There is a lot of emphasis on handgun tactics and usage today, but not too long ago, pistols in military use were seen as a badge of rank and a last ditch defensive tool, not a combat weapon. It was an after thought. But in the terror that was World War I, things changed. Close quarters fighting in the trenches became commonplace and the bolt action rifles then in use were too slow and awkward. The grenade, the pistol, the knife, and the spade were the preferred weapons over the romanticism of fencing with bayonets in the open and long range marksmanship.
The war also singlehandedly made the US into the leading arms maker in the world and Europe had paid for it. The neutral US would make weapons for anyone with money, yet when the US was finally dragged into the war in the spring of 1917, she found herself unprepared for a modern war with not enough weapons for her military. The US military was relatively small and had no tanks, few airplanes, obsolete machine guns, and not enough rifles and pistols. The US would reach back for preexisting designs to solve the small arms shortage.
The M1911 45 caliber pistol was the standard American service pistol, but they were not enough of them. To meet the demand, the government reached out to Colt and Smith & Wesson for help.
Colt’s New Service and Smith’s 44 cal. Hand Ejector were rugged large framed revolvers and they were being produced in quantity in 455 Webley for the British. They chambered their revolvers in 45 ACP, the rimless round used by the M1911, and–in a rare occasion of cooperation– shared a method to allow the rounds to function reliably. The M1917 service revolvers were born and they were headed to Europe with America’s doughboys.
Smith & Wesson’s M1917 revolver is a large frame gun, that would later be standardized as the N frame. This large frame would go on to chamber rounds like the 357 Magnum and 44 Magnum.
It featured a blued, and later parkerized, finish and a 5 1/2 inch barrel topped with a half-moon front sight and a milled notch in the top strap that serves as the rear sight. They were equipped with smooth wood grips and a lanyard loop (though the owner’s elk antler grips are seen here). Other than that, it is a conventional double action revolver.
What makes the M1917 interesting is the way it is loaded. Since the 45 ACP has no exposed rim, it cannot be held in place in the cylinder of a revolver. It could slide forward, preventing the hammer from giving it a hard blow and setting off the round. Also, there is no rim for the extractor to catch so the rounds would have to be poked out of the cylinder with a handy stick. The problem was solved with half-moon clips. They were little more than pieces of spring steel stamped to accept the cartridges so three rounds could be placed into the cylinder at one time and they would extract and fire.
Both M1917 models had their cylinders rebated to headspace the cartridge in the cylinder in case no clips were available, however the cartridges would still need to be poked out. Later on, full moon clips that allowed for all six rounds to be kept in one handy package was developed, as was the 45 Auto rim round.
Smith & Wesson’s M1917 revolver was a pleasure to shoot and it was thanks, in no small part to Murphey’s Muskets, who furnished his own 1918 manufactured example. Shooting was done with full moon clips, commonly used in today’s 45 ACP revolvers, with Privi Partizan 230 grain FMJ ammunition.
Loading was a piece of cake and could be done as quickly as changing out a magazine on a semi automatic pistol. Just push the cylinder release on the left side forward with your thumb, push the cylinder out and drop the clip of ammunition right into the cylinders. Shut the cylinder, and you are ready to go.
Firing one handed in double action mode, I struggled with the heavy, long double action trigger pull. Rapid fire at close range was done in double action and despite the gun’s 2 1/4 pound heft, I found myself pulling rounds high and the miniscule sight picture offered by the sights, did not help. For precision shooting, pulling back the hammer spur gives a nice, short single action trigger pull. It was easy to bust 2 liters at 25 yards distance in that manner.
I decided to move up to 7 yards distance and put the gun on paper, firing one handed in double action mode. I put my six shots into about a five inch group. It was a good feat of practical accuracy, but shooting the gun in a two handed manner would help with accuracy at any range. In any case, it was on par with a combat pistol for the day.
Unloading was also rapid. Push the cylinder release and stroke the ejector rod and the clip of now empty brass falls right out neatly.
What the M1917 has going for it, other than loading and unloading, is the feel. The gun points naturally, making quick snap shooting easier. The grips were in the right place, though the reach to the trigger was a little long. The gun recoils a bit snappier than a standard 38 Special service revolver and the exposed, steel back strap tends to come back and smack the web between the thumb and index finger. It stings, but it is a relatively minor gripe.
Some 150,000 Smith M1917s were produced between 1917-1920. Colt produced an equal number. The revolvers were retired after World War I and subsequently refurbished and stored. The M1917s went back into service for World War II and the guns floated around in Korea and the Vietnam War as well before finally being retired. That’s a long service life for a stopgap measure of a gun.
On the civilian market, the M1917 stayed in Smith & Wesson’s catalog until 1950 when a new generation of 45 ACP revolvers replaced it. In that time Brazil ordered a number for their military in 1937.
Smith & Wesson’s M1917 might not be as iconic as the 1911 service pistol, but it retains a cult following to say the least. It was the last gasp of the American service revolver and, as it turned out, the gun served well.