These 10 Service Pistols Show How Much Guns Have Changed

Evolution of sidearms in the military

If you want to make a firearm a sales sensation, get a well-known army to buy a bunch of them for use as service pistols. That cements the gun by way of pedigree and reputation, and for the most part, will also make it an instant classic.

Ever wonder what the service pistols of yesteryear were like compared to those of today?

These 10 American service pistols have at one time or another been the issued handgun of our armed forces. Some are now quite rare and collectible. Others aren't, for a variety of reasons.

Harper's Ferry Model 1805

The Harper's Ferry Model 1805 flintlock pistol replaced the 1799 North and Cheney as the cavalry and officer's field pistol. Typically, they were issued in matched pairs, with one to be holstered on either side of a saddle. The M1805, made by the Harper's Ferry Armory, was a smoothbore flintlock, but was chambered in .54 caliber as opposed to the North and Cheney, which fired a .72 caliber ball.

In service: 1805

Harper Ferry Model 1805

Walker Colt

By the 1840s, the muzzleloading pistol gave way to the revolvers and the first to be issued to American troops was the legendary and infamous Walker Colt. The Walker was made by Colt at the behest of Samuel Walker, a captain in the Texas Rangers. Walker wanted a cavalry pistol that could knock man or horse if need be...and they were. The Walker sat a .454-in ball on 60 grains of black and sent it screaming out a 9-inch barrel, roughly equal to a hot .45 Colt. If you're a fan of carrying these long-barrel revolvers, you'll need a quality gun belt to handle it.

It remained the most powerful revolver ever produced until the .357 Magnum came about. The Walker Colt was observed to be effective beyond 100 yards, but unfortunately didn't do Samuel Walker much good. He was killed in the Mexican-American War not long after receiving his pair of pistols. The Walker was also known for problems. Firing it often dislodged the loading lever, requiring it to be reset before firing again or strapped down, and there was a nasty habit of any residual powder on the cylinder igniting, blowing up the pistol and injuring the carrier.

However, the Walker established Colt's open-top revolver designs and other variants - such as the 1848 Dragoon (an improved Walker without the nasty drawbacks), the 1851 Navy and 1860 Army were likewise adopted by the US Army and Navy. Cap and ball revolvers such as the Walker remained the primary sidearm of the US armed forces through the Civil War.

In service: 1847-1848, further use in subsequent designs

Walker Colt Revolver

Smith and Wesson Model 3

By 1870, the jig was up regarding cap and ball - cartridges were the way of the future, and first to be issued was the Smith and Wesson Model 3, aka the "Schofield" revolver. The Model 3 was a single-action top break chambered in a variety of .44 and .45 calibers such as .44 Russian, .44 Henry, .44 American, .45 Schofield (a shorter .45 Colt) and some in .45 Colt. The Army initially adopted the pistol in .44 American, but later insisted on Model 3s in .45 Schofield.

The Model 3 garnered a reputation for great reliability and accuracy in military service (Model 3 revolvers remained in use by the Army into the early 1900s) and in civilian use as well. After all, when Wyatt Earp went to the OK Corral to disarm the Clanton gang, it wasn't with a long-barreled Colt - he had a Model 3.

In service: 1870-1915

Smith & Wesson Model 3 Revolver

Colt Single Action Army

Not long after the adoption of the Model 3, the Army also purchased and began issuing the Colt Single Action Army in 1873. Eventually it was given the nickname of the "Peacemaker," and is one of the most iconic as well as enduring pistol designs of all time. The SAA was initially favored over the Model 3 for greater stopping power, but fell out of favor for a time when .45 Colt ammunition became scarce (and also because the .45 Colt and .45 S&W weren't interchangeable) but reverted to the SAA, which remained in service for almost 40 years in various capacities.

In service: 1873-1892

Colt Single Action Army revolver

Colt Model 1892

The Colt 1892 was the first widely issued double-action pistol, with a swing-out cylinder holding 6 shots of .38 Long Colt. The easier, faster firing and reloading of the M1892 gave it clear advantages over the Model 3s and SAAs of the day as an officer's pistol or general sidearm, but was eventually found to be seriously wanting for stopping power during the Philippine-American War. At this point, army personnel reverted to using Model 3 and SAA revolvers whenever they could.

In service: 1892, subsequent models used

Colt Model 1892 Revolver

Colt Model 1909

The Colt Model 1909 was a stopgap, but turned out to be one of the finest pistols of the earliest 20th century as the civilian version was branded the Colt New Service, a perennial best-seller to civilians and for police. The M1909 was adopted by all branches to give them a .45 caliber sidearm while they waited for the semi-auto that the Army wanted to issue. However, the M1909 was adopted less than 2 years before it was delivered.

In service: 1898-1946

Colt Model 1909 Revolver

The 1911

The gun. The myth. The legend. The M1911 pistol, devised by John Moses Browning and adopted in 1911, remains one of the most popular pistol designs of all time. A single-action semi-auto holding 7+1 of .45 ACP, the M1911 is one of the most popular pistols with the civilian market as well as a military sidearm with pedigree second to none.

In service: 1911-present

The Original 1911


Evidently, you can improve on perfection. An update and refresh of the M1911 pistol came in 1927, consisting of an arched mainspring housing, a longer grip safety spur, a wider front sight and simplified grips. No changes were made with the military model until it was replaced in the 1980s...though M1911 pistols remain in service in select units to this day.

In service: 1927-present

1927 Colt 1911A1

Beretta M9

The 1911 eventually started showing its age as the Wonder Nines and similar pistols became more prevalent, which the armed forces knew. There was also the desire to bring this new handgun in line with NATO standards, which meant the 9x19mm Para round. A new round of pistol trials commenced, and the last gun standing was the Beretta 92FS, designated the M9.

One of the finest service pistols in existence, the M9/92 is a DA/SA semi-auto, holding 15+1 of 9mm (later variants went up to 17+1) and has held its own as a military sidearm and also as a police sidearm. Plenty of civilians have picked one up as well.

In service: 1985-present

Beretta M9 Limited Edition Pistol

Sig Sauer P320

All good things must come to an end, and our armed forces have been searching for a replacement for the M9 for some time. The idea is to get a gun that's simpler to use, fits more hands than the grips on the M9 (which are as wide as a city block) and offers a bit more modularity and features. The XM17 pistol trials concluded in late 2016, with the winner being the Sig Sauer P320, which will be designated the M17 Modular Handgun System.

The P320 is indeed that, as the trigger can be swapped between frames. Multiple slides and barrels can be used on the same frame as well. One merely needs to change the appropriate components to have a full-size 9x19mm service pistol or a .45 ACP compact, with no tools necessary.

In service: 2014-present

Sig Sauer P320

Some distance from a pair of smoothbore flintlocks, isn't it?

Enjoy the blast from the past? We sure hope so! Here's a few more articles related to firearms and carry positions you should check out too:

Sam Hoober  

About The Author

Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.

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