So You Want to Shoot Steel
by Bob Londrigan, published in Front Sight Magazine, July 2009
Are you interested in shooting a Steel Challenge match or some other type of local steel shoot? If so, you may have wondered if you had the right equipment. Any type of gun that is used in practical shooting events can be used in shooting steel Ė after all, we shoot a fair amount of steel in matches already. However, there are some things you can do to optimize your gun and load for shooting a different game.
The first thing you have to decide is how much time, effort, and money you are willing to spend to optimally set your gun up. If you are just going to shoot one small match and you are not going to do it on an ongoing basis, then you just might want to use your normal setup and load. However, if you are going to shoot a full season of steel matches and you have high expectations, you might want to have a dedicated gun and load setup just to shoot steel. Those are the two extremes and there are many levels in between.
Steel shooting events usually do not have a minimum power factor or they have a much lower power factor than 165. You will be much better off shooting at the lowest power factor allowed by the rules of the game and setting up your gun accordingly. One easy way to start is to use your normal load but substitute a lighter bullet using the same amount of powder. As an example, in an open gun shooting 38 super substitute a 115 gr bullet for a 124gr. bullet. This will usually take your load from being 170 power factor to 155 to 160 power factor. The same thing can be done in a 40 caliber limited gun by going from a 180 gr. bullet to a 135 gr. bullet. Your gun should function as it normally does with these loads. If you want to reduce the load further, you will have to do some testing to see what works best. If you reduce your load down into the 120 power factor range you will most likely have to adjust the gun to run at the lower power factor. There is just too little recoil to let the gun cycle properly in the same way as when it is running major power loads. Begin by working up a light load. Chrono it to make sure you know what you are dealing with. Donít worry about gun function at this point. Just get a load that is around 120 to 130 power factor.
Once you have your load, then you can start tuning the gun around that load. If the gun will function reliably with the lighter load then you are ready to go. If it does not, then you will have to experiment a little. The first thing to look at is the recoil spring. Put in a lighter spring so that you can get the slide velocity back up enough for the gun to function reliably. Go down a couple of pounds at a time. If you have a 12 lb. recoil spring in the gun, try a 10 lb. spring instead. You want the brass to extract and be thrown at least three to four feet. If you need to go lighter go down another 2 lbs. I would not recommend going under 8 lbs. because you may have feeding problems. Some guns can handle less than 8 lbs. and feed reliably but most will eventually have problems. If you are still not getting the brass thrown far enough with an 8 lb. spring there are a couple other tricks you can use to get some additional slide velocity. First replace your mainspring with a lighter spring. You should be able to go as low as 15 lbs. if you use an extended firing pin and still get reliable ignition of primers. The next thing to try is to replace your firing pin stop with another one that has the cam surface cut higher. If you look at your firing pin stop you will notice that there is a radius on the bottom. If you recut this radius you can raise the contact point which pushes the hammer back as the slide moves to the rear. By raising this contact point you have made it easier for the slide to cock the hammer and this will increase slide speed slightly.
These are the quick and easy changes to increase slide velocity and get your gun to work with a reduced load. If after you have made these changes the gun still does not cycle reliably, you will have to bump up the load gradually until you get reliable extraction/ejection.
If you want to make more radical changes the next step is to lighten the slide/barrel/comp. The slide, barrel, and compensator move as one unit for approximately the first 0.1 inch of recoil and, as such, lightening any of these components will get you higher slide velocity. For a dedicated steel gun you will have to decide exactly how light you want to go. Lighten the slide a couple ounces, switch from a bull barrel to a bushing barrel, and go to a lighter shorter compensator and your gun will most likely function with even the lightest loads. You will have to figure out the combination that works the best for you.
Once you have the gun running and your load figured out you can go back through your setup again and try different combinations of load, weight of the gun, springs, etc. until you find which combination you shoot the best. Rework your load and try some different things with that and go through the process again. One thing to consider if you are shooting an open gun is to try some of the faster powders. Usually for an open gun load you want as slow a powder as you can get and use lots of it to produce maximum gas to work the comp. Once you have reduced your load to the 120 power factor level, you donít have near as much gas to work the comp. A faster powder will create more pressure at the lower power factor, and this pressure will often make up for the difference in volume and work the comp better. Many of the faster powders that would create excessive pressures at major power factor can be used safely at the 120 power factor level. Check loading manuals for suggested loads with some of the faster powders and use those as a starting point.
Tuning your gun for steel can be a long process but in the end you will end up with a gun that recoils very little and is a joy to shoot fast.