GunMag History: U.S. Military Handguns

Standard issue sidearms for the United States military have changed over the years. If we look all the way back to the Revolutionary War, guns tended to be a personal thing. Fast forward to modern times, and everything is approved and issued now. It’s interesting to see how handgun use has changed with time, so we put together a list of some commonly used handguns throughout our nation’s military history. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it definitely hits the high points.

Model 1775 by Rappahannock Forge

model 1775 flintlock
The Model 1775 was a flintlock used during the Revolutionary War. (Photo credit: Rock Island Auction)

Although it was only made in limited numbers compared to the vast number of soldiers and militia members who fought in the Revolutionary War, the Model 1775 flintlock is considered by many historians to be the first standard issue sidearm. The pictured flintlock, specifically, is a brass barreled Rappahannock Forge Officer’s flintlock. It has a 7 3/8 inch round barrel and walnut stocks.

This is a rare and historically prized firearm. Why? Because when the Revolutionary War began, the Colonies weren’t well really prepared to turn out large numbers of weapons. However, Scottish immigrant James Hunter, who owned Rappahannock Forge in Virginia, managed to prove he was capable of producing what was at that time a significant number of weapons. Hunter was commissioned to make 2,000 Model 1775s, so it’s known as the first-ever American standard-issue handgun.

In “United States Martial Flintlocks” author Robert Reilly stated:

The arms turned out at the Rappahannock Forge are perhaps the rarest of all weapons ever produced anywhere under contract, and should be regarded in the highest historic significance.

The Model 1775 is a .62 caliber smoothbore, single-shot flintlock. It’s worth mentioning most flintlocks used during the Revolutionary War were personally owned weapons, but the Model 1775 stands out as the first one commissioned for combat by Congress.

Colt Model 1860

colt model 1860 revolver
Samuel Colt’s revolver was a huge leap forward in firearms technology. (Photo credit: Texas Ranger Museum)

Fast forwarding to the Civil War, the most popular military handgun for both the Union and the Confederacy was the Colt Model1860. Samuel Colt made his foray into revolvers in the 1830s, so by the time the Civil War began in 1861, the platform had gone through a few iterations. The Model 1860 was produced by the hundreds of thousands for both sides.

This revolver was a six-shot, .44 caliber gun with an 8.0-inch barrel that was produced between 1860 and 1873. The pictured model was designed as a major improvement over the Third Model Dragoon with perhaps its greatest feature being the fact that it was half the weight of the Dragoon. Interestingly, the Model 1860 also had screw lugs on the side of the frame for the purpose of attaching a shoulder stock. Also, as can be seen in the image above, this revolver didn’t have a top strap like modern guns but instead had a cylinder fixed in place by a cylinder pin. This is a popular enough gun from a historical perspective that replicas continue to be made.

Colt M1911

Colt M1911
The 1911 platform became the standard issue sidearm during World War I. (Photo credit: Historic Firearms)

John Browning designed and manufactured quite a few guns, and the M1911 just might be his most famous. This handgun served as the standard issue for decades and first made its appearance during World War I. The M1911 went into service for the U.S. Military on March 29, 1911. Although it’s now been largely replaced by other handguns it remains a standard issue model for certain groups within the military. It’s proven itself for more than a century, whether naysayers like it or not.

The M1911 is, of course, chambered in 45 ACP. The standard issue for the military was and is the Government model, meaning it has a full-sized frame and a 5.0-inch barrel. The gun’s capacity is 7-plus-one, so it’s definitely limited by modern standards, but when you compare it to the flintlocks and revolvers that preceded it, it’s a major improvement for a variety of reasons. The M1911 platform hasn’t really seen a lot of change over the years, not within the military. Outside the military, it’s now chambered in a vast variety of calibers and offers all kinds of new features including the popular double stack 2011 style.

Beretta M9

Beretta M9
The Beretta M9 was the official replacement for the M1911. (Photo credit: Beretta)

When the M1911 was eventually largely replaced, it was by the Beretta M9, which went into service in 1985. The M9 is a large handgun and it’s chambered in 9x19mm Parabellum, which took advantage of advances in technology while also boosting capacity. It has a standard capacity of 15 rounds, although the M9A3 variant boosted that to 17 rounds in 2015. There was also an M9A4 variant with an 18-round capacity. This gun has a squared-off trigger guard, interchangeable parts for easier repairs, and the barrel is hard chromed. It also has a lanyard loop in its base.

The Beretta M9 remained in service until the 21st century, when trials began to select its replacement. In the meantime, this full-sized handgun has been used by all branches of our nation’s military in numerous situations. It’s proven itself as a reliable, accurate semi-auto, and there are certain service members who will miss it as it’s being replaced by our next entry in this list.

Sig Sauer M17

SIG Sauer M17
The Sig M17 is the current standard-issue handgun for the United States Military. (Photo credit: Military Times)

It takes time to replace standard-issue handguns with new ones, but it’s currently underway. The Sig M17 is the replacement for the Beretta M9, and it’s definitely a first-of-its-kind for the military. How? Because the M17 has a polymer frame, which is a departure from well over a century of steel-framed handgun use. The M17 is chambered in 9x19mm Parabellum and has a 17- or 21-round capacity. It’s also worth mentioning the M18, which is the more compact version of the full-sized M17.

The SIG M17’s design is based on the popular P320 although of course it has been modified for military use. Changes made for the M17 include:

  • Slide milled for easy addition of a red dot sight.
  • Loaded chamber indicator.
  • Trigger modified to more effectively prevent debris from entering the mechanism.
  • Steel parts have a PVD (physical vapor deposition) finish for corrosion resistance.
  • Spanner screws are used in place of standard screws to prevent the gun from being taken apart by anyone who is not an armorer.

The barrel length for the M17 is 4.7 inches while the M18 has a 3.9-inch barrel. The overall length of the M17 is 8.0 inches compared to 7.2 inches for the M18. Basically, while the M18 is indeed smaller than the M17, it’s not significantly smaller. As of May 2023, more than 100,000 of these pistols have been delivered to the U.S. military, and they’re considered the current standard issue.

What do you think the military will go to next? A new caliber? Glocks? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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