On shooting fish in a barrel….
It is occasionally remarked around the WOOF cave, especially by well-intentioned supporters who would love to see us eclipsing allegedly rival sites in popularity—that we should stick to articles about Black conservatives, and guns. The argument is entirely supportable from a marketing standpoint. For reasons we do not pretend to fathom, our discussions of conservative thinkers and politicians who are–to employ the currently acceptable (if paralogistical) locution–African American, always score huge numbers of “clicks,” while gun articles tend to outperform even Black conservatives. To be ridiculously candid (because, why not?) the largest number of views our humble site ever scored on a single day followed our publication of “Detroit Shoots Back,” in 2014. That article—which, come to think of it, was about guns and a pro-gun Black police chief—almost made it to the one-thousand clicks line on WordPress’s pale blue bar graph, which is what passes for an astronomical one-day tally here in the
But we are an obstinate lot, not at all driven by vainglory, and thus not much disposed to the pursuit of “clicks” obtained by shaping our ramblings to themes most likely to solicit large responses. And because this is so, when one of our team proposes a story that revisits any of these attention-grabbing topics, our first concern involves a kind of monastic self-catechism—in which we ask ourselves: Why are we doing this again? Are we selling out to the false gods of acclamation when we ought rather to be maundering on about underappreciated nuances of the 14th amendment, or decrying Paul Krugman’s latest sophomoric mishandling of Say’s Law…you know, stuff almost nobody wants to read about, let alone at such torturous lengths!
Usually the answer is in the affirmative, and so we cast aside the glittery item and slog ahead with whatever prohibitively recondite subject we deem preferable; but not always. Sometimes a topic seems irresistible despite threatening widespread appeal—and on such occasions we boldly pursue it. One such topic, as attentive readers will have gathered from this screed’s title and the accompanying illustration, is the United States Army’s pursuit of a new pistol for our troops—a story best left, one might suppose, to the pages of Guns and Ammo, or Stars and Stripes, except for the story’s inherent (and, we think, instructive) ironies, lifting it above a simple “gun story” and infusing it with a near-Greco-Hellenic cachet.
Note to the allegorically dense…
Readers who prefer to regard the forthcoming details less complexly are certainly free to do so. Just as no categorical imperative prohibits one from perceiving The Old Man and the Sea as a straightforward account of a frustrating day of deep-sea fishing, some may prefer to regard what follows as a simple chronicling of weapons development and its discontents. Why not? We invite such readers to skip the following discussion of congressional efforts to end Obamacare. It will seem incongruous and time consuming. We simultaneously invite the more philosophically inclined to bear with us—because what really persuaded us to proceed with this story was its allegorical dimension. The seemingly ineradicable nature of suboptimal policies once they are ensconced systemically is aggravating in itself, but when one further considers how often earnest exertions meant to reform these policies result instead in the reinforcement of their most egregious aspects—well—that’s what we mean by Greek! Permit us a single analogy.
Obamacare and the 1911
Recently, the Republican Party undertook to relieve the nation of the horror that is Obamacare. It is not the business of this screed to detail the onerous, unconstitutional, and impractical characteristics of President Obama’s signature legislation, beyond remarking that its removal from the body politic is urgently required and demands uncompromising legislative surgery. More to our point is the commonly recognized fact that nothing of that nature happened. Rather, a president steeped in the art of negotiated adjustments to pre-existing business models combined forces with a GOP establishment so fearful of negative media coverage that it hadn’t the nerve even to recycle its own legislative efforts at authentic repeal, and produced instead its own version of Obamacare—sporting a handful of tweaks made chiefly in the interest of creating salable appearances.
In other words, what emerged from the GOP’s huddle, despite years of available brainstorming time, was simply the Affordable Care Act dropped into a more sedate, respectably Republican chassis. As Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously remarked, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (Which roughly translated from the French means: “The more the government tries to fix something the surer we are to wind up with more of it, working even less satisfactorily than before it was fixed!”)
One part of government that long seemed exempt from this critique was the military. In fact, however, the service-related procurement authorities were often doddering–even perversely Luddite in their opposition to weaponological breakthroughs. It was, after all, the Army Ordnance Corps that refused to equip the Union Army with the .44-caliber Henry Model 1860 rifle at the outbreak of the Civil War. In doing so, the Corps pulled the plug on what amounted to a per saltum leap in infantry firepower, citing the rifle’s weight when loaded to its 15-round capacity and the fact that the .44 Flat Henry cartridge didn’t fit other Army weapons as grounds for rejection. The Chief of Ordinance further declared himself unimpressed by the Henry’s rapid firing lever action, opining that it would waste ammunition and prove a burden logistically. Resultantly, the Union fielded an army equipped mainly with single-shot muzzle loaders, relinquishing a potentially decisive advantage in firepower in order to avoid logistical headaches.
Prior to World War I the Army rejected the Lewis Machine Gun, mainly because Chief of Ordnance General William Crozier hated Lewis’s guts. The legendary Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) was issued to only four American divisions in the last two months of the First World War, while most American Doughboys contended with the wretched French 8×51 mm Chauchat automatic rifle (also legendary, but mainly for jamming and misfiring). The most widely circulated explanation of this idiocy was the War Department’s fear that Germans might obtain a BAR on the battlefield, reverse engineer it, and turn it against us. Obviously, this logic—if generally applied—would prevent anyadvanced weaponry from reaching the hands of our front-line forces. The BAR became famous only after the armistice, when Bonnie and Clyde adopted it in rather less official circumstances.
The famous Thompson submachine gun was not accepted by the United states Army until 1938, despite its availability as early as 1918—principally because the First World War ended two days before the earliest Thompsons arrived in Europe, and the War Department sensibly concluded that nothing so devastating as General John T. Thompson’s “tommy gun” would be needed in the Utopian aftermath of what Woodrow Wilson (in his customarily delusional fashion) declared the “war to end all wars.”
But to discuss the Thompson is to get rather ahead of ourselves, which rarely happens here at WOOF, where devoted readers know fighting our way beyond the exordial details is our most common challenge. The Thompson is, after all, a weapon famous for its powerful .45 caliber punch; and that punch could not have been delivered without the development of the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge.
Come the Moro…
When 800 Marines disembarked in the Philippines following the Spanish American War, they discovered that while Spain had relinquished its hold on the islands, the inhabitants were feeling less generous. The First Philippine Republic pronounced itself dissatisfied with the terms of the Treaty of Paris (the one ending hostilities between Spain and the United states, not the one ending the revolutionary war…and what is it with peace treaties and Paris, anyway?) In any case, the treaty had been signed without consulting the Philippine Republic, and it was a bit late to make adjustments. Attempts to accommodate Filipino demands were partial at best and suffered a series of bollixed translations and misinterpretations into the bargain. The upshot of all this was a declaration of war, perhaps most remarkable for its injudiciousness, by the First Republic against the United States.
To their credit, the soldiery of the Philippine Republic battled far longer than had the Spanish armies and navies, but in 1902 the war ended in its third year with an American victory. Readers will be pleased to know that while a staggering complex of diplomatic, political, governmental, and international developments followed fast upon the Republic’s capitulation, we will resist detailing them here—because none of them serves to advance our narrative. What we will discuss instead is the guerilla warfare that sprang up in the wake of the Filipino surrender. This insurgency involved numerous tribal cultures, many of them savage fighters, but none more relentless in battle than the Moros, whose foremost warrior caste featured the Juramentados, (from the Spanish for “one who takes an oath”) who pledged themselves to kill all Christians. Obviously, this left little room for negotiation.
The word Amok (yes, as in running amok) is considered to have Malaysian roots, but it was also the name of a Moro band as deadly as the Juramentados, with an even worse reputation for—well—running amok. The simple Amok creed of battle was to go berserk, charge into the largest available assemblage of infidels (meaning us in this case), and kill or maim as many as could possibly be assailed before being killed oneself.
Worse still, the Moros preferred to attack after heavily drugging themselves with a form of local narcotic, binding their limbs and bodies with leather in ways calculated to delay blood loss if wounded, and participating in religious rituals that whipped them into homicidal frenzies. These attributes, on top of their 400-year history of relentlessly battling any occupier against whom they declared jihad, made the Moro tribesmen the most implacably bloodthirsty opponents the United States had yet faced. And just by way of reinforcing this article’s undergirding theme, which mnemonically gifted readers will recall as, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” allow us to present one additional fact about the Moros: They were Muslim.
As historian David S. Woolman put the matter in Military History Magazine a few years ago, “Although certain of their own extinction, these fanatics were secure in their belief that they would be whisked to the Muslim paradise for their valorous self-sacrifice, where, among other glories, they would be serviced by 16 virgins.” Sound familiar? Okay, we thought it was supposed to be 72 virgins too, but maybe the Moros were victims of soteriological discrimination and simply had to settle; Woolman doesn’t say.
Readers may also find themselves wondering how on earth swarms of Muslims wound up in the middle of the Philippine jungle in 1902, but we invite them to pursue the question independently given that a thorough explanation will involve us in God knows how many discursive tributaries, and none of us wants that, do we. Suffice it for our immediate purpose that Moros were Muslim, and hell-bent on slaughtering Christians—particularly Christians of the American variety, we being the most proximal irritants.
The Moros were not well equipped, of course, being essentially pre-industrial in outlook and armament. Firearms were scarce. Select fighters were equipped with either single-shot, 1871 Model .43 caliber, rolling block Spanish Remingtons (involuntarily provided by the islands’ previous occupiers) or, more commonly, the .70 caliber, black powder Tower musket originally manufactured in England for use by British forces in the Raj. In design, the Tower was barely superior to the infamous “Brown Bess” which British redcoats carried to defeat in the Revolutionary War. Americans were far better armed with their bolt action Krag–Jørgensens, but even the M1899 carbine model, built specifically for use in the Philippines, was longish and slow to re-chamber for a jungle weapon. The Moros, meanwhile, turned their muskets’ muzzle-loading impediment to advantage by funneling iron pellets, available metal fragments, sections of light chain, and even pebbles down the barrels. The result was a nasty close-quarters scatter gun capable of inflicting horrifying wounds from ambush in the jungles of the southern Philippines.
More often, however, the Moros attacked with their traditional bladed weapons, including the Kriss, a serpentine thrusting sword, the slashing
Kampilan sword, long Budiak spears, and the infamous Barong—often called a sword, but approximately the size of a large Bowie knife, and no less suitable for stabbing or slashing adversaries. Read more….
But so what, right? We detect the thoughts of many readers, wondering at this point: What does this have to do with anything? We hear them thinking, “it is interesting, we suppose, that fanatical Muslims were a problem for American soldiers and Marines as long ago as 1902, and strange how few Americans realize this nowadays, but what possible pertinence does this have to the supposed topic of this ridiculously turgid screed?” Well, as readers better informed regarding America’s weaponological history already know, that question is about to be answered! (You don’t want to rush us, do you? Okay, don’t answer that.)
Weapons of last resort….
From the earliest reports of Texas Rangers battling swarms of Comanches along the Pecos, to the headlong clash of cavalries at the height of the Civil War, and the iconic imagery of George Custer’s embattled troopers firing their last rounds into limitless waves of Sioux and Cheyenne at the Little Big Horn, legend (and quite often historic fact) depicted the weapon of last resort as that singularly American innovation—the six gun. Soldiers, Marines, Cowboys and anyone who’d ever read a Penny Dreadful knew without doubt that the implement of choice when confronting an onrushing foe was the revolver. Billy the Kid is theorized to have carried a double-action .41 caliber “Thunderer,.” while Wild Bill Hickok stuck doggedly to his trusty 1851 Navy Colts, and (truth be known) Custer may have died clutching a pair of “Bulldog” self-cocking revolvers imported from England; but the six gun most widely trusted, carried and praised was the 1873 Colt .45 “Peacemaker,” a gun so legendary it even got its own TV show in the ‘50s.
Reaching for that classic American standby—the revolver—became reflexive for American soldiers hard pressed in close-quarters battle, but with its uncanny flair for misestimation, the Army Ordnance Department chose to declare the single-action .45 obsolete, replacing it with the Colt M1892, the Army’s first double-action general issue revolver. The new pistol sported a swing-out cylinder chambered for .38 caliber shells because, as Bruce N. Canfield explained in American Rifleman, “It was felt in some circles that a smaller caliber, higher-velocity cartridge would be better for military use than the heavy .45 round.” This paralogism, usually voiced in tandem with the canard that the .45 cartridge produces too much recoil for accurate shooting, remains as much in circulation today as in the early 20th century. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” not to put too fine a point on it.
Ordnance officials further praised the new pistol’s easy-to-load counter-clockwise rotating cylinder and its “star” extractor, which ejected all spent cartridges at once. But over time, the counter-clockwise cylinder rotation had the unintended effect of nudging the cylinder out of alignment. The swift re-loading feature took on a grimly ironic insignificance when U.S. forces couldn’t send a round down the barrel.
But the biggest problem was the .38 caliber bullet. Historian Tim Marr confirms that “Moros struck terror in the American military partly because …Moro jihadis killed soldiers even after soldiers had shot them several times.” Many accounts exist of American fighters being hacked to shreds or losing limbs to slashing barongs, even as troopers fired round after round, point blank, into their attackers. Since Moro attacks typically became close-quarter contests as soon as the tribesmen struck, the effectiveness of the Americans’ bolt-action Krag-Jørgensens was quickly nullified. Reaching for their revolvers as the aggressors poured into their ranks, American soldiers and Marines soon realized they could empty all six chambers into a charging Moro and still get decapitated before the assailant collapsed.
Enter the… Luger?
With signature obtuseness, the Ordnance Department responded to the situation by shipping 2,000 German Lugers to the Philippines. The Luger, although highly touted in European military circles, was in no respect relevant to the situation. In stopping power, its 9mm cartridge was a marginal improvement, if that. In an acerbic report to the War Department, General Samuel S. Sumner, commander of the Department of Mindanao and Sulu, noted that “The Luger automatic pistol as a hunting pistol and for dress occasions is attractive and useful. I have one which I prize highly, but for field service, in the hands of officers and men, it is a failure. It is too complicated, and cartridges often jam, but the main defect is that the bullet will not stop a Moro.”
Exit the Luger….
The next act of what might be regarded as a comedy of errors, albeit a dark one, entailed the adoption by local constabulary forces of the Colt .45 DA Model 1909. This double action revolver fired the same round as the original Colt model of 1873, but more rapidly, owing to its double action feature. It also reloaded less slowly, since the “Peacemaker’s” hinged gate was replaced by a swing-out chamber and an ejection rod. That said, the weapon remained solely in the possession of the indigenous constabulary, since the Ordnance Department did not approve its issue to American forces for another 5 years.
Once the new Colt was in American hands, General Pershing wrote that “The substitution of the caliber .45 Colt revolvers for the caliber .38 is a distinct improvement.“ He might have added, were he inclined to snarkiness, that the new Colt revolver fired the same hard-hitting round as the original Colt model of 1873, which the Ordnance Bureau had seen fit to replace with the deficient .38 caliber pistols; but of course, “Blackjack” Pershing was not inclined to snarkiness.
Of cadavers and cows….
There is all sorts of learned material in print dismissive of the notion that the .45 automatic pistol was tested, in tandem with its specially developed 230 grain 45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge, on cadavers and charging bulls. Many gun historians rank such tales with the notion that Wyatt Earp favored a “Buntline Special” or that Billy the Kid was left handed—quaint, in other words, but apocryphal. Technically, they are correct, but the Moros did inspire what became known as the Thompson–LaGarde Tests.
In 1904, before the .45 automatic existed, the Army took a variety of handguns to the Union Stockyards in Chicago and tested them extensively on cattle, as well as at least two horses. Next, human cadavers were suspended by various means and shot from a variety of ranges. The dangling bodies constituted crude ballistic pendulums, permitting the testers to measure impact. In the wake of these experiments, Colonel John T. Thompson (later to develop the eponymous submachine gun, remember?) opined that any new pistol “would preferably be semi-automatic in operation,” adding that “a bullet, which will have the shock effect and stopping effect at short ranges necessary for a military pistol or revolver, should have a caliber not less than .45.”
Obviously, soldiers in the Philippines had been making the same point for years, but it was only after the stockyard experiments that the Ordnance Bureau inferred the obvious, and the Secretary of War issued a Special Order to the Army to begin testing handguns which met a specific set of criteria, to wit:
• Caliber not less than .45.
• Magazine holding no less than six rounds.
• Bullet weight not less than 230 grains.
John Browning, please call your office….
It was at this juncture that someone thought of John Moses Browning, the brilliant Mormon inventor whose weaponological genius was already deemed a national treasure of sorts. Browning concocted a magazine fed, single-action semi-automatic pistol based on short-recoil operation, featuring both manual and grip safeties and yet so simple in its design as to render it virtually impervious to weather or gritty field conditions.
Browning next made himself a familiar sight at Colt’s Hartford, Connecticut factory where he supervised the manufacture of his design personally. He also personally carried the gun into the Army’s endurance testing in March, 1911. The test included having each gun fire 6000 rounds. After every 1000 rounds, the pistol could be cleaned and oiled. After firing all 6000 rounds, the pistols were tested with deformed cartridges, rusted in acid or submerged in sand and mud. The competition soon narrowed to a runoff between Browning’s Colt and the .45 entered by Savage Arms.
By the end the test, the Savage design suffered over 37 incidents of malfunction or breakage; while the Colt suffered none. On 23 March 1911, the evaluation committee’s report stated, “Of the two pistols, the board was of the opinion that the Colt is superior, because it is more reliable, more enduring, more easily disassembled…and more accurate.” As evidence of durability they cited the fact that when the grueling 6,000 round test left Browning’s pistol so hot it could not be handled, he simply dunked it in a bucket of water and calmly resumed shooting.
Nine days after the committee’s report, the Army designated the Colt Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911 its official sidearm. The Navy and Marine Corps adopted the 1911 two years later. Ironically, the pistol was adopted too late to resolve the crisis that inspired its development. Myths and pictorial depictions notwithstanding, Moros were not knocked down willy-nilly by the newly issued automatic pistols. That’s because the M1911 was not issued to U.S. Army units until mid-1913, just prior to America’s military drawdown.
True, in 1913, Moro chieftain Datu Amil ensconced himself and 1,500 warriors atop the volcanic crater of Bud Bagsak and challenged Pershing’s troops to “come on and fight.” The use of the 1911 pistol in that battle is often asserted, and the pistol appears as the centerpiece of a memorable poster issued by the U.S. Army; but records indicate the first shipment of new pistols left New York around the time of the battle, so its presence at Bud Bagsak seems unlikely.
As a crowning irony, the M1911 made its verifiable debut in the Philippines 30 years later when American submarines delivered crates of them (together with Thompson Submachine Guns, which fired the same rimless ammunition) to guerillas–many of whom were Moro tribesmen, eager to battle the invading Japanese.
Colt’s .45 automatic first went to war in Europe where World War I doughboys found it a useful accessory. In fact, despite the motion picture portrayal in which Gary Cooper accomplishes the feat entirely with a German Luger, the famous incident at Chatel-Chéhéry in which Sergeant York shot down six out of six charging German soldiers and accepted the surrender of 132 more, was achieved with a .45 Colt automatic. The blasphemous substitution of the Luger occurred because the prop men at Warner Brothers had no blank cartridges powerful enough to allow the Colt’s slide to chamber additional rounds. In actuality, York, who resorted to his Colt after emptying his rifle (which, by the way, was an Enfield, not a Springfield as shown in the film), had one round left in his pistol when he accepted the enemy’s mass surrender. Whenever asked to recall the event, Alvin York (who won the Medal of Honor for his actions that day) was sure to give full credit to God, the men with whom he served, and his Colt pistol.
Following Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, demand for John Browning’s powerful .45 quickly outpaced production. By VE Day, the government had purchased 2 million 1911 pistols, but since Colt’s legendarily inept business and production formulae were problematic even then, this number was achieved by issuing contracts to Remington Rand (the typewriter company) —the Ithaca Gun Company, and the Union Switch & Signal company. However improbably, the Singer Sewing Machine Company made at least 500 1911 pistols, while Springfield and Savage provided only the slides, which were interchangeable with the other pieces.
Emerging from World War II, mounting calumnies surrounded the Colt 1911, among them the standard canards that it was highly inaccurate and cursed with unmanageable recoil. There was also the widely circulated assertion that no combat kills had ever been recorded by soldiers using the 1911, a notion that found its way even into some reputable firearm histories. Alvin York, obviously, would have disagreed. John Basilone, who wiped out an entire company of charging Japanese during a harrowing night on Guadalcanal in 1942, became legendary for blunting the assault with fire from a red-hot .30 caliber machine gun, cradled in his arms (sans tripod). This is certainly the “money shot” of the event, but closer examination reveals that Basilone also dropped several enemy soldiers with his .45 Colt pistol.
Also on Guadalcanal, Marine PFC Al Schmid proved crucial in stopping a nighttime banzai charge, first with his 30 caliber water-cooled machine gun, (which, unlike Basilone, he decorously elected to fire from a fixed position) but also, when his belts of .30 caliber were exhausted, by pulling his Colt pistol, which he was still clutching when medics placed him on a stretcher the next morning. Reportedly, Schmid reached up from his litter, handed his locked-back Colt to his lieutenant, and said, “I guess I won’t need this any more!”
When Lt. Owen Bagget’s B-24 Liberator was shot up and set ablaze by enemy aircraft over the jungles of Burma, Bagget ordered his crew to hit the silk, and did likewise. When the Japanese fighters turned to make a strafing run at the Americans hanging from their parachute harnesses, Bagget was hit, but undaunted. When the offending Japanese pilot made a second pass to finish him off, Bagget (who was a Texan, by the way) angrily drew his .45 Colt and fired four times at the approaching enemy’s cockpit. The Zero spun into the jungle and exploded.
Readers interested in discovering numerous additional reports of 1911 pistols that proved useful in combat from the trenches of World War I to the jungles of Vietnam will find nuggets galore—and yet traducements against Mr. Browning’s semi-automatic handgun continued unabated, as did the U.S. Army’s irrational urge to retire it. From 1948 onward, a close examination of the record reveals a desultory yet continuing effort to replace the 1911 pistol.
Army Ordnance, left too long to its own ruminations, first concluded that new pistols of a more acceptable nature should not exceed seven inches in length, and 25 ounces empty. Blow-back action and a squeeze charger system were mandated, as was a folding trigger guard. This last requirement ostensibly addressed the problem of soldiers wearing thick gloves who might encounter difficulty inserting a finger inside the Colt’s fixed trigger guard. A more cynical assessment might posit that because Walther pistols fielded by Germany during the war featured such gimmicks, Army Ordnance’s longstanding preoccupation with all things très européen was flaring up.
Enter the T3
High Standard submitted the prototypical T-3 test pistol. The Army was pleased to note the design’s double-action trigger and its pivoting trigger guard that slid tidily into a recess in the frame. However, to meet the Army’s weight criterion, the gun’s frame was partly aluminum. This, of course, increased recoil, and Army Ordnance was already phobic on the matter. High Standard insisted that annular grooves carved into the T-3’s chamber would diminish recoil by causing cartridge cases to expand, retarding the backlash of the slide.
In testing, the T-3’s hammer cracked, evidently owing to poor metallurgy. Before the hammer incident, repeated failures to feed occurred because cartridges “upended” in the breech. High Standard vowed to fix the hammers and insisted that adding a “guide shelf” would remedy the problem. The Ordnance Corps financed these improvements, but let High Standard know that upon further deliberation, the Corps now wanted a 13-round magazine. On the bright side, test pistols could now weigh 29 ounces, empty. Exactly what insight ramified in the Army’s decision that guns formerly believed to exceed the boundaries of practicality at 28 ounces could now weigh 29, remains a mystery. What is known is that in 1950, High Standard submitted the new, improved T-3. on which the hammers still broke, failures to feed were undiminished, and the frame–enlarged to accommodate the 13-round magazine–cracked at stress points.
Exit the T3
Undaunted, the Ordnance Corps financed a third evolution of the T-3. Having seemingly experienced a subsequent revelation that 13-round magazines were no longer necessary, the Corps agreed that third-generation T-3s could revert to single stacked magazines. Tested in November of 1952, the new pistols “suffered numerous failures and malfunctions.” Extraction problems continued, the new magazine releases broke, the slide stops locked the slide back at arbitrary intervals during firing, and the hammers still fractured. At this point, the Ordnance Board recommended cancellation of the T3 program.
In 1955, the Army sought once again to replace the 1911, this time by inviting foreign manufacturers to enter pistols into the replacement competition, forgetting perhaps that the 1911 had beaten all its foreign competitors in early stages of the trials that led to its adoption. Taxpayers were saved further bother when the Army’s deputy chief of staff for logistics discovered the program, together with Ordnance’s request for $150 thousand in start-up funding, and cancelled the entire business. The logic applied by the deputy chief was that “sidearms are seldom used anymore.” To his credit, he added that existing stocks of M1911A1s were “more than adequate,” although his assessment was probably more actuarial than martial.
Dawn of the “Wonder Nines”
It was late in the 1970s that the Defense Department actually succeeded in solving the non-problem of the 1911 .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun. Reciting the traditional slanders in defense of their lurch back to small caliber “poodle shooters” (to borrow Jeff Cooper’s memorably caustic term), the Department of Defense decided to synchronize the weapons of all five branches of the military, and to further synchronize American weapons with those beloved of our western allies. Since it was universally held by strategists of that era that any future conflict would involve a Soviet drive into Europe opposed by the combined forces of NATO, the Defense Department argued that a handgun chambered for 9mm, the ubiquitous European pistol cartridge, was preferable from a multicultural standpoint to the chauvinistically nativist .45 ACP.
Besides, the new “wonder-nines” were being widely touted in America at that time—mainly for their greater magazine capacity. Police departments switched to them in droves. It is a curious fact that the same logistical wizards who denigrated superior “stopping power” as an obsolete concept found greater magazine capacities irresistible. Granted, part of the concern was based on the supposition that panicky soldiers in close quarters battle would miss a lot, but close quarters battle means exactly that, and it might be reasonable to prefer a gun that stops a charging adversary with two or three rounds to one that requires eight or nine. Still, worriment over American soldiers missing with their handguns at point blank ranges conflated with the seemingly imperishable belief that American soldiers would find the recoil of a .45 daunting to the point of mass demoralization—and the decision was made to retire the iconic 1911.
Enter the Beretta
In 1985, following trials that Undersecretary of the Navy Ambrose called a “game of charades,”’ and from which Smith and Wesson was strangely excluded despite its efforts to place its Model 5946 pistol into competition; and with rumors circulating that backroom deals for bases in Italy made the selection of an Italian gun highly probable, the Beretta 9mm pistol (newly designated the M9) was selected to become the military’s new standard sidearm. Why did an Italian gun based on a German design featuring comparatively little stopping power replace John Browning’s iconic masterpiece? No one ever really managed a persuasive explanation (although, in fairness, many made the attempt). Pistol guru Jeff Cooper, widely deemed the ultimate authority on guns and handgunning, declared that he “would rather have a hatchet than a 9mm at intimate range.”
Similarly, the military, which now had an authentic handgun problem acquired while solving its putative handgun problem, took quite a while to admit that caliber was the problem, let alone such additional concerns as the M9’s sexy-looking exposed barrel letting dirt into the action, slides cracking, open slides filling with Middle-Eastern sand, safeties mounted inconveniently high on the slides that also led to accidentally de-cocking the gun when attempting to clear stoppages, locking block plungers’ retaining pins needing replacement every few hundred rounds, trigger return springs breaking, and parkerized magazines that attracted contaminants.
But in battle, the main problem continues to be the Moro problem—in other words, the issue of stopping power. As R.K. Campbell wrote in 2005, “The M 9 is a triumph of the technical over the tactical compared to the 1911. The Beretta is easy to shoot well. It kicks but little and is usually accurate…[but] even when loaded with expanding ammunition, which the military cannot use, the 9mm has not proven to give consistent, reliable results…I have one case in my files in which a female victim took eight rounds before succumbing to a ninth shot through the eye socket. I have a 9mm pucker in my leg and a ragged scar on my face left by an individual who absorbed three 9mm soft point rounds. Adequate for battle? Hardly. (The 9mm man will always say, ‘You used the wrong load. Why, the FILL IN THE BLANK [cartridge] will get the job done.’ They never seem willing to admit the caliber was the problem.)”
Elsewhere, Campbell quotes the redoubtable Jeff Cooper to the effect that the 1911 .45 is “the best fighting pistol of all time,” adding his own view that “the .45 ACP cartridge remains as well balanced and effective a defensive cartridge as we are likely to produce. Those advocating the small bores either have no personal experience in the problem, or they do not understand the problem.”
To stop, or not to stop….
Of course, nowadays, stopping power is fashionably denounced across the panoply of gun ‘zines and online discussion threads—and yet to the frontline soldier it remains a crucial consideration. Most of the dismissals of stopping power come from writers who adduce anecdotes in defense of their points, but one such argument issues from the scientifically oriented, research-based Greg Ellifritz, who snorts, “I don’t care what you carry for self defense. My research shows that there really isn’t much of a difference at all between the service caliber handguns.” But Ellifritz acknowledges that of 1800 shootings he’s analyzed, his “number of rounds before incapacitation” looks like this:
Going to war with a 9mm, even if one accepts Ellifritz’s data as gospel, seems the least advisable choice of those available. And we all know about statistics, don’t we–so we won’t bother quoting Disraeli on the matter.
A Cold War relic?
And then, one day in 2014, word came from the website Military.com that the “Army Wants a Harder-Hitting Pistol.” In the article, Matthew Cox explained that “The U.S. Army is moving forward [how’s that for unintended irony?] to replace the Cold War-era M9 9mm pistol with a more powerful handgun that also meets the needs of the other services.” Again, according to Matthews, “Soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have complained that the 9mm round is not powerful enough to be effective in combat.” Brutally, the same military that once heralded the gadgetry, fetchingly configured Beretta as the last word in low-caliber chic, now bemoaned it as hopelessly superannuated—”a Cold War relic,” as obsolete as the XF-85 Goblin, Nike Bases, or the 280-mm “Atomic Annie” artillery piece—although “Annie”certainly had great terminal ballistics.
Daryl Easlick, a project officer with the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, announced that the “outdated” M9 pistol would be replaced by a handgun featuring “greater accuracy, lethality, reliability and durability.” Suddenly, the military was on the lookout for a “a more potent round than the current 9mm.” “The 9mm doesn’t score high with soldier feedback,” explained Easlick, adding that the Army now sought “a round that will have better terminal effects — or cause more damage — when it hits enemy combatants. We have to do better than our current 9mm.” Among other issues, it transpired (mirabile dictu!) that Berettas had “reliability issues.” Undoubtedly, the decision to replace the M9 sprang from a sincere desire to put a harder hitting pistol in the hands of our military, but it was Lou Reed who warned us that “between thought and expression, lies a lifetime.”
Obviously, what was needed was a contest—a set of trials designed to pick the perfect sidearm for the American military—just like the ones that picked the Beretta 9mm back in 1985. In other words, it was time for another “game of charades!” And needless to say, trials were held, competitions staged, and entrants eliminated, (some of them, like the Glock, prior to even testing). And inevitably, a winner emerged from these latest exertions. At no time, so far as WOOF can ascertain, did any ordnance official or Pentagon authority give consideration to simply reinstating the 1911 pistol despite the fact that the Marines had already done so.
Ask a Marine!
The Corps began re-equipping its elite forces with .45 pistols in the 1990s, including the entirety of its Force Reconnaissance units. Gunsmiths at the Weapons Training Battalion Precision Weapons Section kept busy hand-building them from retired 1911s stored at Quantico after the advent of the Beretta. In 2012 the Marines realized home crafting their pistols was impractical in the long term and contracted Colt Defense in Hartford Connecticut to solve their 9mm problem by making them 10,000 new 1911-style Close Quarter Battle Pistols chambered for 45 ACP.
The Army competition was ostensibly open-caliber, which it claimed would “give handgun makers flexibility to present the most effective handgun,” despite the fact that .357 SIG and .40 S&W were never seriously considered because they are allegedly hard on their frames, thus insufficiently durable. Besides, the Army didn’t want just any old handgun—it wanted “a total system replacement.” The winning sidearm would be designated the Modular Handgun System—which sounds pretty lethal, but comes closer to describing a gun designed by a committee.
And the winner is?
A considerable amount of squid ink surrounds which gun actually emerged victorious from the Army’s trials, yet there seems no real doubt that the military’s new pistol will be the Sig Sauer P320. The Sig’s selection, however, is more nuanced than one might initially assume. As Ammoland’s Tom McHale writes, “the caliber part is a little bit squishy as the finalist guns were all somewhat multi-caliber in nature.” McHale explains, “The ‘gun’ has no caliber, length, height, or weight. All of that depends on the parts you use around the ‘gun.’” Indeed, the military’s new “Modular Handgun System” can be configured to fire a 9mm, .40 S&W, or even a .357 Sig Sub Compact cartridge, or, presumably, just about anything else. Thus it appears –as the Dodo Bird concluded at the end of his race in Alice in Wonderland— “Everybody has won and all must have prizes.”
What this means in practical terms is that the logistical nightmare foreseen as a result of our troops fighting in Europe with handguns demanding .45 ACP ammo, is now replaced by a weapon that may demand any number of logistically impractical calibers in order to remain in action. Unless, of course, one configures it to fire (ahem!) 9mm. Complaints about the Sig include its largely plastic frame, but go on to protest the fact that when forward pressure is placed on the magazine base pad, it malfunctions; that the bore axis is too high for fast shot placement, and that the removable plate on top of the slide, meant to accommodate optical sights, leaves a portal exposed to debris.
But the issue, finally, comes down to the cartridge. Any handgun chambered for .45 auto will, after all, deliver a .45 auto round to the target. Sadly, this appears to be an unlikely scenario for the Sig 320, no matter its versatility. One reason is what a less genteel blog than WOOF’s might call “chickification.” “The reason the Army went with Sig Sauer was to get the different-sized polymer frame,” reports Bruin Herr of Axman South. “An Army soldier today might be a 6-foot-5 guy or a 5-foot-2 woman, with really different-sized hands. With one handgun, that’s really difficult to do. So a big requirement was the modular design.” Needless to say, the military’s imperishable belief that nobody other than a veritable titan can discharge a .45 without breaking both wrists and missing the target will also figure into Army’s choice of caliber.
Thus, as we confront a GOP repair of the Affordable Care Act that effectively reissues the Affordable Care Act, and a predicted “fix” of the tax system that is almost certain to complicate and perpetuate that monstrosity, we are presented with the analogous decision to give American soldiers a “harder hitting pistol” by replacing the military’s 9mm handguns with newer, plastic, 9mm handguns. Mark our words, gentle readers: The Army will issue their vast stores of remaining 9mm ball ammo to troops whose 320s will be configured to accept that round. Nobody will be issued a .45, or a .357, nor even a 40 caliber weapon. Do you doubt us? According to Military.com, two sources confirmed that Sig submitted only .40-caliber and 9mm pistols for the Army’s consideration. An additional source said the Army ultimately selected the 9mm version.” Et viola: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” or as