Introductory Note: This feature article that I’ve written is a bit unusual for SurvivalBlog. I wrote it mostly out of my personal interest in military history. It only has limited practical application, but I’m sure that many readers will find it interesting. You will note that I’ve made it heavy on photographs, since those images often speak volumes, just by themselves.
There has been very little documented about privately-owned weapons used by members of modern military organizations. Regulations on Privately-Owned Weapons vary widely, but generally, they have grown more restrictive with the passage of time. Because of these regulations, personal memoirs often gloss over the possession of such weapons. But you often see them pop up in circulated photos taken in combat zones.
Up until the Spanish-American War, U.S. military officers and NCOs could carry whichever sidearm they chose. But increasingly, standardization became an issue–at least stateside. Overseas, in combat, things even today are still more freewheeling, especially at the sharp end. And there definitely seems to be a double standard for special operations forces. More recently, with the advent of private security contractors, some additional “gray areas” have developed.
In England and the rest of the British Empire, privately-owned sidearms for commissioned officers were still allowed up until the 1930s. In fact, the contracted private companies that provided commissary services often sold sidearms to serving officers, overseas. For example, the “WG” Army Model Webley revolvers were widely sold by the Army & Navy Cooperative Society, Ltd. (C.S.L.) stores and other retailers to British officers in the 1880s and 1890s.
Vague About The Hague
Many times, I’ve heard it suggested that restrictions on privately-owned sidearms developed because of Declaration III of the Hague Convention, which banned the use of expanding (mushrooming) bullets. The U.S. government has never been a signatory to that portion of the Hague Convention, but we’ve largely abided by it. Although we do have a penchant for military shotguns, which many European military leaders consider “barbaric.” And most recently, the U.S. Army adopted a hollowpoint 9mm cartridge.
Most western militaries refer to Privately-Owned Weapons as POWs. No, they don’t use the POW acronym for Prisoners of War. Those are called PWs (Prisoners of War) or EPWs (Enemy Prisoners of War.) Again, up until the 1900s, POW sidearms were the norm for commissioned officers and NCOs in most western armies.
Some Notable POWs and Owners
Now I’d like to dive into specifics on some noteworthy owners and carriers of POWs. Not all of these individuals followed regulations. For some high-ranking officers, such regulations were seen as non-applicable to themselves–which is to say: “Guns for me, but not for thee.”
Lord Lovat’s Winchester
Lord Lovat (Brigadier Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, 4th Baron Lovat ) was born in 1911 and died in 1995. As a Lieutenant colonel, he famously carried a commercial Winchester Model 70 chambered in .30-06 when leading the August, 1942 British commando raid on Dieppe. In the Hollywood movie The Longest Day, they depicted Lord Lovat (portrayed by Peter Lawford) carrying a Mannlicher rifle on D-Day. But in his memoirs Lovat asserted that he had carried a standard U.S. M1 Carbine. That was a weapon not formally adopted by the British military, but Rank Hath Its Privileges (RHIP).
Winston Churchill’s Mauser
In his early years, Winston Churchill carried his own commercially purchased C.96 Broomhandle Mauser pistol. The image at the top of this article is a still from the 1972 movie Young Winston, starring Simon Ward. Here is an account mentioning that pistol, and Churchill’s capture, during the Second Anglo-Boer War:
“Churchill had accompanied an armored train which was ambushed by the Boers on its way to Ladysmith. While technically a non-combatant, he had been armed with his Mauser pistol and had volunteered his services to the train’s commander, Captain Aylmer Haldane, after the train came under fire. Several rail cars had been derailed by Boer artillery, preventing the engine from retreating to safety. Under constant machine gun and artillery fire from the Boers, Churchill directed the clearing of the line, helped load wounded onto the engine’s tender and then accompanied the engine to safety at Frere Station. After doing so, he returned on foot to the action to assist the remaining wounded and was captured.
One of the wounded officers who Churchill helped lead to safety called him “as brave a man as could be found.”
Brave, but forgetful. In returning to help the wounded, Churchill had left his Mauser on the engine, so that he was unarmed when confronted by a Boer rifleman on a horse. Churchill described the moment of his capture in My Early Life:
“I thought there was absolutely no chance of escape, if he fired he would surely hit me, so I held up my hands and surrendered myself a prisoner of war. ‘When one is alone and unarmed,’ said the great Napoleon, in words which flowed into my mind in the poignant minutes that followed, ‘a surrender may be pardoned.’”
Unfortunately for Churchill, his daring exploits in rescuing the train were widely reported in the press by his fellow correspondents. These news reports undermined his efforts to persuade the Boers to release him on the grounds that he was a noncombatant. Churchill claimed in a letter to the Boer Secretary of State for War that he had taken “no part in the defence of the armoured train” and was “quite unarmed.” The Boers weren’t fooled.
Some POWs have had almost legendary status. Most notably, General Patton’s ivory-gripped .45 Colt Colt Single Action revolvers. For some reason, American journalists spilled a lot of ink, over them. Perhaps it was because they were a physical manifestation of Patton’s larger than life personality. Most of Patton’s guns are now on display at the post museum at Fort Knox, Kentucky. And even today, they attract just as much attention from tourists as do the hundreds of tons of tanks and other vehicles that are on display, out front.
Mad Jack’s Longbow
Several times in SurvivalBlog, I’ve mentioned the eccentric “Mad Jack” Churchill (1906-1996). He went to war in WWII with his service revolver, but also armed with a broadsword and a longbow. He reportedly used that longbow to kill at least two German sentries.
Captured Lugers, Walthers, and Nambus
Aside from samuari swords, the most prized war trophies in World War II were captured enemy service pistols. In Europe, this often meant Lugers P.08 pistols or Walther P.38 pistols, and in the Pacific theater, these were usually Nambu pistols. Though these captured guns were often stuffed deep into dufflebags to avoid theft, some servicemembers actually carried captured pistols for their self-defense, in combat. More often than not, these captured guns were later carried home to the States –with or without the benefit of official War Trophy capture papers.
After World War II, there were a huge number of captured guns that went into circulation in the United States. They have gradually been traded back and forth between collectors, and their prices have increased dramatically. Some of these “bring back” guns were fully automatic. But only a small fraction of those were legally registered, with a $200 Federal Transfer Tax stamp. The unregistered ones are considered contraband and are a felony to possess. Even today, 70+ years later, submachineguns, sturmgewehren, and light macineguns, are being found in the homes of deceased World War II veterans.
Each branch of the U.S. Military has its own regulations on POWs. For the U.S. Army, it is AR 190-11. Component commands, individual forts, and troop units can institute their own regulations and SOPs, right down to the Company level. Here is one example, for Fort Riley. and here is one for Fort Benning.
For the U.S. Navy, the key regulation is CNRMA Instruction 5820.2.
The U.S. Air Force has a similar regulation, but like the U.S. Army, a lot of the rulemaking is left up to subordinate commands and by individual installation commanders. In January of this year, there was a huge kerfluffle when the Commander of Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska banned privately owned weapons from being locked in privately owned vehicles (POVs) that ware driven on base–even if the owner had a civilian concealed carry permit.
The Army’s AR190-11’s section on POWs is fairly brief, and it intentionally leaves a lot up to individual commanders:
“4–5. Privately–owned weapons and ammunition
a.Commanders will establish procedures and publicize punitive policies that regulate privately–owned weapons, explosives, or ammunition on the installation. Such policies will provide for—(1) Registration of firearms belonging to personnel living on the installation.(2) Procedures for the carrying and use of weapons by hunters and marksmanship shooters using installation firing ranges.(3) Identification of prohibited weapons, such as crossbows, numchucks, swords, throwing stars.b.The carrying of privately–owned weapons, explosives, or ammunition on military installations are prohibited unless authorized by the installation commander or his designated representative.(1) Signs will be posted at installation access control points depicting this prohibition.(2) This prohibition does not apply to the lawful performance of official duties by an officer, agent, or employee of the United States, a State, or a political subdivision thereof, who is authorized by law to engage in or supervise the prevention, detection, investigation, or prosecution of any violation of law or security duties.c.Commanders will ensure privately–owned arms and ammunition (including authorized war trophies) are protected on their installations and facilities. Commanders will—(1) Secure arms and ammunition belonging to Soldiers living on the installation in the installation armory or unit arms rooms in approved locked containers separate from the military AA&E. Storage requirements in this regulation apply.(2) Installation commanders may authorize storage of these items in other locations on military installations, provided they are properly secured.(3) Account for and inventory the privately–owned arms and ammunition by conducting inventories when inventory-ing Government arms and ammunition.
(a)A DA Form 3749 (Equipment Receipt) will be issued for each privately–owned weapon secured in the arms rooms. (b)Privately–owned weapons will be inventoried in conjunction with, and at the frequency of, the inventory ofGovernment weapons.(c)Commanders will establish limits on the quantity and type of privately–owned ammunition stored in the arms room, based upon availability of space and safety considerations.(4) Post applicable local regulations and State and local law information on ownership, registration, and possession of weapons and ammunition on unit bulletin boards.(5) Conduct inspections per AR 190–13 and this regulation to ensure proper storage and control.(6) Process unauthorized AA&E in accordance with AR 195–5.(7) Prohibit retention and storage of incendiary devices and explosives.(8) Brief all newly assigned persons on this regulation and subordinate command guidance. All personnel will be made aware of changes.d.Personnel keeping or storing privately–owned arms and ammunition (including authorized war trophies) on military installation will—(1) Comply with Federal, State, and local laws and regulations on ownership, possession, registration, off–post transport, and use.(2) Store both arms and ammunition in the unit arms room or other locations authorized by the installation commander.(3) Follow local security and safety regulations. Safeguard the unit issued DA Form 3749 for turn–in to the unit armorer when the weapon is withdrawn from the arms room.(4) Withdraw privately–owned weapons and ammunition from the unit arms rooms only upon approval of the unit commander or the commander’s authorized representative.(5) Comply with the National Firearms Act and other relevant laws and regulations when receiving or bringing arms into the United States. Automatic arms must be turned over to the BATF or brought under Army control.” – (AR 190–11 • 15 November 2006)
The other branches of the U.S. military have similar regulations.
Special Forces Leeway
The various special operations forces (SOF) have had a long tradition of carrying non-standard firearms. Some of these were officially issued and accounted for–such as the “training” AKMS rifles issued to U.S. Army Special Forces teams. And cross-border penetration teams often carry foreign weapons, to avoid detection. But a surprising number of guns–especially handguns–carried overseas by SOF troops have been privately owned (or captured) and “off the books.” In the case of captured guns, these were typically left behind with other unit members, whenever someone was rotated back to the United States. But in a few instances, there were un-papered “bring backs” that resulted in either UCMJ or civilian prosecution.
Those Rambunctious Aviators
During World War II, U.S. military aviators were authorized to carry pistols. Usually, these were just standard-issue S&W Victory Model K-frame .38 Special revolvers, or M1911A1 .45 ACPs. These were carried in both hip holsters and shoulder holsters. Often, holsters were made by civilian leatherworkers. Militray pilots are well-known for their larger-than-life personalities. Many pilots carried one or more pistols that they had privately purchased in place of, or to supplement their issued pitol or revolver. These ranged from Colt .32 ACP pistols to family heirloom big-bore Colts and S&W revolvers.
Some pilots modified their issued sidearms with custom grips or carried them in custom-made holsters–often made by native craftsmen. Pictured at the right is Lt. Col. David C Schilling, a P-47 fighter-bomber pilot who carried a M1911A1 modifed to full-auto fire, with a specially-made extended magazine, and equipped with a custom foregrip.
As a teenager, while on a family hunting trip, I was privileged to meet Alan Shepard. (He was no relation to the astronaut of the same name.) Shepard was a friend of my father’s who had been a B-17 co-pilot with the 8th Air Force during World War II. He recounted to me the guns that he carried when flying over Germany and occupied France: In addition to his issue M1911A1, he carried a non-regulation M1 Carbine that he had his crew chief cut down for him. The stock was cut off just behind the pistol grip. He did this, thinking that if he ever had to bail out in a hurry, that an M1 Carbine with a standard stock would be too long to maneuver out of the bomber.
Some World War II aviators quietly “requisitioned” firearms from other military services. One of my mother’s cousins was Colonel William Shuttles, a B-17 pilot and squadron commander. He told me that he carried three guns and a dozen magazines with him, whenever he flew bomber missions: His issued M1911A1 .45, a commercial Colt .380, and a British Sten submachinegun. (The latter was carried party-disassembled, in a separate “bailout bag” that he could clip on to his parachute harness) Late in the war, as the allies advanced through Germany, Colonel Shuttles shipped home several seven-foot-long metal-banded wooden crates full of captured German guns, packed in sawdust. These were sent to his family home in Dallas, Texas. When I viewed his amazing collection, he recounted how he had stenciled those crates: “Body With Personal Effects.” The collection ranged from an Artillery Luger, to Spandau water-cooled machineguns, and even a cannon removed from a Messerschmitt Bf 109. All of his full-autos were registered, just after the war. But this is a lengthy tale suitable for an article unto itself.
In later conflicts, the tradition of POWs for aviators continued, with many willfully flouting regulations. In addition to sidearms for personal protection, many pilots and other aircrewmen carried .22 rimfire guns, for hunting small game, in case they were shot down in a remote area. The Air Force had officially-issued “Survival Guns” which were available in just small numbers. But many pilots carried their own .22 pistols–most commonly those made by Hi-Standard, or Colt Woodsman pistols.
Guns From Home to Vietnam
American servicemen in the Vietnam War had a fairly large number of privately-owned weapons. These were either guns from home, or captured weapons, or a variety of guns bought on the black market from ARVN soldiers. The “status symbol” guns for both aviators and ground troops were .357 magnum revolvers. In some instances, soldiers would have family members mail them handguns or disassembled long guns. These were mostly riot shotguns, But a few soldiers asked for — and received via mail — their trusty .30-30 Winchester carbines. To 21st Century readers this might sound hard to believe, but it really happened.
PMAGs in Iraq
As time has marched on, the U.S. military has become downright picayune about restricting POWs, and even accessories like bayonets and magazines. Here is a good example: By 2012 it had become common practice for parents to send MagPul PMAG polymer magazines to their deployed sons and daughters, because they were more sturdy and reliable than the standard-issue aluminum alloy M16 magazines. And some servicemembers simply mail-ordered their own, and had them mailed to their APO or FPO addresses. Now even though PMAGs met full military specifications and had even been assigned their own National Stock Numbers (NSNs) there was a minor uproar about them, in the Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) theater. It seems that some general officers were miffed that some of their troops were seen carrying “non-standard” magazines, so they locally-issued orders banning them. Soon, they were banned, army-wide. Also in 2012, the Marine Corps issued a similar order, MARADMIN 668/12. These PMAG bans nearly caused mutinies in some Army and USMC units. For a while, there were conflicting orders at various levels of command. To further complicate things, in late 2016 the U.S. Marine Corps formally approved and adopted the PMAG, for general issue. Then, in 2017, the U.S. Air Force followed suit.
But it was not until 2018 that this controversy was resolved, when the U.S. Army finally approved MagPul PMAGs for issue. But in the six intervening years, there were a lot of individual officers, NCOs, and enlisted soldiers that just plain flouted the regulations. Typically, local commanders showed discernment and let this practice slide, Everyone knew that the regulation wasn’t enforced–that is, unless there was a visiting ranking officer expected to arrive at a Forward Operating Base (FOB)–and the word would go out: “Hide your PMAGs!”
In my opinion, any active duty or reserve officer or NCO should be able to carry whatever weapon he pleases, on-post or off-post, and whether deployed or stateside. But regulations say otherwise. Since we live in the age of global terrorism, I’m hopeful that common sense will prevail, and these regulations will change. (A hint to DJT.)
I should also mention that the recent adoption of the modular SIG M17 and M18 pistols might create a new gray area. Since technically the serialized trigger group module constitutes the issued weapon, what is stop local commanders from allowing their officers and NCOs to buy whatever style SIG P320 9mm that they desire, for field carry? The issued trigger group module could be popped into an unserialized pistol frame. After all, the ammunition and magazines are interchangeable. Just some food for thought, and grounds for further research.
I look forward to your comments. – JWR