The pistol, originally designed as a cavalry weapon, was the staple weapon for a variety of personnel during World War One (and beyond).  Traditionally issued to officers of all armies the pistol was also issued to military police, airmen and tank operators.

Reasons for Pistol Use

For men involved in the latter professions the pistol was essentially the only weapon that would serve under their unique environments: the cramped conditions of both the tank and aircraft dictated that the rifle – which was otherwise issued to virtually all regular soldiers – was impractical.

As with the rifle the belligerent armies generally manufactured standard issue pistols, although shortages (as ever) required that a wide variety of models were put to practical use in the field.

Three Basic Types

When war began there were three types of pistol in general use: revolvers, clip-loaded automatics and the so-called ‘blow-back’ models (where expanding propellant gas caused the gun to reload by forcing the bolt back when fired).

Model by Model

Undoubtedly the most famous wartime pistol was the German Luger, although the British Webley was perhaps not so far behind.  The key models in use during 1914-18 – invariably designed in the late nineteenth century (as were most rifles) – are described below.



Some two million Luger 9mm P08 pistols were manufactured during wartime, and although primarily issued to officers (since the pistol continued to be viewed primarily as an officer’s weapon) it was also issued to soldiers engaged in a wide variety of tasks.

germanyThe Luger possessed a seven-round magazine loaded via the pistol butt.  Recoil-operated the Luger was regarded as both reliable and accurate but was never available in sufficient supplies to meet ever-increasing demand.  It was always a popular trophy when captured by Allied troops.

A variant of the Luger, the Parabellum M17, was issued in 1917.  Possessing a longer barrel it resembled a machine carbine with its magazine capable of holding 30 rounds.

Given the scarcity of the Luger, other models were consequently produced and substituted, including the Beholla 7.65mm automatic and the Mauser C96 and C10 pistols.  In fact the Mauser could lay a claim to being as popular and widespread as the Luger in the German army, and although bulky and somewhat awkward could fire a powerful 7.63mm or 9mm round.

The Mauser also had a wooden holster which, when fitted, effectively turned it into a shoulder-fired carbine rifle.  The Mauser Automatic was also widespread (in its original 1894 format) among the Italian army.

Both the Turkish and Bulgarian armies depended upon the Germans for supplies of pistols, using both Mauser and Beholla models.


The standard weapon in the German army, the 7.92 mm Mauser Gewehr 98 was designed (as its name suggests) in 1898 by Peter Paul Mauser (1838-1914).  Somewhat superior in design to the majority of its contemporaries, it incorporated the clip and germanmagazine into a single detachable mechanism, saving valuable loading time.

It suffered however from the disadvantage of being unsuited to rapid fire (on account of its bolt arrangement), and was limited by a five-cartridge magazine.

Nevertheless it was a thoroughly dependable, well tested and accurate weapon, and with its fitted optical sight, ideal for use in sniping.



The Webley Mk IV revolver, produced by Webley and Scott in Birmingham, was the standard issue British pistol, with some 300,000 produced during wartime.

The Mk IV model, which debuted at the close of the nineteenth century, was a 11.6mm calibre weapon and proved immensely reliable (and consequently popular) in wartime conditions – even among Flanders mud.

The Webley was issued not only to British troops, but also to officers from Empire countries.  Soldiers manning machine gun posts were usually equipped with a personal Webley revolver.

Much practice was required however before the Webley could be used accurately since it jumped on firing.  Despite its high reputation British officers generally preferred the use of a captured Luger when the opportunity arose, supposedly on account of its longer range.

A variation of the Webley, a self-loading automatic, was available from 1913 but was viewed as overly complex by the army.  It was nevertheless utilised by the Royal Navy.


Rivalling the Mauser both in terms of use and reputation was the British Lee-Enfield 0.303-inch rifle, which was issued to britishvirtually all British soldiers on the Western Front (and many elsewhere).  First produced in 1907 and officially titled the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) Mark III, the name was derived from its designer (James Lee, an American) and its manufacturer (the Royal Small Arms Factory based in Enfield, London).

Unlike the Mauser the Lee-Enfield, with its ten-cartridge magazine, was well suited to rapid fire; a suitably trained soldier could expect to fire twelve well-aimed shots a minute.

The Lee-Enfield proved so sturdy and reliable that its use continued into World War Two.  Its design was also incorporated into both U.S. and Canadian models.



The French standard issue weapon was the Pistole Revolveur Modele 1892.  It was manufactured by numerous state-owned factories and also in Belgium and Spain.

francePopularly referred to as either the ‘Lebel’ or ‘model d’Ordonnance’ it resembled the British Webley, although it fired six 8mm rounds.  Deemed eminently reliable the Lebel remained in common use throughout the Second World War.

Whereas the Webley was snapped open for the purposes of loading, the Lebel’s chamber swung out.

The Serbian army made use of French surplus stock, such as there was, for their own wartime use.


Just as the Germans adopted the Mauser and the British the Lee-Enfield, so the French opted for the Lebel 8 mm weapon (officially titled the Fusil modele, produced in 1886, and which unusually fired smokeless cartridges) as their rifle of choice during the war years.

frenchoneDespite its wide use it suffered from a marked practical design flaw.  Its eight rounds were loaded, nose to tail fashion, in a tubular magazine placed under the barrel of the rifle.  This resulted in slow loading since the operator had to be wary of one round hitting the primer of the cartridge in front, thereby causing a most unwelcome explosion.

Although a better French model, the Berthier, was available from 1916, the Lebel – despite its flaws – continued to be standard issue.

The French discovered a serious practical defect in their standard issue Lebel rifle.  Thus, two years into the war, the Berthier was issued as an improvement.  Officially titled the Fusil d’Infanterie Modele 1907, Transforme 1915, the replacement rifle was, like the Lee-Enfield, clip loaded.  The differences with the Lebel did not stop there however.  The rifle’s sights were different as was its bolt mechanism.

frenchtwoA fine weapon, the original Berthier (designed in 1907) nevertheless suffered, like its predecessor, from a design flaw – its magazine held only three rounds.  A modified version, produced in 1915, increased this to five rounds.  The result was the Fusil modele 1916, loaded from a six-round clip or charger.

Immediately popular demand was such that certain supplies of the model were produced in the U.S. by the Remington company.



The Belgium army was largely issued with two variants of the U.S. Browning revolver, namely the 1900 7.6mm blow-back and (less commonly) the 9 mm Model 1903.

Austria-Hungary & Romania

Both Austria-Hungary and Romania made extensive use of the Steyer Automatic, produced just before the war, in 1912.

The Steyer, which utilised an eight-round clip, fired 9mm bullets, although Hungarian home forces used a separate (Fegyvergyar) design firing 7.65 mm bullets; both were reliable weapons.


Produced in Budapest and Steyr (in Austria), and known as the Repetier Gewehr M95, the standard issue rifle of the Austro-Hungarian army was first produced in 1895.

AustroConsidered a strong design, the Repetier Gewehr M95 withstood a so-called torture test of firing 50,000 rounds through a single rifle without lubrication of any kind.  It was consequently produced in huge quantities during the war.

At one stage during the war the Austro-Hungarian army gave consideration to using the German Mauser rifle in preference to the Steyr-Mannlicher, before concluding that it was inferior in design to their own weapon.

This model was also subsequently used in large quantities by the Italian army (as World War One reparations).

United States


The U.S. army (and navy) essentially utilised three pistol models during wartime.

unitedStatesThe Colt 0.45-inch Automatic was introduced in 1911 and also used by the British Royal Navy in modified format.

Some 150,000 each of Colt Revolvers and Smith and Wesson Revolvers were manufactured; both fired 0.45-inch calibre bullets.  As with the Colt Automatic the British also bought the Colt Revolver for their own use.


The Springfield, manufactured in the U.S. (at Springfield, Massachusetts), was the standard wartime rifle of the U.S. army.  It was USreliable and produced in a short-barrelled version for issue to the American Expeditionary Force.  In short supply however around half of U.S. soldiers in the field were issued with the M1917 ‘American Enfield’.

The performance of the U.S. rifle was comparable to the British Lee-Enfield, and was also produced in a Mk1 automatic version.  The Springfield utilised a licensed Mauser action.  Derivatives of the Springfield remained in use until the Korean War.



Italian forces were issued with the 1910 Glisenti 9mm automatic; at least, they were when it was available – numbers were never produced to meet up with continuing demand.

In some respects similar to the German Luger the Glisenti was notably less durable.

Two other models were often seen in Italian use.  The Bodeo Revolver, designed in 1891, fired 0.45-inch calibre bullets; and the Beretta 7.65 mm automatic, produced in 1915, was widespread if unpopular (chiefly for the inaccuracy of its fire, a severe drawback).



russiaChronically short of revolvers, Russian officers were obliged to make do with whatever they could find.

Officially Russian officers were supposed to be issued either a Mauser Automatic (one of the older models) or the Belgian-designed Nagant revolver.




– Jonathan Samuelsen


8 Comments so far

  1.    Andrew Miller on August 16, 2016 5:44 am

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