Part X: D.B. Wesson & Paul Weston
By John Taffin
There is no doubt we are living in the age of the semi-automatic pistol. However, this was not always the case and during the last century, especially from the 1920s to the 1970s, the double-action sixgun was definitely the King.
There were many men who raised the use of the double action to both a high art and science. These men need to be remembered for their contributions and with that in mind we go back in history when six shots were the norm and all that was needed. All of these men are now gone. As a kid never did I ever imagine I would actually know many of these sixgunners.
Col. Doug Wesson of Smith & Wesson is responsible for the arrival of the first Magnum—the .357—and also was true pioneer handgun hunter. In 1930, S&W chambered the .44 Special Model of 1926 in a .38 Special loaded heavier than standard to come up with the .38/44 Heavy Duty. By using the N-Frame as the platform, the .38 Special went from a muzzle velocity of around 850 fps to 1,150 fps. The S&W .38/44 Outdoorsman made the .357 Magnum possible and Phil Sharpe was a real driving force behind it. He felt the .38/44 Outdoorsman could handle pressures of at least 35,000 psi and even went so far as to have cartridges made for his use 1/10-inch longer calling them the “.38 S&W Magnum.”
On a hunting trip with Col. D.B. Wesson, a pair of the heavy-framed Outdoorsman revolvers were used with a large assortment of handloads developed and previously tested by Sharpe. In the field they proved entirely practical, and Col. Wesson set to work on a new sixgun the two of them planned in the field.
In 1935, the .357 Magnum was born. These were custom sixguns built to each customer’s specifications as to barrel length, sights, and even sighted in for a specific load and distance. These early hand-fitted revolvers are now known to collectors as Registered Magnums. To promote the new .357 Magnum, Col. Wesson used both 6-1/2- and 8-3/4-inch versions of the new gun and cartridge to take elk, antelope and black bear. He even went to Alaska with the hopes of taking a brown bear. He was unable to find one of the big bears and after contemplation felt it was a good thing he had not done so. In later years both of these early .357 Magnum revolvers were owned by Col. Rex Applegate and it was my privilege to handle them.
The book Burning Powder compiled by D.B. Wesson introduced the S&W .38/44 Outdoorsman (left)
which was used by Wesson three years later as the base sixgun for the .357 Magnum (right).
Smith & Wesson advertised the .357 Magnum as the most powerful revolver ever made. One of the first production 8-3/4-inch .357 Magnums—Registration No. 1—went to then head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. That barrel length was of course too long for law enforcement use, however 4- and 3-1/2-inch .357 Magnums soon became very popular with FBI agents.
Writing of hunting with the .357 Magnum Doug Wesson shared, “Our first attempt was for antelope on the Grays Run River, not far from Cody, Wyoming. There we had the good fortune of jumping a nice buck at about 50 yards. I took a running shot, which lamed him slightly but apparently did no serious damage. We followed him up and in about a mile we saw him standing, just as we came over a rise. I estimated the distance at about 200 yards. I held nearly level with his backbone. This was quite difficult to do as at that distance the antelope was about half the width of my front sight. The first shot knocked the antelope completely off his feet and he lay there unable to move…
“My next animal was an elk at Terrace Mountain, not far from Jackson Hole and again my luck was holding for as we were sitting taking a bite of lunch we saw a perfectly good elk coming toward us. There I was in a perfectly good spot to do my shooting from a sitting position, which I prefer, and fired as the elk turned slightly to one side. As this was my first big game animal I made the mistake of firing a second shot in spite of the fact that I heard the first bullet strike solidly. The second shot made the elk run about 200 yards where he then dropped dead… We then went to Turpin Meadows where, much to my amazement they had moose. The third day out was our last as the weather was beginning to get threatening and we did not want to take a chance of getting snowed in because we had a pack train and were about 30 miles from civilization. On this last day we saw nothing until about 10 o’clock, which is the time the moose take back into the woods… I held on the bull’s chest and began squeezing and saying to myself, ‘If you jerk you’ll miss.’ So I just squeezed and squeezed until I swear I could feel the trigger bending. Finally the gun went off, I think, I didn’t hear it but I did hear the bullet hit and the moose then turned, took a few steps and went down…
“The following year I went to British Columbia with grizzly bear in mind… When the bear swung his head to one side it gave me about an 8-inch bull to shoot at. Here, again, I did not remember hearing the gun when I shot but I did hear the bullet hit the bear. He went backward a good 4 feet and lay without a quiver… The following year I got very large ideas and went up to Alaska with Father Hubbard for an exploration hunting trip with brown bear in mind. For this trip I carried two revolvers for added power. We never did get to see a brownie, for which, in my older and more intelligent days I feel sincerely thankful.”
The S&W .357 Magnum with a 3-1/2-inch barrel was very popular with law enforcement.
Paul Weston began shooting with the National Guard in New York City and then became a member of the New York City Police Dept. in 1936. He soon qualified to shoot on the NY Police Pistol Team as well as becoming Pistol Instructor at the Police Academy. He served in World War II as a Chief Gunnery Specialist and then returned to the NYPD after the war.
Above everything else Weston was a teacher and after retiring from the NYPD became an associate professor of government and police science at Sacramento State College. Also as a teacher he wrote at least two textbooks still quite valid today for anyone interested in shooting double actions. Both of his books are basically self-teaching manuals and are titled Combat Shooting For Police (1960) and The Handbook of Handgunning (1968).
There are two theories of double-action shooting: Two-Stage and Straight-Through. In the former most of the weight of the trigger is taken up and then the remaining trigger pressure is taken up as if you were shooting single-action. In the latter a straight-through trigger pressure is applied until the gun fires. Whichever way is chosen Weston said, “Shooting can be accurate in double action. It can also be much faster than single action, or even automatic pistol fire. It can be fired either with a two-stage trigger pull or with a straight-through trigger motion. However, accuracy is still dependent upon a trigger-finger motion that is independent of grip pressure, steadily increasing, imperceptible, and does not end up with a sudden aim-destroying bump. Any marksman can learn to shoot double action, so long as he remembers any motion on the trigger that moves the weapon at the moment of firing can only move him away from where it had been aimed.”
When it comes to double-action shooting Weston concluded, “Shooting double-action might also be termed natural when in trouble. This tendency to double-action may go back to our juvenile use of cap pistols, but whatever the reason, it is high time those of us concerned with marksmanship took cognizance of it. After all, why train men to shoot single-action when such fire is utilized only in offensive shooting? Far better to train police officers in double-action shooting, to prepare them for situations in which accurate, rapid, defensive fire may save their lives, and possibly the escape of a vicious criminal. Double-action shooting leads to the ultimate and rapidity and accuracy of fire at moments when a man’s life is endangered. Two-stage double-action extends the range at which this type of fire can be effective.”
Not only was Weston a major proponent of double-action shooting he was also a fan of great leather in general and especially the designs of Chic Gaylord with his book on combat shooting profusely illustrated with Gaylord’s holsters.