Murvaux, France, September 29, 1918. The mortally wounded American ace slid from his SPAD and staggered into the tall grass. As German infantry approached he drew his Colt M1911 pistol and prepared to die fighting. The Arizonan fired at least three rounds in the dusk encounter before he fell dead.
The legend of Frank Luke is the best-known example of combat aircrew using a sidearm. Ever since the Great War, military airmen have carried pistols and revolvers for protection or for signaling. Baron Manfred von Richthofen had a Luger when he was killed in action five months before Luke. If either weapon could be found, it would bring an immense sum.
At least one British flier claimed a victory with a .45 Colt automatic. In May 1917, Lt. H.E. Ellis engaged German fighters in his Nieuport 17, downing one before running out of machine gun ammo. Closing the distance on another, he emptied his Colt’s seven-round magazine into the Albatros, which reportedly side-slipped and crashed. That same month, the crew of an FE-2 pusher exhausted its Lewis and Vickers ammo and continued the fight with pistols.
In World War II, airmen of every nation carried sidearms. Japanese fliers usually had Nambus for suicide rather than be captured — the ultimate disgrace. Perhaps the greatest combat flier of all time was Colonel Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the legendary Stuka pilot credited with more than 500 Soviet armored vehicles. He flew with a 6.35mm pistol — the .25 cal. round being a puny cartridge for self defense. When asked about his choice, Rudel replied, “I have never been a pessimist!”