Close-Quarter Battle: Handguns Still Rule


January 23, 2003, 06:54 PM
Close-Quarter Battle: Handguns Still Rule

By R.J. Thomas

When Sam Colt invented his revolving cylinder handgun 167 years ago in 1836, he revolutionized hand-to-hand combat in a manner that continues to this day with direct implications for U.S. troops preparing for combat against al Qaeda terrorists and Iraq.

Throughout the years since Colt's patent for the revolving-cylinder handgun, the U.S. military has viewed the handgun as both an offensive and defensive weapon. From the mid-1800s up through World War I, the handgun was viewed as the ultimate choice for close-quarter battle (particularly by the cavalry) over the saber and bayonet.

The original Colt Single-Action Army-chambered in 45 U.S. Army, varied slightly in loadings, but basically provided a 250-grain lead round-nose projectile, propelled by black powder to about 800 feet per second (fps). The performance of this original black-powder cartridge evolved out of the large-frame .44 cap-and-ball percussion pistols designed by Colt for the U.S. Army cavalry. The cavalry needed a gun that would knock down either a man or his horse, and the Walker .44 and later the S.A. A. 45 performed admirably in that capacity.

By 1911, the horse soldier's revolvers had been replaced by the magnificent Browning-designed 1911 self-loader. The horse soldiers were still the primary users of the handgun and they viewed the auto-loader with some suspicion. But the incredible genius of John Browning had taken into consideration the concerns of the mounted troops and designed features into the auto-loader which precluded inadvertent shooting of oneself or his horse. The .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) cartridge provided the same man-killer and horse-stopper ballistics with a 230-grain round-nose jacketed (to assist feeding) bullet, propelled to 850 fps by a charge of the then new smokeless powder.

The military had a small fling with an auto-loader in .38, as well as numerous .38 Special revolvers, but as the Philippine Insurrection demonstrated, they could not be depended upon to incapacitate a determined aggressor in hand-to-hand combat. This inadequacy relegated the .38 to rear-echelon functions such as homeland security and weapons for military support personnel not assigned to front-line units.

By World War I, it was becoming apparent that mastering the big 1911 auto-loader required extensive training and range time. In contrast, the light recoiling, easy to carry .38 revolvers were more user-friendly. With the advent of mechanized warfare, the requirement to close with and engage the enemy hand-to-hand was becoming obsolete except in the trenches. In the trenches, the 1911 .45 ACP and 1897 trench shotgun remained the weapons of choice for CQB, but pilots, tankers and senior officers found the lightweight .38 revolver more to their liking.

World War II military tacticians continued to view the handgun as a defensive weapon. With a few exceptions, such as digging Japanese out of caves and tunnels in the Pacific Theater and some urban warfare in the European theater, soldiers considered the use of a handgun as a last act of defensive desperation. Much the same attitude prevailed through the Korean War, although the little .30 Carbine gained favor as a more effective officer/NCO defensive weapon than the pistol. This was due in large part, to the theory that it took an excessive amount of officer/NCO training time to teach the effective use of the pistol.

The Vietnam War, with its tunnels, bunker complexes and hooch-to-hooch searches, once again spotlighted the offensive uses of the handgun. However, the M-16 with its lightweight, high-capacity, high-volume of fire characteristics was supposed to effectively eliminate the requirement for a pistol. Things didn't work out the way the M-16 supporters projected.

Even the short CAR version of the M-16 was slow and clumsy in a tunnel or in the bowels of a sampan. Furthermore, there was a tendency to select full auto for close-in work (as was the case with most sub-guns) and it is extremely difficult to make precision shots and keep track of the number of rounds expended. The end result of using a full-auto sub-gun in CQB situations, is often unintentional collateral hits and required magazine changes at inopportune moments.

Military pistol marksmanship training during the Vietnam period continued to be based on structured formal competition, which was in turn based on archaic dueling rules of the 19th century. Marksmanship training was conducted on bullseye targets at ranges of 25 and 50 yards over designated elapsed time, firing one-handed from the ready position. However, those of us going in harms way knew that the most successful way to employ the pistol was with two hands at realistic targets, preferably from behind cover. Meanwhile, the civilian world was developing the same practical marksmanship applications in the form of International Practical Shooting Confederation competition.

In the post-Vietnam era, Special Operations Forces (SOF) all over the world were making the same discovery. The counter-terrorism (CT) mission assigned to SOF units often included hostage rescues (HR) and facility takedowns. Once again, the pistol was being employed as the offensive weapon of choice. The characteristics which make the pistol the most effective weapon of choice in these scenarios are speed of employment, accuracy and ability to keep track of the number of rounds expended.

Based on average reaction times of conventional and unconventional troops, a one and a half second shot to the central nervous system (head shot) will most often win the day in a CQB confrontation. Most Special Ops units are training to make the 1.5 second or less head shot. They have discovered it is a difficult task with any pistol, although a well-tuned single-action, based on the old 1911 Colt design is the least difficult to master.

During the 1970s, military bureaucrats decided the military needed a 9-mm double-action replacement for the 60-year-old 1911 .45. The double action design requirement was based on bureaucratic concepts that a properly employed single-action was unsafe and displayed an air of hostility to observers. Politicians and bureaucrats were uncomfortable with our troops walking around openly displaying a cocked and locked pistol, a universally recognized sign that a soldier is ready to fight (what a concept) if necessary.

Additionally, hand-wringing senior military decision makers were worried that the nearly 100-year-old single-action design unnecessarily endangered their troops in training and combat. They were convinced that requiring a double-action function on a newly designed handgun would give the shooter a final momentary opportunity to avoid inadvertently shooting an unintended target as he stroked the long, heavy double-action trigger. What the military got was the M9 Beretta, which is extremely difficult to shoot in double action accurately and quickly from the hammer-down position.

The genius of John Browning's 1911 design is that it is functional on horseback, in vehicles and on foot. A couple of simple rules must be adhered to in order to ensure totally safe employment of the single action. First: Keep the pistol on safe until the pistol is directed at one's target. Second: Place one's finger on the trigger only when sure of target and ready to shoot. Both rules can be followed and an aimed shot fired in a second or less. Following these simple rules precludes all the concerns voiced about "blue-on-blue" accidental shootings.

SOF troop commanders are already aware of the training required to meet all of the above stated goals. However, pilots, grunts, armor and ship-boarding teams who may be required to do battle with a short gun are relegated to training on their own dime with their own guns and ammo.

The Defense Department needs to get on board with reactive, realistic pistol training for the troops, just as government agencies such as the FBI, DEA and DOE have. If we end up in the streets of Baghdad, the pistol will be the weapon of choice to fight in Close Quarter Battle situations - just as it has been in most wars over the past century.

R.J. Thomas is a Contributing Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at

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January 23, 2003, 07:03 PM
WOW! :neener:

R.J. Thomas said just about everything that's in my head, and he's a good writer, to boot! :neener:

January 23, 2003, 07:54 PM
I would think that if I knew I was doing CQB, I would opt for a sub machine gun.

The pistol has a lot of virtues, and I cannot say that I have shot an SMG - but I would imagine there is a good reason that the dynamic entry folks really like 'em.

Also - and this is from a 1911 lover - his characterization of how hard other handguns are to shoot and how easy a 1911 is to shoot is vastly oversimplified.

I shudder to think about shooting my Valtro from horseback - the 3.5lb trigger would be very difficult.

January 23, 2003, 08:01 PM
Well, I beg to differ.

If I had a choice between a handgun and say, an HK MP5SD, I'd take the HK. Or a short twelve-guage. Or a CAR. I think you get the idea. Don't need burst control, just trigger control. Hey, I LIKE handguns, and they are more concealable than all the others, but if I get to choose....I'll take something more effective, anytime.

I do agree that handgun training, effective hangun training, is a good thing.

January 23, 2003, 08:08 PM
And here I thought that the fragmentation grenade was the king of CQB...

Still, I'd prefer 30 rounds of 5.56 to 7 rounds of .45 given a choice....

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