Crime Lab: Abused Guns
January 03, 2011
A micro-flash image of the notorious "squirt gun" firing proved that the bulbous nose of the fired bullets was not caused by the lab's bullet catch box.
Not everyone is as careful with their firearms as the typical Shooting Times reader. Never was this fact more clear than during my time in the crime lab. My dad trained me to take care of any tool, especially those that can affect your safety or ability to put food on the table. Therefore, I got a real eye-opener when I saw the state of firearms that were submitted for analysis. Surprisingly, some of the abused guns belonged to police officers.
We saw a couple of .32-caliber Spanish knockoffs of S&W designs that were marked, "Use the American Cartridges that Fit Best the CH Revolver." Apparently, a number of miscreants took this at face value for other firearms.
Probably the most outrageous example was an ancient five-shot Hopkins & Allen revolver chambered for the original .38 Short Colt cartridge. The cylinders were bored straight through, appropriate to outside-lubricated bullets. When it arrived at our door, it was loaded with three .38 S&W cartridges, a .38 Special wadcutter, and a .38 Special Super Vel 110-grain JSP cartridge with the lead tip shaved back to keep it from sticking out the front of the cylinder. Remember, prior to 1974 there were relatively loose pressure standards for high-speed .38 Spl. loads. Had the criminal fired that cartridge in the old H&A, things could have gotten very crowded, as the revolver's frame was cast iron, not forged steel.
Then there was the late-1890s .41 Colt DA revolver that had been reblued so many times the cylinder walls were not much thicker than a business card. Someone had dented one cylinder so that it no longer accepted a .41 Colt cartridge. The owner simply loaded that chamber with a .38 Spl. Hey, it fit! Along the same lines, another had wrapped duct tape around .32 Long cartridges so they would not fall through the cylinder of his .38 revolver.
Gunsmithing On the Edge
Over the edge might be a better phrase. Too many of the "over-smithed" guns belonged to police officers. Refinishing errors made up the majority of the problems. Before stainless-steel revolvers appeared, officers who found their sweat overly corrosive to gun metal often had a blue-steel revolver plated in nickel or chrome.
A few of these plate jobs were quite well done, but the majority fell into the abuse category. Too much buffing before the job and too-thick plating threw off critical dimensions. The worst part came when the platers practiced their art on finely fitted internal parts. Most of these guns suffered problems with single-action mode. The critical single-action notch on the hammer filled with plating material, and the revolver wouldn't stay cocked. Plating on the cylinder ratchet threw off the timing, and the timing surface on the cylinder stop was trashed; therefore, the cylinder could fail to lock. The result was too often a train wreck that would fit in a holster. I always recommended that people return the firearm to the original manufacturer for refinishing. The factory would not ship the refurbished gun until it met new-gun specs. Sure, it was more expensive, but what's the cost if the gun failed to work in the time of need?
The two .22 LR bullets were fired from a revolver whose barrel was shortened with a tubing cutter. The muzzle constriction extruded the bullets. A "gunsmith" ruined this S&W target hammer by altering the precision-broached single-action notch (arrow).
Simple "action jobs" often caused as many problems. One cop was told that you could slick up a Smith & Wesson double action by filing off the tip of the strain screw that tensioned the mainspring, and it wouldn't show in the pre-briefing inspection. Using the old standard, "if a little is good, a lot is better," the officer took off too much metal, causing misfires and a cramping of the action that S&W called "knuckling." Rather than going to the department armorer and getting a new screw, this guy stuffed aluminum foil between the screw and the mainspring until the problem went away. However, the problem with foil was that the pressure of tensioned steel surfaces on either side eventually mashed the soft aluminum out of the way, and the misfires came back.
Want A Shorter Barrel?
One criminal mind found a unique tool for quickly shortening the barrel of a .22 rimfire revolver: a tubing cutter. He didn't bother to clean up the huge burr that protruded into the bore. What resulted was a uniquely shaped bullet that even the novice CSI person could associate with his gun. We called the revolver the "squirt gun" due to the strange shape of the fired bullets. When the gun became part of the lab's permanent collection of oddities, we used a micro-flash system to "freeze-frame" the bullet exiting the barrel. I present the photos on page 10 for your viewing pleasure.
Too Much Love?
Although it may sound odd, too much gun care can be as bad as too little. I can't count the number of over-lubricated handguns I found in police holsters. When a certain brand of spray lubricant came out, someone started the rumor that it was a gun cleaning kit in a can. The lube's manufacturer never made these claims; the old "rumor mill" was the culprit.
A visiting officer saw the spray can on our workbench. Behind me I heard, "That reminds me--I need to clean my gun," followed by a long "phssst" sound. Before I could react, the guy had hosed down his revolver, including the ammo in the cylinder. Needless to say, this created a "teachable moment."
I examined a different officer's gun that had been repeatedly sprayed--ammo and all--over a period of up to a year. I cleaned and dried the revolver and made the officer accompany me to our indoor range where I tested his ammo. Two fired normally; two did not fire at all; the last two whacked the metal backstop with all the authority of a poorly thrown acorn. The officer blanched at the thought of getting into a gunfight with a revolver that was batting .333.
Another officer had a question about his off-duty revolver that had been under the seat of his car. It was February and just under freezing outside. Opening the cylinder to clear the ammo was tough, and when I tested the revolver in single-action mode, it took a good half-second for the hammer to fall. Opening the sideplate revealed years of congealed grease and oil that was thickened by winter temperatures.
The bad things we saw people do to guns could fill a book. However, I hope this gives you pause if you plan to saturate you
r gun with oil or send it to the "Ace Bumper Works" for refinishing.