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American Handgunner Sep/Oct 2011 Digital Edition - Page 34
WINNINGEDGE Dave Anderson SOLID ADVICE TO KEEP YOU AHEAD OF THE COMPETITION Early pocket revolvers like this .32 S&W eventually evolved into small caliber pocket autos, like the middle, Kel-Tec P32. The Rohrbaugh R9 9mm, bottom, is a cutting edge member of the new breed of pocket auto. he past decade has seen an interesting handgun trend — the resurgence of the American-made pocket automatic (P/A henceforth). Through the 1880s and early 1900s, small revolvers were extremely popular. Quality varied from very good (S&W top-break models, for example) to borderline unsafe-to-shoot, such as imports selling for three or four dollars. The first commercially successful P/As resulted from the genius of John Browning. When he designed the 1900 and even more successful 1910 pistols, FN would make them by the tens of thousands. Under an agreement with FN, Colt made and marketed its very similar series of compact autopistols. To function with the blowback operation of Browning’s pistols a series of cartridges were designed, the .25, .32 and .380 ACP. Colt P/As were very popular. Other American gunmakers naturally wanted Pocket Power t PonderinG a piece of the market. The problem was making them without infringing on Browning’s patents. Remington, Savage and S&W came up with successful designs, and although they sold reasonably well, none approached the success of Colt’s pistols. Europe would prove to be the real home of P/As. The tremendous popularity of the Browningdesigned FNs naturally attracted the interest of other gunmakers. Most successful, or at least most influential of the designs, were the DA Walther PP series. Among other popular European makers were Sauer, Mauser, Star, Llama, Beretta and CZ. After WWII American-made P/As virtually disappeared. Remington, Savage and S&W dropped their pocket pistols in the ’20s and ’30s, Colt in 1946. What happened? The answer can be given in one word — Fitz. For much of the pre-WWII era, J.H. Fitzgerald was a renowned handgun expert, target and exhibition shooter and police firearms instructor. Fitz took Colt revolvers in various calibers, shortened the barrels to around 2", rounded the grip frames, cut off hammer spurs and the front of the triggerguard, and carried them in pairs stuffed in his pant’s pockets. But the breakthrough came when Colt took the small-frame, .38 Special Police Positive model, fitted a 2" barrel and named it the Detective Special. Once the war was over, S&W designed a similar model called the Chief’s Special. Both S&W and Colt introduced light alloyframed versions of their small revolvers. SeedS Planted W nother innovator was Colt. In the ’80s and ’90s there was a perception Colt was staid, uninspired, coasting along on hether private old designs. Certainly Colt’s glacial slowness in making citizens or law a modern 1911 virtually handed the market to aggressive comenforcement offipanies such as Springfield Armory and Kimber. cers, Americans wanting In fact Colt introduced several new designs in the ’80s compact defensive handand ’90s. Some were not very successful designs (such as guns turned decisively to the Double Eagle and the All-American 2000) but there revolvers. It’s interesting were successes as well. The success of the single-action A group of old and new pocket autos. to speculate why comGovernment .380 led to several variations, such as the pact revolvers so thoroughly eclipsed pocket autos in the US. The PocketLite, Mustang, Mustang Plus II and several others. perception was revolvers were simpler in operation, more reliable Colt also had a line of small double-action autos in .380 and more powerful for their size than .32 and .380 Autos. which were quite popular. Then there was the short-lived When early small frame revolvers were chambered for such Pocket Nine made in 1999 only. Consider its specifications: rounds as the .32 and .38 S&W there wasn’t much difference, alloy frame, 2¾" barrel, 6-shot magazine, 17 ounces, 9mm though. The .38 Special was a significant step up in power, and Parabellum. Sound familiar? Currently pistols with similar revolvers functioned just fine with more effective bullet shapes. specs are in such demand they can’t be produced fast The GCA of 1968 prohibited importation (but not domestic enough. Whatever teething problems the new design might manufacture) of small handguns, including most P/As. Even with have would no doubt soon have been sorted out, except in a captive market, US gunmakers showed little interest in making 2000 Colt decided to drop pocket autos entirely. small autopistols, presumably because they felt there was insufTimes change. Empowered by shall-issue laws, more ficient demand. The fate of the .22 LR S&W 61, (born 1970, died private citizens are choosing to be armed. Pocket autos, unmourned 1974) seemed to support this view. either as primary or backup carry guns are much in Manufacture of some .25 and .32 ACP pistols continued, such as demand. America’s gunmakers have responded. The first the Italian designed but American-made Berettas, copies of the “Baby wave of innovation was for really small .380s, some of Browning” and inexpensive models such as Davis and Lorcin. them literally half the weight and size of the century-old In the ’80s and ’90s stirrings of resurgence in innovative P/A FN and Colt designs. The current wave is favors designs concepts began. A notable example is the Seecamp .32. The smaller and lighter than the old classic pocket autos, but Seecamp was really small and really well made. Strong demand chambered in 9mm rather than .380. It’s a wave showed there was a growing market for such pistols. that won’t crest for a while. the trend A * 34 WWW.AMERICANHANDGUNNER.COM • SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER2011