Sometimes it’s a good thing to look back at failed experiments, to better understand how we got to where we are today. It can be instructive, as well as cautionary — what we think of as innovative and brilliant now might well look a hell of a lot different in 30 or 40 years.

Such is the case with the Sterling PPL, a small self-defense handgun built and sold for just a couple of years in the early 1970s. Here it is:

A fairly complete story of the Sterling can be found here. There’s not a lot to tell, though it does give a nice description of the gun:

It is a blow back operated, semi-automatic pistol that is chambered for the .380 ACP(Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge. This pistol incorporates a blade type front sight and a V notch rear sight, both of which are not adjustable. It is fed by an 8 round detachable box magazine. On the pistol’s butt there is a European style heel magazine release. The push button manual safety is located toward the front and directly above the trigger guard. In the photograph on the right, this push button safety is shown in the fire position. The plastic grip panels are secured to the frame by two hex or Allen key screws with a hexagonal socket in the head. The left grip panel will need to be removed in order to disassemble the pistol. This pistol has a one inch barrel and a total length of 5.38 inches and an unloaded weight of 22.5 ounces.

This past weekend I had the chance to shoot this gun. It was an original, but was “New, Old Stock” — while it was indeed made back in ’72 or ’73, it had never been fired and was still in pristine condition.

It’s a solidly made little thing, and while it was clearly not intended to be a fancy, high-finish gun it wasn’t bad in terms of fit & finish. All the parts were tight, well machined, and worked together well. The plastic grips were fitted well to the frame, and the checkering and emblem were clean, sharp lines — not the cheap sort of injection-mold grips which were common on many small guns of that era. The sights were milled into the top of the slide & barrel, and were reasonably clean and low-profile while still functional. The one magazine we tried fit flush into the gun, with no slop. The trigger was better than I expected, though like most of the gun would probably improve with some use. All in all, it really didn’t feel bad in the hand, and the ergonomics were better than I expected, particularly given the small size of the gun and my large hands.

Shooting it felt more natural than I expected, with the fairly high weight taming recoil — remember, this thing weighs more than twice as much as most micro-.380s do today. In fact, it felt a lot like shooting my Boberg XR-9 9mm, which isn’t surprising: compare how the guns look side by side:

And when I laid one gun on top of the other, they were nearly identical.

But the Sterling PPL isn’t the 70’s version of the Boberg. Note that the barrel in front of the cartridge is just 1″ whereas the barrel on the Boberg is almost 3″ in front of the cartridge. That means that the BEST you could hope for out of .380 ACP ammo would be under 200 ft-lbs of energy, while the Boberg (or the current Bond Arms version) would give you more than twice that.

And that extremely short barrel on the Sterling led to another problem: keyholing. That is where the bullet doesn’t have enough time to stabilize (which is the function of rifling in a barrel), and so tumbles. You can clearly see that in four of the first five shots we fired, in this target:

All five of the next shots also keyholed. And that means that the bullets would hit the target in such a way as to minimize penetration, rendering them much less effective in terms of ability to incapacitate. Which is very much not what you want in a defensive handgun.

So it’s not too surprising that this design didn’t succeed, even though it was a very compact little gun. But I do wonder whether if they had extended the barrel another inch or so, would it have survived?

Speculating a little more … what do you think the chances are that the design of the Sterling might have somehow inspired the Boberg? The size, shape, and appearance of the guns are surprisingly similar. Hmmm …

 

Jim Downey

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