Sporting Rifle Mailbag

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Star letter – pistol history

Dear Sporting Rifle,

When my dad handed me my first rifle 61 years ago, little did I know of the roads I would travel, and how important his lessons would be in later life. It’s true that “from small seeds mighty oaks do grow,” and so it was that my love grew for the craftsmanship that could take wood and metal, and by the skill of hands, turn them into functional and beautiful rifles.

My first .22 was a single-shot BSA. The firearms officer refused to permit a bolt action repeater as, I quote, “they are too powerful, and the reason we let you have a single shot is because you are protecting sheep from foxes and uncontrolled dogs.” Truly ignorance is bliss – in some cases not a lot changes…

Over the years, I’ve handled and used many strange and wonderful weapons, from the little Webley & Scott Junior .177 to the ballistic systems of Britain’s main battle tank, the Chieftain.

Together, they form an interconnected history, stretching from the diminutive cartridge invented by Louis Flobert in 1845, all the way to Clint Eastwood’s Model 29 Smith & Wesson .44 Mag from the film Dirty Harry.

It would not be unreasonable to presume that even the most brain-dead teenager with their phone grafted to ear wouldn’t fail to recognise John Wayne and his Colt 6 shooter – but few would recognise Wild Bill Hickok with a S&W Model 1 tucked into the sash around his waist, or Cole Younger, William Bonney and the Daltons all armed with Smith & Wesson .44 Russian revolvers. How did this all come about?

Smith & Wesson acquired the patent for their new .22 self-igniting rimfire cartridge (.22BB), which they recognised would be favoured by ‘professional ladies’ who could secrete a small Derringer or revolver about their person.

Credit: kaltduscher / Wikimedia

These small guns became popular in Eastern cities, but the West saw a need for more robust handguns, such as the Colt Dragoon (known as ‘ole thumb breaker’ due to its .44 bore and large powder charge, all housed in a pistol meant to be carried in a holster hanging from a rider’s saddle).

But S&W had their patent guarding the production of self-contained charges and bullets, acquired from our little .22 – so they made a bigger pistol in .44 S&W and named it the Model 1. It was light enough to carry as a town peace officer, or if you were robbing a bank or two.

This was around 1868/69, and Russia was in the process of rearming. When they viewed the S&W, not only did they like its accuracy, but also recognised its knockdown power. Drawing on their substantial money reserves, the Russians placed an order for 100,000 firearms.

“Can you make the bullet bigger and more powerful?” they asked. “Of course we can – what will we call it?” The result was the Model 3 Russian, which went into production and was still seen in use as late as 1940.

Modern production and tooling came along and the West was tamed. People looked to automatic firearms to fight their wars with, but still there were the old-timers such as Elmer Keith – rancher, gun writer, experimenter and big game hunter – who knew, after he blew up a few of his handguns, that if you want a big gun that works, your go-to would be a S&W.

Now we had the .38 S&W (favoured by the British police and army officers). This then developed into the .38 Special, which was further tuned to become my favourite, .357 Mag.

Keith, not content, took the .44 S&W and turned it into the .44 Special. Great, but how do you stop an annoyed bull elephant when your rifle is empty? Simply make your .44 Special bigger.

Lengthen the case, take out extra medical insurance in case you break your wrist, then get an actor big enough and daft enough to try and shoot it one-handed, and you have got yourself a blockbuster, a wrist-buster and an instant place in film legend – and all because, in 1845, Louis Flobert took a little brass cap and added a pinch of black powder and a ball bearing.

It’s a pity the British public are no longer allowed the pleasure of owning and firing, in a responsible environment, the handguns that helped tame a wild continent. As the saying goes, “trust in God, but keep your powder dry.”


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