Colt 1908. The kinship to the FN 1906 is obvious (Both are Browning designs). Image: Adams Guns via wikipedia.
Today the defensive caliber argument seems to have devolved into two warring camps: those who like a small .380 or 9mm, and those who sniff at anything whose Imperial measurement does not begin at .4. So the older pocket pistols of the 20th Century, and even the police revolvers and some military pistols of the early 20th, seem inexplicable to a modern shooter.
Sure, they’re small, but so is a Seecamp .380 or a Micro Desert Eagle (both of which, completely off topic, have Czech antecedents. We’ll get back on topic, now). And the standing joke, which we believe may have originated with .45 aficionado and 10mm impresario Jeff Cooper, is, “Never shoot a man with a .32. It might make him angry, and then he’ll want to fight.”
Millions of .32s like this Iver Johnson were sold in the 20th Century, mostly for defense. Why?
Yet, who ever thought it was okay for cops to walk the mean streets of New York and Chicago with a .32 Police Positive, Official Police, or M&P? Why did European cops cling to the .32 ACP well into the 1980s? Why did the Wehrmacht, of all things, reopen a conscientious objector’s closed factory so that his product, a tiny .25, could be produced — 117,000 of them — for sale to German officials?
More generally, why were micro .25s and compact .32s made and sold in the tens of millions worldwide?
First, the small size of these firearms (and their ammunition) is not just a disadvantage. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it is a boon: you carry a gun a lot more than you shoot it. In this nation of 330 million citizens and probably 3 million legitimately armed law officers and everyday concealed carriers, there are almost certainly under 300 police officers and Federal Agents who have fired their guns at suspects in more than one situation. (There wouldn’t be that many, if not for the emergence of tactical teams). The civilian who’s been involved in two defensive shootings is rare enough that we can’t think of an example — maybe you can.
Second, a small gun encourages carry. A gun that’s small and light inclines you to include it in your pocket litter or slip its holster onto your belt or waistband. Remember the first rule of gunfights: bring a gun. A small gun is, ceteris paribus, more likely to “get brung” than a big hogleg.
Third, for ex officio gun carriers, if not constrained by regulations, any gun will do. That’s why the Germans wanted all those .25s and .32s. Most cops were never going to shoot anybody, but the pistol in its flap holster was a mark of authority, like the badge. While that’s true for the National Railway Police riding the trains under Hitler, it’s also true for the large amount of American and worldwide cops who have a house-mouse assignment or are promoted to management rank.
Likewise, an officer of the vaunted German General Staff was supposed to have a pistol, but he had no serious plans to go down guns blazing like a Karl May hero, in front of a Red Army assault. The gun was a badge of office. It’s possible more officers killed themselves with their small pistols than killed a Russian, Brit or American enemy.
Fourth, there was historical precedent for small guns. As far back as a before the Civil War, Colt made its revolvers available in small and large caliber (.36 and .45). Others made .32s at this time. When Colt came out with its cartridge .32 in the 1890s, it had actually made a small, spur-trigger .22 some 20 years before that. Some people wanted a big gun, some wanted to trade off that gun’s advantages for the advantages of a small gun, and the market responded.
Fifth, the small guns were thought adequate at the time. The advent of the much more powerful smokeless powders in the late 19th Century made it possible to pack more power into a smaller gun. The NYPD did not adopt the Colt .32 at the behest of some berk ignorant of guns: Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, a lifelong gun enthusiast, drove the 1896 adoption of the New Police, a longer-barreled and square-butt version of the 1893 New Pocket revolver chambered for the .32 Colt. (Later, an improved version became the .32 Police Positive, chambered for the slightly less awful .32 S&W Long, which Colt called “.32 Police” because they wouldn’t say the two initials of their despised competitor upriver).
Why was a .32 adequate in 1896 but not by 1996? Certainly there have been many improvements in firearms since those beautiful little Colts left Hartford 120 years ago. Some of it may just be that more powerful handguns are available.
But another possibility is that human beings have changed. Anyone who has observed collections, for instance, of WWII uniforms notes that, compared to modern soldiers, midcentury guys were small. They were shorter and much leaner. Statistics bear this out.
The Union Army in the Civil War:
The average height of the Federal soldier was put at 5 feet, 8¼ inches. … Incomplete records indicate the average weight was 143¼ pounds.
That’s definitely a lot leaner (and a little shorter) than today’s median GI.
And here’s a table showing the gradual but real growth of the American soldier to 1984. (The Civil War numbers here are better supported than those in the link above). We submit that this growth has accelerated since (and note the small n of the 1984 study suggests it may produce a less reliable mean than the earlier ones). Also, the Civil War measurements were taken clothed, WWI and up naked, so the differences were probably greater. Source.
|Table 3-1Comparison of Some Anthropometric Characteristics of Male Soldiers in 1864, 1919, 1946, and 1984
||Year of Study (n)*
|Neck girth (inches)
|Chest girth (inches)
|Waist girth (inches)
|Estimated body fat (percent)
|Fat-free mass (pounds)
Source: Table 3-1 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK235960/
As you see, not only the overall mass of the soldier had increased by over 25 lbs, but also, over 20 of that was fat-free mass — presumably, stronger bones and thicker muscle. A 15% or more increase in musculature on the average young man makes him harder to stop and to kill, once again all other things being equal. Scientists ascribe this in part to improved nutrition as civilization’s benefits came to include refrigeration, rail transport and industrial-scale farming.
The people police may engage with, criminals, are also likely to be obese, unlike soldiers.
In the last 120 years, more powerful cartridges (and more of them) have been a trend in pistols. We identify several possible reasons for this trend. But when you break it down, they basically fall into two categories:
- More powerful pistols are possible now, given technology’s advances in powder chemistry, metallurgy, etc.
- More powerful pistols are necessary now, given the increased robustness of the mean and median human target.
In addition, there’s a third factor that may outweigh these two practicalities: fashion. We won’t raise it with reference to the present time — we’ll just point out that Roosevelt’s adoption of the .32 New Police for his New York coppers in 1896 set off a preference cascade that led many big cities to .32 Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers within 10-20 years.
No sooner had the .32s graced police holsters than clamor for more powerful cartridges would set in. This led to a step up to .38, until S&W were finally convinced they had put the police firepower issue to rest for all time with the new .38 S&W Special cartridge.
But that’s another story.