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The Model 1911 in Vietnam

The Model 1911 in Vietnam

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.

The entrance to Hell:  A GI of the 25th Infantry checks the entrance to a VC tunnel outside Phu Hoa Dong during Operation Cedar Falls in January, 1967.
The entrance to Hell: A GI of the 25th Infantry checks the entrance to a VC tunnel outside Phu Hoa Dong during Operation Cedar Falls in January, 1967.


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. 

English to Vietnamese translation:  M16 and M1911 training with ARVN troops with advisors from the 1st CAV at Camp Evans.
English to Vietnamese translation: M16 and M1911 training with ARVN troops with advisors from the 1st CAV at Camp Evans.


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.

A “Tunnel Rat” of the 25th Infantry Division prepares to enter a VC tunnel near Cu Chi in the Hobo Woods during Operation Cedar Falls in January, 1967.
A “Tunnel Rat” of the 25th Infantry Division prepares to enter a VC tunnel near Cu Chi in the Hobo Woods during Operation Cedar Falls in January, 1967.

 

A Marine radioman with his M1911 .45 ACP pistol at the ready during a search and clear mission South of Danang.
A Marine radioman with his M1911 .45 ACP pistol at the ready during a search and clear mission South of Danang.


An ARVN soldier covers a Viet Cong prisoner with his M1911 pistol and M1 Garand rifle in 1962.
An ARVN soldier covers a Viet Cong prisoner with his M1911 pistol and M1 Garand rifle in 1962.


One way out: A GI of the 1st Cavalry Division, with M1911 and flashlight in hand, looks for a helping hand out of a VC tunnel complex during Operation Pershing in March, 1967.
One way out: A GI of the 1st Cavalry Division, with M1911 and flashlight in hand, looks for a helping hand out of a VC tunnel complex during Operation Pershing in March, 1967.

 

A Leatherneck of the 3rd Marine Division at Khe Sanh test fires his issue M1911A1 pistol along the perimeter of that infamous position prior to the 1968 siege.
A Leatherneck of the 3rd Marine Division at Khe Sanh test fires his issue M1911A1 pistol along the perimeter of that infamous position prior to the 1968 siege.

 

The war underground:  A “Tunnel Rat” descends into a VC tunnel wearing a gas mask while armed with a M1911 pistol and tremendous courage.
The war underground: A “Tunnel Rat” descends into a VC tunnel wearing a gas mask while armed with a M1911 pistol and tremendous courage.

 

Coming out of a maze of caves and tunnels in the Hobo Woods, a M1911-armed GI of the 25th Infantry Division shows the strain of fighting the underground war in Vietnam. October, 1967.
Coming out of a maze of caves and tunnels in the Hobo Woods, a M1911-armed GI of the 25th Infantry Division shows the strain of fighting the underground war in Vietnam. October, 1967.

 

A handful of handgun:  A Marine poses with the mighty M1911 during the early days of the Vietnam War.
A handful of handgun: A Marine poses with the mighty M1911 during the early days of the Vietnam War.

 

Demonstrating the approved Marine positioning for pistol shooting in the prone position.
Demonstrating the approved Marine positioning for pistol shooting in the prone position.

 

Men of the 1st CAV emerge from searching a warren of caves during Operation Thayer, February 1967.
Men of the 1st CAV emerge from searching a warren of caves during Operation Thayer, February 1967.

 

A leatherneck of the 3rd Marine Division checking a VC bunker in July. 1968.
A leatherneck of the 3rd Marine Division checking a VC bunker in July. 1968.

 

On the Bear Cat range: A 9th Infantry Division GI gets in some practice with his M1911A1 pistol in January, 1968.
On the Bear Cat range: A 9th Infantry Division GI gets in some practice with his M1911A1 pistol in January, 1968.

 

A GI of the 25th Infantry Division at the entrance to a VC tunnel during Operation Atlanta in the Iron Triangle area, December, 1967.
A GI of the 25th Infantry Division at the entrance to a VC tunnel during Operation Atlanta in the Iron Triangle area, December, 1967.

 

A US Army advisor to the ARVN watches over training exercises in 1965.
A US Army advisor to the ARVN watches over training exercises in 1965.
 

A Marine examining the entrance to an enemy tunnel complex during the summer of 1968.
A Marine examining the entrance to an enemy tunnel complex during the summer of 1968.

 

Defense against terrorists:  A US guard checks inbound traffic at the US embassy in Saigon in 1965.
Defense against terrorists: A US guard checks inbound traffic at the US embassy in Saigon in 1965.

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