The Story of the Handgun

By David Tong

It has now been some 40 years since I first haltingly squeezed the trigger (probably more like a jerk) of two of my favorite pistols, a Great War P-08 Luger and a WWII vintage Ithaca M1911A1. Since I have always been interested in history and made the subject one of my courses of study throughout my university days, some recent conversations that Guns and Shooting Online Owner/Managing Editor Chuck Hawks and I had recently made me stop and think, again, about the purpose of the handgun.

From the day I shot those two pistols in the Mojave Desert of California, in an area now sadly closed by the Clinton-era National Monument usurpation, I have carried pistols, reloaded for pistols, shot "practical pistol" competition matches, enjoyed shooting for relaxation on target ranges and endlessly suggest them as fascinating objects to admire and study.

The first handguns were muzzleloading single shots, driving pure lead balls and resembling sawed-off, miniature muskets. Today, there are handguns made for match (target shooting) competitions ranging from local club events to the international Olympics. There are target autoloaders and target revolvers, heavy barreled .38 PPC DA-only revolvers, .45 IPSIC race guns and Olympic rapid fire autoloaders chambered for the .22 Short cartridge. There are specialized and exotic single shot "free" pistols and bench rest pistols, some chambered for cartridges of which most shooters have never even heard.

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, the gestation of the International Metallic Silhouette Association and 200 yard open sighted matches stimulated the sale of .44 Magnums, both revolver and single shot models. Around the same time, the advent of Cowboy Action Shooting and the SASS increased interest in traditional single action revolvers, such as the Colt Single Action Army and Ruger Vaquero. (The latter was introduced specifically for Cowboy action shooting.) These revolvers are usually chambered for traditional calibers, such as .38 Special, .38-40, .44-40 and .45 Colt. In addition, the rise in the popularity of muzzleloading and black powder shooting put black powder revolvers and replica firms, such as Uberti of Italy, on the map.

Casual and informal shooting at tin cans, shotgun shell casings and the like is probably the most popular form of handgun shooting. Most plinkers are chambered for the .22 LR cartridge, although moderate pressure loads (to keep recoil comfortable) in all of the popular centerfire calibers are also widely employed. Plinking is the primary reason for the introduction of inexpensive factory loads, such as Remington/UMC, Winchester/USA (white box) and Federal American Eagle. Both autoloaders and revolvers, particularly service, target and hunting models, serve well for plinking at paper targets, tin cans and targets of opportunity.

The modern era of handgun hunting began with the introduction of the .357 Magnum in 1935. Interest accelerated after the Korean War, especially after the introduction of the .44 Magnum in 1956 and the development of long eye relief telescopic sights in the 1960s. These allowed far more accurate shot placement at extended ranges for humane kills.

Long barreled (typically six inch to 10 inch) Colt, S&W and Ruger SA and DA revolvers, as well as the single shot Thompson Contender break-action pistol, are the most common hunting handguns. Various bolt action handguns, on the order of the discontinued Remington XP100, are also occasionally encountered. Handguns in appropriate calibers, which range from .22 LR to .500 S&W Magnum and include many rifle type cartridges adapted to single shot pistols, are now used for hunting small game, varmints/predators and big game. Authoritative articles about handgun hunting in magazines, books and Guns and Shooting Online have added immeasurably to the popularity of this demanding sport.

Somewhat related to handgun hunting is carrying a handgun in the field for protection against large predators. For more on this subject, see Handguns for Protection in the Field and Thoughts About Handguns in the Field.

Gun collecting is a popular hobby steeped in history and handguns figure prominently, or exclusively, in many gun collections. Not all gun collecting is expensive, but some models, such as historical Colt revolvers, are sought after by many collectors and often command high prices. Information relating to this fascinating hobby can be found on the Collector's Corner index page.

All of these handgun related activities are enjoyable for recreational shooters and the dedicated historian, but we should not forget that the original purpose of the handgun, indeed its raison d'etre, was to allow the bearer to defend himself against bodily injury or death beyond arms reach.

One could lump together the annual sales of all the hunting, competition and historical/replica handguns and the total would pale in comparison to the sales of military, police and civilian service and concealed carry models. These are the handguns built primarily to protect the life and property of the owner and his or her home, family, friends, local community and country.

In order to be easily carried and used for personal defense, most self defense handguns are between five inches and eight inches in length, less than six inches in height, under 1.5 inches in width and have a barrel between three and five inches long. For daily carry, even in a service type gun belt and holster rig of the type used by the uniformed military and police, they should generally weigh less than 40 ounces (empty).

While there are many people who are fond of carrying handguns smaller or larger than the dimensions I have described above, there is a trade off at either end of these extremes. Smaller and lighter guns are easier and more comfortable to carry, but more difficult to shoot accurately. This is a function of (the lack of) sight radius, hand filling grips and adequate weight to moderate recoil. At the other end, larger handguns are generally easier to shoot accurately, but less comfortable to carry; the result is that they are sometimes not at hand when needed.

It is my view that one should carry the largest and least clumsy handgun one is willing to carry, or the smallest and lightest gun that one can control without fumbling under stress. In other words, there is a balance between these competing considerations. I have always favored larger and heavier handguns, because it is said that the best one is going to be able to shoot in a life and death situation is about 50% as well as on the best training day at the range.

When a massive dose of adrenaline is elevating your blood pressure and heart rate, your fine motor skills diminish. This is especially true for those who do not regularly practice under time limits and in simulated defensive conditions.

I have found that small, lightweight pistols and revolvers do not provide me the same relative level of comfort for scoring sure hits when I have a case of the shakes. Having experienced these things in the only way I can, during combat style (practical pistol) matches, that "fight or flight" dynamic is simply not something one feels during slow-fire target work. For some reason, I have always been able to produce good hits on demand more easily with most .380 and subcompact 9mm autoloading pistols than with snub-nose .38 Special revolvers at ranges beyond 20 feet.

While Chuck and I have had some lengthy exchanges about what constitutes a versatile handgun, my own predilection revolves around my suburban existence. I do not live in a rural setting and I seldom, if ever, hunt with a handgun. My practice shooting is almost always conducted at targets no farther than 25 yards away. Thus, a flat shooting magnum revolver with a six inch or longer barrel takes a back seat to something more practical to carry around town and which is designed for short range personal protection. I would define "short range" as from contact distance to about 20 yards or meters (maximum).

Even when backpacking or hiking in the mountains, where I might encounter poisonous snakes, quadruped carnivores or human predators, I prefer to carry concealed. This is out of respect for those who may not share my enthusiasm for handguns. This rules out a six inch, .357 revolver, because it is impractical to carry concealed, especially in hotter weather when covering garments are typically not worn.

To conclude, I am always interested in using a variety of handguns for specific forms of recreation. However, as a student of history, I recognize the original purpose of handguns was for personal protection and a great many ordinary citizens today own and buy handguns for that very purpose. I hope those reading this little missive may be inspired to ponder what type of handgun best fits their needs.

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Copyright 2014, 2016 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.