A Time Capsule: Guns and Shooting in 1964

Behold the 1964 Gun Digest. Editor John T. Amber made it a classic, eagerly awaited annual gun book in the 1940s, back before there was any gun magazine except NRA’s American Rifleman. I had the privilege of meeting him in his waning years and found him to be not only a perfect gentleman but an absolute encyclopedia of firearms knowledge.

I wonder if, back in the day, he realized that with each issue, he was also creating a time capsule. We can’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been, and the old Gun Digests give us landmarks of our shooting past.

1964 was the year that Winchester incorporated economizing changes in their classic Model 70 bolt action sporting rifle that would make earlier samples collectors’ items and the new ones, well, the equivalent of “New Coke” in another American “brand war” that would come later. I noticed that Winchester’s sleek Model 100, one of my personal favorites, was still in production then, selling for $155. But, working primarily with handguns today, I can best share the time difference by looking at those.

Winchester 100 rifle
Winchester’s sleek Model 100 was available new for $155.


The Colt Python .357 had been introduced a bit less than a decade before, in 1955. It still sold for its introductory price, $125.  (Have you priced a 1960s vintage Python lately?) S&W’s equivalent flagship gun, their .357 Magnum of 1935, which was re-designated the Model 27 in the late 1950s, was listed at $120, and their Model 29 .44 Magnum, which in 1964 was a year out from its tenth birthday, went for the princely sum of $140.  If there was a “best value/hold the price line” deal in the catalog, it was Bill Ruger’s Standard Model .22 pistol, still selling for the same $37.50 as when it was introduced in 1949.

Colt Python revolver
Colt’s top-line Python cost $125 new and was suitable for Police Combat competition that had begun half a decade earlier using Colt silhouette targets similar to this one.

About Those Prices

That 1964 Gun Digest lists .22 Short ammunition as selling for 65 cents per box of 50 and .22 Long Rifle still well under a dollar. .38 Special could be had for five bucks a box or less and .45 ACP, around $7. .30-06 hunting ammo cost less than a five-dollar bill for a box of 20. And we’ve already looked at some of the gun prices.

page with 1964 prices of ammo
We long for yesteryear’s ammo prices but not for the limited choices of 60 years ago.

When we see that, or the turn-of-the-century Sears & Roebuck catalogs with new handguns selling for a few dollars, we dream of how much we could buy if we could go back in time. For perspective, we have to think of “dollars then and dollars now.” A quick Google search shows that in 1964, the median family income was $6,600 a year, the average home price was $20,500, the average price of a new automobile was around $4,500, and gasoline cost 30 cents a gallon. Perhaps we shouldn’t complain about inflated prices for today’s guns and ammo as much as we do.

Then and Now

The standard American police sidearm in ‘64 was the Smith & Wesson or Colt revolver, loaded with either .38 Special 158-grain (or occasionally 200-grain) round-nose lead bullets. The relatively few agencies issuing .357 Magnum were mostly rural police departments or state police, with 158-grain semi-wadcutter bullets.  The semi-automatic pistol was rarely seen in police holsters, although the Texas Rangers’ trademark gun was the Colt .45 auto (and occasionally its .38 Super sister gun), and a handful of felony squad cops carried them, too. It wouldn’t be until 1967 and the Illinois State Police adoption of the 9mm S&W Model 39 pistol that a semi-automatic would be standard issue for a major American law enforcement agency.

S&W model 19 revolver and Glock 19.
Then and now. Service revolvers like S&W Model 15 .38 (left) have given way to 9mms equipped like the Wilson Custom Glock 19 with RMR optic and SureFire X300 light, right.

No one was attaching weapon-mounted lights yet. Those would come later in the decade, pioneered by the trend-setting LAPD SWAT team. Six-inch barrel service revolvers were still fairly common, with the California Highway Patrol making them standard, Smith & Wesson K-38, and Colt Officers’ Model target revolvers with adjustable sights being the rule.  Pennslyvania State Troopers carried six-inch Colt Official Police revolvers and Rhode Island State Police, the same length S&W Model 10, both with fixed sights. The Detroit Police Department split the difference, with the issue weapon being a nickel-plated Smith & Wesson Model 10 with a five-inch barrel, though I’m told larger caliber revolvers by Colt or Smith were approved there.

Smith & Wesson’s .41 Magnum revolver was on the horizon and scheduled for production but didn’t make it into the 1964 Gun Digest.

Shooting Games

If you wanted shooting competition, there was trap and skeet with shotguns and NRA High-Power and .22 bullseye competition for riflemen. For handgun matches, NRA bulls-eye fired one-handed at ranges from 25 to 50 yards with .22, Centerfire (.32 and larger), and .45 ACP were pretty much the only game in town unless you lived in California and shot the embryonic combat matches with Jeff Cooper’s crew, or were near one of the rare venues where Olympic pistol sports were played. Police PPC matches had just started about half a decade before, originally sponsored by Colt, but were limited to law enforcement personnel.

It would be more than a decade before the Columbia Conference would inaugurate the International Practical Shooting Confederation, pioneered by Jeff Cooper and being the first of the simulated gunfighting sports that doubled as defensive training for private citizens. What do we have now? Steel Challenge, Bianchi Cup (NRA Practical), the International Defensive Pistol Association (the “concealed carry sport”), metallic silhouette, cowboy action, bowling pin shooting matches, and more.

Colt National Match 1911 pistol
This customized Colt .45 was a contemporary “hardball gun” for bulls-eye matches.

Concealed Carry

Sixty years ago, there was only one state – Vermont – which trusted law-abiding citizens to carry loaded, concealed handguns in public without a permit. Today, in 2024, there are 27 states where this “Constitutional Carry” is the law of the land.

Back then, there were seven states where there was no provision for a permit: concealed carry was the privilege of off-duty and plainclothes cops, licensed security professionals, and private investigators, period. Those seven states have since allowed either permitted or permitless carry.

In the states that did have concealed carry permits available, only a few were “shall issue,” such as Washington State and New Hampshire, with the issuing authorities required by law to issue the permit to any applicant with a clean criminal record and (sometimes) character background check. Most of the permit states were “may issue,” which left it up to the judgment (some said, the “whim”) of the issuing authority whether or not the permit would be granted.  The vast majority of permit states subsequently became “shall issue.”

And that was even before the Bruen decision came down from the Supreme Court of the United States in 2022, requiring that any permit state be “shall issue.” We will never know how many innocent lives have been saved by law-abiding armed citizens thanks to the liberalization of carry laws.

Perspective is important…and knowing the past is critical to a clear perspective.

Massad "Mas" Ayoob is a well respected and widely regarded SME in the firearm world. He has been a writer, editor, and law enforcement columnist for decades, and has published thousands of articles and dozens of books on firearms, self-defense, use of force, and related topics. Mas, a veteran police officer, was the first to earn the title of Five Gun Master in the International Defensive Pistol Association. He served nearly 20 years as chair of the Firearms Committee of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers and is also a longtime veteran of the Advisory Bard of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. A court-recognized expert witness in shooting cases since 1979, Ayoob founded the Lethal Force Institute in 1981 and served as its director until 2009. He continues to instruct through Massad Ayoob Group, http://massadayoobgroup.com.

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