Sunday, November 29, 2009

The $5 Camera...Mamiya 1000 TL

I learned photography on an old Praktica LTL that was my dad's. He used it the whole time I was growing up to take pictures of my family, our vacations and everything else. The old M42 screw mount body was built like a tank and took great pictures, and it's humble origins in communist East Germany ensured that the price was right. It was the perfect camera for a college kid wanting to learn how to take good pictures, and I used it to great effectiveness back in the early 90's.

Alas, the old Praktica doesn't work so well anymore. The mirror is really dim, the film advance doesn't seem to work correctly, and the focus ring on the old 50mm Pentacon lens is so stiff as to be unusable. I retired it several years ago, after it shot a roll of film and left huge gaps in between the pictures, meaning I got several shots that were halves of two other shots! Disappointing, but the Praktica had more than done it's duty. I still have it, and will never get rid of it, but it is retired for good.

So, during a recent vacation to the Outer Banks, you can imagine my great joy when I found an old camera bag in a thrift store, tucked into the back corner of the room. I opened it to find this:

I wasn't familiar with the 1000 TL, but I was familiar with Mamiya. Before digital, I can remember salivating at their medium format stuff. At $5, the 1000 TL didn't even warrant testing. I figured if it didn't work, I could put it on eBay as a parts camera and at least make my money back.

I began looking around in the bag, which looked to be mid sixties vintage (the 1000 TL was made from the late 60's through early 70's). There were several vintage Hoya filters, a lens hood, a bayonet mount converter (to what, I have no idea), and a Soligor 135mm f/2.8 lens. Hoo boy. Jackpot.

But, when I got it out of the store, I discovered that the light meter actually worked. The shutter snapped crisply, and everything seemed to be in order. Best part was, it was an M42 mount, just like my old Praktica, so all my old lenses and teleconverter would work.

By today's standards, nothing in this kit is impressive, but back in the day, this was a solid piece of photographic equipment. It has shutter speeds from 1/1000 all the way down to 1 sec, plus B. I already have a shutter trip cable that can lock open the shutter for any amount of time I want. It has a self timer which will trip the shutter after about 10 seconds. It doesn't have a hotshoe, which is perhaps the only thing lacking that I really could have used, but since I don't plan on shooting indoors much with this camera, it's not really a problem.

It looks very clean inside and out, although, as is common with cameras this age, the light seals look cruddy. I've already ordered some black string and light seal foam to completely redo the whole thing. Nevertheless, I have a roll of Superia Xtra 400 in it right now, just to see if this thing works or not.

Regardless of how it turns out, I'm pretty happy to have found this. If it works well, it will be all that much better.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Hi Point C9 Review...A Lot of Time and Effort, Very Little in the Way of Results.

I had rotten luck with the Hi Point C9. That might make some mad. Heck, it makes ME mad! But, the truth is the truth.

I tried to like the C9, which is Hi Point's 9mm pistol. I really did try to like it. I bought an extra mag for it to try to make it work better, but it jammed. I sent it back to Hi Point to see if they could get it to work. They did some work on it, declared it cured, and shipped it back. It still jammed. I took it apart and polished the feed ramp, adjusted the mag lips, replaced the magazines, replaced springs, etc. It went from jamming to the last-round-hold-open (LRHO) activating before the mag was empty.

And, it was a crying shame, because the little C9 is about as accurate a 9mm pistol as you'd ever want. It was so easy to put round after round into the same hole (or nearly so) time after time. On the impromptu target you see above, the two shots on the right are the "sighting in" shots. I gave the rear sight a couple clicks to the left then proceeded to shoot the rest of the rounds that hit in the middle. Nice.

But, I had to quit kidding myself. All the tweaking, all the work, all the parts changes just didn't seem to make a difference in this little gun. And as much as I hate to say it, and as much as I want it to work, it is getting to the point where I'm putting a lot of time and effort into this gun and not getting much in return.

Before you start saying that I'm being unfair, keep in mind that I have had this gun for almost a year, and I've really stuck with it. Before you accuse me of being a snob against cheap guns, remember that I bought my wife an AP-MBP .32 for just over $130 with tax, and it is a fine weapon. Before you accuse me of being an anti Hi Point bigot, please find my post where I review the JHP .45 and sing its praises. Also, understand that I have a 995 Carbine in my stable. It is tricked out with an ATI stock and dual mag holders. It is one of my favorites, and rides in a shorty case along with my pistol grip Mossberg (I call that my "riotpak").

And yes, I've seen this:

And believe me, if my C9 performed like that, I'd never think of getting rid of it.

Maybe next weekend I'll give it one more shot. They say that the C9 is very sensitive to how you grip it. I don't think this has anything to do with the slide locking open, but you never know.

Depending on what happens, I might just have a gun for sale next week.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bersa Thunder 9mm HC Pro Review (and comparision with the Ruger P89).

After a lot of effort, I finally got it! Surprising how difficult it is to find one of these things, but after much perusing of on-line gun classifieds, I finally snagged this one from GunsAmerica. As I review this gun, I'm also going to make some comparisons to the 9mm that used to be my main auto, the Ruger P89.

First, a little background. Both of the pistols have roots in military or law enforcement service, as well as origins with legendary firearms manufacturers. The Bersa is the service pistol of the Argentinian National Gendarmerie (police force), and while Bersa might not be a name with a pedigree, the Thunder 9 is based on the Walther P88 design, and the manufacturing seems to be solid. The Ruger's reputation comes simply from being a Ruger. They have been known for making tough, reliable firearms with anvil like durability. And most people DON'T know that the Ruger P85 (an early version of the P89) was a principal competitor when the military was looking for a replacement for the venerable 1911. It was actually created to fulfill that contract, so it was designed from the ground up for rough treatment and problem free operation. Although I'm pleased with the Bersa, I haven't owned one for ten years as I did the P89, so I can't speak to long term reliability. The P89 never failed me once during that time...not one mis-feed, jam, or breakage of any kind, even after thousands of rounds. That says a lot.

The bottom line? The pistol was $339, and was purchased from Roberston Trading Post out of Tennessee. These people are friendly, helpful, and made the whole thing easy. Plus, they had the best price around on the gun, they shipped for only $15, and didn't charge me a percentage fee for using a credit card. They are a class act all the way, and I highly recommend them.

My own FFL charged me only $10 to do the transfer, for a total price of around $365. You can get P89's in this price range, so as far as that goes, it's a toss up.

Both the Bersa and the Ruger are inexpensive for what they are: high quality 9mm pistols. The Ruger's quality is legendary, but is the Thunder 9 a good value for the price?

So far, it seems that way. The Bersa is impressive. I've only put around 100 rounds through it (and they go fast, through the Bersa's two 17 round mags that are included with the pistol). I shot a mixture of hollow point and ball ammunition of 3 different brands and I'm happy to report that the Bersa gobbled everything down without issue and was quite accurate. They say that the accuracy of these guns improves even more as you shoot them, but this gun is pretty good already.

I did three tests at 10, 15, and 20 yards, using targets on standard 8.5 x 11" paper. I didn't have a single round off the paper. Correlate that to a bad guy, and you're talking about a small space in which most of the vital organs reside. Obviously, the closer I was, the better. At 10 yards, it was not difficult to get 2" groups consistently. I feel that my own ability (or lack thereof) was keeping me from achieving even tighter groups, although I felt my accuracy improved as I shot through the hundred rounds.

Am I more accurate with the Thunder than the P89? Not necessarily. The issue that makes the Bersa so much sweeter is the trigger. The P89 is "stagey", with a long pull, even in single action. You pull the trigger back to what feels like a stop, then you have to take up even more trigger. You then get a fair amount of creep before the gun discharges. In contrast, the Bersa has no staging...just a little creep, then it fires. The P89 can shoot accurately, but the trigger makes you work at it.

After a hundred rounds, I didn't notice any fatigue or pain from recoil with the Bersa. The gun shoots smoothly and comfortably. At first, I was wary of the hard plastic grips, but I found them easy to hold and very form fitting and "meaty" for my large hands. I would like a rubber grip option, something other than a Hogue slip-on, but it is not a pressing issue. The Bersa grips are fine. I did take the sheen off of the grips by buffing them a bit with steel wool, and this improved both the appearance and feel of the grips.

Of course, the P89 grips are thin. I had a set of Hogue wraparounds that helped that a bunch, but the factory Ruger grips weren't nearly as comfortable to me. Also, it seems to me that the longer and more upright grip angle of the Bersa fits my style of shooting much better.

The Bersa has several options on it that make it a great value for the money. The "round chambered" indicator is nice, although I'd rather it be on the side than on top. I guess the idea is to make it easy to see when you are aiming, because it will be right where you are looking. But, if it were either on the left or the right, it would be simple to FEEL it, eliminating the need to look altogether. But, that's nitpicking, considering the P89 had NO round chambered indicator.

It also has polygonal rifling like the CZ82, which may not be an advantage from an accuracy standpoint, but will probably last longer than a barrel with traditional rifling. Also, the firing pin is reinforced to allow dry firing practice. I don't know how safe it is to do that, but I've heard in more than one place that the reinforcement was done for that purpose. I dry fired it a couple of times without any ill effects, but it is not something I'd want to do day in and day out.

Furthermore, the Bersa has an integral front rail and Glock style "dot U" sights. They are far easier to see than the Ruger's traditional dot sights. I'd like to have a laser at some point, but I think it would make holstering a challenge. And, shooting the Bersa is easy enough that it is really not necessary. EDIT: Since writing this, Bersa has begun to ship their Pro series with dovetail sights, front and rear.  By all accounts, they are compatible with Sig #8 sights, so upgrading should be easy.

Needless to say, the Ruger has traditional rifling, regular 3 dot sights, and no integral rail. To be fair, the Ruger design dates back to 1985, and other Ruger pistols have been updated with the features found on the Bersa, so we're kind of comparing apples and oranges, but there are still a lot of P89's out there for sale in this price range, which makes these guns compete with one another in the market.

Take-down is not difficult for either pistol, but the Bersa makes it so simple that a child could do it. You simply eject the mag and flip a lever down. The slide comes right off. Pull the guide rod and spring out, push the barrel forward and down, and you've just field stripped the pistol.

The Ruger requires you to lock the slide back and push the ejector down so that the slide can come forward. Then, holding the gun in your right hand as if you were shooting, place your index finger on the take-down pin. While holding a little bit of back pressure on the slide, push the take-down pin through slightly. With your left hand, grab the other side of the take-down pin (which doubles as the slide lock) and pull straight out. The pin won't come out, but it will move far enough out of the way to let the slide come forward. Then, just like on the Bersa, pull the guide rod and spring out, push the barrel forward and down, and you're finished.

Basically, you need only complete these steps in reverse to reassemble, but on both pistols, it takes a bit of fiddling to get the slide lined back up so that the take-down lever or pin re-engages. Neither is difficult, but the Bersa is brain-dead simple.

There is a world of difference in the finish between the two pistols. The P89 has a durable finish that can withstand a lot of abuse. I've dropped it, scraped it, bumped it, and so on. I forgot and left it in my truck for 2 weeks and found it coated with a light dusting of rust over the blued slide. A little steel wool and gun oil fixed it up good as new, showing no discernible damage. Of course, the frame was powder-coated or some other such tough finish and never had any scratches or thin spots.

Like the Ruger, the Bersa's frame is finished just fine. Unlike the Ruger, the slide is a disaster. I've heard this is not uncommon for the matte versions, which is why I originally wanted a nickel finish, but they were impossible to find, so I settled. I almost wish I hadn't. The finish itself is uneven and splotchy. It looks as if it ALWAYS has an uneven coating of oil on it, because some areas had a sheen and were almost glossy, while others were truly matte looking and dull. I personally don't care whether or not it is glossy or flat, but Bersa needs to pick only ONE! It is a shame, because this horrible finish almost ruins an otherwise handsome looking gun.

I've since corrected the problem by ordering a replacement nickel slide from Eagle Imports ($65), pictured above.  That solved my only complaint with the Bersa.  It now looks quite handsome. My advice is to order the nickel or duotone from the beginning, although I have heard reports that Bersa has solved the mottling on the matte slide.
Bersa warrants their pistol for life for the original owner. I've heard their service is very good. I've also heard that Ruger's is as well, but I don't know the terms of their warranty.

My recommendation? As far as I can tell now, you can't really go wrong with either pistol. But the fact is, the Bersa seems like a much more full-featured pistol for the money, especially if you have the extra scratch for the nickel finish or a buddy who's crafty with Duracoating. But, that's an extra step that you don't have with the Ruger. Plus, the Ruger is a known quantity. You know it will never fail you, because it is built like a tank.

I will give more info on the Bersa's reliability as time goes on. If it is as good as the Ruger's, then the choice is a no-brainer.

UPDATE, June 2015: Several years on, the Bersa continues to perform reliably. It runs well, even dirty, and accuracy is very good. The funny thing is, I originally got this pistol as a stopgap until I could get a CZ, but I don't see any real need to upgrade at this point. The price point has increased somewhat...the cheapest I've seen the Thunder 9 HC is right around the $400 mark.  Still a bargain for a solid, reliable combat handgun.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Idiocy, thy name is NCAA....

Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant talked to Deion Sanders. He worked out with him, had lunch with him and received text messages from him.

Did he violate NCAA rules?

What? You don't know?

That's the point. Who knows? To understand the arcane and convoluted NCAA rules, one probably needs the help of a slide rule, a sextant, a wizard, a Latin interpreter, a Ouija board, and the Rosetta stone.

Dez Bryant certainly didn't know. And in a moment of panic, he lied because he simply wasn't sure if he'd broken a rule or not.

He was wrong to lie. He should be punished for lying. But lying is NOT nearly as bad as punching someone in the face.

Or is it?

Maybe he should have done that when they asked him.

NCAA official: "Mr. Bryant, did you visit with Deion Sanders?"

Dez Bryant: Wham!

I say this because the player who punched another in the face actually was reinstated and played later in the season. Unfortunately, Dez Bryant won't get another opportunity.

The message: Thuggery will be tolerated, and eventually forgiven. Making a bad decision in a moment of uncertainty will not.

And another thing...considering the organization has been working on the Reggie Bush/O.J. Mayo/USC investigation since 2005 without taking ANY punitive action against ANYONE, it certainly didn't take them long to drop the hammer on Bryant, did it?

Idiocy, thy name is NCAA...

Smoking meat without a to convert your charcoal grill.

I love smoked meats. I'm talking about warm or hot smoking, not cold smoking, although I like that too. But, warm smoking is easier than what you imagine, especially if you already have a charcoal grill. The items needed are fairly simple, inexpensive and easy to get. They include:

1 large sized charcoal grill
2 or 3 regular bricks (dry)
1 bag of hickory or mesquite chips (or, if you have another smoking preference, about 2 lbs of whatever species of wood you like).
Double the amount of charcoal you normally use to grill.
Lighter fluid or denatured alcohol.
3-4 hours of time

You can use this method for beef or pork, but it also works great for poultry. I used it with cornish game hens, which I stuffed with mushrooms and onions, and it was absolutely delicious. Salmon steaks or fillets smoke equally well.

To start, find the vent in the top of your grill, if you have one. Ideally, the meat should be near the vent, so that the meat is exposed to all of the smoke that is generated by the charcoal/woodchip combination. If your vent is fixed, this needs to be the first consideration before positioning anything else.. Divide the bottom of your grill where you normally put the charcoal by placing bricks across. The idea is to only use half of the bottom of the grill. This will allow the meat to cook without overcooking, since the meat will not be exposed to the direct heat of the fire.

Pour charcoal on the opposite side of the grill where you plan to put the meat. Start it with lighter fluid. If you don't want to risk getting a lighter fluid taste in your meat, use denatured alcohol burns just as hot, but doesn't create fumes. Let it soak in for a short time, but don't wait too long because it will evaporate. Light it and let it burn down. You might not see the alcohol flames, but you'll know when it is out because the charcoal will begin to smoke.

Place a generous handful of woodchips on the charcoal, and place your meat on the opposite side.

Once you get it up and running, it should look like this:

Pardon the crude drawing.

Once the charcoal is burning, and you've added enough wood chips, you need to keep monitoring the fire. You may need to add charcoal to keep the fire going. Do so a little at a time so you don't put everything out. Add chips as they burn up. You might use several handfuls before you are finished. The meat will cook slowly, and look more and more delicious as it cooks:

After three hours or so, the meat will develop a black coating. It doesn't look appetizing, but it serves a very important purpose. It becomes impermeable and holds in the juices. When I tore the skin off of this bird, the meat juices dripped out onto the plate.

The taste is incredible. Slow cooking the meat makes it positively delicious, and as I said, when you peel back the outer layer, the juices run out. A delectable mild smoke flavor permeates the meat inside. If I were to REALLY get into smoking meats, I'd buy a dedicated meat smoker, but for occasional use, this is cheap and it works great.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

EASY feed ramp to improve ANY auto pistol's reliability in 10 minutes.

You'll need:

600 grit sandpaper
1000 (or finer) grit sandpaper
Dremel tool or equivalent.
Felt wheel attachment
Automotive rubbing or polishing compound.

1) Remove the slide. If you can remove the barrel, do that too.

2) Using the 600 grit, lightly smooth the feed ramp. Also, remove any rough edges around the chamber, taking care not to bevel it. You want to SMOOTH the metal, not REMOVE it. Do as LITTLE as possible in order not to change the geometry of the chamber or feed ramp.

3) Repeat with the 1000 grit. This should take out the tiny scratches that the 600 grit left behind.

4) Now, take the Dremel with the felt wheel attachment. Coat lightly with the polishing compound. Be careful to hold this away from your face when you start it, else it may sling compound in your eyes.

5) Polish the ramp, if possible by moving UP and DOWN the ramp. Do this until you have a chrome-like finish.

6) Wipe and clean thoroughly, being sure to remove any polish residue. If necessary, swab the bore as well.

7) Your feed ramp should be nice and shiny and look like this:

8) Reassemble your gun. Go test it out.

Coming soon - Bersa Thunder 9mm HC Review

UPDATE: Find the full review here.

Yep. It is, as they say, in the mail.

Or rather, with a BATF approved carrier, since I believe it is illegal to send handguns through the mail. Whatever. Not my problem, since it is coming from a source on the Internet to my local FFL holder. All gun laws are stupid anyway. Hear that liberals? That's right. Without getting into a bunch of political or philosophical mumbo jumbo, let's just reflect that we didn't have a huge problem with gun violence until we started making all these stupid gun laws.

As John Lott said (and found to be true through his studies), "More guns = less crime". But I digress.

I originally wanted a CZ-75. And, I still do want one, and plan on getting one. But, I figured there's no point in being without a 9mm until then. Guns don't lose much value, especially when they're well made like the Bersa and cost so little to begin with. And ultimately, if I like the Bersa, I will keep it and start from scratch to renew the gun fund to get the full amount to add the CZ to my collection instead of trading the Bersa for it.

I had been looking at the Bersas for a while and was impressed with the design. So, after much deliberation, I "pulled the trigger". Clever euphemism there, huh?

Hopefully, it will be here by this weekend and I'll get to take it out. If not, my review might be delayed a week. Keep checking back.

A Review of MacPup .061 / Puppy Linux - Save your Old Machine!

Behold the computer that would not die.

It is a Compaq Presario 1279. It was made over 10 years ago, and featured a cutting edge OS called Windows 98. It was top of the line, and featured a CPU that ran at speeds reserved for desktops...433 megahertz. It was hopped up to the unfathomable 192 MB of ram, and an impressive 20 GB hard drive.

It has been bashed, beaten and bruised. It has had various liquids poured into its keyboard. It has been dropped, while in the case, from a five-foot-high closet shelf. And, the only thing that ever went wrong that required a repair was an LCD inverter ordered from eBay for a mere $12.

It was my first laptop. I bought it used from eBay several years back. My second laptop, by the way, didn't last three years.

They don't make them like this anymore.

I don't use the laptop very much now. The keyboard was never the best...unless your fingers push straight down on the keys, they tend to stick. It has a small 13" screen with a max resolution of 800x600. The LCD backlight itself is dimmer than it looks in the picture. And, despite its compact size, it is heavy to hold on your lap, as all the weight is concentrated in a smaller area.

And, I can't give up on it. It just keeps working, so I keep updating it and pulling it out from time to time to use it.

It gets even less use now that I've gotten a netbook, as this old Compaq was relegated to back-up duty until the Acer came along. Now, it mostly sits in a closet, but it still has a modern, up to date operating system. Here's an actual screenshot:

That's MacPup Opera, a version of Puppy Linux. It is a beautiful and mostly easy to use operating system that works great on older computers. I have run it on computers with as little as 300 Mhz and 128 MB of RAM. And, while not blazing fast, it is fairly snappy and very usable.

The standard version of Puppy works well, and is probably even a little more zippy, but it has a definite "bargain basement" feel to it. Many of the wizards and utilities carry over to MacPup, but the Enlightenment 17 interface hides a lot, and makes it look infinitely better. Even an old computer can run the desktop widgets, animated icons, and shadowed, animated menus, without a noticeable penalty in speed or responsiveness.

Which begs the question...why does Gnome or KDE use so much ram and processor? Hmmmm? Maybe there's a lesson for the big boys to learn here.

Standard Puppy uses the Seamonkey browser. That's the latest version of the old Mozilla browser, which isn't bad, but it makes one wonder why Puppy doesn't default to the old and familiar standby, Firefox. Granted, there's not much difference between Firefox and Seamonkey, but there are some quirks that die-hard Firefox users will have to accept. But, its easy enough to fire up the user friendly Puppy Package Manager and install a full fledged, if a bit outdated, version of Firefox. If you poke around on the web and in the Puppy Linux forums, you can even find a 3.X version. But, MacPup goes one better and installs what I think is the best browser for resource limited computers: Opera.

Opera, while perhaps not as extensible as Firefox, is still pretty darn good. It is very, very snappy, even with low power machines, yet it is a "full-featured" browser, with a built in email client, and some extensibility via its Widget system. So, just because you may be using a stripped-down computer, you don't necessarily have to use a stripped down browser.

The Macpup version of Opera even comes with a skin that makes it fit in well with the MacPup theme. The whole thing just LOOKS good. I'd always accepted that users would have to do without the eye candy if they wanted to use a lower-resource machine. Not so with MacPup, Opera and Enlightenment 17.

Plus, it comes with a variety of software that the average person might need, plus lots of extras that can be installed using the Puppy Package Manager. You get a MS compatible word processor, an MS compatible spreadsheet, a program for browsing networks, tabbed web browser with Flash and email client, instant messenger (via web interface), and a bunch of other stuff. Many of the programs are low-resource versions of other programs. They all run rather well, even in low resource environments.

Is this a system that a beginner could use? Yes, with a little practice and as long as someone had a little help from the beginning, which would be true for any operating system. Since everything is menu-driven and intuitive, it should just be a matter of browsing those menus until you find the program or utility you need. I got my Dad, who has some computer experience, but no Linux experience, a cheapo laptop from eBay and put Puppy on it. He uses it for basic browsing and word processing, and even transfers documents through his home network between it and his Windows computer. For him, it is a way to get on the internet or type a document without having to walk downstairs to his desktop computer. For that, it works great. Kinda like a netbook, except with a full-sized keyboard and monitor. Oh, and it is only 1/3 the cost of a netbook, because the hardware is just a used laptop and a cheapo wireless card.

Could a newbie set it up themselves? Perhaps, if they had a second computer and could consult the Puppy Linux forums and ask questions. If I simply turned someone loose on Puppy/MacPup and said, "Install it", I think the chances would be slim. Maybe with Ubuntu, but not MacPup. I'm not saying that as a shot at is a lightweight OS, so it is what it is, and in most cases, the people who want it can install it. But, people who use Linux continually want to say that Linux is easy to install, and for the most part, they are right, but you still have to have a knowledge of how to install operating systems. No more knowledge than people would need to install Windows XP, but there is knowledge required nonetheless. I'm a Linux fanboy, but I'm realistic.

Overall, I'm very pleased with the performance and ease of use of MacPup .061. If you have an old computer sitting idle, why not fire it up and put MacPup on it, to make it a reliable little websurfer with a few extra features, and a nice looking interface to boot? Can't think of a better use for old hardware than that.