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The requirement for pistols in World War I outstripped production of the M1911 .45 ACP automatic pistol. The sturdy revolvers procured to fill the gap lasted in military service for many years.
History of the M1917 Revolvers
The "United States Revolver, Caliber .45, M1917" was produced to fill a gap in the availability of the M1911 .45 automatic pistol, then the standard U.S. Army pistol. Colt and Remington were producing the M1911 at capacity, along with many other military arms, when the need for more pistols for World War I became urgent. Production of the M1911 could not meet all requirements, so orders were placed with both Colt and Smith & Wesson for a heavy frame revolver that would be compatible with the .45 ACP cartridge used by the M1911 automatic.
The revolvers chosen by the U.S. Army were the Colt New Service and the S&W Hand Ejector pistols, both being produced at the time for the British .455 Webley cartridge, to be modified for the .45 ACP. Designated the "United States Revolver, Caliber .45, M1917" for both weapons, Colt and S&W each delivered over 150,000 pistols to the U.S. Government.
The M1917 pistols were standard issue for all U.S. forces during World War I and up until World War II. The vastly greater number of troops and increased production of the M1911A1 automatic relegated the revolver to use by Military Police and security personnel during the war. They were phased out afterward, replaced by the M1911A1 in most roles.
Characteristics of the M1917 Revolvers
The M1917 revolvers are conventional design six-round double-action revolvers with swing-out cylinders. They were issued in various barrel lengths from two inches to six inches. Half-moon stamped metal clips (photo, left) were used to grip the rimless .45 ACP cartridges, primarily so they could be extracted in groups.
The Smith & Wesson Model 1917 was adapted from the Second Model .44 Hand Ejector, chambered and re-barreled for .45 ACP and with the cylinder slightly shortened to allow for the half-moon clips. A shoulder was machined into the cylinder to allow cartridges to be easily removed without the half-moon clips, a distinguishing feature vs. the Colt New Service based M1917.
The butt end has a lanyard ring in the center and the pistols were marked there with "US Army Model 1917- No. xxxx". "United States Property" is stamped on the bottom of the barrel or top of receiver.
The U.S. Marine Corps also used the M1917 revolver, as described in this paragraph from Fortitudine, Vol. XXIX, No.2, 2001 accounting for USMC-stamped revolvers:
Approximately 150,000 Colt M1917 revolvers were produced from 1917 to 1918 to augment the production shortage of M1911 automatic pistols during World War I. After the war, the M1917 revolvers were returned to the war reserve stockpiles. According to the Serial Numbers of U.S. Martial Arms, Volume 4, 1995 Edition, complied by the Springfield Research Service, the majority of the M1917s subsequently were sent to the Postal Service in the 1920s and 1930s. More than likely, a Marine serving as a mail guard received the revolver from the U.S. Postal Service to carry out his duties. Afterwards, the revolver was then marked “USMC Property” after the mission was completed.
The revolvers were originally blued, with plain walnut grips. Many M1917 revolvers were rebuilt during and after World War II. These may have a parkerized finish that was applied during arsenal rebuild or under a refurbish contract with the manufacturer.
The Field Manual is FM 23-35, Pistols and Revolvers.
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