by Charles Brown
As the sun rose over the nation’s capitol on April 6, 1917 the United States had officially been involved in World War I for about three hours. Although the war in Europe had been grinding on for nearly three years involving millions of combatants, the U.S. had steadfastly maintained its isolationist stance, which included keeping a miniscule standing Regular Army numbering about 5,000 officers and 88,000 enlisted men – about the size of the armies of Chile or Denmark.
Between 1892 and 1917 the U.S. Army, while very small, was not completely comatose as they conducted several small arms modernization programs: some quite successful, others not so much so.
One of the least successful programs was the 1892 adoption of Colt’s New Army and Navy swing out cylinder double action revolver in caliber .38 Long Colt. The Army purchased about 68,500 from adoption until 1903. This weapon underwent several improvements in cylinder locking arrangements and other modifications being variously known as the Model of 1894 and 1896.
While this revolver was a distinct mechanical improvement over the Model of 1873 Single Action Army (SAA) by providing simultaneous ejection of fired cartridges, faster loading and the elimination of the need to thumb cock the hammer, the choice of caliber would leave much to be desired.
The first signs that the Model of 1892/94/96 was not up to snuff were some grumblings during the Spanish American War. The revolver worked well enough, but the 148 grain bullet with muzzle energy of 186 foot pounds came up a little short in the “man stopping” category when compared to the .45 Colt with a 230 grain bullet and 336 foot pounds at the muzzle. Most Regular Army and some Volunteer units were equipped with the Model of 1894/96 improvements to the original firearm while militia units fielded the leftover Single Action Army model.
Unlike fine wine, the sidearm issue did not improve with age. The next field test was the Philippine Insurrection, which lasted from 1899 to 1901, and the so called “pacification campaigns” when pitched battles with Moro tribesman, who even after absorbing three or four of the .38s, had a nasty habit of hacking to death soldiers armed with the .38 revolvers. This demoralizing development caused the Army to rethink the whole caliber man-stopping issue and reissue Model of 1873s in the proven .45 Colt caliber.
By 1904 the idea of semiautomatic pistols for military use was gaining traction and the U.S. Army was thoroughly soured on the smaller caliber sidearms for combat use. After some testing and tweaking and testing some more, including shooting trips by Ordnance Corps Colonel John T. Thompson and Medical Corps Colonel Louis A. La Garde to various stock yards and the use of medical cadavers, the Army adopted the John M. Browning designed Model of 1911 semiautomatic pistol.
The new sidearm chambered for the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol aka Caliber .45 Ball Cartridge Model of 1911, a rimless style featuring the tried and true 230 grain bullet, now with a metal jacket to comply with the 1899 Hague Convention and a healthy, or unhealthy depending on your relative position to the muzzle, 340 foot pounds of muzzle energy. The Ordnance Department also revised its official nomenclature: from this point forward only: semiautomatic hand guns were to be called “pistols” and revolvers were to be called, not too surprisingly, “revolvers.” While the Model of 1911 was being developed, the army purchased about 18,000 Colt New Service revolvers in .45 Colt and began to palm off the .38 Long Colt revolvers on the Navy and National Guard units.
All Quiet on the Sidearm Front
The early production of the Model of 1911 was handled by Colt who held the Browning Patents and secondary production was commenced at the Springfield Armory. With demand being relatively low due to the small size of the Regular Army, everything hummed along nicely with troops being equipped and retrained with the Model of 1911 and revolvers being removed from active service until 1917 when the U.S. Army fumbled its way into WWI. At that point the Army had about 55,800 Model of 1911 pistols on hand.
With the prospective size of the army jumping from 93,000 to nearly 3 million and the fact that the U.S. Army equipped about 60% of its troops with sidearms, there was no possible way that the two production facilities could ever produce enough pistols to satisfy the requirements. The Ordnance Department scrambled to set up other production facilities for the Model of 1911 but that required time; something in as short supply as were all manner of small arms.
Both Colt and Smith and Wesson had commercial production lines up and running producing large frame revolvers that were the obvious solution to the shortages, however, several problems emerged. The .45 ACP being a rimless case did not lend itself to fired case extraction/ejection from a revolver cylinder designed around a rimmed cartridge. The Ordnance Department, rightfully being wary of supplying several types of ammunition and having enough institutional memory of the .45 Colt vs. the .45 S&W Schofield debacles, balked at the reissue of the Model of 1909 Colt New Service revolvers. Someone, usually attributed to an S&W employee, suggested a revision to the cylinder of the both the S&W and Colt. Milling off a portion of the rear face of the cylinder and adding a sheet steel semi-circular clip holding three .45 ACP rounds seemed to be the answer. This allowed ejection of the fired rounds and speeded reloading.
The Colt Model of 1917 revolver is large even by today standards. The entire Army production run was fitted with a 5.5 inch barrel, which is one-half inch longer than the Model of 1911 barrel. They are heavy – the Colt weighing in just 3 ounces shy of three pounds loaded, with large internal components almost impervious to wear and, with minimal maintenance, they are absolutely reliable.
The author’s Colt Model of 1917 came into his possession in 1998 and was bought for sentimental reasons. The author’s father, a Kentucky born WWI vet often mentioned the Colt as a “Hogleg,” a term usually applied to the Model of 1873 SAA. He was a member of the 307th Butchery Company QMC (Quartermaster Corps) serving in France. Most rear area/support troops were armed in the traditional method that Americans favored and still do; some sort of handgun, large for serious work, smaller for semi-social engagements.
For tactical reasons, not readily apparent today, the U.S. Army carried revolvers in the Cavalry tradition; that is on the right hip with the butt forward for a left hand draw and hold apparently because the Cavalry Manual of Arms required the saber on the left side of the saddle and in the right hand draw position for a charge. (The U.S. Army eschewed lances except for rare ceremonial purposes apparently considering them European foppery at its worst.) Colt numbered their Model of 1917s with a continuation of their commercial production from about 150,001 to 305,001, give or take, with serial number stamping on the inside of the frame and the opposing cylinder crane. The “U.S. Army Model of 1917” and army assigned serial number was stamped on the butt. Total Colt production was about 155,000 including some commercial production and war time sales to Britain.
The first production of the Colt Model of 1917 used bored-through cylinders apparently from .45 Colt New Service parts that head spaced on the rims. This was fine when used with the half-moon clips, but sans clips the cartridges would fall out the front of the cylinder.
The Ordnance Department packaged ammunition for the Model of 1917 revolvers, 8 three-round clips per pasteboard box. However, this could be a serious problem for troops issued bulk .45 ACP so the requirements changed and the cylinders were cut to the chamber dimensions of the standard Ball cartridge, head spacing on the case mouth holding the cartridge far enough to the rear for a good firing pin strike.
Now you could load and fire the revolver without the half-moon clips but would have to fish out the fired cases with your fingernails or poke them out with a stick. The author knows of no S&W Model of 1917 revolvers that do not have the properly cut chambers.
The author’s Colt exhibits the usual dull “brushed blue” finish showing tool marks, however, the rear surface of the hammer and the sides of the trigger are finished with the commercial Colt “Royal Blue” finish. Colt apparently was still hand fitting internal components as the author’s Colt has a single action trigger pull that is best described as snapping a piece of glass – there is no creep or take up. Finger on the trigger with slight pressure, blink and the round is down range.
The double action trigger pull is another thing entirely. It is very heavy but smooth with no catches or clicks. The double action trigger pull is made worse by the shape of the grip frame; the biggest fault with any Colt of the era including the later “Police Positive” and like framed hand guns. The hammer has a firing pin attached to the nose with a rivet. Oil finished smooth walnut grips were hand fitted and numbered to the gun. The trigger surface is smooth.
Original WWI Model of 1917 Colts have “United States Property” stamped under the barrel and patent dates and factory address on the top with D.A. Colt .45 on the left side of the barrel. The military acceptance mark is the “cartouche” of the inspector stamped on the top of the left side just forward of the hammer cut in the frame.
The author’s Colt is marked with an intertwined JMG for J. M. Gilbert, thought to be a U.S. Army Ordnance Corps officer. Other markings reported are GHS for G. H. Stewart and WGP for W. G. Penfield. However, Stewart and Penfield are usually identified with Model of 1911 pistol markings. A rampant Colt trade mark is also on the left side plate.
The Model of 1917 revolvers were carried in what appears to a slight modification of the Model of 1909 holster, which was in turn modeled after the Model of 1902 half flap butt forward Cavalry style holster with a four inch belt loop. The Model of 1917 holster did not have the web gear belt hook like the Model of 1912 and Model of 1914 holsters for the Model of 1911 pistol, which was a right hip, right hand draw arrangement. The army stopped dying their standard issue leather goods black about 1898 when they started switching from blue to OD/khaki uniforms. Standard issue leather goods were now a russet color.
Adoption of the Model of 1917 revolvers required the design of an ammunition pouch or carrier also with a belt loop and male snap to engage the female snap on the left side of the pistol belt. The canvas ammunition pouch had three lift-the-dot flap compartments each holding two 3-round half-moon clips. Some combat personnel, rear area troops along with crew served weapons troops were issued revolvers in place of the pistols.
With the close of the “War to end all Wars” the revolvers were withdrawn from service and stored as war reserve. History has a nasty habit of repeating itself. With the outbreak of World War II, and yet another shortage of M1911A1s, the Model of 1917 revolvers were recalled from storage. Some were new in the box, never issued condition, others were not.
Most went through a reconditioning process where bad barrels, cylinders lacking the head space cut and other worn or defective parts were replaced and the entire weapon was refinished, this time with a dull grey phosphate finish. Reconditioned Model of 1917 revolvers are often marked with a “Flaming Bomb” ordnance mark and inspectors initials and sometimes markings identifying the ordnance facility doing the reconditioning. Generally in WWII, Model of 1917 revolvers were used by Military Police units but some made it into combat units early on especially with weapons crews such as mortar or machine gun squad members.
Two new holsters were developed: the M2, which was a mirror image of the right hand butt forward Model of 1917 holster, designed for right hip, right hand draw and its replacement, the M4, a simplified version having the muzzle end sewn shut eliminating the round leather plug of the Model of 1917 and M2 holster.
When WWII ended there was a move in the Ordnance Department to declare the entire store of Model of 1917 revolvers obsolete, however, the Provost Marshall’s Office objected on the grounds that they might be needed again. They were eventually overruled and this model was declared surplus and sold to various dealers. The author recalls many magazine advertisements in Sports Afield, Field and Stream, Saga, Argosy and the other “men’s” magazines of the mid 1950s, offering for mail order sale your choice of Colt or S&W Model of 1917 revolvers for $39.95 plus shipping.
With today’s emphasis on light weight polymer framed semi-auto pistols with large capacity magazines, the idea of a nearly three pound six shot all steel revolver with walnut grips seems quaint if not archaic.
The Colt Model of 1917, even with its ratty wartime finish, is a testament to American gun making excellence. With hand fitted parts, a single action trigger second to none and nearly 100 years old, the Hogleg is, even today, a serious weapon for those close encounters of the worst sort.
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