Going Old School

By Bob Campbell published on in Firearms

I am not a collector but an accumulator. A collector owns a collection of firearms with the many models carefully cataloged. Some are more common and others, and the key pieces are often quite rare. My firearms are what interests me. The only ones represented in numbers are Colt 1911 pistols and Smith and Wesson revolvers.

Colt 1911 pistol left profile

The old school 1911 is a formidable tool.

Today, we are going to look at the older handguns, circa 1960s offerings, and performance models. How accurate and reliable were these handguns? There have always been more cheap guns than good ones, but in those days we knew the difference. These are good handguns.

When Revolvers Ruled the Earth

As far as police-issue goes, by the 1960s Smith and Wesson had won the contest for police handguns. Based on performance, and not incidentally a fair price, the Military and Police revolver (Model Ten after 1957) eclipsed Colt in sales. The Smith and Wesson is light enough and doesn’t become a drag on the hip after a long day.

The FBI did a study some decades ago confirming that a handgun over 35 ounces was too heavy for constant carry by most agents. The Military and Police revolver was the lightest handgun tested for this report. It is reasonably powerful.

Model 15 revolver right

Note the wide, target-grade trigger that is typical of Model 15 production.

The .38 Special offers as much recoil as the average shooter could handle with yearly or biannual qualifications. The .38 Special 158-grain RNL is as poor a stopper as anyone has told you, but it sufficed to stop a felon with one shot about half the time. I arrived just after the action on multiple occasions where the .38 Special was deployed for the intended purpose. The results were mixed.

The only time the RNL bullet worked well was when delivered to the heart at very close range. A .38 RNL to the cranium bounced around the skull and exited in once incident. Loads were introduced that changed the performance of the .38 Special for the better. While some officers handloaded the .38 Special and improved the caliber, a hard cast SWC at 1,000 fps was not often seen in action.

I am aware of one case in which an officer hit a felon with a 165-grain SWC at 900 fps that I had loaded for him. The felon took the hit in the ventricle and collapsed immediately. The bullet traveled through three interior walls. The Remington 125-grain JHP with its tulip shaped nose gave generally good results.

In one unfortunate case an officer had to take a shot inside a hospital. A single round took immediate effect. In another case, an officer was struck over the head with a heavy limb while investigating a burglary. Although he lost consciousness as he spun to the ground, he drew a six-inch barrel Model Ten and fired six times, hitting the burglar five times where he stood. Every bullet expanded. It was cancel Christmas.

Model Ten revolver

This old Model Ten is a great revolver.

When the 110-grain Super Vel was introduced it gained some notoriety. Those who had qualified with the .357 Magnum found that the 110-grain load produced devastating wounds. I observed two wounds and they looked like high-power rifle hits. The Super Vel .38, however, failed to expand on one occasion with no more effect than the RNL bullet.

On another occasion a 110-grain .38 was delivered to a felon’s forehead. It flattened on the occipital ridge and produced a hairline crack, cold cocking the felon in the process. He awoke in the hospital with little permanent effect.

The final load that came into use and eclipsed the rest was the 158-grain semi-wadcutter hollow point by Winchester. This load usually broke at about 850 fps but some lots went as high as 900 fps. The soft-lead hollow point expanded well. My late friend Big Ed dropped a bad guy with a single hit. At the hospital—the fellow lived—Ed discovered the bullet expanded to about nickel size and stayed in the body. This is a variation on a standard handload developed about 1930 that gave the .38 real authority.

Some loaded a soft-cast 160-grain SWC HP as hot as 1,000 fps. Today, Buffalo Bore offers a strong load at a solid 1,000 fps from a four-inch barrel. These loads get the .38 off its knees.

Buffalo Bore ammunition box

Modern ammunition offers impressive performance.

I broke out an unfired Model 10-9 a real rarity for photos. The revolver feels good in the hand and offers excellent handling. The late Tom Ferguson was a cop and writer with more experience in his little finger than most have in their body. He called the Smith and Wesson Military and Police .38 the Gunfighters Gun of the 20th Century. He was right.

A .38 With Finesse

The Combat Masterpiece was introduced soon after World War II. This was the revolver the Combat Magnum was based on. It is easily among the most accurate handguns ever issued. The Combat Masterpiece was used by Air Force police and aircrewmen. A veteran of World War II and Vietnam told me that once you have a .38 Special or above, it is all about marksmanship.

This revolver is a point in favor of Frank’s words. The Combat Masterpiece/Model 15 is the ideal size for all-day carry and handles quickly—even with the larger Pachmayr grips. I recently fired my well-worn Model 15 from a solid, braced firing position at a long 25 yards, (oddly enough, the first time I have done so). With Winchester’s 158-grain cowboy load, the revolver delivered a beautiful 1.5-inch group for five shots. With a handload using a hard cast 173-grain SWC at 820 fps, the revolver grouped into 1.25 inches. That is good enough to ride with!

The Government Model

sight picture of a 1911 pistol

Note 1970s-type high visibility sights.

It was difficult to have the Colt 1911 .45 approved for service use, but I managed to do so in smaller agencies. Police qualification of the day stressed accuracy. The Combat Magnum, with .38 Special 148-grain wadcutters, would often group 12 rounds into two inches at 50 yards. Yes, we qualified at 50 yards.

Today, quite a few incidents that left officers helpless when under rifle fire might have been handled better by officers armed with magnums. Military standards called for a 1911 to place five rounds into five inches at 25 yards and 10 inches at 50 yards. With small sights and a heavy trigger, few pistols would qualify at 50 yards. I used a Series 70 with Bar Sto barrel and a trigger job and qualified but with nothing to spare. No factory ammunition of the day was accurate enough, and I loaded the Hensley and Gibbs #68 200-grain SWC over a stiff charge of Unique to qualify.

The 1911 illustrated is typical of the best class of 1911 often carried by detectives and the very few that carried the pistol in uniform. The piece is fitted with a National Match barrel bushing and MMC sights. The trigger breaks at 5.5 pounds. A modern touch that looks period are Ahrens skip checkered grips.

Another Old School Gun

About 1934, the FBI began arming up with Thompson SMGs, Remington Model 8 rifles, and Springfield 1903 rifles. A committee recommended automatic shotguns be purchased. A June 1933 memo stated that the shotguns should have cylinder bore, 20-inch barrels, and be set up for buckshot.

This seems the ideal set up for highly trained officers dealing with heavily armed felons. Just the same, few must have been used. Most shotguns used by the FBI seem to have been first the Remington 31 and later the excellent 870. Many were 28-inch barrel shotguns. In a book by CB Colby, agents are seen during training with standard, long barrel Browning shotguns. Overall, not a bad set up at all. The 20-inch barrel shotgun with Weaver choke tube just may have a story to tell.

When this piece was state of the art, the most common load was 230-grain hardball. I looked over a report in which a stick up man, running from an officer and firing at the cop with a .38, took a single 230-grain .45 in the lower rib cage. It exited inches below his breast bone. A witness said she heard the shots and then a WHACK! as the bullet hit the felon. The man tumbled and was down.

A little later, the so-called ‘Flying Ashtray’ was introduced and nearly ever writer tried to promote this short 200-grain JHP. (Not Cooper or Skelton BTW). It boggles the mind that a load was introduced that required the majority of shooters to modify the feed ramp of the pistol in order to make the piece feed this load.

Browning shotgun left profile

Many Browning Patent shotguns were produced. They proved hardy tools.

Quite a few Colt 1911 handguns were ruined by ham-handed throating. Aluminum frame handguns in particular should never be modified in this manner. In one local shooting, an officer fired a 200-grain JHP that expanded to almost exactly one inch in a shoulder but with only four inches of penetration. The target was heavily muscled as many of our protein-fed ex-con criminal class are. A second shot did the business.

I elected to fire this piece with modern versions of loads available at the time. These included the Winchester 230-grain FMJ and Winchester’s 185-grain Silvertip. I burned up the box of hardball firing at B 27 targets at 7 and 10 yards. This old gun remains formidable, and perhaps I will carry it when hiking.

I would rather have it than 98% of the carry guns I see today. At a long 25 yards, the Colt grouped five Silvertips into four inches and five 230-grain ball loads into 3.75 inches. That is above the average for a GI gun.

These handguns are more than relics or collectibles—only the 10-9 has value over the utilitarian and that premium is slight. These are working handguns that will do the business as well as ever, perhaps better with modern load combinations.

Do you have an ‘Old School’ favorite? Share your top 3 ‘Old School’ guns in the comment section.

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SLRule

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 Shooter’s 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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Comments (18)

  • bo

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    After I got out of the Army in 1975, I was working in an ER in Oklahoma. We had a woman who was brought in by the local Ambulance having been shot in the head by a .38. The bullet did not penetrate her skull but travelled under her skin and exited in the back when it hit the external occipital protuberance according to the x-rays, (that’s the little bump on the back of the head.)
    Needless to say, that soured me on anything, that came in that small of a cartridge. While I was overseas, as a medic on a S&R/Recon team, I carried a 1911A1 which to this day is my go to handgun for everything but hunting large game. For that I have a Smith 629 Classic Hunter.
    As far as the1911, I believe that it is an awesome piece and the .45 ACP is an awesome cartridge; I have seen it perform time and again with finality. That is why I have more than one 1911, I won’t say how many, my wife might see it.
    But I believe that John Moses Browning was one of the most gifted men to live in our country. Thank God for him.

    Reply

  • Ed G.

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    Browning GP35/Hi-Power.. Been carrying a Hi-Power since the late 70s.. Naturally with the Mag safety deleted and a trigger job.. My latest BHP is an FN Herstal, custom carry by Novaks.. Dovetailed sights, and full ambi combat safety.. What a fantastic pistol.. I have modern pistols, but often I still carry my old BHP.. Why? Because on my hip, it feels like an old friend well met!

    Reply

    • Retired Navy Spook

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      I own a couple 1911’s, a Colt Government Competition and a Rock Island Mid-Size Tactical, a couple Glocks, a Sig and a S&W .38, but the Browning Hi-Power is still my all-time favorite handgun. I carried one made in Belgium in 1967, from the mid-70’s to the early 90’s; sold it to buy my wife a 25th anniversary ring. Finally rectified that mistake by finding another HP in an on-line auction a couple years ago, also made in Belgium in 1967. Interestingly mine also has a trigger job and the mag safety removed. Just simply one of the best shooting handguns ever made.

      Reply

  • Ben Cardenas

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    I had an old friend of mine tell me back during the 1960s that the only good S&W revolvers are the 5 screw models and the best to own are early .357s that were registered.

    Reply

  • Richard

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    Even a Caveman can do it…

    Reply

  • peter berkuta

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    i would like to see effects with .9 mm. it took 12 for an officer to stop someone!!

    Reply

  • sls4ak

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    I continue to shoot and carry my Detonics combat masters. I buy the guns that I like and use them. New in box has value to some people,but never me. There is no fun that I will ever own just to have it. I use all the tools that I buy and while I take care of my shovels and sharpen and oil them with boiled linseed oil at the end of the season, keep them out of the weather when they aren’t being used, I work those shovels hard when I need them. My guns get the same respect of lack thereof. I practice and hunt with all my guns or it is time for me to let them go.

    Reply

  • Mike

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    “On another occasion a 110-grain .38 was delivered to a felon’s forehead. It flattened on the occipital ridge and produced a hairline crack, cold cocking the felon in the process. He awoke in the hospital with little permanent effect.”

    I’m a bit confused by the above statement, the occipital ridge is in the back of the skull, not the forehead. It’s the base of the skull where it meets the spine (or there abouts).

    I am guessing you meant the supraorbital ridge also know as the brow ridge. Some people have very thick brow ridges, so I can see that happening.

    Good article and thank you,
    Mike

    Reply

    • bo

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      Mike, let me explain and remove your confusion.
      The woman was struck in the forehead above the brow ridge. The .38 caliber bullet, verified by x-ray, (there were no CT’s or MRI’s back then) stayed under the skin of her head as it tunneled its way under the scalp to the external occipital protuberance where it deviated its course and exited, leaving bullet and bone fragments at the site. We were all stunned to see this as it appeared on initial presentation to be a through and through head shot on a woman who came in talking. Having seen .45 through and throughs (nary a one survived) I was completely at a loss as to how this could happen. She had a lot of soft tissue damage external to the skull and no apparent damage inside her cranium. And looking at her face, no one could believe she had actually survived the shot. She was admitted to be monitored for signs of infection and I lost track of what happened after that.
      Bullets do not always behave the way we think they will. I know of more than one soldier in Vietnam who, when shot in a lower extremity with an AK or an SKS, ended up with a permanent colostomy because of the way the bullet traveled under the skin and destroyed intestines.

      Reply

    • Mike

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      Thank you for the details, and yes that clears it up no doubt. You’re right ….. bullets do seem to have a mind of their own sometimes.

      I really enjoy the articles, thanks again.
      Mike

      Reply

  • DAMIAN

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    COLT OFFICERS polished stainless Ed Brown custom REBUILT officers 45 colt 80’s series .Been carrying this pistol 25 yrs .I use a 200 grain rainier ballistics HP with 7.2 grains of unique coming from a just under 4 inch barrel .Gives me right at 1150 FPS from the muzzle and the most accurate load in this pistol .Yes the feed ramp is custom polished and the old hammer safety block has been converted.Great everyday carry pistol has never let me down .And i have shot thousands of rounds through her training never fails me and i am surgical with that pistol out to very pong ranges for a compact .colt .45

    Reply

  • Jim Hovater

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    Most Model 15s DIDN’T have a Target trigger.

    Reply

  • Ed K.

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    I like my 1948 K-38 Masterpiece (aka pre-14). It’s the best shooting pistol I own and it’s the one I’ll use next week end at our annual bowling pin shoot. My semi-auto wielding opponents complain that I’m just knocking off the pins by pushing them with the 6.5″ barrel. (We shoot at 15 yds. btw.)

    Reply

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