So, what guns should you shoot before you cast off this earthly veil? I suppose such a list would be different for each of us, depending entirely on our interests and what we already have experience with. And, although I’m perhaps best known as a “bolt-action sporter” guy, you’ll find no turnbolts on my list, not a single one. (However, there is one straight pull).
At some level, they all seem fairly similar. Likewise semiautomatics. But then, I’ve shot most turnbolts and semiautos at least a little. There are a few guns on my list that I haven’t actually fired, but they still remain interesting. Most of them I have shot, and I wouldn’t mind doing it again (or watching someone else fire them). In no particular order, here’s what comes to mind:
Colt Single Action Army
Adopted in the service trials of 1872, the Colt SAA, also known as the “Peacemaker,” is the most iconic of all revolvers and very possibly all handguns. Colt stopped production several times, but it always brought it back due to demand. There are a number of very good copies, and they’re just as much fun to shoot, but at some point you need to shoot a real Colt. Sam Colt’s engineers really got it right; few handguns ever made fit the hand as well as Colt’s SAA.
That said, with its topstrap groove for a rear sight and rounded front blade, it is not an easy handgun to shoot well. Actual accuracy is generally much better than most shooters are able to realize. In more powerful chamberings, such as the .45 Colt and .44-40, it’s also a real handful. And, although it’s a six-shooter, there are good reasons why smart folks only load five and keep an empty chamber under the hammer.
It’s not a perfect pistol, but it is a perfect piece of history. Not being a Cowboy Action guy, I don’t shoot mine much, but I’ve owned at least one for more than 40 years.
Lee Rifle, Model of 1895
By the year of this rifle’s designation, the turnbolt Mauser hadn’t yet won the bolt-action war. In fact, although virtually all other developed nations in the world had adopted repeating rifles with smallbore smokeless cartridges, the United States was still issuing trapdoor Springfields in .45-70.
The U.S. Navy jumped the gun (so to speak), adopting James Paris Lee’s straight-pull bolt-action rifle in the 6mm Lee Navy for use by both the Navy and the Marines. The semi-rimmed cartridge (which was the parent case for the .220 Swift) was both the smallest-caliber and highest-velocity cartridge (112-grain bullet at 2,560 feet-per-second) to be adopted by a military force. In 1899, we adopted the .30 U.S. (.30-40 Krag) in the Krag-Jorgensen rifle, so the Lee rifle and its 6mm cartridge were short-lived (as the Krag was to be, replaced by the Springfield just four years later).
However, it should not be implied that the straight-pull Lee was taken out of service overnight. It saw action in both Cuba and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War, and, despite legend, Marines in China carried it during the Boxer Rebellion (1900). It was a straight-pull Lee in 6mm Lee Navy that Marine Dan Daly wielded on top of the old Tartar Wall in Peking, holding his position alone and earning the first of two Medals of Honor.
They were straight-pull Lee rifles carried by the relief column under Smedley Butler (the only other Marine to win two Medals of Honor) as they came to the aid of Daly and his besieged comrades in the Legation Quarter. Thanks to modern straight-pulls such as the Blaser, we now know that the straight-pull design is fast and reliable. I’ve never fired a Lee Model of 1895, so that remains on my bucket list.
As we modified our Civil War Springfields into breechloaders, so did the Brits with their Snider-Enfields. In 1871, however, they took a quantum leap forward with the Martini-Henry, a falling-block single-shot designed for self-contained metallic cartridges. Its .577/.450 cartridge, based on the .577 Snider case necked down to .458, used 85 grains of blackpowder behind a 485-grain bullet. It was thus considerably more powerful than our .45-70.
It’s a simple rifle, with a cocking indicator but no safety, this coming from a time when volley fire by command was still the norm. It was the Mark II variant that was used in the Zulu War in 1879. Sights were graduated to 1,800 yards, which probably wasn’t particularly useful, but the 25-inch spike bayonet gave the lads considerable reach over their assegai-wielding Zulu adversaries.
Production of the final Mark IV version ended in 1889, but the Martini-Henry continued in use throughout the Empire at least until World War I and is still occasionally seen today. Because it weighs just 8½ pounds, its recoil is significant, but as you shoot it, imagine that a trained infantryman could fire 12 rounds per minute — and imagine further the punishment he took as the barrel became fouled.
Thompson Submachine Gun
Street-sweeper, Chicago piano, Tommy gun or whatever name you may know it by, the Thompson submachine gun was developed by General John Thompson just a bit too late to enter World War I. However, it hit the streets in 1921.
Various federal agencies as well as quite a few notorious individuals used them in small numbers throughout the 1920s, and the Marines used them during the “Banana Wars” of the ’20s and ’30s. The U.S. military didn’t officially adopt the Thompson until 1938, but more than 1.5 million were made during World War II, and it remained in at least limited official service until 1971.
Although its .45 ACP cartridge is very much a short-range affair, the Thompson was and is extremely reliable and, up close, devastating. When you heft it, you will be shocked at how heavy it is: nearly 11 pounds empty. The legend is that it’s hard to control, but it really isn’t. As Ernest Hemingway’s character Harry Morgan (“To Have and Have Not,” 1937) said to himself as he prepared to do mayhem, “You got to be light-fingered.” Try it; you’ll like it.
Never heard of it? How about the “Broomhandle” Mauser? With its stripper-clip-loaded magazine ahead of the triggerguard, it is one of the most distinctive of all handguns, and for some reason it must have a somehow sinister profile because today it is most frequently seen in the hands of movie bad guys.
More than 1 million were manufactured between 1896 and 1937, with copies made in Spain, China and elsewhere. The majority were purchased individually or in quantity as “secondary issue” pistols; China is the only nation that used the Mauser as standard issue.
Even so, it was popular and extremely effective. Although later 9mm variants are common, the original bottleneck 7.63x23mm cartridge with a velocity of 1,394 fps reigned as the world’s fastest handgun cartridge until the .357 Magnum came along.
Although probably not long on stopping power, the C96 offered significant range, with the tangent sight graduated to an optimistic 1,000 yards. Just over a foot long, it’s a big pistol that feels just plain weird, but it works like the incredible machine that it is.
Winchester Model 1873
Like many left-handers, I have a soft spot for the ambidextrous lever action, and of course the Winchester Model 1873 was “The Gun That Won the West” (at least in legend). With its long receiver and drop in the stock, I don’t find it nearly as attractive as Winchester’s later lever actions designed by John Browning: the 1886, 1892 and 1894.
In fact, I hadn’t shot a ’73 until it was recently brought back into production; then I “got it.” Designed for short pistol cartridges, the ’73 may be the slickest of all lever actions. It requires just the tiniest flick of the lever to lower the breechblock, eject the spent case and carry a new one into the chamber.
I never understood why the 1873 remained in production long after Winchester had several “better” lever actions in its line. Shoot a ’73, and you’ll understand, just like I did.