I’m going to propose something that many in the current gun culture will find laughable or even stupid: one branch of the military, specifically the United States Air Force, should adopt a modernized .38 caliber revolver as its standard-issue sidearm.
Now, before everyone gets all up in arms (see what I did there?), or gets a case of the tactical vapors, allow me to explain my reasoning. Before I do that, it may help if I point out that I served a total of twelve years in the Armed Forces: six in the Army National Guard as a combat engineer, and six in the Air Force as an explosive ordnance disposal technician. I deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, to a small Army patrol base called Sperwan Ghar. We worked closely with infantry and cavalry units, doing everything from IED response to training to mentoring an Afghan EOD team to going on fly-away CONOPs. In both military and private-sector shooting courses, I put a lot of rounds through an M9.
I’m also an unapologetic revolver shooter. I’ve carried wheelguns almost exclusively for the past ten years, and carried one on duty as a security guard (back before I went EOD or wrote books). I’ve got thousands and thousands of rounds through the humble revolver, from the .38 snub to the .44 Magnum (a 3” Smith & Wesson Model 29 was my everyday carry gun for several years.)
Before anyone gets too upset, I’m well aware of the limitations of the revolver. At the same time, I think these limitations are often over-stated, to the point where I have (on the internet) been told I’m not “serious” and am going to get myself killed for choosing the revolver over, say, a Glock 19. Despite the questioning of both my intelligence and my sanity, a good .357 is still my gun of choice. That said, I’m not here to rehash the decades-old revolver vs. semiauto argument.
So why the revolver for the Air Force, what’s wrong with the M9? First, nothing is really wrong with the M9; people love it or hate it, but mine was nothing but reliable. To understand my reasoning on this, though, you need to understand how the Air Force goes about issuing weapons. Bear in mind that the vast majority of USAF personnel do not have a combat-oriented mission. The vast majority also don’t fly. The bulk of the force is dedicated to either keeping the aircraft (the USAF’s primary weapon system) operational, logistics, or miscellaneous force support. At the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, roughly half the USAF was deploying to Southwest Asia, but most stayed at the large air bases. Their mission isn’t door-kicking or wrecking faces, like it is for the grunt. The Air Force decided long ago that the civilized way to fight a war is to sit back, sip coffee, and throw officers at the enemy.
Most USAF personnel aren’t issued an individual weapon, and don’t qualify with it, unless they’re slated to deploy. While the Combat Arms Training and Maintenance (CATM) course is, to be honest, a lot better than military handgun classes in the past, it’s still a basic course. It’s designed to teach someone who may or may not be familiar with a handgun the basics of handling and shooting. Personnel who carry a weapon more regularly, like AFSOC, Security Forces, and my own EOD, were issued weapons and trained/qualified with them regularly. The USAF also issues handguns to a lot of personnel who serve in a support capacity and only get rudimentary training. It is for these people that I propose a Modern Service Revolver. My reasoning is that a double-action revolver, while being more challenging for a novice to shoot well, is simpler and I daresay safer for a novice to handle and carry loaded.
If you’ve been in the service, you’re probably well aware of the way the military enforces weapons safety. Clearing barrels are everywhere. Personnel are ordered to carry the M9 with an empty chamber. Hell, at Kandahar Airfield circa early 2012, the rule was you had to have a weapon on you, but couldn’t have a magazine in it; you carried an unloaded gun.
This is all, of course, a training issue, but it’s the reality of the situation. The Air Force teaches that the way to carry the M9 is with a round in the chamber, hammer down, safety off, but that’s pretty progressive for rank and file military. The Marine instructors I trained with were adamant that it had to be carried with the safety on. The Army, as often as not, mandated empty-chamber carry, it seemed.
In any case, putting 50-100 rounds through a handgun you may or may not have shot before isn’t enough to attain real proficiency, and nobody pretends it is. But, as unfortunate as it is that the most advanced and capable military in the world lags behind the average city police department in handgun training, that’s the reality. It’s getting better, but slowly, and the garrison mentality will threaten to discard some of the lessons learned in America’s longest war.
The biggest hindrance to shooting a double-action revolver well is the long trigger pull, but this is also a safety feature. It provides mechanical interference to novices with careless fingers. The loading and unloading procedure, while slower and clunkier than a semiauto, provides positive feedback of the condition of the weapon (so long as the cylinder is correctly opened all the way). There is no forgetting to eject the round in the chamber, or forgetting to chamber a round, or not seating the magazine all the way with the revolver. As long as it is in sound working order, it’s simple to operate.
Again, I understand this is a training issue, but let’s be real: The Air Force is struggling to fund its current missions, and hundreds of its aircraft are older than the men and women who fly them. Nobody is going to funnel the time, effort, and money into making guys whose mission is turning wrenches or making ID cards into professional gunslingers.
As I’ve said, the revolver is more challenging to shoot well. The manual of arms is simple (open, put cartridges in, close), but the reloading procedure is easy to fumble without practice, especially under stress. I think, though, that these issues are rather overstated these days, often by people who have never actually used a revolver. Remember that there was a time when nearly every police officer in the nation carried revolvers, used them on the street, and this was before the modern renaissance in private-sector handgun training.
The Air Force, too, issued .38 caliber revolvers from Colt, Smith & Wesson, and Ruger from its inception in 1947 until about the time of the First Gulf War. They were used by pilots, Security Policemen, and countless others for decades.
COL Robin Olds, USAF, paints a victory star on his F-4 Phantom after downing a MiG over Vietnam. Note the revolver hanging from his hip. Also note the out-of-regs mustache, worn as a symbol of defiance, which spawned the tradition of Mustache March. This, gentlemen, is how you swagger.
June, 1957: General Curtis LeMay, commander of Strategic Air Command, practices with a revolver. Note the cigar, Hawaiian shirt, and the complete lack of fucks given. If six shots weren’t enough, there were always hydrogen bombs.
SAC Elite Guard Air Policeman, early 1960s. Note the jaunty ascot and stag-handled revolver in a crossdraw holster.
A serviceman inspects a .38-caliber revolver circa 1990, judging from the chocolate chip desert camouflage and jungle boots.
In other words, the issuance of revolvers to military personnel is hardly unprecedented. Revolvers served alongside the venerable M1911 from the time it was adopted until it was officially replaced by the M9. I think a modernized version of such a gun could serve Airmen admirably, even in the 21st century.
So what would the Modernized Service Revolver look like? How can you modernize something so archaic? Bearing in mind that the M2 .50 cal has been in service for almost ninety years, there are ways you can improve on an old design to get some impressive longevity out of it.
I would start with the Smith & Wesson K-Frame. This medium-sized revolver has been in production, in one form or another, for over a hundred years, and continues to be used today. It was issued to US and Allied armed forces in World War 2, Korea, and Vietnam. It was used by military and civilian police alike for decades, and was to mid-20th-Century law enforcement what the Glock is to LE today. I would go with the Smith & Wesson K-Frame precisely because it’s proven. An all-steel gun with a four-inch barrel weighs about 36 ounces, only a bit heavier than an empty M9. If built correctly, it can withstand decades of service, especially considering that even .38 Special +P is relatively mild, pressure-wise. Longevity is a good quality for a military weapon; they may be issued to one serviceman after another for years, or spend decades in storage only to be drug out when the need arises (like the 1950s-vintage M14s I saw in service in Afghanistan in 2011.)
It’s also a commercial-off-the-shelf solution. While you could design a more modern revolver, this would add time and money to the project, and the military’s acquisition process is enough of a boondoggle as is. The Ruger GP100 is a more modern design, easy to disassemble and durable, but it’s a purpose-designed .357. Chambering it in .38 just gives you extra weight and bulk you don’t need. The Taurus is little more than a low-quality copy of the Smith & Wesson. The Charter revolver doesn’t have the proven track record of the K-Frame, even if its simplified design allows for lighter weight for a given frame size and barrel length.
The gun would have to be made correctly, though. As a cost-saving measure, Smith & Wesson has gone to metal-injection-molded internal parts, and the fit and finish aren’t quite what they used to be. My S&W .44 Magnums had to go back to the factory no less than three times; one gun went twice, the third couldn’t be fixed and was replaced. The S&W design is not forgiving of spotty quality control. As such, for this proposal, the guns in question would be required to have real steel internal components, and samples from each lot would be inspected before acceptance by the Air Force. Such guns would be expensive if purchased individually, but if the USAF bought twenty-five thousand of them, the unit cost could be brought down considerably.
S&W Model 67 Revolver, .38 Special, 4” barrel. Current production.
The K-Frame, with a 4” barrel, chambered for .38 Special +P, would be the base gun. Some modifications to the design would be incorporated to improve usability. The traditional pinned-ramp front sight would be replaced with a larger, easy-to-see high-visibility dot type. The adjustable rear sight would be replaced with the Cylinder & Slide fixed rear, for the sake of durability.
Another modification from the standard Model 67 would be for the gun to have an internal hammer, “Centennial” style, ala the model 642.
The enclosed hammer serves two purposes. Mainly, it removes one of the easiest ways for dirt and debris to get into the action. Also, it removes the temptation for handgun novices to cock the hammer. Trying to lower the hammer on a live chamber is one of the easiest ways to have a negligent discharge with a revolver, if the user is inexperienced.
I would also suggest changing the underlug profile to completely enclose the ejector rod. A possible option would be a second cylinder in 9mm NATO. Lastly, of course, the Service Revolver would have no pointless internal lock. The finish could either be parkerized steel or Melonite-blackened stainless steel, for resistance to the elements. Revolvers had modular grips before modular grips were cool, so each gun could be supplied with two or three types of grip, for shooters with different sized hands. A lanyard ring would protrude from the butt of the grip. One possibility to consider would be to replace the leaf-style mainspring with a more durable coil spring, as S&W does in their J-Frames. The resulting trigger pull isn’t as nice, but coil springs offer superior durability (and are easier for an armorer to replace).
Another option would be an aircrew-specific model of this revolver. Give it a Scandium-alloy frame to reduce weight, and shorten the barrel to 3”. It would resemble the S&W Model 15 Night Guard revolver, except with an enclosed hammer and a half-inch more barrel. Empty weight would be around 25 ounces.
If I had my way, I would also address the training issue. If this handgun became an Air Force specific weapon, then a basic handgun course should be part of BMT at Lackland AFB. Revolver marksmanship could be made a point of service-specific pride in a branch that, being honest, doesn’t emphasize the use of individual arms enough.
The next thing that would need to be addressed is the ammunition. Military-issue .38 Special ball ammo was anemic. It was a standard pressure round, propelling a 130-grain, round-nosed, full metal jacket bullet to about 950 feet per second. By way of comparison, the 9mm NATO round pushes a 124-grain FMJ to almost 1200 feet per second. A lightweight, low-velocity, round-nosed bullet is the perfect combination for terminal ineffectiveness.
This can be addressed, however, even if use of expanding bullets is precluded. Don’t forget, that heavy .38 Special loads are what were used to develop the .357 Magnum in the 1930s, and some factory loads available today push the envelope of what .38 Special can do. The best example that comes to mind is Buffalo Bore Ammunition. Their .38 Special is the only thing I carry in my .38 snubbies, and with standard pressures produces velocities on part with everyone else’s +P. Their +P .38 is fairly impressive.
Their 158-grain +P load clocks over 1100 feet per second from a four-inch barrel. That’s on par with many manufacturers’ watered-down .357 Magnum practice loads. With a flat-point, full metal jacket bullet, you’d get deep penetration and a respectable wound channel. Moreover, this ammunition would make for a better survival gun for downed aircrews. While a hot .38 isn’t ideal for defense against hungry critters, the .38/44 was originally marketed as an outdoor load, and it’s certainly preferable to 9mm ball.
Other ammunition types are a possibility as well. There could field a reduced-recoil practice load, a frangible, low-velocity load for inexpensive indoor ranges, even a soft armor piercing round (yes, such things have existed). You could even develop a Simunition-type round, something that can only be chambered and fired in a special blue replacement cylinder, for force-on-force training.
That’s my proposal. Once again, the Airmen more likely to carry a weapon into combat would be issued the M9, or whatever swoopy, high-speed pistol one thinks the military should use. For my part, I’d have much rather had such a revolver in Afghanistan than the M9. I mean, sure, it only holds six shots, but I also had an M4 and was almost always with a bunch of grunts ready to stack bodies. In that environment, the revolver vs. semiauto argument is all but moot.
If you think revolvers are awesome, you should buy my books. If you think this article is stupid and that I’m also stupid, my books have nothing to do with proposals to give revolvers to the Air Force, so you should still buy them.