, as part of the manufacturing process. Rifle barrels that shot with exceptional accuracy were set aside for special orders. These exceptionally accurate barrels were then handed over to the best workmen in the factory, to make customized models of the Model 1873. These rifles were made with set triggers, case hardened parts, extra-fine quality of finish, high quality walnut stocks with checkering, fancy engravings on the metal parts etc. The best quality barrels were engraved with the lettering "One of One Thousand", or "One of 1000". The second best quality barrels were engraved with the lettering "One of One Hundred".

Three Winchester "One of One Thousand" rifles and a "One of One Hundred" rifle.

Winchester catalogs from that period were quoted as follows:
"The barrel of every sporting rifle we make will be proved and shot at a target, and the target will be numbered to correspond with the barrel and be attached to it. All of these barrels that are found to make targets of extra merit will be made up into guns with set-triggers and extra finish and marked as a designating name, "One of One Thousand," and sold at $100.00. The next grade of barrels, not so fine, will be marked "One of One Hundred" and set up to order in any style at $20.00 advance over the list price of the corresponding style of gun."

The price of an ordinary Winchester Model 1873 rifle around 1880 was around $20. The "One of One Thousand" rifles were sold at a list price of $100 each and the "One of One Hundred" models were sold for around $40 each. Considering that the price of one acre of best quality farmland in Kansas was $11, these higher quality firearms were quite expensive and only rich people could afford to buy them.

While the fine walnut stock with checkering, case hardened parts and set triggers were standard with these higher-end rifles, the factory also offered custom upgrades for extra. For instance, a person could add special upgraded walnut stocks, long range sights, silver or gold finish, custom engravings and monograms etc. Since many of the owners of these higher-quality rifles were quite rich, these rifles were often upgraded with these extra options.


Winchester only manufactured 132 rifles of "One of One Thousand" quality (some sources say 133 or even 136 rifles.) The "One of One Hundred" rifles are even rarer, only 8 were ever produced, as per the Winchester factory records.

In 1950, Hollywood produced a popular western movie called "Winchester '73" starring James Stewart, where the story involves a "One of One Thousand" rifle. As part of marketing this movie, Universal Pictures published advertisements in many papers, for a contest to find the remaining "One in One Thousand" model rifles. Due to their efforts, 61 "One of One Thousand" rifles of Model 1873 and 6 more of the Model 1876 have been located. Of the "One of One Hundred" rifles, only 6 of the 8 that were manufactured, have been found.

When the "One of One Thousand" rifles hit the market, they were priced at $100 each. Today, one of such rifles could easily sell for over $100,000 or more. The "One in One Hundred" models are even more expensive, since only 8 were ever made, therefore the selling price of one of these is much more. By contrast, an ordinary Winchester M1873 from that period sold for around $20 then and would sell for around $3,000 - $4,000 today.