Author Archives: Fishbreath

The Crossbox Podcast: Episode 22 – Sacred Cows Edition

In this episode, we talk about guns (lots of guns), and how sci-fi designers can’t design them; about Star Wars and space flight games; and about red dots on pistols, and how we can’t design experiments to save our lives.

Further reading

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Fishbreath Hefts: ALICE (large) Hellcat Pack Review Part II

The year is 2017. Your correspondent recently purchased and reviewed an ALICE large field pack and frame, plus some modifications, to make a package sometimes known as the ALICE Hellcat1. Or rather, reviewed in part: no review of field gear can be considered complete without some actual field time, and that’s what this article addresses.

If you, like me, do not live under a rock, you may have heard that there was recently (at time of writing) a total solar eclipse. You can be sure I wasn’t going to miss my chance at seeing one, and you can be similarly sure that I wasn’t going to spend the money on a hotel. Some college friends decided a camping trip was in order, and I decided to tag along. The destination: Shawnee National Forest. The plan: unimproved camping near the Garden of the Gods2.

That brings me to the first part of this review: how roomy is the pack? Well, it’s complicated. The ALICE pack is shorter than your average backpacking pack from top to bottom, but wider and deeper. This has its upsides and its downsides. In the bottom of the pack, I could fit things next to my sleeping bag in both directions—both toward the front face of the pack3 and to the sides. I packed my ground cloth in front of my sleeping bag, and used the space to the side for the base of my tent.

On that note, my gear generally is not backpacking gear—although I grew up camping, I mostly grew up camping out of cars. The family two-man tent comes in a bag twenty-seven inches tall, and weighs something like eight or ten pounds4. My sleeping bag is a backpacking model, I suppose, but it’s also a three-season bag, and as such doesn’t pack down as small as a summer model might. In general, I made no particular effort to bring lightweight or compact gear, and overpacked generally for the sake of the experiment5. I ended up with a pack which weighed about thirty-five or forty pounds and filled most of the available volume of the pack. As the packing list in the footnote there suggests, this was not an ultralight or even an efficient trip. Packing as luxuriously as I did, an overnight or weekend trip is plausible. I expect I would have very little trouble packing for a longer stay if I had more appropriate gear—with access to water on-site, compact dehydrated food, and no extra-fancy mess equipment, I suspect I could pack a good week’s worth of summer clothing.

Now that we’ve loaded the pack, we can talk about how it fits and how well it carries weight. As far as fit goes, I don’t know if I could recommend it to someone very much taller than me. As I said in the previous article, I’m USGI-standard height, a hair over 5’9″. The MOLLE straps on my frame can be adjusted to ride lower on it (thereby moving the hip pad nearer to the shoulder straps for a shorter person), but they’re already at the upper limit of their adjustment. On my back, the pack fits perfectly, with the MOLLE hip belt extending from about belly-button height to my hip bones. I had a few taller people give it a try, and it didn’t fit them nearly as well. I suspect there is some further room for adjustment—by lengthening the bottom of the shoulder straps, the pack could be made to ride lower, and likely fit long torsos better—but the primary adjustment, that effected by moving the entire yoke up and down, is only really useful for average-to-short men and short-to-tall women.

We’ve established it fits people my size and smaller well. How does the ALICE Hellcat carry weight, though? As described above, the ALICE pack is short and squat relative to modern backpacking gear. Taller, flatter packs, such as the latter, put the center of gravity higher and closer to your back. Well-packed, they’ll primarily press down on your hips; the shoulder straps are primarily to stabilize the load and keep it close to your body. The load on the shoulders tends to be a downward load. The ALICE pack is a little different. It is, once again, short. Even with a sleeping roll lashed to the top, it only comes up to about the middle of my head. It doesn’t exert a downward force exclusively; rather, it exerts a sort of pivoting torque in addition to downward pressure. It’s as though the waist belt is an axle, and the pack is trying to fall away from your back.

I wouldn’t characterize this as bad, though. It’s just different. The weight on the shoulder straps, is on your upper chest just below the shoulders. The pivoting movement helps to hold the pack onto the hip pad. My forty-pound pack was no less comfortable than I would expect out of a more traditional pack. Some adjustment of the shoulder straps is necessary; there’s a middle ground I had to find between, “Too tight up top, weighing on my shoulders,” and, “Too loose up top, pulling me backwards.” Once I found it, though, I found myself able to carry it neither bent forward nor pulled backward, and as an added bonus, the smaller top-to-bottom height made for easier crouching under obstacles.

As far as hiking goes, we only had to walk a few hundred yards in total with our packs. I can’t speak to the Hellcat’s comfort over the course of a long hike. I have no reason to think it would be significantly worse than it was with my static testing and light hiking. The MOLLE straps are excellently padded and provided good comfort, even when loaded heavily by backpacking standards.

So, we got to the campsite. How is the pack to live with? Again, not bad, if perhaps not up to the same standard as present-day backpacking gear. One of the bigger things to note (again) is that the ALICE rucksack has no bottom access. It’s traditional to pack a sleeping bag at the bottom of the pack: something bulky but not terribly heavy. Many modern packs have a zipper or some other means by which items at the very bottom of the pack may be gotten at without having to unpack everything on top of them. With the Hellcat, you have to pack a little more carefully. Follow the two cardinal rules of packing (rarely accessed things go at the bottom, eavy things go closer to the frame) and you’ll be fine.

All convenience is not lost, though. The ALICE large pack has six exterior pockets, plus one pocket in the top flap. The six pockets come in three different sizes: three small (up top), two medium (on the sides down below), and one large (bottom center). The large pocket fits a mess kit and notebook with room to spare. The medium pockets are roughly three-espresso-cup moka pot-sized. The small pockets are large enough to fit a hard-sided glasses case, or an alcohol burner, pot rack, and folded aluminum foil windbreak. All are easily accessible without opening the pack or even loosening the compression straps. The top flap pocket was originally designated a map pocket and is not rated for heavy items, but it is very roomy. It easily held my maps, flashlight, phone, charger, cables, and earbuds, and could have fit much more.

The lashing points, too, are a wonderful piece of old-time fun. Putting the MOLLE straps onto the ALICE frame yielded a pair of straps used to secure the ALICE shoulder straps to the frame; I borrowed those, ran them through the buckles on my British P37 canteen carrier, and attached it to the outside of my pack. There are a good dozen or so lashing points spread out over the pack. The full Hellcat pack uses some of them to attach the MOLLE sleep system carrier, and potentially uses others to attach the MOLLE sustainment pouches, but even that would leave a number of them open for other gear. The compression straps are also very generous in length, and can readily be used both to hold gear to the top of the pack (I had a fire kit, a sleeping pad, and a spare water bottle up there) and to tie it to the bottom of the pack. If you want more strappage, you can find MOLLE accessory straps on Amazon which should serve just fine for lashing items to the pack.

Speaking of lashing and straps, the pack has exactly zero zippers. All the external pockets close with snaps. The main compartment has a drawstring closure, and the compression straps hold the top flap down on top of it. Despite that lack, I didn’t find opening the pack to be all that inconvenient. A little on the slow side, perhaps, since you generally have to loosen both compression straps, but certainly livable.

Lastly, the ALICE pack is definitively not waterproof, or even water resistant, and doesn’t come with a pack cover or dry bags6. You’ll have to work out your own solution for keeping things dry. For myself, it was lots of ziploc bags, some garbage bags, and one garbage bag big enough to serve as a pack cover. The lack of waterproofing out of the box is freeing, in a sense; it doesn’t lock you into any one solution.

So, the bottom line. Is it worth the buy? Provided it fits you, I say it is. My pack cost $70, including shipping, and if you have a nearby surplus store you can probably find one for a similar price. (That is, the pack and the frame together.) The MOLLE straps and belt came to about $30, again including shipping, and again with the similar caveat about brick-and-mortar storefronts. For the money, you get more pack, and more durable pack, than you might shopping for a traditional backpacking pack on the same budget. That said, I wouldn’t pay much more than $100 for the whole setup unless you’re very into the Hellcat’s modularity7. Once you get to, say, $150, you’re in the range where you can get a used or discounted pack from REI. $200 will buy you a new one. The quality of life there is, admittedly, better, and you have a warranty to go with it.

All told, though, I’m happy with my purchase. For my very occasional backpacking trips, a proper pack makes little financial sense. For a solid discount over even cheap hiking packs, I have something which works very nearly as well. Who can argue with that?


  1. Well, kind of. As I say in the previous article, one of the characteristics of the Hellcat is the MOLLE sleep system carrier attached to the bottom of the ALICE medium pack; I just went for a large pack right off the bat, which yields approximately the same capacity. 
  2. The one in Illinois, obviously, not the one in Colorado. 
  3. That is, the side opposite the straps. 
  4. It’s an excellent tent. It’s been bone-dry inside after taking a full day of rain on the fly. It just isn’t small or light. 
  5. For reference, I brought the following: sleeping bag and pad, tent, large cooking pot, mess kit, dinner for the whole group (three cans of chunk chicken, two boxes of rice and beans), an alcohol-burning stove, pot stand, and foil windbreak, a moka pot for coffee, coffee and stove fuel, a hoodie, cargo pants and cargo shorts, pajama pants, three t-shirts, three pairs each of underwear and socks, my trusty P37 canteen, a separate 20-oz. water bottle, maps, phone charger, sunglasses, various plastic bags to hold things and serve as pack covers, a pad for sitting on, and earbuds. 
  6. At least mine didn’t. It was issued with dry bags, though, and the full kit list did include a pack cover. 
  7. Which is to say, you like the idea of bringing the sleep system carrier and sustainment pouches as necessary, or leaving them behind when you don’t need them. 

Fishbreath Hefts: ALICE (large) Hellcat Pack Review Part I

The year is 1975. The brand-new ALICE load-carrying equipment has been released, and it brings relief for American soldiers worldwide from a system of equipment which has its roots in the mid-1950s. Improved webbing, nylon for everyone, not just the men in Vietnam, better pouches, suspenders, and belts, and at last, a proper frame pack as part of the general issue kit1, with both a medium and large rucksack available.

ALICE generally, though it’s an interesting system and what I would call the first truly modern American load-carrying equipment pattern2, is not our topic for today. Our topic for today is, instead, the ALICE pack frame, its associated belts and straps, and the large ALICE rucksack.

First, the frame. Primarily constructed of tubular aluminum, it also has some flat aluminum crossmembers for rigidity. Some D-rings at the top provide a place for shoulder straps to attach, and the waist pad attaches through larger D-rings at the bottom. Some holes in the waist pad bracing provide bottom attachment points for the shoulder straps. The ALICE straps need no further attachment points, and accordingly, the frame doesn’t provide them.

Next, the rucksack itself. As packs go, it’s very large, but not quite as large as your average expedition pack. I’ve seen figures from 3800 to 5000 cubic inches cited (about 65L to 80L, for you metric fans/backpackers), which ranges from ‘enough for long trips with smart packing’ to ‘enough for long trips’. Curiously, given American experience in Vietnam, the pack itself is not waterproof3. There is a waterproof compartment in the lid, but it isn’t large enough to fit much or rated for heavy weights. The pockets and main compartment all feature drain holes to let out any water that gets in.

Speaking of external pockets, it has six: three large ones at the bottom, and three smaller ones nearer the top of the pack. The bottom pockets close by means of straps, as does the main pack; the bottom pockets, at least, feature snaps for quick-opening goodness4. The main compartment is divided in two; a smaller, secondary compartment on the frame side has inside compression straps. (It might also be a place to put a water bladder, if you have such a thing.) This compartment is absurdly spacious by backpacking standards; although it isn’t especially large in the absolute sense, the maximum cross-sectional area of the pack is significantly greater than your average modern backpacking pack5 of the same size. The outside of the pack is festooned with gear attachment points, loops of fabric through which you can tie, lash, or otherwise secure equipment to the pack. Of course, being a 1970s-vintage pack, it has none of the modern conveniences like bottom access, vertically separated internal compartments, a built-in rain cover, a dedicated hydration bladder compartment, zippers, a water bottle pocket… In the interests of saving space, let me say this instead. It is a large sack with pockets. That’s about all there is to it.

The large pack fits onto the frame by means of a large padded envelope at its top edge, as well as some retaining straps which attach to the frame near the bottom. The padded envelope at the top does double duty as the padding on the pack side of a more modern yoke. And, to be honest, it doesn’t do a very good job.

Let’s back up a bit first. I ordered an ALICE pack from an eBay surplus outlet because I wanted something I could take on backpacking trips (in particular, a camping trip for the upcoming eclipse) that I couldn’t break, and something which wouldn’t break the bank. Military surplus fits the bill on both accounts, and ALICE is cheaper and yes, more hipster than the current state-of-the-American-art, MOLLE6. Then I put it on, and realized that, although the frame and pack are solid, the parts you actually have to wear are not.

First: the shoulder straps. That’s literally all they are. Very little padding and no sternum strap. Nobody ever told the GI of the day that soldiering would be easy, but for a pack designed to carry a load of seventy pounds7, adding an extra eight ounces of softness in the straps seems like a no-brainer that the Army managed to brainlessly miss. The waist belt is a similar case: the padding reaches more or less from kidney to kidney; the official name for the padded piece is the ‘kidney pad’. It’s maybe three inches from top to bottom and eight across, and remember, behind the kidney pad there are two D-rings to hold it and nothing else. The pad has to isolate the wearer from a lot of force applied over a very small area. It doesn’t pay to skimp. Lastly, the padded envelope at the top of the pack does not do a very good job at keeping the frame off of the wearer’s back. I wore it for five minutes unloaded, and there was very little comfort to speak of. Something would have to change.

Fortunately, there is a solution. The ALICE pack is still popular among some ex-military who liked it during their days in the service, and also has a following among the prepper crowd8, as well as in the cheap-outdoorsman crowd (to which yours truly belongs). Someone from one or another crowd worked out how to attach the MOLLE yoke and waist belt to the ALICE frame, making what the internet calls the ALICE Hellcat9. Since I had foreseen the problems with the raw ALICE gear, I ordered some surplus MOLLE items at the same time. The MOLLE pack straps are a proper yoke, with padding for the upper back; the MOLLE waist pad is gigantic—it wraps around nearly to the front of my hips—and both stiffer and softer than the ALICE equivalent.

I won’t repeat the build instructions here; you can find them pretty easily by searching for ‘ALICE Hellcat’. After some time spent in assembly10, and some time spent with a kitchen lighter melting a frayed strap end back to something approaching integrity, I was ready to try it out. Most of my camping gear lives away from my apartment, so I had to improvise. A pillow on the bottom of the pack simulated a sleeping bag. A pair of ammo cans and a bunch of 7.62×39 simulated my heavy kit—rations, tent, mess and cooking equipment. Those ended up pushed against the frame by ‘clothes’, another pillow stuffed in the front and top of the pack. I cinched everything down, put the pack on, and tightened up up the straps. All told, the load was about 35 pounds, and the pack weighs five or six pounds itself.

And it was surprisingly comfortable. I’ve heard bad things about ALICE, even with the MOLLE upgrades, but in ten minutes of wearing the pack around my apartment11 with a fairly heavy load by backpacking standards12, I experienced neither the bounce and wobble people talk about (the MOLLE waist belt doesn’t quite fit the ALICE frame perfectly; it’s a touch loose) nor the frame digging into my back at any point. I should note that I’m very nearly ALICE-sized: the frame was designed with a 5’10” man in mind, and I am a 5’9″ man. Larger or smaller people may have different experiences. The MOLLE straps in particular are a worthwhile investment. Proper padding at the top of the pack is payoff enough for the price of admission. Beyond that, they also have a sternum strap and load-adjustment straps, so you can change the weight balance between hips and shoulders on the fly. Beyond the serious ergonomic gains, I now have some spare ALICE attachment straps I intend to loop through some of the lashing points for utility purposes. For instance, they may carry my Pattern 37 British canteen, so I have some water on the outside of the pack. In a similar vein, I expect I could use them to secure other parts of my Pattern 37 webbing to the pack if I need extra capacity.

That’s all the testing I did—or at least all the testing I’m going to report before the inaugural trip. “It works in my apartment” is not a ringing endorsement of outdoors gear, and there are some outstanding questions about this setup. Will my frame attachment straps hold? Does the pack provide adequate access to supplies on the march? Will the lack of waterproofing be a serious problem? The trip is in about two weeks, and although it’s only an overnight, it should provide a much better indication of how the Hellcat Light works in actual practice. Expect Part II after I return.


  1. It’s my understanding that frame packs were issued starting in about 1965, but they were issued alongside the 1956 and 1967-pattern load-carrying gear, rather than being part of either set. 
  2. I think a reasonable marker for modern load-carrying gear is, “Has an associated frame pack.” By that measure, the British didn’t have modern load-carrying gear until the Pattern of 1985 PLCE. 
  3. It may be that American experience in Vietnam suggested that making something with as much stitching as pack waterproof was doomed from the start. Troops were issued waterproof liners of various sizes instead. 
  4. Not as quick as a zipper, obviously. 
  5. The ALICE packs had to fit above a pistol belt, so rather than build tall, they built wide and deep instead. 
  6. It’s a shame we didn’t name our other web kit so creatively. BETTY in WW2, say. I suppose acroynm-sanity is a modern phenomenon. 
  7. S.L.A. Marshall wasn’t even dead yet, and he still would have been rolling in his grave. 
  8. Because it’s surplus, and preppers love them some surplus. 
  9. Technically, the standard Hellcat is a medium ALICE ruck on the ALICE frame. The medium pack rides high enough to put a MOLLE sleep system carrier beneath it, attaching to some of the pack lashing points. This makes for a pack about as large as the unmodified large ALICE rucksack in volume terms, with extra compartmentalization, which substitutes for bottom access. If ever I’m interested in a serious backpacking trip, though, I can still add the sleep system carrier and/or MOLLE sustainment pouches; doing both with the large rucksack makes a pack with something like 8000 cubic inches/130L of volume, which is more gear than I could carry for very far. 
  10. When connecting the MOLLE straps to the ALICE frame, the attachment straps make two laps. Once around the frame, once through the buckle, then repeat around the frame and through the buckle again. Otherwise they slip. 
  11. To my wife’s amusement. 
  12. I’m not an experienced backpacker by any means, but it’s my understanding that packs north of thirty pounds are out of vogue among the lightweight backpacking set nowadays. 

Fishbreath Shoots: CZ P-09 .40 S&W Review

If you read a certain previous article of mine, you might remember that I decided to build a USPSA Limited race gun out of a CZ P-09. Well, my base model P-09 arrived, I took it to the range, and now I have some thoughts for you.

The Gun

The CZ P-09 is a full-size, polymer-frame, double-action pistol. In common with all of CZ’s handguns, the slide rides inside the frame. The slide is cut down in the front to save weight, swelling to the usual squared-off profile at the ejection port. CZ provides an accessory rail forward of the oversize trigger guard. As is common with your polymer pistols, it comes with three interchangeable backstraps.

One of the innovations CZ brought to the table with the P-07 and P-09 is the so-called Omega trigger system. The most interesting feature thereof is the safety. From the box, the P-09 comes with a decocker installed—a pure decocker, unlike the safety/decocker on my Berettas1. Push down on it, and the hammer falls to the safety half-cock position without risk of falling all the way to the firing pin2. Provided in the box, though, and easy to swap to, is a pure manual safety. It can’t be engaged while the hammer is down, and offers no way to safely drop the hammer. All it does is prevent the sear from disengaging while activated. Swapping the decocker for the safety (or vice versa) is a five-minute job, and more or less tool-free3. As I mentioned in the race gun proposal article linked above, the option for a pure safety was a major driver of my choice of the P-09 over the Beretta 96.

Size and Feel

The P-09 is a duty-size pistol. Compared to my M9, it’s very slightly shorter nose-to-beavertail, roughly the same width at the slide, and significantly taller. Unlike with the M9, however, I can hit the P-09’s magazine release without breaking my grip. The P-09’s grip thins toward the top, where the strong-side thumb goes, and this gives me enough extra wraparound to get my thumb to the generously-sized button. I had planned, in my race gun build, on adding the extended magazine release. Turns out I won’t need to.

The sides of the grip are nicely textured, and the backstraps have substantial knobbly bits to hold your hand in place. The front of the grip has the most aggressive texture I’ve seen on a bog-standard factory gun. It proved highly effective on a hot, sweaty day at the pistol bay. Textured patches on the left and right of the frame above the trigger guard provide a nice obvious place to put one’s finger when off the trigger.

The controls are nicely sized and well-placed, even for my average-sized hands. The safety is easy to flip off and difficult to engage, accidentally or otherwise. The trigger reach is significantly shorter than on the M9. I do quibble with the placement of the slide release—it’s far forward, and would be hard to hit under pressure—but in the manual, CZ recommends the slingshot method for dropping the slide from slide lock. With that out of the way, there’s little need for an easily manipulable slide release.

Now, for a few final notes. Despite being bulkier than the M9, it’s lighter. Not tremendously lighter, but notably so. It’s also less well balanced, which should come as no surprise. Polymer pistols always have that issue; a metal-framed pistol is going to have a more favorable center of gravity (nearer your hands) in both loaded and unloaded conditions. Lastly, both are similar in terms of grip angle, which is shallower than that of, say, a Glock. If you’re coming from that direction, there will be a bit of transition to get the point of aim down.

Disassembly and Ease of Maintenance

The P-09 field strips in the same manner as CZs the world around: pull back on the slide a hair to line up a notch on the slide with a notch on the frame, then pop the slide release out with the corner of a magazine. The slide comes off, and then you have a pretty standard tilting-barrel pistol. Compress the recoil spring, remove it from its shoulder on the barrel, remove the barrel. Mine came from the box in desperate need of lubrication, but after a liberal coat of oil, it slides much more freely.

Deeper maintenance, on the other hand, seems a bit trickier. Most of the components of the action—ejector, lifter, sear, double-action roller—ride on one pin. The hammer and disconnector, which are pinned together, ride on the hammer pin. The firing pin and related parts are retained by a roll pin, that nemesis of home gunsmiths everywhere. I’ll have more to report on this front when I get into its guts for my various race gun modifications.

Range Notes

I swung by the local gun shop, picked up two boxes of Remington UMC4 180-grain .40 S&W, and hit the range at lunchtime today. One hundred rounds isn’t enough to draw serious conclusions, but nevertheless, here we are.

Trigger

Out of the box, surprisingly poor in single action. On my M9, which hasn’t seen any trigger tuning beyond a lighter hammer spring, even sitting down, watching my finger rather than the sights, and dry-firing with every effort to find creep, there’s very little to be had. The takeup, which pushes the firing pin plunger out of the way, is distinct from the actual trigger pull.

The P-09 is, in comparison, not great. The takeup is less smooth, building to what feels almost like a striker-fired wall (or a ‘rolling break’, if you want to use the euphemism). This is extremely noticeable sitting and dry-firing, if you’re looking for it; it’s less obvious on the range. Even being below my Beretta-based standard for a double-action trigger, it’s as good or better than the best factory-made striker-fired triggers5.

Neither gun is anything to write home about shooting double action. The Beretta is lighter, which is expected based on the lighter hammer spring, but also smoother. It doesn’t matter, really; with the safety installed on the CZ, the double-action pull is an in-case-of-failure-only tool.

Accuracy

I’m not a pistol marksman, neither on the level of major gun reviewers nor even on the scale of our own parvusimperator. I am an average shot at best, so I won’t bore you with tales of bench shooting, or a picture of a terrible 25-yard target.

That said, the P-09 seems to suit me pretty well. This was my first range trip; the first shot out of the first magazine at my traditional 7-yard familiarization target ended up dead on in the center ring. The 15-yard plate rack at the local range is a traditional nemesis of mine, and I managed to clear it with the dregs of my second box right before leaving. It points naturally. The night sights on mine out of the box are blockier, more target sight than I would prefer on a competition gun. They are night sights, though, which are pretty cool.

Recoil

Here we come to one of the more interesting results. The P-09 is a very soft-shooting .40; it doesn’t feel that much punchier than the M9. The typically low CZ bore axis has something to do with it, I’m sure, converting the muzzle flip into much more controllable backward force. The choice of recoil spring may have some effect on proceedings, too. Either way, it’s much more pleasant to shoot than I expected it to be.

Reliability

Two boxes of good ammo is hardly enough to say one way or another, but I had no failures of any kind.

Conclusions

As usual, I won’t muck about with star ratings. I will say, however, that the P-09 presents an excellent value proposition. The version I got, which includes night sights and three magazines, set me back just over $500 from Bud’s Gun Shop, including transfer fee. For that price, you get a handgun with industry-leading magazine capacity, excellent controllability, good ergonomics, and a passable trigger. If you like your guns double action, as Saint Browning intended6, this one’s a good buy.


  1. Rather, it’s like the pure decocker available on other Berettas. 
  2. Unlike my Berettas, it does not appear to rotate any part of the firing pin out of the way, though. 
  3. Unless you have excellent fine motor control, you’ll need needle-nose pliers or something to replace the decocker spring. Installing the manual safety is entirely tool-free. 
  4. UMC stands for Union Metallic Cartridge. How did we let that one sneak away into the mists of time? 
  5. At least, those factory striker-fired triggers trying to be single-action triggers. I’ve test-fired the Walther PPQ from the Parvusimperator Arsenal, and I find it to be pretty darn good. Rather than emulate a single-action pull—something impossible to do with the half-cock nature of most striker-fired pistols—it aims to be the best darn double-action pull you’ve seen. At that, it succeeds. 
  6. I am informed that Saint Browning never made a double-action pistol, but I pose that he would have done if he’d had more time7
  7. Objection! Speculative. -parvusimperator 

The Crossbox Podcast: Episode 21 – 21st Episode Spectacular

In our mostly-uncommented-on 21st Episode Spectacular, we dig into what’s wrong with three-gun, why the current iteration of light carrier design studies will end up like all other light carrier design studies, and how Uncharted and other third-person adventure games grip us.

Further reading
The Bureau Gun
Fishbreath’s Old-School Two-Gun Run
Modular Handgun System analysis (there’s more, too, I’m just too lazy to link it all)

We take requests! If you want to see a podcast topic done, let us know in the comments. We also take article requests. Leave us a comment on a related article and, if we like the idea, we’ll get on it.

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Some Thoughts On DCS: Part I

Eagle Dynamics’ flight sim DCS World is, on its surface, an impressive achievement. It’s the most beautiful game in its genre of the modern era, and one of the most exhaustive. Only the big players in civilian flight sims surpass it in terms of aircraft and theater variety, and nothing beats the complexity of its flight dynamics and systems modeling.

And yet, it remains a niche title. Why? I have three reasons: the engine, the ecosystem, and the community. Today, let’s look at the first.

Wait, wasn’t the engine a big pro? You’ll note I said it was pretty, and nothing more. I will grant it’s also fairly easy on performance for what it is, provided you haven’t added too many planes.

It falls down on the job in four crucial areas, though. First, it has no ‘bubble’ system a la Falcon 4, and can’t handle especially large numbers of units. There’s no good way to build and populate an entire front with opposing forces, and the lack of a true front line makes large-scale war scenarios very hard to do. It also means that the enormous bomber boxes from Battle of Britain 2 are still contained solely to Battle of Britain 2. Lacking the capability for large numbers of units makes even excellent innovations like MBot’s lua-script dynamic campaign engine less enjoyable than the pushing-20-year-old competition.

Second, there are currently two versions of DCS. DCS 2.1 is the new branch, which supports the payware Nevada and Normandy maps. DCS 1.5 is the legacy branch, which only has the Caucasus/Georgia map, but is also more reliably stable. This is a terrible state of affairs. Third-party developers have to keep their code up to date against two highly distinct versions of DCS, and these third-party developers are to a man small indie-style shops. They don’t have the developer resources to support two branches and build new products, and it shows. (More on this later.)

Third, developers can’t release standalone module updates. Module updates, as far as I can tell, require a full DCS recompilation. If a show-stopping bug makes it out of testing, players are pretty much out of luck until Eagle Dynamics can scrape together a hotfix. I have no idea why this should be the case, in this age of dynamic loading and so on. I suspect one of two things: either limitations in the engine, which does date back in some places to the Lock-On Modern Air Combat days, or a misguided attempt to prevent unauthorized third parties from accessing the high-end flight modeling features. The first issue could be fixed by a little work, and the second is a bad solution in search of a solved problem. Code signing is a thing. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Fourth, the simulation engine is extremely creaky. We’ll start with the scripting system. Not only is it difficult to use (fortunately, there are some scripting frameworks which wrap the inscrutable API), the API occasionally changes with no notice, breaking old missions. The mission editor, which is a key piece of any game that doesn’t have a dynamic campaign, is clunky and poorly integrated with the simulation engine. Its support for scripting is basically nil, to the point that it’s dramatically better to edit mission scripts in Notepad than in the mission editor itself. It may be a bit much to ask for a proper lua development environment in a flight simulator, but a full-screen text editing window would be nice, at the very least.

The simulation engine also lacks some crucial features for the sort of game Eagle Dynamics is trying to make. Most of the major omissions center on radar and electronic warfare. A third party, Heatblur Simulations, fields the current state of the art in DCS radar technology with the Viggen’s ground-mapping setup. Eagle Dynamics is scheduled to come back to the forefront with the DCS Hornet, but that still leaves all their other planes using a lightweight system which dates back to the Lock-On days. Aspect is unimportant but for notching, jammers are simple noise which only protect your aircraft, chaff (and countermeasures generally) only affects missiles locked on you (so Vietnam- or Viggen-style chaff corridors are impossible). The list goes on. Certainly, radar modeling is hard, but that’s no reason not to do it.

So much of Eagle Dynamics’ attention has been focused on paying work—modules, engine upgrades, new theaters—that they’ve let their underlying technology fall by the wayside. In the long run, that’s unsustainable, and I only hope that they can find the time to fix what needs to be fixed before the ongoing, accumulated debt catches up with them.

A more accurate concealed carry map

The standard concealed carry map floating around shows states in a few broad categories: may-issue, shall-issue, and permitless. It’s a good map at a glance, but it lacks useful information on the actual experience of carry. Since I just got back from a vacation, and didn’t want to do any real writing work, I went ahead and put together an improved map.

Notes

  • Onerous shall-issue means states with a waiting period in excess of two weeks, a training requirement, or an application fee of greater than $100.
  • Permissive shall-issue states impose lesser requirements.
  • De facto shall-issue states are statutorily may-issue, but shall-issue in practice.
  • Onerous may-issue states deny carry permits as a matter of course.

  • MA and NY: rural sheriffs likely to issue permits, but urban-dwellers basically out of luck.

  • PA: processing time of up to 45 days allowed, but most counties issue permits immediately.
  • WI: average processing time of about one week.
  • WA: average processing time appears to be under one week, except in the Seattle area.
  • SD: temporary permit issued within five days.

If you see an inaccuracy or a point in need of clarification, leave us a comment!

The Crossbox Podcast: Episode 20

In this first show of the official summer, we go back to our normal show. We talk about a 2000-era PC game near and dear to us both, the most likely democracy-vs-autocracy throwdown of the early 21st century, and the best Marvel movie we’ve seen lately.

Further reading
Korean artillery: this one is complicated. Check the footnote1.
Airplanes, Crimson Skies style
Crimson Skies on Amazon (Crimson Skies on Win10 guide still to come)
NATO vs. our Asian allies, in Polandball form

Continue reading

The Crossbox Podcast: Episode 19 – Special Edition

For May’s episode, we dispense with the typical structure of the show to bring you something entirely different: a guest! Dave Williams of Jellyfish Games joins us to talk about Astrobase Command, an upcoming space station management game. Join us as we discuss everything from water pipes to the nature of personality and consciousness.

Further reading
Once you’ve listened to the episode, you’ll want to visit the Astrobase Command kickstarter. Go give them your support.

Continue reading

A Fishy Race Gun Shootout: Beretta 96A1 vs. CZ P-09

In previous posts, we’ve looked at two options for USPSA Limited competition: the Beretta 96, and the CZ P-09. Now it’s time to decide which one I’m going to build in the 2017-2018 offseason. Two guns enter. One gun leaves.

Likely trigger characteristics

Beretta 96
I know that the 92-pattern pistols have acceptable triggers as far as creep goes, and thanks to the Wilson Combat trigger bar and lightened hammer, the 96 can handle a tremendous reduction in hammer spring weight. The double-action pull is long and takes a lot of reaching, but the single-action pull is just fine.

CZ P-09
At present, I haven’t handled a P-09 specifically. I have dry-fired a CZ 75, and my impression about that was that CZ’s factory triggers are much lighter than Beretta’s, if perhaps a bit lower-quality. The action tuning I have planned for the P-09 ought to take care of that, and I expect the end result to be extremely light.

The Victor: CZ. Obviously, having not built either of these guns yet, I can’t say this for sure, but I expect the improvements to be similar, and the CZ starts from a better position.

Likely shooting characteristics

Beretta 96
The Beretta is the heavier gun out of the box, and that weight is better distributed both forward and backward and up and down, especially when taking into consideration newly-added steel parts. The 92-pattern pistols point and present very naturally for me, and given the massive amount of material already missing from their slides, are known to have a low flippiness factor.

CZ P-09
The P-09 is not dramatically lighter, only three ounces. Even though the proposed magazine well is aluminum instead of steel, it ought to suffice to level the playing field. That weight is also less evenly distributed, given the construction; like most polymer-framed pistols, it’ll be top-heavy compared to the Beretta when empty. CZs are known for their low bore axes, and that should help keep muzzle flip down.

The Victor: Toss-up. Both seem similar.

Magazines and magazine wells

Beretta 96
Here, the Beretta gives up some ground. Given the two-round improvement from the MecGar extension (which makes total magazine height about 130mm instead of the USPSA Limited-regulated 140mm), I suspect that the 17 rounds is perfectly plausible, given the MecGar spring and follower plus a custom-made 140mm extension. It may even be possible to get as far as 19, with a custom, flat-wire spring and a reduced follower. Only giving up two rounds of capacity against a tricked-out 20111 is nice, but it would take a lot of work, of which none has, at present, been done. The magazine well situation is also pretty bad. Beveling is about the best you can do, and that doesn’t get you much of a funnel, and in fact reduces your weight.

CZ P-09
The parts may be expensive, but the P-09 has options for large-capacity competition magazines and magazine wells. 21 rounds of .40 S&W in a 140mm magazine is entirely competitive with widebody 1911s. It might be nice to have a steel magazine well option in terms of weight, but the aluminum funnel is perfectly functional and large enough to make a difference in ease of magazine insertion.

The Victor: CZ.

Parts availability

It isn’t even close here, so I won’t bother with headers for each pistol. CZ Custom makes just about everything you might want, including a whole bevy of improved action parts, and Cajun Gun Works goes further still. The only aftermarket parts maker for Beretta guns is Wilson Combat, with the occasional spring from Wolff, and neither has anything like the same variety you can get for the P-09. Given CZ’s popularity on the competitive circuit, it seems likeliest to me that the situation will only tilt further in the P-09’s favor in the future.

The Victor: CZ.

Tinkering potential

Beretta 96
The tinkering potential for the Beretta excites me. Since so little can be found from the factory, I’d get to experiment with actual gunsmithery. At a minimum, I’d eventually want to design a custom 140mm floor plate for the magazine, along with a smaller follower. I’d also want to find a flat-wire spring (for minimum compressed height) to push capacity as far as I can. There would be fun 3D printing of prototypes and, eventually, 3D-printing-as-a-service of metal parts. I could do, for instance, a proper magazine funnel, too. If I wanted to move up to Open, I would have to work up an even bigger magazine extension to fit the 170mm limit.

CZ P-09
Tinkering on the CZ is more about buying and installing parts, and tuning what’s already on the gun. There’s less call for building things from scratch, because most of it already exists. I would still have to build 170mm magazines to play in Open effectively.

The Victor: Beretta.

Ergonomics

Beretta 96
I’ve extolled the Beretta’s pointability and presentation before, but the magazine release is a bit of a reach for me.

CZ P-09
Having not handled a P-09, I can’t say if I’d like it or not. The controls are different than my Production gun (an M9), so I have to ding it for that.

The Victor: Toss-up.

Suitability for Limited

Beretta 96
After the modifications discussed in the article, poor to average. The magazine capacity deficit means I would have to reload one or two times more than a 2011 shooter in your average USPSA stage, at a penalty of 2-3 seconds per reload. That will materially affect my performance in the long run. Also, even with a decocker conversion, I have to take the first shot as a double-action shot, which requires practicing a second trigger pull.

After developing better 140mm magazines, average to good.

CZ P-09
After the modifications discussed in the article, great. The magazine capacity is competitive with the guns at the highest end of the field. The trigger ought to be at least comparable, though it will still give something up to a tuned 1911 trigger. With the safety installed, the P-09 can be carried cocked and locked, removing the requirement for a double-action pull2.

The Victor: CZ.

Suitability for Ghetto Open

It’s difficult to separate the guns for Ghetto Open. In that division, I’m not aiming to compete quite as much; .40 S&W is often seen as a compromise when .38 Super and 9mm Major are on the table, for reasons of magazine capacity. For both guns, I’d have to mount an optic to the accessory rail on a cantilever mount. There are good solutions for that problem, though John might disagree, but it’s less ideal than mounting directly to the frame. For both guns, I’d have to work up a 170mm magazine. With the CZ, I can just stretch the 140mm extension. For the Beretta, the same applies; I’d just have to build my own 140mm extension first.

The Victor: Toss-up.

Intangibles

Beretta 96
As I said in its article, it’s cool, and it’s pretty. It has vintage cred, and is likely to attract more attention on the range, simply because it’s a well-known gun but not an ordinary competition one.

CZ P-09
It’s still a hipster competition gun—a hammer-fired, polymer-framed CZ pistol which is not a 75 or derivative. It’s doesn’t have the cachet of a Beretta, nor is it half as pretty.

It’s also $300 cheaper. In fact, if you ignore the magazines3, the CZ race gun with all the trimmings comes in under $1000—a pretty tremendous price point by any standard.

The Victor: Beretta. The CZ just doesn’t have the cool factor.

Conclusions

On the scorecard we have a CZ victory, 4-2-3. This puts me in an interesting spot. Truth be told, before I did this comparison, I wanted to build the Beretta. As parvusimperator said when we were working up this article series, “It speaks to you more.” And it does. I do very much want to return to the Beretta race gun someday.

The end of the previous paragraph gives away the game, though. My goal shooting USPSA is not merely to improve my own shooting. I want to improve my shooting relative to the rest of the USPSA—I want to be competitive. The Beretta could get me there, but especially in reloading, it’s a handicap the CZ isn’t. It’s also, as I mentioned, much cheaper, to the point where I could buy a case of .40 S&W and a proper aft-cant drop competition holster for the CZ before I even get to the Beretta’s price.

So that’s where I find myself. This winter, I’ll be building a CZ P-09 race gun. Maybe in a few years, I’ll put together a Beretta 96 Limited 10 blaster, and work on some of the other tinkering at the same time. Until then, though, the Production-class M9 will have to do for my competitive Beretta shooting. I could maybe justify building the Limited 96 if it were a little more expensive and just as effective. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more expensive, and I’m forced to admit it’s also not as good. The P-09 wins the day.


  1. The largest-capacity 2011 140mm magazines I’ve seen are 21 rounds. 
  2. I’ve heard good things about tuned CZ double action, though. It may be the case that I can get away with the decocker instead, which reduces the number of things to do on the way from the holster to the target. 
  3. Humor me.