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Evolution of the Modern Combat Pistol: The 1911 to the M17

From the iconic .45ACP 1911 to the workhorse Beretta M9 and now the modern SIG Sauer M17, the U.S. Military's sidearm has come a long way.

Evolution of the Modern Combat Pistol: The 1911 to the M17

Over the past 111 years, the US Army has fielded four major autoloading combat pistols. From top to bottom we have the Colt M1911, the Colt M1911A1, the Beretta M9, and the SIG Sauer M17. (Firearms News photo)

What is the point of a combat handgun anyway? In civilian and law enforcement applications, the pistol is frequently the only weapon you have at hand. Cops carry pistols on their hips, and we pack them under our clothes because an FN SCAR seems awkward in the checkout line at Walmart. When your primary mission is just living and doing your job then a handgun is the only reasonable defensive option. However, it is different in the military.

Nowadays, the Air Force missile launch officer, or SSBN ballistic missile submarine skipper, can turn a key and incinerate entire cities. Aircrews have enormous firepower at their fingertips, while armored vehicles tear across the battlefields spewing institutional death at a pace adequate to earn them speeding tickets in many locales. The humble grunt with a radio commands firepower on a scale unimaginable by warriors of eras past. Amidst all of that, there yet still remains a place for the humble service pistol.

The Legendary M1911

Modern Military Pistol Evolution
The Colt M1911 hearkens back to the Golden Age of American martial arms making. (Firearms News photo)

Following some bad experiences fighting Moro tribesmen during the Philippine-American War around the turn of the century, the US Army began clamoring for a handgun that had more stopping power than the .38 revolvers of the day. This was a typical anecdote related by an Army officer at the time, “Antonio Caspi, a prisoner on the island of Samar…attempted escape on Oct. 26, 1905. He was shot four times at close range in a hand-to-hand encounter by a .38 Colt’s revolver loaded with U.S. Army regulation ammunition. He was finally stunned by a blow on the forehead from the butt end of a Springfield carbine.”

Colonel John T. Thompson (of Thompson submachine gun fame) subsequently organized the Thompson-LaGarde pistol cartridge tests. With the assistance of the Nelson Morris Company Union Stock Yards in Chicago, Army testers shot a variety of live cows and horses along with a few already-dead humans with the major military handgun cartridges of the day. After reviewing this admittedly dubious science, the reviewers concluded that any effective FMJ handgun bullet would have to be of at least .45 caliber.

Colt, Savage, and Deutsche Waffen- und Munitionsfabriken (DWM) eventually submitted candidates for consideration, all chambered in .45ACP. The DWM offering, a modified P-08 Luger pistol, dropped out after the first round of testing. Following a series of grueling tests, a single example of the Colt and Savage designs fired 6,000 rounds apiece over the course of two days. When the guns got hot, they were simply immersed in water. At the end of the test the Savage gun had experienced 37 stoppages. The Colt had none. The resulting pistol was designated the M1911.

The M1911 was a short-recoil design that fed from a single-stack seven-round box magazine. The magazine release, slide stop, and thumb safety were left-sided only. The single action trigger went on to become the standard by which other service pistol triggers were judged. In 1924, the design was tweaked slightly to become the M1911A1. The mainspring housing was arched, the grip safety spur elongated, the trigger was shortened, and there were cutouts added to the frame behind the trigger. Additionally, the front sight was widened, the hammer spur shortened, and the grips simplified.

On the Island of Saipan…

Thomas Alexander Baker was born on June 25, 1916. He enlisted in the Army in 1940 at age 24. Four years later, he was a member of the 105th Infantry Regiment wresting control of the Marianas Islands back from fanatical Japanese defenders. On June 19, 1944, PVT Baker attacked and destroyed a Japanese emplacement with a bazooka. Several days later, PVT Baker singlehandedly killed two Japanese officers and sixteen enlisted men. By July 7, however, things were looking bleak. PVT Baker’s unit was encircled on three sides by between 3,000 and 5,000 battle-hardened Japanese troops. Badly wounded, Baker refused evacuation and kept fighting until his ammunition was expended. When at last he lacked the means to resist, a buddy began carrying him to the rear. Then this trooper was also hit. Realizing that any further attempt at evacuation would only risk his friends, PVT Baker requested he be placed against a small tree and given a pistol. His M1911A1 handgun was loaded with eight rounds.

When American forces later retook the area, they found PVT Baker’s body still at the base of the tree. In his hand was his M1911A1 pistol, its slide locked back over an empty chamber. Arrayed around his corpse were the bodies of eight dead Japanese. PVT Baker was posthumously promoted to sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor. The M1911A1 served with distinction throughout WW2, Korea, Vietnam and beyond. We produced around 4.2 million copies of all sorts.

Photo Gallery

Evolution of the ARMY Pistol

Over the past 111 years, the US Army has fielded four major autoloading combat pistols. From top to bottom we have the Colt M1911, the Colt M1911A1, the Beretta M9, and the SIG Sauer M17. (Firearms News photo)

Evolution of the ARMY Pistol

Despite quantum advances in the lethality and complexity of modern weapon systems, there yet still remains an important place for the humble combat handgun. (Firearms News photo)

U.S. Army M1911

The Colt M1911 hearkens back to the Golden Age of American martial arms making. (Firearms News photo)

Beretta M9

The Beretta M9 saw widespread issue throughout the US armed forces. (Firearms News photo)

SIG Sauer M17

The SIG Sauer M17 is a thoroughly modern striker-fired Information Age service pistol. (Firearms News photo)

1911 Handgun

The M1911A1 could be considered the definitive model of the 1911 family. This weapon soldiered on for decades in American military service. The Colt M1911 pistol beat out all comers to become the first standard-issue autoloading handgun in American service. It rendered stalwart service through the latter stages of the first World War. (Firearms News photo)

Will Dabbs 1911

Behold my most prized possession. That’s my wife’s grandmother. This cherished memento kept her young infantryman husband company from Operation Torch in North Africa through the end of the war in Italy. (Firearms News photo)

Vietnam 1911 Service

The M1911A1 remained in service through the war in Vietnam and beyond. (Firearms News photo)

Old vs. New 1911

The original M1911 (left) differed from the upgraded M1911A1 in several fairly esoteric ways. (Firearms News photo)

Beretta M9

The aircraft I used to fly cost $28 million. However, if life goes truly pear-shaped this pistol suddenly becomes the most important thing in your universe. The Beretta M9 was typical of the “Wondernines”—high-capacity 9mm service pistols perfected in the 1980’s. The slide-mounted safety/decocker is mirrored on both sides of the M9. (Firearms News photo)

Field-Stripped M9

The M9 is a serviceable enough design, but it was found to be susceptible to dusty desert conditions and crummy low-bid contract magazines. (Firearms News photo)

Field Stripped 1911

For its era, the M1911A1 was a very soldier-friendly design. (Firearms News photo)

SIG Sauer M17

The SIG Sauer M17 is a thoroughly modern striker-fired Information Age service pistol. The M17 is essentially soldier-proof. It benefits from generations of mechanical evolution. The M17 and M18 are being fielded by the hundreds of thousands throughout the US military. The beating heart of the M17 and M18 pistols is the serialized removable fire control unit. (Firearms News photo)

Accuracy Chart

(Firearms News photo)

M17 Accuracy

Of the four guns tested, the M17 is the most pleasant on the range. (Firearms News photo)

Accuracy Data

At 12 meters off of a simple rest all four of these hand- guns shoot plenty straight. (Firearms News photo)

On September 25,1993, an acquaintance of mine named Dale Shrader was flying a UH-60 Blackhawk in Mogadishu, Somalia, eight days prior to the events described in the book and movie Blackhawk Down. Dale and his fellow pilot Perry Alliman had been pulling routine missions back and forth over the city for weeks. Then one day everything changed. While they were in refuel, the airfield was subjected to mortar fire. The Blackhawk with its five crewmembers got off the ground safely and began hunting for the mortars. While flying low over the rooftops at roughly 100 knots, the aircraft was hit by an RPG-7 fired from a range of about forty feet. The rocket impacted the crew compartment and exploded.

The aircraft went down hard on its right side and broke up before being engulfed in fire. Dale and Perry were both badly injured but escaped. Perry was burned so badly he could not participate in the fight that was to come. The three remaining crewmembers tragically perished. One radio was lost egressing the aircraft and the other was broken and inoperative. Each pilot had a Beretta M9 pistol and a single magazine of ammunition. However, Perry’s pistol was somehow damaged in the crash. The two injured Americans hid in the shadows of a nearby alleyway. A pair of Somalis with AKs walked by without seeing them. One of the Somalis then turned around, saw the two men, and threw a grenade, apparently without pulling the pin. Dale responded by emptying his M9 in a single continuous burst. This dissuaded the Somalis for a time, but they responded with more grenades. This time they armed them first.

Eventually, one of the Somalis screwed up his courage and charged down the alleyway firing his AK on full auto. Dale had by now swapped his empty magazine out for the one from the disabled pistol and emptied it as well, striking the Somali in the shoulder. Now out of ammunition and stuck in the middle of a hornet’s nest, the two men knelt together and prayed. Suddenly and unexpectedly, a young Somali emerged from the shadows and said, “American boys, come.” Lacking a better offer from the enraged militia members now slathering the alley with AK fire, Dale lifted Perry and the two men hobbled behind this mysterious stranger.

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The Somali eventually directed the two Americans toward an APC from the United Arab Emirates and disappeared back into the warren of filth that was the Mog. In retrospect, Dale made a compelling case that this nameless Somali might have been an angel. Perry underwent five surgeries and was eventually returned to active duty. Dale was back on flight status 90 days later. In his case, the M9 did what it was intended to do.

The Beretta M9

Modern Military Pistol Evolution
The Beretta M9 saw widespread issue throughout the US armed forces. (Firearms News photo)

The US Army lives for data. In the aftermath of the kinetic events in Iraq and Afghanistan, Uncle Sam administered surveys to returning troops asking their opinions of various weapon systems. The Beretta M9 pistol consistently scored lowest among all major individual combat weapons. Roughly one quarter of the troops who reported firing their M9’s in combat experienced a stoppage. M9 apologists have attributed that to crappy magazines, but the weapon has had other problems as well.

By the late 1970’s, the M1911A1 pistols in inventory had all been through the rebuild process a time or three and were getting long in the tooth. Meanwhile, the Air Force used double action .38 revolvers for most of their handgun needs. Army aviators were issued .38 wheelguns as well. Unlike the M1911A1, these weapons could still be operated one-handed if needed. As a result, the DOD decided to standardize a single handgun across all branches of the armed forces. In a move that was quite contentious at the time, the new pistol was chambered in 9mm NATO.

An initial joint round of competition in 1980, compared guns from HK, Star, Walther, Colt, FN, and Smith & Wesson. The Army disputed the results and launched its own trials. This time there were pistols from HK, FN, Walther, Steyr, SIG Sauer, Smith and Wesson, and Beretta. Beretta took this prize, but there was yet another competition in 1988. At the end of the day, the SIG and Beretta offerings both passed the trials, but the Beretta was purportedly the cheaper of the two. These trials were indeed grueling. The guns were subjected to temperature extremes between -40 and 140 deg F along with sand, snow, mud, and saltwater exposures. The Beretta 92FS used in the competition was advertised to have a MRBF (Mean Rounds Between Failure) of 35,000 rounds.

The M9 is an aluminum-framed high-capacity autoloader that feeds from a 15-round box magazine. The weapon functions via the short-recoil principle and sports a single action, double action trigger pioneered in the Walther PP-series of WW2-vintage pistols. A slide-mounted bilateral safety-decocker lever is readily accessible from either side. The magazine release and slide stop are oriented on the left side of the gun. The magazine release is reversible, but it takes a little talent to swap it out. If my math is correct, Uncle Sam eventually bought more than three quarters of a million M9 pistols. Throughout it all, the US Navy SEALs used the SIG P226, while the Rangers and much of the rest of SOCOM went with Glocks. However, all good things must eventually come to an end.

The SIG Sauer M17

Modern Military Pistol Evolution
The SIG Sauer M17 is a thoroughly modern striker-fired Information Age service pistol. (Firearms News photo)

By 2015, the M9’s were getting old, so the Army and Air Force joined forces to find a new, better pistol. This trial was titled the XM17 MHS (Modular Handgun System) competition. Criteria included that the new weapon be a modular design not constrained by geometry or even caliber. The new gun had to accept a suppressor and a red dot sight and include a picatinny rail on the dust cover. The new gun was expected to run 2,000 rounds between stoppages, 10,000 rounds between failures, and have a 35,000-round service life.

Glock, SIG Sauer, STI/Detonics, FN, KRISS USA, CZ, Smith and Wesson, and Beretta threw their hats in the ring. After a simply breathtaking number of rounds thrown downrange, a modified version of the SIG P320 won the day. Glock in particular did not take that news gracefully. However, the SIG offering really was the only truly modular gun among the lot. The resulting pistol came in two major variations—the full-size SIG Sauer M17 and the compact M18. The basic fire control module is common between the two. By swapping out slides and grip modules the same serialized component can become either gun. The first M17 
pistols were issued to the 101st Airborne in November of 2017. The total production run is estimated at around 421,000 units.

The M17 is a short-recoil design that feeds from either a 17- or 21-round magazine. The manual thumb safety and slide stop are both bilateral, and the magazine release is reversible. The gun includes tritium night sights and a loaded chamber indicator. The steel bits are protected via a rugged PVD (Physical Vapor Deposition) finish. The individual subassemblies are secured via spanner screws rather than conventional fasteners to keep inquisitive Army Privates from disassembling the guns beyond their design parameters.

There have been allegations that these guns are not fully drop safe and can go off accidentally if dropped in a particular way. However, I have not seen any compelling evidence that this is a serious problem, particularly with GI weapons. By November of 2019, SIG had already delivered more than 100,000 pistols. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to find any verifiable anecdotes of the M17 or M18 having been used in combat just yet. However, be assured that the M17 will eventually paint its own legends. Sadly, it’s not like the world is getting any safer.

Trigger Time

The M1911A1 is cut from steel. That means it is heavy. John Dillinger and I have both packed these big guns concealed, but you have to want it. Additionally, the magnificent single action trigger that so endears the gun to geeks like me is also its greatest liability. Condition 1 carry with the hammer back and safety on was never authorized in the Big Army. As a result, putting the gun into action requires that you jack the slide on the draw stroke. In a world 
where mere moments can make the difference between living and dying, that little bit of time can become a big thing.

The .45ACP is a big manly cartridge, and it kicks a bit as a result. The practical result is not terribly unpleasant, but I have big monkey mitts. Smaller troops with smaller hands have indeed struggled to manage Mr. Browning’s manly hog leg. The extra recoil makes it tougher to keep the gun on target in rapid fire 
as well. I always liked the M9 myself. The fat grip fits my hand nicely, and recoil is quite manageable. However, the cutaway slide does allow ingress of fine particulates. Considering the sand in Iraq is about the consistency of talcum powder, that can be a big deal.

The M9 can be safely carried with a round in the chamber and the hammer down, though we were taught to keep the slide safety engaged. The practical difference between the long double action pull on the first round and the shorter single action for all the others shouldn’t make a difference, but it always did for me. I never could shoot to precisely the same point of aim in both modes.  

The M17 is indeed a sweet-shooting handgun. The striker-fired trigger is monotonously predictable from start to finish, and the controls are perfect. Additionally, the polymer frame means the M17 is considerably lighter than either of its predecessors. The tritium night sights are also a quantum improvement over those of the previous pistols. I don’t see “Big Army” adopting a standard red dot pistol optic any time soon, but the capacity to mount a weapon light certainly appeals. The FDE finish likely won’t make much practical difference, but it does look cool. There is also value in the fact that these guns are new. Three or four decades from now somebody will no doubt be having this discussion all over again.

Magazine changes on all three guns are honestly about the same. I group best with the M17, but all three weapons shoot plenty straight for government work. Thanks to the new M1153 GI 9mm rounds we will discuss in a moment; the stopping power question seems about put to bed as well.

Denouement

At the end of the day the biggest complaint anybody really had with the M9 was its 9mm chambering. I have seen quite a few thugs shot with 9mm ball ammo, and I wasn’t terribly impressed myself. Ever since the First World War we have operated on the understanding that hollowpoint ammo was somehow too devastating to use in combat. Then somebody just decided it wasn’t any more.

Nowadays Winchester produces two basic rounds to feed the M17. The M1152 is a standard 115-grain ball round used for training and familiarization. The other is the M1153. This is a 147-grain jacketed hollow point round based upon the Winchester PDX-1 defensive load. I am proud to say that both of these cartridges are produced in the sprawling Winchester ammo plant in my hometown. The first M1153 contract was for 1.2 million rounds, so apparently the military is serious about using them.

After spending a delightful day on the range with pristine examples of these fine service pistols I can say without reservation that they each have their unique merits. For their respective eras they each represented the state of the art. In the past Uncle Sam had been fairly stingy about spending on small arms. However, those days appear to be over. The entire SIG M17/M18 contract is valued at around $80 million. Considering by military standards $80 million would likely barely change the tires on a B2 Spirit stealth bomber, that does not seem like an unreasonable expenditure for such a critical piece of kit. As a result, today’s American warfighters really do carry the best handgun and ammunition money can buy, which is certainly as it should be. Special thanks to WorldWarSupply.com for the cool replica gear used in our photographs.


About the Author

Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He is airborne and scuba qualified and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…at the controls of an Army helicopter. After eight years in the Regular Army, Major Dabbs attended medical school. He works in his urgent care clinic, shares a business building precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989.


If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.




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