Top 5 Pistols of World War One (Response to C&Rsenal)

C&Rsenal posted a Top 10 Pistols of WWI video a few days ago, and I didn’t entirely agree with their choices – so I figured I’d do my own list. I’m using the same base conditions that they did (only locked-breech pistols), and I’m judging the guns based on their desirability to a trained and practiced pistol gunfighter. I stuck to just 5 rather than C&Rsenal’s 10, but let me know what you think of our picks…

C&Rsenal’s Top Ten:


    • Meh. Ian took a “too busy” list compiled by rich kids, and refined it to five pistols, rather oddly selected by the criteria of having locked breeches and real he-man, gee-whiz calibers. What if the list had used, say, industrial efficiency as a criterion?

      Ian’s list included Othais & Mae’s 1. 1911, 2. Luger P08, 3. Webley self-loader and 4. Steyr-Hahn M1912 repetierpistole… The only gun Ian added not found on the Othais & Mae list was the Roth-Steyr 8mm.

      • The original CandRsenal effort was stilted. Really did not deal with the larger, and more interesting, topic of the complete list of good and bad pistols used in the Great War. Just wanted to show off some cool toys that they had.

    • Nearly noone was wearing bullet proof armour and there were no antibiotics. Which even makes .22 Short a serious danger to at least kill through infection. .32 ACP is obviously more dangerous. Poking bigger holes and being able to penetrate thick clothing for example. And pistols are mostly used at very short ranges anyway so the realtively weak powder charge of .32 does not matter much, when shooting across a room or inside a trench. In Great War 2: Rematch, a lot .32ACP pistols were issued as well and were alsonused. Again mostly at close ranges and against persons without body armour. Also the smakker size of .32 ACP pistols makes then easier to carry.

  1. Interesting list, no disagreement on your choices. I previously was not well informed on the Webley Self Loader, but the cartridge for it already had a good reputation from the revolver version. The Austrian pistols had some nice features and were obviously reasonable guns for military applications. The 1911/.45 ACP has its own set of poor sights and stout recoil and is not a good choice for an inexperienced shooter. The Ruby has a valid place in the second carry gun and a more shooter friendly gun than the bigger guns/cartridges. Overall, a very thoughtful and thought provoking list. Thanks Ian.

  2. I tested a;; of the ww 1 handguns in my book the 100 Greatest Combat Handguns including using them on a police cinema range.I think you missed the Webley Mark 6 and the Smith Second Model Ejector.The Webley is a wonderful combat revolver and the Smith is fine also.I would rank them as follows from a practical user standpoint:
    1.Colt Government Model
    2.Webley Mark 6
    3.Roth Steyr
    4.Steyr Hahn (but watch if you flip on the safety and then flip it off sometimes they fire)
    5.Smith Second Model
    The Luger is a fine weapon but the safety is way too slow for serious use as is the M96 Mauser although I found it very effective on the police cinema range interestingly enough
    All the various32 ACP pistols are only useful if you view them and use them as a single barrel 12 gauge shotgun with magazine capacity burst firing method to give you the same effect as one round of 00 Buckshot.

    • You are correct about the “burst firing” of the .32 ACP. This is why the VZ61 Scorpion was best used in full auto mode.

    • If this was done, Ian cannot be bigoted and only discus the flintlock versions while ignoring the great contribution made by the matchlock models.

  3. No surprise about first place but re-assembly after field stripping might have been trickier than most of its competitors.

  4. The main reason that even cavalrymen were poor pistol shots at the time was that even at that late date, the saber was considered the primary cavalry weapon and most training time was spent learning to use it “properly” in the charge. Exactly how you were supposed to do that up against interlocking defensive heavy machine gun fire was something they never actually got into. Cavalry were better suited to the desert war against the Turks, as T.E. Lawrence found out. Once they got used to riding camels, that is.

    I consider the Webley .455s (both revolver and self-loader) badly underpowered. 220 to 230 FPE is the energy of a .38 S&W, and the British Army was smart to go with the much lighter Enfield and Webley MK IV Commercial revolvers in 0.380in if they were comfortable with that level of power. They simply weigh less.

    The difference in “stopping power” between the 350 FPE .45 ACP and 350 FPE 9 x 19mm wouldn’t pay your burial expenses. One hits as hard as the other; either one hits harder than most of the other guns on either list, excepting the powerful 9 x 23mm Bergmann-Bayard, which reached 400 FPE in some military loadings. (Yes, it was a “.38 Super Auto” before Colt ever made one.)

    The various Spanish “Eibar” or “Ruby” type .32 ACP automatics probably accounted for two-thirds of the pistols used by the French simply because they were short of everything. They mainly proved that, cheap and nasty as they were, they worked and they would kill.

    My personal choice for a service handgun in the trenches? A tossup between a 1911 or a Colt or S&W M1917, all in .45 ACP. Runners up, the 4″ P.08 in 9 x 19mm and the Steyr M1912 in 9 x 21mm (would actually chamber and fire 9 x 23mm Bergmann, as it’s more of a 9 x 21.5mm). All of them deliver about the same killing power and they all have a hard-earned reputation for working no-matter-what.

    Honorable mention, the M1916 Mauser “Broomhandle” in either 9 x 19mm or 7.63 x 25mm. If all else failed…. A Colt New Service, M1878 Double Action Frontier, or Peacemaker in .45 Colt or .44-40 WCF.

    Although honestly, my first choice would be a Winchester M1897 or Model 12 “trench gun” loaded with 00 buckshot- and with a bayonet on the business end.

    clear ether


    • “(…)The difference in “stopping power” between the 350 FPE .45 ACP and 350 FPE 9 x 19mm wouldn’t pay your burial expenses. One hits as hard as the other; either one hits harder than most of the other guns on either list, excepting the powerful 9 x 23mm Bergmann-Bayard(…)”
      False for longer list which does include C/96, which could use 7,63 mm cartridge. According to
      which furnish it as ·30 Mauser Automatic Pistol it used 85 gr bullet with Muzzle Velocity of 1,400 Ft. per sec. giving Muzzle Energy 370 Ft. lbs.

      • Exactly. The three cartridges in question “average out” to roughly the same energy levels (325 to 375 FPE, varying with loading), in spite of getting to those levels by three different methods;

        1. Large heavy bullet at subsonic velocities (.45 ACP);

        2. Medium-sized, medium-weight bullet at transonic velocities (9 x 19mm);

        3. Lightweight, small-diameter bullet at supersonic velocities (7.63 x 25mm).

        The major difference between the three was penetration, notably on heavy winter clothing such as greatcoats. The 7.63 x 25mm was the hands-down winner in penetration.

        The fact is that “stopping power” theories were just that; theories. Mostly based on abstruse mathematics and unwarranted assumptions made by people not entirely familiar with even basic physics.

        In the end, penetration and kinetic energy are what rule the battlefield.

        It’s time that “stopping power” theories were filed with other superstitions, which is where they belong.



        • @eon: Honestly, “stopping power theories… mostly based on abstruse mathematics and unwarranted assumptions made by people not entirely familiar with even basic physics” elides the farsical ‘Murican Thompson-LaGarde “tests”: Shooting suspended cadavers to see how much the bullets make the body parts sway, followed up by some Chicago rail yard slaughterhouse shootings of various hapless beeves… The result? .45 acp and “they all fall to hard ball” and the ‘Murican “road less traveled”: .45 acp handguns and SMGs for a century.

          It was only in the 21st century that ballisticians and bullet manufacturers developed a 9mm bullet and cartridge combination that “worked like it should” and North Americans discovered the virtues of 6.5mm Swedish, in the form of 6.5mm Creedmore. A bit of a masterpiece, really.

    • “(…)Webley .455(…)self-loader(…)”
      It was originally made for .455 rimmed (revolver) cartridge, see 1st image from top so they probably just used what was in use, but failed to make it work with box magazine and thus lowest-cost development of semi-rimmed cartridge. It should be noted that there also existed .38 caliber High Velocity version, so choice was made by customer (which apparently just wanted 455), rather that Whiting (designer of said fire-arms) skills or lack thereof.

      • The “.38 caliber high velocity” version used the 9 x 20SRmm Browning aka 9mm Browning Long, the same as the FN Grande Modele blowback. Since the FN functioned perfectly well as a blowback, the exact need for a locked breech in the Webley self-loader in that caliber is difficult to discern.

        As with the Japanese “Papa Nambu” and the later Taisho 14 in 8 x 22mm Nambu, it should have gotten along perfectly well with no breech lock at all.



        • “(…)high velocity” version used the 9 x 20SRmm Browning aka 9mm Browning Long(…)”
          It does not. This cartridge is consumed by latter variant Webley & Scott semi automatic pistol model of 1922, caliber 9mm Browning Long, which used simple blowback action. High velocity cartridge shape is 9x23SR, name from KYNOCH point-of-view is ·38 Automatic Pistol and does launch 130 gr. bullet at 1,050 Ft. per sec.

  5. I don’t agree with lefting out blowbacks. Especially the FN1903 and Beretta 1915.
    The 9X20mm Browning Long, 9mm Glisenti, 8mm Roth Steyr and the military loads of 9mm Steyr had practically the same energy. The FN and Beretta had not weight disadvantages over the breechlocks (The Beretta was actually the lightest of the bunch, and the Steyr M1912 the heaviest). Blowbacks were easier to build, so why are they excluded?

    • Ian wanted to match what CandRsenal did. I can appreciate that. But Ian should do a follow up on the blowback models and note their actual usage in WW 1. I am guessing that they were more prevalent than is commonly thought.

      • Just factoring in the Spanish-made .32s means that probably half the self-loading pistols used “in the trenches” were blowbacks.

        Let’s not forget the various blowbacks the German Army adopted due to being short of production capacity for P.08s, either. The Langenhans blowbacks being just one example;



        • And the same happened in WWII with the Walther PP, Sauer 38H and Mauser HSc (not counting all the captured weapons). In a all-out total war, workers had better things to do that manufacturing complex breechlock handguns.

          • And — In the WWI era, the whole world was still struggling to figure out what would be the best design for a semi-auto pistol. Those fancy/complex/expensive breach locking wonders just might not have been the design direction that lasted. So anything that fired reliably would be of value in a war where no nation was really prepared for the war.

          • The Wehrmacht still clung to the idea of “pistol as badge of rank”, and gave officers compact blowback 7.65mm Browning Walther PPs, PPKs and etc. as issue sidearms.

            The Luftwaffe gave their bomber and transport crews the same sort of pistols due to the weight factor.The “9mm Ultra” round was originally developed for a Walther blowback that would have looked like a PP with a fixed external barrel looking much like a P.38’s, to give the aircrews a sidearm more powerful than a 9 x 17mm that wasn’t as heavy as a P.08 or P.38.

            And of course, German occupation troops in France and elsewhere were issued blowback pistols in considerable numbers as defensive sidearms for going to the local inn for a beer. Otherwise, they were likely to end up with slit throats.

            I suspect that mostly this simply supplied the various “locals” with a handy source of pistols they didn’t have to pay for.

            clear ether


          • @ Eon.
            The idea “blowback is simpler to make, let’s see what can be shot in a blowback pistol” is not wrong, and led to the 9x20mm Browning Long, 9×18 mm Police / 9×18 mm Ultra and 9mm Makarov that were, power-wise, respectable cartirdges (for the 9mm Glisenti, that had about the same power level, it had been by chance, while the 8mm Roth Steyr had never been shot in a blowback handgun, but it could have been). Their performances goes from the .38 Special to the .38 Special +P.

        • Let me throw a dirty word into these discussions — Hi-Point. The company gets lots of hate, but let’s look at its products, relative to what has been discussed here.

          Hi-Point makes blowback pistols for the more powerful pistol cartridges. So the technology does not limit fire power. Yes, this makes the pistol larger and heavier than locked-breech pistols of the same caliber ammunition. But how bad is that in this situation?

          The Hi-Point pistols will not get oooohs-and-aaaaaahs when you flash them at the gun range. They are not suitable for everyday carry. But is this important when a country has to suddenly supply an army?

          The Hi-Point pistols are cheap and quick to make. If reliability is an issue, consider them throw-away items as they are cheap to replace. In the The Great War: The Sequel, the Soviet Union dominated the armor battles on the Eastern Front with throw-away tanks, that could be quickly and cheaply mass produced. Quantity of crappy tanks won over high quality tanks, through sheer superior numbers.

          So blowback pistols should not be ignored when it comes to “best pistols”.

    • Revolvers were still king of combat handguns because they were much more reliable and less ammo sensitive to cartridge/load specifications than any of the early service autoloaders, and more likely to function in dirty conditions.

      • This issue of handguns in WW 1 needs to be looked at through the lens of the time, not what has come about in the last century.

        • Keep in mind that the USN and USMC were still issuing revolvers during WW2. Colt Official Police and S&W M10 Military & Police revolvers with 4″ barrels in .38 Special were standard issue for Naval and Marine aviators, with 130-grain FMJ ammunition. These were not the same as the “Victory Models” made for the British under Lend-Lease, which were chambered for .38 S&W aka 0.380in.

          As always, there were exceptions. Then-Major Charles Askins carried a S&W Registered Series N-frame .357 Magnum with 5″ barrel throughout the Pacific campaign. He didn’t use FMJ ammunition, but nobody with enough rank to matter ever said anything about it.

          clear ether


          • Not accurate per aSkins book
            He was not in pacific but rather North Africa and France and Germany
            Originally he carried an accrized government model and later a new service colt in 38 special chambering

          • “Keep in mind that the USN and USMC were still issuing revolvers during WW2(…)”
            Was not that simple done as using devices already in production, like was using automobile engines for propulsion of medium tanks via Chrysler Multibank?

          • Dawo;

            The actual reason was weight. The .38 revolvers weighed less than the M1911A1 automatic.

            When you ask an aeronautical engineer why anything is done “that way” in designing an aircraft, the answer is almost invariably “all the alternatives were heavier”.



  6. I think I’m just confused about the whole “locked breech pistol” criteria, thereby eliminating revolvers and blow-back self-loading pistols? I mean, “the whole list, or the top ten?” And what of ‘Murica’s secret weapon, the U.S. pistol, caliber .30 Model of 1918, aka. Pedersen device? 40 rounds on tap of 80-grain bullets at 1300 fps…?

    My idea of a good fighting pistol for WWI would be the FN Model 1903 semi-automatic pistol in the 9x20mmSR Browning long cartridge. This pistol was used by some Belgians, Russians, and Ottomans during WWI. I think some were privately purchased by French officers, although it couldn’t have been very many. Of course, Sweden adopted it, but then that nation remained neutral. Straight blow-back, grip safety.

    Of Ian’s selection, I’ve only ever fired his No. 1, No. 2, and No. 4. Of those, I must say I quite like the M1912 Steyr-Hahn 9x23mm pistol. I agree that having stripper clips for a pistol is wonky, but I think I agree with Ian’s assertion that the magazine not being damaged and being all internal is a boon. I like the pistol’s simplicity, I think it has only 34 parts total. The one I fired was kind of beat up and dated 1917, unless I’m mistaken, with a “frosted” bore from corrosive ammunition, and still danged accurate. I’m not too keen on the M1911 .45 acp, and while I’ve done reasonably well with it, I prefer it in 9x19mm. It is a pistol that I have seen people induce malfunctions from “limp wristing.” I never warmed to the Luger, frankly. I mean they feel intuitive in the hand and all that, but… I did have one that started doubling on me as I fired it, so maybe that made me leery of them.

    But what of the revolvers? Any of the Smith and Wesson or Colt revolvers would make me feel about as confident as I might be able to in WWI absent a return ticket to “blighty” and the rear as far from the front as possible. I’d feel reasonably well armed with the underpowered, black powder Chamelot-Delvigne M1874 revolver, or the 10.4mm/.40 cal. Bodeo 1889. Honestly, an 8-shot 8mm Rast-Gasser Model 1898 might not be too bad either, if underpowered. As far as .32 acp pistols go, I’d think the “10 shots quick” Savage semi-auto might not be too bad in a WWI setting, although not my first choice. Austro-Hungarian storm troopers liked the heavy cavalry Gasser revolvers, which are mighty antiquated. A Smith and Wesson No. 3 “Russian” in .44 might be a viable option too, I’d think.

    Hasn’t it been established that the Brits did a fairly good job at training soldiers/NCOs/ some officers in revolver craft during WWI? I know the alcoholic, bellicose American in the Canadian Army, McBride, preferred the Colt M1911, for many of the conventional reasons, but chiefly because it was quicker to reload with a new magazine than any of its competitors.

    • Why locked breech only? CandRsenal have their blinders on. They only can see the present state of military sidearms, which are all locked breech, and are not getting their heads into the times being discussed. It is true that the proto-locked-breech pistols of the Great War were the start of the development story which ends in what is the predominant (almost exclusive) design of military pistols today. But focusing only on them, when discussing the Great War is a bad presentation of history. If CandRsenal wanted to start telling the story of how the current locked breech system was developed, this should have been clearly in their minds and stated as such. Presenting what they did as “the best pistols in the war” is way off target.

    • Having read McBride’s book, I am surprised at the “alcoholic, bellicose” description. With all respect, might you cite a source for that?

      • Huh? Like you mean his 1917 court martial in the Canadian army? That kind of source?
        Google-fu turns this up:

        Aug 8, 1916

        Placed under arrest for being absent without leave and drunkenness

        Suspended from duty until Aug 20, 1916

        Aug 24, 1916

        Court Martial finding – Not Guilty on all charges

        Aug 31, 1916

        Proceeded to unit

        Ø Placed under arrest for drunkenness

        Ø Suspended from duty until September 20, 1916

        Sep 1, 1916

        Arrived at Champs des Courses Camp, Rouen

        Sep 18, 1916

        Tried by General Court Martial at Rouen and sentenced to be severely reprimanded. …

        Oct 3, 1916

        Joined the 18th Battalion in the field

        Oct 7, 1916

        Arrested for drunkenness

        Ø Suspended from duty until Feb 19, 1917

        Oct 17, 1916

        Admitted to No 12 Stationary Hospital, Boulogne – debility alcohol

        Oct 19, 1916

        Transferred to No 10 British Red Cross Hospital Le Treport

        Oct 26, 1916

        Invalided to England aboard the Hospital Ship Carisbrook Castle.

        Oct 27, 1916

        Admitted to Miss Pollock’s Hospital, 50 Waymouth St, London

        “Patient had an alcoholic outbreak and was sent to Millbank. He complained of headaches and pains in the eyes. He saw Mr. Mayou, the occultist, who found no vision trouble. He slept badly and was generally run down”.

        Nov 5, 1916

        Transferred to Queen Alexandra Military Hospital, Millbank.

        Nov 8, 1916

        Medical Board at London noted the following:

        Ø Disability – Debility (alcoholic)

        Ø He is now recovered but somewhat debilitated

        Ø Declared unfit for 3 weeks

        Ø Disability was contracted during his military service

        Ø Disability was not caused by his military service

        Ø Granted 3 weeks leave

        Ø Address on leave Adelphi Hotel, Strand WC, London

        Dec 6, 1916

        SOS General List on proceeding to France to join 18th Battalion

        Ø Note that this order was cancelled

        Dec 7, 1916

        Ceases to be detached to Western Ontario Regimental Depot and sent to trial by General Court Martial

        Feb 19, 1917

        Dismissed from the service by General Court Martial, London Gazette #29992.

        I mean, it is an important memoir of WWI service, but let’s not kid ourselves about the writers of these important primary sources about the “Great War.” War ruins minds as much as it destroys people.

        • Thank you for the citation and details — it is not the best-known (to me) aspect of the man, and I didn’t disbelieve you. I trust Mr. Mayou was an oculist not an occultist. The bellicose I assume was a subset of drunken. Amazing how unstable people can produce fine clear prose, but as a painting teacher pointed out to me once, many great writers were drunks.

  7. A note on reloading the Roth-Steyr: Many troops who were issued with it weren’t expected to. On this very website years ago Mr. M. published an interview with an expert who stated that Roth-Steyrs were issued in threes to cavalrymen: two as holster pistols and one on the belt! C&Rsenal seem to have missed this video, much to my disappointment. Someone should tell them, to quote a song, but it won’t be me.

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