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Colt, Glock, Smith & Wesson… Any time you’re debating what are the greatest handguns ever, those iconic names—and several others—have to be included. From classic cavalry sidearms of the 1800s to today’s accurate semi-automatic pistols, handguns have been a constant source for innovation and ingenuity. And that’s what inspired us to go back in time and highlight 25 of the top pistols, handguns, and revolvers in history—starting all the way back in 1850 when Colt released a game-changer that would go on to catch the eyes of soldiers and gunslingers alike. Many of the guns in this list are no longer available, but the impact and influence they had on handgun design will live on forever. Now, onto the list.
1. Colt 1851 Navy Revolver
In production from 1850 until 1873, the Colt Navy Revolver changed warfare and the world. Much lighter than the Colt Dragoon of 1847 and originally designated the “Ranger,” the Colt Navy was adored by cavalry soldiers, partisan ruffians, and gunslingers like Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickock. This best revolver of its time remained popular long after the introduction of the modern self-contained cartridge. The Colt Navy is a legendary sidearm and could be considered the first true fighting handgun.
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Likely the most iconic handgun in existence, the Colt Single Action Army gained fame in the holsters of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and won the West in the hands of men like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. General George Patton also carried an 1873 Colt Single Action Army, which should be all the endorsement one of the best handguns ever needs to achieve fabled status. Known as the Peacemaker, the gun would’ve cost you about $17 in the 1870s. Today, you’ll pay 100 times that for a current production 1873 and as much as 500 times the original price for a first-generation specimen in good condition.
Also known as the Military & Police or Victory Model, this fixed-sight, double-action revolver has been offered with barrel lengths ranging from 2 to 6 inches, and it is estimated that more than six million Model 10s have been manufactured. The revolver saw service in both World Wars and was chambered in .38 Long Colt, .38 S&W, and .38 Special. Thousands of policemen have walked their beats with a Model 10 at their sides. In 1974, S&W introduced a heavy-barrel version chambered for the .357 Magnum known as the Model 13.
4. The Luger Pistol
The Pistole Parabellum—also known as the Luger—was offered in a variety of configurations from 1898 until 1948. It is the pistol that made the 9mm Parabellum/Luger/9x19mm cartridge famous (when you think of pistol names, many think Luger), and now the most popular pistol cartridge in the world. The Luger was used by the German Army in World War I and II and has, in a way, become a symbol of Nazi Germany. Because of this, it was a longtime favorite handgun for Hollywood villains. The Luger and its unique operating system essentially died at the end of WWII, but by then, it had already made history.
Created by John Browning—arguably the greatest firearm designer of all time—this pistol served the American military from 1911 until 1990 and is still in the holsters of some soldiers today. The Colt 1911 helped win two World Wars and may be the most copied handgun ever. Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper referred to it as the “Yankee Fist,” and today, the 1911 is more popular than ever before. It dominates the custom handgun market and is offered in multiple configurations by many manufacturers.
Another great John Browning design, the Colt Woodsman was manufactured in various forms from 1915 until 1977. It was the first successful semi-automatic, rimfire pistol and is considered by many to be the best .22 LR handgun ever. The Woodsman became very popular with small game hunters, trappers, hikers, and outdoorsmen, and it remains very popular with collectors, with some variations selling for as much as $4,000.
This six-shot, steel-framed, two-inch-barreled, double-action revolver was instantly appealing to those looking for the best pistol that could be easily concealed. It was one of the first of what would soon be called “snub-nose” revolvers and offered in .32 New Police, .38 New Police, and .38 Special. The latter chambering did indeed become popular with plain-clothes detectives and other lawmen who worked the desk and undercover jobs.
You would never think that a high-quality, double-action revolver (with a six-inch barrel and Circassian walnut grips) chambered for the .22 Long Rifle, could have been a success—especially considering that it was introduced during the depression. But between 1931 and 1939, Smith & Wesson sold more than 17,000 K22s. It’s one of the most badass pistols ever. With a crisp, single-action trigger pull and a guarantee to shoot within 1.5 inches at 50 yards, this gun became an instant classic and was the forerunner to a long line of .22 rimfire revolvers from Smith & Wesson.
The Walther PPK (Polizeipistole Kriminalmodell or Police Pistol Detective Model) is a blow-back, semi-auto with an exposed hammer and a traditional double-action trigger. It has been offered in a wide variety of configurations and has been chambered for several cartridges; most notably the .380 ACP or 9mm Kurtz. This best pistol reached meteoric fame as the sidearm of the fictional special agent, James Bond, and will forever be known as 007′s pistol. Compact but heavy, the steel-framed PPK is a great personal sidearm, and they are now manufactured in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
In its prototype form—as designed by John Browning—the Browning Hi-Power was a striker-fired 9mm pistol with a double-stack magazine, link-less barrel, and a pivoting, revolver-like trigger. Sounds like a Glock, right? In its final form, the handgun became a single-action, hammer-fired pistol, and would ultimately be used by more military units than any other handgun. The Browning Hi-Power was the first wonder-nine, and it laid the foundation for modern defensive handgun design as we know it today. It’s truly one of the best handguns ever.
The Ruger Standard Model was the beginning of a company known as Sturm, Ruger & Co.—which, by the way, was founded with a $50,000 investment. The design is unique in that the pistol’s slide is internal, and the current model remains very similar to the original. The gun is now in its fourth iteration, and there have been more than two dozen variations of this handgun. An outstanding pistol for the new shooter, small-game hunter, or handgun for outdoorsmen, today the Standard MK IV, which is much easier to field-strip than the original, retails for more than ten times the original price.
Introduced at the 1950 International Association of Chiefs of Police convention, the S&W Model 36 would ultimately be known by one of the coolest pistol names ever: the “Chief’s Special.” This name name came about, rather uniquely, through a vote held at the convention. The classic handgun was an immediate success and was originally available with either a blued or nickel finish. This five-round, double-action revolver has served law-enforcement officers well as a duty gun for detectives and administrators, and as an ankle or back-up gun for patrol officers.
The 1950s were the heyday of the television western. Shows like Gunsmoke pulled the little bit of cowboy that was in all of us to the surface, and the world was ripe for a .22 LR single-action revolver that hearkened to the Old West. During its 66-year history, the Ruger Single Six has been chambered for the .22 LR, .22 Magnum, .17 HMR, and even the .32 H&R Magnum. With barrel lengths ranging from 4 ⅝ to 9 ½ inches, the Single Six became one of the best-selling firearms Ruger ever produced. Great for new shooters and hunters, this classic handgun is still in production with the option of 6-, 7-, 9-, and 10-shot cylinders.
The Colt Python has a reputation for a smooth trigger pull, tight lock-up, and accuracy. It is described by many as the finest production double-action revolver ever made. Immortalized in a two-tone format by Robert Blake in the movie, Electra Glide in Blue, the Python was adopted by several state highway patrol departments and might be the Rolls Royce of revolvers. Discontinued in 2005, used examples in good condition command outlandish prices, sometimes fetching more than $10,000.
This best pistol has the distinction of being the first U.S. designed/manufactured double-action, semi-automatic pistol marketed in the United States. The Model 39 was chambered for 9mm Luger and was designed by S&W at the request of the Army to be an American equivalent to the Walther P38. The de-cocker and 8-round, single-stack magazine were like those on the P38, but it had a locking mechanism similar to the Browning Hi-Power. The Model 39′s true contribution was that after adoption by the Illinois State Police in 1967, it set the stage for a switch to semi-automatic handguns by American law enforcement. It also served as the forerunner to the higher-capacity Model 59—and many aluminum- and steel-framed S&W pistols—that so many police agencies would fall in love with.
Following on the heels of the Single Six, Ruger’s next logical step was to design a more powerful single-action revolver. They decided on the Blackhawk and originally produced the revolver in .38 Special/.357 Magnum. It has since been chambered in a wide assortment of cartridges. In several cases, Blackhawks were called “convertibles” and sold with two cylinders, such as .45 ACP and .45 LC. The fixed-sight Vaquero version, offered in 1993, took sales to the stratosphere thanks to the popularity of cowboy-action shooting at the time. It has been produced in a stunning array of variations and is still available today for less than $700. The Ruger Blackhawk has become one of best hand handguns ever and one of the most successful American made firearms.
17. Remington XP 100
An oddity for sure, the Remington XP 100 is a bolt action pistol intended for hunting and silhouette shooting. It also has the unique distinction of being the forerunner to a rifle—Remington’s Model 600. The XP 100′s centrally-located grip allowed the long-barreled handgun to balance well, and until the introduction of the Thompson/Center Contender, it was the most popular handgun for target shooters and handgun hunters. The XP 100 was chambered for a variety of cartridges including the .308 Winchester and .35 Remington. The gun was discontinued in 1998, but it might have been ahead of its time considering that in 2019, Remington introduced a similar handgun called the 700 CP.
This single-shot, break-open handgun became very popular because owners could buy additional barrels chambered for a wide array of cartridges–from .22 LR up to .45-70. The Contender has a great reputation as one of the most accurate handguns, and it essentially brought about the end of Remington’s XP 100. Like with the XP 100, the Contender evolved into a rifle, and with the addition of longer barrels and buttstocks, shooters had a great deal of versatility. The Contender and the newer Encore are still sold as a kind of build-your-own system.
The Beretta 92 has a distinctive look because the slide does not completely enclose the barrel. The classic pistol has a slide-mounted safety/de-cocker and a long, often described as “tedious,” trigger pull. None the less, in 1985, the U.S. Army adopted the Beretta M9 as the standard sidearm, and then the complaining began. This was partly because it was chambered for 9mm Luger instead of .45 ACP, and also because it was not American made. However, the Beretta M9 proved reliable, and due to U.S. military use, its popularity skyrocketed.
Though widely distributed, this Czechoslovakian-made pistol was not sold in that country until it was a decade old. Now it is the standard sidearm of the Czech Police. Similar to the Browning Hi-Power in that it uses a link-less, locked-breach barrel, the CZ 75 differs in that it is a double-action. Unlike most semi-automatic pistols, the slide rails on the CZ 75 ride on the inside of the grip frame. CZ 75s have a great reputation for reliability and accuracy, and there is a wide range of variants now offered with retail prices starting at about $600.
Smith & Wesson’s Model 686 is one of the best revolvers ever created—and one of the most successful. There are more than a dozen variants with barrel lengths ranging from 2.5 to 6 inches, and at one time, the 4-inch version was one of the most prolific sidearms for law enforcement. At 48 ounces, it’s heavy enough to dampen .357 Magnum recoil, and these revolvers have an uncanny record of reliability and accuracy.
The Glock 17 was the first of an extensive line of polymer handguns to be offered by the Austrian manufacturer. Now in its fifth generation, the Glock 17 has become one of the most recognized guns and pistol names in the world, and today a Glock, in some form or another, likely fills the holsters of more policemen than any other handgun. Essentially the design is nothing more than a modification of the 1935 Browning Hi-Power, and the 17, like all Glocks, has a fine reputation for reliability and durability. Because of their performance for the price, Glocks are one of the widest distributed handguns in the world.
In 2014, Ruger took their iconic Single Six revolver and chambered it for the .327 Federal Magnum. They also drilled seven holes instead of six into the cylinder. Offered in three barrel lengths—4 ⅝, 5 ½, and 7 inches—this best revolver became an instant hit because it finally housed the potent .327 in a handgun fitting of its service. With the ability to also chamber and fire .32 ACP, .32 Short, .32 Long, and .32 H&R Magnum ammunition, Ruger essentially created the ultimate trail/camp gun.
Other than its really nice trigger, there’s nothing really ground-breaking about the design of the Sig Sauer P320. You could say it is just another polymer-framed, striker-fired, double-stack, 9mm handgun. However, in 2018, the P320 was selected as the standard issue sidearm of the United States Army and named the M17. That alone qualifies it as one of the greatest handguns of all time. Sig Sauer offers a wide array of P320 variants to include a civilian version of the M17.
It could be argued that the three best modern fighting pistols are the 1911, Browning Hi-Power, and Glock 17. What if you could combine the best features of all three of those pistols? Well, that’s exactly what Wilson Combat did. The EDC X9 operates like a 1911, has the ultra-comfortable grip of a Hi-Power, and the capacity and size of a Glock 17. Available with or without an accessory rail, the EDC X9 is quite possibly the best fighting pistol ever made—and at around $2,895, it’s priced accordingly.
Honorable Mentions: 5 of the Greatest Handguns Ever
The Remington Model 1875
When folks think of cowboy guns, it’s most often the Colt Peacemaker that comes to mind. However, there was another single-action revolver that, while not as famous, was just as reliable. Remington’s 1875 became a cherished sidearm of many western lawmen and villains. It was also the handgun of choice for Frederick Russel Burnham, an American who served as the Chief of Scouts for the British Army in South Africa during the Boer War, and who was also the inspiration for the worldwide Boy Scout movement founded by Robert Baden Powell.
The Walther P38
This was the service pistol of the Wehrmacht—the unified armed forces of Nazi German—at the beginning of World War II. Though not as famous in pop culture as the German Luger (1902), the P38 was a cherished battlefield prize for American soldiers. It was the first locked-breach pistol to use a double/single-action trigger. A testament to its design is that it’s been used in a number of military conflicts even as recent as 2017.
The Ruger LCR
In 1982, Glock revolutionized the semi-automatic handgun with the polymer frame. Some liked it, some loved it, and some still hate it. The same could probably be said for Ruger’s LCR. As the first successful revolver with a polymer frame—grip and trigger housing—it weighs 50 percent less than the Ruger SP 101, which is Ruger’s other compact revolver. The LCR is also affordable and available in .22 LR, .22 WMR, .327 Federal Magnum, .38 Special, 9mm, and .357 Magnum, with or without a hammer.
The Shield is a compact, semi-automatic pistol in Smith & Wesson’s M&P Line. It has the distinction of being one of the most comfortable-to-hold and -shoot sub-compact semi-auto handguns ever—even today eight years after its introduction. It is available in 9mm and 40 S&W, and a 45 ACP version—that’s slightly larger—is also available.
Introduced to great fanfare, the Sig Sauer P365 lived up to expectations. This is a micro-compact, polymer framed, striker fired semi-automatic, specifically designed from the ground up for every day—365 days a year—carry. Unlike many 9mm semi-automatics this small, the P365 utilizes a double-stacked magazine giving it a 10-round capacity. Twelve- and 15-round magazines are also available, and this pistol will handle +P ammunition.
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