A Bit on Pistols and Rifles

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

Around 1965 my tealeaves said I would wind up in combat in Vietnam. Pulling alert in the F-101B loaded with nuclear weapons required that I wear a pistol, and the squadron commander permitted personal pistols. The time seemed right to buy one. I was not satisfied with revolvers because I wanted to be able to reload quickly, my theory being that actually shooting a bad guy on the ground would likely anger his buddies, but being able to hold a few of them off a bit while help was on the way might be really useful. I also wanted to be able to get a round off quickly (as when surprised while slithering through the jungle) without carrying the gun with hammer cocked or having to worry about a safety catch. The then new S&W Model 39 double action semi-automatic seemed just the answer, and I bought one. I later learned the Air Force was issuing the same pistol to its generals, while the Army still issued a silly little hammerless single action .38 auto like the one in the movie where Patton shot back at strafing Ju-88s.
In 1969 the problem arose as to how I would get my pistol to Vietnam and back. I heard that getting it over would be no problem but getting it back (War trophy? Stolen? Etc.) would. Also, carrying ammunition either way was a no-no. So I declared the gun on my customs form for entry, and the MP at customs at Tan Son Nhut didn’t even notice. I called his attention to it and asked him to document its entry so I could get it home.
“You’ll have to report the gun to your commander, and he won’t let you carry it over here,” he said.
“I’m a forward air controller,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, “Maybe they will. What will you do for ammunition?”
“Some special forces camp,” I said.
“Wait one,” he said, and rummaged under the counter and came up with two boxes of 9 mm ammo and gave them to me.
I never asked and nobody ever questioned the pistol in Vietnam, Laos or Thailand. I still have it and some of the ammo.
An aside on firearms philosophy, I was an experienced rifleman completely aware of the importance of zeroing the sights, yet I never bothered to zero the CAR-15 I carried as a Raven. I didn’t want to kill some guy whose buddies were going to scarf me up anyway, but I did want to be able to hold them off a bit. What I did was load all my magazines with every third round a tracer, figuring they would add to the suppressive effect and would also be useful when firing out the window of the O-1. They were.