Colt and Smith & Wesson…two iconic American firearm manufacturers. These are the names that come to mind when it comes to classic Americana for pistols and revolvers. Their glory days, some would argue, were the first half of the 20th century, when they dominated the markets both stateside and across the globe.
And like many large firms at the time, when the world went to war in 1914, Big Blue and the Prancing Pony did, too.
Both companies supplied their guns to the various Entente Powers. Colt also had a contract with the US Government to supply relatively new M1911 automatics. But when the United States officially entered the war over there, the military was critically short on everything, including handguns. M1911 pistols couldn’t be made fast enough.
Colt and S&W were already filling contracts for the British and Canadians with .455 Eley chambered revolvers. Colt sold the British empire it’s New Service Revolver and S&W selling them their Triple Lock. Both were large-framed revolvers chambered in cartridges like the .45 Colt, .44 Russian, .44 Special, and .44-40 WCF, so making the guns in .455 Eley wasn’t a huge change.
Since the United States was critically short on M1911s as mentioned, the US Government wanted a substitute standard chambered in .45 ACP to be made as a stopgap. A solution was developed by Big Blue’s own Joseph Wesson. He invented and patented the half-moon clip for reloads, and at the request of the US Army, allowed Colt to also use the design free of charge in their revolvers.
Thus, the Model 1917 .45 ACP chambered revolver was born and went into service.
The M1917s slogged through the trenches of the western front and did it without issue for the most part.
From 1917 to 1919, Colt and Smith & Wesson produced a total of 151,700 and 153,300 M1917 revolvers respectively. American Doughboys loved them, so much so that after the war, the guns continued to be made for the commercial market.
Peters Cartridge Company (later purchased by Remington Arms in 1934) invented the .45 Auto Rim so the guns can be fired without the need for moon clips, but that’s a story for another day.
After the Great War, these guns were sold off as surplus, transferred to other government agencies, or kept in military armories. They saw service again in the Second World War and did their duty.
With WWII, we look at another pair of revolvers from the Big Blue and the Prancing Pony. Prior to WWI, both companies also produced medium framed revolvers chambered for .38 caliber cartridges. Colt had their Official Police and S&W had their Military & Police Model 1905. Both were popular sellers, but it was during WWII that these guns went into British Service as a substitute standard.
Prior to WWII, the British empire replaced their Webleys, Colts, and Smiths chambered in .455 Eley with a smaller framed top-break chambered in .38/200 (.38 S&W).
After the crushing defeat of British and French forces in France and the loss of war material during the evacuation at Dunkirk, the British were hurting for arms. They went shopping across the globe for guns, so much so that Americans even donated guns to them British.
Between May of 1940 and June of 1941 a total of 49,764 Official Police revolvers in .38/200 were purchased by the British Purchasing Commission and shipped to the United Kingdom for use by British and Commonwealth armed forces as a substitute standard sidearm. These revolvers were assembled from commercial-grade parts, fitted with a lanyard ring, and bore British military acceptance markings.
Smith & Wesson, meanwhile, was attempting to sell the Brits a 9mm carbine, but that was a failure. Since the British Government had already paid for those carbines and S&W didn’t want to provide a refund, they instead offered them their Military & Police revolvers as a replacement for the order.
Produced from 1942 to 1944, S&W made a total of 590,305 “Victory models” for the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa via the US Lend-Lease program.
British and Commonwealth forces loved the guns. The triggers and actions were much smoother than the top-breaks they had in service. But in typical British fashion, since the guns weren’t British made, out they went as surplus after the end of the war. The top-breaks stayed in official service until 1963, all while better-designed American wheel guns were sold to shooters all over the world, many back in the US market.
Let’s take a closer look at the guns and their markings. First up is the Colt M1917.
Here is the S&W M1917.
Followed by the Colt Official Police.
Last, but not least, the S&W Victory Model.
I picked up these guns for good prices over the years. Back then, milsurp revolvers weren’t in particularly high demand, especially the British lend-lease guns. The M1917s had a bit of a cult following, but in military collector circles, M1911s were much more popular. With the explosion in the popularity of M1911s, collectors started moving to snatch up the M1917s at a cheap price.
Now, even the British contract guns have gone up in price, but you can still find an occasional diamond in the rough, especially a British contract gun chambered in .38/200 since most mainstream shooters these days don’t want them.
All in all, they’re excellent pieces to have in a collection that harken back to a far different time. I enjoy shooting them and they’re a hoot and a half, especially when you load .45 Auto-Rim in the M1917s and don’t have to worry about moon-clips.
Luis Valdes is the Florida Director for Gun Owners of America.