The .45 is Coming Back to the Military

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

I hope most remember the old TV serious Gun Smoke that was on the air for the first half of my life and now is seen in reruns. The opening scene was Marshal Matt Dillon pulling his Colt Single Action Army .45 six-gun and shooting some off screen bad guy. The 45 caliber handgun was the same type issued to the US Army and Navy in 1873.

To be quite honest it put big holes in whoever was on the receiving end. In the gun world we call that stopping power. When you are in the business of enforcement of the law, whether as a cop or a soldier, sometimes you just need to put an end to a dangerous situation right now. "Cost of stopping the bad buy before he does you harm, so you can go home to your family--priceless."

In the late 1890s when we were at war in the Philippines the Army had switched to a DA .38 Long Colt caliber revolver. We were facing a new type of enemy, the Muslin extremist, the Moro. They were known to use native drugs that inhibited the sensation of pain. This meant that when they went into battle with US soldiers and got shot by a rather anemic .38 caliber revolver it just did not reliably stop the Moro. After numerous US deaths, old Colt 45 revolvers, long in storage back in the States, were rushed to the Philippines and issued to the troops.

Even hopped-up Moros were unable to disregard the pain of a 45 round, no matter how big a dose of native pain killer they had taken. This situation lead the Army to hold the Thompson-LaGarde Test in 1904 and what they did was shoot live cows to see what effect different calibers of ammunition had on the animals. (That makes sense only if you are going to war with a herd of steers and, in the event, no pistol caliber proved an efficient steer killer.) I am not sure our current Department of Defense could get away with that in the modern world. But it did not stop with cows. They also rounded up cadavers and hung them up for testing. The bodies were shot and the swing or lack of swing (a crude measure of momentum) that was generated by a particular bullet was noted.

Regardless of the scientific and practical irrelevance or just plain grossness of the testing, the results had a major impact on the military and law enforcement handguns for over eighty years. The US military decided to build a semi-automatic pistol in .45 caliber that would serve the GIs, Marines and Sailors through WW I, WW II, Korea, and Vietnam. A few were even used in the first Gulf War.

Many a WW II recruiting poster had some strapping young American warrior holding his Colt, 1911 .45 acp pistol and pledging his life to defend the nation. The 1911 Colt was deemed so important for use in WW I trench warfare, that an attempt was make to arm every American troop on the front line with a handgun. When they could not make enough semi-auto pistols, the Army had Smith & Wesson and Colt revolvers manufactured in the same caliber.

After WW II, NATO was formed and this meant weapons and ammunition were standardized by the different country's armies and navies. The US forced all the countries to use our types of rifle ammunition, but only Denmark was using a 45 handgun. For the most part the rest of Western Europe was using the 9x19 millimeter round that the Germans had adopted before WW I.

When I first came into the Air Force as a cop we carried .38 Special revolvers. These were significently more powerful than the old .38 Long Colt cartridge use in the Phillippines at the turn of the Century.

They had used 45 pistols in 1950s but by Vietnam era we were carrying .38s whether you were a cop on the ground or an air crew member flying into combat. The .38 Special was the industry standard in the civilian law enforcement world at that time, but it was not intended to be a front line combat handgun.

In the 1980s the entire Department of Defense converted to a Beretta 9x19mm pistol and that was suppose to be the end of discussion on handguns in the military. Many special united such as Marine Recon or Army Delta Force kept right on using the 45. The Army has announced that it plans to buy 60,000 new 45 caliber semi-auto pistols for its front line troops. Most likely it will be a more modern handgun than the venerable old Colt 1911 but whatever is chosen it will be a 45 caliber round coming out the business end of barrel. Aim high, shoot big-bore.

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Copyright 2006, 2013 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. and/or All rights reserved.