A History of USMC Sidearms
A look at the revolvers and pistols used by U.S. Marines from 1851 to the present.
There’s been a lot of talk and focus on the new pistol design for the United States Army. Indeed, pistol trials for the Army have long garnered more attention than trials for the other service branches. Regardless, it doesn’t make the arms carried by the other branches any less important. With that in mind, here’s a rundown of sidearms carried throughout history by the United States Marine Corps. NOTE: This list is not comprehensive, as it would go on seemingly forever. Instead, it focuses on the main sidearms used by the Marines. If you need a primer on the general history of the USMC, go here.
Colt 1851 Navy Revolver
In Service: 1851-1873
Type: single-action, cap and ball revolver
The 1851 Navy is by far the most recognizable sidearm from the American Civil War. Despite having “Navy” in its name, that does not mean it was specifically meant for that branch of service. Instead, it’s a caliber designation: .36 for Navy; .44 for Army.
Lacking a top strap and sporting an octagonal barrel, the gun was smaller in stature than Colt’s Dragoon revolver, but in a good way. The 1851 weighed in at 2.5 pounds, which is substantially lighter than the 4.25-pound Dragoon. This made it easier to carry and shoot. The Dragoon and Walker before it were usually seen by the military as too large and heavy to be carried on a belt, and were instead usually holstered on a saddle.
The six-shot cylinder was loaded with loose powder and ball in a paper cartridge, which was rammed into the cylinder using the loading lever mounted under the barrel. Once percussion caps were placed on the cones on the back of the cylinder, the revolver was ready to fire.
The USMC had only recently authorized the Model 1851 to be carried by officers when the Civil War broke out. As a result, the gun is more often associated with the Army, Cavalry, and the Navy than it is the Marine Corps.
Even so, the gun was incredibly popular. More than a quarter million Colt Navy pistols were manufactured in a 22-year period, which comes out to almost 31 revolvers a day—365 days a year, seven days a week.
Colt Single Action Army Revolver
In Service: 1873-1892
Type: single-action, cartridge revolver
Caliber: .45 Colt
The Single Action Army (also known as the SAA, Peacemaker and Colt .45) is, along with the Winchester Model 1873, considered by many to be the “Gun That Won the West.” When combined with the .45 Colt self-contained, metallic cartridge, it was a match made in heaven.
The SAA is, as its name suggests, a single-action revolver with a six-round cylinder made specifically for metallic cartridges. Many cap-and-ball revolvers at the time were converted to fire metallic cartridges once they became common.
The gun was originally designed for the U.S. government service revolver trials of 1872 by Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company. It was was adopted as the standard U.S. military service revolver and production of the “New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol” began the following year.
However, the SAA still had to beat out the Smith & Wesson Model 3 “Schofield” revolver, which was also in service in parts of the military. While the top-break S&W revolver was seen as superior by some, the Colt ultimately won out, partly because of ammunition logistics. The S&W was chambered in .45 Schofield, which wasn’t compatible with the .45 Colt or vice versa. The military had actually decided to go with the S&W and it’s cartridge, but because it had so much .45 Colt ammo in its supply chain already, the Army stuck with the SAA and the rest is history—though political reasons almost certainly lead to the decision as well.
The Colt SAA has since been offered in dozens of calibers and many barrel lengths over the decades, but it’s overall design and appearance has pretty much stayed the same since 1873. The original length of the barrel, issued to the U.S. Calvary, was 7.5 inches.
The revolver has been carried by countless U.S. troops, with approximately 145,000 guns made by the time they were replaced by the next gun on this list.
Colt Model 1905 Marine Corps Revolver
In Service: 1905-1909
Type: double-action revolver
Caliber: .38 Colt
The Model 1905 began production after more than a decade of design changes by the Army and the Navy on Colt’s Model 1892, which was the first successful double-action revolver with a swing-out cylinder. (A revolver design that reigns supreme and relatively unchanged since that time.)
Another significant change with this revolver is the caliber reduction from .45 to .38, which began with the Colt Model 1889. The decision to change calibers came to a head during battle in the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines where the cartridge proved to not be powerful enough for effective use in combat, which Field & Stream‘s Dave Petzal writes about here.
Less than 1,000 1905s—only 926, to be exact—were manufactured between 1905 and 1909 for the Marine Corps. The guns featured a round butt with a lanyard swivel, checkered wood grips with a diamond in the center, and “USMC” stamped on the butt of the gun.
Though it wasn’t as powerful as the old Colt .45s, the swing-out cylinder made it much easier and faster to load than the Colt SAA, which is loaded and unloaded one cartridge and case at a time through a loading gate.
Colt USMC Model 1909 Revolver
In Service: 1909-1913
Type: double-action cartridge
Caliber: .45 Colt
Because of the issues noted with the .38-caliber revolvers, it should come as no surprise that the military decided to go back to .45-caliber revolvers. Colt dubbed it the “New Service” and the USMC called it the “Model of 1909.” Out of the 14,000 made, only ten percent (1,400) were purchased by the Marines in 1910.
Like the M1905 before it, the guns featured a round butt with a lanyard swivel, checkered wood grips with a diamond in the center, and “USMC” stamped on the butt.
Examples are scarce, both because of the small number purchased by the Marines, and the short service lifespan due to the design that came next.
The Model 1909 was the last .45 Colt handgun issued by the U.S. military and it would be almost a century before another issue sidearm was specifically marked USMC.
Colt Model 1911 Pistol
In Service: 1913-1985 / present
Type: single action, semi-automatic pistol
Caliber: .45 ACP
The military spent a number of years at the dawn of the 20th century fielding a wide variety of designs that were competing to be the new standard-issue, semi-automatic pistol. In March of 1911, Colt and Savage had emerged as the top two contenders, beating out other designs over the years of testing that had included pistols by Luger and Mauser.
Both Colt and Savage submitted a gun that had to endure a 6,000-round torture test. Colt entered the competition with serial number 5, fired by E.G. Reising. Savage selected serial number 4, fired by Charles Nelson.
When the dust settled, Colt appeared to be victorious. It had performed better than the Savage, but the final word would not arrive until the end of the month.
On March 29, 1911, Colt was notified that their design had “passed the prescribed tests and ha[d] been adopted” as the new military sidearm.
The pistol submitted by Savage that almost beat out the 1911 eventually became known as the Model 1907, which was chambered in .380 ACP. Savage made 181 of the pistols in .45 ACP for the army trial, which were returned to Savage and then sold on the civilian market.
After getting the win, Colt was instructed to reply with a quote for an order of 30,262 pistols, along with “spare parts and screwdrivers” to be sent to Springfield Armory ASAP to become the M1911. The new pistol, which held seven rounds of .45 ACP in its single-stack magazine, was destined for greatness.
After adoption by other branches, the USMC finally followed suit in 1913.
Over the years, literally millions of M1911 and M1911A1 pistols have been made. More than 1.8 million were made during WWII alone. Colt’s 1911 design served with distinction for a longer period of time than any other sidearm in U.S. military history, spanning 74 years: 1911-1985.
Even though it is no longer standard issue, versions of the M1911A1 are still used by Marine Force Recon Units and Special Operation Command, making it a companion for the USMC for more than 100 years.
Smith & Wesson Victory Model Revolver
In Service: 1942-1945
Type: double-action revolver Caliber: .38 Special
This entry may seem a little out of order, but WWII necessitated the use of all kinds of arms by every branch of the service.
The Smith & Wesson’s Military & Police revolver (aka Model 10) became known as the “Victory Model” because of a V-prefix in the serial number. By war’s end, approximately 900,000 had been made.
The revolver was the successor to the S&W .32 Hand Ejector Model of 1896 and was the first Smith revolver to have a cylinder release latch on the left side of the frame, like the Colt M1889 revolver. The six-shot, double-action revolver was first produced in 1899.
The Model 10 was used by Navy and Marine aviators overseas as well as domestic security guards at various plants and factories that were churning out supplied for the war effort.
Beretta M9 Pistol
In Service: 1985-2017 / present – being phased out
Type: Double Action / Single Action semi-automatic pistol
Even though the M1911A1 was a tried-and-true design, it had remained relatively unchanged since William Howard Taft occupied the Oval Office. Countless advancements had been made during that time, and the US military needed to keep pace with the rest of the world’s armed forces.
The 9mm cartridge became the NATO standard in 1962, but the United States would still cling to the .45 ACP for a couple more decades.
After a variety of military trials throughout the early 1980s, the world’s oldest gun company (begun in Italy in 1526) pulled off the unthinkable: Beretta dethroned the venerable 1911.
The benefits of the M9 were plenty: lighter weight, higher magazine capacity (15 rounds of 9mm vs seven rounds of .45—standard length eight-round mags for the 1911 have long been available on the civilian market), a reversible magazine release button, and other features, including an easier disassembly process
The semi-automatic, Double Action/Single Action pistol was adopted as the M9 by the entirety of the U.S. military in 1985—it became known in the civilian world as the Beretta 92 series of pistols.
In 2006 the pistol was updated to the M9A1 to include a one-slot Picatinny rail for accessories and other small changes, including a coating better suited for desert combat.
The M9A2 never came to be and the M9A3 model, with a 17-round magazine, 3-slot Picatinny rail, a universal slide, and sand-resistant magazines, coyote brown coloring, and other updated features was offered to the military, but was ultimately rejected before being sold on the civilian market.
The Beretta M9 hung on for more than 30 years, undergoing a variety of changes, but time marches on.
Glock 19M (M007) Pistol
In Service: 2017-present
Type: striker-fired, semi-automatic pistol Caliber: 9mm
In May 2017, the USMC dubbed the Glock 19M pistol the “M007” and began issuing them to the Criminal Investigation Division and HMX-1, the helicopter squadron in charge of transporting the president.
The M007 features a flared magazine well and no finger grooves like the Gen 4 series of Glock pistols. Instead, it has a textured frame that was determined to be more ergonomic for a wider variety of shooters.
The slide is also ambidextrous, making it great for right and left-handed manipulation.
The Glock 19 generally is a more compact version of the company’s original pistols, the Glock 17, and is well-suited for shooters of different sizes and concealed carry applications. It’s also widely used by law enforcement in the U.S.
Steyr Arms and the New Jersey State Police both have issues with the big gunmaker.
In Service: soon?
Type: DAO, striker-fired, semi-automatic pistol Caliber: 9mm
Announced in March 2018, the USMC’s 2019 budget calls for the SIG Sauer P320, known in its military configuration as the M17/M18 Modular Handgun System (MHS), to be ordered, presumably as replacements for the USMC’s current sidearms, which includes the M9 and the recently-adopted M007.
Details are obviously not finalized, but it is speculated that the Marines favor the M18’s compact design to the M17’s full-size design, but the modularity of the pistol platform allows for the different-sized frames to be easily swapped out, which was a requirement of the Army’s MHS trial. Only time will tell if the change comes to fruition.
The M17/M18 was recently adopted by the U.S. Army as a replacement for the aging Beretta M9, after the M9A3 was rejected as an acceptable update.