World War 1 Handguns

The U.S. Model Colt & SW 1917
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U.S. Model 1917’s by Colt and S&W were stamped identically on their butts — “U.S. Model 1917.”

When Woodrow Wilson’s administration declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the American military was woefully unprepared. Regarding handguns, American manufacturing might have helped fill a significant gap. This was when both Colt and S&W factories adapted their large frame, DA revolvers to fire the government’s .45 Auto cartridge. The official issue American handgun at the time was the U.S. Model 1911 of which there were too few to equip an army of the size envisioned by the U.S. Department of War.

Most of you already know autoloading handguns are usually chambered for rimless case designs. There are exceptions such as .22 Long Rifle, .32 Auto and .38 Super — the first being rimmed and the latter two being semi-rimmed. Rimless cases were not considered feasible for DA revolvers because there’s no rim their extractors can push against to eject rounds from the chambers. Some employee at S&W, whose name seems to be lost to history, worked out a method so revolvers could use .45 Auto cartridges. They were simple, stamped steel clips fitting in .45 Auto extractor grooves. They quickly gained the moniker of “half-moon clips.” In more modern times firearms engineers succeeded in developing a few revolver models capable of functioning with rimless cases sans any sort of clip.

Duke’s U.S. Model 1917 .45’s: S&W is at left, Colt at right.

Same Name?

Colt’s and S&W’s big .45 Auto revolvers hold a special spot in American military history. They are the only firearms to get the same model designation but without any parts interchangeability. The name given them was US Model 1917. Both companies were already making the basic revolver becoming the 1917’s; Colt from 1899 and S&W from 1915. Colt called theirs the New Service and S&W’s name was Hand Ejector, 2nd Model.

As ordered by the government both firms’ revolvers had 51/2" barrels, plain walnut grips and lanyard rings on the butt. Also on the butts of both brands is the stamp “U.S. Army Model 1917.” And on the underside of both company’s barrels is the marking “United States Property.” Finish on S&W’s version was their usual bright blue but Colt turned theirs out with a less polished blue finish. My personally owned samples weigh 36 oz. for the S&W and 39 oz. for the Colt.

During World War I both versions of U.S. Model 1917’s were issued with Model 1909, flap style, leather holsters. Intended originally for cavalrymen these holsters were worn on the soldiers’ right side with gun butt forward. A canvas pouch with three pockets holding two half-moon clips each was also standard issue. Therefore, a combat load for U.S. Model 1917 .45 revolvers was 24 rounds. By 1919 when production ceased for the government the two firms had produced well over 300,000 U.S. Model 1917’s.

Ammo was issued pre-loaded in half moon clips and packed 24 rounds per box.

Toss The Clips

Back in 1968 I shelled out $35 for my first S&W Model 1917. Its bore was a little rough and being in college I could not afford jacketed bullets for handloading. At the time I was already loading Lyman’s cast bullet mold #452374 (220-gr. RN) in .45 Auto so those rounds were put in my new revolver. That was a joke. No matter how I tried, no sort of crimp locked the smooth sides of the bullet into cases. By the time about three were fired recoil caused bullets to pull forward in cases to the point cylinder rotation was blocked.

So that’s my first advice to modern handloaders. Get a bullet with a crimping groove and roll-crimp the case mouth into it. My second tip is to forget half-moon clips. They’re a pain to get loaded cartridges into or empty cases out of. The Army recognized this trait and made life easier for 1917 revolver-packing soldiers by issuing .45 Auto preloaded in clips in 24-round boxes. My personal U.S. Model 1917’s get fired with handloads in .45 Auto-Rim brass. It’s simply the .45 Auto case with a thick rim. Auto-rim cases are reloaded with the same dies as .45 Auto, only a different shell-holder is needed.

Several U.S. Model 1917 .45 revolvers by both makers have passed through my hands over the past 50 years. Right now I have nice samples by Colt and S&W, and a near miracle is both shoot to their sights at about 20 yards. U.S. Model 1917’s are a significant bit of American military history and my current ones will be keepers ’til the end.

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