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Editor Dan Shideler

Benelli Pricing & Reference

Benelli Pricing & Reference - PDF Digital DownloadFrom the Standard Catalog of Firearms

Know what your Benelli firearms are worth with this up-to-date 8-page .PDF download from the Standard Catalog of Firearms.

* Completely updated pricing for Benelli firearms with new entries and photos
* Value Trackers: Real-life auction results
* Sleeper Alerts: Collectible guns that are outpacing the market
* Links to manufacturers’ website

Learn pricing and value on these Benelli firearms:

Benelli Model SL-121 V
Benelli Model SL 121 Slug
Benelli SL-123V
Benelli SL 201
Benelli M3 Super 90
Benelli M3 Super 90 Folding Stock
Benelli M4
Benelli M1014 Limited Edition
Benelli M1 Practical
Benelli M1 Super 90 Tactical
Benelli Super 90 Slug Gun
Benelli Super 90 Entry Gun
Benelli Super 90 Defense Gun
Benelli M1 Super 90 Field
Benelli Super 90 Camo Field
Benelli M1 Field Steady Grip
Benelli Super 90 Sporting Special
Benelli M2 Practical with ComforTech
Benelli M2 Tactical
Benelli M2 Field with ComforTech
Benelli M2 Field without ComforTech
Benelli Montefeltro Super 90
Benelli Montefeltro 20 Gauge
Benelli Montefeltro 20 Gauge Camo
Benelli Montefeltro 20 Gauge Limited
Benelli Montefeltro (2005)
Benelli Super Black Eagle II with ComforTech
Benelli Super Black Eagle II without ComforTech
Benelli Super Black Eagle II Rifled Slug with ComforTech
Benelli Super Black Eagle II Turkey Gun
Benelli Super Black Eagle II Steady Grip
Benelli Super Black Eagle
Benelli Super Black Eagle Left-Hand
Benelli Super Black Eagle Custom Slug Gun
Benelli Super Black Eagle Camo Gun
Benelli Super Black Eagle Steady Grip
Benelli Super Black Eagle Limited Edition
Benelli Black Eagle Competition Gun
Benelli Black Eagle
Benelli Black Eagle Executive Series – Grade I
Benelli Black Eagle Executive Series – Grade II
Benelli Black Eagle Executive Series – Grade III
Benelli Legacy pricing, value and reference
Benelli Legacy – 20 Gauge
Benelli Legacy Limited Edition
Benelli Legacy (2005)
Benelli Cordoba
Benelli Nova
Benelli Nova Slug
Benelli Nova Rifled Slug
Benelli Nova Field Slug Combo
Benelli H20 Pump
Benelli Supernova
Benelli Supernova SteadyGrip
Benelli Supernova Tactical
Benelli Sport Model
Benelli SuperSport with ComforTech
Benelli Sport II Model
Benelli Ultra Light
Benelli Model R1 Rifle
Benelli Model R1 Carbine
Benelli R1 ComforTech Rifle
Benelli Model B-76
Benelli Model B-76S
Benelli Model B-77
Benelli Model B-80
Benelli Model B-80S
Benelli Model MP90S Match (World Cup)
Benelli Model MP95E Match (Atlanta)

Gun Reviews: Ithaca Deerslayer III, Field Grade Featherlight & Grade AAA

The Ithaca 37 Field Grade Featherlight shouldered well and broke plenty of clays at the test range.
The Ithaca 37 Field Grade Featherlight shouldered well and broke plenty of clays at the test range.

The Gun Digest staff took a trio of Ithaca shotguns to the range to put them through their paces and see what we liked and didn't like. There wasn't much of the latter to be found. A field grade 12 gauge; a 12-gauge Deerslayer III and a new Grade AAA 28-gauge M37. We weren’t disappointed.

By Dan Shideler and Jim Schlender

Ithaca Deerslayer III Slug Gun

The Ithaca Deerslayer III fetaures a big, heavy fluted barrel, smooth pump action and a very good trigger. Plus, the barrel is locked up with the action for good slug accuracy.
The Ithaca Deerslayer III features a big, heavy fluted barrel, smooth pump action and a very good trigger. Plus, the barrel is locked up with the action for good slug accuracy.

First up was  the Deerslayer III. Its 24-inch fluted heavy barrel made it look like a serious purpose-built slug gun, and that’s exactly what it turned out to be.  Our sample gun carried a Nikon 3×9 variable scope, and with some new premium Winchester Supreme Elite Sabots, we found that we could shoot sub-two-inch groups at 100 yards as long as our ammunition held out.

But it wasn’t only its accuracy that really impressed us about the Deerslayer III; it was its remarkably crisp, light trigger pull and slick slide that put the smiles on our faces. Several shooters commented that they had never racked a smoother pump gun.

We wished that we had more time to spend with the Deerslayer III, because at around 10 lbs. with scope, it was a pleasure to shoot.

There’s bound to be some debate about what is truly the Rolls-Royce of pump-action slug guns. Some will say it’s the Remington 870-based Tar-Hunt DSG; others will choose the Deerslayer III. Since both guns perform so well, it’s likely to come down to a matter of personal preference; but the Ithaca’s extremely slick slide and snappy trigger pull will undoubtedly appeal to connoisseurs. At a suggested retail of around $1200, it’s not exactly inexpensive, but you get what you pay for.

Ithaca 12-ga. Field Grade Featherlight

We then moved on to the 12-ga. Field Grade Featherlight. This is as close as you can get to the classic M37s of years gone by but, like the Model 87 that briefly preceded it, it has a 3-inch chamber and interchangeable choke tubes. Anyone who’s ever shot a well-built M37 knows how slick their slides are, and the Field Grade was no exception. Clays just didn’t stand a chance with it. Everyone shot it well, from tiny Corrina Peterson up to linebacker-size Tom Nelsen.

The Field Grade Featherlight 12 gauge retails for around $850. That’s on the high side for pump guns, true, but few who shot the gun would maintain that it’s not worth it. When a 5-foot-nothing young lady such as Corrina can pick up an M37 for the first time in her life and outshoot the rest of our staff with it, well, that gun’s got some serious mojo.

Ithaca 28-gauge Grade AAA

Gun Digest editor Dan Shideler examines the Ithaca 28 ga. AAA Grade
Gun Digest Editor Dan Shideler examines the Ithaca 28 ga. Grade AAA

Next came our chance with the new 28-gauge Grade AAA. It was almost as much fun just to hold this gun, with its slender scaled frame, as it was to shoot it (well, almost). Contributing Editor Jake Edson dusted every bird we threw up with the tiny, pointy little gun. If we had any suggestions for the Grade AAA 28-gauge, it would be to replace the dull black recoil pad with a plain horn or hard rubber buttplate. Who needs a recoil pad on a 28, anyway?

The new 28-gauge Featherlight starts at around $1000 in its Grade A dress; for that you get nice but not super-deluxe wood and a plain roll-engraved receiver.  Those who favor the 28 gauge for upland hunting may decide that the Remington 870 Express is all they really need, while others will prefer the very elegant Browning BPS Hunter. We have shot all three and done rather well with them. Still – and perhaps for no other reason than plain old sentimentalism – we rather like the new 28-gauge Ithaca.

Some shooters may have issues with the red-orange Raybar front sights that graced both the 12 and 28 gauges, but to your editor, an Ithaca fan of long standing, they just wouldn’t be M37s without them. Like them or not, you will certainly know they’re there, even on overcast days. On bright, sunshiny days, the Raybar sights glow like a neon sign at midnight.

Your editor’s very first shotgun, purchased back in 1974, was an Ithaca Deluxe Featherlight 20-ga.

Coincidentally, I had just dropped it off at Poly-Choke in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, for a new rib just before I had a chance to shoot the new Ithacas. As fond as I am of that old 20-gauge, the quality of the new Ithaca M37s is even better. In terms of fit, finish and function, I found nothing to complain about and plenty to praise.

With annual production at around 3,500 M37s of all types, you won’t see as many of them in the fields or on the lines as you would, say, Remington 870s. But if you get a chance to shoot one, I recommend you take it. In my opinion, it’s the smoothest, slickest, sweetest pump gun on the market.

For more information on the new Ithaca 37s, I don’t think the company would mind it one bit if you visited their website at www.IthacaGun.com.

Editor's Note: article appears in the 2010 Gun Digest Annual book.

Collecting Gun Digest: The Greatest Gun Annual

When I was a wee slip of a lad back in the days of Herman’s Hermits and Mr. Ed, two publications comprised the bulk of my literary diet: Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery and Gun Digest. The Karloff magazine (well, comic book, actually) is long out of print, but Gun Digest just keeps chugging along.

And I hope it always will.

Saying Plenty

The author found a first annual edition of Gun Digest at an estate sale in rural Ontario. The find demonstrates the broad interest of the publication.
The author found a first annual edition of Gun Digest at an estate sale in rural Ontario. The find demonstrates the broad interest of the publication.

Gun Digest was — and is — the 900-pound gorilla of firearms annuals. It didn’t matter if you were a handgunner, trap-shooter, historian, hunter, collector or even a rotten little kid from Indiana — Gun Digest always had something for you.

This breadth of content no doubt accounted for the annual’s amazing distribution and enduring popularity. In what other annual could you find articles by Elmer Keith, Jack O’Connor, Maj. George Nonte, Warren Page, Lucian Cary and dozens of other towering figures in shooting literature? No wonder Gun Digest had a world-wide following. In fact, it’d be surprising if it didn’t.

True story: In Fall 2005, my wife and I were in Guelph, Ontario, visiting my daughter at college. After our visit, we meandered back along the Queen’s Expressway. Outside some tiny little burg in the middle of a vast expanse of wheat fields, we passed a hand-painted sign saying, “Estate Sale.” I have a helluva hard time passing up a sign like that, so we turned off the expressway and sped up a little dirt road.

After a few miles, we pulled up to an outdoor sale held in the backyard of a seedy little farmhouse, complete with peeling paint and a washline strung between two rusty poles.

And what a sale it was. As I passed up tables containing such things as an original glass-topped burial case (shoulda bought that) and a King four-valve sousaphone (shoulda bought that), I came upon a medium-sized stack of Gun Digests. The stack contained an original first edition, a 1964 issue autographed by editor John Amber and a brand-new 2005 issue edited by my friend and co-worker Ken Ramage.

I bought them all, of course. I was higher than a kite on the trip home, and as I floated along, I got to thinking: What does it say about Gun Digest that some old Canadian farmer living in a shack in the middle of Nowhere, Ontario, held onto a first edition, an autographed edition and a brand-spankin’-new 2005 edition until the day he died?

It says plenty.

Enduring Appeal

I suppose the firearms journal of record is American Rifleman magazine. It’s a great magazine, for sure. But in terms of annuals, Gun Digest is unique. It has consistently contained work by the biggest names in the business, and it’s invaluable as a year-by-year trend tracker.

Pull down almost any year, and you’ll be able to sit back with master writers, whose names run the gamut from A to Z; from John Amber to Don Zutz.

I have an enduring interest in guns of all types. Yet the days are rapidly ending when I feel comfortable shucking out a handful of hundreds for this revolver or that shotgun. Yet I have discovered a simple pleasure; one in which I can indulge at minimal cost: collecting Gun Digests. In fact, I must admit I’ve gotten more pure pleasure from collecting Gun Digest than from any gun I’ve ever bought.

Founded in 1944, Gun Digest had wide appeal in a time when many people couldn't afford to buy firearms. But they sure loved reading about them.
Founded in 1944, Gun Digest had wide appeal in a time when many people couldn't afford to buy firearms. But they sure loved reading about them.

Gun Digest was founded in 1944 by Milton P. Klein, owner of a major Chicagoland sporting-goods store. Guns were in short supply in those World War II years, and Klein reasoned that if people couldn’t buy new guns, perhaps they’d like to read about them.

So Klein engaged Charles R. Jacobs to whip up some publication he could sell.

Ramage, the current editor of Gun Digest, picks up the story from there:

“That first edition, 164 pages including covers, included not only catalog-type listings for rifles, pistols and shotguns, but a number of firearms and shooting sports articles by some of the well-known writers of the time: Jack O’Connor, C.S. Landis, Maj. Charles Askins, Maurice H. Decker, E.B. Mann, etc. That edition’s format, published under the direction of GD’s first editor, Charles R. Jacobs, laid the keel for the book’s basic direction through the following decades. The next three editions were very similar in makeup and presentation.

“After the fourth edition, a new editor was named, and the book was further refined. The fifth edition appeared in 1951 with a whopping 224 pages between four-color covers (showing an engraved and gold-inlaid S&W .357 Magnum revolver). At the editorial helm was John T. Amber.

A study of the contents lineup shows there are more articles, and the contents are organized into major topic sections. Joining the contributors were Elmer Keith, Roy Weatherby, Charles Askins, Ray Riling, E. M. Ferris and Maj. Gen. J.S. Hatcher.

Amber would edit Gun Digest for many more years, through the 33rd edition.

“A new byline appeared on the cover of Gun Digest's 34th edition in 1980. Ken Warner became the third editor of the book and continued to build upon the solid foundation of the previous decades. The book had grown, and this 34th edition carried 464 pages plus covers –– double the size of the fifth edition (and nearly three times the page count of the first edition). Gracing the cover was Ruger’s new stainless steel .44 Magnum revolver, the Redhawk. The table of contents reveals not only new contributors, but a number of authors who are still with Gun Digest (or other books in the publisher’s family) in these early years of the 21st century: Larry Sterett, Tom Turpin and J.B. Wood.

“Change is a fundamental constant in our world, but in some ways, Gun Digest seems an unchanged constant. Still, 20 years later, a new editor’s byline appeared on the cover of Gun Digest 2001, 55th Edition — yours truly. Like the forgoing benchmark editions, the 2001 edition carried an even higher page count –– 544 pages. The cover gun was a half-size Farquharson rifle, engraved and gold-inlaid. The table of contents listed old friends Bob Bell, Larry Sterett, Hal Swiggett and Tom Turpin, as well as authors who had come into the book in more recent years.

“Something of a mission statement for Gun Digest has evolved over the years. Fundamentally, the book is about guns. When people, or activities (like hunting, competitive shooting,) are included, they appear in a secondary role to the firearm involved. Gun Digest is a blend of feature articles calculated to provide some interesting reading, and a wealth of current and relevant firearms reference material useful to virtually any firearms enthusiast. Now in its 61st edition, and totaling 568 pages, Gun Digest has seen tremendous changes in the shooting sports landscape and adjusted itself appropriately. The rather stringent editorial criteria remain the same, and the book now runs those works in full color on good coated paper.”

Collecting the Classic

This autographed edition of Gun Digest 1964 was gleefully scarfed up by the author at an estate sale and was prized as much as any gun catch.
This autographed edition of Gun Digest 1964 was gleefully scarfed up by the author at an estate sale and was prized as much as any gun catch.

I’m just the kind of guy Klein had in mind when he dreamed up the idea for Gun Digest 60-odd years ago. I can’t buy many new guns, but I sure like reading about them. I like reading about them so much, in fact, that I’ve assembled a collection of every edition of Gun Digest, from the first edition to the 62nd.

It’s been a rewarding hobby, if a never-ending one, and one that didn’t require a huge cash outlay.

In 1996, Skip Criner published a short piece in the 50th edition of Gun Digest titled, “Collecting Gun Digest.” Much of what he said 12 years ago remains true today. It took Criner four years and about $500 to complete his 50-volume collection, and I suppose that’s just about how much time and money I have in mine. At $500 for 62 issues, that’s less than $9 a pop.

It’s much simpler to collect Gun Digest today because of the internet. If you let your fingers do the walking over your keyboard, you can track down many editions for less than $10 apiece — with a few notable exceptions. I have seen the rare 1944 first edition priced as high as $300. The 1946 second edition seems even scarcer, perhaps because few people bother to keep a second edition of anything. And the 1963 reprint of the first edition makes a nice companion piece to the 1944 first edition.

But don’t forget to check used bookstores, antique malls, garage sales, flea markets, and any other place where you might find used sporting goods. Remember, my best one-day haul came from an estate sale in Ontario.

The best thing about collecting Gun Digest is that upgrading your collection is a never-ending challenge. My 1944 first edition is a bit worn, but I know that somewhere, maybe in an antique mall, there’s a first edition in mint condition. Someday, I hope to find it. I have several editions in almost mint condition (including a 1953 edition I found in an antique store in Allen, Mich., for $7), but I have perhaps 40 that could stand to be upgraded. That’s what keeps me looking.

If some day I have all 60-odd volumes in mint condition, I’ll turn to collecting autographed copies. So far, I have only four: three autographed by Ken Ramage and one by John T. Amber. I’ll keep looking for copies autographed by Ken Warner and Charlie Jacobs. The latter is gonna be a toughie.

After I have an autographed copy of every edition in mint condition, I’ll start collecting Gun Digest treasuries. These were anthologies of previously published Gun Digest articles and were printed mostly in the 1970s. And after I’ve got mint copies of all of those — I’ll start over again. Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade — that’s the mark of a true collector.

Keep Them Going

Gun Digest 2011
In 2010, Dan Shideler became the editor of that year's 64th edition of Gun Digest.

To my knowledge, Gun Digest was never printed on acid-free paper. That means that slowly and inevitably, they will crumble into powder. You can forestall that unhappy occurrence, however, for a few centuries by following some rules:

Keep your books out of direct sunlight or bright ultraviolet light. They’ll fade if you don’t, or they’ll fox (that is, turn brown around the edges). Those old-fashioned bookcases with the glass fronts are slow killers.

Store them in a cool, dry environment with low humidity. Books hate high humidity.

Don’t wedge them tightly together. Pulling them out and pushing them back in abrades and scuffs the covers.

Keep especially valuable editions sealed in mylar sleeves, such as those available from bcemylar.com. To visualize what you’re hunting for, first locate a copy of the 50th edition, published in 1996. It contains a 16-page color section by Gary M. Brown that illustrates the first 50 Gun Digest annual covers. After you’ve been collecting for a while, you’ll be able to identify some editions from 50 feet away. (For example, the 1970 edition is bright yellow and red, and has two Marlin lever-actions on the cover. I received the 1970 edition on my 10th birthday, and I think I could sketch the cover blindfolded.)

Editor's Note: At this point, Dan went on to tell how he was cataloging his collection of Gun Digest books for our readers and how eventually he would share it with all of you. Unfortunately, Dan’s untimely death on April 3, 2011, resulted in a change of plans. Dan had already shared his collection so that we could convert this massive, seven-decade collection of content into a digital file and preserve it electronically.

Gun Review: S&W 317 AirLite

The Smith & Wesson AirLite achieves its remarkable 9.9-oz. weight through a combination of carbon steel, aluminum and Titanium alloys. The author says the gun feels like it's made of molded styrofoam.
The Smith & Wesson AirLite achieves its remarkable 9.9-oz. weight through a combination of carbon steel, aluminum and Titanium alloys. The author says the gun feels like it's made of molded styrofoam.

Innovations in firearms — real innovations — almost seem to be a thing of the past, don’t they?

I mean, imagine for a moment this is 1910. In the past five years, you would have witnessed the introduction of the Browning Auto-5, the first successful semiauto shotgun; the Remington Model 8, the first successful semiauto high-power rifle; and the Standard Model G, the first gas-operated autoloading rifle. What’s more, the Colt Model 1911 pistol and Winchester Model 12 pump shotgun would be just around the corner.

What a great time to be a shooter. Every day, it seemed, one of the big companies came out with something truly new and extraordinary.

It’s different today, of course. Today we work ourselves into a lather about this new cartridge, that new frame alloy, this new camo pattern or that new laser sight. Nothing wrong with that; these are improvements, and we’re properly appreciative of them. But true innovations — that kind that make you go all squishy inside — are few indeed.

My last squishy moment came in Fall 1997 at the old Bristol Sporting Goods store in northern Indiana. My mother had just died, and I was looking for a little trifle to distract my father from his troubles. All of a sudden, there it was in front of me: a brand-new Smith & Wesson Model 317 AirLite .22 snubbie.

Feeling Squishy

I had heard Smith & Wesson had introduced some new super-lightweight revolver but hadn’t actually seen one yet. I suppose I was expecting something like the old 15-ounce Colt Cobra, but when the guy behind the counter handed the AirLite to me, my first reaction was, “You gotta be kidding.”

This couldn’t possibly be a real gun — it was more like those super-loud Wasp capguns we had when I was a child; the ones that took plastic caps molded in a round, red little ringlet.

That little J-frame has now passed from my father back to me. In fact, it’s sitting on my desk as I write this, and my reaction is the same as when I first laid eyes on it: You gotta be kidding. It’s an early one with a serial number lower than 2,000, and it pretty much matches its description that appeared in the catalog section of the 1999 Gun Digest:

Smith & Wesson Model 317 AirLite, 317 LadySmith Revolvers.
Caliber: .22 LR, eight-shot.
Barrel: 1-7/8 inches.
Weight: 9.9 ounces.
Length: 6-3/16 inches overall.
Stock: Dymondwood Boot or Uncle Mike’s Boot.
Sights: serrated ramp front, fixed notch rear.
Features: aluminum alloy, carbon and stainless steels, and titanium construction. Short spur hammer, smooth combat trigger. Clear Cote finish. Introduced 1997. Made in U.S. by Smith & Wesson.
Price: With Uncle Mike’s Boot grip: $451.
Price: With Dymondwood Boot grip: $484.
Price: Model 317 LadySmith (Dymondwood only, comes with display case): $505.

I still have the receipt for my Model 317, and it says I paid $449 for it — nearly full retail. I never buy guns for anything near the manufacturer's suggested retail price, so I must have been very impressed with the AirLite. I still am, come to think of it.

Remarkable Combination

Many have rightfully questioned the usefulness of an 8-shot .22 LR revolver. Aside from their effectiveness as a self-defense gun, the author sees value for the savvy collector.
Many have rightfully questioned the usefulness of an 8-shot .22 LR revolver. Aside from their effectiveness as a self-defense gun, the author sees value for the savvy collector.

Gun Digest must have been asleep at the switch in 1996 and 1997. It didn’t get around to mentioning the AirLite in print until the 1999 edition, and that was limited to a single sentence in the “Handguns Today” section by Hal Swiggett:

“[At the SHOT Show], the one that caught my eye was the Model 317 AirLite, an eight-shot .22 with 2-inch barrel, weighing only 9.9 ounces.”

In my opinion, the AirLite rated much more of a hullabaloo than that; maybe something on the order of a 72-point banner headline screaming: “S&W INTRODUCES LIGHTEST DA REVOLVER EVER!”

That’s pretty much what the AirLite was. Its most similar predecessor was the old aluminum-framed, nine-shot Hi-Standard Sentinel .22 snubby, which came in at around 16 ounces with a 2-inch barrel.

The Sentinel was a great gun (notwithstanding its tendency to shoot high at almost any distance), but compared to the AirLite, it was a bloated heavyweight.

The AirLite achieved its remarkable weight by a combination of carbon steel (barrel, hammer and trigger) and aluminum or titanium alloys (everything else), plus strategically placed milled-out areas (grip strap and trigger guard). In all, it adds up — or subtracts down — to a revolver that feels like it’s made of molded Styrofoam.

Early as it is, my M317 didn’t come from the first production run. According to Supica & Nahas in Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson (Krause Publications, naturally), the earliest Model 317s carried a serial number prefix of “ULT,” which was followed quickly by the “LGT” prefix. The Model 317-1 designation was used for the still-later adjustable-sight versions and a very rare 2-inch snubby with a stainless-steel barrel manufactured in 2000. Only 120 of those were made, so it’s the rarest of the AirLites. (If you find one, buy it. Better yet, tell me where I can buy it.)

Mixed Reviews

Current opinion of the M317 AirLite is mixed. It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it things. I love it, of course. Others find fault with its sleeved barrel; plastic-looking Clear Cote finish; short, sharp hammer spur, which makes single-action operation uncomfortable at best; and its stippled serial and model number on the crane recess and butt.

Still others say the Model 317 AirLite is a gun without a purpose.

“What good is an eight-shot, fixed-sight .22 snubby?” they ask.

That’s a pretty good question, one for which I have no ready answer. The AirLite is a descendant of the original Model 34 Kit Gun, which in my opinion is probably the finest, most gracefully economical .22 revolver ever built. The original Kit Gun, as you will recall, had an adjustable rear sight, even in its 2-inch version — quite a desirable feature if you shoot a variety of .22 ammo and really like to dial 'em in there.

Smith & Wesson must have recognized that right off the bat, because in 1998, it introduced the Model 317 AirLite Kit Gun, an adjustable-sight version of the original AirLite with a 3-inch barrel. So where does that leave the plain old M317 AirLite?

The only possible answer is that it was intended as a supremely portable self-defense bellygun. This supposition is supported by the AirLite’s combat grips and bobbed hammer spur. It even has a crosspin for a lanyard concealed in the outline of its grip frame, I suppose if you literally wanted to tie one on.

Shideler would prefer a .32, .38 or .45 ACP for personal defense, but if he had to use the S&W AirLite .22 LR he would grab some Aguila 60-grain .22 SSS, or Sniper Sub-Sonic (left).
Shideler would prefer a .32, .38 or .45 ACP for personal defense, but if he had to use the S&W AirLite .22 LR he would grab some Aguila 60-grain .22 SSS, or Sniper Sub-Sonic (left).

Regrettably, any discussion of the AirLite as a self-defense gun begins and ends with its .22 LR chambering. I’m a big believer in the .22 LR, but if I knew I’d need a defense gun in the next two minutes, I’d reach for a .38 Special or, at a minimum, a .32 ACP (and that’s assuming a .45 Colt is out of reach). The AirLite must have been intended for a consumer who prefers revolvers, believes in the stopping power of eight .22 LRs, will be shooting only at combat distances or puts light weight above any other characteristic. That’s a pretty skinny demographic.

If I were to carry the AirLite as a defense gun, I’d probably stoke it full of the Aguila 60-grain (that’s right, 60-grain) .22 SSS Sniper Sub-Sonic .22 LR ammo rather than something like a CCI stinger. I don’t really trust any of the hyper-velocity .22s to expand reliably out of a 2-inch barrel, but I’m pretty sure that Aguila’s 60-grainer would burrow in pretty deep.

Or maybe S&W introduced the AirLite just to show the world only it could build a 9.9-ounce revolver. If that was the case, well all right then. It's a good enough reason for me, but the fact remains that I don’t see many first-generation Model 317 Airlites, new or used, floating around out there. To me, that’s one earmark of a sleeper-in-waiting.

How does the AirLite shoot? Who cares? It’s a belly gun, so you’re pretty sure to hit any belly you’re aiming at, especially if that belly, like mine, resembles something that blew up in Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937. Oh, the humanity.

The Current Scene

The Model 317 AirLite still exists in the S&W lineup in the form of the original 2-inch, fixed-sight bellygun, and as an updated kit gun with a 3-inch barrel, adjustable rear sight and HI-VIZ front sight. Both versions have the now-familiar-but-nevertheless-ugly S&W safety lock just above the cylinder release. Suggested retail is $672 and $735, respectively (ouch). Street pricing runs from five to six big bills. (Ouch again.)

I’m the last person to suggest that you should run out and buy a brand-new AirLite for $500 or $600. But if you’re offered a good deal on one, you might consider it. If nothing else, it’s the finest cap gun ever made.

From Mexico, With Love

I’ve always been intrigued by the offbeat. When I was in seventh grade I had to express an interest in some sort of field for a career day event at school. The other children chose the usuals: law enforcement, medical and education. Me, I chose mortuary science, a choice that eventually paid off inasmuch as it kept me in pizza and Stroh’s while working my way through college at a series of Indiana funeral homes.

Given my penchant for the unusual, it’s no wonder that throughout my early adult years, I was intrigued by entries such as this, which appeared in the catalog section of the 1988 Gun Digest:


Caliber: 177, round ball or pellet; single shot. Barrel: 191/2 inches. Weight: 8 pounds. Length: 451/2 inches overall. Stock: Walnut target-type with Monte Carlo. Sights: Blade front, fully adjustable rear. Features: Fires round ball or pellet with .22-caliber blank cartridge. Bolt action. Imported from Mexico by Mandall Shooting Supplies. Price: $150.

Cabanas Leyre Bolt Action Rifle. Similar to Master Model except 44 inches overall, has sport target stock. Price: $134.95.

Model Mini 82 Youth (161/2-inch barrel, 33 inches overall length, 31/2 pounds) $69.95

Pony Youth (16-inch barrel, 34 inches overall length, 3.2 pounds) $79.95

Well, there was something you didn’t see every day: a BB gun that didn’t use compressed air or gas as a propellant, but a .22 blank cartridge. Obviously, there could be no practical use for such a gun — which meant, of course, that I just had to have one.

The idea of such a blank-fired BB gun wasn’t entirely original with the Cabanas company. More than a century earlier, Europeans had used similar guns for a sport called zimmerschutzen — literally, “indoor room shooting” or parlor shooting. These guns used a percussion cap to fire a tiny lead ball, usually a lead BB shot, at velocities suitable for indoor target practice.

Oddly, the great Italian maker Pedersoli makes a reproduction of a typical European zimmer pistol from the mid-1800s. Over here in the United States, Remington made about 200 Remington-Rider derringers from 1860 to 1863; this odd little duck also used a percussion cap to fire a .177 lead ball. Today, a close copy of this tiny pistol is being produced in limited numbers, again by Pedersoli.

Really now! Except for replicas, the idea of using a cap or a .22 blank to fire a lead ball must have died 100 years ago. Hadn’t it?

Apparently not, if these Cabanas really existed. I vowed that I would get my hands on one.

I am nothing if not patient. It took me nearly 20 years to own a Cabanas, but here I sit today with not just one of them, but three. Here’s how it happened: I was painfully slogging through the Standard Catalog of Firearms, which I edit, running value checks on the tens of thousands of guns listed in the book.

At the beginning of the “C” chapter, I hit on the listing for “Cabanas” — more properly known as Industrias Cabanas, S.A. of Aguilas, Mexico — and I remembered the old Gun Digest entries. Several models were listed in Standard Catalog, so I took a quick drive on the information superhighway to see if it would lead me to more information about Cabanas guns.

Lo and behold, on the Web site of one of Gun Digest the Magazine’s most prominent advertisers (hint), I found Cabanas guns up for auction at reasonable prices. I placed some bids, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So now I own a small flock of Cabanas rifles. Considering that these guns are rather scarce on this side of the Rio Grande, I suppose that makes me northern Indiana’s Cabanas king. A king, maybe, but not an expert.

Background, Origins

I can tell you that Cabanas Industrias, S.A. translates into Cabin Industries Inc. The company was in business from about 1949 to 1999, and Cabanas guns are fairly well known in Mexico’s limited shooting circles. But because of the language barrier, it’s tough for me — an aw-shucks Hoosier who barely speaks English — to research the company in depth.

For example, here is part of a Mexican internet discussion thread concerning the Cabanas R83 single-shot pistol. I translated it from the original Spanish with the help of free online software:

“In the case of this pistol, I have noticed that has certain detail in its operation, perhaps I am making the things bad, them comment since I hope to make understand me not to know the terms suitable. When wanting to load the pistol, I have only managed to make a shot, since after this, the part that is hauled backwards not is on guard to leave lists it towards the following firing, I leave a good short while it and later it is possible again to be driven. Serian so amiable to help me with this problem. Greetings from Mexico!”

Well, greetings to you, too! I have read that probably 20 times, and it still baffles me. I gather there’s a problem with this fellow’s pistol, specifically with the part that is hauled backward when it “lists it toward the following firing.” However interesting that might be, it’s not very illuminating.

I got my NIB/NOS (new-in-the-box, new old stock) Cabanas (pronounced “ka-BAN-yus”) peashooters from an exceedingly polite gentleman named Dave Guthridge of Sioux City, Iowa. Three or four years ago, Dave bought out some of the inventory of the now-defunct Mandall’s Shooting Supplies of Scottsdale, Ariz., and it included dozens of Cabanas guns and parts. Dave squirreled away these oddballs and is selling them one by one.

Although Dave couldn’t tell me much about the Cabanas company, the guns he sold me included all of the factory literature, which helped shed some light on how these guns function. But it didn’t explain why Cabanas guns were made in the first place.

The answer apparently lies in Mexico’s strict laws against civilian ownership of firearms. In Mexico, your average man in the street is forbidden from owning most cartridge-firing arms of .22 caliber and larger, a situation that varies slightly according to the whims of geography and politics. Where gun ownership is allowed, it’s limited pretty much to rimfire rifles, and the process of buying even these is layered in bureaucratic red tape.

Cabanas guns represented a clever way to let shooters bang away with something more substantial than airguns. Because Cabanas guns are .177 caliber, they evade Mexico’s .22-caliber restriction. And because they don’t fire fixed ammunition, they aren’t considered firearms.

In Mexico, that is. Here it’s a different story. Our friends at the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives apparently consider the Cabanas to be a firearm, according to this definition:

“DEFINITION OF “FIREARM”: 18 USC § 921(a)(3), (4). Any weapon (including a starter gun) which will expel a projectile by means of an explosive or is designed or may be readily converted to do so.”

The fact the BATFE considers a Cabanas a firearm probably explains the guns’ lack of popularity in the United States. Who wants to go through the hassle of all that paperwork simply to own a hot-rodded BB gun?

But a Cabanas is no more a toy than is a modern air rifle. An 8.2-grain lead BB propelled at the Cabanas’ advertised muzzle velocity of 1,100 feet per second (more about that later) yields a muzzle energy of 22 foot-pounds, compared to about 35 foot-pounds for the .22 Short standard load with its much heavier bullet.


In attempting to learn more about the Cabanas, I learned that not all .22 blank cartridges are created equal. In Mexico, apparently, they have (or had) little plastic-cased blank ammo called Floberts that were made specifically for the Cabanas.

These cartridges may have provided the necessary “give” to let them chamber in a Cabanas, but I’ve found that American-made brass-cased .22 can be a tight fit in the chamber of these odd little guns.

CCI makes a star-crimped smokeless .22 blank that approximates the length of a .22 Short case. Winchester offers similar black-powder blanks, but I hesitate to use them since I don’t enjoy cleaning black-powder fouling. Gun Dog Supply of Starkville, Miss., offers what they call their “acorn blank;” a cute little crimped nubbin of a load that produces less noise than a standard blank. I found that the CCI blanks are a tight fit in all my Cabanas guns — a situation that improves as the gun is broken in — but the Gun Dog Supply acorn blank does all right.

It eases into the chamber like it was meant to be there.

Projectiles were another challenge. Not many manufacturers offer dimensionally-correct .177-inch lead balls for airgun use, and I wasn’t about to sit down with a 5-pound bag of lead BB shot and a micrometer.

Luckily, I discovered that Pyramyd Air of Bedford Heights, Ohio (www.pyramydair.com), offers Gamo .177-inch lead balls and assorted lead diabolo (skirted) pellets, so I ordered a representative sampling and had them on my doorstep five days later.

About using lead pellets in Cabanas guns: The hang tag that came with one of my Cabanas rifles has strict instructions about the use of other than round lead balls. Here’s what the tag says:
“Por ningun motivo introduzca mas de uno municion al efectuar su disparo. No utilice de acero ni diavolos de ningun otro tipo.”

My free online software, which I am rapidly coming to distrust, translates this as:
“By ningun reason introduces but of the one ammunition when carrying out its firing. It does not use of steel nor diavolos of ningun another type.”

That’s a big help. I never took high-school Spanish, but even I can figure out that the tag is saying something like, “Do not use steel bullets or diabolo pellets.” But maybe there’s a misplaced modifier kicking around in there. Does it mean that you can’t use steel bullets (that is, steel BBs) or steel diabolo pellets, or does it mean that you can’t use diabolo pellets at all, even lead ones? Anybody?

My Cabanas rifles range from the bottom of the line to a fairly advanced model. The most modest is the Pony. It’s about as simple a gun as you could ask for: a single-shot bolt-action rifle with straight-gripped hardwood stock. It doesn’t have a safety, and its trigger can’t be adjusted, though the rear sight is adjustable for elevation.

To fire the Pony, you open the action and drop a lead BB into the tapered chamber. Then you place a .22 blank in the chamber — not an easy task with my sausage-like fingers — and close the bolt. You then cock the striker knob at the rear of the bolt, squeeze the trigger, and bang.

To extract the empty case, you pull back on the manual extractor, a ribbed collar that surrounds the barrel just forward of the chamber. Two spring-steel prongs then pop the empty out of the chamber, and you poke it with your finger to clear it. All of the Cabanas blank guns function in this same general way.

One step up from the Pony is the Mini 82. The Mini is quite similar to the Pony but has a flared muzzle extension attached to it that looks like a suppressor but is actually a barrel weight. The Mini also has an adjustable trigger, a hooded front sight and a curved butt. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the Mini was some sort of CIA black-ops hypodermic gun or something.

Next comes the Leyre. It looks like a real gun, with its target-style stock with cheekpiece. It also has an adjustable trigger, a manual safety, a bolt that automatically cocks on closing and a receiver that’s grooved for scope mounts. With the Leyre, you also get a real buttplate; something the Pony and Mini lack.

First up was the Mini. I charged it with a Gamo lead ball and CCI blank. Pop! Two inches high and left of center. Pop! Two inches high, center. Pop! Two inches high and one inch left. Friends, that’s not much of a group. Any decent airgun could do better.

I then tried the acorn blanks; same group but not as high. I then tried some Beeman diabolo pellets (Crow Magnums) and discovered what the Spanish hang tag meant: Don’t use diabolo pellets, lead or not! The pellets keyholed and some never even found the paper. What’s worse, two pellets left their skirts in the bore (which is the first time in my life I ever objected to having an empty skirt around). Any thoughts I had about hunting with a Cabanas went flying into the woods, along with a half-pound of Gamo 177-inch round balls and a few pellets.

The results from the hour-long shooting session were disappointing. My chronograph revealed that the muzzle velocity from the acorn blanks ranged from 703 fps to 830 fps with a lead round ball. The CCI blanks were magnums by comparison, yielding an average muzzle velocity of 1,041 fps. Not bad velocity, really, but again, there are plenty of decent pellet guns that can do better.

Itemized Cabanas

I’ve assembled a partial list of Cabanas models, but it is probably incomplete. At the very least, Cabanas offered the Model 82 Mini, Pony, Leyre, Master, Espronceda IV (similar to the Leyre but with a full-length sporter stock), and Laser (similar to the Leyre but with a thumbhole stock and finger-grooved pistol grip), which might have been identical or very similar to the so-called Phaser and Taser models. (Phaser and Taser strike me as American-style marketing labels that Mandall applied to the guns rather than Cabanas factory designations.)

Rounding out the line was the Model R83 pistol, a futuristic-looking little bolt-action. (Ever the glutton, I’ve got an R83 on order from Guthridge.) All of these Cabanas guns had hardwood stocks of varying degrees of quality and finish.

Cabanas apparently went down for the third time in 1999, but before the waves closed over them, they had time to manufacture a line of more or less conventional hinged-barrel, air-powered 177-inch pellet guns called the Model 210 Sport. The Sport guns had brightly enameled stocks that certainly make them stand out in a crowd. Guthridge will be happy to tell you about these interesting Cabanas pneumatics, and you can e-mail him at deadeyedave@cableone.net for more information.

The Black Sheep of the Family? AR-15s as Collectibles

My mother was raised in abject poverty. So, naturally, she was always on the lookout for signs of uppity-ness and pride on my part and eagerly awaited opportunities to put me in my place.

One day when I was about 30, I was having Sunday dinner at Mom’s house. She offered me some peas. “No thanks,” I said. For some reason, Mom took that as a prideful insult and, banging down the wooden serving spoon like a gavel, hurled a stinging accusation at me: “You … pea snob!”

Even today, 15 years later, my wife calls me a pea snob when I put on airs. It’s true, I suppose — or at least it was in the past. For example, for decades I avoided military and paramilitary firearms, believing I was too good for them or that they weren’t good enough for me. Colt 1878 Double Action? Sure. Browning Auto-5? Certainly.

Winchester Model 54? Bring it on. But show me a Mauser 1898 or an M1 carbine or, God forbid, an AR-15 and I’d point my nose in the air, snort contemptuously and say, “Puh-leeeeze!”

Maybe I couldn’t make the leap from blued steel and walnut to parkerized finishes and synthetics. Maybe I didn’t want to be accused of playing G.I. Joe.

But for whatever reason, I avoided “black guns” like the devil would avoid a holy-water spritzer with a lemon twist.

Then one rainy day about 10 years ago, I took in a preban AR-15 clone on trade. Maybe I could trade it for, oh, a Model 12 Duck Gun or something actually worth having. But fate intervened in the form of a box of .223 Remington shells left over from my old Ruger No. 3 carbine.

On a whim, I loaded up the AR-15 and took it out back to the range. As I squeezed off the first round, the rain stopped, the gray clouds parted overhead, a beam of golden sunshine stretched down and kissed my brow, and an unseen angelic host burst forth with a C-major chord.

At last, I had seen the light. The gun wasn’t half-bad!

Is the AR-15 somehow beyond the pale of legitimate, serious gun collecting? I used to think so. Now, obviously, I don’t. Yet I understand — but don’t agree with — the reasons why some otherwise well-balanced gun collectors don’t pursue the AR-15.

It’s Ugly

If you think the AR-15 is ugly now, imagine how it must have looked in 1964, when the U.S. Army officially adopted the AR-15 as the XM16E1.

At the time, the short-lived M14 and the .30 M1 carbine were standard issue — and whatever their faults, at least they had walnut stocks and looked more or less like a rifle was “supposed” to look. But the AR-15! Oh my! It must have had George S. Patton spinning in his grave.

With its plastic stock, carry handle and exaggerated pistol grip, the AR-15 looked like something Flash Gordon would use to mow down Ming the Merciless. To modern eyes, the AR-15 looks, well, different, like ugly but lovable Aunt Edna.

However, in my opinion, the AR-15 looks no odder than one of those ornate mid-’50s “Shah of Iran” Weatherby rifles, which legendary stockmaker Jules LaBantchni described as looking like a Navajo blanket. Nylon 66 rifles, XP-100 pistols and yes, even the 1911 Colt automatic, all looked weird in their day. Now, they’re hot collectibles.

The AR-15 is like a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz: Both were the product of a unique era in American history. For that reason alone, the AR-15 is worth having. And I wouldn’t mind a 1959 Caddy, either!

They’re Not Accurate

When the AR-15 was designed, the concept of “massed fire” still influenced military thinking. Better known as “spray and pray,” this concept emphasized firepower over individual accuracy. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the AR-15 suffers from the general opinion that as a military gun, it can’t be very accurate.

In the words of Pepe LePew, “Au contraire, mon cher!” Several months ago, I watched as a local shooter put his AR-15 through its paces at a local public range. He had a Rock River upper decked out with an ER Shaw bull barrel with a Leopold 12X, and even I, who was raised on checkered walnut and blued steel, had to admit it looked like a formidable outfit.

As I stood there, this fellow put three consecutive shots from sandbags onto the paper with handloaded ammunition. When we arrived at the target, I found I could cover the holes with a dime.

That, friends, is 17.91 millimeters edge to edge.

That’s the best group I’ve ever seen made with an AR-15. I have no illusions that I could shoot such a group myself, but it shows what a good AR-15 can do.

I Don’t Like the 5.56 NATO Round

You don’t? Well, blame Donald Hall of the U.S. Army’s Office of Small Arms Research and Development. He suggested, way back in the mid-’50s, that a high-velocity .22 centerfire would have about the same battlefield lethality as a .30-caliber cartridge in most situations.

For those who say that the 5.56/.223 has no sporting applications, I’d like to introduce them to several groundhogs and a fox or two who would not concur. The .223 is not my first choice for a deer cartridge — although I have no doubt that a Speer 70-grain spirepoint could do the job — but as a varmint or target round, the .223 is a real performer.

Besides, AR-15s are also available in .308 Winchester and 9 mm Parabellum, so take your pick.

They’re Not Collectible

In collecting anything — whether it’s guns, cars, art pottery or guitars — the first rule is the thing must exist in sufficient variation to make collecting challenging and worthwhile. There must also be a continuing demand for the thing collected.

The AR-15 qualifies on both counts. If fact, if you wanted to collect only Colt AR-15s, you’d have your job cut out for you. Colt-produced AR-15s are classified as sporters or nonsporters. Nonsporters generally have bayonet lugs and flash-hiders and generally bear the “AR-15” designation on their upper receivers.

Collectors further distinguish between “preban” and “postban” models, the “ban” referring to the late and generally unlamented “assault weapons” ban of 1994 to 2004. Prebans generally fetch higher values than post-bans, though this isn’t always true since the lapse of the ban. For current AR-15 pricing information, see the chart below.

Take Another Look

To those who collect AR-15s in all their magnificent variation, I applaud you. To those who disdain AR-15s, I understand but respectfully suggest you take another look.

And to Mom, wherever you are, please pass the peas.

Nobody Wants This Colt

Colt_Police_Positive_web.jpgThe Colt Police Positive is the Rodney Dangerfield of revolvers. It don’t get no respect.

Normally, the word “Colt” is pure magic to collectors. Put that name on a gun, and shazam! It’s an instant collectible. This rule applies not only to Pythons and Diamondbacks but to real stinkeroos like the ill-fated Model 2000 All-American 9 mm semiauto, too.

The Police Positive is the one glaring exception. I have seen buyers at gun shows pass over cherry Police Positives to fondle things like H&R Model 929s, Iver Johnson Cadets and High Standard Sentinels. These are all nice guns, but really, now. Let’s be serious.

I once had a 4-inch Police Positive .38 I could not give away. I had taken a nicer one in trade and decided to pass the old one on to someone who would appreciate it. I offered it to my brother, my son, my wife, my neighbor and my neighbor’s grandmother. All of them said thanks but no thanks. It wasn’t a dog, either, but a nice 80 percent specimen from 1923. Once, I left it in my car at a gun show along with half a bag of cold White Castle sliders. When I came out, the burgers had been stolen, but the revolver was still there. Finally, I sold it back to Phillip Peterson, who took pity on me and gave me 30 percent of what I originally paid him for it.

The Police Positive’s virtues are many: It’s rugged, stylish and just about foolproof. Its faults are that it lacks adjustable sights (except for the Target versions), and fires cartridges that are a little on the pricey side and somewhat underpowered (.32 S&W Long/.32 Colt New Police and .38 S&W/.38 Colt New Police). Still, the Police Positive gave rise to a family of collectible Colts, and by garsh, that should count for something!

Turn to the Right

The Police Positive saw the light of day in 1905, when it debuted as an improvement on the old square-butted Colt New Police double-action six-shooter introduced in 1896. The Police Positive’s name sprang from its “positive” — that is, foolproof — internal hammer-block safety, a feature that had been conspicuously absent from its predecessor. Another improvement from the old New Police was the Positive’s .38 S&W chambering, a cartridge Colt cloned under the name of .38 Colt New Police.

Built on the Colt .32 double-action frame introduced in 1893, the classic Police Positive was chambered in .32 or .38 Colt New Police (and their S&W counterparts, of course) and could be had with a 21/2-, 4-, 5- or 6-inch barrel. The finish was nickeled or blued steel, and grips were checkered walnut with a gleaming white-metal rampant colt medallion. Sights were fixed and consisted of a half-moon blade front and a hog-waller groove milled into the topstrap. Early production samples had a plain topstrap, but later ones had a matte topstrap. In all, the Police Positive made a fine-looking package.

Colt liked to talk up the accuracy of the Police Positive and emphasized that its cylinder rotated toward the frame, unlike the revolvers of a certain Springfield, Mass., gunmaker, whose cylinders rotated away from the frame. As one Colt advertisement stated: “All Colt Cylinders TURN TO THE RIGHT.”

The accuracy of any revolver is determined greatly by the method used in lining up the chambers of the cylinder with the barrel. All Colt Cylinders turn to the right — thus binding the crane tight against the frame of the revolver — guaranteeing perfect alignment of chamber and barrel and adding materially to the accuracy of the arm.

The Offspring

Judging from the frequency with which I find Police Positives on the used-gun market, Colt must have made a billion of them. Yet today, the Police Positive isn’t remembered for the gun that it was but rather for the guns it inspired. Most collectible Colt double-action revolvers of the second half of the 20th century are based to one extent or another on the Police Positive.

Here are the collectible offspring of the decidedly noncollected Colt Police Positive.


Police Positive Target: This was a .32- or .22-caliber version of the Police Positive with a 6-inch barrel and adjustable front and rear sights. It was manufactured from 1905 to 1941. In today’s market, the .32 version actually seems more desirable than the .22.

Police Positive Special: This was basically a Police Positive with a 1/4-inch longer frame to accommodate the .38 Special and .32-20 cartridges (in addition to the .32 and .38 New Police and their S&W counterparts). Features include fixed sights, a square butt, and 4-, 5- or 6-inch barrel lengths. It was manufactured from 1908 to 1970 in three issues, and then reintroduced briefly in 1995.

Detective Special: This is Colt’s classic snubbie. It’s basically a round-butted Police Positive Special chambered in .32 Colt or .38 Special with a 2-inch barrel. The first issue was manufactured from 1926 to 1972 and is quite collectible. The second, made in 1993, featured a barrel shroud and neoprene grips. And the third was a stainless-steel variant called the Detective Special II, or D-SII, manufactured from 1997 to about 1999. Yet another stainless variant, the Magnum Carry, was introduced in 1998 and was chambered in .357 Magnum.

.38 SF-VI: This was basically a stainless-steel Detective Special chambered in .38 Special with a modern transfer-bar safety and a 2- or 4-inch barrel. It was manufactured from 1995 to circa 2000.

.38 SF-VI Special Lady: This was similar to the preceding gun, but with a bobbed hammer for double-action-only operation and a bright stainless finish. It was manufactured from 1996 to circa 2000.

Banker’s Special: A short-butted version of the Police Positive, this gun had a 2-inch barrel and was chambered in .22 LR and .38 Special. The gun is highly collectible, with 35,000 manufactured from 1926 to 1943.

Cobra: This was a lightweight, alloy-framed version of the Detective Special chambered in .22 LR, .32 Colt/S&W, .38 Special (first issue) and later .38 Special only (second issue). Second-issue guns had a shrouded extractor rod and ramp front sight. It was manufactured from 1950 to 1973 in both issues.

Agent: Basically a Cobra with a shortened grip frame, this gun was manufactured from 1955 to 1986 in two issues. The first, made from 1955 to 1973, had an unshrouded extractor. The second, made from 1973 to 1986, had a shrouded extractor and ramp front sight.

Courier: This was a 3-inch version of the first-issue Agent chambered in .32 Colt/S&W and .22 LR. The gun is scarce, and it was only made from 1955 to 1956.

Border Patrol: Essentially a Police Positive Special with a 4-inch bull barrel and chambered in .38 Special, this is the rarest of the Police Positive clan. Only 400 were manufactured in 1952. Beware of fakes!

Aircrewman Special: This all-aluminum Detective Special was chambered in .38 Special and made for the U.S. Air Force in 1951. It’s exceedingly rare, as most were thought to have been destroyed. Only 1,200 were produced.

Diamondback: This gun resembles a Python built on the Police Positive Special frame rather than on the big .41 Army frame. Chambered in .38 Special and .22 LR, it was manufactured from 1966 to 1986. It’s a very hot collectible.

Viper: Basically an alloy-framed version of the Police Positive Special chambered in .38 Special, this was made from 1977 to 1984.

Respect, Please

Sometimes the tree falls pretty far from the apple, I guess. The original Police Positive is doomed to languish forever in the shadow of its more desirable offspring, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. The collectibility of the Police Positive’s descendants proves, however, what a sound design the old-timer really was.

So, hey! Show a little respect.

Original Papoose is One Great Gun

Breathes there anyone with soul so dead that he doesn't enjoy a good Marlin .22 semiauto? 

I didn't think so. Twenty years or so ago, Marlin's advertising liked to state that the company's Model 60 .22 was the best-selling .22 autoloader in history. I didn't doubt it for a minute. The Model 60 was such a clean, simple, hot-damn little rifle that it was difficult to imagine that anything could ever displace it.

If you consider the Model 99 of 1961 to be the first Model 60 – even though it wasn't called the Model 60 yet — it's easy to believe that for a good, long while, the Marlin Model 60 outsold every other .22 semiauto.

Then, dagnabbit, Bill Ruger came along in 1964 and upset the apple cart with his 10/22, which went on to become the most popular .22 autoloader of all time. I have nothing but admiration for the 10/22, but I'm sure some of you will understand me when I say that deep down, I'm a Marlin .22 man. And the Marlin .22 that tickles me the most is the original Marlin Model 70P Papoose takedown rifle.

Origins of a Classic
The Papoose has its roots in Marlin's Model 99, a tube-fed autoloader that made its debut in 1961. The Model 99 was an enormous improvement from its immediate predecessor, the Model 89.

The Model 89 featured a machined-steel tubular receiver along the lines of Remington's Model 550, and it weighed in at a relatively hefty 6 pounds. Its successor, the Model 99, used a stylishly streamlined alloy receiver to achieve a weigh of just 5 pounds, a reduction of almost 17 percent from the Model 89. And more than that, the Model 99 just looked modern. What more could a child want?

In no time, Marlin had blown out the Model 99 clan to include a nearly overwhelming variety of tube- and magazine-fed .22 autoloaders: the models 99C, 99DL, 99G, 989, 989M2, 990, 990L, 95, 49, 49DL and on and on — not to mention their counterparts in the economy-grade Glenfield line.

These guns had minor cosmetic and functional differences, but they were built on the durn-near-foolproof Model 99 chassis. I've owned a boatload of these little rifles, and they've all been utterly reliable and more accurate than I can hold. For example, I had a first-year Marlin 989 .22 semiauto — a cute little M-1 Carbine lookalike — that I topped with a cheap 4X scope. I could hit golf balls with it regularly at 100 yards when I got the elevation dialed in. That is no exaggeration.

And as Jim Schlender and a dozen others will be only too happy to tell you, I am a lousy shot.

In 1967, Marlin renamed the Model 99 the Model 60. (The magazine-fed version of the tube-fed Model 60 was named the Model 70. Same gun, different feed system.) Strictly speaking, this is the gun Marlin promoted as the best-selling .22 semiauto of all time.

For the next 19 years, Marlin kept on grinding out the Model 60 to the delight of children and non-children everywhere. Then, in 1986, a wonderful thing happened: Somebody at Marlin looked down and noticed that the Model 60's Spartan simplicity lent itself to a takedown design. Well, why not?

Armalite had introduced its AR-7 takedown semiauto .22 way back in 1964, and maybe it was time for Marlin to offer its own takedown autoloader. All you'd have to do would be to split the Model 60's breech right at the head of the chamber, thread the receiver, and put some sort of retaining gizmo on the barrel assembly. Voila and bingo! The Model 60P Papoose was on its way.

“Papoose?” Yes, Papoose. I suppose the name stems from the fact that you could sling the little Model 60's carrying case over your back and tote it around somewhat in the manner of an American Indian mother carrying her child. Frankly, I'm surprised the PC crowd didn't sue Marlin for using the word in this context. Maybe they did. If so, Marlin stood firm, which gives me just another reason for liking the Model 70P — I mean the Papoose.

Favorable Impressions
The Papoose made quite a splash when it debuted in 1986. Layne Simpson, writing in the 41st edition of Gun Digest, was enamored of the little rifle: “The new Model 70P Papoose,” Simpson said, “is a 7-shot takedown version of Marlin's best selling Model 70 autoloader. Its 161/2-inch barrel is detached by turning a threaded sleeve at the action face. It weighs a mere 31/2 pounds. Standard equipment includes a 4X scope and padded case, the latter with built-in flotation cells in case the gun falls overboard. Considering its low price, I expect this little takedown rifle will sell like syrup at a pancake show.”

Simpson wasn't kidding about the price. In 1987, the Papoose had a suggested retail price of only $135.95, “with 4X scope, mounts and case.” That bit about the scope is a little confusing to me. Of the three new-in-box Papooses I have owned, none came with a scope.

By 1990 or so, Marlin was no longer advertising the scope, but if the 1980s-vintage Papooses came with scopes, I got gypped!

There's something top-secret-sounding about the padded case's “flotation cells.” You and I might call them cellular polymer inserts or, more simply, just sewn-in pieces of foam rubber. They make the bright red nylon case buoyant, but be aware that the case's zipper isn't necessarily watertight.

The Papoose came with the case, the spanner, an owner's manual, a seven-shot blued or nickel (depending on vintage) magazine, and maybe the scope and mounts — although as I've said, I've never seen a new-in-box one with the scope. It was a nice little package, notwithstanding the Papoose's “walnut-finished hardwood stock,” which no one could ever mistake for walnut.

Assembling the Papoose was so simple that even a child could do it. In fact, I've seen a child do it. Just pop the barrel into the receiver (it goes in only one way, guided by the extractor cut in the chamber) and tighten the sleeve. Marlin supplied a spanner wrench for that purpose, but in my experience, if you tighten the sleeve with your hand and stop just short of the white-knuckle point, you'll do fine.

Then pop in the loaded magazine, cycle the bolt handle, and you're in business.

How accurate is the Papoose? With its barrel and chamber supported only by that threaded sleeve, you'd think accuracy would be terrible. You'd be wrong. The Papoose shoots quite well enough for its purposes, being on a par with most other Marlin .22 semiauto plinkers. If you're not getting 2-inch groups with your Papoose at 50 yards with iron sights, you'd better tighten that barrel sleeve some more or consider buying a scope.

In 1993 or so, Marlin morphed the Papoose into the updated Model 70PSS Papoose. The Model 70PSS had a synthetic stock with swivel studs, a manual bolt hold-open, an upgraded rear sight, a hooded front sight, a stainless barrel and nickeled trim. Those last touches no doubt enhanced the Papoose's water resistance, but they detracted from the original Papoose's endearingly dopey appearance. The nylon case was also changed from red to blue as part of the gun's overall facelift.

Still There
I keep my latest Model 70P Papoose cased in the trunk of my car and sprayed liberally with water-displacing aerosol lubricant. So far, it's never let me down. It still has its inspection stickers on the butt, duly signed and executed by a Marlin technician named Eric.

Eric, if you're reading this, congratulations on building a fine rifle. And could you check and see whatever happened to my three scopes?

Is That a Colt in Your Pocket?

I like snubnose revolvers. I mean I really like snubnose revolvers.

To my admittedly antiquated way of thinking, the snubbie is the perfect self-defense gun. Semiautos get all the press nowadays, but I keep coming back to the fact that in three decades of shooting all types of guns, I’ve never had a snubbie jam, lock up or otherwise put me in a pickle. How I wish I could say the same of semiautos!

But I try not to be dogmatic about such things. If you’re carrying a semiauto right now, you doubtless have good reasons for doing so, and I would be the last person to argue with you. Really, I was only kidding, anyway — sir.

But insofar as I’ve expressed my opinion on snubbies, I might as well go whole-hog and admit that I believe the Smith & Wesson Model 36 Chiefs Special is the greatest self-defense gun of all time. It’s tiny. It’s reasonably powerful. It’s controllable. It’s utterly reliable and totally foolproof. A Model 36 in the pocket beats a 1911 left in the nightstand any day of the week.

Yet the Model 36 isn’t my favorite snubbie. That distinction would have to go to the old Colt Pocket Positive, manufactured from 1905 to 1940. The Pocket Positive has the one critical attribute that characterizes so many Colt revolvers: style. And if you can forgive me for using such a word, I might even say that the Pocket Positive is cute. Not merely cute, mind you, but cute as Brittany Spears’ … nose.

A Different Bird

The Pocket Positive was an outgrowth of Colt’s New Pocket Revolver, introduced in 1893. In addition to being Colt’s first swingout cylinder pocket revolver, this was a handy little gun, the name of which distinguished it from the “old” Colt Open Top Pocket Model manufactured from 1871 to 1877.

The Open-Top Pocket Model was a different bird from the New Pocket Revolver: a tiny little spur-trigger, single-action .22 that didn’t even have a topstrap. In comparison, the New Pocket Revolver of 1893 really was new, and with its “modern” solid-frame, double-action design, it made arch-rival Smith & Wesson’s top-break revolvers look like yesterday’s news.

The New Pocket Revolver came in blued or nickel finish with hard rubber stocks and a 2 1/2-, 3 1/2-, 5- or 6-inch barrel. It was Colt’s smallest revolver but not its only concealable snubbie, if you wanted to stretch the term a bit.

The Colt Model 1877 in .38 and .41 Colt (the so-called Lightning and Thunderer, respectively) was available in a “Storekeeper’s” version with 2 1/2-inch barrel and no ejector rod assembly until 1909.

The Model 1877 Storekeeper could conceivably be called a snubnose pocket revolver if you had pockets big enough to conceal its sizeable frame. But however you sliced it, the New Pocket outclassed every other deep-cover revolver of its day.

The original Colt New Pocket .32 had a compact, round-butt grip frame that made it especially well-suited for concealed carry. In 1896, Colt developed a variation of the New Pocket with a square-butt grip frame and released it as the New Police.

That year, the New Police was adopted as the issue sidearm of the New York City Police Department, the nation’s largest metropolitan law-enforcement agency, by virtue of the recommendation of the police commissioner, an energetic up-and-comer named Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s endorsement went a long way toward establishing the credibility of Colt’s new line of .32s.

Yet neat as the New Pocket and New Police were, they shared two flaws: They had no provision for a passive safety and were chambered for a truly rotten little cartridge.

Unique Features

Like all of Colt’s double-action revolvers of the day, the New Pocket and New Police had no safety; neither active (manually-operated) nor passive (automatic). Thus, if you dropped a loaded New Pocket or New Police .32 — cocked or not — in such a way that it landed on its hammer, the chances were fairly good that you’d go home that night with an extra bellybutton.

Then there was the guns’ chambering: .32 Short and Long Colt. These cartridges were scaled-down versions of Colt’s proprietary .38 and .41 Long Colt loads, and they shared a common shortcoming: an outside-lubricated, heel-based bullet similar to today’s .22 Long Rifle round.

The .32 Colt cartridges provided poor accuracy because they didn’t fit the bore especially well, and their exposed lube rubbed off rather easily and collected all manner of dirt and grit. (On special order, Colt would chamber the New Pocket and New Police in the much-superior, inside-lubricated .32 S&W Long cartridge, but it wasn’t eager to recognize a S&W product or stamp the hated “S&W” on its guns.)

Despite its lack of a safety and the limitations of the .32 Colt rounds, the New Pocket wasn’t a bad little gun. It was extremely small and was a much better design than its closest competitor, the Smith & Wesson First Model .32 Hand Ejector of 1896.

For one thing, you could open its cylinder with one hand, a feat that was almost impossible with the Hand Ejector. For another, you could order it with a 2 1/2-inch barrel vs. the Hand Ejector’s shortest barrel length of 3 1/2 inches.

Colt also made hay of the fact that the New Pocket’s cylinder rotated toward the frame, but those of “other” double-action revolvers (nudge, nudge) rotated away from the frame. The implication was that the other revolvers (nudge, nudge) wouldn’t stay as tight as a Colt. True? Perhaps not, but it made for a good talking point.

The New Pocket was America’s first truly modern, solid-frame snubbie. All it needed was a few tweaks, which were to come in 1905.

In that year Colt improved the New Pocket — and the New Police, too — by giving it an internal, passive-hammer block safety that prevented the hammer-mounted firing pin from falling on a live cartridge unless the trigger was held all the way back. This safety was held to be utterly foolproof or, in other words, “positive.” Thus were born the Pocket Positive and the Police Positive.

The revolvers’ chambering received an upgrade, too. Colt had realized that inside-lubricated cartridges were the wave of the future, so — no doubt holding its corporate nose — it relented and chambered the Pocket Positive and Police Positive in .32 S&W Long. But not without a fight, by gum! There was no way in heaven or earth that Colt was going to put “S&W” anywhere on its guns, so it did the next best thing: It invented a .32 S&W Long cartridge of its own.

The resulting cartridge, the .32 Colt New Police, was identical to and interchangeable with the .32 S&W Long — except for one thing. The S&W cartridge had a round-nose lead bullet, but the Colt number had a bullet with a minuscule flat on its nose. That was the entire difference.

In retrospect, it’s amusing to see how Colt avoided using the phrase “.32 S&W” in its advertising of the day. A Colt catalog from the 1920s danced around the issue on a page describing the Pocket Positive’s chambering:

“Caliber: .32 Colt Police Positive (New Police). (Using .32 Colt Police Positive (New Police); also .32 S&W Short and Long Cartridges, when the barrel is stamped ‘.32 Police Ctg.’).”

I’ve read that paragraph five times, and I’m still confused.

A Little Beauty

The Pocket Positive is simply a beautiful little revolver. Its main frame, grip frame and barrel harmonize in perfect proportions. Its barrel and extractor rod are unencumbered by a shroud, which has always seemed to me to give a snubbie an off-balance, muzzle-heavy appearance.

Finally, there’s the wonderfully sculpted cylinder latch. This latch, introduced in the 1920s, forms part of the recoil shield and was a big improvement from the angular, stamped latch that characterized Colt’s earlier double actions.

Every Pocket Positive I’ve fired has had a slick, smooth double-action trigger pull. That smoothness comes at a cost, however. The Colt’s lockwork gives great leverage but puts a lot of pressure on your hand, which sooner or later results in that characteristic last-second cylinder hitch that afflicts most heavily-used Colt double actions. Though not quite as slick as the Colt’s, the S&W Hand Ejector lockwork is much more durable.

The Pocket Positive disappeared from the Colt lineup in 1940, and its place was taken by the Detective Special and Police Positive Special. I doubt we’ll ever see the likes of the Pocket Positive again. In this day of magnumitis, the .32 S&W Long and .32 Colt New Police seem laughably underpowered. Still, whether I choose to carry one — and sometimes I do — the Colt Pocket Positive has my vote as the classiest snubbie of them all.

Gun Digest Classic: Is This the Greatest .38 Ever?

The Smith & Wesson .38/44 Outdoorsman had plenty to offer shooters, including a polite recoil.
The Smith & Wesson .38/44 Outdoorsman had plenty to offer shooters, including a polite recoil. Photo: Steven Z

Don’t get me wrong. I love Colt revolvers. A 1923 Police Positive is doing duty at this moment in my bedside nightstand. I sometimes carry a Detective Special. I think the Python is the most stylish revolver ever made.So please don’t throw things at me when I say that in my opinion, the finest revolver of all time, all things considered, is the Smith & Wesson Hand Ejector. And of all the Hand Ejectors, the finest are the N-frames. And of the N-frames, the finest was the .38 Outdoorsman.

It was the most well-mannered .38 ever made.

A Bitter Year

It was 1930, one of the bitterest of the Great Depression and the dawning of the Age of the Gangster. John Dillinger was honing his skills at a prison in Michigan City, Ind., while the likes of Ma Barker, Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and Baby Face Nelson were tearing up the Midwest.

These public enemies, as they came to be known, weren’t fooling around.

Dillinger would later use a Colt Monitor, the civilian version of the Browning BAR, when he wasn’t carrying a 1928 Thompson he swiped from an Indiana police station.

Machine Gun Kelly earned his nickname the hard way. And unlike the bandits of the Old West, this new breed of criminals was likely to speed away from the scene of their crimes in a Ford V-8, a Studebaker sedan or an Essex Terraplane.

Against this rising tide of lawlessness stood America’s Thin Blue Line of local police and sheriffs, most of whom could rarely muster anything more powerful in the way of armament than a Colt Official Police or a Smith & Wesson Military & Police in .38 Special. And that just wasn’t cutting it.

Colt had responded to the call for greater police firepower in 1929 with its .38 Super Government Model semiauto, which sent a 130-grain metal-jacketed bullet rocketing out its 5-inch barrel at 1,300 feet per second — fast enough to penetrate most bulletproof vests and car bodies. The FBI promptly glommed onto the .38 Super, although some agents complained that its accuracy left something to be desired.

sw-logoA Better Idea

Smith & Wesson approached the problem from a different direction. It already had the perfect platform for a new police gun: the large Hand Ejector frame introduced in 1908 as the New Century or Triple-Lock .44 Special.

Having lost its third, and superfluous, cylinder lock in 1915, this enormous double-action frame (later designated the N-frame) served well in World War I as the basis of S&W’s .45 ACP Model 1917 revolver. (Almost a century later, the large Hand Ejector N-frame would remain in production — a record exceeded only by S&W’s own K-frame and Colt’s Model P Single Action Army.)

In 1930, as reported by Elmer Keith in Sixguns, S&W’s Major Doug Wesson introduced an all-new, 5-inch-barreled, fixed-sighted .38 Special built on the massive N-frame. The gun was formally named the .38/44 Heavy Duty, and was also known colloquially as the .38/44 Super Police for its intended application.

Even today the “.38/44” designation causes some confusion. It simply means a .38 built on the large .44 Hand Ejector frame. Muddying the waters a bit is the fact that there had been another, entirely different S&W “.38-44” several years before: a top-break target revolver chambered for a unique .38-caliber cartridge, in which the bullet was completely enclosed within the case, which itself stretched nearly to the end of the cylinder. This revolver was built on the large S&W No. 3 .44 Russian frame (hence the “-44”). The No. 3 .38-44 was a different animal from the .38-44 Heavy Duty double-action.

S&W’s new Heavy Duty could handle much hotter .38 Special loads than were generally available. That’s why, in 1931 Remington-UMC, Winchester and Western stepped up to the plate and rolled out a new breed of high-velocity, high-pressure .38 Special.

Whereas the traditional .38 Special load generated about 16,000 copper units of pressure, or CUP, to produce velocities of about 800 fps with a 158-grain lead bullet, the new load developed 20,000 CUP to produce a velocity of about 1,100 fps with a 158-grain metal-tipped bullet. (This was the first appearance of what we would today call the .38 Special +P.) The new load reportedly developed 425 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle, which was — and remains — impressive.

Here, at last, was a gun that would punch through just about anything that stood between Dillinger and a police officer.

A Positive Reception

The new .38/44 was an immediate hit. In the November 1931 American Rifleman, Phil Sharpe praised it to the skies: “The thickness of metal in this gun gives the writer confidence to fire standard factory proof cartridges from the hand, something no other gun has ever inspired.” (A proof cartridge usually generates twice the pressure of a standard load and is used by gunmakers to test the strength of, or “proof,” their finished products.)

Comments like Sharpe’s were bound to get the attention of Keith, who was no slouch at blowing up revolvers with hot handloads. Using a .38/44 Heavy Duty, Keith found he could simply not induce the big gun to come unglued, even with his home-brewed .38 Special loads that generated a ferocious 42,000 CUP.

I won’t give Keith’s recipe for this load here, and actually I don’t even like to think about it. Suffice to say, it takes the .38 Special about as far as it can possibly go — maybe farther.

While still a .38 Speicaly, the Outdoorsman had more punch, given it could handle hotter loads.
While still a .38 Speicaly, the Outdoorsman had more punch, given it could handle hotter loads.

As reported by C.E. Harris in the December 1980 American Rifleman, Sharpe’s glowing report on the .38/44 Heavy Duty had contained just a hint of disappointment: “There are no target sights for this model, [which] would be highly desirable.”

The Outdoorsman Arrives

S&W had already reached the same conclusion, and in 1931 the company introduced the .38/44 Outdoorsman, a sophisticated version of the Heavy Duty with target sights and a 6 1/2-inch barrel. The name of the new gun suggested it was marketed toward the woods bum who wanted something with a lot more “oomph” than a standard .38 Special.

Weighing in at a hefty 41 3/4 ounces unloaded, the Outdoorsman was, in the opinion of W. D. Frazer, “a target revolver in every sense of the word.” Frazer reported in a 1932 issue of American Rifleman that he had made 17 hits out of 20 shots with the Outdoorsman at 200 yards on a standard police silhouette target.

The Outdoorsman was so good, in fact, that it inspired the revolver that would make it obsolete: S&W’s .357 Magnum of 1935. The .357 Magnum was the Outdoorsman on steroids, and the FBI wasted no time in adopting it in 3 1/2-inch barrel form as its official sidearm.

You might have expected the Outdoorsman to wither away and die immediately, but it refused. Although made obsolete by the .357 Magnum, the huge .38 sold modestly until 1966, when it was discontinued.

The Outdoorsman was never a best-seller. Only 4,761 “long-action” Outdoorsmans were sold before World War II, and another 8,365 from 1946 to 1966. Postwar models featured a new-style hammer block, a micrometer sight and a new barrel rib. A short-throw hammer was introduced in 1950, at which time the Outdoorsman’s name was officially changed to the .38/44 Outdoorsman of 1950. Postwar guns can be identified by the “S” preceding the serial number.

When S&W adopted its new model numbering system in 1957, the Outdoorsman became the Model 23.

A Delight to Shoot

Shooting an Outdoorsman of any vintage is a pleasure. With 148-grain target loads, the big gun’s recoil is barely noticeable. It hangs on target with admirable inertia. Its trigger pull in single action is crisp, and in double-action, it’s wonderfully controllable. Owing to the revolver’s tight fit and long barrel, muzzle blast is negligible, even with +P loads. And in my opinion, S&W’s Hand Ejector lockwork is simply superior to that of anything else.

Some shooters will criticize the Outdoorsman, saying it is pointless. The .38 Special, they will say, is an old woman — as if only the most powerful handgun cartridges have any reason for existing.

I don’t agree. In fact, I believe the preoccupation with bigger handgun cartridges has grown comically absurd.

Hand cannons have their place, but so do target revolvers. I enjoy shooting a .38 Special with enough mass to dampen tremors. I might not be able to brag about how macho I am after shooting an Outdoorsman, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

I’ve been fortunate to have shot just about every basic model of American .38 Special revolver ever made. For my money, the Outdoorsman is the best — and certainly the classiest — of them all.