How I learned to
stop worrying and
love Semi-Autos

Change happens, even to a sixgun expert

“The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry,” said poet Bobby Burns. John Steinbeck took this as his theme for his novel Of Mice and Men. Unfortunately, it’s too often true.

I started my sixgunnin’ life with single-actions and expected to end it the same way. My very first handgun in 1956 was the Ruger .22 Single-Six. Just as so many other young fellows my age, I felt it was the best way to start. My second single-action, and first centerfire, was a circa-1900 Colt Single Action Army .38-40 with a 4¾” barrel. It was a typical example of “used but not abused” — the case hardening had faded on the frame and the checkering on the rubber grips was well-worn, however it was a beautiful example of a well-cared for Colt Single Action even though it was nearly 60 years old.

Even Ruger is now part of the 1911 scene and yes, John really appreciates them.

The collection starts

When the Colt “2nd Generation” Single Action Army sixguns arrived in my area in late 1956, I added a 7½” .45 Colt to my growing accumulation of single-actions. This was my first “concealed weapon.” It wasn’t chosen for such duty because it was the best choice but simply because it was the best choice of what I had. I had learned the old trick of placing it in the waist belt with the loading gate open to keep it from slipping down. Worked just fine!

Even in the early years (1960) John did find some time for shooting the 1911.

I soon added two more Rugers as they became available, the .357 Magnum Blackhawk and the .44 Magnum Blackhawk. The latter was a real eye-opener! Earlier I had read reports of the new Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum by Elmer Keith and Maj. Hatcher. Keith said the recoil would not bother a “Seasoned Sixgun Man” and was not as bad as shooting a .38 Special Chiefs Special. Hatcher took the opposite extreme and said firing it was like getting hit in the palm of the hand with a baseball bat.

When I shot the .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson, in this case a 4″ version, I definitely swung more towards Hatcher’s assessment than Keith’s. Because of this when I purchased my first .44 Magnum; I went with the Ruger. If anything, it was worse than the 4″ S&W .44 Magnum. The Ruger Blackhawk went straight up under recoil moving backwards in my hand and the hammer dug a hole between the thumb and trigger finger. I hung the .44 Blackhawk on a peg in my bedroom and went back to happily shooting the Colt SAA and Ruger .357 Magnum Blackhawk.

Rare Breed

Now with all these early years of shooting sixguns, semi-automatics were not totally ignored. In the 1950s and early 1960s, one rarely ever saw semi-automatics in gun shop display cases. Those found were mostly military surplus .45 ACP 1911 Government Models. Every one of us had two guns thanks to the NRA. Both the 1903 Springfield bolt action .30-06 and the .45 ACP Government Model were made available for anywhere from $7.50 to $15 delivered right to our doorstep via Railway Express.

When I moved my family 2,500 miles west to Idaho the Government Model was under the front seat of our 1965 Ford Station Wagon. When I traveled north and across the Lewis and Clark Highway to the University of Montana for three summers of graduate school, the same .45 ACP rode in my belt in the small of my back. In both cases it was loaded with military surplus ammunition. However, by the time I started graduate school in 1969, something else had happened which would start moving the semi-automatic pistols from acknowledgment to total acceptance and appreciation. It was the Gun Control Act of 1968, or as it is “lovingly” known, GCA68.

Caught in the Act

When this law was passed no one really knew what the effect would be. It was much like the so-called Affordable Care Act in which it had to be “passed so we would know what’s in it.” Virtually every department store, grocery store and even drugstore had a gun department in those days. Since we had no idea what was really coming, I went to one of the local department stores to see what I should purchase before the law went into effect. The closest store had three Colt Commander semi-automatic pistols, one each in .45 ACP, 9 mm and .38 Super. I really couldn’t afford even one of them so, figuring three would not be any worse than one as far as my finances were concerned, I bought all three.

This was my first encounter with the .38 Super. However I had read Jeff Cooper who called it a perfect Trail Gun. The .38 Super first arrived around 1929/1930 and the early guns were described as flatter shooting and more accurate than the standard .45 ACP 1911. Something had obviously happened since then as this .38 Super would not stay on a piece of notebook paper at 25 yards.

The problem was the barrel. They had changed the barrel and for some reason Colt had gone from using the mouth of the case for headspacing to the very small rim at the back of the case. I sent it off to Bill Wilson and he installed a properly dimensioned barrel and groups shrunk immediately to 2″ or less. It began my love affair with the .38 Super which has yet to abate.

John’s ultimate test of any handgun is whether or not it is worthy of engraving,
ivory stocks and carved leather. The Colt 1911 passes with honors.

Steinbeck Returns

It was 50 years ago and I still kept mainly shooting single-action and double-action sixguns. However, in recent years the best laid plans of mice and men have kicked in. Whereas in the early years — and mostly thereafter — I found single-actions the most pleasant to shoot followed by properly stocked double actions, everything has now changed.

At this stage of my life my hands have become much more tender. (I wonder if Major Hatcher was my age when he tested the .44 Magnum?) I now find the single-actions have reversed their role and now they are the most uncomfortable to shoot, followed by the double-action sixguns.

Now, lo and behold, I find semi-automatics — 1911s chambered in .45 ACP, .38 Super, 9 mm and even 10 mm — the most easy shooting.


I still shoot single-action and double action sixguns, however I am much more careful about the recoil level of my loads these days. In fact, for most uses I now load .45 Colt, .44 Magnum and .44 Special at the same level as .45 ACP Hard Ball, namely a 230-gr. bullet at about 800 fps. Heavy loads are shot very sparingly and in fact they are rarely ever needed.

Sixty-five years ago I recognized and acknowledged the semi-automatic pistol for what it was. Today I have a deep appreciation for semi-autos, and yes — if it is possible to love an inanimate object, semi-automatics have joined single- and double-action sixguns in my shooting love life.

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