HANDGUNS, The Definitive Guide to Pistols and Revolvers – Review by Mark Barnes

The Definitive Guide to Pistols and Revolvers
By John Walter
Published by Quercus Editions Ltd
ISBN: 978 1 78087 913 0

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

Handguns: They excite emotions. They are everywhere; the telly, books, movies, comics, music – you name it. Steve Earle tells us that the pistol is the devil’s right hand while some rap musicians and dodgy divas crave them as the stuff of cool. In these crazy days you can even print your own! The pistol drives culture and Andy Warhol could as easily have painted a stream of Peacemakers as he did tins of soup.  Only last week a Colt belonging to no less a legend than Jesse James was put up for auction with an estimate of a million pounds.

The rights and wrongs of them feed arguments that will be in play long after I’m dust and there’s no point in getting mired in them here. I make no apology for having a life long interest in guns; their history and their technology. In practical terms my experience covers a bit of just about everything, but I’ve never owned any live firearms.  My interest was fuelled thirty odd years ago by a stunning book which now runs into at least seven editions, Military Small Arms of the 20th Century by the great Ian Hogg and John Weeks. It was and remains a classic and I still use mine regularly. I haven’t needed a guns book since.


Along comes John Walter, a prolific writer on firearms of all kinds. We see the history of the handgun, from the 15th century to the modern day, with over 350 models illustrated and explained. Everything about this book works – the text, the format and most especially the quality of the photography. The guns themselves come from the huge collection of the Royal Armouries, many, no doubt, from the legendary Pattern Room from the era of the famous Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield – long since gone. This collection, gifted to the nation, holds around 20,000 examples!

What we have here is a family tree of handguns from the earliest days to modern polymer examples. We pass through the days of wheel locks and flintlocks into the period of the first practical revolvers and bang up to date with the modern automatics in use today. There are duelling guns and military models; police specials and sports weapons. There’s even a flare gun. The book claims to be definitive and it’s difficult to argue. All the classics are here and the really important examples have expanded coverage.

The book doesn’t celebrate guns, it explains them; the technical advances, the successes and failures. It doesn’t avoid the reality that all this effort went into making things to kill people. However you present a book like this, there will always be an elephant in the room. Sticking to the technical stuff and providing a straight history allows the book to progress without getting squished by it.

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This is a stunning piece of work is an instant classic by any standards and I hope it does well enough for Quercus to encourage further books in the same format from this author. Perhaps he has considered it. Regardless of this, as a stand alone project it is one of the finest books I have seen this year. If I was doing a top ten it would be well in the running for top spot.

If you have an interest in handguns or just like really well produced books that transcend simple reference purposes you need look no further. For just twenty-five quid it is an absolute bargain.  You might never be able to own a Navy Colt or a Luger and you might never want a Saturday Night Special, but this just might be as close as you get. Perhaps that’s just one of the ways it is a winner.

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.