by B. Gil Horman |
When looking at the diverse selection of defensive handguns available on the market today, shooters tend to divide the playing field into “good” guns and “bad” guns. The good ones are reliable, shoot well and fill the buyer’s needs. The bad ones are inaccurate, dysfunctional or just don’t fit the shooter’s requirements. But in between these sweeping categorizations we find a variety of handguns that, while often rejected by the masses or shooting experts, have managed to earn a loyal following. These guns may be stars that lost their shine, chambered in controversial calibers or just plain weird to look at, but for one reason or another, the folks that own them would never give them up without a fight. Take a look and see which one of these underdogs you have tucked away in your safe.

Bond Arms Derringers

In the late 19th Century, American gunsmith Henry Deringer became famous for his innovative pocket pistols. His name, eventually misspelled as “derringer,” became synonymous with any pocket-sized single or double barrel pistol. These days, the derringer label is usually treated as a derogatory denunciation of a pistol’s quality. This is because several companies over the years have produced sub-standard replicas of the famous Remington Model 95, resulting in over-under double barrel pistols getting a reputation for being cheap, unreliable, and even dangerous to use.

Bond Arms, on the other hand, has taken the original Model 95 concept and redesigned it to be a powerful, reliable, modern defensive handgun. Unlike some derringers, with frames made of an unidentifiable light-weight alloy, the Bond frames and barrels are built from nothing but sturdy stainless steel. The Bond’s safety features include a rebounding hammer, a push button cross-bolt safety and a mechanism to lock the barrel release lever into the closed position as the pistol is fired.

The primary weakness of the derringer platform is its low ammunition capacity of just two rounds. Bond strives to make up for that restriction by offering interchangeable barrels to fire a variety of big bore cartridges, including the .45 Colt, .44 Special, .357 Magnum and .410 shotgun shells. The folks at Bond Arms will be the first to admit that their derringers aren’t for everyone, but the company maintains a strong and loyal fan base because of their high standards for quality, excellent customer service and their double-barrel pistol’s reliability.


Browning Hi-Power

Mr. John Browning remains one of the finest gun designers of all times. It’s almost impossible to identify any piece of technology created more than a hundred years ago that’s still in common use, but the Browning-developed 1911 .45 ACP remains one of the most influential and popular handguns in use by American shooters today. The 1911 is so popular, in fact, that it’s almost possible to forget that Browning designed several defensive handguns, most of which were successful in their time. One that’s still in production, but rarely thought about by the average shooter, is the Browning Hi-Power 9mm pistol.

FN Herstal commissioned Browning to design a pistol that would fill a French military requirement for a new service pistol which had a capacity over 10 rounds, and would be rugged and easy to service, launching a 9mm bullet. Since he had sold the rights to the 1911 to the U.S. military, he started from scratch. The result was a slim and trim single-action pistol using a 13-round staggered magazine. While the Hi-Power is an excellent pistol that has seen service around the world, it’s never really been popular in the country of its maker. Part of the lackluster sales may be due to its relatively high price. Some say it’s a matter of shooting market trends. It was only in the late 1980s that the 9mm became a popular defensive caliber. At the same time the 9mm was gaining momentum, new pistol designs like the Glock and Beretta 92 may have kept the Hi-Power from catching on.


Makarov 9×18 Pistols

In the mid-1990s, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, a variety of inexpensive Eastern Bloc firearms started making their way onto the shelves of American gun dealers. Among the more popular models was the Makarov pistol. This all-steel, single-stack semi-auto is usually chambered for the Soviet 9×18 Makarov cartridge. So why was it such a hot ticket item then, but pretty much off of the shooting radar now?

The Makarov sold like hot cakes for the same reasons the Soviets chose to issue the pistol to their forces for 40 years: It’s simple, rugged, relatively light and compact, and it produces a level of stopping power right in line with the .380 ACP. What made these already affordable pistols even more attractive was the plentiful and inexpensive surplus ammunition with which to feed them.

However, as is common with imported surplus guns, the quality of the pistols varied. Some were excellent performers, while others were boat anchors. This inconsistency in quality control left some buyers loyal for life, while others swore off Russian guns forever. In time, the cheaper guns and ammo dried up along with any general interest in them. Those who got the good ones love them and hold on to them. You can still buy Makarovs, usually from online sources, but you’ll pay about the same amount as you would for a value-priced pocket .380.


North American Arms Mini-Revolver

Tucked away in the mountain valley of Provo, Utah, North American Arms (NAA) has been producing some of the smallest defensive handguns available since 1971. After examining a NAA .22 Short mini-revolver, weighing in at a whopping 4 ounces, almost no other handgun deserves the title of “tiny.” If you want to take advantage of the supply of its namesake ammunition, the .22 LR frame is also available. To give a maximum boost to this diminutive revolver’s power potential, a selection of .22 Magnum versions is also available.

Shooters who flip out at the idea of carrying one of these little guns for self-defense will start reading the riot act at the paragraph about the inadequacies of .22 rimfire pistols for self-defense and stop somewhere around the section labeled “Belly Guns.” But as folks who carry these guns on a daily basis point out, the primary goal of the mini-revolver’s design is presence, not power. In other words, when the balloon goes up, a mini-revolver in the pocket trumps two .45s in the gun safe at home. And they’re not as wimpy as some people think. Ballistician Brassfetcher has posted test tables and a video that may surprise you.


Ruger SP101 .327 Federal

Ruger has a long and decorated history of providing top quality handguns at an affordable price, but not every one of them has been a success. While revolvers like the LCR, Blackhawk and Super Redhawk steadily travel out of the factory into shooter’s hands, one little revolver that launched with big expectations is languishing away in the Ruger catalogue. It’s the SP101 chambered for the .327 Federal cartridge.

Released in 2011, this version of the SP101 was the result of a team effort with Federal Ammunition. The .327 Federal cartridge is an update to the .32 H&R magnum. Chambered for this round, the SP101 offers shooters recoil and power levels ranging from the soft shooting .32 S&W cartridge all the way up to lightly-loaded .357 magnum rounds. Best of all, the narrower cartridge leaves room in the cylinder for a sixth cartridge. Reviews were very positive, with folks who tested the gun generally giving it a big thumbs-up.

Unfortunately, this gun and ammunition combination has fallen victim to the same new cartridge issues that waylaid other innovations like the .41 Magnum and 10mm. First, the reception by the general public was lukewarm at best. Why invest in a new caliber that’s so similar to the readily available and well trusted .38 Special? Secondly, when the bevy of new handguns chambered to fire the .327 Fed arrived, the ammunition was in low supply and nearly impossible to lay hands on. With the perception that there was no ammunition for the guns, they did not sell well. This kept the demand for ammunition low, which resulted in inventory remaining low, thus becoming a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that haunts the round to this day. Although this particular SP101 has lost its spot in the limelight, it’s still available from Ruger. Ammunition companies, including Federal, Cor-Bon and Buffalo Bore, currently provide factory .327 Fed cartridges.


Smith & Wesson Model 64 .38 Special

If you’re new to shooting, or under the age of 40, there’s a whole subset of reliable, battle-proven defensive handguns that are going to be underplayed or ignored completely while you’re perusing your options at the gun shops. This group is well-represented by the once popular, but now nearly forgotten, Smith & Wesson K-Frame .38 Special revolvers. These medium-frame .38s were once the “standard” by which all other revolvers were judged. The blued Model 10, and later the stainless steel Model 64, could be found on the hips of law enforcement personnel around the world.

In the mid-1980s, police forces began to make the switch over to high-capacity semi-autos. As a result, the K-frame revolver started to fade from view. Much of the hyperbole used 30 years ago to boost sales of semi-autos, “proving” semis are far superior to revolvers in every way, seems to have become engrained in people’s minds as facts. The truth is, medium-sized .38s are an excellent option for home and personal defense. Accurate, reliable, easy to operate, certainly enough power to get the job done, and far more comfortable to shoot and practice with than the smaller five-shot J-Frame snub nosed revolvers. The upside to this lack of love for the K-Frames is that they can be purchased second-hand for around $300 dollars. Those who shoot and love these guns say they’re perfectly happy to pay more.

Steyr M Series

To say that Americans are picky about what features they like their guns to have would be an understatement. Considering how much guns cost and how broad the selection is, there’s no good reason for shooters to settle for anything less than just what they want. Unfortunately, this same perspective can result in shooters shying away from the unfamiliar. Even though the design features that are different from the norm are positive, they can cause a pistol to be ignored.

A pistol that falls squarely into this category–in the U.S. anyway–is the Steyr M9-A1. It exhibits many of the desirable features of commonly adopted pistols like the Glock, Smith & Wesson M&P and Springfield XD, including the same price. The latest version of the pistol, including the Styer M-A1, has even been called the “Glock Killer” by some reviewers. But even though the pistol has been in production since 1999, it’s rarely seen on the American shooting range. So why is the public’s reception of this pistol so unenthusiastic? Some say it’s the grip angle, others say they don’t care for the unusual sight system that uses triangles instead of dots. It also gained a reputation with some for having a poor trigger, which is a problem the manufacturer reports as having been addressed in the latest versions. The shooters who own them are willing to state that this is a pistol that deserves more respect.


Taurus Judge .45/.410 Revolvers

The turbulent story of how the .45 Colt/.410 Taurus Judge has been received by the shooting community reads just like the release of a summertime blockbuster movie. First, rumors that a .410-firing revolver was about to arrive on the scene had everyone all atwitter. Then, the Judge was officially reviewed by various professional gun writers. Just like movie critics, they panned the new gun. Statements of the Judge being useless, a solution in search of a problem, inaccurate, a jack-of-all trades but a master of none, were commonly posted and printed. Few professionals had anything nice to say about it. And what did consumers do in spite of these reviews? They proceeded to buy them by the truckload, making the Judge one of the most successful products in Taurus’ history.

Years later, the Judge is still a controversial defensive handgun. One of the reasons is that Taurus has said shooters should load the gun with birdshot for close range defensive situations, like a carjacking. Gun gurus will gladly point out that .410 birdshot loads, while painful, do not produce the penetration needed for successful threat stopping shots. However, loaded with .45 Colt or .410 Buckshot loads, the Judge produces plenty of stopping power at close range. Whether you like it or not, the Judge is here to stay.

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