Old guns are great, but what is to be done about their weak accuracy?
About a month ago I found myself staring down at an old gun in a display case.
This happens to me quite frequently, and this particular gun was going to fill a rather gaping hole in my collection.
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After a small amount of dickering I handed over $300, which bought me a S&W Model 31 revolver, dies and a box of factory 32 S&W Long ammunition.
The Model 31 is an I-frame Smith, which was the last frame I was missing in my gun safe, so I was pleased to acquire the gun. The shop owner was pleased to have found somebody who was willing to purchase such an esoteric firearm. Naturally, after purchasing the gun, I gave it a good teardown and cleaning and began to shoot the pistol.
The accuracy of the little revolver proved to be far from impressive, flinging factory rounds into a roughly six-inch group at 15 yards. I set to drumming up some handloads for the gun.
I’m fully aware of the fact that the 32 S&W Long isn’t a very popular cartridge and the chances of you owning one are pretty nil. In truth, there isn’t really even that good of a reason for owning one unless you’re trying to flush out a collection like I was.
That having been said, it aggravates me a little to have a gun cluttering things up that doesn’t shoot well, and the steps I traveled through to get some accuracy from this old revolver are an excellent example of what must be done and taken into account if one wishes to make an older firearm perform up to its capabilities.
Some acceptable level of accuracy can be obtained from just about any firearm if the handloader is willing to put in the research and elbow grease to make it happen. What you end up with may not seem like it’s worth the trouble to some people, but a true tinkerer enjoys the journey more than the destination.
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My first step was to carefully inspect the revolver to see if something in the gun itself could be held responsible for the poor accuracy.
The barrel had seen better days, but the gun is pretty old and I’d seen worse Smith bores that gave better performance; aside from two small pits, it was in fair shape.
Next I checked to make sure the cylinder lock up was within spec. This had a bit of wear, but was well within tolerances.
Finally, I took a good long look at the forcing cone. This was checked last because a forcing cone has to be really screwed up before it begins to affect accuracy. In this case it was worn like the rest of the gun, but tolerable.
With the revolver itself removed as a suspect, I began looking over my box of factory ammunition. My caliper told me that the lead cast 90 gr bullets were .309 diameter, but my reloading manuals all suggested the use of at least .314 diameter lead cast bullets for the 32 S&W Long.
It appeared that my accuracy troubles were being caused by a pretty simple issue: the bullets were too small for the bore.
Why would an ammo manufacturer sell me bullets that were too small for my gun? A short review of the history of the 32 S&W Long in some of my books revealed the answer.
The 32 Long had a short career in law enforcement, where it wasn’t popular, and was then mostly chambered in low cost, pocket revolvers that were usually of top-break design. These cheap guns had a nasty habit of blowing up on their owners, and the frequency of accidents only increased as the guns got older.
To safeguard shooters, ammo companies had begun to load the 32 Long with undersized bullets to keep the chamber pressure low. This practice is not uncommon when gun companies turn out equipment that isn’t quite up to snuff for a given cartridge.
In my case, this wasn’t a great concern because my Smith is one of the few strong actions chambered for the 32 Long. I could use slightly bigger bullets without worrying that something would give.
After locating some .312 diameter 85 gr Hornady XTPs, I consulted the Hornady reloading manual to find a starting load. The manual suggested that I begin with 2.5grs of Win 231 powder (the 32 S&W Long isn’t exactly a cannon). I drummed up six rounds and went out to the range to try them out.
The first four exhibited no noticeable improvement in accuracy. As a matter of fact, they seemed to have a hard time punching through the paper.
The fifth round gave me only a muffled “pop” instead of the small “bang” I was expecting. Inspecting the barrel, I discovered that the little XTP had stopped about halfway down. Now, this isn’t that big of a deal, so long as you catch it before you fire another round. I went back to the reloading room, found the punch I use for getting stuck bullets out of revolver barrels, and pounded the little bugger out with ease.
It appeared that the Hornady manual had been watching out for my safety the same way the ammo company was. The load data I was using was obviously meant for a far weaker gun with a barrel shorter than the 4” barrel on my Smith.
This didn’t make me grumpy — as a matter of fact, I appreciate it. Hornady wants me to stay alive and shooting, and I value my eyesight, so they can mother me all they want.
With my barrel clear I proceeded to doctor up some loads with 2.8 grs of Win 231, which was the top load in the Hornady manual. These loads gave me consistent ignition and all the rounds cleared the barrel. Accuracy was also improved because the bullets now fit the bore and I was getting a more consistent powder burn.
While this set of six gave me roughly three inch groups, I felt that there was more room for improvement, and I also wanted to be certain that my previous issue with the stuck bullet wouldn’t be repeated in the field where it wouldn’t be as easy to fix.
My eventual goal was to use the Smith as a rabbit gun, and since rabbit hunting can take place at pretty cold temperatures, I wanted to be sure that the load I was using had enough oomph to perform well below zero.
I loaded another six rounds with 2.9 grs of powder and another set with 3 grs. The 2.9 gr set offered even better accuracy and showed no pressure signs, so I fired off the 3 gr set and settled on that as my load.
These rounds crowd into a group that is a little under two inches at 15 yards and show no signs of excess pressure.
While the end result of all this messing around isn’t all that impressive, and all I really got out of it was a usable rabbit load, it is a good example of what the handloader can do to improve the performance of an old gun.
When it comes to troubleshooting accuracy issues, it’s important to leave no stone unturned and question everything. Any assumption — as in, assuming the factory ammo is the right diameter — can lead to an exercise in futility.
Always get as much information as you can about the performance, history and limits of your equipment, then proceed with caution and prudence. Chances are, you can get that old gun shooting better.
Featured image via liveauctiongroup.net