The next time the conversation in your hunting camp begins to lag, here's a surefire way to get things heated up in a hurry. All you have to do is ask this simple question: "If you could have only one gun, what would it be?" I assure you that things will get about as exciting as if you'd thrown a hungry fox into the neighbor's chicken house.
If the Sheriff were limited to just one gun, his choice would be a medium-frame, 4-inch-barreled, .357 Magnum double-action revolver such as the S&W Model 619 or Model 620.
This question does come up occasionally. In fact, the editor of this fine magazine challenged me with it just recently. Of course, my first thought was that I don't even want to think about living in a world that would limit me to just one gun, whatever that fine piece of ordnance might be. But after calming down a bit, I have to admit the question of one gun does force me to reevaluate my guns and what I do with them.
I'm sure a lot of shooters would answer the one-gun question by selecting some sort of rifle. And I can imagine that the .22 rimfire would be in for its share of support. Others, who hunt mostly upland birds and deer (especially in the eastern U.S.), might opt for a good shotgun. There's nothing wrong with either of those answers. But you'll just have to forgive me if my choice is a handgun of some sort.
I'm no longer involved in competition shooting or law enforcement duties, so my handgunning needs center around plinking, personal protection, and handgun hunting. The often-overlooked sport of plinking is a very democratic endeavor and can be enjoyed with just about any gun that happens to suit one's fancy. The defensive handgun, however, needs to be of substantial caliber yet easily concealable. And the hunting handgun is all about the combination of power and accuracy.
While I appreciate the opportunity that I have to shoot and examine most of the handguns that are available today, my personal handgun needs are really solved with one of three guns.
For quite a number of years my law-enforcement and personal-protection needs have been resolved with some form of .45 ACP Model 1911 pistol. I have carried a number of Colt Government Models and Commanders, and I certainly do appreciate the quality 1911s that are produced by the likes of Les Baer, Ed Brown, Springfield Armory, Kimber, Smith & Wesson, and Para-Ordnance. They are all well-made pistols that have proven to be accurate and reliable. There's no doubt that they are great defensive handguns--and current sales figures definitely back up that statement. Unfortunately, I have never been pleased with the 1911 as a hunting handgun. The cartridge lacks the power needed for anything but close shots on deer-size game. And since the 1911 is an autoloader the cartridges fired in it can't be handloaded down for use on smaller game because the lighter loads simply won't cycle the action reliably. So in my search for an answer, I'm going to set the trusty 1911 aside.
The second of my favored handguns is a .44 Magnum Ruger Flattop. Mine is one of the Old Model guns with the barrel shortened to 45/8 inches, the action slicked up, and refinished with the Armaloy finish. It is a powerful and accurate old friend that I have packed many a mile in hunting camps and on horseback. It has accounted for its share of game animals and has occasionally been used to bring some social misfit to justice. Like my 1911s, the .44 is a beloved member of my shooting battery.
But for all its power and accuracy, the big Ruger leaves a little to be desired as a defensive handgun. Because of its size and weight, it is not the easiest handgun to conceal. The biggest problem with the revolver is that, like all single actions, it is a bit slow to reload. One is inclined to hope that when packing a single action the bad guys will choose to run in small packs that day.
The third handgun of my three favorites is also a revolver. In fact, it is the classic .357 Magnum medium-frame, double-action Smith & Wesson Model 19. I've owned and fired Model 19s and Model 66s (the 19's stainless-steel cousin) in all available barrel lengths. The 21/2- and 3-inch barrels are great for concealed carry while the 6-inch barrel is tops for hunting. And when you split the difference, the 4-inch barrel length seems to be just about right for all manner of shooting tasks. If I were put to the test, this is the one gun I would select: The 4-inch-barreled S&W Model 19.
The .357 Magnum cartridge has a glowing reputation. Research on defensive shootings has shown that the 125-grain JHP load deserves high marks. But there are numerous good defensive loads among the vast amount of +P .38 Special and .357 Magnum cartridges loaded today. In fact, the vast selection of .38 Special and .357 Magnum ammo is one of the reasons I've chosen this type of handgun. You'll be able to find a load that fits the chambers of the S&W Model 19 in just about any place you go that sells ammunition.
Medium-frame Model 19 Magnums are also very accurate. The adjustable sights are sturdy and reliable. And the Model 19 will give some very small groups at normal handgunning distances--especially after the action has been tuned up. Besides having the action tuned by a gunsmith, I would also have the forcing cone relieved in anticipation of increasing the accuracy for the number of cast-bullet handloads I will be shooting.
The 4-inch Model 19/66 is relatively easy to carry concealed once some thought is given to the project. A small set of grips will reduce the gun's outline beneath covering clothing, and a good in-the-pants holster will snug the gun into the body.
Shooting .38 Special ammo or reduced-power handloads, the .357 Magnum revolver is a great choice for plinking and small-game hunting. In addition, a fellow can reduce his expense by handloading, and being a revolver, this gun doesn't throw its fired brass all over the countryside like an autoloader can be expected to do.
Unfortunately, as you well know, Smith & Wesson no longer manufactures the Model 19 and Model 66. The good news is that Smith & Wesson has offered two models that are set to continue the tradition of these fine sixguns. I'm talking about the new S&W Model 619 (fixed sights) and the Model 620 (adjustable sights). These two seven-shot .357s are built on the slightly larger L-Frame design, but neither has the full-length underlug that was characteristic of the early L-Frames. The Model 620 has the half-lug that makes it look an awful lot like the old Model 66.
So there's my thinking on the topic of if I could have only one gun. I could be quite happy with a medium-frame .357 Magnum double-action revolver. I have several Model 19s around the house, but I'll be ordering a Model 620. I could make do with that choice, and I suspect that most of you could, too.
All this thinking of being limited to just one gun has given me a bit of a headache. With your permission, I think I'll repair to the shade of a mesquite tree and nurse my mental pain with a cool libation. While I'm doing that, drop me a line and share your thoughts on the gun you'd pick if you could only have one. I'd like to read your ideas.