The 1911 Pistol
1911: A Legacy of Innovation
March 29 marks the 100th anniversary of the 1911 pistol, the most enduring and popular handgun in the United States.
Responding to the US military’s need for a superior battlefield weapon, John Browning worked with Colt firearms to develop the handgun in the early 1900s.
The 1911 is a single-action, semi-automatic, magazine-fed, and recoil-operated handgun chambered for the .45 ACPcartridge.
The 1911 is one of the best-known and most successful of Browning’s designs. Besides the pistol being widely copied itself, its recoil principle became the system of choice for nearly all modern centerfire pistols.
Over the years, more than 60 companies have manufactured a version of the 1911. These are often referred to by their manufacturer name plus the 1911 designation, such as a Smith & Wesson 1911, Springfield 1911, Kimber 1911, etc.
The 1911 remains a popular firearm because of its reliability, durability, multiple safety features, and wide availability of ammunition.
1911: The History
The Need for a Faster Firearm
The 1911 was born out of the US military’s need for a weapon superior to its standard-issue military revolver. Revolvers are reliable, but heavy and slow to load. The desire was for a “self-loading” handgun, which today we refer to as semi-automatic.
The semi-automatic designation refers to the fact that rather than engaging the trigger and producing a steady stream of bullets—like a fully automatic, or “machine” gun, does—a semi-automatic discharges a round each time the trigger is pulled, and can do so in rapid succession without the shooter having to pull the hammer back. The gun achieves this by using the recoil energy from the last round fired to propel the next round into place, ready for discharge.
The self-loading pistol had been around since the 1880s, but had yet to be adequately developed. At the end of the 19th century, a stream of new and inventive weapons flooded the US. During this time, several self-loading firearms were developed that are still collectible and popular today, like the Mauser C96 “Broomhandle,” the Luger 7.65mm, and the Colt M1900. However, none of these models were chambered for a .45 round, and just didn’t have enough stopping power for battlefield use.
The Need for a Stronger Firearm
Tests proved the effectiveness of the new semi-automatic weapons, but armed forces still needed a bigger bullet. Much of this desire for a better weapon came from the Phillipine-American War, were US troops fought against Moro guerillas—dedicated fighters who ingested pain-killing drugs to improve their endurance on the battlefield. These warriors were virtually resistant to the Army’s .38 long Colt bullets. The army switched to single-action Colt .45 revolvers for a time, but still desired a semi-automatic weapon for battlefield use.
This led to a competition for the Army contract among six major arms developers, each with a 1911-type pistol, including Colt, Bergmann, Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken, Savage Arms Company, KnobleWebley, and White Merril.
In addition to designing his own weapons, Browning worked with several arms manufacturers. For years Browning and Colt had been collaborating on weapons design. They turned their efforts to combining a semi-automatic weapon with Browning’s new round—the Colt .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol).
This round was slower and heavier than the ammunition being used on the battlefield, an advantage in close combat, where stopping power is key.
Working to combine the more powerful cartridge with the quicker pistol, the Colt 1911 was born.
Colt and Savage came out ahead in the six-way competition, and from 1907 to 1911, numerous tests were conducted. One test, attended by Browning, involved firing 6,000 shots from the pistol over two days. When the gun began to grow hot, it was immersed in water to cool it. The gun was also injected with dust, covered with mud, exposed to corrosive chemicals, and fired with deformed rounds. The Colt1911 emerged with no reported malfunctions, while the Savage design had 37.
History of Service
The 1911 Adopted
Following its success in trials, the Colt pistol was formally adopted by the Army on March 29, 1911, gaining its designation, Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911—M standing for “model” and 1911 being the year of adoption.
World War I (1914-1918)
In addition to being the official sidearm of the US Armed Forces in World War I, the 1911 was used by both the Royal Navyand theRoyal Air Force. To keep up with demand, additional manufacturers began production of the 1911. These included Remington, Winchester, Burroughs Adding Machine, Lanston Monotype Machine, National Cash Register, Caron Brothers, North American Arms, and even Savage Arms.
World War II (1939-1945)
During World War II, Colt continued production, and was joined by Remington Rand, Ithaca Gun Company, Union Switch & Signal, and Singer. This time the demand was even greater, not only from the US, but also the Allies. Almost 2 million units were procured by the U.S. Government for their forces. The surplus that remained after the war meant the armed forces simply refurbished and reassembled existing parts to create new guns as needed.
Korean War (1950-1953)Vietnam War (1960-1975)
After World War II, the 1911 continued to be a mainstay of the United States Armed Forces in the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
In total, the US procured around 2.7 million M1911 and M1911A1 pistols in military contracts during its service life.
The 1911 Retired
By the late 1970s,many felt the M1911A1 was showing its age. Congress wanted to standardize a single modern pistol design for the military, using the NATO standard 9mm Parabellum round first introduced by Georg Luger during the original Colt 1911 trials.
The official adoption of the Beretta 92F using this 9mm round occurred on January 14, 1985.
The 1911 Reborn
However, there was a reason the military rejected the 9mm in 1911. Then as now, many soldiers were not satisfied with the performance and stopping power of the 9mm round. Today, many have opted to return to the old 1911 standard. In fact, specially trained branches of the armed services still issue the 1911 for its quality, reliability, and stopping power.
Many police forces across the country continue to rely on the 1911 to protect their officers. In addition, more than 30 countries across the globe issue the 1911 to their armed forces.
Because of its accuracy and ease of modification, it is still the most popular model of pistol for competition shooters.
Simpler is Better
A field stripped model 1911 has six simple pieces. The simplicity of design is part of what makes the firearm foolproof.
One of the most desirable features of the 1911 is a series of safeties, including a thumb safety near the grip, lever on the palm area of the grip, sear disconnect, slide stop, and half cock position.
Browning’s basic 1911 design has seen very little change throughout its production life.
In 1924, minor modifications were made to the gun, including a shorter trigger, cutouts in the frame behind the trigger, an arched mainspring housing, a longer grip safety spur, a wider front sight, a shorter spur on the hammer, and simplified grip checkering.
These changes were mainly external, and so minor that most people cannot tell the difference between the two models, and both models still have interchangeable parts.
After the modifications, the designation of the gun was changed to Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911A1.
In the Vietnam era, the designation changed to Pistol, Caliber .45, Automatic, M1911A1.
Over the years, the basic weapon design has also been modified to accept ammunition in calibers other than .45, such as .22, 9mm, .38, .40, 10mm, .400 , .455, .50, and other cartridges.
The 1911, in various forms, remains the weapon of choice of elite forces throughout the US, including Marine Force Recon, Army Special Operations and Special Forces, Delta Force, SWAT teams, and the FBI Hostage Rescue Team.Los Angeles Police Department, Tacoma Police Department, LAPD Special Investigation Section, and other police forces across the country rely on the 1911 as their standard issue.
The 1911is also popular with the general public for practical and recreational purposes. The pistol is suitable for concealed carry because its single-stack magazine makes for a thinner profile.
It remains a strong personal defense weapon because of the availability and stopping power of the Colt .45 ACP. Additionally, multiple built-in safeties make it a safer weapon for users and their families.
The 1911 is a favorite of competition shooters. Its simple frame design and sheer availability of guns and parts makes it highly customizable, and many companies have been offering the 1911 as a base model for modifications to the finish, frame, hammer, trigger, and sear. Lights, scopes, and laser sights can be added.Replacement sights, grips, and other aftermarket accessories are the most commonly offered parts.
An Enduring Legacy
Almost every gun manufacturer has a version of the 1911, especially now at the 100th anniversary. Simply put, the M1911 is the Everyman’s pistol.
It has been 100 years since this gun hit the market, and it doesn’t show any signs of becoming outdated.
As The American Rifleman reported in 1911, comparing the Savage and Colt models: “Of the two pistols, the board was of the opinion that the Colt is superior, because it is more reliable, more enduring, more easily disassembledwhen there are broken parts to be replaced, and more accurate.”
Not much has changed in a hundred years.
Author: Corinne Flowers
Pub. Date: 4/1/11