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Personal Defense with Classic Firearms

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The content of this column is most often addressed to handgun enthusiasts, the sort who have likely been carrying for a while, who may train and/or compete with some regularity. These are readers who therefore probably have a pretty up-to-date handgun that they had the luxury of selecting from a broad marketplace of pistols in all different sizes, configurations and calibers.

The tumults of 2020 have brought a flood of new firearm owners, though; people who felt the need to get a handgun for protection, not only in the home, but while out and about in these uncertain times. Like some game of ballistic musical chairs, people who were late to the purchasing rush often found themselves out of luck, as shelves had been thoroughly picked over and prices on auction sites like Gun Broker went through the roof. It was the very definition of a seller’s market. One online commenter quipped that the time to worry about what caliber or size or brand of handgun the new shopper should buy had passed back in March, and the only question now was “Is it in stock?”

In times like these, we see the sock drawers and attic storage of America turned out and heirlooms brought into gun shops. Grandpa’s service revolver or a great uncle’s war-trophy, semi-automatic pistol will be presented to the clerk behind the local gun shop counter with the questions “Can we check to make sure this works?” and “Can I get ammunition for this?”

Fortunately, the most common pistol I’ve seen in these situations is the classic Government Model M1911 or 1911A1. There’s no telling how many of those service semi-autos came home from America’s wars, from World War I through Vietnam and beyond, tucked away in a seabag or suitcase.

I say “fortunately,” because the recipient of one of these old GI guns who decides to press it back into service as a defensive piece will at least have no difficulty finding holsters or magazines, thanks to the continuing popularity of 1911-pattern handguns. It’s a rare gun shop that would be unable to send the Government Model owner home with a CrossBreed or Galco holster and a couple extra magazines.

Wilson Combat, Chip McCormick or Metalform magazines would also likely improve the pistol’s reliability slightly, although with an original, un-throated USGI barrel, ball ammunition or hollow points with fairly rounded ogives would be preferred. A well-stocked shop would probably be able to replace the recoil and firing-pin springs off the shelf as well, just to be on the safe side.

The second-most common scenario is the old law enforcement service revolver, usually a K-frame Smith & Wesson. I’ve seen all kinds brought in, from stainless Model 65s issued in the early 1980s to a .32-20 Win. Hand Ejector that belonged to a great-grandpa who’d been a sheriff in Depression-era Tennessee.

The K-frame Smith & Wesson recipient is almost as lucky as their neighbor who’d been bequeathed an M1911A1. Ammunition is still manufactured, and holsters and speedloaders are widely available. If the gun is still equipped with the old “splinter” stocks, a set of Hogues or Pachmayrs off the shelf may be more comfortable. Probably the only worry here is that if the gun is old enough, the cylinder might not be heat-treated. The actual date when they began heat-treating K-frame cylinders was in 1919, but as a rule of thumb, I just personally restrict +P ammunition to post-World War II guns.

Of course, some bring-backs have virtually no essential accessories available. This is the situation with a lot of Cold War trophy guns. Eastern Bloc pistols may actually be easier to find ammunition for in times of panic-buying than a 9 mm, but gear is scarce. One exception to that rule might be the Makarov. It was common enough in the 1990s and early 2000s that Hornady loads both XTP and Critical Defense ammunition in 9×18 Makarov, and companies like Alien Gear and DeSantis offer holster options should one need to press the Russian relic back into service.

While I wouldn’t call any of these solutions ideal, any one of them beats a handful of nothing if you need a carry gun in a pinch.

Article by Tamara Keel

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