10 Most Iconic Handgun Designs of All Time
Volumes have been written about great handguns, and it’s truly hard to whittle the long list of pistol designs dating back well over a century to just ten. One caveat for this particular roundup is that the listed guns have to remain available as a production firearm today, so if you want one you can go buy it (provided, of course, post-COVID supply eventually meets demand). Still, it’s tough to grade some gun designs against each other and assign a value to the great guns of the past.
The guns that made the cut all share a few traits in common, however—longevity, popularity, service, and an impact on the firearm industry. Here’s our list of the greatest handgun designs currently available today.
No surprise here. John Moses Browning designed a lot of groundbreaking guns, but none have stood up as well as the Colt 1911 single-action semiauto. This pistol has served as the American sidearm in two World Wars and in countless other conflicts and it remains a favorite design of competition shooters and some law enforcement and military units, which is impressive for a pistol celebrating its 110th birthday next year. Countless companies offer their own 1911 pistols, including Springfield, SIG Sauer, Kimber, Rock Island, and more, and premium builders like Ed Brown, Nighthawk, and Bill Wilson churn out high-end 1911s that are worth very penny.
The CZ 75 was released in 1975, and credit for the gun’s design goes to brothers Josef and Frantisek Kouky. Because of export restrictions in what was then Czechoslovakia, CZ 75 clone pistols were built in other countries and that allowed the guns to be shipped around the world. The Kouky-designed pistol utilizes a short-recoil, lock-breech design similar to the venerable Browning Hi-Power (which fails to make the list only because major production was discontinued) and a slide that rides along internal rails.
With their double-stack, 15-round magazines the CZ 75 helped usher in the era of the “Wonder Nine” and the design has been copied by a host of other manufacturers including Tanfoglio, IMI, Norinco, Springfield, and others. The CZ 75 remains the company’s flagship, and thankfully these guns are now widely available in the U.S. CZ-USA currently offers 15 different CZ 75 variants for duty, competition and recreational shooting, and self-defense.
Beretta is the oldest manufacturing business in the world, and they’ve been making guns for over 500 years. It’s no surprise, then, that one of the company’s guns earns a spot on this list: the Beretta 92. The Beretta 92 debuted in 1975 and borrowed elements from earlier models like the M1923 and M1951. The original 92s featured a frame-mounted thumb safety, and the 92S offered a slide mounted decocker/safety.
In a move that some considered heresy, the U.S. military dropped the M1911 for the military version of Beretta’s 92 (the M9) in the 1980s. But the M9/92 proved to be battle-worthy and became a favorite sidearm of the LE community as well. Today Beretta still sells these robust, reliable pistols, as does Taurus. If you’re a serious Beretta 92 fan, then Wilson Combat’s hot-rodded 92G Brigadier Tactical model is not to be missed.
At just 14 years old the Taurus Judge is the youngest firearm on this list, but there’s no denying this .410/.45 Colt revolver has left an indelible mark on the firearm’s marketplace. The concept of a revolver that fired shotshells appeals to many shooters: with ½-ounce .410 loads the judge would make an ideal weapon for hunting small game at close range or dispatching snakes and other vermin, a perfect trail gun. It was also lauded as the ideal personal defense weapon since it fired both .410 shotshells and powerful .45 Colt defensive ammo.
Now, more than a decade since its launch, it remains one of the most popular home defense/trail revolvers on the market, and there don’t seem to be any signs that the general public is losing interest in the design (when I asked a gun store owner which guns he sold first during 2020’s panic buy, he told me that all of his handguns were gone in a week but that all the Judge revolvers he had in stock were gone in a day). Despite its prodigious power, the full-sized Judge is quite manageable to shoot.
Smith Wesson Model 29
We often associate the .44 Magnum Model 29 Smith & Wesson with “Dirty” Harry Callahan, but the real driving force behind this gun was Elmer Keith. In the 1950s Keith, a gun writer and big bore enthusiast, was uploading the .44 Special to high pressures and he wanted a gun that would handle that kind of energy. He got his wish when Smith & Wesson produced their N-Frame revolver in 1955 in the powerful new .44 Remington Magnum.
The 29 rose in popularity after Clint Eastwood uttered those famous lines about it being the most powerful handgun in the world in 1971, but the Model 29’s enduring legacy is that it made big bore, magnum revolvers available to the public. The M29 and its various N-Frame variants remain in Smith & Wesson’s lineup and will for the foreseeable future.
Austrian curtain rod manufacture Gaston Glock used his experience with polymers to create a completely new pistol design in 1982, the G17. Since then, Glock’s semiauto striker-fired handgun has enjoyed a tidal wave of popularity and has created a whole new polymer frame/striker-fired pistol market. No longer regarded as “plastic guns,” Glock pistols are the sidearm of choice for most American law enforcement agencies. Over the years the Glock family has grown to include a range of different single- and double-stack models in a variety of calibers, but the original design concept remains largely unchanged. The use of polymers made these guns lighter and less expensive to manufacture than steel frame guns, and Glock pistols are robust and accurate.
Bill Ruger’s .22 autoloading pistol is the gun that built an empire. With little capital and a limited workforce, Ruger and his partner Alexander Sturm began building semiautomatic .22 pistols in their small Southport, CT, factory and selling them for $37.50 each in 1949. By 1950, demand for Ruger pistols was so high that the men had to start selling through a distributor network. Since then over 4 million Ruger semiauto .22 pistols have been purchased.
The Mark I was followed by the Mark II, Mark III, and today’s Mark IV, all of which share the same basic blowback operation with a fixed barrel and receiver. The Ruger design is exceedingly accurate and very reliable, and the modern Mark IV offers a major improvement over previous models—simple push-button takedown. Today Ruger is one of the world’s largest firearm manufacturers, and all that success began with the little semiauto .22. No gun collection is complete without one.
Colt 1873 Single-Action Army
Samuel Colt’s famed single-action revolver design was submitted to the U.S. military for adoption in 1872, setting the stage for the Colt Single Action Army (SAA) to become the first hugely successful handgun design. It was chambered for the then-new .45 Colt blackpowder cartridge and it offered a durable, robust design (for that era) that allowed it to stand up to life on the frontier.
The top strap design added strength that was missing in earlier open-top revolver designs, and the convenience of having six rounds of .45 Colt close at hand made intrepid explorers feel more secure when venturing into unknown territories (although most all carried five rounds in the gun since the SAA had a fixed, exposed hammer that needed to rest on an empty cylinder). The Colt SAA has been cloned countless times, and it has become a symbol of the cowboy spirit. And these revolvers are still as much fun to shoot as they were in 1873.
Carl Walther developed the PPK (Polizeipistole Kiminalmodell, or “Police Pistol Detective Model”) for release in 1930, and that gun has paved the way for a number of other pistol designs that followed. The PPK was small and trim, light enough to be carried concealed by detectives working undercover. It became a standard-bearer for semiauto carry guns for decades to follow. It was also the first commercially successful SA/DA pistol on the market, a mechanical design that has been used by a multitude of service and self-defense weapons since.
Light and compact, the PPK utilizes a fixed-barrel blowback action. Because the barrel remains fixed the PPK is surprisingly accurate for such an easy-to carry gun. The PPK was the inspiration for several other guns like the Russian Makarov, and everyone’s favorite fictional MI6 agent James Bond carried one as a sidearm. Ninety years after its inception the PPK remains a popular carry gun, and they’re now made in Walther’s Fort Smith, AR, facility.
Smith & Wesson J-Frame
The J-Frame traces its lineage back to Smith & Wesson’s Hand Ejector models of the 1890s. In 1949 the team at S&W, led by Carl Hellstrom, decided to modernize the existing I-Frame pistols by making them smaller and updating some mechanical features. The first gun in the J-Frame family, the Chief’s Special, featured a 2-inch barrel and was designed to be carried by detectives who needed a lightweight, concealable weapon that offered enough stopping power to neutralize a violent attacker.
The J-Frame has continued to set the standard for deep concealment/undercover weapons and they have also gained a huge following with concealed carry permits holders because of their compact design and unfailing reliability. Smith & Wesson’s modern J-Frame lineup includes 60 J-Frame models including scandium alloy frames that weigh less than three-quarters of a pound.
Article by Brad Fitzpatrick