Sunday, August 21, 2011

Diamondback DB380 versus KelTec P3AT: First impressions and range report

NOTE: The following review started off as several postings on our family blog. Rather than simply import them, I've decided to combine it into a more comprehensive look at the DB380 in this single post.

Now, before I begin, let me offer a quick disclaimer for my fellow firearms aficionados: this is not a discussion about the effectiveness of the .380 ACP. All pistols suck at manstopping, some suck more than others and require more skill with placement. This is both why I practice and why I carry a larger caliber primary arm (usually a G19 or G30). If you know there's going to be a lethal encounter, the best weapon to ensure your survival is the good sense to be somewhere else. The next best weapon is DEVGRU, preferably with an AC-47 backing them up. The next best for me would probably be an HK416 in 6.8SPC with a beta mag but I somehow make do with the 9mm and .45ACP. While I always appreciate "gun talk" and readily admit that I don't know everything, I really do not care to hear about Marshall and Sanow, Strasbourg, Fackler's website, FBI statistics and/or tales from your-cousin-Cletus-who's-an-EMT-in-Nashville-and-sees-guys-shot-all-the-time, okay? My strategies for defensive use of a .380 consists of a mag dump, then either running like hell or going to the ground with the guy until I choke him out and/or he bleeds out from the tiny little holes I've poked in him. In short, I want something as an alternative to a pocket knife, not my "real gun".

Having gotten that out of the way, let me get down to brass (and copper) tacks.

I had carried a KelTec P3AT as my EDC pistol for quite some time, usually in a backup role but often solo because 1. I could carry it when I was wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and sunglasses and 2. I 'm often in environments that dictate that I absolutely am not armed (which is why I called it my "I-don't-have-a-gun gun"). It was a first-generation with no "fluff-and-buff", no polishing and no add-ons except a +1 mag extension and a carry clip. I fed it an exclusive diet of WWB flat-points and Rainier 95gr reloads and, except for some FTEs when I first bought it (caused by letting the unretained ejector fall out of the frame when I cleaned it post-purchase), it ran flawlessly. It was generally carried in a Nemesis pocket holster in a rear pants pocket or jacket slash pocket, though it has also ridden clipped to waistbands of shorts, gi pants, sweats and, yes, underwear (told you it's an "everywhere gun").

To its credit, the P3AT was incredibly slim, barely wider than the round for which it was chambered. It was feather-light to the point that, more than once, I literally forgot I was carrying (almost problematic one time at the airport). I could pack more firepower than with a J-frame .38 Special, with eight rounds of .380ACP at my fingertips and a spare 7-rounder easily carried in a coin pocket. Aside from takedown, the operation of the pistol is Glock-simple - point and shoot, with no external safeties or slide release to mind. And you couldn't really beat the convenience of carry. Pocket, pants, jockstrap, belly band - if I had a stitch of clothing on, you could be pretty confident in assuming I was carrying.

On the not-so-pro side, the ergonomics left a lot to be desired. Under stress, your form just might go to shit and that slimness that was so great for concealment made for an inconsistent firing grip and made shooting the gun feel a bit like holding onto a wooden ruler while someone whacked it with a hammer. As for accuracy, it was a belly gun so I wasn't expecting to be ringing hundred-yard gongs but painted-on sights and a relatively heavy trigger generated "COM adequate" results at best. The worst problem was premature mag ejection. I know - they say it happens to every guy once in awhile but it still bothered me. For the longest time, I'd go through my day with the gun riding in its holster in my rear pocket only to go home and find the mag had been unseated by my butt cheek. Worse still were the few times I leaned against a wall and heard a very subtle "click" from "back there". Given that this was the gun I was carrying when I "wasn't carrying a gun", that was enough to give me the willies. I ended up solving the problem by grinding the mag release button until it was flush with the frame.

Then there were the "intangibles" that came in on the negative side. There was a certain half-assed feel to the internal design. Why the HELL would you drop an ejector into the frame without any retention? It simply sits there, waiting to will fall out if you turn the frame upside down after removing the slide. Likewise, why does the recoil spring capture tab just fall out of the slide? It should be part of the forged piece. And why not have a captured recoil spring when they're already nested? Field-stripping requires you to pry out a pin which ended up leaving some history on the steel of the slide. And, finally, there's the exposed hammer. Yeah, it's hidden but it's still there. Not so horrible from a design standpoint but, since this was primarily a pocket-carry gun for me, the hammer's channel was almost constantly gunked up from lint and I ended up cleaning it often out of sheer mechanical paranoia.

Still, I had yet to find a pistol as diminutive in as large a caliber, even with the latest "micro-9" craze. Many came close but were always lacking (or, in this case, excessive) in one dimension or another - too thick, usually, though height was also a frequent deal-killer as was a manual safety. When I say there are times that it absolutely must be undetected, I'm not being melodramatic. I can't take even the slimmest chance of being made so... off went the MK9, rejected was the CM9, to market went the Colt Gov't .380. The P3AT was my ballistic pocketknife until June of this year, when I heard about the DB380.

I hadn't heard much about the Diamondback until I found a brief review in the monthly NRA rag (motto: "We never write a bad review, especially if you advertise."). It looked a little... not right. A bit like a tiny Colt 1902 or like a Glock and a KelTec had a love child. But I read enough very complimentary reviews that I was intrigued. The dimensions were certainly right - almost exactly the size of the P3AT but with a thicker grip and lower bore axis. The trigger travel was supposedly less. It had real sights. Then I found all the negative reviews. Poor QC. Trigger bars snapping after only a few dozen rounds. Poor customer service in response to complaints. I was definitely on the fence but, for around $300 and a warranty that, however much aggravation it might entail, would eventually make it right, it seemed worth a chance.

I found a local store that had a few in stock - all new and of recent vintage (s/n ZD7###) - and decided to take one for a spin. The reviews were right - the thing felt nice. It seemed more polished than the KelTec and, while the grip didn't look all that much thicker (or I would've dropped the idea then and there) it just filled the hand better. I took the plunge and bought it. I've included a few pics for comparison. To be fair, the KT still wins the "whose is smaller" battle if you look at it in its stock condition, with a six-round mag. I mostly included pics of the seven-round mag because that's how I carried it most often and this is where the ergonomic difference is, to me, most obvious. I no longer own a single-stack 9mm or I'd have thrown in it for reference.

My initial out-of-the-box impressions were very favorable. Slimness, weight and capacity were all equal to the P3AT (in fairness, the +1 extension - my usual carry configuration - actually made the KelTec just slightly taller). The ergonomics were, for me, outstanding. It just fit - period. Most every modern gun will sight well when conscientiously using a proper firing grip so I often like to test guns by dry-firing with my someday-to-be-patented "white knuckle oh-shit grip". Said test still had it pointing level and square, unlike the low-left muzzle dip I got with the P3AT. Comparing trigger pull was a little unfair, pitting a brand-new trigger against one that had been smoothed out by can't-remember-how-many rounds over the years. The unfired DB was a bit gritty but I'd would have called it comparable in terms of weight.

Field-stripping was as simple as pulling down on both non-protruding tabs while pulling the slide forward and the internal.mechanics were Glock simple - frame, slide, barrel, captured recoil group are the only major components. That's it. No tiny parts that fall out or disappear during cleaning and the gun has very clean external lines. As with the KelTec, there is neither a slide lock release nor an external safety (keep your goddamned finger off the trigger if you don't want the gun to fire) but, unlike the P3AT, the gun is striker-fired and so less open to lint-gunkage. And the sights... well, IT HAS SIGHTS!! A nice, crisp sight picture and even drift adjustable, which was a very nice touch.

About the only things that warranted a "fuzzy eyeball" were the grit in the trigger and magazines that would not drop free. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things but, coupled with the negative reviews for early models, I was noting everything.

After a bit, I was able to get out to the range for some brief function testing. I say "brief" because it was an outdoor range and early July in Colorado. If you live here, 'nuff said. If you don't, Colorado inspires images of babbling brooks, frigid ski slopes and lush pine forests but that's because we have good PR agents. We're a high plains desert, a full mile closer to the sun than most folks are used to. Yeah, "it's a dry heat" but it's a freaking roasting dry heat. Cloudless and near a hundred degrees are not necessarily the best range conditions in which to perform an extensive evaluation, especially for a bald man.

Overall, I will say that I was very favorably impressed with the little gun. All testing was done informally, primarily for function and safety, at a classic "ruh-roh" distance of twenty-one feet. I mostly wanted to make sure I heard "bang" instead of "click" and that I wouldn't drive home sporting a slide buried in my skull.

My initial impression was confirmed - the gun was an excellent and instinctive pointer. The trigger pull is only slightly heavy (compared to a shot-in G19 or a 1911) but consistent and, after only the first mag or so, smooth. Unlike when shooting my P3AT, I experienced no shift from recoil bouncing the grip around in my mitts. The magazine may not have dropped free at home but, in practical shooting, I found that it cleared without much hangup at all and the release was perfectly natural in operation. I even did a "Level 1 clearance" and didn't miss a beat.

While this was supposed to be just a function test, I was impressed by the accuracy. News flash: Sights help! Seriously. It may have been a function of a consistent sight picture or perhaps a difference in the barrel or rifling but this gun can shoot. At a standard rate of fire - three seconds per shot or so - I was shooting a two-inch group using a two-handed grip. I might actually have done better but I was tinkering with POA/POI and ended up with two tight but distinct groups about an inch apart. Speeding things up to a rapid-fire mag dump (all six rounds in about four seconds) from a low-ready position pushed that out to shy of four inches. I wouldn't win any bullseye contests with that but, from a practical standpoint, it was an improvement over the P3AT's "COM adequate" designation.

One major concern that developed was reliability. I fired thirty rounds that first outing (told you it was brief) and experienced two failures to fire. One primer appeared completely untouched, the other showed a light strike. Both were first rounds from their magazines (first and third mags, to be precise) and handloads. I had been using CCI primers but haven't experienced any problems in my P3AT using those loads. I later tested a new batch of loads using Winchester Small Pistol primers - only fifteen rounds (I was using the chrono to test a new recipe) but no failures of any type. Later still, I ran another dozen reloads through the chrono from a prone position and encountered two failures to feed. It was very possible that I ended up limp-wristing due to the position but.... Then, some days later, I ran another two dozen rounds through - mostly rapid-fire - and didn't have a single hitch. Could have been coincidence, could have been the primers - but could also be the gun. I'm just making note and keeping it in the back of my mind. I'm also switching exclusively to factory ammo for further evaluation just to remove one variable from the equation.

Another minor negative experience was, of all things, the frame material. I was distracted by another club member while I was policing brass and got to chatting with him. About fifteen minutes passed without my notice... on a hot day... while the gun and its magazine lay next to the uncovered ammo in the sun. I have made this mistake before but don't recall my larger polymer-framed guns or my P3AT getting that frigging hot before. This is actually what facilitated my rapid-fire test - I just wanted to get the damned thing out of my hands before I branded the company logo on my palm.

Still another negative - also minor - was slide bite. The gun balances and fits the palm well enough that I unconsciously adopted a "normal-for-me" grip high up on the backstrap. The frame has a beavertail which works quite well but the web of my thumb still ended up above it on more than one occasion. No big deal, no damage to speak of, just some scorch marks and a bit of a pinch. I'll get used to it.

Since I mentioned reloading, I'll add another item to the "Pro" list - consistent ejection. As a reloader, what an incredible treat it is to be able to pick up a tidy pile of .380 brass instead of searching in an ever-widening circle for an hour! I'm not exaggerating. During one shooting session, the KelTec launched brass from the same magazine fifteen feet in front of and twenty-three feet behind my location. It was frustrating as hell and usually resulted in accepting losses with each outing. The Diamondback's ejection is a dramatic improvement.

I haven't had the opportunity to continue my evaluation but plan on correcting that over the next few weeks. I'm looking for the magic two-hundred-round mark without further failures before I feel completely reassured. But, assuming the reliability is there, I believe I've found not just a replacement but an improvement over the KelTec.

- Keith

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