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

Mauser C96

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 things 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.


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


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.


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 the top combat side arms list in the comment section.

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Comments (120)

  1. PLEASE stop saying “not” in front of everything because you won’t bother to use words. You said, “not putting the Mauser on my Top 5 Combat Rifle list”. That’s baby-talk.
    I do know how to use the words you need…and that YOUR READERS need.. but I’m not going to spoon-feed them to you. Please do think, then edit your errors out, and you’ll find that people will take you much more seriously.

    It’s not “side arm”. It’s “sidearm”. Period. No, there is no alternative spelling, there’s just a bunch of people who can’t spell. I’ve been reading baseball literature and firearms literature since the 1960s, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen anyond fail to spell the word.
    Look at the for-instance search results in the url internet address at the top of this comment. Even when you give the net the opportunity to provide the wrong spelilng, with two words, it doesn’t.
    Yeah, I do know that Wikipedia offers two versions. Well, some Wikipedia articles are very good, but some Wikipedia articles are written by Joe Schmoes who are sitting around unshaven and in their bathrobes from their Mom’s basements. It’s “sidearm”. Period.

  3. I am surprised the Webley revolver did not make the cut. It certainly has the history and the combat experience to put it on par with the Hi-Power, and well above the Beretta or Sig. The Webley may not be the reason that the sun never set on the British empire, but it was there, nonetheless.

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