Shooting firearms, like any physical activity, carries inherent risks
Protective equipment is essential to safely using firearms; don’t cut corners
Each time you press the trigger on a live round, you are lighting off a small “pipe bomb” in the palm of your hand. Whether I'm teaching the NRA Home Firearm Safety class or instructing in=service Police Officer requalification I specifically focus on the physical & chemical process which occurs; the firing pin is released, striking the primer (crush explosive). This crushing action causes a spark or flame to enter through the case rim into the cavity of the shell casing, igniting the gun powder. The gun powder burns at an extremely high rate at high temperature (what our naked eye would see as a ‘flash’ or explosion) causing rapid expansion of the gases. As the cartridge is held in place in every direction and physics tells us tells us that heat causes expansion, that expanding pressure will seek the path of least resistance. That direction is towards the projectile and the barrel, in all other directions the casing is held firmly with no where for the pressure to go. The rapidly expanding gases push the bullet (or shot wad) out through the barrel. The gas continues to burn and expand, pushing the projectile(s) faster and faster towards the muzzle. Depending on the amount and type of gun powder and considering the weight & diameter of the payload, these can exit anywhere from 500 feet per second (fps) to nearly 4000 fps.
Safety equipment is not optional
All this happens in a handgun with your hand sometimes less than an inch away. Any number of factors can cause this process to go wrong, and these issues are either gun related or (more likely) ammunition issues. Any time a manufacturer cranks out billions and billions of a product, whether ammunition or cotton swabs, there will be some that aren’t built to spec. It is vital to fully inspect every single round of ammuntion you load or carry for defensive purposes. Look for defects of any kind including dented cases, 'proud' or bulging primers, discoloration, mishappen or damaged projectiles, etc. As setting off a pipe bomb in your hand with a defect carries far more consequences than a q-tip missing the cotton, it is also essential to wear safety equipment whenever using firearms.
While hearing and eye protection are fairly obvious to most, what about additional protection? Most ranges require a billed hat, closed toe shoes, long pants, and occasionally more. With police training, we often require a ballistic vest. Why? Well, cops are issued a vest. You'll be wearing it while working, it provides additional protection, so why not? Have you considered wearing gloves while shooting? Both to acclimate to shooting with them on if you carry a defensive weapon when it's cold, as well as additional protection for your hands.
Several years ago I was sent some ammunition by a new manufacturer to test & evaluate; it was a new style built to overcome the shortcomings of the low power .380 ACP by coupling a lightweight for caliber (50 grain) projectile with a unique design, engineered to be driven at fast for caliber speed ( claimed to be over 1300 fps in a subcompact, as opposed to the standard 95 grain bullet at 800+/- fps). The goal was to utilize physics again; kinetic energy = (mass) multiplied by (velocity squared). Thus, a 50% increase in velocity would have a tremendous impact on the kinetic energy. If properly executed with a bullet design that would maintain integrity and deliver that energy to the target, it would greatly enhance the capabilities for this diminutive round.
So what happened when I tested the ammunition? As per my usual protocol when testing new guns or ammunition, I inspected each round. Each appeared in excellent condition; no deformities in the cases, primers were flush and seated well, projectiles though they looked different were all in good condition and all were seated to the same depth. They appeared to be the same dimensions as standard .380 ammunition.
Then I added my personal protective equipment (PPE) - wrap around eye protection, electronic hearing muffs, hat, long sleeve shirt, ballistic vest and high strength gloves. Right behind me on my tail gate was a full EMT response bag, including my patrol radio. A friend was shooting in the next lane.
I loaded my subcompact S&W .380 bodyguard with 5 rounds. The first shot I noticed was ‘snappy’; I could tell the velocity was greatly increased, but the recoil was mellow for this tiny pistol which is uncomfortable to shoot anyways. I then fired the second shot, and instantly knew something went terribly wrong.
When the shot broke, I could tell it was much louder than even the last shot. My eyes picked up something flying through the air in front of me, though I couldn’t tell what it was. Then I felt the stinging in my hand. I looked at my gun hand, and saw the top of the frame was broken apart - the slide was no longer locked onto it. Looking at the frame and then my gloved right hand, it was obvious that there was a catostrophic failure which destroyed the gun and burned my glove.
What caused this to happen? I can only hypothesis. As I had been firing the gun earlier with no issues, and had done so for a couple years, that limited the problem to the ammunition. Was the round designed and loaded too ‘hot’ for the tiny gun? Was there accidentally too much powder in that specific round? Did the previous round fail to exit the barrel, despite it cycling, and cause an obstruction? Did the first round break apart and some of the bullet was still inside the barrel?
I contacted the ammunition manufacturer, and promptly received many apologies from every level of the small company; they requested that I send them my pistol, and they immediately purchased a brand new one for me. They also offered me several additional boxes of ammunition in several calibers (all based on the extra lightweight + extra high speed principal); they later sold off to a major international distributor, and their product is now widely used. I never did hear if they identified what caused my catastrophic failure ....
Regardless, it was prudent for me to use the appropriate PPE for the activity. Without gloves there is no doubt I would have been injured; how badly? I’m not sure. But by understanding the process of firing a gun I took appropriate steps to mitigate the danger. Whether shooting or riding motocross, mountain biking or skiing, there is appropriate equipment to wear to reduce your risk of injury. Sometimes you’re limited; such as a defensive situation where you have to use your firearm. You’d look a little off walking around with ear muffs and safety glasses on strolling down the street. But if you wear prescription lenses, or even sunglasses, get some ANSI rated eye protection that you can wear all the time. Be aware of the inherent risks; watch your grip to keep flesh away from the front of the cylinder on a revolver or below the slide path on a semi-auto.
Want to learn more about safely using a handgun for self defense? Take our unique Defensive Handgun I class using simulated ammunition