By Patrick Sweeney

Ok, weíre in the depths of summer, and for some of you it will stay hot for quite awhile. Others can look forward to a break in the heat in a while, but in the meantime weíre all sticky with sweat and tired of packing a big Ďol blaster. We all want something smaller and easier to hide under hot-weather clothes.

But there is a catch (isnít there always?) Compact guns come with their own demands. Like the cutest sister at a sorority house, an ultra-compact carry gun can be demanding and insistent. Some things just might not be good enough. And others, well, letís just draw the curtain on this particular comparison.

Ultra-compact handguns, besides having specific needs in holsters, can be very particular about the ammunition they will work with. You may find that some combinations are simply unreliable, and not because the gun, the ammo, or your wallet are at fault. No, some things, like kimchee and key lime pie, just are not meant to go together.

Letís start with you revolvoleros. Youíve suddenly discovered the benefits of packing an ultra-light snubbie. And not to pick on them, but letís assume you went with an S&W 340PD. (Nice gun, by the way.) If you look at it closely, or even read the owners manual, youíll see a warning laser-etched on the barrel shroud. It tells you not to use ammunition of less than 120 grains weight. Why? A little thing called bullet pull. You see, when you touch off a sub-critical nuke in the 340PD, recoil happens. The revolver moves back, as Sir Isaac noted, when the fired bullet moves forward. As the cylinder moves back, it snatches the remaining cartridges to the rear, and it snatches them by their rims. The bullets in the remaining rounds do their best to keep up, but if the recoil becomes brisk enough, they fail in that task.

The faster and more forceful the recoil, the greater pulling force on the bullets. If the bullet pull becomes great enough, the remaining rounds lengthen. Why the warning on lighter bullets and not on heavier ones? Wouldnít the lesser recoil of the light bullets make the heavier bullet more likely to pull? Nope, you see, the weight of the heavier bullets comes with a longer bullet length. Longer length in the bullets means more friction in the case, and thus a greater resistance to pull. Donít go putting all this on S&W, by the way. Any sufficiently lightweight revolver, using sufficiently powerful ammo, is going to experience this problem.

You snickering pistoleros, stop it. You have the opposite problem. When your featherweight pistol recoils, the rounds are rattled back and forth inside the magazine like the goodies in a miniature pinata. The timing of the short slide and the magazine spring lifting the rounds has to coincide, or you get failures to feed. What was a perfectly reliable compact 9mm with standard ammo may be a jam-a-matic with +P or +P+ ammo.

The hotter your carry ammo is, the more forcefully and more frequently those rounds bounce back and forth. If there is insufficient neck tension on your ammo, your rounds will shrink. If they donít shrink in the magazine, the bullets may still have been loosened enough that when they get to the top and try to feed, they end up shortening when they are slammed into the feed ramp.

In both revolver and pistol instances, bad things are the usual result when youíve selected the wrong ammo. Lengthening revolver rounds can quickly poke out the front of the cylinder, and stop rotation. Shortened pistol rounds can not only cause a failure to feed, but if they do make it to the chamber, their shortened length drastically increases chamber pressure.

"Hey, I donít worry," youíre saying. "I only shoot factory ammo, not reloads." Sorry to burst your bubble, but factory ammo is not immune to these problems. I have a big stack of factory .45 ACP slowly crushing my selves that simply wonít feed in compact guns. The sort, choppy feeding cycle sets bullets back in the case, and they either stub on feeding, or the pressure spikes and the next round fails to feed. It also pulls in a revolver. When I find a handgun this stuff works in, I plan to blast it all off and reload the empties.

You cannot simply treat your defensive handgun as if it were some anti-virus software. You know, install and update (you do update your virus software, donít you?) and forget about it while it runs in the background. This is a handgun, not a magic talisman. You have to feed it the ammo it likes.

So test your selected carry ammo in your carry gun, and make sure it does not give you these kinds of problems. But how to test? Simple, test one round to endurance. If youíre shooting a revolver, load the cylinder and fire one less than capacity. Reload, and fire one less again, leaving the same cartridge unfired both times. It has now been subjected to ten or twelve recoil impulses. Pull it out of the cylinder and compare it to an unfired cartridge. Any difference in length, and you canít use that ammo in your revolver. Do the same with a pistol; load and fire all but one, extract it from the chamber, load it first in the mag again and repeat another magazineís worth. Any shorter? Then you canít use that ammo.

Now for the rest of the bad news: you arenít getting the performance you expect. Any time you shorten a barrel, you get less velocity. You do, however, get much as much--or more--in recoil, so youíre paying more to get less. Yes, the math says you pay the same price, but shooting a .357 Magnum in a 45-ounce S&W Model 27, and shooting the same ammo in a 12-ounce 340PD is most definitely not the same experience. And, from the two-inch barrel, youíre not getting .357 performance either. Nor does any ultra-compact handgun avoid that problem. A 158-grain factory-loaded lead semi-wadcutter that easily goes 1,200-plus fps from a six-inch barrel and 1,050 to 1,100 from a four inch delivers only 907 fps in a sub-two-inch barrel. And it gives you a nuclear flash that makes it easy to identify the bad guys: the ones with scorch marks on their shirts.

Thatís right, youíre paying the full .357 Magnum price in recoil, to get .38 Special+P performance. I can see the pistol guys laughing in their over-priced coffee beverages. You guys donít escape, either. Physics is physics, and short barrels extract their tariff. A shortened 9mm can claw more than a couple of hundred feet per second off the full-sized pistolís performance. Now, you arenít going to find your ultra-compact 9mm suddenly turned into a "mere" .380, but you also arenít going to be getting much over 1,000 fps, either. And you too will get the full "benefit" of noise and recoil from your +P or +P+ load.

How can you tell what youíre getting and if it is worth the cost? Only one way, and that is to chronograph your ammo.

If you want to know what your selected defensive ammo is doing, but you donít want to spend the bucks on a PACT or CED chronograph, what to do? Simple: get yourself off to a practical shooting match. The rules call for ammo to be chronographed, to keep shooters from using PPC-type loads in the matches. Not all clubs chrono all the time, but most have a chronograph. Shoot the match, get some practice, get your match ammo and your defensive ammo chronoíd, and find out what youíre getting for the noise and recoil. You might even have some fun, too.