By: Peter Suciu
While military sidearms continue to be generally associated with NCOs and officers, the use of handguns was much more widespread in the Second World War.
Many soldiers carried handguns in addition to their main small arm, and this was especially true for paratroopers, military police, and generally any enlisted man who felt the need for a little extra firepower.
And as with the other small arms of World War II, most handguns were distinctive and unique to each respective nation. As a result, the handguns of the era have become quite iconic, and in some cases, even a bit infamous. Here is a look at the sidearms of the Allies:
Colt M1911A1 (USA)
Often known as the .45, the M1911 was actually a holdover from the First World War. This single-action, semi-automatic handgun was magazine-fed and recoil-operated. As noted by its famous moniker, it fired the .45 ACP cartridge.
The gun was designed by famous gun maker John M. Browning and was the standard-issue sidearm of the United States Armed Forces from 1911 to 1985; it is actually still used by some U.S. forces today.
Some 2.7 million M1911 and the later M1911A1 variation were produced throughout its long service with the U.S. military. World War II production exceeded 1.9 million units, with versions produced by several companies, including Remington Rand, Colt, Ithaca Gun Company, Union Switch & Signal, and even Singer. It is worth noting that so many M1911A1s were produced during World War II that the government never actually ordered new pistols, and instead relied on existing parts inventories in the years following the war.
As a side note, the Colt M1911 was also produced prior to the war in Norway under contract, and production continued after the German occupation. Just slightly more than 900 were stamped with the Nazi Waffenamt codes, and these are highly sought after by collectors.
Image: Colt M1911A1 (Public Domain)
M1917 Revolver, formally United States Revolver, Caliber .45, M1917 (USA)
While it might seem anachronistic to develop a revolver following the development of the Colt M1911 pistol, the United States military had a shortage supplying the latter during the First World War and turned to Colt and Smith & Wesson, two of the largest producers of civilian revolvers, to adapt their heavy-frame civilian sidearms to the standard .45 ACP pistol cartridge. The result was the M1917 Revolver, which improved upon the 1890s era .38 caliber Colt and S&W revolvers.
While primarily used by secondary and non-deployed troops, the M1917 saw service in both World Wars and even remained in service at the start of the Cold War. It remains an iconic gun of the inter-war era handgun and can be seen as Indiana Jones’ choice of sidearms in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Image: M1917 (Author’s Collection)
Nagant Model 1895 Revolver (USSR)
A vintage military revolver known for its use in Russia was, in fact, a Belgian-designed firearm. This was the Model 1895 Nagant revolver, which was in actuality developed in 1894 by Emile and Leon Nagant, two Belgian gun designers, who had previous experience with the Russian arms industry. Their development of the revolver coincided with the Imperial Russian Army’s need for a new sidearm, which the firm of Fabrique d’armes Emile et Leon Nagant designed and brought to production. The Nagant brothers were already well-known at the Russian Court, as they had previously helped design the now infamous Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 rifle.
The Nagant M1895 was produced throughout World War I in both single-action and double-action versions, and this has come to be known as "private’s" or "enlisted" models and "officer’s models," respectively. Whether this is fully accurate, however, has yet to be absolutely determined. What is a known fact is that, except for rare examples for target competition and similar uses, production of the single action variety ended in 1918. Likewise, many single-action revolvers were converted to double action, and as a result, single-action examples are extremely rare today.
While the Nagant M1895 was, in fact, designed for the Czar’s army, it did remain in use throughout the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and was utilized by the Soviets, including by members of the notorious NKVD.
Image: Nagant (Author’s Collection)
In the 1920s, after the end of the Russian Civil War, the Soviet Union’s Red Army looked to replace the aging and obsolete Nagant M1895 revolver. During the mid to late 1920s, several pistol designs were considered, and the winner of the bunch was the TT-33, or Tula Tokarev, designed by Fedor Tokarev. This firearm would become the main service pistol for the Soviet Union and remain in service through World War II and beyond, being adapted by numerous other nations under license.
Interestingly, the Soviet’s Red Army had relied on numerous foreign handguns, notably the German-made Mauser C96 "Broomhandle." That weapon’s 7.63mm cartridge had proven reliable and was thus popular with the gun’s users. It, along with American handgun designs, would serve as inspiration for the new Soviet firearm.
Fedor Tokarev noted the popularity of the 7.63x25mm ammo used by the C96 when he designed the TT-33, a short recoil operated, locked breech pistol. Tokarev’s design is chambered for a 7.62x25mm Tokarev cartridge, which was itself based on the 7.63x25mm Mauser cartridge. The handgun design further called up John Browning’s swinging link system, which was "borrowed" from the Colt M1911 pistol. Externally, the gun has a passing resemblance to the earlier Browning blowback operated FN Model 1903. Despite these facts, it is incorrect to call the TT-33 a 1911 clone, or suggest that Tokarev merely adapted Browning’s innovations.
Known as the TT-33, the "Tokarev" pistol actually entered service in early 1934 and was manufactured in great numbers prior to the outbreak of World War II. By the time of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941, some 600,000 TT-33s had been produced, and this number increased greatly during the so-called "Great Patriotic War." No definitive number of Soviet made TT-33 has ever been published, but it is safe to say that millions were likely made. Production, though, never reached the point that the aging Nagant M1895 pistol was ever fully removed from service. The need for firearms during the war was simply that great.
Image: TT33 (Public Domain)
Webley Revolver (Great Britain)
To say the British were not exactly ready for the World War II is a true understatement, and it shows in the nation’s small arms development. This, of course, included sidearms, and the British made do with the basic Webley revolver that was first introduced in 1887 and which remained in use until 1963!
This top-break revolver featured an automatic extraction system that helped with reloading. The first version of the handgun, the Webley MkI, was adopted in 1887, while the Mk IV saw widespread use in the Boer War. The Mk VI version is perhaps the most well-known model and was introduced in 1915 during the First World War. The gun fired the large .455 Webley cartridge, making the service revolvers the most powerful top-break handguns ever produced. Despite being officially replaced by the Enfield No. 2 Mk I revolver, the Webley saw widespread use in World War II.
Image: Webley (Public Domain)
The Enfield No. 2 Mk I Revolver (Great Britain)
Due to the large cartridge of the Webley, the British government looked to replace that sidearm following World War I, and the result was the Mk I Revolver made by Enfield, which fired the smaller and lighter .38 caliber. The thought was that it would be more accurate revolver. Approximately 270,000 of these were produced in all, making it a much less common firearm than the Webley. As with the Webley, the Enfield handgun remained in use until 1963 and was used in a number of post-war conflicts.
Image: Enfield No. 2 Mk I Revolver (Public Domain)
This handgun has more than a passing resemblance to John Browning’s Colt M1911A1, and, in fact, was based on that design. There are operational differences, including the fact that the barrel was not cammed by a link, as was the case with the 1911. It was also chambered for the European 9mm, rather than .45.
The Vis was introduced in 1930 and was the standard Polish sidearm at the outset of World War II, and collectors consider it to be one of the finest handguns ever produced. After the fall of Poland in late 1939, the Germans continued production of the Vis under the name 9mm Pistole 645. Some 49 were produced by the Poles, while nearly another 380,000 were produced by the Germans for use with their police and paratroopers.
Image: Vis (Public Domain)
Browning Hi-Power (Beligum/USA)
The Vis was not the only handgun produced prior to World War II that was seemingly based on the M1911, as the Browning Hi-Power can attest. The gun was actually based on a design by John Browning and completed by Dieudonné Saive. The Hi-Power actually was one of the most widely used military pistols after World War II, but at the outbreak of the war, was mainly produced in Belgium and the United States. Unlike the M1911, it was chambered for the 9mm and featured a 13-round magazine.
Interestingly, the Hi-Power pistol was used throughout World War II by both Allied and Axis forces, with the Germans producing models at the Fabrique Nationale (FN) plant in Belgium. Those made in German bear German inspection and acceptance marks, and those guns were used by the Waffen-SS and paratrooper units. Since its introduction in 1935, the gun has been used around the world, and rumor has it that even Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was known to carry one.
Image: Hi Power (ATF Image)
Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at email@example.com.