The Gun The Army Can’t Kill


A generation of G.I.’s learned to curse the .45 for its awesome kick, which could break the user’s wrist or arm. In the hands of trained marksmen, the .45 was, and still is, an excellent target pistol. But to a green recruit, firing the .45 on a practice range was a matter of high and noisy adventure, where everything was in danger except the target.

Nevertheless, the .45 continued to be a gun you wanted “damn bad” when you wanted it at all. In a Korean War action near Yungdungpo in September 1950, Lt. Henry Commiskey shot his way onto the honor roll of Marine Corps heroes with a .45. His citation for the Congressional Medal of Honor reads, “Armed only with a pistol, he jumped into a hostile machine-gun emplacement occupied by five enemy troops and quickly disposed of four of the soldiers with his automatic pistol. Grappling with the fifth, First Lieutenant Commiskey knocked him to the ground and held him until he could obtain a weapon from another member of his platoon.”

The last shipment of .45’s to the Army was made during World War II, but twenty-five years later the pistol was still seeing useful service. Marine Sgt. John McGinty won a Medal of Honor and a battlefield commission in April 1969 by outshooting a Vietcong unit with his .45. Although wounded, McGinty brought down five of the enemy and saved his platoon. In spite of sophisticated M-16 rifles and infrared-sight-equipped machine guns, there were still those nasty jobs to be done that required a resolute man and a big slug.

After almost seventy years of active field service, the .45 was considered by many weapons experts to be well past retirement age. In January 1980 the Marine Corps stopped all test firing of the .45, except for security and military police forces, in an effort to cut down on ammunition expenses. With no more machine guns that accepted a .45 slug, “that caliber is a lonesome one,” said one manufacturer. “There is nothing it fits any more.” In August 1981 the Pentagon announced that its supply of some five hundred thousand automatics would be phased out in favor of a 9-mm pistol that would be interchangeable with the sidearm adopted by our NATO allies. As of old, it was said the new weapon would be lighter and more accurate and, the Pentagon added, “easier for women to deal with.”

At the time there was a great wave of nostalgia among veterans for the old .45. Much of it was most keenly felt by men who had never fired one in anger. All the old stories were trotted out again—about how most troopers couldn’t hit a bull in the butt with one and the instructor’s dictum that, “if you still haven’t hit the enemy after seven shots, you can always throw the damned thing at him.”

But the .45 was hard to kill. In February 1982 the Defense Department reviewed manufacturing bids for the 9-mm from gunsmiths in America, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland and rejected all of them when none of the bidders could meet more than eleven of the department’s seventy-one specifications. At present, says the Army, the “9-mm adventure is over.” The .45 automatic is still standard. The oldest soldier in the American arsenal is as mean and tough as ever.