Although the Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol became the standard sidearm of the United States military in 1911, the revolver continued to be in use throughout World War I and World War II. Indeed, there was a similar mix in the use of semi-automatics and revolvers in the British, French and German militaries in the early twentieth century. I admit that for years I was insufficiently curious about why this was so. If I had hazarded a guess, I might have supposed it had to do with the general reliability of the revolver. (I have met people in the present day who still prefer revolvers to semi-automatics.) That explanation is partly true, but is not the whole story. The Colt 1911 semi-automatic pistol, or M1911, is pretty reliable and has only recently been replaced as the sidearm of choice by some U.S. military units. (It is very heavy compared, for example, to the Glock 19, which was recently adopted by U.S. Marine special operations units.)
No, the primary reason that the revolver did not disappear from military use with the advent of the semi-automatic pistol was that World War I and World War II each came as such a surprise that supplies of all kinds of weapons were insufficient for the suddenly expanding armies. In the United States during the First World War, production of the M1911 semi-automatics could not be geared up fast enough. Consequently, the two major U.S. arms contractors, Smith & Wesson and Colt, went back to making revolvers since the machines and technicians were still available to manufacture them.
Smith & Wesson already was an experienced producer of revolvers for World War I. Great Britain, too, had had a shortage of arms at the outset of the war; so the British bought many .45 revolvers from S&W. (Later, at the outset of World War II, they would order a number of S&W-made .38 revolvers.) S&W’s production of revolvers for the British in 1915 prepared them to be ready to produce similar revolvers for the United States when it entered the war two years later. The resulting revolver was designated the M1917, and Colt was also allowed to manufacture the same revolver with the same designation.
Other countries had similar problems in World War I. The French outsourced semi-automatic sidearm production to Spain, which produced a semi-automatic called the Ruby. Unfortunately for many French soldiers, the too great demand for these pistols led the original Spanish producer to subcontract the manufacture of the Ruby to other Spanish companies, which often produced pistols that were inferior and which did not fit with the same replacement parts or even the same ammunition. (Despite its dismal reputation, the Ruby nevertheless reappeared in service throughout the first half of the twentieth century, mainly in guerrilla campaigns and the armies of poorer countries.) Under such circumstances, French soldiers preferred revolvers whenever they were available. Some soldiers in other armies, including the U.S., also preferred revolvers. Incidentally, reserves of older guns were not ignored in either World War. Stockpiles of old revolvers were always brought out and refurbished as needed. (In World War II, the walnut stocks on the M1917s were replaced with hard plastic so that they could be put back in service.)
During World War II, S&W made a .38 revolver for the U.S. Navy that was similar to the one they made for the British, except that it had a shorter barrel. These were ideal for Navy and Marine aviators who always want light-weight and compact gear with them in the cockpit so that it is not in their way when they do not need it but, nevertheless, will be at hand in case they survive a crash in enemy territory. The new .38 revolvers made by S&W in World War II were designated the “Victory Model” or “V” series. (Everything in World War II was designated Victory-this or Victory-that whether in a theater of combat or on the Home Front; a private vegetable patch, for example, was called a “victory garden.”) All these revolvers had serial numbers that began with “V” or “VS.” (President Harry S Truman was the owner of serial number V1.) These and other revolvers were often issued to security guards, both military and civilian. (So they often ended up on the Home Front.)
It is worth remembering that despite the proliferation of revolvers and their use by Navy aviators, Air Corps pilots and security personnel including Military Police and Shore Patrol, the M1911 semi-automatic continued to be the official sidearm of the U.S. military. (During World War II, my father was a private in the Third Armored Division, which was part of the First Army under General Omar Bradley, and his assigned weapons were a Thompson sub-machinegun and a Colt semi-automatic pistol. BTW, he once told me that he had found it preferable to use the machinegun outdoors and the pistol indoors.)
You might have expected that the end of World War II, with the reduced size of the military, should have meant that now there were enough semi-automatic pistols to go around, so that the revolver would have been phased out for military use; yet revolvers—primarily .38s rather than .45s—continued to be issued and used. New ones were actually ordered from manufacturers, though primarily for use by security forces and flight crews. In service from 1951 to 1959, the M13—also designated the Aircrewman—was a .38 revolver that was designed for the U.S. Air Force by Colt but was also produced by S&W. It had a two-inch steel barrel but an aluminum frame and cylinder. Because this cylinder could not take the explosive force of a regular .38 cartridge, the gun was practically useless unless supplied with special ammunition. When the M13s were decommissioned, they were not only recalled but destroyed so that there are very few left. (Indeed, I strongly suspect that this was because the military was afraid of these guns falling into the hands of civilians who would injure themselves by using the wrong ammunition.) It was replaced with standard .38 revolvers such as the kind used by policemen (before the police began to go semi-automatic in the 1980s).
At the end of 1977, the last revolvers ordered by the United States military were 6,500 Ruger .38s, which went primarily to the security forces of the military (i.e., Military Police and Shore Patrol). Though some of these revolvers continued in use until the end of the twentieth century, they have since been largely replaced by semi-automatic pistols.