As many of you know, I am a student of Old West history. Yet, I have never spent much time with black-powder guns, especially the cap & ball variety. But recently, I was again reading up on James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok and got interested in the Colt Navy .36 revolvers that he favored.
Now, I had always figured that the .36 Navy was the equivalent of our .38 Spl. cartridge and never thought to check further. Research reveals, however, the .36 Navy fired an 80- to 90-grain ball at something faster than 900 fps. Folks, that's not .38 Spl. performance—that is .380 ACP performance!
So now we see the feats of the frontiersmen in a whole different light. The .36 Navy was quite popular for cavalrymen during the Civil War. And it was one of the favorite personal firearms in the early days of the frontier. Hickok used it with deadly results on numerous occasions when he could have been carrying something a good deal more powerful; say the Colt Army .44-caliber revolver.
One has to suppose that Hickok, and many others, liked the accuracy and balance of the .36 Navy. With the relatively low recoil, they must have shot it well—we certainly know Hickok did. And this small-caliber sixgun seemed to have all the power Wild Bill needed to settle difficulties in his favor. In fact, there was not a significant increase in handgun power until 1873, when the .45 Colt Peacemaker came on the scene.
So, what can we learn from history? Is it possible that bullet placement is more important than the size of the hole in the end of the barrel? It may be that being able to shoot fast and accurately are really the most important characteristics to consider when selecting a defensive handgun.
The whole thing is a moot point for me, since I get along quite nicely with my .45 ACP Colt Commander. But it just may be that the smaller caliber handguns should not be overlooked in the search for an effective defense gun. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject.