10 Famous Pistols (Handguns)

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Dear readers, in March of 2014, we posted an article about Colt’s revolver, but what are some more famous pistols in history?  Read on to find out the top ten!  The order is not important, but their fame and renown is.  Television, movies, books and popularity use all factor into fame and notoriety with pistols.  What pistols and revolvers would come to your mind as famous?  (Or infamous, as the case may be?)

10. Smith & Wesson J-Frame (.38 S&W Special)

The snub nosed .38 all the detectives used to carry in the movies from the 1940’s to the 1980’s was carried by real life detectives as well.  While many superb quality snubbies have been made, notably also by Colt, the Smith & Wesson brand is probably the most famous in this particular genre.  Not only cops and robbers, as well as television and movie actors, but also millions of private citizens have one of these handy little shootin’ irons stashed in their nightstand, glove compartment or waist band.  Do you?

9. Wyatt Earp’s Buntline Special Colt Single Action Army (.45 Long Colt)

The dramatic 12 inch barrel is familiar to people who watched The Life And Legend of Wyatt Earp 1955-1961 television show.  The problem is that this depiction was a myth, and Earp did not carry one.  Buntline Specials with even longer barrels were featured in the 1965 film, For A Few Dollars More, with Clint Eastwood.  These long barreled revolvers made a handy club for those who decided to carry one.

8. General George Patton’s Ivory Handled S&W Model 27 and Colt Single Action Army (.357 S&W Magnum and .45 Long Colt)

These pistols were sometimes mistaken for pearl handled, which infuriated Patton.  Seldom is “Old Bood ‘n’ guts” depicted without his famous sidearms.  Did he ever actually fire one of these pistols in anger?  We do not know, but suspect not.  Patton said pearl handled pistols were for pimps and women.  Yeah, well nowadays you will not find any legal supplies of ivory so you have to use synthetic ivory, which actually looks pretty good.

7. Philadelphia Derringer (.41 caliber cap and ball)

The original derringer was the gun used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.  Funny thing is, the guy that gave his name to an entire class of firearms spelled his name with one “r” while the little pistol is always spelled with 2 “r”s.  One way to tell if an alleged antique firearm is an authentic “Deringer” is by looking at how the name is spelled.

6. Mauser C-96 (7.63 mm or 9mm)

One of the first semi-autos, probably the first practical semi-auto.  Winston Churchill carried one to war as a young man.  These guns originally were loaded with stripper clips into a non-detachable “blind” magazine, while later versions employed a detachable box magazine.  The pistols were made in many countries, even China, and used extensively around the world during both World Wars and are still in use today.

5. Colt M 1911/1911 A1 (.45 ACP)

This gun was carried by the US military from 1911 through today!  In fact, the 1911 style pistol created by gun guru John Moses Browning is perhaps the most popular style of duty sized pistol today, over a century after it was invented.  Smaller versions and many caliber choices make these guns versatile for many needs, and they have been adapted for carrying double the original 7 round magazine, aluminum or even polymer frames, rails for lasers and flashlights, threaded muzzles for suppressors, various sights and optics and a whole host of calibers.  There are even carbine versions available with detachable stocks and 16 inch barrels.  In plain old GI form, the .45 caliber 1911 is ultra reliable and hard hitting, something you would have to think twice about arguing with.

4. Luger P-08 (9 mm)

Probably coolest looking pistol of all time is an iconic German gun.  Ah, but the inventor, Georg Luger, was actually an Austrian that was raised in Italy!  Luger also invented the 9 x 19  millimeter Parabellum cartridge (also known as 9 mm Luger) that goes with his famous pistol and is the favorite pistol cartridge in the world today.  As nifty as the Luger looks, it was expensive to produce and was susceptible to failure in combat due to dirt and fouling, causing it to be superseded by superior pistols for duty use.  Still, the Luger was treasured by German officers above the more practical Walther P38, and was the prize souvenir for GI’s during both World Wars.  When you think of a “bad guy” gun, do you picture him using a Luger?

3. Colt “Peacemaker” (.45 Long Colt)

The Single Action Army model that won the west is the pistol of western TV and movie shootouts and trick gun handling.  Still manufactured by various firms, these pistols just will not go away.  Reloading the big Colt was a ponderous task, so combat practicality was compromised, but the big .45 caliber bullet made the revolver extremely effective.  Despite being a “single action only” type of revolver, the Colt SAA can be fired incredibly fast by a trained pistolero, and is easy to find in gun demonstrations and shows with fast gun experts demonstrating just how fast we are talking about.

2. Smith and Wesson Model 29 (.44 Remington Magnum)

The Dirty Harry Gun used to be“The most powerful handgun in the world.”  With the incredible success of Dirty Harry in the movies, this big hunk of iron became one of the most iconic pistols in the world during the 1960’s and 1970’s, a time when millions of American men just had to have one!  A running joke concerns the prevalence of “for sale” ads that offer a “barely used Smith & Wesson Model 29 with 44 rounds of ammunition.”  (Meaning the owner fired a single cylinder of .44 Magnum ammo and that was enough!  Pistol ammo normally came in boxes of 50 rounds.)  A reputation for having reliability problems came from handloaders over stuffing the .44 shell casings with too much powder and creating an over-pressure situation from “hot loads.”  Factory ammunition should never cause a problem with these guns.

1. Walther PPK (.380 ACP)

James Bond’s pistol is a must have for wanna be spies!  While almost all the PPK’s you find today are in .380 ACP caliber, the original James Bond story had the super-spy carrying a .32 ACP chambered PPK.  Either way, the pistols are handsome and effective, as well as elegant for the suave and debonair pistol packer.  Definitely a prestige hand gun, various gun control measures led to the importation of a Frankenstein like cross between a PPK and a PP resulting in the PPKs, not to be confused with the real deal!  Adolf Hitler committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with an engraved Walther PPK, lending a bit more mystery and mystique to this fine little pistol.

Question for students (and subscribers): What hand gun do you think is the most famous of all time?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Fowler, Will, Anthony North, et al.  The History of Pistols, Revolvers &, Submachine Guns: The development of small firearms, from 12th-century hand cannons to modern-day automatics, with 180 color photographs and illustrations.  Southwater, 2008.

The featured image in this article, an illustration of a Colt Texas Paterson 1836 (.40 cal) firearm with western motif courtesy of Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924. See this page for further explanation.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.