Here's What You Need to Know: The handsome 1907 Savage pistol lost out to the larger Colt 1911 as the U. S. Army’s new side arm of choice.
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.