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Make Mine A 1911

The Gold Standard
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Single-stacks rule! Magazine capacity is (left to right) 7 for the .45 ACP, 8 for the 10mm and 9 for the .38 Super.

In 1911 the airplane was less than 10 years old, Henry Ford was making cars and Chevrolet had tooled-up to compete with him — but when is the last time you saw someone driving a 1911 Ford or Chevy? About the only thing today’s cars have in common with those from 1911 is four wheels on each corner! Airplanes likewise have changed tremendously as travel and communication have increased exponentially. However, there’s one glaring exception to the rule of change: firearms.

In that same iconic year Colt had just introduced their first big bore semi-auto, the John Browning-designed 1911 chambered in .45 ACP. The 1911 — in spite of all the new semi-auto designs offered in the past quarter century or so — is unarguably still No. 1 when it comes to a dependable, big-bore self-defense or combat pistol. Although there have been minor changes — mostly in sights and grip safeties — the Colt 1911 of today is virtually indistinguishable from the original.

As just about everyone knows, John Browning was responsible for the 1911 but his efforts go back several years to his first semi-automatic pistol in 1894. Colt bought four pistol designs from Browning and unveiled the first, chambered in .38 ACP, in 1900. Two years later Browning developed a military model, also in .38.

Lifetime fan: John has been shooting 1911’s ever since his first GI surplus specimen back in the mid-1950s.

Carry options: There’s no shortage of holster styles for packin’ your trusty 1911.

Caliber Conundrum

In 1873 the United States military had adopted the Colt Single Action Army .45 Colt. This big sixgun served them well on the frontier but in the 1890s the military took a huge backward step — mothballing the big .45 SAA in favor of a double-action Colt pistol chambered in .38 Long Colt. When this proved inadequate in combat in the Philippines, the old .45 SAA was quickly pressed back into service. The Army apparently had learned its lesson and they called John Browning before a review board to ask if he could come up with a semi-auto pistol larger than .39 caliber.
His first attempt was the Model 1905 chambered in .45 ACP. The government liked what it saw and scheduled testing to adopt a new pistol in March 1911. Browning worked with the engineers at Colt to get his design ready and the necessary changes were made, resulting in what we know today as the 1911

.45 ACP factory loads come in flavors ranging from 185- to 230-gr. bullets of every type. If you can’t find something your 1911 likes, you’re not trying hard enough!

John can run a smorgasbord of factory ammo through Colt’s Custom .38 Super without the slightest indigestion!

We Have a Winner!

The Army’s torture tests were just that. Pistols entered in the competition were required to fire 6,000 rounds. After every 100 rounds the pistol would be allowed to cool for five minutes and after every 1,000 rounds it would be dismantled, cleaned, and oiled. If it made it through the first 6,000 rounds, it was fed not-so-perfect cartridges. Bullets were seated too deep or too far out, cases were dented, pistols were deliberately rusted, tested and then dirt was thrown into the action. Browning’s 1911 not only passed 100 percent, it was examined and found to still be in perfect shape internally and ready to take on another 6,000 rounds. A legend had begun.

It wasn’t long before the 1911 was employed in combat. In fact, it was used twice before World War I. In 1913 Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing’s troops used it successfully in the Philippines against the first jihad then three years later he and his troops were part of the ill-fated Punitive Expedition into Mexico after Pancho Villa. Finally, in 1917 “Black Jack” led 1911-armed troops into Europe.

since. It was the official sidearm in both World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam but then something happened. Just as the U.S. military had replaced a .45 with .38 in the 1890s, they did it again in the 1980s — going from the .45 ACP to a 9mm cartridge. This had been coming for a long time and I can remember as a kid the push for us to carry the same 9mm round as our NATO allies. The 9mm is still the official sidearm of the main part of our military but many special operations units still carry the .45 Colt 1911. I wonder why?
The 1911 has been fighting America’s wars ever

A tight rapid-fire group with Colt’s .45 ACP Combat Elite show the 1911’s potential in practiced hands.

Reach out and touch someone: Colt’s 10mm Delta Elite provides more range than the traditional .45 ACP 1911 along with excellent accuracy.

Over the past century the 1911 Colt has been chambered in (left to right) .45 ACP, .38 Super, 9mm and 10mm.

Domestic Service

After WWI, Americans discovered the 1911. One of the first groups to adopt it — unofficially — was the Texas Rangers, or rather individual members thereof. Rangers could choose their own sidearm and I can remember pictures in issues of GUNS Magazine from the 1950s of Rangers like Clint Peoples and Bob Crowder armed with a pair of fully engraved, ivory-stocked Colt 1911s carried in floral carved holsters.

The original 1911 had very small sights (at least for my eyes), a hammer that would quite often bite the area of the back of the hand between the thumb and forefinger and a flat mainspring housing. In 1921 the 1911 became the 1911A1 with two minor changes. One of the complaints of the 1911 was it had a natural tendency to shoot low. To bring the pistol up naturally, the flat mainspring housing was given an arch that moved the hand back slightly. To compensate for this, the long trigger was shortened. Over the years, easier-to-see sights arrived and the tang on the grip safety was lengthened to help alleviate hammer bite (today this problem is mostly solved by a beavertail grip safety matched with a rounded-spur hammer). One other change often seen is an extended thumb safety. But all of the changes are minor and do nothing to affect the basic design of the .45.

In 1929 a second chambering was added to the 1911. Law enforcement needed better armament and the answer came from Colt as a Model 1911 chambered in the .38 Super cartridge. Colt had taken their existing .38 ACP, upped the powder charge and the result was a 130-gr. bullet at 1,300 fps capable of penetrating car bodies and windshields.

I find it most interesting Colt didn’t come up with a new cartridge case but simply used an older one even though the new loading was too hot for older guns. Apparently people were smarter in those days and had the ability to tell which cartridge went with which gun. Or then again, lawyers hadn’t gained control yet.

The .38 Super did what it was supposed to do. At the time, Colt’s John Henry Fitzgerald claimed it was not only more accurate at longer ranges than the .45 ACP, it was also more powerful at those yardages.

Today the 1911 is as popular — probably more so — than ever. There is a long list of gunsmiths who specialize in tuning and embellishing 1911’s along with many others who build their own versions of the 1911. In addition to the craftsmen there is a long list of manufacturers that now also build 1911’s. It is without a doubt the most copied semi-auto pistol in existence with just about every custom feature possible having been realized. There are now even custom 1911’s found retailing for $3,000 or more.

My shooting life with the 1911 began with a WWII surplus Remington-Rand 1911A1 purchased in the mid-1950s. It traveled with the family as we relocated from Ohio to Idaho and also rode with me for three summers as I traveled back and forth to the University of Montana Graduate School.

For normal everyday use I’ll take the 1911 chambered in .45 ACP or 9mm for self defense. I’d take it in 10mm or .38 Super for when my travels take me to the sagebrush, foothills, forests or mountains.

I don’t drive a 100-year-old car, I have a large flat screen TV, several computers and even carry a cell phone in my pickup for emergency use only. However, when it comes to handguns, the top of my list includes the same one available 100 years ago — the Colt 1911.

Sometimes “progress” is overrated.

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