The Second World War saw the world’s armies standardize on semi-automatic pistols for officers and other soldiers whose primary duties precluded them from carrying a rifle. There were some revolvers that served well in World War II. General Patton famously had his pearl handled .45 revolvers. Great Britain used the Webley & Scott Mk 4 and Mk 6 in the powerful .455 caliber. The British also used the Enfield No 2 Mark 1* in .38 caliber. The U.S. Army still fielded the Colt Army Model 1917 for some support personnel. However, the revolvers were outclassed by most of the available semi-automatic pistols.
The U.S., Germany, Canada, Soviet Union, Italy, and Japan all fielded semi-automatic pistols. But, which handgun was the best of World War II? This article names the Top 6 handguns of World War II and picks the best. Here are the contenders:
Colt M1911A1. (.45 ACP, 7-round detachable box, 830 feet per second). The powerful Colt 1911 was developed to decisively stop attackers. The U.S. Military had learned that .38 caliber ammunition couldn’t be relied upon to stop fanatical Moro tribesmen during their insurrection in the Philippines. However, .45 caliber ammunition could. Today, we know that the Colt 1911 is one of the most successful handguns of all time. The Colt 1911 is still prized by civilian shooters and military personnel who have to shoot fanatics in far away places.
Walther P38 (9mm, 8 round detachable box, 1150 feet per second). The German Walther P38 served Germany well into the 1950s. The pistol has many features that influence modern handgun designs. It has a double-action/single action design that lets the first round be fired from a hammer down starting position. It also has a loaded chamber indicator.
Browning High Power Model 1935 (9mm, 13 round detachable box, 1300 feet per second). According to Twentieth Century Small Arms by Chris McNab, the Belgian-made Browning was “a reliable, accurate side arm which served both sides during World War II and went on to serve in the armed forces of more than 50 countries.” The double-stack magazine also gave the Browning twice the ammunition capacity of the venerable Colt 1911A1.
Tula-Tokarev TT-33 (7.62mm Soviet, 8 round detachable box, 1362 feet per second) Designed for snow, ice, and simple manufacturing, the Tokarev TT-33 lacked safety devices. But, it is a reliable pistol that is still produced around the world today.
Beretta Modello 1934 (9mm Short, 7-round detachable box, 820 feet per second) Twentieth Century Small Arms calls the standard Italian sidearm “a generally superb and reliable weapon which is much sought after by collectors today.” However, the 9mm Short (.380 ACP) cartridge lacked punch, the safety was inadequate, and it was slow to reload.
Nambu 14th Year (8mm Nambu, 8-round detachable box, 1100 feet per second). If one pistol wasn’t the best of the war, it would be the Japanese Nambu. It was un-reliable, prone to failure in corrosive environments, and difficult for hot and sweaty soldiers to reload. It was the worst possible handgun for the salty air and steamy jungles of the South Pacific. It was also ugly.
Which handgun was the best of World War II? There are really three contenders: the Colt 1911A1, the Browning High Power, and the Walther P-38. Interestingly the Colt 1911 and Browning High Power were both designed by John Browning. While the Walther P-38 was an innovative and influential handgun, the two Browning designs had more impact on the outcome of the war. The choice comes down to the perennial handgun debate between the superior stopping power of the Colt 1911A1 and its .45 ACP round and the shootability and extra ammunition capacity of the 9mm Browning High Power.
If I were a World war II soldier, I would have felt more secure with the proven stopping power of the Colt 1911A1. I believe the Colt 1911A1 was the best handgun of World War II.
Chris McNab. Twentieth Century Small Arms. Barnes & Noble, New York. 2006.
Guns & Ammo. The Shooter’s Guide to Classic Firearms, Stoeger Press. 2006.
Philips, Craig. The World’s Great Small Arms. Barnes & Nobles, New York, 1995.