George S. Patton: Guns That Made Him Great
March 30, 2018
This article originally appeared in the August 1971 issue of Guns & Ammo. Former G&A Senior Staff Editor Whit Collins wrote, "Patton: Guns That Made Him Great." The revolvers and accoutrements of Gen. George S. Patton were on loan from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
More than mere window dressing, General George S. Patton's pistols were symbols of a sometime maverick's unwavering dedication to leadership. The ivory-handled pistols that rode on George Smith Patton's hips may have been the world's most powerful handguns. They inspired respect and confidence in troops and allies, while they carried forward the image of Patton as a warrior and leader to friend and foe alike. Their role in World War II contributed to the defeat of literally hundreds of thousands of Axis troops.
Although popularly remembered as the "two-gun" General, Patton actually seldom wore both of his "carrying guns" together. And, he owned several personal pistols aside from the two usually photographed on him in WWII. Further, his guns were usually ivory handled, NEVER pearl, as they were sometimes mistaken. The handguns most associated with him, and which are now in the Patton Collection of the West Point Museum, are a .45 Long Colt Single Action revolver, 1873 Army Model, and a .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson revolver.
Of the two of them, aides and relatives have said that the .45 Colt was the one Patton stressed for everyday carry, while the .357 was to be the "killing gun," in his words, if the battlefield situation ever demanded it. The .45 was his oldest companion, having been purchased in 1916. There are two notches filed in the left-side ivory grip of the highly engraved .45. They came to be through a 1916 gunfight which took place in Mexico.
When Pancho Villa's band of "revolutionaries" attacked the little New Mexico border town of Columbus, on March 9, 1916, General "Black Jack" Pershing was sent across the U.S.-Mexico border on the famous Punitive Expedition. Lt. Patton went along as Pershing's aide, after having all but forced himself on the General. When they crossed the border, the .45 Colt Single Action swung at his right hip.
Patton traveled widely in Northern Mexico by touring car, on foraging and information-gathering patrols. Arriving one day at a ranch belonging to the uncle of "General" Julio Cardenas, Patton became suspicious that the Villista leader was in the neighborhood. He decided to mount a raid on a nearby rancho known to have harbored the Mexican.
Patton's three 1916 Dodge touring cars rumbled straight for the rancho at 50 miles per hour and split up, covering every exit. Under Patton's leadership, the rancho San Miguelito had been neatly surrounded and flanked, with his nine riflemen in position behind the steel bodies of their cars, before the dust stopped blowing.
In the sharp gunfight that followed, Cardenas and his two "Dorado" bodyguards were killed. Patton wounded Cardenas personally, knocking him off his horse and breaking up a carbine-firing charge by all three men, as they tried to ride him down and escape. A moment later, Patton stopped a second attempt by shooting down the horse of Cardenas' lieutenant. When the Mexican kept on shooting, Patton and two riflemen replied in a lethal volley. Cardenas and the third Villista were soon dispatched.
In one high noon gunfight, there occurred the U.S. Army's first mechanized engagement, and the blooding of George S. Patton, who would one day be the world's master of mechanized warfare and the man who handed the "Blitzkrieg" back to the Third Reich.
The young officer whom the "Dorados" had thought to brush aside had to be their worst possible choice, because Patton had become one of the U.S. Army's best personal weapon handlers. His record included competing for the United States in the Decathlon event of the 1912 Olympics, where he fired a .38 Long Colt service revolver in a silhouette-target match that was normally won by .22 rimfires - breaking the world's record in practice.
The pressure of the entire event, encompassing pistol shooting, cross-country riding, swimming and cross-country running, kept him from doing as well in competition. He placed far down the list in actual pistol competition because one of his rounds may have passed exactly through an earlier hole. Still, even with this dispute, he managed an over-all showing that credited the United States. This included his defeat of the French World Champion in fencing, which led to Patton's being named the first U.S. Army Master of the Sword, in 1913.
To do the job well, he obtained leave to study the sword and related subjects â€“ which undoubtedly included the use of the pistol and carbine in cavalry engagements - at the renowned French Cavalry School in Saumar, France. While there, he and his wife, Beatrice Ayer Patton, motored throughout the area, actually reconnoitering the watershed road net with troop movement in mind. This was the exact theater where he drove so fiercely with his armored columns in 1944-45!
The term "fierce drive" describes Patton the boy, as well as Patton the commander. He was actually a weak and sickly child, who was kept at home on his father's comfortable ranch near Pasadena, California, without public schooling until the age of 11 (1897). However, his father, at the time the District Attorney of Los Angeles, gave him an excellent education at home. Along with the classics, came expert instruction in shooting, hunting and fishing.
Patton the boy was taught early that to overcome his slight build and tender constitution, he had to push himself in body and mind. Consequently, when he entered Virginia Military Academy in 1901 (he was the second George S. Patton, Jr. to do so, as his father had), he was already an accomplished game shot and pistol handler.
Like many historic figures, Patton was a "one-idea" man. Since early childhood, while receiving a complete home education from his father in civil war history and the classics, he had known he would be a commander in war. His personal background pointed him toward a cavalry career, and his family training included the purchase of every kind of personal arm for his use.
Because Patton had developed his study of all small arms at a very early age, he was capable of forging and tempering his own prototype cavalry saber, in 1913. This was a very straight, light weapon, designed for cavalry fighting as it was being practiced on the fields of Europe in the early 20th century, but incorporating his knowledge of cavalry combat of the latter Civil War battles. Often called the "Patton Saber," it was the last sword adopted for issue by U.S. Armed Forces, also in 1913.
After service as both instructor of fencing and command student at the U.S. Cavalry school, Fort Riley, Patton was assigned to Sierra Blanca, Texas, for mounted border patrol duty in 1915. Patton's already advanced ability with handguns helped to earn him friends among the tough "hired guns" and Texas Rangers alike. He describes one as "a quiet-looking old man with a sweet face and white hair." The sweet little old man had, the week before, shot five Mexican bandits through their heads at 60 yards. Which ability probably explains how anyone who took $100 a month to be Marshal of Sierra Blanca could get to be old. Another bandit fighter was also described by Patton as being "about 60 andâ€¦the only American who can bluff the bandits over the (Rio Grande) River."
These men, and others who hunted and shot with Lt. Patton in those days, had grown up with the .45 Colt Single Action revolver. He spent many hours with one man shooting cigarettes at 50 paces (according to his letters) and filing down Colt trigger sears to make the "hair trigger" so beloved by pistoleros of that period. It was an unsafe conversion, but Patton carried his Colt with the hammer down on the proverbial empty chamber.
Patton had, of course, been issued a Model 1911 .45 Government Model Automatic Pistol. During his border patrol service, he stoned or filed the hammer notch down so "fine" that it reportedly went off when he stamped his foot, grazing his thigh. Instead of discontinuing the practice of honing down actions, Patton rather characteristically blamed the automatic pistol itself and soon ordered a brand new Colt Single Action from the Shelton Payne Arms Company of El Paso, Texas. He thereafter carried it in the Western fashion of a five shooter, as noted. In that period, many U.S. cavalrymen did the same, as the gun was still accepted as a substitute standard personal arm.
Actually, although this story was recounted by several sources, it should be noted that it is very hard to render a Colt .45 Auto unsafe. Not only does the hammer and sear connection have to be modified, but the grip safety has to be "de-horned," taped down, or pinned in. On top of that, the thumb safety must be left in "off" position. It seems hard to believe that a gun handler of Patton's class would alter any gun to such an unsafe state. However, the fact remains that he was known to prefer powerful revolvers to any semiautomatic pistol, all his life.
In those days, Patton was quoted as saying that the auto was an arm of two parts, while the revolver required nothing other than loose ammunition. Also, the pistol was totally dependent on the condition of the magazine for proper functioning. He once told his nephew that the automatic pistol was a fine noisemaker for scaring people but that it was well to practice with the revolver if it was going to be necessary to fight with handguns to live. Patton also often stated that the handgun should never be drawn and pointed unless it was intended to shoot to kill. The nephew, Frederick Ayer, Jr., went on to become a fine pistol shot, eventually serving as a high-ranking FBI agent during WWII. As a boy, Ayer witnessed a very early version of Hogan's Alley (FBI Academy) animated target training, as practiced by his Uncle George Patton and a well-to-do Massachusetts sportsman. Col. Francis Throope Colby had set up a white-painted metal screen in his basement in the early 30s and projected upon it his own pictures of charging African game and spear-waving natives. Colby and Patton loaded .22 pistols with the now-unobtainable explosive-tipped rim fires and competed with each other in naming and hitting marks on the pictures. It is said they also competed in profanity, something else Patton used as part of his "warrior" window dressing. These practice sessions were part of Patton's life in the period between World Wars I and II.
Shortly after the 1916 excursion into Mexico, he was ordered to the Allied Expeditionary Force for the World War in Europe. Patton was still on Pershing's staff, but now detailed to be the first U.S. commander of tanks. When he landed in France in 1917, he carried an ivory handled .45 Auto. As far as is known, he left his Single Action behind, for all of WWI.
Patton earned the Distinguished Service Cross and promotions for WWI tank operations that go beyond the scope of this article. There is no record of his having to fire his handgun in hand-to-hand combat, although in later years he was known to have claimed six Germans for that period.
At one point, Patton lay severely wounded after a foot charge on a machine gun nest, his ex-orderly tending him in a muddy shell hole. As he did so, Corporal Joseph T. Angelo used his own and Patton's .45 Autos to fire on German emplacements not far away. In later years, Patton also joked about how he (when conscious) and Angelo took pot shots at low-flying German planes during the several hours before heroic action by Corporal Angelo resulted in Patton's rescue and recovery.
The .45 Auto which Patton carried evidently served with more dependability than the earlier .45s he tried and put aside, yet there is little or no record of his carrying it again. The ivory handled pistol was seen briefly during maneuvers in 1941 but was superseded for a time by a Colt .22 Woodsman! The .22 rode with Patton while he was training tankers in the California Arizona desert near Indio, in 1942.
During the period 1919 to 1942, Patton had continued to buy and experiment with personal handguns. One of his lesser-known acquisitions was a .38 Special-caliber Colt Detective Special, with the old "long" grip frame. This 2-inch, all-steel Colt is based on the Police Positive frame and was evidently purchased sometime before the butt shape was changed in 1934. The gun was seldom seen in WWII, other than a few appearances on his belt while he caught up on paper work in behindthe-lines staff offices.
Patton's .38 holster was a slab of leather that, when suspended from his belt, put the butt of the revolver at the same height as all the other guns he carried. The pistol itself rode in a fitted body centered on the wide, flat, back panel. There is no record of the holster maker.
Patton's second most famous handgun was also purchased in the peacetime 30s. At a distance, especially when observed by the less knowledgeable, this ivory handled .357 Magnum S&W double-action revolver was often mistaken as a mate to the better-known .45 Colt Single Action. Patton carried out the "twin" theme by wearing both in Sam Myers holsters that were matched to the length of the longer barreled Colt. While the Colt had a 4¾ -inch barrel, the .357 S&W was a 3½ -inch number.
These two pistols were carried, together or singly, on a belt also custom made by pioneer holster specialist Sam Myers of El Paso, Texas. Patton adapted the buckle of the U.S. Army Officer's Pistol Belt (web), Model of 1910, to this specially made belt. The buckle itself has only "U.S." on it, not the ornate eagle pattern seen in the recent film "Patton."
The film was, however, generally well-detailed on the General's personal handguns, at least his two main revolvers, and one of his smaller automatics. In one sequence, actor George C. Scott, as Patton, plants himself squarely in the path of a strafing plane and proceeds to fire back with a .380 Colt automatic which he draws from the waistband of his pants. Several similar incidents involving pistols are attributed to Patton. In this case, the little auto is one of what he called his "insurance" guns. They were often worn under his blouse in what was reportedly a "fast-draw" waistband holster.
Toward the end of the war in Europe, the little automatics, surprisingly, began to appear more and more. Patton had relatives obtain a completely reconditioned Remington Model 51 .380 automatic pistol and send it to him sometime early in 1944. To this day, many authorities consider the 51 to have been one of the best-handling pistols ever de signed. Only a relatively few were made and sold from 1918 to discontinuance in 1934. Even ten years later, second hand 51s were so rare that a much-used unit was obtained by the Remington factory and rebuilt for purchase by the General.
This automatic was one of two that had ebony grips with ivory stars inlaid into them. The second was a .380 Colt auto hammerless pocket model which was purchased by the U.S. Government for issue, with a special pistol belt, to general officers in 1944. Although several reporters state that the Remington was most often carried by Patton from 1944 to his death in 1945, the Colt .380 is the one seen consistently in pictures from that period, with both three and four-star grips.
The General Officer's Pistol Belt was a unit designed and made by the Swank Leather Company, through the specification of General George Marshall. It is as much an insignia of rank as actual General's stars.
A third pocket auto was also carried in a hideaway holster by Patton; this was a .32 Colt, made concurrently with the .380 "concealed hammer" Colt, from 1908 to 1945. This is one which he had also purchased in the period be tween wars and was probably his first "insurance gun." Although he liked big revolvers, he was of the opinion that .32 and .380 autos were more effective than similar revolvers with the ammunition then available.
So far as is known, Patton did no handloading of his own, preferring to use ready-made ammo. He did, however, understand the theory of load development, because he had followed closely the inception of the .357 Magnum. He ordered his soon after the announcement of the new revolver, taking delivery of a "registered-order " gun in Hawaii on October 18, 1935. It was shipped directly to him while he was on duty as an intelligence officer on the islands. Interesting to note that he once wrote a report stating the possibility of an effective attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.
So, it was, when World War II exploded, Patton shipped out with at least four pistols and four custom-made holsters. The S&W .357 and Colt .45 revolvers he wore in left and right matched holsters in the Myers-made rig. By this the S&W had ivory grips with initials to match the general appearance of the Colt. Also, with him were the .38 Detective Special Colt and the .32 Colt auto, with their own holsters.
Patton generally wore the .45 alone, with a Myers cuff case adapted as a compass box, and a Myers slide-on cartridge carrier holding 12 .45 Colt rounds. Although correspondents often called him a two-gun man, he actually only wore both the .45 and .357 on special occasions like landings, and when addressing troops.
It is said that he found one gun - the flashy Colt - to serve the purpose of building his image as a fighting man for the troops. When he wanted to portray the part to the largest possible gallery, he wore both, so that he would be unmistakable from any angle of observation. Another equally practical reason would have been that the weight of a .45, a .357 and .380 hideout, plus gear, would have been a lot to pack around.
In doing a review of General George S. Patton's personal pistols, it is hard to separate the topic from an examination of the man himself. He was an unforgettable Commander to the 325,000 troops of the U.S. Third Army, and his guns were certainly not mere decoration. His appreciation for the effective use of personal arms may have seemed strange to those who saw him foremost as a disciple of armored thrusts, but as he himself put it, "I am sure that if I could get the American infantryman to shoot his rifle, we could win the war much more cheaply."
So, this was the man who wore a cowboy pistol in a tank-tread war, turning personal sidearms and the ability to use them into a trademark of leadership, unparalleled since the days of Stuart and Lee.