The M1917 represents the perfection of the American double-action revolver as a military weapon. While the day of the revolver was done, as it could not match the Model 1911’s firepower or ability to continue functioning once sand had gotten into the mechanism, there was an insufficient number of those automatics to equip the vast new army being raised for World War I.
Army Ordnance did not want to deal with two different cartridges in the logistics system, so any revolvers chosen as a substitute standard would have to fire the rimless .45 ACP cartridge.
Smith & Wesson patented a half moon clip enabling the rimless .45 ACP cartridges to be snapped into a spring steel retainer.
Their dreams of monopoly were quashed when the Army ordered them to make the half moon clips available to Colt for free. Both the Colt New Service M1917 and S&W New Century .45 revolvers could now be used with the .45 automatic’s round by the simple expedient of machining off the rear of the revolver’s cylinder enough to make room for the half-moon clip loaded with ammo.
Revolvers that have the cylinder chambered for the .45 ACP can also be single loaded but there is nothing for the extractor to grab onto, so the cartridges must be picked out with the fingernails or punched out with a stick if they don’t fall out with gravity when time comes for reloading. Since the half-moon clips adopted by the Army and the later commercial fullmoon clips constitute speed loaders, in addition to providing a surface for the revolver’s star extractor to work on, the revolver can now be loaded at the maximum possible speed.
Since both Colt and S&W guns were suitable and available and speed of procurement was the driving force, both companies got contracts. The issue of which was better was settled back in 1907 when the Report of Board on Tests of Revolvers and Automatic Pistols was submitted by Army Ordnance. Both Colt and S&W .45 Colt caliber revolvers were tested, and the report states:
The board prefers the Colt for the following reasons:
• Less shock to the user, due to the broader and more rounded shoulder against which the hand rests.
• The better shape and size of the grip and trigger guard.
• The greater simplicity and fewer parts.
• The present familiarity of the troops with the Colt revolver.
The difference between the Colt and its simpler and more robust parts and the S&W with its many small parts was also apparent in the time taken for a factory representative to disassemble
and reassemble their respective guns.
The Colt took 3 minutes and 50 seconds to dismount and 6 minutes and 25 seconds to assemble.
The S&W took 4 minutes and 15 seconds to dismount and 8 minutes and 20 seconds to assemble.
The Colt has the thick barrel of the Single Action Army while the S&W has the thin barrel like their top break revolvers. I don’t know why no one has ever pointed this out before.
It should be noted that the old problem of a revolver’s screws backing out during firing and tying up the gun appeared again in these tests. If you are planning on doing much shooting with a revolver, you had better have screwdrivers fitted to its screws.
You’re going to need them. When the M1911 was adopted, Ordnance made sure that the only screws in the gun were the grip screws and that the gun could be fired without the grips. When you see an old revolver with the screw heads buggered up, it does not necessarily mean that the gun has been taken apart or tinkered with.
More than likely the screws were just tightened with ill fitting screwdrivers over the years.
THE END RESULT was that the Colt New Service was adopted as the M1909 for immediate issue in the Philippines to deal with the fanatical Moro jihadists pending the further development of the automatic pistol, which ultimately resulted in the perfect combat pistol, the M1911. About 20,000 were made for the U.S. Army and Navy and an additional 2,000 for the U.S. Marines.
The Marine version differed in having rounded grips with checkering instead of smooth wood.
The M1909 was chambered for the .45 Colt cartridge, but cartridges made for it had a wider .530-inch rim for more positive extraction than the original .45 Colt’s .500-inch rim diameter. The M1909 cartridge was loaded with a round nosed 230-grain bullet at 1,150 feet per second. The full metal jacket version of this bullet was later used in the .45 ACP round. For the M1909 revolver, I would have preferred a 255-grain bullet at a slightly lower velocity without the sonic crack added to the gun’s report that you get with bullets at 1,150 fps and faster.
When using the M1909 cartridges in the Colt Single Actions still in service, you had to load every other chamber as the wider rims prevented loading each in turn. So both types of .45 Colt ammo were issued in the Philippines.
Shortly after this, the rim diameter of the commercial .45 Colt ammo was standardized at .512 inch, the largest size that would work in the Colt Single Action Army.
The lack of rim size was the reason that you could not get repeating rifles made in .45 Colt in the 19th Century, despite public demand.
I have always been impressed with the bigger and simpler massive Colt lock work.
The forward curve of the Colt New Service grip is taken from their famous Single Action Army revolver and this has always pointed better for me than any other revolver grip. That translates into faster and easier hitting, two things of paramount importance when fighting for your life with a pistol. The Colt New Service has always been my favorite double-action revolver.
The proper grip for the Colt New Service and the S&W New Century is important. The thumb should rest in a curve cradling the top of the grip, not over the grip.
Both guns went into service in WWI and continued in service into WWII.
They were popular with people used to revolvers and were of invaluable service with the MPs. A double-action revolver is the safest weapon that you can issue for police to hold on a prisoner without accidentally shooting him. That long double-action trigger pull is the least likely to go off by accident with a scared or nervous officer behind it.
A total of 318,432 M1917s were made, consisting of 151,700 Colt New Service revolvers and 166,732 S&W New Century revolvers. These were big guns; the Colt weighed 2½ pounds and the S&W was slightly lighter at 21/4 pounds. Both guns had 5½-inch barrels and were 10.8 inches overall. That size and weight made them easy and pleasant to shoot and it also enabled real rapidfire double-action shooting to be placed accurately on target.
BETWEEN THE WARS, a number of guns were rebuilt by Army Ordnance and reissued. These rebuilt guns were parkerized over their original bluing and had plastic grips replace the original wooden ones. Of the two test guns, the S&W is in original WWI condition and the Colt was rebuilt before reissuing in WWII. The Colt originally had the trigger drag on the return until I had a crack Army Ordnance man fix that. It turned out the lock parts were dragging on the side plate and this was stoned away at the points of contact.
Not every rebuilt gun was rebuilt perfectly, then or now. The guns were issued with a flap holster, which can be had today from El Paso Saddlery and also Pacific Canvas and Leather Co. The latter also makes the military web pouches for carrying the half-moon clips and the G.I. web belt to carry them on. To do a fast draw from a military flap holster, flip the flap up with the back of your thumb and beginning with the little finger, wrap your fingers around the grip as you draw.
The use of the tiedown is important here. As the leather boot laces used as tie-downs rot and break quickly, I substitute old nylon paratrooper boot laces and just wrap them a couple of times around my leg to take up the extra length.
El Paso Saddlery also makes their “Tortilla” pancake holster for these guns.
I have worn pancake holsters since Roy Baker first brought them out in the early 1970s and nothing is faster, more comfortable, or more concealable.
Most importantly, the Tortilla is not one of those tightly molded holsters boasting gun retention if someone tries to snatch your gun.
These holsters can get you killed in a gunfight where you are most likely to make a sloppy draw and have the gun stick in the holster.
I HAD 2,130 rounds to test fire in both Colt and S&W M1917 revolvers consisting of:
Both guns were able to keep all shots inside 2 inches at 25 yards with all the ammo tested, but it was a little easier for me with the Colt.
Once a bullet stabilizes it ceases to expand the circle it is hitting in as much, so you cannot use a 25-yard group and keep doubling it as range increases to judge accuracy.
You have to see what it is grouping at at different ranges.
In a recent shoot, an Inland Manufacturing Co. M1911 .45 ACP gave the same size and even smaller groups at 300 yards than those fired at 250 yards.
We got 2- to 3-inch groups at 50 yards with that gun with the best ammo giving 1½-inch groups. At 300 yards we got 15-inch groups, which is well inside the 18-inch circle the Army considers a hit on a human torso shot. Just goes to show what you can do with a .45 ACP pistol at long range.
AT ONE POINT a sliver of metal broke off a case mouth and lodged between the extractor and the cylinder, preventing the loading of that cylinder until it was removed. I seem to be the only gun writer to ever report revolver jams, although they all talk of automatics jamming. I have had far more jams and malfunctions with revolvers over the years than with automatics. Revolvers don’t tolerate sand in the mechanism and they always seem to have a screw loose, preventing the gun from working.
As they wear they may hit a primer with insufficient force at odd times, while the trigger pull may vary from normal to impossibly hard and back again. I have had cylinders lock up and also repeatedly experienced a revolver that worked perfectly when dry fired, but did all of the above and more when loaded and fired for real.
None of this occurs with automatics and that’s one more reason the Army adopted the .45 automatic instead of staying with revolvers. I love my revolvers but any man telling you that revolvers are more reliable than automatics is just parroting an old lie.
The use of modern tools like the Moon Clip Stripper Tool from Brownells Gunsmith Supplies for loading and unloading the half- and full-moon clips was a blessing. Doing it without them is sure hard on the fingers, particularly if you have a lot to do, as I had.
The difficulty of loading and unloading these clips led to the introduction of the .45 Auto Rim cartridge by Peters Ammunition Co. in 1920.
With an extra thick rim to take up the extra space at the back of the cylinder designed to be occupied by ammo in half-moon clips, the M1917s could now be loaded like a conventional revolver. This was very popular with civilian shooters. Of course you can always use the rimless .45 ACP without the half-moon clips and pick the empty cases out with your fingernails or push them out with a pencil. While too slow for combat use, it is less trouble to do it this way when practicing than fooling with the half or full-moon clips.
A footlong 3/8-inch dowel works best. Slightly round the corners of the end you are not punching out cases with, in case you have to ever hit it with the heel of your hand to drive a stubborn case out.
After firing was completed I had a mix of powder, plastic, lead and copper fouling in the bores. I removed the powder and plastic fouling with Shooter’s Choice bore cleaner and then used their lead remover and their copper remover to complete the job. The guns were then lubed with their FP-10 Lubricant.
AS A SERVICE revolver, the Colt and the S&W are both top-notch. The 230-grain
FMJ .45 ACP will kill anything in this hemisphere easily but I warn you against expanding bullets with bear and moose, for which you need all the penetration that you can get. You already have a big enough hole.
The vaunted .44 magnum drops down below the .45 ACP’s velocity after 50 to 75 yards because of the poor aerodynamic shape of pistol bullets and the fact that wind resistance goes up exponentially with velocity. For long-range shooting, the .45 ACP has the edge over the magnums. The .45 also has a larger .451-inch diameter than the .429-inch diameter of the .44 cartridges. The .44s are really barely .43 caliber.
Size does matter and the Thompson-LaGarde Report that preceded the adoption of the .45 ACP round stated that nothing less than a .45-caliber bullet at 800 fps could be depended upon to stop a man with a hit in the vitals.
Since American soldiers were faced with kris and bolo knife-armed jihadists in the Philippines that had to be stopped at close range, this was an urgent priority.
The Thompson-LaGarde Report has proven true over the last 100 years.
The M1917 has virtually no felt recoil and rapid double-action fire is easily accomplished. As a home defense gun it is tops. Any member of the family can shoot it effectively, though children and some women may need to use a two-handed grip.
It is always ready with no safety to remember. Just pick it up, point, and pull the trigger. It doesn’t get any simpler or more foolproof than that. While some people think they want a lesser caliber, they will wish they had a .45 the first time they go up against an over sized drugged-up home invader or a Rottweiller attacking the kids outside.
The double-action trigger pull is the least likely to have an accidental discharge in a nervous homeowner’s hands and the across-the-room ranges you have inside a house are well within anyone’s ability to fire a double-action revolver with sufficient accuracy to get the job done.
As a man-stopper, the 230-grain FMJ .45 ACP has been tried since 1911 against the toughest and most fanatical adversaries on Earth and not been found wanting. Since the enemy will try to take cover in a gunfight, having a FMJ bullet that will penetrate that cover instead of dumping all its energy expanding is a life or death matter. Most shoot-outs are not Hollywood-style affairs where two parties duel it out on the center of Main Street according to some fictitious “code of the West.”
Some folks complain about the small sights on the M1917 revolvers. They are small because traditionally a revolver is pointed and fired. The sights are just there to help you see where the revolver is pointing on the range. All serious work is done by point shooting, also known as instinct shooting.
You will find that in most gunfights there is neither time nor sufficient light to use the sights, plus you can hit far more accurately by mastering point shooting.
It is by far the best way to hit firing double-action, and double-action shooting is the M1917 revolver’s reason for being.
These guns can be shot single-action but their small hammers are not really designed for manual cocking as their normal use. It is all too easy for the thumb to slip off the tiny hammer during cocking and they lack the safety notches of the Colt Single Action Army to prevent the hammer falling on the primer when the hammer falls without the trigger being pulled.
Again, I don’t know why no one has ever pointed this out to their readers.
To learn to point shoot you should follow strict form if you want to master this discipline. Begin by setting a row of matchsticks or empty .22 cases as far away as you can easily see them.
Place them far enough apart that one shot will not dislodge the adjacent target. Now assume the classic duelist stance with your body sideways to the target.
Fully extend the arm with the wrist and elbow locked straight. Lay your chin against your shoulder and look hard at the target, ignoring the gun and everything else.
Fire at each target in turn. If you miss one, go on to the next one or you will just miss again in the same place. Instinct shooting is also the best way to master accurate double-action firing. You will find that you can hit targets that you cannot hit with sights.
You are shooting with only one hand, which is much faster than trying to move two hands about.
You don’t want to rush in a gunfight but you don’t want inherently slow movements either. Economy of smooth movement is critical.
THE S&W M1917 remained in production at S&W, and in 1937 Brazil bought 25,000 for their military. In 1950 it was re-designated the M1950 Army revolver and a target version came out in 1955 called the M1955 Target revolver.
The Colt New Service did not fare so well. Despite continued sales and public demand, Colt moved the tooling for the New Service revolver outside to make room for WWII contract machinery and left it there to rust out. No new tooling was made so this ended production of the New Service, Colt’s finest double-action revolver.
After the war they discontinued their Colt Single Action Army and their .25, .32, and .380 automatics, as Colt ignored the civilian market to focus on military orders. This attitude still exists there and may be the reason Colt had to file for bankruptcy protection while S&W just grows bigger and bigger. Later they brought back the SAA after everyone else was making copies of it, but not the New Service.
You will find that today, over 100 years since they were first adopted as substitute standard, the M1917 revolvers can still perfectly serve all your double action revolver needs. Now that’s called standing the test of time!
Here’s another perspective from Youtuber TFB.
Story and Photos by Jim Dickson