M1917 Revolver: America’s Forgotten Handgun

The classic American M1917 revolver was a much needed answer to a very evident problem: not enough standard issue .45acp 1911 pistols to go around. Smith & Wesson and Colt both produced these revolvers at the request of the US Government, and they served in at least some capacity until Vietnam. Today however, it seems like many people are unaware that even during the era of the 1911 in US military service, the Army was still buying revolvers.

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Transcript …

(gun firing) – [Voiceover] Hey guys, it’s Alex C with TFB TV.

Today we’re taking a look at the American M1917 Revolver.

Today these are generally overlooked, but they are a very significant pieces of American Firearm History.

Basically, these were adopted by the US Army during World War One because the US could not produce enough semi-automatic 1911 Pistols.

Colt and Smith both produced M1917’s chambered in 45 ACP, and issued them with half moon clips.

The Smith version was based on the second model hand ejectors and had a shoulder machined in each cylinder to allow users to shoot 45 ACP without a moon clip, something that the Colt guns initially lacked.

While these saw service in the trenches of World War One and 300,000 were made, they stuck around through World War Two and even appeared in Vietnam, where certain situations, like extremely cramped conditions may have been problematic for self-loaders.

So let’s load up this classic American revolver, and see what it can do in my less than capable hands.

(gun firing) Here you can see that extracting the half moon clip is actually quite easy, you just press the ejector rod, and pull each of the half moon clips right out of there.

It’s also quite easy to load them, although to be honest I would prefer a full moon clip.

As stated, because of the shoulder machined into each cylinder on the Smith guns you can also single load without fear of the cartridge case slipping forward in the cylinder and the firing pin failing to ignite it, and you can see that pressing the ejector rod in this case does absolutely nothing.

(gun firing) It’s worth noting that the military at the time would have taught handgun shooters to shoot one handed, today we think of this as strange, awkward, and the wrong way of doing things, but really that didn’t change for a very long time.

Even in 1911 in training videos and manuals, you’ll see pictures of soldiers basically holding the pistol far away from their body, postured in a 19th Century shooting pose.

(gun firing) (gun firing) (gun firing) Notice that after pretty much each shot I’m re-adjusting my grip, because the gun really has quite a lot of muzzle flip, and the grip’s slick sides make it really want to go full 90 degrees on you each time you shoot it.

With two handed shooting, you notice this significantly less, and I do try that towards the end of the video, and it does improve quite substantially.

(gun firing) (gun firing) (gun firing) Here I tried shooting with two hands at about 50 or 60 meters, I don’t recall exactly how far away I was from the target, but I think I did pretty well, I was shooting at about an 18 inch gong on this one, and I landed a fair amount of the shots on target.

I’m pretty rusty with a revolver, but I enjoyed shooting this gun nonetheless for its historical value, and realistically, it’s a very well put together gun.

It’s something that you’d expect from pretty much any Smith and Wesson product from the 20th Century.

I’m not a seasoned revolver shooter but I would not really be able to perform any better with a brand new 686 than I would this one.

I hope you guys enjoy this video of a classic American revolver, big thanks to Ventura Munitions for supplying the ammunition, we hope to see you next time.

Alex C.

Alex is a Senior Writer for The Firearm Blog and Director of TFBTV.


  • Acad Ronin

    In 1971 I served with MACV in Vietnam. At some point I bought an M1917 and a handful of ammo, including some tracer rounds, from another advisor who was going home. I passed it on when I left as we were not allowed to brig back US-issued arms as souvenirs. i wanted something to carry while on radio watch in our bunker, or even while asleep. I also needed a side arm when I would drive up and down Highway 1 solo while getting a payroll. I wanted something I could fire one-handed if someone on a motor bike came alongside and exhibited an unhelpful attitude. I only fired a few rounds of familiarization as I didn’t have enough ammo really to get comfortable with it.. I never had to use it and regret not trying to smuggle it home.

    • Bob

      .45 ACP tracer rounds? I thought those were really only for training purposes.

      • MRHapla

        read “Soldier” by Frank Herbert,,,he carried his 1911 loaded with .45 tracers

        • demophilus

          IIRC, some of the Son Tay raiders carried .45 tracers in 1911s to mark targets for everybody carrying or operating something else.

      • Zebra Dun

        Air Crews Circa Vietnam era carried tracer rounds to signal with in case they got shot down, 1911A1 and the various revolvers.
        We Fam Fired the Pilots and back seaters with FMJ and then with tracer as signals up in the air.

    • Broz

      Love the characterization of the motorbike rider ‘exhibiting’ an ‘unhelpful attitude’…

  • Schnee

    One of my favorite shooters by far. They slick up really nice with a reduced power mainspring and return spring.

    At the risk of committing sacrilege, I bought a beater Brazilian contract one (made in US, shipped to Brazil in 1937) and modified it as an Indiana Jones tribute gun. Barrel cut back to 4″ from the stock 5.5″. The Indy gun had some sort of band (thought it was an 03-A2 front sight but it’s not) soldered onto the the barrel with new sight. I figured might as well go full idiot and had barrel threaded .578-28 and a thread protector turned down to look like the Indiana Jones band. Then soldered a sight with pinned blade and set screw under the blade to keep the thread protector from turning. It’s the perfect size and handles beautifully now. Oh, and the Octane threads on nicely for when boys come to pick up my daughters for dates. Barrel gap bark isn’t as bad as people say, but it’s louder than an HK45CT. Fist photo is the original Indiana Jones gun. Next two are mine.

    • Richard

      Ever since I saw the original Indiana Jones movie I’ve wanted one in that configuration. And btw nice work on the gun.

      • Schnee


    • SP mclaughlin

      A surpressed revolver that isn’t a Nagant.
      My mind is blown

      • iksnilol

        Well, it is possible. I’d recommend a good competiton revolver though. Something like a Dan Wesson, since they have a tight cylinder gap.

        I remember seeing one guy who suppressed a .22 LR revolver. That thingy was cool as well. Still kinda loud due to the gap tho.

    • De Facto

      How well does it suppress? (Compared to a semiauto of equivalent caliber, and how much noise reduction compared to unsuppressed)

      • Schnee

        Suppresses just ok. 45 is lower pressure than a lot of stuff people spit out of revolvers. It’s probably not totally hearing safe, but it’s a lot quieter than in suppressed. Hot 22lr maybe??

    • Paul White

      sexy, sweet, sacrilege

  • h311r47

    I still have my grandfather’s, which was a Smith & Wesson. He died when I was six months old, and pretty much everyone else on that side of the family is long gone, so I don’t have its full story, but he served as a pilot in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. At this point, all I have is an old uniform, his revolver, and a few pictures to remember him by.

    • iksnilol

      I know that feel (sorta).

      My grandfather only left me a watch and a couple of pictures. Don’t know much about him. Wear the watch every day though.

    • AirborneSoldier

      God bless you and your family

  • Broz

    I have two…one is in relatively good condition still in the military configuration…the other has a well worn barrel and little collectible value – most likely modified at some point in its life…I’d like to find a barrel and have it shortened for a car gun…it’s still too large to carry concealed (especially here in FL). does anyone know of a source for barrels and/or someone who does this sort of work??? I contacted S&W a few years ago and they refused saying they no longer restore or do custom work on these revolvers…

    • Rusty S.

      Try Numrich for the barrels, and cylinder and slide might help you out.

      • Broz

        Thanx my friend…

      • Schnee

        I fussed and read and worried a lot about how to shorten mine. The prob with a replacement barrel is retiming and setting cylinder gap. The new barrel won’t have the lug at 6 o’clock when the gap is right unless you are extraordinarily lucky.

        To remove my barrel, I built a clamp with wood blocks and put the revolver, without cylinder but with sideplate still attached for stiffness in a vise. I had soaked the barrel in penetrating oil and drove the pin out left to right. I was all geared up to really torque on it. I hit the frame with a torch for a few seconds to heat it up and found that the barrel was only a little more than hand tight. It came right out. Took the barrel to a machinist friend and he shortened it no problem. Then you have to figure out what you want to do for a front sight. There’s enough meat and 45 is low-pressure enough that you can probably drill and screw on a modern front sight. Or you can get ambitious and Dremel the old front sight off of the barrel stub, dress it with a file, sand it round, and then have someone good solder it onto the barrel for you. 4 inches is a perfect length for this. It also exactly matches holsters for my 329 PD…

        • Gunner4guy

          I like the way you did your M1917. Should you do another I’d suggest looking into one of the replacement front sights for shotguns(and rifles) that has a sort of ring that slips onto the barrel and an upswept ramp leading up to the blade. I’ve seen models that can be attached with both set screws and silver solder. Uncle Mike’s, Tru-Glo, Brownell’s – all are sources worth checking into.
          Since we’re talking N frame here, I can use the Baker pancake holster for my M28 Smith as well. Since we’re not talking fast-draw, the extra barrel sticking out the bottom isn’t a problem.

          • Schnee

            Yeah thought about that. The ones I looked at were the wrong diameter. There are at least two Indiana Jones 1917s, one with the sight like mine and one with a sight like you are suggesting. I opted for this one because it’s the one that appears in the most scenes. Next time I guess….

          • Gunner4guy

            Until I saw what you’d done I honestly hadn’t thought the M1917 used in the movies was modified. Now I’ll have to dig out my tapes and re-run them.
            I added Pachmayr N-frame grips to mine which cured the slippery grip problem I had. A guy I know has a Brazilian 1917 in crappy cosmetic condition who’s been trying to unload it on me for years, maybe this time I’ll take him up on it. Your mod has given me some ideas……

  • Rusty S.

    I have a colt 1917 which has seen service in WW1 and Vietnam (due to the service of my friend and his father). I have some original issue wax coated boxes of rounds for it as well. I’m quite impressed at how well it held up to hard use (minus the grips) the rifling is still good and it’s very accurate.

  • WFDT

    I have one. The huge front blade sight takes some getting used to, and the gun really benefits from a T-Grip adapter.

    • Pete Sheppard

      Second the T-Grip, especially for large hands.

  • Cannoneer No. 4

    I love my nickel 3 1/2″ bbl 1917 so much I bought it a stainless Model 22 4″ to keep if from being lonely. Be advised that full-moon clips may not fit on a 1917.

    Charter needs a .45 Auto-Rim 3″ Bulldog.

    • Gunner4guy

      I’ll second you on the .45 AR Charter Bulldog. I carry a .44 Spl version using some HKS CA44 speedloaders so a .45 AR version would fit right in. BTW, I have a Sparks “Summer Special” IWB holster and a Cebeci Arms high ride belt holster, both I got for a Ruger SP-101 in .357. Surprise, surprise, my Charter Bulldog fits them as well…meaning I don’t have to get extra holsters…!

  • Pete Sheppard

    5″ was standard for the day (I have a civil version, in a nice parkerizing), but a 3″ looks much more balanced to me. I’d like to find a beater for cutting down to 3″ for a woods gun.

    • iksnilol

      Considering how long the chambers are, a 3″ barrel in a revolver is basically the same as a 5″ barrel in a semi auto pistol.

  • Blackhawk

    As an Army, and later as a National Guard helicopter pilot, I was issued a .38 spl revolver (usually an S&W Model 10 M&P). Later, in the Guard, we had S&Ws, Colts and toward the end of the 1980s and early 90s, some Ruger Security Sixes. IIRC, wasn’t issued my first M9 until sometime in the early 2000s. Although I personally don’t care much for the 1911, there were times in my career when I would have rather had one than the .38 revolver, but they did serve well.

  • Cliff Miller

    You cannot mention the 19th century one-handed shooting stance without mentioning that the other hand was left free to hold the reins of your horse.

    • Archie Montgomery

      So quickly we forget.

  • AirborneSoldier

    My neighbor still uses his on his nightstand, though 7nsurpress3d

  • Zebra Dun

    I owned one of these once a Colt 1917 I foolishly traded a 1973 model Super Blackhawk in .44 magnum for it, (kicks self in ass again) I wanted a defense revolver and deer hunting here was illegal with the pistol then, the biggest drawback was the moon clips which bent and jammed often.

    Otherwise it was a good revolver to shoot.
    I swapped it for a Colt Lawman Mk III .357 magnum and never looked back.

  • Jackson Andrew Lewis

    it would be cool to see smith rebuild a few for its 100th next year

  • The Brigadier

    I like Alex’s comment about the slick grips. Another problem with most revolver grips is that they are entirely too small for guys with large hands. I have replaced grips on all my Ruger’s and S&W revolvers with oversized Pachmayer grips. These large rubber grips fit my hand and tame both muzzle flip and felt recoil. The exception is my .44 mag and while the Pachmayer grip helps it still feels like a hand cannon to shoot.

    • Bob

      I found that the Ben Hogue grips with FINGER GROOVES worked better on my magnum then did the Pachmayers.

      So, I have all 3 grips now. the factory checkered walnut, the Pachmayers, and the Hogues.

  • The Smith M1917 has been on my “wanna” list since I was 18. Right up there with a .455 Webley.

    Sadly, neither has crossed my path at a price I would buy *at the time*…

  • Mazryonh

    My guess as to why this gun was forgotten is that most people don’t use rimless cartridges in revolvers anymore (because moon clips are “such a pain”), and because reliably-feeding semiautomatic handguns using rimless cartridges are so commonplace now.

    • Archie Montgomery

      That’s possible, but the “.45 Auto Rim” cartridge has been around since 1923 and are still available (cases only) from Starline. Speedloaders from HKS. I find them much easier to use than the moon clips; I have full, half and one-third types.

      As a serious sidearm, they are about equal to a proper .44 Special round.

  • Joseph Anthony

    I own 2-17 Smith’s, 1-17 colt and a pimped out Webley converted to take .45 auto moon clips. I use to have 2 of each. The smith has a better trigger….

  • Archie Montgomery

    Delightful handguns with a few discrepancies. The Colt revolvers were made on the “New Service” model. They are robust in terms of frame, cylinder and barrel; but fragile in terms of interior lockwork. And the double action function is disgusting. The nicest description of the DA pull is “The gun will go off, eventually”.

    The S&W versions were based on the 2nd Model Hand Ejector as Brother Alex said. The trigger pull in DA is heavy, but reasonably even – smooth – from beginning to end.

    The ‘service’ stocks; those little tiny devils that barely cover the mainspring void (between the front and back grip straps) are simply hideous. No wonder Brother Alex had to keep adjusting his grip, those stocks are seriously deficient.

    Finally Smith & Wesson figure out the idea of ‘magna’ stocks about 1935 to 1936; the still skinny grips leaving the knuckle of the middle finger exposed to being bashed by the trigger guard, but giving a bit more shoulder at the top to interact with the web of the hand. The ‘Target’ grips came in later (1950 for K and 1952 for N frames) and did a better job still; but not as good as aftermarket makers like Walter Roper and Steve Herrett and others. Oddly, S&W did market a grip adapter type device in the early 1930s.

    Of course, none of those discoveries in stock technology affected the M1917 revolvers in Armed Forces custody. More’s the pity.

    I have one 1917 left in my custody; it is a S&W, of course, and has been bobbed and shortened to serve as a short barreled defense revolver. I had another one for a bit; shortened to four inches (crowned, re-sighted and so forth) which left my possession in trade for a M1917 rifle which is now a .35 Whelen.

    I also have two S&W 1955 Target Revolvers, in .45 ACP (the great-grandson of the M1917). One is the original six inch and the second one was cut back to four inches with proper crowning and re-sighting. They are much more fun to shoot as they are modern type revolver.

    One handed shooting is very popular in the combat game world. Having been a uniformed lawman for some twenty-eight years, I can attest one doesn’t always have both hands for shooting. The ability to use a handgun one-handed is marvelous advantage in the real world. If one is a horseman – I’m not – it is required.

    Schnee; that is a dandy and sexy revolver there. You have raised my levels of lust and covetousness. The quiet maker, perhaps a bit difficult to holster, is probably handy at times.