The .45 ACP and the M1911/1911A1 are iconic American symbols. Both cartridge and firearm were designed by the premier American gun designer John Moses Browning. Both have served for nearly a century with our Armed Forces; despite having been ‘officially’ replaced more than two decades ago. Why? Because the .45 ACP is the only FMJ (‘hardball’ – ‘military’) round to have developed a solid reputation as a fight stopper.
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While there are many, many stories, perhaps none are better known than the case of Alvin York…
Just “One” Story
WWI Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Alvin York, primarily noted for his prowess with a rifle, is also known for stopping a squad of Germans using his pistol. Unlike in the 1941 movie Sergeant York which shows Gary Cooper as the title character using a Luger pistol, the actual incident involved a 1911, .45 ACP. (The prop masters couldn’t get the 1911 to properly function with blanks, so they substituted the Luger.) Colt Firearms even released a special, collector’s edition of their 1911 in his honor. As York recounts the incident in his diary (and you can see where they got the script for the film):
“In the middle of the fight a German officer and five men done jumped out of a trench and charged me with fixed bayonets. They had about twenty-five yards to come and they were coming right smart. I only had about half a clip left in my rifle; but I had my pistol ready. I done flipped it out fast and teched them off, too.
I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That's the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don't want the front ones to know that we're getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all. Of course, I hadn't time to think of that. I guess I jes naturally did it. I knowed, too, that if the front ones wavered, or if I stopped them the rear ones would drop down and pump a volley into me and get me.” – (see acacia.pair.com/Acacia.Vignettes/The.Diary.of.Alvin.York.html#The Diary)
Witness to this event was PFC Percy Beardsley who put it a bit more succinctly: “…I saw Corporal York fire his pistol repeatedly in front of me. I saw Germans who had been hit fall down...” – (see http://acacia.pair.com/Acacia.Vignettes/The.Diary.of.Alvin.York.html#AFFIDAVIT OF PRIVATE BEARDSLEY)
In fact, in 2006, Stars and Stripes reported that there was some dispute as to the actual location of the battlefield where Sgt. York performed the feats which earned him the Medal of Honor. (see www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=36670) In 2007, CBN News actually reported on the individual from the Stars and Stripes article and what he claims to have found. What was considered to be the crucial evidence needed to find the location?
“Most historians in the search, including Mastriano, agree that the key to finding the actual site would be the discovery of a concentration of empty.45 caliber cartridge casings. These casings would provide the best evidence of where York was located during the firefight. He described firing his rifle toward machine gunners on a hill before pulling out his Colt.45 automatic to shoot seven German soldiers, who had charged him. The Army's History of the 82nd Division published in 1919 recounts York emptied three complete clips from his.45 for a total of 21 rounds fired.” – (see www.cbn.com/CBNnews/100571.aspx)
While many and diverse are the battlefield stories, from WWI to the present, involving the .45 ACP and the M1911/M1911A1 pistol, the point is that they all involve the same ammunition – 230 gr. FMJ; said round meeting the specifications as laid out above. In fact, here is a portion from a more recent article entitled “In Time of War: The Israeli Answer To Terrorism” by noted, long-time firearm’s instructor/author Massad Ayoob:
“…Recent events in Afghanistan have shown the relative impotence of 9mm ball compared to the same style of .45 caliber ammunition that has been in historical evidence since before WWI. GIs in Afghanistan report that Al-Qaeda fighters are absorbing multiple 9mm ball rounds from the issue Berettas before going down, but tend to drop to one or two solid hits with .45 ball fired from the old 1911 style guns still in use by Delta Force.
The medium-caliber handgun cartridge such as the 9mm (.355” bullet diameter) or the .38 Special (.357” bullet diameter) requires an expanding bullet to best do its job of stopping human assault, while the .45 (.452” bullet diameter) has a long history of shutting off attacks with ball type ammo…” – see backwoodshome.com/articles2/ayoob81.html
What Is Sellier & Bellot?
Such an uniquely AMERICAN cartridge/firearm success story made it difficult to contemplate any ammunition made outside the States; but, given the era I grew up in, it was particularly difficult to get past the idea of dealing with a former member of the Warsaw Pact. I mean, eastern European countries were “the bad guys” not all that long ago. In fact, I’ve got to admit, the first time I heard about Sellier & Bellot and discovered it was made in the Czech Republic, I just couldn’t get John Wayne’s The Green Berets out of my head. In the first portion of the film, a Green Beret “A Team” was giving a demonstration for assembled members of the press and a small group of civilians. (Before I note the specifics, let me say that if you’ve never seen this movie, it’s worth getting just for this scene. Why? You will discover an eerily poignant, almost verbatim, recitation of today’s talking points. Just remember, this film came out in 1968.) During that presentation, a reporter named George Beckworth (David Janssen) got a little ‘aggressive’ in his criticism of the military’s involvement in Vietnam.
Master Sergeant Muldoon (Aldo Ray) and Sergeant “Doc” McGee (Raymond St. Jacques) patiently, rationally, and intellectually respond by sharing the facts with Mr. Beckworth. At the end of this exchange, Muldoon responds to Beckworth’s accusation that this was strictly a war between the Vietnamese people; “It’s their war. Let’s let them handle it.” Muldoon rhetorically asks - “Let them handle it Mr. Beckworth?” – then proceeds to point out the displayed, ‘captured’ weaponry. The last item he drops on the desk in front of Mr. Beckworth – “Ammunition… Czechoslovakian Made. Czech Communist. No sir, Mr. Beckworth. It doesn’t take a lead weight to fall on me or a hit from one of those weapons to recognize what’s involved here is Communist domination of the World…” (Hey. And I didn’t even have to ‘cheat’ by popping the movie in to make sure I remembered it. How’s that?)
If you’re of a certain age, “Czecholsovakian Made. Czech Communist.” holds some meaning for you; i.e. the Warsaw Pact(?). This is particularly true when reading the following snippet from the Sellier & Bellot website: “During its 182-year history, Sellier & Bellot has become one of the most significant world producers of ammunition for small firearms.” However, time marches on. The Berlin Wall fell. The Russians are ‘friendly’ and we no longer look for “Communists” under the bed or in the halls of government…
Uh, well, ummm…
In April of 2009, Sellier & Bellot was placed under the multi-national corporate umbrella of Brazil based CBC - Companhia Brasileira de Cartuchos; the same corporate entity which owns MagTech. Such mergers have now become the norm; e.g., ATK which incorporates Speer, Federal, RCBS, et al. The short version is that they produce quality ammunition. I was shocked at just how high quality much of it actually is.
When looking at ammunition, the first question which comes up is what was/is the ‘standard’ by which to measure the ballistics of the .45 ACP. The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) specs cite use of a 5” test barrel (consistent with a full-size, Government Model, 1911 style pistol) and 830 f.p.s. velocity at 15’ from the muzzle for 230 gr. MC-FMC (FMJ). The trouble is that they also cite a ‘margin’ of… ready?... plus or minus 90 f.p.s.!!! That’s a pretty wide range. Think about it. The range they are listing is from a low of 740 f.p.s. to a high of 920 f.p.s. The low end of this range might necessitate a ‘light’ recoil spring and, while not quite up to true P levels, the high end of SAAMI’s margin is definitely touching the low end of the P velocities and isn’t something I’d like to feed my 1911 a regular diet of, especially without a slightly ‘heavier’ recoil spring.
Another problem with this wide a range is the potential for inconsistency. Frankly, if a single box or lot of ammunition from the same manufacturer ranged that much, individuals would have trouble keeping things on target. Viewed another way, SAAMI specs allow for a margin of error equivalent to 21.7% in the .45 ACP (180 divided by 830). While that may be suitable from the standpoint of variance among different manufacturers, we’ve got to be able to do better than that in determining a standard for a single manufacturer’s product; thereby, giving us some basis for comparison among different lots and makers.
Since the M1911 and the M1911A1 are the archetypes and progenitors for most, though certainly not all, of the .45 ACP chambered pistols now on the market, let’s look at what the standard was for these. According to Hatcher’s Notebook…
“The Pistol Ammunition furnished for the National Matches during the period under discussion was loaded to the regular service specifications calling for a 230 grain bullet loaded to a muzzle velocity of 810 feet per second… A typical load was that of the 1929 National Match pistol cartridge… giving an instrumental velocity at 25 feet of 816 feet per second…” (p. 393)
National Match ammo is generally considered to be ‘premium’ ammunition; not because it is, of necessity, a different load, but because it undergoes more stringent quality control. A few pages earlier, in a schematic of the “Cartridge, Ball, cal. .45, M1911,” the following statement is provided…
“Charge of smokeless pistol powder to give 820 /- 25 ft. per sec. velocity at 25 ½ feet in pistol, automatic cal. .45 M1911A1.” (p. 351)
The 1940 published FM 23-35, Basic Field Manual, Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911 & M1911A1, declares that…
“One model of .45 caliber ball cartridge and one model of .45 caliber dummy cartridge are authorized for use in the caliber .45 automatic pistol. These cartridges are designated – (1) Cartridge, ball, cal. .45, M1911… Average velocity at 25 feet from muzzle, 800 feet per second.” (pp. 16 & 17)
A 1986 reprint of an American Rifleman booklet by the National Rifle Association entitled The .45 Automatic posits the following…
“Reliable functioning of this pistol [the 1911A1] requires ammunition which works the mechanism with some reserve power. The Service cartridge with 230-gr. metal-jacketed bullet at 830 feet per second (f.p.s.) is somewhat more than adequate for this purpose…” (p. 6)
Finally, if we look at what is arguably the most popular .45 ACP ‘hardball’ factory load currently on the American market, the Winchester USA (“white-box”) specs are listed by the company as: 230 gr. FMJ (full-metal jacket) with a ‘muzzle’ velocity of 835 f.p.s. Thus, it becomes apparent that we do not need to look for a ‘standard’ of ballistics measurement. It has been there from the beginning. This is what the 1911 archetype was designed to function with. The round has served our Armed Forces from 1911 to this day; for, despite the politics-driven adoption of the 9mm cartridge in 1985, modern manufacture, along with WWI and WWII era production, 1911’s and 1911A1’s still see active service in the field with U.S. service members.
Put in a nutshell, the ‘standard’ for .45 ACP ‘hardball’ is precisely what Hatcher cited all those years ago: a 230 gr. FMJ bullet with a velocity of 820 f.p.s. – plus or minus 25 f.p.s. – said velocity measured 25 feet from the muzzle of a full-size, government model, 1911 or 1911A1 style pistol. That gives a low end of 795 f.p.s. and a high end of 845 f.p.s.; a margin of 6.1% or less than 1/3 the margin allowed for by SAAMI specs.
Sellier & Bellot Factory Specs
45 ACP FMJ 230 gr.
Velocity (ft./sec.) = 853 at the muzzle of a 5” test barrel; with a 'zero' at 25 yds.
[Note: I've hit targets during matches at 75 yards with .45 ACP; but, I don't see this as a 'long-distance' cartridge and 50 yards, as per the military specs, is pushin' it in the context of practical accuracy for most people.]
This velocity rating puts the Sellier & Bellot factory outside the traditional standard, but directly in the middle of SAAMI standards. However, since factory specs are one thing and performance “in the field” is something different. Thus, I went out to see what this would do…
I set up a Chrony F1 (chronograph) and measured a distance 10 feet from the muzzle. (I know that I just said SAAMI measured 15’ from the muzzle and military specs called for 25’ from the muzzle. First, you don’t need to be that far; 10’ is sufficient to mitigate the muzzle blast’s potential to influence the chronograph results in this handgun caliber. Second, all testing was done offhand. Finally, if you want to set up your chronograph at eight yards and not worry about inadvertently shooting the unit while simultaneously hitting ‘the sweet spot’ between the arms…) The elevation was 5,500 ft., on a clear day with temperatures hovering around 70 - 75 degrees F and relative humidity around 35%.
The test gun was a military spec 1911; i.e., your basic ‘rear’-in-the-grass .45 Government Model. Bearing in mind that I am not a ‘gun writer’ with access to manufacturer’s in terms of obtaining ‘donated’ ammunition for testing, the sample size is, of necessity, a bit small. Be that as it may, 10 rounds from two different boxes/lots of Sellier & Bellot 45 Auto, 230 grs. FMJ to establish the following results:
Mean Velocity = 842.17 f.p.s.
High = 852.7 f.p.s.; Low = 830.8 f.p.s. – ES (Extreme Spread) = 21.9 f.p.s.
Standard Deviation (SD) = 7.799
While this puts it well within SAAMI specs, it also puts just inside the traditional military ‘standard.’ While I know of no ‘official’ marker for standard deviation on factory ammo sold on the civilian market, an SD of around 20 has always been a bit of a rule of thumb; with low-end ammo starting to verge on ‘unacceptable’ around 30 or so and ‘match’ ammo having an SD of somewhere around 7 – 10. Remember, you’re talking about assembly line production, not individually weighed handloads.
Viewed from that perspective, an SD of 7.799 is as good as it will ever get in factory, ‘value’ ammunition. In a very real sense, this is virtually ‘match grade’ ammunition; with consistency being a key to accuracy…
It’s been nearly 20 years since I actively shot Bullseye and IPSC competition. I didn’t shoot anywhere near the thousands of rounds per week that champions such as Rob Leatham or Doug Koenig average; nor did I ever come close to Bob Munden’s speed. But, I did get rounds downrange and have a handful of plaques to show for it.
Now? Well… I’ll admit to being able to hit the broadside of a barn – provided it’s not moving and I’m standing inside. It’s not that I can’t hit what I aim at – most of the time. It’s that I’m not going to be winning any Bullseye matches in the near future. Further, I have none of the technological aids which help to take the ‘human factor’ out of accuracy tests; e.g., a proper rest such as a Ransom Rest. While I’m too far out of practice to have competitive speed, as for the practical accuracy necessary for IPSC…
I filled two magazines with Sellier & Bellot 230 gr. FMJ, set a silhouette (“B27”) target with at a measured 25 yards and proceeded to rapid fire through both magazines. I used to be able to change mags on a locked back slide and be rockin’ in roughly ¾ of a second. Let’s say that the mag change was a trifle slower this time and the overall time probably wouldn’t have even put my name in the results bulletin, but it was still rapid fire. Additionally, I did a stance change every 3-4 shots; Weaver, modified isosceles, squat, kneel, and lean. ALL rounds ended up inside the black. (Folks… This ain’t braggin’. If you’re a shooter, you’d appreciate the hilarious spectacle I would have made had anyone been looking.)
Well, the cases all fell into a nice, neat group. There were no Failures to Feed (FTF) or Failures to Eject (FTE)…
Oh. You mean with the target…
They all stayed inside the “9” ring; with 4 “X.” So, I set up a target with an 8” black at a measured 15 yards and went through another two magazines, offhand, with the small government sights, rhythmic fire (not as fast as you could dump ‘em, but no messing around between trigger squeezes). The result? Not only all black, but everything inside 6 inches. (No. I won’t mention the “X” count this time. THAT could be construed as braggin’.)
An Issue For Reloaders
In a sense, Sellier & Bellot cases are every bit as good as Winchester’s. As I’ve noted in my other ammunition reviews, I never load a case to failure. For autoloading firearms, I do around 5 or 6 loads and then deposit said case in the brass bucket and the Sellier & Bellot has held up well under those parameters. This is why I didn’t quite understand the rumors I was hearing about guys leaving these cases on the range while policing all the other brass.
I learned that part of the trouble stemmed from the fact that while most of the Sellier & Bellot ammunition is Boxer primed, certain of their ‘low-end’ series are Berdan primed; with unconfirmed rumors floating around that a Berdan primed case slips through now and again. (In fact, Sellier & Bellot actually markets Berdan primers.) One source informs me that you used to be able to tell by the red sealant visible on the base of the case. However, as I pointed out, even the Boxer primed ammunition now comes with this red ‘marker;’ making it impossible to tell at a glance. With a rumor being as good as a ‘fact’ in many circles, I can see where many shooters wouldn’t figure it was worth the trouble.
Based on my personal experience, however, I think the main culprit is the fact that every few cases in a given box will have very tight primers. The first time I reloaded Sellier & Bellot brass, I had several cases “pop the top” on my Lee Decapping Die; it’s designed to have the pin emerge from the top of the die if too much pressure (enough to potentially damage the pin) is exerted attempting to remove a primer. While an irritating circumstance, it is decidedly preferable to breaking a pin; something I would certainly have accomplished with an ordinary decapping die. How do I know that? Because, I dug out my Lee Decapping Pin and Base, the one every Classic Lee Loader (see link below) contains. The way the Lee Decapping Pin and Base works is you set the case in the base, insert the pin through the case mouth until it touches bottom, then gently tap the top of the pin with a plastic headed hammer. Well, though you don’t have to ‘ring the bell,’ some of the Sellier & Bellot primers take a bit more than a gentle ‘tap.’ On the other end, such tight primer pockets can create issues with slightly ‘large-ish’ primers.
While I’ve found this to be more prevalent in the 9mm Luger than with their other calibers, it’s still something to be aware of…
In The Final Analysis
While this niggles at the patriotism, I have to admit (Oh, say it ain’t so!) that the Sellier & Bellot puts the Winchester “white box” load very much in the shade in terms of consistency. As a friend of mine has opined for decades: “Predictability leads to credibility.” I’ve modified that to say: “Consistency leads to predictability and predictability leads to credibility.” In terms of 230 gr. FMJ factory loads for the .45 ACP, in this context, I haven’t found anything more credible; at least not with enough of a difference to make it worth that much more.
Speaking of cost… Sellier & Bellot 230 gr. FMJ has gone for as much as $50 this year due to the shortage. Online, Cabela’s, when they have it, lists it for $20.99 per box of 50. However, that’s the lowest price I’ve seen and (maybe as a result?) Cabela’s seems to have it on near permanent backorder. Average price seems to be around $24 - $25 a box. Given that you can get (again, when they have it) a 100 round box of the Winchester “white box” from Wal-Mart and Cabela’s for $30 and $41 respectively, you are, in a sense, paying for that extra quality.
Whew. That soothes the old flag-waving nationalism a bit. Until…
With the ammunition shortage this year, popular handgun cartridges have been hard to come by; a situation about to be made much worse with California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger having signed A.B. 962 into law this last weekend. As a result, brand loyalties have had and may continue to take a back seat to what’s available. The trouble is that many people are unfamiliar with many of even the more popular options. While this is not completely surprising in that once you find a factory load that works for your firearm, you tend to stick with that brand, it is problematic when that particular brand is not available on the store shelf and might not be for some time to come.
Don’t underestimate the effect that California’s new law is going to have on the availability of handgun ammo in the next year; or, until there is a successful court challenge. Cabela’s has already put their California customers on notice. In fact, the morning after Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law, Cabela’s moved their Ammunition sub-menu from the bottom of their “Shooting Gear” page, to the first position at the top. Even more prosaic was that I happened to be browsing Cabela’s and saw they had Winchester “white box” in stock for the 100 packs. Going to bed, figuring I could order it in the morning, I got up to find that, within 8 hours of the Governator having signed the bill, they were out-of-stock for an estimated minimum of 4 – 5 weeks.
Other online dealers (with comparable pricing) have placed limits on the number of boxes per customer; having already had them there for awhile. Likewise, the shortage has created circumstances with some online retailers where, if you’re not set up to receive email alerts on your blackberry, you will miss out in that the ammunition will be “Sold Out” in, literally, a couple of hours – at most. On top of all this, you need to remember that California has just over 12% of the country’s population. Even with the economy the way it is, I already hear a great sucking vacuum as Californians hurry to stockpile what they can (despite the fact that, the way I understand it, the law doesn’t take effect until early 2011). I can’t say I blame ‘em. It’s just that it potentially makes a bad situation vis a vis the shortage even worse.
Say It Ain't So...
Review Cited Above
The Classic Lee Loader: Nearly As Useful As The .30-06 Itself For Tyro Or Pro
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