Nostalgic About Guns? Not me. Not At All

Smith and Wesson Kit Gun in .22 caliber with its original box

During lonely hours, we sometimes replay long ago moments. The past only exists in the memories we have edited and cultivated. Nostalgia, with its cousins — ennui and romance — hang together. In our field of firearms, some seem to long for a simpler time.

Nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” – Milan Kundera
“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

S&W Model 13 .357 Magnum, right profile
Sure, some of the great old guns of the past were impressive. This S&W Model 13 .357 Magnum is first class.

Nostalgia and Firearms

A very few may remember pre ’68 GCA rules. Old guns offer a link to the past, and memories of carefree plinking and small game hunting. Sometimes, artifacts are strong in symbolism. However, nostalgia plays very little role in my firearms choice.

I don’t pine for those days… far from it. Been there; done that. No need to repeat it. As for the laws, no. Not all are good. But I grew up in a state where the Governor was basically a patsy for Jimmy Carter and managed to get some terrible laws passed that took us years to recover from. One handgun a month was one law.

There was no concealed carry permit, save for but a few well-heeled citizens. In the south, the segregationist’s buddy — if he had contributed enough — might pick up a permit. In the north, the mob had carry permits issued by fat, friendly judges. No, I don’t miss those days and the light thrown on this.

I began hunting with affordable .22 rifles. Most were utilitarian at best. The Ruger 10/22 rifle was far from common, and I could not afford one. The Bergaa rifle, not to mention the Springfield 2020, is a far better rifle than anything I dreamed of.

Nostalgia is, by definition, a longing for a past time or self. Not me. It was a long grind to obtain an education. The uneducated and educated differ as much as the living and the dead, and I do not wish to be that young boy again.

John Inglis Hi-Power 9mm semi-automatic handgun, right profile
A John Inglis Hi-Power is OK, but how much to we trust old steel?

I would never have been anywhere without my grandmother. She graduated from the third grade and went to work in a cotton mill. She read constantly and read to me as a child. My grandfather taught me gun safety and marksmanship.

I have fond memories, sure. However, I don’t think about it a lot. I’m too busy. I am now in the position my grandfather enjoyed (after teaching my children and now the grandchildren).

It isn’t all about guns of course. My grandson Ryan is as comfortable with a 12-string guitar as I am a 1911. Sure, memories are good. I remember walking into a copse of trees behind my home and crying the day Janice Joplin died. But that was a long time ago, and this is a gun story.

Taylor’s Devil Anse revolver, right profile
Taylor’s Devil Anse just drips Old West, but it is made of modern steel and very reliable.

Guns of the Past

I have, only occasionally, written about the great guns of the past. Most of the ‘guns of the day’ from long ago, I eventually owned or test fired. I have a Smith & Wesson Kit Gun .22 as well as a Smith & Wesson Combat Masterpiece .22. I was privileged to fire a four-inch barrel Smith & Wesson .22 during my time earning a Criminal Justice degree.

Nostalgia doesn’t really enter in this choice. The old Smith is simply the best revolver of its type ever made. There are no MIM parts, and the action is very smooth. No ridiculous Hillary Hole lock. (They do fail~) These old guns are not safe queens. I fire them often.

For serious sub-caliber training with modern carry guns, the FN 502 is a far more appropriate choice. It’s as accurate as the old Smith. The Kel-Tec K17 is lighter than the Kit Gun, holds 17 rounds, and is very reliable and easy to shoot well. Why would I want an older gun over these modern wonders?

Old revolver in a leather case with a box of Revelation .22 Long cartridges
Here is a shot to make the nostalgic swoon.

I have spent a great deal of my shooting life immersed in the 1911. I owned quite a few old Government Model 1911 pistols. I eventually owned a new Colt Series 70. It was OK, but not really a great improvement over GI guns. The collet bushing broke sometimes and the sights promoted eye strain.

Then, Colt introduced the Series 80. A great gun for the time with many improvements — including good feed reliability and larger sights. There was also a stainless steel version. In my opinion, for serious use, the modern Colt pistols seriously outclassed anything before 1980. They have steadily improved since.

I cannot imagine pining after a pistol with a heavy trigger action and embryonic sights. I have not considered an older 1911 for personal defense or duty. However, I always purchased — and used — the best, most modern 1911 I could afford. Firing an older 1911 isn’t exactly cathartic. It is reminiscent of a time when I was limited by my handguns.

In other types… sure, older Colt and Ruger revolvers were good very good. But there are many modern models to choose from today. They are made of good steel and perform well.

There is plenty of ironmongery today, but probably nothing as truly bad as some of the older guns. There have always been more cheap guns than good guns. I am not nostalgic for the guns that fleeced unsophisticated buyers.

Remington .44 Derringer
A lot of old guns were not steel but soft iron. This is a Remington .44 Derringer pretty much at the end of its days.

Argue if you will, or simply consult the well documented H P White lab tests. The old Llama and Star pistols did not fare well. I think today’s affordable guns are way ahead of anything we had in the day. Our best guns are also better than the best of the past.

There may be those who bemoan the rising cost of quality firearms. I don’t know about that. There are many good quality, affordable firearms that serve quite well. And I am not certain that the guns of the past were any more affordable than the guns today. As an example, when I first entered police work my choices included a Smith & Wesson Military & Police .38 at $98, Colt Official Police at $129 (Colt lost the police market), Smith & Wesson Combat Masterpiece .38 at $138, or Python at $275.

A Colt Commander .45 was $149.95. Gee, don’t we wish we had those prices back. I also remember my paychecks. A working cop made $249 every two weeks. I took a promotion to Patrol Lieutenant a few years later — in a smaller city with a pay cut. I asked for a raise and got it. Later, we learned that my raise came via a cut to everyone’s Christmas bonus.

Two old Browning Hi-Power 9mm handguns
Old Hi-Powers are interesting, but modern guns have better sights and controls.

No, I am not nostalgic for old prices and pay. I prefer today’s real buying power. By the time I was receiving education pay, I was pretty much resigned to the pay and worked two to three jobs.

I should say something about those old police revolvers. We qualified at 7 to 50 yards and some of the officers were very good shots. They would not be helpless against rifle fire. Maybe we had something.

A Few Words on Qualification

We fired 60 rounds. We began with 12 rounds, single or double action, at 50 yards, and proceeded to 15, 12, 10, and 7 yards, firing and reloading, moving down the line from the longest distance. Seven-yard firing was done with one hand. The 50-yard section was fired from a barricade.

Young man shooting a single-action revolver
Single-action revolvers are fine for training the grandkids.

Depending on how fast you were able to fire and qualify, it wasn’t unusual to be at 12 yards while a fellow to your right or left was firing at 25 or 15. He was about a shoulder’s width to one side of you. I did not exactly hear the bullets whistle by, but it put a bit of pressure on safety. I don’t miss that at all. I prefer the training I use today, and I prefer firing on my own or separated by barriers.

I don’t miss the wound unreliability of the .38 Special in any number of shootings. Once we had the FBI load, (nationwide) things changed. There was never any question of the effectiveness of the .357 Mangum.

The 9mm automatic was represented by the Smith & Wesson 39. The 39-2 fed hollow points and was accurate. The high-capacity Model 59 had a grip angle that made you long for angle iron. The Model 59 made cops work for 25-yard qualifications and was hopeless at 50 yards, so 50-yard qualification was ended.

Nagant revolver, right profile
Well made of good material, and firing a ridiculously under-powered loading, this old Nagant isn’t interesting to the author.

Then came the superb SIG P226 and Beretta 92 — excellent guns. (My ragged old notebook confirms the SIG would put five Federal 9mm 9B into 1.5 to 2.4 inches at 25 yards. The Beretta was not far behind. The M59 on a good day might do an 8-inch group.) Today’s variants of the SIG and Beretta are better. Smith & Wesson’s next generation was still based on a 1950’s trigger action. The Colt 2000 was so bad that it elicited surprise.

I don’t miss the ammunition of those days. Modern ammunition, such as the Federal HST, Hornady XTP, and Speer Gold Dot, is leagues ahead. Most of the guns of the day that chocked on Super Vel and Speer Flying Ashtray feed well with modern loads. Allen Jones and his crew at Speer perfected feed reliability in the Gold Dot bullet. If you wanted quality and effectiveness, handloads were once the ticket.

Final Thoughts

So far, I am not feeling nostalgia but relief for what we have today. Then came the Glock. Very few recognized the benefits of the Glock. Reliability was unquestioned. Ease of training, with only one trigger action to learn, eventually outpaced the popularity of double-action first-shot guns.

modern Devil Anse .45 from Taylor’s and Company, and a beautifully made Galco holster
If you feel like cowboy nostalgia, a modern Devil Anse .45 from Taylor’s and Company, and a beautifully made Galco holster, is all you need. Don’t spent thousands on an original rig if you are a shooter.

I don’t miss the first generation Glock pistols that I modified with sights and barrels. The present guns are much better, and of course, we have the Walther PDP. I still own a number good 1911 handguns. I can purchase a good Colt Competition — one of the most accurate factory pistols in my experience — or a Springfield TRP for less than I once spent to upgrade a factory 1911.

I still enjoy firing the Novak custom 1911, but for constant carry, it is a Springfield Loaded. Despite my respect for the great revolvers of the past, look at the Smith & Wesson 640 Pro… night sights, fluted barrel, and a smooth action. Not to mention ergonomically-designed grips separating the hand from the frame and providing excellent recoil control. Nothing like that in the old days.

The rise of America’s rifle in the hunting field has given us the incredibly accurate and useful AR-15 rifles. Modern optics are amazing — more advanced than most computers of a generation ago — with excellent performance, if you are willing to pay for it. Affordable optics are better than ever. If you want to pine about the old days of music, some of the best are still with us. As far as firearms we are living in an age with the best.

Which side of the ‘nostalgia’ fence do you sit on? Do you prefer the older guns or those with more modern features and designs? Make your case in the Comment section.

  • Smith and Wesson Kit Gun in .22 caliber with its original box
  • S&W Model 13 .357 Magnum, right profile
  • Young man shooting a single-action revolver
  • Remington .44 Derringer
  • Old revolver in a leather case with a box of Revelation .22 Long cartridges
  • John Inglis Hi-Power 9mm semi-automatic handgun, right profile
  • Taylor’s Devil Anse revolver, right profile
  • Two old Browning Hi-Power 9mm handguns
  • Nagant revolver, right profile
  • modern Devil Anse .45 from Taylor’s and Company, and a beautifully made Galco holster

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 (17)

  1. Many low cost handguns of the past did use steels that were very soft and wouldn’t withstand higher pressures or firing tens of thousands of rounds. In many cases frames were not actually steel, but cast malleable iron. Which is a reasonably strong material in terms of tensile strength, but low in hardness and with a tendency to chip. It’s fine for the old low pressure revolver cartridges loaded with plain soft lead bullets though. There’s generally no reason to doubt the strength of the steel used in high quality older handguns. They will easily fire tens of thousands of rounds, and often hundreds of thousands. Some WWII production 1911s have gone over a million rounds. Even low cost zinc alloy framed handguns have been known to fire over 10,000 rounds in .22 caliber. Though there are indeed improvements in present day alloy steels, I’ve fired tens of thousands of rounds in many calibers through dozens of antique and vintage handguns with no troubles aside from the occasional spring replacement. Also the cases of cartridges like .32 S&W Long and .38 S&W seem to last almost indefinitely, and they can withstand numerous loadings. I like the rather gentle shooting characteristics of the old pocket revolver cartridges. I’ve also fired a fair quantity of original black powder loaded .38 S&W rounds, and they were surprisingly spicy. Recoil was brisk. With a very satisfying BOOM! and a big cloud of smoke and fire. 😛

  2. Good thoughts. I play and shoot my old guns but carry new, also something replaceable if things happen. I liked the 300 Savage (Savage 99) and 16 gauge comment (I have an old A5 Browning using 2-9/16″ inch loads). But 7.35 Carcano?

  3. I have no argument with Bob in his views, but would like to make a couple of comments. I grew up in the age of blue steel and walnut. Call me antique seeking fossil status, but so be it. In the years I have watched, I am not pleased with everything I have seen. Many of the so called improvements in guns have need simplifications in manufacturing for cost sake. For instance, who preferred the post 64 model 70, to the pre 64? Does anyone prefer the Smith and Wesson revolvers with the lock, to the one’s without? Perhaps some do, but not all. Perhaps this is part of what was meant by the previous comment about changes brought about by lawyers and bean counters. Also, where can you find a real gunsmith? I am currently looking more than 150 miles away, for someone who can reinstall a front sight and do bluing. A major gun dealer with a “complete “ gunsmith shop, didn’t even know where such work could be done! One major nationally known group, walked away from it as being beyond them. If I needed AR parts installed, or cerakote, there are plenty of locals. I understand, that is the current market, and the market rules. I will continue to go the the range with my iron sights, shoot my cast bullets, even in my rifle, and continue to get the stares, disbelieving looks and continue to muddle toward fossil status.

  4. I bought a Ruger New Model Blackhawk .41 Magnum back in 1991, and it still shoots like a dream. I keep it loaded with 147 grain silver tipped hollow points, and people think I’m joking. Yes, you can buy silver bullets, and oh, are they effective, especially against those pesky werewolves. LOL However, it is not a good gun for concealed carry, for that I have an XD 9mm with +P hollow points. I work in IT, and got my first computer, a Commodore64 back in 1980. When I look at that compared to what I use now, I’ll take now. I have fond memories of that C64, but wouldn’t want to try to do my job on it now. Same for guns. I would not want to face an intruder with a flintlock, although I’d love to shoot one.

  5. I have a couple of old heirloom guns that are fun to takeout and shoot with the kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews.

    Still have my first .22 rifle as well.

    No real nostalgia about the guns, just fond memories of going hunting with my Dad, Uncles and Cousins.

    I will take a modern gun over a worn out old gun every time.

  6. I carried an ‘issue’ Hi-Power for pretty close to five of my six years in SEA. It NEVER LET ME DOWN. I currently own two …. I love them!!!

  7. @Bob, I get it. The 1911 I carried 50 years ago, probably was not a great gun. It was well worn, none of the parts were made by the same manufacturer, and if I were to handle it today, I probably would be appalled that I used it with any proficiency at all back then. It did serve me well in times of need and never let me down. But it was what I was issued, and as an E-5 getting paid well less than $500/month, buying a better gun was kind of out of the question.

    Shortly after I got out, I bought a Model 59 Smith that I rather liked. Mine shot better than you described, and improved even more after I took it to a gunsmith friend who fixed a sleeve into the bushing, tightening it up. That reduced my groups considerably. It was fun to shoot and is probably the only handgun I let go that I sometimes wish I still had, except for that Smith 29-2 with an 8⅜” barrel.

    All the 1911s I have now are keepers, as is my 629.

  8. Is it okay to be nostalgic for cartridges? I miss 300 Savage, 7.35 Carcano and 16 Gauge. I miss Janis, too. Gone far too young.

  9. Seems the atoms of old steel are the same as new steel. You might discern your variants and descriptions? I’m thinkin my iron might not function as intended. Things like loads may have an “impact” on stresses unintended on metals from the 1800’s. Maybe “condition” also. Rust, oxidation, etc. ??

  10. I have to agree with most of the opinions expressed in this article. I have some older firearms, and all of them are in excellent condition. But the only one of those that actually sees regular use is a 1973 Colt Commander that’s been fully upgraded to modern standards

    I taught my daughters and my nephews to shoot when they were young, and I still go shooting with them on a semi-regular basis now that they are into their 30’s and 40’s. They’d rather shoot my PDP with a red-dot than my P38. I’d rather shoot one of my CZ’s than the Browning. My daughter is in law enforcement and likes a ,45 over her .40 carry when we shoot together. She always chooses to shoot my Sig P227 instead of my Colt. They all think that my S&W Registered Magnum with its 8.75″ barrel is really “cool” and they semi-secretly argue over who gets to inherit it when I’m gone. But when they are given a choice they shoot modern semi-autos every time. The nostalgia just doesn’t transfer into actual use, when we can have our choice of all the great modern firearms that are available.

  11. T.J

    Thanks for reading!

    I have printed out your reply and put it on the bulletin board.

    Very to the point!

  12. I love history and so most of my guns are from ww1 and ww2 as far as carrying goes my choice over my Thompson ordinance 1911a1 I prefer my baby desert eagle 9mm it never fails has great balance and doesn’t weigh 100 pounds lol like my 1911 plus it has 18rnds versus the 8 of my 1911 but I will be buried with my 1911 before I’d ever get rid of it.

  13. You make some very valid points. I guess that I would have to say that I prefer old iron over new but I have the option of choosing which I want to take from the safe to use for any particular outing. The beauty of blued steel and walnut is hard to beat esthetically but there surely are other factors to consider.

    Much of your argument also would apply to vehicles, both of the 2 and 4 wheel variety. Old bikes and cars have old problems, new ones have their own set of problems.

    I think what appeals to me with older firearms and vehicles is what I call “seeing the hand” There was a different design mindset back in the day that doesn’t exist in our CAD/CAM world of today and that is what I miss the most. To me it is like comparing art nouveau to planned obsolescence designs, the one is stunning design and beauty, the other shows more the hand of lawyers and bean counters.

  14. I came of age during the Viet Nam era. My very first handgun was a 69T Browning Hi-Power with a ring hammer that I purchased at the JC Penney store in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1976 for $175. I miss those kind of prices. Two buddies and I started reloading .44 Magnums for our Ruger Super Blasckhawks on an RCBS Rockchucker single stage press. I miss the component prices of yesteryear. I sure prefer my Dillon 550 for handgun loads! I’m with Bob as far as nostalgia for the “old days”. Some things were better but we can’t go back so carry on.

  15. Bob, I have aluminum framed pistols from Colt, Ruger, Springfield and S&W. I don’t’ see them ever wearing out.

  16. I agree firearms today are as good or better than those of old, but there’s something about human nature that causes yearning for that which is no longer available. For example, my favorite hunting rifle is a Ruger M77 Mk II circa 1993 with the boat paddle skeleton stock. I bought it new for $325. The stock is light which is both good and bad… good because is easy to heft through the woods, bad because in .300 Win Mag it kicks like a mule and it’s small shoulder foot print can lead to a hellava bruise. Still I would not trade it, or change for anything. I love the way it looks and shoulders. I don’t pine for the “old days”, but I do still enjoy some of the older models that you just can’t buy anymore… at least not new.

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