“It’s a handgun, not a handsgun”

Daily Note: My father, who served in the Marines and grew up handling guns all his life, taught me when I was young in regard to the “modern technique” (two handed weaver or isosceles gun stance): “it’s a handgun, not a handsgun. Learn to shoot with one hand….and you can do all the better with two if you need to.” I’ve founding this advise to be true.

I’m sure quite a few Law Enforcement and gun range enthusiasts are amused reading this and while everyone is entitled to their opinion and two handed feels instinctively easier, I’m sure they wouldn’t laugh at the likes of Ed McGivern, Jelly Bryce, Elmer Keith, Rex Applegate and Bill Jordan who were all notable pre 1970s one handed shooters at short ranges.

The 1911A1 .45 (old fashion)

I almost feel like I don’t even need to write an article on the 1911 because it has more than managed to keep it’s proper place as a contemporary handgun. The 1911 (whether Springfield Armory, Kimber, the original Colt, or some other manufacturer) is right up there with Glock and Sig Sauer handguns.

It and it’s famous .45 ACP cartridge was developed in the early 20th century as a response to the U.S. Military’s demand for a more powerful service weapon (in contrast to the .38 Long Colt revolvers issued at the time) as well as a semi automatic weapon that could be loaded from a magazine. This stemmed from U.S. Marines fighting drugged up Moros in the Phillippines.

There is a reason the 1911 has been around for over 100 years. It was on the belt of men from the trenches of Europe to the beaches of Europe, the Islands of the Pacific and southeast Asia and, if given their choice, is still on the hips of U.S. servicemen in the middle east. While I understand many police departments are uneasy about the 1911 due to it’s single action design, i’ve seen more than a few on the belts of Texas lawmen.

Most of us already know this, but what I really want to highlight here is this: Most people think that in order to have a 1911 you have to go out and spend a minimum of $1000 for a pistol that has all the bells and whistles and is perfect. The answer is: you don’t.

A plain jane fundamental G.I. model will serve just fine for average needs and does not cost an arm and a leg. (under $500) It doesn’t have to be stainless, it doesn’t have to have a guide rod, it doesn’t have to have a laser pointer, it doesn’t have to have adjustable rear sights and it doesn’t have to be a Colt or Kimber (which can be $1000+). I’m not badmouthing the Colt or Kimber and they are great guns (I’d love to have a Colt Series 70 blued). But a Rock Island or Springfield Armory built G.I. or Mil-Spec model will do what you need it to do as a self defense handgun goes. I’ve even seen used Colt 1911s for as low as $700. My own 1911 is a Springfield Armory G.I. model and it is a fine weapon that I often carry outdoors or concealed.

Firing 1911A1 at indoor gun range with M1 Carbine
Firing 1911A1 at indoor gun range with M1 Carbine

Also of the 1911, it does not have to be a compact model either. Chic Gaylord, in his book Handgunners Guide 1960, correctly describes the .45 Automatic as “An extremely rugged destructive and compact defense weapon for those who prefer automatics.” He’s still right even in 2016

Many people pick up the 1911 and say “gee that’s heavy.” Yes it is. But when you put it on your belt or slip it in the small of your back you won’t even notice it.

This is a WW2 era gun that I cleaned up and restored.  Though there was a bit of pitting in the barrel, as you can see, the bullets didn't seem to notice.   Also, as you can see, this old war horse is still kicking.   (a word of caution, I would stick to standard pressure ammunition, non +P, in these older guns.)
This is a WW2 era gun that I cleaned up and restored. Though there was a bit of pitting in the barrel, as you can see, the bullets didn’t seem to notice. Also, as you can see, this old war horse is still kicking. (a word of caution, I would stick to standard pressure ammunition, non +P, in these older guns.)

The Magnum

I remember as a boy people used to identify particular guns as “a magnum”. Not .357 not .44, just “a magnum.” You hear that in movies sometimes. It’s a word that drives home a particular point: this gun is a lot more powerful than any other.

My first exposure to the term was a toy cap gun as a kid that was modeled after what I now know to be Colt’s Python .357 Magnum. It was different from other cap guns because it was called “Magnum.” I ran up and showed it to my dad as he was getting out of his car from work one day. “That’s a magnum!” he says. Just looked vicious with it’s vented rib and full underlug along the underside of the barrel. 😉

But anyway, today when people (police and citizen) want “more firepower” they want more rounds crammed into their gun. 30 years ago, however, when somebody wanted “more firepower” they focused on the power behind the rounds they placed. To this end, if the .38 Special wasn’t enough, then the cop or citizen upgraded to “a magnum.” Typically it was a .357 Magnum. Originally designed in 1935 as a more powerful alternative to the .38 Special. Interestingly, the .357 Magnum found heavier following at the time among big game hunters than it did policemen due to the size and weight of the Smith & Wesson N-Frame revolver that was built to handle it, not to mention that it was an extremely expensive handgun for the time. General George S. Patton carried one opposite his Colt Single Action Army .45 during World War II.

After World War II in the 1950s Colt and Smith & Wesson refocused their energies on creating a magnum market among civilians and policemen. For starters, Smith & Wesson developed a budget N-Frame .357 Magnum that was more appealing in price to law enforcement. Hence it’s title The Smith & Wesson Highway Patrolman Model 28. This allowed the “magnum” to make a real breakthrough in law enforcement. Until the time that semi-automatics took over in the 1990s, it was the issue weapon of the Texas Department of Public Safety (Texas State Troopers).

Smith & Wesson Highway Patrolman Model 28 .357 Magnum.  Large N-Frame revolver with a 6 inch barrel.
Smith & Wesson Highway Patrolman Model 28 .357 Magnum. Large N-Frame revolver with a 6 inch barrel.

A large gun, but for the power it generates with each BANG, you find yourself appreciating that weight on your belt every time you pull the trigger. Makes a good field gun when your on the tractor or in the woods.

Smith & Wesson Highway Patrolman .357 Magnum in a Jordan thumb break holster.  Good rugged outdoor gun
Smith & Wesson Highway Patrolman .357 Magnum in a Jordan thumb break holster. Good rugged outdoor gun

Notice how the Smith & Wesson Highway Patrolman  (top center) dwarfs many of the other guns, including the Smith & Wesson K-frame .38 Special Model 15 service revolver (bottom center).  Particularly the larger cylinder on the N-Frame
Notice how the Smith & Wesson Highway Patrolman (top center) dwarfs many of the other guns, including the Smith & Wesson K-frame .38 Special Model 15 service revolver (bottom center). Particularly the larger cylinder on the N-Frame

Smith & Wesson, realizing the large size of the N-frame was not desired by all, developed another .357 Magnum on their .38 Special K-frame design which is what their Models 10 (Military & Police) and 15 (Combat Masterpiece) were based on. Originally called The Combat Magnum and later designated the Model 19, this .357 Magnum K frame was a favored weapon of Law Enforcement and civilians all over including famous U.S. Border Patrolman and crack shot Bill Jordan. A stainless steel version was later developed called the Model 66.

Colt also developed a smaller frame Colt .357 Magnum built on the same frame as their .38 Special Colt Official Police which became the Colt Trooper and Colt Trooper MK III and V (aka “The Poor man’s Python”) which is what the famous Colt Python was developed from. Now THIS is a fine weapon. Many people consider it merely a museum piece today because it’s value has greatly increased since it was discontinued by Colt years ago. I disagree with this. To me, a gun is a gun. It’s a weapon. It’s not meant to be a safe sitter. This doesn’t mean I’m going to run out and buy a $3000 Python with all the bluing on it from it’s original box. However, as odd as this sounds, the worse shape the gun is in, the better price you can get. “Huh?” Meaning, a gun can have holster wear on the finish, have a tad of surface rust points on the outer frame, have worn out wooden grips and still be a fine weapon that you can get an excellent price on. I have a Python that has holster wear on the barrel and had a tad of surface rust on the underlug (barely noticeable). I bought it for $725 eight years ago. It can be done. 🙂

Colt Python with the cylinder full
Colt Python with the cylinder full

Colt Python with cylinder open
Colt Python with cylinder open

Many of these guns can be found in gun shows and independent sporting goods stores today. They are fine weapons and can be found at reasonable prices.

Colt Python .357 Magnum (bottom) built on the same frame as the Colt Official Police .38 Special.   The magnum gun is noticeably bulkier with heavier barrel, full underlug, vented rib, adjustable rear sights and target grips compared to the simpler .38 Special service revolver.   The Colt Trooper .357 Magnum looks more like the Official Police with a heavier barrel, adjustable rear sights and usually with target grips.   All the extra weight and bulk is appreciated when the gun fires powerful magnum loads.
Colt Python .357 Magnum (bottom) built on the same frame as the Colt Official Police .38 Special (top). The magnum gun is noticeably bulkier with heavier barrel, full underlug, vented rib, adjustable rear sights and target grips compared to the simpler .38 Special service revolver. The Colt Trooper .357 Magnum looks more like the Official Police with a heavier barrel, adjustable rear sights and usually with target grips. All the extra weight and bulk is appreciated when the gun fires powerful magnum loads.

I guess no article on “The Magnum” would be complete without a mention of Hollywood’s famous Dirty Harry .44 Magnum. This gun was actually built on the same frame as the .357 Magnum N-Frame in 1955. It overshot the .357 Magnum as the “most powerful handgun in the world” at the time. By the time “Dirty Harry” was released in 1971, in spite of Harry’s commentary to the contrary, the .44 Magnum was overshot by the .454 Casull.

But anyway, I have never had the pleasure of owning or even shooting the famous S&W Model 29. But I have had the pleasure of shooting a .44 Magnum in a single action Ruger New Model Super Blackhawk. And, from that, I can tell you that it is quite an impressive projectile of energy you are blasting downrange.

As a bonus, for those of you who don’t like practicing with wrist wrecking magnum loads, both the .357 Magnum handguns will accept .38 Special and the .44 Magnum will accept .44 Special. For my tastes, however: It’s a MAGNUM, use it the way it was intended. 😉

So rather than buying a tight triggered Taurus or modern Smith & Wesson, go to a gunshow or ask your local independent dealer if they can find you one of these guns with crisp smooth easy triggers. They are just as good, if not better, than any modern made factory gun out there.

These Colts and Smith & Wesson Magnums served policemen and outdoorsmen faithfully for decades and are still good today. So keep a sharp eye out at your local sporting goods stores and gun shows for these fine weapons. Even if they are more expensive than, say, a .38 Special handgun you will get what you pay for and more when the trigger is pulled.