TOTAL TITANIUM TAURUS.
In 1999, Taurus International Firearms grabbed the attention of the shooting world with the introduction of total-titanium revolvers. This year, they introduced the Titanium Millennium, a semi-auto pistol with a titanium slide atop a polymer frame.
But why titanium? Yes, it's lightweight. Yes, it is tough. But it's also a manufacturer's nightmare.
"Titanium is difficult to work with," said Gary Mehalik of Taurus. "It's used to cut and form steel, so it's expensive, in raw materials and tools. But the lure of an all-titanium firearm is like a search for the Holy Grail in the firearms industry."
Titanium was first isolated as a metal in 1910. Since then, this very common element has been put to a lot of uses. In one form, it's a brilliant white pigment found in lead-free paints, linoleum, cosmetics, high-quality papers and sunscreens, and at times it's a food-grade pigment. It's used for whitening leather and in false teeth. Titanium bonds with bone but doesn't cause any reaction in the human body, making it very useful for prostheses such as artificial joint replacement.
After the end of World War II, the development of high-altitude missiles and modern aircraft that flew faster than the speed of sound created a need for new metals that could endure high temperature stress. Research turned to titanium. It's as strong as steel but 45 percent lighter, twice as strong as aluminum, has very low conductivity of heat and electricity, and resists corrosion.
Despite all its great properties, titanium isn't a perfect metal. Some of its characteristics make it difficult to work with. It's hard to refine and process, and in its raw form costs about 10 times as much as steel. It's also elastic and becomes brittle if it's hardened beyond a certain point.
As high-tech users have made advances in the development of titanium, so have down-to-earth companies. Today, titanium is used in racing bicycles, eyeglass frames, aircraft, the space shuttle and desalination plants. Despite efforts by a number of gun companies, however, the development of a fully titanium gun has eluded designers and engineers.
A number of years ago, Sturm, Ruger & Co. cast frames for a couple of revolvers using titanium.
"A real weight-saving factor was not found, compared to other alloys," says Syl Wiley of Ruger. "This, plus the demand placed upon us by the manufacturing of our current firearms, has made the project slow going. We will continue to look into the possibilities, but at this point have no plans to produce titanium firearms."
Smith & Wesson also has made a foray into titanium guns. In late 1998, S&W released a line of revolvers that have aluminum alloy frames and titanium cylinders with alloy barrel shrouds and steel liners.
"It's basically for the weight factor," says Ken Jorgensen of S&W. "Titanium is stronger and lighter than steel, so it makes sense to use it in the cylinder. But it didn't make sense to use titanium in the frame since the alloy we're using is lighter."
S&W calls their part-titanium revolvers, the AirLite Ti line, The company has no immediate plans to work on developing a full-titanium gun.
"You don't need titanium to handle the calibers we're working with, so for us, it doesn't make sense to go to full titanium," Jorgensen says. S&W's priority is to keep the gun's weight as light as possible and, according to Jorgensen, the revolvers the company is working with are lighter than full-titanium firearms.
Taurus's engineers, however, decided to take on the challenge of producing a full-titanium gun.
"We're a company with a long tradition of commercial experience in forging," Mehalik says. "That puts us in a unique position. The way we forge titanium contributes to making it stronger and more applicable to firearms. We use drop-hammer forging for our aluminum alloy and steel frames and forge the titanium frames in the same facility. That's an important part of the process that other companies haven't been able to master."
Taurus declines to reveal any details of their forging process but their success has resulted in a line of revolvers unlike any other in the world.
Taurus engineers overcome problems with both the elasticity of titanium and the tendency of the metal to fragment under conditions of high friction.
"We have a steel liner inside the bore," Mehalik says, "because titanium is elastic and wouldn't take rifling well. Firing lead or jacketed bullets through a titanium bore would erode it very quickly."
Also, titanium can adhere to other metals under some conditions. This can result in galling, which occurs when friction deteriorates metal and little, sometimes microscopic, pieces are shed.
"That was easy to handle," Mehalik says. "We just don't have mated titanium surfaces bearing on each other."
So why did Taurus undertake such a monumental challenge?
"Many engineers said it couldn't be done because of the peculiarities of working the metal, and for many years they were right. But the people at our forging facility felt that they understood enough about the forging process, and could learn what else they needed to know, to make it happen," Mehalik says.
However, the challenge went beyond just forging a titanium frame and parts. Once the gun was made, designers had to find a way to manage the greater recoil from a gun that is 30 percent lighter than "normal." Taurus built a complete recoil management system into the guns. The three-part system-- the light weight of the guns, exclusive "Ribber" (ribbed soft rubber) grips and the porting system-- work together to make Taurus's Total Titanium guns a pleasure to shoot.
"The recoil management system is unique to Taurus firearms," Mehalik says. "Even if someone else comes out with a titanium firearm, the other two components might be missing. That would make shooting the gun a lot less pleasant."
The Ribber grips on a Taurus titanium handgun feel like the handlebar grips on motorcycles and mountain bikes.
"That's not a coincidence," Mehalik says. "We have a manufacturing facility that makes them. We manufacture everything that's in our guns, from the springs to the frame and cylinders. We even manufacture the tools that we use to make our guns."
In short, Taurus is one of the most experienced manufacturers in the business today.
"Although the Ribber grips are an adaptation of the grips used on mountain bikes, our engineers saw that there were some other requirements for their use on guns," Mehalik said. "First, you've got to maintain control over a rapidly moving, hard-to-grasp object. You have to be able to control a gun firing everything up to magnum rounds. Especially in a lighter gun, that's very difficult."
By virtue of their shape, the grips provide additional surface area for the shooter to grasp. They also conform to the shooter's hands, eliminating the need for the exact placement of fingers in a pre-shaped grip.
"The gun adapts to your hand," Mehalik says. "You don't have to adapt to it." In addition, the design of the grip adds a natural vibration-dampening ability to the gun.
The third part of the system is the specially designed barrel porting.
"The porting is the most complex aspect of the system," Mehalik says. "You'd imagine that, with a lighter-framed gun and magnum rounds, the porting would not be able to control the severe recoil. But you've got less mass to control. So, while the recoil is more dramatic, the porting has a great effect in reducing muzzle rise."
Mehalik says he was pleasantly surprised when he first shot the Total Titanium guns, because as a result of the porting system, the muzzle actually dips a little instead of rising.
"I've fired the .41 Magnum in both titanium and stainless steel, and there's actually less dramatic recoil with the titanium," Mehalik says. "The porting is the same on both guns, but the jet effect of the gases escaping through the nozzle on the top of the barrel is more efficient on titanium guns because there's less metal to move."
One problem the porting system solved was the potential for cartridges to pull apart under heavy recoil, especially non-standard loads.
"The porting tends to prevent the sharp rearward recoil that you get from the lighter mass of the titanium gun," Mehalik says. "Some manufacturers say certain bullet weights or types should not be used in such a gun. What we've done with the titanium gun is build a kinetic bullet-puller. Imagine a point in space that's occupied by a lead bullet surrounded by brass. Because of its mass, the bullet wants to remain in place when a brother cartridge is fired. The rest of the cartridge wants to move backwards. Inertia causes the bullet to "walk" out of its case if the cartridge isn't crimped or if the porting system doesn't offset the recoil."
Even with the Taurus system, shooters may notice some bullet creep. But Mehalik says he has kept one magnum round in the cylinder while firing a titanium gun through several cycles to determine any bullet movement.
"Even after three or four cylinder loadings, it never amounts to an offset that would prevent the mechanism from operating," he says.
However, the company recommends shooters who depend on these revolvers for self-protection to fire test loads through the guns to confirm their proper operation.
"Even though we specify using only SAAMI-spec (Sporting Arms & Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute) ammunition that's factory-loaded, we know there are people who are going to use handloads," Mehalik says. "If they're not careful with the bullet crimp, they may devise a load that, even with our porting system, may cause the bullet to walk out of the case. There is one commercial manufacturer who makes .41 Magnum loads that exceed the SAAMI specs for length. You can't use that load in our titanium guns, because it's longer than the cylinder. Our cylinder is built to SAAMI specs but the ammunition is not."
Even though Taurus calls its revolvers Total Titanium, a few parts aren't made of the lightweight material.
"What we say is that all the parts that should be titanium are titanium," Mehalik says. "All parts and small components that save weight and need corrosion protection are titanium. But the interaction of the trigger and hammer-- the sharp, crisp trigger letoff-- works best with steel. The bore also is steel."
Total Titanium revolvers are available in several finishes: bright spectrum blue, matte spectrum blue and gold, and stealth gray. The reason for these colors was somewhat whimsical.
"They're, in part, a marketing tool," Mehalik says. "The look of raw titanium is not much different than stainless steel, but we wanted to call attention to the difference. We can make titanium in the variety of colors, as part of a proprietary finishing process."
Mehalik calls the finishing method a "thermal electric process," and says it changes the chemical composition of the outer molecular layer of the titanium. In other words, the color is only a couple of molecules deep.
In 1999, Taurus offered six models of revolver in Total Titanium. This year, they're offering five Total Titanium revolver models and one aluminum/titanium revolver plus a titanium/polymer pistol.
All the revolvers feature the Taurus Security System with the key lock on the hammer. The forged titanium barrels are lined with high-tensile stainless steel. All small parts are case-hardened, hightensile strength chrome-moly steel, including the hammer, trigger, cylinder latch, ejector rod and sideplate screws.
"They also have the other titanium features," Mehalik says. "This includes the yoke detent, which locks up the cylinder and is usually available only from custom gunshops. This also allows us to make a longer ejector rod, which is helpful in doing quick reloads. When you punch the rod, you have a longer ejection stroke, giving you more positive and faster extraction."
The Titanium Guns
Model 85T This is the titanium version of the Model 85, one of Taurus's most popular handguns. It's a five-shot, .38 Special rated +P that weighs 15.4 ozs.
The Model 85 grip is designed to be as small as possible for legal concealed carry and as a backup for police officers. As a result, it doesn't have the Ribber grip but rather a compact boot-grip design.
Another titanium version of the Model 85 uses titanium, but not in a Total Titanium configuration.
"At one time we referred to it as the Multi-Alloy," Mehalik says. "Now it's called the Model 95. It's an ultra-light version of the gun with an aluminum alloy frame and a titanium barrel and cylinder. The overall weight of the gun is about 13 ozs. so it's lighter than the Total Titanium version. It's available in both single and double action, with a regular hammer with a full-hammer spur. Or you can get it in what we call the Police Model 85. In this version, it's double-action only, with a concealed hammer."
The rest of the guns in the series have a compact frame.
"Whether they're in steel or titanium, they feature a Ribber grip," Mehalik says. "All of these guns are essentially the same except for the number of cylinder holes and the caliber."
Model 617T This is the smallest seven-shot .357 available and is the lightest of the titanium guns. It comes in bright spectrum blue, matte spectrum blue, stealth gray and shadow gray and weighs 19.9 ozs.
"We took the same basic configuration and stretched the barrel to 4 inches," Mehalik says. "Then we added the aesthetics of the Raging Bull. We call it the Tracker. It's the backpacker's or hunter's companion version of the Total Titanium snub noses. It's currently produced as the Model 627 seven shot in .357. The .41 Magnum version is our model 425. We also have plans to bring it out in a 6" version that can mount a scope."
Model 415T The Model 415T is the .41 Magnum version of the same gun. It's the longest of the Total Titanium guns, with a 2 1/2" barrel and a 7 1/8" overall length. It's also the heaviest of the titanium guns at 20.9 ozs.
Model 450T This is the .45 Long Colt titanium. It holds five rounds, and weighs 19.2 ozs. It comes in bright spectrum blue, matte spectrum blue, stealth gray and shadow gray.
Model 445T The .44 Special version, like the 415T and 450T, comes in four finishes and holds five rounds. It weighs 19.8 ozs.
Model 731T This revolver is not available yet. "Because we're having a difficult time manufacturing enough titanium for our more popular calibers, we're not offering the 731 currently," Mehalik says. "We hope to make it available later this year. It's essentially the same revolver as the Model 85T but as a six-shot .32 H&R Magnum."
PT-111 Semi-auto The Millennium pistol has a titanium slide on a blue polymer frame. "There's a weight advantage between the .45 Pocket Pistol, which weighs over a pound, and the 9mm PT111, which weighs 16 ozs.," Mehalik says.
Future Taurus Titaniums
"It's possible we'll be incorporating titanium into our non-polymer semi-autos," Mehalik says. "Depending on how they sell, the overall weight advantage and price increase might be justified. Right now, we're using an aluminum alloy frame which offers strength."
Mehalik says customers are asking for a titanium version of the Taurus Raging Hornet, the eight-shot .22 Hornet with a 10" barrel.
"I don't know if people would be willing to pay the price that we'd have to ask in order to make such a gun," Mehalik says. "We've also had requests for a titanium Raging Bull."
Taurus also is testing the market for a .40 revolver that would hold five rounds and be built on the same frame as the 445 and 450.
The yoke detent insures the cylinder remains closely aligned with the frame. Below the titanium barrels feature Taurus porting design, part of the recoil-taming system.
The Model 627 Tracker is available in matte stainless steel and Total Titanium in shadow gray.
Taurus revolvers have an extended ejector rod.
The titanium Model 627 Tracker in a seven-shot .357 Magnum.
Taurus revolvers and pistols feature the company's integral security system.
This year, Taurus introduced a titanium version of their PT-111 9mm pistol.
The titanium Model 445 is a .44 Spl. +P with a 2" barrel.
The Model 425 version of the titanium Tracker is chambered in .41 Magnum.
Taurus has received requests to make Total Titanium versions of the Raging Hornet and the Raging Bull.