The Best Handguns I’ve Known


The first handgun Duke bought for himself was an S&W K38 .38 Special like this one

Looking back on my long career of handgun shooting, I’ve come to realize some of the hundreds I’ve experienced stood head and shoulders over others in my estimation. Now understand this: I’m not saying some particular manufacturer made better handguns than others in terms of fit, finish or quality of production. What I am saying is some revolvers or autoloaders caught my fancy more than others, perhaps caused by me shooting them well, carrying them more comfortably, or as reminders of a grand time in my life.

Duke’s all-time favorite pair of single-actions are these Colt
Frontier Six Shooters (.44-40) with bison bone grips.


My handgun buying started at age 17. I was newly enamored of bullseye target shooting and learned of a fellow who had a S&W K38 in a nearby town. (That happened to be Matewan, WV, the site of the famous coal mine union wars of the 1920s and memorialized by the 1987 movie of the same name.) I paid $55 for it, including a 50-round box of .38 Special target wadcutters. That .38 stands in my esteem not only because it was the first handgun I bought but also because it triggered me into becoming a reloader, which I remain avidly to this day.

However, another S&W K-Frame’s pedestal stands just a mite higher than the K38’s. That happened to be a Model 19 .357 Magnum with 6″ barrel and 2-lb. trigger pull. In those days, I roamed around the western states quite a bit with the Model 19 accompanying me. At that time, it seemed perfect: Shooting .38 Specials for casual fun and far fewer full-power .357 Magnums when needed. By the time the Model 19 fell into my hands, I had acquired a Lachmiller triple-cavity bullet mold for a 150-grain SWC. Many thousands of bullets were dropped from that mold, with the majority going through the 19’s 6″ barrel.


An autoloader I hold in high esteem for two reasons. One is it was a gift from a good friend, and the other is it is just a great handgun. That is a .45 Auto Les Baer Thunder Ranch Special. Again, it’s amazingly accurate, but more so, it’s amazingly reliable. Once, at a Thunder Ranch five-day class, as a test, I shot it without cleaning. Anyone who has participated in one of those classes know that shots fired can reach nigh-on to 1,000 rounds. By the last day, I could feel the slide moving slowly to chamber the next round, but chamber it did and never failed to fire.

These two handguns were gifted to Duke. At left is the Colt SAA .45 with carved ivory grips and the Les Baer Thunder Ranch Special .45.

The Classic SAA

Another gift is on my list of best handguns. It’s a full-blued Colt SAA .45 with a 4¾” barrel. What makes it dear to me is that it was ordered with my name engraved on its backstrap, and its factory letter of authentication says it was ordered that way by Hank Williams, Jr. After receiving it, I had an El Paso craftsman (artist) named Paul Persinger fit it with ivory grips with my MLV initials relief carved. As we used to say in West Virginia, “It just don’t get any better than that.”

For a couple of decades, I shot the cowboy action game until a bum knee put me out. A usual event required a rifle, shotgun and two revolvers. The first two guns weren’t important to me, but for revolvers, I always used Colt SAAs. Most calibers available in the SAA were tried at one time or the other, but one brace of Colts became my all-time favorites. Those were called Colt Frontier Six-Shooters, which always stands for .44-40. I fired those guns with both black powder and smokeless powder handloads. The former became my favorite due to their loud “blam” muzzle report and a long trail of fire and smoke.

My specific CFSS .44s were Colt’s Peacemaker Centennial commemoratives for the 100th anniversary of SAAs. These were offered both as .45s and .44s, with the latter version being all nickel-plated with 7½” barrels, black hard rubber grips, and the old-fashioned tiny blade front sight with corresponding grove in the revolver’s top strap. I managed to land two of the 2,002 made, then had their actions slicked up, and both fitted with custom-made bison bone grips. Neither of my pair ever let me down.

Those handguns have stood above others in my shooting history. In fits of extreme foolishness, I allowed others to buy my two favorite S&Ws. The others mentioned here are still with me. At my age, there may never be another favorite added to the best list — but then again, we never know.

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