1911 History

History of the M1911 Pistol

We identify genius by its impact. It changes things and its vision endures. In the world of firearms, there is one designer whose work changed everything and endures, John Moses Browning. Browning is most frequently remembered as the designer of the 1911 .45 ACP and the Browning High Power, but he also created the Winchester 30-30, The Winchester Pump Shotgun, The Browning Auto-5 Shotgun (produced by Remington as the Model 11), The BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) and the Browning .50 caliber Machine Gun, plus most of the .30 cal and .50 cal machine guns produced by Colt and used in WW II. He is credited with 128 gun patents, and some fifty million sports and military weapons were manufactured from those patents during the forty-seven years he was an active inventor.

During the same time frame that John Browning was putting the Winchester Repeating Arms Company on the map, a highly motivated tribe of warriors, known as the Moro, were giving the U.S. Army fits in the Philippines. To prepare for battle, the Moro used a combination of body binding with leather, narcotics, and religious ritual to put themselves into an altered state of consciousness which left them insensible to injury. Soldiers found that their revolvers chambered in .38 Long Colt simply would not stop the Moro. It should be noted that their .30 Krag rifles didn’t do a whole lot better against these warriors.

John Browning began to experiment with self-loaders in 1889, inspired by Hiram S. Maxim who had invented a machine gun six years earlier. Browning converted a Winchester 1873 lever-action to an autoloader by using the action of the gases at the muzzle. A machine gun using this same operating principle was built in 1890 and 1891. From this work evolved a machine gun design ultimately built and sold by Colt as the Model 1895 machine gun, popularly called the “Browning Potato Digger” because of its downward arcing, gas-operating piston system. Browning’s first self-loading pistol was also a gas-operated weapon.

Based on the experience with the Moros and extensive testing on animals and human cadavers, an Army Ordnance Board headed by Col. John T. Thompson (inventor of the Thompson sub-machine-gun) and Col. Louis A. La Garde, determined that the Army needed a .45 caliber cartridge to provide adequate stopping power. In the mean time, Browning who was working for Colt, had already designed an autoloader pistol, around a cartridge similar in dimension to the .38 Super. When the Army requested designs for a new handgun, Browning re-engineered this .38 autoloader to accommodate a .45″ diameter cartridge of his own design with a 230 gr. FMJ bullet, and submitted the pistol to the Army for evaluation.

The selection trials began in 1906 and Browning’s pistol faced competition from pistols submitted by Colt, Luger, Savage, Knoble, Bergmann, White-Merrill and Smith & Wesson. Browning’s design and the Savage design were selected in 1907. The Army called for additional tests of function and reliability which revealed that neither Colt’s nor Savage’s offerings had reached the desired perfection. The Ordnance Department instituted a series of further tests and experiments, which eventually resulted in the appointment of a selection committee in 1911.

Browning was determined to prove the superiority of its handgun, so he went to Hartford to personally supervise the production of the gun. There he met Fred Moore, a young Colt employee with whom he worked in close cooperation trying to make sure that each part that was produced for the test guns was simply the best possible. The guns produced were submitted again for evaluation to the committee. A torture test was conducted on March 3rd, 1911. The test consisted of having each gun fire 6000 rounds. One hundred shots would be fired and the pistol would be allowed to cool for 5 minutes. After every 1000 rounds, the pistol would be cleaned and oiled. After firing those 6000 rounds, the pistol would be tested with deformed cartridges, some seated too deeply, some not seated enough, etc. The gun would then be rusted in acid or submerged in sand and mud and some more tests would then be conducted.

During the trials, several alterations were made to the original design such as a single swinging link, an improved manual safety, and the inclusion of a grip safety and a slide stop. The other significant change was to the grips, which were angled more acutely and lengthened slightly.

In its final form, the M1911 was a locked-breech, single-action semi-automatic pistol. It was chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge and had a magazine capacity of seven rounds. Its weight unloaded was 39 ounces; overall length was 8.25″; the height was 5.25″. Sights were fixed, although the rear sight was housed in a dovetail slot that allowed it to be drifted either left or right for windage adjustments. The pistols were finished in blue and fitted with checked wood stocks.

Browning’s pistols passed the whole test series with flying colors. It was the first firearm to undergo such a test, firing continuously 6000 cartridges, a record broken only in 1917 when Browning’s recoil-operated machine gun fired a 40000 rounds test.

The report of the evaluation committee (taken from “The .45 Automatic, An American Rifleman Reprint,” published by the National Rifle Association of America) released on the 20th of March 1911 stated :

“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.”

On March 29th, 1911, the Browning-designed, Colt-produced .45 Automatic pistol, was selected as the official sidearm of the Armed Forces of U.S.A., and named Model 1911.

When we entered the Great War, the U.S. government had purchased some 140,000 M1911 pistols from both Colt and Springfield Armory. The Armory tooled up in 1913 to make M1911s and help fill initial orders. Altogether some 31,000 M1911s were built at Springfield prior to the U.S. entry into World War I. To meet wartime requirements, they made 45,000 more, all in 1918.

Guns made for these production runs were all stamped UNITED STATES PROPERTY on the frame. The slide carried the inscription MODEL OF 1911 U.S. ARMY. Production runs increased when the World War I started and continued to increase through 1918. By May 1918, it had increased to 1,000 per day. The summer months of 1918 saw an increase to 2,200 per day.

To meet the needs of our expanding armed forces, 1917 planners estimated that a total of 765,000 pistols would be required. The estimate was later revised upward, first to 1.3 million and then to 2.7 million.

Filling the projected needs meant that pistols would have to be made by contractors other than Colt. Thus orders were placed with Remington-UMC, Winchester, Burroughs Adding Machine Co., Lanston Monotype Machine Co., National Cash Register Co., A.J. Savage Munitions Co., Savage Arms Co., and two Canadian firms, Caron Brothers Mfg. Co., and North American Arms Co., Ltd. Of those firms, only Remington-UMC delivered any meaningful quantity (22,000 of 150,000 ordered). North American did make some pistols, but the total was probably less than 100.

A number of foreign companies or governments were licensed to manufacture the Colt-Brownings in a variety of calibers. It is interesting to note that Colts at one time were produced under the direction of the Nazi government. In 1915 the Norwegian government was licensed to manufacture the pistols. When Nazi troops occupied Norway in World War II, they ordered the government arsenal to start production. The Nazi’s planned to use the pistol to arm their occupying forces. However, only about 1,000 guns were produced in 1941 and 1942.

After World War I, the Army’s Ordnance Department evaluated the Colt .45’s combat performance. They recommended the following changes:

1. Wider front sight to develop “Patridge-type” of sights, allowing the shooter to quickly align both front and rear sights under various lighting conditions.

2. Longer hammer spur. Both changes 2 and 3 work together to prevent the web between the thumb and the forefinger being pinched between the hammer and the safety spur when the gun is fired.

3. Longer grip-safety spur.

4. Arched spring housing fills the shooter’s hand and checkering backstrap provides a better grip.

5. Relief cuts in the frame around the trigger allowing easier access to the trigger.

6. Shorter trigger with knurled face to avoid the trigger finger from slipping.

These changes were put into production on June 15, 1926 as AUTOMATIC PISTOL, CALIBER .45, MODEL OF 1911A1.

World War II was a replay of the situation in 1917, but worse. Colt .45s were in demand, not only by the U.S. Armed Forces, but also by the military establishments of our major allies. Again, contractors other than Colt provided the balance of the 2.5 million .45s made during 1941 to 1945. In all, four contractors added their share to Colt’s 480,000-pistol contribution. Remington-Rand produced 1.03 million. Ithaca turned out 370,000. Union Switch and signal Co. of Swissvale, Pa., received and filled an order for 55,000 M1911A1s. And Singer Sewing Machine contracted to provide 500 1911A1 pistols—which it did.

In the early 1970s, the Army decided to do something for its General Officers in terms of personal protection. The M1908 Colt Pocket Hammerless pistols issued to General Officers since World War II had finally outlived their service life. To correct this situation, Rock Island Arsenal, Rock Island, Illinois began modifying the standard M1911-A1. The pistol’s slide and barrel were shortened just over .75″(1.905cm) and the barrel had one locking lug removed. A full-length recoil spring guide was installed, as was an enlarged set of fixed sights. Checkered, walnut grip panels inlaid with a plate bearing the officer’s name replaced the standard pistol’s brown plastic grips. Adopted in 1972 as the United States Pistol, General Officers’, Caliber .45, M15, it is similar in both size and weight to the civilian Colt Combat Commander. The M15’s increased muzzle blast and recoil are a small price to pay for what is hoped to be a personal weapon of last resort

The M1911-A1 pistol remained in service through World War II, the Korean War, and the War in Vietnam. The old war-horse proved to be particularly useful in the tunnel fighting that went on in Vietnam. For more info on the discernment of the various manufacturers of 1911 pistols during the war years, see the Who Made It?

The Norwegian 1911 (Model 1912 and 1914)

Colt .45 Autos have been copied, both here and abroad, almost since the first ones were made. The first of the foreign copiers was Norway. Seeking a suitable semi-automatic pistol, the Norwegian military decided on the M1911 as early as 1912. In 1913 and 1914, the Norwegians purchased 300 commercial .45s from Colt and then, having established that no Norwegian product was acceptable, began to negotiate for a license to build guns in Norway. Under an agreement signed in January, 1915, payment of 25,000 kroner bought the Norwegians a set of Colt’s drawings and the right to make M1911 pistols at their Kongsberg Weapons Factory for as long, and in whatever quantity they desired.

Formally adopted as the “Colt Automatisk Pistol Model 1912,” the first 500 guns are virtual twins of the Colt product, differing only in marking. The second production lot, begun in 1919, carried a different slide marking — 11.25 m/m Aut. Pistol M/1914. The M/1914 also features a slide release lever that is distinctly different from those on both Colt and M/1912 Norwegian pistols.

The Kongsberg plant turned out about 20,000 M/1914 pistols between 1919 and the early ‘30s. Then, military demand satisfied, the line shut down. Under German occupation during World War II, the production of M/1914 was re-started, and another 10,000 were produced. Following the war, a few M/1914s were assembled from parts to bring the total made to just under 33,000.

— From The .45 Automatic, “Service Pistol Surrogates” by J.B. Roberts, Jr.

M1911-A1 Modelo 1927

After adoption of the M1911A1 in the United States, the Argentine government purchased the pistol from Colt as the Model 1927. The order to Colt was for a run of 10,000 guns for the Argentine Army. These guns were serial numbered in their own range from 1 to 10000. The original finish of these guns was blued with a brush blue finish and they had checkered walnut grips. The way to recognize them is that on the right side of the slide it has the following markings:

Colt CAL. 45 MOD. 1927 S/N

In the 1930’s, the Argentines secured license to manufacture their own .45s. These are called “Sistema Colt” to distinguish them from the actual Colt Modelo 1927. These Model 1927s were made by Fabrica Militar de Armas Portatiles “Domingo Matheu,” in Rosario, Argentina. They are marked “F.M.A.P” or “D.G.F.M. (F.M.A.P)” on the left side of the slide and “Ejercito Argentino, Sist. Colt, cal. 11.25 m.m. MOD 1927” in two lines on the right. All Model 1927s bear the Argentine seal on the slide.

An estimated 38,000 copies of the Colt M1911 .45 caliber pistol were made at Rosario; another 75,000 were produced in 1947-1966 (some of which were still in service with elements of the Argentine military during the Falklands/Malvinas war in 1982).

All Sistemas were originally blued, except a few that were specially ordered for the Navy. Early guns had checkered walnut stocks, later had black or brown hard rubber. They were numbered on the frame, slide, barrel, and magazine. Most examples noted have been either reblued, or phosphated; many of the phosphated examples have blued small parts.

In addition to military production, the firm of Hispano Argentino Fabrica de Automoviles. SA (HAFDASA), manufactured an unlicensed copy of the Colt known as the “Ballester-Molina.” Most features of the HAFDASA gun are taken directly from the Colt product. The trigger and trigger linkage differ, however, in that the trigger pivots, and the trigger extension is external. The Ballester-Molinas also lack the grip safety. The story that the Ballester-Molinas are made from steel from the German battleship Graf Spee is a delightful but false legend. Both the Model 1927 and the HAFDASA .45s are extremely well-made pistols. For more on the Ballester-Molina, click here.

Civilian Commercial Production by Colt

In the early 1930’s, Colt offered a target version of the basic civilian Model 1911. This National Match pistol first appeared in 1933. These pistols differed from the standard grade because they incorporated a match barrel, checked trigger, checked arched grip, walnut stocks and the internal parts were hand honed. Also included on later versions were a ramped front sight and an adjustable rear sight. These models were marked “NATIONAL MATCH COLT Automatic Calibre .45” on the left side of the slide. During World War II, the National Match Model was discontinued, but resumed in 1957. This newer version was referred to as the “Gold Cup National Match.”

In 1950 Colt Introduced the Lightweight Commander. This pistol was chambered in 9mm, .38 Super or .45 ACP with a 4 1/4″ barrel and full size grips. It was built in both steel and aluminum alloy frame variations, and was produced until 1976.

The MKIV Series 70 Government Model Colt pistols were manufactured from 1970 to 1983 and have “70G” as a prefix in the serial numbers on the models made from 1970 to 1976. The models made from 1976 to 1980 have “G70” suffixes. Models made from 1979-1981 have “B70” suffixes and models made from 1981 to 1983 have “70B” prefixes. The Series 70 had, in addition to the Government model, a Series 70 Combat Commander, Series 70 Lightweight Commander, and Series 70 Combat Government. The Series 70 featured an accurizer barrel bushing for improved accuracy.

In 1983, Colt presented the MKIV Series 80 pistol. It was a single action with 5″ barrel. It was offered with checkered walnut grips and rubber combat style grips. This model had a firing pin safety incorporated.

In 1985, the United States Armed Forces replaced the M1911 with the Beretta 92F to the everlasting consternation of 1911 devotees everywhere. There were several reasons for the switch. The U.S. was the only NATO country not using a 9mm as the standard issue sidearm and there was a desire to issue a pistol chambered for the ubiquitous 9mm for logistical reasons. The Marines in particular resisted the switch to the Beretta and only accepted delivery when ordered to do so by Congress. Many special forces units within the armed services still select 1911-pattern sidearms. In 1998 The FBI S.W.A.T. team adopted the Springfield 1911A1 as standard issue. Anecdotal evidence out of Desert Storm indicates that the Berettas jammed because of the fine sand in the desert and the Marines broke out the 1911’s.

Today (1998) 1911-pattern pistols are produced by Colt, Springfield Armory, Kimber, Para-Ordnance, Wilson Combat, Les Baer, Ed Brown, Caspian, STI, Robar, Auto-Ordnance, Strayer-Voight, Charles Daley, IAI, Llama, and others. The 1911 is perhaps more popular today than any time in its long and illustrious career.

A lot of people believe that the 1911-pattern pistol is the greatest combat handgun ever built. I certainly wouldn’t argue with them, although I am aware that some other good pistols have been designed since 1911. It remains one of the best fighting guns ever, even though the single action design has become something of a liability in this hoplophobic milieu in which we live. Rather than stoking the “best” argument which is truly endless and without resolution, I will say only that the 1911 occupies a very special place in the history of combat weaponry, and in the hearts of pistoleros everywhere. It was the 1911 in the hands of Cpl. York which brought down the German patrol, which downed the Zero for 2nd Lt. Bagget, and fought until dawn against overwhelming odds with Kouma, Basilone, and Schmid. It was the 1911 which lay under John Dillinger’s pillow and dangled from the drunken hand of Machine Gun Kelley at his capture. This rich history coupled with the superb performance of the pistol is unique and will never be duplicated.

See Also:

Background Information on the United States Pistol Caliber .45 M1911

The History and Development of the M1911 Pistol

The Sight M1911 History Library

Legends of the M1911

Arsenal Rebuilds


Credits and Bibliography

Curt Gentry, John M. Browning: American Gunmaker (1964).

Richard C. Roberts and Richard W. Sadler, “Browning Company” in Ogden: Junction City (1985).

J. B. Roberts, Jr., “Service Pistol Surrogates” American Rifleman, (March, 1980.)

John Caradimas, M1911 Web Site, http://www.m1911.org

Sam Lisker, The Colt Auto Web Site, http://www.coltautos.com

Dave Arnold, “The Colt 1911/1911A1,” Guns & Ammo: The Big Book of Surplus Firearms, 1998.

Oliver de Gravelle, Model 1911.com WWII production of 1911A1’s by Colt, Remington, Ithaca, and Union Switch.

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