(e)Book Review: Handfuls of History

A dilemma that has always existed for book authors and publishers is that adding information makes a book physically larger, and more expensive to produce. Editors have always had to make decisions balancing the added benefit of additional material (especially photographs) against the extra costs associated with making a bigger book. Not a big deal for a few photos here and there, but when you want to show all the potentially useful views of each gun in a book with a few hundred guns, you can quickly end up with something the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Our very handy digital data revolution, however, can compress all that volume of photographs down into a physical storage device the size of a thumbnail, though.

Eventually, someone will figure out a way to really capture both the large amount of textual data in a print book with the massive storage capacity of digital devices. It hasn’t been done yet (ebooks are still by and large just regular books transposed from paper to screen), but when it does we will have a transformation in scholarship and learning. While we aren’t there yet, people are slowly starting to experiment with new forms…and one of these people is Roger Papke.

Dr. Papke has produced an ebook entitled Handfuls of History – a study of firearms development from the matchlock through World War II, with a focus on handguns. It comes on a DVD disk, and comprises almost 3 GB of data, including about 4,800 high resolution photographs. The book is laid out as a series of pages each devotes to an individual firearm, with a text description and a number of photographs (the smallest pages have 10 or 12 pictures; the largest have several dozen). These pages are organized into chapters by developmental type, such as “Pinfire Pistols”, “Early Rimfire Pistols”, “Early Centerfire Pistols”, and so on. In fact, it occurred to me while reading that the basic layout is not so different from ForgottenWeapons.com itself – my web site and Dr. Papke’s book are approaching the same ultimate goal (the creation of a comprehensive firearms encyclopedia) from two slightly different angles. But, this is about Handfuls of History – so let’s get back to that subject.

You can see one sample page online – it’s about the Philadelphia Deringer, and it’s a good representative sample of what the book contains. Some pages have only a single paragraph, and others have the equivalent of several pages of text. Most are somewhere in between. These descriptions often include some interesting historical details and anecdotes, but they do fall short on mechanical detail – do not expect to learn the details of different locking systems here. The history, though, is interesting and accurate. As you can see from browsing the Table of Contents, the focus is primarily on the 1800s and early 1900s – probably because that is when most of the interesting development was going on. I have been working on learning more about revolver development in the 1800s, and I found the appendices discussing the Rollin White patent and its implications and legal morass to be particularly interesting and informative.

On a technical note, I am very impressed with the tools built into the book for manipulating photographs. Instead of simply presenting each picture at full size, or using just thumbnail links, Dr. Papke has gone to the effort of creating a handy interface. You can see it on the sample page; it allows you to set the display size of the images manually, or set them to full resolution, the size of your browser window, or open them in a new window (so you can keep one set of images open while browsing to a different page in the book). Those tools are well built and ensure that you can focus your attention on the material instead of dealing with inconveniently sized pictures.

So the question, I suppose, is whether Handfuls of History is worth purchasing for it’s $30 postpaid price. The closest traditional book to it, I think, would be Edward Ezell’s Handguns of the World, which has more or less the same area of focus, although more oriented towards military arms where Papke’s work has more coverage of earlier revolver developments. Ezell’s book (which can be had for $20 shipped through Amazon) has much more mechanical detail, but Papke’s has, of course, far more and better photographs. If I could only afford one I would choose Ezell, because of the level of technical detail he includes. But for a person who already has a few reference books Handfuls of History will make a good addition to the library, as it can provide a quantity and quality of photographs well beyond any print book.


    • Thomas .. I just bought a beautiful 2014 Toshiba lap top that has a DVD player, also have an Apple w/DVD drive. Both have HDMI AV out for BIG screen viewing, even play MP4’s. I’m thinking these images will be great on a big screen.

  1. this is cool
    some dude doing creating media about the stuff he likes
    and making it available to other people

    the thing is that it’s one dude
    and its available on a media that is becoming obsolete
    and its behind a paywall

    that’s going to be a problem

    but there is a fix for that
    if you like playing vidio games you know what steam is

    if you are not familiar with steam its it’s the place to get your games
    and with the extra benefit that once you have bought a game you can play it on any computer that hooked up to the web , you just need to log in

    it’s also a community this means that like minded people can find each other and work together on stuff
    and thats when things start moving fast

    and as a content creator it’s a good way to know that you are going to make money
    don’t believe me do a image search for “steam sales meme”

    but steam is for games and not gun stuff
    so if someone make it so that it is for gun stuff (let’s call it the powder keg or sometimes) in a few years it will be the place to get your stuff

    • There is an app called World Gun Disassembly available on several platforms including Steam.
      (yes, it is rather an app than a game except if we got an interest for speedrunning)

  2. I think I’d pass but then I’m still waiting for someone like Ian to do an up to date version of Smith & Smith’s classic “The Book of Rifles”. That I’d pay serious money for so long as it had at least the same level of technical information, history and field stripping instructions as the original.

  3. An important acknowledgement for all of the Handfuls of History HTML, much of the feature design, and lots of proofreading has to go to Charles Whittington (morepowercomic.com).

  4. I look forward to adding this “book” to my pile. One great advantage of Dr Papke’s book over Dr Ezell’s (and Ezell’s collaborations with Smith, and Smith’s with t’other Smith) is that Dr Papke is still here with us (quite literally, at least in an e-sense, in this thread).

    Handguns of the World is a remarkable work but it stops with developments as of 1945, and it’s information cut-off date was thirty years ago even for that. (More archival information has come to light, for example on Japanese service pistols, since then).

    I am not only buying the book because I expect to learn something, but because it’s absolutely critical to support those who provide this information directly to us, the interested parties, in this largely disintermediated world.

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