Wednesday, June 28, 2017

My First Steel Challenge!

What is Steel Challenge?

Steel Challenge was founded in 1981. The game follows a simple concept: shoot all five steel plates as quickly as possible. There are only eight different stages in regular competition. Each target requires one hit but the last plate, the stop plate, must be shot last to stop the timer.  The sizes of the steel plate range from 10 inch circles all the way up to 18x24 inch rectangular plates. All the steel is relatively close so it is harder to theory anyway. The best part is getting to shoot all the stages five times and keeping the best four. The only exception to this is a stage called Outer Limits which is four strings keeping the best three.

Sounds easy right? Well, it is very easy to compete but very difficult to win. One thing I noticed was the wide assortment of firearms. Steel Challenge has several different divisions to choose from to ensure everyone who wants to shoot is included. Mirroring USPSA divisions include: Open, Limited, Production, Single Stack, and Revolver. Even the newer USPSA divisions like Carry Optics and Pistol Caliber Carbine have been added. There are also rimfire specific divisions with a few special rules, such as starting at a low ready rather than a required draw from a holster. If your firearm fits one of these divisions, you are halfway there. 

What is required to shoot?

Aside from ear and eye protection competitors need only have a division legal gun, appropriate belt holster, ammunition, and a couple spare magazines to ensure timely runs. Shooters are encouraged to have at least five magazines (or five speedloaders in my case) to play. The event I attended ran from 10:00 AM to 2:30 PM so drinks and snacks would be a smart idea as well. I would also bring a fold up chair between shooting and spectating...unless I am ambushed to keep score like I was at this past match. (I say ambushed, but it actually helped a bit because I was forced to pay more attention to the shooting rather than daydream.)

What did I shoot?

Stock 617. I actually shot it with a set of finger-less Hogue Big Butt Grips and
a blued Hogue Extended Cylinder Release.
As this is a revolver-centric blog, the odds that I shot a revolver are pretty high. The wheel gun pictured above is a Smith & Wesson 617, a stainless steel .22lr with a ten shot cylinder. This thing is a brick, but that six inch barrel sure helps with accuracy. Steel Challenge allows numerous modifications, so I changed the rebound spring from the factory weight to a 13lb Wolff. This lightened the trigger a tiny bit while maintaining reliability. I swapped the stock grips with a set of Hogue Big Butt grips to help balance out the weighty barrel.

I also added a Hogue Extended Cylinder Release because that is easier to open with my left thumb than the stock release. A buddy put a few coats of paint on the front sight (three white and three red) and there was good contrast between the front and rear sights. I picked up a Speed Beez 617 Competition loader (anodized race red) and ordered a loading block designed to hold five cylinders worth of ammo...which did not arrive in time, so I ended up loading by hand. Added a bulk box of Thunderbolts, which are incredibly dirty, and I was ready for the match.

Stage One

This was the first stage of my first Steel Challenge match! Normally this stage is three 12'' plate and two 10'' plates. Thankfully, the match director replaced the two 10'' plates with 12'' plates. Not only did I really appreciate this but so did the kids in my squad. All three of them shot plate 4 then plate 3. That seemed like a long transition back to the stop plate, so I changed shot from outside to inside. The best four of my five runs totaled 18.61 seconds. 

Stage Two

All of the 10'' plates were changed to 12'' plates which I assume is significantly easier than the normal format. Shooting from left to right seemed like the best idea, and as a lefty, I like to shoot targets starting on my strong side. The transitions were nice and short, but I got lazy on one of the strings and had a make up shot or two. The best four of my five runs totaled 15.76 seconds.

Stage Three

From my little knowledge of Steel Challenge, this stage is supposed to be the fastest because everything is big AND close. I figured if there was a stage to try and shoot fast, this is the one. Well, I can tell you that you can totally miss one of those big plates; I had to swing back for a make up shot. Plate 3 was the culprit in two of the five strings. The best four of my five runs totaled 12.78 seconds.

Stage Four


Again, the match director felt pity and replaced the 10" plate at 10 yards with a 12'' plate. I think all the changes were a really clever idea to draw more shooters to this match. I needed at least one make up shot on the first plate. I also had trouble with plate 4 on at least two of my runs. I didn't have many problems with the stop plate that day but took three shots on my final string. The best four of my five runs totaled 15.32 seconds.

Stage Five

By stage five of the match, it was starting to get hot and I was starting to get hungry. The first four stages had been pretty good, and I would have been happy to stop there. This stage has the widest transition from plate 4 to the stop plate. Trying to speed up then stop abruptly wasn't super difficult but required some brainpower. At least it is a big rectangle. The best four of my five runs totaled 21.35 seconds.

Stage Six

At stage six, I was just ready to be done. I actually took several make up shots after the transition from plate 2 to plate 3, but the transitions are short so it was still fun. I guess the heat was getting to me. The best four of my five runs totaled 21.85 seconds. This was definitely my worst stage. On top of that, once shooters finished their runs they began to peel off and head to lunch. The rest of us didn't really mind until the staff requested us to pick up all the stray brass, but we managed. 


Overall, I had a great time and will be playing in at least two divisions at the next event. The most surprising aspect of my first match was the number of rimfire pistols and rifles present, particularly in my squad. I guess it shouldn't surprise me as I was also shooting in Rimfire Pistol Irons (RFPI). Of the twelve different guns competing, nine were rimfire! It wasn't just the kids shooting .22lr either. The oldest gentleman in the squad fielded both a Rimfire Rifle Optics (RFRO) entry and a Rimfire Pistol Optics (RFPO) entry. 

I honestly can't believe that I waited this long to try Steel Challenge. After just one match, I am hooked and intend to shoot at least one match a month if possible. Like every shooting sport, the only complaint I have is the waiting between each string. The local match permits multiple entries and spacing them out might make the waiting time seem shorter. I will bring a Ruger 10/22 with a dot to shoot in RFRO because after all, I don't only shoot revolvers. I think this discipline is a great way to start new or non-shooters in competition. It's fun because its fast, and you receive immediate feedback with that satisfying "ting" on a hit.

Here is a link to the official Rule Book, which isn't really long or complicated, so you can start shooting too!

As always, please comment below if you have an suggestions for future posts or would like to share your experience on the current topic.   

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Revolver of the Future: the Chiappa Rhino

Innovation or Unnecessary?

The Chiappa Rhino is the final design of Italian gunmaker Emilio Ghisoni (1937-2008) and an associate named Antonino Cudazzo. Prior to this design, Ghisoni's company Mateba produced several firearms with unique designs. Two revolvers, the 2006M and the 6 Unica, both utilize barrels that align with the bottom chamber of the cylinder rather than the traditional top chamber.

I assume you are thinking something like, "Why?" Well, I'm glad you asked! The theory behind the design is two fold: reducing felt recoil and minimizing muzzle flip. The next question you must be thinking is "Does it work?" To that I say "Absolutely!" but with a caveat. Since you can't cheat physics, that energy has to go somewhere. The muzzle rise is reduced as a result of less pressure at the wrist, but the recoil is transmitted straight down the arm. This permits the use of heavier loads as it significantly reduces flip, which results in faster followup shots. 

Despite this improvement, many contend that the traditional revolver design is perfect as is. The chief complaint seems to be that the Rhino is, well, ugly as sin. Even more so, many people seem to think the low bore axis does not impact the recoil impulse enough to justify a redesign of the classic revolver model. On the other hand, I personally think it looks like something transported back in time from the future. There is a good chance that you have seen this design as a prop in a movie or equipped it in a video game. Why? Simply because it looks cool. 

The measurable benefits of this the futuristic design are what sold me on this particular model. Ghisoni's revolvers are the first to effectively place the bore at this lower position and change the effect recoil has on the shooter. The design is more than a novelty and I hope this review shows the Rhino as the logical evolution of the classic six shooter.


Aside from the innovative barrel placement and the slab sided cylinder, the remaining specifications are relatively normal. The cylinder latch opens with downward pressure and is located in the rear on the left side of the frame. This particular model of Chiappa Rhino is the the 200DS, with the DS short for Double Action/Single Action. In place of a traditional hammer, this wheel gun uses a cocking lever spring back forward when cocked, doubling as the rear sight. The front sight is a red fiber optic which is very easy to pick up through the rear notch. When cocked, a small red tab is exposed notifying the user of the firearm's condition. 

The stock trigger is nothing two write home about and pulls between between 10 and 11 pounds although it feels a bit lighter due to the smooth wide face. A trigger kit is available but at $250.00 for installation, the stock trigger will do just fine. To reduce the overall weight, the frame is machined from a block of aluminum alloy. Barrel, cylinder, recoil shield, and the majority of internal parts are steel. The revolver is comfortable both in hand or resting in a belt holster only measuring approximately 6.5 inches long and weighing less 25 ounces. 

Despite the relatively light weight, the lower bore axis really helps to mitigate excessive recoil. The stock grips are made of a lightly textured rubber. While a bit small, they absorb some of the energy. I have also fired this model with factory wood grips but they did not feel as comfortable. The wood grips are attractive and come several color variations in both medium and large sizes to accommodate different grip sizes. One of the best decisions Chiappa made was to offer the Rhino cylinder machined to accept full moonclips. Moonclips are thin pieces of spring steel that hold casings in the pattern of the cylinder. More on this below.



Comp IIs, SL Variants and loaded moonclips travel in this box.
I have tried HKS (model MK3-A), Safariland Comp IIs (model J-R4C), and S. L. Variants (model L-241) speedloaders. I prefer using S. L. Variants as they reload the fastest. The Comp IIs are also very quick to reload if S. L. Variants are unobtainable. I mentioned above that the Rhino is cut for moonclips at the factory. Compared to speedloaders, moons are lightning fast. This is the first clipped wheel gun I have had the chance to operate. In my experience, these clips eject smoothly and when everything lines up, load even faster. Problems only occur when these thin metal clips are bent or when the metal is too thin to securely hold all the cases in the proper orientation. 

Shooting Impressions

I've mentioned before that shooting the Rhino is a very interesting experience. The low bore axis allows for more powerful loads to be shot in greater numbers before fatigue sets in. Recoil is not eliminated, something I've heard in conversation, but redirected to take less of a toll on the shooter. While people may question the odd appearance, the design just works. My favorite defensive load is the Speer Gold Dot 135gr + P Short Barrel. The Rhino recoils less than steel framed 3" Smith and Wesson, which is nearly a half a pound heavier! That is pretty impressive.

Testing accuracy with a handgun is largely based on the shooter's ability. I've only been shooting revolvers with regularity for about two years now but I consider myself to be an average shooter. I attempt the Hardwired Tactical Shooting Snub Super Test with all snubbies. The drill is challenging and is as follows:

  • 5 rounds in 8 seconds from 10 yards.
  • 5 rounds in 5 seconds from 5 yards.
  • 5 rounds in 3 seconds from 3 yards strong hand only.

Aside from a high first shot this went pretty well, even if the calling
the Rhino a snubby is a bit of a stretch.


Multi holsters was the first company I found with a quality OWB kydex holster.
The North Mountain IDPA Moon Clip Holder is really fast to reload from and secure.

Finding a kydex holster for the Rhino actually proved to be very challenging. I was hunting for an outside the waistband (OWB) holster that uses a Blade-Tech Tek-Lok for the convenience in adjustment. I also searched for a moonclip holder that would securely and unobtrusively hold two loaded clips while attaching to the belt with the same Tek-Lok as the holster. The North Mountain IDPA Moon Clip Holder seemed like a great choice but the center post turned out to be thicker than the center hole in the moonclips. My gunsmith was able to machine down that post to ensure proper fit. Now the clips slide in and out smoothly. I definitely recommend this set up for moonclips, but there are other designs on the market should this not strike your fancy.  


The ejector rod is fully depressed but the empty brass
does not quite clear the mouths of each chamber.
The biggest criticism I can muster against the Rhino is also a criticism of short barreled revolvers in general; the short length ejector rod. A short ejector rod sometimes fails to extract all spent cases even with a firm whack. In my experience, the Rhino typically hangs up a few times each range visit. It actually bothers me so much that I only use moonclips to ensure every chamber of the cylinder is clear of spent casings. If there is anything that will make me sell this revolver, it will be the the ejection issue. (Well that and IDPA updated the rules of the Back Up Gun-Revolver (BUG-R) division to favor 5 shot revolvers.) While I don't currently handload, a .38 Short Colt might be an acceptable compromise. The slightly shorter case length may eject smoother and with the proper load, attaining a similar speed with a similar weighted bullet should be possible. This might be a fun project for the future.

Media References

As previously discussed, the most striking characteristic of the Rhino's design is the barrel's six o'clock position. The aesthetics are undeniably unique which affords the design an interesting role in modern media. Rhinos (as well as the Mateba models 2006M and 6 Unica) frequently appear as the sidearm of the future in film and video games. Here are some examples:


  • Movies - Total Recall (2012), Suicide Squad (2016), Ghost in the Shell (2017)
  • Video Games - Ghost Recon (2012) and Battlefield 4 (2013)
  • Anime - Ghost in the Shell (1995), Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex (2002-03), Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig (2004-05) 
6 Unica: 
  • Movies - Serenity (2005), Gamer (2009), Looper (2012)
  • Video Games - Watch Dogs (2013) and Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (2016)


This design offers tangible improvements to both comfort and accuracy. The Rhino is the most complete realization of Ghisoni's vision, a revolver with lower bore axis which reduces felt recoil and minimizes muzzle flip. The option to use speedloaders or moonclips allows the user to determine if speed or reliability is more important. A moonclip in the cylinder and a speedloader in a pouch or pocket is the best way to field this system. The addition of newer features as factory specifications are a subtle upgrade to a standard wheelgun equipped with iron sights, higher bore axis, and no option for moonclips. 

The Rhino has enough in common with traditional wheel guns that those familiar with the revolver mechanism should have little issue adjusting. As a revolver, new shooters can be educated on operation relatively quickly. I am absolutely sold on the concept and recommend it to everyone, particularly those averse to recoil. In my opinion, this is the next step forward in revolver design. Should Chiappa market a model chambered in .44 Magnum, I might just start shooting the caliber more frequently.

Special thanks to for the information on these designs and their creator. The owner of this website has some stellar reviews on the aforementioned Mateba products as well as other interesting designs. Please visit the page!

As always, please comment below if you have an suggestions for future posts or would like to share your experience on the current topic.  

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Technical Skills: The Reload

Always Empty

Hopefully everyone is familiar with the four rules of firearms safety. Rule one is typically some form of "all guns are always loaded" and we should respect and remember those rules at all times. In this case, when I say "always empty" I'm referring to a revolver's limited ammunition capacity and the constant need to reload. At best you have eight roundsor at worst five, in the cylinder. With an average of six rounds on board, the revolver is a low capacity arm. 

So what does that mean? Well, it means you better learn a technique to reload your chosen wheelgun because that small handful of rounds sure goes quick. When I first started shooting a revolver, I used the techniques I saw others using in person at matches or online in videos. 

Quick side note - The best video teaching various reloading techniques I've located was produced by Lucky Gunner located here: Lucky Gunner: How to Reload a Revolver. Keep in mind: I am in no way affiliated with Chris and the Lucky Gunner team, but they produce some amazing content and I am thrilled when a new article is published. 

I'd like to address the different methods of reloads that I slowly worked my way through before finally settling on a left hand friendly reload that I use 90% of the time. Why only 90%? More on that later.

Strong Side vs. Support Side

From my research, there are a few standardized techniques for reloading revolvers. All assume a right handed shooter referring to the right hand as the strong hand and the left hand as the support hand. I've also heard strong and weak but support sounds better. I quickly learned the Universal reload but transitioned to the FBI/Competition reload purely for the slight increase in speed before finding a suitable left handed reload.

Strong Side

Universal: The revolver transitions to the support hand while orienting the muzzle upward and the strong hand hits the ejector rod with the palm/heel of the support hand, ejecting spent brass. The strong hand then retrieves the speedloader or moonclip while the support hand reorients the revolver toward the ground. The rounds go in, the support hand closes the cylinder, and the revolver reorients toward the target.

FBI/Competition: The revolver transitions to the support hand, while orienting the muzzle upward and pumps the ejector rod with the support thumb, ejecting spent brass. Meanwhile the strong hand retrieves the speedloader or moonclip while the support hand reorients the revolver toward the ground. The rounds go in, the support hand closes the cylinder, and the revolver reorients toward the target.

Support Side

As my focus on the revolver increased, I started watching more match footage and noticed many of those competitors did not transition the revolver to the support hand at all. The strong hand controlled the revolver while the support hand ejected the spent casings (typically moonclips) and then performed the reload. This seems to be the norm but since I shoot left handed, I tried it a few times but quickly moved on to left hand specific reloads.

Support Hand: The revolver remains in the strong hand and while orienting the muzzle upward, the support hand strikes the ejector rod with the palm/heel of the support hand. The support hand then retrieves the speedloader or moonclip while the strong hand reorients the revolver toward the ground. The rounds go in, the support hand closes the cylinder, and the revolver reorients toward the target.

Left Handed Reload

As I mentioned before, I learned several right hand reloads because the majority of shooters are right handed. It was only after watching left handed shooters on the internet that I even saw a left handed reload. I noticed a shooter named Ken Ortbach was reloading with his left hand. I watched most of his match videos and started working on this reload. His technique opens the cylinder with the left thumb, transitions the revolver to the right hand with the thumb through the frame pinching the cylinder. The strong hand retrieves the speedloader or moonclip, reloads, and reestablishes the left hand grip.   

I tried the Ortbach reload several times but it didn't feel quite right. Online users recommended the Matt Griffin reload. I was almost using the Griffin reload except my thumb sits between the hammer and the rear sight. This reload appears to work relatively well. I also learned a technique from Wayne Dobbs at Hardwired Tactical's revolver seminar. The Dobbs reload that placed the revolver further into the web of the support hand which allows the thumb to reach over the frame to pinch the cylinder which prevents cylinder rotation. As the wheelgun is deeper into the hand, this reload is more secure

Light pressure on the hammer from the thumb while pinching just below the cylinder crane with the middle finger firmly holds the revolver in place. The ring finger and pinky rest on the trigger guard and provide additional support. Here is an example of my reload:

Left Hand: The revolver transitions to the support hand resting on the fingers while the thumb is placed on the hammer just behind the rear sight. After orienting the revolver upward, the support index finger pumps the ejector rod sharply, ejecting the spent brass. The strong hand retrieves the speedloader or moonclip while the support hand reorients the revolver toward the ground. The rounds go in, the support hand closes the cylinder, and the revolver reorients toward the target.

Why can't it be both?

At this point, I have decided that the majority of my reloads will be strong hand rather than support hand. That doesn't mean I have neglected my practice of the support hand reload entirely. For reloading revolvers with shorter ejector rods, I still find the Universal reload for positive extraction. The firm strike ejects all the brass with greater success than the FBI/Competition reload.

Additionally, a recent IDPA match I attended included a significant of left to right movement while reloading. In the interest ensuring the muzzle remained in complete control, I reverted to a support hand reload when moving to the right at any reasonable speed. The rest of my reloads were completed with my left hand reload. I might amend the technique in the future. I worry that the front of the cylinder might become hot to the touch under extended firing but so far so good.

As always, please comment below if you have an suggestions for future posts or would like to share your experience on the current topic.   

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The one that started it all: Smith & Wesson 686-1

A fine view of a fine revolver.


Smith & Wesson introduced the 686 in 1980. Built on the slightly larger "L" frame, this model was designed to handle a steady diet of .357 Magnum rounds when the forcing cones on medium "K" frames cracked under extended use. At nearly 40 ounces with a four inch barrel, these characteristics provide enough mass to dampen recoil while propelling bullets to the listed velocities of commercially produced ammunition. Despite the weight, large frame Smith & Wesson revolvers balance exceedingly well in the hand. L frames are very ergonomic wheel guns, particularly with a proper set of stocks.


The firing pin can be seen attached to the hammer. Thankfully,
the internal key lock was a feature.
This specific model, the 686-1, was produced in 1986. This actually makes the revolver slightly older than me, but I digress. In 1987 a recall was issued to correct a cylinder binding issue. Those that were updated have an "M" stamped next to the serial number. This model was made prior to the frame mounted firing pins, MIM hammers and triggers, and the dreaded internal frame lock. While I have not had any issue with the frame locks on newer Smiths, that little hole does hurt the aesthetics of the revolver.


My modifications have been limited. I chose to change the parts to a black finish to make the revolver two-tone (which looks neat). The thumbpiece was replaced from the "old style" to the "new style" factory release. The sideplate screws were also changed to the Power Custom Pre-1988 allen head screws. The last upgrade was to switch from Hogue Monogrips to VZ Grips 320 square butt also in black. The grips really finish out the two tone look. Last but not least, the colored electrical tape on the speedloaders helps me quickly identify which gun they fit.

Master-Tac makes great holsters. Ready Tactical carriers
are easy to position on your belt and offer great retention.
When this revolver came into my possession it was clearly not stock. The previous owner(s) upgraded several aspects of this classic to improve the stock features. The front sight has been replaced with an green fiber optic front sight manufactured by SDM. The rear sight is stock and has a simple white "U" shape around the rear notch. I prefer solid black rear sights, but I haven't changed this one as of yet. The front face of the trigger was also rounded and polished which is incredibly comfortable. The trigger breaks at about 8 and a half pounds. The internals are stock.
This is a great duty sized firearm but carrying all day, especially inside the waistband, might be a bit too much for the average person. The ergonomics coupled with the ability to accept .38 Special and .357 Magnum cartridges make this a quality firearm for home defense or competition. Competing is exceedingly fun while improving your skill. The small amount of stress causes failures and reveals exactly what must be improved upon before the next match.

There are several leagues with divisions specifically catering to the six shot revolver. Both the International Defensive Pistol Association and the International Confederation of Revolver Enthusiasts have supported the revolver despite the increased popularity of semi automatics in today's competitive shooting. For more information regarding on competition, please visit the IDPA and ICORE websites at and respectively.

Shooting Experience

Shooting the 686 is a wonderful experience. The heft of the revolver soaks up much of the recoil even with hotter .357 Magnum loads. Standard pressure .38 Special loads are light and even .38 Special +P loading are comfortable. This wheel gun will happily eat pretty much anything you attempt to feed it with no issues.

Testing accuracy with a handgun is largely based on the shooter's ability. I've only been shooting revolvers with regularity for about two years now but I consider myself, an average shooter. I attempt the Hardwired Tactical Shooting Revolver Super Test with all full size guns. The drill is straightforward as follows:
  • 6 rounds in 12 seconds from 15 yards.
  • 6 rounds in 8 seconds from 10 yards.
  • 6 rounds in 4 seconds from 5 yards.

Mostly in the black.

Scoring the NRA B8 target is easy; total up your points excluding misses and shots after the timer. A passing score is a 162/180. I barely squeaked by with a 164/180 this time, but considering I shot a 130 the when I was taught this drill in Oct 2016, I feel I am improving...if only slightly.

In addition to this pile at 10 yard line, there are two smaller piles;
one at the 15 yard line line and one at the 25 yard bench.


Overall, the Smith & Wesson 686-1 is a fantastic revolver. If you could only own ONE revolver this is definitely the one to own. If you don't plan to compete in a sport that limits your cylinder to six rounds, a seven shot version known as the 686+ is available in several barrel lengths. This is the revolver that made me fall in love with wheel guns so I will likely never sell it. If you get the chance to shoot one I can almost guarantee you will love it as well.

As always, please comment below if you have an suggestions for future posts or would like to share your experience on the current topic.