The phrase "Saturday night special" is a colloquial term used in the United States and Canada to describe inexpensive, compact, small-caliber handguns of perceived low quality. However, there is no official definition of "Saturday night special" under US or Canadian federal law. Some states define "Saturday night specials" or junk guns by means of composition or materials strength. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, they were commonly referred to as suicide specials.
The term "Saturday night special" is an informal term that describes an inexpensive gun of perceived lesser quality (typically due to poor workmanship or use of inexpensive metals such as zamac) or, for reasons relating to gun politics. Although the term is used to imply that the only reason for the manufacture of such a gun is for use in crime, studies show that criminals prefer high-quality guns, in the largest caliber they can easily conceal.
Legal definition of a "junk gun" usually specifies the materials that are used in the manufacture of the gun, targeting zinc castings, low melting points (usually 800 degrees Fahrenheit/427 °C), powder metallurgy, and other low-cost manufacturing techniques. Nearly all guns made this way are chambered for low-pressure cartridges, such as .22 Long Rifle, .25 ACP, and .32 ACP, which allows these techniques to provide sufficient strength and desirable weight while still keeping a low cost. The low-strength materials and cheap construction result in poor durability and marginal accuracy at longer ranges, but as most of these guns are designed for use in self-defense, accuracy and durability are not primary design goals.
Origin of the term
The earliest known use of the term "Saturday night special" in print is in the August 17, 1968 issue of The New York Times. In a front-page article titled Handgun Imports Held Up by U.S, author Fred Graham wrote, "... cheap, small-caliber 'Saturday night specials' that are a favorite of holdup men..."
The term "Saturday night special" came into wider use with the passing of the Gun Control Act of 1968 because the act banned the importation and manufacture of many inexpensive firearms, including a large number of revolvers made by Röhm Gesellschaft. With importation banned, Röhm opened a factory in Miami, Florida, and a number of companies in the United States began production of inexpensive handguns, including Raven Arms, Jennings Firearms (later Bryco Arms, now Jimenez Arms), Phoenix Arms, Lorcin Engineering Company, Davis Industries, Arcadia Machine & Tool, and Sundance Industries, which collectively came to be known as the "Ring of Fire companies".
Gun ownership advocates describe the term as racist in origin arguing that many of the guns banned were typically purchased and owned by low-income black people. In his book Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out, gun rights advocate Don Kates found racial overtones in the focus on the Saturday night special.
Safety of operation
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Despite the low-cost manufacture of "Saturday night specials", firearms sold in most countries are required to pass certain safety tests, particularly a proof test consisting of firing a special high pressure round (proof load) which far exceeds the European C.I.P. or U.S. SAAMI pressure maximum for the round (see internal ballistics).
Criminal use statistics
While Saturday night specials are commonly perceived as inexpensive, and therefore disposable after the commission of a crime, criminal behavior does not always conform to this expectation. A 1985 study of 1,800 incarcerated felons showed that criminals at the time preferred revolvers and other non-semi-automatic firearms over semi-automatic firearms. A change in preferences towards semi-automatic pistols occurred in the early 1990s, coinciding with the arrival of crack cocaine and rise of violent youth gangs.
Nonetheless, three of the top ten types of guns involved in crime (as represented by police trace requests) in the US are widely considered to be Saturday night specials; as reported by the ATF in 1993, these included the Raven Arms .25 caliber, Davis P-380 .380 caliber, and Lorcin L 380 .380 caliber. However, the same study showed the most common firearm used in homicides was a large caliber revolver, and no revolvers of any kind appear on the top ten list of traced firearms.
In 2003, the NAACP filed suit against 45 gun manufacturers for creating what it called a "public nuisance" through the "negligent marketing" of handguns, which included models commonly described as Saturday night specials. The suit alleged that handgun manufacturers and distributors were guilty of marketing guns in a way that encouraged violence in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The suit was dismissed by US District Judge Jack B. Weinstein, who ruled that members of the NAACP were not "uniquely harmed" by illegal use of firearms and therefore had no standing to sue.
Proponents of gun ownership argue the elimination of inexpensive firearms limits constitutionally protected gun rights for those of lesser means. Roy Innis, former President of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and a member of the National Rifle Association's governing board, said "to make inexpensive guns impossible to get is to say that you're putting a money test on getting a gun. It's racism in its worst form." CORE filed as an amicus curiae in a 1985 suit challenging Maryland's Saturday night special/low-caliber handgun ban.
Peter Rossi and James D. Wright authored a study for the National Institute of Justice which suggested the ban on Saturday night specials was ineffective or counterproductive. A Cato Institute Policy analysis by Dave Kopel went further: "The people most likely to be deterred from acquiring a handgun by exceptionally high prices or by the nonavailability of certain kinds of handguns are not felons intent on arming themselves for criminal purposes, who are more likely to use stolen weapons, but rather poor people who have decided they need a gun to protect themselves against the felons but who find that the cheapest gun in the market costs more than they can afford to pay."
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The earliest law prohibiting inexpensive handguns was enacted in Tennessee, in the form of the "Army and Navy Law", passed in 1879, shortly after the 14th amendment and Civil Rights Act of 1875; previous laws invalidated by the constitutional amendment had stated that black freedmen could not own or carry any manner of firearm. The Army and Navy Law prohibited the sale of "belt or pocket pistols, or revolvers, or any other kind of pistols, except army or navy pistols", which were prohibitively expensive for black freedmen and poor whites to purchase. These were large pistols in .36 caliber ("navy") or .44 caliber ("army"), and were the military issue cap and ball black-powder revolvers used during the Civil War by both Union and Confederate ground troops. The effect of the law was to restrict handgun possession to the upper economic classes.
The next major attempt to regulate inexpensive firearms was the Gun Control Act of 1968, which used the "sporting purposes" test and a points system to exclude many small, inexpensive handguns which had been imported from European makers such as Röhm. The act also had the effect of banning the import of high quality pocket pistols such as the Browning 1910 and the Walther PPK, which were very popular among police officers as backup guns, since police use was not a "sporting purpose" and the backup guns failed the points system on basis of size.
Most manufacturers in the US were not directly impacted by the Gun Control Act, as they were not subject to the import restrictions, and for the most part they did not manufacture compact, inexpensive handguns that competed with the banned imports. However, demand for quality compact handguns or police service pistols beyond the capacity of domestic manufacture led either to domestic manufacture of guns banned from import (Interarms began making the Walther PPK) or to establishment of US factories by foreign makers such as Beretta.
The demand for inexpensive handguns still existed and a number of new companies were formed to fill that gap. In an effort to cut costs, many of these guns were made with cast zinc alloy components, rather than the more typical machined or cast steel. As a result, legislation against "junk guns" subsequently targeted the zinc frames used in construction by specifying a melting point. This backfired when police departments began adopting polymer framed guns such as the Glock, which are made by every major firearms manufacturer (with the exception of Colt), which will burn at temperatures much lower than the commonly specified 800 °F. Legislators then changed the definitions to target size (barrel lengths under 3 inches), materials (such as zinc), or low-cost manufacturing techniques (e.g., density requirements that specifically ban inexpensive powder cast metals), Some of these legal restrictions are based on product liability law; a gun should not discharge when dropped. Others, such as requiring loaded chamber indicators, are controversial.
As a result of these laws, the original Glock models imported from Austria, and later adopted by many US police departments, had to be equipped with fragile adjustable sights to gain enough points to be imported as "target pistols"; these were replaced by Glock in the US with the original rugged fixed sight, thus creating the original unimportable configuration desired for police service use. All compact models have "target grips" in the form of finger grooves molded into the plastic, and, until it was produced domestically, Glock's model G42 .380 ACP model was not available for import to the US due to its inability to make the required number of points for import. The other two Glocks model in .380 the G25 and the G28 still only available to law enforcement 
Law enforcement is also specifically exempted from these bans and regulations.
In Canada, the 1995 Firearms Act (known as Bill C-68 before passage) classified handguns with a calibre of .25 or .32, or having a barrel length of 105 mm or shorter, as "prohibited" weapons. This provision appears to have been specifically aimed at "Saturday night specials". Exceptions are made for target pistols in these calibres used in international shooting competitions.
- NRA definition of SNS
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