Bat Masterson ordered a custom pistol that may be rightly called the first of the Gunfighter’s Guns.
“Gents, Please send me one of your Nickel plated .45 Caliber revolvers. It is for my own use and for that reason I would like to have a little Extra pains taken with it. I am willing to pay the Extra for Extra work. Make it very easy on the trigger and have the front Sight a little higher and thicker than the ordinary pistol of this Kind. Put on a gutta percha handle and send it as soon as possible. Have the barrel about the same length that the ejecting rod is.
The longer barrel Single Action Army revolver did not handle as quickly as Bat liked. The 4 ¾-inch barrel SAA is among the best-balanced revolvers ever made. This handgun was carried by experienced lawmen in the American West well into the 1950s in some areas. While modern gelatin testing is based on velocity and expansion, the 250-grain Colt bullet at 800 fps will tumble in flesh—it isn’t a pretty picture.
A heavy loaded .45 is effective against hard targets as well as soft targets, something missed by many pundits. The .45 Colt revolver gave those who practiced a real advantage. One of those who practiced with a special moving target was George S. Patton. He was an Olympic-grade shooter and this served him well in Mexico. (Later, he trained in his basement using movies of wild animals cast upon a wall!)
As a young officer in Mexico, General Douglas MacArthur used the SAA to save his life. Before his mission to Veracruz was over, he had shot and killed or disabled seven bandits. Tom Three Persons—a famous lawman—had a special front sight added to his .45 when he walked the mean streets of border towns during prohibition—so much for the myth of point shooting.
Men who wanted to hit relied upon their sights. Frank Hamer wore many guns during his long life, but the one that was always by his side was a 4 ¾-inch barrel called ‘Old Lucky.’ The idiom is alive and well today in the form of a first-class revolver from Traditions Firearms.
The 1911 was adopted soon after the World War I by savvy lawmen. During the war, the big .45 Automatic was used by Corporal Alvin York to take out a squad of German soldiers. He was promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Frank Luke, the Arizona Balloon Buster, refused to surrender after his plane was shot down and died wielding his .45. The 1911 .45 was a favorite of federal agents during the roaring ’20s. The 1911 has a sweet, straight-to-the-rear trigger compression and a grip that fits most hands well. It was a great gunfighters gun and remains the standard by which all others are judged.
Charlemagne, the South American bandit, was killed by a U.S. Marine wielding a 1911 .45. Herman E. Hanneken was an enlisted man at the time but after serving in the Banana wars, he helped capture 1,200 bandits. After Charlemagne, he was awarded the Medal of Honor and given a battlefield commission. He served ably in World War II and retired as a Brigadier General. There are many more instances of the 1911 .45 being used by American gunfighters.
The Super .38
The Super .38 was America’s first tactical pistol. Introduced in 1929, the 1300 fps .38 ACP Super cartridge gave lawmen a much-needed edge against our new class of motorized bandit. This pistol figured into the demise of Baby Face Nelson and others. A Super .38 converted to fully automatic fire and fitted with a forward handgrip is in the FBI museum. It was used by Dillinger’s gang. The Super .38 is seldom seen these days at it was eclipsed by the more powerful .357 Magnum revolver.
The Military and Police .38
The K frame revolver was introduced in 1899 and became the most popular revolver in America. Fast from leather, just the right size, and smooth in operation the Military and Police .38 became the Model Ten in 1957. The.38 Special wasn’t the most powerful cartridge but it is the most powerful handgun cartridge that recruits firing the pistol once a year for familiarization could handle.
At one time, over 75 percent of American police carried the four-inch barrel Smith and Wesson .38 Special. The cartridge failed to stop motivated felons on many occasions and dropped others just as often. During the 1920s, handloaders developed heavy loads that led to the .357 Magnum cartridge, but in the meantime they also got the .38 Special off its knees. In trained hands, the Military and Police .38 is still a formidable handgun.
Browning High Power
After World War II, the French were so impressed with the German 9mm Luger cartridge they wished to adopt a high-capacity handgun of their own chambered for this cartridge. John Moses Browning began work on the pistol, and after his death, the FN Hi Power was introduced. The French did not adopt this handgun, but eventually the armed services of over 100 nations adopted the Hi Power.
The pistol combined the reliability of Browning designed handguns with a high magazine capacity and high velocity cartridge capable of penetrating heavy web gear. Allies and Axis alike used the Hi Power during World War II. Our Canadian allies still use the Hi Power on the front line.
During the British Commando raid on Calais, one Commando wrote of using his Hi Power after his Sten Gun became inoperative. He ‘killed a Hun every hour’ with his pistol during the raid. In Malaysia, SAS soldiers on a scouting raid were outnumbered and jumped by a squad of Communists rebels. The four men ran until they found cover and emptied their Hi Powers into the charging squad. At least half of the dozen terrs were killed and the rest fled.
The Browning Hi Power was used by the New Jersey state Fugitive Squad and legendary New York cop Frank Serpico. The British SAS developed many of the anti terror tactics used today. In their many actions, including active service on Malta, the Brits accomplished much with ball ammunition and the Hi Power.
The Commander .45
Soon after World War II, Colt developed a shortened 1911. With the slide and barrel cropped ¾ inch, and a new aluminum frame, the Commander weighed 10 ounces less than the Government Model. This handgun was adopted by professionals and became a favorite of peace officers on special assignment and as an all-around holster gun.
The pistol kicks the most of any discussed but offers plenty of power for the weight. It is as similar in concept to the original 4 ¾ SAA as any automatic pistol may be. The Commander .45 continues to be my favorite all-time defense gun and the one that rides with me every day.
There may be others nominated for this club of gunfighter’s guns, but these six have an impeccable reputation and more story behind them than any other group of handguns in history. They have been used in innumerable gunfights around the world. Even if you only punch paper, these handguns are worth the price of ownership.
Did your favorite make the list? With all of the quality handguns on the market, probably not. Share your top choices for a gunfighter’s gun in the comment section.
Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooters Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.
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