Throwback Thursday: The Top 5 Military Side Arms of All Time

By Dave Dolbee published on in Firearms

Recently, Cheaper Than Dirt!’s Shooter’s Log published an article of the Top 5 Combat Rifles, which stirred some lively debate. The slings and arrows were not the only thing hurled at yours truly for the choices, but when you have to boil the list down to only five, great guns are often relegated to honorable mention status. Nonetheless, I am a slow learner and greedily accepted the challenge to come up with the Top 5 Combat Side Arms. I also failed. It was just too tempting to talk about a few more so here is my Top 10 Sidearms list instead.

H&K USP

H&K USP

While putting the list together, it was easy to come up with several choices that would not cause anyone to turn up their nose and a few that would squeak by, but that did not fill the list. Nor did it account for the honorable mentions that surely will raise the ire of my peers for their noticeable absence. In first putting together the list and then narrowing it down, a number of factors influenced my decisions including design, battle performance, cartridge, performance, comparable technology of the day and reliability versus practicality. So judge it with a skeptical eye, remember the criteria, and do your worst!

Honorable Mentions

H&K USP

The reliability and accuracy of Heckler & Koch’s USP (Universale Selbstladepistole or “universal self-loading pistol”) earns it an honorable mention and a rightful spot on the list. I am a huge SIG fan and the only pistol I have ever heard of serious law enforcement switching away from SIG was to the USP. Beyond that anecdotal piece of information, the H&K USP shows a strong influence from the venerable 1911. The modified Browning-style action and recoil reduction system enhances accuracy and gets the shooter back on target faster than competitive designs.

The USP’s controls can easily switch to accommodate southpaws. The trigger converts from single action to double action to double-action-only, which gives H&K’s USP some serious versatility. Add it all up and you have a sidearm that features nine trigger firing modes, an oversized trigger guard for use with gloves and patented lockout safety device.

CZ 75

Picture shows a black, steel CZ 75 9mm pistol.

CZ 75

Balance, reliability, quality and versatility are common descriptors you’ll hear when discussing the CZ 75. If the staggered-column magazine does not provide the necessary firepower to get the job, nothing beats the CZ 75’s all-steel construction for pistol-whipping the enemy into submission. Versions of the CZ 75 are made by several different countries and companies, as well as being exported from the Czech Republic to a host of different countries. Even so, I have never heard of a bad version.

GLOCK 17

Because I do not favor the thought of donning tar and feathers and have a penchant for all of my Glocks, the GLOCK 17 ranks on the list although it may wear an asterisk. First coming into service in 1982, Gaston Glock took a play from H&K’s playbook and rocked the firearms market with dominant polymer construction. The media mainly fed the hype, but despite their worst efforts, Glock’s design proved its worth.

The U.S. military has never made Glock a standard issue; however, Glock is a favorite of law enforcement and makes up a huge share of the U.S. handgun market. Although some claim the GLOCK 17 has never seen acceptance by a major military force in combat, it has been issued to about a dozen or so military forces including:

Glock17 Gen 4

Glock17 Gen 4

  • Australian Royal Air Force
  • Austrian Armed Forces
  • Finland Defense Forces
  • French Army and Navy
  • Georgia Special Forces
  • Latvian military
  • Lebanese Army
  • Lithuanian Armed Forces
  • Malaysian Armed Forces
  • Military of Montenegro
  • Military of the Netherlands
  • Royal Norwegian Army
  • Polish military
  • Portuguese Marine Corps
  • Republican National Guard
  • Swedish Armed Forces

That is enough to qualify the G17 as a combat pistol although it diminishes its rank somewhat to some. Glock fans, have at it and tell me why I am wrong in the comment section, but remember the focus of the article. I think there is a lot of room for debate as to where this should rank.

Colt Single Action

Colt Bisley Model Single Action Army Revolver

Colt Bisley Model Single Action Army Revolver

Viewed under the optics of the day, the Colt Single Action was a revolution. Although it only saw action from 1873 to 1892, the Colt Single Action was available in over 30 different calibers and several barrel lengths. Today, it is still a highly sought after piece of history among collectors. The Colt’s overall appearance has remained consistent. Although production was halted more than once, demand brought it back time and again. When the military was not the push, lawmen and outlaws were. Perhaps not for sanctioned military conflict, but the Colt Single Action made history in multiple range wars and saloon shootouts.

C96 Mauser Broomhandle

I took a lot of heat for not putting the Mauser on my Top 5 Combat Rifle list, and well… perhaps that was deserved. Not wishing to make that mistake again was the impetus to push this list out to 10 including the honorable mentions. However, the C96 Mauser Broomhandle only ranks as an honorable mention. The C96 Mauser Broomhandle proved the viability of the semiautomatic pistol in both commercial and military use and that is no small feat, perhaps it should be in the Top 5 based on that alone. The C96 utilizes an integral box magazine located in front of the pistol’s trigger and likely inspired other modern rifle designs. Other notable features include the C96’s long barrel and wooden shoulder stock that also doubles as a holster. The namesake broom handle-shaped grip, clearly identifies the C96 as unique, but fortunately not too much of a trendsetter for aesthetics.

Mauser C96

Mauser C96

The C96 upped the ante with the 7.63 x 25mm cartridge. The cartridge’s potential could be utilized to the fullest when combined with the long barrel and shoulder stock. Together, these features offered a sidearm with superior range, accuracy and penetration potential. The C96 Mauser was produced from 1896 to 1937. It showed serious longevity by remaining in service from the late 1800s through the early 1960s. During its service life, the C96 was highly favored by British officers and used as a military sidearm in numerous conflicts around the globe and in over a dozen countries.

Top 5 Combat Side Arms

Luger 9mm

Luger P08

Luger P08

The Luger is an enigma to me, and given the opportunity I would leave it off the list altogether. On the other hand, it is so darned iconic and has more than earned its spot on this list. Besides, I cannot really come up with a single reason to not include it!

Although originally designed and introduced for use with the 7.65 x 21mm Parabellum cartridge, the Luger is most noted as being the pistol for introducing the 9 x 19mm Parabellum cartridge. That influence certainly cannot be overlooked or in any way diminished. The Luger 9mm is still highly prized and sought after by collectors who admire it for its design and its known accuracy. Although I started this by wanting to kick it off the list, I am struck with a deep yearning to own one the more I think about it. Perhaps the wife wouldn’t notice if one followed me home? Lugers were highly prized by GIs in WWI and WWII with many finding its way to our shores as war souvenirs. A fortunate few are still in circulation and can be owned for a reasonable price.

SIG P226

SIG M25 Navy Model Impressive Pistol

The SIG M25 Navy Model is an impressive pistol on every count.

Favored by every elite military or police unit around the world at one time or another, the SIG simply lives up to its “To Hell and Back” reputation. The simple fact of it earning the top spot with Navy SEALs is worthy of a place. The SIG 226 is another combat sidearm relying on John Browning’s concepts of a locked breech and short-recoil design. Notable on the P226 is its use of an integral safety that prevents the firing pin from striking the primer unless the trigger is fully engaged. The double action/single action offers a blend of safety, accuracy and quick engagement potential. Although the P226 is best know for a steady diet of 9mm, it is also available in .357 SIG, .40 S&W and .22 LR.

Beretta 92FS

Black Beretta 92FS, barrel pointed to the left, on a white background

The Beretta 92FS

Another offering utilizing the 9mm is the U.S. Army’s choice since the late 1980s, the Beretta 92FS. This 92FS features low recoil, an open slide design offering even feeding and discharge of bullets and best of all, it is easy and intuitive to use. The 92FS is not without its critics though. I have heard from more than one vet returning from the sandbox declaring that they would not give a plug nickel for it. While they may have their reasons, the 92FS bested the competition in Army trials and has stood the test of time for over 25 years. The 92FS can currently be found in models designed to shoot the 9 x 19mm Parabellum (92 Series), .40 S&W (96 series), 9 x 21mm IMI (98 series) and 7.65mm Luger (98 and 99 series).

Browning Hi Power

Browning 75th Anniversary Hi Power with brown grip on a white background

Browning Hi Power

John Browning and his inspired designs have been mentioned more than once in this article and we are not finished heaping our praises on him. The Browning Hi Power went into production in 1935, but manufacturing of this single-action, 9mm semi-automatic pistol continues to present day. It was also the first pistol I ever owned, so I feel a connection to the Hi Power. At the time, all I could afford was an Argentinian model, but once I scraped together a few more dollars, I upgraded to a Belgium model with adjustable sights.

The Browning Hi Power earns its place as one of the most widely used military pistols in history. Although Browning passed away before the pistol’s design was finalized, Browning’s groundwork produced one of the finest single-actions pistols the world has ever seen or likely will ever see. Almost eight decades later, the Browning Hi Power is still in use by several military units. In all, the Browning Hi Power has ridden the hips of over 50 countries’ military units.

Colt 1911 A1

Singer Mfg. Model 1911A1 Serial Number 1 Semiautomatic Pistol

Considered the “Holy Grail” of all Model 1911A1 pistols: the Singer Model 1911A1 Serial Number “1” pistol.

You made it this far, and who wouldn’t say the 1911 pistol deserves the top spot? Over a century of service and I would take the 1911 into combat today—and I wouldn’t be alone. In fact, take a look and do a little homework. I’ll bet you find there are more manufacturers of the 1911 today than at any other time in history.

The 1911 is the brainchild of none other than John Moses Browning. Given the list getting to the top spot and all of the influence Browning has had over other top sidearms would you have been surprised even if you hadn’t already known? The M1911 and its variants were used in the United States Army from 1911 through 1985. However, that paints an incomplete picture because I carried the 1911 while in the U.S. Navy through Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 1990s.

The 1911 saw combat in World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Desert Storm and numerous smaller conflicts. The Colt 1911 brought the introduction of the .45 ACP cartridge, which still remains a popular choice among competitive shooters and self-defense enthusiasts. Modern 1911s should have no problem shooting any of the premium self-defense rounds, but good ‘ol round nose ball ammunition has done the trick for over a century and is just as formidable today…

Given the longevity of and dominance of the 1911, Hi Power, C96 and Luger does not leave much room for others. These guns dominated all of the major conflicts of the last century, but do they tell the tale? What sidearms would you add to the list? Should the ranking be changed?

Share your thoughts of top combat side arms list in the comment section.

SLRule

Growing up in Pennsylvania’s game-rich Allegany region, Dave Dolbee was introduced to whitetail hunting at a young age. At age 19 he bought his first bow while serving in the U.S. Navy, and began bowhunting after returning from Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Dave was a sponsored Pro Staff Shooter for several top archery companies during the 1990s and an Olympic hopeful holding up to 16 archery records at one point. During Dave’s writing career, he has written for several smaller publications as well as many major content providers such as Guns & Ammo, Shooting Times, Outdoor Life, Petersen’s Hunting, Rifle Shooter, Petersen’s Bowhunting, Bowhunter, Game & Fish magazines, Handguns, F.O.P Fraternal Order of Police, Archery Business, SHOT Business, OutdoorRoadmap.com, TheGearExpert.com and others. Dave is currently a staff writer for Cheaper Than Dirt!

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Comments (119)

  • Secundius

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    I thing the reason the Glock isn’t mentioned, Is because only one army in the world, uses it as their standard side-arm, the Austrian Army. It’s a State-owned, controled company and it simplifies logistics to its Army, NO MIDDLE-MAN.

    Reply

  • bill

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    I would not dispute the long range advantage of the .30 Mauser over the .45 ACP, but I view a pistol as a short range weapon. I have an artillery Luger with a similar stock, and it would not comfort me in anything but close range combat.

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ bill.

      The “Broom-Handle” Mauser was the first mass produced military automatic of the times. It was “State of the Art”. Going in a NEW direction and leaving the OLD behind. It was probably the same way when the first cap & ball revolver made its debut in a ocean of single-shot flint-lock pistols.

      Reply

    • bill

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      I would not disagree with you in a historical sense. I am responding to the OP in the sense of what would I want in combat today.

      If I were to get historical, I would also add the early 1850s S&W .22 short rimfire revolver that used the Rollin White patent. This broke new ground, introducing the bored-through revolver cylinder, making revolvers quickly and easily reloadable, I would say that the first bored-through revolver was as important as the first military semi auto, the Mauser.

      Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ bill.

      I wholeheartedly agree with you. But, like the first cap & ball paper-cartridge revolver, had one thing in common with the muzzle-loading flint-lock pistol. When WET, both could be used as a club, because their black-powder ammunition were total useless.

      Reply

    • bill

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      Yes, and that little S&W .22 short wasn’t much of a stopper, wet or dry, and wasn’t much of a club either. But the bored-through cylinder led the way to the SAA and all the other revolvers that followed. I guess I would value the little S&W more as a design breakthrough than a pistol I would want to carry in combat. Speaking of small sidearms, it is interesting to note that both US and German general officers often carried .32 autos.

      Reply

  • scott w

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    Colt M1917 45 ACP

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ scott w.

      Why, not. You evolved from a hand-loaded ball & paper system, which usually didn’t function in damp weather. To a reliable bullet & sealed metal cartridge, which still fired when it rained.

      Reply

    • Force Recon Marine

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      @Scott There is a reason that the Colt M1917 45 ACP isn’t a “combat side arm” The semi rimmed cartridge does not function in a revolver the “half moon extractor is highly unreliable

      Reply

  • Mark Ray

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    I would exclude the Luger in favor of the Walther P38. The Luger was all for show and very temperamental. The P38 was the workhorse that was trusted on the battlefield…and everywhere else for that matter. I own a WWII surplus P38 that outshoots many of the “good” guns made today. With that said, I wouldn’t mind having the Luger in the gun safe for show and tell.

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Mark Ray.

      If your government were awarding medals, and your only two choices were the Medal of Honor (P08) and the Soldiers Medal (P38), which would you take?

      Reply

  • Secundius

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    “Fruit Basket vs. Supermarket”???

    Your missing the point!!! All theses weapons filled a NICHE at the time when introduced during wartime. Your comparing Civil War era weaponry with the latest 21st century-era small arms weaponry, WHY. During WW2, Nazi Germany had only 4-types of small arms calibers, too worry about. The 9x17mmKurz (Short)/Parabellum, the 9x19mm/Parabellum, the 7.92x33mmKruz/Mauser and the 7.92x57Mauser. The United States, during WW2. Hundreds, if not thousands of calibers-types, too worry about. Because we were not only supping our own Armed Forces, but all the other Allied Armed Forces as well. Form a Quartermasters point of view, at the very least “A Logistics Nightmare” to “A SHIT STORM”. Your evolving from a NON-Standard caliber, used by different nations. To a TRULY standardized caliber, that the world uses. IT’S ABOUT STANDARDIZATION.

    Reply

    • William Satmary

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      Where’s the P-38? Wasn’t that the most popular sidearm of the Nazis? Or the PPK, Hitler’s personal sidearm?

      Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ William Satmary.

      Out of the two, the Parabellum-Pistole P38 was and still is the most reliable of the two. I think the reason why German and Allied alike gravitated to the Parabellum-Pistole P08 or Luger, was because it wasn’t mass produced like the P38 was. Its like comparing the Duesenberg with the Ford Model T. While the former (P08) were produce by the Hundreds/Year, the later (P38) were produced by the Thousands/Month. If you were a common infantry man of WW2, which gun would you prize more than the other? While the P38 was a standardized hand gun, the P08 Luger was a SYMBOL, IN STATU QUO (“In the status in which”, all others are judged.)

      Reply

  • SigFan

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    I’m sure I’ll get skewered over this from Glock fans, but, the truth hurts: Glock screwed up with the Gen4 changes when they redesigned the spring that was so bad(jamming) they offered to refit the first Gen4 models.

    I know ’cause I had a Glock 17 Gen4.

    The fact that Glock didn’t catch this flaw in their development, test and QA process is embarassing.

    Reply

  • DarthVaderMentor

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    When war starts, my go to sidearm is my Sig 9MM P226 or my .40S\&W P229. No doubt about it. I may love my little 380ACP Glock 42 and Walther PPK as concealed carry, but when the shooting is intense and all pretenses are over it’s a Ferrari I want to shoot with and that’s my Sigs.

    Reply

    • Force Recon Marine

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      @DarthVaderMentor

      I must ask you Why if you want to rely on your Sig 9MM P226 or .40S\&W P229 do you have those other firearms as a concealed carry option. I ONLY carry that which I would in a combat situation. When your LIFE depends on what you carry it only makes sense you carry what you would in combat which in effect you are preparing for combat. You only have one chance at survival and that chance is dependent on your equipment and your ability to effectively employs said equipment

      Reply

  • "Q"

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    Already drifting from the subject material?

    Reply

  • bill

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    Never owned a Mauser, but have shot a few. Poor grip, poor balance, bulky and the .30 Mauser cartridge is not in the same league as the Parabellum, .45 ACP etc

    Reply

    • DonM

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      One can trade off velocity and bullet mass. The .45 ACP uses a heavy slow round, the 7.63×25 bullet (aka .30 Mauser) uses a lighter faster bullet. Both will do the job given proper placement. the .30 Mauser is better for longer range, but the Broomhandle Mauser was reengineered in China to take .45 ACP because the US provided lots of .45ACP to the Chinese.

      Reply

  • bill

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    Despite owning and loving several, I would exclude the Luger from a military listing on account of its low tolerance for dirt, and the need for fussy field stripping to keep it clean and lubed..

    Reply

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