World War Revolvers

From the Absurd — To the Outstanding.

World War II began with Germany’s mechanized “Blitzkrieg” (lightning war) on Poland in 1939 and ended after the explosions of America’s two atomic bombs over Japan. In between, things like radar, jet engines and even ballistic missiles played important roles. With such modern technology it must be considered ironic that of the five major combatant nations, four still issued archaic revolvers in significant numbers to its troops. No doubt if those revolvers handed out by America, Britain, Japan and the Soviet Union hadn’t existed, the war’s outcome would have been the same. Also without doubt, many of the men carrying those revolvers would not have survived without them.

The purposes of handguns in World War II were essentially defensive; meaning certain troops’ duties nominally did not involve personal combat. Such would be communication specialists, air crews, members of some crew-served weapons, and even in the Pacific Theater of Operations, medical personal. When the supplies of primary issue handguns were insufficient, then America, Japan, and the Soviet Union reached back (so to speak) and dusted off their revolvers. To the best of my knowledge Germany never did, and the British had never gotten past revolvers in the first place.


Although long obsolete by World War II, the Japanese
still issued Type 26, 9mm revolvers to NCO’s.


The British didn’t have to pull obsolete revolvers from
storage for World War II. They had never given them up.
This is a Webley Mk VI .455.

The Bad

Let’s start with the worst — the Soviet Union’s Model 1895 Nagant 7.62mm. This 7-shot contraption was plain tomfoolery the day it was introduced. Its cylinder cams forward on rotation so the chamber mouths overset the barrel’s butt end. This was done to stop gas leakage upon firing. Besides the intricate mechanism needed to accomplish such forward cylinder movement, an extra-long firing pin was required to reach primers. And cartridges had to be built with an extra-long case length into which the bullet was fully seated. The result of all that rigmarole was a .308″ diameter, 98-gr. bullet moving at about 900 to 1,000 fps from a 43/8″ barrel.

We haven’t even gotten to the point these dingbat things had to be loaded through a side gate as with Colt Single Actions, and an apparatus had to be swung beneath the barrel to punch empty cases out one at a time again just like Colt Single Actions. Also one must wonder in the time of the Soviet Union’s official egalitarianism if the rule of issue from Imperial Russia still stood. That was, troopers got single action Model 1895’s but officers got double-action trigger mechanisms.

Never mind that for decades revolvers had been built with barrel cylinder gaps through which gas loss was a minimum. For most of those same decades the Russians had been satisfied with Smith & Wesson top break sixguns capable of emptying all fired chambers simultaneously, leaving them exposed for quick reloading. I cannot think of a worse firearm issued in numbers to a sizeable army during the smokeless powder era. I have fired these revolvers belonging to friends but would never pay for one nor reload for it.


Because the Brits could not furnish enough handguns in World War I, they turned to Smith & Wesson
to make their big N-frame sixguns in .455 Webley. This is a Hand Ejector-2nd Model.

Not As Bad

The Japanese also issued an obsolete revolver in sizeable numbers, although it is superior to the Soviet’s Model 1895 by a wide margin. This was their Type 26 originally developed in the mid-1890’s for horse mounted soldiers. In World War II it was mostly issued to non-commissioned officers (NCOs). For some reason the Japanese decided it should be double action only so there is no spur atop the hammer. In function it is of top break design, essentially as were Smith & Wesson revolvers until about the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. A difference was the Type 26’s sideplate is hinged allowing it to swing open, exposing the revolver’s innards for cleaning.

Type 26’s had their own unique cartridge. It is a rimmed 9mm with military loads nominally delivering 149 gr. lead bullets at about 750 fps. Case length is .86″. Cases for firing can be made by shortening 1.16″ .38 Special brass and thinning rim diameter. A perfect bullet for 9mm Japanese Type 26 revolvers is the 147-gr. cast roundnose of .356″ offered by Oregon Trail Bullet Company.

I did pay for a Type 26. I am impressed with its manufacturing quality if not its design, and I do handload for it using 3.0 grains of Titegroup powder under the above bullet. I have not chronographed that load but it shoots to my Type 26’s fixed sights at 25 feet. Barrel length is 43/4″.


Duke feels the Soviet Union’s Model 1895 7.62mm Nagant revolvers
were the sorriest handguns ever issued to a major armed force.


The US was short of handguns in World War I and had Smith & Wesson and Colt
make their large frame sixguns suitable for .45 ACP by means of 3-round
half-moon clips. Many thousand were reissued for World War II.

US Freedom Guns

Let’s do the United States’ revolvers now. Between all our armed forces we issued three types. Model 1917 Colt and Smith & Wesson .45’s were removed from arsenals where they were stored after World War I. They were refurbished and “often/usually” given a Parkerized finish before issuing in World War II. Of course these sixguns actually used the 3-round, half-moon clips of .45 ACP’s.

Those half-moon clips not only allowed the star-type extractors of both versions to work properly but also furnished a sort of primitive speed loading system. They were big six-shooters with 51/2″ barrels and weighing 3 pounds. Sights were completely non-adjustable being a front blade and a groove in the topstrap for a rear.

Having obtained my first Model 1917 (an S&W) in 1968 and having owned many more by both makers in the ensuing 46 years I’m no stranger to handloading for them. My first rule for .45 ACP revolvers is to forget taper-crimping lead alloy bullets. I’ve never gotten them to stay put during recoil. Some have actually pulled forward so much as to stick out the front of chambers. This problem has not arisen with jacketed bullets probably because they offer more friction in cases than slippery cast bullets.

I load .45 ACP revolvers most often with Oregon Trail’s 230-gr. roundnose lead bullet but with a roll crimp applied over the bullet’s front driving band. They stay put during recoil. If assembling .45 ACP loads for all my firearms so chambered then the bullet is any company’s 230-gr. full-metal jacketed roundnose. Powder charges of 5.5 grs. of W231/HP38 or 5.0 grs. of Bullseye will equal military “ball” ballistics, i.e. about 800 fps from those 51/2″ barrels.

America’s third government issue revolver during World War II was Smith & Wesson’s Military & Police .38 Special with 4″ or 5″ barrels. These were mostly issued to US Navy and Marine Corps aviators. Here’s an interesting fact. These flyboys were also given red tipped .38 Special tracer ammunition with the idea a guy floating about in the shark infested Pacific Ocean could use them for signaling to a rescue plane or ship. I’ve shot a few of them and their brightness was small and short-lived but at least it gave hope. To adhere to various conventions of warfare outlawing expanding lead bullets, US government .38 Special “ball” loads had 130-gr. full-metal-jacketed bullets.


The Model 1895 7.62 Nagant loaded/unloaded through a gate on
the frame’s right side, one cartridge at a time.


The revolvers issued by at least four nations in WWII were chambered
for these six cartridges. From left: Soviet 7.62mm Nagant, 9mm Japanese
Revolver, American .38 Special, British .380 Revolver, American .45 ACP
and British .455 Webley.

British Breaktops

Lastly we get to the Brits, and their homegrown revolvers in World War II were both of top break style. The big boy was the Webley Mk VI .455 and the moderate size one was the Enfield No. 2 chambered for the .380 Revolver. That was nothing more than the old .38 Smith & Wesson case carrying, first a 200-gr. lead alloy bullet, then a 178-gr. jacketed one after the Germans got nasty about the expanding lead bullet thing. Barrel lengths were 6″ on the .455 and 5″ for the .380. Both were capable of double/single-action fire, but some of the Enfield No. 2’s later on were double action only. Sights were fixed but front sights were pinned and could be replaced to change elevation point of impact.

Never having enough weapons when declaring war the Brits turned to Smith & Wesson for help. The same Military & Police revolvers the US flyboys were carrying were sold to the Brits with one change — they used the .380 Revolver round instead of .38 Special. Early ones were blued, but later they were Parkerized. Barrel lengths were 4″, 5″ and 6″ but it seems like the 5″ barrel is most common.

In World War I the Brits had turned to Smith & Wesson again for revolvers. This time the large frame Hand Ejectors, 1st and 2nd Models because they were easily adaptable to their .455 Webley. These all had 61/2″ barrels and were finished as commercial S&W revolvers. They were pulled from storage and issued again for World War II. Mine factory letters to the Canadian government in 1916, and along with it I have a box of 1943-dated, Canadian made .455 military loads with 265-gr. FMJ bullets.

The Brits seemed set on peedunkler handgun loads because both their World War II military loads barely broke 600 fps. I’ve copied them by using 2.0 grs. Titegroup with Lyman bullet #358430 (200 grs.) and Redding/SAECO bullet number 955 (264 grs.) with 3.0 grs. of Bullseye.

During the 1939-1945 conflagration many, many soldiers carried personal handguns with just about every sort of revolver dating from the 1870’s on being used. That’s another story. The nine detailed here were given to them by their governments.
By Mike “duke” Venturino
Photos: Yvonne Venturino

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