Handheld firearms have always carried some obvious advantages. In the early days, it would be much easier to handle a horse if you only needed one hand to accurately use your weapon. Other markets for them include women who want to remain fashionable while having a defense mechanism, or assassins who want to mask their intent. The biggest driver of innovation, however, is the need for police, the military, hunters, and criminals alike to have a method of taking someone or something down at close range.
As a result, there has always been a market for pistols. In order to satisfy this market, innovation has been constant since the introduction of the hand cannon by the Chinese in 1365. In those days, you would touch a match cord through a hole and fire off a round—literally a hand cannon. That's much different than some modern pistols today where you load a magazine, chamber a round, and have 15+ shots at your disposal.
The following seven models made significant strides in achieving what we take for granted today. In doing so, they've carved out legendary places in history.
#7: Browning Hi-Power
The Browning HP carries the name of one of the most legendary weapon designers of all time, John Browning. It is undoubtedly worthy of his name, but perhaps in a perfect world more credit would go to another accomplished weapons designer—Dieudonné Saive—who completed Browning's original design a few years after his death (just in time for WWII).
The Hi-Power, although initially rejected by France, forever influenced the way pistols would be made because of its staggered 13-round magazine. Previous attempts at high-capacity magazines were often too bulky, heavy, or unreliable to be practical. You might assume that this pistol would be especially high powered, but it shot 9 mm ammo at a pedestrian velocity.
The pistol was widely used by the British and the Germans during WWII (since the primary Allied factory was in Belgium, it wasn't long before the Germans were capable of producing them). The Browning HP gained notoriety with British airborne units late in the war, and by the end of the WWII it had a great reputation. As a result, 93 nations would adopt it as a standard service pistol.
Modern pistol designs have eclipsed the single action Browning HP in many ways, but it took them a long time to do it (and the staggered magazine is likely to stick around for ages).
#6: Walther P .38
Quite a few modern pistols have adopted the stacked magazine of the Browning HP, but they've also almost all adopted the double/single action of the Walther P.38 (named because it was adopted by the German army in 1938). The legacy of this mechanism alone makes the Walther worthy of this list.
Double/single action seems like a confusing term. How can something be both double and single of anything? In truth, it's simply a hybrid between two previous popular designs. Single action pistols require the user to cock back the hammer before pulling the trigger. The trigger pull does the single action of releasing the hammer, which strikes the firing pin, which causes the bullet cartridge to explode and propel the bullet forward. Some semi-automatic pistols allow the recoil of the previous round to re-cock the hammer, so that you only have to pull back the hammer on the first round. Double action pistols don't require manually pulling the hammer, the trigger both pulls back the hammer and releases it. The drawback is that the trigger pull is probably stiffer and longer, and this feature can cost both accuracy and fractions of a second.
The P.38, assuming a magazine was loaded and a round was chambered, used double action on the first shot. The recoil from that shot would cock the hammer, and it used a single action to release the hammer on the rest of the magazine. This hybrid mechanism was an improvement over either of its predecessors.
The P.38 held a satisfactory eight 9mm Parabellum rounds. It was very much ahead of its time when it was adopted, and it remained in military and police service into the 2000's.
#5: Glock 17
Continuing with our theme of trendsetting pistols, the Glock 17 set a trend that is likely to be around for a long time. In 1980, the Austrian military asked for pistol candidates to replace none other than their aging Walther P.38s. Gaston Glock, as you would expect, was a curtain rod engineer. Although he didn't have experience with pistols, he had all the skills he really needed: experience with polymers, and an open mind. It was probably inevitable that polymers would be used in guns, but in 1980 they were still pretty new. Glock assembled a group of military, police, and civilian sport shooters to help him come up with a prototype.
As a result of this consultation, the Glock 17 (the 17th version to come up within the company) lacked any real weaknesses. It was high capacity, very reliable, lightweight, inexpensive, safe, and easy to manufacture because it didn't have many parts. All of these features shocked the established companies (FN Herstal, SIG, H&K, Beretta, Steyr): the Glock 17 outperformed all of them.
The Glock pistol would only take a few years to integrate into the international market. There was some backlash, especially in the United States, by traditionalists who preferred the ol' six shootin' revolvers. Admittedly, the Glock isn't a super-pretty gun. Now, however, it commands about 65% of the market share of U.S. law enforcement pistols.
Although the first three entries have been trendsetters, this is a "Most Iconic" list and not a "Trendsetters" list. The Luger was very much both. The Luger was initially developed in 1898, and as an 8-round 9-mm semi-automatic pistol it was way ahead of its time. 9 mm rounds had never been used before the Luger, though ultimately they would become the most popular pistol caliber. Also, smokeless powder allowed semi-auto pistols like the Luger to flourish. Black powder, its predecessor, had a horrible smell, gave away your position, and fouled easily. A semi-automatic 9 mm is still essentially what most modern pistols are (although many peripheral improvements have been made).
The Luger is different than most semi-automatic pistols because it features a nifty jointed arm rather than a slide. The jointed arm gives it a unique look which added to its notoriety. Very much a German weapon, it was used in the service of the German Empire in WWI, and often used by German officers in WWII, thus Allied soldiers would try to take them home as trophies and sell them. This avarice was so prevalent that Germans would try and booby-trap Lugers in places Allied soldiers would find them.
The Luger would eventually be phased out in favor of the more reliable, cheaper Walther P.38.
Halftime Cool Video
#3: S&W .357 Magnum Revolver
By the mid-1930s there was a new dilemma for those who were trying to shoot someone else: wearable body armor. Also, an increasing amount of firefights involved cars, structures that could help stop bullets. People who needed to address these concerns (often American gangsters) demanded powerful rounds. Enter the Model 27 .357 Magnum, basically a .38 Special on steroids.
The double action Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum (Model 27 originally) is loud and iconic. The .357 round has the stopping power of a .45 but a much flatter trajectory, and the Model 27 carried six of these rounds. The Model 27 had to be custom ordered, with options on barrel length, sights, grips, and finishes. At the time, it was the most powerful mass-produced handgun in existence. The large revolvers are very beautiful guns, and are still in high demand today. Their calibers and barrel lengths have trended upward toward the mildly ridiculous.
#2: Colt SAA
The Colt Single Action Army is probably the first gun on this list whose image and reputation exceed its actual innovation (that is a controversial statement, if you can't tell). It was featured in many Hollywood Westerns, known as the "Gun that Won the West". It's responsible for the famous movie behavior of cocking back the hammer to tell the bad guy you're really serious. The SAA is also known as the Peacemaker and Colt .45. Toy versions have seemingly been around as long as cowboy boots and lassos.
In 1856, the No. 1 Smith and Wesson introduced a reliable, bored-cylinder, seven-shot, self-contained cartridge revolver which revolutionized fighting on horseback. The primary drawback of the No. 1 was that it fired weak .22 ammunition. Later on in 1867, the No. 3 S&W introduced an ejector system that allowed the user to eject all cartridges simultaneously, and it came with more stopping power. Notice how neither of those guns were made by Colt. The Single Action Army was designed by Colt and two engineers in 1873. They chose to wait patiently for the S&W patent to expire. The Colt SAA slowly won favor over the Smith and Wesson No. 3, but wasn't much more innovative.
The Colt SAA was slowly phased out in the 1890's as reliable double-action pistols entered the market. You can buy an original today for exactly one bazillion dollars.
Really, all you need to know about the Colt M1911 is its United States service history: 1911 to 1985 (and some still use it today). Everything else is just gravy. In 1911, armies had yet to adopt trench-warfare tactics. In 1985, we were aiming ICBMs at each other. Yet one thing remained constant: a 7-round .45 semi-auto pistol.
Colt kind of put all the things people had recently learned about pistols together with the M1911. The original 7.65 mm Luger was impressive because it was self-loading, but it didn't have the stopping power needed for combat. In truth, not even the later 9mm round had enough stopping power for the then-topical issue of drugged-up charging Philippine tribesmen. Also, reliability was also a concern of the day. Jungles and trenches were no place for finicky lab experiments. Ultimately, reliable auto-loading in torture tests is what led to the 1911 being adopted over a very respectable Savage design.
Two major improvements are all that really separate M1911s from modern pistols today. Stacked magazines were not really around until the Browning Hi-Power, and they add about 5-7 rounds to magazine capacity on modern M1911s without sacrificing other attributes. The second improvement would be polymers, which in fact were hard to come by in 1911. Polymers don't sacrifice the strength of steel but keep the weapon lighter. The 1911 had more steel parts than its counterparts at the time, which undoubtedly contributed to its reliability.
The changes to the M1911 over time were small practical improvements—changes to the grip, the sight, the trigger pull. The 1911 was one of the first pistols that really delivered all you can ask of a pistol—enough shots in quick succession to take down multiple targets, and enough power to work without pinpoint accuracy, all while being concealable and light.
Some Honorable Mentions
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
John on March 07, 2020:
The colt .44 1853 navy black powder
Kelly Ann Christensen from Overland Park, Johnson County, Kansas on January 25, 2020:
I like that 9 mm and that revolver. Can I say that publicly about one of "those damn guns" without some freak creating a huge melodrama out of it? Here in Johnson County, Kansas some of us must always keep our cyberstalking trolls in mind when trying to express ourselves, somehow trusting we are on the internet and not the intranet, which, of course, we are since even convicted pedophiles in prison have internet access. lol Thanks for the interesting article.
Joseph Nicholson on December 10, 2019:
Hk p7 is my favorite.
Rick on September 11, 2019:
S&W Distinguished Combat Magnum!
Robert bodziak on October 27, 2018:
The top three handguns of all time are the colt single action army colt 45 1911 and the colt python 357 mag.
Paulo Rodrigues on July 26, 2018:
Thanks for bringing this to us ! For a "most iconic" however your list is surely missing the Walther PPK, both for its finish and design, which James Bond made worldwide famous, and the Mauser C96, also for its unique design. CZ75B and Beretta92 also would make the list more complete, or at list deserve a honorable mention. I also love revolvers, but a pistol is a PISTOL not a revolver. They deserve a list apart.
Elli on March 30, 2018:
Cubefarmer on January 22, 2018:
Walther PPK should be on this list. Beretta 92 Honorable mention
Hioki Ryuuhei on November 19, 2017:
Maybe the Mauser C96 "Broomhandle", my favourite and perhaps one of the most ingenious for its time, still impressive to me, more than 100 years later !
Matthew Morrison on November 14, 2017:
I "actually" have 2 different categories 4 my #1. My favorite is the Desert Eagle, but on the other more realistic favorite #1 thats more practical in real world scenarios... my favorite is the M1911.
2Cents on August 20, 2017:
Along with the M1911 would have to be the Glock 18c and the Sig Sauer P226.
Cheezehead on January 22, 2017:
Totally agree with cmmiller the python is one VERY SWEET REVOLVER !!!
tin_foil_hat on December 28, 2016:
cz 75 for its reliability accuracy and finish quality
Ardian on December 16, 2016:
Cmmiller on November 06, 2016:
Colt Python 6" bbl .357
Nemo on January 04, 2016:
Put CZ75B 9 mm to the list if you want a truly accurate list of most reliable and accurate side arms.
NoGuff on October 31, 2015:
Replace 2, 3, 6, and 7 (not sure how they got on this list) with the Colt Peacemaker, the Beretta 92FS, the S&W Model 29 44 mag, and the Colt .38 snubnose detective's model and you've got yourselves a list.
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 30, 2015:
Great list of iconic pistols, Blake. This was very interesting to know about each one of them. Voted up!
The Wanderer on October 21, 2014:
What about the Tokarev TT-33 ? It's totally equal to M1911