Gun Digest & THE EARLY DAYS of Automatic Pistols

In the final years of the Great Depression, just before the start of World War II, only two U. S. manufacturers produced what were then known as «automatic» pistols. Foreign autoloaders were made, but relatively few were used in America. The revolver, designed and brought into common use in America, remained the most popular type of handgun.

During World War II, the American public understood the value of proficiency and knowledge related to firearms. After that devastating war was over, there was a great interest in firearms of all types, but in particular in semi-automatic pistols. Servicemen during the war had been exposed not only to the U.S. service semi-automatic pistol, but also to those of other countries. After the war, new developments took place in America, and foreign makers were eager to sell to U.S. markets.

The first edition of Gun Digest came out in 1944, during the course of World War II. The first edition was well received, and the second edition of Gun Digest was published in 1946, immediately after the war. It soon became an annual reference. It provided historical information, tips and advice on how to shoot various types of firearms, and let post-war America know what guns were available. As time went by, students of firearms realized the publication was a valuable reference to the history and evolution of the types of guns available to the American shooter.

We can look back and see the gradual changes in what has been available in various types of rifles, shotguns and handguns. We can also see the pattern of background events that led to the offerings of certain types of guns.

However, nowhere has this evolution been more striking, or the changes more numerous or more dramatic, than the field of what were originally called «automatic» pistols. Starting with just a handful of possibilities in the first edition, this category grew and grew. Today, autoloading pistols form a dominant portion of the volume, far outnumbering revolvers or any specific action type of rifle or shotgun.

Of course, the “automatic» pistol had been introduced to America long before 1944. In 1900, Colt had introduced the 38-caliber autoloader designed by firearms genius John M. Browning. The cartridge, the 38 Automatic Colt Pistol cartridge (.38 ACP) is still produced more than a century later as the 38 Super. One of Browning’s great achievements came in 1911, when the Browning-designed Colt automatic in .45 ACP was adopted by the United States military. If there was any valid criticism of the Colt 1911, it is that the pistol was so good that it discouraged competition by other makers. Savage and Remington shelved their designs for 45-caliber service pistols.

Those two makers, and others such as Smith & Wesson, Harrington 8c Richardson and Warner, did challenge Colt in the field of American pocket pistols, but by the late 1930s, only the Colt pocket pistols were left.

The .22-caliber automatic pistol arrived in 1915, actually prior to our entry into the first World War, and was another Colt/Browning design. Today, with a wide variety of dependable 22 pistols from which to choose, it is easy to lose sight of the difficulties Browning faced. The rimfire .22 Long Rifle (22 LR) cartridge had been developed only 28 years before, in 1887. 1915 ammunition was loaded with varieties of black, semi-smokeless and smokeless powders, all with corrosive priming. The greased lead bullets were only lightly held in very thin copper or brass cases. It amazed experts of the time that the new Colt 22, later to be called the Woodsman, worked so well.

Several variants of the Woodsman were made, and became very popular. Non-corrosive priming arrived in 1926 and high-velocity .22 LR cartridges arrived in 1930. By 1932, competition for the Woodsman had also arrived, in the form of the Hi-Standard 22 automatic. High Standard Manufacturing Co. had acquired a Hartford Arms design for a .22 pistol and produced it as the Hi-Standard Model B. Similar in shape to the Colt, it was of different construction. Several variations were made in succeeding years.

Colt had brought out several variants of its basic Government Model. In 1929, the 38 Super was introduced. Soon target versions, the National Match 45 and the Super Match 38 were added. The big frame was adapted to the .22 L.R cartridge in the Ace and Service Ace variants.

That was it.

In the period leading up to our involvement in World War II, we had variants of two big-bore automatic pistols, two models of pocket pistols and a smattering of 22 automatics—all from two manufacturers, Colt and High Standard.

This was the autoloading pistol situation prior to the publication of the first Gun Digest in 1944. In addition to the paucity of pre-war self-loading models, wartime production needs meant that few automatic pistols were actually available to civilians.

During the war, the country switched over to wartime production. Firearms that could be used for some military function were kept in production. Others were dropped 41 for the duration,» and some to be resumed after the end of hostilities, others to never again be made.

People at home were deeply impressed with the need for guns and shooting. Training programs grew throughout the country to train young men in marksmanship. America was still largely rural then, and hunting was a way to supplement a family’s food supply during a period of rationing and «Meatless Tuesdays.» Hunting and target shooting continued In the face of a dwindling supply of factory ammunition for civilian use.

The first Gun Digest came out in 1944, during this period. There was a tremendous interest in guns and shooting, but except for the American Rifleman magazine of the National Rifle Association (NRA), little published information was available. The 1944 Gun Digest introduced the basic format that was to continue through the years—feature articles, and a catalog section of handguns, rifles and shotguns. The catalog section, of course, could not be accurate, as availability changed markedly during the war. Essentially, the catalog section of the first edition listed the guns made prior to the war. The automatic pistol listings consisted only of the pistols by Colt and High Standard. Colt handguns were the Government Model 45, Super 38, and 22-caliber Ace, and their target models, and the 22-caliber Woodsman series. High Standard listings were all 22s, in the early «letter» series A, B, D and E, offered both as hammerless and visible-hammer models.

After the end of fighting in 1945, servicemen began returning home. A joke of the time was that returning servicemen were only interested in two things—and the second one was hunting. The first interest created the baby boom. The second created a demand for inexpensive firearms that could be used for hunting and recreational shooting.

The second annual edition came out in 1946, again published by Klein’s Sporting Goods. The U.S. firearms industry had problems switching from expanded wartime production to more restricted peacetime production. A number of companies never put some of their pre-war offerings back into production, and a new section was added to the second Gun Digest. «Discontinued Metallic Cartridge Arms» gave shooters an idea as to what was no longer available.

The Third Edition came out in 1947. Colt listings had been changed to include only the Government Model 45, the Super 38 and the Woodsman Target, Sport and Match Target 22s. The Pocket Model 25 was also included, but it was not actually available.

High Standard pistol listings were reduced to only one model. Only the Model 11-D Military (which had been made for the military during the war) was then in production, with 4Zt- or 6%-inch barrels. A note was included that the Model В hammerless «may be produced in 1947.»

The fourth Gun Digest began a tradition that was to serve the publication well in some ways. Brought out in 1948, it was listed as the «4th Annual (1949) Edition.» This got it into the hands of hunters before the beginning of the 1948-1949 hunting season, and was the most current listing of available firearms.

More people were interested in handguns, and a new section, “Handgun Facts,» was written by

Charles Askins, Jr. He was the earliest writer of the handguns section, joined in later years by such knowledgeable writers as Julian S. Hatcher, Kent Bellah, Pete Kuhlholf, Gil Hebard, Dean Grennell, George Nonte, J. B. Wood and others.

Some notable changes were made in the fifth edition, 1951. Copyrighted and published in 1950, it was still copyrighted by Klein’s Sporting Goods, but published by a new entity, The Gun Digest Company. The editor was now John T. Amber, who was to remain in that position for 28 years, through the 33rd Edition, 1979.

Charles Askins’ report was in the new section, «Handguns Today.» A «Foreign Firearms» section made an appearance, with illustrated coverage. In the automatic pistol section were offerings of Astra, Beretta, Bernardelli, Star and Unique, mostly pocket pistols in .25, .32 and .380 calibers, with some .22 target pistols.

This introduction to the 1950s tied in to the changes going on in America. The 1950s were generally a time of optimism and enthusiasm for America. New cars had once more become available in 1946, but most new designs arrived only in 1949. Styling was to grow more flamboyant and engines more powerful as the ’50s went on.

Not even the Korean War of 1950-1953, important as it was, dampened America’s enthusiasm. The lighting, however, reinforced the ideas of many that all young men needed firearms training. Shooting clubs, veterans’ organizations, police departments and other groups operated youth shooting programs for the benefit of America.

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