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The Gun The Army Can’t Kill

July 2024
5min read

“I don’t want this thing often,” one soldier said of his .45 automatic pistol, “but when I do, I want it damned bad.”

IN COMMON with all good jungle fighters, the Moros liked to work close up. During the nightmarish warfare that marked the Philippine Insurrection of 1899, a favorite tactic of Moro fanatics was to work themselves up into a religious frenzy, get within twenty yards of an American unit, and then rush in brandishing double-edged swords and bolos. A soldier had only a few seconds to stop his onrushing attacker or be killed. The scene described in after-action reports to Manila and Washington was often the same. Two corpses lying near each other—a Moro with six bullets in his chest and a mutilated trooper still holding an empty .38 service revolver. Not for the first time nor for the last, soldiers from an industrialized nation went to war in a primitive country and found that their sophisticated weaponry was inadequate.

The failure of American arms in the Philippines was the result of an attempt to modernize Army ordnance. Like so many modernization plans, the idea had looked good on paper. Ever since the 1840s the standard Army sidearm had been the .45-caliber single-action pistol. This old horse gun was a big, ugly thing that required an outsized trigger guard to accommodate the gloved finger of a cavalryman, but it had been a supremely effective weapon in conquering the American Indian. In 1892 the Army replaced it with a smaller .38 revolver, which was lighter, easier to fire, and more accurate. The fact that it had less stopping power was considered to be “no material disadvantage,” although the Army covered itself in a test report by admitting, “The question can only be definitely settled by actual trial against living objects.” The .38 failed that essential test in the Philippines, and line officers pleaded for a modern sidearm with the power of the old .45 pistol.

During their many wars in Africa and India, the British had ample opportunity to test their weaponry “against living objects,” and they had discovered the need for a large-caliber sidearm. As Lt. Col. G. W. Fosbery, who had won a Victoria Cross in action against Hindustani fanatics at Umbely Pass in 1863, pointed out, “With the civilized man, who knows to a nicety the locality of his principal organs and something of the effects that the presence of foreign bodies in his interior may be expected to produce … a comparatively feeble weapon may often be used with good effect.” Something more substantial, however, was required for the native who “knows as little about his insides as a tiger does.”

The British in India had developed a particularly brutal weapon for use against the hill-country tribesmen; a double-barreled handgun that could accommodate either 20-gauge buckshot or .61-caliber bullets. After years of testing the effects of bullets on wood, clay, and human cadavers, the American answer for dealing with “savage folks” was the .45-caliber automatic pistol, a weapon so simple in its design and so effective in its use that, with only a few minor external alterations, it has remained the principal U. S. military sidearm to this day. Officially designated the M1911, for the year of its adoption by the Army, the pistol was cheap to make, weighed three pounds, and carried a clip of 230-grain bullets. It had twice the stopping power of the .38 and could be fired more quickly; while it took at least eight seconds to aim and fire five shots from a revolver, a trained soldier could arm and fire eight shots from the new automatic in only six seconds. The new pistol had a muzzle velocity of eight hundred feet per second, about one-third the velocity for the rifle then in service. But such niceties of ballistics as flatness of trajectory and remaining energy at one mile were not important when the work at hand was to bowl a man over in his tracks at a distance of only a few yards.

Manufactured initially by the Colt firearms factory in Hartford, Connecticut, the .45 sailed through its service tests in 1911: there was not a single recorded misfire in more than six thousand rounds. The automatic’s “trial against living objects” was successfully passed by Gen. John Pershing’s expeditionary force in Mexico in 1916, and the .45 was already a legend by the time it saw service in World War I.

T HE SIDEARM was ideally suited for trench warfare. Instead of trying to load six bullets into six different chambers in a revolver during a milling trench fight, a doughboy had only to slam a single clip into his automatic to be ready for action. The .45 quickly became known as “the gun that halts the Hun.”

The weapons specialist Capt. Herbert McBride recalled that his life was saved when a Yank dropped a German who was throwing a grenade at them with a shot to the kneecap that almost took the German’s leg off. Any hit from a .45 was devastating.


“I don’t want this thing often,” McBride said of the pistol, “but when I do, I want it damned bad.”

During World War II, far-ranging fire and maneuver tactics diminished the .45’s effectiveness. Gordon MacNeal, an Army warrant officer, carried one on his hip for the better part of five years, but “except on the firing range the only time I ever took it out of its holster was to hit a rambunctious prisoner over the head. The .45 was a real attention getter, but it wasn’t something I wanted to use any more than I had to.”

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.

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