A Short History of the Official U.S. Army Semi-Automatic Sidearms

July 4, 2019

Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher produced the first semi-automatic rifle in 1885 that was eventually adopted by the Austrian-Hungarian Army. Since then, most armies throughout the world have a semi-auto weapon as the primary service gun. Gun shops often advertise semi-automatic rifles for sale to civilians.

The U.S. Army’s first adaptation of a semi-automatic weapon was a handgun, the .45 caliber Model 1911A.

Eventually, the U.S. Army joined other nations, just before World War II, and introduced a semi-auto rifle as the standard service weapon for infantry troops.

It took the U.S. Military 75 years to replace the first semi-automatic pistol in its inventory.

The military has only approved three semi-automatic weapons as standard-issue sidearms for military personnel.

The U.S. Army’s First Semi-Automatic Handgun

The origin of the adaptation of the military’s first semi-automatic pistol dates back to the Philippine-American War from 1899-1902. The Army’s sidearm at the time, the .38 caliber Colt Model 1873, did not have enough stopping power. Moro warriors used opium to enhance their ability to withstand pain. When shot, Moro warriors would merely tie off the wound to stop the bleeding and keep attacking.

In response, the Army began issuing Colt Model 1873 .45 caliber guns. The .45 caliber pistols made the difference: One shot from a .45 would usually either kill the enemy combatant or create a severe enough wound to put him out of action immediately.

After the war, the U.S. Army began evaluating newer, modern weapons that used .45 caliber rounds.

In 1911, one of the many successful guns designed by John Browning, the Colt M1911 single-action pistol, became the first semi-automatic sidearm formally adopted by the U.S. Army.

Although no longer the standard weapon issued to soldiers, some select units still use the M1911A1s.

The Beretta M9

beretta gun

The U.S. Army did not replace the M1911A1 until 1985.

In the late 1970s, the military decided it needed a gun that could chamber the NATO-standard 9mm Parabellum.

Most of the major gun manufacturers, American and European, competed for the contract: Smith & Wesson, SIG Sauer, Beretta, Steyr, Walther, Fabrique Nationale, and Heckler & Koch.

After a rigorous competition among several semi-automatic manufacturers, the Army evaluators chose the single or double action Beretta 92S-1.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, many soldiers reported problems with the M9. The magazines could not tolerate the sand and heat and caused the gun to fail.


The U.S. military decided in 2015 that modern warfare required a modular, high-tech sidearm that would be more useful on today’s battlefield.

Army procurement again sent out requests for proposals (RFPs) to the top handgun manufacturers. The RFP had very detailed requirements concerning the size, interchangeability of parts, and more.

After several trials, the military selected five weapons as finalists: the CZ P-09, Glock 17, Glock 22, SIG Sauer P320, FN Five-Seven, and the Beretta APX.

At the 2017 SHOT Show, the U.S. Army announced the SIG P320 had won.

The P320’s extreme modularity and technology only gave it a very slight edge over its closest competitor, the Glock.

The main reason the P320 won concerned the “best value” clause of the RFP.

SIG Sauer had teamed up with Winchester to provide the same quality ammunition used the Glock and the others at significant cost savings to the U.S. Government.

Other Handguns Used by the U.S. Military

The U.S. Military has other official semi-automatic sidearms used primarily by special operations soldiers.

In addition to the Colt Model 1911A still in use, many soldiers still prefer and can carry the Beretta M9.

Special Forces or Green Beret troops may use the SIG P226 or P228.

Seal Team Six members often carry the subcompact SIG Sauer, the P236 or the subcompact HK45CT.

Delta Force and other special ops teams also use the Glock.

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