A History of United States Military Sidearms, Part 4: 1946 - 2000

A History of United States Military Sidearms, Part 4: 1946 - 2000


Up until 1911, the US Military made constant changes to their choice of sidearm, always looking to upgrade to the latest piece of technology. The introduction of the Colt 1911 changed that way of thinking, proving to be so effective in the field that there wouldn't be a switch away from the workhorse for almost 75 years.


The Colt M1911A1 continued to be the standard issue sidearm for all US armed forces after WWII. It served the US well in Korea, and was called upon again during Vietnam. The M1911A1 became particularly effective during the Vietnam War when soldiers needed a close quarters weapon to clear out enemy tunnels in the dense jungles. The stopping power of the .45 round paired with the reliability of the pistol made this weapon a valuable asset to United States armed forces.

The US manufactured 2 million 1911 pistols from 1911-1945, and no new pistols were produced for the military after 1945. They simply had so many in surplus that new pistols did not need to be built, and extra parts were plentiful. The pistol's design proved it could withstand any test of time or field use.

The M1911A1 would continue to be the standard service pistol until 1985. During the 1970s there was concern that the pistol had aged too much, and trials began to find a suitable replacement. The 1911A1 officially ended its service as the standard issue pistol in January of 1985; however, it saw continued limited use in special forces groups.


The M1917 revolver, both manufactured by Smith & Wesson and Colt, was issued in limited numbers through the 1970s. Like the 1911, the revolver was a popular choice for clearing tunnels in Vietnam, providing soldiers with an extremely reliable sidearm perfect for close quarter situations.


The pistol trials of the 1970s sought to replace the aging M1911A1 with a newer pistol chambered in the 9mm cartridge. Several manufacturers submitted models to the trials, and in the end the Beretta 92 series was selected as the winner.

The Beretta M9 was a huge change in design from the M1911A1. It utilized a double action/single action setup, allowing the first round to be fired with the hammer down, while the remaining rounds were fired in single action with a pre-cocked hammer. The pistol held 15 rounds of 9mm in a double stacked magazine. The safety doubled as a decocking lever to safely lower the hammer over a chambered round. The new pistol was still fairly large, but extremely easy to shoot due to the softer recoil of the 9mm round.

The initial run of pistols had some serious issues. There were numerous reports of the slides cracking under sustained firing, as well as issues with slide and frame separation. These issues were addressed by Beretta, and updated versions of the pistol began to see service in 1988.

There is still much debate over the stopping power of the 9mm round for combat use, and because of this, many combat-heavy units continued to carry 1911 pistols as their standard sidearm, a practice that continues to this day.


Based on the Sig P228, the M11 pistol was adopted in limited use for those needing a more compact firearm than the Beretta M9. The M11 was widely issued to CID investigators and military pilots starting in the early 1990s. Like the M9, the M11 is a double action/single action design, chambered in 9mm, and has a double stack magazine. It still sees limited use today.


In 1991, Special Forces command began to request a new pistol that would better suit their needs over the M9 or the M1911A1. Out of that need came the H&K USSOCOM MK 23 .45 pistol. The MK23 was an extremely large sidearm and was the first pistol designed specifically for offensive use, rather than defensive use, for the US Military.

The MK23 featured a double action/single action design but could also be carried "cocked and locked" like the M1911A1. It was issued with a suppressor and a laser aiming module for use in special operations. While never widely used, the MK23 played an important role in the development of future combat pistols.


In an ever-changing world, the needs for a suitable sidearm continue to change with it. The Beretta remained in service well into the 21st century, but as combat groups became more specialized, their needs would outgrow the performance of the M9 pistol.

In our final article we will be looking at the sidearms of the 21st century, how technology has changed, and where it might be leading us into the future.