Retro Trends: Revisited


Image: Julia / Christos Georghiou / Adobe Stock

A couple of months ago in this space (“Selling Retro,” Aug. 2023), we looked at sales of retro firearms. Today, we’re revisiting this topic by adding some product categories not mentioned in the first look.

There’s no question the predominant sellers in the defensive-firearms market are polymer-framed pistols and AR-15 rifles. But they’re not the only regular sellers. Many in the firearms industry have noted a strong return of older designs in terms of popularity and sales.

Look at how many old-style lever-action rifles of the Henry brand are sold. Witness the popularity of the Ruger Marlin lever guns. We even see “tactical” lever guns with collapsible stocks and light rails.

This brings the discussion out of the hunting grounds and into the defensive arena.

Many in the firearms industry have noted a strong return of older designs in terms of popularity and sales.

1911s — With A Twist

The 1911 pistol is the most obvious example. Seemingly eternal, the 1911 is not only more popular than ever, but now exists in more makes, models and variations than at any time in the past.

Though it may trouble the ghost of the late, great Jeff Cooper, the high priest of the .45 ACP 1911’s renaissance in the last half of the 20th century and the godfather of the now resurgently popular 10mm Auto cartridge, many dealers and manufacturers alike tell me they are selling more 1911s chambered for 9mm Luger than they are in the traditional .45 caliber. For decades now they’ve also been available with accessory rails.

Does the customer want to go ultra-modern without sacrificing the long-established 1911 advantages, such as its excellent trigger? Show them a “2011” such as the Staccato or the Springfield Armory Prodigy, with up to 26 or so rounds of 9mm in a double stack magazine, and optics-ready.

Point out to the customer the 1911 in .45 has a long, confidence-building history of stopping fights, and has manageable recoil. In 9mm, it has amazingly light recoil. Most people find it to fit their hands very well, and it’s a natural “pointer” for most, too. With different grip thicknesses and trigger lengths, it’s hard to find a customer whose hand doesn’t fit any of the various 1911 pistols you might have in stock.

Revitalized Classic: Hi-Power

Consider the venerable P-35, aka, the Browning Hi-Power. When I was young it was the only double-stack fighting pistol available, and while it was not the predominant defensive arm in this country, it certainly had its own devoted following. 

However, the time came when there were almost countless “high-capacity” 9mm Autos available, many cheaper and lighter and more ergonomic. A few years ago sales had diminished so far that the original manufacturer, Fabrique Nationale, in Belgium, didn’t think it was worth replacing the worn-out tooling to continue making them and this classic was discontinued.

It was a classic case of “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” A couple of years ago Springfield Armory reintroduced an improved version named the SA-35, and sales were so hot the Turkish Girsan clone was soon also selling briskly. This did not go unnoticed by FN, who quickly introduced an updated version.

Quandary: A customer comes in and says, “I want one of those P-35 pistols I’ve been hearing about!” Which do you sell him? The selection is an embarrassment of riches. 

Personally, I’m very happy with my Springfield SA-35, and a couple of other samples I’ve shot fairly extensively. My friend Steve Sager, a Master shooter in multiple disciplines, is very pleased with his Girsan version. 

While the updated Browning has a configuration that won’t satisfy either the purist or historian, it has a 17-round magazine as opposed to the 15-round Mec-Gar magazine that will come with the Springfield, and all superior to the 13-round magazine, which distinguished the original back in the day. I’ve run three SA-35 Springfields fairly intensively, bought one myself and been happy with them all.

Who would buy one of these when they can get a more modern design cheaper, that might even hold more rounds? 

Consider the following: The original Browning’s grip shape is second to none, and hugely adaptable to different hand sizes. The aforementioned Jeff Cooper, a fairly big man, said more than once that the 9mm Browning fit his hand better than any other pistol, and it was a shame it wasn’t manufactured in what he considered an adequately powerful caliber. 

It’s a perfect fit in my own hand, which according to Smith & Wesson’s $100,000 hand-size study done 30 years ago for the introduction of their Sigma series is “average adult male” in size. A great many petite female shooters have found it to be ideal also. Not many handguns reach this level of hand-size adaptability out of the box.

The P-35 series is properly carried cocked and locked, and its manual safety is reassuring to anyone who fears an opponent gaining momentary control over it, or who plans to carry in the appendix position. It has this in common with the 1911, and also like the 1911, it’s very slim, easy to conceal and comfortable to carry inside the waistband. Is it a home-defense gun? The Girsan and the current Browning are available with rails for light/laser attachments.

If what goes around comes around, the revolver is something round that is coming around again.

Reliable Wheelguns

If what goes around comes around, as the saying goes, the revolver is “something round that is coming around again.” 

Consider: Colt’s bottom line has benefitted from their return to revolver-making after a long hiatus. The little D-Frame snubbies have been selling very well. I recently watched instructor Chris Harold shoot a near-perfect score on a tough qualification with a 3″ barrel Colt King Cobra that felt like it had a custom trigger even though it was straight out of the box. Dealers tell me they can’t keep the new-generation Colt Pythons in stock. 

Kimber has been so successful with its small six-shot revolvers that it keeps bringing out new variations. 

Henry, whose whole catalog seems to consist of retro firearms, recently brought out the Big Boy, its own double-action .357 Magnum revolver. 

Ruger and Smith & Wesson revolvers continue to sell well, particularly small pocket-size models for the self-defense market. 

Selling points include the fact a revolver won’t go out of battery when its muzzle has to be pressed against the body of the attacking criminal or rabid dog and will allow all five or six shots to be fired at press contact if necessary — with the muzzle blast roaring into the tissue and increasing the size of the wound at that. 

That cylinder which is easily swung out to load or unload is a whole lot easier for weakened or aged hands to manipulate. And frankly, it’s a great selling point for any first-time handgun buyer. Just make sure the buyer has enough hand strength to pull the double-action trigger. 

Don’t neglect to remind your modern, Auto-buying customers a double-action revolver will help them learn how to distribute trigger pressure. (I’ve said for decades the DA revolver will teach the Auto shooter how to shoot better, and I’m not alone in that.)

The lever-action rifles we’re seeing now with Picatinny rails and telescoping stocks may look “steampunk,” but the fact is there are a lot of reasons why old, proven firearms designs are being rediscovered and appreciated by defensive-gun buyers at this point in the 21st century.

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