6 Guns for the Gunfighter

Woman shooting a Browning Hi Power with a two-handed grip

Bat Masterson ordered a custom pistol that may be rightly called the first of the Gunfighter’s Guns.

Colt SAA with 4 ¾-inch barrel, chrome left side
The 4 ¾-inch barrel Colt SAA was the gunfighter’s gun of the old west, and you can still purchase one.

“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.

Truly yours,
W.B. Masterson”

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.

Revolver with plow handled grip
Plow handled grip? There is the grip and the plow, and yes, there is something to it.

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.

Colt 1911 pistol left side
The Colt 1911 was the greatest gun of its day and it still is.

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 Hi Power right profile
This is an original tangent sighted Browning High Power. Many were delivered with shoulder stocks.

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.

Woman shooting a Browning Hi Power with a two-handed grip
The Browning Hi Power is a modern 9mm well worth your time to master.

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.


About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (30)

  1. I own 1911’s in a few calibres from .22 to the .45 as my carry calibre. I love them.I would never tell someone else what gun to carry for self defence.
    What the Guru said still rings true. Carry the biggest gun you can shoot fast and accurately.
    BTW a Ruger .44 mag stopped a hungry black bear cold at 20ft My backup gun in bear country.
    I’m earher

  2. Thought article was about guns for “Gun Fighters”, not gum fighters,; only gun fighters we have today are Feds, states street and highway police, and our military combat arms.
    lotta Walter Mitty types buying and packing hoping to emulate the past mano y manos’of history along with our very few real gun fighters in our nationz uniforms.

  3. I have several handguns I like to shoot, from the 22 to the 45, revolver and semi auto. My favorite IS listed in the article. My main heavy carry is the Colt 1911 Commander. Upon purchasing it I immediately took it to my gunsmith and had the long spring rod installed. I think the best feature I like is that you can not accidentally shoot it. 1) The hammer has to be cocked for the first shot. 2) There is a ‘compression’ bar on the back of the grip that must be depressed before it will fire. Yes, it is heavy, but I like the feel and the way it shoots. I also have it’s counter part in a revolver I like shooting.

    1. Loading a 1911 cocks the hammer, and if you’re dropping the hammer on a loaded chamber instead of activating the thumb safety then many 1911 lovers (including the author) will say you’re doing it wrong.

      As far as safety goes, you can “accidentally” shoot a 1911 just about as easily as a Glock (or other striker-fired pistol) if you don’t know to keep your finger off the trigger until the pistol is on target and you’re ready to shoot.

  4. I bought a 3rd generation Colt Buntline special, in .45 long Colt, back in the 80’s. Even with that mile long hammer drop it still shoots well even with my older eyes. Never had so much fun with a pistol. For my CCW I pack a Sig 938. My father gave his favorite SAA, in nickel with 43/4″ tube, to my son before he passed. We shoot the heck out of it every time he visits to honor his memory. No pun intended but it’s a blast.

    1. Nealstar,

      After reading your response to Dan, I went and looked at the ‘fact sheet’ you referenced, the Hornady report on their ammo. In this report on page 8 (FBI Penetration Testing), it says 3 things:
      1. Historical data shows a statistically insignificant, if any, difference between
      the 10’ and 20 yard data for identical barriers.
      2. The 20 yard impact velocity may be identical to, or even higher than,
      a 10 foot impact velocity.
      3. The 20 yard events may skew the test results in favor of the barrier used.

      But all three of these statements raise red flags regarding this report. #1 can only be true if the muzzle velocity and weight of the bullets are very, very close. With #2, is just plain false. There is no way the bullet can speed up after it has left the muzzle. And as for #3, while, of course this is true, and any real ballistics tests of different ammo will have more variation in performance because of the barrier used, and this should be part of the test.

      Add to this that some of the calibers the 9mm was tested against are not real, or are very rare. I do not believe there is any 135 gr .357 mag ammo, and the .45 ACP so called +P is just a slightly hotter load than the standard .45 ACP load (see my offer down further). It appears to me that this report was simply intended to make the Hornady 9mm ammo look good.

      From the online available 9mm ammo I have found (96 different ammo offerings), it’s power (measured in ft. lbs.) varies roughly from about 325-375. The .45 ACP I have found online (131 offerings), it varies from about 350 to around 540 ft. lbs. The .45 caliber is about 25% larger in width, and when it mushrooms, it is about double that of a mushroomed 9mm. The .45 Super (just really hotter loads than all the other .45 ACP loads) produces 550 to 711 ft. lbs. of power). The 45 Super (same bullet and cartridge as the standard .45 ACP) is in a separate class because they are often much too powerful for many .45 ACP semi-auto handguns.

      If you really want to see the actual ballistics specs, and see how the 9mm really compares in power (and speed), to almost all the other handgun ammo there is, send me a request for me to send you my free ballistics file, which covers 26 handgun calibers, and 15 rifle ones.

      You can reach me at vlavalle @ix.netcom .com. I have sent this out to many readers of the CTD Shooter’s Log.


    2. Vincent,

      Yeah, I know that it’s a marketing pamphlet and they even conducted a test with a pistol that apparently didn’t exist at the time; a 3″ barrel Springfield EMP .45. Unless they’ve Photoshopped the gelatin pictures, the 9mm. 115 grain FTX bullet from a 3″ barrel Kahr KM9 made enough of a mess to get the recipient to, at least, look down to see what that was. Furthermore, were it to even hit the hip joint or the pelvis, it would have a detrimental affect on the bad guy’s mobility.

      I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met anybody who actually wanted to get shot with anything, particularly half a dozen times in their center of mass. I don’t fancy myself a gunfighter or pistolero, but I did spend close to two years as a participant in the SE Asian War Games and have seen people shot with various weapons with various results. I saw a Saigon “Cowboy” on a motorbike get shot in the stomach with a .30 carbine and just keep on going. No drama, no clutching his mid-section, no falling off the bike, nothin’.

      I escaped from Chicago 28 years ago to the mountains of rural Western Colorado which has an entirely different demographic and I’m reasonably certain I’m not going to have to fight it out with a gang of hardened criminals, teenage gangbangers or even someone so full of drugs or adrenaline that they won’t feel a couple few pieces of 115 grain lead projectiles traveling at 1140fps.

      Finally, I have absolutely no problem emptying my sidearm, longgun or whatever is to hand, rinsing and repeating, into someone trying to harm me or my loved ones. I’ve done it halfway around the world, never had to do it here and hope I don’t, but if I do, it’ll get done. I have no illusions about how dangerous the world can be and what kind of people inhabit it and am aware of the fact that anything can happen to anyone, anyplace, anytime and it either will or won’t. I’d rather depend on something that I can easily carry even if it doesn’t have the performance of the .357 wheelgun in my night stand.

      By the by, what branch were you in and where did you serve?

  5. I’m a big fan of both the 1911 and the P-35, and I’ve carried a Gov’t Model, a Combat Commander, and a Hungarian BHP clone. But nowadays my EDC is one of several Gen 4 Glock 17s I own. With all due respect to my 1911s and P-35s, I have more confidence in the reliability of the Glocks (esp. w/ JHPs) and in my own comfort and accuracy with them, plus my EDC is a total of 69 rounds!

  6. The caliber used isn’t near as important as the placement of the shot. I’ve seen men killed by a .22 and men hit by a .50AE survive. Caliber generally doesn’t matter. If caliber was the only factor, we’d all only be using .69 musket balls. Just food for thought folks, but anyone who says that any one specific cartridge is the end all be all is a false prophet. Yes, one cartridge will perform better ballistics but if you’re selecting a defensive round based on what somebody else says or claims to “know” or be a same professed “expert” is only doing themselves a disservice. The choice and level of training is up to you. Try things out yourself. Your response to a scenario will only be as effective as your dedication to your training. Again, this is just the opinion of one man, do your own research. Train to win, folks.

    1. Well said Adam. The only thing I would add is to choose the largest caliber that you are effective with. A well placed shot is top priority for sure.

  7. Thumbs up for the 1911 in almost any configuration. It got the job done back in the day nd still does today. Nothing beat the Colt SAA during it’s heyday either. They are still fine shooters today but wouldn’t be my choice for personal defense. That brings me to the modern day gunfighter. Glock, CZ, and SIG among others are likely a better choice in today’s world. I still very much enjoyed this article. Keep up the good work Bob.

  8. I didn’t see anybody mention the 10mm. I like it for it’s power and knock down effectiveness. I carry the Glock 29. for self defense.

  9. Check your history. Sgt York was awarded the Medal of Honor. Congress had nothing to do with it, it’s simply Medal of Honor.

    1. It’s called the congressional Medal of Honor for a reason. Awarded by the president on behalf of the congress. Just google “medal of honor”. Please do your research. You don’t know. I know. Nevertheless, active duty usmc 7 years and counting.

    2. While the Medal of Honor may be awarded by the President on behalf of the US Congress, the official title of the award is “Medal of Honor”…..21 years US Army…..Lt Col (Retired).

  10. imho The greatest gumfighter weapon ever used is the Berreta 9mm as carried by US combat forces.
    It and the civilian version have probably settled more life and death arguments in favor of the bearer that any other pistol made.

  11. I’m not going to say it’s my favorite, simply because comparing different caliber a is akin to comparing Mohammed Ali to Babe Ruth. However, I do own a Colt .45acp Commander model. It was my 21st birthday present to myself. Love it. Great gun, and once I figured out how it wanted me to shoot it, we get along great. The Colt 1911 and the Commander models are proof that if you have a proven design, with a proven round, it’ll stand the test of time.

  12. It is always a pleasure and quite informative to read Bob Campbell’s articles. I am responding because I am an owner of two of the handguns described in this article. I own both the Ruger .357 Mag Blackhawk (6.5″ barrel and Blued) and the Ruger .45 Colt Blackhawk (5.5″ barrel, stainless). My 357 Blackhawk is over 50 years old and looks almost new, although the tip of the inner side of the barrel is a bit worn (steel showing) because of all the quick-draw I use to do.

    Of course, others may see other advantages and disadvantages of both of these. In general, I would recommend a .4 caliber over anything smaller, which includes the very popular 9mm semi-auto pistols. And for any skeptics out there, who may thing that the 9 mm is so great and powerful, feel free to email me and ask for my ballistics file which shows almost all handgun calibers, with the ballistics (muzzle velocity and muzzle power for a fairly large amount of ammo offered for many of these calibers, and bullet info, and where to buy online, and how much each costs (per box and pre round). This ballistics file is mainly for handgun ammo, but I also cover about 15 rifle calibers, and some very heavy duty military equipment as well.

    If you are interested in this free file, email me at vlavalle@ ix.Netcom .com/ For most of you, you will go WOW at both the amount of data given, and the real info on power for the various calibers, both handgun and rifle caliber ammo.

    The longer barrel does two things, which I like to add here for the viewers. It makes the gun more accurate, and a bit more powerful, and it reduces the kick considerably as well. I believe that the 4.5″ barrel old West 45 (mentioned in the article) was popular because it was easier to quick draw, when that meant life or death, or serious wounding. In today’s world, the 4.5 barrel may be short enough for using as a concealed weapon, although my 5.5″ could be used, although perhaps a bit awkwardly.

    Also, I want to point out that the Old West 45 Revolver shown in the Bob Campbell article is probably not one that can shoot the really high power 45 Colt ammo. But the Ruger Blackhawks (single action) and Ruger Redhawks (double action) revolvers are! In general, the more powerful the handgun, the more variance there is on ammo power. There are what is called ‘Cowboy Loads’ for the .45 Colt, and these loads are very weak, and go as low as weak 45 ACP loads. The high end loads come very close to 44 Magnum power, so this is a huge range of power. which relates to distance accuracy, knock down capability, and kick.

    So, for anyone considering buying an Old West style .45 Colt style revolver, consider the power facture seriously. And for those deciding between and .45 ACP semi-auto pistol, like the 1911 mention also in the article, think hard about why you want the gun in the first place. The advantages for the Ruger Colt Blackhawks & Redhawks are over .45 ACP semi-autos: (1) Much more powerful ammo is available, (2) near impossible to jam, (3) longer barrel lengths available for more accuracy and less recoil, (4) some Ruger Blackhawks and Redhawks revolvers can shoot both 45 ACP and 45 LC ammo. The major advantages I see for the .45 ACP pistol are: (1) Less expensive ammo (about 30-45% less), (2) Noticeably faster shooting that the .45 Ruger Colt single action revolvers, and slightly faster that the Ruger Colt double action revolvers, (3) Can carry more rounds at a time (8 or 9 vs. a max of six for either of the Ruger revolvers, (4) easier to use as a conceal weapon.

    Of course, others may see other advantages and disadvantages of both of these. In general, I would recommend a .4x caliber over anything smaller, which includes the very popular 9mm semi-auto pistols. The one exception for this is the .357 Mag which comes in a very powerful, and could actually be used for game hunting. And for any skeptics out there regarding ballistics, especially for those who may think that the 9 mm is so great and powerful, feel free to email me and ask for my ballistics file which shows information for almost all handgun calibers, giving the ballistics (muzzle velocity and muzzle power for a fairly large amount of ammo offered for many of these calibers), bullet info, and where to buy online, showing the cost of each (price per box and pre round). This ballistics file is mainly for handgun ammo, but I also cover about 15 rifle calibers, and some VERY heavy duty military equipment as well.

    If you are interested in this free file, email me at vlavalle@ ix.Netcom .com. For most of you, you will go WOW at both the amount of data given, and the real info on power for the various calibers, covering both handgun and rifle caliber ammo.

    Vincent LaVallee

    1. Don’t forget Elmer Kieth and his penchant for the 44MAG wheelguns. He and Cooper were both important pioneers in the art of handgun mastery.

  13. As a career Army officer from 1963 to 1984, my standard sidearm was the M1911 .45 ACP Pistol. About a year into my career, I found the money to purchase my very own Colt Government Model, which I still have in my collection along with a few other 1911s. That said, however, while I still think the 1911 is a great pistol, I have embraced many of the crop of DA/SA pieces mainly in SIG Sauer and Hecker & Koch in calibers 9x19mm, .357SIG, and .45ACP. For daily carry I will usually be carrying a SIG P229 DAK in .357SIG, an H&K USP Compact in .357SIG, or any of several 9x19mm SIGs & H&Ks.

  14. I’m partial to the 1911s (Colt, Kimber, and Remington). I carried the K15-4 S&W on a daily basis for nearly all of my 21+ year military career. In Vietnam, I carried one, but acquired a Colt 1911 which I carried because re-loads were far quicker. I also own a S&W K19-4 which was my law enforcement sidearm. My backup was, for many years, a Firearms International .380 pistol, and still remains in my safe.

    When I began using handguns in my late teens, being tutored by my grandfather, I started with a .38 Colt Chief Special which, more often than not, sat idle while I fired my grandfathers Ruger Blackhawk .357. I got a kick out of using it to blow up milk jugs, paint cans, and to obliterate beer cans. (lol)

    Each sidearm I have used has had it’s purpose, however, I will still stick with the 1911s. Even with a swing out cylinder and speed loaders, let alone an SAA, you lose time and points during reload. Any weapon must be mastered, so I discount that factor. This I learned watching the Bianci competitions (from Temecula IIRC).

    I might be interested in the Colt SAA.

  15. When I was a participant in the SE Asian War Games, the ANZACs carried the Hi-Power and the FN-FAL both of which became objects of lust for decades. I finally got a minty ’89 vintage Hi-Power and was not only not disappointed, but highly impressed to the point that it’s my “go to” autoloader while my bedside companion is my S&W Model 66 w/4″ barrel. As far as the FN-FAL, I decided in favor of the Springfield Armory M1A Scout, but a friend got an FAL about the same time. We went to the range one day and swapped for a while and my lust was ameliorated as I didn’t think it came close to the M1A. We both went home with the gals we brought to the dance.

    1. The very first rifle with which I qualified in the Army was an M-1 Garand. For a couple of years, that was the usual piece used for annual arms qualification, but subsequent to that the M-14 came into play, as well as the M-16. Of course my time with the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam saw me issued an M-16, but I subsequently managed to get my hands on an M-14. Since most of my fighting was from the air, I often carried an M-79 grenade launcher which made target engagement a bit more fruitful when flying. I have always had a soft spot for the M1 and it’s offspring, and a number of years back I was able to acquire a Springfied SOCOM16 which I came to love, quite deeply. Like you, Nealstar, I have had opportunities to shoot the FAL and the CETME, as well, but I still thank my stars that I can always go back to my M-1A SOCOM16.

  16. Very enjoyable read. I learned a few things and you did a great job of highlighting the positives of some of the better machined guns of our day.

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