Iver Johnson .38 Safety Hammerless 3rd Model chambered in .38 S&W. A pervious owner chopped the barrel and mounted a new front site. Not at all a bad shooter. The broad, smooth trigger is heavy but pretty smooth. The only thing I don’t care for is that it doesn’t quite fully eject spent shells. OTOH they never slip under the ejector star either.
In 1909 Iver Johnson’s 3rd Models were introduced as ‘smokeless models.’ They’re a bit beefier and have an actual cylinder lock so the cylinder won’t free-rotate before the trigger is pulled. The grips were meant to show the difference at a glance with the owl’s head at the top facing up instead of forward. Of course nowadays this isn’t a sure thing; people have sometimes swapped grips around etc. A more reliable method is that the old models have three pins over the trigger-guard, the 3rd Models have four.
This change left the company with literally tons of parts for the old guns, so they registered the trade-name US Revolver and used the old parts to sell slightly simplified versions of the 2nd Models under that name.
The really funny thing is that these revolvers were advertised as ‘suitable for all modern ammunition.’ Meaning smokeless. Which people proceeded to do with no issues whatsoever. The whole ‘smokeless model’ thing was nothing but a marketing dodge to get people to buy the new models.
I particularly like this old gun; it has a pugnacious kind of badass look to me. It has, I dunno, moxie or something. Whatever it is it’s a keeper.
Stay safe and take care.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 28 December 2021
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The Holy Grail was reportedly Christ’s own cup that he drank from at the last supper, had fantastical powers and was the ultimate objective of the Knights of the Round Table in many versions of the Arthurian legend. The term Grail Gun refers to any gun that we desperately want but is unusually difficult to obtain, either due to rarity, expense or whatever. It could be desired because of that rarity, uniqueness, history, sentimental reasons or any combination of these factors. Or hell, maybe it’s just neat-o.
I’ve obtained a lot of my Grail Guns over the years, and sometimes I discovered that desiring them was better than having them. I always loved the Browning SA 22 take-down rifle. So compact, so slim and elegant. I finally inherited one from my uncle Jim, and grabbed some ammo and took it to the range and… I didn’t like it at all. Too light, no proper ejector, a bit fussy. It just didn’t work for me.
I always wanted a Mauser C96, the first genuinely practical self-loading pistol. I came across one at a bargain price and was ecstatic. I even discovered that you can mount a reproduction stock on them without running afoul of the NFA. I found it to be a not-very-good handgun and a really neat carbine when the stock was used. It was cool, I liked having it but in the end I just didn’t take it out and shoot it. It’s now in other hands where it is well appreciated.
Others have proven a happier experience. Back in the 1980s I worked briefly for Detonics and owned several of their handguns. Being young and uncommonly stupid I had parted with them all, and bitterly regretted that. Linda found a nice Combat Master Mk.1 .45 at a good price and got it for me for my birthday. It was everything I remembered and more, and these days it’s one of my favorite carry guns. I even added hand-cut 20 LPI checkering to the grip-frame and some custom American Holly grips.
I carry some of my Grail guns, and a surprising number of people have an issue with this.
Bearing the Grail
OK, there are some guns it makes no sense to carry. My Webley RIC for example. Lovely gun, very nice to shoot, cool history but hopelessly slow to reload. If my Grail Gun was a LeFaucheaux Pinfire it would not be a good choice for an EDC no matter how much I liked it, not least because ammo is underpowered and practically unobtainium. Other guns like a mint, unfired Colt Python (which is not a Grail Gun for me and I don’t have one) is just worth too much money to risk firing or damaging it.
But frankly most of my Grail Guns are practical and fill a defined role in my life. The aforementioned Detonics, my Colt Detective Special etc. are valuable, but they aren’t worth a fortune. My love for the Detective Special is partly the history, but it’s also the practicality for me personally and the fantastic double-action trigger. I like these guns, I shoot them very well and find them eminently suited to my needs. An argument can be made that these are historic guns and use will inevitably diminish their value, but to me they are guns, meant to be useful and used. I get a lot of kickback when I post about carrying these guns, and when the objections are practical I have to concede their points. But the one objection that always seems to get raised makes very little sense to me.
That argument is that if I ever have to use it in self-defense it will get stuck in an evidence locker for a protracted period and I might never get it back. These people often point out that they have their favorite guns, but only carry a cheap gun they don’t care about in case this happens.
Mind you we’re not talking about impractical, hyper-expensive or ultra-collectible guns here. Just really nice, pretty cool ones.
My first disconnect is this; if the police take it it’s because I needed to use it. If I needed to use it it was to save a life, either mine, that of someone I care about or another innocent. In that instance to my way of thinking possibly losing the gun is a small price to pay. The grail Guns I carry are ones I shoot exceptionally well, with qualities more pedestrian guns do not possess. As such they represent, for me, my best choices if it comes to shooting.
My second disconnect is that the odds I will ever need to use a gun in self-defense are vanishingly slim. Realistically there is very little chance the police will ever feel the need to seize it, and if that does happen see my first disconnect.
Hey, It’s Your Gun.
People have a million reasons for putting a gun on their Grail List. Some of those guns are impractical, expensive or any number of other reasons not to use them. Hell, ‘I don’t wanna’ is more than reason enough. It’s your gun and you love it for your reasons. You can and should do with it as you please. If that’s wrap it in silk and put it away never to be seen again or if you want to take it out and shoot it that’s your business.
There really is no feeling quite like getting your hands on one of your Grail Guns, especially if it turns out to be everything you hoped it would be. One of mine that I have never gotten is a drilling. I would adore a 16-gauge double over/ 7mm Mauser under, and if I got one you bet your bum I would take it out and hunt with it. Special guns can lend a sense of occasion to hunting, trap-shooting or other activities, and for many guns feeling that is part of the attraction.
Whatever; it’s your gun. Enjoy it as and how you like.
Let’s talk about justified self-defense shootings, whether civilian or law-enforcement. How relevant is handgun stopping power? Well, there’s the rub… it’s either almost irrelevant or of absolutely critical importance.
It’s axiomatic that the first rule of armed self-defense is ‘Be Armed.’ Another commonly heard truism is ‘any gun is better than no gun.’ We’ve all heard these and sayings like them; ‘The .32 in your pocket is better than the .45 in your nightstand..’ A million variations on a theme, and I think we can all agree that having a gun, any gun, is a step in the right direction. The question of ‘is it enough gun?’ is pretty important though, and the answer is almost always ‘Maybe.’
I’ll tell you straight up, the odds go way up if you can carry a service-caliber handgun with modern defensive ammo. The recommendation that you should carry the largest, most powerful handgun you can manage is not bad advice. However most of us have real lives, and the conditions and circumstances of those lives vary, so ‘manage’ is a broad term that involves a lot of variables.
So after reading endless studies, watching endless videos of actual shootings and talking to everyone and their sister Sally until our ears bleed, how much gun is enough? Spoilers, you’re not going to like the answer.
The Much Ballyhooed Philippines
Another anecdote that most gun people know is that the US Army .38 revolver was found to be ineffective during our early 20thC. fracas down in the Philippines. The .38 Long Colt cartridge at that time fired a 148 gr. round-nose lead bullet at about 750 fps. for a muzzle energy of 185 ft/lbs. Not a magnum by any means. In the hands of US soldiers these proved singularly ill-suited to stopping native warriors charging them with big knives. Sure, they died, but they didn’t die fast enough to keep them from hacking up a soldier or two before they did. As a result the Army dragged out a bunch of their old .45 revolvers, but these arrived too late to be able to say whether they were more effective.
Given that .30-40 Krag rifles, firing a 200gr bullet with nearly 2000 ft.lbs of energy were not noticeably more effective than the .38s I rather doubt it. So why was it so hard to stop these fellows? I mean, we are talking small guys here; wiry and tough, sure, but not at all large. So what gives?
Not them. As in they gave not a single sh*t. They were going to die. They knew they were going to die, and cared not one bit as long as they could take an enemy or two with them. That’s commitment.
The Committed Attacker
This is where all our theories about handgun stopping power fail. You get a person determined to take you with them at any cost and they are damned hard to stop if you don’t hit the central nervous system, no matter what you shoot them with. You can take out their aorta and they’ll still reach you before the massive drop in blood pressure takes them down.
We’ve all seen videos where a cop pumps a dozen or more bullets into an attacker before they drop. Usually these are 9mms (because that’s most common in LEO circles) but it’s not the cartridge’s fault; recently one of these guys soaked up twenty-two hits from a .45 before going down.
If a suspect with a hand-weapon charges an armed police officer they are almost certainly a Committed Attacker. The most successful way of dealing with these folks is to shoot them a lot while retreating, interposing barriers etc. Every second you can buy yourself increases your odds dramatically. They will fall over eventually; you just need to make sure you’re still in one piece when they do.
It’s now controversial, but the common wisdom in days of yore was to put multiple, repeated hits into the pelvis to take out a joint or break the pelvic girdle. The theory was simple- if you break the stuff they use to move they can’t charge you, or as I put it, “If you cut the strings the puppet can’t dance.”
Naysayers will point out that there isn’t much immediately vital stuff in the pelvic region, but you aren’t trying to kill them, you are trying to stop them. In this case to stop them from running up to you and stabbing, slicing or beating you to death. I do not know if this is really a good idea, but I know a lot of respected old-timers that swore by this advice. Take that under advisement, but you’ll need to make your own decision.
The main point is that in the face of a committed attacker handguns effectively don’t have stopping power. If you don’t hit the brain or spine they will not stop quickly. If you don’t do your part by getting repeated hits, evading and interposing obstacles they are not going to stop fast enough to save you. You can still stack the deck, and you should. More powerful calibers, modern defensive ammunition, lots and lots of bullets… these things will increase your odds. Combined with good tactics it’s likely to be enough.
Civilian Self Defense
Civilians can and do encounter Committed Attackers, but they are very much the exception, not the rule. Typically a criminal that instigates an attack against an average citizen does so because they want something. That something is almost certainly not a fight or to be shot. While they might be willing to kill you it is not so important that they want to throw their life away to accomplish it.
My evidence is in large part anecdotal, strictly speaking, but it seems that in most civilian defensive shootings the attacker’s priority immediately shifts to flight once the shooting starts. Possibly in an overwhelming majority of cases. Maybe the second most common response is to simply give up, either surrendering or simply becoming inactive and no longer a threat. They seldom press the fight because they are not committed to killing you at any cost.
This is where the ‘any gun is better’ thing comes in. The attacker doesn’t want to die. It might have never occurred to them that they could. When a bullet drives home the point that they might the desire to live generally overwhelms other motivations. Generally speaking civilians can get away with employing a less effective gun (less power, fewer shots) than a police officer because of the difference in commitment of the average criminal preying on Joe Public. There are other factors that play into this as well, mainly having to do with the differences between the average citizen and a police officer on the job, but that’s not a rabbit-hole we need to go down right now.
Yeah… But is it a Good Idea?
That’s up to the individual to decide for themselves. People’s lives, circumstances and environments vary, as do the levels of threat they face and their capabilities. Yes, civilians these days often face multiple attackers, but in practice that usually just means more people running away. Until it doesn’t.
For myself knowing my capabilities, circumstances and environment I am comfortable with a six-shot service-caliber revolver or single-stack auto. But the thing is I am likely more skilled and experienced than the average man on the street. Consider your own skill, circumstances etc., make your own evaluation, and for your sake be realistic.
It’s also worth noting that as an armed civilian simply paying attention is your first, best line of defense. Situational awareness has probably saved more people than guns have. The best way to survive a gun-fight remains being somewhere else when it goes down, and situational awareness can help make that happen..
The Best Advice…
…is still the same old advice. Carry the most capable handgun you can, preferably in a service caliber. Use modern defensive ammunition. Carry more reloads than you think you need. Yes, life may force you to adjust based on specific needs and situations, and that’s fine. But when it does be aware of the changes and the limitations they impose.
You are unlikely to ever need to employ a firearm to defend yourself. If you do it seems unlikely that you’ll need to fire it. Nevertheless it is prudent to plan as if you will and equip yourself accordingly, to the best of your ability and circumstances. After all, you’re unlikely to regret being too well prepared.
Stay safe and take care, and all the best to you and yours this holiday season.