Saturday, January 28, 2006

Is Delegate Jack Reid telling the truth about his gun "accident"?

A .380-caliber Kel-Tec P-3AT automatic pistol

On Thursday, January 26, 2006, the Virginia blogosphere was alive with the news that Henrico County Delegate Jack Reid had "accidentally" discharged his Kel-Tec P-3AT semi-automatic pistol while unloading it in his office. Is Delegate Reid telling the whole truth about the incident? This is the way he described the incident to Pamela Stallsmith, a staff writer with the Richmond Times-Dispatch
The office door was shut. He said he took the .380-caliber Kel-Tec pistol out of his front coat pocket, pulled it from its case, and was pushing the button on the grip to release the magazine when it went off. The gun doesn't have a safety, he said.

The slide cut his right hand between his thumb and forefinger, "so obviously I wasn't holding it correctly," he said. "When the slide comes back, it comes back off the back of the weapon and it cut my hand."
Ms. Stallsmith's article is in the Richmond Times-Dispatch here. Does Delegate Reid's story stand up? Probably not, but in order to understand why, you need to understand something about semi-automatic pistols in general, and something about the Kel-Tec P-3AT in particular.

A semi-automatic pistol is a handgun that fires one cartridge for each trigger pull until it runs out of ammunition. When the trigger of a semi-automatic pistol is pulled, the pistol fires and automatically extracts and ejects the fired cartridge case from its chamber. The semi-automatic then picks up and loads a new unfired round from its magazine into the pistol’s chamber, ready for the next trigger pull.

The most basic kind of semi-automatic pistol is the “single-action.” A single-action semi-automatic pistol must be cocked, or “racked,” by pulling back on an exposed hammer or recoil slide for the first shot before pulling the trigger. The famous Colt M1911 (or "Colt .45") is an example of this style of action. This meant that the pistol could not be drawn and fired with one hand unless it was already cocked.

To make it possible to fire an uncocked semi-automatic with one hand, designers created “double-action” semi-automatic pistols. In a double-action pistol, the hammer, striker, or firing pin may either be manually pre-cocked or it will be automatically cocked by the first trigger pull when starting to fire. The hammer, striker, or firing pin will be re-cocked fully by each subsequent firing of the pistol. If a double-action pistol was carried with a cartridge already in the chamber, it could be drawn and fired with one hand, though the first trigger "pull" would require more force than if the hammer were already cocked.

The semi-automatic pistol continued to evolve with the invention of the “double-action only” system. Double-action only pistols are carried with a round already chambered, ready to fire. In the "double action only" system, each trigger pull both arms and releases the hammer or firing pin in one continuous motion.

Delegate Reid's Kel-Tec P-3AT is a "double-action only" pistol. Look again at the pictures of the pistol in this article: there is no exterior hammer; it is impossible to "cock" a P-3AT. Also, you must understand that the P-3AT is a small pistol, and a normal sized man would probably have to hold the gun with his pinky beneath the butt in order to avoid having his hand pinched by the slide when firing the weapon.

Note the small size of the P-3AT: if held incorrectly, the slide will recoil back and cut the firer where the thumb meets the hand

Now, read Kel-Tec's user manual for the P-3AT, the part relating to safety:
To achieve the highest operator safety, combined with ease of handling, the P-3AT is "DOUBLE ACTION ONLY." It has no manual safety and the hammer is never fully cocked.

The hammer is of a novel design. Compared to a conventional hammer, the P-3AT's is very light and consequently, operates at high velocities. It is driven by a special free floating extension spring.

In its ready position the hammer is securely held by the hammer block. Only by deliberately pulling the trigger can the hammer block be disengaged. The tilting action of the barrel excludes firing unless the breech is fully locked. A direct blow to the hammer is impossible, as it is enclosed by the slide and grip. The hammer's energy is transmitted to the primer though a low mass firing pin.
According to its manual, the P-3AT should only fire when the trigger is pulled. Translation: Delegate Reid's story doesn't jibe with the facts. Either the P-3AT is a ridiculously unsafe weapon, or Delegate Reid isn't being truthful about what happened. The complete P-3AT manual, with many useful illustrations, can be found here.

We will probably never know what happened inside Delegate Reid's office Thursday morning. My own theory is that Delegate Reid had unloaded the magazine, but forgot about the cartridge already in the chamber. I believe he was fooling around with the pistol and drew a bead on a convenient target: his own bullet-proof vest hanging on the back of his door. Designed as a "pocket" pistol, the P-3AT is a very small pistol with as few exterior "snags" as possible. The P-3AT has no exterior safety: the trigger itself is the safety. The P-3AT will not fire unless the trigger is pulled. Because Delegate Reid did not believe his P-3AT to be loaded, he took an improper grip on the little gun, with all of his fingers on the butt and the end of the slide between his thumb and the rest of his hand. He then pulled the trigger, firing the pistol and causing the slide to recoil back and cut his hand.

In order to cover up his own reckless irresponsibility in failing to properly clear his pistol's chamber (the design of the pistol cannot be blamed as the P-3AT is, after all, designed to be carried with a round in the chamber), I believe Delegate Reid made up a story about the pistol going off when he pushed the magazine release button. In doing so, I believe that Delegate Reid slandered Kel-Tec and its pistol design. I have read several reviews of the P-3AT, and I have found no hint that the pistol is unreliable or unsafe in the hands of a responsible user.

Nevertheless, in fairness to Delegate Reid, I am going to forward this article to Kel-Tec and ask them to comment on Reid's description of events. Perhaps the P-3AT does have a serious safety flaw and Delegate Reid was clever enough to find it at a moment when it did not cost anyone their life or serious injury: when his gun was pointing at his own bullet proof vest.

Note: The technical portions of this article were written with heavy reliance on the article "Semi-automatic self-loading pistol" in Wikipedia and Kel-Tec's owner's manual for the P-3AT found here.

The author of this article is not anti-gun. He enjoys shooting guns with his friends and family in safe conditions. He does believe that the carrying of loaded firearms into the General Assembly's offices--where many teenage children serve as legislative pages--is a foolish and irresponsible act. He is also troubled by the fact that Delegate Reid appears to have been less than honest about how the accident occurred.


Lowell said...

Great work, J.C. The blogosphere at its best!

Not Larry Sabato said...

Welcome to the Gold level.

Anonymous said...

You forgot to point out one additional piece of information about the Kel-Tec .380, this gun requires 5 pounds of "trigger pull", meaning you have to exert 5 pounds of pressure on the trigger for it to fire. It simply could not have happened accidentally.

Anonymous said...

Also, while your hypothesis about Reid forgetting about the bullet in the chamber is a good one, that would demonstrate a ludicrous amount of ignorance about this gun.The most rudimentary, basic pistol instruction would tell you a semi has a bullet in the chamber, you'd almost know it on instinct. When he loaded the pistol, he would have inserted the magazine and then would have had to rack the slide in order to get the first bullet into the chamber. In other words, Reid's OWN ACTIONS would have had to put the bullet there.

David said...

Two commments.

It may come with 5 pounds of trigger pull from the factory, I don't know if I believe that or not, I will research, but he easily could have had someone adjust the trigger pull to what most semi's require which is 2lbs of trigger pull.

The slide only comes back after the last round is fired.

J.Sarge said...

A terrific piece of investigative reporting, J.C.

The Richmond Democrat said...

David, I believe the slide recoils with every shot, but only locks back after the last round is fire.

Wikipedia has an article on the Kel-Tec P32, a smaller pistol that provided the basis for the P-3AT. The P-3AT is really just a scaled up P32 redesigned to accomodate the larger .380 caliber cartridge. The most relevant part of the article for our purposes is the description of Kel_tec's novel safety design:

"The P-32 has no manual safety, relying instead on the extra long trigger pull, double action only mode of operation, and an internal hammer block to provide safe operation. The pistol meets SAAMI guidelines, and will not fire if dropped, even with a round chambered. The trigger must physically be pulled for the gun to fire. Because of the lack of manual safety, the pistol may not be sold in all states despite its popularity."

You can read the whole article here:

Anonymous said...

What I meant about the slide was that when you insert the magazine, you then rack the slide to chamber the first bullet. I didn't mean that slide would be back/locked after shooting, but that it would be unlikely that Reid "forgot" there was a bullet left in the chamber after dropping the magazine. As far as the trigger pull, I have fired numerous semis and none have 2 pounds of trigger pull when being shot double action. Whether they can be modified is a different story. Furthermore, the higher trigger pull of a double action only pistol is somewhat of a safety measure, if you alter the gun to have a lower trigger pull you decrease the safety factor.

The Richmond Democrat said...

I'm not even certain that a double-action only semi can be fitted with a "hair trigger." In the DAO system, the trigger pull has to act against the spring that operates the hammer every time the pistol fires: if you were to install a weaker spring you'd create an increased risk of misfires.

Who said Democrats don't know anything about firearms?

Hopefully George Kelgren of Kel-Tec will respond to my query today.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it against the law to bring a loaded weapon into the General Assembly Building. Even if you have a CWP, or is this guy above the law.

Anonymous said...

This probably isn't relevant, but it also struck me that this is an odd gun for Reid to carry. I'm female and 5"6 with average bone structure, I've tried to just dry fire a Kel-Tec .380 and it's just too small for me to manipulate properly, it was literally uncomfortable for me to try to handle. I can see it being a good firearm for females with small hands or a good BU [back up] for law enforcement, but an odd choice for a full grown man to use for CC.

The Richmond Democrat said...

I agree; I think that's why he ended up cutting himself: the butt was too small for his hand and he didn't wrap his pinky underneath like you are supposed to.

Anonymous said...

That's why I find it odd that he'd have one. If you're getting a pistol for concealed carry, you'd be advised to look for something you'd be comfortable handling. This gun would also not be one that you could fire off 50 or 100 live rounds to practice, your hand would hurt like hell.

RCF65 said...

I think he needs to go hunting with Dick Cheney.

Anonymous said...

The 3AT, unlike many other semis, has a slide which does NOT lock back. It doesn't lock back after the last round OR when empty, or at ALL. But, I doubt this was relevant to anything here, as this seems like a simple case of FAILING to properly unload your weapon (which would include clearing the one in the chamber).

Kevin said...

I own a Kel-Tec P-3AT. That doesn't make me an expert, but I can't imagine how dropping out the magazine could possibly result in firing a round in the chamber. The magazine release is in no way tied to the trigger or firing pin. I do have a theory though about how misunderstanding this pistol could lead to such an accident.

Many semi-auto pistols have a magazine safety which prevents firing a chambered round when the magazine has been removed, but the Kel-Tec P-3AT does not. Someone who assumed the presence of a magazine safety might be tempted to drop out the magazine and pull the trigger on a chambered round, thinking that the gun would not fire in that state. If this happened, there would be a sort of truth to a sheepish statement like, "I must have done something wrong" when removing the magazine. OK, a grossly understated sort of truth.

Henry said...

A lot of the comments here come from people claiming to be gun owners yet are quite ignorant.

1) As has been pointed out, the slide does not lock back on an empty chamber, or at all, on this model of pistol.

2) It is easy to imagine someone forgetting that there is a round chambered after you drop the magazine. Remember that half of the people who own guns are below average in their expertise in gun handling.

It is not easy to check for a loaded round on this pistol either; the slide is hard to grip, and if you pull it, you eject the round, so it is hard to "peek" in and check.

The guy obviously pulled the trigger, and is depending on the general ignorance of the population to believe he did anything else.

Russell said...

The 4 Rules of Firearms Safety:

1. Handle all firearms as if they were loaded.

2. Never point the gun at anything you're not willing to destroy.

3. Keep your finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard until you have made the decision to fire the weapon.

4. Know your target, and know what is beyond the target.

gyrfalcon16 said...

"one additional piece of information about the Kel-Tec .380, this gun requires 5 pounds of "trigger pull"

Not only does the P3AT require a 5lb trigger pull, it requires a LONG 5lb trigger pull by design.

To claim it fired by releasing the magazine is absolutely ridiculous. If it did happen, there would be evidence of an internal mechanical failure.

In regards to the comments about the slide being hard to manipulate:

Yes the P3AT has a hard slide pull from the factory. After using the pistol at the range twice this should go away.

gyrfalcon16 said...

"one additional piece of information about the Kel-Tec .380, this gun requires 5 pounds of "trigger pull"

Not only does the P3AT require a 5lb trigger pull, it requires a LONG 5lb trigger pull by design.

To claim it fired by releasing the magazine is absolutely ridiculous. If it did happen, there would be evidence of an internal mechanical failure.

In regards to the comments about the slide being hard to manipulate:

Yes the P3AT has a hard slide pull from the factory. After using the pistol at the range twice this should go away.