Armory, Self Defense, And EDC > General Firearm Discussion

The Thing I Never Understood About the Early 20th Century


David in MN:
This is the mystery about gun design that has been caught in my craw for years and I'd love others' thoughts.

Why on earth did the firearms of the early 20th Century diverge to massively overpowered rifles and underpowered handguns?

The massive armies of the time employed cartridges like 7.92x57 Mauser, 7.62x54R, .303 Enfield, and we foolish Americans were debating the merits of a .30-30 versus a .30-06 because it takes a bear hunting round to harm a human. All these rifles were massive 4 foot montsrosities with extra-long bayonets ideal for the trench warfare in WWI as long as you plan on using your rifle to pole vault over a trench and not actually fight with it.

At the same time the fashion was for pistols to be "mouse guns". This time saw the development of the .25, .32, and for big fellas the .380. But wait...

It's not like firearm development was in a vacuum. We could look back at the "Wild West" and see that lever actions came in many calibers, many in underpowered handgun-ish ammo. But they all loved the .45 Long Colt. The market was already telling designers this was the path forward.

As a case study, just consider that John Browning was simultaneously developing the BAR and the .25 ACP. The military got the most impractical American rifle in the false belief that combat required a shoulder mounted 15 lb machine gun that dumped its box mag in under 2 seconds and vomited .30-06 willy nilly over the battlefield but civilian personal defense required a .25 which is marginally worse than the existing .22.

I also think this feeds the mystique of the 1911. Sure today we might prefer a Glock or an M&P to the old slab-sides but look at it in it's time. If you went to the sporting goods store for a handgun what would trump the 1911? A Luger? A Steyr 1907? A Webley? Nagant? In a world of mouse guns and antiquated revolvers the 1911 reigns king.

I'm curious to hear what others think. It's a strange phenomenon, no doubt.

My understanding is the “mouse guns” were for officers to enforce discipline and protect themselves from their own soldiers, not to fight the enemy.

The cartridges were actually a big transition from the .45-.55 caliber black powder rifles of the mid to late-1800s. The .26-.32 caliber Bullets were a big step in slimming down as well as 180-230. gr weights with first generation smokeless powders pushing them over 2,200fps even up to 2900fps. Huge step from 1,800fps.

I think the length was a carry over from blackpowder days to maximize velocity for long range volley fire. WWI put the coffin nail into old technology and firmly established the lighter, jacketed  spritzer bullets.

With that military background it was hard for guys to think of shooting medium game with anything less. Writers like Jack O’conner helped break new ground with smaller, faster cartridges such as .270, .257, .243.  It wasn’t until soft point bullet technology improved performance that we could really depend on even smaller cartridges and bullets to take on hunting game.

My two cents.

  Small hand gun cartages were for easy controllability and light weight. Rifles had sights that went to 1200 or more yards. A little hard to do with a 58 cal. muzzle loader. A lot had to do with what the first nation to use smokeless powder and everyone else following there lead.

David in MN:
I think my Mosin Nagant has a 2000 meter sight setting. I'd call that a little ambitious given that it's a hunk of junk. But when it was issued new the unfortunate comrade would have also been given a .32 Tokarev. It's a blatant example of this pattern.

It is worth drawing a line in the sand of WWII. I don't know why WWI didn't have the "come to Jesus" moment WWII had but you saw Germany (perhaps the most radical changed country) enter with a Mauser K98K and surrender with the Sturmgewehr. A young tank driver named Kalashnikov wanted a lightweight and easy to manipulate gun. The postwar development saw the rise of the AR, AK, FAL, MP5, and so many others that scratched the itch of needing firepower at medium range with a good supply of ammo.

I also know the Germans were fond of showing their status with highly engraved Walthers and Walther still sells (last I checked) very stylized small pocket guns. Maybe the utilitarian bias of American firearms left us out of this trend and got us the M1911. Even our over-the-top BBQ guns are still in practical calibers.


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