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Price & Performance: Custom SA-35, Federal TSS Ammo, Plano Fieldlocker

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Custom Quandary

When modifying firearms, there is always the question, “Was it worth it?” One of my first attempts to improve a firearm involved a Ruger American Predator rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor (ruger.com). Those guns have always offered excellent performance for the price. At the time of my purchase, it was a sub-­$500 rifle, and it seemed obvious to me that most of the savings came from using an eyesore of a polymer stock. Effective? Yes. Elegant? Not even close. To correct the issue, I ordered a Pepper-­colored laminate hardwood stock from Boyd’s Gunstocks (boydsgunstocks.com). Installation was close to drop-­in easy, and the look and lines of the Prairie Hunter stock classed up the Ruger by orders of magnitude. For less than $700 — rifle and stock — I had DIY’d an accurate rifle that I was proud to show.

Incidentally, I later decided to bed the American’s barreled action into the Boyd’s stock. Paying around $100 for a Brownells Acraglass kit (brownells.com), accuracy improved from about 11/4 MOA to sub-­MOA with a variety of loads. At less than $800 all-­in, it’s been a good example of purposeful improvement.

More recently, I worked with Bill Laughridge at Cylinder & Slide (cylinder-­slide.com) in Fremont, Nebraska, to design and test a custom Springfield Armory SA-­35 (springfield-­armory.com). The base gun is a modern rendition of John Browning’s FN P.­35 Hi-Power. At $800 for an all-­steel pistol, the SA-­35 is a great candidate for modification. The original concept had been a tactical-carry build, meaning a reliability tune, better sights, better trigger and improved purchase. In true Cylinder & Slide fashion, the project exceeded my expectations. Highlights from the final build sheet include: Match barrel with 11-­degree target crown; C&S extractor; stippled frame; VZ stocks; C&S extended safety; beavertail; tuned combat-­style wide trigger; fiber-­optic front sight; Novak-­style rear sight; C&S No-­Bite hammer; polished slide flats; and a full carry bevel treatment. All in, the upgrades were valued around $2,900, which represents a mix of aesthetic and functional improvements. The result is a bespoke defensive handgun.

To qualify the pistol, I tested performance against a bone-­stock SA-­35. Right off the bat, the fiber-­optic front sight offered a drastic improvement to speed. Using an Eagle inside-the-waistband (IWB) strong-­side holster from Falco (falcoholsters.com), and Guns & Ammo’s “Carry Rig” speed protocols, I averaged .4 seconds faster — 1.5 to 1.9 seconds — with the C&S gun. I picked up the red sight sooner and, thus, broke the shot earlier. Keeping the target at 7 yards, I conducted off-­hand accuracy testing as well as multi-­shot strings of fire — controlled pairs and Failure Drills — to compare handling and precision. Cylinder & Slide’s pistol came out on top in every category. By huge margins? No. These were both SA-­35s, after all, but the difference was noticeable, particularly on fast follow-­up shots. The enhanced performance was a combined result of the improved sights, grips and the trigger, which offered a consistent 4-­pound, 10-­ounce, pull.


The real difference between the guns, though, was reliability. The C&S pistol ran like a top through several hundred rounds in the first afternoon of testing. It fed, fired, extracted and ejected a variety of ammunition, spanning range-­grade full-metal-jackets to defensive jacketed hollowpoints. The stock SA-­35, on the other hand, started exhibiting extraction issues after 120 rounds, which increased in frequency until it could no longer be considered a semiauto.

If you read these results and take away that the Springfield Armory SA-­35 is not a serviceable defensive sidearm, you are missing the point. Put the heirloom quality upgrades of this particular pistol aside, beautiful though they are. Consider that the SA-­35 — at $800 — is just an extractor and action tune away from being a bomb­proof carry piece. That’s a couple hundred dollars and some time at the ’smithy. For a couple hundred more, you might change the sights or tweak the trigger; now you are cooking with gas!

I’m a strong believer in spending money on ammo and training before shelling out for custom gun work. But, for purposeful improvements and pride of ownership, many firearms can benefit from aftermarket enhancements or the efforts of skilled gunsmiths. And, if price is not an option, custom builders can make ballistic dreams a reality.



Federal Premium Heavyweight TSS, 12 ga., #7 & #9 Shot: $105 (Photo courtesy of Federal)

I’m not much of a turkey hunter, but you could say I’m turkey hunter-

adjacent. I’ve seen far enough behind the curtain to scratch my head at the prices and demand for super-premium shotshells such as Federal’s Heavyweight TSS loads (federalpremium.com). Ranging from $49 to $105 per box for five shells — you read that correctly — the ammunition offers a payload of high-­density tungsten. The shot’s raw material is more expensive than lead or bismuth, and that cost is passed on to consumers.

I consulted with “Game & Fish” Editorial Director Adam Heggenstaller to better understand the advantage: First, tungsten’s density allows it to carry more velocity and energy downrange than comparable lead shot. The result offers better penetration at greater distances. Those characteristics allow Federal to use smaller shot sizes, such as No. 7 and 9, without sacrificing terminal performance. Smaller shot means more pellets per shell, which increases pattern density. The combination provides excellent results at ranges previously out of reach for smoothbore turkey hunters.

“Just to see what it could do, I patterned a 20 gauge with TSS at 68 yards,” Heggenstaller told me. “Believe me, inside of 70 yards, that’s a bird in the bag — with a 20 gauge!”

I hadn’t anticipated his wholehearted endorsement, but Heggenstaller explained, “Your average turkey hunter gets a chance at one, maybe two birds per season. Federal’s TSS loads give them a larger margin for error when estimating distance, and it carries more energy and offers better penetration than lead.” He continued, “Everyone complains about the price of TSS, but they all buy it because there is nothing better.” In summary, “Federal’s TSS is like a high-­end scope for rifle shooters. Yeah, it’s expensive, and it’s probably more performance than you’ll ever need, but it gives you the confidence to reach out when you need to.”

Protective Services

Plano Field Locker
Plano Field Locker Element Double Gun Case: $320 (Photo by Joe Kurtenbach)

Since its introduction in 2015, I’ve relied on a Plano Field Locker Double Gun Case (planooutdoors.com) to secure my firearms and gear for transport. Its service life has included dozens of domestic hunts and training events, as well as international ventures including Africa and remote Canadian camps. It has ably ported bolt-­action rifles, AR-­15s, shotguns, pistols, and even a brace of Smith & Wesson X-­Frame revolvers. It’s also stowed knives, tripods, wet weather gear, sleeping bags and survival supplies. One of my favorite strategies is to remove the foam interior to make room for a sleeping bag, clothes and additional kit, as well as my rifle in a soft padded case. It’s an efficient way to pack and is a hasty weatherproof storage solution in austere environments.

My original Field Locker was sidelined due more to the abuse of airline travel than the conditions it faced afield. For me, there was only one acceptable replacement — another Plano Double Gun Case. It has everything: Heavy-duty construction, robust wheels, pressure-relief valve, reinforced lock ports, and it is waterproof to boot. At $320, the Field Locker Double Gun Case is not inexpensive, but it’s a price I’m happy to pay for years of firearm protection.

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