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Material Witness: V20N4

By David Lake

Polymers and Composites

Drastic changes to tradition can be a hard sell- especially when that tradition finds deep roots in history and culture. If you’re reading this, then you are part of a very special culture- you’re a “gun guy”. And if you’re over 40, then you’ll recall the arrival of plastic pistols. You’ll recall the myths purveyed by the media and the doctrinal arguments hosted by the experts who either celebrate or condemn the idea of using plastic in the construction of a firearm. Despite early skepticism and trepidation, the merit of the concept has been well demonstrated, as now almost every small arms manufacturer offers a plastic gun. Hold-outs and traditionalists are hard-pressed to disprove the advantages in cost, weight, and resilience afforded by plastic.

Accurate terminology is important to this subject. When speaking of steel or aluminum, the generic names can be acceptably applied. Steel… is as strong as steel. And that’s enough. Or close enough as it makes little difference in idle conversation. Aluminum is understood to be very respectable stuff. Structures made of aluminum spend a lot of time performing extreme duties in exotic environments. However, when speaking of plastics and polymers and composites, one must use more specific designations, as all plastics are not created equal. In fact, the word “plastic” should be avoided, as it is not a correct descriptor designation of a type of material; it only refers to a distinct property of material. “Plastic” is not an adequate label for the superlative high-tech engineered materials used to replace steel and aluminum componentry in the firearms of today.

We should at least become familiar with the nature of a polymer. Poly means many; thereby a polymer is a compound built from many other compounds. Specifically, those compounds are called monomers and as it applies to this discussion, these monomers are formed from common hydrocarbons. Yes indeed, that means volatile gasses and liquids. As an example the basic hydrocarbon ethane can be made to repeat its base molecular structure- many thousands of times to form an enormous chain (speaking to the relative...


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