Bad Guns, Bad Guns: What You Gonna Do When They Fail on You?
Cheap handguns have been pilloried as unsafe and dangerous—but are they? We test three inexpensive products from Jennings, F&L, and Hi-Point to see if they have any redeeming qualities.
Throw-down gun, Saturday night special, gat, heater, rod. These nicknames stick to cheap, widely available handguns because they show up in police reports and tabloids more often than they do in the results of organized shooting matches. But are such guns produced with evil intent, or are they instead inexpensive firearms which help those on the lower end of the economic spectrum defend themselves? Are these low-priced guns so “bad” that foes of gun control have a legitimate product-safety argument to deny lower-income citizens the right to bear arms based merely on cost and availability?
To assess the merits of this question, Gun Tests recently acquired and fired a trio of handguns and 300 rounds of ammunition for just over $600.
We were able to walk out of our friendly neighborhood gun store with a $99 Hi-Point 9mm semiauto, a $135 plastic-looking 4-inch Model 102 revolver produced in Argentina by F&L and imported by Sportarms of Miami, Florida, and a $99 Jennings/Bryco .380 semiauto. The purpose of our function-firing, accuracy assessment, and other testing was simple: Would we recommend that anyone bet his life on these guns? Here’s what we found:
F&L Model 102 Revolver
Gun Tests Doesn’t Recommend: We found distortion and variation in nearly every aspect of the F&L Model 102’s manufacturing, but most problematical were its improper cylinder-to-bore alignment and inconsistent, overly tight chambers. With all the good revolvers on the market, and quite a few very good ones available used (by now many policemen have traded in their wheelguns for semiautos), we see no reason for anyone to risk their person or property with the F&L Model 102. Even a worn Rossi Model 720 or Model 851, a Taurus 827 or 82, a Smith & Wesson Model 14, or a Ruger SP101 can be purchased used for $175 to $200, and sometimes less. And in our opinion, these latter guns have ten times the quality and functionality shown by the F&L Model 102. Forget we even mentioned this gun.
The Model 102 from F&L, which we bought for $135, was a 4-inch revolver chambered for .38 Special. It featured a full underlug with shrouded ejector rod. On top of the barrel was a full-vent rib, alá Taurus or Colt, with a serrated, ramped front sight. There was no color insert, so we treated the ramp with a dab of White-Out for better visibility. The top strap was serrated to prevent glare, which seemed unlikely since the gun was completely finished in a matte black. The rear sight was connected by two screws and was set into the frame to give the illusion of adjustability. The hammer was a wide target style that made contact with the backstrap when it was pulled all the way back into single-action mode. The trigger was also wide and was hindered by sharp edges. The grip featured generous checkering molded into its prehistoric Neoprene-like composition and was held on with one screw. The grip did not interfere with speed loading and had a flat bottom to aid bench-rest shooting. Beneath the grip, we found a coil mainspring design. The frame was a cast affair with harder metal crudely inlaid to defer wear at critical junctures, such as surrounding the firing-pin hole and on the top strap just above the cylinder gap. The frame was medium sized and would be accept reloading with K frame–sized speedloaders if the cylinders were chamfered. Instead, we found the cylinders to be unnecessarily tight and ejection was often troublesome.
Cast-frame revolvers like the 102 have their drawbacks. From the way the black finish was peeling away from the tip of the barrel, we could see the edges and contours of the underlug were not evenly machined. We suspect the heavy black finish hides a number of casting flaws—so much so that we would not be surprised to find a layer of Bondo here and there. Thus, our first impression of the gun was that it was meant to be a prop in a stage play, not a working firearm.
At the range, we did indeed find that the 102 functioned, however. Our bag of ammunition held three different types of .38 Special loads, including a 130-grain FMJ from Winchester, a remanufactured 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter from Master, and a 148-grain lead hollow-based wadcutter from 3D. When we began shooting the 3D HBWC, we immediately noticed lead shavings upon ejection. The forcing cone was being surrounded by lead, and rings of the material were dropping away upon ejection. Despite a heavy double action and long sweep of the hammer in the SA mode that produced heavy hits, misfires were common. The hammer on the 102 featured a separate nose pin. Most manufacturers have gone to the internal floating firing pin in revolvers because it is easier to include a hammer-blocking safety. But the older style design like that found in the 102 offers easy replacement if the nose pin should break. However, on the 102 this fitting, much like the attachment of the mainspring, looks like it is fastened with a part that is not reusable.
Firing this gun double action made us doublecheck our eye protection was in place. At a rapid-fire pace, we tracked the front sight and were rewarded with a fireworks show streaking from the cylinder gap. The poorly fitted cylinder was launching lead and unburned powder. As you might expect, this affected how well the gun shot. Our accuracy tests were conducted single action at 15 and 7 yards. Fired single action from a sandbag rest indoors, the best Winchester group we recorded was 1.25 inches at 21 feet. In comparison, many a good used Smith & Wesson revolver, even old ones, will shoot 2 inches at 15 or even 25 yards. The Master brand ammunition seemed to tumble and produce a distorted group on the paper measuring 2 to 3 inches at 7 yards, and the 3D HBWC printed clearer, but not much better, with 1.7-inch groups at the close distance. The 3D’s best group at 15 yards ballooned to 3.6 inches, while the Master 158-grain SWC tumbled its way to a 2.9-inch group average. The Winchester 130-grain FMJs printed 3.1 inches at 15 yards.
Hi-Point Model C 9mm
Gun Tests Doesn’t Recommend: The 9mm round is the most prolific cartridge in the world today. You can buy it in dozens of models that used will cost only $125 to $150. In our view, there are simply too many good Nines on the market to bother with the $99.95 Hi-Point Model C. However, it beats a knife if you are far enough away.
The $99.95 Model C from Hi-Point was a polymer-framed exercise in absurdity. Manufacturers go to polymer to reduce cost, and it makes sense on the consumer’s end for this reason alone. Also a resulting loss in weight makes a polymer-framed gun lighter and easier to carry. In the case of the Model C, Hi-Point took a modern polymer-frame design with better-than-average ergonomics (save for a stubborn slide safety) and saddled it with a massive steel slide. This raised the center of gravity so high second shots were forced to wait while we put the gun back on target. The lower part of the gun looked modern, and the slide, resembling a loaf of bread, made this pistol look like a product of the Russian automobile industry circa 1960.
Most important in this class of cheap self-defense guns, the Model C proved reliable with all the ammunition we tried, but it was so unpleasant to shoot we put it aside after firing 3-inch groups at 10 yards from a bench rest. The massive slide slowed the pistol’s ability to cycle and weighed heavily against the shooter’s wrist, especially when shot from a sandbag. The sights were molded into the top of the slide, two red dots at the rear and a red notch up front. They were not easy to find, but not to worry. The shooter had plenty of time to align them while the gun cycled. Once the round was chambered and ignited, the bus-like slide slammed to the rear and stopped, then rushed forward and smashed closed. The slide assembly around the striker mechanism was covered with a glob of white grease that subtracted from our confidence in this machine’s functioning, but to the gun’s credit, it didn’t balk, fail to eject, or fail to fire. However, we could have used a hammer and a finishing nail to accomplish these same firing functions, and the hammer might have been more comfortable to shoot.
Jennings Model 48 9mm Kurz (.380 Auto)
Gun Tests Recommends: If you already have the shotgun by the bed, the magnum in the glove box, and just need something to carry when you go to the mailbox downtown or to drop off those large cash deposits from your jewelry business, don’t overlook the Jennings Model 48 in .380 auto. It is truly concealable, fun to shoot, and at $99.95, inexpensive to own.
By the time we got around to the .380 Auto Model 48 from Jennings, we were ready to throw in the towel and vow never to shoot a “throw-down” gun again. (The term throw-down is used to describe a gun maliciously placed or thrown down to the side of someone who was shot despite being unarmed. The object is to place guilt on the deceased party and create the evidence necessary for a justifiable homicide.) While the aforementioned revolver, in our opinion, would likely show up in the tabloids as one such gun, the Hi-Point 9mm wasn’t so terrible as it was obnoxious to shoot. The Jennings .380, on the other hand, was both the surprise and star of our test. While the .380 auto is not a knock-down round, it is far better than the .22 Magnum, .25 ACP, and .32 Auto for self- defense. Likewise, it is controllable, accurate, and fun to shoot.
The Model 48 from Jennings (a Bryco Manufacturing company) came with a number of features found in far more expensive custom pistols. It was an all-steel pistol with satin hard-chrome finish. The gun was virtually without a sharp edge, and its slippery shape allowed us to conceal it easily. Some custom gun shops charge hundreds of dollars to dehorn or “melt down” a pistol for easy concealment. The sights were tall, yet snag-free and were molded into the slide so they’ll never be knocked loose or out of adjustment. Snag-free but effective serrations on the rear of the slide made charging the narrow little auto a cinch. The grip frame was undercut at the trigger guard to allow more space for the hand, and the bottom of the front strap was contoured to meet the lipped basepad on the magazine. The mag was held by a serrated clip on the bottom of the grip, making the gun difficult to load speedily. But this clip adds reliability for the 1.04-inch wide magazine. The trigger was predictable and had consistent take-up and let-off. The grips were polymer panels that could easily be textured for a better grip and thinned even further if so desired.
At the range, we found the Model 48 was a ball to shoot with full metal-jacketed 95-grain rounds from Winchester and Federal American Eagle. Likewise, the 90-grain FMJ from PMC functioned flawlessly. Our staffers were having so much fun we opted to buy some hollow-point defense ammo to compare. First we tried 102-grain Remington Golden Saber, but its rounded profile would not load into the mag easily nor would it feed reliably. Next we tried the conical 90-grain Federal Hydra-Shok load and learned that it ran fine and produced less felt recoil than the American Eagles, which usually run at the top end of power factor.
Our accuracy test consisted of shooting from sandbags at paper targets featuring a 3-inch square. Virtually all ammunitions tested produced groups that fit into the square. The Jennings’ best group, 0.86 inch, was shot with the PMC ammo. Actually, this group consisted of three connected hits next to two more also touching. Remember, these are not .45 ACP wadcutters. We’re talking projectiles about a third of an inch in diameter. The mean group size on or off the bench for all ammo tested was in the order of 2 inches.
Gun Tests Bottom Line
We and our readers are offended by the notion that some guns, especially inexpensive ones, are inherently so “bad” that they should be outlawed. Instead, we are “pro-choice” when it comes to owning guns; that is, we like to have as wide a choice of guns to buy as possible. But that doesn’t mean we want to buy substandard firearms, when there are plenty of good ones out there.
From our perspective, a “bad” gun is one that doesn’t work properly, that’s hard to shoot, that’s inaccurate. If you look at the cover of this magazine, you’ll notice that in the masthead we describe Gun Tests as “the consumer resource for the serious shooter.” Part of our franchise is looking for good or great guns that pack a lot of value into their prices. Another, as important, part of our job is warning our readers about products that don’t work as well as others in their class—or in this case, which barely work at all.
In this case, we found two dogs that we wouldn’t recommend to serious gun owners as trotline weights. The $135 F&L Model 102 .38 Special revolver spit lead and powder and showed poor execution overall. The $99.95 Hi-Point Model C did go bang consistently, but we had to wrestle with it. In both cases, there are simply better guns out there for comparable dollars.
On the other hand, the Jennings Model 48 in .380 Auto was a decent product for only $99.95. If it were compared to many other .380s, we have no doubt it wouldn’t fare too well. But in this test, it alone disproves the notion that a cheap gun is by definition a “bad” gun. For those who can’t afford anything else, the Jennings Model 48 could be a lifesaver.