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EXPLAINED: 3 Top Selling Handguns of All Time

M1911
Modern version of the historic Colt M1911 pistol

Gun control advocates bemoan how many firearms have been sold in the United States, but a good capitalist would argue that it is a sign of a successful business model and a quality product. During the global novel coronavirus pandemic, firearms sales reached record levels, with some 11 million Americans becoming first-time buyers. Even now sales remain stronger than before the pandemic, but there isn’t one category that is stronger than others.

Today’s polymer-framed pistols remain among the best sellers, while others still prefer large-framed revolvers. Yet, the three top-selling handguns of all time are truly in a class of their own.

Top Selling Handguns

Bronze Medalist: M1911

Designed by John Browning, the M1911 is arguably his magnum opus among his numerous masterpieces. Even more than 110 years since it was selected as the standard-issue sidearm of the United States Armed Forces, it remains in use among units of the U.S. Army Special Forces, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Navy.

1911 Pistol

1911 Pistol. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Springfield Armory M1911-A1

Springfield Armory M1911-A1. Image Credit: Industry Handout.

It is the best-known of Browning’s designs to utilize the short recoil principle, which has been widely copied. While the U.S. military had produced around 2.7 million M1911 and M1911A1 pistols between 1911 and 1985, nearly that many have been produced for the civilian market – and the M1911 remains one of the most common semi-automatic pistols sold today.

Estimated Sales to Date: Nearly 5 million

Silver Medal: Walther PP/PPK

Though introduced nearly a quarter century after the M1911, the Walther PP (Polizeipisole) and its derivatives including the PPK (Polizeipistole Kriminal) have also been top-sellers worldwide. The blowback-operated semi-automatic pistol was initially developed for police use and was designed with several safety features – including an automatic hammer block, a combination safety/decocker, and loaded chamber indicator – that made it popular in the civilian market.

Walther PPK .22LR

Image: Creative Commons.

The PPK is notable for being carried by German officers during the Second World War, while one was even used by Adolf Hitler to take his own life! The gun’s popularity, however, grew significantly after it was adopted by the fictional British secret agent James Bond. However, Bond actually only used the gun a few times in the films – yet it was carried as recently as last year’s No Time to Die! It is easy to see why this one continues to shake up the firearms market, just like those vodka martinis that Bond prefers.

Estimated Sales to Date: More than 5 million

Gold Medal: The Smith & Wesson Model 10

The top-selling handgun of all time literally has time on its side. First released in 1899, the Smith & Wesson Model 10 was adopted by the United States Army and Navy and quickly gained popularity with police forces and civilians.

It was originally chambered for the M1892 .38 Long Colt U.S. Service Cartridge, which proved adequate in testing but lacked significant stopping power when employed during the Moro Insurrection in the Philippines (1901-1913). At issue was that the Moro “Juramentado” swordsmen took part in a form of suicide attack expecting to die, and often wore leather armor. There were stories of U.S. soldiers who were found to have been killed in hand-to-hand fighting, while a dead Moro warrior had been shot multiple times. That led the U.S. military to develop the more powerful .45 APC and the M1911 pistol.

However, the pistol was still widely used by U.S. soldiers – as well as British and French personnel – during the First World War. It then saw service as a standard issue sidearm with law enforcement for decades, while civilians also found it to be a reliable personal defense handgun (as few likely needed to stop a Juramentado!).

Estimated Sales to Date: More than 6 million

Bonus: Meet the M4 Carbine Rifle

M4

Sgt. Jacob Harrison, a U.S. Army Reserve Soldier from the 377th Theater Sustainment Command, takes aim with his M4A1 carbine at the M4 Reflexive Fire event during the 2021 U.S. Army Reserve Best Warrior/Best Squad Competition at Fort McCoy, Wis., May 22. Approximately 80 Soldiers from across the nation travelled to Fort McCoy to compete in the annually-recurring event running May 19-28. It brings in the best Soldiers and squads from across the U.S. Army Reserve to earn the title of “Best Warrior” and “Best Squad” among their peers. Competitors are evaluated on their individual and teamwork abilities to adapt and overcome challenging scenarios and battle-focused events, which test their technical and tactical abilities under stress and extreme fatigue. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Hernandez/Released)

M16A4

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Noah Larose, motor transportation operator, Combat Logistics Battalion 6, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, fires an M16A4 rifle during a rifle marksmanship qualification on Alpha Range at Stone Bay on Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Oct. 3, 2019. Marksmanship qualification is required once a year for all Marines and consists of two tables that test the individual’s knowledge and skills while operating the M16A4 rifle or the M4 carbine in order to maintain mission readiness. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ginnie Lee)

M4

A 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) Maritime Raid Force Marine fires an M4 Carbine at a range in Jordan, June 19, 2013. Exercise Eager Lion 2013 is an annual, multinational exercise designed to strengthen military-to-military relationships and enhance security and stability in the region by responding to modern-day security scenarios. The 26th MEU is deployed to the 5th Fleet area of responsibility as part of the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group. The 26th MEU operates continuously across the globe, providing the president and unified combatant commanders with a forward-deployed, sea-based quick reaction force. (U.S. Marine Corps photograph by Sgt. Christopher Q. Stone, 26th MEU Combat Camera/Released)

M4

A Soldier assigned to U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa engages pop-up targets with an M4 carbine during marksmanship training at Cao Malnisio Range in Pordenone, Italy, Jan. 26, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Davide Dalla Massara)

M4 Carbine

A Class of 2023 new cadet familiarizes herself with the M4 carbine as part of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s Cadet Basic Training July 9, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Matthew Moeller)

A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Pondering

    October 22, 2022 at 7:27 am

    Where is the picture for the Smith and Wesson Model 10 I see the other two guns?

  2. Lazarus Red Dog

    October 22, 2022 at 10:33 am

    May I suggest all the weapons sited as ‘best sellers’ were all weapons made for armies & police departments to use & purchased thru government contracts to supply them – not purchased by individuals en-mass.
    May I further suggest the most popular & purchased handgun recently is the Glock as we’ve progressed beyond 6 shot revolvers & 7 round magazines.

  3. Gun cleaning kits

    October 28, 2022 at 8:18 am

    All 3 are really popular for both civilian and military use and for a good reason. Reliable, easy to maintain and have a whole ton of modifications you could apply.(a bit sad M1911 is this low since it’s my go-to 😀 )

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