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From the History Books

10 Most Influential Handguns of All Time

by Garry James   |  September 22nd, 2011 92

The other day the blogmeister here at GunsandAmmo.com, Ben O’Brien, dropped me an email, opining  it might be fun for me to come up with my thoughts on the world’s ten most influential handguns. Well, it would be fun, except for the fact I would much rather have a limit of 50 or– even better—100 to work with. Space being valuable, I reluctantly trimmed down the list to what you see below. Please bear in mind that the guns selected are not necessarily the first of their breed, or even possibly the best, but they had a tremendous bearing on what was to come. Sorry if I left out your favorite, but there’s a good chance it’s  probably somewhere to be found  in the top 100. Here we go, in chronological order. By the way, I fudged a little bit, and slipped in one more. Maybe Ben won’t notice.

Scroll through the photo gallery below to read my list, and be sure to leave your valued opinions in the comment section.

Garry James

About Garry James

Garry was born in Los Angeles, CA, in 1944. At age 11 he was given a Civil War vintage Remington revolver, and this began his passion for firearms. After graduating from college with a degree in journalism, he joined the U.S. Army, eventually becoming an Ordnance ammunition officer. After discharge, he joined the staff of "Guns & Ammo" magazine in 1971, where he eventually served as Editor for several years. As well as acting as Arms & Armour Expert for the auction firm of Sotheby Parke Bernet, Garry has been a technical advisor for films and television, including the popular series, “Story of the Gun,” "Tales of the Gun"(for which he was series advisor,) "Mail Call," ”Unsolved History,” “Lock n’ Load,” “American Rifleman Television,” and “Top Shot.” Garry is currently Senior Editor at “Guns & Ammo,” and a contributor to “Guns & Ammo Television” and other Intermedia Outdoors TV productions. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost experts on the history and the technology of firearms, and has a first-hand knowledge of everything from medieval hand-cannons to the most modern full-autos.

  • Jim Hanley

    I think youbare a little biased towards Smith & Wesson. I can't believe you omitted the Colt Single Action Army

    • JPKirkpatrick

      The only thing that made the Colt Single Action Army an important weapon was the fact that it was a military contract that kept it alive. The S&W No. 3 Top Break was a far better revolver and the favorite of the Army (over the SAA) but S&W did not want to redesign the revolver to ad a slightly longer cartridge. (Which was a stupid corporate decision).

      • conor

        100%

    • Bill Allen

      So True !!

  • http://n/a Emanuel

    I believe like the fellow above that you have definitely slighted the Colt Single Action Army. . . Unbelievable!!!

    • Don

      I also like the Colt handguns better than Smith & Wesson. I also think the Colt Python is far better than a smith & Wesson .357. I only agree with four of his picks.

  • curtis

    i think the colt single action, the one the cowboys carried, should most definitely be number one any list of hand guns. with a couple of exceptions none of others would have existed, .

    • JB

      I think maybe you watch too much TV. Read the reply by JPKirkpatrick above for the reason the Peacemaker was left off. If you follow the article you will see that it relates the history of great innovations. Colt was part of that with the Patterson as mentioned and the Walker in my opinion. The colt SAA was and still is an exceptional weapon, but even so does not rank at the top of 19th century cartridge revolvers as the S&W and Merwin and Hulbert were easily better designs.

  • John

    Miss the Colt Walker most powerful handgun until 44 mag.

    Colt Peacemaker is most copied and still in production since 1873. Colt was main producer of 1911A.

  • Harvey

    The Borchardt C-93 was the first semi-automatic pistol to be made in significant numbers and, as such, is more worthy of a place on this list than the Luger P08, I feel. I also agree that the 1873 Colt SAA should be high on this list. In terms of "most influential handguns," however, I think the #1 spot belongs to the FN1910 .380, the gun used to assassinate Franz Ferdinand and begin the socio-political cascade that resulted in World War I. A close runner-up would be the derringer used to assassinate President Lincoln. Following that would be the Beretta 1934 used to kill Ghandi. "Most influential" handguns? In terms of the world, I believe those are at the top of the list.

    • Garry James

      You folks are just going to have to read a little more carefully. We are talking about germinal fireams not necessarily specifics. The Colt Paterson was the springboard for the whole line of Colt SAs, including the SAA and others down to this day. The SAA, while a superb piece, was not a particularly special handgun evolutionary speaking. It used lockwork and some other features of the earlier Colt percussion revolvers, the and the bored-through cylinder of the S&W as well as cartridge styles not unique to it.

    • Garry James

      If we were talking notorious guns, I would agree with you wholheartedly re: the 1910 Browning, 1934 Beretta and Deringer, but we were discussing firearms evolution/influence. Oswald's Carcano and the Hamilton, Burr duellers would probably be right up there, too. The Borchardt has the distinction of being the forerunner to the Luger but has considerable failings. It was the Luger that caught the military and public's attention, and thus, I believe, has the edge. Only a limited number Borchardts were made ( according to the "Blue Book of Gun Values," around 3,000) while Lugers number in the tens of thousands, were used by military and civilians worldwide, and more than any other gun of its type, gave legitimacy to the concept of the automatic pistol. The C.96 Mauser would be a close second.

      • Tim McNamara

        Good choices Garry!

        I do not really think the P-08 Luger had much influence on pistol design, sexy as it is. It was a poor design for a military arm and expensive to make. It was notoriously unreliable and hard to field strip for routine maintenance. It's toggle action cannot be found in any modern arm and it generally faded from useful existance except as a war prize. I think that one of the major criteria for an "influential" handgun is how many firms copied the design.

        The Luger, with some short lived exceptions [Lhati, etc] was not widely copied.

        Nice touch with the Glock entry, it's a great pistol and put a lot of pressure on the handgun industry to make better products.

        • Garry James

          Couldn't agree with you more about the Luger's servicability–would rather carry an Iver Johnson Owlhead into combat–but when it came out the Luger was the bee's knees and really turned the attention of the buying public (and not a few militaries) from revolvers to automatics. The Lahti, though it looks like the Luger, with the exception of the 9mm caliber, has very little in common with the older gun mechanically. It's probably the most overbuilt 9 ever made–had to work well in the frozen North.

          • http://Kivaari Don

            Garry, The Lahti had a weak point on the barrel extension where the lock up took place. Norma and Lapua 9mm ammo was very hot. The area at the cut-out would crack. This was aggravated by the inclusion of the accelerator that gave the bolt a boost. The m35/40 are very interesting and heavy pistols.

  • Bill

    A tough assignment and I think you nailed it.

  • Bill Crane

    Do the folks who tout the Colt SAA forget that the S&W was 1870? The patent for the bored through barrel didn't run out until 1873, then Colt was able to market the SAA.

  • Bill Crane

    Gee, I thought the HK VP70z was the first polymer pistol. Held 18 rounds. But what do I know?

  • T.D.

    I like this feature, and I was waiting for the Glock to agree wholeheartedly with your list.

  • Jim Wargula

    Kudo's to you for the home-run. Can't fault a thing!

  • Frank

    While the HK VP70z was the first Polymer pistol, it was Glock that really kicked off the polymer pistol market. The other manufactures began playing catch up and putting out there own versions. While Glock has only been out around 25 years. I would give it the 11th spot.

    • http://Kivaari Don

      Frank, The HK VP70 with the machine pistol shoulder stock was so insignificant. It was a horrible idea. Earlier HK pistols like the P9s series were interesting experiments. But like much of HK products of that era they were poorly configured. Walther and HK seem to miss on many products. Even the MP5 (now discontinued) needed a better selector (as does the G3). Ergonomics just were not on the designers minds.

  • Mike Steen

    Gary, I was a little hard on you on the prettiest hand guns but on this one , Ya done good.

    • Garry James

      Thanks Mike. With the exception of my wife, who was a Rose Princess, I've never done all that well with the beauty thing anyway. I even think the Webley WG Army Model is pretty handsome, so what does that tell you?

  • G Grimes

    Great choices!

  • Chris Adams

    Gary,

    Despite the confusion about this not being a popularity contest, and although I'm not familiar with some of the earlier arms, I like the list. Thanks for all of the entertaining articles, I love martial arms and really enjoy your down and dirty and frank discussion about them.

  • http://Kivaari Don

    I think the P38 gets too much credit. It didn't really enter German service until 1942. In typical German fashion it was a mouse trap affair. Yes it was a DA/SA so it deserves recognition for that feature and its locking block. But when you look at it closely it has weak points scattered throughout it. What fails on the guns using the tilting block? The block and slide. Most I have used were unreliable. The postwar aluminum pistols wore out fast. When Walther "improved" the design with its P5, it created a machinists nightmare and an inaccurate club. Unfortunately I think Walther pistols are rated far too highly.

    Post war PP and PPK series guns were made in France and now the US. They look good, and feel good, but are short lived.

  • Tom

    It would be hard to put together a list like this without people fussin'. As far as being "influential". I would have to agree that the Colt SAA probably should replace the Paterson only because of it's popularity and "famousness", but you did an excellent job. I think the Beretta 92 or the old flintlocks probably ought to be on there but I'm not sure what they should replace. Maybe the High Power? The P38's were certainly pioneers. Mine is very reliable, but won't hit the side of a barn. It was given to me by a WWII vet who brought it back from Europe after the war, holster & all, with a name written on it (holster).

  • Lee

    Garry, check your facts with regards to the Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum. In the original brochure it states specifically that the term "magnum" used by S&W came from the Parker Hale company. The champagne thing seems to be an urban legend

  • Garry James

    You are absolutely, 1,000 percent correct. The term "magnum" used on a number of British cartridges, some well prior to the .357–but, as I know, it was still derived from the champagne bottle.

  • Steve

    Still think the Colt Single Action Army was grossly slighted here.

  • Craig Kinard

    Why did you show such a beat-up Hi Power pistol??? The deep bluing of this pistol and elegant lines deserve better!!!

    • Garry James

      Mea culpa. it was the only photo I could put my hands on in the time allotted to get the blog up and running. Actually the gun is not quite as bad as it looks. It's a Canadian Inglis High-Power. They were parkerized.

  • Jimbo

    Really would have liked the old Broomhandle Mauser on the list. Almost a 50 year service run in different militaries. And, of course, it was Han Solo's blaster.

    • Garry James

      Surprisingly, the Broomhandle, for all its style, really wasn't oficially adopted by as many militaries as one would think. Of course it was Winston Churchill's handgun of choice, T.E. Lawrence liked his, it was a favorite of Chinese warlords, and– what the hey—who can argue with George Lucas!

    • billy bob

      your very right the c96 just got a flash suppressor and space looking stuff
      and theres your blaster

  • creek247

    I think the key word is time here and not whats out there now evolution of fire power nice list is gary just getting paid by kimber know just joking thanks for history

  • Wolfgang

    Kudos for your list Garry ! I wonder if the .454 Casull SA would have been considered? Not for the SA handgun design of course….but for the extra strength & quality that Dick put into it…to do the HEAVY loads testing which lit the fuse for the explosion of BIG BORE and powerful handguns that followed.

    • Garry James

      Well, Wolfgang, you're right, the .454 Casull is a great round and, especially, the Freedom Arms revolver a heck of a gun, but as we were limited to 10 choices, I'm comfortable the round would still have its antecedent in the .357 and the FA in the Colt and S&A No. 1. Other revolvers, of course, would be combos of the D, A and D, S&Ws and Colt.

    • https://www.facebook.com/bob.meluskey.sr Bob Meluskey

      i agree love the round personally

  • http://same Bob K.

    Without a doubt, the .45 Glock! However, one must pea rise with it! Once you can do well with it, the Glock in .45 caliber is THE bad guy on the block!

  • EdC

    How can you leave out the Glock 17? It has started the entire "plastic" gun movement.

    • Garry James

      It's not left out! I created a special, non-sanctioned eleventh spot for it. Go back and check and you'll see.

    • https://www.facebook.com/bob.meluskey.sr Bob Meluskey

      you guys can keep all your plastic toys i'm old school love the feel of real wood and steel in myhands 1911 in 45acp 100plus years old and still going strong , when the glocks are around that longthen maybe just maybe they will be considered great

  • Scott Sechrist

    I kept hoping that as the list rolled on the first "big game" revolver with a reputation "that will take your head clean off" just had to be on the list! S & W Model 29 I still miss "ringing the steel" plate at 200 yards!

  • Denny Andrews

    The Luger is the most recognized automatic of all time. I think the Colt SAA is the most recognized revolver. Its history and tradition transcends the usual boundaries of "best." It should be rated and HIGH. M&H? Puhleese.

  • 2WarAbnVet

    Hmm, no plastic guns on the list.

    • Garry James

      Take a look at Bonus Number 11.

  • http://www.talonsite.com LarryA

    Good list as far as self-defense/mlitary handguns. But I don't think it represents handguns overall without either the Remington XP-100 or the Thompson Contender.

    • Garry James

      Excellent point. That's what comes of being limited to 10 choices. Probably would start with the single-shot salon and target pistols of the mid 19th century.

    • http://Kivaari Don

      Larry, The late coming XP and TC were not innovative at all. There were single-shot large-bore cartridge handguns in the mid-1800s. Remington rolling blocks, the German Ordnance single shot, and other crude designs. Except for sporting use by a small number of people, I find the XP-type guns not serious handguns beyond the novelty value.

      • Jeepers Creepers

        Thank You Don! For the insult. I'm one of those some number of people that like to feel the raw power of a very big junk of lead (500 to 800 grain projectile) leaving the muzzle over 1,400 FPS from a 10 inch barrel. You do not want to be on the receiving end of lead that large.
        Thank You again for the insult.

  • Dave

    Good choices looking back. What do you think the future of defensive handguns holds? John Browning has passed maybe it's time to look beyond magazine in the grip slide operated v notch sights.

    • Garry James

      That's probably more of a question for Patrick Sweeny or some such modern defensive gun guru. There's a lot of fancy new stuff out there that I have not kept track of, being the Luddite that I am.Personally, I'm happy with my Wilson Combat .45, S&W Model 27, Browning High-Power or Ruger Redhawk. Would even use my Colt Bisley .45 in a pinch.

  • http://Kivaari Don

    Gary, When I read your bonus position on the Glock I had to agree. Initially I hated the fiorst M17 for a couple of reasons, they had stoppages and were too large for many shooters. Once the recalls were done and 2nd generation guns put into service they became my favorite for real on- the-job use. Your term "pratical" was the needed qualifier. The poly-framed HK P9s and VP70 were not practical, they were clubbish.

  • p moore

    How about a sig? Maybe a P226 or even a P225

  • HDibos

    Handguns have been used by men for two centuries.

    For nearly one century the revolver has served armies, police and civilians. The same applies in the following century to pistols. The small frame ejector revolver (top break or side ejector) in .32 or .38 cal deserves recognition, so happens to the .32/7.65 mm pocket pistol used worldwide.

    • Garry James

      Handguns have been used for FIVE CENTURIES, and there is not one thing that you have mentioned that hasn't been covered, in one way or another, by the selections. Often I get the sad feeling that some people don't take the time to read the original entries….only the responses; and in the case of written articles, only the captions to the illustrations.

      • JB

        I read the whole thing and enjoyed it whole heartedly. Maybe you could come up with a top ten 19th century revolver article. I truly love those old revolvers.

  • one-shot

    m-1 Garand.without it everything elseMacnicht

    • http://Kivaari Don

      It doesn't quite fit into the handgun catagory.

  • Norm

    Love my Glock 27, but without a doubt the boss of all handguns is the trusty 1911.

  • ntrudr_800

    +1 Walther P38. It is one of the coolest autoloaders methinks. I need to read more on it. I like the open top when the upper recoils back. Interesting…

    As far as the Colt SAA–it was an evolution of previously-mentioned pistols. I think the Colt SAA and clones such as Ruger Vaquero are the most beautiful handguns in the universe. Must be fun to shoot too!

    • Wayne Bond

      Colt SAA's are not fun to reload. S&W made the revolver fun to shoot ten or more rounds.

  • Jeff Olson

    All this pissing and moaning about what gun wasn't on the list and what everyone else feels should be on the list. In case you missed it Garry James was asked to put together a list. If you don't agree with the guns that were listed then write your own article and submit it to Guns & Ammo or some other publication.

    Garry, I on the other hand, thought it was quite interesting to learn the history of the guns listed. Yes I would list some other ones, but it is all a matter of personal perspective. Thanks for the history lesson!!

    • Garry James

      My pleasure. It's something I really enjoy doing, though it's not just theoretical. I love shooting and experimenting with older guns as it gives me a much better perspective when writing about them. There isn't one gun on that list that I haven't had experience with.

  • Victor L

    Well thought out article, I liked the choices. Do you not feel there was anything very influential between the wheellock and the Colt Patterson? Thats a pretty big gap.

    • Garry James

      There were lots and lots of things in-between, that's what makes limiting choices to just 10 difficult, if not almost impossible. Unfortunately, such a proscription dictates that one is forced to hit only the high points and leaves little room for nuance.

  • Al Elliott

    As good a list as any. What makes horse racing, etc. The thing about firearms is that the newer plastic/aluminum versions are probably better weapons. But not nearly as attractive as the old timers

    • Garry James

      Very good point Al, but you know, I've shot guns that are over 300 years old and they work just fine. I wonder, per capita, how many plastic pistols made today will still be going in three centuries. Well, there's an excellent chance we'll never find out.

  • Jim H

    I was happy to see the Browning Hi-Power on the list. Although I love my 1911 I have to admit that the Hi-Power is an improved version. I am not talking about the high capacity but rather the ease of take down. After all these years it still one of the easiest pistols to take down. Mine is a Belgium made Browning that I bought in the 1970s. Beautiful.

    I understand the omission of the Colt SAA but I have to say that is regrettable. Although the S&W guns were more technically advanced they were not what the US Army or the average civilian going West wanted for a simple reason. They were not as dependable or as easily repaired.

    I own original S&W revolvers that still work but many had all sorts or problems that could not be fixed by the so called gunsmiths on the frontier. On the other hand I have seen a Colt SAA that had its mainspring replaced by something that looked like a band saw blade. The gun was simple and could be repaired by just about anyone.

    The Colt SAA was a simple design for a specific purpose– for use on the frontier where there we few gunsmiths or armourers.

    The SAA was popular for that reason and for the fact that it really balanced well and was finished beautifully, probably the nicest thing anyone of the class moving to the frontier owned. Even today I would put a Colt SAA up against any handgun made in the looks department. It is a work of art.

    In a way I would love to go into all the total BS you gun writers have said about the Colt SAA such as the total nonsense of the old timers carrying a $20 bill in one chamber. But that isn't really the subject, now is it? In any case when you can find just one primary source that states this let me know, let alone that it was common practice.

    Really I think most gun writers get their 'expertise' by reading other gun writers and repeat the same old truisms over and over. Sorry, but that is what I believe.

    • Garry James

      Jim. You couldn't be more correct about a lot of the misinformation out there–about many guns. The SAA being such an iconic piece certainly has more than it's fair share of questionable lore attached to it–including the $20 bill thing. I always try and go to primary sources, or at least well footnoted secondary material, when putting a story together–plus I feel it's imperative to shoot the guns one is talking about in as close to the original style as possible, so you can get a more intimate understanding of, the subject.

  • WW

    Interesting list. The only one I would really question would be the Luger.

    Lots of SAA fans here. Those are what you see in the westerns. Wonder what the market share really was back in the 19th Century? Guess I'll do some searching.

    Any article that makes you want to learn more did it right, thanks.

    • JB

      If I remember correctly, during the second half of the 19th century S&W sold the most followed by Colt, M&H, and Remington. I do not know what the exact percentages were, and I kind of doubt you could affix exact numbers. Let us know what you find out.

      • Garry James

        JB: I believe you are absolutely right concerning the ranking as far as 19th century sales go. The No.3 made by Smith, Ludwig Loewe and others was used worldwide, and while I don't have sales figures, I believe they were substantial. The SAA, as good a gun as it was, didn't seem to get the worldwide recognition it deserved, though the Brits did like it as a target gun, some English officers purchased them for personal sidearms, and many were used in Mexico and South American countries. According to Larry Wilson, the number of 1st Gen Colts made (1873-1940 ) was 357,859 and only 192,000 between 1873 and 1900. Of course since then, Colt and others have made thousands more. I like the 19th century revolver story idea. May have to work that up some time.

  • Patrick

    Garry, outstanding article! I actually have a S&W Model 1 my dad gave me recently so I was very excited to see it on the list!

  • Tim

    Good thoughts on which handguns made the list. I would have hoped for the Ruger MK1 to make the cut. This accurate plinker is still used to brig new shooters into the fold.

  • Mel

    Nothing wrong with the article per its stated reason.

    What most know about handguns is what they seen being displayed in various movies over the years.

    Almost all the movies made from the Thirties to the Fifties had the stars using Colt SSA's or Winchester 94's or 73's regardless oft he time frame of the movie.

    It wasn't until the fifties when westerns transversed form the Big Screen to the Little Screen and Bill Ruger brought out the Single Six that the average person really became aware of Six Guns so to speak.

    Eastwood for the most part in a lot of his Westerns at least used period pieces for the time frame involved.

  • Garry James

    Mel, you are wise beyond your years. Colt stopped making SAAs in 1940 because of flagging sales. It took movies and TV to get things going again. Among the pioneers in the new SAA movement was Great Western. Not bad guns actually, though quality could vary. Of course Bill Ruger was a tremendous influence.

  • Thumper47

    The S&W #3 was a great weapon, the 1873 Colt was not far behind. The 1860 Colt was/is beautiful…we have lived in some fabulous times. The 1911 Colt is hard to beat. The plastic pistols and the CZ75 are some fine pistols also. Many good ones have come along since 1935 &1950's. Ruger has brought out many good ones too. I am glad I lived when I lived.

  • Nick Ford

    Great article, very much enjoyed it. Though for the sake of argument, what about the Browning 1900 or the Colt and/or FN 1903 instead of the Luger for popularising semi-autos? The Browning 1900 was certainly a commercial success in Europe, and the Colt 1903 in the States, and well as the multitude of Spanish and Belgian copies of the FN 1903, I think would make a good argument for doing as much to popularise them as the Luger.

    • Garry James

      All excellent points. it's what comes of having to limit the selection to only ten. Actually the 1900 was a serious contender, the Luger only edging it out because of all the foreign military contracts as well as the civilian usage. The 1900 certainly popularized the pocket pistol–plus its a really cool little gun. I have one that I love to shoot.

  • mkk41

    Kinda figured YOU would have to include at least 1 British revolver. Though I can't really think of any feature of any British revolver that could be called innovative , at least not in a positive way.

    And to whoever made the comment about the .44 Walker being the most powerful revolver till the .44 mag. I do believe the .357 mag 158gr bullet at 1500fps beats the 146gr lead round ball at an 'optimistic' 1300fps.

    • Snug

      Look again ! No. 3.Deane, Adams & Deane .The first D.A.O.

    • billy bob

      i think the webly revolver could have been honered

  • David

    Great article! I've been a Guns and Ammo reader since the mid 1970's. I am considering purchasing my first 9mm (I do not have this particular caliber) and have been strongly leaning towards a Browning Hi-Power. Classis design and other features have drawn me to this particular model.

  • Cyrano

    I was surprised not to see the first side crane revolver on the list. I'm not sure which model it is, but I recently handled a S&W in .32 S&W from the late 19th Century at the gun shop that required you to unscrew the ejector rod to open the crane. I believe it predates the S&W .44 Hand Ejector, aka the Triple Lock, by several years. But whether you consider that or the Triple Lock more important, considering that almost every revolver manufactured today uses a crane rather than a top break action, whichever model is considered the first successful example of the type should have been on the list instead of either the Glock or the Browning Hi-Power.

  • J Smith

    I have owned many handguns in my lifetime and my GLOCK model 22 beats them all. I have had H&Ks, S&Ws , and i do like Colts though.

  • James

    Mr. James,
    A great list but I think that you should have mentioned the S&W Shcolfield instead of the No.3 American or Russian. The Scholfield was the best of the No.3s. You should do a list for pocket pistols my favorite is the 1903 hammerless Colt

  • https://www.facebook.com/Razer440 Ed Marshall

    What about the Winchester 1873? The gun that won the west.

    • NRA Life

      Bla, bla, bla.
      SOS warmed over.
      Remember, it was the Chinese that invented gunpowder.

  • David

    Not that it deserves to be mentioned as one of the most influential handguns of all time, but I have an HK Model 4 that converts from 380 to 22. Fun to shoot in 22 caliber (cheap too)and then easily converts to 380 with the weight being about the same for familiarity in handling.

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