A Brief History
On January 4, 1847, inventor of the modern revolving pistol, Sam Colt, first sold his 1847 Walker .44 caliber revolver to the US Army, and the pistol promptly made its mark in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) where the revolver gave the Americans a decided advantage. Since then, there have been many assorted pistols issued for use in combat by the US Military, some successful designs that lasted many years and some not so successful designs. Today we list the 10 Pistols/Revolvers that we think are the best of the bunch. (We will also mention a few of the not-so-good variety.) Did we overlook any of your favorites? If so, please tell us which pistols you think should or should not belong on this list.
1. Colt Walker, .44 caliber, 1847.
By the time the Walker was introduced, Colt had refined his invention to a highly reliable state. Using a heavy charge of black powder ignited by a percussion cap, the Walker gave Americans 6 powerful, accurate shots, in fact, more powerful than any other repeating pistol until the advent of the .357 Magnum in the 1930’s. Prior to the Walker Colt, military pistols were generally single shot flintlock or percussion guns, slow to reload and often of dubious reliability. The Walker brought the US Military into the modern age and the forefront of technology. Th e Walker was quickly refined further into the 1848 Dragoon, which served as the main US Military pistol until 1860 when the Colt Army Model 1860 made its debut, also a .44 cap and ball revolver. The Navy chose the Colt 1851 Navy Model in .36 caliber (cap and ball).
2. Smith & Wesson Model 3, .44, 1871.
The first metallic cartridge breech loading pistol adopted by the US Military, this 6 shooter revolver would be familiar to pistoleros even today. Chambered in .44 S&W, the pistol was soon slightly modified to the Schofield pattern and rechambered for the S&W .45 Schofield ammunition. Although the Model 3 was substantially easier to reload than the ponderously slow to reload Colt Single Action Army (SAA) 1873, the fact that the Colt could use S&W ammo but the S&W Model 3 could not fire the .45 Long Colt round used by the SAA meant the Army favored the ammunition versatility of the Colt over the S&W. The US Army was left with an agonizingly slow to reload sidearm that may have well cost many US lives over the years. (The idiotically slow unload/reload cycle of the SAA is why we do not list the pistol as one of our “greatest.”) The Model 3’s were sold as surplus after the Spanish-American War of 1898. The utility of the pistol was evidenced by a decided preference for the Schofield by lawmen and desperadoes in the Wild West, and the guns get way too little credit in US Military History.
3. Colt New Service Model 1909, .45, 1898.
After the abysmal performance of the Colt M 1892 in .38 Colt caliber (a double action design), the US Army wanted to go back to the proven effectiveness of .45 caliber rounds, and turned to Colt for a new double action revolver in the desired caliber. The M 1909 was the first truly effective double action sidearm issued by the US Military. The M 1909 was manufactured and served from 1898 to 1941, with over 356, 000 made. A big, robust revolver, the M 1909 is in fact the largest revolver ever made by Colt, possibly a drawback for those who walked for a living. A shortage of these revolvers during the US entry into World War I resulted in the supplemental manufacture of M 1917 revolvers by Colt and Smith & Wesson chambered in .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (.45 Auto or .45 ACP). The M 1917 pistols were quite serviceable as well, and are highly collectible today.
4. Colt Model 1911 and 1911A1, .45, 1911.
By the 20th Century US Military planners recognized the advantages of the rapid reload capability of semi-automatic pistols, but still wanted the stopping power of the .45 ammunition. Et voila! Gun designing genius John Browning came up with possibly the best, longest lasting pistol design of all time, and a fantastically useful cartridge to go with it. Not only was the 1911 powerful and easy to reload, it was and is about the most reliable pistol available, capable of incredible feats of endurance. It could be field stripped without tools and in the hands of men that knew how to use it (notably Alvin York) extremely effective in combat. It was later refined as the M1911A1, and even after being replaced by the Beretta M9 in 1985 it stayed on with certain special forces units. (For some reason I could never fathom, stocks of brand new M1911A1’s were in storage while issued pistols became worn out and beaten to heck, another curious bureaucratic moron move by the US Military.)
5. Beretta M9, 9mm, 1985.
The enormous stocks of .45 ACP ammo were finally becoming depleted, and the US was ready to finally standardize pistol caliber with NATO to 9mm Luger (aka, 9 X 19 mm). The M9 was tested exhaustively and found to be incredibly reliable and easy to use and maintain, earning its spot in the American armory. Unfortunately, the pistols got a bad reputation when they started breaking, apparently because the US planners were not aware that European standards for 9mm ammo were more powerful than American standards, resulting in premature wear and tear on the M9’s. The situation was corrected, and the pistols based on the Beretta 92 continue to give great service to this day, although they will soon be replaced. (Note: I personally carried a Beretta 92 for 20 years as a police officer and never even once had a misfire, failure to feed or eject, or malfunction of any kind. I also found it ludicrously easy to qualify as an ‘Expert’ with the M9 while in the Marine Corps Reserve.)
6. H&K Mark 23, .45, 1996.
Along with the Mark 24, these modern double action semi-auto pistols were issued to special forces for special operations, giving these heroes the heavier duty stopping power of the .45 ACP cartridge. Throughout the history of the US Military, a variety of pistols were issued for special purposes and/or for evaluation. Some of those pistols were darn good guns, while others, such as the Gyrojet rocket propelled projectile pistol, were utter failures. Foreign made pistols have also been issued or appropriated by US service members, such as the Soviet Tokarev and Makarov pistols. During World War II the German Luger or Walther P38 were both prized trophies and were sometimes used in combat by Americans. One of my uncles carried an FN 1903 in .32 ACP because it was smaller and lighter than the M1911A1 he was issued.
7. Sig Sauer M17, 9mm, 2017.
Also known as the Sig Sauer P320, this pistol was the winner of the US Military Modular Handgun System competition beating out 11 other pistols to become the new standard issue US Military sidearm. In US Military mode it will have a capacity of 17 rounds of 9mm Luger (plus one in the chamber) or a higher capacity 21 round magazine, and is available to civilians or other militaries/police in other calibers up to .45 ACP. Designed to be ambidextrous and ergonomically compatible with a wide variety of shooters’ hand sizes, the M 17 has an accessory rail ahead of the trigger guard for the addition of a flashlight or laser sight or whatever gizmo you may want to install there. This pistol is intended to replace the M9 and the M11 pistols currently in the inventory. Unlike the other US Military pistols and revolvers, the M17 does not have an exposed hammer, but is a striker fired pistol with a single mode of firing with a trigger pull between that of a double action and a single action pistol (about 5.5 pounds). Additionally, the gun is made to accept sound suppressors (aka, silencers) and still function properly. The M17 is the first US Military pistol (except limited issue Glocks) to have a polymer frame.
8. Smith & Wesson Model 10/15, .38 Special, 1899.
These 6 shooter revolvers were made to be more powerful than the anemic .38 Colt variety, but actually still suffered the same lack of stopping power compared to the .45 Colt and .45 ACP. Still, the guns were well made, reliable and sturdy, and served for many decades, especially with the Military Police and air crews. Of course, civilian police agencies also flocked to these pistols, hence their other name, S&W M&P (Military and Police). They have also been named the Combat Masterpiece model and were adapted to the .357 Magnum cartridge. Many US Military units were still using these pistols into the late 1980’s before being replaced by the Beretta M9. (Note: It seems to us the biggest problem with the lack of stopping power of the .38 caliber and 9mm pistols is the military requirement for full metal jacket bullets, limiting their disruption of human tissue. The larger .45 caliber rounds do enough damage even without expanding. When used with modern hollow point ammo, the .38 and 9mm pistols provide adequate stopping power.)
9. Sig Sauer P226/228 M11, 9mm, 1988.
Used by the Navy Seals for their special operations, the M11 will be replaced by the M17. The P228 is the compact version of the venerable P226, and has been used by the US Navy since 1988. The M11 gives the American fighting person a smaller, easier to carry and conceal sidearm for those time when a smaller pistol is appropriate. The pistols have also been issued by the US Air Force, and are frequently used by police agencies around the world.
10. Future Issue, 2XXX?
A combination of what we would like to see and what we predict will happen, is the development of a new pistol with modularity beyond that of the M17 to take many forms, including compact and full size models and a submachine gun variant. The caliber will be either larger than the 9mm Luger, perhaps .45 ACP or .40 S&W for enhanced stopping power, or perhaps smaller still, something akin to the FN 5.7mm X 28mm as used by the FN Five-seven pistol, giving our fighting forces lighter and yet still lethal high velocity ammunition that can zip through body armor. Either way, the 9mm using a full metal jacket round nose bullet has to go! Of course, a new cartridge can be developed to specific requirements, perhaps the elusive caseless ammunition, and a good idea would be to develop related long arms and side arms for ammunition compatibility. This concept would pretty much dictate a small, high velocity round similar to the 5.7mm. With a smaller military force, price would no longer be so important, so the use of stainless steel should be incorporated for those parts where steel is necessary. Or perhaps the use of titanium could greatly enhance the reduction in weight that fighting men have yearned for. Question for students (and subscribers): Please tell us what you think the next generation US Military pistol should have for caliber and features in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Cunningham, Grant. Gun Digest Book of the Revolver. Krause Publications, 2011.
Lee, Jerry. Gun Digest 2018. Krause Publications, 2017.
Saad, Mohammad Rafi. Six Great Guns in the History of the US Army. War History Online, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Older Firearms of the most powerful handgun until the introduction of the .357 Magnum, the Colt Walker, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. This image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on by 19th Century Firearms. On that date, it was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the license indicated.