Three guns at 10 paces Part 1
How important is barrel length?
By Dennis Adler
“Whenever you get into a row, be sure not to shoot
too quick. Take time. I’ve known many a feller to
slip up for shootin’ in a hurry.”
– James Butler Hickok
In his famous July 20th, 1865 Springfield, Missouri, gunfight with ex-Confederate David Tutt, Wild Bill Hickok carefully rested his 7-1/2 inch barreled Colt 1851 Navy over his left arm and, after first being fired upon by Tutt, who missed Hickok by several inches, returned fire killing the man where he stood with a single shot through the heart at a distance of 75 paces. Just what exactly is a “pace?” Webster’s defines it as “…any of various standard linear measures, representing the space naturally measured by the movement of the feet in walking: roughly 30 to 40 inches.” Thus 75 paces across the Springfield town square was a distance of anywhere between 175 to 250 feet. Let’s call it an average of 200 feet from the muzzle of Hickok’s Colt Navy, fired from the corner of South Street, to David Tutt taking aim at Wild Bill from in front of the courthouse and the corner of Campbell Street. This was the gunfight that established Hickok’s legend as a shootist, a reputation that served him well as a lawman, giving many a man facing him a moment of clarity before reaching for a gun, but later in life prompted others to try a make a reputation by killing him. Jack McCall took the cowards way out and murdered Wild Bill in Deadwood, North Dakota Territory on August 2, 1876 by shooting him from behind. McCall eventually hung for his deed.
Old West gunmen and lawmen lived and died by the gun. When you look at the choices many made in their revolvers, prior to the 1870s, it was more often than not a Colt percussion pistol like the 1851 Navy or 1860 Army, and from the mid 1870s throughout the remainder of the century, one of many different barrel length Colt Peacemakers.
It is noteworthy that after Colt’s had established the 7-1/2 inch Peacemaker as the standard U.S. military sidearm, the company began offering different barrel lengths. Peacemakers could be ordered with barrels as short 3-inches, 3-1/4 inch, 3-1/2 inch, 4-inch, 4-1/2 inch, 4-3/4 inch, 5-inch and 5-1/2 inch barrel lengths (4-3/4 and 5-1/2 becoming available in 1875), a snub nose 2-1/2 inch barrel (beginning in 1882) and from there special order lengths of 6 to 9 inches in ½-inch increments). Colt’s added 10-inch and 10-1/2 inch barrels, as well as 12-inch and the 16-inch Buntline by the time of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Beginning in 1888, Colt’s adopted the 3-1/2 inch Peacemaker officially as a Sheriff’s Model (without ejector). Why so many different barrel lengths and how greatly did barrel length affect accuracy for a sidearm strapped on your hip? Of all the various barrel lengths available, Colt’s only considered the Sheriff’s Model, 4-3/4 inch, 5-1/2 inch and 7-1/2 inch barrel lengths as “standard,” everything else was a special order. This leaves Umarex in the position of currently offering only two out of four standard models thus far, three if you give the 3-1/2 inch Ace a wide berth.
At a distance, say 75 paces, a longer barrel and longer sight radius would definitely offer an advantage (beyond that, and even closer most men hefted a Winchester to get the job done), but really up close, say at 10 paces, a shorter barrel would be no less accurate and easier to handle quickly. And that brings us to the topic of this Airgun Experience. With the CO2 Umarex Colt Peacemakers the distance is always up close. The guns are most accurate at 21 feet with smoothbore BB models and at 10 meters (33 feet or about 10 paces) with rifled barrels and lead pellets. So does a 5-1/2 inch barrel, or even a 3-1/2 inch, like the Ace in the Hole, offer much less accuracy at 10 meters than a 7-1/2 inch model?
It is interesting that Umarex and Colt had decided to make the first Peacemaker model a 5-1/2 inch barrel length and then follow it a year later with the 7-1/2 inch, 180 degrees from what Colt’s did in the 1870s. The Sheriff’s Model wasn’t officially introduced until 1888 and that was a 3-1/2 inch barrel without an ejector. That makes the Ace in the Hole with its 3-1/2 inch barrel a Shopkeeper (technically speaking since it has an ejector housing), aside from its unorthodox movie-inspired fanning hammer and removable low front sight. Personally I can’t wait for Umarex to make this frame into an accurate Colt pistol, but until then, the Ace is a stand-in ala Stallone.
Part 1 shooting test
To get this week off the ground I am going to start with my personal favorite, the 7-1/2 inch Peacemaker, and specifically the Adams & Adams hand engraved gun I have used many times before. It is well broken in and I know almost exactly where it is going to hit with Meisterkugeln Professional Line lead wadcutters. This is a double test, one part with me firing offhand and then for absolute accuracy shooting from a bench rest.
Throughout the rest of the week I will be repeating the test with the 5-1/2 inch rifled barrel pellet-firing Peacemaker and concluding with the 3-1/2 inch Ace with a full comparison and handling wrap up on Saturday. So saddle up, we’re headin’ to the target range.
Let’s start by understanding that with most CO2 pistols that have muzzles sized to the caliber of the centerfire gun they’re based upon, the Colt Peacemaker in particular, the .177 caliber (4.5mm) barrel is recessed to preserve the authentic look of the pistol. Thus 7-1/2 inches is only an external measurement on the Umarex Colt Peacemaker, the actual internal barrel length is three-quarters of an inch less, as the illustration shows. Internally it is only 6-3/4 inches from the back of the forcing cone (flush to the cylinder) to the rifled 4.5mm barrel’s recessed muzzle. This remains true for the 5-1/2 inch Peacemaker, which has the barrel recessed by one-half an inch from the muzzle, for an overall length of 5.0 inches. The Ace has its rifled barrel recessed five-sixteenths of an inch, for an overall internal length just shy of 3-1/4 inches (3.2 inches, including the forcing cone). So we are starting off with slightly shorter barrels overall than the actual centerfire barrel lengths, but this should have little bearing on 4.5mm pellet accuracy at 10 meters.
10 meters and a 7-1/2 inch Peacemaker
Ammo was Meisterkugeln Professional Line 7.0 gr. lead wadcutters. Average velocity for the 7-1/2 inch model was 416 fps. Fired offhand using a two-handed hold, my best six-rounds covered 1.01 inches all grouped in the 8 and 9 rings at 2 o’clock with five of six in one ragged line with five shots at 0.68 inches. From a rested position and using one of my sighting targets (measured squares around a red bullseye), I managed to drop six wadcutters into 0.5 inches, all just a little below POA.
For part 2 the target group to meet or beat with the 5-1/2 inch Peacemaker is 0.5 inches. Can you achieve the same accuracy at the same distance with a shorter barrel?