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Massad Ayoob on Handguns: A perspective from 50 years ago (AKA the good old days)

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By Massad Ayoob, GUNS Magazine

The 1963 Gun Digest provides a pleasant whiff of yesteryear. Reading it when it first came out, I was looking forward to soon being old enough to get my driver’s license. A Smith & Wesson Model 10 Military & Police .38 Special retailed for $65 in blue, and $70 in nickel. The fancier Model 15 Combat Masterpiece, in blue only but also available in .22, was $74. Only one company, Colt, made .45 1911s. The Government Model or Commander retailed for $82.50 new, and the elite National Match Gold Cup, for $125—the same as Colt’s deluxe Python .357 Magnum.

In the words of a band of my generation, the Grateful Dead, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” The Model 10 is now in S&W’s Classic line at $719 retail, and the Combat Masterpiece equivalent goes over a grand. By 2013 there were too many manufacturers of 1911 pistols to count with absolute certainty. Colt’s most economical iteration of the design is the Model 1991 at $900, and the top of the line Colt Special Combat Government Carry Model goes for $1,995, according to Gun Digest in 2013.

In 1963, this S&W Model 15 cost $74 new.

The year ’63 was not a banner year for new handgun models, except in the world of conventional bull’s-eye pistol shooting. Stagnant today, thanks to all the handgun sports which have drawn more action oriented shooters away from the round black bull’s-eye in fast modern times, conventional pistol was pretty much the only game in town back then.

The big news was Smith & Wesson’s Model 52 Master pistol. The great Gil Hebard tested it exhaustively for that edition of Gun Digest, and master reloader Kent Bellah did an in-depth companion article on reloading for that gun, which was designed to fire only flush-to-the-case-mouth .38 Special mid-range wadcutters. At a then-whopping $150, the 52 was a factory answer to the exquisitely accurate 1911s chambered for .38 wadcutter and custom-accurized by the great Jim Clark. Testing four Model 52s from a Potter machine rest at 50 yards, Hebard recorded an overall average of 2.612 inches at 50 yards—for 10-shot strings. These included one amazing cluster of 10 shots in 1.03 inches with Remington 148-grain wadcutters!

This absolutely trounced the Colt Gold Cup, which also came out in a .38 Special wadcutter version that year. For a long time, the Model 52 kicked butt in the Centerfire division of NRA pistol shooting. Alas, the Model 52 is no longer with us, nor its more versatile 9mm descendant, the Model 952 from S&W’s Performance Center.

Two milestones for High Standard occurred in 1963. One was the 5-inch bull barrel configuration for their exquisite Supermatic target pistol series. It was so popular you see it today in that gun’s descendants. The other was the only real new thing in defensive handguns that year, High Standard’s double-barrel derringer. With a cutaway triggerguard that would lead to the occasional negligent self-shooting down the road, it had a double-action pull and was chambered in .22 Long Rifle and .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire. It was popular as a hideout and backup gun for many years—the first pistol for which the modern “gun wallet” was created—and I can think of more than one case where it saved its user’s life. In 1963, it retailed for $29.95.

Browning brought out a line in 1963 that would last through today: an excellent line of .22 auto pistols.

Worn and with parts since replaced, this Colt National Match of the period
is still a perfectly functional .45 today shown with this 1963 Gun Digest.


Price Perspectives

1963 saw Colt introduce what was then its most expensive handgun model: the adjustable sight New Frontier single action, at $150. After a long hiatus, the New Frontier is now back at price $1,455. Perspective? From “Retroville 1963” at come the following average prices for that year. Car: $2,300. Gasoline: 30¢ per gallon. Postage Stamp: 4¢. Average Annual Salary: $6,998. Minimum Wage: $1.25 per hour.

That New Frontier is now a bit under 10 times 1963 cost. Postage stamps went up 11 times. A new Chevy Impala is more than 10 times the ’63 price. Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour at this writing, and I’ve paid over $4 a gallon for gas in Chicago recently.

Ammo? The recent “ammo drought” has blown comparisons all out of perspective. Gun Digest 1963 listed the following prices for 50-round boxes: .22 Long Rifle 80¢, .38 Special at $4.80 for Remington match wadcutter and $4.60 for 158-grain lead, .45 ACP FMJ for $6.55, 9mm FMJ for $6, .357 Magnum 158-grain for $5.45, and 240-grain .44 Magnum for $8.35. Do a quick price check at the gun shop today, and then do the math. For more perspective, a Hershey bar was 5¢ in 1963, and I paid $1.09 for one today.

Like Hershey’s chocolate, trips down memory lane are sometimes bitter, and sometimes sweet.

In 1963, a Hershey bar cost 5¢, and a 50-round box of .22 LR cost 80¢.
Today in 2013 the chocolate bar costs $1.09 and up to $10 for a box of .22s.

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