When you walk into your local gun store, do you ever get the feeling that it is “the same old stuff!” Absent something in the used counter, everything looks the same whether it is the ever-present polymer wonder guns or the plethora of 1911s. It’s just hard to find anything much to get excited about. About the only constant that we came up with was that the S&W J-frame is still the pocket pistol of choice for serious people!
Long before CNC five axis machines and CAD/CAM design, pistols were designed on paper and machined by craftsmen. There were some very innovative pistols. The Detonics Combat Master and the Star PD were the choice of pistoleros who wanted a truly compact pistol in the manly caliber of .45 ACP. For those who wanted a compact 9mm, the choice of professionals tended to be the ASP, a highly modified S&W Model 39, or a cut down Hi Power exquisitely modified by Austin Behlert. And, long before the zombie craze, we believed that Super Vel ammo would stop anything. Sometimes I miss those days.
A New Direction
Traditionally, pocket pistols have been in “mouse calibers” such as .25 ACP, .32 ACP, and .380 ACP. In the mid-seventies, one company set out to break all the rules. The result was Semmerling LM-4, the king of the back-up pistols. he brainchild of Phillip Lichtman, the LM-4 was designed around the .45 ACP cartridge as the ultimate back-up/hide-out pistol. It was a very little gun with a very big bite! The original drawings and design date back to 1974, and the patent was awarded in 1976. Source information is somewhat scarce, but I learned that the pistol was first offered to the U.S. military and other governmental agencies. While there were several different versions, only the LM-4 was sold on the public market. Each pistol was truly handmade and sources state that total production was less than 600 units.
The Semmerling was totally different from anything the gun industry had ever seen. The fact that someone actually produced a palm-sized back-up pistol in .45 ACP was groundbreaking. However, the basic description of a magazine fed, manually operated (yes, you read that right), double-action-only, striker-fired pistol is both an over-simplification and confusing at the same time. The LM-4 was a mere 5.2 inches in length and only 3.7 inches in height. The genius of the design was fully appreciated when the LM-4 was compared to the Walther .380 PPK, which is 6.1 inches in length and 3.8 inches in height. Fully loaded, the LM-4 hit the scales around 24 ounces, which was only slightly heavier than an unloaded PPK. The Semmerling was a fistfull of dynamite that had the potential of being a game changer.
While the design of the LM-4 was very sophisticated, the pistol only had 33 parts. The pistol was made from tool steel and every frame and slide was Magnafluxed twice during the production process. The barrel was a mere 3.5 inches in length. The sights consisted of a fixed rear blade and a patridge-style ramped first sight. Interestingly, the LM-4 was void of sharp edges, something that some manufacturers still don’t get.
The LM-4 held four rounds of .45 ACP ammunition in a highly modified, Colt-style 1911 magazine. The base of the magazine was redesigned to incorporate a flexible tab on each side of the magazine tube. These tabs locked into the magazine well to retain the magazine. The feed lips of the magazine were extensively modified to facilitate the unique reverse feed system. This, in and of itself, was an engineering accomplishment.
How It Works
While the caliber and overall size of the LM-4 was impressive, the manual of arms was revolutionary for the time. The most unique feature of the Semmerling was its manually operated slide combined with a double-action-only firing mechanism. The LM-4 fired from a locked slide/breech position. To chamber the next round, the slide was pushed forward. The spent round was held in place by the extractor as the barrel and slide moved forward. Ejection of the spent brass was accomplished via a ridge on the rear of the slide and the tension of the next round in the magazine. In the process, the next round in the magazine was moved slightly forward releasing it from the rear of the feed lip. When the slide was moved rearward, the next round was stripped from the magazine and loaded into the chamber. Grooves on the top and sides of the slide facilitated this action.
The cycling of the slide could be accomplished by using the thumb of the support hand or, in some cases, a sharp flick of the wrist. The slide did not automatically lock in place when in battery. Instead, the design required the trigger to be pulled rearward approximately ¼ inch to allow a manual locking lever to be engaged. This locked the slide in place and allowed the LM-4 to be carried in a secure manner. To bring the LM-4 into action simply required the trigger to be brought to the rear. Failure to use the manual lock would result in the slide moving forward anytime the barrel was pointed downward. The rear of the striker extended out of the rear of the slide during firing. In keeping with the design, the LM-4 had no safety or other manual controls to operate during the firing sequence.
Shortly after the patent was awarded, Lichtman sold the rights to Bob Saunders, owner of American Derringer Corporation, where the design lay dormant for several years. Bob Saunders died in 1993 and Elizabeth, his wife, took over the company. Elizabeth had a passion for the little LM4 and resurrected production of the LM-4 on a very limited basis. I have always been intrigued by the design of the Semmerling and was excited when I recently received one of these rare pistols for a short evaluation.
I must admit that I was a little cautious during our first range trip. I found that I had nothing to be concerned with. The ergonomics and weight of the LM-4 more than compensated for the .45 ACP cartridge. The user’s manual for the LM-4 states, “ONLY STANDARD MILITARY SPECIFICATION CARTRIDGES MAY BE USED IN THE MODEL LM-4. The weapon is designed for approximately 15,000 PSI chamber pressure. Hot hand loads, or even Super Vel cartridges, can break much larger guns than the LM-4.”
I selected to test the LM-4 with, now out of production, ASYM Precision’s 230 gr. FMJ Practical Match load. The Practical Match averaged a mild 737 fps out of the LM-4. The second load I selected was the soft shooting Winchester 185 gr. Silver Tip. While it is an older design, the Silver Tip bullet has a proven track record and I knew from experience that the Silver Tip was not a hot load. The Winchester load averaged 904 fps out of the LM-4. Both loads were very manageable with much of the recoil being offset by both the weight and the design of the grip.
Following the accepted protocol, the accuracy testing was fired from seven yards. It was here that the little LM-4 really shined. First, unlike some pocket rockets, the front sight on the LM-4 is actually large enough to use. Second, while the trigger pull was long, it was reasonably smooth and consistent. We fired several five-shot groups using both the ASYM and Winchester loads. The LM-4 consistently produced ragged one-hole groups. The best of these groups measured 0.35 inches with the ASYM and 0.49 inches with the Winchester Silver Tip. With some practice, the Semmerling is more than capable of head shots at 15 yards.
The American Derringer LM-4 is a faithful copy of the original pistol, with one exception. The original Lichtman guns were all tool steel instead of the stainless that American Derringer Corp (ADC). uses. According to Elizabeth, the LM-4 is so labor intensive that only a small number are produced each year. In almost all cases, the pistols are sold before they are completed. ADC has one employee who builds each Semmerling. Each LM-4 takes between six and eight weeks to complete and represents a true labor of love. Elizabeth said that all of the Semmerling stocks are made from a 200-year old Mesquite tree that was taken from her ranch.
To truly appreciate the Semmerling, the pistol must be examined from the context of 1976. Not only was there nothing like it in the market at the time, but it remains the smallest .45 ACP pistol ever commercially produced. Form truly follows function and the LM-4 fulfilled the requirements originally set forth by Lichtman in 1974. However, the market of the day never fully understood or appreciated the LM-4. Now, some forty years later, it remains as much of an enigma as in 1976. However, the LM-4 may be just as viable in 2017 as it was when it was introduced. Elizabeth tells me that many of her LM-4 customers carry the pistol on a daily basis for personal defense. This is a tribute to both the original design and American Derringer’s commitment to a true piece of firearm history.
For more information, visit http://www.amderringer.com/lms.html.
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