Handguns > Semi-Auto

Colt History: A Look Back at the 1911

Officially called the Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911, John Browning’s masterpiece is as popular and practical today as it was 100 years ago.

3/7/2011


At the turn of the last century the United States was engaged in a conflict with Moro tribesmen in portions of the Philippine Islands. The U.S. had seized the islands as a protectorate and one of the spoils of war at the termination of the Spanish-American War. In May 1899, 800 U.S. Marines landed on the island of Jolo. Initially things were relatively peaceful, but a series of mis-translations of a treaty led to the Islamic Moro people to instigate hostilities. Among the Moro was a faction called “juramentado,” Spanish for “one who takes an oath,” an extremely zealous group of Muslims who felt it was their honor-bound duty to kill all Christians. The juramentados were fierce fighters who reputedly bound parts of their bodies prior to combat to reduce bleeding and took local drugs to minimize the perception of pain.


Unfortunately for many U.S. officers, the government had replaced the heavy—but quite reliable— .45-caliber Single Action Army with a lighter Colt double-action revolver. Chambered in .38 Long Colt, the Colt New Army 1892 was a beautifully made gun, but its ballistics—a 150-grain, round-nose lead bullet at 770 fps, yielding 195 ft.-lbs. of energy—were pretty anemic. Even during the war with Spain, the revolver didn’t cut it for American forces. When put up against the Moro juramentados many officers learned of the cartridge’s shortcomings the hard way. Reports of juramentados absorbing a cylinder-full of .38 Long Colts and still beheading the shooter with a keris knife were disturbingly regular. In something of a panic, the Army reissued Single Action Army revolvers from reserve stocks, and purchased some M1902 .45 caliber double-action revolvers. The Ordnance Board established an evaluation committee led by Col. John T. Thompson (inventor of the Thompson submachinegun) and Col. Louis A. La Garde. They determined the need for a semi-automatic pistol that fired a .45-caliber bullet in order to reliably stop close-range combatants.


When the Army announced its intent to replace the .38-caliber revolver with a .45-caliber pistol several companies leapt at the chance for a lucrative government contract. John Browning had already been developing a semi-auto pistol for Colt designed around a .38-caliber cartridge similar to the .38 Super. For a genius like Browning, it wasn’t too difficult a task to upsize both the pistol and cartridge to .45 caliber.


The pistol trials began in 1906, and samples from Colt, Savage, Smith & Wesson, DWM, Knoble, Bergmann and White-Merrill were tested. Both the Browning and Savage designs were selected for further testing. That testing revealed some shortcomings in both pistols, and the Army asked for more refinements in the designs. Browning traveled to Hartford, Conn., to supervise the changes. He teamed up with a young Colt employee, Fred Moore, and they painstakingly ensured that the pistols to be submitted were the finest they could produce. On March 3, 1911, the Army began a torture test. Each pistol would be fired 100 times, then allowed to cool for five minutes. After each 1,000 rounds the pistols would be cleaned and oiled. After 6,000 rounds, the pistols were tested with deformed cartridges, some with bullets seated too deeply, others not seated enough. The test pistols were soaked in water, mud and even acid. Browning’s design passed every test without a single failure—the first of any firearm to survive such a 6,000-round test.


On March 20, 1911, the Ordnance Board released a report of its findings that said, “Of the two pistols, the board was of the opinion that the Colt is superior, because it is more reliable, more enduring, more easily disassembled when there are broken parts to be replaced, and more accurate.” Nine days after that report, the Army designated the Colt Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911 to be its official sidearm. Two years later the Navy and Marine Corps adopted the 1911 as their handgun as well.


Other features mandated by the Ordnance Board were a manual safety and a grip safety, a slide stop that locked the slide back after the last round is fired and a half-cock position on the hammer. Feedback from soldiers after World War I also caused the military to make some relatively minor changes to the 1911. In 1924, the flat mainspring housing was given an arch in order to force the web of the hand higher into the grip safety. The trigger was shortened and cutouts on the frame behind the trigger were added to ease access to the trigger. The grip safety tang was lengthened a bit and the hammer spur shortened slightly to prevent hammer bite. A wider front sight and simplified grip panels completed the changes, and the revised pistol was given the name M1911A1.


The 1911 was an instantaneous success—no surprise, given its endorsement by the military—and demand outpaced supply. As World War II approached, the demand for this powerful handgun became even more intense. By the end of the war, nearly 2 million 1911 pistols were made and sold to the government. Colt could not keep up with the demand so other companies were contracted to produce the 1911. The most productive was Remington Rand—the erstwhile typewriter maker—which made some 900,000 pistols. The Ithaca Gun Company added another 400,000 copies, while Union Switch & Signal tossed another 50,000 toward the war effort. Even the sewing machine company, Singer, made some 500 pistols. Today, these “non-Colts” command some hefty premiums.


Other countries also manufactured the 1911 under contract from Colt. Argentina, Canada and Norway have produced 1911 pistols, while between 1914 and 1915, the Springfield Armory made some 30,000 pistols. Spanish gunmakers have made several variations of the 1911 as well. Llama-Fabrinor S.A.L., Star and Astra all have contributed to the plethora of Spanish 1911s. In short, John Moses Browning’s M1911 has made a large footprint worldwide as a military and police sidearm.


Five years after World War II, Colt came up with a smaller, lighter version of the 1911 to cater toward those who did not want to pack the full-size version. The frame was made from aluminum, and the barrel and slide were shortened 3/4 inch. Christened the Lightweight Commander and available in 9 mm, .38 Super as well as .45 ACP, it proved a welcome addition to the 1911 family. When the Series 70 came out, an all-steel Combat Commander was offered to answer some shooters complaints that the alloy frame wasn’t strong enough to withstand a high volume of shooting.


An overabundance of lawsuits directed toward gunmakers in the 1970s and ’80s led Colt to develop a firing pin safety that prevented the pistol from firing unless the trigger is pulled completely to the rear. These Series 80 pistols came in many of the familiar 1911 configurations: Government Model, tactical, competition models and both Combat and Lightweight Commander styles with blued or satin nickel finishes. Even stainless steel was finally used to make the 1911 impervious to the elements. Answering the demand for a cut-down of 1911s to pocket-pistol size in .45 ACP, Colt introduced an Officer’s Model in 1985 featuring a 3 1/2-inch barrel and a shortened grip frame with a six-round magazine.


The 1911 was vigorously welcomed by militaries from all over the world from its inception, and it served well in combat. However, by the late 1970s political pressure from NATO to standardize around a double-action semi-auto pistol in 9 mm ushered the great 1911 into semi-retirement. On January 14, 1985 the Army adopted the Beretta 92F as its official sidearm. Nonetheless, several special operation units from the military branches still use the 1911, though often modified and enhanced.


As the 1911 turns 100 years old this month, there are a few who pooh-pooh it as a relic. But take a look along most firing lines or in the holsters of many high-speed, low-drag operators, and you’ll see that grand old pistol providing security and control just as well today as it did a century ago.

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25 Responses to Colt History: A Look Back at the 1911

ggrimes2 wrote:
March 31, 2014

One comment here about having a single action making the pistol a dinosaur. I've a pair of Kimber Customs plus a couple of colt Double Eagles, pair of HK USP a least 3 Taurus PT, a custom S&W compact and a Beretta 92FS and I have shot them all at different times in normal carry or in pistol competition. I keep coming back to the 1911 because it works every time has the best trigger and feels like a proper pistol. Downside you need training. I carry the 1911 a lot and practice with the same all the time. The single/double action striker fired and DAO pistols were designed for maximum safety not for shooting. LEO's, former LEO's most older military were trained on the usage of a 1911 only after years of improper training has this firearm been considered unsafe. Try one before you decide too bash a properly made firearm. Keep an open mind.

wayne shearon wrote:
February 06, 2014

The old 1911 was my pistol when i was a military policeman in 1954 loved them have two gun safe my favorite guns.

Steve wrote:
October 30, 2013

With 30 years of being a LEO and still counting, I cut my teeth in the business with a 1911 Colt Combat Commander .45ACP. Great pistol, never a malfunction! Unfortunately my department decided to standardize with a German made 'wonder-nine.' First time in my career I felt under-gunned. I still have the Colt which still serves me well as an off-duty weapon.

Bernie wrote:
October 21, 2013

The best semi-automatic pistol ever made - and it continues to be made - to this day. May the 1911 live on forever!

adam wrote:
June 19, 2013

I hav the predecessor to the 1911... 1903 rimless... 110 year old gun and it still fires like new. Same with the 1911s. Look up revelation 19:11... Coincidence??? The colt 1911 is a gift from God.

Will Crump wrote:
April 26, 2013

As a former Marine I have fired many different pistols and the 1911 is by far the most accurate and reliable of all. OORAH 1911.

Ruben wrote:
April 25, 2013

I'm a retired police sergeant and a former Military Policeman who served during the Vietnam war.My department would not allow me to carry the 1911 as a primary weapon but a Colt Combat Commander was my favorite back-up and off-duty carry weapon.Today I carry the 1911 with pride.

Robert wrote:
March 08, 2013

I got a llama cal 45 1911 I'm trying to do some work on. Is it worth any thing . Gave 500.00 for it.

Charlie Kirkpatrick wrote:
December 13, 2012

As a Military Policeman from 1973 to 1976 I became very proficient with the 1911A1. After my enlistment I felt I needed a double action auto and purchased almost every brand of 9mm I could find with double action and never felt as secure as with the 1911A1. Finally after years of dissapointment I was turned on to a Colt Double Eagle 45 auto in stainless. The perfect match for me. The same grip angle I was accustomed to the most and my accuracy returned. I will die before I ever give up my Double Eagle. Good luck finding one. Colt discontinued manufacturing them years ago. But well worth the effort to get your hands on one.

Jim Nesta wrote:
December 03, 2012

The 1911 was the backup to my M-16 that I carried while in the Army in the late 60s. It was reliable and accurate, within the inherent limits of a mass-produced pistol. The Ed Brown Special Forces that I carry now is a joy to hold and shoot, perfect ergonomics and balance - a finely made precision tool that does exactly what it was meant to do without trying to do anything else. The Glocks and S&Ws that I've shot don't compare in fit, finish, form or function. It feels good in the hand and yes it looks good too. If you do your part as a shooter, it will do its part as a pistol.

Jerry Wilderman wrote:
November 17, 2012

I too own an AMT hardball by Glenda Ind. A great gun and worthy of owning. 1911's Forever!!!

David Ramos wrote:
November 15, 2012

27 years in LE...18 of those with a 1911. The finest LE revolver I carries was a Python, but was upstaged by the 1911. In my book, nothing better!

gilbert madrigal wrote:
June 11, 2012

Jurementado was not a faction group of moro. they were the brave fighters of moro/filipino muslim who very much willing to die and to sacrifice their own life against foreign invaders.

Nigel wrote:
April 08, 2012

I am a former British Army Sniper now living in Canada. I trained carried a 9mm Hi-power, (the other John Browning masterpiece). These days I own and shoot both a Gold Cup 1911 and a Hi-power. If I had to give up every weapon I own and keep only one handgun it would be my 1911. It fits, feels and shoots like is is part of me. Hard to believe it is 100 years old! May it be around, and carried by freedom loving people for another 100!

MICHAEL wrote:
July 02, 2011

I RECENTLY FIRED MY GRANDFATHER'S SERVICE WEAPON FROM WWI, THAT WAS COCKED AND LOCKED IN ITS LEATHER MILITARY HOLSTER SINCE 1969. WENT BANG 7 TIMES.......I REST MY CASE.......

Mark wrote:
April 01, 2011

I carried a 1911 as an MP at Fort Carson, Colorado...it rattled but was as comfortable and familiar as an old shoe...and was pretty accurate!

Ricchard Martinez wrote:
March 27, 2011

hello I have a colt goverment 1911 made it in 1939.the pistol was for my grand father.its 100 percent original.the mechanic of weapon sayd it has no more than 30 shoots. shoot.it is with 2 magazines.and showing in each magazine ( colt ). thx for the space. Richard from Argentina

John Prevette wrote:
March 10, 2011

I used a 1911 in Viet Nam, it never failed in the rain or mud ( rice paddy). easy to keep clean. I am a proud owner of a Springfield Loaded and use it as my carry weapon.

Errett L Allen wrote:
March 10, 2011

Over many years in and out of Law Enforcement, I have owned and carried many different handguns. I always reverted to the Colt 1911 as the most effective and most reliable. I retired all the 357's, 44's, including the 44 Magnum. The 1911 is the best.

mauser wrote:
March 10, 2011

1911 is a good gun but its single action is old tech ever since the p-38 was made the 1911 became a dinosaur and the amount of talk about this pistol is too much when hk, sig. cz and other european manufacturers make great pistols to but are rarely discussed

Joseph Dyer wrote:
March 10, 2011

John Browning What a wonderful designer of arms that have protected this country and others. I was an Armorer in the Military for 20 yr's. The 1911 was the most practical and serviceable arm I serviced. I personally have owned many Colt's series 70, series 80, military and gold cup's. By far the best and most accurate out of the box 1911 I have ever encountered is an AMT Hardballer made by Galena Industries. I have left many shooting matches with the cash thanks to the AMT Hardballer and John Browning. Happy Birthday 1911

Warren wrote:
March 09, 2011

I, too, am in awe of the 1911. I like the design, caliber and the reliability of what I consider a masterpiece. It serves me well now and served me well while in the Army.

Robert wrote:
March 09, 2011

I am retired military and have an Army issued 1911 which I bought from guy who's grandfather had it in War. My favorite handgun. How it looks, the way it functions, and how it feels in your hand and comes up to aim. This gun exudes confidence. Your life can depend on it.

Richard wrote:
March 09, 2011

This gun is so well designed that I can rack it, load it, shoot it, and fleld strip and reassemble it with one hand tied behind my back. Actually I have the use of only one hand due to an automobile accident.

Tony wrote:
March 09, 2011

I'm retired law enforcement, and have several handguns, both revolver, and semi-auto. If I had to empty out my safe and keep only one gun, it would be my Colt Gold Cup. It's the finest handgun you could buy, and shoot right out of the box, bulls eyes. I have other quality handguns, but I would never part with my Gold Cup.