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'Steel' relevant? A look at the future of handgun materials.

In a world full of plastic-framed guns, what good is metal?

This comment from an editor of mine got me thinking, and then researching. I went back through my desktop and laptop computers and took a look at all the gun reviews I've done over the past ten years. In that time I've reviewed well over fifty new handguns for various publications including Firearms News. My question was, of those pistols, how many of them had metal frames (steel Or aluminum) and of those, how many were completely new designs?

As for metal-framed guns, I'd reviewed a lot. It is a rare season when I don't find myself reviewing one or more iterations of America's steel beauty, John Browning's 1911. I found that I'd reviewed a lot of 1911s big and small, steel and aluminum-framed, but the 1911 is the opposite of a new design. The same with the various iterations of the CZ-75, which is Europe's version of the 1911--almost every gun maker over there seems to make a copy of the CZ-75. The only new pistols that immediately popped into my mind were two new Remington offerings, the R51 and the RM380, both of which sport aluminum frames. However, the R51 is a new version of the old Remington Model 51 (designed 1917), and the RM380 is an improved version of the Rohrbaugh R380 (derived from the Rohrbaugh R9, designed in 2000). Hmm.

While most of the pistols I've covered over the last ten years have been new versions of existing designs, there have been dozens of brand new guns--the Smith & Wesson M&P auto, CZ P-07, Taurus Curve, HK VP9, FNH FNS, Ruger LC9 and Ruger American Pistol, and the Walther CCP, just to name a few.

However, after an exhaustive search of my records and my brain, I came to the conclusion that of all the completely new pistol designs I've looked at in the past decade, I could only find one which had a metal frame: the Kimber Solo (and some might argue that it is just a striker-fired 1911). It is possible there might have been one or two others, but I didn't review them and they didn't pop up in the memory bank.

Looked at as a percentage, that means that 5% or less of all new pistol designs in the past ten years have featured frames made out of metal. Heck, several companies are now making polymer-framed revolvers. So that begs the question--in this modern era of wonder polymers, are metal-framed pistols relevant anymore?

Let me be clear, metal-framed guns are not going anywhere any time soon. The 1911 is more popular now than it ever has been, and while I don't have any hard figures, anecdotal evidence has shown me that the standard steel-framed models make up a majority of 1911 sales. And the 1911 is not the only old metal-framed pistol design still seeing steady sales--you can add to that list the CZ-75 and all of its varied clones, the Beretta 92, and all the SIG P-series pistols.

But that begs the question, are there are innovations happening on the metal-framed pistol side of the aisle? And after examining the evidence, I'd have to say no. All the cool new features, modularity, etc, are happening with plastics. Why?

First, compared to polymer, metal--whether you're talking carbon steel, stainless steel, or aluminum--is a much more expensive material. Titanium is even more so. In addition to that, it takes more effort and time to machine metal. Add all that up and that means a metal-framed gun, all things being equal, will be more expensive than an identical model with a polymer frame. And many metal-framed guns are old designs, which means they can be labor intensive to produce. The perfect example of this comes from SIG, which is now making all of their pistols in the U.S. at the same facility. When you compare the price of the average metal-framed SIG pistol (old design, MSRP $1,100 and up) to their polymer-framed pistols (new design, $650-$750), there's really no comparison.

CNC machines seem to be breeding like rabbits. Just a few decades ago only the biggest manufacturers could even afford them, but now even the smallest machine shop seems to have several. CNC machining is making the job of working metal much easier, but the improvements in polymers! both materials and production, have been even bigger.

You can't do any machining with metal that you can't do with polymer, but there are a lot of things you can do with polymers that would be impossible with metal. I remember visiting Smith & Wesson a few years ago and they had a 3-D printing machine that they used to create full-size models of new designs, just to see if what worked on the computer screen translated properly to the hand. Some of their 3D-printed models could even withstand firing a few rounds of loaded ammo

Admittedly polymer doesn't have the same strength as steel, which is why polymer-framed guns have steel inserts or a chassis to house the fire control group and/or provide a set of rails on which the steel slide can ride. Its weakness when compared to metal is really the only disadvantage of polymer, unless you consider weight. Metal--especially steel--adds recoil absorbing weight to a handgun, and in comparison polymer weighs next to nothing.

I've got two examples of how weight is and isn't important in reducing recoil. My Glock 34 weighs 24 ounces. My all-steel SIG P226 weighs 42 ounces. For you Hillary Clinton voters that's over three pounds difference, and yet the SIG has more muzzle rise. Why? Bore height. The SIG's bore is set far higher off the hand than the Glock, and as a result it has more leverage to pivot during recoil. In fact, the Glock's low bore is one of the reasons the pistol is so easy to shoot. Many polymer-framed guns are striker-fired designs, and striker-fired guns by design have their bores lower than traditional hammer-fired designs.

Metal-framed guns are thought to be more inherently accurate than those with polymer frames. I don't think this is true if you're talking about factory firearms with standard tolerances. I believe that metal-framed guns (specifically the 1911) can be made to be more ac curate via gunsmithing than polymer-framed guns. No semi-auto has yet to unseat the 1911 when it comes to the accuracy-intensive bullseye shooting, and gunsmiths have decades of experience in working on that design to push it to its ultimate potential. However, for those action pistols sports that only require what I'll call real world accuracy, polymer-framed pistols have proven themselves more than adequate for the task, and shooters using them have earned dozens of IDPA and USPSA national titles.

That said, all-steel 1911s chambered in 9mm are more popular than ever in IDPA and USPSA competition. Why? The 1911 has a low bore, and when you chamber a heavy all-steel gun in a lightly recoiling cartridge, the end result is a gun that recoils hardly more than a .22.

However, most handgun buyers are overly obsessed with lowering the weight of their carry guns (the most popular segment), and the gun designers are following that parade, trying to find ways to reduce the overall weight of pistols. They work to reduce the recoil using other methods than sheer mass such as innovative recoil spring systems and low bore offset.

The only type of handguns that require not just metal but steel in their frames these days are revolvers chambered in big magnums. Ruger might have figured out how to use a lot of polymer in the frame of the LCR, but the day when you'll see a polymer-framed revolver chambered in .454 Casull or .500 S&W is never.

All polymers used in handguns are not the same, and polymer isn't necessarily better than metal, it just offers engineers different design options. Polymers range from the plastic used in Glocks, which is the softest in the industry and only half a step removed from rubber, to the glass-filled nylon favored by Ruger that is much stiffer. Engineers have to account for the flex of the polymer during recoil, something not an issue when dealing with metal. Stiffer polymers flex less, but transmit more felt recoil to the shooter's hand.

The soft polymer in a Glock frame really flexes and soaks up recoil, however that's not always a good thing. The Gen 4 Glocks exist because Glock was losing law enforcement sales due to a problem unique to them; if you hung a weapon light on a Gen 3 Glock chambered in .40 S&W, the gun's frame would flex so much in recoil it would short cycle. This isn't a new problem for Glock--they had to put metal inserts into the polymer magazine bodies when the original all-polymer bodies warped under heat and pressure (i.e. cops sitting on them all day). But they adapted their design and moved on, and now the Glock polymer-over-metal magazines and guns are considered the standard in the industry for simplicity and reliability.

As for the advantages of using polymer in a handgun frame, they are many. First, we've already touched on cost. Not only is polymer itself cheaper as a material than any kind of metal, production costs are lower. Polymer can be machined, like metal, but more often it is injection molded into forms with any flash trimmed off by hand. That is quicker than machining.

The new molds and production processes are getting so much better that some of the molded polymer grip texturing feels nearly as sharp as a checkered metal frame. Color changes are easy--just add different dye to the polymer. That is why you see so many color options on some lines of polymer pistols--because it is so easy for the manufacturer to do. One great example of this is the Ruger LCP pocket .380. I just glanced at the short-run distributor exclusives of the LCP currently on the Ruger website, and there are close to a dozen different color frames available.

Because the grips on a polymer-framed pistol are part of the frame itself, the result is a pistol that is thinner, lighter, and has fewer parts. The ubiquitous Glock has fewer parts (34 including all springs and pins) than any other competing design on the market, and almost all of them have fewer parts than similarly sized pistols with metal frames. Most 191 Is have more than 50 parts and as semi-auto pistols go it is relatively simple.

Engineers who have begun to think outside the box think of polymer frames in a different light than they would a frame made out of metal. As a result we're seeing increased modularity in polymer-framed guns. The new Ruger American Pistol doesn't feature interchangeable backstraps but rather replaceable grip shells that wrap around the frame, which is little more than a polymer column covering the magazine. The SIG P250 and P320 pistols don't even have traditional frames--the serialized part is a steel chassis inside the polymer grip module, and swapping out one module for one a different size or color takes only a minute and requires no tools or federal paperwork.

Forget factory customization, polymer is much more user-customizable. Notice the explosion of stippling? Currently I'm wearing a SIG P320 Carry whose grip module I have stippled and recontoured to fit my tastes. I used a soldering iron for the stippling and a Dremel tool for the other work. The stippling looks great, and is very functional, which is impressive considering I have no artistic or mechanical skill. Or patience. Hand checkering metal frames (which used to be the only way to get a checkered frontstrap on a 1911) is a skill that takes hundreds of hours to perfect. As for hand checkering an aluminum frame, it just doesn't work well at all. Titanium? Forget it.

Oh, and before I forget, let's talk about a subject I really hate: cleaning. Modern polymers in handgun frames are picked specifically because they are not harmed by any harsh cleaning chemicals. And most importantly? Plastic doesn't rust, and the finish won't wear off. It requires no maintenance.

Handguns need metal, but engineers are coming up with ways to use less and less of it in the design of handguns. Sure, right now you need a metal barrel and slide and some trigger components, and rails on which the slide can reciprocate, but I would wager a generation from now that won't be the case. Right now polymer has really only replaced the metal in the frame of a pistol. But there are exceptions to that, such as the FN Five-seveN, which has a polymer shell around its steel slide. A pistol that is all polymer and ceramic and uses other futuristic materials like carbon fiber probably isn't more than a couple of decades away, but the question is whether you'd want to fire it. Not because it won't be safe, but because it will be so light it might have significant and probably unpleasant recoil.

Speaking of ceramics, I'll bet that within a decade you'll see manufacturers experimenting with ceramic components in handguns. Industrial ceramics have gone mainstream, and are used in the medical, oil and gas, computer, plumbing, and textile industries just to name a few. I've even got a couple of ceramic kitchen knives, and tests have shown that ceramic blades keep their edges ten times longer than the typical steel blade.

The first handguns were made out of steel and wood, because they had to be. Nothing else was strong enough. Aluminum reduced the weight, but it still had to be machined in the same way as steel. Polymers, however, haven't just changed the way handguns are made but how they are designed. Metal-framed guns aren't going away, their designs are too established and proven, but they are the past, not the future.


Gun guys also tend to be knife guys, and if you get the movie reference above you can be my friend. I was buying folding and fixed blade knives when I was too young to buy guns, and now that I'm much older things still haven't changed. Every CCW holder I know also has a folding knife on his person. Not because any of us expect to get into a knife fight, but because a knife is such a useful tool. I'd like to cover two knives in this article's discussion of steel, a brand new fixed blade offering from Steel Will Knives and an established folder from Cold Steel.

Cold Steel Code 4

I've carried a handgun just about every day for the last twenty-five years, and for most of that time I've also carried a folding knife. I go through knives a lot more often than I switch carry guns, either to try something different or because I lost or damaged the knife, or had to throw it in the trash at the airport because I forgot to take it off before showing up at the TSA checkpoint For the last year or so I've been carrying a Cold Steel Code 4, and I have to say it's been one of my favorite folding knives ever (www.

Generally, I tend toward small knives I can stick in my pocket, but the Code 4 is on the large size. It is only offered in one size, with a 3.5" blade, but you have your choice of a spear point, clip point, or tanto blade. When open the knife has an overall length of 8543 inch. The blade has a stud that sticks out on both sides of the blade (further on the left) and it can be easily opened with a thumb. The blade pivoted smoothly when it was new, and it is still smooth today. The blade is constructed of Carpenters CTS XHP alloy, a type of stainless I'd never heard of before I started doing research on this knife. It could be described as a high hardness Type 440C stainless or a corrosion resistant D2. Some other bade types are offered in AUS 8A stainless. The knife is made in Taiwan.

Blades either come plain or half serrated. Cold Steel knives have a legendary reputation for toughness, and they're more responsible for the popularity of the tanto blade design in this country than anyone else. I'm a sucker for tanto blades and have never been a fan of serrations, so thafs what I've been sporting, the plain tanto. Closed the knife is 5.25 inches long--like I said, it's not small, but for its size it is relatively light at 4.3 ounces.

The Code 4 is not offered in multiple colors. No matter which blade type you get, the handle is hard-anodized gunmetal gray 6061 aluminum. It sports two finger grooves and I found it fits my hand well. It has a stainless steel belt clip that is very tight even after a year of riding on my pocket The clip is reversible.

The blade is 3.5mm (.14") thick, and even after a year of abusing it does not wiggle in the handle. I'm a big fan of knives with liner locks, but the one disadvantage to them is they tend to be thicker than a spine lock, because that liner adds an extra layer. The Code 4 is a traditional lock back, and has the thinnest handle of any knife this size I've ever held, which helps keep it light and comfortable to carry. The handle is only 9mm thick, which is just over a third of an inch--proportionately it is remarkably flat

Over the past year I've used this knife to open boxes, cut rope, and dozens of other things I've forgotten. In the photos you'll see the blade looks a little dirty--that's because I-deliberately didn't clean it after using it to cut some rose bush branches. The clippers I brought to do the job broke halfway through, and since I had a knife with me, well, I figured I could use it A year in I still haven't had to re-sharpen the blade, although it's almost due.

Suggested retail of the Cold Steel Code 4 runs between $99.99 and $134.99, depending on the blade shape and steel, but I'm seeing them for sale online for $80 or less. That's a great deal on one heck of a knife.

A word of warning--be aware of the knife laws in your area. Knife laws are as illogical and arbitrary as gun laws, and just because you have a CCW may not mean anything when it comes to carrying a knife. Many jurisdictions prohibit carrying a concealed knife with a blade over 3 inches, and the fact that the knife clip is visible outside your pocket may not count legally as open carry. When in doubt, check with your local police department

Steel Will Cager

I've always had a love of fixed blade knives, and have carried them--big ones--in the past. Knives are actually easier to conceal than guns because they're so flat, but again be aware of the laws regarding concealed knives in your area. The newest fixed blade knife in my roster is the Cager 1420 from Steel Will Knives (www. This is a medium-sized fixed blade tactical knife in their Urban Series specifically designed for EDC (Every Day Carry); It is offered with a tanto-style blade (the 1420) or a classic drop point (the 1410), but like I said I'm a sucker for tanto blades because of their stoutness and penetrating abilities.

The Cager sports a 4 1/2" blade made of D2 steel. The blade is .16" thick, which is thick enough to do everything it needs to do (and then some) but not add unnecessary weight. It has a satin finish and is full tang, with a slot for a lanyard at the pommel, which has a slight point for striking. Overall the knife is 9.06" long and weighs 7.34 ounces.

The handles are made of black G10 laminate and nicely textured. They have a single finger groove and fit my hand very well. At their thickest they are less than two-thirds of an inch thick. The knife comes with a form-fitting Kydex sheath that offers a variety of mounting options, including on MOLLE compatible gear.

The Cager is a great example of a knife that offers everything you need and nothing you don't D2 is great steel, and when it comes to tactical knife handles G10 is the material against which everything else is judged. This knife was designed and spec'd in the U.S., but because it is made in China, suggested retail is only $89.99, which in my opinion is a steal for what you get.
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Author:Tarr, James
Publication:Firearms News
Date:Feb 10, 2016
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