Heavy Mettle

While steel makes a durable pistol, it also makes a heavy and expensive one.

While steel makes a durable pistol, it also makes a heavy and expensive one.

I’m looking at this FN 1922, which was originally ginned up as a service pistol for the newly-formed Yugoslavian Army.

It’s basically an FN 1910 (a pistol of momentous significance in Balkan history) with the barrel and grip stretched so that it wouldn’t get lost on a soldier’s belt, although to American eyes it’s still a ludicrously tiny-looking military sidearm.

It is hefty for its original .380 chambering, and in .32 it seems ridiculously overbuilt by modern standards, but in those days, there was simply no other way to make a firearm other than taking a block of steel and whittling away everything that didn’t look like a gun. The resulting weapons are beautiful examples of the machinist’s craft, but hardly the most efficient way to supply hundreds of thousands of troops.

The need to turn out large numbers of modern firearms in two world wars spurred engineers to find ways to apply manufacturing techniques such as casting and stampings of heavy-gauge sheet metal to the construction of guns. After the wars, the adoption of more exotic materials, first aluminum and then plastics and even titanium, were used to make pistols lighter and easier to carry.

 

By the 1990s, Brazilian and American revolver makers had introduced flyweight guns with the dull finish of titanium replacing the luster of polished blue steel.

 

American companies like Colt and Smith & Wesson first used aluminum alloys to make lightweight revolvers that served as sidearms for aircrews, where every ounce mattered. The material was also used for the frames of auto pistols both here and abroad. Meanwhile, during the Vietnam War (fought in the sweaty jungles of Southeast Asia), new Smith wheelguns made out of rust-resistant stainless steel became sought-after personal sidearms.

German manufacturer Heckler & Koch introduced the P9S, a pistol with a polymer frame and nearly every metal part–other than the barrel and bolt–made from steel stampings, that allowed a sophisticated pistol to be manufactured and assembled quickly and with no hand-fitting required. By the 1990s, Brazilian and American revolver makers had introduced flyweight guns with the dull finish of titanium replacing the luster of polished blue steel.

Here in the first part of the new century, welded stampings and castings and injection-moldings have almost completely replaced machined forgings and dead trees as firearm components. Despite rising labor costs and hidden overhead in the form of liability and regulations, handgun prices have remained remarkably stable. The modern sidearm is a triumph of materials engineering and mass production: Lightweight, impervious to the elements, rugged, and reliable in a way that was purely science fiction a century ago.

Anyway, like I said, I’m looking at this FN 1922, which is a nine-shot .32 that weighs as much unloaded as my fullsize, seventeen-shot 9mm M&P (which is a superior weapon in every way that matters) … except I wonder if someone will be looking at that disposable plastic pistol in 2100 the way I am at the FN right now? Somehow I don’t think so, and it’s kind of sad in a way. The modern manufacturing techniques can produce just about anything better, except an heirloom.

 

[ Tamara Keel has been shooting guns as a hobby since she was eighteen. She has worked in the firearms business since the early 1990s. Her pastimes include collecting old guns, writing, and being bossed around by house cats. ]