The United States Army Quest for a Modern Semiautomatic Pistol
By Edward Langer
He came out of nowhere. He was yelling and charging straight for the American patrol. He stood a little over five and a half feet tall but to the soldiers he looked like a monster twelve feet tall. He brandished a long knife, which he wickedly held in his right hand. The patrol reacted immediately and several of the soldiers scored hits from their bolt action, Springfield rifles. But he wouldn’t go down. He just kept coming at them. He was about ready to slash at the soldiers when a lucky shot to his head brought him down. After the fight the soldiers turned the dead warrior over. He had twelve neat little holes in him, but only the lucky shot had stopped him.
Here was a new enemy – the Moro Juramentado. Armed with a sword known as the Kris or a hacking knife called the Barong, they were a formidable enemy. They were unlike any other enemy the Americans had encountered. Having used a special herbal drug that made them impervious to pain and with their bodies bound up like a giant tourniquet so that they would not easily bleed out, they would charge and attack until they were dead. The Moro Juramentado never retreated or surrendered. The Americans, following the European trend toward smaller caliber weapons brought their .30 caliber Springfield rifles and their .38 caliber revolvers. They soon learned that the stopping power of the .38 was not sufficient to stop a Juramentado.
The army needed a more powerful weapon. The army decided against the European trend toward smaller caliber pistols and decided upon a larger caliber pistol with more stopping power for close encounters. Here is the story behind the Browning/Colt 45.
From the beginning of the American Civil War and into the 20th Century the United States Army supplied its troops with several different caliber and manufactures of revolvers. Most of the Army’s revolvers were manufactured by the Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company. While it appears that Colt had a monopoly on revolvers, the Army would also purchase revolvers from other manufactures including Smith and Wesson.
At the beginning of the American Civil War many different rifles, muskets and pistols were used. Eventually the North settled on the Colt Army Model 1860, in .44 caliber for the Army and the Colt Navy Model 1861 in .36 caliber for the Navy. The South preferred the Colt 1851 Navy Revolver in .36 caliber.
All of these revolvers used black powder as the propellant and the user had to hand load powder and ball directly into the cylinders of each gun and then add a percussion cap on the outside of the cylinders to fire each chamber. Basically, during a battle, the soldier would have 6 shots, since it would be impossible to reload.
After the Civil War, soldiers got what was left of the Civil War weapons to use to protect the Wild West. These guns were old and obsolete. To correct this problem the army purchased the Colt Model 1873 “Peacemaker” .45 caliber revolver. This was a well designed revolver using cartridge bullets making it easier to reload. Each bullet was inserted separately and then the cylinder was rotated by hand for the next bullet. If a spent shell had to be removed, that was done first before inserting the new bullet. Depending on the battle situation, again the soldier may have only 6 shots since it might be impossible to reload under combat conditions.
This would be especially true for cavalry units. Trying to reload the Colt 45 would have been next to impossible while mounted on a charging horse. To correct this problem Major George W. Schofield of the 10th Cavalry, asked Smith and Wesson to modify their Model No. 3 for the army. The modified revolvers were named the Schofield. The major advantage this revolver had over the Colt 45 was that it was a top break pistol which when it opened, would automatically eject all of the spent shell casings, leaving it easily accessible to reload. A good cavalryman could reload the Schofield in 26 seconds without looking. The Schofield’s began entering service in 1875. Like the Colt 45, the Schofield had a seven inch long barrel, but surplus guns usually had the barrel shortened to five inches.
Stories abound that if Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer‘s troops at the battle of the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876, had used the Schofield they would have won the engagement. It is unknown what revolver Lt. Colonel Custer personally used. It is thought he may have used a pair of solid-frame Webley First Model Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) revolvers in .442 caliber, presented to him by British sportsman Lord Berkeley Paget. It’s also possible he used the Colt 45 or his .50-70 Remington rifle. It would not have made a difference. He did not have a defensible position and a ready supply of ammunition. He was badly outnumbered 15 to 1 by the Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne warriors. 
Pistols such as the Colt 45. the Schofield and all the rest of the pistols are basically a close range weapons to be used on a target less than sixty feet distant. A good seven inch long barrel pistol has an effective range of about 20 yards away, although it has stopping power if it hit anything out to 100 yards and beyond. A good marksman can hit a target at 100 yards but not on the battlefield. Even at 50 yards it's questionable, if a soldier could accurately hit a target. Twenty yards would be the maximum effective range on the battlefield. During the fury of battle, it would be impossible to be patient for any length of time to take a single shot.
A short barrel Colt 45 (usually 5”) was effective to about 7 yards and old west shootouts between fast draw gunmen usually occurred at this distance or less. The shopkeepers model with a three inch barrel was only good for dozen feet at best and there was a good chance you would hit a customer instead of the thief. Again, with the enemy so close it would be impossible to reload any pistol, including the Schofield, before the enemy was upon the soldiers. In the Philippines and especially in the trench warfare of World War One a bolt action rifle would be too long and too slow to rapid fire. A large caliber, quick reloading pistol with at least a 5” barrel would be ideal. While the army had settled on the Colt 45 and the Schofield, individuals outside of the army had their choice of weapons. In seems like in every old western movie the cowboy used a Colt 45. This was not always the case. There were many weapons to choose from both foreign and American made. These included some of the following:
1. Prescott single action six-shot revolver in .38 caliber
2. Merwin & Hulbert open top revolver which had competed against the Colt 45 for the army contract
3. Remington Model 1890 single action revolver
4. Smith and Wesson's No. 3 Model Army pistol in .44 caliber
5. Colt single action revolver in 44-40 caliber
Guns favored by outlaws were also varied. John Wesley Hardin used a .41 caliber Colt Lightning. This weapon was also favored by William H. Bonney aka “Billy the Kid.” Frank James used a Colt 45 and
later the Remington Model 1875 in .44-40 caliber. Pancho Vila used many different weapons including a Remington single action revolver, but his favorites were the Colt 1881 in .44-40 caliber and the Colt Bisley also in .44-40 caliber. Both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid used the Colt 45. In contrast Charles Boles aka “Black Bart” used a Loomis No. 15 shotgun to rob Wells Fargo stage coaches. Legend has it that the shotgun was never loaded.
On the “law” keeping side of the old west, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok used a Colt Model 1851 Navy .36 Caliber with ivory grips He also was known to use a Smith & Wesson .32 and a Dean-Adams five shot .45 DA revolver. Later in life with his eyesight failing it is said he carried a scatter gun. Doc Holiday with Wyatt Earp at the O.K. Corral, used a Colt 45. Doc Holiday started the engagement with a shotgun then followed up with his revolver. John Clum, editor of the Tombstone Epitaph and Mayor of Tombstone, preferred the Colt single action .44-40 caliber as did Pat Garrett when he shot and killed Billy the Kid. Bat Masterson used a specially modified 1885 Colt 45.
While the Colt 45 and the Schofield were good weapons, it was felt that the American Army was lagging behind developments in Europe. To modernize the Army, it was decided to follow the European practice for rifles and pistols using higher velocity, smaller caliber bullets with smokeless powder. This would lighten the weight of the gun and allow the soldier to carry more ammunition for the same weight. In 1892, the US Military adopted the Colt double action revolver with a swing out cylinder in .38 Colt long caliber. This gun was modified several times over the next few years.
The Colt 1892 was a lethal weapon and served the army well during the Spanish American War. A later model of this revolver, the Colt 1895, was carried by Teddy Roosevelt when his Rough Riders stormed San Juan Hill in Cuba. Teddy Roosevelt used this revolver to shoot and kill two Spanish soldiers. He was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. This revolver had originally been salvaged from the sunken USS Maine battleship and was presented to him by his brother-in-law Theodore Douglas Robinson, who was responsible for salvaging the Maine.
With the end of the Spanish American War, a new threat to the US Military arose in the Philippines. Expecting to be granted their freedom, the Philippine people rebelled against the United States for not granting it. The Army treated this like any other problem with native people. They had subdued Sitting Bull, Cochise, Geronimo, American Horse and Chief Joseph , but they soon learned that they had a different type of enemy that they had never faced before.
The Colt 1892 would not stop a charging Moro Juramentado. To correct this problem the army sent the old Colt 45 over to the Philippines. This weapon could stop a charging Juramentado, but it was a throwback to a different era. Once again European armies were switching over to the semiautomatic pistol, which could carry 7 or 8 bullets in a detachable magazine making it quick to reload. As early as 1894, the army was approached by European manufacturers to purchase a semiautomatic pistol. The army needed a semiautomatic pistol, but were unsure in what caliber. European armies were settling on the 9mm size bullet or even smaller calibers.
The chart below show the relative qualities of various size bullets.
Case Length in inches
Case Diameter in inches
Bullet Weight in Grains 
Velocity at Muzzle In feet per second
Energy at Muzzle in foot pounds
Energy at 100 yards in foot pounds
.38 special 
Colt .45 “Peace Maker”
Browning/Colt .45 automatic
The chart above shows the comparative stopping power of the Colt 45 , the .38 special, 9mm and the Browning/Colt 45 automatic. What is important is the comparison of the size and weight of the bullets. The Browning/Colt bullet is 21% bigger in size and 38% heavier than the 9mm bullet. It will produce much more damage when it hits a target.
To resolve this issue of which caliber to adopt, Colonel John T. Thompson of the Infantry, and Major Louis Anatole LaGarde of the Medical Corps tested many different caliber of bullets. Their report convinced the army to choose the .45 caliber ACP bullet. It had the best stopping power in a semiautomatic pistol. The .45 caliber ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) bullet was designed by John Browning, in 1904, for his .45 caliber automatic pistol he was developing.
Now that the bullet's caliber had been chosen, a pistol was needed to fire it. In the 1906 trials, six companies, Colt, Bergmann, Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM), Savage Arms Company, Knoble, Webley, and White-Merril, competed for the contract. Only two made it to the finals the Colt model designed by John Browning and the Savage model. The final test was to have each pistol continuously fire 6000 rounds over the course of two days. When the guns began to grow hot, they were simply immersed in water to cool them. The Colt passed with no reported malfunctions, while the Savage design had 37.
The new Browning/Colt was adopted by the Army in 1916. It was first used in combat the same year during the Mexican Revolution.
The new Browning/Colt 45, officially called the M1911, proved the design of the pistol and the stopping power of the .45 caliber bullet in the trench warfare of World War One. It was soon known as a “trench sweeper” for its stopping power – a soldier only had to use one bullet per enemy encountered instead of two or more to stop the enemy. It was also easy and fast to reload since the bullets were housed in a magazine that could be ejected and a new one inserted in just seconds. Outside of the trenches the M1911 saw a lot of use. Sargent Alvin York used it to stop
six charging German soldiers with six shots. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. Also Lieutenant Frank Luke of the army Air Corps. was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his fight to the death for the defense of his downed Spad aircraft from a German assault on his position.
The M1911 and its variants served the United States Military from World War One, through World War Two, The Korean Conflict and into the Vietnam War and is still in use today.
. The Battle of the Little Big Horn took place on June 25, 1876. This can be compared to the Battle of Isandlwana between the British Army and the Zulus in Zulu Land, South Africa on January 22, 1879. The British at Isandlwana were outnumbered, had indefensible positions and the soldiers were not close to the ammunition supply, and as the story goes, the supply sergeant was slow in giving out the ammunition. In contrast the battle at Rourke's Drift fought a few hours latter saw the British more heavily outnumbered but they won the day, since they had defensible positions and the ammunition was readily available.
. The effective range of any firearm is determined by many factors. The soldier's training and combat experience is a major factor. But there are many other factors. The length of the barrel is one such item. The longer the barrel the more contact the bullet has with the rifling (inner groves) which cause the bullet to spin thus stabilizing it as it leaves the barrel. While a very long barrel sounds great, the friction of the bullet going down the barrel would degrade performance as it leaves the barrel and the length may become unwieldy to use. Other factors that influence the trajectory of the bullet include gravity, air resistance, air temperature and wind. Most of these factors only come into play in long distance shooting. The longest recorded sniper kill was made by Corporal of Horse (CoH) Craig Harrison, Household Cavalry (UK) in November 2009 in Afghanistan using a Accuracy International L115A3 rifle for a distance of 2,707 yards.
. While the Spanish Navy was obsolete and easily defeated, the Spanish Army had some of the latest in European weapons. This included the Spanish Model M1893 or Spanish Mauser, the Mauser C96 (German Luger) in 7.63mm, and the Mauser ZigZag, 9mm, single action, top break revolver.
. While it may appear that the US Army had a string of victories against Native American warriors, such is not the case. Final victory usually came after many defeats and setbacks. Native Americans fought with courage, bravery and skill and many times out fought and out witted the army. They were defeated by a combination of one or more of the following: disease, shortages of food, lack of modern weapons, lack of a steady supply of ammunition, lack of an endless supply of warriors/soldiers and the need to protect family members.
. The weight of a bullet is measured in grains. Ounces are shown in parentheses to give the non-shooter a sense of comparison.
. The .38 Special was introduced in 1898 as an improvement over the .38 Long Colt which, as a military service cartridge, was found to have inadequate stopping power against the charges of Moro warriors during the Philippine–American War. Despite its name, the caliber of the .38 Special cartridge is actually .357–.358 inches (9.0678 mm), with the ".38" referring to the approximate diameter of the loaded brass case. This came about because the original .38-caliber cartridge, the .38 Short Colt, was designed for use in converted .36-caliber cap-and-ball (muzzleloading) Navy revolvers, which had cylindrical firing chambers of approximately 0.374-inch (9.5 mm) diameter, requiring heeled bullets, the exposed portion of which was the same diameter as the cartridge case.” For more information go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.38_Special#cite_note-cotw-5
. The Schofield .45 caliber pistol used a bullet casing, which was shorter than the Colt 45. Since it had less powder, it's muzzle velocity was only 730 feet per second and it's energy at the muzzle was 276 foot pounds a little better than a .38 special. The Schofield bullet could be fired out of the Colt 45 but the Colt 45 bullet was too long to fit in the Schofield.
The information on the chart comes from: http://library.med.utah.edu/WebPath/TUTORIAL/GUNS/GUNINTRO.html
Places to visit when in California:
Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage, Los Angeles – a must see
Calico Ghost Town – former silver mining town and a restored ghost town
The Winchester House near San Jose
The Ghost Town of Bodie – former gold mining town and a real ghost town Bodie was noted for its almost daily gun fights on the main street. Although there were several churches in Bodie, it was said that if you wanted to talk to God, you had to leave town.
Sources of information:
Most of what is written above came off the internet, but from many different sources. This paper ties everything together.
Written by Edward J. Langer. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Edward Langer at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author: Mr. Langer is an historian, researcher, and analyst. He holds a B.A. in History from California State University – Fullerton and an M.A. in History from California State University – Los Angeles.
He is a member of the International Naval Research Organization and the California Writers Club, Inland Empire Branch. His articles have been published in Military History Magazine, Colloquy and Fresh Ink.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.