Book Review – How To Use the Pistol (Charles Taylor, 1875)

Back in 1875, Charles Taylor published a small book on defensive pistol skills. The book was digitized and is available for download here. Many of the concepts in the book are as relevant and applicable today as they were when the book was published. The copy that was digitized was a gift to the Harvard library from the author, who graduated from that school in 1890.

Other information about Taylor has been hard to locate, as more recent “Charles Taylor”s return many more online search results. The book is all text, with no illustrations, so the review will mainly consist of selections from the book, presented here as italicized text.

From the Preface

It is a singular fact that notwithstanding the enormous number of pistols in the hands of the public, no book giving simple and plain directions for their selection and use has ever been published.

The reason possibly lies in the fact that the pistol has hitherto been looked upon either as a toy or as the weapon of the desperado.

It is frequently urged, and with justice, that if all weapons were banished from use the amount of crime that is committed would be greatly lessened. The difficulty lies in the banishing of all weapons. This is confessedly impossible.

Self-protection is the first law of nature, and there certainly can be no sound reason for preventing the refined and the intelligent from learning how to protect themselves against the brutal and the ignorant.

Therefore, while we would by all means discourage the indiscriminate carrying of firearms, we would recommend every one to acquire a thorough knowledge of the best methods of using them. Such knowledge does not necessarily lead its possessor to be “sudden and quick in quarrel.” The author, although a firm believer in the value of the pistol, practically skilled in its use, and never during the last twenty years without a good one in his possession, has never, in all that time, carried one on more than five occasions. But it has been a some what pleasant thing during all these years to feel that if the occasion did arise, the weapon and the power to use it were both available.

Taylor’s coastal urban elite background shows here, in his comments regarding concealed carry. Much like many modern gun owners who “only carry in the car” or only want a firearm for home defense, Taylor fails to understand the greater risk of being attacked outside the home and the value of being armed in those situations. His decision to carry outside the home, on those five occasions, violates one of John Farnam’s rules: “Don’t go anywhere with a gun you wouldn’t go without a gun.” Worse, his comments regarding those that do carry in public echo the biases of modern gun control advocates who use similar language in describing those in favor of concealed carry as “over eager” and “reckless”. In spite of all these flaws in Taylor’s mindset, the remainder of the book contains opinion and information that has remained valid for more than century.

The Pistol as a Weapon of Defence

As an instrument of defence the pistol is undoubtedly the best weapon ever invented. It renders mere physical strength of no account, and enables the weak and the delicate to successfully resist the attacks of the strong and the brutal.

So much for the carrying of weapons under circumstances of expected danger. As for the practice of constantly carrying pistols during ordinary business hours, as is the habit of some boys and young men, too much can
not be said in condemnation of it. There is no possible ground upon which it can be justified.

The keeping of pistols in dwelling houses, for purposes of protection is a different thing. It is not only permitted by law in almost every country, but there can be no objection to it on moral or prudential grounds. The utmost care should, however, be taken to prevent accidents, and to keep loaded fire-arms out of the hands of children and careless persons. By the latter we refer chiefly to those semi-idiots who have a propensity for pointing at the head of some one, any weapon which they suppose to be unloaded. Fortunately there is in this State, (New York) a law which makes such an act a misdemeanor punishable with imprisonment.

Taylor then writes a section discussing the various pistols available in his day, and their suitability for personal defense, as gun writers during the next century would do when they wrote their own defensive pistol books. He cites the Adams double action revolver and Colt single action revolver as two viable options, noting that the heavier, longer trigger pull on the double action guns can be more difficult to shoot.

Self-acting locks, as they are called, certainly enable us to fire with greater rapidity, and in the hands of a cool and strong man, they are probably the most efficient weapon, as they shoot with sufficient accuracy for all purposes of pistol shooting. But in the hands of those who have not considerable muscular power, the effort required to raise the hammer not only causes the arm to swerve, but it destroys that fine sympathy which ought to exist between the hand and eye, and which alone can insure that the first shot shall be delivered with quickness and accuracy. When great muscular effort is needed, this very effort tends to produce hesitation, and so to defeat the end for which it was introduced. We speak now of those who use the pistol only occasionally, and not of sportsmen of experience, who can shoot with almost any thing.

It is the first shot that tells. Plant the first bullet so that it will thoroughly disable the foremost assailant, and the others will give you all the time you want before they advance. In the first place, we must remember that when we require to use a pistol, our chief object must be to instantly disable our antagonist. Whether we kill him or not is a matter of no consequence, though, we should avoid doing so if possible. But it is all-important that he be instantly rendered incapable of injuring us, and this can be effected only by giving his general system such a shock as will for the moment paralyze his energies.

Thus, for pocket purposes, a large ball will frequently be given up for the sake of portability and compactness. In such cases, the only remedy is to make this small ball more effective by bringing greater skill to bear, and this can to a great extent be accomplished.

The next section discusses the mechanics of loading, pistol maintenance, handling and ways to carry a pistol.

At night never lay your pistol on a table beside your bed, and never place it beneath your pillow. To do so is to invite your assailant to disarm you. The best place is in the bed and between the mattresses, just so far down that the hand can readily reach it. Then if a burglar should find his way into your room at night you can, with out appearing to act at all, slip your hand down to your weapon and obtain possession of it. With the pistol, as with the shot-gun and rifle, it is frequently desirable to raise the hammer without making any noise.

Taylor provides guidance on how to learn to shoot and marksmanship goals.

To hold a pistol steadily at arms -length; to take deliberate aim, and to strike a two-inch ring every time at a dozen or twenty paces, is no great feat for a man who has a good eye and firm nerves. But such shooting, accurate
though it may be, is not the kind that will stand us in good stead when we are attacked.
Very few shots, except for practice, will ever be made with the pistol at greater distances than half a dozen paces.

He who can hit a four-inch circle at six paces will be master of the situation provided he is quick enough.

How is this done? Simply by steadily fixing the sight on the object (not on the weapon), bringing the pistol quickly up, and firing the moment hand and eye both tell us that it is in proper position. He who raises his gun (or pistol) and dawdles with it, is a poking shot; he who always fires on the first impulse is a snap-shot; but he who with perfect coolness makes all his calculations rapidly, and then with lightning like dexterity discharges his piece, is a quick shot and a good sportsman.

Taylor then discusses how dry-firing can be used to improve shooting skill and reduce flinching, explaining that dry firing can damage a pistol unless something soft (copper) is used to give the hammer something to strike.

Bullets fly with wondrous speed, and while we are taking a single step or assuming a new attitude we may receive a fatal wound. The moment, therefore, that we feel that the occasion for the use of the pistol has arrived we must lose no time. Of course, if we can, without delay and great exposure, secure good cover, it is our duty to do so, and we may then be able to hold the enemy at bay until succor arrives, and thus perhaps avoid the necessity for taking life at all. For it must be borne in mind in every case that both upon moral as well as legal grounds, we are bound to shun the fight as long as possible, and not to take life unless it is absolutely necessary so to do.

In every case where we are exposed to fire, however, much may be done by exposing ourselves in the best position. This undoubtedly is sideways to the assailant, with the left arm hanging straight down, and for these reasons: In this position the body presents the smallest mark; the left arm covers, in a measure, the most vital parts, and will often turn a bullet aside; and lastly, the right arm, upon which our hopes of a successful defence is placed, is still further protected.

Taylor then explains that ordinary boards are poor cover, as are lath and plaster… “everything except brick”, trees and iron.

In many cases, however, it is impossible to secure good cover, and it then becomes necessary that every effort should be used to kill, or at least disable our antagonist. Assuming that our pistol is a good one, and that we are able, without taking deliberate aim, to strike a five-inch ring every time at a distance of ten paces, we are tolerably safe if we know where to send the bullets.

The 5 inch ring at 10 paces idea is more commonly known as “The Test“, as named by Ken Hackathorn, where 10 shots are fired at 10 yards, in 10 seconds, at an NRA B-8 target with a 5.5” center.

A part of the body at which aim is frequently taken is the lower part of the abdomen. This, however, is a felon shot —a murderer’s aim, and for these reasons : A man wounded here is not immediately disabled, and if excited, courageous and armed, he will have abundant time to kill – his assailant before he himself feels the effect of the wound.

Undoubtedly the place in which a missile will ordinarily prove most effective is the chest, and the most judicious aim is that taken at the portion of the body ordinarily covered by the exposed part of the shirt bosom. A bullet planted there can hardly fail to lacerate some of the great blood-vessels and shock the nervous system.

A consideration of these facts must impress every right-minded person with the importance of the utmost caution in the use of this terrible weapon. After the trigger has once been pressed, no human power can modify the force of the missile, and therefore a pistol should never be used, except on occasions of the gravest importance.

Interestingly enough, Taylor’s book is not mentioned in the encyclopedic volume “Guns and Shooting, A Bibliography” published by Ray Riling in 1951. It lists hundreds of books on shooting published from 1420-1950. Taylor’s book, digitized as part of Google’s efforts to digitize every book, may not have been widely read. From the text, however, it’s clear that Taylor understood most of the core concepts of handgun skill, defensive mindset, tactics and marksmanship standards that are the foundation of handgun training in the modern era.