The pair of crossed, golden flintlocks that forms the basis for the Military Police Corps’ branch insignia is a powerful and memorable image—but the design likely would never have seen the light of day were it not for the shape of another iconic Army handgun.

Before the Military Police Corps was established as a basic branch of the Army in 1941, the office of Provost Marshal General—i.e., the head of Military Police forces—was in effect only sporadically. Following the end of the Revolutionary War, for instance, that office simply ended, and was not filled again until the outbreak of the Civil War—and even then it took until 1863 to appoint a Provost Marshal General for the entire Army, as opposed to Provost Marshals over individual units such as regiments or divisions. About a year-and-a-half after the Confederate surrender in 1865, Congress abolished the Provost Marshal General’s Office.

With the United States’ entry into World War in April 1917 came a massive expansion of the Army and, with it, the need for Provost Marshal services and Provost Marshal General to oversee them. Subsequently, Major General Enoch Crowder was appointed Provost Marshal General of the Army in the spring of 1917. Throughout the war, Crowder’s focus was the smooth operation of the Selective Service System, or military draft, and the bulk of the personnel in his office were civilian workers: by October 1918, there were less than 200 commissioned officers in his department.

But the services of Provost Marshals were also desperately needed in Europe, where hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were pouring into England and France. On July 7, 1917, the Army established the Office of the Provost Marshal General (OPMG) of the American Expeditionary Force in Paris (AEF). The next day, a temporary Military Police Corps was established by Section XI, General Orders No. 111 of the AEF, and one company (five officers, two hundred enlisted) was assigned to each Corps. By November 1918, that number was upped to a company per division while maintaining a company operating at the Corps level.

Despite this growth, the Army had still not designated an insignia for either officers, enlisted personnel, or civilians serving in the OPMG of the Army or AEF. Back in the United States, Crowder had authorized officers to wear the insignia of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps since that was where the initial crop came from (including himself). In January 1919, prescribed an insignia for officers consisting of laurel wreaths encompassing the letters “PM,” but the Provost Marshal General’s Department was discontinued six months later, and the design was rescinded in March, 1921.

Six months later, the War Department settled on a new insignia for the Military Police Corps: two crossed Model 1806 Harper’s Ferry flintlock pistols. The Institute of Heraldry Web site says this model was chosen because it was “the first American Military pistol,” was the official model used by the Army for many years, and was groundbreaking in that its parts were standardized and therefore interchangeable. But a far more likely explanation is found in the Encyclopedia of United States Army Insignia and Uniforms authored by retired Lieutenant Colonel William Emerson.

During World War I, the Army had used crossed semi-automatic pistols—i.e., .45-caliber M1911s—as the basis for its pistol marksmanship insignia, and it probably considered them for use on the Military Police Corps’ insignia. The problem was the weapon’s shape: when two M1911s are crossed at an angle, they bear a very strong resemblance to carpenter’s squares rather than pistols. The pronounced trigger guards and hammers on a Harper’s Ferry Pistol, on the other hand, makes it easy to recognize it as a sidearm even at a distance.

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