Five Magical American Guns
A 60-plus year-old catalog sparks memories of great guns from the middle of the last century
F&S deputy editor Slaton White very kindly sent me a pair of old books he found in his office, and as it turns out, I had bought one of them when it first came out…in 1956. It’s called Larry Koller’s Book of Guns, a hardcover, and the price on the inside is $2.95, which is probably what I paid for my copy 62 years ago. It’s a combination how-to-shoot guide and catalog.
With all due respect to Larry, I think the most interesting part of the book now is the catalog of guns—the ones we will never see again, and some of which hold funky memories for me.
There is the Colt Python .357, essentially a target revolver, but occasionally carried by cops who were gun nuts, as a duty arm. Pythons were made by hand, and were finished in what was called Colt Royal Blue, which meant that the revolver was brought to an extraordinary degree of polish and then given a true blue color, not a black-blue. A 50s Python is as slick as glass, and highly accurate. I had one which I used with .38 wadcutters for targets. In 1956, you could buy a Python for $125. Today, in nice shape, the same gun will go for around $3,000. It is a jewel among American revolvers.
There are Weatherby rifles, but this was before the Mark V came out in 1958. These are built on commercial FN Mauser actions, and are all-stops-out guns, with loads of wood-and-ivory inlay, elaborate checkering, and engraving. The price is given as $275 and up. I think you could get a fancy one then for $500. Today it would take $3,500. Larry talks about using the .257 Weatherby for 400-yard shots, which was an unheard-of distance back then but is considered a chip shot in some circles today.
And there is the Savage 340 in .222, which was my first centerfire rifle. The 340 was an unapologetic cheap gun. When I was in college in the early 1960s, woodchuck hunting was as popular as projectile vomiting or mooning, which means it was very popular. The Theta Chi house was rumored to have 70 rifles on its premises, which was technically illegal, but no one cared. One Theta Chi had a Savage 340 in .222, and sold it to me for $30, half the list price of $60. I found a Weaver B4 4X .22 scope somewhere, managed to mount it, got some broken boxes of .222 ammo, and went off in the woods to sight it in. I remember being baffled that the Winchester ammo and the Remington ammo did not shoot to the same point of impact.
It’s astonishing how many shooters of my generation had a 340 as their first centerfire. The bedding was weird, the lines were ugly, and the trigger was terrible. But for all that, it was very reliable, and every 340 I’ve shot, or heard about, was accurate.
My 340 didn’t last long. Eventually I was repelled by its awfulness. I replaced it with a Remington Model 725, which was the deluxe version of the semi-awful Remington 721. My 725 was also a .222, and was a lovely rifle, nicer, I think, than the Model 700 which followed. The 725 was made for only a few years, and not many were produced, and if you have one, take care of it.
In the mid-1950s, at the same time Colt declared the Single Action Army revolver unsalable, Bill Ruger beheld the endless string of westerns on television and said, “Want to bet?” And so he came out with the Single Six .22, which was a raging success, and then followed it in 1955 with the Blackhawk in .357 Magnum. It was a terrific revolver. It had adjustable target sights rather than the crude sight of the SAA, unbreakable coil springs instead of flat springs, a massive frame, and a very attractive price of $87.50.
It was a plain working gun, but today if you own one of the original 3-screw Blackhawks (so-called because of the three screws in the frame), treat it with consideration, because there’s a Ruger collector out there who will pay you $600 to $800 for it.
In 1956, the Smith & Wesson .44 magnum had just come out. At a time when the .357 magnum was regarded as shootable only by the deranged, here, suddenly, was something that was far more powerful, and people didn’t know what to make of it. Elmer Keith had a matched pair, engraved, with ivory grips, and shot them a lot, but that was Elmer. The first .44 magnum ammo was loaded by Remington, who developed the cartridge, and Remington was not hedging its bets. That stuff was ferocious.
Most people bought a .44 magnum, fired a cylinder full, decided they had made a bad mistake, and either put the gun away or sold it. The big gun, by now called the Model 29, didn’t really catch on until the first Dirty Harry movie debuted in 1971. Then the market went insane. You couldn’t find a Model 29 even if you had the money to buy it. That nonsense aside, I think the S&W Model 29 is the finest American revolver ever made, better even than the Python, or the S&W Triple Lock, and if you can afford one that was made in the 50s, 60s, or 70s, with all forged parts, break the bank for it.
Thank you for bearing with the ravings of an aging gun nut. At the time, I thought all this stuff was magical, and have seen no reason to change my mind.