History of pistols and handguns used by the United States military

  • Since 2017, the U.S. military service branches have been rolling out new M17 and M18 handguns.
  • The new weapons are just the latest in a handgun history that dates back to the earliest Continental soldiers.

This story was originally published in November 2020.

American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines soon received the new Army pistols in large numbers.

The U.S. Army awarded Sig Sauer the contract for the new modular handgun system in January 2017. By 2018, other service branches had placed their own orders for the M17 and M18 variants.

By November 2019, Sig Sauer had delivered over 100,000 of the new handguns. Deliveries reached 200,000 in November 2020 – the first month the pistols were sent to all military branches simultaneously.

The M17 and the compact M18 variant are the latest in a long line of handguns that American troops have carried into battle since 1776.

The flints

Revolutionary War Continental Army Infantry Soldiers

A painting of Continental Army infantry by Henry Alexander Ogden.

Library of Congress

Early U.S. Army handguns were often privately owned. Officers, able to afford more expensive weapons, usually had dueling pistols, while rank and file soldiers made do with whatever they could get from local gunsmiths. This led to a range of armaments of varying calibers and qualities.

The Continental Congress attempted to obtain a standard sidearm for the Continental Army. The pistol he chose was a direct copy of the British Model 1760 flintlock pistol. Congress purchased 2,000 of the pistols, dubbed the Model 1775, which were manufactured by the Rappahannock Forge in Virginia.

The .62 caliber single-shot smoothbore flintlock, which included an iron or ash ramrod under the barrel, is considered the first handgun issued by the United States military.

The gun was well received during the Revolution. After the war a new version, known as the Model 1805, was made at Harper’s Ferry. This flintlock saw service in the War of 1812 and remained the standard US Army pistol for over 50 years.

Two Model 1805s are featured on the US Army Military Police Corps insignia, and a similar pistol can be seen on the US Navy SEAL emblem.

Colt revolvers

Colt Walker percussion revolver

Colt Walker percussion revolver, serial number. 1017.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1836, inventor Samuel Colt revolutionized warfare when his first revolver design was patented.

The new weapon allowed a soldier to fire six bullets in as many seconds without stopping to reload. It also used percussion caps, which allowed soldiers to fire reliably in wet weather.

Colt revolvers were important weapons in the American arsenal for much of the 19th century, with at least four models – the Colt 1847, Colt M1848 Dragoon, Colt Army Model 1860, and Colt Single Action Army – seeing service .

The Colt 1847, known as the “Walker” to the Texas Ranger who helped design it, was based on Colt’s previous designs in service with the Republic of Texas and became the first mass-produced revolver in US service. United States.

The Walker and the Dragoon, another .44 caliber revolver adopted by United States Army cavalry and mounted infantry units, saw service in the Mexican–American War and on both sides of the American Civil War.

George S. Patton US Army Peacemaker Colt revolver

Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, with his ivory-handled Colt Single Action Army “Peacemaker”, pins a Silver Star on Pvt. Ernest A. Jenkins in October 1944.

National Archives

The most popular Colt design of the 19th century was the Colt Army Model 1860, a .44 caliber revolver adopted just before the Civil War. It saw Union and Confederate use in large numbers—130,000 were built for the Union alone, and over 200,000 had been made by the time production ceased in 1873.

The invention of metal cartridges again revolutionized firearms, eliminating the need for percussion caps, a separate powder container, and ramrods. Colt’s best-known model with this innovation was the Colt Single Action Army.

The new revolver fired a .45 caliber centerfire cartridge and was a huge success, becoming a standard handgun in the United States for over 20 years. It was used in all American wars and military campaigns until 1905 and was used extensively on the western frontier of the United States by bandits and members of the government, earning it nicknames like “the Peacemaker”. .

Some soldiers, like General George S. Patton, carried their personal Colt SAA with them until World War II.

The last revolver in service in the United States was the M1917, a six-shot pistol manufactured by Colt and Smith & Wesson and introduced for provisional use. After World War I the M1917s were used primarily by support units, although they again saw front line service with the tunnel rats of the Vietnam War.


US Marine Corps M1911 pistol

A US Marine reloads a .45 caliber M1911 pistol during gunnery training in August 2013.

United States Marine Corps

In 1911, the United States Army adopted what would become one of the most iconic firearms in history: the M1911.

Designed by firearms legend John Browning, the .45 ACP pistol was a single-action, recoil-operated, semi-automatic pistol capable of firing seven rounds from a magazine held in the pistol grip.

The M1911 was one of the most popular weapons in American history. It was the standard sidearm, with few changes, for all branches of the U.S. military for over 70 years and was used in nearly every U.S. conflict during that time, including both world wars. world, Korea, Vietnam and the American invasion of Grenada in 1983.

The M1911 was officially superseded in 1985, but a number of special operations units have carried it into the 21st century. It was so popular that the Marine Corps returned it to limited service in 2012 as the M45A1 CQBP.


M9 pistol

An M9 in use.

The American army

In 1986 the Army selected the Italian Beretta 92 as the new sidearm for all branches.

Lightweight and modern, the gun used the smaller 9x19mm cartridge, allowing it to carry 15 rounds in the magazine, double that of the M1911, but at the cost of less penetrating power.

In service as the M9, the pistol was used by US troops for 30 years and saw service in Yugoslavia, the Gulf Wars, Afghanistan and other operations during the War on Terror.

The Pentagon purchased over 600,000 M9s, but they had reliability issues and had gained a bad reputation by the 2010s. In 2015, the US Army and Air Force began looking for a replacement.


US Army Soldiers Modular Handgun System M17 Pistol Handgun

US soldiers with new M17s at Fort Hood in Texas in January 2018.

US Army/Staff Sgt. Hill of Taresha

In January 2017, Sig Sauer’s P320 was announced the winner of the XM17 Modular Handgun System competition. The gun has two variants: the full-length M17 and the compact M18.

The Army received its first M17s in June 2017. The Air Force began procurement in June 2019, and the Marine Corps officially began fielding the M18 in September.

The guns can be configured for different missions and feature a rail on which accessories such as lasers and optical sights can be mounted. Their standard capacity of 17 9mm rounds can be increased to 21 with an extended magazine.

The Pentagon plans to purchase 420,000 M17s and M18s for $580 million over a 10-year period.


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