Tag Archives: projects

Gravity, Graviton, Pendulum: a wireless hydrometer for homebrewing

I’ve been working hard on this project over the past week or two, and I put another week or two into it at the end of last year. Finally, though, it’s just about ready to show.

Gravity, Graviton, and Pendulum are the three components of an end-to-end wireless hydrometer system for homebrewers.

Graviton is a Golang server which manages batches and hydrometers. Gravity is a vue.js front end for Graviton. Pendulum is an ESP8266-based floating tilt hydrometer, with built-in calibration and automatic temperature compensation. Put them all together, and you get something a little like this:

dataflow

For each batch you have in progress, you get a dashboard with a chart showing measured gravity and temperature over time, along with apparent attenuation and current calculated alcohol by volume: everything you need to know about a batch of beer in progress.

Backstory

Obviously, I homebrew, or else I wouldn’t have started on this project at all. I homebrew with a friend, however, which means that wherever we brew, at least one of us is going to be remote. The ability to check on a beer remotely is therefore valuable to us.

There are other existing systems: the open-source iSpindle, which inspired this project; Tilt, a commercial floating hydrometer of the same sort as Pendulum and iSpindle; and BrewBuddy, a commercial product which solves the long-term power issue by replacing your carboy bung and dangling a sensor-only torpedo into the wort.

The commercial products are out because we homebrew in part because it’s cheaper than buying good beer, and a do-it-yourself solution is way cheaper (if you, like me, value your labor at near-zero). Why not an iSpindle, then? Because we brew in glass carboys, whose necks are a mere 29.5mm across at their narrowest points, and iSpindle uses an enclosing cylinder which won’t fit.

So, because no product out there fits our needs, and because Go, vue.js, and some very light electrical engineering are all useful skills, I decided to roll my own.

How it Works

Like all tilt hydrometers, Pendulum uses the interrelation between density and buoyancy to figure out the density of the medium it’s floating in. A cylinder with a weight at the bottom naturally floats at an angle. If the liquid is denser, the angle between the hydrometer and the vertical increases. If it’s less dense, it decreases.

Pendulum is calibrated by preparing a series of sugar-water solutions of known density, recording its measured tilts in those solutions, recording specific gravity readings from a calibrated hydrometer, and providing tilt-gravity pairs to Pendulum’s configuration interface. It does the required calculations internally.

calibration

Technical Details

Pendulum uses an ESP8266 microcontroller, a GY521 MPU6050 accelerometer/gyroscope breakout board, and a lithium-ion 18650 battery. Which precise ESP8266 board depends on how it fits in roughly 27mm tubes; I have several coming which will help me answer that question. The board I’m using for development has some nice features, like built-in USB battery charging and discharge protection, and if possible I’d like to stick with it.

As far as cylinders go, I have two options: a 27mm outside diameter jobber with a narrower screw cap, which will have to be hacksawed off, and a 27mm inside diameter tube used to hold collectible coins. The former may be too small on the inside, unless I detach the battery caddy from the development board, and the latter may be too big on the outside to fit into our carboy.

To-Do

In addition to the hardware task above, I have some work to do on the software side, too; some fixes to hopefully make the ESP8266 wifi connection slightly more reliable, and some changes and improvements to the web app and back end to allow for management of users and permissions.

Most of the hard work is already done. It’ll take about a month for the various enclosures to arrive from China, a week or two to work out the remaining hardware issues and perhaps add a transistor to the voltage measurement circuit, so it can be fully turned off. By mid- to late summer, I should have something release-ready, with enough documentation and photography so that anyone handy with a soldering iron should be able to assemble their own Pendulum. Until then!

USPSA: What Comes Next?

In the near term, the answer to the title question is, “Get better in Limited through 2019.” Between live fire practice, living room drills, and matches, I hope to make a run at B (at least) by the end of next season.

That isn’t great fodder for an article, though, given that I’ve already answered the question and we’re not even one hundred words in. In 2020, though, I think I want to pick up a new division, and that’s more fertile ground for discussion. I have a few options.

Ghetto Open

Ghetto Open, like parvusimperator’s kit from last year, is any Open setup which doesn’t fit the traditional frame-mounted optic, 170mm magazine, hot .38-caliber with compensator mold. This appeals to me on several levels: bubblegum-and-shoestrings bodging, shoot-something-different hipsterism, and play-for-cheap budget-mindedness.

Or at least, it appeals to me until I sit down and start to make a list of what I’d need to do. Take, for instance, the CZ. At a minimum, I would need an optic of some kind. Call it $130 for one of the Primary Arms micro-tubes, and $100 for the only picatinny rail universal mount which doesn’t lose its zero according to Internet reviewers.

Of course, that hardly gets me to ‘competitive’. I would need a compensator, and that’s where things start getting hairy. As far as I know, there aren’t any threaded barrels for .40 P-09s, so I’d have to either have one entirely custom-made (not exactly cheap) or have one of the 9mm threaded barrels bored out and rechambered for .40. (Also not cheap.) I’d then have to buy a compensator.

That gets me a little closer, but then I’d want longer magazines. There are 170mm extensions for the Tac Sport series, but those mags don’t fit P-09s. Some of the EAA/Tanfoglio magazines do, but those are on the order of $100 to $150 each. Iffy. The best I could hope for, as far as capacity, is probably 25 or 26, several shy of the widebody 1911s.

The list is even longer for a Beretta, and probably involves buying a whole new gun as the base, so that’s definitely out. Based on what I’d have to do to the CZ, so is Ghetto Open altogether.

Less Ghetto Open

My remaining options for Open play a little closer to the norm. I could buy a used CZ Czechmate, along with a supply of spare slide stops. That way, I could stay in the CZ ecosystem.

I could try one of the competition-ready 2011 clones from Eagle Importers’ SPS or MAC brands, both of which tip the money-scale at right about $2000 if I include an optic, with affordable magazines relative to other 2011s.

Either way, though, I’d be looking at $2500 or $3000 to go from today to shooting-ready. Although that’s cheap by Not At All Ghetto Open standards, it’s still a lot of money, especially with children likely to be in the picture by that time, and double-especially for a division I’m not even all that interested in.

Less Ghetto Open is out.

Carry Optics

Carry Optics is an interesting division. According to USPSA classifier stats, it’s very slightly faster than Limited—maybe 10%—despite using minor scoring. I could use my equipment pretty much as-is; all I would have to do is come up with some way to mount an optic.

The thing is, that changes the rear dovetail, and I’m happy with my sights on the Limited gun. I’d want a second slide, and that means I’d need a second gun plus the Cajun firing pin and springs, on top of an optic and a slide cut. The gun for the slide comes to about $420. Springer Precision makes a multi-optic mount compatible with the budget Burris and Vortex options, which retails for $45. A Burris FastFire III or a Vortex Viper or Venom can be had for $200.

My existing magazines, carriers, holsters, and belt are legal, although I’d have to pull the magwell off for Carry Optics competition. That makes the cost of entry roughly $700 to $750, counting shipping and transfer fees.

Frankly, when I started this section, I was expecting to write off Carry Optics altogether. Now, it’s one of the front-runners. Low cost of entry, cheap ammunition, and equipment commonality go a long way in my book.

Let me invent a few reasons to bring it down a peg. First, it’s trendy. I hate trendy. Second, I’d want to put the decocker back into my P-09, and there’s a fiddly little spring to deal with. Third, optics are still kind of cheating, even if it’s cool cheating I wouldn’t mind taking a crack at.

Revolver

If you know me at all, you shouldn’t be too surprised that revolver is the second front-runner. It’s the ultimate hipster division. Revolver shooting is very nearly a different game altogether, much more focused on shooting perfectly. (Every missed shot means more reloading, which is slow.)

I like the idea of revolver division, because it features a whole new set of technical skills and emphasizes shooting mastery much more than the semi-auto divisions. Your loading has to be perfect, and your shooting should be; otherwise, you’re going to be up a creek.

Because I’m old-fashioned and find eight-round revolvers to be an abomination unto Colt, I’d be looking at a major power factor gun with a six-round cylinder. The newly-released Ruger GP100 Match Champion in 10mm/.40 seems like an obvious choice—I already stock .40 competition ammo.

Of course, the current state of the art in USPSA Revolver is eight-round guns, because the USPSA rules require that no single shooting position should require more than eight shots. An eight-round revolver fits perfectly, provided you don’t miss. A six-round revolver will require some standing reloads on some stages. Major scoring, unfortunately, isn’t enough to make up the difference.

It would be about $1000 to get into it: a $750 revolver, a $100 holster, a $150 moon clip belt rack, and a few bucks’ worth of moon clips. Any tuning would be extra.

One last thing to note is that revolver is a very infrequently-shot division. At most matches, I wouldn’t have anyone to measure myself against.

A Weird Revolver

Ordinary revolvers are cool, sure, but what about a weird, sci-fi revolver, like the Chiappa Rhino? That comes in .40 S&W, and has a range of barrel length options besides. I could go up to six inches, which gives me enough sight radius to really make those difficult distance shots. It would cost about $200 more than the Ruger option. The revolver is $100 to $150 more expensive, and I would need one of those trigger-guard-grab holsters, at a price of about $150 ($50 more than the Kydex jobber for the Ruger). Given that it’s basically a functioning Firefly prop, however, the Rhino has a dramatically higher cool factor, and the recent Chiappas have better triggers out of the box.

Conclusions

If you read through the 2017-2018 race gun shootout, the 2019-2020 shootout should sound a little familiar. I have a cooler option I started off with (the wheelgun), and a cheaper, more competitive option I hadn’t considered until I did the comparison. Revolver is nearer to my heart, but Carry Optics is nearer to competitive with the top dogs, and if last year’s project showed me anything, it’s that competitiveness is important to me.

At the same time, last year’s choice was between two raced-up semi-auto pistols. The Beretta is cooler than the CZ, but neither holds a candle to a revolver. The question before me is this: is a GP100 $200 cooler than a CZ with a dot? Is a Rhino $500 cooler?

I don’t think the GP100 is. The Rhino, however, just might be.

Fishbreath Shoots: CZ P-09 USPSA Limited Match No. 2

At the end of April, I shot a second match with the Limited CZ P-09 project gun.

How did it go?

It went pretty well, all in all. I shot a good classifier, which is one of my primary goals at every match. (Gotta get that C-for-competent classification!)

As an aside, I thought the structure of the match was excellent. Like most club matches, the round count was about 150, but unlike most matches, they spread out that count into seven stages (rather than five or six). Stages averaged between about 24 and 28 rounds each, which is a good number: it lets the Open pay-to-win types feel superior because they don’t have to reload, while still presenting interesting problems for the rest of us. Do I trust myself to make every shot for the first 20 rounds on the stage, which don’t take much moving, then load moving to the last array? Do I make a standing or semi-standing reload earlier on? Seven stages also leaves you a little more room to have a bad stage without blowing the match altogether.

At the match, someone had a camera on a gimbal rig and happened to record a full stage of mine, which you can watch here1.

How was the gear?

Still solid. I adjusted the holster a bit more, for even less positive retention, and I think it improves my draw time. The belt remains perfectly functional. I had the brilliant idea of moving things around so that the outer belt overlaps itself in the rear rather than the front, where the ends aren’t interfering with equipment hanging on the belt. This is notably easier to put on than the previous setup.

How was the gun?

Also still solid. I find myself liking the skinny fiber optic front sight and blacked-out wide-notch rear sight more the more I use it. It’s very fast to acquire, and can be just as accurate with a little attention paid to alignment. The more trigger time I get on it, the better I think the trigger is.

That said, there were two reliability problems which cropped up: failures to feed and, a little more concerning, hammer follow (where the hammer chases the slide forward). I suspected that the slide might be coming forward too quickly, not leaving the sear time to reset or the magazine time to get the next round into place, so I swapped the stock 20lb recoil spring for the 18lb Cajun Gun Works spring, plus a stainless steel guide rod.

75 rounds of practice calculated to reproduce the problems didn’t yield any new cases, so I’m willing to call it settled for now. At the range, I re-learned the lesson that consistency in grip is important, and that when picking the gun up off the table, I need to get my main hand further around to the strong side. If I don’t, when I tighten my grip, the muzzle swings around to the left, and so do all my shots.

Next steps?

I’m taking May off from matches to work on draw, movement, and transition technique. Also because I’m cheap, and I can do most of those things without live ammo. In late June, I plan to attend two matches—the next at what I consider my home club, and a local all-classifier match to see if I can get my Limited letter.

In July, parvusimperator and I will be using me as a test case for frame weights; we have some drills in mind which we can use to assess the importance of extra weight under the barrel for polymer pistols.

We will, of course, report on those when they happen.


  1. After the video ended, the RO made a crack about how I was shooting extra to get my money’s worth. My rejoinder: “I can’t afford to shoot this many extra!” 

Fishbreath Shoots: CZ P-09 .40 S&W ‘C-Zed’ Race Gun Build

If you’ve been following us for a while, you may remember my two race gun proposal posts from last year, in which I justified my desire to build a USPSA Limited gun on the cheap.

You may also recall the shootout post, in which I decided that the gun to buy, between the Beretta 96 and the CZ P-09, was the CZ.

Lastly, you may recall the CZ P-09 .40 review from last summer, in which I reviewed the base model gun.

We’re now nearly to the end of the series. In this post, we’ll explore what I did to the P-09 and what supporting equipment I bought, and, at the end, come up with a cost.

Requirements

Beyond the requirements imposed by the USPSA Limited rules, there are a few requirements I gave myself, too.

  1. A decent competition holster, preferably something with drop, offset, and adjustable retention.
  2. At least 60 rounds of ammunition on the belt. That was my setup with the M9, and I didn’t want to go any lower.
  3. A sturdy belt to hold everything.

Internals

The C-Zed’s guts are all Cajun Gun Works all the way. I bought their hammer, with different spur geometry for reduced single-action trigger pull, the short reset kit, which included an extended firing pin, and a number of springs: a main spring, a reduced-strength trigger return spring, reduced springs for the firing pin plunger, and an increased-strength sear spring.

The increased-strength sear spring sounds like it’s the wrong tool for lightening a trigger, pull, doesn’t it? You would be correct. Cajun Gun Works sells them as a tool for adding weight to a dangerously light trigger. I didn’t expect to need it and didn’t use it in the end, but figured that, at $10, it was worth the money just in case.

The other items on the list all work together. The hammer reduces single-action pull, the main spring reduces the work the trigger has to do, the reduced trigger return and firing pin plunger springs reduce the spring weight you’re pulling against. The extended firing pin is necessary for the lighter main springs, because the reduced hammer impulse can cause light strikes.

I haven’t had any trouble with cheap Magtech ammo, though, with the full setup. All my primers are well-punched; none are punctured.

Everything was relatively easy to install except the trigger spring. It’s a coil spring with offset legs. The trigger has two ears and a space in the middle, and a hole for one leg of the trigger spring. You have to get one end of the spring in the hole, one end on a shelf, and the trigger ears and spring coil lined up with the holes in the frame for the pin, all while pushing the pin in. It was a four-handed job at Soapbox World HQ.

In the end, the combination of modifications resulted in a smoother 7lb double-action trigger pull, and a very crisp 2.5lb single-action trigger pull (albeit with the expected double-action takeup). Those are significant improvements over the stock 10lb double-action pull, and the stock 4.5lb single-action pull. There were also improvements in crispness, creep, and reset, thanks to the Cajun parts.

Sights

Cajun Gun Works sells Dawson Precision-made sights in traditional competition configuration: blacked-out rear sights, fiber-optic front. It comes with green and red bits of fiber, so you can pick which one you want.

These were the most annoying parts to install. The Dawson rear sight was tremendously oversized, and took about half an hour of filing before I could punch it into place. The CZ factory front sight had been glued in. Try as I might, I couldn’t even begin to loosen it. I ended up stopping by the Friendly Local Gun Shop, which has a much better heat gun; they got it in a few minutes.

Not to be outdone, the front sight from Dawson took some filing to get installed, too. Precision is not an accurate descriptor of the sights’ fit into the dovetails.

Magazines

Cajun Gun Works’ part in things completed, I turned to CZ Custom for magazines and magazine wells. The C-Zed now mounts the large CZ Custom magazine well, which makes a big difference in ease of magazine insertion.

The P-09’s magazines, with the CZ Custom 140mm base plates and spring-and-follower kits, have a claimed capacity of 21. Parvusimperator suggested I take that with a grain of salt, so I assumed 20. I decided I wanted four magazines rather than just three to give me more flexibility on reloads; at the same time, I was looking to keep the total cost of the project down. I settled on four magazines with the 140mm baseplate, but only three with the spring-and-follower kit.

The end result is three magazines which hold 20 rounds of .40 S&W, and one magazine which holds 17. The latter can be used to get a round into the chamber before loading one of the 20-rounders to start a stage, and serves as my backup.

Belt Etc.

Midway USA makes a cheap two-part belt. I’m not looking for anything super-fancy, but the two-part setup is nice. I can mount all my gear on the outer belt and just velcro it onto the inner belt come match time, without having to undo any buckles. It holds my gear just fine. (That’s 1lb, 14oz of gun for those of you keeping track, plus 77 rounds of .40 and four magazines.)

Cook’s Holsters makes a decent Kydex competition holster starting at $47.95, or $67.95 if they install the TekLok and drop/offset rig for you. I had them do so. The holster is low-cut in the front, and has adjustable retention by means of a pair of screws running through springy rubber washers. The drop and offset are nice, making the draw a good bit easier.

I’ll continue to use my ten-dollar MOLLE-strap canvas Amazon-bought triple pistol mag pouches for magazine carriage. They do the job just fine; the retention straps fold out of the way easily, and on the Midway USA belt, they’re pinned in place by the inner belt.

In Sum

Here’s what I spent.

  • $506: CZ P-09 .40, night sights, 3 magazines
  • $294.60: Cajun Gun Works internals
  • $303.20: CZ Custom magazine well and magazine parts
  • $46.53: Fourth magazine
  • $104.27: Holster and belt

In total, the cost of this race gun project was $1224.60. (Or $1254.60, if you’re buying the magazine pouches too.) Even counting a trigger scale I bought and a case of test ammunition, the project tips the scales at under $1500. Has it reached the magical point of ‘good enough’? Only match experience will tell. Check back toward the end of April for some thoughts with that in mind.

Shotgun Build 2: No Limit Scattergun

For USPSA, I love Open because I think it’s cool. If I’m gonna shoot a racegun, I want the fastest, blastiest racegun. I don’t want a bunch of rules about what I can’t do. Plus, electro-optical sights are cool, and loud compensators are also cool.

In 3-Gun, Open Shotguns are even better. Not only do they get cool red dot sights and cool compensators to spit fire, but they have a whole bunch of nonstandard magazine designs open to them. One such idea is the X-Rail, which is a cluster of four magazine extensions in a rotary unit, kind of like a giant revolver. Each holds six shells, so you get 24 out on the front. It’s super heavy, but you won’t have to reload as much. Empty gun starts still suck.

On the one hand, the X-Rail lets you use highly reliable, proven shotguns, like Benelli M2s. On the other hand, that’s a lot of weight on the end, and I’m not a big fan of super heavy weapons. Especially when the weight is out on the end of the gun. So that’s out. Pretty arbitrarily, but I don’t care. This is my list.

I want a shotgun that feeds from detachable box magazines. Shotgun shells make these difficult to make, and for some stupid reason, no company in America makes any sort of base gun that we can work with. Which leaves us the choice of Russian Saiga 12s, Russian Vepr 12s, Turkish MKA-1919s, or Turkish XTR-12s.

And no, those aren’t staying stock. Once again, I’m going to order a tricked out one, mostly because I don’t have the expertise to do that myself. Plus, some of the things commonly done to a race shotgun aren’t things I can do myself.

The other complication is the bans on imports of Russian weapons, which could distort prices when I finally go to purchase. That said, there are a lot of imported guns. And, unlike my pump gun, this was never going to get done on the cheap. This shouldn’t disqualify the Russian-made guns out of the gate, especially because I can still get base models for a reasonable price on Gunbroker.

Right out of the gate, we can eliminate the Saiga 12s, because the Veprs do everything the Saigas do, except way better. The Vepr comes in a not-stupid configuration out of the box. The Vepr doesn’t need tuning to actually work out of the box. The Vepr has a much more consistent build quality.

We can also eliminate the XTR-12 pretty quick. At the time of writing (October 2017) there are issues with getting large-capacity magazines to work reliably. And that’s the whole freaking point of open shotguns. There’s also very poor aftermarket support for these.

Two down. Now, the MKA-1919 actually comes in a couple different versions. One is from Tooth and Nail, and comes heavily tricked out. The other is from Firebird precision, and they remake most of the components right here in America. So, better tolerances, and hopefully better reliability. However, they don’t offer a compensator option. The T&N MKA 1919 build is available with a mid-barrel compensator. So, at this point I’m inclined to only look at the T&N one, given the better configuration options.

Vepr-12s from Dissident Arms also come with nice big compensator options. They use compensators at the end of the barrel rather than midbarrel ones. On the one hand, the Vepr-12 will have some increased costs from requiring a charging handle conversion (i.e putting a charging handle on the left side of the receiver).1 On the other hand, the Vepr-12 is probably the most reliable. It’s certainly the most reliable out of the box. In fact, it’s one of the few detachable box fed magazine shotguns to function reasonably out of the box. Points in its favor.

The other item in the room is ‘classic Russian Ergonomics’. Which we can improve somewhat. We can get a safety that’s workable with the shooting hand thumb or trigger finger without removing our shooting hand from its place. As mentioned before, we can put the charging handle on the correct side of the gun with a simple modification. We can also get a modification to be able to drop the magazines with our trigger finger. On the other hand, the MKA 1919 has AR-style controls. Well, other than the charging handle placement. It is at least on the proper side out of the box.

Now, to my way of thinking, that’s about a wash. Competitively equipped models are about the same price. However, the Vepr-12 has one other edge over the MKA 1919: I live near, and have squadded with, a member of the Dissident Arms shooting team, and he’s pretty active on youtube as well. So there’s a nearby Vepr-12 expert that I know.

And there you have it. My pick is the Vepr-12, tricked out into awesomeness by Dissident Arms.


  1. Someone2 might chime in that the normal charging handle on the right side. This is true and completely irrelevant. Open guns are made to fit you not the other way around. Also, if you want competition guns on the cheap, you’ve got the wrong division. 
  2. Possibly Fishbreath. 

Parvusimperator Reviews a Remington 870 Police Magnum

I have some local trainer friends who teach a well-regarded shotgun class. I decided to take it to learn some things about how to use a scattergun, which of course meant that I needed a shotgun. My choice was a cop trade-in Remington 870 Police pump-action shotgun. At first, this might seem like a very un-Parvusimperator choice, so let’s review the reasoning.

  1. It was cheap. I picked this thing up for less than half the MSRP of a brand-new 870P. So I’m getting to class on the cheap, which is nice when I’ve burned through my training budget and am saving for a fancy USPSA Open pistol.
  2. It’s quality. The 870P is made with better parts than a regular 870, and this one is old enough to date from back before the “freedom group” axed Remington’s QC department in search of greater profits. So I have a cheap, reliable gun that I won’t have to worry about going wrong mechanically in class.
  3. I like the idea of taking an old, beat up shotgun and making it mine. Sort of like adopting a pet, but for guns.
  4. If I ended up disliking it, I could probably get all my money back selling it, given that I bought the gun used and that it’s a desirable Police model 870.

Upon unboxing, I discovered my shotgun was as expected. Date codes on the barrel told me the shotgun was built in 1995. In the meantime, the synthetic furniture on it had been beaten to hell and back. Someone had gouged “VAULT” in the stock. The ‘brass bead’ sight no longer had any finish resembling brass. The receiver was well-patinaed, and had a good bit of rust.

On the plus side, all of the metal is sound, and the action is very smooth. Running it is a joy, and brings a smile to my face. Also, I have no complaints about the trigger. It’s not something superfancy, but it also has no glaring problems.

I didn’t have a ton of time to get the shotgun ready for class. Clearly, I wouldn’t be able to get it cerakoted or anything, and I was expecting class in the rain. I did have time to make a couple changes in preparation. Did you really think I would not? I added a Magpul SGA-870 stock and a Wilson Combat +2 extension.

I’ve talked about the Magpul stock before. But it bears talking through again. Magpul put a lot of thought into this stock. It’s the best stock out there for shotguns. It’s super comfortable and is easily adjustable for length of pull. I’m not a tall guy, and I don’t have gorilla arms, so I normally get very annoyed at the very long length of pull on factory stocks on shotguns. They’re probably “tradition” or some nonsense.1 Anyway, problem solved, problem staying solved. It also comes with a nice rubber recoil pad. Replacing the old rubber recoil pad is something that should be done on general principle given the age of the shotgun and how much abuse the old stock had gone through. As a bonus, the stock came with some sling attachment points.

Lots of people make magazine tube extensions. I picked the Wilson one because the price was reasonable, the quality is good, and it came with all of the other extras I wanted, namely a new high-visibility follower, a new magazine spring, and a front sling attachment point. The high-visibility follower is very helpful in a class environment for administratively verifying that the weapon is unloaded. Even if I didn’t get the magazine tube extension, I would have wanted to replace the magazine spring because I don’t know the age of it.

On to class! How did the shotgun do? What did I learn about the parts? And what is coming for our rescued shotgun?

My shotgun ran great in class. Several others had shit break on their guns. One guy had the handguard become detached from the loading forks. Another had a screw come loose inside his receiver and jam things up. People switched to backup guns. But my old 870 Police Magnum gave me no trouble at all. Despite being old and unproven (to me), I had a great time with my shotgun, and my small initial investment paid off.

My existing mods were also good choices. My instructor friends are also huge fans of the Magpul stocks. I found that it did everything I asked. I got the length of pull adjusted to suit my preferences, and that helped. The stock even made supporting and firing the gun one-handed reasonable.

I also had no complaints about the extension. More ammo is better. Duh. The spring worked great. No jams. Plus, the high visibility follower was in fact very visible.

What I did find unsatisfactory was the two-point sling. I rigged this up like I would rig up one of my carbines, using a VTAC sling. This wasn’t my best build plan ever. Having a sling mounted in front of the handguard on a pump shotgun ended up being super annoying, because it seemed like it was always getting in the way. Plus, the shotgun always felt askew when it was hanging on the sling. On a carbine, I’d just move the sling adapters, but I can’t do that here. This will take some more thought.

The ‘formerly-brass’ bead sight on the shotgun was a reasonable sighting system. It wasn’t great. For most “indoors” distances, it will work fine if you’re using something with a pattern like non-flite-control buckshot or birdshot. I found that at distances, the lack of a good second reference made headshots with slugs harder to achieve than I would like. I will probably end up getting the shotgun drilled and tapped for a picatinny rail so I can mount a small red dot. Because I freaking love red dots, and I love the target-focused shooting paradigm that they get you into.

While the gun worked great, there are things that need changing. I’ve talked sights, even if those are “wants” more than needs. A bigger priority is the finish. The one on the gun is toast. When I asked gunsmiths in the class about getting the rust off, they told me not to worry about killing the finish, because it’s already crap. Not that 870s are known for their good factory finishes.2 This is going to get redone in…something. I don’t know what yet. Stay tuned.


  1. Ask Fishbreath. 
  2. Seriously, how does Remington’s parkerizing suck so hard? My M1 Garand also has a parkerized finish on its metal parts, and it’s a bit more than twice as old as my 870, and the finish on my M1 is fine. No rust. 

Tactical Shotgun Build: The Pump

Time for a different kind of build. This is a shotgun for tactical and defensive purposes. It’s very different from a gamer shotgun. Shotguns don’t get a lot of love from a lot of people, but I’m not one of them. Know your weapon and its limitations. The shotgun is the king of CQB. It is a way of cheating at pistol problems, which is perfect for, say, home defense.

This is going to be the first of a few articles on the shotgun. We’re starting with the pump shotgun, and what follows is how I would go about setting one up. There are many good reasons to use a pump shotgun, viz:

  1. Pump shotguns will cycle anything. Light loads, heavy loads, or if your job is Law Enforcement, breaching rounds and less-than-lethal rounds. You can even mix and match in the same mag tube. The pump gun will not care.
  2. A good pump shotgun is way cheaper than a good semiautomatic shotgun. There’s a really significant cost savings here. Especially if you look at used pump shotguns.
  3. Pump shotguns are politically acceptable just about everywhere. Even in godforsaken commie states, you can get a great home defense weapon with a pump gun, and no one will think twice of it.

Note of course that pump shotguns require you, the user, to run the action. As such, practice! Seek training! The novice may screw things up if he is not careful.

Anyway, on to the build!

Base Gun
In terms of model, there’s lots of debate between Remington and Mossberg. See also: Ford vs. Chevy. I would suggest the higher end Remington 870 Police or Mossberg 590 model as your base gun. And I would suggest you look for a nice used shotgun, possibly a police trade in. You can save a ton of money on a great gun this way. Don’t worry too much about the furniture. Both Remingtons and Mossbergs have great aftermarket support. My choice would be whichever I could find the best deal on. I’ll be sure parts are listed for both. Note that the Mossberg safety is more lefty friendly, if that matters to you.

Barrel: 14″ SBS
Not all of you will agree with this one, and that’s ok. Yes, I’m advocating filling out a Form 1 to turn your shotgun into a short-barreled shotgun, paying your $200 for the tax stamp, etc. and then legally setting your shotgun up as an NFA item with a 14″ barrel instead of the usual 18.5″-20″ barrel. Yes it’s a pain. Having handled a buddy’s short-barreled shotgun, I really like the handiness and weight reduction that comes from a shorter barrel. It makes the weapon a much better choice for confined spaces. I’ll understand if you don’t want the hassle, but remember, your standard pump shotgun with an 18.5″ barrel is the same overall length as an M16. A little awkward in a hallway. Also note that this step is a little easier to do on an 870 because of the gun design. You can do this conversion with factory parts for either gun though.

Forend: Surefire DSF-870/590
Here, the appropriate light-equipped forend for your shotgun chosen in step 1. Surefire makes them for both Remington and Mossberg. I really like the Surefire forends because they make mounting a light, and the controls for said light, really easy. They’re also quite rugged, and don’t smash your hand with the light like a lot of other mounting solutions do. You could also get the Magpul forend, attach some rail, and then add the light of your choice, but I’d rather get something that I know won’t smash my fingers and won’t break under recoil.

Magazine: Vang +1 magazine extension
A +1 extension is about all the length we can add given that we’ve shrunk our barrel. And I’m okay with that. This gives us a capacity of 5 rounds in the magazine, plus one in the chamber. And that doesn’t sound like a lot, until you consider the buckshot in each of those rounds. 6 rounds of 00 buck is a “six bad guy gun”. Given that our goal is something compact and handy, this is perfect. Note that if you did not opt to take my advice on the shortened barrel, you can get a longer extension to match the length of your barrel.

Magazine Parts: Vang steel follower, Wolff Extra Power Magazine Spring
A couple things to improve reliability. The steel followers don’t get hung up with dirt as much, and the Wolff spring makes for better feeding. Be sure you get the right spring for your magazine extension. There’s also a hole in the middle so you can tell by feel if your magazine is empty.

Safety: Vang Big Dome (870)/Vang Big Speed (590)
This is a bigger safety. Easier to feel and work than the smaller ones. I like these a lot.

Extra Ammo: VCS Detachable Ammo Carrier
This is a nifty, nonpermanent, secure method of attaching more shells to your gun. The carrier provides some velcro for the side of your receiver, which allows the attachment of ‘cards’ of shells. These have a velcro backing and six shell loops. With these, you can rip off an empty card, and slap on a full card from a pocket or magazine pouch. You also have the option of running the gun slick if you prefer, and its easy to add a little extra ammo to the side quickly if you need to. If you’re cheap, you can affix velcro to the side of your shotgun with some glue.

Stock: Magpul SGA
I really like the Magpul SGA stock. It’s sort of a hybrid between a more traditional stock and a pistol grip stock, providing some of the benefits of both. It also doesn’t obstruct the Mossberg’s safety like a pistol grip stock would. It comes with a couple different risers to get your cheek in the right place, plus spacers to let you adjust length of pull. And that’s the biggest thing for me. Apparently, shotguns are designed and built for people with giant, ape-length arms. I don’t have such arms, and I find regular shotgun stocks annoyingly long. Here’s a great fix. They also come out of the box with some good sling attach hardware, and I really like slings on my gun.

Sights: Aimpoint T-1
There’s a lot of ways to put sights on a shotgun. I’m a big fan of electronics. If you’re shooting either slugs, or Federal Flite Control buckshot, you’ll want something better than the old school brass bead. Ditto if you use your shotgun at night. That means rifle sights or ghost ring sights. Or a red dot, which is faster and simpler for the shooter. Of course we’re going that route. Our choice of Aimpoint T-1 gives us something durable with best in class battery life. Note that this will require the receiver to be drilled and tapped to allow us to mount some picatinny rail on it. That’s ok. It’s an easy task for a gunsmith. Note that if you are not going to follow me in the optic-equipped shotgun, your life will be made much easier if you select a barrel (or shotgun) that comes with the iron sights you want already mounted. Otherwise, consult your local gunsmith.

There you have it. How I’d make a kick ass ultimate pump action shotgun.

Parvusimperator’s Carry Optics Experiment: Out-Cheaping Fishbreath

Between the two of us, Fishbreath is normally the penny-pinching tightwad. Usually.

Now and then though, I have my moments. When we last left my plans for next season, I was going to get a snazzy custom-built open gun. I’m now reconsidering, not because of the cost of the gun, but because of the hassle of the ammo. Open guns require 9×19 mm or .38 Super Comp loaded to make major power factor. Usually, this is the sort of thing one loads himself. You can buy some commercial major 9×19 mm or .38 SC, but it’s very expensive. Like $0.40-0.50 per round expensive. And I don’t have a reloading setup, and getting one would be kind of expensive. And I really don’t have much of an interest in reloading right now.

Then I thought about competing in other divisions. And I still want a 2011, possibly even a semicustom one. And I might still get one, and it might even see some competition in the Limited Division, where I could probably use factory .40. But there’s another division I can compete in today, and be technically near-optimal: Carry Optics. And with the changes in magazine rules (now as many rounds as you can fit in a 140 mm magazine), I won’t get traumatic flashbacks to living in Soviet Cuomostan1.

Let’s review my equipment list, and all the money I’m not spending.2

Base Pistol: Glock 17, $0.00
It’s a full-size 9 mm pistol. And I’m comfortable with it. And in this division, any polymer-framed pistol is going to work fine if you do your part. There’s no competitive advantage to any of them.

Trigger Job: Polish and Small Parts Tinkering, $0.00
I’ve got a bunch of glocks, so I have a bunch of parts I can tinker with to get the trigger feel right. And I have a dremel with polishing wheels, so I can polish stuff up.

Optic: Trijicon RMR02, $0.00
This optic works. RMRs have great battery life and are plenty tough. The window is a little small, but this will certainly work well, even if it isn’t optimal.

Optic Mount: Mark Housel Slide Milling, $0.00
I already got the slide milled for this RMR. It’s a sturdy mount. Mark does good work. Also, the cut is cerakoted, so I don’t have to worry about rust. It does lock me into the RMR on this gun, but I really don’t care.

140 mm Magazines: ETS and Magpul, $0.00
I already have a bunch of these from competing, because they’re reliable and a little easier to pull off of a belt than a big stick. They all hold at least 20 rounds in an easily-reloaded package. And that’s good enough for club matches. I can get a few more with extenders.

Holster: Dale Fricke Michael, $0.00
This is a production-legal, straight-drop holster. Does not require a weaponlight, which aren’t allowed in carry optics. It’s legal and it works great. There are more optimal holsters, but we can get those later, when I want to optimize. I have a good holster to do some testing. Plus this one is named for an archangel. How cool is that?

Magazine Pouches: Kytex Glock Mag pouches (3), $0.00
I already have these from taking classes with Glocks. Since I can load as many rounds as I can fit into my 140 mm mags, I don’t need a Ramboload of mag pouches. So I don’t need to purchase more.

Tuning required, $0.00
It’s a 9 mm Glock shooting factory ammo, with no changes to the recoil system. It’s about as reliable as you can get. Did I mention it’s a Glock? Time spent: Zero hours. Cost of parts and tools needed: $0.00.

There you have it. One super cool carry optics pistol, ready to rock. If I do get that 2011 in .40, expect some testing to see which gives me a higher hit factor. And I spent less than Fishbreath.


  1. Also known as New York State. 
  2. Or, I guess, technically money I’ve already spent, but SHUT UP. 

High Noon, No Limits

We’ve talked about a proposed Open-Division optimized Glock build, and a proposed Open-Division optimized 2011 build. Let’s look how they compare.

Cost
This one is pretty easy. Glock by far. Custom 2011 builds are expensive. Tuned 2011 mags are expensive. Glock magazines are not. And an Open Glock can be a good way to break into Open. I should know, I already made a small one.

Trigger
Also easy. 2011. It’s a bigger 1911. The trigger is very short. It can be made very light. It’s the textbook definition of ‘perfect semiautomatic pistol trigger.’1

Magazine Capacity
If we compare apples to apples (9 mm), the Glock gets 26 or 27 rounds in a 170 mm magazine. 2011s are dependent on tuning, but they usually get 29 or 30 rounds of 9 mm in a 170 with the current top parts.

Advantage: 2011.

Springs and Recoil Characteristics
Here, the old school roots of the 2011 come out in its favor. Remember, we’re trying to tune the springs, compensator, slide weight, and load to have as flat shooting a gun as possible. John Moses Browning designed the 1911 so that the slide action of cocking the hammer dissipates some recoil energy. As the slide comes back, the recoil force is dissipated by the recoil spring and the mainspring. Then, the recoil spring pushes the slide back into battery.

Surprisingly, this is easier to tune than a Glock. In the Glock recoil cycle, the recoil force is dissipated by the recoil spring. Easy enough. This spring the presses the slide back into battery. As it does so, it has to partially cock the striker, which means the recoil spring has to work against the striker spring. But the striker spring also provides power to set off primers. So the balance is more difficult to manage, given that we’re also compensating the pistol.

Advantage: 2011.

Caliber Considerations
For our apples to apples comparison, we’re looking at guns in 9×19 mm, loaded to Major power factor. Note that we could also get the Glock in .40 S&W, and the 2011 in .38 Super, .38 Super Comp,2 or .40 S&W. The 2011 has an advantage in being able to take 9×19 mm rounds with a greater overall length, which is a benefit for reloaders trying to make major. While .38 Super/Super Comp brass is quite a bit more expensive and harder to find, it’s a lot easier to load to major power factor, and unlike .40, no magazine capacity is given up.

Advantage: 2011.

Intangibles
A few other things that just kinda go here for me to think about.

I’d actually get to assemble most of the Glock parts. That’s fun. The 2011 would be built for me.

On the other hand, this means the 2011 would need less tuning out of the box. I’d get it, it would be ready to shred. And I’d have someone to call in the event of problems. On the Glock, I’d have to do a bunch of spring weight tuning myself after assembly.

Tuned 2011 mags tend to have issues with slides locking back prematurely. To maximize capacity, usually a follower is chosen that sits high in the magazine. This will often contact the slide stop early, and lock the slide back with a round left in the magazine. This is obviously very annoying. The simplest and most reliable fix is to modify the followers and slide stop to never lock back. Which is different from how must modern guns work3, but shouldn’t be a handicap in a competition, since you should be planning reloads.

That’s a lot of advantages for the 2011. There’s also lots of cost with the 2011. Makes sense. Pay to play. There’s a reason one of these is an optimum choice. There’s a reason why basically everyone at Open Nationals shoots some version of a 2011.

And then there’s one more thing. I’ve wanted a 2011 for a while. A 1911 without the capacity issues? Made to my specifications? That pushes a whole lot of my buttons in a great way.

So we’ll be placing a call for a custom 2011 in the not too distant future…


  1. At least from a shootability standpoint. But for a competition gun, that’s all that matters. 
  2. Basically .38 Super but with even less rim. Note that this is also a chambering difference as the chamber needs to headspace off the throat. 
  3. What is this, 1901? 

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.