The Generals & Their Guns

By Tom Laemlein
Posted in #Guns #History
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The Generals & Their Guns

February 4th, 2020

5 minute read

There are many long-standing traditions in the U.S. military. Since the earliest days of the Continental Army in 1776, American generals procured their own sidearms — all the way up to World War I. However, by 1943, in the middle of World War II, the U.S. Army began a program to equip general officers with standard-issue pistols.

Major General Peter E. Straub (left) of the 35th Division, September 1918 during World War I. Traub led the 35th Infantry during the battles in the Argonne Forest and is seen here with an M1911. Image: U.S. National Archives

Initially, the primary pistol issued to American generals was the Colt 1908 Hammerless, chambered in .380. The 1908s chambered in .380 quickly ran out, and the .32 caliber pocket model was substituted. While there were some specially engraved pistols and presentation cases, this work was commissioned and paid for by the officers themselves. Otherwise, generals received pistols with the standard factory finish. About 1,400 of these pocket pistols were issued from 1944 through 1972. Their finish was factory blued with “U.S. Property” marked on the side.

Major General Paul Baade of the 35th Infantry Division. General Baade was highly decorated for bravery and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the Bronze Star (three times), the Silver Star (twice), and the Legion of Merit. Image: U.S. National Archives

The 1908 pistols were replaced by the short-barreled M1911 variant, the M15 General Officers Model (made at Rock Island Arsenal) during the 1970s. This was followed by the M9 9mm pistol beginning in 1984.

U.S. Army Air Force General James B. Newman (Commander of the 9th AF Engineer Command) along with Colonel Schilling inspecting forward airfields in Normandy during late June 1944. Image: U.S. National Archives

Stepping Up

Despite the issue of the small 1908 and 1903 pocket pistols, many generals chose to carry something a bit more powerful: pistols such as the .45 caliber 1911 automatic pistol. We’ve included a selection of photos here to visually prove that point.

British General Wingate and his American adjutant armed with a 1911, with the 1st Air Commando, at Lalaghat, India during 1944. Image: U.S. National Archives
General Patton with one of his ivory-handled .45 caliber revolvers. Image: Library of Congress

Generals were not expected to get into gunfights, and an American general’s decision to carry a pistol was based largely in personal preference. Some generals, like Patton, carried a handgun on most occasions. Others, like Bradley, carried when they were close to the front lines. A few, like Eisenhower, did not carry a pistol at all. Each officer made up their own mind. Many chose to be seen as a “fighting general,” a combat commander who led from the front. Strapping on a pistol like the mighty M1911 went a long way to create that impression.

Major General Robert Wilson Hasbrouck, commander of the 7th Armored Division, Germany spring 1945. Image: U.S. National Archives
General Patton decorating Quartermaster troops wearing one of his famous revolvers. Image: National Archives

As the World War II generals retired, they were allowed to purchase the pistols they had been issued. Most of them did, and still do, as this long-standing practice is still in effect today.

Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger with officers of the 11th Airborne Division during the advance on Manila, Philippines during late January 1945. Image: U.S. National Archives
Generals Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley and a 1911-wearing Courtney Hodges (Commander of the U.S. First Army) in France during the summer of 1944. Image: Library of Congress

A Classic

The legacy of the classic .45 caliber M1911 pistol can be found today in the Springfield Armory’s Mil-Spec Series 1911. It handles and shoots the same as the government-issue M1911 that so many General officers carried from World War I through the Vietnam War. This pistol offers the best of the classic 1911A1 pistol, but with some modern tweaks and upgrades.

Major General Blackshear M. Bryan decorates Colonel Stuart of the 24th Infantry Division, Korea 1951. Image: National Archives
General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (Left), Major General Louis A. Craig, commander of the 9th Infantry Division, and General Omar Bradley, Commander of the 12th Army Group confer at Butgenbach, Belgium in November 1944. Image: U.S. National Archives

To ensure a long life of shooting, this 1911 features a carbon steel frame and slide, both forged (rather than cast) for extreme strength. While the overall design of the pistol hearkens back to the 1911A1 — from its spur hammer to its arched mainspring housing and short trigger — it has modern upgrades like a stainless steel match grade 5″ barrel, lowered and flared ejection port, and three-dot sights. A Parkerized finish and a 7-round magazine rounds out the package.

The Springfield Armory Mil-Spec gives you a modern take on the 1911 design that still has a lot of classic charm.

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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