Three Nations’ Military Pistol buys through World War II

There were some interesting figures mentioned in passing at the end of the chapter on Japanese wartime pistols in Ezell’s Handguns of the World. The statistics were interesting enough that we thought we’d parse them out and expound on them a wee bit. Because, you see, different nations gave pistol production entirely different priorities during the war and in the very long period leading up to it — for Ezell started counting in 1875. So how many pistols did three world powers buy for their armed services in the seventy years from 1875 to 1945?


Pistols & revolvers bought, 1875-1945 (estimated)

Germany      6 million
United States      3-4 million
Japan      400,000-500,000

Source: Ezell, Edward Clinton. Handguns of the World, Harrisburg, 1981: Stackpole Books. p. 626.

Interesting. Unfortunately we don’t have figures for the British Commonwealth and the USSR.

There are a number of factors involved. Ezell suggests that the Japanese did not emphasize pistols, while the other nations’ services did. (The Imperial Japanese services were also smaller than the American or German armies). He further suggests that this lack of emphasis may be why Japanese handguns — how shall we put this politely? — fail to achieve world standards. The Japanese also had the least handgun variety of any of the major powers. (They also had less penetration of pistol-caliber submachine guns in their armed forces than any of the other belligerents; they had a functional if plug-ugly and hard to manufacture SMG in the Type 100, but it never seemed to catch on).

Japan also seems to have required its officers to purchase their own sidearms, or do without. The other nations generally issued pistols. Pistols were seldom carried by anyone but officers in the Japanese Army and Navy. And officers seemed to prefer, as a badge of rank, the traditional Japanese sword. Cavalrymen, heavy-weapons and artillery crews, and paratroops were generally supplied with bolt-action carbines or even full-length rifles.

In the German service, those special-purpose troops were generally armed with pistols, and sometimes they were the only weapon carried by officers, even in ground-conbat units. Senior officers particularly wore pistols, often personally-owned small pocket pistols, as a token and privilege of rank. All German paratroopers carried pistols on airborne operations (Crete being the largest and best-known in the West) because all their long arms were dropped separately, in canisters. (Gliderborne forces, an important part of the German airborne, kept their rifles and MPs with them).

As a result, German demand for pistols during the war was insatiable, with numerous captured weapons and even captured production lines being pressed ino service. This was true not only of weapons that were already in or readily convertible to fire Germany’s standard 9mm cartridge, but also of many other handguns in a wide range of sizes and form factors. So while Germany could put 9mm Browning High Powers and Radom VIS’s to work right away in their existing logistic system, they also used a wide variety of .32 and .380 pistols, and even the 7.65mm French Long M1935 pistols. We’ve even seen 9mm Largo Spanish guns with documented and credible Nazi provenance. This must have been irritating for German logistical planners.

The USA fit midway between German enthusiasm for and Japanese disinterest in pistols. Our paratroops armed themselves as heavily as possible, and a .45 was never more than a secondary weapon. We had, prior to our war entry, developed what is today called a personal defense weapon to increase the range and lethality of crews’ and officers’ defensive armament. Many officers disdained the concept of pistol armament for leaders, and supplemented that with a rifle or carbine.

9 thoughts on “Three Nations’ Military Pistol buys through World War II

  1. GBS

    Interesting. I wonder how common it was for American soldiers, particularly those serving in the western states and territories prior to WWI, to purchase their own sidearms?

    1. Hognose Post author

      Not unheard of. And in that period, personal sidearms were not strictly for the western states. Generally officers had more flexibility and freedom to use a personally owned weapon that enlisted troops. Nowadays of course it is verboten for everybody.

  2. oberndorfer

    On A Tangent:
    The Sturmbatallion Rohr, the Hartmannsweiler Kopf/Vieiill Armand and ‘In Stahlgewittern’
    The fastest reload is the backup gun, thus many German officers carried a small pistol (the ‘Kleine Mauserpistole’ or any other) in addition to their (privately purchased, as it was custom then) officially approved sidearm into combat.
    And the ordinary Fritzes in the trenches tried everything to get a piece, no matter the make.
    This adds a few millions (albieit not officially purchased and issued) to the number of German handguns and also explains why so many GIs brougt a ‘souvenir’ back from Europe after WW2 to make any collector happy.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I have a couple of those, including an RZM-marked early PPK (90º safety, etc) with holster and spare mag, etc, that was taken from a deceased SS officer by a friend’s father, an infantry soldier. I have an ordinary PPK of slightly later vintage that is a summer carry gun.

      Some Americans still carry personal sidearms but they must be smuggled to war, and abandoned there (in the early days it was different, but now there are extremely thorough inspections of persons and luggage). In WWII it was possible to bring back war trophies but the ATF and Army lawyers forbid it now.

    1. Hognose Post author

      A very interesting individual. He also designed the Army’s last saber. a straight weapon meant for point-spearing in the cavalry assault rather than slashing in the melee or multipurpose versatility. (It was officially the M1913; in various documents supporting the change, he pointed out that the European cavalry had largely gone to such straight sabers). He was also as quick as Lidell-Hart, Rommel and Tukhachevsky to grasp that aviation had stolen cavalry’s screening function, machine guns and modern artillery had rendered the battlefield too lethal for horses, and that tanks would inherit Cavalry’s shock function.

      He still loved horses, which affection his son (George III, also a cavalry general, since passed away) inherited.

      There is a company, Cimarron, that makes (technically, commissions and imports to the US) replicas of Western and historic firearms. They sell a machine-engraved replica of Patton’s .45 Single Action. Because it’s made in Italy, and then CNC and not human-engraved, they can sell it at a reasonable price point. (Less than you’d pay for an undecorated Colt). Unfortunately, Patton’s ivory grips are not a possibility, with the African elephant pressured by poaching and the legal market erased by treaty. This means the poor pachyderms have value only to criminals, and no one but dirt-poor and corrupt African governments stands between them and perdition. Cimarron uses a fake ivory.

      As I understand it, he also had a matching (engraved, ivory grips) 1911 and sometimes wore both pistols. In addition, he had the Colt .380 that he was issued as a GO (after the .380s ran out, in the 1970s, Generals were issued a custom cut-down 1911 built by Army smiths. Now they get a standard M9 in a fancy holster and belt). All Patton’s guns were (as I understand it) on loan to museums from the family. With the passing of George III, I’m not sure what became of them. Many museums have a claim on some aspect of the WWII Patton’s history because of his broad success in life.

  3. TRX

    In the USA, “army” would have meant the United States Army. “Military” would have meant the Army and Navy. Up through 1945, neither would generally have been used to refer to National Guard units.

    In Germany, “army” or “military” would have generally meant anyone with a government job who also carried a gun; anything from various ministers or Party officials down to border guards or animal control. Considering the Germans used pistols as badges of office, that’s a big pile of pistols.

    1. Hognose Post author

      From 1940 the National Guard was called up and Federalized, at the same time as FDR also implemented the draft. The guys that got creamed at 0630 on Omaha Beach were a former Virginia National Guard unit. Likewise, in WWI the Guard was Federalized, and that’s when most of the guns were bought. (For example, again, Alvin York was a member of the National Guard 82nd Division, but he and his unit members were armed by the same processes the rest of the AEF was armed).

      Before WWI states did arm their own Guard units. Afterwards, the Feds did, in the interests of standardization. That’s still done today under Title 32 US COde.

      The Germans also, being on the losing side, had to replace lots more men, units and weapons than any of the Allies except the Russians.So the MTOE for some infantry battalion might have one pistol assigned to the commanding officer, but they’d have to replace that pistol (and the officer) a half dozen times between 1939 and 1945.

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