Happy 230th Birthday: Guns of the Coast Guard

Tasked with a variety of unique missions as well as contributing to the national defense in time of war, the Coast Guard has used a wide array of small arms in its history. 

Today's U.S. Coast Guard traces its roots back to Alexander Hamilton’s Revenue-Marine. Formed on Aug. 4, 1790, the small service spent most of that time as part of the Treasury Department, tasked originally with stopping smugglers, a mission familiar to the branch today. As such, its small "cutters" were the only armed vessels available to the young country as the old Continental Navy had been disbanded by a miserly Congress and would only be reformed as the U.S. Navy in 1797

Over time, the Revenue-Marine became the Revenue Cutter Service and, in 1915, was merged with the beach station system maintained by the U.S. Life-Saving Service to form the Coast Guard, to which the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the Navigation and Steamboat Inspection Service were later added.

Besides its seagoing law enforcement mission-- which included fighting pirates-- the Coast Guard or its preceding components have been active in every single American war to include the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, Spanish-American War, both World Wars, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Gulf Wars

Handguns

Handguns, in the form of flintlock pistols, were among the first and most common small arms available to early Revenue Marine members as the service's original cutters were small craft, only about 50 feet in length, and would typically just be armed with few muskets in addition to cutlasses, making pistols a very important part of the vessel's armament. The example, the first ten cutters commissioned in 1791 each carried 12 muskets and 24 pistols. 

Members of the Historic Ship's Company portray Revenue Marine members at the time of the War of 1812 (Photo: USCG) 

As with most Coast Guard weapons, their first draw came from weapons that were surplus to other service's needs, with Secretary of War Henry Knox ordering the branch’s arms issued from the arsenal at West Point-- whose stock was a leftover hodgepodge of British, French and Spanish arms left over from the Revolutionary War. A thrifty service, officers and men were not issued uniforms and had to provide their own clothes, with some taking old Colonial uniforms out of storage. 

By the 1830s, cutter officers were buying their own Colt pattern revolvers and in 1842 the service scored by picking up a bunch of Colt Patersons at clearance prices as that early wheel gun venture went out of business. As cutters were often the only law of the land in some areas, for instance in California coastal towns during the 1849 Gold Rush, Colts became very popular, with one, the Cutter Shubrick, having no less than 51 Colts compared to just 30 rifles in her small arms lockers. 

By the late 1800s, cartridge revolvers had replaced the old cap and ball weapons and .38-caliber double-action M1892 Colts were carried in the Spanish-American War, later augmented by more modern M1907s. With the Navy moving to the new, .45 ACP M1911, the Coast Guard also began fielding the "Government Issue" Colt in 1915 with new steel-hulled cutters typically receiving 20 such guns. 

The M1911 and later M1911A1 remained a Coast Guard standard into World War I and endured through the 1980s, augmented by emergency buys of Smith & Wesson Victory revolvers during WWII and .22 LR Colt Aces for target practice.

Coast Guardsman standing watch over 78-foot torpedo boat under construction in New Orleans during WWII, while another Coastie on Beach Patrol carries the same trusty sidearm while on the lookout for German spies and U-boats (Photo: National Archives)

When the U.S. military adopted the Beretta 92F as the M9 in 1986, the Coast Guard was the first service that fielded the new 9mm double-stack semi-auto, as their aging .45s, the newest of which dated to the 1940s, were considered the most worn out due to such frequent use with boarding teams that operated from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Tonkin. 

The M1911A1 compared to the M9 Beretta in 1986 (Photo: National Archives)
Coast Guard personnel on the Cutter Northland practicing with their M9s in a 2005 image. (Photo: National Archives)

Unlike many branches of the military where the typical enlisted rarely handles a weapon, Coast Guard personnel carry one daily while aboard their fleet of hundreds of small boats. Moreover, they practice, a lot. So much that by 2004, some 75 percent of the USCGs inventory of M9 Berettas was far past their 5,000-round service life. As part of the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard was part of a testing process that examined 46 different handgun models. Nearly 3 million rounds later (it’s a dirty job but someone has to do it!), the winner was the P229.

The P229R DAK compared to the M9

The version of the SIG chosen by the Coast Guard in 2006 was the P229R DAK, which includes an under-slide rail and the 6.5-pound DAK (Double-Action-Kellerman) trigger. A 3.8-inch barrel gives a 7.1-inch 27.5-ounce (unloaded) handgun. Due to its law-enforcement role, the USCG was able to choose a non-NATO standard caliber (.40 S&W) and use non-Geneva compliant JHP ammunition. Typical magazines are 12 round capacity flush-fit.

The Coast Guard has been using the P229R for the past 14 years (Photos: USCG)

Today, the USCG is set to move to a new Sig Sauer model, the M18, dumping the .40 S&W for a 9mm again. 

Shotguns

Going back to the World Wars, shotguns increasingly saw service with the Coast Guard. On an anecdotal note, the author's great grandfather carried a Stevens pump gun during WWII on beach patrol along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. 

Shotguns, typically Remington 870 variants, have been a staple of USCG operations for the past several decades. 

Today, the Coast Guard has what is termed a Tactical Bow Gunner Course for personnel on small boats assigned to protect ports and waterways in sensitive areas such as naval bases. While ultimately, they learn to use M240 machine guns in non-compliant scenarios, their most commonly-used tool is a Remington 870 SBS stoked with LA51 Warning Devices, a sweet little shotgun-fired flash-bang that is guaranteed to get your attention.

Rifles

Moving forward from Yorktown-vintage flintlocks, the Revenue Marine upgraded their muskets during the War of 1812 and then, in the 1830s picked up surplus Hall carbines from the Army, the latter a weapon with a mixed reputation and little to endear it other than the fact it was a curiosity in the world of firearm technology at the time it was designed. These were later augmented by "free to a good home" Remington Jenks carbines obtained second-hand from the Navy.

The Civil War saw an influx of more modern Minié ball-fed percussion rifles. The service closed out the 19th Century with a motley collection of Spencer and Sharps carbines, 6mm Lee bolt guns, Krag rifles, along with .45-70 caliber Springfield Trapdoors and Winchester 1886s. 

By the Great War, the newly formed Coast Guard started to see newer and more modern rifles, namely M1903 Springfields in .30-06. The rifle would prove standard to the service for more than 30 years. 

A Coast Guard sentry stands post in WWII, a SPAR female Coastie unpacks rifles, and a USCG Beach Patrol team disembarks from a whaleboat, all equipped with M1903s, a rifle that served the branch from WWI onwards. (Photos: National Archives/USCG)
Today, the Coast Guard Honor Guard still uses the '03 for ceremonial purposes, while cutters throughout the fleet often field vintage "bucket guns," line-throwers converted from old Springers. (Photos: USCG) 

As World War II brought huge expansion to the force, the Coast Guard began using the standard infantry arm of that era, the M1 Garand. 

The USCG used M1s well into the 1970s and the venerable rifle is still seen around the drill decks of the Coast Guard Academy. Notably, the Coasties to the right are disembarking in Greenland during WWII to look for German weather stations, a vital, if unsung, campaign. (Photos: National Archives)

By Vietnam, where the Coast Guard deployed not only small patrol boats but also large blue-water cutters, the M16 began to show up in the service's hands. The select-fire 5.56mm NATO weapon would endure with the service into the first Gulf War and would often be seen during high-profile drug busts during the cocaine cowboy-era. 

There is just something old-school cool about M16A1s. (Photos: National Archives)

Today, the Coast Guard tends more towards M4 and MK18 carbines while the service's crack Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron, or HITRON, specializes in delivering precision fire into the engines of fleeing suspect vessels during maritime drug interdiction efforts. 

HITRON with the Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba in pursuit of a drug smuggling vessel in the Caribbean Sea, April 2020. Note the M107 Barrett .50 cal and M240 door gun. (Photo: USCG)

Rock and Roll

Without getting into crew-served weapons like 5-inch guns, a staple of WWII through Vietnam-era cutters, and smaller pieces such as 40mm Bofors, 20mm Oerlikons, .50 cal machine guns, and 25mm chain guns, the Coast Guard has also long utilized light machine guns and sub guns. 

When it comes to submachine guns, the Coast Guard first got into the game during Prohibition when they were tasked with enforcing the Volstead Act along "Rum Row," with the assistance of a few Thompsons. Those same Tommy guns came in handy during WWII for both shipboard use as well as patrols ashore. 

April 1943: "Coast Guard anti-saboteur patrol. Vital cargoes of war supplies for America's far-flung battle lines must also be protected on the docks and piers from enemy attempts at sabotage. The Coast Guard now uses jeeps with armed Coast Guardsmen maintaining vigilant waterfront patrols." (Photo/Caption: National Archives)
Thompsons, both M1 and M1928 models, proved popular in Coast Guard service

Another uncommon weapon often seen in USCG hands during the 1940s was the Reising submachine gun, a quirky little burb gun that proved lackluster in front-line service overseas. 

April 1943 Coast Guard anti-saboteur patrol equipped with an odd assortment of hardware including an M1918 BAR, Colt M1895 "potato digger" light machine guns, Springfield M1903 rifles, and Reising sub guns. These armed Coast Guardsmen are shown getting their orders at an East Coast port before they start their patrol in the "blitz buggies." (Photo: National Archives)
A Coast Guard Beach Patrol with a Reising. (Photo: USCG)
The 1945 armament of the 180-foot Coast Guard buoy tender Laurel, on the frozen Greenland Patrol against German weather stations and U-boats included not only rockets and depth charges but also 10 Remington-made M1903A3s and five Reising SMGs. (Photo: National Archives) 

Coast Guard small boat crews manned landing craft putting Soldiers and Marines ashore at Normandy, Guadalcanal, and other nightmare beaches during WWII where they risked everything to get their charges ashore-- or recover them if need be.

To the left, Coast Guard legend Douglas Munro, portrayed laying down suppressive fire from a Lewis gun while in the act of rescuing pinned-down Marines. His family would be presented his Medal of Honor, posthumously. To the right, an M1919-equipped Coast Guard landing craft on D-Day. 

A little-known fact about the USCG is that, since 1986, they have fielded deployable Port Security Units. The PSUs are small boat teams ready to be mobilized and fly overseas to protect ports from attack.

They have deployed over the past several decades to the Persian Gulf, Guantanamo Bay, Haiti, and other tense areas. In that time, they have evolved from Boston Whalers and M60s to more modern layouts. 

In the end, the country's most often-forgotten military service is out there, on the job, and has been for the past 230 years. 

Happy Birthday, Coast Guard, and Semper Paratus.

For more on USCG weapon systems throughout history, check out Shots That Hit: A Study of U.S. Coast Guard Marksmanship 1790-1985, by William R. Wells, II

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