Probing The Inaccuracies: Modern Infantry Combat, Part 1

Editor’s Note: This is a somewhat-updated version of one of the sections of Probing The Inaccuracies: Modern Infantry Combat. I intend to rewrite certain sections of this over the coming months.

The Desert Eagle: Oversized, Overpowered, Overweight, Inexplicably Popular: The Desert Eagle, a weapon designed by Magnum Research in the United States and produced by Israel Weapon Industries (formerly Israel Military Industries), is a large-calibre pistol using a gas-operated mechanism, more commonly found in rifles. This mechanism allows the pistol to fire Magnum rounds, more powerful than the normal calibres found in police or military pistols, and gives the pistol a great potential stopping power. The power of this pistol has made it very popular in the media, but the popularity is mostly undeserved – the ability to fire the large-calibre rounds has led to a significant number of flaws with the gun, ones which would render it worthless in the hands of the military.

The first thing you’ll notice about the gun is its size, a result of its gas-operated mechanism. By using a mechanism more at home in a rifle, the Desert Eagle is rendered much larger than is logical for a military pistol, and with this size comes weight. At almost two kilograms, the Desert Eagle compares very badly with other military pistols, weighing twice the weight of most currently-issued military firearms, and about 600 grams heavier than the Colt M1911.

This weight starts to look somewhat more reasonable when compared to other firearms firing .50 calibre rounds, such as the Smith & Wesson Model 500, firing the .500 S&W Magnum round. However, there are still several caveats when comparing these guns – the .500 S&W Magnum round hasn’t been adopted by the military either, and is considered useful only for a backup weapon when hunting, used for taking down bears, rather than humans. One must also consider that the weight of the Desert Eagle doesn’t decrease significantly when firing more reasonably-sized cartridges, such as the .357 Magnum, or the .44 Magnum, and the weight does not compare at all favourably with other pistols firing these rounds.

Even if the weight issue isn’t supposed to be important, one must consider the heavy recoil of the .50 Action Express, and to a lesser extent, the .44 Magnum and .357 Magnum rounds. Heavy training is required to fire a pistol effectively even with smaller 9mm rounds, and the heavier recoil of the Magnum rounds only increases that difficulty. Considering that all of that time spent trying to compensate for the heavy recoil of a pistol firing Magnum rounds could be used training on a weapon more useful on the battlefield, it seems unreasonable to give a soldier a sidearm with a calibre much larger than .45 ACP, which has moderately high recoil by itself.

Recoil apparently creates other problems in the Desert Eagle design. The Desert Eagle is reportedly not particularly tolerant of limp-wristing, a tendency to hold the gun limply in anticipation of the recoil of the gun. Without a proper, firm grip, the action fails to cycle correctly, jamming the gun and causing it to be even more of an overweight lump of metal than it already is even when it’s firing properly. All in all, not a particularly great trait to have in a sidearm that’s supposed to be dependable.

Even getting past the disadvantages of weight and recoil, the Desert Eagle still has a significant disadvantage which renders it a sub-par choice for military use. The magazine capacity of the gun, despite its size, is woefully small, with magazines of only nine rounds for the .357 Magnum, and seven rounds for the .44 Magnum and .50 Action Express variants. Compared to the 13-round magazine capacity of the 9mm Browning High Power, and the 17-round capacity of the more modern 9mm Glock 17, it seems ridiculously small, and even though it compares favourably with the Colt M1911, one must remember that the M1911 was developed about seventy years before the Desert Eagle, and is a more reasonable military pistol to boot.

The Desert Eagle doesn’t just look unreasonable compared to proper military pistols, but also a poor choice when compared to a sub-machine gun. While the Desert Eagle is lighter than almost all current military sub-machine guns and fires larger rounds than all of them, one must take in mind that a sub-machine gun requires less training to be effective with it, is more accurate with that lesser amount of training, and, with automatic fire, can get more lead to the target more quickly than the pistol.

Despite all of these disadvantages, some computer games and movies put these ineffective weapons into the hands of people meant to represent trained military personnel, who would probably be the last ones to want that paperweight hanging at their side. I point to Counter-Strike, where the Desert Eagle is a popular choice among the people who don’t realise what foolishness it would actually be to use such a weapon in a proper hostage situation.

Representing the single-wielded Desert Eagle in that way in a computer game or movie is bad enough, but somehow, there are people who just have to make it worse. Enter the dual-wielded Desert Eagle. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 made the illogical decision to allow people to do this. Again, you’re playing badass military types in the game, and yet it still doesn’t make a lick of sense for them to be using a gun usually chambered in an expensive proprietary round of ammunition, or to be dual-wielding pistols when they have far more effective rifles and sub-machine guns at their disposal. Of course, this isn’t the most irritating feature of the game, which would be the dual-wielded shotguns (N.B. When Arnold Schwarzenegger single-handedly wielded a Winchester Model 1901 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he was firing blanks), but it still blunts the credibility of a game at least purporting to have some elements of gritty realism.

Unicomp Customizer UB434H6 – A Technological Review

IBM’s role in the initial development of the personal computer is difficult to overstate. The IBM PC 5150 was not the first personal computer, nor was it the quickest, flashiest and certainly not the cheapest, and yet, it legitimised the desktop form factor by bringing a reputation cultivated from their room-filling System/360 and System/370 mainframes. Today, the vast majority of personal computers are backwards-compatible with the original IBM PC specification.

While the IBM PC was very expensive compared to its specifications, there was one place where the extra expense was justified. The original IBM PC and PC/XT were designed with a high-quality keyboard incorporating buckling-spring keyswitches, but were burdened with an awkward and messy layout which was soon replaced by the 84-key Model F. In 1986, though, IBM introduced the 101-key “enhanced” keyboard layout with the introduction of the IBM Model M – a keyboard commonly regarded as the finest keyboard ever made.

Like the PC/XT and Model F keyboards that preceded it, the IBM Model M used individual buckling-spring keyswitches, which were composed of mechanical hammers which connected to springs contained within the key mechanism which buckled under pressure, activating the switches. These keyswitches were expensive, but they had their advantages. Unlike the membrane keyswitches used by the vast majority of modern keyboards, buckling-spring keys have a distinct tactile feel and loud click whenever the keys are depressed, granting a superior typing feel. These switches are also mechanically far more reliable than membrane keyboards – some Model M keyboards have lasted for twenty years with barely a change in key feel.

The Model M had other attributes which made it more than just another keyboard. It was composed of a heavy, strong plastic case and incorporated a curved steel back-plate which helped preserve the alignment of the keys. The keys were double-shot injection molded, which meant that they could never fade. Most IBM-designed models incorporated detachable cables. All of these attributes have earned the IBM Model M the reputation of the One True Keyboard.

While the original Model M is no longer available from IBM, having sold off its keyboard manufacturing division to Lexmark in 1991, a product is still available today based on the Model M patent. In 1996, a Kentucky-based company called Unicomp bought out Lexmark’s keyboard manufacturing division, which gave them ownership of the Model M design. Today, they sell the keyboard under the name of Customizer, and offer it in two colours, white and black with grey keys, and with either a PS/2 or USB connector.

The Unicomp Customizer: Heir to the One True Keyboard.

The first thing you’ll notice about this keyboard when you compare it to other modern keyboards is that it’s imposing. The Model M case design is retained, complete with the reassuringly heavy-grade plastic. The Customizer is larger on pretty much all dimensions than a mass-market keyboard from any of the major manufacturers. It’s correspondingly heavy as well; the curved steel backplate is also retained, although internet testing indicates that it’s slightly thinner than the original backplate from the IBM-made Model M keyboards.

The Customizer is also not a particularly flashy keyboard. It doesn’t incorporate shiny plastics or LED-backlit keys, instead retaining a sort of industrial presentation. There are a few aesthetic touches which seem to take away very slightly from the overall presentation – all of the keys appear to retain a small tag on the back from the injection moulding process.

That said, this isn’t a major part of the Customizer’s appeal. The Customizer retains many of the elements which gave the Model M its reputation, including the most important components – the delightfully clicky buckling-spring keyswitches. Coming from a lifetime of using mass-market membrane-based keyboards, the difference between those keyboards and the Customizer is obvious. The design of the buckling-spring keyswitches gives you instant tactile and audible feedback whenever you’ve successfully pressed a key. To those who spend a lot of time typing, this feature can be indispensable, guaranteeing that you’ll know when every key has been pressed successfully.

When I mention audible feedback, I refer to the clicking of the mechanical hammers underneath the springs. This keyboard is loud. This is one of the major features which attracted me to the keyboard – the individual clicks provide absolute confirmation as to when a key has been pressed. However, it’s not a feature which will appeal to everybody. When IBM PCs were in vogue in offices, schools and libraries, the constant clicking of buckling-spring keys was a major annoyance to many, who treasured peace and quiet over absolute tactile feel. As this comes as a part and parcel of the buckling-spring layout, it’s worth considering whether you consider this as a feature or a flaw.

Everything about the Unicomp Customizer feels like it’s been designed to last. While the keyboard no longer retains the detachable key-caps or cables of the IBM-designed Model M, everything else is designed for longevity. The aforementioned case and backplate add mass and strength to the keyboard, while the buckling-springs are expected to last at least 25 million keystrokes – enough to last even a serious typist several years more than a mass-market keyboard. The keycap labels are designed with a technology known as dye sublimation, where the ink is allowed to seep into the plastic, providing a thick layer of ink which renders the keys resistant to fading.

To all intents and purposes, the Unicomp Customizer is a worthy successor to the One True Keyboard. However, it does come with some caveats, most of them in fact derived from the fact that it’s based on the Model M patent. This is certainly not the cheapest keyboard on the market at $70 for the basic Customizer and more for some of the specialist models, but considering its heritage and the reputation for reliability, it will last longer than the other $70 keyboards on the market.

The weight and the size of the keyboard lend a sort of authoritative strength to it, and yet, it’s rather more difficult to move around than a standard keyboard, being about two-and-a-half kilograms. The most important caveat concerns the sound of the keys. Those who intend to use it in an environment with other people can expect to get some criticism from the sound of the keys, and while it offers a useful and distinctive indicator of key feedback, it won’t be favoured by all people. However, if you can get past these issues, the Customizer retains many of the qualities which have maintained the Model M’s reputation, even with the obsolescence of the computer it was once attached to.

Bottom Line: This heavyweight keyboard proves a fine successor to the exceptional IBM Model M. For serious typists, this could prove to be one of the best computer investments you’ve ever made.