As long as soldiers have carried firearms on the battlefield, they’ve carried sidearms as a backup weapon or close-quarters option. In the earliest days of firearms combat, sidearms consisted of single-shot flintlocks tucked into belts alongside a sword of some kind. In later wars, they were heavy, expensive revolvers carried in the holsters of officers.

In the Great War, they became an indispensable tool of trench warfare, allowing soldiers to fire rapid, quickly aimed shots in extremely close quarters when the rifle wasn’t an option.

In WWII, the M1911A1 proved to be one of the most reliable and effective sidearms ever issued to U.S. soldiers, allowing troops to defend themselves or overtake the enemy in the most extreme circumstances. There’s plenty of instances to read about here.

In later years, the sidearm has often become a primary arm due to decreased weight, increased ammunition capacity, and its continued usefulness in tight spaces.

Recently, the U.S. Army announced it has chosen its first new standard sidearm since 1985. Before that, the Green Machine hadn’t changed pistols for 75 years. Here’s a bit of the history of U.S. Army sidearms that led up to the adoption of the SIG-Sauer P320 as the M17 pistol.

For brevity’s sake, we’re skipping the flintlocks and going right to the cap-and-ball revolver era.

Colt M1847 Walker

In Service: 1847-1848

Type: Cap and ball revolver, single action

Caliber: .44

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
An example of a Colt M1847 Walker revolver. photo from web photo

After the flintlock era, the first cap-and-ball revolver issued to the U.S. Army was technically the Colt Paterson, a five-shot revolver Samuel Colt had developed by 1837 and had been trying to sell to the military. The eruption of the Second Seminole War convinced the Army to buy several thousand .36 caliber “Paterson Colts” thus named because they were produced in Colt’s Paterson, New Jersey factory. The Paterson was unique in that the trigger was hidden in the frame until the hammer was fully cocked, eliminating the need for a trigger guard. That was the limit of the military’s interest and the Paterson factory closed down.

In 1847, Captain Samuel H. Walker of the Texas Rangers approached Colt about a new sidearm. The Rangers had acquired a thousand Paterson Colts left over from the Seminole War. It suited Walker’s needs, but he wanted a pistol with more power to reach farther distances while fighting in Texas and Mexico.

They settled on a .44 caliber, large-frame, six-shot revolver and Colt commissioned Eli Whitney Jr. to manage production of the so-called Walker Colt in the company’s new Hartford, Connecticut factory.

Walker died in battle in the Mexican-American War in late 1847.

The pistol bearing his name was not without problems, including a frequent and devastating tendency to suffer a ruptured cylinder, a problem that has been attributed to primitive metallurgy, not the design. The problem was compounded by the fact that soldiers often allowed powder to spill across the mouths of the chambers and even load the original conical bullets backward, causing the pistol to explode.

It became common practice to put lard or some other type of grease into the mouths of the chambers after each bullet to prevent powder in multiple chambers from igniting at the same time when the hammer fell (a chain fire). This practice continues to this day among black powder enthusiasts, though they use a grease designed for the purpose, which also helps lubricate the bullet as it goes down the barrel.

About 300 of the original 1,000 Walkers were returned for repair due to a ruptured cylinder. It also didn’t help that each chamber would hold 60 grains of powder, though Colt recommended no more than 50.

Additionally, the loading lever catch on the Walker was too flimsy and allowed the loading lever to drop from the force of recoil, locking up the cylinder and preventing a follow-up shot. Those carrying the pistol got around this by adding a rawhide loop that went around the barrel and loading lever, which, of course, had to be removed to reload the pistol, though doing so in the heat of battle wasn’t how it was usually done. In this era of firearms, cavalrymen often carried multiple pre-loaded revolvers tucked into belts and in saddle holsters because it simply took too long and was too difficult to reload these revolvers and unthinkable on horseback.

Most models had removable cylinders, which allowed some to carry multiple pre-loaded cylinders. Though it wasn’t super speed either, this kind of reload could be done in a matter of seconds instead of minutes.

This all goes to show how revolutionary the metallic, an even paper, cartridges were.

US Army Pistols
Guy Pierce with a Colt Walker revolver in Ravenous (1999). photo from web photo

Colt M1848 Dragoon

In Service: 1848-1860

Type: Cap and ball revolver, single action

Caliber .44

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
The Colt M1848 Dragoon revolver and its subsequent versions addressed some of the issues that cropped up with the Walker model. web photo

The solution to the various problems encountered with the Walker model was the Colt Dragoon, designed for the U.S. Army’s Regiment of Mounted Rifles. Since it was introduced after the Mexican-American War, it didn’t see a wide issue, but was popular among civilians during the 1850s and 1860s, and it saw use in the American Civil War.

In total there were 1,100 Walkers produced and 19,800 Dragoons produced between 1847 and 1860. Additionally, 750 Dragoons were produced for the British market.

There are five major variants of the Dragoon, the first being the Whitneyville-Hartford Dragoon revolver, which was produced between the Walker and the First Model Dragoon with a 7.5-inch barrel that addressed the issues with the Walker but was made mostly with Walker parts. About 240 of these pistols were produced between late 1847 and 1848. These are sometimes called Transition Walkers.

The First Model Dragoon revolver had oval-shaped cylinder notches, a V-type mainspring, no wheel on the rear of the hammer, no pins between the nipples on the cylinder, and a squareback trigger guard. About 7,000 of these pistols were produced between 1848 and 1850.

The Second Model Dragoon had rectangular cylinder notches and had the V-shaped mainspring replaced with a flat leaf mainspring and a wheel on the hammer at its bearing on the mainspring after no. 10,000. They also have squareback trigger guards. About 2,550 Second Models were made in 1850 and 51.

About 10,000 Third Model Dragoons were made from 1851 to 1860. The design had the most variations from earlier models, including some that had frame cuts for a detachable shoulder stock, a horizontal loading lever latch and folding leaf sights. They also had a round trigger guard.

Another variant of the Dragoon included the Colt 1848 Pocket Pistol, now sometimes called a Baby Dragoon. With the addition of a loading lever, this revolver evolved into the 1849 Pocket Revolver.

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) with her father’s Colt Dragoon in True Grit (2010). photo from web photo

Colt Army Model 1860

In Service: 1860-1873

Type: Cap and ball revolver, single action

Caliber: .44

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
The Colt Army Model 1860 revolver. photo from web photo

The Colt Army Model 1860 saw extensive use during the American Civil War by cavalry, infantry, and artillery troops, as well as naval forces.

More than 200,000 Model 1860s were manufactured from 1860 through 1873, with the U.S. Government taking at least 129,730 to be issued to troops. They cost about $20 each, which was expensive at the time. By 1865, after many complaints, the price had been reduced to $14.50.

The fixed sights were typically set at 75-100 yards, the revolver’s max effective range. The rear sight was actually just a notch cut in the hammer that was only usable when the gun was fully cocked.

It fired a 0.454-inch diameter round spherical lead ball, or a conical-tipped bullet, typically propelled by a 30-grain charge of black powder ignited by a small copper percussion cap of fulminate of mercury. Depending on the load, projectiles had a muzzle velocity of about 900 fps.

The distinguishing feature of the revolver is that the frame had no top strap, or no part of the frame positioned above the cylinder. Instead the frame was strengthened by a massive fixed cylinder pin, making the gun slimmer and lighter than the bulky Remington Model 1858, but with a potential loss of frame strength. The fixed cylinder pin in the Model 1860 meant the barrel had to be removed for the cylinder to be removed, preventing preloaded cylinders from being used for fast reloads, which was possible with the Model 1858 (thought it wasn’t a common practice due to the expense and weight of carrying spare cylinders).

Most soldiers who were issued the Model 1860 loaded it with paper cartridges, which consisted of a pre-measured load of black powder and a ball, wrapped in paper that had been soaked in potassium nitrate and then dried (to make it more flammable). To load the gun, a soldier simply slid a cartridge into the front of a chamber and seated the ball with the loading lever arm before adding a percussion cap to the nipple at the back of the chamber, then moved on to the next chamber.

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
Colonel Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) with his Colt 1860 Army in Gettysburg (1993). photo from web photo

Remington Model 1858

In service: 1862-1875

Type: Cap and ball revolver, single action

Caliber: .36, .44

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms

The Remington 1858 Revolver had a lot going for it, including a beefy top strap that gave the revolver’s frame more strength than Colt revolvers of the time, and made it less prone to stretching.

The 1858 was a secondary, supplemental issue firearm for the Union army until the Colt factory fire of 1864, when Colt’s East Armory in Hartford, Connecticut was almost completely destroyed with only two small outbuildings remaining.

Due to the fire, the Colt 1860 Army wasn’t available for some time, causing the Army to place large orders for the Remington revolver, though it was more expensive by $0.50. But the added frame strength counted as an advantage.

Another advantage of the 1858 was that it was a six-gun that could actually be carried safely with six rounds loaded in the cylinder. The Colt 1860 was typically loaded with five rounds and carried with the hammer resting on an empty chamber to prevent an accidental discharge while holstered if the hammer should be accidentally manipulated.

The Remington 1858 included “safety slots” milled between each chamber on the cylinder. The slot positively secured the hammer between chambers for safe carry by preventing accidental cylinder rotation, so there was no need to leave a chamber empty.

The revolver also saw use in the American West, both in its original cap-and-ball configuration and later as a metallic cartridge conversion pistol. Visually, it’s distinctive from other revolvers of the time because of the wing-shaped housing under the barrel that contained the loading lever assembly. This was a trait that was included, vestigially, on the later Remington Model 1875 revolver.

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
Tobey Maguire as Jake Roedel with a Remington 1858 revolver in Ride With The Devil (1999). photo from Remington Model 1858

Smith & Wesson Model No. 3 Schofield

In service: 1870-1898

Type: Single action cartridge revolver

Caliber: .45 Schofield

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
The S&W Schofield Model 3 revolver. Remington Model 1858

In 1870, the U.S. Army adopted a new type of revolver, the .44 S&W American caliber Smith & Wesson Model 3, making it the first standard-issue metallic cartridge-firing revolver in U.S. military service.

Until then, every issued sidearm was a cap-and-ball revolver, which were incredibly slow to reload, even with paper cartridges, and susceptible to weather and moisture of all kinds. The use of metallic cartridges that contained the propellant, projectile, and primer made revolvers more durable and reliable, as the tight fit of the components often prevented moisture from getting to the powder and soldiers didn’t have to deal with paper cartridges, or loose powder, in the rain. Their use also made reloads exponentially faster and easier.

The Model 3 was a top-break revolver. A catch under the rear sight on top of the frame held the gun together while in use. For reloading, the catch was released and the cylinder and barrel swung forward on a hinge located in front of the trigger guard. This meant that all six chambers could be accessed at the same time, and that lighting-fast reloads were suddenly possible.

The drawback of any top-break design is that it limits the strength of the frame to the strength of the locking mechanism, and if that mechanism isn’t up to snuff, the gun can come apart when fired.

The Model 3s made for the Army were dubbed S&W Schofield Model 3 because they incorporated design improvements suggested by Major George W. Schofield, mostly to the locking system. The Schofield Model 3 had a reputation for reliability, with some continuing in service until the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War.

The revolver was originally supposed to fire the .45 Colt ammo that was already in service by 1875, but S&W instead developed their own, slightly shorter .45 caliber round dubbed the .45 Schofield or the .45 S&W.

Both cartridges would work in the newer Colt Single Action Army pistol, but they weren’t interchangeable in the Schofield. Consequently, the Army attempted to move to the .45 Schofield as its standard cartridge, but large stocks of .45 Long Colt ammo and political pressure eventually caused the Army to drop the use of most of its Schofields and continue with the Colt SAA.

The Schofield gained massive popularity throughout the U.S. and was reportedly used by such famous characters as Jesse James, Robert Ford (who used one to kill James), John Wesley Hardin, Pat Garrett, Theodore Roosevelt, Virgil Earp, Billy the Kid, and many others. A Smith & Wesson No. 3 revolver was used by Wyatt Earp during the famous OK Corral Gunfight.

One of the most notable non-military purchasers of the Schofield was Wells Fargo and Company, who purchased the revolvers for use by Wells Fargo Road Agents. They had the barrels shortened from 7.5 inches to a more manageable and concealable 5 inches.

Oddly enough, Lieutenant Colonel Schofield shot himself on December 17, 1882 with an S&W Schofield revolver, after suffering a bout of “mental illness, stress, and isolation.”

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Ford (Casey Afleck) accurately uses a Schofield to shoot Jesse James (Brad Pitt). photo from web photo

Colt Single Action Army

In service: 1873-1892

Type: Single action cartridge revolver

Caliber: .45 Colt

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
One of many variations of the Colt Single Action Army revolver. web photo

And that brings us to “The Gun That Won the West,” the venerable and legendary Colt Single Action Army, also known simply as Single Action Army, SAA, Model P, Colt Peacemaker, M1873, and Colt .45. Its looks and design remain unchanged since 1873.

Fairly simply in appearance, the SAA holds six metallic cartridges and was designed specifically for the U.S. government service revolver trials of 1872 by Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company, and was adopted as the standard military service revolver, along with the .45 Colt cartridge, until 1892.

The SAA has been offered in over 30 different calibers with various barrel lengths and production has been discontinued twice (once before WWII so Colt could concentrate on making guns for the war effort), only for the pistol to be revived by Colt due to popular demand.

Some of the most notable early military SAAs were the OWA Colts, which refer to guns inspected by Orville W. Ainsworth, who was the ordnance sub-inspector at the Colt factory for the first 13 months of the SAA’s production. He inspected the Colts used by Col. G.A. Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

As mentioned before, by the mid-1870s, the U.S. Army had purchased a significant number of S&W Schofield revolvers and, for a time, switched to the shorter .45 Schofield round. Once the Schofield was quickly retired and relegated to the civilian market in the U.S., the SAA became the Army’s only standard sidearm.

In 1895-96, the Government returned 2,000 SAA revolvers to Colt to be refurbished, 800 of which were issued to the New York Militia with the 7.5-inch barrel and 1,200 were altered to a barrel length of 5.5 inches. In 1898 14,900 of the SAA revolvers were altered the same way by Springfield Armory and were designated as “Altered Revolver.”

One notable caliber variation was the Colt Frontier, or Frontier Six-Shooter version, which was Colt’s 1873 “Model P” type revolver chambered in .44-40 Winchester instead of .45 Colt so it would be compatible with the popular Winchester Model 73 rifle and its ammo.

Perhaps the most famous Colt SAA of all, Wyatt Earp’s custom 12″ Barrel Buntline Special revolver, didn’t actually exist until the 1950s. The gun was an invention in the highly fictionalized Earp biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, published in 1931 in which Stuart N. Lake wrote that Earp and four other lawmen, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, Charlie Bassett, and Neal Brown were presented with a customized revolver with a 12-inch-long barrel.

Due to the popularity of the TV show, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and the general Wild West craze of the 1950s, the Second Generation Colt Single Action Army revolvers (1956-1974) included the Buntline Special beginning in 1957.

In 1994, production of the SAA resumed with the increase of Cowboy Action Shooting competitions. These models are knows as “Late Third Gen” or “Fourth Generation” SAA revolvers. The gun is offered in all-nickel or blued finishes in the traditional three barrel lengths: 4-3/4, 5-1/2, and 7-1/2 inches and in six chamberings: .32-20, .38-40, .44-40, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, or .45 Colt.

In 1999 Colt began production of the Colt Cowboy, a Single Action Army with a modern transfer bar safety, finally allowing it to be carried with the hammer resting on a loaded chamber. Production of that model ceased in 2003.

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) firing two Colt Single Action Army revolvers in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). photo from web photo

Colt New Army M1892, Colt New Service M1909, and M1917

In service; 1892-1909; 1898-1946; 1917-1954

Type: Double-action revolver

Caliber .38 Long

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
A Colt New Army M1892. photo from web photo

Though the Colt SAA is still in production, the Colt M1892 Army eclipsed it functionally by leaps and bounds, becoming the Army’s first double-action general issue revolver with a swing-out cylinder after it was adopted in 1892 chambered in .38 Long Colt. The revolver design was improved numerous times, resulting in Models 1892, 1894, 1895, 1896, 1901, and 1903a as well as a Model 1905 Marine Corps variant.

The 1892 featured a counter-clockwise rotating cylinder, which could be opened for loading and ejection by simply pulling back on a catch mounted on the left side of the frame behind the recoil shield. The cylinder could then be swung out sideways. An ejector rod and star extractor was used to knock loose all six empty casings at once. This made for extremely fast reloads when compared to the SAA, which required the loading gate to be opened, each empty case to be ejected with the ejecting rod (if they didn’t fall free), and then for each chamber to be loaded one at a time before the gate was closed and the weapon could be cocked and fired.

One of the major problems with the design was that the counter-clockwise cylinder rotation tended to force the cylinder out of alignment with the frame over time. The problem was enhanced by a weak lockwork used to match each individual chamber to the barrel as the cylinder rotates. In 1908, Colt improved and strengthened the lockwork and changed the cylinder rotation to a clockwise movement.

One famous 1892 revolver was recovered from the USS Maine after it exploded in Havana Harbor in 1898. It was presented to then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, who reportedly brandished the pistol to rally his Rough Riders during the famous charge up San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898. The pistol is currently on display at Sagamore Hill. It was stolen from that location twice, once in 1963. It was returned and then stolen again in 1990. It was last returned to Sagamore Hill in 2006.

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
A Smith & Wesson M1917 with Speer reloading manual. photo from web photo

Complaints eventually arose about the revolver’s chambering and lack of power. Beginning in 1899, combat reports arose from the Philippines campaign regarding the poor performance of the M1892’s .38-caliber ammo, with users complaining that it failed to stop charging enemy tribesmen at close ranges, even with multiple hits.

The problem of the underpowered .38 led to the adoption of two sidearms: the Colt New Service Model 1909 revolver in .45 M1909, a round that was basically the .45 Long Colt with an enlarged rim to facilitate extraction (and later as the Model 1917 in .45 ACP, but we’ll get to that soon), and eventually the M1911.

The Colt New Service, introduced in 1909, was the largest revolver ever made by Colt and one of the largest production revolvers of all time until the 1970s.

As the M1909, it was chambered for the modified .45 M1909 cartridge to replace the underperforming .38-caliber pistols.

Later, the Colt M1917 New Service revolver was introduced with a cylinder bored to take the recently adopted .45 ACP rimless cartridges in half-moon clips. Newer Colt production models could be fired without the half-moon clips, but the empty cartridge cases had to be ejected with a device, such as a cleaning rod or pencil, as the extractor and ejector would pass over the rimless cartridges without a clip.

The revolver became one of Colt’s most successful and after World War I, then it gained a strong civilian following.

Another version of the M1917 was made by Smith & Wesson, who employed Naomi Alan, an engineer who invented and patented the half-moon clip. At the request of the Army, S&W allowed Colt to use the design free of charge in their version.

The S&W M1917 was an adaptation of their Second Model .44 Hand Ejector, simply chambered for the .45 ACP and employing a shortened cylinder allowing for use of the half-moon clips. S&W kept their version in production for civilian and police sales after the war until it was replaced with the Model 1950 Target. The half-moon clips are a weakness of the pistol, as they are difficult to load and unload and bent clips can cushion the firing pin strike, causing failure to fire.

In 1920, the Peters ammunition company introduced the .45 Auto Rim, which allowed both versions of the M1917 revolver to fire reliably without the half-moon clips, though it counteracts the usefulness of being able to use the same ammo as the M1911 and Thompson submachine gun.

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) carries an M1917 Revolver in Paths of Glory (1957). photo from web photo

M1911 and M1911A1

In service – M1911: 1911-1924; M1911A1: 1924-1985/present

Type: Semi-automatic, magazine-fed pistol

Caliber: .45 ACP

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
A side-by-side comparison of the M1911 and the M1911A1. The most visible changes are the shortened trigger and the arched mainspring housing. photo from wikipedia web photo

Then came the year 1911 and John Browning’s M1911 pistol: a single-action, semi-automatic, magazine-fed, recoil-operated pistol chambered in the powerful and new .45 ACP cartridge that would become the military’s sidearm for the next 75 years and change handguns forever.

During its remarkable service life, the U.S. procured around 2.7 million M1911 and M1911A1 pistols in military contracts and hasn’t been completely phased out, even today.

This was an extremely important time for the development of modern firearms. From the end of 1899 into 1900, a military test of self-loading pistols was conducted, including the Mauser C96 “Broomhandle” pistol, the Mannlicker M1984, and the Colt M1900. This led to the purchase of 1,000 DWM Luger pistols chambered for the bottlenecked, underpowered 7.65mm Luger cartridge.

The ammo’s stopping power problems led to DWM producing an enlarged version of the round that you may have heard of, the 9 x 19mm Parabellum. Fifty of these pistols were tested by the U.S. Army in 1903.

In 1906, trials of pistols from six firearms manufacturing companies were held, including Colt, Bergmann, Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM), Savage Arms Company, Knoble, Webley, and White-Merril.

Three were eliminated early on, leaving the Savage, Colt, and DWM designs chambered in the new .45 ACP cartridge. These three still had issues, but only Colt and Savage resubmitted their designs. A series of field tests were held from 1907 to 1911 to decide between the two. Ultimately, both designed were improved and the Colt was selected. One of its notable successes was a test held at the end of 1910, attended by John Browning, in which 6,000 rounds were fired from a single pistol over the course of two days. When the gun got too hot, it was simply dunked in a bucket of water. The Colt had zero malfunctions, while the Savage had 37.

The Colt was formally adopted by the Army on March 29, 1911 when it was designed Model of 1911, which was changed to M1911 in the mid-1920s.

The Director of Civilian Marksmanship began manufacture of M1911 pistols for members of the National Rifle Association in August 1912. About 100 pistols made by Colt and Springfield Armory were stamped “NRA” below the serial number. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps adopted the pistol in 1913.

During World War I, a totally of 68,533 M1911 pistols were delivered to U.S. armed forced by the beginning of 1917. The guns were manufactured by both Colt and Springfield Armory.

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
An example of an M1911A1. photo from web photo

The need to greatly expand U.S. military forces and the accompanying surge in demand for the M1911 caused the military to use additional contractors including Remington-UMC and North American Arms Co. of Quebec.

Several other companies, including National Cash Register Company, the Savage Arms Company, the Caron Bros. of Montreal, the Burroughs Adding Machine Co., Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and the Lanston Monotype Company, were contracted to produce the pistol. However, the signing of the Armistice resulted in the cancellation of the contracts before any had been produced.

Once the M1911 had logged some battlefield experience, some small changes were recommended and completed by 1924. The improved pistol was reclassified as the M1911A1 in 1926. The changes included a shorter trigger, cutouts in the frame behind the trigger, an arched mainspring housing, a longer grip safety spur (to prevent hammer bite), a wider front sight, a shortened hammer spur, and simplified grip checkering. These changes were all designed to make it easier for people of different hand sizes to use the pistol.

No significant internal changes were made, and parts remained interchangeable with M1911s.

A .22 training version of the M1911 called the Colt Service Ace was developed that used a floating chamber to give the little .22LR recoil similar to the .45 version. It was also available as a conversion kit.

World War II, and the years leading up to it, created a great demand for the M1911A1. During the war, about 1.9 million units were procured by the U.S. Government for all forces. The demand was undertaken by several manufacturers, including Remington Rand (900,000), Colt (400,000), Ithaca Gun Company (400,000), Union Switch & Signal (50,000), and Singer (500), which are exceedingly rare today and prized by collectors.

New guns were given a parkerized finish instead of blueing, and the wood grip panels were replaced with panels made of brown plastic.

The number of pistols made during WWII was so great that the government cancelled all of it’s M1911A1 postwar contracts for new production. Instead, existing pistols were repaired with new parts. The guns were then refinished and tested for functioning. From the mid 1920s to the mid 1950s, thousands of M1911s and M1911A1s were refurbished at U.S. Arsenals and service depots. The refurbished guns were usually marked with the arsenal’s initials, such as RIA (Rock Island Armory), or SA (Springfield Armory).

After the war, the M1911A1 continued to be the main sidearm of the U.S. Armed Forces through the Korean War and the Vietnam War and it additionally saw action during Desert Storm in specialized U.S. Army units and has seen service in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom with U.S. Army Special Forces Groups.

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) fires his M1911A1 as a last effort in Saving Private Ryan (1998). photo from web photo

Beretta M9

In service: 1985 – present

Type: Semi-automatic, magazine-fed pistol

Caliber: 9 x 19mm Parabellum

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
The Beretta M9 pistol, which had been the U.S. Army’s standard sidearms since 1985. photo from web photo

By the late 1970s, the M1911A1 was thought to be showing its age, and Congress began pressuring the Department of Defense to choose a standardized modern pistol design for all branches of the military chambered for the now NATO-standard 9x19mm Parabellum resulting in the U.S. Air Force running a Joint Service Small Arms Program to select a new semi-auto pistol. The winner was the Beretta 92S-1.

The Army contested the result and ran its own competition in 1981 known famously as the XM9 trials, with entries from Smith & Wesson, Beretta, SIG Sauer, Heckler & Koch, Walther, Steyr, and Fabrique Nationale.

The Army officially adopted the Beretta 92 on January 14, 1985, marking the first change to its sidearm in more than 70 years.

Then there was a bit of a mess. Some early reports of cracks in the slide and over-pressured ammo causing frame, slide separations, led to a new trial, the XM10 competition, in 1988. The Beretta was ultimately chosen, but in an updated form designated as the 92F and adopted as the M9 pistol.

Some of the changes included design of all parts being 100 percent interchangeable, the front of the trigger guard modified so that shooters could use finger support for easier aiming, a recurve added to the forward base of the grip, the barrel bore hard chromed to protect it from corrosion, and a new surface coating called Bruniton on the slide.

To address the issue of cracked slides, the 92F had an enlarged hammer pin that fits into a groove on the underside of the slide designed to stop the slide from flying off the frame to the rear if it should crack.

The M9 is a short recoil, 9mm semi-automatic, single-action/double-action pistol that uses a 15-round staggered box magazine with a reversible magazine release button that can be positioned for right or left-handed shooters. It has an external hammer so it can be fired in single action only or the first round can be fired in double-action, with subsequent shots fired in single-action until the hammer is decocked with the safety/decocking lever.

The M9 was updated to the M9A1 in 2006. It added a 1-slot Picatinny rail for the attachment of a weapon light, laser sight, or other accessories and has a more aggressive front and backstrap checkering and beveled magazine well for easier reloading. The M9A1s are sold with physical vapor deposition (PVD) coated magazines developed to better withstand the conditions in the sandy environments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The M9A3 update was introduced in 2015, with the M9A2 concept never going into production. Updates included an increased magazine capacity from 15 to 17 rounds, a 3-slot Picatinny rail, thinner vertical grips for better control and easier concealed carry, removable wrap-around grip for improved control, removable sights, universal slide, and sand-resistant magazines in a bevelled shape for blind reloading.

In Operation Iraqi Freedom, during which the M9 saw extensive use because of the frequency of close-quarters engagements in buildings, reports began to surface of the pistol failing in the field. A lengthy investigation revealed that the problem was with the magazines made for the M9, specifically with the outside coating, which didn’t react well to heat and sand. The coating was changed and more than 2 million magazines were reissued to troops, which seemed to have solved the problem.

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
Capt. Walden (Meg Ryan) covers helicopter crash survivors with her Beretta 92FS standing in for an M9 in Courage Under Fire (1996). photo from web photo

Heckler & Koch Mark 23 Mod 0

In service: 1996 – present (used by US Special Operations Command)

Type: Semi-auto pistol

Caliber: .45 ACP

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
The Heckler & Koch Mk23 Mod 0 without the suppressor or LAM attached. photo from web photo

In 1991 development of the Heckler & Koch MK 23 Mod 0 began as special operators expressed the need for an “Offensive Handgun Weapons System—Special Operations Peculiar.” Delivery to special operations units began in 1996, though the pistol was never widely issued. When issued, the large pistol system was designated as the USSOCOM MK23, including an Laser Aiming Module developed by Insight Technology and a suppressor developed by Knight’s Armament Company.

This came about because US SOCOM began reviewing their gear in 1989 to see what fit their needs in the close-quarter-battle area. They decided to greatly simplify their arsenal to ease the logistics of getting spare parts. Since those engaged in CQB often use their pistol as a primary weapon, the Offensive Handgun Weapon System competition began to find a suitable pistol.

At the time, the FBI had abandoned the 9mm for the new 10mm auto round—but were finding that it was too powerful and hard to find, and that the round caused a short service life for the guns that used them. So, SOCOM landed on the old-school .45 ACP and used an improved, high pressure 185 gr +P load, though the gun had to be able to fire pretty much any type of .45 ACP.

Though it was tested, the M1911A1 was found to not be able to hold up to the high-pressure rounds and didn’t work reliably with a suppressor without significant upgrades.

The MK 23 is considered a match grade pistol capable of 2-inch groups at 25 meters. It was designed to be exceptionally durable in harsh, wet environments and is waterproof and corrosion resistant.

The pistol uses a polygonal barrel design for improved accuracy and durability and features ambidextrous controls designed for use with gloved hands. A decocking lever on the left side of the gun silently lowers the exposed, cocked hammer of the DA/SA pistol. Being chambered for the venerable .45 means the gun has plenty of power, but still uses subsonic ammo, making it very suitable for use with a suppressor.

The Mk23 is marketed to civilians by HK as the MK 23 without the LAM and suppressor. Since the Mk23’s development, HK has introduced the USP, which is a smaller, lighter version of the Mk23 that has become quite popular.

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
Lt. A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis) aims an HK Mark 23 with the suppressor attached in Tears of the Sun (2003). photo from web photo

SIG-Sauer P320

In service: 2017 –

Type: Modular striker-fired semi-auto pistol

Caliber: 9x19mm Parabellum

A Brief History of U.S. Army Sidearms
The SIG-Sauer P320 pistol, the Army’s new M17 sidearm as of 2017. mfg photo

In mid-2015, the Army announced a competition for what it called the XM17 Modular Handgun System Contract, with requests for proposals going out on August 28, 2015, asking gun makers to submit packages including full-size and compact versions of handguns that fit the Army’s various criteria.

The Army contract will ultimately result in more than 280,000 full-size pistols and 7,000 compact sidearms. Other military services participating in the MHS program may order an additional 212,000 guns, for a grand total of about half a million handguns.

By September 2016, news broke that the Smith & Wesson M&P had been taken out of the running. Of the original 20 entrants, there were only the Beretta APX, the CZ P-09, FN Five-Seven, Glock 17 and 22, and the SIG-Sauer P320.

The final announcement came on January 19, with most of the firearms industry gathered at the 2017 SHOT Show. The U.S. Army had chosen the SIG P320 as its new M17 sidearm.


A quick summary of American military rifles, from the American Revolution to today.

A History of U.S. Military Rifles

Early reports indicate that the Army’s P320 will include modifications from the civilian and LEO version and that it will be chambered in 9x19mm Parabellum.

The short-recoil-operated, locked-breech P320 was introduced in 2014 as a 9mm, but was soon followed by a .45 ACP compact model and is now also offered in .357 SIG and .40 S&W. The pistol is a descendent of the company’s P250 model that uses a striker-fired action instead of the P250’s DAO hammer action.

Above all else, the Army made it clear they were looking for a modular designed, meaning components of the pistols could easily, and cheaply, be swapped out for repairs or to create different pistol configurations for different purposes.

The P320 was a favorite for the M17 because of its design. The gun’s serial number is on the fire control unit, not the grip module. This allows users to choose from one of three fairly inexpensive polymer grip units for different sized hands and applications—the design also allows users to swap out differently-sized slide and barrel assemblies (which also come in three sizes) to adapt the P320 to different needs, including a subcompact, concealed carry version.

The specific modifications request by the Army have not yet been made public.

Keanu Reeves briefly uses a SIG P320 in *John Wick: Chapter 2*.
Keanu Reeves briefly uses a SIG P320 in John Wick: Chapter 2. photo from