by Austin Knudsen
I don’t read as many gun magazines as I used to. But there are a few articles that are seared into my memory. One such article was written several years ago by Sheriff Jim Wilson: a countdown of the five handguns he couldn’t live without. So I thought, why reinvent the wheel? Let’s go down that rabbit hole again! If I’m forced to get rid of all but five handguns (the horror…) which would I keep? In no particular order…
1. Smith & Wesson Model 17 .22LR
When new shooters ask me what gun they should buy, I recommend a .22LR. I tell them to shoot it, shoot it, and shoot it some more. There’s simply no better way to become a proficient shooter. They’re fun and cheap to shoot. You can learn all of the fundamentals of handgun shooting without the expense and recoil of bigger calibers.
This Smith & Wesson Model 17 — known by S&W-er’s as a “K-22” — was my first handgun. Dad gave it me when I was a teenager. I lost count of the gophers this baby has dispatched. Not to brag, but I’m a crack shot with this wheel gun.
After 20 years of carry and use, 10-round Model 17-8 went back to the factory for a new cylinder. The original alloy cylinder went kaput due to a poor ratchet/timing design on this particular engineering run (during the Clinton-era, bad ol’ days of Smith). It now sports a stainless steel 10-shot cylinder with redesigned ratchet, fitted at no cost.
Even though the stainless cylinder looks a little jarring on that blued frame, this old girl still shoots as well as ever. The 10-shot cylinder means I’m not spending as much time reloading. The six-inch barrel, excellent S&W target sights and perfect single action trigger (I’ve hardly ever fired it double action) make this little gem my absolute favorite handgun in the world. While you can make a good argument for your Ruger MKII/III/IV or Browning Buck Mark, this is the handgun that made me a handgunner and a revolver man for life.
The medium-framed .357 Magnum revolver may be the most versatile handgun (firearm?) ever made. It can be loaded with light .38 specials for pleasure and target shooting, or full-bore .357 magnums in 125-158 grain hollow points for personal defense, or heavy-loaded with hard cast lead bullets in the 173-180 grain range for wilderness use. Hell, you can load it with shot shells.
Introduced in 1980, the Smith & Wesson L frame was designed specifically for the .357 Magnum cartridge. This after Smith learned that extensive use of hot magnum loads through .357 Magnum chambered K frames (models 13, 19, 65, 66) ditched out more abuse than the smaller K-frames could handle.
Beefier than the K frame but not as massive as the N frame, the L frame models could take the steady pounding of heavy .357 magnum loads and keep on ticking.
For the first time in its production history S&W installed full underlugged barrels on the L frames. This was a fairly blatant marketing jab at the Colt Python, S&W’s biggest competitor in the police service revolver market at the time.
My 686 spent the first decade in my possession as a 8 3/8-inch barreled behemoth that shot almost nothing except bulk 158 grain lead semi-wadcutter .38 specials. I used it to keep the exploding, destructive beaver population on our place in check. Later, I re-barreled the wheel gun to 4 inches – much easier to carry and better balance – and carried it as my concealed weapon for a few years before I had any gray hair. Or brains.
The double action trigger is smooth and consistent. The single action trigger is, in a word, magnificent. Nowadays, the 686 is still one of my go-to, on-the-farm, around-the-yard handguns and is my usual sidearm of choice when I’m deer or upland bird hunting in northeast Montana.
In the summer months, I keep the first two chambers loaded with CCI shot shells to dispatch the inevitable rattlesnakes around the farmyard, and the other four are usually loaded with lead 158 grain .38 special handloads. While it may not be as sexy as the newest striker fired semi-auto, the six-shot .357 Magnum revolver will teach you to slow down, aim steady and make your shots count.
3. Smith & Wesson 1911sc E-series .45ACP
The third handgun I owned was an old imported surplus Argentine Colt 1911 with an arched mainspring housing, tiny sights and a spur hammer that bit the web of my hand and made it bleed every time I shot it. I now own a couple of modern 911s that rectify those problems, The version that really blows my skirt up: Smith & Wesson’s lightweight framed, round-butted, commander length version, the S&W 1911sc E-series.
The 4¼-inch commander length pistol is easier to carry and conceal, while avoiding the reliability problems that can plague 1911s with shorter barrels. The frame is made of a lightweight aluminum/scandium alloy, making it a) lighter than the original steel frame, and b) more durable than a pure aluminum frame.
Smith & Wesson also rounded the frame; a modification that used to be strictly custom. This modified frame has two benefits: 1) it makes the pistol a little less likely to print under a concealed carry garment and 2) it makes the pistol even more comfortable in the hand, a feat that I didn’t think possible when it comes to the already-comfortable 1911 platform.
The 1911sc comes standard with Novak-style Trijicon tritium night sights and all the features we expect today on a standard 1911. I added the short trigger and strong side-only safety based on my own personal preferences, and replaced some of the more breakage-prone MIM parts (yes, I’ve witnessed it, though not in this gun) with machined Ed Brown parts. And yes, those are Dan Wesson Guardian grips.
The 1911sc is now in my regular concealed carry rotation. While not as light as a polymer 9mm pistol, it’s a good 10 oz. or lighter than a full-size, all steel 1911, yet still holds as many rounds and uses the same magazines. After carrying a full size 1911 on your hip for a few days, you’ll begin to notice the weight and appreciate something lighter, but which offers you the same feel, controls, capacity, and reliability of the 1911.
4. Ruger Blackhawk .45 Colt
In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m a revolver man first and foremost. At some point, I discovered the writings of an old Montana cowboy named Elmer Keith, the father of the .44 Magnum cartridge, the .41 Magnum cartridge, the Smith & Wesson models 29 and 57 revolvers, the .338 Winchester Magnum cartridge and the Winchester model 70 rifle. (How’s that for a pedigree?)
As a Keith disciple, I shot and reloaded the .44 Magnum for years, using Keith’s personal 250-grain lead bullet design (a modified semi-wadcutter, Lyman mould 429421). The round was cast, sized and lubed by my own hands and propelled by 21 grains of Alliant 2400 (Keith’s pet load) from of a Smith & Wesson model 629 revolver.
And then I stumbled upon the writings of a Wyoming gunsmith named John Linebaugh.
Linebaugh argued that, given a strong enough revolver, a heavily loaded .45 Colt could do anything the .44 Magnum could do with less internal case pressures. This point intrigued me, as I had seen plenty of pictures of exploded .44 Magnum revolvers, and their oftentimes injured owners, caused by reloaders pushing the pressure limits of the cartridge and their guns. So I started experimenting with heavy .45 Colt loads.
My heavy .45 Colt loads (which should only be fired from modern revolvers) consist of a 290 grain lead semi wadcutter bullet cast from RCBS mould 45-270-SAA, and 18.5 grains of Alliant 2400. It outperforms many factory .44 Magnum loads available. The recoil is substantial, though not as vicious as a hot .44 Magnum. I have no hesitation carrying this load into grizzly country, and should I have to clear leather on one of the big bruins, this load will do the job.
My heavy revolver of choice is the Ruger Blackhawk with a 5 ½” barrel.
The 5½” barrel length is short enough to carry all day and clear a holster, but still long enough to get good performance out of the load. If you’ve hiked while carrying heavy, 7+ inch barreled revolvers as much as I have, you learn after a few mountains that you might as well be carrying a boat anchor on your hip.
The Blackhawk’s aluminum grip frame and fluted cylinder (as opposed to the Super Blackhawk’s steel grip frame and unfluted cylinder) shaves weight from an already heavy gun, and makes a big difference when you’re packing it all day.
I prefer the Blackhawk’s single-action grip frame design for heavy loads like these. The single action grip design “pivots” in your hand under heavy recoil, as opposed to the double-action grip that delivers all of that recoil straight back into your palm. It’s like getting smacked in the palm of your hand with the business end of a baseball bat.
The Blackhawk’s robust, adjustable sights can be tailored for any load and are still tough enough to survive a week’s pack trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. And finally: ‘Murica. Nothing is more American than a single-action, blued revolver with pretty wood grips.
5. GLOCK 19
For decades, I swore I’d never own a GLOCK. I thought they were boxy, ugly, and utterly un-gun-like.That goofy steep grip angle just felt wrong, and there was no way plastic could possibly be as good as blue steel and wood. Plus, I had very little use for the 9mm cartridge at that point in my life.
At the urging of a friend, I bought a GLOCK 19 (Gen 3) to prove myself right. I carried that G19 almost every day for nearly four years. I carried it openly on the farm, crawling over fences, on horseback, on dirt bikes, on the tractor, and laying in the dirt servicing and repairing heavy equipment. I carried it concealed under a t-shirt, under a suit jacket, and under a winter coat.
I shot it — a lot — at everything from steel targets to skunks to rattlesnakes. And I’ll be damned if that GLOCK didn’t become one of the few guns with which I trust my life. The 19 has never bobbled, hiccupped or jammed on me (aside from some improperly sized reloaded rounds), despite minimal maintenance.
I’ll admit that my G19 has had some work done. It’s had a trigger job by a GLOCK armorer because stock GLOCK triggers suck. I gave it a set of Warren Sevigny Tactical fiber optic sights because stock GLOCK sights suck. And I had the grip reduced and the backstrap straightened by Springer Precision because the backstrap “hump” hit my hand wrong.
Now, you couldn’t pry my GLOCK 19 from my warm, living hands. This pistol taught me to never say never, and don’t knock it until you try it. I now own multiple GLOCK 9mms, including a 34 for competition, a 43 for deep concealment, and a 17 just because everyone should own a GLOCK 17. I probably shoot them more than any other pistols I own. And to add insult to my injury, I shoot them really well. That’s what I get for saying I’d never own a GLOCK.
So, that’s my list of the five handguns I couldn’t live without. What does your list look like?