Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Warrior for the Ages: The Colt Model 1911

"In the middle of the fight a German officer and five men done jumped out of a trench and charged me with fixed bayonets. They had about twenty-five yards to me and they were coming right smart. I had only about half a clip left in my rifle; but I had my pistol ready. I done flipped it out fast and teched them off, too. I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That’s the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don’t want the front ones to know that we’re getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all. Of course, I hadn’t time to think if that. I guess I jes naturally did it. I knowed, too, that if the front ones wavered, or if I stopped them the rear ones would drop down and pump a volley into me and get me. Then I returned to the rifle, and kept right on after those machine guns."  -Corporal Alvin C. York, excerpt from "His Own Life Story and War Diary"

Sergeant Alvin York, the most decorated American Soldier of WWI, and a true hero.

As a firearms enthusiast, a history enthusiast, and a former military man, I've not seen, heard, or read of a better example of the pistol's role in combat than the one penned above by the legendary SGT York. The pistol that he used with such blistering effectiveness was, of course, the Colt Model 1911, and is this month's subject.

To be honest, I've been hesitant to write about the 1911, because there's been so much written about it already. On top of that, last year when I started my blog, the 1911 turned 100 years old, and every gun magazine out there celebrated the centennial with scores of articles. And with good reason: the Colt Model 1911 occupies a special place in the hearts of American gun enthusiasts. Even the few shooters who don't like it have great respect for it. It has the distinction of being the world's longest serving military firearm, and one whose design has been essentially unchanged since its adoption a century ago.

A battle-tested, early example of the Colt M1911

The history leading up to the adoption of the 1911 is just as fascinating as the 1911 itself. The turn of the 20th Century saw the United States becoming more powerful, and the real beginning of its influence on world events. The late 19th century was the twilight of the Age of Imperialism, with the great European powers jockeying with each other for control over land and resources. The United States, itself a former colony, wanted in on the grab. Europe had a huge head start, naturally, so there was little time to lose.  America had dabbled in "local" imperialism for years, fighting with Mexico and the Indians, and ultimately extending its borders from sea to shining sea, but there was more out there. In 1898, the United States, pressured by influential types such as Theodore Roosevelt, involved itself in the Cuban War for Independence against Spain, which eventually resulted in the "mysterious" sinking of the battleship U.S.S Maine, and ultimately the Spanish American War (or as I like to call it, "SpAm").

Teddy called it a "splendid little war". I like my name better.

Regardless of what you call it, the Spanish American War was a brilliantly executed piece of political maneuvering that used the American people's public sentiment and support for the Cuban rebels to advance the U.S. government's agenda. On that note, some conspiracy theorists even accused the U.S. of sinking the Maine intentionally to start the war (they were the 9/11 Truthers of their day). Anyway, the U.S. won the war, and acquired territories previously held by Spain to include Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Phillipines (the latter of which was "purchased" for the princely sum of $20 million, or about $700 trillion in Obamabucks). In my article about the Mauser Modelo 1895, I mentioned that the Americans' Krag-Jorgensen rifles were outclassed by the Spaniards' superior Mausers. Well, it wasn't just American rifles that were lacking during this period.

The U.S.'s current sidearm at the time was the Colt New Army Model 1892. The New Army was a beautiful revolver, and it had some nifty features for its day. It was the U.S.'s first truly reliable double action revolver, and it sported a swing out cylinder which facilitated rapid unloading and reloading. It had officially replaced the older Colt Single Action Army and its weak and unreliable double action derivatives.

The Colt Model 1892 "New Army" Revolver in .38 Long Colt. It would later be chambered for other calibers, to include the .45 Colt.

Along with the new sidearm came a new cartridge: whereas previous American pistols were chambered in the manly .45 Colt, the New Army was chambered for the .38 Long Colt. The new cartridge fired a 150 grain, .357" bullet that moved at about 770 fps. Compared to the older .45 Colt, which fired a much larger and heavier 255 grain bullet moving at over 900 fps, the .38 Long Colt just didn't measure up. And not just on paper, either: during the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, The U.S. Army received multiple complaints regarding the cartridge's inability to stop charging Moro guerrillas  even at very close range. One such report after the war stated the following:
"Antonio Caspi, a prisoner on the island of Samar, P.I. attempted escape on Oct. 26, 1905. He was shot four times at close range in a hand-to-hand encounter by a .38 Colt's revolver loaded with U.S. Army regulation ammunition. He was finally stunned by a blow on the forehead from the butt end of a Springfield carbine." - Col. Louis A. LaGarde
Not a glowing endorsement of the .38 Long Colt, for sure. In fact, it was so bad (how bad was it?) that troops in the Philippines were re-issued the older .45 Colt revolvers to provide a little more "knock-down" power. 

Weebles Moros wobble, but they don't fall down. Maybe it's the large feet?

The U.S. Army, surprising soldiers everywhere by actually listening to the troops on the ground, decided that a completely new pistol and cartridge were needed. In 1904, the the Army's Ordnance Department conducted the controversial Thompson-LaGarde tests, in which numerous cartridges and firearms were tested on livestock. The results of the test concluded that the minimum effective pistol combat caliber was .45", preferably fired from a semi-automatic handgun. The first reliable semi-automatic pistols were just starting to come into their own at this time, for both civilian and military use. The Germans had designed and fielded the the Mauser Model 1896, and later the P-08 Luger. The Austrians were fielding the interesting Steyr M1894 pistol. The U.S. had previously tested these most of these designs and found them lacking in one form or another. Now, given the concerns with the 1892 New Army, the Chief of Ordnance authorized a new round of semi-automatic pistol trials. No fewer than six companies submitted designs. These six were quickly whittled down to three: Savage, Germany's Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM), and Colt.

Savage's design was interesting, but due to reliability issues it never really had a shot. Ha!

Long story short: Colt won, which is a good thing, because there's something just not right about a Luger P-08 firing the 45 Auto cartridge. Colt's design was the brainchild of the greatest firearms designer ever to walk the face of planet Earth: John Moses Browning. Mr. Browning was the Amadeus Mozart of firearms engineering. At the age of 13, he built his first firearm, at 24 he was issued his first patent, and upon his death, he had designed more than 128 firearms. His influence on firearms design was far reaching and long lived: rifles, shotguns, pistols, machine guns, etc., his designs are still being used in the manufacture of new guns the better part of a century after his death. His genius was limited only by the manufacturing processes and technology of his day. One wonders what he would develop were he alive in the 21st century. GLOCKs might not be so boring, for starters. But I digress.

John Moses Browning, the Father of Modern Firearms, and an all around stand-up guy.

Mr. Browning's design was approved and adopted in the year 1911, and in proper U.S. military fashion was christened the Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, Model of 1911. The 1911 was in part based on earlier Browning designs, to include his 1903 pistol, but with improvements and refinements to handle the beefier .45 Auto cartridge, which was also a Browning design. On that note, the .45 Auto and the .45 ACP are the same cartridge. Purists will tell you that the .45 Auto moniker is the correct term for the cartridge, as the "ACP" stands for "Automatic Colt Pistol", and is therefore a description of the gun, not the cartridge. Anyway, Browning's pistol featured a short recoil design and was fed by a 7 round detachable magazine. The barrel had locking grooves that interfaced with identical grooves in the top of the slide, a simple design that provided a strong lock-up. The .45 Auto it fired had appreciably better ballistics than the old .38 Long Colt, sporting a 230 grain bullet moving at about 830 fps from the M1911's five inch barrel. Not quite up to .45 Colt level ballistics, but close enough, and in a modern semi-automatic, single-action platform to boot. And the pistol just plain worked. The test bed allegedly fired over 6,000 rounds, and when it got hot it was immersed in water to cool it down, after which it was fired again. There were zero malfunctions. The result was that Colt received another lucrative military contract. The U.S. Army immediately placed orders for the new pistol, and the Navy and USMC weren't far behind.

A Browning pistol used in the 1907 field trials. With modifications, it would later become the M1911.

A mere three years after the M1911 was adopted, a Serbian terrorist (or freedom fighter, depending on your point of view) by the name of Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Mr. Princip killed both the Archduke and his wife, and before Europe knew what was happening, the seeds of its entangling alliances bore fruit, and the entire continent declared war on itself. The Great War, the War to End All Wars, World War I, or as I like to call it, The Stupidest War Ever Fought and What A Damned Waste of Good Men and Machinery it Was, Too eventually ensnared the United States as well, despite the public's and our government's intentions to stay out of it. Regardless, in 1918, after a few years in service, the M1911 was going to war.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed by a FN Model 1910 (designed by John Browning) and chambered in the anemic 7.65mm Browning cartridge. I told you that Browning was influential.

It was during WWI that Sergeant York earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, in part for his judicious use of the M1911 against a squad of Germans, of which he wrote about and I quoted in the beginning of this article. Alvin C. York wasn't the only one to use the M1911 in such a fashion. Word of its effectiveness as a manstopper spread quickly, and the M1911, quite unlike the 1892 New Army, was widely praised by those who used it. About the only problem the U.S. military had with the M1911 is that there just weren't enough of them. The shortage was bad enough that the War Department commissioned a run of New Army type revolvers chambered in - wait for it - the .45 Auto. Since the .45 Auto was rimless, these revolvers were loaded using a stamped sheet metal device known as a moon clip. The moon clip, as its name suggested, was a round piece of metal that clipped onto the base of .45 Auto cartridge, allowing it to be used in a revolver. The "new" revolver was christened the M1917 and was produced by both Smith & Wesson and Colt, each being a slightly different design. Later variations of the the M1917 had a "lip" machined into the cylinders so the .45 Auto cartridge could headspace on the case mouth as John Browning had intended. This eliminated the need for moon clips, but made extraction of spent cases somewhat time consuming, as they were still rimless. Indeed, after the war as these revolvers were surplussed  ammo companies introduced the .45 Auto Rim, which was functionally identical to the .45 Auto except for the addition of a rim which both rendered moon clips unnecessary and allowed for an expeditious extraction.

A Smith & Wesson M1917. Note the cartridges inserted into the moon clips to allow proper headspacing. A side benefit to the moon clip is that it offered speedy reloads.

Back to the M1911. As great as Browning's design was, there was some small room for improvement. Using feedback from combat veterans who used the M1911, these improvements materialized in the form of the M1911A1. The main differences were a shorter trigger with a grooved/stippled surface, relief cuts on the frame to make squeezing the trigger more ergonomic, an extended grip safety which better protected large hands from being cut by the slide while in recoil, and an arched mainspring housing on the rear of the grip strap. These changes were rolled out in 1927. Since the changes were relatively minor, the M1911A1 didn't replace the M1911; it merely supplemented it. But, it didn't really matter. What use were pistols anyway, because everyone knew that after WWI, the War to End All Wars, that there would never again be such a large scale global conflict. I mean, it was inconceivable that anyone would have the stomach for war after what happened in WWI, right?


In 1939, Germany, under the leadership of the semi-democratically elected Adolf Hitler, declared war on Poland and simultaneously gave birth to the Blitzkrieg. This particularly irritated the rest of Europe, because they'd been capitulating to Hilter's demands (perhaps partly because they knew they screwed Germany in the Treaty of Versailles), but the invasion of Poland was the last straw. Feeling like fools (and deservedly so) once again Europe declared war upon itself, a mere two decades after the end of the War to End All Wars. And once again, the United States found itself drawn into a conflict across the pond. We all know what happened in the intervening years, and those that followed. Our boys went to war, and the M1911A1 went with them. Once the Italians, Germans and the Japanese were licked, the M1911A1 had a brief respite before it was called into action again on the Korean peninsula  Not too terribly long after that, it went to war in a place few Americans had even heard of: Vietnam. When the Vietnam War finally ended, the M1911 was old enough to collect Social Security. It had served admirably in every conflict the US was involved in for the better part of a half century. Most of the pistols in the inventory had been rebuilt and re-arsenaled at least once, and the guns were starting to wear out. I read an article in American Rifleman that in the 1980s, the Army enacted specific safety restrictions on chambering the pistol as worn sears had caused a few pistols to go full-auto on the firing line.

A WWII era M1911A1. Note the changes to the frame, trigger, and mainspring housing vs. the M1911.

Going into the Reagan years, the old war horse was tired, and some murmured that it needed to be put out to pasture. So after the better part of a century with the M1911 strapped to the hips of military men, the call went out for a replacement. You would think that the solution would be to make more new 1911A1s, or perhaps develop a 1911A2, right?  Alas, such things were not meant to be. A new round of pistol trials was authorized instead. The U.S. was under great pressure from NATO to standardize on the 9mm Parabellum cartridge for its sidearms. Additionally, from a logistics standpoint, standardizing on the 9mm made sense: the round was about half the weight of the .45 Auto, and since it was smaller and lighter a soldier could carry about twice as many rounds. The problem was that more doesn't always equal better. Dozens of gun rag writers have written countless words about the .45 Auto vs. the 9mm Parabellum, and I have no desire to repeat that here. Suffice to say, that after the pistol trials were over, the US military had a new sidearm. To add insult to injury, not only was the new pistol chambered in 9mm Parabellum, it was a foreign design...a design from a country that the 1911 had whooped into submission 40 years earlier! Italy's Beretta Model 92 was officially selected as the replacement for the 1911, and was christened the M9. Seismic activity was reported that night as John Browning did somersaults in his grave.

Pictured above: the general consensus in the military and firearms community when the US adopted the M9.

Many folks were unhappy with the new development. Some of this unhappiness centered around the performance of the 9mm Parabellum in its FMJ military loading vs. that of the .45 Auto, some of the discontent centered around the political reasons for the Beretta's adoption, and some of it was due to early reports of catastrophic failures with M9's subjected to heavy use (these later turned out to be a bit unfair, actually). While the rank-and-file troops had to accept a foreign pistol in a foreign caliber, the special operations community was, well, special. They decided that the 1911's tour of duty was far from over. The Marines in particular, being well known for doing things their way, were not pleased. Though no new 1911A1 frames had been manufactured for forty years, the Marines began to salvage as many serviceable pistols as possible. They took off-the-shelf commercial parts and began an extensive rebuild program. In 1985 the Marines fielded what they called the M-45 MEUSOC pistol. It became the official sidearm of USMC Force Recon elements.

Marines armed with the M45 pistol. Note the differences between the two guns, indicating they were built at different times.

So the 1911 got a new lease on life, of sorts. It continued to serve with Special Operations units through the remainder of the 20th Century. Since no new frames had been made since the end of WWII, it was entirely possible that a Marine could enlist and be issued essentially the same sidearm that his father or uncle had carried before him. This also posed a problem, because the pistols, reworked as they were, were still damned old. As the 1911 turned 100 years old, the USMC did the only sensible thing it could do: it adopted the M9 Beretta it ordered new 1911s.

In August 2012, 101 years after its initial adoption, and 27 years after the M9 officially replaced the 1911A1, Colt was awarded a $22.5 million contract to produce up to 12,000 new 1911 pistols for the United States Marine Corps. The new M45 included many updates that had long been standard fare for civilian 1911s: an extended beaver tail protect the hand, Novak sights, a skeletonized "commander" style round hammer, a more ergonomic thumb safety, forward and rear cocking serrations on the slide, and an integrated Picatinny rail on the frame brought the 1911 into the 21st century. The new pistol is finished with a modern coating that's highly resistant to corrosion, scratches, and abuse. Despite all the changes, the pistol still is very much a 1911 at heart: it functions exactly the same as John Browning's original design.

Pictured above: the Colt M45 Close Quarter Battle Pistol. I want one.

I am fortunate enough to own two fine examples of the 1911. Both of mine are replicas, not GI Issue. Which is fine by me, because I can shoot the heck out of both of them without fear of breaking a collectible gun. Collectible 1911s and 1911A1s go for $1,700 - $3,000 on average, which is a lot of scratch.

My replicas cost considerably less. The Colt you see on top is a quite faithful copy of a WWI issue 1911, a real version of which is pictured at the top of this page. Colt made them to celebrate the 1911's centennial. Many collectors bought these and never shot them. I bought one for $900 and have put close to a thousand rounds through it. The finish shows a little wear (the black oxide used faithfully duplicates the original finish, which was not known for durability), but I find this adds a little character and makes me want to shoot it more. The Auto-Ordnance 1911A1 below it is a mostly cosmetically correct copy of a WWII era 1911A1. It's probably as close a replica as you can get, and the price was right at only $500. It's rock solid reliable and I enjoy the heck out of it.

Top: My Colt 1911 "Black Army" Replica. Bottom: My Auto-Ordnance 1911A1 Replica.

Shooting the 1911 can be a bit daunting for those without handgun experience. I wouldn't recommend it as a first gun for anyone. It does take a little practice to get used to it. With full power GI loads, it can be somewhat of a handful. Recoil is brisk but not sharp or painful. The best way I can describe it is that you know you're shooting a gun when you fire a 1911. However, the natural heft and pointability of the design makes shooting quite enjoyable. John Browning really got the ergonomics right with this gun: it simply feels good in the hand. Even with the tiny GI sights, a decent marksman can shoot quite accurately with the 1911. I generally prefer the 1911A1 over the 1911, but it's almost too close to call. My hand fits the arched main spring housing of the A1 just a bit more.

If I had to pick one word to describe how I feel about the 1911, that word would be "timeless". In this day and age of polymer-framed, striker-fired black handguns, the 1911 does more than hold its own. Nearly every American firearms manufacturer makes a variant of John Browning's pistol; indeed, many foreign companies do as well. In fact, there's a good deal of quality, inexpensive 1911 guns coming from the Philippines right now, which seems fitting since the 1911 was carried by the Americans who liberated that nation from the Japanese. Those black plastic guns have their charms, for sure, but I don't know if they'll stand the test of time like the 1911 has. If I was a betting man, I'd bet that in another hundred years the 1911 will still be around. It truly is a warrior for the ages.


  1. thanks for a good article.

  2. Thanks for reading! Glad you found it enjoyable.

  3. I stumbled upon your wonderful blog and have spent the last 3 hours going through everything, cheers!

    1. Welcome! Thanks for the kind words, I am glad you are enjoying the blog.

  4. Nice piece. I'm still torn between the two types, 9mm or 45. The former lets you shoot more and maybe not kill, the other just works. I'll forgive your leaving out the USSR's invasion of Poland from the East, since we didn't fight them except through proxies over the next 45 years, but the stuff about "semi-democratically elected" is apparently more myth than reality. I'd bet his elections were less fraudulent than America's current soviet-style ruler.

  5. Excellent article, entertaining as well as very informative. My only complaint is that, having spent the last day of so reading through your blog, and saving the best (the 1911, of course) for last, I'm now left without any more of your fantastic reviews to read! Hope to see some more in the future.


    1. Thank you very much, I am glad you enjoyed the blog. I will be posting another entry tonight after a long hiatus. Two year olds require lots of supervision, and work has been busy as well. I hope to do a better job keeping this blog current after the new year.

  6. Thanks Jimvac for sharing this informative blog. I like pistols and Colt 1911 model is my favorite one.

  7. 100 years?

    Once we get our asses into space the 1911 and its progeny will be part of the human condition forever.

  8. You are a man after my heart. I learned to shoot the 1911 while in the air force on various pistol teams. One of the high points of my life was shooting a 98 at 50 yards (using hardball) during a leg match, it earned me a gold leg and a feeling of pride with this fine handgun. You brought the essence of a piece of history to life again. Thank you.

  9. I learned to shoot a pistol on a Viet Nam era USMC 1911A1 my father carried. I still own it, and love it like one of my children. I disagree on one point, is the first pistol I taught my son to shoot, at the age of 8, and he loved it so much I had to buy him a Springfield 1911 so I could get a chance to shoot mibe!

  10. I learned to shoot a pistol on a Viet Nam era USMC 1911A1 my father carried. I still own it, and love it like one of my children. I disagree on one point, is the first pistol I taught my son to shoot, at the age of 8, and he loved it so much I had to buy him a Springfield 1911 so I could get a chance to shoot mibe!