Author’s note—This is the first of a series of articles on Allied small arms of World War 2. In each installment, we will endeavor to put a human face on the firearms that Allied combatants used to defeat the Axis powers. General George Patton once opined, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.” In this series, we will explore both the guns and the men behind them.
Gregory Hallenbeck was born in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in December of 1912. As a young man, he was a competitive wrestler. In 1934 he graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering and married soon thereafter. In the spring of 1935, he applied for Marine flight training only to be informed that married men were ineligible.
Around this time Hallenbeck obtained a copy of his birth certificate and learned unexpectedly that his biological father was one Charles Boyington, a local dentist. Boyington and his mother had divorced when Greg was an infant, and his stepfather raised him. Reapplying under the name Gregory Boyington and falsely claiming to be single, he was accepted to flight school.
Boyington served with the Pacific Fleet as a Marine Corps aviator until August of 1941 when he accepted a position with the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company. The CAMC was actually a front that Claire Chennault used to recruit military pilots to fly combat missions as civilian contractors against the Japanese in China. The world ultimately came to know Chennault’s group as the Flying Tigers. Greg Boyington was now officially a mercenary.
Boyington fought hard and partied hard. These explosive proclivities frequently put him at cross-purposes with Chennault. In August of 1942, he left the Flying Tigers with a purported six kills under his belt and returned to the Marine Corps.
By now Boyington was aged 30 years and was nearly a decade older than most of the combat pilots with whom he served. The squadron he commanded was VMF214, the Black Sheep. His men called him “Pappy.” Their combat exploits have been immortalized in both film and print.
Boyington was eventually shot down and spent twenty months as a POW. He shared a hut with Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner depicted in the movie Unbroken. When Boyington returned home after the war he had 28 kills to his credit and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Boyington’s primary combat tool was an F4U Corsair fighter plane with its six .50-caliber machine guns. His personal weapon was a Smith and Wesson Victory .38 revolver. A hard-drinking man, Boyington was known to get drunk and then shoot the lights out of the officers’ club with his Victory .38. The compact wheelgun that Boyington carried was the most popular centerfire revolver of the 20th century.
The Victory .38 was a wartime version of the original Smith and Wesson Model 10 first introduced in 1899. The gun was variously known as the S&W Military and Police or the S&W Hand Ejector. Total production exceeded six million copies. While civilian variants typically sported a deep blue finish and a variety of barrel lengths, the Victory model was bred purely for combat.
The Victory model typically sported a V-prefix in front of the serial number and was produced between 1942 and 1944. The US supplied more than half a million of the guns to the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa under the Lend-Lease program. These export pistols were chambered for the British .38/200 cartridge.
The Victory .38 was the standard issue defensive sidearm for US Navy and Marine Corps aviators. US versions were chambered in .38 Special. Wartime Victory models featured a lanyard ring on the butt and a rugged sandblasted and Parkerized finish.
A proper personal defense handgun for a military aviator must be capable of being operated one-handed. Should an aviator lose the use of a limb in a crash his sidearm must not be deadlined. While the 1911A1 was an undeniably superb combat pistol, Condition 1 carry was never authorized among common soldiers and Marines. As such, the 1911A1 required both hands to put the weapon into action.
American combat aircrews in Korea, Vietnam, and Operation Desert Storm used the Victory .38. The double action Beretta M9 ultimately displaced the weapon in US military service. These guns are still found around the world even today.
The Smith and Wesson Victory .38 is a delightfully compact and comfortable handgun. The cylinder release is located on the left side of the frame and presses forward for activation. The ejector rod is partially shrouded underneath the barrel.
Open the cylinder to the left and drop in six rounds. Snap the cylinder back in place, and the gun is ready to fire. The double action trigger is legendarily smooth. The single action pull is sufficiently short and crisp as to surprise you. To unload the gun activate the cylinder release, pivot the cylinder clear, and press the ejector rod. The star-shaped ejector ejects all six rimmed cases simultaneously.
The fixed sight channel is more than adequate at typical combat ranges, and the .38 Special chambering fits the compact frame perfectly. The gun hits adequately hard downrange without producing undue recoil. Double action shots are smooth and predictable, while manually cocking the gun for single action fire renders exceptional precision.
In its military guise, the gun is reloaded manually one round at a time. However, the ejection system is essentially instantaneous. Filling the cylinder with loose rounds is not a major chore, though it would no doubt become much more daunting were someone shooting back at me.
I came on active duty as an Army Aviator in 1989 just as the Victory .38 was being phased out of the military inventory. The gun took up very little space and was remarkably lightweight. The perhaps suboptimal ballistics of .38 Special FMJ ammunition notwithstanding, the Victory .38 was a superb aviator’s survival gun. The same attributes that made it effective for Greg Boyington in 1943 likewise ensured that the pistol would render fine service on the vests of Army helicopter pilots in Vietnam and beyond.
Greg Boyington apparently did not shoot the lights out of any more bars after the war. However, his hard-drinking lifestyle did eventually catch up to him, and Boyington died in 1988 at age 75. In his later years he would frequently make public appearances alongside Masajiro Kawato, the Japanese fighter pilot purported to have shot him down. These two men were said to have developed a close friendship after the war.
I met both Boyington and Kawato in the back corner of an airplane hanger back in 1978. Nobody else was around, and they were both tolerant of a skinny 12-year-old boy fascinated with all things aviation. I recall that Kawato was exceptionally gracious and Boyington was nursing an adult beverage.
Boyington’s Victory .38 is in a private collection today. I was fortunate enough to see the gun on display at a recent gun show in Chantilly, Virginia. The fact that I don’t have a photograph of the weapon stands in mute testimony to my lamentable lack of foresight.
When the nation went to war Smith and Wesson adapted their flagship police revolver for military use and churned them out by the hundreds of thousands. The Victory .38 has become a fixture around the world anyplace men tend to shoot each other. Lee Harvey Oswald was packing a Victory .38 when he was arrested for the murder of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
Sweet shooting and effective, even by Information Age standards, the Victory .38 is a superb addition to any proper military firearm collection. A quick check of GunsAmerica shows fully half a dozen examples currently for sale at reasonable prices. For an entry-level GI-issue handgun that won’t break the bank, the Victory .38 can’t be beaten.
Smith and Wesson Victory Model (as tested)
Caliber .38 Special
Barrel Length 4 inches
Weight 34 ounces unloaded
Sights Blade Front and Notched Rear
Action Double Action/Single Action
S&W Victory .38
Load Group Size (inches) Velocity (feet per second)
Armscor 158-gr FMJ 1.8 843
Group size is best four of five rounds fired from a simple rest at 12 meters. Velocity is the average of three rounds fired across a Caldwell Ballistic Chronograph oriented ten feet from the muzzle.