Savage Model 1907: Why Didn’t the U.S. Army Adopt This Handsome Pistol?

 In Land, Philippines, Forces & Capabilities

Key Point: The 1907 Savage, a weapon that grew out of the need to give American sol­diers more fire­pow­er, found favor with European mil­i­taries.

In the 1939 movie The Real Glory, elite U.S. Army offi­cers arrive in the south­ern Philippines to mold the Filipinos into a mil­i­tary force to defend their vil­lages against maraud­ing Moro tribes­men. In one scene, a burly, sword-wield­ing Moro attacks the Army unit’s com­man­der. The Moro charges through a hail of lead unleashed by other offi­cers, includ­ing Dr. Bill Canavan (Gary Cooper), and fatal­ly wounds the colonel before suc­cumb­ing to the gun­fire.

Later, Canavan drops five spent bul­lets from the Moro’s body on a table in front of his fellow offi­cers and the parish priest. “I thought I missed when I shot at that jura­men­ta­do, but I guess I didn’t,” Canavan said. “He had enough lead in him to sink a bat­tle­ship. I wonder what kept the beggar going with all those slugs in him. Must be some drug.”

The scene was real­is­tic. During the Army’s early years in the Philippines, such inci­dents cre­at­ed a crisis of faith among U.S. sol­diers — faith in their weapons. That crisis led the Army to adopt one of the most famous firearms in his­to­ry, the 1911 Colt, but the out­come might have been very dif­fer­ent. Generations of American sol­diers might have gone into battle with 1907 Savages instead.

The Need For Increased Stopping Power

The trou­ble began in 1899. When the United States won the Spanish-American War and annexed the Philippines as a colony, it unex­pect­ed­ly entered a con­flict more costly, longer, and dead­lier than the war with Spain had been. The Moro tribes­men of the south­ern Philippines proved espe­cial­ly dif­fi­cult to subdue. Fiercely inde­pen­dent, fanat­i­cal, coura­geous in battle, and preda­to­ry, the Moros had never sub­mit­ted to the Spanish and proved no more will­ing to accept their new American over­lords.

A short­age of American troops at the onset of the Philippine insur­rec­tion in 1899 delayed a show­down between the U.S. Army and the Moros, but once Emilio Aguinaldo’s rebel forces sur­ren­dered in 1901, the Americans moved to deal with the Moros. After diplo­mat­ic efforts to con­cil­i­ate the Moros failed, U.S. troops quick­ly bested them in open battle.

Unable to defeat the Americans in con­ven­tion­al combat, the Moros resort­ed to jura­men­ta­do attacks, a tactic modern mil­i­tary ana­lysts call “asym­met­ri­cal war­fare.”

Using edged weapons, jura­men­ta­dos attacked and killed American offi­cers. The Moros’ remark­able abil­i­ty to absorb gun­fire and their fanat­i­cal deter­mi­na­tion to kill their vic­tims unnerved American sol­diers much as it had the Spaniards. The jura­men­ta­do might shout, “There is no god but Allah!” as he charged, giving the tar­get­ed offi­cer time to draw his ser­vice revolver and fire on his attack­er, but often the jura­men­ta­do, due in part to an adren­a­lin rush and spe­cial prepa­ra­tions to slow blood loss, died of his wounds only after killing his victim.

As such inci­dents mount­ed, sol­diers cursed their stan­dard issue 1892 Colt New Army revolvers and the .38-cal­iber Long Colt car­tridge they fired. Like most Western nations, during the late 19th cen­tu­ry the United States adopt­ed small­er cal­iber weapons for its mil­i­tary small arms. Then cur­rent wisdom held that small­er pro­jec­tiles trav­el­ing at higher veloc­i­ties would inflict at least as much damage on a target as slower moving, larger cal­iber bul­lets, while impart­ing less recoil and enabling sol­diers to fire more accu­rate­ly.

While the 1892 double-action Colt revolver with its swing-out cylin­der fired and reloaded more quick­ly and weighed less than the single-action Colt 1873 revolver it replaced, it also fired a pro­jec­tile less than two-thirds the weight of the 1873’s .45-cal­iber Long Colt car­tridge. Worse still, the .38 Long Colt deliv­ered little more than half the energy of the .45.

American sol­diers did not require tech­ni­cal expla­na­tions for the .38 Long Colt’s inad­e­qua­cies. They observed the results first­hand in combat. Army Colonel Louis A. LaGarde described one such inci­dent. In October 1905, a Filipino named Antonio Caspi escaped from a prison on the island of Samar. During the escape, sol­diers fired on Caspi with their New Army revolvers. Three .38 Long Colt bul­lets fired at close range struck him in the chest, pen­e­trat­ing his lungs. A fourth wound­ed his hand and fore­arm. Still, Caspi remained unsub­dued until a sol­dier felled him with a blow to the head from the butt of his car­bine.

The Thompson-LaGarde Tests: “A Caliber Not Less Than 0.45”

Long before the Philippines, the Army knew it needed more effec­tive small arms, and its search for a better mil­i­tary hand­gun had already begun. The Spanish-American War revealed the Army’s rifles and side arms were less effec­tive and less modern than their European coun­ter­parts. In 1900, the Army ordered 1,000.30-caliber Lugers from Germany and 475 Colt model 1900 semi-auto­mat­ic pis­tols and issued them to U.S. Cavalry units for field test­ing. The Swiss Army had adopt­ed the Luger as its mil­i­tary pistol in 1900. Germany’s army and navy would soon follow suit, but the .30-cal­iber Luger didn’t impress American cav­al­ry­men. During the late 19th-cen­tu­ry Indian wars, the cav­al­ry car­ried most of the burden of combat, rely­ing heav­i­ly on their side arms. The ele­gant, small-bore Luger did not strike the expe­ri­enced horse sol­diers as an ade­quate man-stop­per.

As an emer­gency mea­sure, the Army reis­sued the old 1873 Colt single-action revolvers to its sol­diers. The Army also ordered 4,600 double-action 1902 Colt revolvers, also called the Philippine Constabulary or Alaskan Models, which were Colt Model 1878 revolvers redesigned to cham­ber the .45-cal­iber Long Colt car­tridge, as a stop­gap hand­gun. The year before the Caspi episode, LaGarde had already con­clud­ed that American sol­diers needed a more potent sidearm.
In 1904, LaGarde, a sur­geon in the Army’s med­ical corps, presided over a series of tests to deter­mine the opti­mum cal­iber and con­fig­u­ra­tion for a mil­i­tary pistol or revolver. Working with Captain John T. Thompson, who later invent­ed the Thompson sub­ma­chine gun, the team tested the lethal­i­ty of var­i­ous weapons. The Thompson-LaGarde tests were con­tro­ver­sial, with some crit­ics con­tend­ing that the team had rigged the tests to sup­port their pref­er­ence for a large-cal­iber hand­gun. The team also fired bul­lets into human cadav­ers and live horses and cattle, prac­tices some found objec­tion­able.

However valid its sci­en­tif­ic tech­niques, the team report­ed its find­ings in no uncer­tain terms: “After mature delib­er­a­tion, the Board finds that a bullet which will have the shock effect and stop­ping power at short ranges nec­es­sary for a mil­i­tary pistol or revolver should have a cal­iber not less than 0.45.” The report called for improved marks­man­ship train­ing, insist­ing that “sol­diers armed with pis­tols or revolvers should be drilled unremit­ting­ly in the accu­ra­cy of fire, and that the vital parts of the body, their loca­tion, and dis­tri­b­u­tion should be intel­li­gent­ly explained.” It was good advice, but the Army focused on the common-sense con­clu­sion the sol­diers had already reached. They needed a pistol firing a bigger bullet.

Colt, Luger, and Savage

With the Thompson-LaGarde tests in mind, the Army invit­ed arms man­u­fac­tur­ers to par­tic­i­pate in a prac­ti­cal com­pe­ti­tion to be held in 1906 to select a replace­ment for the Colt New Army revolver. Only a hand­ful of com­pa­nies— White-Merrill, Knoble, Bergmann, Deutsche Waffen und Fabriken Munitions (the man­u­fac­tur­er of the Luger), Webley, Colt, and Savage— sub­mit­ted entries. Following European mil­i­tary trends, most of the test weapons were semi-auto­mat­ic hand­guns.

Before the tests began in earnest, the Army reject­ed most of the entrants as unsuit­able and focused mainly on the Colt, Luger, and Savage pis­tols. After some delays, the pistol trials began in January 1907. From the begin­ning, Colt’s entry enjoyed an advan­tage. The Colt Company had exist­ed since 1848 and had sup­plied revolvers to the Texas Rangers, U.S. Army, and U.S. Navy since the Civil War. From the 1870s into the 20th cen­tu­ry, Colt’s 1873 Single Action Army and New Army models equipped the U.S. Army.

The hand­guns Colt sub­mit­ted to the Ordnance Board fol­low­ing the Spanish-American War were designed by the great­est cre­ative genius in firearms his­to­ry, John Moses Browning. Under Browning’s guid­ance, Colt first offered its semi­au­to­mat­ic pistol to the Army in 1900 and con­stant­ly sup­plied improved ver­sions to meet the Army’s evolv­ing require­ments. In 1905, when the Army com­plained that the .38 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) car­tridge would not suf­fice, Colt quick­ly devel­oped the .45-cal­iber ACP car­tridge and sup­plied an improved pistol cham­bered for it. Colt had the expe­ri­ence, brains, resources, and deter­mi­na­tion to win the Army’s next sidearm con­tract.

Savage Model 1907: An Art Deco Handgun

Colt’s upstart American chal­lenger seemed a long shot at best. The Savage Arms Company had come into exis­tence only 13 years prior to the Ordnance Board trials. Its founder, Arthur Savage, had designed an advanced lever-action rifle that even­tu­al­ly would become the clas­sic Savage 99. When in 1892 the U.S. Army sought a replace­ment for its trap­door Springfield rifles, Savage sub­mit­ted his modern, eight-shot lever action, but the Army adopt­ed the 1892 Krag-Jorgensen bolt-action rifle instead.

When the pistol trials began, not only had Savage Arms never sold a weapon to the Army, it had never pro­duced a pistol. Seeing the com­mer­cial suc­cess that Colt’s semi-auto­mat­ic pis­tols enjoyed, and the prospect of a lucra­tive gov­ern­ment con­tract, Savage decid­ed to enter the market. Inventor Elbert Searle pro­vid­ed the design the com­pa­ny needed. Searle had designed and held the patent for the 1907 Savage. His pistol came to Savage Arms’ atten­tion just in time to pro­vide the com­pa­ny a cred­i­ble entrant into the Ordnance Department’s 1906 pistol trials. Scrambling to per­fect and pro­duce a sample hand­gun for the trials, which the Army had resched­uled for January 1907, Searle com­plet­ed the first 1907 Savage just under dead­line.

National Interest source|articles

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