Adventures with a Semmerling

My good friend and long-time shooting coach, Michael Harries, owned an early, original, Boston-made Semmerling LM-4, .45 ACP pocket pistol. While he and I were working on my practical-shooting competition technique, I got to fire the little gun pretty frequently. Since it’s only 5 3/8 inches long by 3 3/4 inches high and fires a full-power self-defense cartridge, it seemed to me to be the ideal everyday concealed carry weapon.

Even though the LM-4’s barrel is a mere 3 3/4 inches long, its lengthy trigger pull like that of a double-action revolver, and its grip only large enough for two fingers, Mike’s specimen was surprisingly accurate when fired in his experienced and well-practiced hands. Shooting from prone at 50 yards, he could easily make small groups of well-centered hits. I couldn’t. My trigger control is still nowhere near as good as his was, which is why he was the coach, and I the student. I limit myself to 15 yards or less. Usually much less.

As soon as I got used to Mike’s little pistol, I wanted a Semmerling of my own, but even back then (in the early 1980s) its price was way out of my reach. All I could do was to enjoy shooting his occasionally, and to sigh longingly a lot.

When Michael died, a few years back, I would have liked to have purchased his LM-4 from his estate, but I still just didn’t have the money. Instead, it went to Terence, a mutual friend who treasured it as a collector’s item, and who moved it to Illinois. A little while later, I lost Terence to late-diagnosed cancer. While I was helping Jeanette, his widow, catalog his gun collection for sale, she offered me the Semmerling at an extremely attractive price. At that very moment, my dear wife Jean had added just enough extra money to our budget, and we bought it. At last!
When Mike owned this pistol, it fired factory-loaded cartridges very reliably, but it almost always refused to set off reloaded ammunition–especially rounds using Remington #2 1/2 primers. When I finally got it, it had been well and thoroughly used, and it had become unreliable even with factory shells. Dented but unfired primers showed that its firing pin was hitting way off center. What a disappointment!

The Semmerling LM-4, as befits a miniature pistol, is made of what seem to be Swiss-watch parts. No gunsmith I could find was willing to even disassemble it to see what was wrong, and some of them used very colorful terms to describe their reluctance. So I took it apart myself. Big mistake! Little hair-thin wire springs flew all over my basement workshop. Tiny parts dropped out onto the floor. It took a long, panic-filled hour to find them all, and then another half hour to figure out how to put the thing back together again–and how to take it apart safely next time.

My advice: Don’t try this at home.

The pistol’s striker, with its two carefully balanced opposing springs, seemed to work properly and didn’t wobble in its channel. The firing-pin hole wasn’t too big, and it kept the striker’s pin centered within it. Maybe it was the extractor’s sideways pressure against the cartridge, but I had no way of testing that. What I did find out was that, because of those two opposing striker springs, the firing pin hit with a relatively light blow, so this gun required cartridges with sensitive primers.

When I found that the American Derringer Corporation of Waco, Texas, had purchased the original Semmerling tooling and was making new LM-4 pistols on a special-order basis, I contacted them by e-mail asking for help. Elizabeth, the nice lady who owns American Derringer, answered my message with a quote for hourly work and an assurance that her crew could fix my gun’s problem. So, off it went to Waco by FedEx.

A couple of days later, another e-mail from Elizabeth confirmed my pistol’s arrival. She said that her machinist found that my Semmerling’s barrel originally had been made just a little off-center. From what she wrote, my guess is that, as the barrel was slid back and forth to chamber each shot, wear exaggerated its off-centeredness until, finally, it became unreliable. Elizabeth suggested a new barrel–or a whole new gun, since mine is an original, very-low-number collector’s item. I am a gun user, not a gun collector. Considering the prices quoted and my finances as a retiree, I went for the new barrel.

Elizabeth wrote that the job would take a month, but my Semmerling came back within three weeks, now with two barrels. The new one is stainless steel, which is all that American Derringer uses, but it’s phosphated to a very dark grey that goes quite well with the original frame’s slightly worn blue-black. Best of all, it fires reliably. But it only sets off factory cartridges. And it still absolutely balks at reloads using Remington #2 1/2 primers.

When it arrived, its new barrel shot about three inches to the left and two inches low at 15 yards. That was a puzzler until I carefully inspected its sighting apparatus. The Semmerling’s rear sight is a narrow square notch cut into a semi-circular relief, within an integral, raised lump on the breech end of its barrel. My new barrel’s square notch was about 1/32-inch off to the left, within the centered semi-circular relief cut. Maybe the sight notch had been cut while the barrel still was being held in the same fixture used to bore it. If that’s true, then when the new barrel had been bored a little off center to the left to compensate for the old frame’s rail wear and to center the firing pin, its rear sight notch had been cut a little to the left as well.

Although the LM-4’s trigger pull is a smooth and non-stacking eight pounds, and ends with a clean-breaking let-off and no over-travel, I thought it might be my own deficient trigger technique that was causing the pistol to shoot below my point of aim. Controlling a tiny, relatively lightweight, double-action .45 ACP handgun with only the two fingers that fit on its short grip is no easy task. However, while I was going through hundreds of different .45 ACP factory-loaded cartridges, finding out which ones work best in this particular weapon, my trigger-control skills were getting a thorough workout. I soon discovered whether it was me or the Semmerling that was shooting low.

In any case, windage adjustment involved a very small, fine-cut pillar file. The Semmerling’s rear sight notch was a little too narrow for my aging eyes anyway, so filing it a wee bit wider on its right side, while being careful not to deepen it, soon resolved the pistol’s leftward bias and made my sighting job much easier, all at the same time. The low hits turned out to be the gun’s fault, and not mine, so I shortened its integral front sight-blade just a bit with the same file, a little at a time, by means of the old cut-and-try system. Although I couldn’t re-phosphate where I’d scraped the metal with my file, Brownells sold me a tenacious epoxy paint that’s the right color to be a perfect cover-up.

So, now, at last, I have a fully functional, pocket-size, self-defense pistol that will stop anything short of a bull elephant in heat. It has been a long and drawn-out piece of theater, but the last act turned out to have been well worth the wait. Thank you Michael, Terence and Jeanette, Jean, and Elizabeth.

Photos by Jean Henigson

Editor’s Note:
Thanks to our friends at the United States Concealed Carry Association for this article. To know more about concealed carry please click here.


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