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!

View all articles by Dave Dolbee

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Trackback from your site.

The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, "The Shooter's Log," is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (115)

  • Helen

    |

    If you like the Century Arms, then you will love the Walther fm which it was copied. The Canik TP9SA has one advantage — more rounds than the P99. I love my P99 — changed the backstrap to the smallest one to fit my hand. It’s one fine handgun and yes, accurate. As my brother says, “IT’s got those three magic words on it, ‘Made in Germany.'”

    Reply

  • RavenRet2000

    |

    Did anyone even think to mention the venerable Walther P-38? Why do you think the German Army developed a new pistol after Only 30 Years (P-08)? One of the finest and still to this day well used self protection pieces ever made! I certainly understand the 1911 being #1, but can’t imagine the P-38 not even making the list. Oversight? Absolutely unforgiveable!

    Reply

  • wolf ryet

    |

    Like your firearms articles and common sense and usable advise. Since your an expert in archery how about some articles there for the preppers. Some common sense there for us who have never used one would be interesting and definitely informative, like long bow vs compound vs crossbow.

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

      |

      I can certainly do that. Give me a few weeks to get it into the schedule. ~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

  • DarthVaderMentor

    |

    You match the ordnance to the mission, the circumstances and the restrictions. I’d love to carry my P226 and P229 everywhere, but it’s tough concealing it when I’m a small frame guy and I’ just wearing shorts, especially when carrying concealed while visiting a nearby CCW restricted state.

    BTW, my son was an 0317, then 2112 now a 2102 as he “matures” in his career.

    Reply

  • Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

    |

    The Broomhandle does not have “aesthetics?” Are you out of your freakin’ mind? How many other pistols were the inspiration for a “Star Wars” movie prop? The Broomhandle defines handgunning’s “Cool Factor.” Certainly much more so than do the Glocks, Berettas and even the 1911s.

    Reply

    • Secundius

      |

      @ Jeffrey L. Frischkorn.

      I suspect the “Broomhandle” design was used to RUSH the Product through Production and was the Easiest to Produce in Huge Numbers. Any FOOL can operate a BROOM…

      Reply

  • Joe M.

    |

    History and popularity are usual basis for selecting favorites. It’s what feels good in your own hands, called the grip. Browning’s Hi Power felt like a square hockey stick in my grip and the Beretta 92FS grip was too large for my large hands (Taurus copy same thing). A 1911 seems to fit most everyone, mine too. Carried one as a survival weapon on helicopter search & rescue missions in the interior of Alaska as a medic in the USAF. No Geneva Convention among brown and black bears, moose and wolves there. I like the feel of the Sig’s in 40 cal, but there is no safety like the 9mm S&W when you can drop the mag and render it useless in need be. Did you even know anyone that could buy a S&W Model 19 Combat Masterpiece, 38Spec, new for $86? One of my Flight Surgeon’s (hunter) gave me the cardinal rule. Shoot accurately and comfortably and that’s your rifle. Don’t be afraid to shoot a pistol with your weak hand. It will surprise you for accuracy as it has no bad habits yet.

    Reply

    • Grant

      |

      Magazine disconnect safeties are stupid. The sig 226 is all around the best gun on the list. The cz75 is second and its history deserves more than honorable mention. I understand the luger, but while an interesting gun, they weren’t reliable. Because this is America, a 1911 is a matter of course, but other than the trigger, everything else about a 1911 is far surpassed by a lot of other guns. Broomhandle (c96) guns are just plain cool. The Hi power is awesome, but the French screwed the design by demanding a magazine disconnect safety.

      Reply

    • paul bass

      |

      bought my model 19 from Goodmans Guns for $79 back in 1961 as a rookie st. louis cop. gave it to my grandson this year. Al Goodman loved the cops, and gave us great prices, and back then we were exempt from excise taxes

      Reply

    • Joe M.

      |

      Paul I bought mine about 10 years later and looks like the price only went up $7 for about the same reason. I’d say we made great deals back then.

      If your semi-auto gets taken away from you in a fierce fight you’ll be glad your S&W had that magazine safety Grant, especially when you are working Airport Security.and they try to beat you up with that alloy frame and 1live round in the chamber Grant. All depends an what and where you pack your piece. They use to make fun of the S&W for having more moving parts, compared to the Sigs. A reliability issue I gathered. I never had a problem with my 15 shot 9mm…don’t expect to either.

      Reply

  • Hide Behind

    |

    In my opinion the 9mm liver is the most influential combat sidearm.
    For not only did it wake up American GIs of WWI to what quality in a pistol was all about , but it introduced world the practicality of a hard hitting round with excellent accuracy and low cost and better yet low recoil and controllability in stressful combat situations.
    Of course I am just a dumb woods hick, who knows that opinions are not worth a plug nickle.

    Reply

  • ZKStout

    |

    Hard to believe the 1917 revolvers weren’t included, especially since they were used from WWI all the way to the Vietnam war.

    Reply

  • 70's operator

    |

    Ok. This may ruffle some feathers, but after a year of firing this weapon and roughly 2500 or so rounds thru it flawlessly, I have to nominate the Canik TP9SA. I know its history is shorter than most, and I’m relatively sure its “kill” rate is lower, but a finer weapon, I have never shot. Yeah, its got a polymer frame, and sure its only 9mm (18+1), but its so accurate. Every time I’m at a range, consistently putting rounds on target, someone will ask about it.
    At my bro-in-laws range, there were pistols of various makes and calibers. I seemed to be the only one putting lead on target. Of course, with my military training I figured that they just sucked with handguns. Then came that time of day when we all start shooting other peoples weapons. Quite literally, without exception, every shooter put rounds on paper. This includes 1911 shooters, Glock shooters, everyone. And my Canik cost $300. Needless to say, the next time at his range, three other TP9’s were there. All gobbling down whatever you put thru them, with outstanding accuracy.
    Its my EDC, although a tad large it conceals well. Ohio being an open carry state, I often strap it on just to field the questions.
    Please, if you’ve never handled, or fired one, give it a shot (LOL) pun intended. I’m guessing it’ll be on your list in the future, or better yet, in your hand.
    Thanks for your time.

    Reply

    • Grant

      |

      The canik is a knockoff of a Walther 99. The sa model is a neutered version. The v2 has the cool features of a da/sa striker gun with a decocker. The design is one of a kind. Smith and Wesson and magnum research also made these guns but under contract with walther. They are a bit more expensive, but are almost certainly better guns with a better warranty the the canik. The canik has the edge because it is a bigger gun with a slightly higher capacity. Not a bad purchase. On my list of firearms to buy. But is probably go magnum research for my money. They are cheaper than the Walther and a very reputable company.

      Reply

  • Jim G

    |

    The S&W .38Sp M&P. revolver should at least get an honorable mention. It was used by a lot of military and police forces down through the years and is still a viable alternative for self defense

    Reply

Leave a comment

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

%d bloggers like this: