A Handgun Half-Century

Want To Guess What The Most Crucial 50-Year
Span In The Development Of Handguns Was?

By Mike “Duke” Ventiurino

Recently, while signing a book to one of my oldest friends, I got to thinking about how we’d known each other for 50 years. That’s a long time in a human life. We’d gone from being boisterous teenagers to sedate senior citizens. Of course, being a student of firearms history, it got me to wondering what 50-year span saw the most change in handguns. In my opinion, that would be 1861 to 1911.

Think about it. This particular half-century began with men ramming pure lead projectiles into revolver cylinders atop black powder charges with the mix then being ignited by a separate percussion cap. Although, Smith & Wesson had .22 and .32 rimfire revolvers out by then, they were more novelties than true sidearms. In fact the US Army had just adopted Colt’s Model 1860 .44 revolver for cavalry troopers. (The name “Model 1860” was applied by collectors—not by the Colt Patent Firearms Company.)

At the end of my arbitrary 50-year time frame, the US Army adopted their first autoloading pistol. It was developed by John M. Browning for Colt. The government named it the Model 1911. Its single-stack magazine held seven cartridges loaded with smokeless powder and 230-grain FMJ bullets. The Model 1911 .45 ACP is one of the most popular handguns ever made, used in both combat and recreational applications. And what about the Colt Model 1860 cap-and-ball revolver, which kicked off my 50-year timeline? It’s considered so ancient it’s not even covered by Federal laws pertaining to firearms. That, my friends, represents one heck of a lot of change!

Want a fascinating fact? As soon as the Civil War ended in 1865, the Army set about converting to metallic-cartridge rifles and carbines but saw fit to continue issuing cap-and-ball sixguns for at least five more years.

Why? Perhaps the main reason was that S&W owned the patent for bored-through cylinder chambers. So Colt had to remain content with cap-and-ball revolvers until Smith’s patent expired in 1869. But then S&W introduced their top-break No. 3 chambered for .44 Henry Rimfire in 1870 and had it tested by the US Army. The Army nay-sayed the rimfire cartridge but otherwise liked the big, 8-inch barreled six-shooter. So in 1871 S&W returned with their centerfire .44/100, which later gained the name “.44 S&W American.”

Let’s take a look at handgun cartridge development. The early ones contained heel-type bullets. Such projectiles have a reduced-diameter shank to fit inside the cartridge case with the full diameter of the bullet matching the outside of the case. (Modern .22 rimfires are still made like that.)
Not until 1872 did this change and we can thank the Imperial Russian Government for it. They inspected S&W’s No. 3 and liked it but not the .44/100 cartridge with its heel-base bullet. Instead they wanted a full-diameter bullet to fit inside the case just as modern cartridges—except rimfires—are made today. So why did they make early handgun cartridges with heel-base bullets when they already had rifle cartridges with bullets fitting inside the case? Great question. I’d love to see an authoritative answer.

The .44 S&W Russian set the ball rolling in 1872. It was followed by .45 Colt in 1873 and on and on. By 1911 almost every useful non-magnum handgun cartridge had been introduced. Some examples were .32 S&W Long, .38 S&W Special and .44 S&W Special. Colt stuck mostly with .45 Colt but also leaned heavily on Winchester’s pistol-cartridge-size rifle rounds—the .32, .38 and .44 WCF.


To “close off” his 50-year span, Duke cuts loose with his Colt Model 1911.


Revolvers Refined

By the late 1870’s double-action cartridge revolvers made their debut. In 1889 Colt perfected swing-out cylinders, and their improved Model 1892 .38 was adopted by the US Government in that year. Colt followed up with their large-frame New Service in 1899. It actually saw government service as the Model 1909 and later as the Model 1917.

The 1909 first was chambered in .45 Colt (albeit with an expanded rim diameter) and the 1917 used the rimless .45 ACP fitted into spring steel half-moon clips. Smith & Wesson followed suit in 1899 with their K-Frame revolvers; then progressed to their large N-Frame in 1908. It was built especially for the new .44 S&W Special. And with this, American revolver progress was nearly dormant until the advent of magnum cartridges.

In a mere 10-year period from 1871 to 1881, S&W Model No. 3’s evolved from
(top to bottom) the Model No. 3 .44 American, Model No. 3 .44 Russian 2nd
Model, Model No. 3 .44 Russian 3rd Model, Model No. 3 .44 Russian New Model,
Model No. 3 .44 Russian 1881 double-action.

More Autos Appear

In 1903 Colt introduced their first Pocket Pistol. It was chambered for .32 ACP. In 1908 the same essential gun was made in .380 ACP. It is interesting to note Browning was responsible for developing those two and, coincidentally, both had features carrying over into the 1911. One was the grip safety, the other was the thumb safety on the left side of the frame.

Today many people are scared to carry an autoloader with a round chambered, but it would be hard to get a Colt Pocket to discharge with its thumb safety engaged and without the grip safety depressed.

After this, American autoloading pistol progress was staid until Smith & Wesson introduced their double-action 9mm Model 39 in the early 1950’s.
The most important, most revolutionary ideas in American handgun evolution happened between 1861 and 1911. That’s my opinion.

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