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Iconic Firepower: Aircrew Sidearms

Iconic Firepower: Aircrew Sidearms

The last ditch defense

By Barrett Tillman

Murvaux, France, September 29, 1918. The mortally wounded American ace slid from his SPAD and staggered into the tall grass. As German infantry approached he drew his Colt M1911 pistol and prepared to die fighting. The Arizonan fired at least three rounds in the dusk encounter before he fell dead.

The legend of Frank Luke is the best-known example of combat aircrew using a sidearm. Ever since the Great War, military airmen have carried pistols and revolvers for protection or for signaling. Baron Manfred von Richthofen had a Luger when he was killed in action five months before Luke. If either weapon could be found, it would bring an immense sum.

At least one British flier claimed a victory with a .45 Colt automatic. In May 1917, Lt. H.E. Ellis engaged German fighters in his Nieuport 17, downing one before running out of machine gun ammo. Closing the distance on another, he emptied his Colt’s seven-round magazine into the Albatros, which reportedly side-slipped and crashed. That same month, the crew of an FE-2 pusher exhausted its Lewis and Vickers ammo and continued the fight with pistols.

In World War II, airmen of every nation carried sidearms. Japanese fliers usually had Nambus for suicide rather than be captured — the ultimate disgrace. Perhaps the greatest combat flier of all time was Colonel Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the legendary Stuka pilot credited with more than 500 Soviet armored vehicles. He flew with a 6.35mm pistol — the .25 cal. round being a puny cartridge for self defense. When asked about his choice, Rudel replied, “I have never been a pessimist!”

British Commonwealth aircrew most often carried. 38 cal. six-shot Webley and Enfield revolvers. The standard configuration with an intact hammer permitted single- or double-action firing but those “dehorned” to prevent the hammer snagging were limited to double action. However, some RAF aircrew preferred the harder-hitting .455 cal. Webleys of Great War vintage, and America contributed “wheelguns” from Colt and Smith & Wesson.

U.S. airmen in Europe could carry weapons if they wished, but rumor held that a gun was a death sentence in Nazi Germany. However, probably hundreds of Allied fliers were murdered by outraged civilians, and a pistol might have bought precious time until military or police could arrive. Anticipating that possibility, Colonel David Schilling, commander of the famed 56th Fighter Group, had his ordnance shop produce a 20-round magazine for his .45 pistol.

In the vastness of the Pacific, pistols were more useful for signaling than defense, though capture by the Japanese was never a cheery prospect. Many airmen carried Smith & Wesson Victory Model revolvers with .38 cal. tracer ammunition. However, top Marine Corps ace Joe Foss augmented his .45 M1911 with a Colt Woodsman and a “brick” of 500 rounds of .22 long rifle in his F4F Wildcat.

During the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force issued the M6 survival weapon, a combination .22 rifle and .410 shotgun. The AR-7 was a .22 semiauto rifle usually carried disassembled in the plastic stock for ease of transport.

In the Vietnam War, U.S. fliers often carried rifles in their aircraft. Forward air controllers in O-1 and O-2 spotter planes favored CAR-15s, “shorty” versions of the controversial M16 infantry weapon. So did helicopter crews, who had the added advantage of dismounting an M60 machine gun if needed.

That philosophy was proven at least once. In 1967, the reconnaissance navigator in an A-5C Vigilante ejected over the enemy coast and alit in knee-deep water. Two North Vietnamese seized his visible .38 revolver and marched him toward captivity. When low-flying aircraft distracted them, the RAN produced his .25 hideout gun, shot one would-be captor, and escaped seaward where a helo machine-gunned the other.

To quote Commander “Hoser” Satrapa: Just because you’re on the ground doesn’t mean the fight’s over.

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