Quite A Journey For One Of The Most
Successful Military Pistols Ever.
Most readers of this magazine realize 1911’s are the most popular and prolific of handgun designs in the United States. Yet how many of us know the complicated and interesting history of this 103-year-old model?
Many call US military 1911’s by the generic name “Colt .45,” but it’s only true to a limited extent. John M. Browning working under the Colt umbrella is credited with designing the 1911, and the following should be stressed: The idea was to provide a new handgun primarily for the US Cavalry. Civilian sales were only icing on the cake. Nowadays there are too many 1911 manufacturers for a normal person to keep track of, yet even in its military days there were several other manufacturers providing 1911’s/1911A1’s to the US Government.
Its purpose as a new sidearm for horse soldiers is the reason Browning tried to make the 1911 accidental-discharge-proof with three safety arrangements. The half-cock notch on the hammer makes little sense and likewise has been little used. Perhaps it was merely a holdover from single action revolver days? The safety lever on the left rear of the slide is the most important of the three. It is meant for deliberate manipulation—on and off—by the shooter. It may not be foolproof but it remains a good basic design.
The grip safety is just to prevent accidental discharges from dropping. As anyone knows who has packed a handgun on a horse for any length of time, it will eventually get knocked out of the rider’s hands or holster and go spinning off to land pointed in some random direction. Without the shooter’s hand to depress the grip safety, the chances of a free-wheeling 1911 discharging are almost nil.
Colt’s and Browning’s first .45 appeared as the Model 1905. The first .45 ACP loads featured 200-grain FMJ bullets at about 900 fps. Later the government decided their .45 ACP loads should have 230-grain bullets at 830 fps.
The US Army’s Ordnance Department tested early Colt .45 pistols along with .45’s by Savage and even Georg Luger. By 1911, and after many revisions, only Colt and Savage .45’s were in competition. Colt won and the pistol was first designated as US Model 1911 .45. The company received a hefty contract for their new pistol to be delivered at a cost of $14.25 each with one magazine. Additional magazines were priced at 50¢ each.
After adding a Thompson M1 submachine gun to his collection Duke felt it was only natural to
also add the .45 Autos serving alongside. They all make for some happy afternoon shooting.
Duke enjoys shooting his favorite Model 1911.
Sometimes a gun just grabs you. This one is a keeper.
A little known stipulation in that first contract was Colt licensed the government to produce 1911’s at Springfield Armory. A proviso said the government could make no more than a third of all 1911’s and they wouldn’t start production until Colt had sold 50,000 to them. Of course Colt and Browning received a royalty for government-produced 1911’s. The first Colts were delivered to the government on April 22, 1912, exactly one year after official adoption. By December 5, over 72,000 had been sent to the US Army (according to The Model 1911 And Model 1911A1 Military And Commercial Pistols by Joe Poyer).
The new .45 pistol was standardized with a 5-inch barrel, 7-round magazine, blue finish and checkered walnut grips. Sights consisted of a notched blade rear dovetailed into the slide with a tiny nub barely deserving the name “front sight.” With the .45 ACP load using 230-grain bullets, Model 1911’s were nominally sighted for 50 yards.
When the United States declared war in April 1917, the Army’s expansion plans called for a minimum of about 2.5 million handguns. There was no possible way Colt and Springfield Armory could make that many in a feasible timeframe. In fact, the government facility had stopped production of handguns altogether in order to focus on making M1903 rifles.
Therefore Colt and the US Government both turned to other arms manufacturers to make Model 1911’s. Such were Remington UMC, Savage, Winchester and an outfit named North American Arms Company (based in Canada). Remington UMC did produce a few hundred less than 22,000 Model 1911s before war’s ending in November 1918. The other companies, excluding Winchester, did get some parts and springs made but no completed pistols were delivered to the US.
(One help for the military handgun shortage came by adapting large-frame S&W and Colt revolvers to accept rimless .45 ACP ammunition by means of “half-moon” clips. Together the two companies supplied almost one-third million revolvers both termed US Model 1917.)
This US Model 1911 quickly gained its place as Duke’s No. 1 favorite after
finding it in 2009. Note the holster has a former owner’s name carved into it.
A little known fact is that the original intention for adopting the
US M1 .30 Carbine was to replace handguns in US military service.
John M. Browning and Colt designed their new .45 autoloading pistol primarily for carry by
horse-mounted soldiers. The same US Model 1911’s and Model 1911A1’s served in many wars
worldwide until discontinued by the US Army in 1985.
As usual during peacetime, US Army Ordnance Officers began tinkering to “improve” existing armaments. This is when the “A1” got added to the original model name circa 1924. It means alteration one and came from several minor changes. The most visible were bevels alongside the triggerguard, an arched instead of flat mainspring housing, a slightly longer spur on the grip safety to help protect a shooter’s hand from hammer bite. Other minor changes are hardly noticeable to the untrained eye.
The Army itself was most helpful in determining what exactly were M1911’s and M1911A1’s. It decreed if the serial number was under 700,000 it was a M1911. Over that it was a M1911A1. At about serial number 735,000 the government decided pistols would be finished by Parkerizing (a phosphate coating) instead of bluing.
When WWII started, American military forces knew they were going to need much more in the way of small arms. This included pistols even though the army’s ordnance board started a movement to do away with them altogether. This was the beginning of the M1 .30 Carbine story. The M1 Carbine was a great success, but it never caused pistols to be discarded.
Early in the WWII, the government approached several manufacturers to make 1911’s. Harrington & Richardson Arms Company and Singer Sewing Machine Company were two. The first outfit turned in a small number of Model 1911’s but they were all rejected as poor quality. Conversely, the Singer Company made 500 Model 1911’s for which the Ordnance Department congratulated the company for their high quality. Still they were asked to make no more and contracted to produce other intricate items for the war effort.
By the spring of 1942 the US Government decided typewriter manufacture was not essential to the war effort. This freed typewriter maker Remington Rand to make the M1911A1. Deliveries began in 1943 and by war’s end Remington Rand was the biggest wartime maker of .45’s with a few hundred less than 878,000. Colt was second at about 629,000, Ithaca was third with about 1/3 million and Union Switch & Signal turned in about 55,000.
One interesting tidbit I didn’t know until researching this article is the Singer models were blued instead of Parkerized. Otherwise, the major difference between WWII manufactured Model 1911A1’s and most made earlier is checkered plastic replaced walnut for grip material. Also worth noting is after 1945 and adoption of the Beretta M9 9mm in 1985, the government bought no more 1911’s. Those in service for the next 40 years were rebuilt, some many times.
Trying to figure just how many Model 1911/1911A1 pistols were purchased by the US from 1911 until 1945 is nigh on impossible. Usually the non-Colt manufacturers were given their own serial number ranges but some serial number blocks were never used and some serial numbers were repeated. As best I can determine the many makers sold somewhat over 2.5 million .45 autos to the US in 34 years. Their attrition must have been awesome during two world wars plus Korea and Vietnam. Consider, too, every American fighting ship sunk carried Model 1911’s to the bottom. In WWII most or at least many of American aircrew were issued .45’s. Tens of thousands of those men went down with their planes. And loss of all small arms in ground combat is significant. It would be interesting to know how many Model 1911/1911A1’s were inventoried when collected after 1985.
Even with such attrition, in the 1950’s the US declared some military handguns surplus and sold them to civilians. Again it would be interesting to know exactly which were discarded and which were kept. As in were only Colts kept and ones stamped Remington Rand and Ithaca sold? Or were they kept or discarded as judged by their basic condition, regardless of maker?
While writing this piece, I happened to check out military .45 autos on a couple of Internet auction sites. Their prices just about took my breath away albeit they didn’t tempt me into selling any of my three. Modern shooters like to gussy up 1911 type .45 autos, but for me the old service standard Model 1911 and Model 1911A1 remains hard to beat.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino