Why do pistols look the way they do?

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It’s normal to assume that the products we have today – from toasters to autoloading pistols – have the form (design) they do because somehow that form has been shown to be the ‘best’. It’s a Darwinian notion, or rather a perversion of Darwinian thought. In reality, it’s always a combination of factors that may have more to do with relative, rather than absolute, advantage.

What we have today may not necessarily be the best, but simply the collection of attributes that are, collectively, sufficient for the task at hand at a particular cost. It’s quite possible to design a handgun to meet a particular need and have it excel at that particular task, but fail against all other criteria. The study of those failures is fascinating, and we may learn something from them.

Take, for instance, the Chiappa Arms Rhino revolver: it excels at recoil reduction (it has to be shot to be appreciated), but the complicated linkage and unique production demands make it a difficult gun to produce economically and still maintain reliability, trigger quality, and durability. Until those things can be successfully addressed, the market is likely to ignore its positive traits.

On the other hand, it’s often economic factors which doomed many great designs. If a competing design is of sufficient (even if not necessarily equal) performance and cheaper to manufacture, it will often win in the marketplace. The venerable 1911 pistol is a good illustration: it’s sufficient, but not necessarily superior, at doing a lot of things. What makes it a winner, though, is that it’s sufficient as well as being a relatively inexpensive pistol to manufacture when you factor in engineering costs. Since the design long ago went into the public domain, and dimensioned drawings are readily available for the cost of postage, it’s the easiest way for a company to enter into handgun production. That means many companies making the design, which gives it the air of invincible superiority — when it’s really just expediency at work.

What brings this to mind? A video that Ian at Forgotten Weapons posted recently. It’s of a .45ACP pistol designed by one George Wilson specifically for the sport of bullseye shooting. There are lots of features which are peculiar to the needs of that activity, but the one which stands out is the low bore axis.

The lower the bore axis, the less leverage the rearward recoil has on muzzle flip (and perceived force.) Simply put, the higher the bore axis the more the gun seems to recoil, and the more muzzle flip there will be. Bring that bore down, into the hand, and you can reduce both to a surprising degree. Wilson’s design attempts to bring the bore as low as possible in the hand to minimize the effects of recoil, and most of the rest of the design decisions support that goal. From all accounts, the design achieved its goal and should have been a very successful competition pistol. Why, then, don’t we see it on the market today?

It could be that the design failed in other aspects: it may have been unreliable, or difficult to clean, or of limited durability, or (as is often the case) too expensive to manufacture.
Wilson’s design is intriguing, and I’d like to know more about it. More than that, I’d like to shoot it! Even more than that, I’d like to see if some talented engineer could adapt Wilson’s concepts for a modern incarnation.

-=[ Grant ]=-


About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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