A History of United States Military Sidearms, Part 2

A History of United States Military Sidearms, Part 2

PART TWO: 1865 - 1910


In our first article in this series, we covered the early history of US Military sidearms, starting with flintlock pistols and continuing to the end of the Civil War and the various Cap and Ball revolvers in use during that time.  For part two in our series on the history of US Military Sidearms, we will be exploring the time frame of 1865 to 1910.

Huge changes in technology, calibers, and styles of firearms occurred during these formative years, and the more we utilized sidearms in the field, the better we understood how to implement changes to make new models valuable assets for the men in uniform.


Cap and Ball revolvers, which began being issued in 1847, continued to be the standard military sidearm through the end of the Civil War and into the beginning of the 1870s.  The Colt Model 1860 revolver was the mainstay of the US Army until 1873.  Though an older model, the Colt M1851 Navy was issued until 1873 as well, along with the Remington M1858 in limited numbers.

For a closer look at those revolvers, be sure to check out part one of our series.  In 1870 the US Army adopted its first revolver that utilized modern style metallic cartridges, leading to cap and ball revolvers being phased out by the start of 1874.


In 1870 The US Army switched from black powder cap and ball revolvers to their new model: the Smith & Wesson Schofield Model No. 3 revolver.  This marked the first time a metallic cartridge revolver would be standard issue in the US military.

The No. 3 was a top-break, single action revolver.  Originally cambered .44 S&W, the .45 S&W Schofield Round was developed in an attempt to make the revolver compatible with the .45 Long Colt round already being used by the Army at that time.  The rounds were not interchangeable, and while it would be issued as a secondary model in limited numbers until 1892, the No.3 would quickly be overshadowed by the legendary Colt Single Action Army.

The Colt SAA, also known as the "Peacemaker" and the “Gun that Won the West,” is a single action .45 caliber revolver that was issued to troops starting in 1873.  The SAA was a revolutionary, modern firearm that was extremely easy to shoot and was reliable in the field.

The SAA came in a wide variety of barrel lengths and calibers, allowing it to be custom fitted for any job needed.  It held 6 rounds in a cylinder fixed into the frame; each round was loaded and ejected by hand on the side of the revolver through a loading port.  It was an extremely quick process when compared to cap and ball revolvers, and the robust design was far more durable than the Schofield.

The Colt SAA remained the standard issued sidearm for the United States until 1892, though it saw limited use into the 20th century.  General George Patton famously carried an ivory-handed model during World War II. It was an iconic firearm that remains a popular choice for shooters to this day.  

A big change happened in 1892: Colt released the model M1892 Colt Army revolver.  This revolver had significant changes over the older single action models, and was quickly adopted by the armed forces.  The M1892 was a double action revolver, meaning that the user did not have to cock the hammer manually each time before firing.

The M1892 was also the first military revolver to feature a swing-out cylinder that drastically reduced loading and unloading times.  The M1892 (and subsequent variants: the M1894, 95, 96, 01, and 03, all with minute changes) was chambered in a new round, the .38 Long Colt.  Theodore Roosevelt was presented with a model 1892 that had been recovered from the wreckage of the USS Maine, which he used while leading the charge up San Juan Hill in 1898.

While the M1892 was praised for its quickness and ease of use, the main complaint was the lack of stopping power of the .38 cartridge.  Need for a larger caliber led to the development of the Colt M1909 New Service Revolver.  Operation of the M1909 was the same as the M1892, but like the SAA before it, the M1909 was chambered in .45 Colt, which had proven to be an extremely capable round for stopping targets.

UP NEXT: 1910 - 1945

Though the M1909 had just been adopted by the military, technology was rapidly changing and revolutionary changes were in store.  In just two short years a new semi-automatic .45 pistol would be adopted by the US Army and would forever change the landscape of warfare.