(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.