If you had to choose only one handgun to keep, which one would it be?

I've often posed that question to my shooting friends, and always have a ready answer when they ask my choice — my S&W Model 66 Combat Magnum stainless revolver with a 4-inch barrel.

I choose this model of Smith & Wesson because it is the best compromise between heavy enough to be "just right" and small enough to be concealed if necessary. The Combat Magnum seems to have been designed to fit in a leather belt holster, and hang in that indention over a person's buttocks, tucked into the edge of the small of the back where it will comfortably ride for hours or days.

It is also chambered for .357 Magnum — still one of the most effective manstopping handgun rounds ever invented, and of course that means you can shoot .38 Special all day long for lighter recoil. Besides, when did the .38 Special ever stop being an outstanding personal defense caliber? Remember, it falls in what is called the "Coroners' Big Three" — the rounds most dug out of gunshot victims by coroners nationwide are shotgun pellets, .22 caliber bullets and .38 Special rounds.

Finally, the Combat Magnum was designed for Smith & Wesson by one of my personal heroes, big Bill Jordan, formerly of Shreveport and one of the most famous U.S. Border Patrol agents of all time. Jordan patrolled the U.S./Mexican border decades ago, and saw a lot of action in those wooly days of chasing illegals, bootleggers and human smugglers.

He wrote one of the all-time great books on gunfighting, "No Second-Place Winner," and was a demonstration trick shooter for the Border Patrol back in the good old days when he would come to a small town and put on exhibitions at high schools blasting Life Savers and aspirin tablets from the hip with wax bullets.

Jordan designed the Combat Magnum for Smith & Wesson on their popular K-Frame, a medium-sized frame. It was his favorite carry gun for years. To my way of thinking, he nearly achieved perfection.

My own personal model is one of the favorite guns when I teach my concealed handgun class. It has suffered the attentions of many suitors, male and female, who have tried to buy it off me after the class. One of the reasons they fall in love is it has been fired many thousands of times, and dry-fired well into the hundreds of thousands of times. It is most worn in, and smooth as glass.

Thus it was I set out on a mission a few months ago to buy another one. A friend and his wife had taken the course to apply for their concealed permits. With all the different guns to shoot, his wife, who had never fired a handgun in her life, fell in love with the Model 66. They decided that was the model they wanted to keep for home and personal defense, and to be able to shoot for fun.

"No problem," I told them. "I'm in gun stores all the time. I'll run across one, or get the gun counter guys to keep their eyes open for me. We'll get you one pretty quickly."

"You told them WHAT?" Pat Blake at Accurate Firearms in Baton Rouge snorted at me, effecting something between a grunt and sneeze, laughing out loud.

"What's the big deal?" I asked. "Just keep your eyes peeled for a 66, and call me when you get one traded in. We'll pay the price, just let me know when you get one."

"Gordon," he pronounced sorrowfully, amazed at my singular lack of awareness, "think back now. When was the last time you saw one of those, or a blued Model 19 in a used rack?"

"Geez, Pat, I don't know. Last year maybe?"

"How 'bout last decade?" he shook his head. "Those hit the market in the '90's when all the police departments were changing over to semi-autos, and all the guys traded in their revolvers. But once that ended, NO one trades them in anymore. They're too good, and folks don't let them go."

Frustrated, I hit a couple of more stores, and got the same negative replies — no one saw them anymore, and if one was traded in, it brought top dollar.

My friend and I even went to one of the area gun shows. In the vast array of handguns on dozens of tables in that show, I found one Model 19. It looked as if it had been run through a cement mixer without the cushioning effects of the cement. And the guy wanted an astronomical price for it. "Take it or leave it," he shrugged. We left.

The K-Framed .357 Magnum had been dropped by S&W in favor of the stouter "L" frame — designated the Model 686. And stouter means slightly larger and heavier. And we weren't looking for stouter, larger and heavier — we were looking for perfection, and beginning to wonder if it existed any more.

Gleaning through the S&W catalog, I spotted what I thought was the perfect substitute. Still manufactured, and a seeming exact copy of my gun, was the Model 67 — a stainless, 4-inch barreled version that is chambered for .38 Special. It carries a ramp, red-inserted front sight and adjustable rear sights, just like the Model 66. It even weighed the same.

Smith & Wesson dropped the hotter caliber from the K-frame series because supposedly a long-term diet of full-bore .357 Magnum rounds would cause the guns to shoot loose.

Maybe so, I don't know. I shot many, many rounds of hand-loaded .357 hunting loads in my younger, power-mad days, when I figured a handgun was for wussies unless you felt the kick through a shooting glove — and gloves were for wussies. My gun still shoots well, although admittedly it has shot practically nothing but .38 Specials for years.

Pleased, I called my friend to tell him of my discovery, only to find he had called in the real experts. Being in the media, he got in touch with Blue Heron Communications, the marketing company that has handled Smith & Wesson's media relations for years.

Gary Giudice and Matt Rice had talked with him a while, finding out what he was looking for in a handgun, and basically repeated what I had told him and his wife before they became totally enamored of my 4-inch Model 66.

"Gordon's right," they told him. "You're actually looking for two guns. You need a small, easily concealed handgun with enough stopping power to be effective. And you want a gun that is fun to shoot, can double as self-defense in a pinch, but is more for plinking and fun shooting — and then it needs to be cheap to shoot."

They went on to tell him that one of the most popular self-defense models sold by Smith & Wesson today is their Model 642 Airweight. With an aluminum frame, stainless barrel and cylinder, the 642 carries five shots, and will digest "+P" loads all day long if your hand can stand it.

But, they warned, it isn't a target pistol. And if you're going to shoot for fun on a regular basis, there is absolutely no better choice for that than a .22.

Ergo, they told him, you need another gun. You need a Model 317 Kit Gun.

When the nation started going to concealed-carry permits, the need arose for a larger selection of smaller, concealable handguns, and Smith & Wesson answered the need with a veritable plethora of new guns. One of their designs copied and assumed the name of one of their most popular models, the old S&W .22-32 Kit Gun.

I had one of these sweet little revolvers back when everyone wanted one — .22 Long Rifle caliber built on the forerunner of the "J" frame. In other words, the same frame size as their larger caliber of .32 S&W, this little gun was chrome-plated, carried six shots and sported a 3-inch barrel. You could carry it all day long and forget it was there.

And I did forget it one day as a younger man, trying to train a crazy horse. In the throes of bucking and running wild on this idiot, my belt broke in an overgrown field, and my wonderful little "Kit" gun was gone forever, lost in the endless morass of grass.

Smith & Wesson reached back in nostalgia, and brought out yet another concealable piece — an aluminum-framed "J" with stainless-sleeved barrel and chambers. The little gun carries eight rounds of .22 Long Rifle, has a 3-inch barrel with adjustable rear sights and a light-gathering high-visibility fiber optic front sight. It looks very similar to my old "Kit" gun, and carries just as well if not better. And it carries two more shots!

I have an earlier model of this gun in my collection, and it is one of our most popular models with ladies and beginning shooters. I had recommended it to my friend, but the two of them wanted the Model 66 since they would be buying only one gun. Thus ensued the odyssey that had come full circle to exactly what I had suggested in the first place.

You guessed it. They bought both guns. And I think they have been immeasurably happier with the choice. Now they have a great self-defense piece, and a wonderful dual-purpose .22 with eight shots. It gives them the fun of accurate plinking and target practice with inexpensive ammo. And if you load it with Quik-Shok, the stressed .22 rounds that separate into three projectiles when the bullet strikes water or flesh, you've got a pretty doggone good self-defense gun, too.

And to those of you who will still stand up and holler about "mouse guns" and to stop advising people to carry any handgun whose caliber does not begin in "4," I refer you to my wise and cantankerous old gun-totin' great uncle, who many years ago, in the wilds of Bloody Tangipahoa Parish, shifted his chaw to one side, looked down on a snotty-nosed kid — me — and intoned words of wisdom I have never, ever forgotten:

"Son," he rasped, his parched face crinkling in a wry grin as I hung on every word, "the best gun to have in a gun fight is the gun you brung to the gun fight."

For more information on Smith & Wesson handguns, visit smith-wesson.com.

Gordon Hutchinson's best selling novel, The Quest and the Quarry, a generational tale that parallels the lives of a line of trophy bucks and the youth of a farming family who hunt them, can be ordered at thequestandthequarry.com or by calling 800-538-4355.

The novel was recently chosen as a book of the year by the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association.