This article, "I Feel Pretty," appeared originally as a Handguns column in the December 2017 issue of Shooting Illustrated. To subscribe to the magazine, visit the NRA membership page here and select Shooting Illustrated as your member magazine.
Pictured above is a highly customized Colt Combat Commander kindly on loan from the NRA National Firearms Museum.
Remember that scene from the movie “Full Metal Jacket” where the colonel asks Private Joker what’s up with the peace sign on his body armor and “Born to Kill” written on his helmet cover? And Joker explains he was trying to suggest something about the duality of man?
I had one of those “duality of man” moments recently, and it was because of a paint job on a handgun.
See, I try to be really pragmatic in my carry-gun choices, almost defiantly so. There’s an unofficial version of the Glock G19 equipped with a red dot, compensator and aftermarket machining called the “Roland Special” after its originator. Well, I carry a G19 with night sights and that’s it. I call it the “Nobody Special.” It’s a boring, flat black, generic bullet-launching appliance and I like it that way.
So, how come when I got my hands on a Wilson Combat 1911 to do some testing, I nearly got short of breath over the fluted barrel and the Burnt Bronze Armor-Tuff coating on the frame. I mean, this is one seriously good-looking pistol.
But why do I care? I mean, a concealed carry pistol is, as the name suggests, concealed. Nobody knows if I’m carrying a blinged-out custom piece or the dullest combat Tupperware except me, right? And it ain’t the gun’s looks that determine how it launches bullets, obviously.
I think some of the answer lies in a remark a coworker once made in a gun shop years ago. I had noticed that his long guns tended to be pretty off-the-rack, and that he didn’t spend any time debating whether or not he should Cerakote his AR carbine and, if so, what color. His 1911 that he carried every day, though? That was a different matter. I’ve seen wedding dresses picked out with less forethought and consideration than he put into getting exactly the right shade and texture of grip panels on that gun.
When asked about this, he explained that to him, the long gun was an impersonal thing, the sort of thing that would be issued out from an arms room and could be pretty much exchanged for any other without a hint of sentiment. The sidearm, though? That was personal, especially a private citizen’s CCW gun. That’s something that’s with you all the time, worn close to your body and might be depended upon to save your life. Things don’t get much more personal than that.
This conversation really caused me to change how I look at people’s carry guns and holsters. Just because something isn’t seen in public doesn’t mean that people don’t necessarily want it to look nice, or else Victoria’s Secret and Joe Boxer would have gone out of business long ago. Beauty may only be skin-deep, but well-dressed goes through all the clothing layers.
I’ve gotten a lot less judgy about various color schemes on carry guns, or ornamental grips. When caveman Og first lashed a flint point to a wooden spear, probably the second thing he did was do a little decorative carving on the spear shaft, if only to distinguish his spear from Thag’s spear. If that Tiffany Blue or Flat Dark Earth paint job is what it takes to help you bond with your sidearm, I’m all in favor. If a bit of sharkskin trim makes you more likely to wear that holster, go for it.
I haven’t done any science-y studies to prove it, but to me, people tend to be more enthusiastic about hitting the range and getting some practice in when they have a bit of emotional investment in their gear. Besides, most of those coatings are super rust-resistant and often have a pretty good amount of natural lubricity, so they’re not merely good-looking; they actually help the gun function better.
I’m probably still too curmudgeonly for the “battleworn” finishes, though. In my opinion, if you want your gun to look all scuffed up and used, hit the range more often, do some dry fire, shoot a match every now and again, and go to gun school and you’ll have the most authentic-looking “battleworn” finish before you know it. Plus, you’ll shoot better.