Handgunning 50 Years Ago

Things Were Simpler Then,
And Cheaper. Or Were They?

By Massad Ayoob

In 1966, revolvers were still the dominant self-defense handgun, and almost totally so in law enforcement. A lot of Texas Rangers carried the 1911—usually in .45, occasionally in .38 Super—but there wasn’t a single bellwether state police agency carrying square guns instead of round ones. Change was a year out: in 1967, the Illinois State Police would become the first major American law enforcement agency to adopt a semi-automatic pistol as standard issue, the Smith & Wesson Model 39. Even so, it would be the early 1980’s before any other state troopers in the country would be issued autoloaders.

If you wanted to compete, NRA bull’s-eye was pretty much the only game in town. A third of it would be shot slow fire from the 50-yard line, 10 minutes per 10 shots; another third would be timed fire in strings of five shots in 20 seconds, and the remainder would be rapid fire in strings of five shots in 10 seconds, with timed and rapid being done from 25 yards. All one-handed, of course, loading on command, never drawing from a holster. Unless you were fortunate enough to be one of Jeff Cooper’s acolytes, there was no venue for “combat shooting” as we know it today.

If you were a cop, though, the combat shooting of the period was PPC, where the fastest time demanded was to draw and fire six, reload and fire six more in 25 seconds at 7 yards. Only police need to apply, and virtually all the matches limited contestants to six-shot revolvers. Most contestants chose 6-inch barrel models with target sights, Smith & Wesson’s K-38 being the dominant choice. Almost everyone stoked those wheelguns with soft .38 Special mid-range wadcutters, and common use of speedloaders was still on the horizon: the cool kids reloaded from belt loops, two rounds at a time if they were sufficiently dexterous.

The Colt Government Model was the most popular of centerfire autoloaders, since the World War II generation was in its peak years and millions of American men who trained on them in the military chose it to defend their homes when they returned to civilian life. Combat vets also dominated the gun press: witness the popularity of Col. Charles Askins and Col. Jeff Cooper. During that period Cooper almost single-handedly led the renaissance of the classic 1911, which continues to this day.

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For those who could CCW, snub .38’s like this Chief Airweight (note rectangular
S&W latch of the time) were most popular, usually with roundnose ammo.

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Revolvers ruled law enforcement in 1966, and S&W revolvers in particular.
Of the wide range of models, LE’s preferred (from top) the 6-inch K-38 for
PPC, 4-inch K-Frame for uniform patrol and 2-inch Chief for
plainclothes/off-duty/backup.

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The Colt .45 was considered the top combat auto. This is
the only one Mas owned in 1966.

Law Changes

The JFK assassination kindled a wave of anti-gun sentiment that would flare up much more violently in a couple of years with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, but in 1966 guns could still be purchased mail order and shipped directly to the buyer’s home.

Concealed carry? With a few exceptions such as New Hampshire, most states were “may issue” on carry permits, which often meant they were granted only to wealthy, white, male, politically-connected applicants. Today, more states than not are egalitarian “shall issue.” Fifty years ago, Vermont was alone in allowing concealed carry by law-abiding citizens without a permit––now several more states are on the bandwagon. In 1966, there were at least seven states where there were no provisions provided by law for a private citizen to carry concealed in public. These days, every state has some such provision; though, for a few, the law is on the books but the permits still aren’t granted to ordinary folks. Nonetheless, we’ve made progress.

Classic editions of GUNS from 1966 show “Norwegian Colt .45 Automatics” at $50 apiece, and a new CETME 7.62 NATO rifle—the forerunner of the HK91—could be had for $219.95, with bipod. In the 1966 Gun Digest there were no hollowpoints to be found in the centerfire handgun ammo listings. Lee Jurras had started his pioneering Super Vel ammo company 3 years earlier, and the paradigm was about to change. This same year, 50-round boxes of .22 LR ran about a dollar per box, and 9mm, .45 ACP, .38 Special and .357 Magnum all cost between 5 and 7 bucks a box.

As much as we sigh wistfully when we read those old prices today, we need to maintain perspective. According to Seek Publishing, average income in 1966 was $6,899 per year, average prices were $14,175 for a new house, $2,653 for a new car and gasoline was 32¢ a gallon, while first class postage stamps cost a nickel. All things considered, particularly on ammo cost, things ain’t all that bad (or expensive) today. As Brother John Taffin has said, “the Golden Age of Handgunning may just be right now.”

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3 thoughts on “Handgunning 50 Years Ago

  1. John

    That was 50 years ago, and all those round guns still work. A SW 638 often goes with me when out and about. I just picked up a 3″ 657 which is turning out to be a real keeper. One of most accurate factory straight guns I have is a Colt Official Police. I would not feel under gunned with that and a speed loader of the 158GR HPSWC 38spl. 50 years ago it was good enough for Barney Fife.

    Reply
  2. Bruce

    I still carry a retired ILL state patrol S&W model 39 it has been reworked a time or two but I love that old gun I wouldn’t give it up for anything.It will be my son,s someday.

    Reply
  3. Jimmie Robinson

    What is the story on California not accepting the colt, ruger 1911 model in 45 cal.
    PLEASE send me the answer by email Thank you

    Reply

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