Astra Pistols 300, 400 and 600, Safety Tips
Astras 400 and 600/43
The Astra model 1921 (400) and its close cousins, the 300 and the 600/43, are among the best of 20th century combat handguns. They don't look the part, but they're almost as fast into action as the Colt / Browning M1911, safer in some respects than the Glocks and adequately powered by common military and police standards. I have also found that in my average-sized hands they are very good point shooters. But they were never perfect and the ones that have survived are getting quite old. Many have been heavily used, abused, and inexpertly gunsmithed. If you've got one of these guns, are considering acquiring one, or need to repair one, here are a few design-specific safety tips to help you get started.
First, for those who lack basic gun safety training here is an incomplete list of safety rules (no list of precautions could ever be quite complete):
1. Always treat a gun as if it is loaded, even when you are certain that it is not.
2. Never allow a gun to point in a hazardous direction, such as toward a shooting buddy or at a critical piece of equipment.
3. Always know where your bullet will stop before you fire the gun.
4. Never shoot at the surface of waterways, scrap steel, or other surfaces prone to produce ricochet.
5. Never carry a fully loaded unsecured gun through or over obstacles like brush or fences (practical advise -- a distant cousin of mine lost a hunting buddy to a barbed wire fence that snagged a shotgun trigger).
6. Fully understand the guns you carry and keep them in good order.
7. Fire only good-quality ammunition of the type your gun was designed for.
Now to the Astra 1921 family specifically (which I'm going to refer to collectively as "the 400," except where design differs):
Verify the 400 is empty:
Take your 400 in hand, keeping your fingers out of the trigger guard. Allow the grip safety that forms the back of the handgrip to remain in the outward position. Make sure that the manual safety catch on the left side of the grip frame, above the trigger guard is swung upward and rearward to its engaged position. There is a magazine catch at the rear of the bottom of the handgrip on the 400, and at the left lower edge of the handgrip on the 300 and 600. Press against the serrated surface of this latch to release the magazine. Withdraw the magazine and inspect it. If there are cartridges in the magazine, slip them all out one by one and set them aside (preferrably in a different room). Replace the magazine in the gun's grip frame and latch it in place by pressing it inward until the latch clicks. Keeping the gun pointed in a safe direction and your fingers out of the trigger guard, grasp the serrations at the rear of the slide and withdraw the slide fully to the rear. If a cartridge is ejected from the gun when you open the slide, set it aside with any others. The slide should now be latched in its rearward position. Look through the open ejection port in the right side of the slide, into the chamber end of the barrel to verify that there are no cartridges remaining in the gun's feedway or barrel. Your 400 is empty. Please note that the opening of the slide has automatically disengaged the manual safety lever on the left side of the grip frame. The action can be closed by removing the magazine, drawing back on the slide a short distance and returning the slide foreward. Re-apply the manual safety. Re-insert the empty magazine. Continue to treat it as if it is fully loaded.
Checking the magazine safety:
Take your empty 400 in hand. Remove the magazine and set it aside. Draw the slide fully to the rear and return it fully forward. This ensures that the hammer is cocked. Disengage the manual safety lever (downward to the firing position). Pointing the empty gun in a safe direction and holding it in a normal firing grip, with the magazine still removed, press the trigger fully to the rear, You should not hear or feel the hammer fall. Press the trigger several times to be sure it still does not drop the hammer.
Latch the magazine back into the gun and try dry firing it (dropping the hammer / striker of an unloaded gun) again, as before. The hammer should now fall. If it does not fall, the gun will probably not fire and should be repaired by a competent gunsmith.
If the hammer drops with the magazine removed, the magazine safety is missing or damaged. Make sure that anyone who handles the gun understands that the gun will fire with the magazine removed, and have the gun repaired at your earliest convenience. The risk here is more the expectation that these designs will have a magazine safety in operation than any direct risk to the shooter who understands that the gun has no functioning magazine safety.
Checking the grip safety:
In passing the magazine safety check, your gun already demonstrated that its hammer will fall with a press upon the trigger when all the safeties are disengaged, and that includes the grip safety. Now you need to verify that the grip safety will prevent the gun from firing when it's sprung into the outward/rearward position. Prepare the empty gun as you did to dry fire it before, but this time press the trigger fully rearward without any pressure on the grip safety (the long lever hinged at the bottom end that forms most of the rear of the grip frame, where the web of the hand presses). With the grip safety sprung out to the rear and the trigger pressed hard, the hammer should not fall. If it does, you should not load the gun until it has been repaired. The grip safety is one of the 400's most important safety features. Now grasp the gun normally and dry fire, as at the end of the magazine safety check. The hammer should now fall.
Checking the manual safety:
Prepare the empty gun for dry firing, but this time try dry fire it with the manual safety lever on the left side of the grip frame swung up and rearward into the "safe" position. The hammer should not fall. Repeat this test several times, then verify that the gun will still dry fire with the safety disengaged. If the gun fails this test, dropping the hammer with the safety lever in the upward position, it should not be loaded and should be repaired as soon as possible. The safety lever should also remain in the position you have placed it in until you deliberately swing it to the other position. Failing at that is also failing this general test of function and indicates a need for repair.
Checking the disconnector:
The disconnector prevents the gun from firing until the action is closed. If the disconnector fails, a burst cartridge casing can damage the gun and injure the shooter or other people close at hand. In a rare event, death or serious permanent disability may result. The way to check the disconnector is as follows. Prepare to dry fire the empty gun, as before. With all safeties disengaged, draw the slide about an inch (2.5cm) to the rear from its closed position. Holding it in this position, press the trigger. The hammer should not fall. Now ease the slide forward, depressing the trigger repeatedly until it finally does cause the hammer to fall. This should only occur when the slide is almost completely closed. Typically, I note that the 400 disconnector will prevent hammer fall with more than about 1/10 to 1/8 inch (2-3mm) rearward displacement of the slide. If your hammer falls with the slide retracted more than about 3mm, you should consult a gunsmith. I do not know the official Astra or Spanish military armorer's standard for this parameter, so I must caution you in more general terms about disconnector function for the moment. A bulged case is a very strong indication of this problem, however, so make a habit of inspecting fired casings for indications of trouble when you shoot. Checking your spent brass for signs of trouble is an important shooter's habit no matter what you shoot, by the way.
Checking for full auto runaway risk factors:
Full auto runaways are just what they sound like. Your gun fires in a fully automatic manner until it jams or runs out of ammunition. Given the Astra's remarkable reliability, I'd say it will probably not jam -- and in this case that's actually not good. Full auto runaway can happen when loading the gun with your finger off the trigger, and it can happen in response to a single press of the trigger. It's dangerous -- deadly dangerous. The 400 has a very sharp recoil impulse that might be capable of turning the gun in an unsafe direction during a full auto runaway -- particularly if it catches you by surprise. We'll inspect for two risk factors. First, the firing pin and then the lockwork / fire control group.
Firing Pin: Latch the slide of your empty gun fully rearward by using the latch-open effect produced by the empty magazine acting on the slide lock and look through the ejection port window at the face of the breech, where the firing pin hole is. There should be no metal projecting foreward from the edges of the firing pin hole. The firing pin tip might be visible, but should be down in the firing pin hole at least a short ways. The breech face and firing pin hole should be free of debris, rust, and particularly of metal fragments. Now turn the gun over and look into the recess in the underside of the rear of the slide. You should see the rear part of the firing pin in the front wall of this recess. Take a non-marring object like a pencil or an empty high powered brass rifle casing and press foreward on the tail of the firing pin. It should move and return freely and smoothly. If not, irrigate the firing pin channel with pressurized solvent, like WD-40, clean up the excess solvent and try this again. If the pin sticks in a foreward position or is balky or notably rough in its transit, have a gunsmith look at it.*
*Also inspect the firing pin tip by pressing it foreward as outlined above and visualizing it throught the ejection port window (actually it's easier to do this with the gun field stripped). The firing pin tip should be smooth and neatly rounded. it should not protrude more than a short distance from the face of the breech. The firing pin hole should be round and neat and a close fit to the pin. The area around the firing pin hole should not be eroded or rusted into a pit. If the firing pin seems to protrude more than the depth of an average primer dimple on a fired casing, have a gunsmith check the firing pin protrusion. In general, trouble in this area is a safety risk (these issues are related to the risk of primer piercing, not full auto runaway, but this is the right time to check for them).
Lockwork: Check your gun's lockwork for risk of full auto runaway the same way the US military does with their autoloading small arms. Dry fire in the manner outlined above, but this time hold continuous rearward pressure on the trigger. Unlatch the magazine and withdraw it about halfway from the grip. Draw the slide fully rearward and hold it there. Press the magazine back into the gun, latching it into place, by pressing it against something like a piece of wooden furniture you're not too concerned about marring, your knee, or whatever is safe and handy. With the magazine latched back in place and continuous pressure maintained on the triggger, ease the slide all the way foreward. The hammer should not fall at any time during this action. If it does, the gun should be taken to a gunsmith as soon as possible and should not be loaded until it has been repaired. Release pressure on the trigger. Now dry fire it normally. The hammer should now fall.* This is a "three handed job" because of the magazine safety, but it's worth doing.
*If the hammer does not fall at this point in the test, have it repaired (the hammer could be following the slide down, which is more likely to prevent semi-automatic firing than to create a safety risk, but means the gun is damaged nonetheless).
These precautions will significantly reduce risk of full auto runaway.
Next, we need to talk about drop safety. But for that, we'll need more pictures.
Astra 400 sear
Astra 400 sears are massive
Okay, so an Astra 400 type sear isn't as big as the photo above may lead you to believe, but as sears go it's very high in mass. It also releases with a rearward motion. These design elements conspire to increase risk of accidental discharge of a gun dropped onto or rapped upon the rear of its slide or grip frame. Much of this risk is eliminated by the gun's excellent grip safety, but a particularly unlucky drop or a poorly chosen holster with a strap crossing the grip can defeat the grip safety. The lockwork of the 400 must be propely adjusted to, hopefully, drive this risk into the freak accident category, along with getting struck by lightning or something on that order of improbability. Also, and this is pretty much universal in gun design, the sear engagement angles must be correct for lockwork to be safe. If you suspect someone has altered the sear engagement -- perhaps in hopes of getting a lighter trigger pull -- have a gunsmith look it over. 400 triggers were not designed for winning shooting competitions. Their lockwork was designed for close quarters combat, like that of the Glocks and most of the modern Sigs. They have long, heavy trigger pulls, and those trigger pulls should be thought of as an important element of design, rather than a problem to be "fixed."
Trigger bar / sear relationship
Good relationships help keep you safe
The photo above shows the trigger/disconnector bar and its relationship to the sear in an Astra 400 that I can repeatedly beat against a 4X4 inch fence post without causing hammer drop. I'm afraid that if I struck it hard enough to cause it to drop the hammer, I'd severely damage the gun. I've tested a couple of 400s and a 600 that would fail this inertial test with a frighteningly light rap against a wooden barrier. And I have a 600 that will fail this test with two consecutive hard strikes, but generally not one. The only important difference between these guns I've found so far is that the ones that resist accidental inertial sear release the best are those adjusted so that the sear lug is in direct contact with the foreward inside edge of the hook of the trigger/disconnector bar when the trigger is allowed to stay fully forward. If you have a gun that fails this inertial accidental discharge test, I recommend that you take it to a good gunsmith and ask him to eliminate the slack in the fire control train -- with contact between those parts' fore-aft bearing surfaces at rest.
Here's how to test your 400 for drop / inertial safety:
Prepare the gun as if to dry fire it, but leave the manual safety engaged. Use heavy rubber bands to keep the grip safety depressed or grasp the gun firmly -- so that the grip safety is fully depressed. Now smack the rear of the slide against a non-marring solid massive object, like a substantial pine post set firmly in the ground, or the exposed wood of a small tree. If you can cause the hammer to fall, repeat the test until you have a good real world feel for how hard the gun has to be knocked against something to cause this to happen. If you're uncomfortable with the results, get the gun adjusted.
On a related note -- Use a lanyard with the 400. These guns were designed for carry in full flap traditional military holsters, with lanyards attached to the guns. In addition to preventing loss of guns, the lanyard helps to reduce the risk that your 400 will make it all the way down to that tree root or rock that it might otherwise strike, safety-first -- sending a bullet crashing through your body. This is one of those times in your life as a handgun owner that it helps to know how the gun was originally intended to be carried and handled in military service.
My personal research into Astra 400 sear safety issues and appropriate gunsmithing remedies is ongoing and may be updated when you read this entry here. Visiting my website, Keg Island Research, at www.kegisland.com, you'll find more information on this issue and others.
Incorrect Ammo is a Serious Mistake
One of these cartridges will destroy an Astra 400
Notice that I didn't say one of these cartridges might destroy your Astra 400, but WILL. The 9X23mm Winchester is NOT another name for the 9mm Largo cartridge of nearly identical dimensions that the Astra 400 was designed to fire. 9X23 Winchester is roughly on par with the .357 magnum, and it is pretty much guaranteed to destroy any Astra 400 you fire it through. Not only will it destroy the gun, but there's a good chance it will injure or kill the shooter or a bystander. Almost as bad as this mix-up is the use of .38 Super -- another high-intensity competition handgun cartridge, and this time one with a bad reputation for actually destroying a lot of Astra 400s here in the US. When you see ".38" listed on a late-production Astra 400 slide along with the "9mm" marking, this is not a reference to .38 Super, but a now-rare modestly powered cartridge that was popular back in the 1930s -- the .38 ACP. Be careful. There is always a temptation to substitute the cartridges you can find locally for the ones you need. And as if this isn't bad enough, the same cartridge is often known by many different names, depending upon the nation of origin and period of production. Selecting ammunition is a lot easier than identifying mushrooms in the wild, but the same basic advice applies to both -- If you have any doubt whatsoever, consult an expert or simply pass on the opportunity.
Correct cartridges for The Astra 300:
-.380 ACP or .32 ACP, depending upon chambering. These cartridges have low potential for dangerous confusion and have no high performance close cousins among standard factory offerings, as of September 2012.
-Correct cartridges for the Astra 400:
-9mm Largo. 1930s and later production guns handle standard 9mm Largo cartridges well. 1920s production guns have a track record for cracking frame rails and slides with some standard 9mm Largo -- including surplus Spanish military 9mm Largo cartridges (and I know this from personal experience, by the way). The reasons for this are in debate, but my advise is to hand-load 9mm Largo to .380 ACP performance levels for the 1920s-era guns, and make sure the recoil spring is fresh.
-Correct cartridges for the Astra 600:
-9mm Luger. This is the cartridge that most people simply call "9mm" here in the US. Because the Astra 600 was designed specifically for Nazi Germany during the Second World War, I strongly suspect that it was designed primarily for the 100 to 108 grain iron bullet steel case load that was the Axis standard at that time. So, the conservative advise here would be to stick to the lighter bullet weights in the Astra 600 and definitely to avoid +P or +P+ loads.
Use correct and conservatively-chosen ammunition in the 400 family of guns. They have no locking system, relying instead on the mass of their slides and heavy recoil springs to prevent case ruptures and major parts breakage. Recoil springs should always be replaced by the new user unless the one installed is known to be fairly fresh -- then after about every thousand rounds (high quality springs can be purchased from Wolff gunsprings). Word to the wise: unlike most autoloading guns, Astras will not jam when their springs begin to fail. They'll faithfully run until they self destruct. So, don't skimp on springs. The first sign of trouble is likely to be the death of the gun.
Safe is Beautiful
Rainbow the Rescue O'possum* says, "Only YOU can prevent firearms accidents."
*Rainbow (the kids named the dang thing), blind in one eye, went to Greensboro and became a nature center education animal -- proving that sometimes you really can just luck out and land that dream job.