In the uncertain days immediately following America’s decision to join the fight in Europe during WWI, mobilization was only part of the problem. Another major hurdle was arming all of the new soldiers committed to the fray. Rounding up enough guns was a significant challenge, and meeting that requirement resulted in multiple designs for one caliber being issued. Weapons of a design other than the formally-adopted standard were referred to as “substitute standard”.
One example was the issuance of the M1917 rifle. The standard issue rifle for U.S. forces at the time was the 1903 Springfield; however, with production of the ’03 significantly trailing demand, the War Department decided to also issue a British design. The Enfield Pattern 14 rifle, chambered for .303, had been in production by Remington and Winchester for British military needs, so the decision was made to use existing production facilities to produce a .30-06 chambering of the Pattern 14 rifle for issue to American troops. Designated the M1917, over two million of these rifles were produced, and served alongside the ’03 throughout America’s involvement in WWI.
Longarms, however, were not the only type of weapon for which supply shortage was a problem in 1917. Sidearms too were much in need, and although the venerable 1911 was the standard, its various manufacturers could not meet demand. Once again, the War Department turned to other existing designs to supplement its supply. Colt and Smith & Wesson both already produced large-frame revolvers in .45 caliber. Colt had supplied the Army, Navy and Marine Corps with its Model 1909 (the military designation for its New Service revolver) in .45 Long Colt for use against Islamic insurgents (the “Moro”) in the Philippines. For its part, Smith & Wesson was supplying the British with its Second Model .44 Hand Ejector, chambered for .455 Webley, to address Britain’s wartime shortage of Webley Mk. VI revolvers. With this tooling already in place, it was a simple matter to rechamber the cylinders of both the Colt 1909 and the Smith & Wesson .44 Hand Ejector for the .45 ACP.
The military adopted both of these revolvers as substitute standard for the 1911, and the military designation assigned to both the Colt and the Smith & Wesson was “Revolver, Model 1917”. The final hurdle in this process was the matter of ejecting spent cases. Since the .45 ACP uses a rimless case, the revolver’s extractor will not engage the cases. The solution came in the form of a stamped steel clip that holds multiple cartridges, and engages the extractor. The original design of this clip held three cartridges, and being semi-circular in shape became known as a “half-moon” clip. Later, six-round clips were developed and, not surprisingly, they became known as “full moon” or simply “moon” clips. The Smith & Wesson 1917 may be fired without the clips, but the empty cases must be poked out of the cylinder.
Designated by Smith & Wesson as the .45 Hand Ejector U.S. Army–Model 1917, it was also issued in WWII, and remained in production until 1950. Its popularity with civilian shooters led to the development in 1920 of a new cartridge called the .45 Auto Rim. Essentially a rimmed version of the .45 ACP, the .45 Auto Rim was designed expressly for use in Model 1917 revolvers so that the extractor could be used without the need for moon or half-moon clips. Ninety years later, .45 Auto Rim ammo is still being produced, including a self-defense load — the DPX by Cor-Bon.
Recently, I had the opportunity to shoot a Smith & Wesson Model 1917. The specimen that I shot was a military-contract piece produced late in 1917. It has the original grips, but has been beautifully reblued. For my trip to the range I shot it both with the stock grips, and then with some 70’s-vintage S&W Magna grips and a Tyler T-Grip that I had brought along. For accuracy testing, I also installed a Tyler trigger shoe for single-action shooting. I fired only commercially produced mil-spec 230 grain ball ammo.
The action is surprisingly good for a military-contract piece: it is very smooth in double action, and breaks cleanly in single action. The barrel is 51/2” and the sights, which do not lend themselves to accurate shooting, consist of a tiny and shallow U notch at the rear of the top strap and a 0.1” semicircular blade at the muzzle. Nevertheless, standing at 25 yards and shooting single action with a two-handed hold, I was able to print several 4” six-shot groups, and a best-of-the-day group of 3.25”. I am certain that this old gun is capable of even better accuracy with sharper eyes and steadier hands, but even the groups that I was able to wring from it are perfectly adequate for a combat sidearm.
The revolver weighs in at 36 ounces, as compared to 39 ounces for a 1911-A1. Given its slightly lighter weight, and the fact that it is a revolver (as opposed to a semi-auto) the felt recoil is greater than from a 1911; however it is quite manageable, even with the stock grips.
Smith & Wesson Second Model Hand Ejectors are justly prized for their smooth actions and inherent accuracy, and the Model 1917 is simply a military-contract version of the Second Model Hand Ejector. Nowadays in my neck of the woods Smith & Wesson 1917s in “shooter” condition fetch in the $400 to $600 range. This is a good value in a vintage Smith & Wesson large-frame revolver. They’re fun to shoot (and practice-grade ammo won’t break the bank) and 93 years later, especially with the reloading advantage of moon clips, they’re still a great choice for a rugged and reliable self-defense sidearm.
CAVEAT: These revolvers are some of the finest and strongest ever produced, but as with any revolver of this vintage, have it checked by a competent gunsmith before firing it.