Saturday, May 16, 2015

SWFA SS 1-4x24 Tactical 30mm Riflescope First Impressions

review, overview, first impressions
SWFA SS 1-4x24 in their SSALT mount.
I only recently discovered SWFA and I think maybe it is because their products fall just at the top end of what is considered "budget", and so fewer people talk about them when inexpensive optics are the topic of conversation. While digging for reviews and general interwebs trolling, I just don't think I ever came across an SWFA optic. I probably did and just dismissed it for whatever reason. It seems there are a handful of go-to budget friendly optics in the 1-4 magnification range, particularly with the popularity of 3-gun in recent years, and those offerings get all the airtime. A few months ago I also discovered TiborasaurusRex on youtube and let me tell you, you don't have to watch his channel long to realize that he knows just about all there is to know about optics and long range shooting. TiborasaurusRex talks about SWFA SS optics in a couple videos but he has one in particular discussing how they're made, and just exactly what makes them one of, if not the, best choices available. There isn't much point for me to try to explain it, just click the link and watch, but the bottom line is that you are getting a lot of features that matter at a very good price point. It seems there is a group of people sort of "in the know" when it comes to SWFA and the release of this particular optic was apparently highly anticipated and they sold quickly. I ordered mine when they were out of stock and just got it a few days ago, after waiting for the ETA, which I might add, was accurate. Either I have bad luck - entirely likely - or no one delivers on their promises in the manufacturing world, because any time I order something on back-order, the estimated time of arrival isn't even close and I wait around itching to furiously post a negative review.

UTG bi-pod review
So, first thing that needs to happen, is lay out the framework for this review. My framework is kind of like cobbled together in a back alley garage with duct tape and stolen parts. I've shot and hunted all my life, but I'm not saying it was correctly, you know, if I was going to be honest with myself. Shooting for me has always kind of been an organic or natural sort of activity and while I think it does come naturally for me, I'm not saying that. I'm saying, more of an art and less of a science. Bird hunting and point-shooting has always been more my speed and so moving from the hunting realm of shooting and into the realm of action shooting I took more to pistols than rifles. I know I'm speaking broadly here, but we're talking about going from the traditional to the modern tactical. It's a whole lot of words to say, I've only had my AR variant rifle for a few years, and in that time, I just haven't spent a lot of time shooting it. Without a doubt, a healthy dose of human error is going to be apparent in the results throughout this post.

review, budget optics, SWFA
What I have done though, is spent a lot of time changing optics and trying to figure out what optic is right for me. I started with a 1-4x, then switched to a micro red dot, then shot iron sights for a little while, and now I'm back to 1-4x. What I realized about the Primary Arms 1-4x I originally had is that it didn't provide any opportunity to employ or learn precision shooting techniques, and a variable power magnified optic is too heavy not to provide more flexibility. The micro dot took care of the weight issue, but I still felt my gun should wear more hats and I wanted to learn at least some basic precision shooting fundamentals. If the gun was going to be heavy, I decided it should be flexible and I should have access to all of its potential. And on the subject of potential, there is only so much of it available in the equipment. You're looking at a chrome lined, 1:7 twist Del-Ton upper with their heavy barrel and a 5.56 chamber. The lower is a PlumCrazy from before the company turned into New Frontier. I don't know how it will hold up over time but what I do know is that I can't really complain a lot about the trigger. There is almost no movement before the break. You apply five or five and a half pounds of pressure to it and the gun fires. The reset, therefore, is brief with an unmistakable and audible thunk, as plastic things move into alignment under spring pressure. I shot from prone with a UTG bipod and without a sandbag (and I will in the future) while testing inexpensive ammo not necessarily intended for precision. I recently put the Troy Delta rail on for the purpose of free floating the barrel. What it all amounts to, is not a sniper rifle. My point here is, this is the rig, the reader should understand that it's an inexpensive, general purpose rifle. In that regard, this is as much a test of the rifle and ammunition as it is the optic.

And with that said, let's get into it by talking about all of the parts as a whole, rather than the optic alone. I think the do-all gun is highly sought after, but difficult to achieve. However, with the 5.56 AR platform the main outer boundary seems to only be the cartridge's effective range. Its lethality has throughout history come into question as well, and many alternatives have come and gone, but I'm personally past that and I define do-all as general purpose, or multipurpose, in a less literal sense. Why? Because I think that is what the 5.56 AR carbine essentially is and always was. Undoubtedly a better, more multipurpose gun and cartridge could be made, but it won't be without significant alteration to the rifle and cartridge - a complete system, one made specifically for the other. So general purpose takes on new meaning for me as a civilian. What all can I get from one gun for my money? Can I hunt? Can I do some precision shooting? Can I put it into some action shooting? Can I use it in a defensive role? So today, we're talking about the precision aspect, and where a rifle might begin to take on a niche role at the expensive of versatility.

ZQI, Perfecta, Winchester, Tula, Colt, American Eagle
All 55gr FMJ, except the Colt brand in 62gr.
With six brands of inexpensive cartridges from four different countries in hand, I set to zero my new SWFA optic and find out what accuracy potential my gun possessed. As this is an introduction, and a violently stormy day here in Kansas, I only got into the basics at 50 yards. Out of the package the SWFA 1-4x24 looked and felt like a well made product. On one power magnification the front sight post is visible and I immediately noticed that the optic had to be very close to zero right out of the box given the reticle's position relative to the front sight, and it was. You will see in the pictures, after a quick bore sighting by eye, the first round hit just to the left of the target, maybe an inch or so. The second round was a dead center hit, both Russian Tula .223 55grain FMJs. At 50 yards, measuring mils is cake and the total windage adjustment out of the box was 1.7 mils. Now, I already know the Tula is not spectacularly accurate in general and not out of my gun. So I only shot two rounds to sorta zero it, and then began shooting groups of the other brands. Two points to really drive home there. No elevation adjustments, two rounds, and this optic was zeroed, firstly. And second, that dead center bull's eye was probably a fluke. I doubt very seriously if I had fired two or three more rounds that any of them would have been in the black. For reference, those are 3 inch circles and the diamond in the center is a half inch square. At 50 yards the center dot in the reticle completely covers a half inch square and the 3 inch radius of the target is equal to the width of the diamond in the reticle.

Knowing that I was looking at an effective range for .233 or 5.56 of 500-700 yards I couldn't justify spending a whole lot on a bi-pod and to be honest, the main feature I looked for in this unit was the QD mount. I just don't want that extra weight hanging on the front unless I am doing that sort of shooting so the ability to quickly remove it took priority over everything else. I have to say though, the UTG bi-pod, being a direct Harris knock-off, is more than sufficient for my needs. It only swivels and I know that's not good enough for some precision shooters, but I found it had enough play to lean into it, to load the bi-pod, and it seems very sturdy. The throw lever has no locking mechanism and I've already found the screw to adjust the lever likes to back out. I put some thread locker on it, and we'll see how that works out over time.

I don't have any experience with $1,000 glass, so all I can say is, looking through this optic is like looking through air. Bright surfaces in bright sunlight seemed equally bright through the scope as if the light were passing perfectly and completely through the glass. Nothing seemed lost. The eye relief is forgiving and while wearing prescription glasses always seems to be an obstacle with optics, it was less so in this case. Each time I look through a more affordable optic that has a reputation for having good clarity for the price, I wonder what else could I possibly need in that department, and the SWFA is another one of those. The reticle is sharp as a razor. I have begun to get the impression that the batteries included with these types of optics are half dead right out of the package, but the illumination wasn't visible during the times the sun actually reared its head today. I may pick up a fresh battery to try in it, but the illumination isn't an overwhelmingly significant feature for this sort of shooting.

L-R, Tula, Colt, Perfecta, Winchester, AE, ZQI
Now for the ammo testing part of the day. I think the big surprise was the Russian, Colt branded cartridge which I believe has a 62 grain projectile. I must have thrown the packaging away, but it's the stuff that comes in a blue box. It grouped as well as any, maybe as well as the ZQI, maybe better, depending on how much shooter error factored into each group. And there was plenty. Without a sandbag, prone in the grass, I could clearly see my heart beat moving the reticle. Additionally, my target choice wasn't among my finest, being about the same size as the reticle, making it difficult to achieve absolute consistency. I noticed that the Winchester grouped pretty well, but then opened up for the next group. Undoubtedly the blame there could be put on the guy behind the trigger. I only shot a couple Tula, because I have burned lots of it and I kinda know how it goes in my blaster, then the Russian Colt, Perfecta, ZQI, Winchester, and American Eagle. I shot 3 rounds of all of them (and failed to get a picture of only 3 ZQI rounds) then went back and shot 3 more. I did this because I just wanted to take a little of my own error out, or at least spread it around and see some more consistency, particularly with the Perfecta. Turns out, it didn't help with the Perfecta either. My gun just doesn't like it, or it just isn't that great. Now, it's important to note, the second string of fire was AFTER an elevation adjustment on the optic. So I shot 3 rounds of all, noticed they were consistently low, dialed in .3 mils adjustment, and shot the next 3. So you will notice all of the impacts are slightly higher and on the ZQI target, the top 3 are the second group of 3. I shot all 6 American Eagle at once. I also already knew it wasn't great through this gun, and it shows in the group. In any case, the ZQI promises 1 MOA right on the box, and the bullets actually do look different, and very consistent when compared to the others - just a bit more pointed I think. And it looks like they may deliver on the 1 MOA accuracy claim. I can only presume the 62 grain Russian projectiles are a little longer, possibly with a better ballistic coefficient than the others, but surprisingly good. If or when (hopefully when) I get to stretch my gun out, I will for sure consider them. In any case, the good groups you see on these targets are about 3/4 inch, maybe a little better. Considering the shooter and the equipment, I am happy with these results. At 100 yards, if I do my part, with a sandbag and without the hurricane force winds that accompanied the T-Storms today, I think 1 MOA is realistic.

In the top row, from the left, you see my first round of Tula off the target, high and left. The second shot is dead on in the black. That was my two round zero, making only the 1.7 mil windage adjustment, and I loaded up the Colt, ultimately shooting 3 rounds of each except the American Eagle - I shot all 6 of those at once. One thing to note is a bullet hole above the Colt target - that hole was already in the cardboard from a previous shooting session and in the lower image I put a mark through it so I wouldn't get it mixed up with anything. The dark spot at the top left and lower right on the cardboard are nails holding the target up - pretty sophisticated stuff here. Next, I made a .3 mil elevation adjustment and shot 3 more of each brand - lower row.

This image was an attempt to depict the group size - about 3/4 inch for each 3 shot group.

I added a target and shot 5 rounds of ZQI. Probably illustrates shooter ability more than ammunition consistency.

In conclusion, I think it's worth circling back to precision at the expense of versatility. It's well known that the Stoner rifle has an inherent accuracy factor so it's not as if we're seeing something unusual in my results. I learned a little something about my own setup, its accuracy potential and how less expensive ammunition performs in it. I think it illustrates how multipurpose the AR rifle is. A precision barrel, internal components and optic with greater magnification might yield much more impressive results but it likely would come at the expense of versatility, particularly where the optic is concerned.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Production Knife Design and the CRKT Ripple

modern production knives and design
I'm gonna pick on the Ripple in this post, but it's nothing personal, it's just for illustration purposes. For me, but maybe not for a lot of other people, the CRKT Ripple is an example of doing so much right that if something is wrong, it hurts a lot more than it would on a less impressive design. So the Ripple is old news, and I've written about mine in the past, AND it's very popular. What I want to do is break it down into its individual components and talk about my disappointment with virtually all production knives available today, and in particular, knives under $100. I am disappointed. I can't find a single knife I want to buy with excitement. I probably am impossible to please - to the point where I have seriously considered just making my own.

aluminum handle pocket knives
Buck Spitfire - successful execution of features and design.
First I think I should talk about my personal guidelines for value. Because, the Ripple represents an amazing value in design, more so than materials, and I believe that is an important distinction. Exotic and semi-exotic materials, for me personally, add little to no meaningful value to a knife that gets used. Titanium is widely used, widely held to be a high quality material, and cherished, apparently, by knife owners. To me, it's expensive for nothing more than the sake of being expensive - a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. There are no meaningful strength or weight advantages involved with titanium that haven't been matched or exceeded with far less expensive materials. Additionally, titanium can be anodized and yet, we rarely see production knives offered with interesting colored accents beyond a few basics. Titanium hasn't become common place among sub $100 production knives like aluminum, and while aluminum can be anodized, the knife world is still not particularly colorful. Exotic materials are fine, but they belong on more expensive knives and when production manufacturers go chasing them, we pay the price in design.

edc knives, budget, affordable, high value
So where does design value come in and how does the Ripple represent it? Just like exotic materials, manufacturers also chase exotic designs, and when that happens we pay the price in materials, and design both. How do we pay the price in design when a brand uses a well known knife designer? The designs have no practical value, they only have appearance and in fact, form often impedes function where knives are concerned. Being a car enthusiast, I have to make an automotive metaphor or something is seriously wrong. You can take two of virtually any car, even the most mundane, and apply quality craftsmanship, materials and details to one of them to make it far and away better looking, maybe even better to drive, but without a doubt a car can be dressed up from good to great without significant modification. But, under it all, the other car is the same car, same body panels, shape, overall design. Craftsmanship and materials are the same things used to make an Aston Martin, or Ferrari, but beautiful, well made cars aren't automatically useful in ways that a comfortable sedan is. The CRKT Ripple manages to give us some high-end, functional design in an inexpensive package by utilizing practical materials. Aston Martin design, sedan functionality, practical materials.

Let's start with the most obvious, the ball bearing pivot, because it illustrates the idea here. I don't want to get into whether it's practical or not, the point is that for a low cost knife, it's there and it is nice. This is essentially a list of features, that are individually value adding, but don't necessarily make a good knife.
-Ball bearing pivot.
-Aesthetic design. It's attractive looking.
-Functional design. It is a useful knife.
-Rounded blade spine which is also polished.
-Aluminum version with inset steel liner. It adds complexity to manufacture. Can be anodized.
-Steel version frame lock. Still comes in colors even though it can't be anodized.
-Size variants.
-Blade material options.
-Design variants.
-Well executed flipper and associated detent.
-Attractive pillars.
-Hidden, internal blade stop pin. I like that the stop pin holes aren't fully through the handles.

everyday carry blades
Rounded, polished blade spine and jimping details.
That's a pretty long list, to include features that aren't especially common in the Ripple's price range. In fact, I would say that we rarely get all this stuff in knives at this price and I would like to see a lot more of it. The design is functional, attractive and practical. Like the sedan or the sports car, they simply have different purposes in life and knives are no different. The Ripple manages to strike a good balance. At its heart, the Ripple is truly a simple, even classic design, but dressed up, like the car metaphor. The rounded blade spine, for instance, is attractive yes, but in my opinion, a largely overlooked functional feature of a knife. In two handed cutting, pressing on the spine is most comfortable when it's smooth and round. If I were making knives, a rounded spine would be a standard, even mandatory feature.

knives, pocket tip up tip down
That pocket clip.
But, that doesn't mean it's perfect. The bottom line is that the pocket clip on the Ripple is horrible. It violates two of my principles of design. It is ugly and looks like an afterthought, and functionally is annoying. I feel the clip in my hand when I use the knife, in fact it's almost pointed at the end so it can really dig in. Fortunately I don't really full-on fist grip a pocket knife for extended periods of time. I won't criticize it for being tip-down only, but let's face it, from a business perspective, it should have had options for tip-up. But in this case, because of the way they (or Ken Onion) just sort of forced the pocket clip into the design, it doesn't work well in the pocket. The flipper is actually exposed and because the spine of the blade now faces into a wide open pocket it can snag and open. Luckily the strong blade detent mostly prevents issues, but they don't stop there. I don't personally see the point in deep carry pocket clips, but I do find a problem with having too much solid metallic stuff sticking out of my pocket banging and snagging on things. I can't help but wonder if the pocket clip is tip-down less out of purposeful design than necessity. The pointless lanyard hole wastes all of the real estate at the rear of the handles, and then having an internal stop pin forces the clip to be shoved off to one side. Basically, my opinion is, even with a known designer, they couldn't overcome the pocket clip problems that arose from the rest of the design, leaving it muddled in however they could get it to fit. The solution of course is simple. Lose the lanyard hole, increase the size of the nested liner at the back end so that it can have threads tapped and design a pocket clip that looks like it belongs. The Ripple pattern might have to be altered with a flat area on both sides (for left or right carry) but that could easily be made to look like part of the design. Fix the clip, sell more Ripples. It's that simple to me. I would buy the steel frame lock Ripple, with a steel upgrade, if it weren't for the pocket clip.

Chasing all these features and spiffy design ultimately, and all too frequently, results in a knife that just doesn't generate any excitement for me. And, I believe it also prevents greater success for the brand. While the knife may be successful for them, they are missing out on that next level where variants could be produced more often or much sooner. CRKT could step into a wider range of variants if the Ripple were selling better now, and the really deep product lines, full of boring designs that will likely get discontinued, would no longer be necessary. Rather than designs destined to fail, I would focus on improving the successful ones instead.

Tip-down, with a little too much knife sticking out of the pocket, including the flipper.
Nice pillars, but closeups show that the finish isn't spectacular on the aluminum handles. You can also see the liner and where it doesn't extend into the furthest rear where the lanyard hole is, and where the pocket clip should be.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Mighty Jersey Pattern Axe

It's been a long time coming, but I have myself a Jersey, an icon of American axes, and while it isn't rare or necessarily old, it's in almost unused condition and that means a lot more to me than a worn out head with special markings. The head has actually been sitting around for months but now it's ready for action ... just in time for winter to be over. Oh well. The handle started as a rough first pass handle from House, seen in previous posts, thinned to size with octagonal flats applied. Then, using the sludge in the bottom of my vinegar vat, a little leather dye and lots of boiled linseed oil, I applied a patina to the wood. I just like that the handle doesn't look as brand new as it is with the vintage steel hung on it. Here comes the pics!
plumb cruiser axe, double bit, woodsman tools
Some of the collection!

jersey pattern vintage axe
Axe head alignment is key!

vintage axe restoration refurbished
tree felling tools, vintage tools, wood working

rehanging an axe, axe collection

perfect axe handle hickory

custom hung axe handle

hanging old axes

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Knife Clones, Counterfeits and Hypocrisy

I'm doing that thing where I write a post just off the cuff without giving you visual content. Sorry. I'm not sure why I've been in a ranting mood lately. Today I am talking about those Chinese brands like Sanrenmu, Ganzo and Enlan, but also pure counterfeits that look absolutely identical to the knife they mimic, to include the box and logos and whatever else. There is a gray area as well. It's well known that several of the Chinese outfits use the patented axis lock used by Benchmade. Many will argue that taking a patented design, then using it without permission or license is illegal and therefore essentially the same as counterfeit even when the knife isn't infringing on any other protected properties. I think that I agree. That aspect of that knife is in fact counterfeit whether the rest of it is or not. We're talking about China though, not America, and just because we do it here, doesn't mean any other countries care. The argument then progresses into morality because you can choose not to support these brands and that by purchasing their wares, you have crossed some moral line.

Fact is, that's all probably more or less true. Some people like to call it arguing semantics (ironic connection to one of my other rants) and others make a distinction between clone and counterfeit, and I do as well. But it's really not about semantics or morality. It's about hypocrisy. Benchmade, Spyderco, CRKT, Kershaw, Boker, Buck, the list goes on and on, and every single one of them uses or has used Chinese factories to increase their margins, and in fact, some of these very same factories. If you can argue that one Chinese company and their products steal business from one American company, then I can argue that every single Chinese employee making goods for American companies steals jobs from every single American company with an entirely American payroll, thereby stealing business from thousands of American companies and prospective companies. It is the policies of the Chinese as a nation that allow these practices to happen, so you don't get to draw convenient distinctions between one company and another. To say that you are morally superior to someone because you refuse to buy one counterfeit product makes you a raging hypocrite. You drive a counterfeit product, you wear counterfeit products, you have a house full of counterfeit products. As a nation we're in bed with China, as a consumer YOU are in bed with China, and these very same companies you so vigorously defend are in bed with the very same factories you condemn. There are two choices really. Get over it, or accept that you are a hypocrite. There is only one way to get around these two choices. Never buy another foreign made product again, and throw away every single one you own now. Let us know how that works out. You aren't going to do what it takes to really make a change in America, so save your self righteous hypocrisy.

Counterfeits are a real thing, Americans buy them, and there is a distinction between a counterfeit and a clone. The water does get muddy when a product typically considered a clone illegally uses a patented design and you're welcome to choose not to purchase that product for that very reason. It is entirely possible that pure counterfeits can be very bad for reasons beyond the obvious. The factories are unknown, the money could be going places that none of us would want. It's hard to tell and the unknown nature of these businesses is cause enough to avoid them. I can't, and won't argue with that and I don't personally have any interest in buying a purely counterfeit anything. But when it comes to places known to produce goods for US companies, any high horse attitude just isn't going to fly.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Traditionals Tuesday Axes?

trade axe large eye curved single bit handle
Both Collins, the Trade pattern at the bottom.
Do axes count? They're old traditional tools. OK so maybe Traditionals Tuesday isn't going to become a thing. Here we have the Collins Legitimus 3lb Connecticut pattern from last Tuesday in progress. My rough turned handles had showed up the week before that, and some nice weather came with them that Saturday, and I couldn't wait to get started. Some of the pictures show the handles rough, as they come from House Handle so that you can get an idea of how much material is removed to fit them. One thing I want to mention in this post, because I've talked at length about rough handles as well as reshaping off-the-shelf finished handles, is the 3-1/2lb Collins Trade pattern depicted in some of the images. This is the only one I have experience rehanging but the eye is unusually large on them. It may just be that the eye is larger on the heavier heads, but I don't know for certain. It could very well be that if you got a 3lb version it would also have the huge eye - I'm just not familiar enough with them to say. However, if you have one in hand and you're stumped about where to source a handle, I was in the same boat and a rough handle like these will work. The rough, or first pass handles are large enough and you will need to ask for one special from House Handle. I don't see a ton of these heads around, but hopefully a few people will find this post and at least have one option.

rough turned single bit axe handles
Here are the handles as they came to me.

A finished handle next to a rough handle shows how much material is removed.

That Connecticut finished, but not sharpened yet.

Tried a few fancy lines around the shoulder of this handle that turned out pretty nice.

Notice the handle on the right had been chucked in the lathe off center so one side has a flat. I didn't want to remove material just to make the other side match and it doesn't affect feel in the hand.

The eye of the Connecticut pattern. Notice how narrow the eye is on them.

handles for trade pattern axes
And here you can see just how huge the eye is for the Trade pattern.

Again, the Trade axe eye is longer and much wider.

restoring vintage axe heads
Here you can see that having extra material really allows you to get a perfect fit.

3-1/2lb collins legitimus trade axe
I also applied octagonal flats to the Trade axe handle.