Tag Archives: reviews

Parvusimperator Reviews the PX4C

Okay, this is Fishbreath’s gun, it’s true. And I’ve been pestering him to review it, but he hasn’t.

Fine. I’ll review it.

Don’t worry, Fishbreath. I’ll do my best to be impartial.

The PX4C (Compact) is a newish double action pistol from Beretta. Well, certainly newer than the Beretta 92, which is what you probably think of when I say “Beretta handgun”. The PX4C doesn’t have a ton of market share, partially because Beretta is bad at marketing, partially because Beretta hasn’t kept market share amongst law enforcement departments (see: Is Bad At Marketing), and partially because the PX4s came out a bit too late. The PX4s were released in 2004, when double-action triggers were going out of vogue. And there they have more or less stayed. If they came out in the 90s, back when double action triggers were Still Cool, they would have sold like crack, and you would hear lots about how nice they were.

Which brings us to an obvious point. These are double action semiautomatics. I am not a fan of these, personally. If you are not either for whatever reason, then (1) these will probably not make a convert out of you and (2) these can’t be turned into something that they aren’t: a striker-fired or single action only pistol. If you want something else, get something else.

On the other hand, if you are a fan of double action pistols, then the PX4C is a great choice, because it is about Glock 19 sized and polymer framed. The Glock 19 size (roughly) is big enough that you can easily get a good grip on the gun, but small enough that most people won’t have too much trouble concealing it with a modicum of effort. You can get good shooting smaller pistols, and you can conceal bigger pistols with a little more effort, but the Glock 19 is the sweet spot of balancing concealability and firepower. This gives you the same size package, the same fifteen round capacity, but a double action trigger. It’s also the only game in town if you like the double action trigger and want something in the Glock 19 form factor (and don’t feel like giving up a couple rounds). That’s really cool.

Oh, and polymer framed because it’s nicer to carry less weight around on your belt.

The PX4C has the Beretta-standard safety/decocker on the slide. I’m not a fan of this location, but it’s easier to reach with your strong hand than on a Beretta 92. You can convert it to a decocker-only lever with a really easy parts swap, and these parts are easy to come by.

I’ve also heard some occasional stories of issues if these pistols get dry, like in high round count classes. To the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t happened to Fishbreath, but he doesn’t do 2,000 round marathons of shooting. The PX4C might be a little needier of lubrication than, say, a Glock. I don’t know enough about this to know how big an issue it is. The occasional story comes up. I can’t confirm the cause either. The rotating barrel system is different, for better and for worse. It does make the pistol a bit softer shooting, but 9 mm isn’t all that stout to begin with. It might be more interesting to try one in .40, but I don’t have access to one.

The PX4C comes with interchangeable backstraps, which is nice. They could be grippier, but I say that about everything. This is easy to fix with some stippling or skateboard tape. Or maybe you like a smoother grip, in which case the PX4C is perfect for you as-is.

There’s actually a decent amount of Beretta parts support for these. There are low-profile safety/decocker levers, low profile slide releases, and a variety of sizes of mag catches. You can also use the mainspring from a Beretta 8000D to improve the double-action trigger pull by a significant amount. And, unfortunately, there is where the support stops. With searching you can find holsters. It is very difficult to find sight alternatives, though Trijicon does make both their standard three-dot tritium sights and their HDs for the PX4s. Stock sights are three-dot units.

So there you have it, readers. The PX4C is a great option for you if you like to carry reasonably-sized double action pistols. In which case, you owe it to yourself to give these a go. They’re pretty easy to overlook given all of the fancy Beretta 92 variants of late, but these are quite a bit easier to carry.

Also, if you’re on the fence, there’s an Ernest Langdon Custom Carry Edition, with actually good sights and all of the low profile controls added right out of the box. It also even comes with some grip tape. This is the version I would suggest you get, dear reader.

Fishbreath Flies: DCS AV-8B NA Harrier Review

Let’s talk weird, floaty planes.

Floatiness (more technically, and henceforth, V/STOL, vertical/short takeoff and landing) has long been a desired trait in warplanes. As far back as the Convair XFY Pogo, a helicopter in airplane’s clothing, designers have seen the advantages in a plane that can land nearly anywhere. The Pogo, however, served to demonstrate some flaws with the plan: namely, that a hovering plane is hard to fly1.

The idea languished for a bit. Like all useful ideas, it didn’t stay down for long. The Harrier was born from this second wave of V/STOL aircraft; it was made possible by a stonking great engine.

The stonking great engine, the Bristol-Siddeley (and later Rolls-Royce) Pegasus, is a fascinating piece of equipment but probably a topic for another day. For now, suffice it to say that the thrust vectoring is built in, the compressor stages rotate in opposite directions to reduce gyroscopic effects, and the limiting factor for power—turbine blade temperature—can be temporarily exceeded by means of a water injection system2. Some sources will tell you the Harrier’s engine is mounted in the fuselage. This is misleading. In a very real sense, the engine is the fuselage, with a little bit of plating to cover it up. Look at a Harrier from the front. You’ll see half of the fan on either side.

Over the years, variants accumulated, as they do for successful airframes. The Americans bought in, and the AV-8 and Harrier GR. number lines separated slightly, in terms of avionics and equipment. As an American and, less importantly but more pertinently, a DCS-based flight simmer, I’m most concerned with the AV-8B, and most specifically, the DCS AV-8B Night Attack variant by Razbam.

The AV-8B entered service with the US Marine Corps in 1985, and was followed quickly by the Night Attack model in 1989. Both versions feature modern glass cockpits, but the Night Attack (N/A going forward) has a few intriguing extra features. Color MFDs, for one3; a color moving map page, too. The HUD is wider, and there’s a FLIR system in the nose. That about covers the built-in night attack capability. Later, it was properly wired for the LITENING pod; the IR-capable LITENING can cue the attack systems for more range than the Mk. I Eyeball (NVGs and FLIR out the HUD) permits.

Weapons-wise, the N/A Harrier4 carries nearly every ground-attack munition in the modern American inventory; dumb bombs, rockets, Mavericks, and guided bombs of every shape, size, and guidance technique make an appearance. So also does the AGM-122 Sidearm, a sadly-out-of-production weapon which mates an anti-radar seeker to a Sidewinder body. It’s a useful self-defense system for aircraft which can’t carry the HARM (like the Harrier), or aircraft whose primary mission is not SEAD.

How is it to fly? Well, it ranges from extremely peppy (loaded light) to rather piggish (with lots of stores hanging off of the wings). One of the obvious-in-hindsight traits of a VTOL aircraft is that it must, in at least some configurations, have an engine thrust greater than their weight5. I never thought of the Harrier as a particularly good performer, but my familiarization flights have certainly changed my mind. It reaches its top speed with surprising and gratifying alacrity with the throttles forward, and maneuvers like you’d expect from what is, when you get right down to it, a very small plane. Carrying a full load—31,000 pounds—the Harrier is much less exciting. Rolls become sluggish, as do all maneuvers; then again, it isn’t hard to understand why. The Harrier’s maximum rolling takeoff weight is about two and a half times its empty weight. No small, fun aircraft can survive that kind of load.

And now for the moment of truth: is it worth buying? Razbam have done an excellent job with the flight modeling, as far as I can tell. The Harrier performs believably, and landing vertically is as much a challenge as you might expect, especially if you’re trying to hit a point on the ground. Helicopter sim experience, like I have, is helpful but not a panacea. To some extent, the Harrier takes unique skills.

As seems to be the case for DCS planes in 2017 and 2018, the Harrier is currently unfinished. The basic flight modeling is there, as are dumb weapons, Mavericks, the built-in targeting systems, and a limited targeting pod implementation, but much remains to be done. Early access aircraft are here, I’m sad to say. If that doesn’t bother you terribly much (knowing that this is DCS, legendarily buggy, whose best-working releases tend to be the most recent releases), I’d say you can’t go wrong buying it. The Harrier is one of the best planes to date.

If, on the other hand, you want a full manual and a fully implemented plane, you should wait. The price goes up at release, but not by very much. If you want a dynamic campaign, well, you’re probably just going to have to wait. Bafflingly, a campaign engine is still not on the DCS radar, despite being an obvious killer app for the platform. The DCS world is growing faster and faster nowadays; the third parties can keep up the aircraft release pace, but eventually the number of planes available is going to exceed the capacity of mission designers to make interesting things to do with them. A campaign is, going forward, a must.

But I digress. The Harrier is a good module, and well worth the purchase if you’re interested in the plane even a little. Thumbs up from me.

  1. Especially one which lands on its tail. Flying into a vertical climb, then looking over your shoulder to locate your landing spot, is not a great design. 
  2. As all engine nerds will tell you, any engine is instantly made much cooler6 when water injection is added. 
  3. For night-vision compatibility, the color is primarily green. 
  4. And its sibling, the AV-8B Plus. The Plus ditches the late-70s Dual-Mode Tracker (read: 6x TV camera and laser spot tracker) in the nose, and replaces it with an old-time F/A-18C-era radar. It can sling AMRAAMs. 
  5. The F-35B is a curious counterexample. For a direct comparison, let’s look at aircraft sans payload plus 4,000 pounds of internal fuel. We’ll use maximum rated dry thrust, with some caveats7. Late-model AV-8B Harrier IIs have an empty weight of just under 14,000 pounds, for about 18,000 pounds with our fuel requirements. (4,000 pounds is somewhat over half of the Harrier’s fuel capacity.) The empty F-35B weighs in at more than twice as much, nearly 32,500lb empty and 36,500lb with fuel. The Harrier’s engine generates 23,500 pounds of thrust, but can only do so for a very short time. Knocking ten percent off for sustained power still leaves it north of 21,000 pounds; the remaining three thousand pounds between thrust and weight easily fits a pair each of Sidewinders and AMRAAMs, or a full fuel load. The F-35B engine, on the other hand, makes only 25,000 pounds dry. The lift fan makes up the difference in vertical flight modes. 
  6. I swear I didn’t notice this pun until after I wrote it. 
  7. The Harrier can’t sustain its maximum thrust rating for very long. There are lift thrust ratings at up to 120% nominal RPM, which the engine control unit won’t allow outside of VTOL configuration. Combat power is 111% nominal RPM. 

Parvusimperator’s Submachine Gun Roundup

At a recent class I had the great pleasure to fire a number of submachine guns. Yes, with happy switches. Here are my impressions of several models that I got a chance to put a bunch of rounds through.

I would like to thank Washington County Machine Guns for providing the hardware to make this possible. If you’re in or near Southwestern Pennsylvania and would like to shoot some automatic weapons, check them out. They’re awesome!

This was an honest-to-goodness World War II vintage Tommy Gun. Freaking awesome. Without the long barrel for NFA rules, it balances reasonably well. It’s heavy, but not unbearably so. Note that I’m not lugging it around Guadalcanal, so I didn’t have much of a chance to complain. On full auto, the weight is the greatest thing ever. The Thompson was very controllable and easy to keep on a 1/3-size IPSC steel target. Sights were simple but effective. Oh, and the magazine release is goofy, but the 1920s were a strange time. Regardless, it was great to have some time with this touchstone. Fist bump for my grandfathers who got to kick the (actual) Nazis out of France with these.

Sten Mk. III
This one is weird. Crude but effective. The machining work isn’t very nicely done, but it’s sturdy. There isn’t really any attention paid to ‘fit and finish,’ but I didn’t feel like I was going to break it either. There’s a nice big reciprocating mass to help you fight recoil. The side-mounted magazine is kinda goofy, and there’s no good place to put your hand. The skeleton stock isn’t very nice to hold either. That said, while it felt weird to shoulder, it was very controllable. No doubt helped by the smaller caliber. And, while lighter than the Thompson, the Sten benefits from a softer shooting round. More death to the mini IPSC steel!

HK MP5-N, suppressed
Oh hell yes. John McClain, here I come! I can see why this gun is so loved among people who use these things for a living. Being the only closed-bolt weapon, single shots were super precise, as were the opening rounds of a full auto volley. This gun had great build quality. It’s heavy enough to help with recoil management, but not so heavy that it’s awkward to manipulate. Controls are generally well thought out, though the ergonomics aren’t quite AR-15 good. Also, the HK Slap is fun to do. Yippie-kai-yay, motherfucker.

Glock 17 Conversion
This is not technically a Glock 18. It is a Glock 17 converted to fire full auto only. And it shoots as fast as the Glock 18 at an awe-inspiring 1,200 rounds per minute. Yes, 1,200. Just like an MG42. And no, it’s no heavier than a normal Glock. This was one of two guns that was a grip check. Gotta get behind it and have proper technique, or this gun will take you for a ride. It also induces maniacal laughter like nothing else. The Full-Auto Glock is much harder to keep on target, but very easy to suppress things with. Or scare people with. Or clear a hallway. Protip: Start with 3-5 rounds in a magazine just so you can get a feel for this thing.

FN P90
I got to try a PDW in the unneutered, as-designed way: spraying lots of little bullets. This thing is small and super controllable. I can understand the concept a little better now. It felt like I was spraying a swarm of bees at the target. Tiny, high-velocity killer bees. Recoil isn’t really a thing given the weapon weight and the energy of the 5.7mm cartridge.

Walther MPK
Another weird one. Looks kinda goofy, had a very cheap feel to it. The sights on the Walther are stupid. Ergonomics were odd. It was still controllable, but it was not very comfortable in the hand. Again, seeing this stamped thing and then comparing it to the MP5 shows how amazingly good HK’s 9mm wondergun was.

Take a big ol’ Belgian FAL. Cut that barrel down to about eight inches or so. Flip the selector switch to “Rock and Roll”. Question the wisdom of giving the skinniest guy on the range a very cut down battle rifle. Carefully set yourself up behind the gun. And then get knocked around anyway, because I’m new at this. But it’s not like any of the heavy guys had an easier time with this, because easy to control this ain’t. Nothing highlights your technique issues in a hurry like trying to wrestle a bronco with a jetpack. Or shoot a short barreled .308. This thing is a beast. A normal FAL is too, but less weight and more concussion does not make this thing any easier to control. On the other hand, it was super fun to shoot. More giant grins.

In fact, this entire exercise was full of giant grins, cackling, and good times.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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 

Parvusimperator Reviews the F-22 Raptor

No fighter discussion would be complete without mentioning this one, even if it’s technically not available for the procurement games.

To understand the F-22, we should first look at the ATF, or the state of military aviation in the ’80s. The core of the USAF was the F-15 and the F-16. These were great fighters, but the Soviets had counters, namely the Su-27 and the MiG-29, which were at least the equals of the American fighters. In the maneuverability area, they might even be considered a bit ahead.

American doctrine was heavily invested in air superiority, and the USAF was always looking for the next big thing, so they put out a design concept for the ATF. It was to fly faster and higher than other fighters. Or, more precisely, to cruise higher. Speed is good, since speed is energy that can be converted into maneuvers. Energy is life. But supersonic speed meant afterburners, which burned fuel rapidly. So most fighters couldn’t sustain supersonic speeds for very long. The USAF’s idea was to use new engine technology to push the envelope of cruise speed, not maximum speed. The resulting fighter would not be faster than the Eagle, but it would be able to maintain supersonic speeds without lighting its afterburners (to “supercruise”). These engines would be designed to work at higher altitudes, because altitude can be converted into energy. Energy is life. Energy is winning.

Of course, there were secret projects in the works too, and so the USAF added stealth requirements. Stealth demanded careful shaping, special skin, and internal carriage of weapons. This helped the supercruise, since it reduced drag. A protracted development period due to the end of the cold war, and a competition between the Lockheed and Northrop Grumman entries eventually resulted in the F-22 we know today.

The F-22 is the king of the skies. Full stop. There is no better aircraft at aerial combat. None. Fighting with a Raptor really, really sucks. The Raptor has a massive, powerful, highly advanced, low-probability of intercept radar, and the obvious stealth features. So it’s going to see you first. And because it cruises at mach 1.2-1.4 at a higher altitude than you, the Raptor has the energy to decline any engagement it pleases, or dictate the range as it pleases.

If the Raptor chooses to engage BVR, as we’ve mentioned it’s going to get the first shot. It sees you first. It gets to position favorably. Plus, if you’ll recall, it’s flying higher and faster than you. So its missiles get that much more energy, because they start from a supersonic platform, and get a gravity assist as they dive down. Which is a great recipe for an intensely frustrating exercise. And by ‘exercise’, I mean ‘simulation of being smote by an angry god’.

But that’s BVR. The Raptor owns BVR. What if we force the merge and go to WVR? Probably by stipulating in the exercise rules that it’s a WVR fight, but still. Well, here go some of the advantages, though it’s still a massive pain to acquire a lock on the Raptor. At least you can see it. And you can engage with IR seekers, but not super well. Everybody dies in WVR. The Raptor is no exception. But it has the best aerodynamics of any fighter around, with a very high thrust/weight ratio and very low wing loading. It also has thrust vectoring. So even in WVR engagements, the Raptor is a winner more often than everybody else. It’s kill to death ratio at Red Flag is hilariously lopsided, and that’s against pilots who dogfight for a living.

If you’re thinking this is quite gushy, and excessively positive, you’d be right. I love this thing. But it’s not tops at everything. The internal weapons bays are somewhat limiting. The Raptor was designed around a warload of six AMRAAMs and two Sidewinders internally. This isn’t a bad loadout, though it could be bigger. However, those bays are not very deep. So the F-22 can’t carry much in the way of bombs. And it can’t carry any bombs that are all that big. The F-35 can’t carry many bombs, but it can carry two of just about any air to ground weapon you please. The F-22 is limited to bombs of 1,000 lbs or less, and that size class also rules out most standoff weapons. Plus, it only recently got ground-oriented radar modes. Ground attack is not its thing. Though the USAF is trying, and has made special small GPS-guided glide bombs so the Raptor can bomb more stuff.

Oh, and it’s out of production. Even when it was in production, it was super expensive. You could theoretically restart the production line, but that would cost a whole bunch of money. And the USAF only bought 187, which isn’t a lot. And there are have been issues with the onboard oxygen generating system, which have restricted that flight envelope. Those should be fixed by now.

So it’s an expensive, gold-plated, air-superiority fighter with gimped ground attack in a world of strike operations. Would we buy it?

Well, we can’t. Production lines were closed in 2011. Sorry. Blame Rumsfeld, not me.

Feels like a cop-out, doesn’t it? Okay, fine. Suppose they got their act together and started making them again. Raptors rolling off the production lines. Would we buy them?

Well, we still can’t. Even if the production lines were reopened, there’s a pesky act of Congress in the way. Really. There’s a law in the United States that says Thou Shalt Not Export the F-22. Even to one of America’s favorite and closest allies, like Japan or Australia or Israel. No Raptors for you.


Okay, that’s another cop-out, right? I’m still avoiding the question. Fine, fine. Remove both pesky intrusions of reality. Would. We. Buy. One?

We’d need a price, right? Well, let’s be awful and take the figure from an offhand quote of an Israeli Air Force general of $200 million, rather than the much more favorable wiki flyaway cost of $150 million. So. 200 million dollars a copy. Would we buy?

Hell fucking yeah, we’d buy.

Did you really think I’d say no to the greatest aerial combatant of all time? Are you mad?
We’d be all over this, if the above conditions were met. Even at $200 million. It’s got Wunderwaffe-class awesomeness. It’s also an absolutely beautiful fighter. It looks right. It is right.

Since this is a game, you might be thinking I should try to trade Fishbreath something so we can both skirt our self-imposed rules a little. He’d never go for it though. He doesn’t like spendy wunderwaffe.

Author’s Notes: This review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by Lockheed Martin, the Fighter Mafia, or members of the United States Air Force.

Fishbreath Shoots: Beretta M9 Review

Is it necessary to review the Beretta M9 nowadays? Given the 92-pattern’s long history of military and police issue, I don’t doubt it’s near the top of the list as far as ‘how many people have shot this?’ goes. Am I going to review it anyway? Yes, yes I am. Will it be a traditional review, where I tell you things you already know? No, it won’t.

The gun in question is a bone-stock, commercial production Beretta M9. It isn’t a 92, so it has the flat backstrap and straight dust cover. It’s neither an M9A1 nor an M9A3, so it doesn’t have a rail, retains the original snowman-style sights, and isn’t finished in Modern Operator Tacticool Desert Tan1. It’s an M9, no more, no less, recently produced but in the very same pattern as the M9 as accepted into US military service in 1985.

Like I said, it’s one of the most widely-shot firearms in history. Like many popular things, the stereotypical view of it is wrong.

If you hang around firearms forums, or if you were recently deployed to somewhere sandy and far away, you may be down on the M9. “It’s unreliable! The fiddly bits inside get clogged with sand. Mine is inaccurate. It rattled when I walked. The slide came off of a buddy’s gun and hit him in the nose.”

None of these complaints are strictly inaccurate, but they don’t capture the full picture. Let’s get nerdy and talk about firearms actions for a bit. The 92-pattern pistol, unlike most modern handguns, does not use a Browning-inspired tilting-barrel design2. Rather, it uses a locking block, which engages the frame by lugs until an internal plunger running up against the frame pushes the locking block down to release the barrel.

Though it’s less common nowadays, the locking block action has some advantages. For one, given the traditional open slide, the ejection on the M9 is absurdly reliable. If the case comes out of the barrel at all, it’s leaving the gun. For another, the skeleton slide makes for a much smaller recoiling mass. The main wear item—the locking block—is easier to fix than worn-out cuts inside a slide. All you have to do is replace the locking block, rather than the slide. The bullet at the top of the magazine can feed directly into the barrel, since its angle relative to the barrel never changes. This makes for simpler magazines and requires no faffing about with feed ramps; as a side effect, it means that the M9 will happily feed any ammunition which is not overlong. It also means that feeding failures3 rarely happen outside of torture tests.

Now, the 92-pattern pistol does have some failings as an issue weapon, which we’ve touched on in previous articles. Mainly, a double-action pistol is not especially well-suited to the role the M9 found itself in, that of a soldier’s sidearm. Shooting a double-action pistol well requires mastering both the double-action trigger pull and the single-action trigger pull. It’s a heavy pistol, only incrementally lighter than the 1911 it replaced, and it’s also quite large. I have average-sized hands, and I suspect my thumbs are somewhat shorter than the norm; the magazine release is out of my reach.

I’m purposefully not mentioning the trigger reach or the safety. The former is obviously a problem, and the latter is obviously not. Do you subscribe to the school of thought which claims the 92’s safety is easy to engage by accident while working the slide? If so, next question: have you ever actually done it? Parvusimperator and I once spent a good ten minutes trying to engage the safety by accident, and wouldn’t you believe it, neither of us managed to. This particular complaint is overblown.

I did say that the 92 has some failings as an issue weapon, and if pressed, I might even admit that a striker-fired gun is probably a better choice (for a secondary weapon, because of easier training). Obviously, it isn’t a great choice if your aim is concealment. That leaves two categories: the duty gun and the competition gun. I think it stacks up well in both of those. Let’s look at why.

For a competition gun in particular, weight is not a bad thing. Even a heavy gun can be comfortably carried in a good holster, and if concealment isn’t a requirement, it’s not terribly hard to make a good holster. Weight means less felt recoil. Less felt recoil means faster, more accurate follow-up shots.

It’s a double-action trigger. By definition, that means it’s better than almost every striker-fired trigger in existence. The first pull is rough, but how often do you have to do that? Once4.

Much like parvusimperator’s favored Glocks, the M9 is, on the whole, a legendarily reliable piece of equipment. Unlike said Glocks, the M9 requires some attention to hold up its end of the bargain. Any firearm with steel riding on aluminum, like the 92-pattern guns, requires lubrication. It also requires occasional replacement—the design life of an M9 is about 40,000 rounds, and combat conditions undoubtedly shrink that figure. Many of the M9’s alleged flaws can be chalked up to pistols nearing their end of life, and to bad maintenance habits5. Carrying an M9 by itself, or shooting it in competition, leaves a gun owner room to solve both problems.

It’s no secret I like Beretta’s products. My carry gun, after all, is a Px4 Compact, and I’ve taken to shooting the M9 as my standard competition pistol. It’s plenty competitive, both in 3-Gun Nation Practical division, and USPSA Production division. I have some plans, even, to build a Beretta 96 for Limited competition next season. Watch this space.

  1. A color I actually really like. 
  2. For patent reasons, maybe? Ask parvusimperator. 
  3. Why yes, I did choose a picture of a Glock to illustrate this point. No, no particular reason why. cough 
  4. The match-running mavens at Performance Shooting Sports in Ohio are fond of ‘pistol loaded, chamber empty’ start conditions. Those are my favorite. No double-action pull at all! 
  5. I’m not judging, mind. A soldier overseas has many, many tasks which come ahead of ‘pistol maintenance’, not least of which is ‘rifle maintenance’. 

The Five Seven is Stupid

It’s true. The FN Five Seven1 is profoundly stupid. Too stupid to have a good time.

There’s nothing really good about it. If you hold one, you’ll notice that the grip is quite long. The better to accommodate the longish 5.7×27 mm rounds. It’s awkwardly long, and it’s fat at the back, narrowing at the front. So, vaguely egg shaped, if you were to look at it from the top. Nothing else is like that, and there’s a reason for that. They could have made it a long oval like a 1911. People like that. Or even something squarish like a Glock or USP. Both of which work well for people. But no.

The trigger is awful. Apparently you’re pulling the trigger bar across the whole Sahara desert. It’s mushy, gritty, and creepy. Nothing redeeming about it.

The slide release is weird. Like everything else about the gun, it’s plastic. Or polymer. Whatever. But it gives absolutely no feedback. It doesn’t feel like it’s a lever. You press on it, and it feels like a solid molded protrusion. Until you press down like it owes you money. And then it will release the slide. It’s too small. It really doesn’t do its one job.

The safety on the Five Seven is proof that a frame mounted safety can be done extremely stupidly. It’s directly above the trigger. You can reach it with the tip of your trigger finger. Or your weak hand thumb. No one else does this. It’s unintuitive. It’s easy to engage accidentally, and engagement isn’t even positive. If anything, it’s negative. It’s everything a safety shouldn’t be.

How does it shoot? Well, recalling the time I spent on a range renting one, it’s ok. The sucky trigger made me sad. The round has good paper punching ballistics. Very flat shooting. So, that’s a plus.

At least, as long as you’re made of money. It’s an expensive pistol that shoots expensive, hard to find ammo. Terminal performance of actual rounds that have seen service is atrocious. Maybe defensible in the P90 when you can riddle the bad guy’s face with 15 in a second, but not so good for a pistol. You get 20, though, so there’s that. It’s also very loud for what it is. So it’s a poor choice for the recoil-averse, even though there’s no recoil. That bang and flash will induce flinches anyway.

I think the biggest indictment of the Five Seven is that both Fishbreath2 and I should like it, and both of us don’t. At all. It’s a hipster gun that’s ultramodern and grew out of the last years of the cold war. It’s flat shooting. It should be our favorite thing since the 9 mm Luger round. But no. It’s a super expensive curiosity. It doesn’t really do anything well that you can’t get elsewhere.

Except, I guess, be the Ultimate Status Item for drug lords. It’s got that going for it.

  1. No, I’m not going to capitalize it the way the FNH Marketing department wants. That’s stupid too. 
  2. It really is a terrible piece of kit, and something I wanted to like. I just can’t bring myself to it. The controls are awful, and I am this blog’s resident AK shooter. -Fishbreath 

Fishbreath Plays: MHRD Review

If you like puzzle games, it’s a good time to be alive. You’ve got your programming puzzle games, like Shenzhen I/O, SpaceChem, and really, the entire Zachtronics catalog; you’ve got your process optimization puzzle games, like Big Pharma and Production Line; you’ve got puzzle games of every shape, size, color, and description.

You even have, it turns out, logic puzzlers. That’s where MHRD comes in. You’re a hardware engineer for the waggishly-named Microhard, a company building the Next Big Thing in CPU design in the 1980s. You start with a single logic element: a NAND gate (for the uninitiated, that means not-and). You end up with a simple but entirely functional 16-bit CPU1, designing all the logic circuits you need along the way. Start with NAND, build the rest of the logic gates, figure out your multiplexers, demultiplexers, adders, and memory elements, put it all together into your higher-level CPU components.

It’s packaged in a fun, oldtimey DOS-style terminal editor, and unlike a lot of retro UIs, it doesn’t wear out its welcome. All your circuit design happens in a hardware description language, in an in-game editor. The editor has some foibles: it doesn’t scroll, and it only does line wrapping when adding text. On the other hand, it has a decent auto-completion engine. The hardware description language makes sense: you refer to pins and buses by name, connecting them to other pins and buses with an arrow operator. For instance, opCode->alu.opCode would connect the circuit’s opCode input to the ALU’s opCode input. Generally, the syntax is straightforward and easy to remember. Sound effects are basic; you get a background fan whir befitting an old PC, and an IBM keyboard sound effect which wears out its welcome after a while.

That’s all there is to it, which brings me to my next point. Is it good as a game? That’s a harder question to answer. It is sited in a difficult middle ground. It can’t be too freeform—given an instruction set and a CPU specification, very few people who don’t already know how could build all the necessary subcomponents. At the same time, it shouldn’t be too static, or else it feels a little too much like rote construction to the truth table for the component at issue. MHRD errs a bit too far in the latter direction. There is no real sandbox. All you’re doing is building the gates and circuits the game tells you to, in exactly that order. There’s no discovery to be had, and not a lot of freedom to design solutions in different ways. Unlike, say, Shenzhen I/O, the problems are small enough that it’s never all that unclear how to solve them.

That isn’t to say that there’s no fun to be had. If you aren’t a hardware engineer, or a software engineer with a deep interest in hardware2, you will find it fascinating how few steps it takes to get from a NAND gate to a functioning processor3. There are leaderboards, too, based on NAND counts for each element. Given that logic design is a fairly well-understood field, the NAND counts are uniformly the smallest possible number of gates required for each task, which gives you a nice target to aim for. The developer is active on his Steam forum, and seems to have more planned for the game. Given that it’s an atmospheric logic puzzle that I, an experienced software engineer, found enjoyable and educational, I think it’s worth a buy. (You may want to wait for a a sale.)

At the same time, there’s a better way. (If you’ve been reading the footnotes, you should have seen this coming.) There’s a free course out there, a Computer Science 101 sort of thing, called Nand2Tetris. As the name suggests, it’s similar to MHRD in that you’re building a CPU from a NAND gate alone. Nand2Tetris differs in two ways. First, it isn’t a game. As such, there isn’t a plot (MHRD’s is skeletal, but present), or any pretension that it’s about anything besides learning. Second, it goes a lot further. MHRD stops at the aforementioned functional CPU. The last puzzle combines the instruction decoder, the ALU, and some registers, and that’s it. It verifies your solution by running a few instructions through the CPU, and you’re done.

Nand2Tetris, as the name suggests, keeps going. After you finish the CPU, you write a compiler to generate your microcode. After you write your compiler, you write an operating system. After that, you can run Tetris. Furthermore, although you have assignments, you also have a proper sandbox. You get a hardware design language and a hardware simulator, and you can build anything you like. That, I feel, is the promise of a logic design puzzle game, and MHRD doesn’t quite deliver.

In the final reckoning, though, I say MHRD is worth the price of entry. I don’t really have the inclination to write my own compiler, and I have plenty of other software projects besides. If you’re only interested in the logic design portion, you ought to get MHRD too. If, on the other hand, you want to really understand how computers work—how the processor you built becomes the computer you use every day—try Nand2Tetris instead.

  1. It’s very similar in architecture, I understand, to the CPU designed in the Nand2Tetris course. We’ll come back to that. 
  2. Or a very good memory for that hardware class you took back in college. 
  3. Not counting the memory elements, the CPU task takes fewer than 800 NAND gates in the minimal solution. My current best is 3500.