How and why guns wear out: Part 1
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
• Firearms first
• Two factors to consider
I made the statement last week that some action pistols wear out with use, and it set off a huge round of discussion. Some owners have already experienced what I was talking about, and others were incredulous that their guns could ever wear out! Ever! Today, I want to begin a series that explores how and why airguns wear out — and believe me, some do.
Before you run screaming through the halls, shouting, “I knew it was too good to be true,” please leaven what you are about to read with some common sense. All airguns do not wear out in the ways I’ll describe. I’m looking at specific guns and types of guns, so factor that into what you read.
Do airguns wear out? Of course they do! Some more often and faster than others. Maybe the best example of a fast wearout is the wooden Markham Chicago breakbarrel BB gun that was made in the 1880s. By now, most of these have dried out, and their wood has cracked in splits that follow the grain. The pistons have hammered themselves through the ends of their compression chambers, which relegates the gun to a wall hanger. But what can you expect from a gun that’s built mostly of wood and screen-door hardware?
Markham’s first BB gun was mostly wood.
Broken open, the Markham give us the perfect reason it’s called a breakbarrel.
The Markham’s hinge is a perfect example of screen-door technology.
Before we get into modern airguns, you need to know something about the firearms of the past that are also well known for wearing out. Yes, I said firearms! I know that some readers are not that familiar with firearms, so we need to review this first.
Two factors to consider
Many things contribute to the wearout of a firearm, and most of them can be classified as abuse. All armies around the world have to factor abuse into the life cycle of the guns they buy; not because their soldiers deliberately abuse them, though that does happen, but because of the conditions under which they’re used. You and I know to come in out of the rain, but a soldier often has no opportunity to do the same. That’s why one test of a firearm that’s going into battle is to function fire it in a spray booth. Many guns spent months in redesign because they couldn’t pass a shooting test when wet. The M1 Carbine was notable in this respect.
But I don’t want to talk about abuse in this discussion. I want to talk about guns that wear out under what are best described as normal conditions. A great many firearms will wear out and become unsafe just by using them as intended. If that sounds wrong, then this is a report you need to read!
I have identified 2 main factors that allow (or cause) a firearm to wear out under normal use. The first is metallurgy. Guns weren’t always made of steel, you know. In fact, as much as I deride the “plastic” guns of today, they are far superior to some guns that were made of metal and wood! That’s because the metal wasn’t right for the application.
Many of the percussion rifles made between 1830 and 1900 are well-known for their metallurgical weaknesses. Instead of steel, the parts of these guns were made of iron that has less tolerance to the hot gasses produced when gunpowder ignites. As a result, they’re often found all but eroded away from the flames of ignition. Even my Nelson Lewis combination gun, which was made as well as most guns of the 1960s, has flame erosion around the bases of both nipples.
The flame erosion seen on this musket is moderate. I’ve seen some guns that are almost worn away at this point.
The solution was well-known in the day, but it was expensive. Use a material that doesn’t erode with heat. Some of the finest flintlocks of the time have flashholes made from platinum! They’ve often lasted for centuries and are still useable today. But the average gun owner couldn’t afford such luxuries, so they just accepted the fact that their rifles would eventually wear out. How many shots did they get? It depended on the gun’s design, but 20,000 shots was considered more than a lifetime.
Okay, let’s say you agree with what I’m saying about the older percussion guns. What does it have to do with modern guns? Well, the metallurgy of modern guns is just as subject to early wearout as it was in Davy Crockett’s time. Let’s consider a pistol made in Sweden for World War II.
The M40 is commonly called the Lahti. It’s a 9mm pistol made for the Swedish forces and also used by several other countries. Though it operates in an entirely different way, it looks similar to a P08, or Luger, so it’s often called the Swedish Luger.
Lahti M40 service pistol is a good gun, but it’s right on the edge when it comes to strength. Use of hot ammo will break the frame and bolt.
The Swedes were concerned that the frigid conditions in their country would freeze the actions of standard semiautomatics, though a test of the Browning-designed M1911 proved them wrong. But they still added an accelerator to the Lahti’s bolt to boost the rearward push. It worked fine with pistol ammunition, but when hotter submachinegun loads were used, the bolts and frames cracked!
The Swedes are world-famous for making some of the finest steel known. Indeed, Swedish steel is more than just an accolade. It was proven by the Swedes to Mauser that Swedish steel was stronger than German steel, when used in the 1896 Mauser bolt-action rifle. So, when Mauser contracted to make some rifles for Sweden, they had to use Swedish steel in their plant in Germany. Talk about a bitter pill!
But in 1940, Sweden was gearing up for World War II like everybody. Their need for steel exceeded the supply. So, they made the bolt and receiver of the Lahti pistol from a steel alloy that was marginal. People have a hard time understanding how things like this can happen; but when the entire nation is mobilizing and handling millions of different tasks, some of them have to fall by the wayside. Besides, as long as the hot 9mm ammo isn’t used, the Lahti pistol functions fine for a very long time.
The last thing I will say about metallurgy will be to remind you about the Webley revolver. Remember the Mark I revolver I showed you in part 2 of the Webley Mark VI BB gun? It was made for black powder cartridges and will not stand up to the pressure of smokeless powder cartridges. They’ll loosen the gun rapidly, until it falls apart at the hinge. The difference between the Mark I and the Mark VI, which does stand up to smokeless powder, is metallurgy.
Design is the second factor that contributes to early wearout under normal operation. This is when a product is just made wrong in some way(s). The best firearm example of this might be the Remington double derringer that was the longest-running Remington product in the company’s history. The hinge lugs located at the top of the gun were just too small and are extremely prone to crack. Metallurgy may also be involved as well. Today, it’s rare to find a derringer that doesn’t have at least one cracked hinge lug.
The Remington double derringer chambers a weak .41-caliber rimfire round that was deadly at close range. Like most of them, this has one hinge cracked and cannot be shot anymore.
Another gun that suffered greatly from design flaws is the U.S. Army’s .50-caliber M85 tank cupola machinegun. It’s an enlarged version of a successful .30-caliber gun that has a very short receiver. The M85 is short, but the fact that it seldom worked is the reason why the Browning M2 machinegun is still in military service after almost a full century on the battlefield.
Two things contribute to the early wearout of a firearm or airgun — materials and design. In the next report I will continue this theme and discuss airgun wearout with you.