Modern Handguns

22 August 2013   |   by Tom Drinkard   |   Library

A Brief Overview of Handguns

This article is meant as an introduction to the subject of handguns. It is not meant to be a definitive guide to the subject. Books have been written about specific, individual firearms and are the most comprehensive guides to their subjects.
It wasn’t until Colt’s first factory—the Patent Arms Company, in Paterson, NJ—introduced the Colt Paterson, in 1836— that the handgun world was introduced to a repeating firearm employing a rotating cylinder in which each opening acted as a separate chamber; a true revolver. There was a hitch, though. The operator was still required to fill each chamber with black powder, seat a lead ball and add a percussion cap. Not exactly a speedy operation. Another unique feature of the Paterson was that the trigger wasn’t exposed until the shooter thumbed back the hammer.

The Paterson enjoyed limited success with both civilian and military markets. It wasn’t until fully metallic, centerfire, cartridges—usually brass—were available, that the Colt .45 Peacemaker (pictured above), the Single-Action Army (SAA ,model) of 1892, was a practical firearm. This handgun is popularly known as “The gun that won the west.” A single-action, six-chamber (six-shooter), it is the iconic weapon most people identify with cowboys, gunslingers and old-west lawmen. Since its introduction, the revolver has been available in up to thirty calibers and a number of configurations, including the famous (mostly in stories) Buntline Special. The solid design, reliability and the mythological appeal of these revolvers have ensured their viability in the marketplace, as well as the hearts of collectors and shooters.

Single-action handguns are widely available in today’s marketplace. Calibers ranging from the .22 to the powerful S&W .460. Uses vary from simple plinking or home rodent control, to firearms suitable to confront a massive Alaskan Brown bear. This review of revolvers, though brief, wouldn’t be complete without mentioning one of the most influential handguns in U.S. history, the Smith & Wesson Model 10. This revolver has been a standard in military, law enforcement and civilian hands since its introduction in 1899. The handgun is frequently referred to as the S&W .38 Special, since that is the most popular caliber associated with this firearm, although it has been manufactured in several other calibers.

  Learn More About Revolvers

Modern Semi-automatic Pistols

Although several Europeans had designed pistols that were self-loading, their firearms had not won broad acceptance. In 1896, an American, the legendary gun designer, John Moses Browning, produced auto-loading, semi-automatic pistol designs that were first manufactured by the Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale (FN) and later by Colt, in the United States.

A 1973 Colt Series 70 1911 Government Model
Colt Series 70 1911 Government Model

In response to the U.S. Army’s requirement for a sidearm with much more man-stopping power than the .38 caliber revolvers, Browning designed the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge to be used with the prototype of his Colt Semi-automatic pistol. Browning’s Colt pistol would become the world-famous M1911, a single-action, semi-automatic, magazine fed, recoil-operated handgun chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge. Due to experience in the World War I, several minor changes were incorporated and the pistol became known as the M1911A1. The modifications were minor and parts were interchangeable.

With the advent of World War II, the demand for the .45 sidearm was overwhelming and the U.S military turned to several companies to fill the need. Remington Rand (primarily a business machine company) is said to have produced more M1911A1 pistols than any other wartime manufacturer. The Ithaca Gun Company; Union Switch and Signal, a maker of railroad switches and signals, and the Singer Sewing Machine Company (yes!) were all pressed into service to build the .45 pistol.

Many variations on the central theme have been made to the pistol, including a model issued to General Officers, but the handgun designed more than a hundred years ago has stood the test of time. Despite the adoption of a 9mm sidearm by much of the U.S. military, the M1911A1 is in use by the top tier Special Operations military units, the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, many SWAT teams and police departments.

John Browning’s simple, solid design has lent itself to customization for the civilian markets. Some of the most prominent gunmakers, using the basic M1911 platform as their guide, command a premium price for highly-accurate and attractive products.

Colt Series 80 Presentation Gold Cup

While the U.S. soldiers were carrying the M1911A1s into battle, the German forces opposing them were issued a radically different, but efficient, design. The Luger was one of the first semi-automatic pistols and was designed to use a toggle-lock action, which uses a jointed arm to lock, as opposed to the slide actions of almost every other semi-automatic pistol.

The Lugers used as sidearms by the Germans in WWII fired the 9X19mm parabellum cartridge which had been developed for the pistol. The cartridge is popularly called the 9mm Luger for that reason. Although not as popular as the M1911, the Luger is still sought after by collectors for its sleek design and connection to the Third Reich. Some American companies have produced copies in recent years. There are numerous handguns, by fine manufacturers, in use across the U.S., but even a cursory look at modern pistols wouldn’t be complete without considering the iconic, Austrian-designed Glock family of semi-automatic handguns.

Glocks are the first successful polymer-framed semi-automatic pistols. These handguns are double-action only with no external hammer. Although, initially, the marketplace was reluctant to accept a “plastic pistol,” the simplicity, lighter weight and reliability of the Glock family of more than two dozen models has made them extremely popular with law enforcement, military and civilian users. Glock claims that 65% of U.S. law enforcement agencies are users of their handguns.

The manufacturer refers to its pistols as Glock Safe Action Pistols. The unique safety system is built into the handgun’s trigger. There is no external safety lever or button on Glock’s pistols. The safety mechanisms are disengaged once the shooter presses the trigger and reengaged when the trigger is released.

  Learn More About Semi-Automatics

Full-Automatic Pistols

It is difficult to make a clear distinction between a fully-automatic pistol, sometimes called a “machine pistol” and a submachine gun. The term machine pistol is derived from the German word, machinenpistole, which simply means, machine pistol—a fully-automatic military, personal defense weapon. The latter term is attributed to John T. Thompson, inventor of the Thompson submachine gun—the Tommygun.

Modern examples of full-auto pistols include models from H&K, Steyer and Glock. These pistols are typically described, by their manufacturers, as personal defense weapons or close quarters combat firearms. The fact that they fire pistol rounds, have a shorter effective range and are typically furnished with much smaller magazines make them less than effective as weapons for offensive use.

  • Muzzle-loaders: these firearms are loaded from the front of the barrel and, except for those meant for nostalgic shooters and collectors, are mostly obsolete. The oldest example of these dates back to the Chinese hand-cannon from the Yuan Dynasty (1271- 1368). They were simply miniature versions of the black-powder cannons. The powder was ignited through a small hole near the breech (back of the gun).
  • Breech-loaders: in one of several forms, these firearms comprise the bulk of modern handguns.
  • Pistols: some use the term as a synonym to handgun. Many purists and handgun experts define a pistol as a handgun in which the chamber—that part of the firearm holding the cartridge for firing—is integral to the barrel of the firearm.
  • Revolvers: are handguns with a rotating drum holding several cartridges, depending on the design and caliber of the firearm.
  • Single action: these are handguns that require cocking the hammer before firing each shot. Single action handguns comprise both revolvers and pistols. Such as the old west Peacemaker revolvers and autoloading pistols such as the Government Model 1911.
  • Double action: When the shooter pulls the trigger, the hammer is cocked and the handgun is fired. In the case of revolvers, the action of pulling the trigger will also rotate the cylinder. This operating mechanism will allow, in traditional double-action handguns, the operator to pre-cock the hammer, making for a lighter trigger pull.
  • Double-action Only: These handguns do not allow the operator to pre-cock the hammer. Some might refer to the firearms as "hammerless," but a more accurate term could be "enclosed hammer" in the case of revolvers.
  • Semi-automatic: a single-chamber pistol that uses the energy from one shot to reload for another. The chamber is integrated with the pistol’s barrel. These are sometimes called auto-loading or self-loading firearms. They auto- matically chamber a new round, but only fire once for each pull of the trigger. Typically, the first round must be manually chambered by pushing the slide to the rear, engaging a live round and seating it in the chamber.
  • Full automatic: a firearm which is auto-loading and will fire multiple rounds with a single pull of the trigger.
  • Magazine: The metal box, drum or tube holding ammunition. A spring beneath the rounds pushes them upward for reloading. Magazines may be fixed—that is, only removed for disassembly and cleaning—or they may be detachable. In the latter case, the shooter removes an empty magazine and replaces with a full one, to reload.
  • Clip: a device used to facilitate loading magazines. These are particularly necessary for loading fixed magazines.
Summary: This article has been a concise sketch of handgun development and is intended only to open the way for more in-depth study, based on users’ needs.
Guest Writer Tom Drinkard
Thomas Rowe Drinkard

Thomas Rowe Drinkard was born and reared in Alabama. He graduated from the University of North Alabama with a degree in English. Upon graduation, he was commissioned an Army second lieutenant. Within two years he completed parachute school and was selected for the U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets). He spent more than ten years with the fabled unit. For you guys that served (like me), I might add that Mr. Drinkard served with MACVSOG.