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.
No. 1: WHEELLOCK
This is where it all really began. Up until the introduction of the first wheellocks, around 1500, cavalrymen pretty much had to rely on swords, maces, war hammers and lances to carry out their missions. Of course firearms had been around for some time, but hand cannons and matchlocks required the use of two hands for proper operation, and a trooper had plenty to do managing his steed without having to drop the reins to go through some sort of involved manual of arms. The wheellock changed all that. Though it was complicated the mechanism, involving a spring-loaded serrated wheel spinning against an iron pyrite to produce a spark for ignition, for the first time allowed a gun to be carried loaded, primed and ready for action—the very essence of a practical pistol. Though expensive and generally limited to the nobility, the wheellock also found its way into the civilian market. It also led the way for the later flintlock and percussion pistols, and I guess, just about every other kind of handgun.
No. 2: COLT PATERSON
Introduced by Samuel Colt in the mid 1830s, the Paterson percussion five-shooter was by no means the first revolving pistol but it was certainly head and shoulders above all earlier attempts. Sure, it had its flaws and was not even a raging success at the time, but Sam Colt’s entrepreneurial drive and ability to improve his product resulted in this gun being the first in a long line of highly successful repeaters. And until the advent of the automatic, it firmly established the revolver as the pre-eminent military and civilian handgun, worldwide.
No. 3: DEANE, ADAMS AND DEANE
In 1851, the same year Sam Colt introduced his famous Navy revolver, Britisher Robert Adams debuted his first double-action (or as he called it “self-cocking”) revolver. Beautifully made, this DA-only was possessed of the finest action of its type to date. Double-action was not a new concept, but those on the market, generally seen in such things as pepperboxes, were clumsy, heavy and unreliable. Not so Mr. Adams’ product—it was smooth and rugged. The main drawback to the arm was that it could not be fired single-action—an omission that was corrected by the addition of a modification by Frederick Beaumont a few years later. At the time there was much heated controversy over which was better, single or double-action. Both had their champions, though with the exception of some specialist and retro SA guns today, the DA seems to ultimately have won the battle.
No. 4: NO 1. SMITH & WESSON
Self contained cartridges and bored-thorough cylinders had been around for some time when Smith & Wesson introduced Called, appropriately enough the No. 1, what the little revolver lacked in puissance, it more than made up for in novelty. As the Colt patents dominating the revolving cylinder principal had expired by 1857, Horace and Daniel were now legally able to come out with their own repeater—though actually the pistol’s mechanism was really not all that similar to Colt’s. Employing a small rimfire .22 cartridge (the .22 Short) which was based on the earlier French Flobert round, rather than going trough he laborious procedure of individually loading each chamber with loose powder, ball and cap, a la the Colt, it was now possible to flick a latch, swivel the revolver’s barrel upward, remove the cylinder, drop the rounds in, return the cylinder to the frame, lock the barrel, cock the hammer and start firing. One could actually load seven rounds in the time it took to charge a single percussion revolver chamber. Too, the self-contained cartridges were easy to handle and were also waterproof. The gun took off like a rocket, established S&W as a serious contender in the firearms world and firmly solidified the concept of the self-contained cartridge/handgun combo both in America and abroad.
No. 5: NO. 3 SMITH & WESSON
Up until the advent of the top-break Smith & Wesson Number 3 revolver in 1870, most cartridge arms had to have their empty cases poked out one at a time, via a stationary or swiveling underbarrel ejector rod. The Smith changed all that. With a simple flick of a top latch, the gun could be broken open activating a star extractor which popped all the shells out at once and exposed the chambers for a fast reload. Possessed of a sturdy lockwork, the Number 3 (in various models and calibers—with the .44 “American” being the first attention-getter) became a hot item and as well as being a popular sixgun on the American frontier, and with target shooters, and was adopted by the military of a number of countries, including Japan, Russia, Spain, Turkey, Argentina, and the United States, among others. Manufactured primarily in the U.S. by S&W and in Germany by Ludwig Loewe, the Number 3 was one of the most popular and widely dispersed military and civilian revolvers of the latter part of the 19th century, and firmly established simultaneous ejection as a solid principle for all modern revolvers.
No. 6: LUGER
Black powder was nasty stuff to shoot. It gave out huge volumes of white smoke, fouled terribly and was very sensitive to dampness and climate changes. Even though inventors had tried to put together self-loaders employing black powder cartridges (Hiram Maxim’s first workable fully automatic machine gun was black powder), the development of smokeless powder changed the whole equation. By adopting some aspects of early mechanical pistols, pretty soon workable semi-auto handguns began to appear and none was more famous than the toggle-top repeater designed by Georg Luger. It certainly wasn’t the first (it was beat out by the Borchardt and Model 1896 Mauser, to name just two), but it was the first auto pistol to really be seriously considered by the military (first adopted by Switzerland in 1900) and soon became a staple in arsenals all over the world. It wasn’t even the best autoloader—it was dirt sensitive and a tad complicated—but it did establish the concept of self-loading pistols for military use. It was so pervasive that by World War I many countries had replaced their revolvers with auto pistols, and by World War II, Great Britain was the only major power still fielding a revolver as a primary sidearm. The Luger (or “Parabellum” if you want to use its semi-correct title--there were scads of different versions) is not only one of the world’s great auto pistols, it is one of the world’s all-time great firearms, and it’s 9mm cartridge has pretty much become an international standard.
No. 7: COLT 1911 GOVERNMENT MODEL
This is my second favorite auto pistol of all time. It was a good, solid Browning design that that improved upon his earlier auto pistol efforts and became simply one of the most rugged, most adaptable handguns of all time. Initially used by only a few countries (United States, Norway, Germany, Argentina, Brazil) it has since become popular with many elite specialist units, law enforcement, recreational and competition shooters; and, of course, it was the ancestor of the High-Power which is also in the list.
No. 8: SMITH & WESSON .357
Ejector revolvers prior to 1935, but in that year a new gun, built on the frame of a modified .38-44 Outdoorsman, S&W changed the shooting world forever. The .357 Magnum (named after the “magnum” sized bottle of champagne) was the beginning of the hyper-velocity, hyper-power handguns that are so much in vogue today. At the time it was the most powerful handgun ever produced in commercial quantities, and it’s still a heckuva hunting and defense load. An original Registered .357 Magnum has been on the author’s want list for a long time, but escalating prices seem to keep it just out of reach…Ah well.
No. 9: BROWNING HIGH POWER
Often called “John Browning’s last great design,” the High-Power, while employing many Browning ideas, really owes much of its success to Belgian Dieudonne Saive and his associates at Fabrique Nationale who streamlined and improved the basic mechanism. The actual works though, are really secondary to the gun’s real importance. It was the first practical, high-capacity military pistol. Appearing in 1935, and chambered in 9mm Parabellum, the 13+1-round Pistolet Automatique Browning Modele de Guerre Grande Puissance took the world by storm. Initially adopted by Belgium, Lithuania, Romania and Denmark, it was used by both sides during the Second World War and by just about everybody else afterwards. The High Power firmly established the high-capacity concept, and in concert with our next choice is responsible for today’s multifarious “wondernines.”
No. 10: WALTHER P.38
There had been double-action auto pistols prior to the Walther P.38, but, like the Tomiska Little Tom and Walther PP and PPK, they were pocket pistols. After considerable experimentation Walther came out with a great double/single action 9mm Parabellum eight-shooter, which was adopted by the German Army in 1938—hence its designation Pistole 08, or P.38. It was the first really practical service caliber auto whereby the shooter could chamber a cartridge, safely drop the hammer and fire the first round by simply pulling the trigger. This was Germany’s primary issue sidearm in WWII and after the war it was adopted by the militaries and police forces of countries around the globe. It’s still seen in many inventories, and despite the development of new double-action autos, remains a world-class firearm.
(Extra Credit) No. 11: GLOCK 17
Introduced in 1980, the Glock 17 was the first practical service caliber auto using a durable polymer frame. Initially adopted by its home country, Austria, it has since been accepted in the military of Jordan, Norway, India, Thailand, Philippines and by NATO. It was also an early favorite with many law enforcement agencies. The Glock 17 legitimized the polymer frame concept, which just seems to be going from strength to strength.