In the march/April American Hangunner, Mike Venturino has a column on British military revolvers. It’ pretty think gruel since “Duke” Venturino admits that he does not know much about the .455 Webley and .380 Enfield.
He closes his column with a revealing statement:
Somebody probably knows why the Brits stuck to revolver in the years leading up to WWII, and even, perhaps, why they liked such pea-dunkler cartridges.
Actually, many people know the answer to both questions. They are called People who Read History. Apparently, the folks at American Handgunner are not among their number.
The Brits stuck to revolvers for a bunch of good reasons. Many officers considered wheelguns more reliable and easier to maintain. Economics also played a large role as Britain was forced to rearm in the middle of the Depression. It just made sense for Britain to crank out more copies of the weapons they had than to start from scratch, retool, and replace their existing stock of handguns as well as procure additional weapons for their expanded army.
The final factor was training and ergonomics. It is easier to teach a civilian neophyte (and most recruits had no experience with firearms) to handle a revolver than an automatic.
This last point also explains why the British stuck with rounds like the .380 (the equivalent of the .38 S&W). It took less training to make a soldier proficient with an Enfield .380 than with a .45 ACP. Skill with a handgun ranks is a low priority for soldiers in a mass army. It was vital that the weapon used be easy to shoot. The British wheelguns passed that test.
Walter Roper discussed this in his 1945 book Pistol and Revolver Shooting:
It is interesting to note that the British apparently believe that the power of a handgun should be governed as much by the ability of the average soldier to handle the cartridge as anything else. They insist that the handgun is a short-range arm to be used with speed and so adopted a cartridge like the S&W .28 Regular and loaded it with a 200 grain bullet…. The idea that a handgun is essentially a short-range arm is not at all new, even in military circles, but we seem to have attempted to increase the range beyond the practical limit with such cartridges as the .45 Automatic, with the result that the gun is decidedly difficult for the average man to shoot well.
American gunwriters, with their “you’d better believe size matters, baby!” mentality, like to disparage the British rounds. That is a mark of their ignorance. The British army was officered by men who had extensive CQC experience. Four years of trench warfare in Europe and endless colonial skirmishes across the globe gave them a decent idea of what a military sidearm should do. They opted for the .380 Enfield based on that combat experience. WWII confirmed the validity of that choice.
Captain Clifford Shore served with the British Army as a sniper and instructor. He went into action at Normandy and saw combat in France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany. He was also something of a gun nut who tried out a wide variety of weapons under wartime conditions. Here’s his assessment of the British revolvers from his book With the British Snipers to the Reich.
The Enfield was primarily designed to permit quick pointing and rapid snap shooting, since it was thought (and future events showed the quality of the thought) that the main use of a service handgun was for combat work; the general balance of the Enfield was designed to help the average man to instinctively point, and hit, his opponent. The authorities … wanted a pistol which, in the hands of the average soldier armed with it, was capable of being pointed at, and hitting, a man in the least possible time.
The light weight and less recoil…[of the Enfield] … resulted in the average man putting up far better performance than he did with the heavy caliber weapon, and after a little practice it was good to see how these men so rapidly brought their guns into play, and with instinctive pointing sense and quickness on the trigger, secured hits on man-sized targets at anything up to 15 yards. And it was later proved a hundred-fold that the 200-grain bullet moving at a velocity of about 650 fps had quite an effective stopping power when compared with the heavier calibred brethren.
And once again I say that I would infinitely prefer to have my old S&W than any automatic pistol, the much over-rated Walthers and Lugers included, for a combat weapon.