What Was the Best Combat Handgun of World War 2?

by Vern Evans
The Germans employed scads of different pistol designs, many of which were stolen from occupied territories. Will Dabbs MD Photo

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Rivers of ink have been spilt over that simple query: what was the best combat handgun used in WW2? With virtually the entire planet aflame, each combatant country threw their everything into military production. The end result influences the tactical landscape to this day. So, let’s take a look at what each country did that is notable in the realm of handgun development during the big one.

Japan

The Japanese fielded some truly ghastly combat pistols during WW2. From l to r: Type 14 Nambu, the Type 26 and the Tiype 94. Will Dabbs MD

I think we can all agree that they sucked the most. Most officers bought their own sidearms, so there was a great deal of variation in the field. The Type 14 Nambu was decent though underpowered. The Type 94 was an abomination. The magazine floorplate was not positively retained, so the thing had a nasty habit of ejecting its magazine spring at inopportune moments. The grip tapered from top to bottom, so it always feels like the gun is about to squirt out of your hand when you gripped it hard. And then there is the exposed sear bar such that the weapon would go off if you squeezed the sides or set it down vigorously on an uneven surface.

All that pales in comparison to the Type 26 revolver. The Type 26 is beautifully executed but hopelessly flawed. The lockwork inexplicably opens up for maintenance, as though that was actually a thing. The unforgivable sin, however, was that the cylinder was not positively retained. Fire a round or two, move about vigorously, and the gun may or may not be ready to index to a hot chamber when needed. Wow!

United States

The American M1911A1 was as manly a handgun as has ever been made. Will Dabbs MD Photo

The origin story of the Colt M1911A1 .45 pistol should be foundational dogma to all of us by now. Like the country that made it, the 1911 was big, heavy, loud and mean. The single-action trigger meant it could not be safely carried with a round in the chamber and the hammer down, but that same trigger had such a sweet personality. The 230-grain .45 ACP bullet was fully twice as massive as its European 9mm counterparts. Some might complain about the gun’s ample size and mass, but they are all losers. Tens of thousands of dead enemies would attest to that.

England

British Enfield and Webley revolvers were rugged and effective though a bit long in the tooth by the Second World War. Will Dabbs MD

The Webley and Enfield revolvers were some of the finest wheelguns used during WW2, but they still reflected yesterday’s technology. The chamberings were relatively anemic, and you still had to fumble with individual cartridges to keep the guns fed. That’s no mean feat under fire. However, these were some sweet-shooting revolvers, and they were rugged as tire irons.

Russia

The TT33 Tokarev was effective enough as a straggler control tool. Will Dabbs MD Photo

The TT33 Tokarev was another Browning design that would honestly make a better concealed carry pocket gun than a service pistol. The small-caliber, high-velocity 7.62x25mm round was lightyears ahead of its time, but the gun lacked a manual safety, so there’s that. However, it was just the ticket for shooting some poor shmuck in the back of the nugget when he didn’t feel like charging German MG42’s.

The M1895 Nagant pistol was more complicated than the human female and fired a weird telescoped round that was way more complex than was necessary. The design cammed the cylinder forward to form a tight gas seal over the barrel at the moment of firing, but that was utterly superfluous. The Nagant would have been a novelty in WW1. By WW2, it was just sad.

Germany

It is amazing that the guys who brought us the Tiger tank and V-2 rocket actually issued such anemic little guns as this Walther PPK. Will Dabbs MD

The krauts fielded dozens of different pistols, a great many of which were chambered for .32 ACP. That the same guys who brought us the Tiger tank could issue such pathetic little handguns is a vexing question for the ages. However, we will focus our attention on the P08 Luger and the P38.

Designed based upon inspiration from the human knee joint, Georg Luger’s P08 Parabellum was hands-down the most elegant handgun of the war. It was also the alpha souvenir for GI’s wishing to impress their girlfriends and younger siblings back home. However, the exposed nature of the action made it susceptible to fouling, and the trigger kind of sucked unnecessarily.

The Walther P38 was arguably the most advanced pistol design of WW2, but its single-stack eight-round magazine was underwhelming. Additionally, the heel-mounted magazine release kept the gun from reaching its full tactical potential. However, the single-action, double-action trigger inspired an entire generation of wonder nine pistols, and the gun was likely the safest of the lot to carry and get into action quickly.

My Fave

The Browning Hi-Power was certainly a player, too, but there never were very many of those, relatively speaking. However, in the final analysis, who cares? Handguns don’t win wars. Trucks do—or other transport does—as you have to get soldiers into the fight before what they are toting really matters. A soldier’s pistol, however, is oftentimes his most intimate personal possession, though it is vanishingly rare that he actually has to use it.

In the final analysis, I am partial to the M1911A1 myself, but I am unashamedly biased. That thing was a beast. However, truth be known, had we never issued a single combat handgun, we still would have won the war. Nuclear weapons and thousand-bomber raids made sure of that. Regardless, it is a timelessly enjoyable exercise to pick apart the details of all the handguns made during that crazy time in history, and see who, even today, comes out on top.

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