January 03, 2011
By Bart Skelton
There have been a lot of significant innovations in handguns since Shooting Times was born in 1960. Here are a few models that particularly deserve mention.
By Bart Skelton
In celebrating the transition of Shooting Times into its second half-century, we felt it might be a nice to muse on a few of the handguns that have made a significant impact on handgunning in the past half-century. I generally enjoy compiling lists of such things, though I know by doing so in this case offense will be taken by some handgunners. There are clearly many great choices, but I'm unfortunately limited in space, so I've put together a smattering of handguns I feel have been influential. The guns on the list aren't necessarily my personal favorite handguns, but they are significant guns that need to be recognized.
Smith & Wesson Model 59
I've long been a fan of Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistols, and the Model 59 is no exception. The 59 was basically an upgrade from the Model 39 9mm pistol, which had been introduced by S&W to the civilian market in 1955 after being developed for the Army service pistol trials--which, by the way, never materialized. The Model 39 was the first double-action autoloading pistol made in the United States. The Navy SEALS put the 39s to good use; however, they wanted a pistol with a higher magazine capacity. In the early 1960s, Smith & Wesson developed a new version of the 39 that had been modified to accept the FN Browning HP35 13-round magazine. SEAL teams tried out the new pistol, later dubbed the Model 59, though they didn't permanently adopt it for field use. In 1970 S&W introduced the Model 59 to the civilian market, and it thrived there.
The Model 59 was the first high-capacity double-action auto pistol to be manufactured in the U.S. and is the grandfather of many of today's premier high-capacity double-action autoloaders.
In the late 1970s, Thomas Dornaus and Michael Dixon set out to develop a firearm that they hoped would replace the 1911 as the ultimate combat pistol. They enlisted the assistance of Colonel Jeff Cooper. Cooper's practical experience was combined with Dornaus's and Dixon's engineering and manufacturing expertise. The result was the Bren Ten--a pistol with a high magazine capacity that was chambered for a cartridge of superior performance. This fascinating pistol had a number of unique features, including a selective double-/single-action trigger, a slide-mounted cross-safety bolt, a loaded chamber indicator, a selective magazine catch, and fully adjustable sights, among others.
Clearly, the important feature of the Bren Ten was the caliber: 10mm. It's an outstanding cartridge--extremely powerful and accurate. There are a number of good loads for the 10mm, my favorite being the 180-grain bullet running at approximately 1,350 fps; it combines great stopping power with excellent accuracy. With full-power loads, the 10mm is an excellent hunting round, and the medium loadings are great choices for law enforcement and self-defense.
Dornaus and Dixon Enterprises failed after just a few years of building the Bren Ten, and many thought the 10mm cartridge would follow suit. But Colt began producing the 1911 in 10mm, dubbed the Delta model. Not long after, Smith & Wesson chambered its large-framed DA semiautomatic in 10mm, and the FBI picked up the S&W Model 1076 as its standard sidearm for a while; however, the Bureau deemed that it produced too much recoil to fit their needs. After some experimentation, the 10mm case was cut down, resulting in the .40 S&W cartridge that has enjoyed tremendous success in the law enforcement world.
S&W Model 60
I have been a fan of the 10mm cartridge since shortly after its inception. Though I never fired a Bren Ten, I've had a great deal of experience with the Colt Delta, the S&W Model 1006, and the Kimber 10mm. The 10mm is a great round, one that deserves more appreciation.
The early 1980s brought about a new era in semiautomatic pistols. Austrian engineer Gaston Glock began producing steel and plastic components for various military products in the 1960s and had excellent rapport with various military contacts. When the Austrian military began searching for a new service pistol, Glock jumped in the middle of it and designed one for them. The result was the Glock Safe Action Pistol, the likes of which had never been seen before in the firearms industry.
The Glock pistol featured a polymer frame with a steel slide and barrel, making it very lightweight. It also had the largest magazine capacity of any auto pistol in its category at 17 rounds. More intriguing was the fact that it had no de-cocking lever, no external safety lever, and no external hammer since it was a striker-fired pistol. The only thing the shooter had to worry about was picking up the pistol and squeezing the trigger, which had three internal safety features. This system provided simplicity, maximum firepower, and quick reloading, making it a tactically superior sidearm. The Austrian military was indeed impressed, and the Glock later became the standard issue pistol for the army.
It didn't take long for the Glock pistol to gain worldwide attention. In 1985 Glock established Glock Inc. in Smyrna, Georgia, to begin marketing the Glock 17 in the U.S. The high-capacity Austrian pistol spread through the American law enforcement arena like wildfire. One of the many reasons for its popularity is its simplicity, which is a huge plus when training police recruits, some of whom have little shooting experience. The simplicity of the Glock can also make a difference tactically, allowing the shooter to concentrate more on the shooting situation rather than the function of the pistol. The Glock is also tough and functions reliably, required qualities in a police or military sidearm.
I carried a Glock pistol for a number of years as a law enforcement agent. I fired many rounds through it, and it always lived up to its reputation.
Freedom Arms .454 Casull
After the development and introduction of the
.44 Magnum, it's doubtful most shooters would have believed it would ever lose its status as the world's most powerful handgun, but it didn't take too long for that to happen. Dick Casull began experimenting with souping up the .45 Colt cartridge back in the 1950s, developing the .454 Casull cartridge in 1959. He later connected with Wyoming's Bob Baker, and in 1983 Freedom Arms was born. The company began manufacturing single-action revolvers chambered for the mighty .454 Casull in its Freedom, Wyoming, shop.
The Freedom Arms Model 87 was the first super-premium single-action revolver to be chambered in .454 Casull. The workmanship of all Freedom Arms firearms is superb, each being hand constructed like a fine watch. I first got my hands on a Model 87 in the late 1980s, and I immediately became a fan. The fit and finish of Freedom's revolvers are unsurpassed.
The wheelguns are also beefy, and for good reason. When Mr. Casull began experimenting with heavy loads in the .45 Colt, he quickly discovered that the cylinders in the old thumbbusters just couldn't hold up. He experimented with five-shot cylinders, which provided enough steel to handle the pressure. The Model 87 was built with the strongest, most modern materials available, and it retained the Colt Single Action's style but incorporated a lot of changes. The 87's grip was changed from the Colt type to afford the shooter more comfort when shooting heavy loads. The design works beautifully and soaks up recoil, making turning loose a standard .454 load not much different than shooting a .44 Magnum. Shooters can also purchase extra cylinders for the Model 87 in .45 Colt and .45 ACP, allowing them to plink with light loads if they're not in the mood for heavy recoil.
The power of the .454 can't be underestimated. A 240-grain bullet at velocities pushing 1,800 fps is extraordinary. The cartridge produces spectacular results on big game and has taken virtually every species of dangerous game on the planet.
Like the .44 Mag., the .454 Casull cartridge didn't keep its status as the world's most powerful handgun for long. The .475 Linebaugh, .480 Ruger, and .500 S&W Magnum followed the .454 Casull and have surpassed it in sheer power. But for my taste, the Freedom Arms .454 Casull remains one of the finest big-bore single-action revolvers of all time.
Smith & Wesson Model 60
One of the most significant breakthroughs for handguns in the last 50 years has definitely been the ability to manufacture them from stainless steel. Some shooters consider stainless to be far superior for use in firearms due to its durability and tough resistance to rust. The ability to carry a handgun in adverse weather and expose it to excessive handling and sweat without fear of corrosion is a fine attribute.
Smith & Wesson understood the importance of producing handguns made of stainless steel, and in 1965 the company introduced the first production stainless-steel handgun--the Model 60. S&W had been producing snubnose revolvers for many years, including its .38 Terrier that was made back in the 1930s. In 1950 the 2-inch .38 Chiefs Special was introduced and, like the Terrier, became and extremely popular handgun. The Chiefs Special was S&W's first J-Frame revolver, a line that has to be one of the top-selling handguns in history. In 1965 S&W upped the ante with the Model 60. The compact snubnose, now available in sought-after stainless steel, was a dream come true for law enforcement officers, sportsmen, and those seeking a tough home-defense gun.
Freedom Arms .454 Casull
While the Model 60 made the shooting public very happy, it made other manufacturers envious, indeed. Companies scrambled to get in on the stainless-steel game and the horserace was on, but S&W's little snubby was the one that made history.
The original Model 60 was offered as a 2-inch .38 Special. Through the years there have been a number of other barrel lengths offered, and the revolver has been offered in .357 Magnum for some time now. Considering the popularity of this fine little revolver, I suspect its first 45 years are just the beginning.
What real shooter, particularly revolver shooter, doesn't fancy the Colt Single Action Army revolver? This old workhorse was introduced by Colt in 1873 and has remained one of the finest, most nostalgic firearms in history. Colt produced more than 350,000 single actions from 1873 to 1945, then came up with two more good runs, the 2nd and 3rd Generation single actions. Since the 3rd Generation guns were discontinued as catalog items, the SAA has only been offered by the custom shop.
Ruger began making single-action revolvers in the 1950s, beginning with its legendary Blackhawk. The company manufactured a number of variations of single-action revolvers in various calibers. In 1993 Ruger introduced the Vaquero, a fixed-sight single action that closely resembled the original Colt but was much different mechanically. The original Vaquero was beefier and much stronger than the Colt. It featured Ruger's transfer bar ignition, allowing the shooter to load six rounds instead of leaving an empty chamber under the hammer as is required for safety with the Colt. With its heavy cylinder walls and beefier frame, the Vaquero was able to handle much heavier loads than the Colt.
In 2005 Ruger introduced the New Vaquero, which had been significantly trimmed down from the original. The New Vaquero's frame is closer to the Colt SAA's in size and makes for a lighter, handier single action. The New Vaquero handles quite nicely, but it can't tolerate the heavier loads that the original ate up easily.
While the Vaquero line of Ruger revolvers has been a tremendous success on the cowboy action scene, these guns still have a significant place among shooters of all types. They make great packing guns for knocking around the desert, plinking, and home defense. They're safe, easy to shoot, reliable, and priced right. Anyone wanting a handgun with an Old West feel should consider this fine revolver.
There are no doubt many other outstanding handguns that could've been included on this list, and perhaps I'll have the opportunity to put together another sometime soon. In the meantime, we can only imagine what fine handguns we can expect in the coming 50 years.