During the close-quarters situations that most infantry engagements occurred in during the Vietnam War, the pistol often took on a more important role than it was intended to fill. Notably, the venerable M1911 pistol became the principal tool of the “Tunnel Rats”. They were the brave men who crawled into enemy bunkers, underground fortifications and tunnel complexes often armed with nothing more than a pistol and a flashlight.
Underground, the big .45 ACP handgun offered firepower that could quickly decide the outcome of a fight in ultra-close quarters. The Tunnel Rats learned to live with the drawbacks of the M1911's blinding flash and deafening muzzle blast within the tight confines of a tunnel.
Combat narratives from veterans who engaged Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army units at close range during the war are filled with stories of pistols used effectively. Handguns became a necessary fall-back option when rifles or machine guns jammed or ran out of ammunition. In such desperate engagements, the stopping power of the .45 ACP round was particularly praised as a rapid and reliable solution.
Throughout the long war in Vietnam, a number of soldiers and Marines carried civilian-made sidearms. This was largely in the early years of the war, when regulations regarding personal defense weapons were more relaxed. These weapons were either brought from home or sent to Vietnam by anxious family and friends.
Interestingly, there was a particular uptick in the appearance of civilian semi-automatic pistols and revolvers as rumors of malfunctions spread during the force-wide fielding of the M16 rifle. Just like in World War I, World War II and the Korean War, there were never enough M1911 pistols to meet the demand. American troops believed in, trusted and faithfully carried it on their hip or shoulder whenever and wherever they went into combat.
I was honored when Dale Dye agreed to write descriptions for the images I collected of weapons in action during the Vietnam War. He is one of America’s finest military historians and a highly qualified storyteller, particularly when it comes to the small arms used in Vietnam. He is also a veteran of the conflict.
Dale Dye served for three tours of duty, with 31 combat actions and receipt of the Bronze Star (with combat “V”) as well as the Purple Heart. Captain Dye has shot, or was shot at with, almost every small arm used in the Vietnam War. He knows all too well about the weapons shown here.