Sunday, August 31, 2008

Blackwater Blog Weekend: Daily Motivation III

This is a pretty good demonstration of what everyone's been talking about with the International Cartridge Corporation frangible ammunition we shot at Blackwater. Dan Smith, VP of Operations at ICC, shot with us all weekend and helped run the range quite a bit.

Of course, that's not why we loved him. We loved him because he'd show up every morning in a Suburban riding low in the back from the weight of cases of ammunition. Then he'd put a few cases on a table and we'd fall on them like swarming predators. Dan was our free ammo guy.

So am I going to say nice things about Dan's ammo because he gave me a bunch of it for free? No. But I am going to say good things, because my experience was good. That might make me sound like a shill, but I think you can ask anyone who was there and they'll tell you the same things I'm about to tell you.

First, I know some of the others were dreading the frangible ammo. Caleb in particular had used some early version in the military and hated it. Personally, I had no idea we were even being offered frangible; they told me they were paying for the ammo, and I promptly turned my attention to other matters. Once I hear the words "free ammo" I don't really care what comes next. You could follow those words with "for anyone willing to eat these buzzard testicles on camera" and I'd never know the difference. Let's pause for a moment here and think about this logically. What do we need from our ammunition? It's got to be reliable, first and foremost, right? That means it needs to fire reliably, and in a semi-auto it also has to cycle the action reliably. It's got to be accurate, too. How accurate depends on your purpose. We needed to be accurate enough to hit targets down to the size of the head on a standard IPSC cardboard target, so that was my standard. It needs to be safe, and if we're being honest with ourselves, it needs to be affordable, too. How does the ICC stuff stack up?

Let's talk about accuracy. My accuracy at the beginning was about what I expected--not great, but grouping more or less where I wanted with the occasional ugly flyer. As time went on, the groups tightened, but I never shot to the potential of the gun over more than 2-4 shots. In the shoot house, oddly enough, I shot tighter double-taps than I'd been able to do anywhere else, even putting one double-tap through the same perfect hole from across the room. I'd been sure both shots hit when I'd fired them, but during my walk-through, Todd Jarrett had to assure me that he'd seen them hit the same hole, too. He, of course, was putting entire magazines into very small groups, although he wasn't as superhuman and flawless as I think some of the blog posts have implied. More on that later; I think it's an important topic for reasons I will make clear, but it's not really relevant to the ammunition question.

OK, it's accurate, but is it reliable? Well, I figure we each fired around 1,000 rounds, maybe a little less. Call it 800 to be safe. There were 11 bloggers, three Para employees, two from Crimson Trace, and two from the film crew, all shooting. That's 18 shooters x 800 rounds apiece for a total of 14,400 rounds give or take a few. I don't know of any hiccups, either failures to fire or failures to cycle the guns. Not bad.

Safety? I'm glad you asked, because this was what I really enjoyed about the ammo we used. We all got the experience of standing in front of fixed steel plates and emptying our pistols from a retention position (we really spent zero time on tactics, but this position was being taught as the middle portion of the correct draw) into a plate we could have reached out and touched with our hands. As advertised, the bullets disintegrated completely and left us untouched, if a little dusty. From further away, I did occasionally feel a larger chunk of the sintered metal hit me. It wasn't sharp like a piece of torn jacketing, but it was there. I think you'd have to take one directly to the eye to be annoyed by it, though.
Thanos Polyzos told us that Para-USA uses the ICC frangible ammo exclusively to proof-test guns at their manufacturing facility, which allows them to run a lead-free range right in the factory. We all noticed how nice it was not to have to line up to scrub lead off our hands before we could have a sandwich in the mess hall!
On a personal not, there's one more safety issue that I expect ICC to help me solve. My "home" range, Abe Lincoln Gun Club, was founded in 1946. A few years ago, a pushy land developer from nearby Springfield decided to buy land downrange. Then he decided to build a house on a hill. The hill is so high that they say, in the winter, that you can look out past the 200-yard berm and see the roof among the trees. Of course, he began complaining about the club immediately, even though it hadn't moved in 60 years. Bullets were whizzing over his head, skipping off his pond, and striking his house, he said. He even once showed recovered bullets to a sheriff's deputy, who told the officers at ALGC that they'd first become suspicious when they noticed that all the recovered bullets were loaded into commercial cartridges with shiny brass. In any case, the club took several steps to mollify the big crybaby, and one of those steps was to double the height of the berms and bring in fill dirt to raise the shooters on the 200 yard line so that they have to fire down into the base of the berm. Another step was to outlaw any and all steel or metal targets. They're afraid that a round will ricochet over the berm and get the whol place shut down. The ICC ammo simply vaporizes against steel, so that would solve that problem. The hard part is going to be convincing anyone in charge to let me use the stuff. It's a key club, and there's no one on the premises most of the time, so once the steel targets are out there, it's not hard to imagine some goofball deciding to shoot 'em with his steel-core SKS ammo.

If the ICC round has a weakness, it's the one you've probably predicted: price. There's no way to make this stuff price-competitive with lead, plated, or jacketed bullets. The process of making the bullet itself involves precise mixing and sintering of copper and tin, and the loading process is further complicated by the brittle nature of these bullets. I found the 155-grain .45 we were shooting for $22-$23 per box of 50 online. Of course, Winchester white box goes for $18.99 at my local range for the same 50-round size, so it's not like this stuff is terribly out of line, but the expense is there, especially if you're using it as practice ammo. There's not really much of a way around that; it will be a deal-breaker for some shooters, irrelevant for others, and most of us fall somewhere in between. The catch is that you've got to evaluate the price in the light of what you're getting. This ammunition does do things that the cheap box of 230gr FMJ on the shelf just can't do--it eliminates the issue of lead/jacket splatter, allows training against steel at arm's length and closer, and makes a lead-free shooting environment possible.


Turk Turon said...

I am definitely going to try some of this ammo.

One thing that nobody has discussed yet is centrifugal force. In round numbers, a rifle bullet rotates once for every foot traveled, and if the muzzle velocity is, say, 2,000 feet per second, that bullet is spinning at 120,000 rpm. If the barrel twist is a little higher, and the muzzle velocity a little higher, even jacketed lead bullets can fly apart as soon as they leave the muzzle.

It seems to me that making sintered rifle ammo would be a big challenge.

Don Gwinn said...

It can't be easy, but we were firing .223 out of the new AR-But-Not-An-AR Para-USA is bringing out, and we were pinging steel at 100 yards. No disintegrations were noted.

By the way, that thing is really cool.

Turk Turon said...

That AR with a gas valve sounds like a must-have if it's affordable.

Don Gwinn said...

They were talking about $2000 MSRP initially, with the expectation that it would come down. That's frankly far outside my price range. But if it takes off . . . .

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