The slanting, late afternoon sun lends a quickness to the scene, the light casting harsh, contrasty shadows. But it doesn’t matter. The small tin can placed on the ground twenty yards away is mostly a formality. On reassembling the weapon an hour ago after its first field strip, I had been surprised at how heavy the recoil spring was, requiring not a little care to get it pressed in place under the barrel bushing. How tight, in fact, everything was. The goal right now is just to get some rounds through it. To begin wearing off some of that tightness. To start to cleave through to what I suspect lies underneath.
The first, virgin, shot breaks sooner than I expect. So cleanly it surprises me. A smile spreads across my face.
The second shot is the same, only now I know when it’s going to happen. A second hole appears in the can.
By the time the slide locks back another six shots later I’m trying to think back across a lifetime of guns. Maybe the Sig 9mm, twenty-five years ago. That one had the same uncanny feeling about it. Standing there next to the picnic table, informally plinking at a tin can lying on the ground in bad light, accuracy testing the thing is the furthest thing from my mind. But the feeling is inescapable. Eight hits out of eight shots, even under the coarsest of expectations, slowly begins to count for something.
I hadn’t meant all this. Wandering into the gun shop on Saturday I was mostly just looking. Idly considering a shotgun. A 12-gauge coach gun. Something I’ve wanted for a while and will eventually have. Wandering past the long glass case of handguns I had glanced over and there it was. The dark pistol right on the end.
I continued walking past, back into the adjoining room with the ammo and holsters and magazines and targets and cleaning supplies. And after perusing those for a bit I wandered back to where the guns were and quickly located the shotgun on the wall. Short, stubby barrels. Double hammers. Nice figure in the wood.
While still deliberating on the cost, whether I wanted to drop four C-notes today, plus a bit more for 12-gauge shells, I turned back to the long glass display case. There were probably a hundred nice handguns arranged in neat, orderly rows, like soldiers. Glocks, S&W’s, H-K’s, Rugers, Springfields, Sigs. They even had the Glock 36, a gun that has been on my mind for a couple of years.
But those held no interest for me that day. What my eyes instantly went to was that dark pistol down on the end.
A dark, bob-tailed, Commander-sized 1911. .45acp. I stared at it.
“Can I help you?” the fellow behind the counter said.
I paused for a moment before lifting my gaze from the pistol. “No, thanks. Just looking,” I said.
And I walked out.
My personal familiarity with Dan Wesson pistols is zilch. Back in the eighties, when I was shooting IHMSA matches, they were the go-to revolver of all the serious shooters. With two small kids at home I couldn’t afford one. Not even close. I made do with a .44 magnum Ruger Redhawk. Every tortuously-squeezed spare dollar I could find went to bullets, primers, and powder.
I’m well aware, of course, that the Dan Wesson company of today is very different from its illustrious predecessor, focusing now on combat pistols rather than the revolvers of old. But its legendary performance still precedes it.
Or so I’ve heard.
Driving home in the truck, my mind is still thinking about the pistol. I’ve got three 1911’s at home. But they are weapons I rarely use any more, having, like so many others, long ago fallen to the siren song of polymer.
Still, there’s an undeniable fondness for those old steel, slab-sided icons. That .45 Combat Commander was only the third handgun I ever bought. Coming on the heels of the .38 snubnose and the Walther .380, it was – first and foremost – a serious caliber. Which made it a serious weapon.
I can remember the morning I brought it home. And the first rounds I cycled through it. You shoot those big, fat, heavy slugs – the antithesis of modern handgun terminal ballistic design – and suddenly you just know.
Years later I bought an Officer’s Model. Smaller than the Commander, but in the same potent caliber. That became my carry weapon, the silent heft in the small of my back, for the better part of a decade.
Back in the early nineties, when Virginia, like many states, finally got around to amending its concealed carry law, I carried that Officer’s Model with me when I went to qualify. I remember being called to the front of the classroom before we went out on the range. Out of the dozen or so of us taking the test, I was both the only one using a single-action semi-automatic and the only one shooting a .45. Since the qualification involved a number of timed, draw-and-fire tests, the range officer was concerned about potential safety issues of an inexperienced shooter drawing from condition one. I assured him I was most comfortable with the weapon. After shooting the high score in my group, just a couple points shy of perfect, they were happy to let me run the qualification again when the second group went through, to see if I could hit 100.
The Sig P226 which I had brought along – the pistol I shot best and which I had debated using that day – stayed in my bag.
My 1911’s were – are – all pedestrian. I later had custom iron sights installed on the Commander, but otherwise that and the Officer’s Model and the Government Model I later added were all stock guns. No porting. No polishing. No tuned triggers. None of the stuff that Mel Tappan and Jeff Cooper and Massad Ayoob wrote about needing in order to turn the .45 into a combat-ready platform. I didn’t know any custom gunsmiths. And I couldn’t have afforded one even if I did.
So I either carried 185 gr. Silvertips, which fed reliably in my guns. Or else 230 gr. hardball.
I always regretted not being able to carry the Speer 200 gr. “flying ashtray,” a round that was rather something of a legend back in the day. But the great thing about the .45 – more so back in the nascent days of modern bullet technology, than today – is that the caliber doesn’t depend upon bullet expansion to be effective. Its natural width provides the basis for its capability. And so although I was wistful for that mystical CCI/Speer Lawman load, I was perfectly okay with carrying ball. That’s what I did for years.
And then came Glock.
I’m not here to disparage Glock. Or any of the other modern, polymer-framed handguns. They are fine weapons. They are usually reliable as a rock right out of the box. They feed just about anything. They’re a bit less fastidious about care and cleaning, given their plastic exteriors. They’re a song to field strip. They require minimal maintenance. They’re usually lighter. And they just, simply, shoot well.
There’s a reason why virtually all police departments, SWAT teams, and military units have adopted them, without looking back.
I bought my first Glock because of its diminutive size. And although the 9mm was never a round I much liked – until relatively recently there were no bullet designs and little evidence in support of the round as an effective combat cartridge; and yet reams of data suggesting otherwise – I was quite taken by the idea of being able to carry ten rounds in such a small package. The siren song of firepower. It shot great, to boot.
That was the gun that went with me in the mid-nineties on my first, solo, cross-country motorcycle trip. It was an unquestioned comfort during a couple of slightly tense moments during that trip.
But it was the Glock .45’s – first the compact model 30, then later the full-size model 21 – that really sent me down the rabbit hole. All of a sudden I had my long-favored caliber back, along with all the other practical advantages that the Glock offered. More than anything, the ability to carry high round counts of such a lethal caliber seemed like the holy grail.
And so it was. For a long time.
Funny thing about that time thing, though. Like bending a prism a few degrees, so that the light changes, time likewise tends to slowly shift our perspectives on things. Maybe it’s the long wear of experience. Or just the slow accreting of wisdom. Whatever.
The last two guns I bought have been revolvers. A platform that has been marginalized in the combat world for a couple of decades now. A rational man might ask why I – a man who takes this stuff pretty seriously – would do that. Why would I go there?
I don’t have an easy answer. Only a few observations.
The first, and certainly the most important, was that I wasn’t carrying as often. The Glock, for all its many virtues, is a thick gun. Which means you either end up going to an outside-the-waistband holster, or you endure this brick in your side. I’ve gone through too many top-of-the-line IWB holsters trying to find the magic solution that will attenuate that thickness. I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that, for me, it doesn’t exist.
There are both legal and tactical implications to not paying attention to that first word in concealed carry. And that’s much of why I don’t like OWB holsters for that mission.
A carry gun might be the best weapon in the world, full of magic juju. But if you don’t actually carry it, it might as well be a stamp collection.
The second thing, related to the first, is that the gun I increasingly found myself carrying, when I did carry, was a S&W J-frame, .38 Special – simply shoved in my pocket. When I packed my Harley for a week-long trip earlier this summer my compact Glock .45 was tucked away in my bedroll. But only the small Smith was instantly reachable. Talk about going back to your roots.
The third, and last, thing was a growing disenchantment with the firepower-is-everything – at least as defined by magazine capacity – ethos that has seemed to capture the imaginations of our little fraternity over the last decade or so.
I have always put great stock in marksmanship. In making every shot count. For twenty years the rifle I took in the deer woods every November was a Ruger .270 No. 1 single shot.
Having lots of rounds at your instant disposal can seem seductive at first. One begins to imagine all sorts of scenarios where those rounds might make a difference. After a while, you begin to convince yourself that that 16-round magazine – with a spare 16 on your belt – are absolutely necessary.
And, yet, outside of a military context, the history of gunfighting would suggest otherwise. Zombies, indeed.
There’s something about the mindset we bring, as well. Wyatt Earp was famous for his dictum to be mentally unhurried, to bring one’s arm to bear swiftly, but without the panicked urgency that naturally attends bullets heading in your direction.
Most of us, thankfully, have never been to that dark side. Most of us, hopefully, never will. And yet the object of our intent is to be ready for that black moment, should it ever come.
For me, I’ve increasingly come back to the thinking that informed my earlier days in weaponcraft. That sometimes less is more. That I don’t need sixteen, or thirteen, or even ten rounds at my disposal. That a handful, used well, will do what’s needed. That if I don’t make those first half-dozen count, an infinite number beyond that are unlikely to make a difference.
The one time in my life I’ve ever brought a firearm to bear on another human being – the sight picture still etched into my brain, as clear as if it were yesterday, all these years later – I had but six rounds of .38 Special at my call. Far from feeling undergunned on that fearsome, long-ago night, I remember feeling an enormous comfort, that whatever was going to go down, it was going to be I who dictated the outcome, not the other way around.
We live in a world where the vast majority of people have ceded their safety to others. They’ve placed their lives, and the lives of their families, wholly in the hands of the earnest, dutiful, brave, professional – yet underpaid and, inevitably, distant – young kid on the other side of a 911 call.
For those of us with a different worldview, matters of this sort bring a special gravity, something not to be taken lightly. We have no way of knowing how the choices we make today will influence events somewhere in the future. What we do know is that it is all on the line. That the game is table stakes and all our chips are pushed to the center.
First thing Monday I was back at the gun shop. “Can I take a look at the Dan Wesson?” I asked, nodding at the black-finished V-Bob still resting there on the end.
It was a handsome gun. One that came easily to hand. But holding it was like grasping a pack of needles, the G10 grips and fine-cut checkering on the front and back straps finding quick purchase in the flesh of your hand. My first thought was that it wouldn’t slip even if your hands were slick with blood.
I turned the weapon in my hands, slowly studying the purposefulness that seemed engraved in its soul.
“Let’s do it,” I said.