Back to The Collection Back to Home

The Enduring Legacy of the Pistol/Carbine Combo

One of the most practical and pragmatic ideas from a most practical and pragmatic time. The pistol carbine combo idea dates back at least to the cowboy era and possibly to the dawn of the metallic cartridge. It is an idea that was lost for a while when men became fascinated by the power of the new smokeless powders, and what could be done with them in bottle neck cases and long barrels. The word carbine has taken on different meanings over the years, but the one consistent factor is that these are small, light, shoulder fired arms. Originally they were simply standard rifles cut down a bit to make them easier for men to handle on horseback. In black powder days, you could use the same ball and powder for pistol, carbine and long gun alike, using different measures of powder if required. The introduction of the metallic cartridge began to change this. Rifles and pistols, even those with the same bore, could now need different ammunition.
    All of the early metallic cartridges used straight walled cases like a modern day pistol cartridge; bottle necked cartridges did not come on the scene until near the turn of the century. Pistols started to become very light compared to their rifle counterparts, and rifle cartridges began to get very much longer and more powerful than pistol cartridges. Some of these straight walled rounds could get very long indeed, like the 45-70 or 45-120. The guns that fired these "buffalo rounds" were heavy, single shot pieces, used to knock down animals at long range. They were just what the long range hunter wanted, but their size, weight, and single shot made them unsuitable for defense. There was the pistol, of course, but pistols are much more difficult to fire than rifles, and even in skilled hands, the shorter barrel and sight radius greatly reduce range and accuracy. The obvious solution was to chamber the new lever actions, which already chambered short cartridges, for the same round that pistols fired. These guns were not considered to be carbines, they were simply rifles. A shortened buffalo gun would have been called a carbine in those days, while the smaller lighter lever gun would have been considered a rifle; Weird. The most common combo cartridge was the 44-40, but there were many others. This was by far the way most Americans armed them selves in those days.
    The situation changed with the introduction of smokeless powder, bottle necked cartridges, improvements in metallurgy, and the bolt action rifle. These developments made rifle cartridges of much more power possible, but did not yet make much of an improvement in the performance of the pistol. Smokeless powder was considerably more powerful than the old black powder, and it's burning rate could be adjusted by altering the size of the granules, so that it could be made to burn slowly enough for great velocity to be wrung out of longer barrels. A bottle necked cartridge, because it is fatter, can hold more powder than a straight walled cartridge. Straight walled cartridges can be made longer to hold more powder by lengthening them, but this can only be taken so far. After a cartridge reaches a certain length, it is no longer possible for all of the powder to be ignited at once by the primer. There is also the matter of velocity versus pressure. Attainable velocity in a straight walled cartridge is limited by the speed and pressure directly produced by the burning of the powder. Even in modern guns, only so much pressure may be withstood. A bottle necked cartridge constricts where the bullet is seated, causing the velocity of the gasses generated to increase. This is a basic law of physics, that in a constriction, pressure is reduced and velocity is increased. At the time of their development, these guns were in great demand, and the idea of the straight walled rifle cartridge was looked at with contempt and nostalgia. Because of their shorter barrels, and difficulties in finding a satisfactory means of seating bottle neck cartridges in them, pistols got no such performance boost from the new developments.
    This was how the situation remained until the after the First World War. At that time it was found that for close in fighting in the trenches, and urban areas, and for police work, a pistol was not enough, but a rifle was too much. This was first addressed by the excellent Thompson, the first submachine gun. There had been machine guns in the trenches, and they had changed the face of warfare, but they had been large heavy weapons which required crews, and were mounted on tripods in fixed locations. The Thompson was made small and light enough to be carried and fired by one man, because it was chambered for a pistol cartridge rather than a rifle cartridge, thus the designation submachine gun. The gun was introduced too late for the war, but it would have a chance later on when another world war broke out. The Second World War is where the submachine gun came into it's own. Every major power involved used them. They had all endured the same experiences in the first war, and had all come to the same conclusions about close in fighting. Though submachine guns were issued, most troops still used full powered rifles. In the U.S. the first modern carbine (the M-1 Carbine) was developed. I call this the first modern carbine, because it was not designed as a submachine gun, although a full auto version was later made. Where the machine gun was made to lay down a field of fire, the carbine went back to the old idea of a light handy gun for aimed deliberate fire. This gun was issued as a replacement for the pistol, to be issued to non combatants. It was light, handy, and easy to fire. The submachine gun idea, and the idea of a personal weapon designed to lay down a high volume of fire, were to be taken a step further in the development of the assault rifle, but that is another story. The military has essentially abandoned the carbine, and submachine gun except for very specialized operations, but civilians and the police are once again beginning to embrace it.

The modern carbine

     Present interest in carbines and in the pistol/carbine combo may have begun after the Second World War. At that time there were many men returning from the service, and they were all familiar with firearms. There were a number of surplus weapons available including many M-1 Carbines. The carbines were light, and easy to shoot, which was what they were designed to be. These guns became so popular that they inspired Bill Ruger and some others to design small, handy guns along the same lines. The famous Ruger .44 magnum Carbine was one of these. This was a four shot, semi auto that was just the ticket for brush hunters, and for those who already possessed a .44 handgun. A number of lever action rifles were introduced, or reintroduced, which fired revolver cartridges. All of these guns had in common the virtues of lightness, ease of use, and economy, both in the weapon itself and in the ammunition used.
    Even the most powerful pistol cartridges produce little kick in a long gun. The magnum cartridges, with their heavier bullets, and slower burning powders, realized great increases in energy out of the longer barrels. These gains were sufficient to turn a defensive pistol cartridge into a suitable hunting round. In the case of the .357, and .44 Magnum, double the energy can be achieved in standard loads, more than this in custom handloads. The handloader, is especially favored by the carbine, because the long arm's extra strength will allow the use of loads which could not be safely fired in a pistol, increasing the power of the carbine even more. This increase is so great that there is even an initiative to replace the shotgun in police cruiser use with the carbine in some departments. For the police and civilian shooter alike, the carbine virtues of being quick on target, and being able to deliver quick follow up shots, make them superb defensive, or even offensive weapons. No pistol can match the power of a similarly chambered carbine, nor can a pistol achieve the accuracy or follow up shot speed of the longer gun. The only place were the pistol is not at a disadvantage is in very close (arms length) encounters, where the carbine becomes cumbersome.
    Besides it's light weight, and ease of use (also known as fun), the carbine is very cheap to shoot. A pistol round costs less than half of what a rifle round sells for. The cost advantage can be even greater for the handloader. I personally reload, and I can load up a .357 round for a little more than the cost of a .22 (less if it is a premium .22 round). The ballistic advantage given by the longer barrel is less pronounced in semi auto rounds (.45, and 9mm) because of their faster powders, and smaller case capacities, but it is there, and the advantages of longer sighting radius, lessened kick, and faster follow up still apply.
    Another advantage of the carbine comes when it is used in concert with a pistol chambered for the same cartridge, and it is an advantage with which the old time cowboy was very familiar; this is the need to carry only one type of ammunition for both guns. The handloader has the chance to work up special loads using heavier bullets and slower powders to take maximum advantage of the carbines longer barrel, but this will make the rounds somewhat less suitable for pistol use. It is also possible to load rounds which can not be fired safely in the smaller, more delicate pistol, but this would defeat the combo idea, since this would make these cartridges rifle only rounds. Rounds loaded to this level should be specially marked and segregated so that they will not cause a memorable, but unpleasant experience in a pistol. A final advantage that many, but not all, carbines have over their pistol counterparts, is a larger magazine capacity. In the case of the Ruger .44 Magnum, the capacity of four is actually less than the six that most revolver can hold, but as a rule, the carbines can hold eight to twelve rounds, depending upon cartridge and barrel length. the highest capacity carbine of which I am aware is the excellent Calico, which will hold 100(!!) rounds of 9mm. The pistol version of this fine gun is designed to use a magazine which holds a mere 50, although both guns can use either magazine. A table showing the ballistic advantage conferred upon the carbine is below. I have not shown special loads but merely the standard ones. Special loads can enhance the carbines performance over the pistol by an even more significant amount.
ARM Caliber Barrel Weight  Velocity Energy
Pistol .44 Magnum 8 3/8" 240 1180fps 775fp
Carbine .44 Magnum 18" 240 1740fps 1650fp

ARM Caliber Barrel Weight Velocity Energy
Pistol .357Magnum 4" 158 1235fp 535fp
Carbine .357 Magnum 18" 158 1830fps 1175fp

ARM Caliber Barrel Weight Velocity Energy
Pistol .45 A.C.P. 5" 230 842fps 355fp
Carbine .45 A.C.P. 18" 230 1092fps

ARM Caliber Barrel Weight Velocity Energy
Pistol 9mm 4" 125 1110fps 340fp
Carbine 9mm 18" 125 1242fps 430fp
The above table lists standard factory loads, and I try to use a representative loading for each cartridge. As can be seen the magnum cartridges show significant increases. Special loads using heavier bullets, and slower burning powders would give a more significant increase to the auto cartridges, although their smaller case capacity would still not let them realize the advantages of the magnum cartridges.

My Pistol/Carbine Combos
I have several pistol carbine combos of my own. A combo like this can be simply a long gun, and a hand gun which use the same cartridge, or it can be an integrated system, even to the extent that the same magazines are used as is the case with the Marlin Camp Gun, and the Colt Government pistol.

I had been looking for a companion rifle to compliment my pair of single action "cowboy" style revolvers, for several years. I never considered any action type other than the classic lever action. There are standards, and appearances after all. I had been planning on a Winchester, or perhaps a Rossi. I was looking quite closely at the shortened trapper models, and even at the John Wayne style model with the enlarged loop in the lever. What finally motivated me was the introduction of the new version of the Rossi Puma chambered for the 454 Casull. Both guns loaded, in traditional fashion, from belt loops, and both had the classic western styling so beloved by young (and older) boys.
    The 454 was, for a few years, the most powerful handgun cartridge, and is as powerful as many rifle cartridges. It is still a round to be reckoned with, and probably has more power than one would ever want, except under the most trying circumstances. I can carry the carbine with my Raging Bull pistol, in 454, or with either (or both) of my single action 45 Long Colt revolvers. The carbine loads 45 LC in the time honored fashion, through the side loading gate. The longer 454 cartridges need to be loaded through a separate gate towards the front of the tubular magazine, as with some models of 22 rifles. At any rate, whether going traditionally armed with the 45 LC, or taking advantage of the power that today's powders and metallurgy permit with the 454, these are great guns for use in hunting, shooting up the woods, or to use for a day of target practice. The old cowboys would have loved them.

.45 A.C.P.
I may as well get to my favorite pistol cartridge the .45 I have several .45 pistols, but I consider the combo gun to be the gold cup along with the Marlin Camp Carbine. These guns use not only the same cartridge but share the same magazine, as the Marlin will use standard Colt mags. The standard Colt magazine holds seven rounds, though there are flush fitting mags that will hold eight. I have a pair of ten round magazines which do extend beyond the but of the gun. Long magazines of fifteen and even twenty rounds are available.  The Camp carbine may not be hot loaded, so keeping special loads separate is not really a consideration. I hope to someday be able to justify the purchase of a standard Colt, since the Gold Cup is not really a field gun. I have a pair of 10 round mags for these guns, along with a couple of dozen G.I. 7 round mags.

.45 A.C.P.
This is my Para-Ordnance P-15, 1911 pattern .45 auto. It is mated to my Mech-Tech carbine conversion kit, using a separate Para-Ord frame. This would seem to be the ultimate .45 combo, using a double column mag, and being capable, in both cases, of using hot loaded rounds. I now have a total of seven, 15 round mags for these guns, and I can also use my smaller, P-12 Para-Ord pistol, though the smaller, 12 round mags will only fit in the smaller gun. I am able to use .45 +P rounds in these guns, and am going to research the possibility of using the .45 Super rounds.

I own a number of 9mm pistols, but the only true interchangeability exists between my Calico Pistol, and my Calico Carbine. These two guns can use the Calico 50 and 100 round magazines. Calling the smaller Calico a pistol is pushing things just a bit, as it is more like a mini Uzi, or a MAC-11 in size and handling, although I consider it to be superior to either of these guns. In truth the size and weight are about the same as my .44 Mag Ruger Redhawk; it just feels like a bigger gun. As a pistol carbine combo, any of my other 9mm pistols could be carried along with the Calico Carbine, but being semi autos, the ammunition would have to be transferred from one magazine to another, or it would have to be carried unloaded.

A slightly more conventional, combo is my Marlin Camp gun in 9mm, and one of my S&W M-669. Both of these weapons take the same, S&W 9mm magazines. Both guns are light, handy, and well made. The Smith is constructed of stainless steel, and aluminum alloy, while the Marlin uses steel, wood, and plastic construction. I have six 12 round compact magazines, six 15 round full sized mags, and a pair of 30 round extended magazines for these guns. I also have four 72 round drum magazines. The drums are based upon the Suomi magazines, which were produced by the million, for the Second World War. These magazines are, besides being available in large quantities, quite inexpensive. They will need to be modified, by brazing a standard S&W box magazine to the top, and by grinding out the feed lips. I do hope top put up a page on how to make this modification, when time allows..

40 S&W
A great new addition to the line of pistol carbine combos is made possible by the introduction of the Beretta CX Firestorm. This series of carbines takes the same magazines as the Beretta series of pistols, allowing for complete compatibility. A 9mm version is available for compatibility with the M-92 series of pistols. I posses the 40 S&W variant, for mating with my Beretta M-96 pistol.

.22 Rimfire
I actually have two .22 combos. One would be my Dan Wesson .22 pistol with my Henry lever action. A revolver, and a lever action are a natural compliment of each other. All of these guns are easy, and fun to shoot as well as using inexpensive ammunition. I can handload for some of my pistol calibers about as cheaply as I can shoot the .22, but with the .22, I do not have to chase my brass around, take it home, clean it up, and then reload it. The .22 is at its' limit in a small rifle, as it's small powder capacity actually peaks it out in a 16" barrel. This means that using it in target guns with 18-22 inch barrels actually slows the little round down.

.22 Rimfire
A less traditional, but equally enjoyable combo consists of my Buckmark, and the Ruger 10/22. These are both, modern designs, both are semi-automatics, and both are very well regarded designs. The Ruger, and the Browning have become modern classics. The Ruger, in particular, has many accessories available, and is quite easy to "dress up" and find parts for.

.44 Magnum
In most peoples minds, this is still "The worlds' most powerful handgun". There are at least five modern hand gun cartridges that ace the classic 44 out (.475 Linebaugh .454 Cassul, .44 max, .45 Winchester Mag, 50 S&W.). There are a number of others which have an arguable claim to the title. (.45 Super), and some older cartridges which could probably edge it out, but are not really production rounds (.44 Automag, .451 Detonics). even so, this cartridge is more than most handgun shooters are able to use. Loaded to its' limit, this is an extremely unpleasant round to fire in a pistol, but this same round in a carbine is quite comfortable and easy to shoot.  I have a number of pistols, and a single carbine in this caliber, but they suit each other well. My initial pistol in this caliber, is the Ruger Redhawk, the rifle is the Marlin 92. A lever action and a revolver are particularly well suited to be a combo. The do not use detachable magazines, and both are loaded from cartridge loops or pouches. They will both also feed and cycle just about any ammunition put through them, not being fussy about bullet shape or powder load. The only caveat is to avoid using pointed bullets in any round which might go into the lever gun. This is because in the tubular magazine, pointed bullets have been known to ignite primers on the cartridges ahead of them with interesting, but undesired results. The guns also hearken back to the days of the old west, when such combos were common. As a magnum cartridge, the difference in energy between the long and short barreled guns is startling, which the above chart shows. It is interesting to contrast this gun with its' predecessors of the last century. It is the same size and weight as the old lever guns, but out of the long barrel, the cartridge it fires compares more closely with the old buffalo hunters rounds.

.357 Magnum
This is another magnum cartridge, and another lever/revolver combination. In this case it is a Rossi Puma, and a S&W M-28 which compliment each other. The .357, out of the carbine is more powerful than the highly regarded .44 is out of a pistol. This is a great knock around combo, as it will also shoot .38 Specials. The set is cheap for me, as a handloader, to shoot, and the .38 recoils like a .22. I have another .357 revolver, but it is a medium framed gun without the extreme strength of the large framed M-28. The huge cylinder on this pistol, lets me use just about any round that I would dare load into the lever gun. The .357 has so much power out of the carbine that it is legal to hunt deer with it, and it is probably as good a choice as the venerable 30-30 at close range. This is a very fun combo to (if I dare admit it) shoot the woods up with. I can pretty much hit whatever I aim at with this carbine, with the pistol too, if given the time.

This is the smallest, and fastest of the rimfire cartridges, and is rapidly acquiring an enviable reputation and popularity among sport shooters, and particularly among varmint shooters. The little 17 is the fastest, and flattest shooting of all of the rimfire rounds, and holds it's own against a number of centerfire cartridges as well. The cartridge is made by necking down a 22 Magnum, to accept a 17 bullet. Initially this was perceived as a bit of a novelty cartridge; but it was soon found to be almost the ideal varmint cartridge.

410 Shotgun
The emergence of a number of 410 shot-shell pistols, has opened the door to having a pistol/long-arm combo in this gauge.

Oddball Combos
It is possible to put together some pretty odd combinations using the Thompson Contender and its rifle caliber barrels. I presently have .357, .44 mag, .22, 410, 30-30, and .223 barrels for this gun, and I may consider, using this pistol as a companion piece for the similarly chambered rifles. It is also possible to get a pistol from AMT which fires the .30 Carbine round. I would not bother doing this, as I consider the .357 to be a better round out of either the pistol or carbine. Fans of semi autos may like the idea of a .30 carbine semi auto pistol, and carbine as opposed to the .357 lever gun and revolver. Of course, the Contender is also available in the full range of pistol calibers, so that it, too, could act as a companion piece to many of the carbines out there.