Pistols vs. Revolvers: World War One

The following is an excerpt from the book A Rifleman Went to War, by Captain Herbert W. McBride, of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the United States Army. He fought in World War I, mostly in France, and went from junior enlisted to officer during that time. Most of this book is a discussion of rifles, machine guns, or the war in general; all of it is fascinating to a history buff like me, and I found this section on pistols quite interesting. This was written in 1935.

As I was quite familiar with the new Colt Automatic, I was able to be of some assistance during the preliminary work of breaking them in, and it was not long until the officers were accustomed to the peculiarities of the gun and could make it behave to their satisfaction. Those who had had experience with the revolver entertained the almost universal prejudice against the automatic. Funny, isn’t it, how we hate to discard our old loves and take up with new ones – in the shooting game I mean, it appears to be easy enough regarding some other things.

But even the most conservative of the old-timers soon recognize the real advantages of the later type weapon. I staged several realistic demonstrations; including fast reloading in the dark and such stunts, and that converted most of them. As to reliability– dependability in an emergency – there was little choice between the revolver and the automatic. Both types would function properly with the same degree of care. It is possible that there were instances of an automatic “jamming” now and then, but I personally never had it happen to me during the war, nor did I see or hear of any instance of it happening.

All these arguments as to the relative merits of the revolver and the automatic pistol will probably continue for another generation. Most of the old-timers who learn to shoot with the revolver have a deep-seated prejudice against the automatic – but when it came down to the root of their argument, it all seems to base upon the “hang” of the two guns – the newer automatic does not point right with the same old habitual “kink in the wrist.” I have used the 45 automatic ever since 1911, but for 20 years prior to that time had used the revolver.

Even now, I find myself having a sneaking sort of preference for the revolver and feel confident that I can make a better score on the target with it, either slow or rapid fire. But in spite of all of this, I unhesitatingly chose the automatic for actual use in war. To my mind, the great advantage of the automatic lies in the ease and rapidity with which it can be reloaded – especially in the dark. Anyone who doubts this can easily satisfy himself by trying to hurriedly reload a revolver in the dark, with a crowd of roughnecks milling all around and trying to hit someone with clubs, knives and fists. Or, if this seems too rough just get some friend to jostle you about or run into you while trying it…

There’s just one little trick the user of the automatic should train himself to keep in mind – and do – reload while there is still a cartridge in the chamber; do not shoot until the gun is entirely empty. Even though you have fired but four or five shots, better drop out that old magazine and slip in a full one…

…”Close up” work is the only place that the pistol figures in warfare. Now I’m going to tell you the honest truth about something. During my war experience, which extended from September, 1915 to February, 1917 and included innumerable little contacts with the enemy and several major battles, I fired exactly 7 shots at an enemy with my pistol. Seven – count ‘em. I used up quite a lot of ammunition, shooting at rats, rabbits, and tin cans, but as to shooting Germans, well, I’ve told you, seven was all and the longest range at which I fired at these individuals was never more than 10 feet. But brother, those were seven badly needed shots. There may be a moral in this: I don’t know. If so, figure it out for yourself.

But there is no doubt in my mind that the mere possession of a reliable pistol – and the knowledge how to use it – is a tower of strength for the soldier who goes up against any enemy. He may never use it, may never have a chance to use it, but it sure does give you a lot of confidence to know that you have the old “gat” handy, in case you do happen to bump into some wild eyed individual coming at you with a bayonet…

…The main thing in considering any military pistol is the matter of dependability. Will it work in all kinds of weather? In mud – in sand – in water? Well, we all know what tests were applied during the two or three years before our Ordnance officers finally approve the Colt. Two solid years of real, practical use, in service in the Islands and in the tests for what you might call durability in which all the others – there were only two, which shall not be named by me – fell by the wayside while the old Colt, refusing to quit, finally wore out the time and patience of the members and board and had to leave it with an unfinished run of some 10,000 rounds without stoppage or malfunction. I was present at that last test, and that may have had something to do with my attitude toward the ugly brute.

Still, I can say that my experience in France, as well as that of others of my acquaintance, only tended towards verifying the findings and opinion of our Ordnance board. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be armed with the .45 Colt Automatic found it to be a sufficient and dependable arm in every respect. Let me repeat that I’ve never had a failure to function properly while in action, nor did I ever hear or know of any such failure occurring with any of my associates or acquaintances. After I came back from the battlefield I commenced to hear of a great many instances in which the gun supposedly gave trouble, but these are invariably told by persons not in the Army or whose line of duty was such as to preclude their ever having actually participated in real fighting, or even front-line service for that matter.

Furthermore, I did not consider the automatic pistol to need any special care or attention to keep it in serviceable condition. We had trouble enough with all our firearms for that matter and any rifle, machine gun, revolver, or pistol had to be looked to daily to keep the mud and dirt out of its action and bore. If anything, our handguns were a bit easier to keep in proper shape than the others, because they remained in a holster or inside pocket of a tunic and were not laid down on the ground or exposed to the elements very often. Any military firearm requires daily attention and care to keep it in proper readiness for instant use, and neither pistol nor revolver is any exception to this standing rule.