What's The Best Trail Gun For You?

By Skeeter Skelton



Shooting Times Magazine

January 1977


Our Handgun Editor defines a trail gun as one that, with 50 rounds of ammo, will make a package small and light enough that you are unaware of its presence until you need it. Included are a host of .22s, the .32-20, .32 Long and probably best of the lot—the .38 Special.



A GUN WRITER—after he’s penned a few hundred articles-lives in a world of clichés. Alert though he may be, and they penetrate the net and bed down with his manuscripts, speckling his copy with oldies such as “handfilling grips,” “plunking down your hard-earned dollars,” “won’t gather dust on your dealer’s shelves,” “tack-driving accuracy,” homegrown ammo,” “wheelgun,” “slabsided automatics,” “tube (barrel),” “pill (bullet),” “cornshucker (semiautomatic), “woods loafer,” “woods bum….” The list is without end.


And before you conclude that I am pointing the accusing finger at my fellow gun scribes, I confess that I wallow in mutual sin with them. I once rather smugly told Alex Bartimo, ST’s editor, that the word “however” was the most meaningless and useless crutch in the English language. I solemnly informed Bart that I never used it. Since that announcement, I have, in rereading some of my past articles, noted about six or eight “howevers” in every piece I’ve had published. Surely my resolve is stronger than that. Bart must be sticking in odd “however” or two to help retain my identity as a hack.

Let’s concern ourselves with yet another time-polished, nebulous term, “trail gun.” As a handgun man, I have a rather clear mental image of what a trail gun is. It is a handgun that you carry when you venture afield without the specific purpose of shooting anything. If you carry a long-barreled magnum revolver, you are likely hunting some sort of game. If the handgun on the car seat is a bull-barrel revolver or heavily frilled auto pistol, you’re heading for the pistol range for a bit of target work. When you select a snubnose .38 or a chopped and channeled .45, you ordinarily do so with personal defense in mind.

Earlier, I used the words “woodloafer” in a deprecatory way, yet I guess that I am one. Ambling along a dim trail in the pines, or beside a mossy creed in the bottoms, easy jogging a good horse through the brush, or simply and slowly scouting next fall’s hunting country in my old pickup—these are my favorite days. I don’t like to complicate them with a lot of hard work.

 I travel light. I carry a handgun on these outings and prefer that it, too, be light, with no heavy harnesses, no extra-long barrel, no deer-sized cartridges, and no oversized grips to knock against gateposts or vehicle doors.

My idea of a trail gun is a handgun that, with 50 pounds of ammunition, will make a package small and light enough that you are unaware of its presence until you need it. It adds practically nothing to the contents of a backpack or to the saddlebags of horseman or cyclist. Worn in a neat holster on the trouser belt, it lies flat and doesn’t sag your pants. It also looks at home in a fishing box.

Being small and feathery, my trail gun is of necessity chambered for a small-caliber cartridge. For the purposes outlined, I suggest the .22 Long Rifle, .22 Magnum, .32 S&W Long, .32-20 or .38 Special. Although I seldom carry a 9mm automatic on the trail, it would qualify in certain guns for those who like the auto pistol.

The odds-on caliber for the man who doesn’t handload, and maybe even for the one who does, is the .22 Long Rifle. This famous cartridge has been in continuous production since the 1880’s and millions are manufactured in the U.S. each day. It is probably our most highly developed cartridge and certainly one of our most accurate. It cannot be reloaded, yet compensates for this by being extremely inexpensive. 

The .22 LR normally comes with an outside-lubricated 40-grain solid or 37-grain hollowpoint lead bullet. The latter is a very effective small-game load out to 50 and perhaps 75 yards, depending on the skill of the shooter. The HP cavities on commonly used .22 Long Rifles are quite deep and open rather rapidly, especially at close range.

Winchester-Western has marketed a new game bullet for this cartridge. Called the “Dynapoint,” it was extensively tested, I’m told, on Australian hares before it went into production. Dissecting a couple of these bullets, I found that their HP cavity was merely a dimple, yet found them singularly effective on rabbit-sized game, with a chronographed the Dynapoint, but it’s recoil and muzzle blast do not suggest it to be of higher velocity than other high-speed .22 LR ammo.

While we are on the subject of velocity, it might interest trailgunners to know that, on the average, a six-inch barrel .22 LR revolver expels its bullet at something over 1200 fps—only about 100 fps less velocity than from the usual .22 rifle. Further, I have found in a couple of brief tests that short-barreled .22 auto pistols, such as the tiny Walther PPK/S .22, register only about 50 fps lower on the chronograph than six-inch revolvers.

Thus, no matter what .22 LR handgun you choose, you will be realizing the full velocity and energy potential of this wonderful little round. In .22 automatics, I have found that none of the bottom-of-the-line, but nonetheless high-quality, four-inch models are first rate for the trail. These are typified by the Colt Huntsman, the High Standard Sport King. Ruger’s Standard Model, and others. The Walther PP and PPK/S .22s are excellent, but a bit expensive. The Star Model FM and FRS are among the best small .22s. Imported from Spain by Garcia, they frequently need a little trigger smithing.

Most of these rimfires have fixed sights, with a rear sight adjustable for windage only. Some don’t shoot to the same point of aim with all brands of ammunition. It is no real chore to drift the rear sight to one side or the other, then file off or have a gunsmith add on metal to the front sight blade until your group is centered for your brand of ammunition and your eyes. After that stay with the same make of cartridges when possible.

Adjustable sights are great for this purpose, but I have found that once I get a .22 properly sighted-in. I never touch the sight adjustments again. And fixed sights will stand  up under more rugged use than adjustable types.

The selection of .22 LR revolvers grows wider. Perhaps the epitome of the trail gun is the beautifully made little Smith & Wesson Model 34 .22/32 Kit Gun (the “32” indicating that the gun is built on the .32 frame). This fine revolver has been around in one form or another since 1935 and is now offered with adjustable lengths, and round or square butts. Its name, .22/32 Kit Gun is copyrighted, else I would have used the term “kit gun” here instead of the less descriptive “trail gun.”

This 24 ½ -ounce beauty is as accurate as any shooter can hold it and manifests all of the Smith & Wesson refinements. For my own use, I prefer the slightly larger square-butt model, with four-inch barrel for steadier holding.

I once spent a winter with a two-inch model housed in the pocket of my Levi overalls. Pretty as it was, I couldn’t hit well with its short sight radius unless I shot from a rest, and later got rid of it. The four-incher is a bit light, too, but markedly easier to score with.

This S&W is also available with a 3 ½ inch barrel on an aluminum-alloy frame, weighing only 14 ½ ounces. In .22 LR it is known as the Model 43 .22/32 Airweight.

Smith & Wesson has another fine .22 revolver, the extremely popular K-22 Masterpiece. Extremely accurate, it reaches what I consider the practical limit in bulk and weight for a trail gun: 11 1/8 inches overall and 39 ounces in the six-inch model. A four-incher and a 8 3/8-incher are also available. Identical revolvers are made by S&W in .38 Special, and formerly a .32 S&W Long version was offered in six-inch barrel only. Both the 3 ½-inch (all steel) Kit Gun and the K-22 are also made in .22 Magnum rimfire.

Ruger offers its popular Single-Six and Super Single-Six single-action revolvers in .22 LR, with an extra .22 MRF cylinder. The fixed-sight Single-Six has a rear blade dovetailed into its topstrap, which can be drifted for windage adjustment.. The Super model comes fitted with a ramped front blade and full click-adjustable rear.

The Ruger Bearcat, a tiny single-action .22 on an aluminum frame, was discontinued a few years back and replaced with the same gun, but with a steel frame. This was a step in the right direction, but the gun was still so diminutive that it was extremely difficult to hold steady. A thick topstrap and adjustable sights might have made up the difference, but we’ll never know. The Ruger Bearcat has gone the way of the Stutz.

High Standard continues with its line of double-action Sentinel .22s. these are basically the same, proven revolver internally, with various external cosmetic changes on some models. I tested a Sentinel .22 Magnum a couple of years ago and it shot extremely well. A new, adjustable-sighted model has been added to the line. It’s called the Camper; we’ll report on it later.

Colt makes three .22 revolvers. One is the double-action Diamondback. Simply a .22 version of the .38 Special adding paraphernalia of the larger .357 Python—ventilated rib barrel, underbarrel extractor housing, wide topstrap, adjustable Elliason sight, wide hammer spur, and overly bulky target stocks, which I believe can be replaced by smaller service stocks. It is basically a gussied-up Police Positive Special and somewhat unnecessarily heavy for its size, but still a fine, small companion. It is also available as a 2 ½ -incher.

You seldom see them, but the lightweight, fixed-sight Cobra has been made in .22 LR caliber in both two- and four-inch lengths. It’s a good trail piece.

The two beautiful Colt SA .22s, like the Rugers, are available with both .22 LR and magnum cylinders and 4 3/8-, 6-, and 7 ½ -inch barrels. All have the good looks and feel of the great Single Action Army, in scaled-down form, and are very fine single actions.

Of the two, I prefer the New Frontier model with its adjustable sights. The Peacemaker is fine if it shoots center for you, but if not, windage adjustment can only be accomplished by widening the rear-sight notch, which is a slot in the top of the frame, or by turning the barrel to move the front sight. Either method is tricky and best done experts.

Charter Arms has a nice little gun in its .22 Pathfinder. A three-inch six shot takeoff on the snubbie Charter Undercover .38, it looks and acts just like a trail gun should.

The .22 Magnum has a lot more muscle than the .22 Long Rifle cartridge throwing a 40-grain bullet from a six-inch revolver at 1550 fps. It was originally made in hollowpoint only and tore hell out of edible small game. It is now put up by both Winchester-Western and Omark-CCI in solid form as well, which makes it a more reasonable meat getter. Omark-CCI also markets a potent little shot cartridge in this young caliber.

I like the .22 Magnum, finding that it shoots more accurately than the very accurate .22 Long Rifle in a couple of my convertible revolvers. But it costs almost $4 per box, as opposed to about $1.50 or less for Long Rifles. That’s a pretty stiff price to pay for an extra 300 fps.  

Centerfire trail guns are interesting, mainly because they are more authoritative than the .22 Long Rifle and because they usually lead you into handloading.

Many shooters think of the .32 S&W Long (also known as the .32 Colt New Police) as an impotent self-defense cartridge used in small pocket revolvers. And so it is, when factory loaded. What shooters may not savvy is that for a long time it vied with the .38 Special as top choice for a centerfire competition target round and that it is inherently very accurate. Factory ammo comes with a 98-grain, roundnose, lead bullet at 705 fps—a poor small-game load.

Handloading redeems the .32 Long. In strong guns of modern steel, it is a great, smooth-shooting number on all small game when put together with cast bullets. It has been some time since I’ve loaded this shell, but my old notes indicate good results with the cast Lyman No. 313226 96-grain bullet and the No. 31133 105-grain HP, both over four grains of Unique, giving around 1000 fps velocity.

These are heavy loads and should only be fired in late, top-quality Smith, Colt, and Charter Arms revolvers. My choice would be the four-inch revolvers from Colt in the Police Positive, Police Positive Special, and Cobra, all discontinued. Smith & Wesson still makes the Models 30 and 31 for this round. They are a bit on the light side at about 18 ounces, so these heavy loads should be worked up to.

The .32-20 is a better game cartridge than the .32 Long but gun manufacturers no longer produce it. Yet, enough of these revolvers were manufactured that you can still find them in excellent condition. It’s an outstanding performer on animals up to the size of coyotes. Colt made the .32-20 in the Single Action Army, the double-action Army Special, the Police Positive Special, and the PPS Target. The first two are heavy for light trail use, the last a collector’s item, so try to find a Police Positive Special.

With one of the latter as his sole armament, a friend of mine kept himself in table meat for a number of years in Alaska. His table fare included moose meat, but I won’t hazard a guess as to how he bagged it.

Smith & Wesson produced the .32-20 in the Military & Police model, its smaller chambering making it somewhat heavier than the same gun in .38 Special. The .32-20 factory load is a good one, throwing a 100-grain bluntnosed lead or JSP bullet at 1030 fps. Which is considerably flatter than the .38 Special.

Factory .32-20s sell for about $10 to $12 per box, so you’ll probably want to handload You can use either of the Lyman slugs listed here for the .32 S&W Long, cast hard and sized .311, in .32-20. Over 5.5 grains of Unique, they will give you approximately 1150 fps and perhaps some barrel leading.

RCBS Inc. (Box 1919, Oroville, Calif. 95965I) indicates a fine .32-20 gascheck bullet in its new lineup of molds. It is a flatfaced, rounded, gascheck slug, weighing 115 grains when cast from my metal. It has a crimping groove and a front driving band that should enhance it performances considerably.

Loading either of these .32s is uncomplicated. In spite of the fact that the .32-20 case has a slight taper, full-length sizing does not seem to shorten case life appreciably. It is one of my favorite cartridges.

This leads us to the largest, and in some ways the best, of light trail gun calibers. No lengthy description is needed for the .38 Special. It is the most reloaded centerfire cartridge. Its accuracy is undisputed. Loaded ammo, brass, and components are available everywhere. It comes in countless forms and serves many purposes.

To serve me as a trail gun, I ask only that its host revolver be accurate, light, and have a barrel of about four inches. The Cobras and Police Positive Specials are outstanding. Some of my friends have mounted the steel colt PPS with a ramp front sight and the S&W Micrometer Kit Gun rear sight to make sort of a stripped-down Diamondback. The result was worth the effort.

I can live with the Smith K-38 combat Masterpiece, but like its .22 version, it is reaching the outer limits of size and weight. Better a slim-barreled Model 10. If Smith made the Chief’s Special with a four-inch barrel, I would buy one.

Charter Arms has a new, six-shot, four-inch, lightweight .38 Special called the Police Bulldog .38 Special. In spite of its official-sounding title, its good sights and overall compactness make it close to the ideal in .38 Special trail-gun conformation.

As for ammunition, the choice is simple and obvious. The factory full wadcutter and semiwadcutter loads are good skilled game loads. If you want to load your own, there are literally hundreds of suitable recipes in the various loading manuals. One piece of advice: Don’t try to make a magnum out of your trail gun. You don’t need it.

I believe that the two best centerfire automatics for the job are the lightweight Colt Commander and the German P-08 that we all still call the Luger, both in 9mm caliber. The latter is highly accurate, but brings collector’s prices, so you may want to leave it at home. The Commander is light, compact, and reliable. It sometimes needs a bit of tuning to tighten up its groups, but it’s a pleasure to tote around.

For the trail, I’d push for the use of FMJ or solid, hard-cast handloads for these flat-shooting, deep- penetrating autoloaders. Properly placed, these bullets will do the jobs that you’ll likely take on during those days you didn’t plan to shoot, anyway.

I haven’t scrutinized these pages, searching out clichés. Inevitably I’d find a covey of them. Anything that’s done over and over again eventually becomes a cliché; frequently it even finds itself accepted into Webster’s dictionary.

And I’m going to be using my trail guns over, and over, and over……….

 Note: All load data should be used with caution. Always start with reduced loads first and make sure they are safe in each of your guns before proceeding to the highest loads listed. Since Shooting Times has no control over your choice of components, guns, or actual loadings, neither Shooting Times nor the various firearms and components manufacturers assume any responsibility for the use of this data. 




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