Over the last couple of years I've been very intrigued with shooting Bullseye Pistol. Not necessarily the official NRA version but a modified version more related to the new CMP Military and Police match. This match shares the same B-8 target used at 25 yards in the NRA version but time limits are way more generous and geared toward maximum accuracy other than shooting the NRA timed and rapid-fire stages. Our local version of the match allows just about any type pistol (or, revolver) with any sighting system and any safe ammo. It's all for fun and to stimulate local handgunners to get involved in some friendly competition as well as increasing their skill levels. Most shooters really like it with a few getting "hooked" on it...guess you better count me as hooked as I really enjoy it!
Again, my good friend was more than willing to lend me two of his pistols, likely used in the popular bullseye matches of yesteryear, to evaluate for this report. I chose these two to test/eval because they are unusual in the fact that they are semi-autos built to shoot a traditional and popular calibre, the .38 Special. The .38 Special is a fairly long case so in order to make it work in a semi-auto's magazine, the bullets are seated flush with the case mouth and typically a light roll crimp is applied just over the front of the flat-nosed wadcutter bullet. The .38 wadcutter is famous for it's high level of accuracy and for being lots of fun to shoot since it is generally loaded very mild, between 700 and 800 fps. This loading was very popular for revolvers so I guess the auto folks wanted to get in on the fun. Colt and Smith and Wesson responded by building pistols specifically for the .38 wadcutter to cater to the Bullseye crowd. As far as I know production ceased on these models years ago. There are still a lot around and I wanted to try these two to see what I could learn...plus, I just like to shoot!
With my busy work schedule, it took several days of waiting to finally get a day off where I could devote enough time and get suitable weather to do a comparison between the two. I wanted to do a little accuracy testing from the benchrest as well as some offhand "real world" shooting to get a feel of what each had to offer. Shooting would be at 25 yards on the B-8 target. I had four different loads with fully seated wadcutters to try. I used the issue iron sights and tried my best to do my part in removing human error from the bench. Of course, when shooting offhand, human error is one of the biggest factors involved in how well the pistol shoots. Since these pistols are not frequently encountered, I wanted to give everyone my impressions in case they are considering getting one. They are still available but it will take some searching. Of course, they can be pricey but that's to be expected with an out of production, quality made gun.
The first was a Colt 1911 adapted to shoot the .38 wadcutter with the slide marked National Match Midrange. The top of the slide has a flat rib with grooves running it's full length. Instead of the traditional swinging link / locking barrel, it was a straight blowback design. The take down pin does pass through a block attached to the underside of the chamber but it has an oblong hole instead of a swinging link. The chamber of the 5" barrel was very unusual in that the chamber was "grooved" with approximately 12 - 15 ( I didn't count them) grooves going all the way around the chamber, not flutes like H&K chambers but, circular grooves. I haven't read the reason but I'm guessing it was Colt's way of retarding the ejection process. Weird. Spent brass had sooty marks around their circumference. The barrel / slide fit was very tight and this pistol felt every bit as good in the hand as all 1911's do to me. I noticed the barrel bushing was shorter than a normal bushing but worked just the same. The barrel has 6-grooves and is LH twist. Weight with empty magazine was 38 ounces. The trigger was the extended type with grooves and had an overtravel adjustment screw within it. It has a full spur hammer and conventional grip safety. Grips are checked wood and the mainspring housing is flat with vertical grooves. The front strap of the grip also has vertical grooves. Sights were Ellison adjustable rear and an undercut front. They were plain black on black with a good sight picture. Magazines were different from what everyone is used to seeing. The sides are open allowing one to grasp the follower tabs and compress the spring to aide in loading 5 rounds. The springs are strong and hard to compress. My finger and thumb were sore by the end of the session. I found it best to place the baseplate of the magazine on the table top, use one hand to compress the spring while popping the rounds down into the mag with my other hand. After experiencing this, it makes me glad regular .45 mags load so easy!
The other pistol was Smith & Wesson's answer to the bullseye crowd. The Model 52-2. (I understand there are three models with the last being the 52-2 that had an improved extractor design). It looks like they modified the old Model 39 single-stack, first generation autos to handle the .38 Special. However, this pistol is single-action. Grip shape looks the same to me with the rounded butt. S&W took extra pains to accurize this pistol and it has a curious star shaped nut that surrounds the barrel. I'm guessing this is where tightness / lockup can be adjusted? Although the Colt's barrel was the same diameter throughout it's length, the S&W barrel had a small "dog knot" near the end where it's diameter increased noticeably. The 5" barrel has 5-grooves with a RH twist. The trigger is grooved with an overtravel stop screw tapped into the frame behind it. This pistol also has a conventional spur hammer but no grip safety. It does have a slide mounted thumb safety that serves to block the hammer from the firing pin. The wooden grips are checkered as is the rounded backstrap. The front strap has vertical grooves. Weight with empty magazine is 40 ounces. This pistol has a magazine safety which prohibits firing unless there is a magazine locked in place. The sights are adjustable with the front sight being a bright orange. I found that very odd since this pistol is intended for bullseye target work. The magazines for this pistol also have open sides with follower tabs similar to the Colt to grasp in order to compress the spring. These magazines were also difficult to load easily and I used the same method described above to load them.
Without having to list all the individual results of my benchrest testing, I'll list the loads used, best and worst groups and overall average of groups. There really wasn't much of a difference in group sizes after all was said and done. I'm sure with a little load development and tailoring a load to each gun, these groups would probably be smaller. Anyhow, here goes. The pistols' owner graciously provided some commercially loaded swaged lead wadcutters by Wisconsin Cartridge Company. Along with these were three handloads of my own. Two used the Remington 148gr HBWC over either 3.0grs of Bullseye or 3.2grs of W231 and the other was my home cast 148gr WC from a Lee mould over 2.8grs of Bullseye. I fired two 5-shot groups of each load from the bench at 25 yards and averaged them. The Colt shot the worst and the best groups of the day at 3.63" and 1.81" and had an overall average for all four loads of 2.64". The S&W groups were in between those extremes with a four load average of 2.58" so, it was pretty much a dead heat off of the bench.
Now, for the "real world" test, offhand shooting on the aforementioned B-8 target. Just like a guy would have to do if he were shooting these guns in competition. I decided to shoot a "half-match" with each. This meant to shoot a 5-shot string from each of four stages: Two-handed Slow-Fire, Left Hand Only, Right Hand Only and finally 5-shots in 30 seconds to simulate our 70-second "Timed Fire" stage (minus the normally required reload). By doing a half match, I could hopefully avoid fatigue and also only expend 40 rounds instead of 80. I would then double the score to arrive at an estimated score for each stage. Clear as mud, huh? After firing all four stages, I could estimate how each pistol would have scored in a match. Pistols were alternated between stages to try my best to be fair. Below are the results.
Colt 1911 S&W 52-2
SLOW X X 10 9 7 ( x2) = 92 - 2X X X X 10 10 (x2) = 100 -6X
LEFT X X X 9 9 (x2) = 96 - 6X X X X 10 9 (x2) = 98 - 6X
RIGHT X 10 10 9 8 (x2) = 94 - 2X X X 10 10 8 (x2) = 96 - 4X
TIMED X 10 9 9 8 (x2) = 92 - 2X X 10 10 10 9 (x2) = 98 - 2X
TOTAL 374 - 12X 392 - 18X
This test made it clear which pistol was the winner, at least in my hands. In case anyone is wondering, I did get both pistols zeroed to my satisfaction during the benchrest testing so both were sighted in properly. With all this being said, I think it's time to give my "likes" and "dislikes" on each pistol which I feel are big factors in how the "shootability" in this test played out. First, it's no secret that I absolutely love the feel of a 1911 in my hands! Big advantage Colt here. I wasn't fond of the rounded butt of the S&W...it just doesn't feel as secure in my hand as a 1911. The Colt's plain black sights were another big advantage, especially in the bright sunlight of the outdoors. The bright orange front sight on the S&W hindered my ability to properly focus on the front sight. The Colt's recoil spring definitely felt stronger, not heavy at all but way more frisky than the spring in the S&W. The S&W's spring was downright lazy, sometimes requiring I nudge the back of the slide to get a round to chamber out of the magazine. I have no idea what factored into recoil perception but the Colt's recoil was a bit more than the S&W's. Neither were anywhere close to being unpleasant. The S&W definitely had the better trigger, somewhat lighter with no creep. The Colt's trigger wasn't too bad but did have a bit of creep to the sensitive trigger finger.
Neither pistol was without problems in feeding. The Colt had about three times as many malfunctions as the S&W. Many times the Colt would extract the case but not fully eject it. The cases were frequently ruined as they were smashed into the feed ramp or back of the barrel, tearing the case walls sometimes as much as a quarter-inch. Two magazines were tried and malfunctions occurred with both. Made me wonder if this was a problem associated with the ringed chamber? The S&W also had a few hick-ups. The weak recoil spring made me wonder if it could be the culprit. Of course the loads could also be at fault on some of these issues. I'm sure the old-timers that shot these pistols in competition would have the answers but, during this limited test, I don't. The Colt never made it through a 5-shot string without a malfunction. The S&W functioned 100% with the 3.0gr Bullseye and 3.2gr W231 loads but malfunctioned on the lighter loads. I also observed a very troubling thing on the lighter loads in the S&W. I noticed while checking groups that some of the holes were not completely round in the paper.....Utt Oh!!! Bullets not completely stabilized. That is bound to affect groups sizes. They were not "key holes" but obviously some were oblong holes. I'm thinking the S&W may need a bit faster load to get optimal groups. I've read the oldtimers believed the Colt revolvers stabilized bullets a bit better than S&W due to their faster rates of twist. Could this be the case with the S&W 52? You'd have thought S&W would have figgered that out??? For the half matches above, I used the factory WCC load in the Colt but had to switch to my homecast bullets (shorter than the HBWC's) in my S&W which seemed to stabilize just fine.
As to final thoughts. I'd love to have the 1911's grip frame, plain black sights and rifling twist mixed in with the S&W's sweet trigger and better function and lighter recoil. I really thought I'd do better in match mode with the Colt's better feel in my hand. This was not the case as the S&W proved superior shooting the half-match. There didn't seem to be a whole lot of difference in mechanical accuracy though the S&W probably suffered a bit with marginally stabilized bullets in certain loads before I noticed the oblong holes in the paper. This could probably be eliminated by load development and avoiding the loads that were not fully stabilized. The Colt's trigger could be tweaked a bit to get rid of the (very) slight creep. I'm thinking surely the Colt can be made to function properly if the right load was discovered or, is it a problem child as a straight blowback that deviates from the tried and true swinging link / locking barrel design of other 1911's? Both of these pistols were new to me and I don't have any prior experiences with these designs to elaborate on.
As always, I hope this was informative and served as a bit of entertainment. This are my impressions, I'm sure others may have differing opinions. I'd love to hear back from you as to what you think.