The USAF Is Finally Ditching The Last Of Its Cold War Revolvers For New Semi-Auto Pistols

The iconic Smith & Wesson six-shooters are still in use after more than six decades of service.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Cold War photo


The U.S. Air Force says it will finally replace the very last of its .38 Special caliber M15 revolvers with the compact variant of the U.S. Army’s new 9mm Modular Handgun System pistol, the M18. This will bring the service’s history with the six-shooters, once the primary sidearm of its military police elements, a title it held for more than 30 years, to an end for good.

On Mar. 1, 2019, the Air Force Security Forces Center (AFSFC) announced that it had begun shipping the first M18s out to units across the service. These new pistols will first take the place of the service's existing 9mm Beretta M9s, but will eventually supplant the last Smith & Wesson M15s, as well as Sig Sauer M11A1s. Air Force Office of Special Investigations agents carry the latter handguns, which are easier to conceal during plainclothes assignments. In January 2017, the Army first announced it had picked variants of Sig Sauer’s P320 pistol to become the full-size M17 and compact M18 and all of the other branches of the U.S. military, not just the Air Force, are now looking to adopt one or both types.

The M15s, however, have already been largely out of Air Force service since the adoption of the M9. In 1992, the Air Force officially stopped issuing the revolvers, which had been in continuous service since 1956. Today, the only place where these revolvers are still in service are at the AFSFC as part of the Military Working Dog (MWD) training program, also known as the K9 program. It is possible to train dogs to identify gunshots as something of particular interest or even sniff out firearms. Just acclimatizing working dogs to the sound of gunfire is also an important part of their training to ensure that they don’t get distracted or too scared to carry out their tasks during a gunfight.

“The Air Force Security Forces K9 program uses the revolvers to conduct gunfire training with blank ammunition for the dogs,” Vicki Stein, a spokesperson for the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center (AFIMSC), which oversees the AFSFC, told The War Zone in an Email. “We do this because we don’t have a system to turn the M9 into a blank firing weapon.”

The M18 pistol, which will eventually replace the last M15s., USAF

Semi-automatic handguns, such as the M9, may not function reliability when using blank ammunition. Typical revolvers do not rely on any byproducts from the cartridge firing to work properly, allowing a shooter to switch from regular rounds to blanks and back again without any modifications or issues.

So, despite having been out service in the Air Force as a sidearm for decades, the M15 has remained a perfectly acceptable training aid for this specific purpose. Air Force Security Forces personnel do not use the weapons for any live-fire training.

An Air Force Security Forces dog handler wields an M15 revolver during a training exercise., USAF

The M15 itself is a good, proven design that Smith & Wesson originally introduced in 1949 as the K-38 Combat Masterpiece. The company subsequently renamed it the Model 15 as part of a rebranding of its guns in the 1950s. It was a shorter barrel version of the K-38 Target Masterpiece, or Model 14.

Both of these handguns were derivatives of the older Model 10, which the company first began making in 1899. Between 2009 and 2011, Smith & Wesson discontinued production of all three of these revolvers, among others, but their continued popularity led to a commercial comeback as part of a “Classics” line. The company still sells a variant of the Model 10 more than a century after it first appeared on the market.

A World War II-era Smith and Wesson Model 10., Oleg Volk via Wikimedia

The M15, as well as other related Smith & Wesson revolvers, saw widespread use across the U.S. military, but the Air Force became a particularly prolific user. The first Air Force unit to receive the guns was the Strategic Air Command (SAC) Elite Guard, which was in charge of protecting SAC's Headquarters and its commander General Curtis E. LeMay. But it soon became the primary weapon for the Air Police, the Air Force name for its military police units at the time. In 1966, these elements became known as Security Police and then, in 1997, they received a new name, Security Forces

The revolvers also subsequently became the default sidearm for combat aircraft crews and went into pilot survival kits. The service even introduced its own more powerful, higher velocity .38 caliber cartridge, called the PGU-12/B, in the 1960s.

In the 1970s, as the U.S. military as a whole began to consider switching to 9mm handguns, which would eventually lead to the adoption of the M9, the Air Force looked into converting M15s to this caliber. As of 1974, the service still had 100,000 of these revolvers in its armories.

But the M15’s time in Air Force service of any kind now is now coming to an end. The Army's M17 and M18 are set to become the standard sidearms across all the branches of the U.S. military. The Air Force has since decided on the M18 as the default choice, regardless of who gets issued them and for what purpose. The service had evaluated the M17, including conducting tests to see what hazards the full-size pistol might pose to an ejecting pilot, before settling on the smaller version.

A member of the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center makes adjustments to a dummy in device that simulates the effects of an ejection. The mock pilot is wearing a pair of holstered M17 pistols on its chest., USAF

The primary difference between the M17 and the M18 is that the former has a barrel around 4.7-inches long, while the latter’s is only around four inches. The smaller variant can still accept the same 17-round standard size and 21-round extended magazines. It has the same general modular design, allowing armorers to readily swap out the frame to better suit the shoot’s hands, too. This also means the guns are more rapidly customizable for different roles in general, which you can read about more here.

It’s this modularity that will help it take the place of the M15s, too. There are already drop-in kits on the market to easily convert the P320 to a blank-firing gun without making any permanent modifications and the Air Force has said it is looking into buying just such a system in the near future.

A Sig Sauer product sheet for the commercial P320 showing various parts that users can easily swap out. The M17 and M18 retain this level of modularity., Sig Sauer

Though the M15 has been an available option as a blank-firing training aid, one has to imagine the costs and complexities of continuing to use a small number of these revolvers, and the ammunition to go with them, has grown over the years. No other service still uses these guns or any other weapon chambered in .38 caliber. Having the AFSFC’s K9 program use the same pistols as everyone else can only make things simpler all around.

“Once this new weapon system [the M18] is fielded, there will be future modifications,” Master Sergeant Courtney King of the AFSFC said in a video the Air Force posted online in February 2019, seen below, giving a basic rundown of the new pistols. These include “blank firing kits for MWDs [Military Working Dogs], Simunition kits for force-on-force training, and [sound] suppression kits for special missions.”

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Simunition is one brand of non-lethal training ammunition that gives military and law enforcement personnel a way to conduct simulated live-firing training against each other. Simunition and other companies provide conversion kits for various small arms that make only minimal changes to the existing gun so that the manual of arms – the general process of operating the weapon and its specific features – remains unchanged.

The mention of adding a sound suppressor to the M18 package for special missions is one of the first indicators that the Air Force, at least, may be considering pushing the pistol to its special operations units. The U.S. military’s special operations community as a whole has become increasingly fond of Glock pistols in recent years. Glock had made a bid for the Army’s Modular Handgun System contract, but lost out to the Sig Sauer guns.

What is clear is that the Air Force’s first priority is to issue enough M18s to replace the thousands of M9 spread across its units. Then it will move onto issuing the pistols in place of other guns, such as the service's remaining Cold War-era revolvers.

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