Friday, February 24, 2017

Snapsafe Titan XL Modular Safe Review

After putting it off for way too long, I finally bought a proper safe.  After much research and a few calculations, I finally decided that a large modular safe is what I wanted.  I believe that there are currently only two options for that - Zanotti Armor, and Snapsafe.  Zanotti doesn't offer much in the way of fire protection, and Snapsafe seem to offer decent fire protection, so I placed an order for a Snapsafe Super Titan XL.  Price was a buck under $2000 shipped, but it may be different when you read this.  There are smaller, less expensive safes available if you don't need, or can't afford, a safe that will hold 30-something firearms.

I guess I should also note at this point that Zanotti is, and has been, several months behind on filling orders, and Snapsafe keeps stock.

I ordered mine with the mechanical lock, because the keypad for the electronic lock simply lifts off, and the housing is made of plastic.  I have a smaller quick-access safe.  I don't mind if it takes a couple minutes to dial the mechanical lock on the big safe.  The mechanical lock seems fine.  No regrets.

The safe was delivered in a honeycomb cardboard crate on a pallet.  The driver put it in my garage.  Usually if you buy a safe, they won't take it beyond the curb, unless you pay to have it installed.

Getting the top, bottom, and sides of the safe into the basement was cake.  Pulling the door off the front of the safe, and getting that down wasn't nearly as bad as I thought.  The door is smaller than what Zanotti uses, but the Snapsafe door is easier to manage.  I can live with the smaller door.

Now, it was time to move the back of the safe from my garage, up the stairs to the front door, and down the stairs to the basement.  The back panel of the safe weighs about 200 pounds, and measures 38x59", so it's both quite heavy and bulky.  Can't slide it down the stairs, because it will threaten to run away and crush whoever is on the downhill side against the wall at the bottom of the stairs.  Don't attempt to even move this without a shoulder dolly set, so put that in the budget.  If you have a pair of steel-toe shoes or boots, wear them, and really consider buying a $30 pair at WalMart if you don't have them.  Kinda lost control of it, when getting to the overhang at the bottom of the stairs, and the damn thing threatened to kill me, but at that point, I could let it go, and it couldn't do too much damage to the stairs or walls.

Attempting to assemble the safe, I discovered that the sides of the safe were bowed out, and I couldn't get the holes to line up with the studs attached to the back of the safe.  Thought about slotting the holes, but there are a lot of them, and was afraid that the sides of the safe would still look bowed out after I tightened everything down, which would tip off anyone that it wasn't an ordinary safe.  Redneck ingenuity - put a ratchet strap around the sides, and crank on it until those bastards submit.  SUCCESS!  Holes now lined up and 5 out of 6 sides are now mated.  Add $12-15 to the budget if you don't have a ratchet strap.

The front of the safe, having a big hole cut out of it for the door, was not nearly as hard to manage as the back of the safe.  Grab a(nother) beer, the hard part is over.  Line up the front with the sides and top, thread on a few nuts, remove the ratchet strap, and you're almost done.

I secured the safe to the concrete basement floor with drop-in anchors and 3/8" bolts.  The Snapsafe people recommend 1/4" wedge bolt anchors*, but then I'd have to pick the damn thing up off the studs to move it, or disassemble it.  NUTS TO THAT!  It's back in a corner to make it harder to break into, and that also makes it that much harder to pick up.  The drop-in anchors are seated below the surface of the floor.  Four of the anchors, the tool to set them, and standard 3/8" bolts I think were less than $15 from Lowe's.

None of the panels were drilled for the cord of a dehumidifier or lighting.  You will probably want to at least install a Golden Rod dehumidifier, so have a drill bit ready for cutting an appropriate hole in the safe for that, and a rubber grommet for that hole is highly recommended.  Drill the hole before you start to install the interior.

Last step is to reinstall the fireproofing panels, and maneuver the interior panels into place.  Ran into a snag with the interior panels.  The sticker on the left interior panel was on upside down.  It was obvious that either the sticker on the right or left panel was wrong.  I had a 50/50 chance of guessing which one was right.  So, obviously, I guessed wrong.  Because the side panels have rails for hanging the shelving, I couldn't get the bottom panel in.  The rails were in the way.

With the interior installed properly, I put the big shelf up high, and rifle holders around the outside, but you could install more shelves for pistols, cameras, or whatever if you wanted.  The safe comes with multiple interior options, so that you can configure how you like.

Once you get the interior installed, you need to hang the door.  After dealing with the back panel of the safe, hanging the door on the hinges seemed like a piece of cake.  Although it would probably be easier to do with two people, I managed it on my own.  Remove the inside panel of the door, use the key to change the combination, and I'm finally done.  Took me a couple days altogether, a couple trips to ACE Hardware, and a trip to Lowe's for the anchors, but now it's all done.

Breaking into the safe should be quite difficult, since it's anchored to concrete, and can't be tipped over.  There's a wall in the way, so prying it open where it stands should be quite difficult.  If you could pry it up from the floor, you'd have to get the big, 600 pound safe plus contents down the hall.  The railing at the bottom of the basement stairs is actually a part of the wall, so you'd have to tear that down first, before even considering getting the safe up the stairs.  I'm not sure you could get it out the front door without removing the railing outside, and even then you'd have to try to negotiate the stairs and a small landing that abuts the garage.  You'd have to take down part of the fence, and remove a 7-foot evergreen tree if you took it out the back door.  These are a few of the reasons why I didn't buy a welded safe.  I didn't think it was geometrically possible to get a safe the size that I wanted into the basement where I wanted it, and I surely would have needed more help.  Buying and installing two smaller safes rather than one large one would have been cost prohibitive.  I don't know that the Snapsafe is as secure as a Liberty safe, or similar high-end safe, but I knew going in that I was making a compromise.  "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you just might find you get what you need."

A modular safe is maybe not the optimal security solution, but is probably adequate in most situations, and almost certainly better than the thin-gage gun lockers (i.e. Homak, Stack-On).

* - I don't think they really meant 1/4".  Perhaps someone made a typo, or had difficulty with metric to SAE conversion.  The holes in the bottom of the safe are about 1/2" in diameter, which is the diameter of a drop-in anchor for a 3/8" bolt.  A wedge bolt anchor really isn't a bolt at all.  A wedge bolt anchor is actually a stud, and they sell them with a nut that drives the wedge, and secures whatever you need attached to the concrete.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Rock Island 1911 FS GI 9mm Review

Rock Island 9mm with some minor modifications

I picked up a Rock Island Armory 1911A1 5" FS (full-size, i.e. 5" Government Model) GI 9mm pistol from Sarco for about $430 with tax and transfer.  It's basically a replica of a Post-1985 Colt Series 70 pistol, not really a replica of anything that was issued by the U.S. military, at least not in large numbers.  The ejection port is lowered an flared, and the the thumb safety has a little bit of a shelf, rather than the little bitty tab of the G.I. thumb safety.  I didn't want the Tactical model, because the grip safeties do not fit very well, the triggers are not adjustable for pre-travel, and I didn't want to use Novak-type sights.  The RIA GI model is more of a blank canvas.

Why 9mm?  Well, I already have a 1911 in .45ACP, and I shoot a lot more 9mm, like 12 times more.  I have buckets full of 9mm brass.

The pistol came in a plastic hard case with one Mec-Gar 10-round magazine, and a chamber flag.  That's all.  The recoil spring is about 12 pounds, and the bushing is loose in the slide, so you really don't even need a bushing wrench.  A G.I. style L-shaped tool (as shown in photos above, purchased separately) with a slotted screwdriver and pin punch would be a nice and inexpensive addition for detail stripping and tightening grip screws (more on that a bit later).

Out of the box, I measured the trigger pull at 4 pounds, 10 ounces, which puts it about half way in the advertised range of 4-6 pounds.  A trigger job got it down to a crisp 3 pounds, 10 ounces (EDIT: trigger job settled in to about 3 pounds after a couple thousand rounds).  I couldn't get any lower without hammer follow or making the reset weaker than I would like.  The hammer and sear are cast or probably Metal-Injection-Molded (MIM).  The hooks on the hammer were not terribly long, but they were pretty rough, and hooked (not 90-degrees).  The sear had a smooth edge, but no break-away cut.  I'm not sure how long that trigger job will last.  Hammers and sears EDM cut from hardened steel will last much longer than cast or MIM parts.

Stocks are completely smooth, plain wood with a surprisingly low density.  They almost feel like balsa wood.  I think they are comfortably sized, but provide no traction.  I did have the grips screws (plain slotted) loosen frequently with the wood panels, and I believe this was due to the screws sinking into the soft wood over time.  I know these are only a cheap placeholder, so that's all I'll say about the grips.

The pistol passed safety checks - thumb safety blocks the sear, and grip safety blocks the trigger.  I have not had any trouble disengaging the grip safety.  Thumb safety is single-side Colt Series 70 style.  The thumb safety firmly snicks on and off.  Not sure if the firing pin spring is extra power or not, but the firing pin is steel.  I'm not sure that the firing pin would pass a drop safety test the way the Springfield 1911s with titanium firing pins will, although it seems that RIA .38 Super and .45ACP pistols pass the safety test for sale in California, so I could be wrong.

The GI grip safety is not terribly comfortable, even on a 9mm pistol.  The tail on the grip safety is narrow, and is not at all rounded.  I didn't know what was going on, at first.  It seemed like the pistol was kicking far more than a 9mm full-size all-steel 1911 should.  After several shooting sessions, I noticed a callus had developed on the web of my hand.  The hammer was biting me, but not drawing blood.  Bobbing and rounding the hammer and "melting" the underside of grip safety tail make it a much more comfortable pistol to shoot.  After this modification, I fired over 200 rounds in one session with no discomfort.  It's like a completely different experience.  Changing to a commander hammer, and notching the grip safety to clear is a common fix for the same problem.

Although the barrel seems to lock up pretty well, the bushing is quite loose in the slide.  The slide also rattles on the frame a bit.  Best groups were about 2" offhand groups at 50 feet, which is about on par with most service pistols, but not as good as a match pistol.  A bushing that fits tighter to the slide and barrel would likely tighten up groups significantly, and a rear sight with a smaller notch would also help.  There is a lot of light showing on either side of the skinny little front sight.

First groups were about 2 inches high, and an inch and half to the left.  It is my intention to take or send the slide to a gunsmith to have it milled for a Bo-Mar adjustable sight, and have it flat-topped and serrated.  I can drift the rear sight for windage, but have no way to fix the elevation other than filing down the rear sight.  I tried 115, 124, and 147 grain bullets, and it always shoots high.

Reliability with standard velocity round-nose ammo is 100%, apart from magazine-related issues.  147gr flat-points were jammed hard into the ramp at the bottom edge of the barrel.  I got a couple of the flat-points into the chamber to fire, but I gave up after about 6 3-point jams.  The barrel appeared to be throated, and thus you would think would feed flat-point bullets.  That ramp at the bottom edge of the barrel is nearly vertical and the flat points just run right into it and stop dead.  Apparently this is not uncommon, as the manual says to use FMJ only, and other users report that their RIA 9mm pistols won't feed flat-point or hollowpoint ammo.  This is not exclusive to RIA pistols, as there are others with 9mm 1911s with non-ramped barrels reporting the same problem.

I'm debating whether I'm really that interested in buying a ramped barrel.  A good semi-drop-in barrel, with bushing pre-fit (Bar-Sto, Kart, Nowlin. . .) runs more than 50% of the price of the pistol.  The tools to gunsmith-fit a match barrel and bushing alone would cost more than the initial price of the pistol.  Take these costs into consideration when you look at pricing of something like a Dan Wesson, Les Baer, or STI pistol which might set you back $1200 or more.

My 7 magazines drop free.  Getting the slide to lock back with the three Metalform magazines required bending the tab on the follower out to the left side.  The steel follower of the Mec-Gar has the same problem, but can not be adjusted.  I may try to get Mec-Gar to send me one of the newer plastic followers, and see if that works better.  My 3 Chip McCormick 10-round magazines have been working well, so far.

Modest bevel on the bottom edges of the slide, except for the slide catch notch, which is left square.

The magazine well is modestly beveled.  The bottom edges of the slide also have a small bevel - a nice touch.  Ejector is extended, but I believe that all 9mm ejectors are extended.  The pistol comes with a flat steel (not plastic) mainspring housing without any silly lock, although I changed it out for an arched Colt mainspring housing, because I'm used to the hump on a Glock grip.

Finish is a decent-looking and even dark-grey phosphate (Parkerized), at least it was before I clamped the slide in a vise and had to wail on the rear sight for 25 minutes to get it to move just a little to the right.  The matte black, "murdered out" look is kinda growing on me.  I added an extended Wilson slide-stop which is a matte blue, and it's a little darker in color, but you'd have to look pretty close to notice.  When I bobbed the hammer and "melted" the tail on the grip safety, I refinished with cold blue, and again, it's not something most people would notice without looking closely.

The bore was also phosphated, which I wasn't crazy about.  After 2000 rounds, I thoroughly cleaned the barrel, including running the Lewis lead remover through a bunch of times and using aggressive solvent.  The barrel now has a dull shine, and the phosphate finish has worn away.  The rifling is sharp and well-defined.  It's not up to the level of an old Colt or Smith & Wesson, or a match barrel, but let's remember that I bought the pistol new for less than $430 out-the-door.  EDIT: After a couple thousand rounds the Park has worn away, but still doesn't have the polished bore of a really good barrel.

Fortunately, RIA no longer puts a giant Rock Island billboard on the left side of the slide.  There is only a small white logo on the left side behind the cocking serrations.  This I will polish out eventually, before I get the slide blued.

As the base for a hobby gunsmithing project, it's a pretty good place to start - that's really why I bought it.  For a range pistol, it's okay, but you're probably never going to draw a crowd unless you paint is pink or zombie green.  For action matches, it will probably do well-enough with an adjustable sight, as bullseye accuracy isn't usually necessary.  The stock sights being actual G.I. style, are notorious for being hard to find.  Because of the feeding problem with non-round bullets, I don't recommend taking it out of the box, and using it as a defense pistol.  Keeping the bargain-basement price in mind, I guess it's not a bad deal.  It's only about 60% the price of a Springfield Range Officer, so you have some money to buy grips, a larger thumb safety, maybe a magazine well and beavertail grip safety and jig, and fit a tighter bushing, if that's what you want.  The Range Officer does come with an adjustable rear sight, fiber-optic front sight, and a ramped barrel, however.

Modifications as pictured - Wilson Combat extended slide stop lever and magazine catch.  Wolff 17 pound mainspring*.  Wolff sear spring.  Colt arched mainspring housing.  Ed brown reduced power mag catch spring.  Nowlin long match trigger.  Fusion small-radius stainless firing pin stop.  ProMag Tough Grips.  EDIT: Added EGW National Match bushing, which installed in about 10 minutes using a Dremel with a cratex cylinder, and a few file strokes on the lug.  The barrel now locks up TIGHT.

I'm not even close to being done with this pistol yet.  My intention is to build an 80's style custom pistol, complete with period holster rig.  Think along the lines of Pachmayr custom shop, Jim Hoag, and Richard Heinie.  Something that would've made Magnum P.I. drool, and considering trading in his Ferrari to free up some cash to get work done on his plain vanilla Mk.IV.  Maybe one of the dumbest ideas I've ever had, because I'll probably never be able to sell it, much less get out of it what I put into it in the 21st century.

Related Links:
Building a Low-Buck Shooter
Brownells Gun Tech - Jack Weigand 2 1/2 pound trigger pull instructions
Armscor/Rock Island Armory Home Page

* - Discovered that the Rock Island 9mm mainspring is 18 pound.  Didn't really need to change it, but I already had a 17 pound spring, and I didn't have to disassemble the RIA mainspring housing, which is a little tricky.