Going Old School

Model 15 revolver right

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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Comments (18)

  1. Started policing in 1981 with a S&W m 66. Later moved to a lightweight commander then to the SIG p220. Still have the m66 and in my opinion it offers enough power (357 mag) if needed, 38 spl for plinking and training. May not be as sexy but it always works

  2. Thank You Bob for comiing up with a definiton that fits me, an accumulator not a collector.I have seen and would love to have had some exquisite guns, engraved, inlaid, beautiful wood. But the reality is, I would not be happy if I was not carryiing and shooting them, so I end up with a hodgepodge of guns that I like, that fit my purposes, that fit me. I have a couple of guns that I bought and found that I hated something about them. They did not stick around long You could pick out the handguns I like the most, they show holster wear, they are not perfect, but then I’ve got some old friends that are like that too.

  3. Hi. I am just a simple guy. In 2001 I graduated from college with an Associate Degree from Murray State College in Gunsmithing. Each of my three sons receive a 1911 in .45acp upon graduation from high school. That said, it is a firearm that I truly believe in. There are variations, differences, and many, many opinions. More than once, the firearm that I carry has saved my life, more times than not without having to pull the trigger. I look at my sons and know that it is better to have a firearm and never need it, than need it and not have one. I chose the 1911 to give my sons for this very reason.

  4. I carried and qualified yearly with a S&W Mod 15 as a security policeman in the USAF in the mid-70’s. Qualified expert every year. So I went to a gun store to buy one. They were out of 15’s but they had a Mod 10, 5 inch bbl. It was, and still is, a highly accurate .38. All my kids shoot it very well. It is a natural pointer and has an easy trigger pull. I also have a Series 70 Gov”t Model bought in ’77. It wasn’t very accurate and rattled when I shook it. I had it throated to feed JHP’s. Six years ago, I had it customized. It is now a very accurate piece, and my most prized handgun.

  5. Years ago I bought a 1911 with a manufacture date of 1917. Naturally I don’t burn thousands of rounds a day through it but I still shoot it and it functions flawlessly. I hand load for it and stay within industry standards. I also have several other 1911 in 45, 9mm and 38 super and have never felt I was under gunned at any match I shot.

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