A gun of the hand question (historical)

I’m writing a novel set in 1940, about real life figures involved in an imaginary murder, and I have some gun questions, ca. 1940.

One of the characters actually owned a handgun, type and make unspecified. I’d guess it was a used gun, so it could have been made anything during the 1920s or 1930s. I’d also guess it was fairly cheap (the guy didn’t have a lot of disposable income) and reasonably simple and common (the guy was by no means a gun collector or savant). This would be a gun for personal protection by a non-gun user. Can you give me some likely makes and models and tell me a little bit about the gun (appearance, weight, etc.)? This is in LA, if that matters.

Other gun question concerns someone who IS a big-time gun owner, a guy who liked to hunt wild game and birds. He owned several firearms, including some Purdy shotguns. Can you tell me anything about such guns? Essentially, I need to have my narrator engage him in conversation, and I discovered that the most likely topic for a stranger to strike up that would get this guy chatting is hunting, guns, bird-dogs, etc., about which I know next to nothing, so if you could give me a few topics of conversations that a stranger, spying someone cleaning a shotgun on his porch, might strike up a conversation about, that will probably get me through this. Thanks.

Could be any one of a number of guns, but I’ll list a few of the obvious candidates with links to the appropriate Wikipedia pages:

  • Colt M1911A1; WWI US service pistol (.45 ACP) and reasonably common at the time. I won’t say too much about this because, well, it’s the 1911 and the techie specs are on the Wiki page.

  • M1917 Revolver; a .45ACP WWI service revolver of which there were a few floating about in the time you specify. The Smith & Wesson Model 10 and the Colt Police Positive revolvers (both in .38 Special) were also commonplace too.

  • The Browning M1910was a .32ACP “pocket pistol” that was very, very common in the period you describe, along with the Colt M1903 Pocket Hammerless, which was a similar gun.

Iver Johnson pocket revolvers (known as Safety Automatics because of their rebounding hammer which meant they wouldn’t go off if accidentally dropped or knocked against something) were another popular gun at the time, chambered generally for the .32 S&W Long cartridge.

I mean, you could also have the Luger as well, if you wanted- there were a few of them floating about at the time as well.

James Purdey(note the “E”) invented the Elephant Gun in the sense we know them today and are best known for their shotguns. They hold a Royal Warrant (“By Appointment to…”) and generally make double-barrel, side by side models in a variety of gauges (“Bores”, in British English). 12ga is the most common shotgun chambering. Purdey shotguns are very expensive, very well made, and very high quality.

At the time your story is set, most Sporting Shotguns were English- W.W. Greener, James Purdey & Son, I. Hollis & Sons, and Holland & Holland are all names you can throw around (All of them except I. Hollis & Sons are still in business) and were almost exclusively side-by-side, typically hammerless models (ie, with no external cocking hammers as found on Old Timey shotguns). There were American sporting shotguns, but English and European shotguns were recognised as being the best on the market.

So, a stranger who knows guns and sees someone cleaning a shotgun they want to ask about could ask them:

  • Is that from The Gun Trade (general UK manufacture; various gunmakers in the UK would supply shotguns to US wholesalers who would then put their own branding on the gun)?

  • Is that the nitro-proofed model, or does it have Damascus Steel barrels? (Can it fire modern smokeless shells, or is it black-powder only?)

  • Shotguns at the time could break down for transport in a carry case, complete with oil bottles, cleaning gear, and maybe a box of shells. Perhaps a comment on this?

  • Ditto the presence or absence of ejectors- most cheaper shotguns do not spit the fired shell out when the gun is opened, they just extract the shell for the shooter to remove manually.

  • Questions about “Choke” could also be used (relating to the size of the shot pattern at different ranges).

Having said all that, English shotguns (with the exception of some of the W.W. Greener models) aren’t really my forte; perhaps someone else who knows the subject better than I can help you with more specifics. Rifles, on the other hand, I can certainly help you with. :slight_smile:

If you want more info on the handgun side of things I’m more than happy to help- the thing is there’s a vast, vast number of handguns that suit that time period and I’d be here all night trying to tell you everything you could want to know about each of them. My personal feeling, FWIW, is that you’re probably looking at a Colt M1911A1, a Colt or Browning .32 calibre Pocket Pistol, or an Iver Johnson revolver as your gun, but I’m sure someone will be along shortly to disagree with me there. :slight_smile:

Thanks for the expertise. I don’t think it really matters much which handgun he owned, so long as it’s a plausible model. I’ll read up on the links you’ve provided and see if anything stands out.

Funny–my source on the shotgun, which is a prize-winning biography, spells it “Purdy”–I’m sure you’re right, though. Do you know how exactly (with what tool) or have a link to instructions to cleaning a shotgun? I’m thinking with a long handled brush, and there would be some sort of oil involved, but I could be babbling in Cherokee about your multi-colored scrotum.

This is the gun that immediately comes to mind when I think of 1920s/1930s pocket pistols.

Same here; a very popular gun in noir literature and film.

I have only a few of comments to Martini Enfield’s thorough listing is that the Luger (and the 7.65x22mm and 9x19mm chamberings) would be pretty exotic until after WWII when many were brought back by servicemen. (The gun also saw service in WWI by some German Army units and the Kaiserlichemarine and tested by the US Army for use before that, but as the ammunition was all but unavailable in the US few pistols of this model ever saw circulation.) The Luger is also a pretty big gun, bigger in external dimensions to the now popular Beretta 92/96; not readily concealable and certainly not cheap.

I don’t know how popular it really was but the Savage 1907 shows up in a lot of Raymond Chandler stories and was a compact and somewhat novel design for its time (double stack magazine, striker fired).

In general, smaller calibers were not looked down upon then as they are now, so lightweight “pocket pistols” chambered for .32 ACP (7.65x17mm Browning) and .380 ACP (9x17mm Browning Short) were quite popular for defensive use, whereas larger guns chambered in .45 ACP or .44 S&W Special were considered massive cannons. The .38 S&W Special was almost universally used by American law enforcement of the era of your story up through the 1960s.


“Fairly cheap” and “reasonably simple” sounds like a revolver to me. As mentioned upthread smaller calibers weren’t looked down upon, and neither were 5-6 shot revolvers. The police considered them reliable and adequate for decades. Maybe because meth and PCP hadn’t been invented yet. :stuck_out_tongue:

The 1917 revolver was a beast of a gun. The Army dumped them (mostly to police departments, IIRC) after the war. If you want a used very deadly (and heavy, large) gun, go for the revolver.

Indeed. The top-left revolver is a British-pattern S&W Hand Ejector 2nd Model, which aside from the caliber (.455 Webley/Eley) is the same as the M1917. (The gun in the photo has been modified to use .45 ACP in moon clips, as did the M1917.)

Notice the size of the S&W vs. the Colt 1911 (in this case, actually a 1991-A1), which was also common in the era.

EDIT: The bottom revolver is a S&W Hand Ejector in .38 Special from about 1950.

This is excellent, useful stuff. The handgun owner was a little guy, maybe 5’7", 145 pounds. And a veteran of WWI.

I have both spellings in my reference books; which is confusing, but Ian Skennerton (who is widely acknowledged as the foremost authority on British firearms, civilian and military) spells it “Purdey” so I’d go with that.

Fun fact: James Purdey & Sons converted a number of SMLE Mk III rifles to Sniper models for the British Government during WWI, and during both wars they performed a number of repairs, refurbishments, and rebuilds on Lee-Enfield rifles for the military.

They also made sporting rifles and Elephant Guns - known as “Express Rifles”- as well as shotguns. The name “Purdey” is most likely to refer to either one of their shotguns or one of their Express Rifles, depending on context (Alan Quatermain asking his Native Bearer to “Hand me my Purdey” will be asking for his Elephant Gun, whilst Bertie Wooster asking Jeeves to “fetch the Purdey from the cabinet” would be asking for a shotgun.)

As for cleaning: You basically have a miniature toilet-brush with copper bristles and a very, very long handle (at least 3-4 feet, maybe longer) on it, which you coat with a cleaning substance (“gun oil” or “cleaning solvent” will suffice for the purposes of your story). The cleaning brush screws onto the handle, and can be removed so that a “Jag” can be screwed on. A Jag is a brass thing not entirely unlike a bullet, (Link to illustration) which has a sharp, pointed end.

The shotgun is broken open (as if for loading) and the brush is inserted from the breech (ie, the end the shells go in, not the business end) and run through down the barrel a few times to clean out all the lead residue.
Then, the brush is removed and replaced with the Jag. A cleaning patch is impaled on the end of the Jag and then pushed through the bore to clean out all the crap (lead residue, powder fouling, etc) that was loosened up or not removed by the cleaning brush.

Finally, a clean patch is coated with oil and this is pushed through the bore to provide a thin coating of oil on the inside of the barrel to protect against rust, corrosion, etc. This is really only necessary if the gun is not going to be used for a long period of time, and so someone who is going out hunting the next day or whatever probably wouldn’t bother with this step.

Modern shotguns don’t need to be cleaned that much as they tend to have chrome-lined bored; the action still needs to be kept clean (or it jams) but unless you’re an Olympic or Commonwealth Games-level Clay Target shooter you really don’t need to clean your shotgun’s barrel as often as you think.

Not sure how US service rifles were cleaned, but British rifles were cleaned by pouring a pint of boiling water down the barrel from the breech, running a pull-through through the barrel, then finally running a cleaning patch through with a light coat of oil on it.

Also, ammunition up until fairly recently (late 1960s) was generally “Corrosive”; the primer (percussion cap in the cartridge) contained chemicals (chlorate, IIRC) which would cause the barrel to corrode or rust if not cleaned reasonably soon after shooting (hot, humid weather would cause corrosion very quickly, cold weather not as much, but it was still important to clean the gun soon after shooting had finished for the day).

Also, I’ll add one other potential gun to the list of suitable handguns for your story: The British Bulldog Revolver. There were lots of them in the US at the time, but they tended to be loaded for a fairly weak .44 Bulldog cartridge, as opposed to the man-stopping .442 Webley, .450 Adams, or .455 Webley loadings used in the UK.

Missed the edit window, but if the character is a WWI Vet, then a Colt M1911A1, M1917 revolver, or perhaps a Webley Mk IV or VI revolver(souvenir/gift from British officer?) revolver would be the sort of gun they might have.

The Webley Mk VI is a big, chunky revolver and perhaps a little exotic, but there were a few of them in the US at the time; ammunition was produced for them under the name .455 Colt (Because Colt made the New Service revolver in .455 calibre for sale to the British Empire forces in WWI).

None of them are “Carry” guns, though, realistically- home defence or going somewhere they know they might need to use it, definitely, but they’re all a bit big, bulky, and heavy for an average person to carry around “just in case”".

A .32 or .38 semi-auto or revolver would be more suitable (and more likely) for that sort of thing- as Stranger says, .32 and .38 calibre guns were considered perfectly adequate for most non-military applications back in the time your story was set.

One other thing: Back in Those Days, “little guys” in the military were expected to shoot the same guns (.30-06 rifle/.303 rifle, .45 calibre handgun) as “regular guys” or “large guys”. So the fact your character is a bit on the small side doesn’t preclude him having a .45 calibre handgun.

Just thought of a practical queston regarding the shotgun cleaning: is there something that one person might be doing by himself, that a second person could come along and offer some help with, in cleaning the shotgun? Would you, for example, be holding the shotgun in a way that a second pair of hands would be useful for?

Holding the cleaning oil, cloth patches, etc is the only thing I can think of- cleaning a double-barrelled shotgun isn’t especially difficult or demanding, for the most part.