Book Review (Historical Handgun) – Fighting Handguns (1958, Jeff Cooper)

I’ve been developing a new course for KR Training, Historical Handgun, that teaches the history & evolution of defensive handgun skills.  Part of that work includes reading as many old books on shooting technique as I can find.

Today’s book is Fighting Handguns, written by Jeff Cooper in 1958.

This book was loaned to me by KR Training assistant instructor Ed Vinyard, who has been assisting me with research.  It’s a reprint from Paladin Press, who re-published 4 of Cooper’s early books. As they note in the preface, the print quality of the text and photographs are not up to modern standards, but the information is well worth preserving.

Another victim of the internet age and the Amazon-ization of the book business, Paladin Press is closing up.  They are selling off remaining inventory at deep discounts until the end of November 2017.  It’s a great opportunity to get some print copies of many classic books on shooting and gunfighting. Their contribution to preservation and distribution of knowledge on these topics is significant.


  • The Beginning
  • Before the Revolver
  • Sam Colt and the First Revolver
  • Metallic Cartridges and the Peacemaker
  • The Western Tradition
  • Double Action
  • The Autoloading Pistol
  • Pocket Pistols
  • Combat Pistol Techniques
  • The Power of Pistols
  • Odds and Ends

Fighting Handguns is great summary of the early history of handgun development pre-1950, with at least half of the book devoted to 19th century guns and the 20th century concept of cowboy fast draw.  During the 1950’s the popularity of Westerns was at its peak in television, movies, books and comics.  The chapter The Western Tradition discusses “the code of the West”:

A man pays his gambling debts first.  A man’s word is kept, even if it kills him. A man may not accept an insult.  A stranger must be fed.  A man does not shoot another in the back or from ambush.  Horse thieves hang.  A man may not be held accountable for the outcome of a fair fight.

Those are all concepts deeply embedded in the way Western stories were told in the 1950’s, but probably not as widely believed by, or as important to, those living in the Old West as scriptwriters and novelists (and gunwriters) of the 40’s and 50’s asserted.

Cooper dives deeper into the science of the “showdown”, discussing draw speed for hip & point shooting:

Experiments in modern times indicate that a totally untrained man takes between 1.5 to 3 seconds to get off a controlled shot from the leather.  An ordinary good shot takes about a second. An expert can make it in half that.  So while the sharpie might provoke a duffer into a “fair fight” the result was murder.  The difference between the world’s best gunslinger and any other ace is so slight that the loser’s bullet is on its way before the winner’s shot can affect its aim. To allow a foe to initiate action and then to hit him before he can get off a controlled round requires approximately twice his speed.  A 15% edge won’t save your life.

Cooper includes some pictures showing bad (first) and good (second) point shooting technique:

Thell Reed, famous quick draw artist and Hollywood firearms coach, writes in the forward that he met Cooper in 1957 during one of the Leatherslap matches, where they were shooting live ammo out of single action revolvers drawn at lightning speed – a practice that was replaced by the use of wax bullets and blanks to reduce the risk of injury.  American Handgunner has a good article about the history of fast draw competition.  This article from the modern Cowboy Fast Draw Association is another version of that history.

The early days of fast draw competition provided insight into human performance with handguns, and motivated the development of shooting timers – two essential steps that led to the innovations of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Cooper shares a 1958 definition of what a “highly trained pistol man” should be able to do: hit a silhouette (probably a Colt Silhouette or B-21) 10 times out of 10 at 25 yards, from the leather (open carry), given two full seconds from the signal to the shot.


The chapters on double action revolvers and autoloading pistols are heavy on technical details about makes and models of specific guns.  Unsurprisingly, Cooper favors the 1911 in .45 ACP and spends much of the remainder of the book making his case for the “stopping power” of the .45 (Colt and ACP).

The chapter on Combat Pistol Techniques begins with another baseline drill from Cooper:

Until a man can put nine out of 10 shots into a 6″ ring at 25 yards, using a major caliber weapon, slow fire, offhand, he is not ready to take up combat technique.

The modern equivalent of this is “The Test” from Ken Hackathorn, which uses a 5 1/2″ bullseye and has a passing score of 90 points, for a 10 shot drill fired at 10 yards, with variations at 20 yards.

If Cooper’s original requirement were imposed on students taking most modern 2 day defensive pistol classes, it’s likely that 90% would be unable to meet it.  Slow fire, one handed bullseye shooting is a skill very few still practice, and even many USPSA and IDPA competitors lack the skill to meet that requirement shooting two handed.

Later in the book, Cooper notes:

Pointer shooting is not as hard to learn as sighting.  I can teach the average infantryman to stay on a silhouette at 10 yards, using pointer fire in two-shot bursts, more easily than I can get him into the bullseye at 25 yards using sights.  Work at this starting at 20 feet until you can slam that first shot within 10″ of your aiming point every time.  When this happens go to two shot bursts and work until the first shot is always within 8″ of the peg and the second shot is always closer than that. 

Cooper’s concept of two shot bursts from the pointer position evolved to the fast double tap using sighted fire less than a decade later.

The remainder of the book covers holsters, use of cover, the draw stroke (circa 1958, based on the 1940s FBI techniques) and a faithful recitation of Hatcher’s stopping power formula as explanation as to why calibers starting with 4 are best.

Gun Politics

Cooper’s observations about the politics of gun control are as valid today as they were 60 years ago when they were written.  He explains:

The (anti-gun) arguments seem to run like this: (1) Guns are dangerous and you might shoot yourself with one (2) Guns invite the feeble-minded to use them in fits of temper (3) The prevalence of guns constitutes a hazard for the police (4) Guns are used by criminals and should be prohibited and (5) You should not resist a criminal because somebody might get hurt.

Firearms in the hands of the people do make police work dangerous. Any policeman would feel better if he knew there were no guns in town except his.  This is the overwhelming reason why police officials should never be treated as experts in the field of arms legislation.  But as much as we sympathize with the policeman’s lot, we cannot pass laws for his benefit, if they encroach upon the liberty that we established this country to ensure.


This book is often overlooked among Cooper’s work, probably because some of what he advocates in this book he later rejected in favor of better and more effective techniques.  As a historical document, it’s an excellent time capsule of conventional wisdom of the late 1950’s.

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