Thursday, August 17, 2006


I've been shooting IPSC for a long time. While I'm just barely good enough not to quit, I have long ago learned that what I see and what I learn are often more interesting than what I do.

One of the things I have learned is that ISPC competition usually involves a LOT of shooting with many different kinds of pistols. Not all of them were originally designed for this kind of continuous shooting.

One of them is the Glock.

Another is the .38 Super, as produced by just about anybody.

I know what you're thinking. You've read the title of the article, you got this far, and your knee-jerk reaction is probably one of the following:

  1. Yeah, but Glock fixed that!
  2. Yeah, but STI (SV, name your own favorite manufacturer of .38 super pistols) fixed that!
  3. It wasn't the gun, it was reloading brass which had been used too many times!
  4. It wasn't the gun, it was using the wrong powder!
Okay, you may be right. But These Things Still Happen, and I want to spend a little time on IPSC History so indulge me a while, okay?

(In keeping with the "These Things Still Happen" concept, I'll probably be telling you a few things you already know. There may be some folks who don't already know this stuff, and I want to use this opportunity to put a bug in their ear.)

This will be a certified Geek-Length Article, and I can do that because I'm a big mouth. You are an honored and invited guest, but everything I do is for me.

One of the things I do for me is the sidebar links. You may think I put them there to draw your attention to information resources which you may find interesting. In reality, I put them there so I have a quick-link to information resources which I find interesting. As such, I spend some time almost every day revisiting them, and often I learn from them.

One of the interesting links I have included is The Gun Zone, the love child of veteran gunzine writer Dean Speir. I've delved into TGZ from time to time, but never really surfed it thoroughly. I devoted some time to that pleasant burden recently and found the site to be rich in knowledge, experience, wisdom (not the same think as knowledge or experience ... it depends on the man), and information. Your enjoyment of the information depends in turn on whether you click on the many links provided in the text of Speir's articles.

Reading his lead article, I found a reference to what Speir calls kB!. To my delight, I found this to be a fairly rigorous and eminently informative white paper about the phenomenon which I have, in various other writings, referred to as "KaBOOM!" ... the tendencies of nervous, high-strung or over-stressed pistols to blow up during shooting.

There are a lot of reasons for guns to blow up.

One of the more esoteric reasons is that you have jammed your rifle barrel in the dirt, and thus plugged the barrel with said dirt. (We saw that in the John Wayne western movie Rio Lobo, essentially a 1970 remake of the 1966 Wayne Western El Dorado, in which Dirty Sheriff "Blue Tom" Hendriks gets shot in the leg in the Shootout Scene and uses his Winchester Rifle as a crutch until he is confronted by the vengeful Amelita. Note to Self: never use your Winchester as a crutch, especially if you've slashed the face of a fiery Hispanic Ho.)

There are many less exciting ways to get a KaBOOM! out of your competition gun, though.

Historically, the KaBOOM! phenomenon wasn't a big factor in the early days of IPSC.

Sure, it was sometimes possible to get a double-charge in your .45 acp 1911 if you were using one of the flat-leaf shotgun powders, such as Alliant Red Dot. But most of us who used this type of powder were more likely to use the slower-burning powders such as Green Dot. And sometimes folks using Hercules Bullseye (a fine-grain spherical powder) could overcharge, too.

.38 Super-Face

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usThe KaBOOM! factor was never important until some daring young man (probably Brian Enos) realized that the all-but-forgotten .38 Super cartridge could be used in a pistol which had higher magazine capacity (akin the the 9x19 nine millimeter parabellum, but with a longer cartridge case it had the capacity to legally "make major" ... if loaded with MORE POWDER and which avoided the IPSC rule relegating 9x19 cartridges as "minor power".)

At about the same time, they discovered compensators.

This was a device which could be attached to the muzzle of the barrel. It was a steel cylinder with holes cut in the top. The weight helped keep the muzzle from bouncing with recoil after each shot ("Muzzle-Flip"), but the holes in the top allowed excess gasses to exhaust and, similar to a rocket motor, exerted an "equal but opposite" force DOWNWARD to reduce the muzzle-flip even further. The result was that you could fire a Major Power round and the muzzle pretty much stayed on-target.

Major Power, fast double-taps; what more could a young IPSC competitor wish for?

Well, he could wish to retain his boyish good looks without facial scaring, because the compensator required a LOT of gunpowder to provide the excess gasses, and competitors were loading more and more very fast powder into their long .38 super cartridges for the sole purpose of jetting the exhaust through the compensator.

The result of this daring experimentation was that the .38 super cartridge, which had not originally been designed for such high pressures, was sometimes unable to contain all of those excess gasses. Something has to give, and occasionally the case split laterally along the web of the case base. The gasses vented against the breach, which in reaction opened sufficiently to vent them up and back resulting in what has colorfully been termed "Thirty Eight Super-Face".

What this is, is that the hot gasses, the burning powder fragments, and pieces of brass from the bursting cartridge case blew UP and BACK to where the competitors face was conveniently (or not, depending on your point of view) waiting.

Facial skin is not designed to endure this kind of physical assault. While I never heard of anyone being actually blinded while acquiring a .38 SuperFace, I strongly suspect this is only because of the mandatory requirement to wear protective glasses. However, full-face motorcycle helmets were never mentioned in the USPSA Rule Book, so a lot of this hot crap scrap found fertile ground for flesh-rending and burning into the underlying musculature. The result was pain, secondary infection, facial disfigurement and a few IPSC competitors who decided that they would grow a beard to hide the scars.

Super Rob and I both wear beards, but it isn't necessarily because we have Super-Face. We're just styling.

The other guys, well, they're doing what they can to look 'normal'.

Eventually, the .38 Super shooters realized that there were a couple of things they could do to avoid this unfortunate down-side to hi-cap/major-power expediency:
  1. use slower-burning powder, to avoid pressure spikes
  2. install a barrel with a fully supported chambers, to help the case retain the pressure

Handgun manufacturers, especially STI and SV, built their business on .38 Super competition guns with fully supported chambers.

The cartridge manufacturers chipped in to the obvious marketting message, and provided a case with a thicker web.

These cartridge (not ammunition) manufacturers such as Winchester, Remington/Peters and others completed the third leg of the .38 super Road to Salvation.

  • Slow-burning powder allowed the generation of high gas-pressure to make the compensators work, without generating it in the first few thousandths of a second after ignition.
  • The fully supported barrels (now standard on such competition-specific guns such as the STI Competitor) helped hold the pressure in without stressing the case unduly.
  • the stronger case design accepted more of the pressure burden, and not only prevented lateral case-splits but helped contain longitudinal splits in the case.
We were saved! No more 38 Super-Face! We can go back to developing hot loads to make major power, and we don't have to chance facial disfigurement and injury to hands because your ammunition may cause your gun to blow up!

Glock and the .40 Slow and Wimpy
Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThen Glock introduced the Glock 22 in .40 S&W cartridge, with performance riveling the .45acp and magazine capacity riveling the 9mm guns.

Unfortunately, instead of chambering the strong Glock 21 .45acp gun for the smaller .40 S&W cartridge, they chose to chamber the weak Glock 17 9mm gun for the more powerful (and higher pressure) .40 S&W cartridge.

Well, it was a marketting thingie.

The consequences: KaBoom!, The Next Generation!

What are we looking at here?
  1. Barrels without fully supported chambers.
  2. Barrels which are intentionally built 'loose', so they can accomodate cartridges with varying diameters (eg: "you can shoot anything in a Glock!")
  3. Handguns deliberately built on a 'weak' frame, instead of the readily available 'strong' frame.
Perhaps we're being too critical here.

Or perhaps not.

Glock was at a decision point. They could use a design which was stronger than the (new, relatively untested) .40 S&W cartridge ... the frame designed for the powerful .45acp cartridge .. or they could use a design which was lighter, less robust, but cheaper to make and intended for the poodle-shooter 9x19 (9mm Luger, 9mm Parabellum, etc.) cartridge.

Let me see: over-engineer for safety, or under-engineer for profit. What are the chances that somebody will over-load a .40 S&W round? What to do, what to do ...

Ultimately, Glock built the Glock 22 on essentially the same frame as the Glock 17.

MAYBE this decision was based on the lesser amount of material used in the 9mm Glock 17 as opposed to the 45acp Glock 22 21 [corrected].

MAYBE this decision was based on the fact that the cartridge diameter was closer to the 9mm (.35*") than the .45 (.45*"), so they had less machining to deal with.

My guess is that they were looking at the ejector placement.

The .40 S&W cartridge uses a small primer, as does the 9mm.

The .45acp uses a large primer.

The ejector is sited in the frame relative to the primer diameter.

Could it have been as simple as a reluctance to change the tooling on the Glock 22 to a position more appropriate to the Glock 17?

I don't know, but essentially the major difference between the Glock 17 (9mm) and the Glock 21 (.40S&W) is the barrel. No retooling for the rest of the gun is needed or desired, except for the stamped model and caliber markings.

Go look at the cited links for the Glock 17 (9mm), Glock 21 22 [corrected] (.40S&W) and the Glock 22 21 [corrected] (.45acp). What you will see, if you look at weight, is that the Glock 21 is several ounces heavier. More robust. Perhaps even more able to resist both recoil and internal pressures.

Except that the as-issued Glock 21 22 [corrected] had the same barrel design; the chamber was not fully supported.

Add to that the popularity of the new Clays powder, which was working just fine for both 9mm and .38 super ammunition, and as it was the new hot powder-de-jour there was a lot of of forty-caliber ammunition loaded with Clays.

I refer you now to one of my favorite reloading pages: The Reloading Pages of M.D. Smith.

Smith's pages are especially notable for two links:
  1. His article on "Light Loads in Big Cases Can Blow Up!", (which curiously he originally created 10 years ago as part of his "reloading for the 10mm" page), and
  2. his "Powder Burning Rate Chart".
Here's a reproduction of his top ten fastest commercially available gunpowders:

  1. R-1 Norma
  2. N310, Vihtavuori
  3. Bullseye, Alliant
  4. N312, Vihtavuori
  5. Solo 1000, Accurate
  6. Clays, Hodgdon
  7. Red Dot, Alliant
  8. N318, Vihtavuori
  9. Hi-Skor 700X, IMR
  10. N320, Vihtavuori
(Curiously, and appropos of nothing at all, I use the VV N320 as my powder-of-choice for the 10mm.)

This is beginning to look familiar, isn't it? We have (a) a new cartridge, which hasn't been through the years of testing that more familiar cartridges (such as 9mm, .45acp, etc.) have experienced ... and which the .38 super failed miserably until the case was strengthened!; (b) 'HOT' loads (pressure spikes from fast-burning powders designed for robust cases/chambers), and (c) hambers which are not fully supported.

But in the case of the .40 S&W, we have one more factor:

The literature provided the reloader with an optimal Over All Length (OAL) which was predicated on slower burning powders. When you push the powder charge in an attempt to be 'as good as the forty-five', you need just a little more room and a little less grip on the bullet to slow down that pressure spike.

BTW, here's an interesting item. One of the ways Glock moved to avoid these problems was administrative. Glock does not recommend reloaded ammunition. In point of fact, if you use reloaded ammunition, it voids their warranty!

I had thought that this was another 'yester-year' thing, but in a conversation with a prospective new IPSC-shooter last month, I mentioned that he may find competition prohibitively expensive, considering the cost of store-bought ammo. If he tries IPSC and decides he likes it enough to continue, he may want to consider the "Roll Your Own" solution. It's expensive to get into, but in the long run a new loading press pays its way.

His response was to tell me that he couldn't load his own ammunition because the Glock Warranty forbids it, yatta yatta yatta. I was nonplussed. I couldn't believe that clause was still on the books.

And then I reconsidered.

If you have no confidence in your own product, you can either beef it up or let your lawyers remove your liability concerns.

You will notice that neither STI or SV ( and probably not Colt, S&W, Ruger, Beretta, Sig, Kahr, Taurus, Star, or most other pistol manufacturers you can name) demonstrate so little confidence in the strength of their product.

Yet, people keep buying the ugly duckling.

Ya gotta wonder.

We now return control to your computer.

How do you solve a problem like KaBOOM!
In the case of the Glock/.40S&W combination, four changes were required:
  1. Fully supported chambers. It took Glock YEARS to make this design change ... which essentially reduced their manufacturing process by the one step which made the cut in the chamber-end of the barrel, but to take that step implied some falacy in design, some responsibility for problems ...
  2. Reloaders had to find a slower burning powder than Clays. Today those who use Clays powder for .40S&W are relying on the other changes to the reloading process, either out of a desire to demonstrate machismo or a vote of confidence in the cartridge "anyway";
  3. Slower burning powders often mean that you can more completely fill the case. This does have a slight effect in reducing pressure spikes, and it is offered only in an effort to ease the pain of the last, most difficult revelation which was painfully (literally) slow in coming;
  4. Longer OAL than lighter factory-produced loads.
I don't have the recommended OAL for 'hot' Shorty Forty loads immediately at hand, but even if I bothered to look them up I wouldn't present them here. I'm not inclined to make myself liable for lawsuits by recommending a load, because I don't have the experience in my own reloading and because you never know how someone else will take your perfectly good load data and switch the numbers around to their own detriment and your own legal exposure.

But the Common Wisdom became that ammunition which was loaded longer didn't spike as badly, and this was probably one of the most productive reloading changes for this caliber, in terms of reducing the KaBoom! factor ... after the introduction of the fully supported chamber.

Yes, the M.D. Smith admonition about "Light Loads in Big Cases Can Blow Up!" was a bit of a misdirection. It probably doesn't apply with this cartridge. It probably doesn't even apply to the Evil 10mm cartridge (which I load to .40S&W power levels and have fired tens of thousands of rounds with no problems at all. This may in part be due to the much more robust design of he 10mm cartridge compared to the .40S&W case ... which is why I insisted that the STI Edge I bought be chambered in 10mm.)

War Stories:
I can't leave this subject without telling at least one story.

At a Tri-County Gun Club match several years, I witnessed first-hand a certifiable Glock/Forty KaBoom!

Friend "Dangerous Dan" came to a match with a borrowed Glock 22. The ammunition, also, was borrowed. While engaging targets on then-Bay 5, he suffered a KaBoom! Experience.

Dan had been competing in IPSC for many years. He was primarily a Revolver shooter, but while engaging the "Christmas Tree" classifire the previous month he had a high-primer situation, which required about five minutes of banging the revolver against the prop to get the cylinder open and change his load. He was ready to try the pistol in favor of his beloved revolver, which lead him to borrow the "hot, new Glock Forty".

Smack in the middle of the stage, there was a strange KaBOOM! sound, and Dan started Dancing.

He shifted the pistol from a two-handed grip to his left hand. Then back to his right hand. Left. Right. Finally he was able to hand the pistol off to the Range Officer, move back a few steps, drop to his knees and sink his hands into the cool, soothing mud of a puddle. Thank Goodness this happened during the Spring season when the range abounded with convenient mud-puddles!

After several minutes of said salve-application (and not a little creative profanity), Dan arose in a manner not unlike Godzilla from the mud with reddened dripping hands and retrieve the offending Glock from the Range Officer.

It took a while to remove the magazine; it was busted up pretty good.

A couple of tries were required to rack the Glock Slide; the case was badly bulged.

The case was also showing a latitudinal split along the edge of the (unsupported) chamber.

The magazine was toast .. burned, partly melted at the top, and the baseplate was blasted out along with the spring and the entire ammunition load.

After he had an hour or so to cool down -- literally -- Dan came back and finished the match with the same gun. Miraculously, there was no fatal damage to the pistol. Or to Dan, although he was obviously in pain from the flash-burns on his hands.

Later, Dan bought his own Glock .. in 10mm, which was the only Glock I have ever fired (I didn't like the way it fit my hand, or the muzzle-flip, but that may have been because he was loading the cartridge hotter than I though was necessary.)

I never did learn what he did with the magazine; at least, the parts which were left unmelted.

UPDATE: February 19, 2007
Reader CW notes that I have, from time to time in this article, entered incorrect Glock model numbers for pistols in .40 S&W and .45 ACP calibers.

I have found an excellent internet Glock resource in The Glock FAQ, and I am correcting my errors.

Essentially, the standard model in .40 S&W is the Glock 22 (not 21) and in .45 acp is the Glock 21 (not 22). Corrections have been identified by striking through the old text and entering the correct model in bold, followed by the notation [corrected].

In reviewing this article, I noted that several reference links to specific Glock models are no longer functional, because the website referenced no longer is present. I've replaced these links with similar webpages from Glock FAQ. You can see a summary of the physical characteristics of various Glock models here, also a Glock FAQ source.

I also added a link to Jeff Maass' IPSC reloading page, but I note with sorrow that he is retiring this website. If the link on "Shorty Forty" does not work, please let me know. I doubt I can find another internet reloading resource of such high quality and reliability, but I'll try. (I'll also see if I can contact Jeff to solicit his suggestions. This is a sad day for reloaders, when Jeff takes down his website.)

I appreciate the feedback and the corrections. It's embarassing to demonstrate my ignorance, but it's worse to confuse the reader. This article is one of the most often read because of internet searches on the subject; it should at least be accurate. I count on the readers to correct errors, because you are my editors.

Please feel free to report broken links. My email address is written on the tailgate of my virtual pick-up truck at the bottom of the website page. Or just comment on the offending article. I'll find it. After all, I found CW's comment on this six-month-old article the same day he posted it.

My thanks and gratitude to CW and Glock FAQ.

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