The Quick and the Dead

A Simple Proposal for a Simple Solution to a Simple Problem

The Pendulum

by Edward M. Van Court

The Army has been identified as the executive agent for the Department of Defense’s search for a new service pistol, designated the Modular Handgun System. The goal is to replace the aging M9 Beretta 9mm pistol, so the contract could be for up to a quarter of a million pistols. The goal is to acquire a pistol for all soldiers and all seasons. The ideal pistol would be multi-caliber and compatible with numerous accessories like suppressors, laser aiming devices, and lights. This pistol would be the single pistol issued to every service member assigned a pistol, whether Special Forces and SEALs, pilots, military police, vehicle crewmen, or — God help us all — staff officers. *

On the other hand, insisting that the DoD get a single handgun for everyone authorized one, when anyone with a lick of common sense knows that SOCOM will acquire and issue whatever pistols they fancy seems like an exercise in futility. Look at the initial fielding of the M9; SOCOM immediately sent out the request for proposals that resulted in the acquisition of the Heckler & Koch Mk 23, and soon after, the M11 9mm from SIG was adopted for Naval aviators, concealed carry, and theoretically for female service members. It might make more sense to have SOCOM acquire the pistol for cool kids with all the accessories, bells, whistles, and decoders, while having the Army acquisition program focus on a pistol best suited for service members with more pedestrian needs in a sidearm. The things that matter most for service members issued pistols are safety, reliability, and simplicity. An APC driver doesn’t need a suppressor. A major on JTF staff doesn’t need a laser aiming device. A pilot does not need a bulky handgun with attachment points for exotic gadgetry. These soldiers need a pistol that is safe to handle, going to function every time. Most soldiers issued a pistol also need a compact sidearm.

There is no use in issuing a weapon a person cannot carry in their duty environment, which can often be very cramped, like the crew compartment of an armored vehicle, or the cockpit of an attack aircraft. Leave suppressors, laser aiming modules, infrared lights, under-barrel grenade launchers*, bayonets, and other novelties to SOCOM. Get a conventional pistol for conventional forces.

And more than a decade into the twenty first century, there is an answer.

Major George W. Schofield (brother of Lieutenant General John Schofield, the Civil War Medal of Honor recipient for whom Schofield Barracks in Hawaii is named) saw potential in the Smith and Wesson Model 3 revolver, and that potential lays the groundwork for a modern military sidearm. As a revolver, it is reliable with a minimum of potential failure points and in the event of a round failing to fire, the next round will chamber without having to clear the weapon. The break-top revolver is simple, with fewer components than a semi-automatic pistol in a similar caliber. Even the most basic double action revolvers have a half-cock safety as an integral aspect of their design, and the break top revolvers have a positive clearing mechanism that range personnel and leaders can easily verify. Distinctive to the break top mechanism is ease of one-handed operation. Release the catch, the barrel and cylinder pivot forward ejecting the shells, and the barrel can safely be placed into the soldier’s belt for reloading. Withdraw the pistol in the open configuration, tap the underside of the barrel on a firm surface, or even a thigh or forearm, and the pistol is fully loaded and ready to fire, without ever violating good muzzle discipline (as the open configuration, even loaded, is impossible to fire). The Schofield revolver was excellent, but still had room for refinement, and perhaps later refinements of the break top revolver offer concepts for the new U.S. military side arm.

The catch that releases the barrel and cylinder to pivot forward on the Schofield revolver includes some improved features over earlier models, especially the hardened and replaceable contact surfaces where the greatest wear occurs, but could be easier to manipulate. Another venerable design offers an answer for the most modern military sidearm concept; the Webley revolver. The top break catch is operated with the firer’s thumb, and still is easily replaced if worn. While the original Webley catch is right handed, the design is amenable to adaptation for ambidextrous use.

Ruger SpeedSix

Like any revolver, a modern break-top would be adaptable for multiple calibers, especially if the basic design is chambered in .357 magnum (9x33mmR). With this, the pistol could fire .357 magnum, .38 Short Colt, .38 Long Colt, .38 special, and with minor modifications, NATO standard 9mm Parabellem (9x19mm). By engineering the revolver around the 9mm Parabellem chamber pressures (the highest of the aforementioned cartridges), and the length of the .357 magnum (the longest of these cartridges), a wide range of chamberings is possible. The break top is also suitable for use with half- or full-moon clips, allowing fast, easy reloading, and easy ammunition storage, transportation, and accountability.

An exciting possibility would be the integration of a “gas seal” system. In a gas seal system, as the hammer is cocked, the cylinder slides forward and engages the barrel, closing the cylinder gap. By closing the cylinder gap, all the force of the propellant is directed against the bullet in the barrel rather than being vented, wasted, and posing a minor safety hazard. This mechanism was pioneered in Belgium by Mr. Nagant in 1895, and his revolver design was widely fielded and remained in service until the first decade of the twenty first century, well over one hundred years of service.

Obviously, the best choice for a new U.S. military sidearm is a break top revolver for the twenty first century. ** The LeMat revolver, with its integrated shotgun barrel complementing nine rounds of conventional ball ammunition was popular in its day.

*Because nothing, and I mean NOTHING, puts the fear of God into someone more than idea of an armed staff officer running around a command post loaded for bear with PowerPoint slides.

**Actually, an under-barrel grenade launcher on a pistol has potential. Hypothetically, a 15 to 18 mm (roughly between 20 ga and 12 ga) using a mechanism like the Russian muzzle loading GP-25 grenade launcher could give a person armed with a give you a very nice… edge. With a range of ammunition including flares, buckshot, and HE, it could give a soldier like a pilot in a survival situation a weapon that would be appropriate to a wide range of tactical needs.


Edward M. Van Court, Lieutenant Colonel, Military Intelligence, United Stated Army Reserve, is currently working on his memoir “From Seaman Recruit to Lieutenant Colonel; How the *!#% Did That Happen?” He has taught from third grade to graduate level including Army SROTC and ILE, served on staffs from Battalion to JTF levels, and has lectured on the evolution of military technology. He misses being a crewman on Coast Guard helicopters.

The Pendulum

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