We trace the lineage of today’s top pistols and revolvers to determine which firearms helped shape our modern conception of what a handgun should be.
There are a wide variety of different handguns on the market today, everything from ultra-compact mini-revolvers to sophisticated semi-auto race guns. But if you look at the DNA of most modern guns, you’ll see that the vast majority trace their lineage back to some common ancestors. Sure, all have different features and specifications, but the history of these great guns is visible in virtually every modern handgun offered for sale today.
Still, it’s hard to pick just 10 firearms that helped shaped our understanding of what a handgun should be. You can trace the history of firearms back for centuries to a time when primitive powder ignited a flash of flame and an idea that would change the history of humankind and the trajectory of the world as we know it. But for our intents and purposes, we’ll stick to guns of the modern smokeless powder era, those from the mid-nineteenth century and forward.
That’s still not a short list, and picking guns that deserve a spot isn’t easy. It’s sometimes hard to judge the influence a gun has on other models; sometimes, it’s a matter of mechanical design, sometimes aesthetics, and sometimes it’s caliber, capacity or some nuance that could easily go unnoticed. So, above are our picks for the 10 most influential handguns of the modern era.
The original Walther PP, or Polizeipistole, in German, first appeared in 1935. It was a compact, safe, reliable semi-auto chambered for a light-recoiling cartridge, an ideal gun for personal defense. It also introduced a host of new features that would become commonplace on later guns, including a firing pin block and loaded chamber indicator. It used a blowback operation system, which is used by many small-caliber semi-auto handguns to this day. Although it appeared several decades before the U.S. concealed carry movement, the PP/PPK became a gold standard for pocket semi-auto pistols, and despite 80 years of new designs, there are still plenty of people that carry their Walther every day. Hey, if it works for James Bond…
Colt SAA 1873
The Colt Single Action Army (SAA) brought the repeating handgun to the masses. It was designed to operate in a similar fashion to Colt’s previous blackpowder models, but unlike Colt conversions of blackpowder guns that were available starting in 1871, the 1873 was designed from the ground-up to handle cartridges. The design worked very well, and the 1873 became a symbol of America’s westward expansion. Soldiers, lawmen and criminals carried it, and it’s one of the few guns that have had a significant influence on popular culture. Functionally, the gun remains the cornerstone for the design of almost all new single-action revolvers and lent heavily to the design aesthetic of the modern double-action revolver.
The Hi-Power was John Browning’s last great gun design and, in many ways, his least respected. While it was FN that finalized the Hi-Power after Browning’s death, the great American gun designer’s fingerprints are all over this semi-auto. The driving force behind the Browning design was to create a high-capacity semi-auto that produced less recoil than the .45 and was very reliable. The Browning used a short recoil-operated locked barrel design, similar to what you’ll find in many other semi-autos today, and the staggered double-stack high-capacity magazine found in the Browning (the real meaning behind the name “Hi-Power,” which should perhaps be called “Hi-Capacity” instead) has become a standard feature in combat 9s. Though it hasn’t achieved the following of its big brother, the 1911, here in the States, the Hi-Power has served as a military weapon in over 50 countries. But sentiments toward the Hi-Power in the States might be shifting; Nighthawk Custom just launched a brand-new custom version of this gun that is oh-so-sweet.
Georg Luger designed and patented his semi-auto pistol in 1898, and although it used a rather oddball short recoil operating system (a toggle arm-design attached to the barrel), the Luger was a huge step forward in the realm of semi-auto design. Here was the first reliable, repeating sidearm that was deemed worthy to accompany large groups of soldiers into war. The Swiss adopted the Luger in 1900, and other European governments followed. And despite the fact that later semi-autos would ditch the toggle design, it worked, at least fairly well, and semi-autos began to replace revolvers in global militaries. The Luger’s aesthetic caught on, too; it resembles the Walther P38, which also gets a place on this list, and Bill Ruger’s Mark I semi-auto, another great firearm, also slightly resembles it.
Smith & Wesson J-Frame
Smith & Wesson has done a great deal to influence modern gunmaking, and its compact revolver line—the J-Frames—have changed the way we think about wheelguns. In 1950, the J-Frame S&W in .38 Special was introduced, and it became the gold standard for pocket pistols. It was very reliable, and the .38 was a great defensive round. It became the gun of choice for undercover detectives and protected many American homes through the mid-twentieth century up until the modern day. The J-Frame’s dimensions and design elements have been copied by other makers, and the gun looks remarkably like it did in the 1950s—a good indication that the gun was pretty good back then. Today, however, Smith & Wesson has added a host of new options and new designs, including models that use scandium frames and weigh as little as 11 ounces.
Of course the 1911 earns a spot on our list. The design is over a century old, yet there are more companies making this pistol design than any other. It’s the weapon that single-handedly turned a single year in history into a nickname for a firearm and turned that firearm into a piece of American history. It’s the sidearm that soldiers carried onto the beach at Normandy and into the jungles of Vietnam. When it was initially tested for military acceptance in 1910, the Browning-designed Colt chewed up and spit out six thousand rounds of ammo without a single malfunction. From a design standpoint, almost every facet of this gun, from grip angle to operating system, has been copied into other firearms, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. And despite a century of newer gun designs, Browning’s 1911 is still commonly used in competitive shooting events.
This one will rankle some readers, but I think that there’s no denying that the Taurus Judge, now all of 10 years old, has changed the way we think about handgun design. The Judge was polarizing from the moment it broke cover; some couldn’t get past the gun’s horse-faced appearance when positioned side-by-side with other wheelguns. But that extra cylinder space allowed the Judge to shoot .410 shotshells, both 2 ½- and 3-inch loads (depending upon the Taurus model) as well as .45 Colt loads. The result was a gun that appealed to the masses—shooters who wanted a shotgun for home defense but needed something more compact for concealment. When I was researching my book on concealed carry, I asked gun shop owners which pistol they couldn’t keep in stock and at that time the answer was almost universally the Judge. Soon other companies began looking to introduce similar models, and ammunition companies had to develop new shotgun loads to keep up with demand from new Taurus owners.
The P38 came into being in, as you might have guessed, 1938, a replacement for the aging Luger P08. It was a locked-breech, recoil-operated 9mm with an open slide design and a single-stack magazine. It also functioned in double-action and single-action mode, and it was the first gun of its kind to do so. The P38 was reliable and accurate, but it was also affordable to produce, and that’s one of the things that made it so desirable for military applications. The SA/DA design and open slide are seen today on other guns like our current service semi-auto, the Beretta M9. The original P38 served as a military weapon in several countries from Argentina to Austria.
The Glock story is familiar to most by now; the Austrian company developed a polymer-framed, striker-fired semi-auto pistol in the 1980s that—when first introduced to the U.S. market—was met with waves of criticism. It was called a plastic gun, and some thought that the Glock would certainly fail when it was called upon for heavy duty. But the sky did not fall, and the Glock did indeed make a name for itself as a duty weapon. By now, the many virtues of the Glock are well known; it’s light, extraordinarily reliable, it disassembles in a few seconds, and it’s affordable. It’s now the most common sidearm for American police departments, and it has served dutifully around the world. It’s also sparked a wave of similar models from other makers, and virtually every handgun manufacturer now offers a polymer-framed striker-fired semi-auto.
Smith & Wesson N-Frame
Smith & Wesson has been at the forefront of the development of many of our American magnum handgun cartridges, but perhaps no gun was more relevant than the company’s Large (N) Frame revolver. It was important because it opened the door for the development of powerful magnums (the .44 Magnum was originally housed in the iconic Model 29, an N-Frame gun). This greatly expanded what could be accomplished with a handgun; once considered a sidearm for personal defense at close range, the popularity of handgun hunting grew when the N-Frame was introduced. That prompted a precipitous climb up the handgun power charts that now tops out with Smith & Wesson’s own X-frame, which is chambered for the .460 and .500 S&W Magnums. But the N-Frame started it all, and it still remains a great option because it balances magnum power with a manageable platform.
Thanks to GunDigest.com for this post.