Wisdom Of The Ages

It’s all at your fingertips.

It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. We won’t dwell on the latter, however when it comes to firearms these are definitely the best of times. We have the “best” guns ever offered to the shooting public. For the most part they are stronger, held to tighter tolerances, relatively cheaper, (at least until the powers that be did such a job on our dollar—oops, that is part of the worst of times and we don’t need to go there!) The proliferation of production
firearms is proverbially mind-boggling. Catalogs are crammed with every possible choice as to action, finish, price, and chambering.

The finest gunsmiths who have ever plied their trade are alive today and they have the best tools and raw materials to work with. The exhibition shooters of yesteryear have nothing on today’s crop of both men and women. Put a semi-automatic in the hands of Robbie Leatham, give Jerry Miculek a double-action revolver, and allow Bob Munden to pick up a single-action sixgun and prepare to be amazed. We often assign mystical properties to gunwriters of old, however compare a copy of GUNS or American Handgunner to early issues and the amount of information provided and the boggling of the mind rivals that felt when we contemplate the proliferation of firearms.

As blessed as we are with today’s situation we still must not lose the benefit of looking to the past. Anytime sixgunners gather and reminisce there are certain names that come up very quickly, names of the men who influenced all of us; the obvious ones being, at least for me, Elmer Keith, Skeeter Skelton, and Jeff Cooper. However, these are just a couple of names in a long list of influential shooters. Even before Skelton and Cooper began sharing their knowledge there were many others disseminating their knowledge. The writings of Elmer Keith go all the way back to the 1920s, however there are those who were both contemporaries of his and even preceded him; men who contributed in a large way to the wisdom of the ages.

We are living in an age when everything is obsolete an hour later, so it is not surprising to find older firearms literature somewhat dated. This does not mean we cannot glean invaluable knowledge from the writers of yesteryear. Some of these men who can still provide us with both information and entertainment in alphabetical order are John Henry FitzGerald, Ed McGivern, Bob Nichols, and Walter Winans. Let us take a brief look at their contributions and what they still have to offer us.

John Henry FitzGerald—“Fitz”—author of Shooting, 1930: From 1918 until 1944 Fitz was the face of Colt, their goodwill ambassador and expert at tuning Colt revolvers and semi-automatic pistols. Fitz’s book is certainly dated, being over 80 years old, however, guns and cartridges may change, but basics remain the same. When reading through Fitz’s book, especially the sections concerning quick draw, self-defense, and police techniques, much of what we still use today is evident including 2-handed Weaver-stance style shooting.

Everybody who had anything to do with handguns knew Fitz. Fitz had the reputation as the fastest in the world with a double-action sixgun and he carried a pair of specially altered .45 Colt New Services in his front trouser pockets. These were not ordinary New Services, which is a large double-action sixgun by anyone’s definition. They do not fit easily into a pants pocket, so Fitz made them fit. Barrels were cut back to 2″, the grip frame was shortened, the hammer was bobbed so it would not catch on clothing, however enough was left so an expert at double-action shooting could start the hammer back with the trigger action and then use the thumb to cock it for deliberate single-action fire. What became known as Fitz Specials, had, for quick access to the trigger, the front of the triggerguard removed. That alone makes reading his book worthwhile.

Ed McGivern, author of Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting, 1938: Ed McGivern is the fastest man with a double-action sixgun who ever lived, at least until modern times and Jerry Miculek. Unlike Jerry, McGivern also used Single Action Colts in his exhibition shooting and was unbelievably fast fanning the hammer and putting all five shots into the area of a playing card. McGivern’s book covers just about every aspect of shooting and especially speed shooting and long-range shooting. For the latter he used the then relatively new Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum on silhouette targets out to 600 yards. Today we may think scopes on handguns are relatively new, however McGivern was scoping the S&W .357 Magnum in the 1930s.

Even before the advent of the .357 Magnum McGivern was using the .38/44 for long-range shooting and his book has targets pictured with all six shots on a silhouette target shot at 300 yards with iron sights. When it came to speed shooting his favorite sixgun was the Smith & Wesson Military & Police .38 and this book shows several photographs with five shots which could be covered by the hand even though shot in a 1/2 second. Using two guns, one in each hand, he performed the same feat onto targets in just over 1 second. His book is not the easiest reading, however, for pure sixgun information it is still valuable and a must read for any sixgunner.

Bob Nichols, author of The Secrets of Double Action Shooting, 1950: Bob Nichols was a contemporary of both Fitz and Ed McGivern and his book takes up where they left off. He used the Fitz Special modification, however, like McGivern, he preferred Smith & Wesson revolvers, saying, “Smith & Wesson actually did produce the first smooth and faultless double-action revolver ever made. The job took them all of 50 years to accomplish. The accomplishment came, however, when the perfect double-action revolver no longer seem particularly important. The automatic was now in the saddle.”

So even as early as the 1940s the handwriting was already on the wall and the semi-automatic would be eventually be king for military and police, as well as many civilians. As the title of Nichols’ book says, this is about all aspects of real double-action shooting, using the trigger not the hammer to cock the action and it is worthwhile to note he talks of bull’s-eye shooters in the 1940s using their Smith & Wesson Target revolvers in the double-action mode. This book is an absolute must-read for those who appreciate, and want to know more, about double-action shooting. It is interesting to note his observance that Fitz understood full well the Smith & Wesson was better for double-action shooting than the Colt he by necessity as an employee of Colt had to use.

Walter Winans, author of The Art of Revolver Shooting, 1901: In the closing decades of the 1800s, Walter Winans was a champion revolver shooter. He was Russian born so it is somewhat fitting that much of his shooting was done with a Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3 Target revolver chambered in .44 Russian. Using black powder loads in the 1880s, Winans set records at 50 yards that for all I know still stand today.

He wrote, “When I first began revolver shooting, I saw in a standard book on shooting that to hit a mark the size of a man at 10 paces was all one could expect of a revolver! Nowadays, if a man cannot at that distance hit the pip of the ace of hearts, it is own fault.” His book is a true classic on revolver shooting. However something I find most interesting was how forward-looking Winans was. In his book The Modern Pistol from 1919 he makes the statement, “Moreover, the revolver is now obsolete, and there is no use learning to shoot it.” I don’t know if I can forgive him for that statement as wrong as it was and is! The semi-auto may be king now but the sixgun is far from obsolete.

Allotted space is always a problem so we will have to save such other contributors to the art of shooting as Walter Roper, Phil Sharpe, Henry Stebbins, Townsend Whelen… for another time or times. Where can you find any of the above-mentioned books? An excellent source I use for old books is www.abebooks.com, and the Firearms Classics Library (www.palladiumpress.com) has reprinted over 100 valuable sources of information. Books sell for about $40 and arrive about every 6 weeks or so. I’ve already filled six shelves in my library since I’ve been a member. I began building my library of firearms information as a teenager in the 1950s through the old Outdoor Life Book Club and those books, which opened whole new vistas for me, are still in my library. In this age of electronic books and the Internet there is still nothing like the printed page especially when the weather is bad and actual shooting is out of the question. Reading is even better than dry-firing.
By John Taffin

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