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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

What type of handguns did officers carry?


scruffitto

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Hello jaybeedee

British officers provided their own handguns, the only specification being that they had to be able to use Government-issue ammunition.

In practice this meant they almost invariably used the Webley, which was the standard issue to other ranks.

I'll leave the weapons experts to confirm the exact mark and calibre!

Ron

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Yes. The commonest in 1914 being the Webley Mk.V and, after 1915, the Webley Mk.VI but a variety of others could be found and many also carried a pocket pistol of some sort as back-up (the 1900 FN-Browning apparantly being particularly popular).

Dave

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The .455 Webley was very popular with officers.

Regards.

Tom.

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Because they were allowed to buy their own weapon other pistols and revolvers were also purchased some in government .455 calibre and some in other calibres. Colt and I think Smith and Wesson made .455 revolvers as well. Churchill in the 1890s carried a Mauser 'broomhandle'I am not sure whether this was in 9mm or 7.65mm. Webley also made a .455 semi-automatic pistol issued I think to the Navy and some police forces. Finally I think the Colt M1911 was made in .455 but and this is where my memory fails me it may have been in the Second War for for the Royal Air Force.

Greg

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Churchill's Mauser was a 7.63, using a pretty high-velocity bottleneck cartridge.

The 7.65 Browning is the same round as is also known as .32" ACP - yeah, the Imperial conversion is not precise and was probably adopted for marketing reasons because people knew what to expect from a .32". It's only about a third the power of the 7.63 Mauser round, but can be fired from small pocket pistols that don't have a locked breech.

The 7.65/.32 round was very popular in WW1 and Europe was awash with the pocket autos that fired it by the end. Siegfried Sassoon carried a Browning 1910 in that calibre, chiefly because it was the best he could get - at some stages pistols of any type were in short supply - and was easy to carry in a pocket.

Regards,

MikB

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In addition to those mentioned above I have seen Spanish copies of the old Smith and Wesson Double Action top-breaks chambered for the .455 Mk1. I once had one that was marked to the RAVC [Veterinary Corps] .

Here is a .455 Mk1, First British Contract Triple Lock by Smith and Wesson that was carried by Capt[T] Charles F. Drew MC , a doctor assigned to the 9th Field Ambulance 1915-1918.

455TL.jpg

Dean

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  • 5 months later...

Somewhat late to the discussion but this may be of interest. Webley .455 semi-automatic pistols were issued to the Royal Navy, as was the Colt 1911 in .455. Presumably the Colts had been issued to the RNAS, as they ended up in the possession of the Royal Air Force, where they were used in World War II (this in response to an inquiry I made to the Royal Armouries a couple of years back).

Simon

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I missed this thread back in January, probably because I was away for work.

A couple of points of clarification: as officers were supposed to buy revolvers in the issue calibre of .455", they generally purchased commercial models such as the Webley WG, Colt New service, S & W Triple Lock or is some cases the Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver. Some bought pistols in other calibres, often the Colt Government Model in .45 ACP, as did Churchill when he went to France. Haig carried a .38 Webley automatic.

The Spanish pistols mentioned were the .455" Old Pattern revolvers purchased by the government from Orbea, Tracaola Aranzabal and others. These were issued as the Pistol O.P. No.1 Mark 1 and No.2 Mark 1 and over 30,000 were purchased form Spain. These pistols, like all others, were chambered for the .455" Mark II round, not the mark I.

The first lot of Smith & Wessons purchased by Britain were the "Triple Lock" First Model Hand Ejector and known as the Mark I in British service. There were 5,666 of these. The remaining 55,000 were the second model Hand Ejector and were the Mark II.

Finally, I am afraid the National Armouries have been leading you astray Simon. The early orders for the Colt Governmant Model in .455" calibre were in 1915 and placed through the London Armoury Company for the army. Subsequent orders placed directly with Colt were all for the Royal Flying Corps, 5,000 being delivered under contract US1139-MM67 and a further 5,000 under contract US6755-MM264. This latter contract was originally for 10,000 pistols but 5,000 were cancelled when the war ended. These contracts were taken over by the RAF which is why the pistols remained in RAF service in WW2.

The Royal Navy purchased a number of Colt Government Models in the original .45ACP for the RNAS and issued these with extended twenty round magazines made by Beesley. I know of no evidence that the RN had any Colts in .455" calibre.

The army certainly also ordered Colts in .45ACP, but as these were all shipped through Colt's agent, the London Armoury Company, it is difficult to know which were for onward sale to the military and which were for private officers' purchase. The picture is further confused by some writers because the British government ordered 51,000 Colt .45 ACP Pistols on behalf of Russia and these are often wrongly included in the total for British military use.

There has been a considerable amount of misleading information printed in the past about pistols in WWI. All the above contracts were for issue pistols rather than officers private purchase. However, with the large number of NCOs that were being commissioned in the latter part of the war, many would have carried one of these pistols.

Regards

TonyE

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In March 1918 my grandfather described having a .455 Colt in a holster. I looked this up on p168 of

Williamson, H, 2003, The Collector and Researchers Guide to the Great War: Vol. I; Medals and Medal Research, Vol. II; Small Arms, Munitions, Militaria. Williamson, Harwich.

Where it is described as a large heavy gun, popular with officers.

He also had with him “a small-bore very fancy German revolver which I had taken from a German officer” about which, of course, I have no more details but it would seem to corroborate the mention above of officers carrying another (?smaller) handgun in their pockets.

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Assuming your grandfather was talking about a revolver, then it would have been a Colt New Service revolver. Even before the war these were popular as officers' private purchases and the Canadians had purchased a number to arm their troops during the Boer war.

As early as September 1914 the government ordered 5,000 New Service revolvers from Colt's London agent, the London Armoury Company and continued to purchase them throughout the war. The number of Colt New Service pistols in British service is difficult to ascertain exactly as records are incomplete, but a Ministry of Munitions memo dated 20th December 1915 states that Colt had offered 100,000 revolvers, 5,000 by March 1916, 250 per working day in April 1916 and 300 per day thereafter. Price per pistol was £2. 12. 0. f.o.b. New York.

The alternative was that he had a Colt Government Model (1911) in .455 Self Loading calibre, but this is less likely unless he was RFC.

Regards

TonyE

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Thanks Tony, No, he was in the MGC. His account of March 1918 says that he and another officer were firing a MG then later that he took his .455 Colt from its holster etc. Julian

Interestingly his brother (also an MGC officer) was wounded later on by a sniper whose bullet also smashed his

(gt uncle's) handgun. In a later letter from hospital he asks his family to find the receipt for his handgun - tough purpose not stated. I assume he would have to replace it personally ?

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I am not sure what happened about officers loosing personal kit whilst on active service. I suspect they could claim for it which was why he wanted the receipt.

Anyway, here is a picture of the Colt New Service revolver.

Regards

TonyE

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  • 1 month later...

The question of 45 Webley revolvers being supplied to the White Star Line prior to World War I has been raised on another forum - the type of weapons involved being, apparently, the Mk.IV version (with a shortened barrel). It has been suggested on that forum that large calibre Webleys were "difficult" to use, with a massive kick, but I wonder if this was actually true. The method firing a WWI Webley was the old-fashioned "duelist" method, where the right arm is raised to the horizontal position and pointed at the target, but surely this would not be feasible if the "kick" was too severe?

On a footnote, the recent film about the loss of the Titanic depicts the first officer of the ocean liner shooting himself in the side of the head with what would presumably have been a WSL standard issue Webley from the ship's armoury. While few people believe that this actually happened, I wonder if it would be physically possible to effect a successful suicide in such a way?

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In March 1918 my grandfather described having a .455 Colt in a holster. I looked this up on p168 of

Williamson, H, 2003, The Collector and Researchers Guide to the Great War: Vol. I; Medals and Medal Research, Vol. II; Small Arms, Munitions, Militaria. Williamson, Harwich.

Where it is described as a large heavy gun, popular with officers.

He also had with him "a small-bore very fancy German revolver which I had taken from a German officer" about which, of course, I have no more details but it would seem to corroborate the mention above of officers carrying another (?smaller) handgun in their pockets.

Julian

At that point in history many gentlemen would have carried a small pistol for personal protection. This was quite normal for the period up to 1920. These were often .32 or the rarer .320 and were not expensive purchases. Many were produced in Belgium, much like the American 'Saturday night specials' of the 1960s - 1980s. It would be quite likely for many officers to have carried these as a back up to their service pistols though the stopping power would have been considerably less.

Gunner Bailey

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It has been suggested on that forum that large calibre Webleys were "difficult" to use, with a massive kick, but I wonder if this was actually true. The method firing a WWI Webley was the old-fashioned "duelist" method, where the right arm is raised to the horizontal position and pointed at the target, but surely this would not be feasible if the "kick" was too severe?

On a footnote, the recent film about the loss of the Titanic depicts the first officer of the ocean liner shooting himself in the side of the head with what would presumably have been a WSL standard issue Webley from the ship's armoury. While few people believe that this actually happened, I wonder if it would be physically possible to effect a successful suicide in such a way?

That's an exaggeration - the kick on a .455 is not enough to make use difficult for a keen shooter. It might put off an unwilling user, though, and that certainly contributed to the later development of the Enfield and Webley .380s. On a revolver like the .455, the recoil has to be compensated for in the sighting layout - with a level aim, the bore was angled distinctly downwards to compensate for the backward rotation of the piece whilst the bullet was in the barrel, but this was only a few degrees. The majority of recoil movement occurred after the bullet had exited the muzzle.

Regards,

MikB

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The recoil of a .455" Webley is quite mild compared to many modern handguns. The .455" Mark II cartridge was relatively low powered and the Webley is a heavy pistol.

It is actually a pleasant pistol to shoot and not difficult to master. There would be no difficulty whatsoever in shooting oneself in the side of the head, sad as that may be.

Regards

TonyE

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I agree with TonyE, the recoil is surprisingly mild. Anyone who describes it having 'a massive kick' has never fired one.

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I agree with TonyE, the recoil is surprisingly mild. Anyone who describes it having 'a massive kick' has never fired one.

Most people find that firing these very large/heavy handguns not too bad; the weight of the firearm makes the recoil quite bearable. The only handgun that my wife has enjoyed firing was her step-father's .44 Magnum with a 10" barrel and telescopic sights. (However, she is 20 years younger than I, 6' 1", and a weight-lifter.) I never minded firing the Colt .45, which I first did as a officer cadet, but our officer instructors said that some career officers had trouble with their annual re-qualification, usually due to the recoil. I have a .45 Colt Gold Cup National Match (a precision target pistol based on the issue .45 Colt), but I have not fired it for 30 years.

The most punishing handgun that I have ever fired is the tiny aluminum Colt Airlite Chief's Special that I carried daily for ten years, loaded with police combat .38 Special ammunition. I had a friend, a reserve Special Forces officer, who had a collection of 300 handguns, and when I mentioned that I had bought one he commented: "The patient is fine; his hand will be out of the cast in a month." But it is the very light weight and the tiny size of the grips, which I have since enlarged with grip extensions, that makes it so punishing. I think the original cross-section at the neck of the grips was about one square inch. But it was literally designed for police chiefs, who have to carry a gun every day, but will probably never have to fire it, but if he does it will be a matter of life or death and probably at a range of six feet.

My wife has a Brit literary e-friend, who has moved from the UK to Arizona, where he delights in driving an enormous beast of an American car (a Lincoln Town Car) and being able to legally carry a handgun. He reports that the legal test of firing proficiency in Arizona sounds absurd, but is really quite pragmatic; in the presence of a police officer, you have to be able to 1) load the damn thing, and 2) be able to put six out of ten shots into a target 18" high and 12" wide at a distance of nine feet. Hardly marksmanship, but brutally sufficient for self defense. Shooting someone at a range of 100' would be good marksmanship but would probably fail a legal test as "self defense", it might more likely be considered assassination.

Bob Lembke

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The most punishing handgun that I have ever fired is the tiny aluminum Colt Airlite Chief's Special that I carried daily for ten years, loaded with police combat .38 Special ammunition.....

Bob Lembke

I am not sure what pistol you carried for ten years Bob, but the aluminium framed Chief's Special Airweight was made by Smith & Wesson not Colt!

Anyway, why did you need a gun with a 6ft 1" weight lifting wife to look after you?

Regards

TonyE

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I am not sure what pistol you carried for ten years Bob, but the aluminium framed Chief's Special Airweight was made by Smith & Wesson not Colt!

Anyway, why did you need a gun with a 6ft 1" weight lifting wife to look after you?

Regards

TonyE

As I remember from shooting one of these in the '80s, it's the knurling on the cylinder release button that barks the base of your thumb... :o

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I am not sure what pistol you carried for ten years Bob, but the aluminium framed Chief's Special Airweight was made by Smith & Wesson not Colt!

Anyway, why did you need a gun with a 6ft 1" weight lifting wife to look after you?

Regards

TonyE

You are completely correct re: Smith & Wesson vs. Colt. I have guns, am fascinated by the politics of gun control/right to carry, often carry a gun, but I am not really a "gun nut", by my figuring. I am embarrased to admit that I have handguns that are very valuable, couple of thousand each, that I have not cleaned in 30 years.

Megan is formidable, but not always with me. She had a carry permit for five years, but never carried. (She now is expressing interest in my cute 9mm kurtz Walter PPK, and may get a permit again.) A few years ago two women mugged her (a basically mild-mannered librarian) and got her wallet, but then she thought: "I can take these girls!"; they were about a foot shorter, and she attacked them, sent them fleeing, and got her wallet back.

Bob

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I suppose it is possible that, if a modern enthusiast fires a 45 Webley and discovers it to be a difficult gun to use with a massive "kick", the gun involved may be a reject, or one that has been cobbled together from spare parts. Alternatively, the ammunition available today may be more powerful than the rounds which would have been fired in World War I (?)

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No, I doubt it. Most people have never fired a handgun. For many people the recoil of firing a .455 or .45 for the first time would be an eye-opening experience. Pistols aren't that easy to shoot accurately and many people who own and shoot them are not particularly good shots. Television and Hollywood have distorted the line between what is possible and what isn't. About 30 years ago I heard that most of the FBI's gunfights are at the range of 6 to 15 feet. By and large the gun battles shown in cowboy films are a bunch of nonsense.

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I suppose it is possible that, if a modern enthusiast fires a 45 Webley and discovers it to be a difficult gun to use with a massive "kick", the gun involved may be a reject, or one that has been cobbled together from spare parts. Alternatively, the ammunition available today may be more powerful than the rounds which would have been fired in World War I (?)

No, the charges, velocities and bullet weights are well documented and modern .455 ammunition - possibly Fiocchi may be the only folk left making it - is not more powerful than the Mk.II ball of WW1, despite the current unavailability of chopped Cordite :D . In fact it would be dangerous to attempt seriously increased loads - Fultons of Bisley used to exhibit a selection of blown-up Webleys in their window as a warning to such experimenters. Some examples have been converted to .45 ACP with apparent success, or at least not many spectacular failures.

It's a break-top revolver, and the cylinder's mostly holes - that needs to be remembered. The round is an excellent example of controlled stopping power as it is.

Regards,

MikB

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