Part Three Of Three: A Brief History Of US Military Sidearms: The Modern Period, 1870 To Present

Over the past two weeks, Guns & Patriots published Parts One and Two of the article “A Brief History of US Military Sidearms” by author Bentley Gates, looking at the Flintlock and Percussion Cap Era handguns adopted by the US Military. The list of distinguished firearms reviewed thus far, includes the classic M1775 flintlock, the Walker Colt and the Remington Army Model. In this issue, we complete our series with Part Three, a look at the Modern Period.

In 1870, Smith and Wesson contracted with the War Department to produce the Smith and Wesson .44 caliber Model 3, under the designation M1870. Thus, it became the first metal cartridge revolver adopted by the US military. Later, based on design modifications suggested by US Cavalry Major George Schofield, S&W made modifications to the gun. The army adopted the new pistol as the “Schofield” design in 1875. The topside break open design Schofield automatically ejects all of the spent shell casings on opening, a strong advantage over the Single Action Army Colt, which requires ejecting each casing individually while hand turning the cylinder. Despite this, the M1875 Schofield never enjoyed the devoted following that the Colts received.

After trials in 1873, the US Army adopted the Colt Single Action Army design to serve alongside the M1870 and later the M1875. The Colt .45 caliber Single Action Army has become the symbol of Western expansion, favored by the US Cavalry during the Indian Wars, as well as by lawmen and outlaws alike. The Colt Single Action Army appeared in many variants and calibers. Barrel lengths ranged from four and one-half inches to the Cavalry Model, a.45 caliber seven and one-half inch long barrel six-shooter.

In 1892 after new trials the military adopted a double action revolver, replacing the aging Colt Single Action Army .45 caliber with the .38 Long Colt revolver featuring a swing out cylinder and quick ejection system. The M1892 Colt continued evolution through several versions until the 1899 version.

Smith and Wesson introduced the Model 10, Military and Police Special .38 caliber revolver that the War Department adopted as the M1899 S&W Revolver, Hand Ejector. A double action, six shot revolver, major modifications in 1905 brought a new designation, the M1905. Production of the M1905 exceeds six million copies. Acclaimed the most successful revolver of all time, it has served military police and civilian police alike since its introduction.

Reports from the Philippines indicated that the .38 caliber was insufficient to stop a combatant extremely stimulated by adrenaline or drugs. As a result, the Army adopted a large framed, .45 Long Colt six-shot sidearm designated the M1909 New Service revolver. The M1909 served through both World Wars, finally retiring in 1946.

Despite adoption of several new revolvers during the 1890’s and early 1900’s, the US Army took note of German technological advances in semi-automatic pistol designs and conducted field trials for consideration of a semi-automatic pistol. Because the Army’s specifications called for a larger caliber than the 9mm Parabellum, German company Lugar produced a thousand of the famous toggle-lock P-08 design in .45ACP caliber to compete with the John M. Browning design from Colt Firearms. Ultimately, the Browning design was the winner and the War Department designated it the M1911.

Officially known as the “Pistol, Semi-automatic, .45 caliber, Model 1911,” this sidearm would dominate the battlefields of the 20th Century. Used in two World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam, it served as the primary US military sidearm for almost seventy-five years in all branches of service in every conceivable environment. Its combat record stands as testament to the functionality, reliability and accuracy of this sidearm. Undoubtedly, the M1911 is the most prolific of John Browning’s designs with over two and a half million produced in both the M1911 and M1911A1 versions for the military. Although the single-action, magazine-fed, seven round semi-automatic pistol is still in active inventory of the US military, it is no longer the primary sidearm issued to troops.
United States participation in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping functions as well as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) obligations led the US military to seek a new sidearm in the mid 1980’s chambered in the NATO standard 9mm round. After Army trials, the committee selected the Beretta 9mm design to replace the venerable M1911, designating the new semi-automatic the M9.

The M9, like its predecessor, is a short-recoil, magazine-fed, semi-automatic, pistol. It has the advantage over the M1911 of being double or single action, with an ambidextrous safety and houses a fifteen round magazine. In 2006, the M9A1 design update brought several changes including a Picatinny rail for mounting scopes or other accessories and a beveled magazine well to make quick loading under the stress of combat conditions easier.

The M1911 lives on, now re-designated as the MEU/SOC M45 pistol. Used by US Marine Force Recon Units and Special Operation Command, it has upgrades including laser sighting devise, improved slide from Springfield Armory, tighter tolerance barrel bushing and ambidextrous safety. Other sidearms also in current service include the M11, a 9mm locked-breech, short-recoil autoloader with a magazine capacity of up to twenty rounds adopted for use by US Navy SEALs manufactured by SIG Sauer.

Today the military again seeks a replacement for the current sidearm. The latest competition is for a Modular Handgun System (MHS) to replace the M9A1. The specifications for the weapons do not include caliber, although it is reasonable to assume 9mm or greater will be submitted. Specifications require an integrated Picatinny rail, high visibility sights and capability to accept flash and noise suppressors. Analysts expect lightweight carbon materials to figure prominently in the competition for weight considerations as well as light reflectivity and durability. The competition committee anticipates testing completion in 2013 and new designation by 2014.

This Three Part article traces a march of arms that follows the grand history of the sidearms of the US military. The story follows the trail of advancements in manufacturing and of the wars of our nation. The weapons have always been representative of firearms of their day. May we continue to choose wisely in equipping our soldiers with reliable and effective sidearms.

Editor’s Note: Mr. Gates is the author of “The Bahrain Conspiracy” to see more about this novel click here.