December 2002

Gun Tests Guns Of The Year 2002

Which pistols, rifles, revolvers, and shotguns offer the best combination of price, value, and performance? We look back at the past 11 months of test guns and tell you what we’d buy.

Our Garands Best Buy was the CMP-supplied
model made by International Harvester.

Every year we have the enviable pleasure of recapping a full annual cycle’s worth of test guns for inclusion in this Guns of the Year feature. It is fun for us to look back and sift through the bad, good, and sometimes great guns we’ve had the duty to shoot and report on in the pages of Gun Tests.

Some of those guns wind up being our favorites, and it’s easy to see why when you re-read their reviews. As we’re testing sets of firearms, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees; our protocol dictates that we shoot the guns head to head to make the comparison as relevant as possible.

But when we step back and look at the big picture every December, we’re reminded of products that really set us on fire. The purpose of the Guns of the Year is to remind us, and you, of the products that we believe offer outstanding value in terms of outright performance, bang for the buck, collectible interest, or some other important aspect of gun ownership. If you use this feature to narrow down your gun shopping list for the holidays, we think you’ll get a winner every time. So let’s get right to it:

Smith & Wesson 386PD .357 Magnum, $798
We liked this gun (March 2002) for its lightweight carry manners and its power. The 386PD is black with a charcoal-gray cylinder. The cylinder is titanium, and the frame is made from scandium. The Hogue Bantam grip is a round-butt design with an indented accommodation for lanyard attachment (supplied). The lanyard can also be attached to the deluxe aluminum case supplied.

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson 386PD .357 Magnum features guide.

New for 2002 is an internal locking system located just above the cylinder latch. Key operated, this device locks the hammer in the down position. The PD’s tube is only 2.5 inches long, but it still produced satisfactory accuracy and chronograph results. Overall accuracy for the PD totals to five-shot groups averaging a diameter of 2.5 inches measured center to center. Whereas the smaller titanium models we have tested in the past came with a warning about using cartridges with slugs weighing more than 125 grains, no such disclaimer was enclosed with this revolver.

Nonetheless, for human hands, recoil and shooting comfort was punishing even with moderately high-powered ammunition. We finally had to resort to wearing a padded glove during our bench session. If you buy this gun, we suggest you practice with standard pressure .38 Specials.

Norinco Model 97 12 Gauge Pump, $359
The niche for the Norinco gun (February 2002) is producing an affordable, modern alternative to the Winchester 1897 shotgun, and we learned it proved true to the Winchester design without many of the downsides of owning an older gun, such as iffy pressure restrictions.

Click here to view the Norinco Model 97 12 Gauge Pump features guide.

The original model 97s allowed the use of 2.75-inch smokeless shells. However, it is recommended that only low-brass standard field loads be used in the shotguns. Also, a small number of model 97 shotguns were produced with Damascus barrels up until 1914; they should not be used with modern smokeless powder at all.

This gun is made in China and is a close copy of the Winchester Model 1897, but many of the parts do not interchange with the Winchester, we found. The stock is hardwood, unlike straight-grain walnuts on original Winchesters. Also, the shape of the stock is slightly different than Winchesters’s, featuring less drop at the comb and heel and a rounded, more sloping grip. The grip was very slick when oil or sweat were present, since the buttstock had no texturing.

The action was less stiff than Winchesters, with the action-release button operating much more positively. The racking action was also more compact, measuring 3.5 inches for the Norinco, versus 3.75 inches for Winchesters. As you might expect, the slide action was tighter on the new gun than on Winchesters.

Mounting the Norinco, open action, unloaded from a table and firing two shots at ground-level targets exposed some problems with the gun. The slick plastic buttpad scooted right past the shoulder on many occasions, whacking the shooter’s cheek with the stock. Or, if the gun mounted too high, the very sharp buttplate toe could dig into the shooter’s shoulder. Neither were enjoyable experiences, even with light loads.

Still, we thought the Riot configuration of the Norinco was, overall, better and faster than comparable Winchesters, mainly because of the shorter barrel and lighter weight. As we noted, cycling the action was faster, but the underside edges of the Norinco’s bolt were sharp, and it would be no problem to rack the slide and cut the top of your thumb. If you bought this gun, it might be worth having a gunsmith take those edges off, if it didn’t damage the gun’s function. Otherwise, you either have to learn to position your grip hand properly or wear leather gloves.

This is a quick, relatively inexpensive way to get a period shotgun suitable for Cowboy shooting.

Springfield Mil-Spec 1911A1, $682
What would happen when we took a gun (April 2002) built to handle the .45 ACP and stuffed today’s hottest factory .38 Supers into it? We got a tame 1911 with friendly recoil, single-handed operation and the natural pointing ability of a single-stack frame with greater capacity than similar guns loaded with .45s.

Click here to view the Springfield Mil-Spec 1911A1 features guide.

The Mil Spec model is in some ways a commemorative pistol without getting gaudy or expensive. It has classic styling including a basic military style grip safety and solid hammer tang. Sights are certainly not snag resistant but are tall and clear with a modern upgrade to a three-dot system. The mainspring housing is arched, something we don’t see much of anymore and the hard plastic, fully checkered grip panels are held in place by standard slotted screws. The trigger is solid metal, but the ejection port is flared and the entire package comes in a no-glare Parkerized finish. This gun also includes Springfield Armory’s safety system that key locks the mainspring.

Fit and finish is first rate. There are no cast parts on this pistol. Before high winds and cold temperatures forced us to take our tests indoors, we had already completed field tests with this pistol firing at 25 yards. We found that the traditional 130-grain ball ammo was nowhere near as accurate as the hollowpoints. Including the aforementioned first round flyers (which were less prevalent with this pistol), five-shot groups were in the 4-inch range. While ball ammo runs and shoots very well in the .45 ACP 1911s, the venerable 130-grain round nose leaves much to be desired in the Super. The Cor-Bon rounds (even when producing more than 500 foot-pounds of energy) did not seem to kick very hard and delivered the best accuracy.

CMP Service Grade M1 Garand, $550
John Garand’s .30-’06 semi-auto rifle was officially designated the “U.S. Rifle Cal. .30 M1” in 1936. Production of the M1 Garand began at Springfield Armory (not the same place that has that name today) in January 1937, with the first rifles being delivered in August. During WWII, a total of over four million Garands were produced, most by Springfield Armory, and many by Winchester. The rifles ultimately saw service in three wars, including Korea and Viet Nam.

Click here to view the CMP Service Grade M1 Garand features guide.

When we tested four Garands in June 2002, we liked one by International Harvester obtained through the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP, $550). It had a full-length wood stock, a few stamped parts, excellent machining on all the metal work, adjustable sights featuring an aperture rear and protected front post, and the eight-shot, en-bloc clip that has been so reliable for so long.

The Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) is alive and well. If you are an active, serious, competition shooter you will be able to buy one of these arsenal-reassembled rifles. Rather than take up space here with a lengthy list of qualifications, we recommend you visit the CMP website at (http://www.odcmp.com/), or call them toll-free at (888) 267-0796 and request a product catalog.

The Garands are offered in two grades, Service and Rack ($400). Service grade is slightly better, and that’s what ours was. As the CMP catalog puts it, the rifles are authentic if not pretty. This one had a distinct aura about it.

The all-walnut stock showed some nicks and dings, but was pretty good-looking, overall. The wood finish was varying degrees of old linseed oil, powder residue, and dirt. That foremost piece of wood at the front of the stock, the front handguard, was very loose. A bit of loving refinish work would have done wonders for the stock, but there were a couple of severe gouges that would require filling or inletted bits of wood to make them go away. Replacement stocks, we’re told, are available for as little as $60. This stock would be worth refinishing, and it would be an easy job. There was no pressing need to do so, and of course you’d lose part of its sense of history with the refinish. The stock on the fourth rifle, tested below, would be better off being replaced rather than refinished.

The metalwork was uniformly finished, though the butt-plate finish was a bit thinner than the remainder. The rifling was very good right up to the muzzle.

We feel that pursuing the CMP program offers one of the best ways of acquiring a Garand. You’ll know the rifle is safe and sound, and you’ll have your choice of maker, but of course you won’t know the ultimate worth of the rifle as a shooter until you shoot it. All CMP rifles are inspected for headspace and degree of wear, etc. The rifle we tested had not only an aura of authenticity, but an excellent-looking barrel and acceptable wood.

Taurus 455 Tracker .45 ACP, $525
Although the .45 ACP is rarely thought of when considering the purchase of a wheelgun (October 2002), this venerable round has been filling the chambers of revolvers for longer than most people think. In fact there are characteristics of today’s .45 ACP revolvers that in one regard make them a throwback to the 19th century.

Click here to view the Taurus 455 Tracker .45 ACP features guide.

Earlier in revolver production reloading was accomplished by replacing the entire cylinder. It could be said that along this same line the moon clip was born. Originally, moon clips carried three rounds held together by a flat metal stamping so that each round lined up with the chambers in a 180-degree arc that resembles a half moon. Today, clips are available that hold a full count of six rounds. These have become known as full-moon clips, and the original design using two clips of three have now been renamed “half-moon” clips.

Today, no less than two manufacturers are producing .45 ACP revolvers that utilize moon clips. Taurus recently joined Smith & Wesson in producing .45s by releasing a five-shot .45 in its Tracker design. By limiting capacity to five rounds and making the cylinder smaller in diameter, Taurus was able to create a smaller-frame revolver for handier carry.

Our first impression (August 2002) upon opening the cylinder of the Tracker was, “Only five shots?” In our estimation Taurus decided to sacrifice the sixth round to make a smaller package that would be lighter, easier to carry and perhaps more popular. We are willing to bet that in terms of sales, smaller revolvers greatly surpass larger ones. The Tracker 455 is finished in matte stainless steel, carries a full-lug barrel and adjustable rear sights.

Features that set it apart include a soft-ribbed rubber grip instead of the Smith’s Hogue Monogrip. The ribs collapse, fitting in between the fingers to conform while the Hogue is hard rubber, relieved at the back, and offers deep finger grooves up front. The Tracker’s front sight is on a tall stanchion, and the ramped blade is not only double-pinned in place but shows serration and an orange insert. The notch of the rear blade is outlined in white. Taurus’s internal lock is located on the hammer, and the pop-up design simply blocks the hammer from moving back. The crane of the 455 is braced by a spring-loaded detent pin. This is a nice upgrade, standard on all the Trackers.

The trigger is smooth and fast, breaking att 11 pounds double action. Most shooters will want to leave it stock and let a pound or two wear away. The porting on the Tracker differs from the porting system found on a number of other Taurus models. In this case there is not an expansion chamber surrounding the area below the ports. Instead, the ports come directly through the rifling. In our experience with ported and compensated handguns, we prefer this design.

In terms of accuracy, our Tracker shot an average group size of approximately 3 inches across the board. Like the Smith & Wesson 625-8, the Tracker liked the Winchester 185-grain FMJ rounds the best among our selection of factory ammunition. The Tracker showed no great propensity for lead bullets, however. Performance with our lead handload only meant there was more cleaning to do.

In our opinion the Tracker series is a step up from Taurus’s basic line, and we feel the .45 ACP model is no exception. Its smaller frame makes it handier to tote, and an upcoming 2-inch model should make it even more appealing.

Springfield Armory XD40 .40 S&W, $489
The .40 S&W is the leading round chosen by today’s local and federal law-enforcement professionals. Compact .40s (3.5- to 4.25-inch barrels) bridge the gap between plainclothes duty and civilian concealed carry, and of these, the lightweight “plastic” pistols lead the way.

Click here to view the Springfield Armory XD40 .40 S&W features guide.

The XD pistol tested in October 2002 exceeded our expectations. We’re not sure just what changes have been made in production since Springfield Armory took this pistol under its wing, but from the very start we felt the Croatian HS pistols have been underrated. Most people see these pistols as an attempt to cross a Glock with a 1911. We assume this is because of the addition of a grip safety and Colt-like ergonomics, such as the operation of the magazine release.

Certainly the melding of a Glock with a 1911 pistol is intriguing and quite possibly the next step in the evolution of the handgun. This means a short-action trigger on a gun that can be mass produced at low cost. It would thus consist of a vacuum-formed polymer frame that is light in weight, durable, weatherproof, and easy to fit without tedious and time-consuming labor. This describes a Glock, to some degree. The XD adds safety features such as the grip safety, a loaded-chamber indicator and a cocking indicator in the form of a section of the striker that protruded from the rear of the slide. The striker was shielded from hitting the primer by a blocking device, controlled by a hinged piece within the trigger face.

The XD was fairly large. This meant more weight and a larger grip with which to control recoil. It also meant a longer sight radius. The Springfield’s longer slide, with its greater mass and range of motion, offered additional reliability over a wider range of ammunition than anything shorter or lighter. A case in point was the firing of the 46-grain MagSafe ammunition. While recoil was more akin to that of a .22 Magnum Rimfire, we never suffered a moment’s doubt as to its reliability in the Springfield. At the same time, the heaviest-recoiling rounds we had with us were easily controlled.

Accuracy from the ultra-fast MagSafe round was consistent, averaging 2.4 inches for all groups fired. This so far outclassed the ability of the other two pistols to handle this round that we didn’t bother firing the MagSafe 84-grain Defender in the XD. Usually, defense rounds are punishing to shoot, but the 46-grain MagSafe SWAT was the lightest in recoil of any round we’ve tested in recent memory. This same pistol is also available with a ported barrel, but with this round we didn’t think porting would be necessary.

The Winchester loads in the XD produced the only sub-2-inch groups of the test. While our best average (2.1-inches) was with the 165-grain Winchester round, the Springfield’s best group measured only 1.4 inches with the 180-grain Q-load.

We thought the Springfield XD was more likely to be carried in a holster than in a pocket or purse, as with the other two test guns. Certainly the XD is lighter than most pistols and a very good candidate for civilian or plainclothes concealed carry. We can’t think of another handgun selling for under $500 that offers so much. We got accurate fire from a short, consistent trigger, an extra safety that won’t slow you down, plus big, clear sights and a mag release you can find quickly.

Valtro PM5 Versione Calcio Plastica, $350
In the wide world of shotgunning, you got your tube-fed pumps and semiautos, your one- and two-shot break-action single shots, over/unders, and side by sides, and the occasional bolt action. But few shotgunners have beheld a magazine-fed pump or semiauto, which on the surface at least, offer simple operation and big capacity (June 2002).

Click here to view the Valtro PM5 Versione Calcio Plastica features guide.

The PM5 is a slide-action 12 gauge with a 3-inch chamber, which is fed by a box magazine that holds seven rounds. The gun comes in 14-, 20-, and 24-inch barrel lengths; we tested the 20-incher. It came with a set of chokes and a wrench, but we tested the gun with the barrel’s Cylinder choke and the thread cover. The gun had a slug-style front sight over a flat-topped receiver, which offered a very crisp sight picture. With the magazine inserted, the gun measured about 9.25 high, slightly more than the Saiga’s 8.25-inch height. Overall, the gun measured 41 inches in length with the pistol-grip stock attached. This is the configuration in which we tested the gun. The folding stock shortened the gun to 30.4 inches in length (folded).

The alloy receiver was mated to a matte-blued-finish chrome-lined barrel, which was externally threaded to accept a grenade launcher or barrel extension. A cleaning kit with brushes, swabs, and a rod was provided, as well as a sling, wooden rifle stock, and two phosphate-resistant metal magazines.

We experienced no function problems with the Valtro, other than the problems with one of the magazines. The slide stripped off rounds from the magazine smoothly and shotshells slid up the big, wide ramp without incident. The gun ejected a variety of 2.75-inch and 3-inch mixed shotshells about 4 feet away. When the magazine was empty, the follower prevented the action from closing, so the shooter wouldn’t be confused when he needed a reload.

Though there was nothing overtly wrong with this gun, we believe it has stiff competition outside its clip-fed category that self-defense shooters should consider. But even with that caveat, we have to admit the Valtro offers a lot for the money: multiple stocks, a sling, multiple magazines, good sights, slick operation. If you like the idea of a clip-fed shotgun, then we think you’ll be pleased with the Valtro.

HK SL8-1, $1,249
The HK SL8-1 .223 (August 2002) was introduced into the commercial market in 1999. The HK SL8-1, which we’ve seen selling for a dealer price of $1,200 from SOG, (800) 944-4867, is mostly constructed of a carbon-fiber reinforced polymer. It uses a short-stroke, piston-actuated gas operating system with a rotary locking bolt. It houses a Stoner-style rotating bolt, cam piece, firing pin and firing pin retaining pin. The chrome-plated bolt is machined with six locking lugs.

Click here to view the HK SL8-1 features guide.

The gun, chambered only for .223 Remington, employs a single-stack polymer magazine that accepts 10 rounds. The barrel rifling is a right-hand 1-in-7 twist. The barrel is hard-chrome plated and cold-forged with the chamber.

The SL8-1’s thumbhole stock is a light gray color with a contrasting black adjustable cheekpiece and buttstock. The stock lines are very unusual, with an angular, cut-forward forend showing only 6.75 inches of barrel. The grip drops to a point 3 inches below the trigger guard, and the blocky buttstock is adjustable for LOP. An adjustment tool – HK’s rifle equivalent of a Swiss Army knife – is included.

The barrel on the SL8-1 is a heavy contour 1-in-7-twist tube, tapering from 0.84 inches at the chamber to 0.79 inches at the muzzle. The 1-in-7 twist ratio implies that heavier bullets such as Sierra’s 69-grain HPBT would shoot best in the gun, which is what we found. The barrel extension is molded into the receiver, and the barrel is secured to it with a cylindrical nut that is slotted at 90-degree angles. Also, the barrel is free-floated away from the polymer forend.

The standard sight rail extends across the topmost length of the gun, and the polymer rail will accept virtually any type of optics. However, it’s contradictory, we think, that the gun ships with the standard open sights. The fixed front blade is too coarse for precision use, in our view, but it is shielded. The rear sight, an unshielded L-type, allows the shooter to flip between 100 and 300 meter aperatures. To make adjustments, the owner must turn 2mm allen-head screws (wrench provided), but to our eyes, the process isn’t easy. Still, the sight rail readily accepts optics like the scope we used, and there were enough crosscut slots to get acceptable eye relief.

Shooting the gun, we found the unconventionally designed stock to be both easy and not easy to handle. The forend is squarish, but the corners are beleved off. This allows the gun to sit comfortably in the hand, especially in the area just in front of the magazine well, or on the bench without rolling. To attach a sling, the shooter can fasten a swivel or hook into a hole in the molded stock.

The HK’s rear stock is adjustable. The buttplate slides in and out of the hollow stock. Two allen head screws lock the stock down. There is 1.6 inches of length adjustment, which is made with the tool set’s 5mm allen wrench. (HK sells extra stock spacers for $6.) A hard-rubber buttpad and a polymer sling attachment are molded into this sliding assembly. The cheekpiece, mounted to two flush-fitting, threaded steel inserts, allowed us to get exactly the cheek pressure we wanted. The cheekpiece and one spacer are supplied with the rifle. Extra spacers are available. The ambidextrous cocking lever was a nice addition so that right- and left-handed shooters could operate the gun.

The SL8’s trigger broke at 5 pounds, which isn’t as bad as many rifles we’ve seen. But the front end of the pull was soft, leading to an indistinct “area” of break, rather than a point of break. However, we found that pulling up the slack, then firmly pulling through the release point, gave us good control.

As we’ve noted, the gun ships with tools, including 2mm, 2.5mm, 3mm, 4mm, 5mm, and 8mm hex wrenches as well as Phillips and flathead scewdrivers. The 2mm hex wrench adjusts the fixed sights. The 2.5mm hex wrench adjusts carry handle optics. The 5mm hex wrench adjusts or removes the stock. The Phillips head screwdriver removes the sights, sight rail or carry handle. We appreciate them providing it as a package rather than charging extra for it.

S&W Heritage Series Model 24-5 .44 Special, $1,100
Our eyes popped out (February 2002) when we saw the case-colored frame of this beauty. We had seen case coloring on Colt percussion handguns, but never on a modern cartridge revolver. We were assured by S&W’s Ken Jorgensen that this case hardening was the real thing, not just a pretty wash. Therefore, with its very hard surface finish and second “lock” at the crane, we feel this particular handgun will outlive ten owners, if given good care along the way.

Click here to view the S&W Heritage Series Model 24-5 .44 Special features guide.

The bluing on barrel, cylinder, and adjustable rear sight was extremely well done, and it looked like charcoal bluing, rich and lustrous. The sharp edges were, unfortunately, not totally preserved on the cylinder flutes and at the beveled portion of the front of the cylinder, but were not too badly buffed. The edges of the frame were, for the most part, appropriately crisp, and the frame sides were flat enough, if not as perfect as on very early Smiths. This was a very attractive and well-done piece of handgunnery, though it had a minor flaw, as we discovered.

The 6.5-inch unribbed barrel was capped with a tall, integral ramp for the pinned-in front sight blade, which itself was absolutely sharp-cornered, flat-backed, and had the old “Call” gold bead insert at its top-rear edge. The shooter’s eye saw a gold bead when the light was from the back or side, and a clean, square-edged flat-top post with front lighting. The adjustable rear sight had a square notch with no extraneous white borders or other embellishment. The frame was drilled and tapped beneath the front sight if someone wanted to sacrifice the authentic “antique” look and mount a scope on this gun.

The frame, trigger, and hammer were case colored. The frame was a four-screw, meaning that number of screws retained the lock plate onto the right side. Originals were five-screw, the fifth going into the top-front corner of the trigger guard, and retaining the bolt-spring and plunger.

The stocks, apparently of finely figured walnut but perhaps a synthetic (S&W calls it “Altamont” wood), were small, nicely checkered, and fitted reasonably well to the frame. We guessed (correctly) that this handgun would not be comfortable with heavy loads because these small grips left the thin frame above them exposed, and it would bite into the web of the hand in recoil. The butt shape was rounded in back, like most current S&W frames. Originals were square-backed, but we can’t seriously fault the current shape, and had no big authenticity problems with the grips. If anything, the new version pointed more naturally than the old one because of the rounded butt.

The trigger was smooth and had an insert in its rear face which formed the over-travel stop. All three new guns had this stop, and they gave varying amounts of over-travel. None of it was excessive. The SA trigger pull measured 4 pounds. The DA pull was very heavy, but smooth. We reduced the main hammer tension by loosening the screw in the front grip strap three-quarters of a turn. This is not recommended, but it got the SA pull down to 3 pounds. Ignition was still completely reliable during our testing, in both SA and DA modes.

The hammer was smaller than Smith’s normal target version, shaped like a teardrop, and well checkered for easy cocking. The firing pin was retained in the frame, per normal Smith configuration today. Originals had it pinned to the hammer.

On the range, we got very good to outstanding accuracy. We shot at 15 yards, and used a mix of commercial loads and handloads featuring Elmer Keith’s Lyman number 429421 bullet, which we cast ourselves, having become enthusiastic about this historic handgun.

We shot the .44 Spl. with two handloads featuring Elmer Keith’s 250-grain Lyman 429421 cast bullet, and with Blazer 200-grain JHP loads. Our hottest handload gave the Keith bullet 1,015 fps velocity at 10 feet. All three loads averaged around 1 inch for five shots. We know that better shooters could cut ragged holes with this handgun. We could see no reason to shoot loads any hotter than our hottest, and that load was not uncomfortable even with the as-issued grips. Our hottest load with the .45 LC was much less comfortable by comparison.

These Heritage Series revolvers from S&W are made to shoot, and they shoot very well indeed. We do not believe that shooting them will harm their value over time, assuming the use of reasonable care and sensible loads.

Winchester Supreme 12 Ga. No. 513001350, $1,383
This shotgun (April 2002) was made in Belgium and assembled in Portugal. It had 26-inch barrels with 3-inch chrome-plated chambers, dual tapered locking lugs which independently adjust for wear, a 6mm rib with a gold front sight bead, and a safety switch-mounted barrel selector. The forearm is tapered. Under the barrels is a third, fixed lug which locks up the action to reduce recoil-induced wear on components such as the hinge system.

Click here to view the Winchester Supreme 12 Ga. No. 513001350 features guide.

Back-bored barrels with the Invector-Plus system afforded choke versatility ranging from Improved Cylinder to Modified to Full. We did most of our testing with the more open chokes, and we patterned with the IC tube. The walnut stock was cut checkered at the grip and forend, and we noticed only a small chip in the forend checkering as a flaw. The barrel and receiver were deeply blued, and the receiver featured light engraving on its sides and bottom. The gun is cosmetically right for the field, with its blued metal surfaces and matte wood finish.

A sliding safety located behind the lever reset to Safe every time we opened the action, a good idea on a field gun. With the gun on Safe, it was easy to select the top or bottom barrel. The tapered forend was less beefy than others we’ve handled recently, and we liked the trim feel. The action was new-gun stiff, but not onerous to open and close.

We shot very well very quickly with this gun, and though we can’t pinpoint a single reason why, there are plenty of aggregate reasons for this performance, in our view.

Certainly, the gun pointed well, and describing why is very difficult, since the stock dimensions dictate that each shooter sees targets differently. However, we thought the grip contour was important, because the trigger hand thumb fit a groove in front of the comb smoothly and easily, and the bottom of the Winchester’s grip was deeper than the Alcione’s. Also, the fairly close trigger pull weights of the triggers helped, since we didn’t have to fight two different releases to get the shots off. That helped our timing. And the trigger had a smooth, rounded face, which made it comfortable to pull over hundreds of rounds.

Also, the Supreme had a very soft rubber buttpad, which can aid in recoil reduction, but which can also be tacky and catch on clothing. However, this pad, like the Alcione’s, had a hard-rubber insert at the top of the pad that smoothed the mount without compromising recoil reduction. The grain on the buttstock was mostly straight, with a little figuring at the toe, and the matte finish was smooth and suitably filled. The forend displayed more straight grain wood.

Frankly, we were hard-pressed to find too many flaws with the Supreme. Some shooters might benefit from cast in the stock, but that’s speculation and it would vary from individual to individual.

Colt’s Lightweight Commander .45 ACP, $950
The Colt’s featured (January 2002) a 4.25-inch barrel in a stainless-steel slide with cocking serrations fore and aft. The ejection port had been lowered and flared, but it had also been relieved on the forward right hand side so much that a portion of the barrel ahead of the chamber hood is visible.

Click here to view the Colt’s Lightweight Commander .45 ACP features guide.

The sides of the slide are flat and are polished shiny, but the top of the slide is matte to reduce glare.

Upgrades from standard models include an aluminum adjustable trigger, skeletonized hammer, and custom wood grips with checkering and Allen head screws. The frame is alloy with a dull matte finish. This model was the largest pistol in our test, but it is also the only one with the front strap undercut at the trigger guard to lower the boreline in the shooter’s hand. The cost of this gun is high in our estimation, considering the sights are nothing special. They seem to be three-dot sights like those found on the basic 1991A1 Government model we tested in July 2000. The rear blade is drift adjustable for windage only. The front sight is pinned in place, but with a sloppy job of soldering underneath.

Compared to the $610 1991A1 we previously tested, this gun, shooting similar ammunition such as the 230-grain FMJ round, significantly bettered the older Government model by almost an inch and a half. Obviously, some of the extra cost results from handfitting the alloy frame and steel slide. Also, this lightweight Commander runs on a full-length guide rod. Likewise, in this test the Colt was the accuracy champ with Winchester’s 185-grain FMJ rounds. In fact, the Colt’s performance was tops overall with a smallest five-shot group of 1.4 inches and an average group size of only 1.7 inches. Speer 200-grain Gold Dot Hollowpoints and the 230-grain FMJ rounds produced average groups of 2.5 and 2.4 inches respectively. Actually, we were satisfied with the accuracy of all the pistols in this test, but it was obvious to our staff that the Colt required the least amount of work to shoot well.

Each of our test pistols were supplied with flush-fitting magazines, but this Colt model one-upped the others with a capacity of 8+1, thanks to the follower that compresses when the eighth round is loaded. However, only one mag was supplied with the Colt, whereas the other pistols came with two.

Another area in which the Colt came in first was maintenance. Though the Springfield required no tools for field stripping, the Kimber required a retaining pin and the Colt a bushing wrench. But even with a full-length guide rod to deal with, disassembling the Commander was simple and did not require a fresh jar of elbow grease or new manicure afterward. Actually, all we needed to take the Colt apart was a way to depress the retainer underneath the muzzle. Once pushed inward, the bushing moves easily aside (clockwise) and the cap and spring may be removed. All that remains is to align the slide with the relief for removing the link pin and the top end slides off. Rotating the bushing counter-clockwise to about 4 o’clock releases the bushing and the guide rod. The barrel may then be removed.

The barrel is not ramped. In fact, there is nothing fancy about the design of this pistol. With the exception of the full-length guide rod, this is standard 1911 design well executed. Thus, in terms of reliability, we only suffered malfunctions when the pistol needed cleaning and lubrication. Also, we did think the trigger could be smoothed a bit more, but we didn’t feel inordinately hampered by the connection of the trigger to the firing-pin blocking mechanism. This has been a source of complaint in the past for those seeking a really crisp trigger break.

Marlin Model 1894CB .357 Magnum, about $600
A most attractive rifle, with better-than-average walnut and excellent polish and bluing, Marlin’s 1894 CB was very lively, which couldn’t help but make it fast (October 2002).

Click here to view the Marlin Model 1894CB .357 Magnum features guide.

The 24-inch octagonal barrel had its flats adequately defined, with no rounding of the edge between flats. The forend and butt stock were well fitted, with no looseness. The wood finish looked great, brought out the wood grain, filled the pores very well – though not perfectly – and offered reasonable protection for the wood. The butt pad was black plastic, again well fitted. The checkering and logo on its surface was not as rough as we’d have liked, to keep the gun in place on the shoulder.

Sights were a large gold bead front, easily seen, dovetailed into the barrel. The rear was a buckhorn with enormous ears. Though the rear sight had a large white diamond-shaped mark defining its center, the U-notch for the front bead gave very few clues where to place that big bead. This led to vertical stringing of shots during the shooting evaluation. The rear sights of both rifles could have been farther out on the barrel so that older eyes, such as those found on many if not most cowboy action shooters, could more easily define the sight picture. The rear sight was drift adjustable for windage, and had a stepped wedge for elevation. There was enough adjustment for all the ammunition types we tried.

Anyone attempting to use this rifle for small-game hunting would want a scope (the 1894CB is drilled and tapped on top), or perhaps an aperture sight (the tang is not drilled for one), but it was good to see that the Marlin 1894CB could accommodate a great variety of bullet weights and load intensities just as it came from the factory.

The sides of the action were flat, with very little waviness. The bolt fit the action precisely, and the action of the bolt as driven by the lever was very smooth to begin with, and got noticeably smoother with use. The lever throw was short enough and easy enough that reloading was almost an afterthought to firing.

The tubular magazine held ten rounds of .357 and eleven of .38 Special. Loading ten rounds was not all that easy, but at least the edges of the Marlin’s loading port were smoothed to avoid cutting the loading fingers. The loading problem was not really a fault of the rifle, but of the cartridge.

It was tricky getting the relatively large rim of the .38 or .357 cartridge past the edge of the loading port against the force of the magazine spring. This wasn’t much of a problem for the first few rounds, but became more serious as the magazine filled.

Once they were in the magazine, the rounds fed flawlessly from mag to chamber, whether .38s or .357s. There were no problems with feed or function whatsoever with this rifle. We note that Marlin installed a cross-bolt hammer block on this rifle. You can use it or ignore it at will. The hammer was well serrated for easy control. The trigger pull was very good, had a touch of creep, and broke at 4.5 pounds.

On the range we found the rifle to have more-than-adequate accuracy for any sort of cowboy shooting. Our best efforts gave groups around 1.5 inches at 50 yards. Most cowboy action takes place around 15 yards, so if you miss the target, it’s not the fault of this rifle. We did find differences in accuracy potential and impact point with different types of ammo, so be sure to zero carefully with your chosen load. The Ballard-type rifling of this Marlin guarantees good results with a great variety of bullet types, cast or jacketed. Cowboy shooters have to use lead bullets, and the Marlin handled them very well, with negligible leading. We were able to lead the barrel slightly with one experimental handload that put cast bullets down the barrel at over 1,400 fps, but the lead came out with one pass of a dry bristle brush.

We were told the top national SASS (Single Action Shooting Society, Inc.) shooters use .38 Specials, and now we understand why. Marlin’s 1894CB rifle had a solid feel that spoke volumes of long, trouble-free life. All of our shooters declared that the more they shot it, the more they liked it. It would grace any gun rack, being both traditional looking and traditionally made. Those who need more uses to justify its ownership can install a scope and take the rifle small-game hunting, with every expectation of great success.

We believe Marlin has a real winner in the 1894CB. It was a delight in the hands because of its beautiful balance. It was easy to control it in swinging fast on multiple targets, and it didn’t recoil enough to bother about.