As a rule, I don’t collect guns. Not because I’m not the type who collects things (I most definitely am), and not because I don’t want to own a lot of firearms (I most definitely do). But the thought of collecting things as potentially costly as vintage guns makes my budget cry, and at any rate, guns were made for shooting, not for hanging on a wall looking pretty. I don’t want to own guns too expensive to use.
Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a love for vintage firearms. I love vintage everything—cars, music, whisky—and guns are no exception. I do want old guns, just not show pieces. I want guns that that will be more at home on the gun range, not in the gun locker … and here’s my dream list.
While not as familiar as its competitors from the Colt factory, the Remington 1858 Army revolver had much to recommend it. First, it was chambered for a .44 caliber ball, instead of the .36 caliber of the Colt. The full-frame design, with the solid top strap absent from Colt’s revolvers, made for a more robust pistol, and the Remington was said to be faster to swap out an empty cylinder for a loaded one, though how useful this practice was in combat is dubious. To me, however, the main advantage it has over the Colts, either the 1851 or 1860 models, is that it just looks better.
The Civil War was the last American war to be fought wherein the primary responsibility for arming the individual soldier, at least in the beginning, lay with the soldier himself. This led to a dizzying array of arms on both sides, everything from Revolutionary War-era ‘Brown Bess’ muskets to the most modern cartridge-firing repeaters. Perhaps the most important, and the definitive, long arm of the era however was the 1861 Springfield Rifle. Firing a .58 caliber Minie ball, a conical, hollow-based projectile which loaded easily, then expanded upon firing to seal the breach and engage the rifling grooves, the Minie was far more accurate than round ball, and faster to reload. In a war marked by advancements in the art of killing, the Minie, and the rifles which fired it, were the ultimate innovation.
No weapon is more closely associated with the time period in which it was used than the Colt 1873 Single-Action Army. Though there were a wide variety of handguns used in the American west in the decades between the Civil War and the turn of the century, Hollywood has made the Colt SAA the iconic arm of the era—and who am I to argue with the thousands of hours I spent watching westerns while growing up? Not only that, but I have a personal connection with the SAA—the first real firearm I ever held was a reenactor’s Colt at the wild west-themed Six-Gun Territory amusement park, outside St. Augustine, Florida. As my dad looked on approvingly, a modern-day Wyatt Earp briefly handed his revolver to an awestruck three-year-old, and a lifelong love of the old west was born. And if the SAA was the iconic image of the old west, then the .45 Long Colt is the cartridge that everyone (who isn’t a firearms enthusiast) knows is the cowboy’s favorite. With a 4¾-inch barrel, case-hardened frame, smooth burlwood grips, and riding in an El Paso Saddlery Leather holster, it would be a boyhood dream come true.
Just as there were a great variety of handguns available in the post-Civil War period, there was no scarcity of quality rifles, either. The Mdl. 1873 Springfield ‘Trapdoor’ introduced one of the greatest black-powder rifle cartridges of all time, the .45-70 Government. The Remington 1885 High Wall was perhaps the ultimate evolution of the black-powder cartridge, single-shot rifle. The Henry repeating rifle was one of the earliest examples of the lever-action carbine, and was the first such weapon to enjoy widespread popularity. But when I think of the definitive western rifle, the one that stands out in my mind is the product of one of my favorite television shows from a long-ago childhood … The Rifleman. The show’s opening, with Lucas McCain (played by Chuck Connors) rapid-firing his Winchester Mdl. 92 Lever-Action, chambered for the .44-40 WCF cartridge, and modified with a large lever loop, is one of the most iconic scenes in television history. The 92’s role as the “star” of that series would be enough to secure it’s place on this list; the fact that John Wayne, the quintessential American cowboy, carried a virtually identical rifle in several of his films is just gravy.
For some unknown reason, I’ve always had a fondness for classic .32 caliber handguns. Yes, they’re too underpowered for serious work, and they are hard to find (trust me, I’ve been looking for a Smith & Wesson Mdl. 31 I-frame .32 S&W Long for years), but they fascinate me. One that I would truly love to have is a Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless, chambered for the anemic .32 ACP. Designed by the incomparable John Moses Browning a mere eight years before the same company would bring his masterpiece, the 1911, to market, the 1903 has a look that’s evocative of its younger brother, and the clean, rounded lines befitting a pistol that was intended to be carried in a coat pocket. It’s not the state of the art in personal defense anymore, and hasn’t been for the better part of a century, but I have other weapons on this list for that purpose. For a day at the range punching holes in paper zombies, however, it’s a great choice.
The 30 years from 1880 to 1910 were a period of remarkable development in military small arms. The advent of smokeless powder, spitzer bullets, and magazine-fed bolt-actions led to the introduction of some of the greatest rifles ever designed—the Mauser 98, Springfield M-1903, the Lee-Enfield No. 1 Mk III—insuring that, when the world went to war in 1914 over the assassination of a man and woman who, despite their blue blood and royal lineage were virtual nobodies, it did so with the most brutally effective killing implements as yet devised. Ironically, the rifle I want is from a country that was a non-combatant in both world wars—the Swedish Mauser 96, chambered for the 6.5x55mm. There are several reasons for choosing this rifle … the impressive accuracy and ballistic performance of the cartridge; the fact that it’s a superb version of the Mauser design; the fact that, since these rifles saw no combat use, they’re generally in better shape than other examples of Mauser rifles. But logic has very little to do with some of the choices on this list, and this is one of those choices. The simple fact is I’ve just always wanted a Swedish Mauser.
There are many good pistols to choose from in this category, including several that I would love to own. The 1911-A1, the M-1917 (either Colt or Smith & Wesson), the Webley, the TT-33, the Beretta M1934—all would be welcome additions to my collection. But an example of my choice was once in that collection. The Walther P-38 was a true advancement in the state of the art in weapon design, and for the Wehrmacht it came along at just the right time. Far more rugged and reliable than the P-08 (commonly known as the Luger) it replaced, it was one of the first double-action auto pistols, and the first with a decocking safety. My example was a post-war West German Border Police surplus gun, and one of the few 9mm’s I ever owned. While I have no use for the 9 as a serious defensive cartridge, and my P-38 never fed anything but FMJ’s reliably, I still miss that pistol. The accuracy was great, and when I fed it what it wanted to eat, it never gave me a problem.
It was called the “… greatest battle implement ever devised …” by Gen. George Patton. The American GI swore by it, and at it. It was carried in every theater of conflict, from the Aleutians to Sicily. Over six million of them were made, by the Springfield Armory and Winchester. It was the greatest firearm ever designed by someone whose name wasn’t Browning. It was the US Rifle, Cal. .30, M1, commonly referred to as the Garand. And it’s the only possible choice in this category.
- I hope you guys enjoyed the list. I'm interested in other people's opinions. What is missing?
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