However, rather than wait for pistol designers and manufacturers to create the “perfect” handgun, the Army continued to explore the use of semi-automatic pistols. Beginning in 1900, the Army began to acquire test quantities of commercial pistols for field testing and evaluation. A thousand Lugers in 7.65 mm and 475 Colt “Model 1900” pistols were acquired and issued to the U.S. Cavalry for field testing, while the Navy, not to be outdone, ordered 250 Colts. The results of these field trials were to shape the outline of the pistol that was to become the Model of 1911 and to establish the Colt/Browning design as the front-runner.
At each step along the way from 1898 to 1911, the posture taken by Colt appears to have been that whatever the Army wanted, the Army was going to get. Not only did Colt demonstrate that attitude, but John M. Browning also seems to have thought along those lines. As deficiencies were identified, whether by the Army or by Colt, Browning worked with Colt to refine his design to overcome them. The Army needed a slide stop. Browning designed one. An “automatic” safety. Colt incorporated a grip safety lever that required that the pistol be gripped before it could be fired. A magazine catch on the side of the frame. Sure! A manual safety. Done.
But what were the major obstacles to the adoption of an automatic pistol by the U.S. Army? After the experience of dealing with the Moros of the Philippine Insurrection, the Army required a .41-cal. or greater bore in a pistol that was “trooper-proof.” In 1904 Col. John T. Thompson of the Ordnance Dept. and Maj. Louis A. LaGarde of the Medical Corps were given the assignment to establish the validity of the big-bore hypothesis. Firing tests with human cadavers and live animals led Thompson and LaGarde to conclude that the bigger the bullet as it passed through the target medium, the better the stopping power. Since international agreements forbade the use of expanding bullets in anti-personnel ammunition, the size of the bullet was limited by the size of the bore. Thus, thanks in large part to the Thompson-LaGarde report, 0.45 inches was ensconced for the next 60 years as the military handgun caliber of choice. No matter how good the .38 pistol might be, it wasn’t a .45.
Additionally, although the original Colt pistol was somewhat of a commercial success and the clear favorite of the 1899 and 1900 evaluators, the troop trials of 1900 and 1902 proved the Model 1900 and Model 1902 lacked certain desired characteristics, including a small caliber, to satisfy the Army. When an experimental pistol in .41 caliber on the .38 Model 1900 frame was created by Colt to explore the potential of the Browning design in a bigger bore, the pistol was unsuccessful. What was it about the Browning design that made it difficult to successfully scale up?
The answer to the “scale-up” question appears to have been inherent in the M1900/ M1902’s design: the two-link, parallel-ruler design. In this design the links not only “pulled down” the barrel out of lock, but also pushed the barrel back up into lock. For full locking lug engagement, the length of the link must be “just so”—too short and the lugs won’t fully engage, which eventually resulted in deformation and destruction of the lug or lug pin, and a broken pistol. If the link were too long, it would have to withstand a huge compressive force, which would quickly break the link and/or its pin, also rendering the pistol inoperative. In .38 caliber, the design was satisfactory for the relatively light use, but in larger calibers the two-link design required very careful implementation indeed. While Colt did introduce a .45-cal. parallel-link pistol, the Model 1905 (patent No. 708,794), and offered it for Army trials in a somewhat refined form as the Model 1907, evidence found in Browning’s patent No. 808,003 of Dec. 19, 1905, suggests that Browning was dissatisfied with the two-link design principle for large-bore pistols.
In his patent No. 808,003, Browning stated, “… experience has shown that in a small-arm of this class of large caliber intended to fire powerful charges of powder the additional strength required in the barrel in its connections with and attachment to the frame, and especially in the parts of the barrel and frame by which the movements of the one upon the other are arrested, is so much greater in proportion to the weight of these parts that the constructions heretofore used in arms of this class of smaller caliber [the .38 ACP Model 1900/1902] cannot be relied upon as perfectly safe.”
During the 1902 to 1905 period, Colt and Browning continued to move forward. Rather than allowing themselves to be discouraged by the Army’s ongoing criticism of the Colt pistol—though it was constructive—Colt and Browning used the lessons from Army field trials and evaluations as guides for their development process; they also remained in contact with those Army officers concerned with revolver and pistol evaluation and acquisition. Colt and Browning even took the next step by designing a .45-cal. “rimless smokeless” cartridge; Colt introduced both the cartridge and a .45 pistol along the lines of the Model 1900/1902 commercially in 1905 as the Model 1905.
During this period, Browning continued to patent evolving improvements to his basic short-recoil concept, including several approaches to replace the two-link design with a more robust pattern, particularly in patent No. 808,003 and later in patent No. 984,519. Patent No. 808,003 also describes a set of teeth on the bottom of the barrel much like ratchet teeth. These teeth engaged mating notches in the frame to provide a positive stop for the unlocked barrel, taking the strain of stopping the barrel’s movement away from the barrel links.
In 1909 the fruits of Browning’s efforts became public with Colt’s prototype “1909” .45 pistol. In this pistol we see for the first time the tilting barrel with one link, which “pulls down” but does not “push up.” Locking the barrel into engagement with the slide was now performed by a pair of very solid cams we now call barrel “feet” or barrel “lugs.” Not only is this design far more robust than the two-link design, but the barrel cams are far more forgiving of manufacturing tolerances.
At first glance, the 1909 pistol seems quite familiar to those accustomed to the M1911; the most obvious difference is the grip angle. The 1909 grip is nearly vertical at 85 degrees. The Army officers working with Colt suggested emulating the Luger grip angle of 55 degrees. Colt and Browning felt that the Luger grip was a little too steep, offering the angle of 74 degrees we see today. The next step in the M1911 family tree was the prototype design of 1910. Once the thumb safety was added to the Model 1910, the Model 1911 had arrived.