As I was a child growing up in the 1950’s, most of the ex-GI’s with whom I was acquainted were veterans of World War II.  I practically wore the print off my dad’s copy of Small Arms of the World by W. H. B. Smith.  The Japanese Nambus and the German Lugers and P-38s that were brought back from World War II were a constant source of fascination for me.

Military arms are usually built to last, and their durability combined with the ability of Americans to buy and own a wide variety of handguns has enabled us to acquire the military handguns used in past generations.  But for a lot of us, just owning these pieces of history is not enough.  The urge exists to take them out and fire them to have an appreciation of their ruggedness and character.  The idea of taking out and using the old classic military handguns is not new (see 1964 Gun Digest, page 112, Military Handguns for Sporting Use).   But old military handguns with their fixed sights and relatively large manufacturing tolerances could not be expected to compete with recently manufactured handguns made on modern CNC machinery and sporting large adjustable sights.

But happily the Monocacy Pistol Club of Frederick, Maryland, has come up with a semi-annual organized event that provides a chance to bring out these classic handguns and fire them in competition on an even playing field.  As a regular event, Monocacy Pistol Club has developed the Great Wars Pistol Match, where the military handguns (or their replicas or clones) used by any army in the world from World War I through the end of World War II can be fired against each other in a relaxed competition that provides a measure of fun in bringing out the old classic military handguns and putting 30 rounds downrange.

The rules are very relaxed, the targets are large and the range is moderate.  The range is 25 yards, and the targets used were 25 yard timed and rapid fire bullseye pistol targets that are 2’ x 2’ in size.  The match can be fired one-handed or two-handed, and the 30 rounds for the match can be fired using up to three qualifying handguns brought simultaneously to the firing line, with at least five rounds being fired through each handgun brought to the firing line.   There are no time limits so there is no pressure from having to complete the firing string against the clock.  This has now become a record event for Monocacy Pistol Club, so there is a possibility of a score of 300-30X for 30 rounds, with the X count being used for the tie-breaker.

The Great Wars Pistol Match is a showcase of military history.  Shooters bring in classic military handguns from the familiar Colt Government Model (only fixed sight models would be permitted) to exotic military handguns from all over the world.  Adjustable sights are not prohibited, but must be of the same type used by the particular handgun model from World War I through World War II.  Thus, a Browning High Power pistol with tangent adjustable sights found on the Inglis Canadian wartime variation would be allowed, but one with micrometer sights would not.   Conveniently there are enough individuals in the club with knowledge of classic military handguns to allow members to inquire ahead of time as to whether the handgun someone intends to bring to the match would be appropriate.  

So for the first match of 2010 it all came together on May 22.  The lineup of classic military handguns fired by the 8 competitors, listed by model, caliber and country of use (the numbers in parentheses indicate that more than one example of a particular handgun was fired), was as follows:

1896 “Broomhandle” Mauser (7.63 mm) Mauser – Germany

Radom Model 35 (2)  (9 mm Luger) – Poland, also German occupation forces

Colt Model 1911  (.45 ACP)  United States

Webley Mark IV (2)  (.38 S &W) – British Commonwealth

Astra 600   (9mm Luger) – Germany, made by Spain

Smith & Wesson Victory (.38 Special)  – United States

Luger aka Pistole 08  (9mm Luger) – Germany

Lahti L-35   (9mm Luger) – Finland

Colt Commando clone  (.38 Special) – United States

Lahti Model 40   (9 mm Luger) – Sweden

The original military issue pistols are potentially 65 to 114 years old.  The Colt 1911 pistol was in the original 1911 configuration and seeing it brought up images of Sgt. Alvin York.  What a tribute to the durability of these old classics.

The handgun I used for this match was my Finnish L-35 Lahti pistol that I acquired out of my admiration for the Finns in standing up to the Soviets in the Winter War of 1939-40 and the following Continuation War.  It is rugged, dependable (and heavy as the dickens), and being chambered in 9mm Luger, finding ammunition is not a problem.   This was the handgun designed to be carried by the Finns in sub-zero weather that was common in that region.  It also has big, clear sights that are a lot easier for me to see.

Finding the proper ammunition for classic military handguns may sound difficult, but much of the proper ammunition is readily available commercially.  American Colt 1911 type pistols and Model 1917 revolvers will all use standard .45 ACP shells.  Foreign handguns in large measure will use .32 ACP, .380 ACP, .38 Smith & Wesson (not .38 Special) or 9mm Luger cartridges, which have been domestically loaded for many years.  Fiocchi USA loads more exotic cartridges like 7.62 mm Nagant and .455 Webley, so a source of loaded cartridges is available.

It was a fun time for everyone involved, and after firing the course for record, everyone decided to stay and fire another string for fun.  The top record score ended up as 266-3X out of the possible 300-30X, fired with the Luger and Colt Commando clone.  Four out of the eight shooters ended up with scores over 200, so this match was a good testimony as to how accurate and effective the classic military handguns could be.

In firing the two strings I discovered that ammunition choice was critical in determining the point of impact of the shot group relative to the sight picture.  The jacketed ammunition I used in the record string required a low 5 o’clock hold, while using the ammunition with lead bullets I brought along worked with a center hold and resulted in a much better score.  I’ll remember that for the next match.    

The edition of Small Arms of the World that my dad owns has been updated, but much of the original material has been kept in the later editions.  This provides a handy reference source to determine if a particular handgun would be appropriate for the Great Wars Pistol Match.  Having some older members in the club doesn’t hurt either.

It may only happen twice a year, but at this club the Great Wars Pistol Match provides a way to dust off the old Luger that Granddad brought home from World War II, or the surplus 1917 Smith & Wesson revolver that has been passed through the family, and see how they perform.   While it may not be advisable to take out and fire a valuable rarity such as a Krieghoff Luger, there is no reason not to enjoy the character of the classic handguns carried by the regular soldiers of past generations and put a few rounds downrange twice a year.  On a small scale this match wrings out the capabilities of the classic military handguns and opens up a whole new opportunity for fun with a handgun.