Sunday, August 06, 2006

Stephen Camp

The "Old" and the "New"

By Stephen Camp

I prefer to believe that others who have been shooting longer than I have are reading this board now and again. It makes me feel younger. I know some that came down the trail a bit after I did are and there are some that have just gotten into handgunning while others have been in the shooting community a few years.

Primarily associated with the devotees of the Browning Hi Power and to a lesser degree, the 1911 and CZ-75, I receive correspondence, Emails, and questions on the Internet forums concerning various other pistols and revolvers with which I've had some experience. I'll bet some of you do, too.

Every now and again, I get a query that goes something like this: "Do you think that the older Hi Powers are better than the new ones?" Similar questions might be asked concerning other makes and models, but not quite so frequently.

This is not as simple a question as some might initially believe.

Let's look at the criteria concerning both current designs as well as what it was 25 or more years ago. While doing this, let's also take a look at the differences in handguns that have resulted not only from the evolving expectations not only from the "seasoned" shooters (sounds better than "old"), but the younger folks who do represent the future of the shooting sports. We'll need to toss greatly expanded lawful concealed carry into the mix as well.

General Expectations in the Past: Consider the gun shops of the '50's and '60's in your mind's eye. Some of you remember, but others will need to imagine. (We won't even dredge up the barrels literally full of Lugers and P-38's that could be had for a song!) In the glass cases, you'd see S&W revolvers of several types, calibers, and sizes. With the exception of something like the Model 28 "Highway Patrolman," all would have a beautiful, high-gloss blue finish and you'd see only wooden grips. All barrels were pinned and in "appropriate" chamberings, the cylinder chambers, recessed. You'd also see Colt revolvers and the finish and blue on the early Pythons had to be seen to be truly appreciated. You'd see quite a few more nickel-plated revolvers back then as well. You did not see Taurus and Ruger's handguns were pretty much his little .22 standard with the Bearcat following a few years ahead.

It is my recollection, that Americans bought revolvers in greater numbers than autos back then. I know the police did. Beautiful blue Colt Commercial Government Models could be found, almost always in .45 ACP, but some could be found in .38 Super. Browning Hi Powers were not nearly so popular. You'd see a Commander or two with the brown, checkered plastic stocks and you didn't have to ask if it was a "light weight" as the all-steel Combat Commander had yet to be born.

Ammunition choices were "easier," too. You could get about any thirty-eight special you wanted as long as it 158-grain LRN, maybe a box of wadcutters could be found and on occasion the Winchester 200-grain "Super Police." In .45 ACP, you'd find 230-grain FMJ, the "army load" although it might be from Winchester or Remington. I really don't remember much about Federal ammo from back then, but in the '70's, lots of folks liked "Federal match hardball."

Prices that seem cheap now were not then and the purchase of a quality handgun was expected to "hurt" some and was something most of us saved and saved for. My first handgun was actually bought by my dad for me, but with strict guidelines for its use, and I do mean strict. I worked two months for the $37.50 that the new one cost.

It seems to me that the older handguns could be looked at as "art forms." Wood was chosen for its richness, grain, and good looks and wood-to-fit was considered "important." Many wanted and expected their firearms to look good.

This old Colt Agent is a revolver I purchased never intending to carry or shoot +P ammunition in. It's just a classic old design that I want own and admire for the times it represents and the memories of a different time where things were so much different than today. Considered a standard for the time, many would say that it lacking today considering the more potent calibers, loads, and action-types available for the defensive-minded. If seen at all these days, the Agent or others of its genre are used as back-up guns. In earlier times, this might very well have been a detective's sole handgun.

I sort of think that people shot their handguns less then than now. A fellow might buy a Colt Government Model or "forty-five automatic" and shoot it a little and then either load and put it away or empty it and do the same thing. Certainly, there were exceptions, but I don't seem to remember people ever wearing out guns back then.

I bought this S&W Model 19 for my father in the early '70's. It has recessed chambers and a pinned barrel and a pretty decent action. The blue is impeccable. The stocks have been changed, but this S&W was built in a different time when ideas on what was "important" differed from what's expected these days.

This S&W Model 27 represents and old and revered revolver. It's 3 1/2" barrel is distinctive as was the checkering on the top strap. This particular revolver shows movement from the "old" to the "new." Even though the design is a "classic," this gun does not have the pinned barrel nor recessed chambers. Concessions to increased competition were being made in terms of departing from some traditions. In a practical sense, this revolver shoots just as well as the older ones I've owned.

Expectations Today: This is kind of interesting. Some of today's shooters still want the classic designs, but they want them to group better than in the past, to be 100% reliable with any and all of the ammo choices we now have, and the "shooters" expect them to last. Of course, the price must be "right," too.

This STI Trojan evolved from the "GI forty-five." Where the old Government Model had the same length barrel, it was not stainless steel, nor was it match fitted and the bushing was not fitted to the slide. Sears were not wire-cut and triggers were steel…even though this meant a really light trigger-pull in the range possible on this Trojan was impossible. Unless you have one custom made, you had two choices in grip safeties, the standard one on the 5" gun or the short one for the Commander. Slide serrations were exclusively at the rear, not angled, and very narrow. Full-length guide rods were not heard of. While I do appreciate and admire the old 1911s and do believe that they looked sharp, today's offer more out of the box for the shooter. This one has adjustable sights, extended thumb safety, stippled front strap, beavertail safety and other features not even considered by the vast number of yesterday's gun owners and none of the factories. If the slide serrations fore and aft are wide (and ugly in my opinion), they are easier to clean and machine. They perform the same function they always did. Colt's National Match and later, the Gold Cup, were built for competitive shooters, but some had light slide for light loads. The front sight used the small tenon and would frequently leave the gun! Today's guns have front sights that are dovetailed in and able to take wheelbarrows full of ammunition.

This old National Match has been "updated." Though the gun had barely been fired when I bought it, the surface had not been cared for. This one's been matte blued and an Ed Brown beavertail safety and a lightweight hammer and trigger added. I appreciate its classic looks, but do appreciate today's advances at the same time.

As is mentioned elsewhere on this site, I saw my first Browning Hi Power about 1969 and eventually got one a couple of years later. While I appreciate the fine blue finish and much better trigger pulls, as a user, I've come to prefer the much less elegantly finished Hi Powers of today, the Mk III and its brethren. The newer Hi Power is much more reliable with a wide variety of ammunition types out of the box and if you don't get the red-interior, black leather pouch with today's gun, you get better sights and extended thumb safeties. That said, the older ones uniformly had better trigger pulls. I also think that the cast frames are tougher. That said, I still own, appreciate and use some Hi Powers from that other time. "Number 1" is such a pistol as is "Number 2," shown below.

Several decades ago, I had some custom work done on this '72 commercial Hi Power. Since this picture was taken, I've replaced the Spegel grips shown with its original checkered walnut factory stocks. This pistol is reliable and accurate, but some work was required to get the reliability that we've come to expect of the current Hi Power.

While a few little things have been done to this Mk III, nothing's been necessary in terms of reliability and the fixed sights that are standard now, are much better for the defensive, "practical" shooting done so much today.

I fall into the class of older shooter that likes what he likes and for the most part, that's the older designs. Could this be because that's what I learned on? Might that be true for many of us? It very well may be and frankly, there's not one damned thing wrong with it.

Other folks views on what's important may be the same in terms of reliability and some may want pretty good accuracy, but quite a few tend to the "form follows function" view of things. A prime example is the Glock. Today, these are proven pistols that have seen huge inroads in both police and military service. In the beginning, many of us old traditional pistoleros thought they were a joke and about as ugly as sin. I'll admit it; I was wrong. Though not perfect as the company's logo might like us to believe, they are functional and probably about as resistant to corrosion and hard use as anything the pistol world's seen. Though evident that "looks" were not a high priority for Gaston Glock, he did come out with a pistol made from unorthodox materials and a protective finish second to none in durability. It ain't no high-gloss polished blue, though! On the other hand, a fingerprint doesn't turn to rust on the Glock, either. HK's USP series, and now Springfield Armory's XD pistols are more examples of firearms meeting the set parameters of the "modern" handgunner

Looking at the "outdated" revolver, consider today's Smith & Wesson vs. yesterdays. All that I'm aware of either have matte finishes, or are of stainless steel and some are being constructed of titanium rather than exclusively steel or a combination of steel and aluminum alloy. I sure that to the S&W collector and admirer of the traditional guns, they are a step down, but guess what? It's been my experience that the timing is uniformly better from the factory and if the finish is not as pretty, it is more durable. The guns are capable of handling hotter loads than in years past as well.

You get the idea and rather than just prattle on, let me suggest that one can like and appreciate both the classic models and the newer examples of current handgunnery. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a fellow enjoying is 1930 commercial Government Model with ball handloads at the range while relying on a Glock 21 for protection. What's wrong with maintaining a collection of old revolvers, but using a new one for protection?

Which is better? Depends on what you call better.