Every now and again, a handgun comes along that has a profound effect on the firearms and self-defense industry. Such guns become important to the manufacture of successors or how we view personal defense. I have picked five handguns that, in my opinion, hold an unassailable position. I started in the late 1890s. While the previous Colt Navy, Colt Single Action Army and Thunderer were important firearms they just don’t relate closely to modern firearms.
Smith & Wesson Hand Ejector
Anyone who has ever used a swing-out cylinder double-action (DA) revolver with solid frame would intuitively be able to use the original Hand Ejector revolver from Smith & Wesson. This revolver used a double-action mechanism that isn’t far removed from the 2021 version.
The Hand Ejector featured an ejector rod that was pulled toward the muzzle to release the cylinder. Very soon after the Hand Ejector’s introduction in 1896, the design was modified to a modern push-forward cylinder release. The new revolver was a sensation, and therefore adopted by a number of police agencies.
A swing-out cylinder has many advantages. Hinged-frame (break-top) revolvers did not have sufficient leverage on the ejection stroke to eject longer cartridges. Solid-frame revolvers were slow to load and unload. While the .32 S&W Long chambered in the original Hand Ejector was no powerhouse, it paved the way for the more powerful revolvers.
Within a few years, the S&W .38 caliber Military and Police were introduced, and a bit later, big-frame Hand Ejector revolvers. These are robust revolvers. Many DA revolvers were fragile beforehand. The Hand Ejector added rapid reloading and powerful cartridges to a reliable DA. Every modern revolver owes much to the Hand Ejector.
Colt 1903 Hammerless
It took a while for defensive shooters to trust the self-loading pistol for personal defense. Early pistols were either bulky and fragile or used an odd operating system that could not be carried ready for action. Browning designed the Colt 1903 pistol and changed that.
The Colt 1903 isn’t a hammerless pistol. The hammer is concealed inside the slide. It features a control layout used in the later 1911 .45 and many other successful pistols. This handgun is chambered for .32 ACP.
The pistol features a slide lock safety, allowing it to be carried fully loaded and on safe. The pistol also uses a grip safety that prevents firing unless it is depressed. Each control is easily operated when gripped for firing. The sear was sometimes called the flipping sear as it was out of battery until the grip safety was depressed. The result was one of the safest pistols to carry fully loaded.
The Colt is very well made of the best material, earning an enviable reputation. The Colt 1903 and the later 1908 .380 ACP pistol were widely used in law enforcement. And they saw a great deal of use by various European underground forces during World War II. While the pistol has been out of production since, the 1903 Hammerless is still carried by some personal-defense shooters. The Colt 1903 probably did more than any other early self-loader to convince shooters a self-loading could equal a revolver for reliability and outperform it based on power and accuracy.
Walther P38 9mm
The Walther P38 is terribly underrated by modern shooters. It was not the first double-action first-shot pistol, but the Walther combined the 9mm Luger cartridge with double-action. The P38 features a handy decocker/safety that safely lowers the hammer without touching the hammer. The safety is positive and eliminates any danger when carrying with a loaded chamber.
The Walther is a reliable and long-lived handgun, with modern aluminum frame variants arming European police forces well into the 1990s. Some European professionals still carry the Walther. The P38 is very accurate, and the sights are easy to use well. Far into the 1970s, the P38 was among the top choices of, unfortunately, professional hitmen and bank robbers on both sides of the Atlantic, including the notorious Italian terror group the P-38ers.
After World War II, NATO forces widely adopted the 9mm cartridge because the P38 was so influential. The P38 became one of the most popular service pistols of all time. Arguably, the highly successful Beretta 92 is simply an updated Walther P38. Adapting a Walther P38 to be high-capacity, modifying the oscillating wedge lockup and reducing the dual recoil springs to a single spring leads to the Beretta 92. In some ways, including hand fit and safety manipulation, the original may handle a bit better.
SIG Sauer’s P220 was significant in that it represented an emerging tactical doctrine: a handgun should be as simple to operate as possible. These handguns can be described as “draw and shoot.” The pistol could not have a safety but should have safety features.
The SIG P220 uses a double-action first-shot trigger. This handgun features a decocker mounted on the frame that is much easier to use well than a slide-mounted decocker. The SIG also features a positive firing pin block. Once SIG had the firing pin block or drop safety, anyone wishing to secure institutional sales had to re-design or reinvent pistol designs.
Since its introduction, the SIG P220 the SIG has consistently earned the title of the world’s most reliable handgun in testing. During the
Ohio State Patrol’s 228,000-round test and France’s 700,000-round-plus testing, the SIG P types emerged most reliable. The pistol is easily the most accurate service pistol.
The SIG is important in that it introduced tactical simplicity and set the standard for reliability and accuracy. Many P 220 variants, including the P 226 and P 229 serve worldwide.
Once simplicity was firmly embraced, the Glock pistol was set for success. While designed as a military pistol, the Glock was poised to become the most successful police pistol of all time. In America, Smith & Wesson had gained ascendency by outbidding Colt by a margin. American efforts at self-loading pistols seemed, at best, Americanized Walther P 38s. The Beretta 92, and especially the SIG P226, were more useful.
Trainers, however, had a difficult time in transitioning from the revolver to the self-loading handgun. When you add learning a double-action and a single-action trigger and a decocker — not to mention a wholly different manual of arms — you had a problem. Plus, many chiefs of police were averse to the self-loader. Many stated they would approve the self-loader when a double-action-only (DAO) was available. When the ATF declared the new Glock pistol a DAO, it swept the market.
The Glock’s main advantage is reliability. It is long-lived in service and easily maintained. The manual of arms is simple: load, holster, draw, fire. And the polymer frame allows for economy of manufacture. When competitors introduced DAO versions of existing pistols these were, for the most part, a disaster.
The Glock is a baseline for modern handguns. If you find a handgun for less money, corners have likely been cut. If the pistol costs more, be certain you are getting your money’s worth. Glock has had a profound effect on the market. Similar to the original Hand Ejector, it stimulated development of many Glock-like pistols. Some are not in the same class, while some have improved features. Polymer frame striker-fired pistols are here to stay.
While not the only firearms that influenced the personal defense industry and beyond, these five handguns played large roles in where modern firearms are today.