Guns are like vodka. The better and better new ones get, the more indistinguishable they become, as they get closer and closer to that Platonic ideal design. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, really – we have had enough experience to figure out which characteristics tend to work best for the most people, and so designers can’t be faulted for chasing that design down to the last tenth of a percentage of efficiency. There is still a question of whether to use a DA/SA exposed hammer or a DAO striker system, but other than that most new service pistols are as close to indistinguishable as most new 4-door sedans. If they have a manual safety, it will be up for safe and down for fire. The mag release is a button on the left side of the frame where the trigger guard meets the grip. The action will be a short-recoil Browning type. The magazine will be a double-stack, single-feed design. It will eject out the right side, using an external extractor. The recoil spring will be located under the barrel.
It has not always been this way, though. In the early days of self-loading firearms, nobody really knew what would work best, and there were a lot of ideas competing for standardization. Let’s take a minute to consider the firearms controls that have fallen by the wayside, for reasons good and poor:
- Magazine cutoff. Initially inspired by the novelty of bolt action repeaters, the magazine cutoff was a feature on a great many early military designs. The brass were quite concerned about how the troops would just blow through crate after crate of expensive ammunition if they didn’t have to manually reload after each shot. So they demanded a way to hold a rifle’s magazine in reserve and force troops to single-load until an emergency justified use of those 5 rounds in the mag. Then they realized that the extra firepower was worth paying for more ammunition, and mag cutoffs disappeared after WWI.
- Semiauto cutoff. Any general who was concerned about ammo consumption when his troops got bolt-action rifles must have just thrown up his arms in despair at the idea of a semiautomatic rifle. The answer? Incorporate a way to cut off the self-loading operation of the mechanism and turn it into a straight-pull bolt action until that emergency rolled around. The 1907 Mondragon is a good example of this. Later, the same sort of idea would resurface for the much more practical purpose of launching rifle grenades without breaking gas systems.
- Heel magazine release. Okay, so this one is still around to a much greater degree, especially on non-military pistols. But there used to be plenty of martial designs that opted for the simplicity of a hell-mounted mag catch over the speed of a button near the trigger guard.
- Blind-magazine pistols. Backing up further, how about the pistol designs that used stripper clips in place of detachable magazines? It seemed like a good idea for a while, because it eliminated the possibility of losing your magazine, or denting its feed lips. No such problems with a Steyr-Hahn or C96 Mauser or any of the other myriad early pistols that chose this system. You just have to accept that your reload won’t be as fast. And you can’t really make the system practical with more than 10 rounds.
- Trigger as bolt release. This was an idea more common than you might expect, about 100 years ago. Why add an extra control to release a held-open bolt when you can just have the trigger do it? The Farquhar-Hill worked this way, as did the Czech ZH-29. While today we are much more rabid about trigger safety, this system did make sense in many ways. It’s simple to train for and remember – load a new mag, pull the trigger to close the bolt, and pull again to fire.
- No bolt release at all. The next logical step along that thought path would be to totally remove the need for a bolt release. The British EM-2 bullpup did this; the bolt would automatically close (chambering a round in the process) when you locked a magazine in place. Again, while nerve-wracking to a shooter today, this did have its merits. Of course, it was implemented in a way that added a bunch of complex bitty little parts to the magazine, and that wasn’t so great.