Pre-WW1, WW1

Top 10 Most Iconic Pistols of World War One

Weapons of war, pistols, were initially designed as a cavalry arm that later became a battlefield staple in World War One. Traditionally, guns were only for army officers. However, during The Great War, military police, airmen, and tank operators were given one too.

For men in the latter professions, the pistol was essentially the only handheld weapon that would serve them in their unique environments: the cramped conditions of the tank and aircraft. These circumstances dictated that the rifle – otherwise issued to virtually all regular soldiers – was impractical.

The sidearms listed had to go through this criteria to make it to the most iconic pistols of World War One:

  • Popularity during the war. Pistols gained much popularity during World War One.
  • What was the pistols’ role in the war, and how widely was it used?
  • Unique engineering and technology, we are looking for innovation. 
  • The pistol’s usage and effect, how seamless and accurate it was?
  • And lastly, persistence; Many guns continue to be used today—for example, the Luger. 
Target practice
US soldiers clean and load their 1911 pistols. The targets were soon to be replaced as the soldiers went up to the front line!

10. Pistole Revolveur Modele (Lebel)

The Pistole Revolveur was a standard-issue weapon in France in 1892. Manufacture d’armes de Saint-Étienne made the pistol in numerous state-owned factories in Belgium and Spain. Moreover, It was popularly known as the ‘Lebel’ or ‘model d’Ordonnance.’ 

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The French Pistole resembled the British Webley (discussed later), although it fired six 8mm rounds. The gun worked seamlessly. It could be snapped open for loading, and the label chamber rolled out quickly. Fitted with the Abadie system, a lever on the right-hand side of the frame, released the cylinder for loading. This feature also locked the hammer in place when loading, preventing an accidental discharge.

The Serbian army made great use of the French Pistole. However, semi-automatic pistols later officially replaced the Modèle 1892 in 1935. Many used the Modèle during the Second World War and brought it to the United States as souvenirs.

9. Steyr Automatic

The Steyr Automatic was produced just before the war in 1912 and was an army regular sidearm in Austria-Hungary and even Romania. 

The Steyer utilised an eight-round clip and fired 9mm bullets. Even though the Hungarian home force used a separate (Fegyvergyár) design firing 7.65 mm bullets, it was a reliable weapon. The Steyer operated by a short recoil system, the barrel unlocking from the slide by rotation. 

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8. A FN Model 1910

The gun, manufactured in 1910, was extensively used by the Belgian army during World War One. The gun was lightweight but also immensely robust . John M. Browning’s most lasting innovations – the Model 1911 and the 380 ACP cartridge were a combination of this Belgian predecessor.

FN Model 1910
Princip’s FN Model 1910 pistol that he used to shoot Archduke Franz Ferdinand with.

The pistol gained an infamous reputation when Serbian Gavrilo Princip used the gun to assassinate Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. Many historians believe the incident triggered World War One. Later, a Russian poet used the model to kill French president Paul Doumer in 1932. Louisiana governor Huey Long was also gunned down with the same model in 1935. 

Allied and Axis forces continued using the FN well into World War Two. This was testament to the pistol’s reliability.

 7. Glisenti 9mm Automatic

Manufactured in 1910, the Glisenti 9mm automatic pistol was particularly popular among the Italians. However, it only lasted a short while, as factories never produced enough to meet the demand. Moreover, even though there was a growing demand, like many other guns at that time, the Glisenti needed to be more durable. 

Its firing system was weak and had to fire cartridges weaker than the comparable 9×19mm Parabellum calibre. The only safety on the pistol was a small lever in front of the grip. Still, the Royal Italian Army used it extensively.

6. Colt 0.45-inch Automatic

Colt 1911
A Colt “Model of 1911” in .45 ACP with US Victory medal and helmet to the 28th Infantry Division.

The gun was introduced in 1911 and used by the United States. The British Royal Navy also used it in a modified format. Manufacturers produced an estimated 68,533 of these Colt pistols during World War One for the U.S. armed forces

The gun is a single-action, recoil-operated, semi-automatic pistol chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge. So many manufacturers widely copied the firearm. Hence, this operating system became the preeminent type of the 20th century and nearly all modern centrefire pistols.

Some years earlier, Colt introduced their “New Service Model” revolver. It fired .45 Long Colt cartridges.

5. Mauser C96 Semi-Automatic

The Mauser C96 had widespread use during WW1. Germans, Italians, and even Russians made good use of this weapon. The gun was designed by the Feederle brothers (Fidel, Friedrich, and Josef) and Paul Mauser in 1895 and produced in a year later giving the pistol its name, the C96.

The characteristics of the gun are the integral box magazine in front of the trigger, the long barrel, and the wooden shoulder stock that doubles as a holster or carrying case. 

Red 9
A Mauser “Red 9” C96 with stripper clip partially inserted. The 9 was to tell the user that it was to be used with 9mm ammo.

It also has a grip shaped like the handle of a broom. The grip earned the gun the nickname “broom handle” in the English-speaking world. Despite the pistol’s worldwide popularity and fame, China was the only nation to use the C96 as the primary service pistol of its military and police. 

4. Nagant Revolver

The Nagant M1895 Revolver is a seven-shot, gas-seal revolver designed and produced by Belgian industrialist Léon Nagant for the Russian Empire. 

It has a proprietary cartridge, 7.62×38mmR, and an unusual “gas-seal” system. The Nagant’s sealed firing system meant that, unlike most other pistols, the Nagant revolver could effectively use a sound suppressor. As a result, the gun is still in production today and widely used despite complicated reloading.

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The Russian Imperial Army used the revolver extensively, while it was later favored by the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution. In Russian service, it was known for its extreme sturdiness and ability to withstand abuse. One former Imperial Russian officer stated, “if anything went wrong with the M1895, you could fix it with a hammer.”

3. Parabellum M17

When manufactured in 1917, the gun was known for its long barrel. It resembled a machine carbine with its magazine capable of holding 30 rounds. The weapon was a modified version of the German Luger. Like many of Luger’s versions, the Parabellum was popular in the German Army. It is often called an ‘Artillery Luger’

2. Webley Mk VI revolver

The Webley Mk VI revolver, produced by Webley and Scott in Birmingham, was the standard-issue British pistol. Thus, three hundred thousand were in production during wartime. It debuted close to the nineteenth century. 

Webley Mk VI
Webley Mark VI .455 service revolver. Nicknamed the ‘Man Stopper’ and with good reason.

It was a .455 calibre weapon and proved immensely reliable (and consequently popular) in wartime conditions – even among the Flanders mud. The weapon kicked back, so much so that practice was required to use it properly. 

Webley service revolvers are among the most potent top-break pistols produced. Unfortunately, the .455 calibre Webley is no longer in military service. However, the .38/200 Webley Mk VI variant is still in use as a police sidearm in several countries.

1. Luger 9mm P08 Pistol

Number one on the list, the Luger was the most iconic pistol during World War One. Two million were used during the war, and were mainly issued to officers. 

The Luger possessed a seven-round magazine loaded via the pistol butt. Recoil-operated, the Luger was reliable and accurate but needed to be available in sufficient supplies to meet the ever-increasing demand. As a result, it was always a famous trophy when captured by Allied troops.

Hand gun
Luger 9mm P08 Pistol. It changed very little even in WW2. Simply iconic.

The Luger is well known for its wide use by Germany during World War I and World War II, along with the interwar Weimar Republic and the postwar East German Volkspolizei.

Parabellum comes from the Latin phrase, Si vis pacem, para bellum, “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.”

Pistols in World War One

When World War One began in 1914, three types of pistols were in use: revolvers, clip-loaded automatics, and the blowback models. These were the models in which a propellant gas forced the bolt back after firing, causing the gun to reload.

Historically, armies typically manufactured their own standard-issue pistols using contractors. However, material and manufacturing shortages dictated that militaries would have to put other models to use on the battlefield.

A Look Inside Tommy’s Ration Pack.

Surprisingly, when naming the most lethal weapons of the Great War, artillery, chemical gas, machine guns, rifles, mortars, and tanks get most of the press. Historians often forget the World War One pistols that played a significant role in the conflict. 

When soldiers in the trenches had to attack, they often went over the top with only a trusted pistol to capture a position. Fighting in close quarters is not about the newest technology in weaponry. Instead, it often came down to courage and a reliable sidearm.