Fifty Years of Handguns

From the ‘hand cannon’ to the ‘plastic pistol,’ we’ve come a long way since Gun World was born 

Smith & Wesson’s N-frame handguns

Smith & Wesson’s N-frame handguns were enormously popular during the 1970s with the “Dirty Harry” craze. This is Workman’s Model 57 in .41 Magnum.

Story and photos by Dave Workman

Golden anniversaries are times of great reflection for some, and grand celebration for others.

The last 50 years have sped by for devoted handgunners, stretching back to the era when uniformed police officers still carried .38 Special revolvers and forward-thinking sheriff’s departments armed up with .357 Magnums. Fifty years ago, nobody would have ever dreamed that in the years ahead we would see such things as the “9mm double-stack” craze, or an Austrian gun company becoming a dominant force in the both the American law-enforcement and armed-citizen communities, or a resurgence of the Model 1911 pistol in so many incarnations that it might be impossible to list them all.

Along the way, Americans went through other phases, not the least of which was the emergence of the Model 29 Smith & Wesson as “the most powerful handgun in the world, and it will blow your head clean off.” Clint Eastwood probably should have earned a sales commission from Smith & Wesson for the number of Model 29 .44 Magnums his Dirty Harry films sold, to say nothing of the shoulder holsters that crossed retail counters in the early- to mid-1970s.

Mini Revolvers

When it comes to mini-revolvers, North American Arms has cornered the market with tiny 5-round .22-caliber revolvers, including the Earl, built to resemble an old Remington wheelgun.

EARLY INNOVATORS

Elmer Keith and Bill Jordan helped pioneer the .41 Magnum—a cartridge for which I have great affection (I own three handguns chambered for that round, and wouldn’t swap any of them for a .44)—and despite the late Jeff Cooper’s disdain for the 9mm round, a generation of shooters evidently more interested in firepower than stopping power bought millions of guns chambered for that cartridge.

Para Ordnance, which has become Para USA, or simply Para, brought us the wide-framed Model 1911 variation with a double-stack magazine that put more than a dozen .45 ACP pills down the tube before a reload was necessary. Yet, the pistol and its clones are not overly fat around the grip frame.

Ruger SP101 Revolver

Ruger got into the compact revolver game in a big—and small—way with the SP101. This one is chambered in .327 Federal Magnum, and was reviewed by Workman about three years ago.

And then there was Glock, a handgun that arrived on the scene with the dubious distinction of being demonized as an undetectable terrorist weapon by congressional anti-gunners and their soulmates in the gun prohibition lobby. But like so much else that gun banners would have the public swallow, this “plastic gun” nonsense went by the wayside as soon as American law enforcement agencies discovered that the clunky-looking semi-auto had a lot going for it.

GUN WORLD’S EARLY YEARS

Ah, but we travel too swiftly through the decades. To appreciate what we have seen, what the industry has accomplished and where we have been—and maybe where we are going—we need to get back in time to the early 1960s and a rather basic magazine called Gun World, the brainchild of the late Jack Lewis, an ex-Marine, published author and a man who worked on screenplays along what he called Hollywood’s “Poverty Row.”

Tiny Pocket Pistols

Two more examples of tiny pocket pistols are the NAA Guardian and Ruger’s LCP, both chambered in .380 ACP.

This magazine was still in its infancy when the dreaded Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed. It was a time before armed private citizens became the target of sneering elitists, and before anyone could imagine that the criminal acts of thugs and lunatics would lead many on Capitol Hill to consider attacking the Second Amendment and trying to reinvent it as a “right of the states” to arm the National Guard.

To read this article in its entirety, pick up a copy of the August issue of Gun World magazine, available on newsstands now.

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