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 (116)

  • Epk49

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    Walther P-38 not even mentions? That’s a big miss!

    Reply

  • M Van Meter

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    I have several handguns, from .22 caliber, 9 mm, .40 caliber, and 1911 .45 ACP. Although I could probably stop several attackers with any of the above, if I had to go into a fight, I’ll take my 1911 in 45 ACP FMJ with a high-capacity magazine any day of the week.

    Reply

  • Chris in Arkansas

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    No disrespect, but there is simply no way Glock should be “begrudgingly” added to this list. I don’t understand the need to quasi-apologize for its inclusion. 25 years of empirical data are in. Used successfully by more police, militaries and civilians than any handgun on the list, the G17 could arguably be placed even higher. It’s the combat handgun that revitalized the world market. Certainly, it’s inclusion is as well earned, and likely more so, than the P226 (and I even carry a P228, so I’m a fan) and CZ-75, which after 25 years on ranges all over the US, I have yet to even see appear in a single holster. To be blunt, we are well past this with Glocks. The G17 has unquestionably earned its place and I see no need to offer tepid apologies for it. Frankly, after a quarter century of excellent service, I question the intelligence of people who doubt its viability.

    Reply

    • Grant

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      You have not seen enough if you haven’t seen the cz75 in a holster. Heck, look at mine. It always has a cz52 or a cz75 in it. And I own a glock and a sig 226. Also, they were not commonly fielded in the us except by civilians. But they DOMINATED the European theater and their service history rivals any other gun on this list.

      Reply

  • Bill in Oregon

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    Me, I was hoping to see mention of the DA break-top Webley in .455.

    Reply

    • roger3107

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      I agree

      Reply

  • Harlan Flim

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    I’ve got a Sccyfor about 9 10 months now and the CPX2 nice for a concealed weapon lightweight and so for it’s been a great weaponit comes with two magazines which is nice thank you

    Reply

  • David L Eckert

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    One of the top 5’s should be the Walker Colt. It was a revolutionary sidearm which was designed for use in the Mexican American war of 1847. It was, however, purchased by individuals and individual units and not provided by the government, a common practice at the time. My understanding is that it was the most powerful handgun in the world for about 110 years, until the introduction of the .44 Mag.

    Reply

  • Carter

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    This seems like a good place to post a catastrophic failure I never expected….in a practically new sig mk25 (226). Pistol had about 1000 rounds trough it, all brass case and new production. Always kept clean after training.
    Not long ago, the owner took it out at the range, fired one round, and suffered a broken extractor that, along with its spring, went flying out of the gun. This rendered it useless and would have probably gotten the owner killed in a defensive situation if that first round fired didnt stop the fight. The tap rack bang procedure would have accomplished nothing. The extractor assembly was never messed with before this incident, so what cause it is a huge mystery….but I suspect poor quality metal in the extractor causing the break.
    I always believed in Sigs reputation before, but now, not so much….

    Reply

    • Nate

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      Had the same thing happen on the range with a duty 226. Emailed the rep and asked about it. I never received a response, just got a new extractor in the mail from him a few days later…

      Also had a take down lever where the lever just spins and doesn’t turn the barrel piece. They replaced it fast but the confidence is already gone.

      Reply

    • Grant

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      My sig 226 was produced just after they switched to milled slides it is a .40cal. It has had 3 other owners that I personally know. And was bought used before that, it has seen many thousands of rounds in my hands alone. Almost everyone I know carries a 226 or 229. They are all flawless. Their reliability history is only rivaled by glock. Sorry you guys had problems, any gun design will have a few stories of catastrophic failure, but the sigs especially the series based on the p226, are overall the best guns to trust your life to. Not saying there aren’t other good guns out there.

      Reply

  • Gunner74

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    I enjoyed the articles on the best military rifles and side arms very much and can’t really argue with any of the assessments findings. Having carried more than one of these weapons in harms way none of them have ever let me down. Were I given the choice, I would be truly confident in any situation carrying a 1911 into combat. In certain circumstances I would also feel very comefortable carrying a couple of S&W revolvers that aren’t on the list; noteably a 4″ .357 Magnum S&W 586 or my current favorite, the 4″, S&W 329PD in .44 Magnum. As for rifles an M16 can’t be beat in most cases but if I had to carry only one rifle for all occasions it would be a bulpup conversion of an M14 which is the perfect weapon for urbanb combat or long range engagements in any theatre of operation.

    Reply

  • Sharky

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    The only reason the Glock wasn’t considered as the sidearm for the US Military was because one of the conditions is for the gun to be manufactured in the US and Glock wouldn’t release the patents.

    The Sig beat the Beretta during trials, but the Beretta was cheaper.

    Reply

  • Daryl

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    Missing from the story is the fact that Sig was just a bit late to get a test subject for the military and may very well have been the winner in the search for a replacement to the 1911 had they got one to them before the deadline. Oh the Navy SEALs carry Sig P226 to this day! Grat article!

    Reply

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