6 Guns for the Gunfighter

Woman shooting a Browning Hi Power with a two-handed grip

Bat Masterson ordered a custom pistol that may be rightly called the first of the Gunfighter’s Guns.

Colt SAA with 4 ¾-inch barrel, chrome left side
The 4 ¾-inch barrel Colt SAA was the gunfighter’s gun of the old west, and you can still purchase one.

“Gents, Please send me one of your Nickel plated .45 Caliber revolvers. It is for my own use and for that reason I would like to have a little Extra pains taken with it. I am willing to pay the Extra for Extra work. Make it very easy on the trigger and have the front Sight a little higher and thicker than the ordinary pistol of this Kind. Put on a gutta percha handle and send it as soon as possible. Have the barrel about the same length that the ejecting rod is.

Truly yours,
W.B. Masterson”

The longer barrel Single Action Army revolver did not handle as quickly as Bat liked. The 4 ¾-inch barrel SAA is among the best-balanced revolvers ever made. This handgun was carried by experienced lawmen in the American West well into the 1950s in some areas. While modern gelatin testing is based on velocity and expansion, the 250-grain Colt bullet at 800 fps will tumble in flesh—it isn’t a pretty picture.

A heavy loaded .45 is effective against hard targets as well as soft targets, something missed by many pundits. The .45 Colt revolver gave those who practiced a real advantage. One of those who practiced with a special moving target was George S. Patton. He was an Olympic-grade shooter and this served him well in Mexico. (Later, he trained in his basement using movies of wild animals cast upon a wall!)

As a young officer in Mexico, General Douglas MacArthur used the SAA to save his life. Before his mission to Veracruz was over, he had shot and killed or disabled seven bandits. Tom Three Persons—a famous lawman—had a special front sight added to his .45 when he walked the mean streets of border towns during prohibition—so much for the myth of point shooting.

Revolver with plow handled grip
Plow handled grip? There is the grip and the plow, and yes, there is something to it.

Men who wanted to hit relied upon their sights. Frank Hamer wore many guns during his long life, but the one that was always by his side was a 4 ¾-inch barrel called ‘Old Lucky.’ The idiom is alive and well today in the form of a first-class revolver from Traditions Firearms.


The 1911 was adopted soon after the World War I by savvy lawmen. During the war, the big .45 Automatic was used by Corporal Alvin York to take out a squad of German soldiers. He was promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Frank Luke, the Arizona Balloon Buster, refused to surrender after his plane was shot down and died wielding his .45. The 1911 .45 was a favorite of federal agents during the roaring ’20s. The 1911 has a sweet, straight-to-the-rear trigger compression and a grip that fits most hands well. It was a great gunfighters gun and remains the standard by which all others are judged.

Charlemagne, the South American bandit, was killed by a U.S. Marine wielding a 1911 .45. Herman E. Hanneken was an enlisted man at the time but after serving in the Banana wars, he helped capture 1,200 bandits. After Charlemagne, he was awarded the Medal of Honor and given a battlefield commission. He served ably in World War II and retired as a Brigadier General. There are many more instances of the 1911 .45 being used by American gunfighters.

Colt 1911 pistol left side
The Colt 1911 was the greatest gun of its day and it still is.

The Super .38

The Super .38 was America’s first tactical pistol. Introduced in 1929, the 1300 fps .38 ACP Super cartridge gave lawmen a much-needed edge against our new class of motorized bandit. This pistol figured into the demise of Baby Face Nelson and others. A Super .38 converted to fully automatic fire and fitted with a forward handgrip is in the FBI museum. It was used by Dillinger’s gang. The Super .38 is seldom seen these days at it was eclipsed by the more powerful .357 Magnum revolver.

The Military and Police .38

The K frame revolver was introduced in 1899 and became the most popular revolver in America. Fast from leather, just the right size, and smooth in operation the Military and Police .38 became the Model Ten in 1957. The.38 Special wasn’t the most powerful cartridge but it is the most powerful handgun cartridge that recruits firing the pistol once a year for familiarization could handle.

At one time, over 75 percent of American police carried the four-inch barrel Smith and Wesson .38 Special. The cartridge failed to stop motivated felons on many occasions and dropped others just as often. During the 1920s, handloaders developed heavy loads that led to the .357 Magnum cartridge, but in the meantime they also got the .38 Special off its knees. In trained hands, the Military and Police .38 is still a formidable handgun.

Browning Hi Power right profile
This is an original tangent sighted Browning High Power. Many were delivered with shoulder stocks.

Browning High Power

After World War II, the French were so impressed with the German 9mm Luger cartridge they wished to adopt a high-capacity handgun of their own chambered for this cartridge. John Moses Browning began work on the pistol, and after his death, the FN Hi Power was introduced. The French did not adopt this handgun, but eventually the armed services of over 100 nations adopted the Hi Power.

The pistol combined the reliability of Browning designed handguns with a high magazine capacity and high velocity cartridge capable of penetrating heavy web gear. Allies and Axis alike used the Hi Power during World War II. Our Canadian allies still use the Hi Power on the front line.

During the British Commando raid on Calais, one Commando wrote of using his Hi Power after his Sten Gun became inoperative. He ‘killed a Hun every hour’ with his pistol during the raid. In Malaysia, SAS soldiers on a scouting raid were outnumbered and jumped by a squad of Communists rebels. The four men ran until they found cover and emptied their Hi Powers into the charging squad. At least half of the dozen terrs were killed and the rest fled.

Woman shooting a Browning Hi Power with a two-handed grip
The Browning Hi Power is a modern 9mm well worth your time to master.

The Browning Hi Power was used by the New Jersey state Fugitive Squad and legendary New York cop Frank Serpico. The British SAS developed many of the anti terror tactics used today. In their many actions, including active service on Malta, the Brits accomplished much with ball ammunition and the Hi Power.

The Commander .45

Soon after World War II, Colt developed a shortened 1911. With the slide and barrel cropped ¾ inch, and a new aluminum frame, the Commander weighed 10 ounces less than the Government Model. This handgun was adopted by professionals and became a favorite of peace officers on special assignment and as an all-around holster gun.

The pistol kicks the most of any discussed but offers plenty of power for the weight. It is as similar in concept to the original 4 ¾ SAA as any automatic pistol may be. The Commander .45 continues to be my favorite all-time defense gun and the one that rides with me every day.

There may be others nominated for this club of gunfighter’s guns, but these six have an impeccable reputation and more story behind them than any other group of handguns in history. They have been used in innumerable gunfights around the world. Even if you only punch paper, these handguns are worth the price of ownership.

Did your favorite make the list? With all of the quality handguns on the market, probably not. Share your top choices for a gunfighter’s gun in the comment section.


The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog. "The Shooter's Log", is to provide information - not opinions - to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decicions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (29)

  1. Thought article was about guns for “Gun Fighters”, not gum fighters,; only gun fighters we have today are Feds, states street and highway police, and our military combat arms.
    lotta Walter Mitty types buying and packing hoping to emulate the past mano y manos’of history along with our very few real gun fighters in our nationz uniforms.

  2. I have several handguns I like to shoot, from the 22 to the 45, revolver and semi auto. My favorite IS listed in the article. My main heavy carry is the Colt 1911 Commander. Upon purchasing it I immediately took it to my gunsmith and had the long spring rod installed. I think the best feature I like is that you can not accidentally shoot it. 1) The hammer has to be cocked for the first shot. 2) There is a ‘compression’ bar on the back of the grip that must be depressed before it will fire. Yes, it is heavy, but I like the feel and the way it shoots. I also have it’s counter part in a revolver I like shooting.

    1. Loading a 1911 cocks the hammer, and if you’re dropping the hammer on a loaded chamber instead of activating the thumb safety then many 1911 lovers (including the author) will say you’re doing it wrong.

      As far as safety goes, you can “accidentally” shoot a 1911 just about as easily as a Glock (or other striker-fired pistol) if you don’t know to keep your finger off the trigger until the pistol is on target and you’re ready to shoot.

  3. I bought a 3rd generation Colt Buntline special, in .45 long Colt, back in the 80’s. Even with that mile long hammer drop it still shoots well even with my older eyes. Never had so much fun with a pistol. For my CCW I pack a Sig 938. My father gave his favorite SAA, in nickel with 43/4″ tube, to my son before he passed. We shoot the heck out of it every time he visits to honor his memory. No pun intended but it’s a blast.

    1. Nealstar,

      After reading your response to Dan, I went and looked at the ‘fact sheet’ you referenced, the Hornady report on their ammo. In this report on page 8 (FBI Penetration Testing), it says 3 things:
      1. Historical data shows a statistically insignificant, if any, difference between
      the 10’ and 20 yard data for identical barriers.
      2. The 20 yard impact velocity may be identical to, or even higher than,
      a 10 foot impact velocity.
      3. The 20 yard events may skew the test results in favor of the barrier used.

      But all three of these statements raise red flags regarding this report. #1 can only be true if the muzzle velocity and weight of the bullets are very, very close. With #2, is just plain false. There is no way the bullet can speed up after it has left the muzzle. And as for #3, while, of course this is true, and any real ballistics tests of different ammo will have more variation in performance because of the barrier used, and this should be part of the test.

      Add to this that some of the calibers the 9mm was tested against are not real, or are very rare. I do not believe there is any 135 gr .357 mag ammo, and the .45 ACP so called +P is just a slightly hotter load than the standard .45 ACP load (see my offer down further). It appears to me that this report was simply intended to make the Hornady 9mm ammo look good.

      From the online available 9mm ammo I have found (96 different ammo offerings), it’s power (measured in ft. lbs.) varies roughly from about 325-375. The .45 ACP I have found online (131 offerings), it varies from about 350 to around 540 ft. lbs. The .45 caliber is about 25% larger in width, and when it mushrooms, it is about double that of a mushroomed 9mm. The .45 Super (just really hotter loads than all the other .45 ACP loads) produces 550 to 711 ft. lbs. of power). The 45 Super (same bullet and cartridge as the standard .45 ACP) is in a separate class because they are often much too powerful for many .45 ACP semi-auto handguns.

      If you really want to see the actual ballistics specs, and see how the 9mm really compares in power (and speed), to almost all the other handgun ammo there is, send me a request for me to send you my free ballistics file, which covers 26 handgun calibers, and 15 rifle ones.

      You can reach me at vlavalle @ix.netcom .com. I have sent this out to many readers of the CTD Shooter’s Log.


    2. Vincent,

      Yeah, I know that it’s a marketing pamphlet and they even conducted a test with a pistol that apparently didn’t exist at the time; a 3″ barrel Springfield EMP .45. Unless they’ve Photoshopped the gelatin pictures, the 9mm. 115 grain FTX bullet from a 3″ barrel Kahr KM9 made enough of a mess to get the recipient to, at least, look down to see what that was. Furthermore, were it to even hit the hip joint or the pelvis, it would have a detrimental affect on the bad guy’s mobility.

      I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met anybody who actually wanted to get shot with anything, particularly half a dozen times in their center of mass. I don’t fancy myself a gunfighter or pistolero, but I did spend close to two years as a participant in the SE Asian War Games and have seen people shot with various weapons with various results. I saw a Saigon “Cowboy” on a motorbike get shot in the stomach with a .30 carbine and just keep on going. No drama, no clutching his mid-section, no falling off the bike, nothin’.

      I escaped from Chicago 28 years ago to the mountains of rural Western Colorado which has an entirely different demographic and I’m reasonably certain I’m not going to have to fight it out with a gang of hardened criminals, teenage gangbangers or even someone so full of drugs or adrenaline that they won’t feel a couple few pieces of 115 grain lead projectiles traveling at 1140fps.

      Finally, I have absolutely no problem emptying my sidearm, longgun or whatever is to hand, rinsing and repeating, into someone trying to harm me or my loved ones. I’ve done it halfway around the world, never had to do it here and hope I don’t, but if I do, it’ll get done. I have no illusions about how dangerous the world can be and what kind of people inhabit it and am aware of the fact that anything can happen to anyone, anyplace, anytime and it either will or won’t. I’d rather depend on something that I can easily carry even if it doesn’t have the performance of the .357 wheelgun in my night stand.

      By the by, what branch were you in and where did you serve?

  4. I’m a big fan of both the 1911 and the P-35, and I’ve carried a Gov’t Model, a Combat Commander, and a Hungarian BHP clone. But nowadays my EDC is one of several Gen 4 Glock 17s I own. With all due respect to my 1911s and P-35s, I have more confidence in the reliability of the Glocks (esp. w/ JHPs) and in my own comfort and accuracy with them, plus my EDC is a total of 69 rounds!

  5. The caliber used isn’t near as important as the placement of the shot. I’ve seen men killed by a .22 and men hit by a .50AE survive. Caliber generally doesn’t matter. If caliber was the only factor, we’d all only be using .69 musket balls. Just food for thought folks, but anyone who says that any one specific cartridge is the end all be all is a false prophet. Yes, one cartridge will perform better ballistics but if you’re selecting a defensive round based on what somebody else says or claims to “know” or be a same professed “expert” is only doing themselves a disservice. The choice and level of training is up to you. Try things out yourself. Your response to a scenario will only be as effective as your dedication to your training. Again, this is just the opinion of one man, do your own research. Train to win, folks.

    1. Well said Adam. The only thing I would add is to choose the largest caliber that you are effective with. A well placed shot is top priority for sure.

  6. Thumbs up for the 1911 in almost any configuration. It got the job done back in the day nd still does today. Nothing beat the Colt SAA during it’s heyday either. They are still fine shooters today but wouldn’t be my choice for personal defense. That brings me to the modern day gunfighter. Glock, CZ, and SIG among others are likely a better choice in today’s world. I still very much enjoyed this article. Keep up the good work Bob.

  7. I didn’t see anybody mention the 10mm. I like it for it’s power and knock down effectiveness. I carry the Glock 29. for self defense.

  8. Check your history. Sgt York was awarded the Medal of Honor. Congress had nothing to do with it, it’s simply Medal of Honor.

    1. It’s called the congressional Medal of Honor for a reason. Awarded by the president on behalf of the congress. Just google “medal of honor”. Please do your research. You don’t know. I know. Nevertheless, active duty usmc 7 years and counting.

    2. While the Medal of Honor may be awarded by the President on behalf of the US Congress, the official title of the award is “Medal of Honor”…..21 years US Army…..Lt Col (Retired).

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