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Combat Gun or Target Gun? There are Some Big Differences

»I AM ALL FOR MARKSMANSHIP, target shooting and even plinking. Accuracy is always interesting. If the target is one that shoots back, however, we are looking at a different discipline. I want to hit the threat, hit him hard and hit him very fast where it will do the most good.

I have come to believe that too many of the handguns chosen for personal defense have target features that might work against us in trying to use the handguns in a combat capacity. I am not advocating a return to embryonic sights and an 8-pound trigger press, but I think that perhaps a clearly defined notion of “combat guns” and “target guns” would be wise. Neither am I advocating point shooting. A combat gun must be aimed if you wish to hit the target, but it must be aimed with rapidity.

A target gun will feature well-defined, even high-profile, sights. The target gun might possess a light trigger action with a break of 2.5 to 4 pounds. There might be a grip shape that aids in perfect control of the trigger in slow fire. The combat gun features sights that are adequate but not likely to snag during the draw. The trigger will be smooth but not so light that it is prone to mismanagement during the fear of the moment. The grips will be useful for firing with either hand.

The Long Road Here

The competition between gilt-edged accuracy and combat ability isn’t new. Among the most relevant comparisons is that between the Colt Single Action Army and the Smith & Wesson Schofield from about 140 years ago. Smith & Wesson pretty much abrogated the U.S. market, keeping busy with sales to Russia and Japan. When they introduced the much-improved No. 3 Frontier, it was a bit late to play catch up. Just the same, the difference was well marked between the two. The Colt was very fast and handled well. The sights were not great, but the tall front sight had good utility at close range. The Smith & Wesson’s sights were crisp and sharp. The Smith & Wesson developed an excellent reputation for top-flight accuracy. The Colt was the gun you wanted if you went to war.

An important step was taken in about 1921 when Tom Threepersons, a noted American lawman, ordered a special tall square front sight for his Colt. Meanwhile, Smith & Wesson introduced the Military and Police revolver to replace the less-than-robust Colt 1892. While military contracts did not pan out, the Military and Police revolver became the single most successful revolver of all time. Early in the game, special target versions were introduced. However, these revolvers seem to have been used primarily in target matches.

After World War II, Smith & Wesson introduced the short-action revolver, which was faster in double-action fire.

In 1935, the most powerful and accurate revolver to date was introduced and the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum quickly set accuracy records out to 600 yards. It is interesting to note that seven years earlier, the Colt Government Model was introduced in .38 Super in 1929 largely to deal with the new breed of outlaw: the “motorized bandit.” It was effective against light cover such as vehicle doors, offered excellent combat accuracy and was fast to reload, but the .357 Magnum pretty much replaced the Super in this niche.

However, another improvement in revolvers did result in improved combat ability. Work by certain firms, such as the D.W. King Gunsight Company, resulted in short-action conversions to double-action revolvers. Lock time was much faster with these conversions. After World War II, Smith & Wesson introduced the short-action revolver, which was faster in double-action fire. Some bemoaned the loss of the old, smooth long-action revolver and felt that the new action was a concession made in the interest of faster production.

Results on the range speak for themselves. Smith & Wesson introduced a target-sighted service revolver complete with trigger stop. Though the Combat Masterpiece .38 might not have been any more of a masterpiece than any other Smith & Wesson revolver, it was immensely popular. Later, the Combat Masterpiece had its cylinder lengthened and specially heat-treated to become the Combat Magnum. This lightweight .357 Magnum revolver was provided with target stocks.

Looking For Action

There are several big differences between bullseye shooting (left) and fast, on-the-move combat shooting (right.)

There are several big differences between bullseye shooting (left) and fast, on-the-move combat shooting (right.)

As for the action improvements by Smith & Wesson, Colt went further and introduced the .357 Magnum Colt Python. The Python is a great target revolver, but on at least two occasions, I am aware of the Python locking up during a critical incident. The trigger was pulled and the Colt fired normally, but the shooter did not quite allow the trigger to reset, attempted to pull the trigger again and bent the double hand. Knowing what I know about the Python, I would prefer a tour of duty with the reliable Model 10 .38 Smith & Wesson.

When the Smith & Wesson Combat Masterpiece was a common-issue revolver, many agencies qualified all the way out to 50 yards. Few do so today. Quite a few unfortunate incidents that seemed to have left the police helpless could have been quickly addressed with long-range gunfire from the Combat Masterpiece or, better still, the Combat Magnum. Just the same, the Combat Magnum, while a fine revolver, was issued with Coke-bottle-type grips that were not ideal for fast double-action trigger work. (No wonder the Hogue MonoGrip sold so well during the era.) In skilled hands, many of these revolvers would place a cylinder of ammunition into 4 inches on a 50-yard silhouette.

A counterpoint to the target gun argument was realized when an agency I served with transitioned from the Smith & Wesson Model 66 revolver to the Model 59 9mm pistol. We had to drop the 50-yard qualification as hopeless. The Model 59 Smith & Wesson was doing well to keep 10 shots in 8 inches at 25 yards, much less 50 yards. The hit probability in actual incidents was terrible; about one hit for five shots was the average. We traded a fine revolver with target features for a poor self-loader. A counterpoint at the time was the issue revolver of the New York State Police: the Model 13 .357, which was basically a heavy-barreled .38 Military and Police revolver with a .357 Magnum cylinder.

Needs vs. Wants

I succumbed to nostalgia at this point in my research and took the Model 19 .357 Magnum revolver to the range along with a Model 13 .357 Magnum. I decided to fire 50 rounds through each revolver, using the clean-burning and accurate Winchester .38 Special 158-grain SWC. It was interesting. At 25 yards, firing carefully off of the barricade, the Model 19 would put five rounds into less than 2 inches. The Model 13 averaged about 3 inches.

During combat drills, drawing either gun from a Barber Leatherworks holster, the Model 13, a heavy-barreled fixed-sight revolver once issued by the New York State Police, was faster on target and faster to a first-shot hit. While the larger grips of the Combat Magnum passed less recoil energy to the hand, the Model 13 was faster on target and faster during double-action fire. During my time in service, it was common to see the adjustable sights of service revolvers knocked off by car doors or even the door jambs at the PD, as we wore these revolvers on the point of the hip. The heavy-barrel fixed-sight Model 13 is probably the best service revolver ever fielded in the United States.

The Colt 1911 Government Model, as issued in 1911, was the finest combat handgun in the world and, in my opinion, remains so today. A combination of a short, straight-to-the-rear trigger action, a grip frame that fits most hands well and a low bore axis make for excellent hit probability.

Five inches at 50 yards is a good standard for a superior combat gun, and 6 inches at 25 yards will save your life.

There was room for improvement. After World War I, there were changes in the sights and the grip frame. There were indentations added in the frame that allowed for a shorter trigger reach. The original trigger was shortened and the mainspring housing — originally flat — was replaced by an arched design. The result was a much better balance and feel.

The short trigger and arched mainspring housing, as found on the modern Colt Series 70, is designed for rapid hits in combat conditions. So why are so many modern 1911 handguns supplied with a long trigger and flat mainspring housing? One reason is because it is easier to fit the popular beavertail grip safety. The long target trigger might be more manageable when you are pressing the trigger with no regard to time and attempting to get a hit on a paper target at 25 yards. The short trigger and arched housing create the proper setup for combat shooting, and an adjustable target trigger clearly has no place on a combat handgun.

I am not saying good work cannot be done with the long trigger. I routinely use a Kimber Pro Tactical that is among the fastest and most accurate of 1911s. But the original certainly isn’t a drawback in combat shooting.

There are also 1911 handguns that have been tightened considerably in order to coax them to deliver five rounds of Federal Match into the same hole at 50 yards. The match-grade barrel bushing limits ease of field stripping, and the tighter guns might not be as reliable when dirty or less than perfectly maintained. Five inches at 50 yards is a good standard for a superior combat gun, and 6 inches at 25 yards will save your life.


High-profile sights are good for combat shooting, but all you really need are sights you can see. The factory SIG, Beretta and Colt sights are good. Adjustable sights are not as robust in action. I have seen too many screws become loose, and this is with the better types. I am certain the bargain guns cannot fare better.

High-visibility fixed sights, such as the Novak, are ideal for all-around combat shooting. As an example, a young man who is arguably worthy of our respect adopted a Springfield GI pistol as his personal pistol. The military intelligence Captain added Novak Lo-Mount sights with a gold bead front sight insert. Otherwise, his Springfield, with the short trigger and arched mainspring housing, is stock. If it is good enough for him, it is good enough for the rest of us.

A good set of high-visibility sights is needed on a combat gun. They are found on the Springfield Mil-Spec and the Colt Series 70. The CZ 75 pistol also exhibits among the best combat sights available. A smooth and repeatable trigger action of 5 pounds or so with a rapid reset is important for combat ability. The Glock, the Colt and the SIG have this.

Emergency lifesaving and crisis mitigation are not sports. The differences between a combat gun and a target gun are profound; understand your needs and choose accordingly.

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