A Look At The Future Of Handgun Materials
August 24, 2017
In a world full of plastic-framed guns, what good is metal?
This comment from an editor of mine got me thinking, and then researching. I went back through my desktop and laptop computers and took a look at all the gun reviews I've done over the past ten years. In that time I've reviewed well over fifty new handguns for various publications including Firearms News. My question was, of those pistols, how many of them had metal frames (steel or aluminum) and of those, how many were completely new designs?
As for metal-framed guns, I'd reviewed a lot. It is a rare season when I don't find myself reviewing one or more iterations of America's steel beauty, John Browning's 1911. I found that I'd reviewed a lot of 1911s big and small, steel and aluminum-framed, but the 1911 is the opposite of a new design. The same with the various iterations of the CZ-75, which is Europe's version of the 1911 — almost every gun maker over there seems to make a copy of the CZ-75. The only new pistols that immediately popped into my mind were two new Remington offerings, the R51 and the RM380, both
of which sport aluminum frames. However, the R51 is a new version of the old Remington Model 51 (designed 1917), and the RM380 is an improved version of the Rohrbaugh R380 (derived from the Rohrbaugh R9, designed in 2000). Hmm.
While most of the pistols I've covered over the last ten years have been new versions of existing designs, there have been dozens of brand new guns — the Smith & Wesson M&P auto, CZ P-07, Taurus Curve, HK VP9, FNH FNS, Ruger LC9 and Ruger American Pistol, and the Walther CCP, just to name a few.
However, after an exhaustive search of my records and my brain, I came to the conclusion that of all the completely new pistol designs I've looked at in the past decade, I could only find one which had a metal frame: the Kimber Solo (and some might argue that it is just a striker-fired 1911). It is possible there might have been one or two others, but I didn't review them and they didn't pop up in the memory bank.
Looked at as a percentage, that means that 5% or less of all new pistol designs in the past ten years have featured frames made out of metal. Heck, several companies are now making polymer-framed revolvers. So that begs the question — in this modern era of wonder polymers, are metal-framed pistols relevant anymore?
Let me be clear, metal-framed guns are not going anywhere any time soon. The 1911 is more popular now than it ever has been, and while I don't have any hard figures, anecdotal evidence has shown me that the standard steel-framed models make up a majority of 1911 sales. And the 1911 is not the only old metal-framed pistol design still seeing steady sales — you can add to that list the CZ-75 and all of its varied clones, the Beretta 92, and all the SIG P-series pistols.
But that begs the question, are there are innovations happening on the metal-framed pistol side of the aisle? And after examining the evidence, I'd have to say no. All the cool new features, modularity, etc, are happening with plastics. Why?
First, compared to polymer, metal — whether you're talking carbon steel, stainless steel, or aluminum — is a much more expensive material. Titanium is even more so. In addition to that, it takes more effort and time to machine metal. Add all that up and that means a metal-framed gun, all things being equal, will be more expensive than an identical model
with a polymer frame. And many metal-framed guns are old designs, which means they can be labor intensive to produce. The perfect example of this comes from SIG, which is now making all of their pistols in the U.S. at the same facility. When you compare the price of the average metal-framed SIG pistol (old design, MSRP $1,100 and up) to their polymer-framed pistols (new design, $650 — $750), there's really no comparison.
CNC machines seem to be breeding like rabbits. Just a few decades ago only the biggest manufacturers could even afford them, but now even the smallest machine shop seems to have several. CNC machining is making the job of working metal much easier, but the improvements in polymers, both materials and production, have been even bigger.
You can't do any machining with metal that you can't do with polymer, but there are a lot of things you can do with polymers that would be impossible with metal. I remember visiting Smith & Wesson a few years ago and they had a 3-D printing machine that they used to create full-size models of new designs, just to see if what worked on the computer screen translated properly to the hand. Some of their 3D-printed models could even withstand firing a few rounds of loaded ammo
Admittedly polymer doesn't have the same strength as steel, which is why polymer-framed guns have steel inserts or a chassis to house the fire control group and/or provide a set of rails on which the steel slide can ride. Its weakness when compared to metal is really the only disadvantage of polymer, unless you consider weight. Metal — especially steel — adds recoil absorbing weight to a handgun, and in comparison polymer weighs next to nothing.
I've got two examples of how weight is and isn't important in reducing recoil. My Glock 34 weighs 24 ounces. My all-steel SIG P226 weighs 42 ounces. For you Hillary Clinton voters that's over three pounds difference, and yet the SIG
has more muzzle rise. Why? Bore height. The SIG's bore is set far higher off the hand than the Glock, and as a result it has more leverage to pivot during recoil. In fact, the Glock's low bore is one of the reasons the pistol is so easy to shoot. Many polymer-framed guns are striker-fired designs, and striker-fired guns by design have their bores lower than traditional hammer-fired designs.
Metal-framed guns are thought to be more inherently accurate than those with polymer frames. I don't think this is true if you're talking about factory firearms with standard tolerances. I believe that metal-framed guns (specifically the 1911) can be made to be more accurate via gunsmithing than polymer-framed guns. No semi-auto has yet to unseat the 1911 when it comes to the accuracy-intensive bullseye shooting, and gunsmiths have decades of experience in working on that design to push it to its ultimate potential. However, for those action pistols sports that only require what I'll call real world accuracy, polymer-framed pistols have proven themselves more than adequate for the task, and shooters using them have earned dozens of IDPA and USPSA national titles.
That said, all-steel 1911s chambered in 9mm are more popular than ever in IDPA and USPSA competition. Why? The 1911 has a low bore, and when you chamber a heavy all-steel gun in a lightly recoiling cartridge, the end result is a gun that recoils hardly more than a .22.
However, most handgun buyers are overly obsessed with lowering the weight of their carry guns (the most popular segment), and the gun designers are following that parade, trying to find ways to reduce the overall weight of pistols. They work to reduce the recoil using other methods than sheer mass such as innovative recoil spring systems and low bore offset.
The only type of handguns that require not just metal but steel in their frames these days are revolvers chambered in big magnums. Ruger might have figured out how to use a lot of polymer in the frame of the LCR, but the day when you'll see a polymer-framed revolver chambered in .454 Casull or .500 S&W is never.
All polymers used in handguns are not the same, and polymer isn't necessarily better than metal, it just offers engineers different design options. Polymers range from the plastic used in Glocks, which is the softest in the industry and only half a step removed from rubber, to the glass-filled nylon favored by Ruger that is much stiffer. Engineers have to account for the flex of the polymer during recoil, something not an issue when dealing with metal. Stiffer polymers flex less, but transmit more felt recoil to the shooter's hand.
The soft polymer in a Glock frame really flexes and soaks up recoil, however that's not always a good thing. The Gen 4 Glocks exist because Glock was losing law enforcement sales due to a problem unique to them; if you hung a weapon light on a Gen 3 Glock chambered in .40 S&W, the gun's frame would flex so much in recoil it would short cycle. This isn't a new problem for Glock — they had to put metal inserts into the polymer magazine bodies when the original all-polymer bodies warped under heat and pressure (i.e. cops sitting on them all day). But they adapted their design and moved on, and now the Glock polymer-over-metal magazines and guns are considered the standard in the industry for simplicity and reliability.
As for the advantages of using polymer in a handgun frame, they are many. First, we've already touched on cost. Not only is polymer itself cheaper as a material than any kind of metal, production costs are lower. Polymer can be machined, like metal, but more often it is injection molded into forms with any flash trimmed off by hand. That is quicker than machining.
The new molds and production processes are getting so much better that some of the molded polymer grip texturing feels nearly as sharp as a checkered metal frame. Color changes are easy — just add different dye to the polymer. That is why you see so many color options on some lines of polymer pistols — because it is so easy for the manufacturer to do. One great example of this is the Ruger LCP pocket .380. I just glanced at the short-run distributor exclusives of the LCP currently on the Ruger website, and there are close to a dozen different color frames available.
Because the grips on a polymer-framed pistol are part of the frame itself, the result is a pistol that is thinner, lighter, and has fewer parts. The ubiquitous Glock has fewer parts (34 including all springs and pins) than any other competing design on the market, and almost all of them have fewer parts than similarly sized pistols with metal frames. Most 1911s have more than 50 parts and as semi-auto pistols go it is relatively simple.
Engineers who have begun to think outside the box think of polymer frames in a different light than they would a frame made out of metal. As a result we're seeing increased modularity in polymer-framed guns. The new Ruger American Pistol doesn't feature interchangeable backstraps but rather replaceable grip shells that wrap around the frame, which is little more than a polymer column covering the magazine. The SIG P250 and P320 pistols don't even have traditional frames — the serialized part is a steel chassis inside the polymer grip module, and swapping out one module for one a different size or color takes only a minute and requires no tools or federal paperwork.
Forget factory customization, polymer is much more user-customizable. Notice the explosion of stippling? Currently I'm wearing a SIG P320 Carry whose grip module I have stippled and recontoured to fit my tastes. I used a soldering iron for the stippling and a Dremel tool for the other work. The stippling looks great, and is very functional, which is impressive considering I have no artistic or mechanical skill. Or patience. Hand checkering metal frames (which used to be the only way to get a checkered frontstrap on a 1911) is a skill that takes hundreds of hours to perfect. As for hand checkering an aluminum frame, it just doesn't work well at all. Titanium? Forget it.
Oh, and before I forget, let's talk about a subject I really hate: cleaning. Modern polymers in handgun frames are picked specifically because they are not harmed by any harsh cleaning chemicals. And most importantly? Plastic doesn't rust, and the finish won't wear off. It requires no maintenance.
Handguns need metal, but engineers are coming up with ways to use less and less of it in the design of handguns. Sure, right now you need a metal barrel and slide and some trigger components, and rails on which the slide can reciprocate, but I would wager a generation from now that won't be the case. Right now polymer has really only replaced the metal in the frame of a pistol. But there are exceptions to that, such as the FN Five-seveN, which has a polymer shell around its steel slide. A pistol that is all polymer and ceramic and uses other futuristic materials like carbon fiber probably isn't more than a couple of decades away, but the question is whether you'd want to fire it. Not because it won't be safe, but because it will be so light it might have significant and probably unpleasant recoil.
Speaking of ceramics, I'll bet that within a decade you'll see manufacturers experimenting with ceramic components in handguns. Industrial ceramics have gone mainstream, and are used in the medical, oil and gas, computer, plumbing, and textile industries just to name a few. I've even got a couple of ceramic kitchen knives, and tests have shown that ceramic blades keep their edges ten times longer than the typical steel blade.
The first handguns were made out of steel and wood, because they had to be. Nothing else was strong enough. Aluminum reduced the weight, but it still had to be machined in the same way as steel. Polymers, however, haven't just changed the way handguns are made but how they are designed. Metal-framed guns aren't going away, their designs are too established and proven, but they are the past, not the future.