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Sunday Gun Day VIII - Five Pistols You Should Shoot Before You Die

Credit: Ward Clark

Every enthusiastic shooter and collector has a list of guns they want to own, or maybe just to shoot. How to narrow it down?  

Well, that is not easy. However, I have managed to narrow my recommended list of semi-auto pistols (henceforth referred to simply as "pistols") down to five. So, without further ado, here are five pistols you should shoot before you die, in no particular order.

Colt/Browning 1911

There isn’t much that hasn’t already been said about John Browning’s famous old workhorse of a martial pistol, and if you’ve been involved in guns and shooting sports at all in recent years, you’ve probably already handled and fired a 1911 of some sort. If you have not, you should. Here’s why:

You could probably more easily name the handgun companies that are not making a 1911 clone than those who are these days.

The 1911 design has certainly stood the test of time. It is probably the most successful and influential American martial sidearm ever, having served from 1911 to the present (although, nowadays, only with certain elite units.) The only weapon that even approaches that service life is the .50 caliber M2 machine gun, also a Browning design, which has been in service since 1933.

I have been fond of the 1911 since I was issued one while serving as a Company Aidman in the Army. That copy may well have been the same one the Old Man was issued in 1944-1945 during his stint in the U.S. Army Air Corps. It was old and loose but still reasonably accurate, and it shot and shot and shot. Nowadays, I have a Rock Island Armory copy of the 1911 with what is essentially Colt Series 70 guts. It is in mil-spec trim, Parkerized with fixed sights. I bought the piece as a nostalgia purchase, but it is a good shooter, and I sometimes hang it on my belt in place of a six-gun when bumming around in the woods. If I ever need a sidearm in a hurry, the tough old hard-hitting .45 will get the job done.  

There are fancier versions around. My oldest friend has a Les Baer 6” long-slide target gun, which is amazingly precise, especially with his ammo; he is persnickety to the point where he made a chamber cast of the gun and custom-ground dies to match, and he uses a powder trickler and hand-weighs every powder charge. It is a neat piece, fun to shoot, and accurate, but you honestly cannot go wrong with a plain old mil-spec bullet-chucker. If you buy a good, solid 1911 and take even halfway-decent care of it, it will be in service long after you have gone to your reward.

P-08 Luger

Georg Luger’s Parabellum pistol has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, it has some drawbacks as well. But it is still an interesting piece to handle and shoot. Here’s why:

The Luger, at least in the eyes of this shooter, may be the most beautiful pistol ever made. It is graceful, with beautiful lines; the grip shape fits most hands perfectly and when pointed, brings the sights naturally into alignment with the eye (There is an unconfirmed rumor that Bill Ruger copied the Luger grip for his Standard model .22 auto). Unlike autos with a slide, the front sight is fixed firmly to the barrel, while the rear sight is on the receiver, to which the barrel is attached directly.

Those are the good things. But there are bad things. The sights on most production Lugers are rudimentary. Like a lot of late 19th-century German technology, the Luger consists of a gazillion screwy little parts that must be well-fitted for the gun to function. And even then, the Luger does not have the best reputation for reliability. They are finicky about ammo and prone to jams. I would have hated to have been the poor Gestapo or SS son of a bitch whose life depended on one of these.

I have a copy, a 1938 Oberndorf P-08 with the standard 4” barrel and retaining its Nazi-proof marks. All the numbers match, the gun has the original magazine, and I have tried newer aftermarket mags, even playing around some with the feed lips to try to improve function, but the thing still stovepipes on average once with each eight-round mag I feed it. The trigger is creepy and gritty.

Still, the Luger is an iconic gun. When working properly, it is easy to handle and very accurate. Try one if you get the chance, but when you do, bear in mind that you are handling a design that is over a hundred years old. I love my Luger, but I would not bet my life on it. For that kind of work, I would stick to my 1911 or one of my six-guns and be glad to have the choice.

Mauser C96 "Broomhandle"

One glance at the old Mauser pistol immediately suggests the idea that here, you have something designed before the standard pattern of autoloading pistols was finalized. It is still worth trying. Here’s why:

Folks familiar with firearm history normally associate the name Mauser with rifles, and justifiably so. But in 1896, the Oberndorf rifle-makers tried something new, bringing out what they called the C96 pistol. The new semi-auto sidearm was chambered in a small-bore, high-velocity cartridge, firing an 86-grain .30 caliber bullet at 1,400 fps – pretty hot stuff for the day, and in fact the highest velocity in a handgun round until the advent of the .357 Magnum. Later versions were available for the regular 9mm Parabellum round.

The C96 is an odd-looking duck by today’s standards. It has a big, square action with a long, thin barrel. Instead of having a detachable magazine in the grip, as most modern autos do, the C96 has a non-detachable box magazine in front of the trigger guard. The fixed mag is charged through the top of the action using stripper clips.

Likewise odd by today’s standards is the grip, a round wooden handle that looks more like it belongs on an agricultural implement than a sidearm. This round grip is the genesis of the nickname “Broomhandle.”

C96 pistols commonly came with a wooden “holster” that doubled as a detachable shoulder stock, converting a long, heavy, awkward sidearm into a short, whippy, underpowered carbine.

But C96s can be fun to shoot. I have only fired a couple, both old, rough pieces, one of which came to the States via China somehow, or so its owner told me. I had no trouble breaking clay pigeons with that one at fifteen yards, and the 7.62mm piece discharged with a loud, satisfying crack but delivered little recoil. The other was a “red nine” 9mm pistol that delivered decent accuracy and a bigger slug with a tad more kick, but only a tad more. Both guns were very manageable, even with that odd grip.

.44 Auto Mag

I am not a big fan of super-pistols, but the original AutoMag is unique enough to merit a try-out, if you ever get the chance. Here’s why:

Unlike the Desert Eagle, one of the more common magnum-caliber auto pistols made today, the AutoMag did not use the revolver cartridge. Instead, the original .44 AutoMag originally used cut-down .308 brass to make a rimless pistol cartridge that delivered .44 Magnum-level performance. The AutoMag Corporation called the cartridge the .44 AMP (AutoMag Pistol) and built the AutoMag pistol to fire it, a hulking, 57-ounce brute with a short-recoil action featuring a rotating bolt with forward locking lugs. The first guns were shipped in 1971, and the AutoMag Corporation went bankrupt in 1972, having shipped fewer than 3,000 pistols, of which they supposedly lost money on each copy.

The AutoMag pistol and its manufacturers have gone through several iterations, and a version of the gun is back in production today, but those California-made originals are scarce as honest politicians and expensive as crooked politicians. The gun is clearly a product of the Seventies, sporting a gleaming stainless-steel finish and a big ventilated rib. I have handled one but, unlike a certain Inspector Callahan, have never fired one. I am looking forward to the opportunity. You should, too.

Sig P-210

The Swiss-made Sig pistol has the reputation for being, possibly, the finest semi-auto handgun ever made.  There are versions around today in current manufacture, but I would recommend trying one of the originals. Here’s why:

First, here is a sidearm so fine, the Swiss used it. Not only did they use it, but a Swiss man, one Max Müller, designed the P-210, adapted from the older Swiss Pistolet automatique modèle 1935Awhich borrowed several design elements from – wait for it – the Colt/Browning 1911.

Designed in 1947, the P-210 was adopted by the Swiss military and some police agencies in 1949. The Swiss Army used the P-210 until 1975 when it was replaced with the Sig-Sauer P220. The Danish Army (Denmark has an army? Who knew?) still uses the P-210 today.

The Sig is an interesting piece, with a grip shape reminiscent of the Luger and a slide that runs inside, rather than outside, the frame rails. The initial production units used a magazine release on the bottom rear of the grip, making quick reloads a little more difficult; sights on these original pieces were, well, less than optimal. Recent versions are fitted out with a more sensibly-placed magazine release and better sights.

But the selling point of the P-210, as I have always understood it, was its reliability and accuracy. The gun runs, if you will pardon the phrase, like a Swiss watch. I’ve yet to have the chance to try a P-210 for myself but look forward to the opportunity.

Honorable Mention:  Salvatore-Dormus 1891

OK, now, to be fair, you are not going to get to shoot this one or probably even handle it. But it is worth mentioning the first production semi-auto pistol ever. Here’s why:

In 1891, Archduke Karl Salvatore of Austria and Count Georg von Dormus received a patent for what they rather unimaginatively called the Salvatore-Dormus Pistol.  

This was an interesting piece, with a delayed blowback action, the delay for which was provided by the shooter’s finger pressure on the trigger, which does not seem like the brightest idea in gun design. The pistol was charged with five proprietary 8mm Dormus cartridges into a Mannlicher-Carcano style magazine. The clip, containing five rounds, was fed into the top of the action; when all five rounds were expended, the clip dropped into the hollow grip of the piece, where they could later be removed through a trap door in the butt of the piece. Power was reportedly on the .32ACP level.

Only about 50 of these guns were ever made. Thirty were submitted to the Austrian Army, which rejected the design.

Oddball it was, and the Salvatore-Dormus may not have the immortal robustness of the 1911, the precision of the P-210, the grace of the Luger, or the wallop of the AutoMag -- but it was the first, and that’s not nothing.

In Conclusion

Six-gun man I have been and a six-gun man I remain, but there is sure as shooting a place in any gun cabinet for a semi-auto pistol or three. One contender that didn’t quite make the list is the Ruger Mk I-II-III (and so on) family of rimfire autos; we have two in the safe: the Old Man’s old 6” Ruger Standard he bought in the 1950s and my wife's straight-shooting Mk III Competition Target, with which she routinely drops spruce grouse out of treetops with headshots.

Pistol or revolver discussion aside, the best advice for anyone looking to take up a sidearm for the serious business to which sidearms are put is this: Find one you like, one you can shoot, one you can handle quickly and, well, practice, practice, practice. Proficiency will make up for a lot of other issues in choices of sidearms, especially when and if things get… interesting.  

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