F&S Classics: The Plinking Handgun
Our former, and legendary, shooting editor tackles the "family fun" pastime of plinking
One of my opinionated shooting friends—and the more devoted to shooting they are the more opinionated they’re likely to be—recently remarked that he expected to see the words plink and plinking disappear from the American language, certainly as they apply to activities with a handgun. That may be dire prophecy.
The dictionary says that plinking has to do with the activity of shooting at targets casually, more or less according to whim. This sport, innocent as it is, would be rendered as surreptitious as glue-sniffing and as criminal as embezzlement if Glenn and Dodd and Tydings and Spero and McCarthy and all the various “we hate guns because we fear them” groups, have their ultimate way. Some people just don’t believe it possible to have simple, safe fun with a firearm, seem to think anyone who does is a murderous criminal. Tightly organized formal target shooting would die harder; so probably would either those defensive or hunting usages of the handarm with which we’re not concerned here; but plinking?!? The very word must be an abomination to all our legislators of morality!
Meanwhile, plinking can be a very satisfying fun sport for millions, is completely safe when carried on by reasonably mature individuals, and acts as a primitive but effective lead-in to the more serious or organized forms of handgunnery. I may not be known as a devout worshipper of the short gun, but I’d be the first to maintain that there is a distinct personal satisfaction in being able to hit something with a one-hand gun at arms length. The pistol in the fingers, when you come right down to it, is a more direct and more intimate extension of the human will than is the rifle or the shotgun, and it certainly demands a greater period of practice before real skill comes with one-handers.
But nobody thinks of plinking as serious practice. That term is reserved for the hours of dry-firing for trigger control, for the weeks of sheer muscle training for the job of holding a heavy match pistol, that are basic if you want to climb beyond the duffer class in target shooting. In plinking, the world does not come to a shuddering stop just because you drop one out into the 8-ring. Miss the tin can against the bank? Who cares? Dirt flew anyway, and there’s another round left in the cylinder for another try. The charm of plinking lies in its very casualness.
But the plinking gun is, or should be, a rather serious item, however. I mean that its selection should be a thoughtful process, one not too much concerned with price tags.
There can be no doubt but that the automatic or selfloading pistol is today top dog in serious target circles. The automatic has taken over the rimfire events entirely; we really have little choice in .45 caliber events; and for middle-caliber firing the match pistols like the Gold Cup models by Colt or the Model 52 by Smith & Wesson, designed to function correctly only with the .38 Special wadcutter, are cutting sharply into the sales of target revolvers like the Diamondback, Officers Model Match, Python, K-38 and so on. So what is a plinking gun, a revolver or a self-loader?
Essentially the answer to that has little to do with the action, the choice of revolver or automatic, though in terms of safe handling by beginners the vote may swing toward the cylinder-gun side. It is my feeling that Must #1 for the plinker is adjustable sights, even though a raft of fixed-sight models are generally referred to as plinkers. Such correctible sights needs not be as sophisticated as the click-set equipment of the Smith & Wesson Model 41 target .22 or the Colt Officer’s Model Match, for example, but the closer they come to such flexibility and precision the better adapted is the gun to satisfactory plinking. I recall a weekend in New Hampshire during which there developed an impromptu shooting match among a number of us in the sporting arms industry, the activity revolving around a Ruger “Bearcat” six shooter, a slick and handy little 17-ounce single-action many like as a kit gun. Its sights are fixed. However well that gun may have been zeroed by factory procedures, few individuals see precisely the same sight picture, and by the second go-round we were using great—and personally different—gobs of windage to produce hits.
I therefore believe that your casual shooting handgun, used for plinking, should be equipped with sights that are at least possibly adjustable. I’d call very acceptable those on Browning’s Nomad .22 pistol, or those rigs used on low-medium-cost rimfire revolvers like the Iver Johnson 57A or Model 67, which involve square-notched rear sights that can be screw-moved back and forth for windage, with front blades that incorporate elevation by turning another screw. Telescope sights with long eye relief, which can now be fitted to almost any handgun, are a bit rich on the plinking gun, are superb for handgun hunting, but are not necessarily the best choice for beginner shooters.
Second, the plinking pistol should come with a respectable trigger. Either that or you should be willing to spend some gunsmithing money having your newly purchased handarm smoothed up to a clean release somewhat heavier than 242 pounds, It is one of the brutal facts of our gun world that inexpensive guns come with lousy triggers, creepy, stiff. An Olympic champion couldn’t shoot well with some of ’em. For example, a gun I picked up the other day, still in virtually factory-new condition, pulled almost six pounds of grating pressure on my trigger scale before it would let its hammer drop. Since the whole gun weighs less than two pounds, squeezing off a shot from it means shaking like a nervous retriever in January.
The plinking handgun need not, of course, be a full-fledged target item like the Smith & Wesson Model 41, the High Standard Supermatic, and so on. For one thing, such guns are generally needlessly expensive for the plinking purpose. For another, they’re too darned heavy for pleasurable use by the average untrained or semi-trained shooter, let alone his spouse or young Waldo, aged thirteen. The conventional target gun goes 40 ounces plus in the semi-automatic category, and ranges to 38 or even 43 ounces as a revolver like Colt’s Officers Model Match, the Colt Diamondback being an exception as one of the lighter ribbed guns with really good sights at about 29. Few people, without continual muscle drill, can steady 40 ounces or 212 pounds at arms length. For a third, the dead-serious target gun is likely to come with rather much grip for plinking purposes, especially when you consider that this sport is one in which a whole family can indulge. I started my son with a 22/32 kit gun, primarily because its grip was small enough for control by young hands.
One blanket statement can be made—I do not recall any “frontier-style” .22 rimfire revolver which is produced with good adjustable sights. They’ve got, or at least some have, interchangeable cylinders for use of the rimfire magnum, and they boast all the atmospherics of a Wild West Show but they don’t have adjustable sights. Single actions in the heavier calibers—Ruger’s several Blackhawk forms in .357, .41, and .44, or the New Frontier version of Colt’s Single Action Army in .357 or .45 Colt—have fine click-set sights as do the double action Smith & Wesson big-bores, but not the .22’s. So here’s a suggestion to some enterprising handgun maker who has already amortized the original tooling costs of his .22 cowboy six-shooter. Come out with a 1970 version that has movable sights!
Needless to say, it’s hard to find justification, in a pure plinking handgun, for any caliber stouter than .22, The Thompson Contender singleshot makes an excellent plinker when the .22 rimfire barrel is in place, for example, but snap in the .22 Hornet or the .357 magnum barrel and it is suddenly transformed into a hunting arm. The degree of dead seriousness inevitable when you work with any large-caliber hand-held gun, even shooting pipsqueak wadcutter loads in .38 Special, takes it out of the plinking class into the hunting, formal target, or defense categories. The rimfire is cheaper than anything else. It is lighter in recoil, lesser in noise and so is acceptable in more areas. Yet it will smithereen a propped-up clay target or punch a hole in a can with almost as much satisfaction as the bigger and harder to shoot combinations. So if you’re thinking about a Combat Magnum with tropical wood grips and Baughman quick-draw sights you’re not in the plinking league! And if you’re dawdling about a snub-barreled Chiefs Special or a Charter Arms Undercover .38 you’re not either. Stay with the .22 rimfire with four to six inches of barrel for plinking purposes.
A major concern of all magazines and of all manufacturers in talking about the gentle sport of handgun plinking has been the safety factor. There is always some blasted idiot who thinks that bullets go only so far before disintegrating or that a pond makes a safe backstop. Don’t you step into his shoes. The rimfire’s greatest curse is its tendency to ricochet, so bullet impact areas have to be picked, if you want to shoot safely and avoid giving your sport a black eye, with great care.
The best possible impact area is a rock-free sandbank of reasonable height. The more closely you can approximate that the better controlled your bullets will be. A jagged-walled rock quarry is about as lousy as backstops come. It can three-cushion a bullet right back at your Cousin Amy. Or even at you. How about a pond? Well, a short time ago the Winchester-Western lab technicians got their smocks all spotted trying to time .22 rimfire bullets just before and just after they hit a smooth water surface. The difference in velocity came out only 50 to 60 foot-seconds or thereabouts, so obviously a rimfire pill can bounce off Lake Littlewater a long long way! A sand or dirt slope as steep as possible and as tall as possible is your safest bet.
Ideally, any plinking target will break or smash or go bong when it is hit, in lively contrast to the sullen silence of the competition target, which just sits there with a hole off in the 5-ring glaring reproach. This has—and I suspect the “shooting matches” as portrayed on television with whiskey bottles sitting on a fence have helped—brought about a situation in which safe plinking areas can end up paved in broken glass. The boob tube can show, alas, more gaffes and gaucheries of gun handling in one evening than most of us could achieve in a lifetime. Obviously busting glass is not desirable, and I for one am also pretty certain that a heavy-gauge bottle, hit on the rounded edge, will cause a bullet to ricochet widely. There’s much less objection to cans. You could shoot up several boxes of rimfire fodder at a handful of soup or beer cans, cart their tattered remains back to your own trash barrel for disposal, and hurt nobody’s idea of rustic beauty. The common clay target obtainable at any trap or skeet range, while it may leave a few black chunks around to disintegrate slowly, makes good plinking material since it smashes convincingly, is cheap, and in either white or yellow-topped form is highly visible.
Or if you just must shoot at paper, the stable-on centers from 100-yard small bore or standard 50-yard handgun targets can, with paper clips and a dime’s worth of ingenuity, be fixed to ordinary wire coat hangers and poked into the backstop bank. First straighten the round hook. Then pull the hanger part down, in the center of the hypotenuse section, so you create a diamond shape. Stick what was the hook section into the ground, fasten the target paper to the wire diamond by bending over the corners, perhaps tying all together with a paper clip or two. This may not look as professional as a stout piece of beaver board with targets stapled onto it, but do you know anybody who can’t locate a coat hanger?
Try the plinking bit. You’re probably not going to blossom forth as new state champion on the .38-caliber range anyway, not this week, and both Wild Bill Hickok and Pretty Boy Floyd have long since left the scene. But casual—and controlled—handgun shooting is an interesting challenge for all the members of a family, and you do not, contrary to the opinions of the firearms-fearers, have to be a Mafioso to enjoy it.