What is a handgun? As defined by the U.S. Federal Firearms Act, 15 U.S.C., Chapter 18: “Handgun. (a) Any firearm which has a short stock and is designed to be held and fired by the use of a single hand; and (b) any combination of parts from which a firearm described in paragraph (a) can be assembled.” But a handgun is so much more than that. Handguns or “hand-gonnes” have been a fabric of culture and society as long as “fire-arms” have been with us. Indeed, according to Pollard’s History Of Firearms, the first recorded use of “handgunnes” dates to November 7, 1388. Another early appearance of the term in print dates to 1448 in Archaeologia XXII. 63.
In more modern terms, the allure and importance of the handgun has increased. One of the best explanations for this comes from the late NRA Director Col. Jeff Cooper and his insight from The Complete Book of Modern Handgunning. “The fascination of the pistol lies in the idea of controlling power with one hand,” he wrote. “Aside from its value as a fighting arm and a sporting instrument, the pistol has other areas of utility. Fortunately, there are still times and places in which a man may have need of a firearm and yet find a long gun cumbersome or impractical.” And that sums up the role of the handgun as well as may be done.
Cooper also wrote, “It is interesting to note that the pistol went from a negligible, last-ditch sort of gadget into its present form, almost overnight, historically speaking.” The handgun is a reliable, potent instrument of self-defense. Although there are such anomalies as the Heckler & Koch “Mk 23 Mod 0 Offensive Handgun Weapons System,” the handgun remains primarily defensive in nature. As Thunder Ranch’s Clint Smith says, “[H]andguns are truly at their best when they are used to fight your way to a rifle.” The handgun’s chief advantage is that it is portable enough to always have with you. If you were going to a gunfight, unless you’re a Hollywood action hero, the last gun you’d take is a handgun. I hope never to be invited to a gunfight (it’s unlikely I’d attend, anyway), but belt-fed and 7.62 mm would be elements in my choice of armament. No, it is the portability of the handgun, the fact that it may be unobtrusively carried on the person without undue burden—discreetly or openly—that is the enduring appeal. Why do police officers carry handguns? Because they can—all day every day. They are short, handy, appropriately powerful, and easily and discreetly stored.
But handguns are not just about gunfights or personal protection. They are arguably the most difficult of competition arms to master. Try competing in NRA Bullseye or 2600, and you’ll know. World-class handgunners can turn in groups that even competent riflemen envy. Handy and compact, they have been used effectively as hunting arms for centuries. Think handguns are no good for dangerous game? You might want to Google the word “Howdah.” Large, powerful revolvers in major chamberings are just as appropriate for hunting as they are for self-defense and plinking. The T/C Contender revolutionized handgun hunting, but just missed being on our “Top 10.“ Pistol shooting, whether with a vintage Woodsman in the backyard or Hammerli free pistol in Olympic competition is about harnessing and channeling that power, about the discipline of both body and mind in the attainment of perfection.
There is an almost unhealthy fascination with “Top 10” lists in our culture. In such rankings, something or someone must win, someone or something must lose. “Top 10 Handguns” is admittedly a pretty broad category, and there is no clear delineation between military and civilian arms—with handguns they are one and the same with no line to even blur. Handgun technology through the past 600 or so years spans from a tube in which rudimentary powder and a rock are stuffed down the front and ignited with a piece of smoldering rope to the completely interchangeable, multi-caliber, polymer-frame SIG P250 introduced last year. So we limited the voting to self-contained metallic-cartridge handguns, meaning any cartridge gun after the Lefaucheux Pinfire in 1835.
We looked for technological innovation (in my view the Modello 1889 System Bodeo was a clear winner over the Colt Single Action Army, but for reasons that escape me, cowboys and Hollywood never embraced the Bodeo). Other critical areas included service life, impact on contemporary and subsequent designs, competition use, and military and police use. How many were made and for how long? We placed high importance on what step in the evolution of the handgun was marked by a particular design.
The panel was comprised of Brian C. Sheetz, senior executive editor; Glenn M. Gilbert, shooting editor; Aaron Carter, managing editor; Angus K. McClellan, assistant editor; Field Editors Chad Adams, Wiley Clapp and Mike Humphries; and National Firearms Museum Director Jim Supica, Senior Curator Phil Schreier and myself.
Each panelist listed his picks for the “Top 10” from one to 10. A first-place vote received 10 points; a 10th place vote received one. With 10 panelists, the maximum score possible was 100—the top gun received 92, an “A” in most school systems. The 10 handguns receiving the most points were named to the list. In the event of a tie, the guns with the highest-placed votes received the lower ranking.
Any such list is open to compliments or condemnation. That’s kind of the point of such an exercise. Our votes are listed on our website, and there is an online poll for members to weigh in with their thoughts. There will also be a “Top 10” blog for staffers and members to post their thoughts. We will publish the poll results along with comments and insights we deem appropriate in a future issue. The whole point of such exercises is to provide entertainment, to encourage debate and provide education. —Mark A. Keefe, IV, Editor In Chief
No. 1: The M1911, M1911A1 Pistols And Variants, 92 Points
How can this happen? The firearm in question is only two years from its official 100th birthday. On March 29th, 1911, Col. John T. Thompson of Army Ordnance signed a letter to Colt’s president in which he announced the adoption of the Colt .45 automatic pistol as the official service handgun of the U.S. Army. A joint effort of Colt engineers and dedicated Army officers, working with gun genius John M. Browning, the pistol had won out in test trials against a distinguished field—including a damnably persistent Savage entry—to become the official U.S. military sidearm. This is all well-documented history and easy to summarize. It is harder to explain why the gun is still with us almost a century later. It is a complex of both objective and subjective reasons that combine to guarantee a happy centennial birthday for the pistol of the century, the M1911 Government Model.
In fact and fancy, there is much to be said for the M1911 pistol. Objectively, I cannot name a handgun that delivers more mud-and-sand reliability than the Government Model. All of the internal parts are solid chunks of steel, and they last longer than the sheet metal pressings and wire parts used on today’s competing designs. It is an easy gun to maintain and teach to students. I used to regularly detail strip mine in Vietnam to ensure that immersion in rivers and rice paddies had not deposited an unpleasant surprise in the gun’s innards. No tools required. It is accurate enough for personal defense at 25 long steps, often beyond. With the attention of a qualified armorer with premium parts, the pistol shoots under an inch at 25 yds. It is a credit to the basic design that it has been shortened, lengthened, widened and otherwise fooled with, for a host of perceived needs both good and bad, but with no measurable deterioration of reliability. Since the gun was intended for personal defense by service members whose duties precluded carrying rifles or carbines, one must look closely at what the Government Model has delivered in the way of performance. Beyond a doubt, there is no other service handgun made in the lifespan of the Colt .45 that can equal—or even approach—that of the M1911 Government Model when it comes to resolving conflicts, stopping fights, and keeping Americans alive and fighting.
As Americans, we have come to love this marvelous firearm. Surprisingly, much of that affection is fairly recent. Glancing at the Gun Digest for 1970, we see that there was only one maker of the Government Model: Colt. Today, there are more than I can count. The guns are available in an array of finishes and features, but just about every current maker produces a model similar to the basic gun first fired in anger before World War I. Although part of this recent love affair turns on wide availability, there would be no supply of the guns if there were no demand for them. A good bit of the demand comes from an objective appreciation of the inherent worth of the design, and some of it may be pure nostalgia. More is based on the development of a style of shooting, developed in the late 20th century, which represents the highest and best use of this superb firearm. It is the handgun of the century, made by dozens of makers and in millions of numbers. The late Jeff Cooper best nicknamed the gun when he called it “The Yankee Fist.” It is the “Pistol, Caliber .45, Model 1911A1.” —Wiley Clapp, Field Editor