The History

Formal competition in UK Service Pistol dates back to the end of the 19th century. In 1894 Mr H Whitehead MVO presented a Challenge Cup for a service pistol event to be held at the Skill at Arms Meet that takes place each year at Bisley in England, between teams from all branches of the services and a civilian team. The competition is still shot today, although the course of fire has changed over the years. Prior to that time skill with the service pistol, or rather service revolver as it was then, was a matter only for informal practice, despite being taught at many public schools. Officers were assumed to be competent with their revolvers.

The early targets and courses of fire were shot one handed, left and right hand, with a revolver of .455 calibre, from the ready position, at 20 yards. The course of fire reflected the weapons and tactics of the time. Six shot, .455 calibre revolvers fired a 265 grain bullet at about 750 feet per second. In action only one round was usually required on any target. Tactical reloads were unlikely and indeed might well prove impossible if one was on a horse at the time. Fast reloads did not figure in the courses of fire. Holsters were not designed for any purpose other than to protect the weapon against loss when engaged in vigorous exercise, especially falling from a horse.

1914 to 1918

The Army Rifle Association course of fire in 1914, all from 20 yards on the ARA revolver target with a bull of 8"x 4", was as follows:

  • 6 shots right hand in 3 minutes
  • 6 shots left hand in 3 minutes
  • 6 shots in 12 seconds, double action.

All shooting was done one handed, unsupported, from the ready position.

Not all training with service revolvers was without tactical application. The Advancing Men Targets were a feature of Bisley at that time, and replicated the chilling prospect of facing three of the Kaiser's best men, advancing with fixed bayonets, towards the firer from 25 to 7 yards in eight seconds. The shoot began from the ready position. Two shots were required on each target. The facility remains in use at Bisley today.

The purpose of service pistol events is clear. To provide a course of fire that is relevant to the likely use of the current service pistol in the tactical conditions of the time. The pistol was, and remains, a defensive, close range weapon. Few members of the armed services would willingly take only a pistol or revolver to an armed conflict. The handgun is for immediate defence against sudden and unexpected attack by an armed assailant. The only virtue of the handgun is that it is small and light enough to be kept at all times on the person or close to hand. In the event of a sudden attack, a small calibre pistol or revolver in your pocket is always preferable to a rifle in a locked cabinet.

Development of service pistols after 1918 tended towards lighter weapons of smaller calibre, encouraged in part by the technical improvements which gave rise to the modern pistol, firing a high velocity, light weight bullet. The early Mauser pistols began the trend and they were followed by innovations from Luger and Browning. Semi-automatic pistols, firing a rimless cartridge and using modern propellants, set new standards of power and velocity. Even the revolver followed this trend with the increased velocity of the nominal .38 round becoming the .38 Special and ultimately the .357 Magnum round. Large calibre bullets became less popular as modern weapons provided more rounds at higher velocity, able to penetrate motor vehicles and other light cover.

1920 to WWII

In Europe the 9mm Luger round became the bullet of choice for service pistols during the years between 1920 and the Second World War. The .45 ACP Colt pistol remained dominant in military circles in the USA. The exception in Europe was the UK, where the revolver in .38 calibre, rather than .455, had come into service in the 1920's. The idea of a light bullet fired at a higher velocity seemed to have missed the mark with UK services procurement authorities who for the years after 1918 until the end of the Second World War insisted that the UK service pistol should fire a lighter bullet at a lower velocity in the form of the .38 S&W round. The weapon was lighter to carry but considerably less lethal. It was not until the 1950's that UK service pistol saw the move to the 9mm round, in the FN Browning High Power, long after such adoptions were common elsewhere in the world.

Weapons, courses of fire and targets for service pistol saw considerable development in the UK during the Second World War. This was in response to two factors, the development of Special Forces, especially Commando Regiments and of irregular forces of which SOE was typical. Service pistol training took on a new dimension when faced with the problem of having to train for the use of the revolver or pistol as the only weapon of defence for agents in Occupied Europe. Weapons were typically small size and small or medium calibre, although the plentiful supply of .45 ACP calibre Colt pistols resulted in many Commando Regiments adopting the .45 ACP as their standard pistol.

New training methods at that time owed much to the experience gained in Shanghai and Hong Kong by Captain Fairbairn and Captain Sykes who in the 1920's had introduced new methods for training with the handgun in the Far East, whilst working with the Shanghai Municipal Police. Exceptionally, two military men from a UK background recognised that the semi-automatic pistol as designed by Browning and manufactured by Colt had much to offer. They showed that police officers when faced with armed assailants could, with the right weapons and training, protect themselves and defeat multiple adversaries. The principles developed by Fairbairn and Sykes were as follows:

  • largest calibre that could be used effectively
  • speed of engagement
  • close range, point shooting
  • more rounds, fired faster as you close with the targets

The pistols used were Colts in .45 ACP and .380 ACP calibres, the smaller weapon being used by those of small stature. All pistols were carried with an empty chamber and all safety catches and devices were removed or immobilised. At close range pistols were fired from a one handed stance, with minimum use of the sights. Initial training began on a target showing a full-size man, on a white background measuring eight feet wide and eight feet high, with shots fired from between two and four yards. Advanced training required a two handed stance at ranges extending back from 10 yards with shots from prone, kneeling and standing positions behind cover. Practices included moving targets and a training layout that would not be unfamiliar to a modern IPSC shooter. Weapon clearance and quick reloads were emphasised.

Despite the widespread use of the .45 ACP Colt in Shanghai and the expressed preference by Fairbairn and Sykes for both the cartridge and pistol in general service use, they recognised the technical advances of the time and noted the ballistic superiority of the lighter, high velocity round as used in the 7.63 Mauser pistol. Indeed the specification by Fairbairn and Sykes of their ideal weapon was one of medium calibre and bullet weight, driven at a very high velocity from a pistol with a large magazine capacity and a high rate of fire. This sounds exactly like the modern 9mm pistol firing a standard NATO round. There seems no doubt that they had in mind the FN Browning 9mm pistol that came out in 1935.

Fairbairn and Sykes applied the techniques developed in the Far East to the training of Special Forces and secret agents during the Second World War. By 1946 this training had been extended to almost all service personnel. It is interesting to note that Fairbairn and Sykes continued to recommend that pistols should be carried with an empty chamber and that all safety devices should be removed or replaced as unnecessary diversions in times of stress. It became the norm for reloads to be carried in spare magazines and for the reload to be practiced. Emphasis was placed on the reliability of the weapon and speed of response to the threat.


Against this background it is not surprising that the early 1950's saw the FN Browning High Power Parabellum Pistol in 9mm with fixed sights and a minimum 5 lbs trigger pull adopted by UK forces. The standard course of fire introduced with the new pistol was on two Figure 11 targets as follows:

  • 25 yards- 6 shots on one target in 15 seconds
  • 20 yards- 6 shots, 3 on each target in 10 seconds
  • 15 yards- 6 shots, 2 on each 3 second exposure of one target
  • 10 yards- 6 shots, 3 on each target in 6 seconds

The course of fire mandated use of the regulation holster and came to include a standard fire and movement practice in which a reload under time pressure was required. The weapon was carried with a loaded magazine in place and an empty chamber.


Welcome though this development was in UK military circles it was the pressure of small scale, anti-insurgency operations in Malaya, Africa and the Middle East that encouraged military and colonial police officers to sharpen up their skills with the new FN Browning pistol. By the 1960's training encouraged the carrying of the pistol with a round chambered and the safety applied, in an open top leather belt or shoulder holster. Two spare magazines became the norm.

In a number of instances assassination and kidnap attempts in Cyprus, Aden, Muscat, East Africa and Malaya were repulsed. And an unrecorded number of negligent discharges left their mark on public property around the world, in consequence of carrying a round chambered. But it was the rise of terrorism in the UK and Europe that pushed those training UK Special Forces to look to the USA for hints from the then fast developing sport of practical pistol shooting and its guru, Jeff Cooper.

In the 1960's Cooper had begun to encourage in the USA the development of practical shooting, specifying the .45 ACP Colt Model 1911 pistol, with an emphasis on power and speed over accuracy. The .45 ACP round continues to dominate practical pistol competition circles even today, with good reason, given the scoring penalties imposed on designated minor calibres.

Police training in the UK with the service pistol also took a leap forward in response to threats from the IRA and international terrorists. Until the early 1970's the .38 revolver or 380 ACP Walther PP or PPK pistol were common protection weapons in UK police service. Courses of fire were typical of the PAA Police Pistol event, fired with two hands, over distances from 25, 15 and 10 yards. US influence in the form of the NRA Police Pistol Competition became important and encourage UK specialist teams to shoot courses of fire which favoured stages out to 50 yards, with relatively slow deliberate shooting even at close range. For example the 10 yards stage of the PPC required 12 rounds in 20 seconds to include a reload. Revolvers in .38 Special remained in common use by UK police until mid-1980, although the RUC adopted the Ruger revolver in .357 Magnum in about 1970.

1970s and 80s

Change when it came in UK police circles was rapid. A weapon selection exercise in the mid-1980s identified the Glock 9mm pistol as the best value for its performance. Selection was driven by the specialist firearms team of the Metropolitan Police and taken up by similar squads across the country. Subsequent adoption of the Glock has been widespread in the UK since 1990, often combined with a 9mm hollow point bullet of 95 grains, at a velocity of 1350 feet per second. By contrast the 9mm round in military use remains the standard NATO full metal jacket round. Police forces changed their courses of fire to follow the trend in military circles, although the traditional UK Police Pistol event remains in use at inter-police competitions.

With their new weapons and training specialist firearms teams in police service were successful at dealing with a number of armed incidents. In London the Metropolitan Police team broke up a gang of armed robbers responsible for a series of robberies on banks and cash in transit security vehicles when they intercepted the team as it arrived to steal a pay roll in North London.

Since the 1990s

Service pistol in the UK entered its current phase with the adoption of the SIG 226, 228 and 230 into military service in 1990 after a selection process that began almost ten years earlier. The FN Browning was on its way out, driven in part by concern over carrying it "cocked and locked". The new double action pistols were believed to be safer. Selection of the SIG was a protracted affair with all available weapons subject to review and field tests. The Glock was the close second to the SIG amongst the field testers. Some administrators preferred the Beretta, mainly due to its safety catch. But the SIG 226 was selected, its double action feature being considered closest to the Fairbairn and Sykes ideal. Adoption of the SIG 226 as L105A1 by the UK military was accompanied by a new course of fire. For the first time practices would begin with a round chambered in the holstered weapon.

The new service pistol course requires 40 rounds and is fired on two Figure 11 targets with magazines of ten rounds. Practices begin with the weapon holstered, a round chambered and a loaded magazine in place. The first shot is fired double action. The course is as follows:

  • 25m- 10 rounds, 5 rounds kneeling and 5 sitting, in two exposures of 15 second on the left-hand target, with a 10 second interval
  • 20m- advancing from 25m at a one second flash of the target, fire 10 rounds, 2 rounds on each exposure of 3 seconds on the right-hand target
  • 15m- when the targets face for an initial exposure of 8 seconds advance from 20m and fire 2 rounds, one on each target and a further 2 rounds on each subsequent exposure of 3 seconds
  • 10m- when the targets face for an initial exposure of 8 seconds advance from 15m and fire any number of shots, on each subsequent exposure of 3 seconds fire any number of shots for a total of five shots on each target

The fire and movement stage, shot on three targets, requires a further 20 rounds, in two magazines, the first holding 13 rounds, the second holding 7 rounds and is as follows:

  • 25m- 4 rounds on one target in 15 seconds from the standing alert position after which the weapon is made safe with the double action lever
  • 20m- 6 rounds on one target beginning when the targets flash for one second as the signal to advance to 20m and adopt the standing alert position after which there will be three exposures of 3 seconds each, 2 rounds to be fired on each exposure of the target. The weapon is to be made safe with the double action lever after firing 6 rounds
  • 15m- 6 rounds on three targets beginning when the targets flash for one second as the signal to advance to 15m and adopt the standing alert position. There will be one exposure of 15 seconds, fire two rounds on each target, reloading as required and make safe with the double action lever
  • 10m- 4 rounds on two targets beginning with a one second flash of the targets as the signal to advance to 10m and adopt the standing alert position. There will be one exposure of four seconds, fire two rounds on each target
  • Service pistol has come a long way in a hundred years of steady development. But the Bisley Advancing Men Targets from the turn of the century remain a real challenge, even to the service personnel of today. Large capacity pistols are no substitute for training and practice sufficient to ensure the accurate and quick delivery of the first few rounds into a vital part of your adversary.