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.45-Caliber Double-Action U.S. Military Revolvers

Colt and Smith & Wesson both produced large .45 ACP M1917 revolvers during World War I, but how did they perform?

.45-Caliber Double-Action U.S. Military Revolvers

From the Indian Wars through World War II Colt and Smith & Wesson .45 caliber revolvers rode in the holsters of many US servicemen.

Ever since the introduction of the Colt Walker revolver in the late 1840s American soldiers have shown a preference to handguns whose caliber begins with a “4.” The Walker was followed by another .44 caliber roundgun, the Colt Dragoon revolver which was slightly smaller and less powerful. The outbreak of the American Civil War coincided with the U.S. Army’s adoption of another .44 caliber handgun, the Colt M1860 Army revolver.

The post-war period saw the U.S. Army adopt two .45 caliber, cartridge firing revolvers, the Colt M1873 Army and the S&W Schofield. The Colt became the issue handgun for the next three decades and was the launching platform for one of the most popular American revolver cartridges - the .45 Colt – know in military parlance as the .45 Calibre Revolver Ball Cartridge, Model of 1873.[1]

The .45 Colt was based upon a straight walled, rimmed case 1.285 inches long that was originally loaded with a 250 gr. Lead bullet that 40 gr. of black powder propelled to approximately 825 fps.

.45-Caliber Double-Action U.S. Military Revolvers
U.S. service cartridges 1873 to 1909 (L to R): .45 Calibre Revolver Ball Cartridge, Model of 1875; .45 Calibre Revolver Ball Cartridge, Model of 1877; .45 Calibre Revolver Ball Cartridge, Model of 1873 (brass case); .38 Calibre Revolver Ball Cartridge; 45 Calibre Revolver Ball Cartridge, Model of 1909 (note the wider rim). (Lou Behling photo)

But soldiers complained about the excessive recoil and so the .45 Calibre Revolver Ball Cartridge, Model of 1875 was loaded with 30gr. of powder which lowered the velocity by about 50-60 fps. Originally the cartridge used a copper case and internal Benet-type cup primer but brass cases with centerfire primers were used beginning the 1880s.

Between 1875 and 1877 the Army purchased 5000 S&W Schofield revolvers. While the top break Schofield allowed much faster loading and unloading, especially from horseback, the Colt proved the more rugged.

While also known as the .45 Calibre Revolver Ball Cartridge, Model of 1875, the Schofield round used a shorter 1.10 inch case containing a 230 gr. lead bullet that 28 gr. of black powder drove to approximately 650 fps.[2] As with the Colt round, beginning in the 1880s Frankford Arsenal began using centerfire brass cases.

While the Schofield cartridge would work fine in Colt revolvers the opposite was not true. To correct this problem, in the 1880s Frankford Arsenal- the producer of almost all U.S. military issue ammunition at the time- began loading only the Schofield round which was designated the .45 Calibre Revolver Ball Cartridge, Model of 1887.

.45-Caliber Double-Action U.S. Military Revolvers
The Colt M1873 revolver (top left) served from 1873 to the early 20th century. Note this one’s barrel was shortened in the 1890s. In the early 20th century the Army purchased numbers of Colt M1878 revolvers (bottom left) for issue in the Philippines. Note the longer trigger and enlarged trigger guard. (Courtesy of Morphy Auctions). Beginning in 1909 the Army, Navy and Marine Corps purchased numbers of Colt New Service revolvers known as the Colt Revolver, Calibre .45, Model of 1909 (right). (Paul Budde photo)

The Colt proved the more popular of the two issue handguns and in the 1880s the Army began transferring off their Schofield revolvers to National Guard units while others were disposed of to commercial dealers.

In 1876 the Colt Patent Firearms Company introduced a double-action (DA) revolver developed by their chief engineer, William Mason- the Colt “Lightning”, or Model 1877, in .38 caliber. Colt offered the revolver to the Army but it was turned it down because of its small caliber and fragility. In an attempt to get an Army contract, Colt had Mason design a larger version, which was capable of firing the standard .45 Colt cartridge.

Known as the Colt Double Action Frontier revolver (a.k.a. Model 1878), the Army purchased a quantity of them for field trials. While reports from the field showed that while it was superior to the Model 1877, it was plagued with misfires, weak springs, and malfunctions.

.45-Caliber Double-Action U.S. Military Revolvers
Colt modified their New Service revolver to fire the .45 ACP with full moon clips. (Paul Budde photo)

In the mid-1880s Colt began work on a new DA revolver with a swing out cylinder. The design mounted the cylinder on a hinged crane, allowing it to be swung out of the frame for ejection of empty cartridges and reloading. A rod that passed through the cylinder was attached to an ejector and pushing on it extracted spent case simultaneously.

In 1889 Colt’s swing-out cylinder revolver was adopted by the U.S. Navy as the Model of 1889. The Navy order for 5,000 revolvers was filled by 1892, the same year that the Army adopted yet another of the Hartford factory’s products as the Revolver, Calibre .38, Model of 1892


The issue .38 Calibre Revolver Ball Cartridge (a.k.a. .38 Long Colt) came in for criticism as some felt it now powerful enough. Its deficiencies became glaringly obvious during the post Spanish-American War pacification campaigns in the Philippine Islands. Fanatical Muslim Moro warriors, the Juramentados, were known to soak up a cylinder full of .38s and still cleave open American officers with their razor sharp kris and bolos.

.45-Caliber Double-Action U.S. Military Revolvers
The Colt M1917 is a large but well-made revolver. (Paul Budde photo)

A call went out for a more powerful handgun and numbers of Colt Model 1873 revolvers were taken out of storage and issued while 4,600 .45 caliber Model 1878 Double Action Frontier revolvers were purchased from Colt. Because members of the locally recruited Philippine Constabulary had trouble with the Model 1878’s heavy trigger, those bought for the Constabulary featured an enlarged trigger guard and lengthened trigger so that it could be pulled with two fingers.

In 1898, Colt had introduced their first large caliber, swing-out cylinder revolver- the New Service. An up sized and strengthened variant of the .38 revolver, the New Service was offered chambered for the popular big bore revolver cartridges of the day: .38-40, .44-40, .44 Russian, .44 Special, .45 Colt, .450 Boxer, .455 Webley, and .476 Enfield with choice of 4, 4 1/2, 5, 5 1/2, 6, and 7 1/2 inch barrels, wood or hard rubber grips with a blue or nickel finish.

To tide them over until a new semi-auto pistol could be developed the U.S. government bought New Service revolvers known as the Colt Revolver, Calibre .45, Model of 1909. One thousand went to the Navy, the USMC obtained 1300 while Army was issued 19,500.[3]

.45-Caliber Double-Action U.S. Military Revolvers
The 3-round half-moon clips made the M1917 revolvers quick and easy to load. (Paul Budde photo)

They were chambered for the .45 Calibre Revolver Ball Cartridge, Model of 1909 which was dimensionally similar to the .45 Colt but used a rim that was 0.03 inches wider for more positive ejection but which prevented it from being used in earlier revolvers chambered for the .45 Colt.[4] It was loaded with 8.4 gr. of RSQ smokeless powder which propelled its 255 gr. lead bullet to 725 fps.

The large caliber Colt wheelgun proved popular with American outdoorsmen and law enforcement agencies and over years the .45 caliber New Service were used by the New York State Police, the Highway Patrol’s of Georgia, Connecticut, Utah, and Montana while pre- WWI Michigan State troopers were issued them in .44-40.

When WWI broke out the British found themselves short of weapons and placed an order with Colt for New Service revolvers chambered for their standard .455 Webley cartridge. Known as the Pistol, Colt, .455-inch, 5.5-inch barrel, Mark I approximately 60,000 were delivered by 1917.

.45-Caliber Double-Action U.S. Military Revolvers
U.S. Army training posters for the Model 1917 S&W and Colt revolvers. (DOD photo)

In 1896 S&W introduced their first swing out cylinder revolver, the .32 Hand Ejector. Three years later saw the introduction of the .38 Hand Ejector which was the first of the most popular line of .38 caliber revolvers in history - the Military & Police (a.k.a. Model 10).

In 1907 S&W released their first large frame (N-Frame) swing out cylinder revolver along with a new cartridge, the .44 S&W Special. Better known as the "New Century," it was also available in .44-40 WCF, .45 Colt, .450 Ely and .455 Webley.

The cylinder was locked into the frame by rod that passed through the ejector system and latched into a recess in the recoil plate while additional locking was provided by spring loaded stud on a lug under the barrel snapping into the tip of the ejector rod. Because of the powerful cartridges used, a spring loaded bolt on the ejector rod shroud locked into a mortise on the cylinder yoke earning it the unofficial title "Triple Lock."

About the same time that the British were ordering revolvers from Colt they placed an order with S&W for Triple Lock revolvers. Known as the Pistol, Smith & Wesson, .455-inch, 6.5-inch barrel, Mark I, approximately 5,460 revolvers had been delivered before complaints from the Western Front indicated that mud entering the ejector rod shroud clogged the third lock and also prevented the cylinder from closing. S&W simply removed the two offending components and renamed the revolver the .455 Hand Ejector Second Model, known in His Majesty's service as the Pistol, Smith & Wesson, .455-inch, 6.5-inch barrel, Mark II.

.45-Caliber Double-Action U.S. Military Revolvers
Colt and Smith & Wesson M1917 revolvers saw use during both World Wars. Normandy, 1944. Lt. John F. Upchurch covering surrendering German soldiers with his S&W M1917 revolver. (Courtesy of Bruce Canfield)

With war looming on the horizon, in 1916 the Army approached S&W about using their N-frame revolver as a substitute standard handgun but insisted it fire the standard .45 ACP pistol cartridge which was a rimless design.

S&W engineers, in cooperation with Springfield Armory developed the so-called "half moon clip," a piece of stamped metal with three cutouts into which three rimless .45 ACP cartridges could be snapped so as to permit extraction by the extractor bearing on the clip. It has the added benefit of greatly speeding up reloading. S&W modified the N-frame revolver by shortening the cylinder slightly to provide clearance for the clips and a slightly wider cylinder stop stud was fitted.[5]

When the U.S. entered the conflict the Ordnance Department placed orders with S&W for the U.S. Revolver, Smith & Wesson, Caliber .45, M1917 and by the time contracts were fulfilled 163,476 of the large frame Smiths were accepted into service.

.45-Caliber Double-Action U.S. Military Revolvers
The Army purchased 5,000 S&W Schofield revolvers (top) in the mid-1870s. (courtesy Rock Island Auction Co.) During WWI the British purchased large numbers of S&Ws known as the Pistol, Smith & Wesson, .455-inch, 6.5-inch barrel, Mark II. (Paul Budde photo)

Colt modified their New Service revolver to handle .45 ACP and by the end of the war approximately 151,700 U.S. Revolver, Colt, Caliber .45, M1917s were sold to the government.

Both companies' Model 1917 revolvers proved to be tough, rugged and powerful combat handguns capable of standing up to the vile conditions of trench warfare and proved very popular with the troops.

After the war the government put tens of thousands of M1917 revolvers into storage. During the interwar years numbers of them were issued to various government agencies including the Post Office, Border Patrol, Treasury and Justice Departments while others were sold off through the Civilian Marksmanship Program.

.45-Caliber Double-Action U.S. Military Revolvers
The U.S. Revolver, Smith & Wesson, Caliber .45, M1917 was adopted as substitute standard by the WWI Army. (Paul Budde photo)

Both companies continued to offer their large frame revolvers in .45 ACP but with the Depression sales were slow. In 1941, through the Lend Lease Program the U.S. supplied the desperate British with 50,000 Colt and S&W M1917 revolvers. These were issued to their own troops who had left much of their equipment on the Dunkirk beaches while others were supplied to the Home Guard ("Dad's Army").

When the U.S. entered the war government warehouses contained 96,530 Colt and 91,590 S&W M1917 revolvers which were reconditioned and issued as needed. While some showed up in combat zones, the majority were issued to military police and training units while others were provided to our Free French and Nationalist Chinese allies.

The post-WWII period saw the rise of the medium frame .38 and .357 revolvers among American police agencies and military. The majority of M1917 revolvers were sold to surplus dealers although some were provided as U.S. military aid to the armies of friendly nations around the world.

.45-Caliber Double-Action U.S. Military Revolvers
S&W developed the "half moon" clip to allow the use of rimless .45 ACP cartridges in Model1917 revolvers. (Paul Budde photo)

Test Firing:

For this article, my good friend and fellow collector Tim Hawkins provided me with a Colt Model 1909, S&W Model 1917 and a Colt Model 1917 revolvers. All were mechanically excellent with clean bores and chambers.

Test firing was performed with Black Hills .45 ACP and .45 Colt (Cowboy Action) ammunition.

Each revolver was tested for accuracy by firing three, five shot groups at 15 yards from an MTM K-Zone shooting rest producing groups in the three inch range. As was to be expected of handguns of this vintage, the sights left much to be desired - narrow grooves in the top strap mated to a rounded or hooked metal blade up front. Both tended to disappear in bright sunlight.

.45-Caliber Double-Action U.S. Military Revolvers
Test firing was performed with .45 ACP and .45 Colt ammo provided by Black Hills. Top right: Group fired with the S&W Model 1917. Top Left: Group fired with the Colt Model 1917. Bottom Left Group fired with the Colt Model 1909. (Becky Scarlata photo)

Offhand testing consisted of firing a dozen rounds from each revolver on targets placed out at seven yards. Six were fired double-action and six in single-action mode. Being I could adjust the mainspring tension on the S&W its DA trigger was superior to the two Colts although all three had excellent SA pulls. In addition their smooth wooden grips, while hand filling, provided less than good recoil control.

While our editor will no doubt receive irate letters and emails from Colt aficionados, the S&W displayed the best handling qualities of the trio of test guns. In addition, I found its sights more user-friendly than those on the Hartford-made revolvers.

In conclusion, I found all three revolvers fitting representatives of the breed. Rugged, powerful, suitably accurate, reliable and firing authoritative cartridges. History shows us that they performed admirably and served their bearers well.....a task, that despite their age, I believe they would still be able to perform today. They are truly classics.

Colt Revolver, Calibre .45, Model of 1909 Specifications:

  • Caliber: .45 Calibre Revolver Ball Cartridge, Model of 1909
  • Overall length: 10.25 in.
  • Barrel length: 5 in.
  • Weight: 41 oz.
  • Capacity: 6 rounds
  • Sights:
    • Front: Blade
    • Rear: Groove in topstrap
  • Grips: Smooth walnut

U.S. Revolver, Smith & Wesson, Caliber .45, M1917 Specifications:

  • Caliber: Pistol Ball Cartridge, Caliber .45, Model 1911
  • Overall length: 10.25 in.
  • Barrel length: 5 in.
  • Weight: 36 oz.
  • Capacity: 6 rounds
  • Sights:
    • Front: Blade
    • Rear: Groove in topstrap
  • Grips: Smooth walnut

U.S. Revolver, Colt, Caliber .45, M1917 Specifications:

  • Caliber: Pistol Ball Cartridge, Caliber .45, Model 1911
  • Overall length: 10.5 in.
  • Barrel length: 5 in.
  • Weight: 40 oz.
  • Capacity: 6 rounds
  • Sights:
    • Front: Blade
    • Rear: Groove in topstrap
  • Grips: Smooth walnut


[1] Until the early 20th-century American grammar included a number of words that used the original English spelling such as "calibre" instead of "caliber."

[2] The Schofield cartridge had a slightly wider rim than the Colt - 0.522" vs. 0.512" - so as to ensure reliable extraction in the top break S&W revolver.

[3] As on the earlier .38 revolvers, the grips on the Marine Corps M1909s were differently shaped than those on Army and Navy issue guns.

[4] The standard .45 Colt cartridge could be fired in the M1909.

[5] Ibid. P. 203 - 206.

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