One of the dark consequences of war are dead soldiers. Even darker is the fact that in many cases these soldiers were unidentified. While the modern military has a much-improved system, conflicts like the Civil War and World War I saw large numbers of dead soldiers buried without a name. World War I saw the U.S. fighting in Europe with unavoidable casualties. While repatriation of the dead was initially an option, the U.S. soon followed suit with other ally nations and moved to bring home one solider. That unknown soldier would represent all that had fallen in battle without being identified.
The Secret SIG M17 Unknown Soldier Pistols
In October 1921, four bodies of unidentified U.S. military personnel were exhumed from different American military cemeteries in France. On October 23, 1921, the four caskets arrived at the city hall of Châlons-sur-Marne, France. Early the next morning, a random selection amongst the four was made and the remains were prepared to be moved. The goal was “to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed, or race in the late war and who typifies, moreover, the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead.” From Châlons-sur-Marne, the Unknown journeyed by caisson and rail to the port town of Le Havre, France. From there, the USS Olympia transported the Unknown Soldier’s casket to Washington D.C., arriving at the Washington Navy Yard on November 9, 1921.
The Unknown Soldiers
After arrival, the Unknown lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda where about 90,000 visitors paid their respects during the public visiting period on November 10, 1921. The following day, the Unknown was placed on a horse-drawn caisson and carried in a procession through Washington D.C. and across the Potomac River. A state funeral ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery, and the Unknown was interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Tomb sarcophagus is decorated with three wreaths on each side panel (north and south). On the front (east), three figures represent Peace, Victory and Valor. The back (west) features the inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
There are hallowed grounds on this Earth but few rival the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There is a deep reverence connected to this place, and those that guard it are some of the most professional solemn soldiers in the U.S. military. These soldiers belong to the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment and are known as the Old Guard. The Old Guard is the oldest active U.S. infantry unit. These soldiers protect the tomb 24 hours a day, 365 days a year regardless of the weather conditions. They do so not because they have been ordered, but because they volunteer.
While I can do my best to express just how special these soldiers are with words, Sig Sauer decided to honor them and the tomb with a special build. In 2018, Sig created some of the most unique guns in the world. With great care, consideration and thought, Sig produced four guns. The first two pistols issued to the Tomb Guards are named “Silence” and “Respect.” These are highly polished for daylight hours while. The other two, named “Dignity” and “Perseverance,” are matte-black pistols for night duty and bouts of inclement weather.
These ceremonial M17 pistols are 9mm striker-fired guns with an aluminum grip module, stainless steel slide, wood grip inserts, a 21-round magazine and the same optic cut as specified by the MHS contract. It has a front night sight, removable rear plate and black controls. The pistols also feature a high polish to withstand the inclement weather while the Tomb guards stand watch. That is about where the similarities end however and where the unique nature of these guns begins.
A Truly Special M17
We will begin with the beautiful wood grips. Unlike other wood grips you may commonly see on a pistol, these custom grips are made with wood from the deck of the USS Olympia and include the crest of the 3rd Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier identification badge inset.
The finish is beautiful and makes an exceptional accent to the pistols. Moving along the slide we come to the front sight. Keeping with the unique nature of the gun, Sig has included sights that feature glass vials made with marble dust from the Tomb. The dust was recovered when the Tomb received the inscription on the side saying, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.” The marble dust was introduced to glass by heating it to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit and then formed for inserts into these pistols’ sights. Just in front of the rear sight sits a three-dimensional engraving of three Greek figures: Peace, Victory and Valor.
Engraved on the side of the slide are some unique cocking serrations. The number XXI or “21” is a significant number to those that guard the Tomb. This number alludes to several things such as the 21-gun salute, the highest national honor. The Tomb Guards walk a specific route. That route is exactly 21 steps. Unlike traditional military procedure, the guards do not execute an about face when they reach 21 steps during their march. They stop, turn, and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. Then they turn to face the opposite direction.
Prior to marching again, they count 21 seconds before stepping off. This is repeated until the guards are relieved. The gun has special magazines as you can imagine. The 21-round magazines feature an aluminum base plate engraved with the names of the Greek figures featured on the Tomb of the Unknown—Peace, Victory, and Valor—and include a name plate on the bottom of the magazine engraved with the Tomb Sentinel badge number.
Even the serial numbers are significant. The pistols are serialized with a unique set of serial numbers that incorporate items of significance to the Old Guard: “LS” represents line six of the Sentinels’ Creed, “My standard will remain perfection;” “02JUL37” to signify the first 24-hour guard posted at the Tomb of the Unknown on July 3, 1937; “21” to signify the 21 steps it takes the Tomb Sentinels to walk by the Tomb of the Unknown and the military honor of a 21 Gun Salute. The full series of M17 Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Pistols serial numbers are LS02JUL37A21 (Silence), LS02JUL37B21 (Respect), LS02JUL37C21 (Dignity), LS02JUL37D21 (Perseverance).
A Solemn Mission
It is difficult to capture the essence of the Tomb in words, let alone a pistol. Yet that is what Sig Sauer has managed to do. The pistols are dignified with an almost incomprehensible connection to the history of the Tomb. In an official ceremony, The Old Guard accepted the pistols at Arlington National Ceremony followed by a Changing of the Guard that formally entered the M17 pistols into rotation.
Prior to this ceremony, Ron Cohen, CEO of Sig Sauer and a former artillery officer with the Israeli Defense Forces, and Steve Rose, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and military salesman for Sig Sauer, had the honor of laying a wreath at the Tomb. It is worth noting that the Sentinels that serve in this role are not simply ceremonial soldiers. They are trained warriors and considered to be the best of the best. While beautiful, the guns are designed to fight should the need arise. To the surprise of many, the pistols are always carried loaded.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington National Cemetery represent the soul of our nation. It is filled with those that demonstrated the finest qualities of our nation. Without attempting to sound too melodramatic, it is a magical place. A place as my daughter would say is filled with the deepest of old magic. A place where souls are moved, and tears shed. It is a reminder that everything we cherish has been paid for by the sacrifice of others.
If you get the chance to visit Arlington and witness the changing of the guard, I encourage you to take it. You will not be the same person you were when you arrived. Many words have been written about this special place, but I had a good friend share a story that seemed to sum it all up. I will close now with that story and encourage you to read more about the Tomb.
“I have seen a funeral firsthand in Arlington. There were dozens of buses of small school children and they were acting like it was recess. The horses came up and it was like Jesus himself told them all to be quiet. All you could hear was the clip-clop of the horses and then taps. The taps stopped and the lady that took the flag was whaling inconsolably. Then the children all started crying. It was, perhaps, one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed.”
This article originally appeared in the February-March 2022 issue of Ballistic Magazine. Get your copy or digital subscription at OutdoorGroupStore.com.