HGR 044 - Handguns of World War I & II

This week, myself and Weerd Beard of the Squirrel Report discuss the various handguns that were used in World War I & II. We also discuss some blackpowder revolver testing I did this weekend!

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Week in Review:


  • Shot the Pietta this weekend, got some pretty decent groups with it! There is a video over at the YouTube page showing the test. I used a pistol rest and shot three, five shot groups from 25 and 15 yards. The first group was okay, the second group was one of my best, and the third one was abysmal. The blackpowder revolvers seem to be sensitive to the powder charge, and that seems to have a large effect of the accuracy that you can obtain. The single action trigger is wonderful for precise shooting, but the sights are miniscule to almost non-existent. I also used some paper cartridges that I made. These were more for convienience than anything, as the charge was already pre measured, and all I had to do was dump it in the chamber and seat the ball after. A great day of shooting and a good time!

Weerd: Time with family; watching videos!

Main Topic: Handguns of World War I & II

So this week, we are going to be discussing the military handguns that were issued to each side during World War I & II. I chose to lump both conflicts together for the purposes of this episode because many of the countries did not change their selected handgun between the two conflicts. Other countries SLIGHTLY changed their guns, like the British and the .455 vs. .380/200. One thing to note also is going to be the differences in purpose that the handgun served between the European countries and the United States. In most of the European countries, with Great Britain being the exception, the handgun was seen as a badge of rank, not as a serious front-line combat weapon. This is the reason that you see many of the European service sidearms chambered for cartridges that we would consider not combat effective. A good example of this is the Walther PPK in .32 ACP or the Beretta 1934 in .380 Auto. For the purposes of our discussion, we are going to stick with the larger players in the conflict and stay away from the smaller countries that may have had their own domestic arms production and had an individual pistol of their own. Also, a few countries, ESPECIALLY Germany, would seize arms from a country they invaded and absorb those arms into their ranks, oftentimes giving them a designation under the “substitute standard” category. One great example of this is the Browning Hi-Power, which, when issued in German service, was designated the Pistole 640 (b). Also, different branches of the military may have used different firearms as well. While the standard pistol for the German military at the start of WWII was the P08 Luger, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) and the Fallschirmjagers (Paratroopers) were known to use the Astra 600 and the Sauer 38H respectively. We are going to try to stick with the MAIN handguns that were issued on both sides.

World War I & II:

Allied Forces:

Great Britain:

- At the end of World War I, only three major military powers still issued revolvers as their standard handgun; France, Great Britain and the new-to-the-party USSR.

- The British forces in World War I (and many in World War II) carried the Webley Mark IV revolver chambered in .455 Webley. The .455 Webley was a decent combat cartridge, firing a 265 grain .45 caliber slug at 650 to 700 feet per second. The Webley Mark IV was a double-action, break open revolver with automatic ejection that weighed in at a hefty two pounds, five ounces.

- In order to lessen the weight on the footsoldier, the British switched in 1928 to the Enfield No.2 Mark I revolver. This revolver was smaller and lighter than the Webley, and was modified to speed up production and cut manufacturing costs. It chambered a cartridge that was known as the .380/200. It was basically a beefed up .38 S&W cartridge, moving a 178 grain bullet at 700 feet per second. Weighing in at only 27 ounces, it was a full ten ounces lighter than the Webley Mark IV. It used the same break action automatic ejection that the Webley Mark IV used.

- Not wanting to be outdone on the semi-automatic pistol front, the British helped get some designers out of occupied Belgium and send them to work at the Inglis factory in Canada. These designers, including one Dieudonne Saive, brought with them the blueprints for the Browning Hi-Power and built them for the Allied Forces use. The British began issuing the 13 shot 9mm pistol to troops in March 1945, just in time for the last operations of the war. The Hi-Power has the distinction of being used by both sides in the conflict, with the Germans utilizing Hi-Powers mostly with the Waffen SS and the Fallschirmjager forces.

_Webley also did some limited use with the .455 Webley Self-loading Pistol which was chambered in the .455 Webley Automatic which fired a 224 grain jacketed bullet at 700 FPS.


- France was armed with a HUGE array of different handguns following World War I. The main handgun that was issued to French soldiers during WWI was the G. The M1892 revolver fired an 8mm French cartridge and weighed in at around 30 oz. It was a double-action revolver, with a swing-out cylinder holding six rounds. The French attempted to switch to a domestically-designed and produced semi-auto, the Mle 1935, but production could not keep up with the needs of the troops, and continued to issue revolvers. The 8mm French cartridge fired a 128 grain bullet at 730 feet per second, not very robust. One notable feature of the revolver was that the cylinder swung out to the right instead of the typical left. Many believe this was to allow cavalry to reload the gun with the reins in their hand and not having to swtich hands. After France was occupied by the Germans, the resistance fighters continued to use the Mle 1892 in large numbers.

- In WWI, the French were desperate for small arms, particularly handguns which were well suited for trench warfare. Several Spanish firms had begun manufacturing handguns that almost replicated the venerable Colt/Browning 1903 Pocket Hammerless, but with a longer grip to accommodate more cartridges. The French government got ahold of some of these so-called “Ruby” pistols in 1915, and contracted with several Spanish firms to produce the small .32 ACP pistols for their troops. The name “Ruby” covers the general form/finish/caliber/function of the pistols rather than being a particular brand or model.

USSR (Russia):

- The USSR followed a similar pattern of the British army, sticking with a revolver for the majority of both conflicts, before switching to a semi-automatic pistol. The USSR switched much earlier than the British Army, but still used revolvers right until the end of the war and beyond.

- The USSR issued the much-loved (not) Nagant 1895 Revolver. The Nagant used a 7.62 cartridge that was seated well below the case mouth, like a deep seated wadcutter. This bullet helped create a gas seal along with the unique mechanism of the gun, where the cylinder cams forward on every shot. The 1895 Nagant 7.62 cartridge launched a 102 grain bullet at 900 fps, which was very underpowered compared to other pistol cartridges of the time. The Nagant has the distinction of being the only revolver that can be effectively suppressed due to its gas seal operation. The NKVD put this to good use in the 1950’s.

- The USSR did adopt a semi-automatic handgun in 1930, the TT series of pistols. The TT-30 and more ubiquitous TT-33 were semi-automatic pistols that took cues from the M1911 pistol and the 1903 Pocket Hammerless pistol. It used a simplified trigger system that could actually be removed from the gun as a unit for repair or replacement. The TT-33 was probably most notable for its powerful cartridge. A HUGE step up from the 1895 Nagant cartridge, the 7.62x25mm launched an 85 grain bullet at almost 1,500 fps! This cartridge was based off the 7.63x25mm Mauser cartridge that was chambered in the C96 “Broomhandle” pistols. The TT-33 did not fully replace the Nagant Revolver, but it did significantly increase the firepower of the troops.

United States:

-  The United States saw the handgun as a viable combat weapon, unlike many other countries in WWI & II. The U.S. issued the well-known M1911 pistol in .45 ACP from 1911 all the way to 1986. The 1911 has been covered as much as any one handgun can be covered, but it served well in the military. It fired a hard-hitting & proven cartridge and was accurate and controllable.

- While the U.S. had the 1911, they still had a need for even more handguns. S&W had contracted with the U.S. to provide revolvers, and a S&W engineer came up with the design for moon-clips, allowing the rimless .45 ACP to be fired out of a revolver. The S&W Model 1917 and the similar Colt 1917 served as substitute standard weapons in both wars. The 1917 revolver saw a great deal of use in the Pacific theater during WWII.

Axis Powers:


Luger P08: Introduced 1904,  Chambered firs in the 7.65x21mm (AKA .30 Luger) but later chambered for the famous 9x19mm Luger.   Used a toggle lock system and was striker fired.   It used a lot of hand fitting had had almost no parts interchangeability between units without fitting.

Walther P38/ P1:   Chambered also in 9x19 luger.   Uses the Walther locking block design that is best seen today in the Beretta 92/M9.   It was DA/SA gun using a slide mounted decocking and safety lever.   In many ways this gun can be considered a single-stack predecessor to the Beretta 92 series.  In 1961 this gun was updated with an aluminum alloy frame and called the P1 which was still being issued until 2004 when it was fully replaced by the H&K USP pistol which had started seeing service in the 1990s.

Walther PP and PPK: The PP (Police Pistol in German) was the first gun to be issued, chambered in .32 Auto and .380 Auto.   PPK (Police Pistol Short *kurtz*) was a smaller variant.

It was one of the first DA/SA pistols issued, and was simple blowback with the decocking and safety lever on the slide.   More of a badge than a fighting weapon, given how small even the PP variant was, and the power level of the .32 and .380 pistol cartridges.


-Beretta Model 1934 .380 ACP

-Glisenti Model 1910


-Type 14 Nambu (8mm)

-Type 94 (8mm)