The Handgun as a Military Weapon

A good definition of a handgun is a weapon that you carry when you are not expecting trouble.

Handguns by their very nature are short range weapons. It takes an exceptional shot to hit a man sized target at distances much farther than 75 yards. Indeed they come with certain trade offs compared to long arms and those are size and weight for stopping power and range.

Of course there has been an endless debate about the merits of revolvers and pistols, one type of cartridge over another or whether high velocity cartridges with small caliber bullets are more effective than lower velocity cartridges with large caliber bullets.

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In armies throughout the World during the late 19th century and on into the 20th Century, the typical infantryman would carry a rifle while an officer would likely be armed with a pistol or revolver. Said officer would use his weapon only if confronted at close range by enemy soldiers that his men failed to stop or occasionally if one or more of his men failed to advance. As time went on and support elements became more elaborate and burdened with more equipment, handguns would be issued to support troops just to give them some means of selfdefense.

Cartridge Handguns - The American Military Experience

After the American Civil War the U.S. Army equipped itself with Colt single and double action revolvers chambered for 45 caliber cartridges. Firing relatively heavy bullets at low velocities they seemed to perform satifactorily.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, the 1894 Colt double action New Army revolver was introduced. Chambered for the 38 Long Colt it was much lighter and produced less recoil than the 45 caliber revolvers then in use. At the time it seemed to be an improvement over the old issue revolvers.

After the Spanish American War, the Moros an Islamic tribe in the Philipines rebelled against the American Forces there. The unimpressive performance of both the Krag Rifle and the 1894 revolver against the Moros as well as experience from the Spanish American War caused the Army to start searching for replacements for both weapons.

The Mauser based Springfield bolt action rifle became the replacement for the Krag in 1903 but the search for a new handgun would take a bit more time.

Colt 1911 Pistol

ROTC Manual 145-30 p. 133

In 1904, U.S. Army Colonels John Thompson and Louis LaGarde conducted tests in the Chicago Stockyards of various cartridges to evaluate their effectiveness. Toward that end, they fired on cattle at a distance of three feet in to non-vital areas of the torso to see how many shots it would take to incapacitate them.

They concluded that large caliber bullets at relatively modest velocities would have greater stopping power than smaller caliber bullets.

Based on these findings the Army went in search of a handgun using a 45 caliber cartridge.

The U.S. Military settled on the Colt 1911 pistol firing 45 ACP. This single action recoil operated pistol was state of the art in its day and served the U.S. Military for more than 80 years. It is still in use by some Marine units to this very day.

Colt 1911 A1
Action Type Recoil operated Semiauto
Weight unloaded (lbs) 2.4
Barrel Length 5.0
Cartridge 45 ACP
Cartridge Capacity 7 rounds + 1

Field Stripping the 1911 Pistol

  1. Make sure the Pistol is unloaded. With your finger off of the trigger remove the magazine by pressing the magazine catch.
    Pull the slide back to verify that the chamber is empty.
  2. Press the recoil spring plug in and turn the barrel bushing counter clockwise while still depressing the recoil spring plug. When the bushing starts to come out, slowly allow the plug to come out. Withdraw the plug.
  3. Pull the slide back so that the smaller notch on the left hand side of the pistol is above the slide stop. Remove the slide stop.
  4. Push the slide forward off of the frame.
  5. Remove the recoil spring by withdrawing it from the rear of the slide and the barrel through the front of the slide.

Beretta M9 Pistol

The Beretta Model 92 in 9 x 19mm NATO was selected as a replacement service pistol around 1985. It entered service with the U.S. Army in 19901 after a few technical hiccups with Italian made slides.

Using a 15 round magazine, it fires a .0355 inch bullet weighing less than half that of the standard 45 ACP military cartridge at a somewhat greater velocity.

Beretta M9 Pistol
Action Type Short Recoil operated Semiauto
Weight unloaded (lbs) 2.1
Barrel Length 5.4
Cartridge 9 x 19mm NATO
Cartridge Capacity 15 rounds + 1

Anecdotal reports from Afganistan and Iraq in the past few years would seem to indicate that there is some degree of disatisfaction with the combat effectiveness of the new pistol and its ammunition.

Comparison of 20th Century U.S. Military Standard Issue Handgun Cartridges
Colt DA New Army Revolver Colt 1911 PistolM 9 Beretta
Cartridge 38 Long Colt 45 ACP 9x19mm NATO
Bullet Weight (grains) 148 230 112
Muzzle Velocity (fps) 7638351263
Muzzle Energy(ft lbs) 191356397
Cartridge Capacity6 7+1 15+1

U.S Military Pistol Cartridge Ballistics

M1911 45 ACP 230 grain FMJ
Range (yards) 0 25 50 75 100
Impact (inches) -0.5 0.0 -2.8 -8.9 -18.6
Velocity (fps) 835 818 802 787 772
Energy (ft lbs) 356 342 329 316 304
Drift 10-mph (inches) 0 0.6 1.1 1.9 3.0
M882 9x19 mm NATO 112 grain FMJ
Range (yards) 0 25 50 75 100
Impact (inches) -0.5 0.0 -1.1 -3.9 -8.8
Velocity (fps) 1263 1174 1105 1050 1005
Energy (ft lbs) 397 343 304 274 251
Drift-10 mph (inches) 0 0.8 1.9 3.7 6.0

Note that the 9mm M882 cartridge has much flatter trajectory out to 100 yards and that it produces a higher muzzle energy. The 45 ACP does retain its striking energy much better at longer distances and the drift with a 10 mile an hour wind out to 100 yards is half that of the 9mm M882.

1.   "M-9 Pistol" Accessed Aug 9, 2011
Image of soldier with 1911 pistol from ROTC Manual 145-30 "Individual Weapons and Marksmanship " 1966 p. 133

TM 43-0001-27 "Army Ammunition Data Sheets Small Caliber Ammunition FSC 1305" April 1994

Data for trajectory tables produced using the ballistic calculator at