Thursday, May 08, 2008

Lock Mess Monster.

The issue of the internal lock that S&W added to their revolvers is one that has generated far more heat than light on the internet over the last several years. Initial resistance was mostly split along two lines: The first was aesthetic; the new lock appeared as an ugly little metal zit on the side of the gun just above the cylinder release, complete with an inscribed "L"-and-arrow indicating which direction to turn it to disable the gun, and a Rube Golberg-esque flag that popped up to indicate that the gun was locked. The second was philosophical; people refused to buy a gun that had a feature that was such an obvious nod to the anti-gun crowd and could render a sidearm inert at a time when it was needed most.

The issue was complicated when, after a year or so, rumors began to trickle down about revolvers that had spontaneously locked themselves when firing. Several prominent gun writers pooh-poohed these claims in print, predictably resulting in incendiary internet diatribes about "paid shills of the gun industry". The argument has smoldered fitfully along ever since.

Recently a thread on ARFcom, complete with pictures, concerning yet another spontaneously-locked revolver has triggered yet another flareup of "See? I told you so!" on the web, including posts from people on Evil Black Rifle gun boards who are no more likely to carry a S&W revolver than they are to sprout wings and fly.

As usual, the truth about the matter lies somewhere in the middle, and I'd like to offer a couple of thoughts on the matter. Remember, I'm just someone who worked in the retail firearms sales and repair industry from 1993 to 2007 and who has owned probably close to a hundred S&W revolvers, including three with the dreaded internal lock. My opinions are no more valid than anyone else with a keyboard and an internet connection:

1: Locks are not some demonic S&W invention. Springfield, Bersa, H&K, Glock, Taurus, Ruger, and S&W all have locks on some or all of their handgun lines. These locks are all done with varying degrees of mechanical aptitude and aesthetic obtrusiveness. Barring a significant change in the American political and legal climate, locks on handguns are with us to stay. A ban on handguns is more realistically likely than the disappearance of integral locks. Deal with it.

2: S&W are not the only locks that have failed. Over the years I have seen one failed S&W lock with my own eyes. I have also seen one Bersa, one HK USP9F, and a double handful of Tauruses that have suffered some manner of lock-related failure that rendered the gun inoperable.

3: Verifiable S&W lock failures seem confined to a narrow class of firearms. Almost to an incident, they seem to occur on flyweight Titanium/Scandium magnum revolvers shooting magnum loads. The recoil impulse on these guns is so savage that bullets are pulled from their crimps sometimes. It is therefore unsurprising to me that the gun could rotate under recoil briskly enough to leave the lock parts hanging in place under their own inertia, locking the weapon. This is a serious design flaw with the S&W lock and one that they should rectify, especially before some gnawed hiker corpse is found in bear country with his two-ounce riboflavin-framed .44 Magnum in his hand, locked up like Fort Knox.

If you absolutely must have a helium revolver chambered for he-man magnum loads, instructions are available on the big Smith & Wesson fan forum for disabling the lock by grinding off one little metal stud with your handy-dandy Dremel Tool, invaluable sidekick of shadetree gunsmiths everywhere.

From anecdotal evidence I have gathered, another component of these lock failures is that the locks on the subject weapons have all been used (or, in industry parlance, "fiddled with"). One reason I think that this is a component, if not a necessary prerequisite, is that the lock parts are manufactured via the MIM (metal injection molding) process, which is not known for turning out glass-smooth surfaces from the factory. Out of the box, this results in locks that have enough stiction that they are difficult to apply on purpose, let alone by accident. Were someone to take their new flyweight bear gun out and fiddle the lock back and forth to watch the little flag pop up and down, they would notice its application become a mite easier as the rough mating surfaces were bedded together by the repeated application of the key. One may rest assured that neither of the two lock-equipped revolvers I own has ever had the lock turned.

"What?" you say, "You own Smiths with locks?" Yes, I do, although I cordially dislike the little bugger on mostly aesthetic grounds. The two Smiths I own with locks are models that I wanted that had no pre-lock equivalents, so it was deal with the lock or deal without the gun. One is a steel-cylindered AirWeight .32 Magnum that is my everyday backup CCW gun, and the other is an all-steel large-frame .44 Special. Neither generates enough recoil impulse to make me worry about the lock at all. Incidentally, I also used to own a Titanium-cylinder .45 ACP revolver with the lock. The gun generated enough recoil to cause lightly-crimped ball ammo to jump its crimp, but in the thousand or so rounds I put through it before I traded it, it never had an issue with the lock. Again, I just don't think it had the Wheaties, recoil-wise.

One other reason I just can't get my dander up about this issue the way others have is that when an end user looks at those pictures on ARFcom, they see "OMG! A S&W LOCK FAILURE!!!1!!". I look at them and see "Ho hum. Another broken gun." Having worked in places with 'We Fix Busted Guns' signs out front for so long, I have seen so many firearms that have broken in so many ways that a new one fails to engage (pardon the pun) my interest. Frankly, if I had an AirLite .44 Magnum, I'd be as, or more, worried about the riboflavin cylinder failing or the little sheet metal tab in the topstrap getting eroded away and the frame getting flame-cut to uselessness as I would about the lock getting inadvertently activated.

A final grace note: I have to wonder how many people on those threads have shaken their heads at the sight of the jammed-up .41 Magnum S&W and pompously stated "Look at that! I'd never carry such an unreliable gun for self defense. Damn Smith & Wesson!" and then walked out their front door after stuffing their holster full of a semiautomatic pistol on which they have never performed One. Single. Malfunction. Clearance. Drill.



OA said...

"Frankly, if I had an AirLite .44 Magnum, I'd be as, or more, worried about the riboflavin cylinder failing or the little sheet metal tab in the topstrap getting eroded away and the frame getting flame-cut to uselessness as I would about the lock getting inadvertently activated."

I don't think firing it once, yelling "damn it!" and heading back to the car can do that much damage.

Anonymous said...

Best clearheaded analysis I've heard of the S&W lock issue yet. Great work.

One minor side note: My 329PD (with the unobtanium frame and the riboflavin cylinder) has never had the lock engaged with the key and never had the mechanism fiddled with, but it DOES lock up when firing ANY full-house loads. With the 240gr @1000fps field loads I carry for boar hunting, no problems. When it does lock up, a hard pull on the trigger along with a gentle easing back of the hammer will free it up, and then the hammer can be either thumbed back to full cock and the gun fired or let down (skipping one loaded chamber) and either fired normally or not. It does, however, unnerve me to yank hard on the trigger of a loaded revolver when I have no intention of shooting it immediately.

My similarly flyweight 360PD and 340PD do not have this issue. And, no, I haven't sent it back yet nor ground down the little nubbin. I do wish that S&W would do what Glock did and allow you to order the gun with or without this "safety feature".


Tam said...

The biggest advantage of the Glock and Springfield Armory 1911 locks is that they are removable modules. It is a little- or no-cost proposition for Glock to make the lock optional.

Smith would need to essentially double the number of frame styles they already make if they wanted to make both "no-lock" and "lock" frames.

GrantCunningham said...

Tam -

A couple of points from someone who deals with the internals of these things on a daily basis.

First, instances of unintentional lock engagement are most assuredly not limited to the lightweight guns with full-house loads. I have verified instances of the failure occurring with steel-framed guns firing Magnum ammunition, and with lightweight guns firing Specials. I agree, however, that the smaller, lighter the gun and the hotter the load, the more likely a failure becomes.

Second, the problem is not the surface finish of the MIM parts - which are on the whole superior to a machined part. The problem is one of inertia: the flag, which is the part which actually locks the hammer, is shaped in such a way as to distribute its mass toward the greatest distance from its fulcrum. This translates to a moment of inertia which easily overwhelms the very weak return spring, allowing the flag to move into the locked position.

In addition, the return spring's fulcrum is very close to the pivot point of the flag, reducing its leverage advantage dramatically.

The number of time the lock has been engaged appears to play no part in the failures. The difficulty of engaging the locks when new comes not from the movement of the flag, but rather a) friction of the tumbler inside the frame hole and b) friction of the mating cam surfaces on the tumbler & flag.

I've done a bit of experimentation with reducing the mass of the flag in an attempt to reduce its moment of inertia, and initial results are promising. Of course, the option of disabling the flag's locking portion or of removing it altogether may be more appealing to many people.

-=[ Grant ]=-

TBeck said...

I once had the lock on one of my Tauri engage far enough to block the hammer while I was firing it. I gave it a solid tightening and it never gave any trouble again.

Regarding those who carry semiautos and don't know how to clear a dud round; there will always be those for whom the gun is first and foremost a fashion accessory. Sad, but true.

Anonymous said...

Tam: I have to politely disagree with you on this one. I find the frame 'zit' offensive for all of the above reasons. Yes, I own guns with the zit and one is sitting beside the computer right now, but the lock has been deactivated. "Oh, Horrors I'll get sued if I use it self-defense." Sure will, but I would anyway with a 1930's Hand Ejector, but the main point I believe is TO SURVIVE.

However, my main complaint is if it WAS needed a better design could have been instigated and off the record people at S&W have acknowledged the same. That's the reason why I like the return the grip safety on the Hammerless J-frames. Could we see this same feature on the bigger frames?

I find that feature more acceptable than some stupid zit and flag arrangement.

All The Best,
Frank W. James

Tam said...

I 100% agree that it should be redesigned.

And I do recognize that it can self-apply, as well.

I was just pointing out that the thing is probably getting a bit more overblown on the intertubes than it likely warrants. Any bets that far more, say, rebound springs have failed in the last year than locks?

Jay G said...

Interesting indeed. I've got a 360PD (I opted for the Illudium P-32 frame m'self) and have found the possibility of rattling things loose by shooting uber-powered rounds to be a self-correcting thing. As in, my wrist will fail long before the internal lock ever does...

Paul Simer said...

Integral trigger locks are teh evil.

When I was 16 I had my dad's Taurus 85 Ultra-lite on top of the drapes in my room. Dad had employee issues and wanted to make sure I was armed, and the Taurus is what I shot best out of his collection.

One night two (we think) of his former employees came knocking. Actually, they came throwing themselves into the front door repeatedly. While dad was off getting the shotgun, they came back and I found myself standing in the front hall, pointing that little Brazilian gun toward the door and waiting for it to fall down. He came back, they ran off, and everything was fine.

The next week I was fiddling with it (I was an idiot) and realized that the trigger lock had engaged. I think dad was showing it to a buddy and left it locked. He had the only key. A lot of good that would have done me.

Regarding failure drills... these types of malfunctions are so scary to those of us who only carry one gun precisely because no failure drill can compensate for a locked up gun. A month ago a friend was shooting my Glock 26, and managed to get the cartridge locked in at an angle where the only way to dislodge it was to stick a knife between the frame and the back of the barrel, prying it forward and allowing the bent cartridge to fall out. How does one prepare for that? There's no malfunction drill that will clear a mechanically locked gun, other than maybe dropping the thing and drawing a backup.

Gun ran fine afterward and I haven't been able to reproduce the malfunction. Still, would anybody like to sell a poor newlywed a backup 642 and a pocket holster?

It's probably a little overblown, seeing as it's a mechanical device made by mortal men (who are not JMB). Still, I can understand a little bit of the heebie-jeebies it's causing.

Earl said...

I notice, not being anything like an expert, there isn't a lot of immediate action drills for failures to fire in the civilian community. My favorite machinegun instructor made me remember that if it failed to function beat on it since it is only metal... which isn't really the proper immediate action, just the proper attitude to get back into the battle.

B&N said...

"My 329PD (with the unobtanium frame and the riboflavin cylinder) has never had the lock engaged with the key and never had the mechanism fiddled with, but it DOES lock up when firing ANY full-house loads"

Have the exact same problem with my 627 Taurus Ti. Only the truly full loads, 158gr. and up, cause the problem, which is sad, as I do like to carry this thing in the field and I don't feel comfortable with the ethics of not loading the heavier deer loads (Speer 170 gives you a serious whack in the face) into the cylinder when I'm looking for Bambi.

Too bad about the 329PD, I've been lusting after one of those, in anticipation of some day moving west, and using it for my sidearm while hiking. Oh well, thanks for the heads up anyway.

Ben said...

2 ounce riboflavin framed .44 Magnum, huh.

It's comments like that one that keep me tuning in of course.

Charles Pergiel said...

"The recoil impulse on these guns is so savage that bullets are pulled from their crimps sometimes."

Would you be talking about the cartridges that were not in firing position?

Trebor said...

Yes, ultimately a lock failure is just "another broken gun."

The thing is, if it's a defensive gun, why would I want a gun that has an *additional* possible failure mode designed right into the gun?

I want my defensive guns to be as reliable as humanly possible. I won't use *any* gun with an internal lock for defensive use. Yeah, there are other things that can still fail, but I've eliminated at least one possible failure mode without losing any "functionality" at all.

Whether or not the actual occurence of lock failure is overblown or not is irrelevent. The mere presence of the lock complicates the design and makes it at least somewhat less reliable.

I don't think the lock adds any real "functionality" as it's not needed for the gun to act as a simple bullet launcher. For "safe storage" I can still put my "no-lock" guns in a safe or add an external locking device.

My current carry gun is a S&W Model 65-3. I don't think I'm losing annything by hunting up older guns like that for self defense instead of the newer Smith's.


Anonymous said...

Aaahh Yes, Rebound springs...a favorite of the kitchen table pistolsmith on the S&W revolver. It's also my pet peeve. Leave the damn thing alone, or if possible put a STOUTER one in than what the factory had, but NO! They just don't see the need.

All The Best,
Frank W. James

Jonathan said...

.Glock, Taurus, Ruger, and S&W all have locks on some or all of their handgun lines

Ruger has locks on their semis, but not their revolvers.

Dr. StrangeGun said...

I'm a damn sight tempted to buy a brand new 329PD, and videotaping the box opening and every round thereafter and making a indisputable frickin RECORD of how long it takes to seize one.

Or I'll be makign a video of how to induce a fatigue fracture of the wrist. Whichever comes first...

Tam said...

"...but not their revolvers."

Taken the stocks off a Vaquero lately? I'm guessing you haven't.

Cybrludite said...

The lock on my Judge activated on it's own the first time I took it to the range. Needless to say, the bloody thing's been removed.

Bryan said...

Like you, my objections are mostly aesthetic. Taurus manages to make their revolver locks less obtrusive, you'd think S&W could do the same. I do own one S&W and one Taurus with the lock. Neither has ever given me any trouble, but then neither ever has the lock engaged.


Ahab said...

A question about the jammed up Taurus guns - what caused the failures on those?

I'm asking because I carry a Taurus revolver on a regular basis, and I'd like to avoid having my carry gun turn into a shitty club when I need it.

1894C said...

"before some gnawed hiker corpse is found in bear country with his two-ounce riboflavin-framed .44 Magnum in his hand, locked up like Fort Knox."

That's some perurty writing right there!

"riboflavin-framed .44 Magnum" LOL!

GeorgeH said...

I finally gave in to lock madness and bought one of the new Model 27 "Registered Magnum" look sorta likes.
When it gets back from getting an action job at the Performance Center, I will degrease it and fix the lock in the off position with black locktite. Then I'll lube it up and reassemble.
Why take chances on an unneeded feature.

Sebastian said...

I've never had issues with my S&W lock, but I also don't use it. I tire of every succeeding generation of firearm have more mechanisms on it to deal with nanny state laws. My Ruger Mk.III is thoroughly designed by lawyers. I wish the industry would tell the nanny states to go pee themselves, but don't give that much of a chance.

somerled said...

Tam, this is by far the best post I've read on the S&W lock issues. I've grown tired of seeing the threads you've mentioned such as "S&W lock--yea or nay?"

All the boards should link to your sound logic. :)

alex. said...

All guns are prone to breakage. S&W just added one more thing to go wrong. As one who carries a Smith 642 with the damned lock everyday I have yet to have a problem with it. If I do, I have a backup gun, and a knife, etc. Prepare to win, no matter what. That is the key.

Jonathan said...


the gp100s and sp101s are still free of key locks.

they put a key lock on those and I'm crying foul. :-/

Tam said...

Every other Ruger handgun has picked up a lock during its most recent redesign: P-series autos, MkIII .22's, Vaqueros. I don't see why the DA wheelguns won't get their turn in the barrel.

Jonathan said...

Yeah, I'll stick to my MKII, kmk10.

Kim du Toit said...

Thanks, but no thanks. Neither of my Smiths has a lock -- and come to think of it, nor do any of my other handguns, either.

As several have said: why add yet another thing which could malf?

Stupid tort lawyers and the "fail-safe" mentality all need to be burned at the stake.

Anonymous said...


I am the guy with the locked up .41
I wrote the post on ARFCOM(and several other boards) and I took the photos.

My bona fades, I started with a S&W Mod 19 bought from a local hardware store. 20+ years ago Used it to practice up to go to Police training. Was A police Officer, was a Police Instructor.
I have shot in revolver competitions, I had a Fed manufacturers Licenses in the 90's
Worked in a gun shop off and on for about 10 years. I have worked on and repaired revolvers for years.

All of that is a long way around that I know something about wheel guns.

The deign did not fail. It did what it was made to do. It made the revolver inoperable.
That it was not the operators intent for the revolver to be inoperable is irrelevant to the parts, or S&W

I have had the front sight fly off a 1911. The hand on one of my old S&W's got bent. Had a friend warp the crane on a 29. Hammers can crack, mainsprings lose tension, things wear out.
You might note in my post on ARFCOM that this gun was built broken with a bad chamber but I had no problem with that. Anyone can build one bad specimen.

But to design them all bad?

You have to have a hammer, or a crane, or a front sight or the other parts to make the gun work.
You don't have to have a lock.

A lock that when it works locks the gun and when it doesn't work locks the gun.

Wonder how many are betting their lives on lock guns and don't know there is a problem.

S&W is rolling the dice with our lives with these things. When you market and advertise a product for the protection of the users life and the lives of his family you need the market to have a reasonable expectation that it will work when needed.
But I am more concerned about the guy who's first clue about these problem locks comes while he is on the ground bleeding with a locked up S&W in his hand.
Yes I can "fix" mine the point is to get the word out.
Once you know you pay your money and you make your choice...once you know.

redleg said...

Excellent post and some excellent comments. I've been asking questions on various fori about the locks. Never had a failure. But after reading this, I may well try some kitchen table gun smithing on my 442 and M&P9 locks.

Most of the "safety" features like the LCI, Mag disconnect and lock on my Ruger MKIII's I just ignore. No affect. A gun that may be used for SD is a different issue altogether.

Anonymous said...

My new Bounty Hunter 44 mag.was locked when i took out of the case. I turned the key to unlock it and ,although the flag receded,it remained locked. Irritated, I repeated the operation 4 or 5 times, sometimes putting pressure on the hammer and trigger, all to no avail. once, or twice maybe, the hammer and trigger would retract a little further, but never go to firing position. I've contacted the Seller, and S & W for assistance. I want a refund, or a new,TESTED Bounty Hunter.

Sevesteen said...

S&W would not have to make 2 frames--All they would need to do is include or offer a properly engineered button that replaced the lock and did nothing more than fill the hole in the frame. I would trust a gun with factory-designed parts far more than one that I'd dremeled or locktited.