50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
This WWII veteran still does active duty as a personal-defense weapon. It is shown here in the “cocked and locked” position.
By now it’s no secret that 2011 marked the hundredth anniversary of the Colt Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, Model of 1911. Numerous gun writers, myself included, heaped well-deserved and glowing praise about this slab-sided warhorse that rode across the Mexican border with General “Black Jack” Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa. Later, this same seven-shot semi-automatic helped blaze America’s victory through two World Wars and Korea, and then continued to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. And, in spite of the fact that it was replaced as the Army’s official sidearm by the Beretta M9 in 1985, the Model 1911A1 is still used by many of our Special Forces and other military personnel in combat zones, fighting alongside M4s and SAWs. Not bad for a gun that had its beginnings before the turn of the twentieth century.
The Model 1911 Civilian Model (as denoted by the “C” prefix of its serial number) was a favorite sidearm of many law enforcement agencies.
Back then, while the United States Army was grappling with the changeover from small-bore double-action revolvers to big-bore single-action semi-automatics, firearms genius John Moses Browning had “seen the future,” so to speak. During the 1890s, Browning began working on a pistol that, in his words, incorporated a “moveable breech block or bolt carrier mounted to slide upon [the] frame.” Patent No. 580,924, issued to Browning on April 20, 1897, established the design that would eventually become the .38-caliber Colt Automatic Pistol of 1900. Ungainly as it was, it was Colt’s first successful semi-auto, and set the stage for the 1911.
The Model 1900 (although it was never officially called that) evolved into the 1902 Model Colt Automatic Pistol in both a civilian Sporting Model and a military version, the latter of which featured a slide stop, a longer grip to accommodate an eight-round magazine, and a lanyard ring. Like the Model 1900, it was chambered for the .38 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol), a cartridge Browning had designed specifically for these two pistols.
Meanwhile, the Army was having second thoughts about the .38 Long Colt chambering in its official handgun, the New Army and Navy Model of 1892-1903. This cartridge had proved to be woefully incapable of stopping the drug-and-adrenalin-crazed Moros during the Philippine Insurrection, with many warriors taking multiple body hits while still advancing upon U.S. troops. In desperation, the Army returned to an old ally, the Single Action Army, which was chambered in .45 Colt, a proven man-stopper during the Indian wars on our own U.S. soil. However, even though the cartridge was adequate, the 1873 design of the SAA was clearly outdated. Semi-automatics such as the Borchart C-96, Mauser “Broomhandle” C96, and the P08 Luger were already being adopted by other nations.
Browning was aware of all this and had been meticulously improving his Colt .38 ACP Military Model into what would become the Model 1905, adding an angled grip with built-in safety, a 51⁄4-inch barrel, and a seven-round magazine—features that would eventually find their way into the 1911. Nor did Browning ignore the Army’s revitalized penchant for the .45-caliber. Just as he had developed a proprietary cartridge for his Models 1900 and 1902 semi-automatics, working with Colt’s and Brigadier General John Taliaferro Thompson of the Army Ordnance Corps, a 230-grain, full metal jacketed cartridge was developed that was ballistically similar to the .45 Colt. It would become known as Cal .45 Automatic Pistol Ball Cartridge, Model of 1911 or, more popularly, the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol). Later, impressed by the bullet’s stopping power, which was tested on cattle and cadavers, General Thompson would chamber his famous Thompson Sub-Machine Gun for this same cartridge.
Although the Army had previously conducted tests in 1899 and 1900 to select a semi-automatic pistol, at that time the samples from Colt’s, Mauser, Steyr Mannlicher, and Luger were all sub-.45-caliber and, thus, deemed ineffective. (Interestingly, the Army did purchase 1,000 Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM) Lugers for further testing, but found them ineffective). Now, with the Army’s new .45 ACP caliber dictum in place, in early 1906 invitations were again sent out to manufacturers. There were eight respondents: Colt’s (with Browning’s 1905 design), experimental Knoble and White-Merrill self-cocking pistols, Bergmann-Bayard, Webley Fosbery, plus Smith & Wesson, Savage, and Luger (which entered two specially chambered P08s in .45-caliber and serial numbered No. 1 and No. 2). Design flaws eliminated every gun except the Colt, Savage, and Luger. Subsequent testing saw Luger No. 1 blow up and, for reasons never revealed, serial No. 2 was withdrawn from competition. That left Colt and Savage in the finals.
The author enjoys the nostalgia of regularly shooting his WWII vintage Government 1911A1, even though these guns are increasing in value almost daily.
Recoil of the ACP, while distinctive, is controllable.
Determined to have his gun the winner, Browning began improving the Model 1905 with Models 1907, 1909, and 1910, with many being issued to cavalry units in New Mexico, Iowa, and Georgia for extensive field-testing. Ironically, with the mechanized warfare of World War I on the horizon, the earliest design criteria nonetheless came from the mounted cavalry. Hence, the addition of a lanyard loop on both gun and magazine to prevent dropping them from the saddle, and not just one, but three safeties—grip, thumb-operated slide/hammer lock, and half-cock—to keep the gun from going off and accidentally incapacitating a trooper’s horse at a full gallop. The result was the Model 1911.
The classic World War II Model 1911A1, with its Parkerized finish, arched mainspring housing, and shortened, serrated trigger.
In 2011, as part of the hundredth anniversary celebration of the Government Model 1911, Colt reissued its G.I. 1918 “Black Colt,” which was available only until December 31, 2011. Note the flat mainspring housing and wider trigger, two distinctive characteristics of the early guns.
For the final Army field trials of March 15, 1911, Browning personally supervised the assembly of every part of his pistol at the Colt’s factory. Its only competition? An improved version of the Savage 1907, chambered in .45 ACP. After a grueling 6,000-round test for each gun, the Savage had suffered numerous broken parts and malfunctions, while the Colt hadn’t incurred a single failure to function. Thus, on March 29, 1911, the Colt Model 1911 became the United States Army’s official handgun, beginning a legacy that continues to this day.
Soon a nearly identical civilian version was produced, easily identified by the “C” prefix of its serial number, a more polished finish, and the lack of a lanyard ring on its magazine. It wasn’t long before the 1911 was enthusiastically adopted for law enforcement, self-defense, and even as a much-advertised hunting arm. The U.S. Border Patrol and the Texas Rangers were some of its most enthusiastic users, with many of the Texas DPS boys turning their sidearms into “barbeque guns,” with nickel plating, engraving, and fancy grips.
There are wide varieties of ammo for the owner of a 1911 (shown) or a 1911A1.
In spite of what others may say, Hacker finds as-issued G.I. 1911A1s to be accurate, when used with the right ammunition.
Firing his 1911 Colt reissue, the author experienced no malfunctions with factory ball ammunition.
In 1924 the 1911 got a minor makeover, with an arched mainspring housing, a shorter trigger, longer grip safety spur, wider hammer spur, and improved sights. In addition, on military models, the original Carbona blue was changed to a more durable Parkerized finish. This, then, became the 1911A1. Over the years, other variations evolved, including the .38 Super, in 1929, the adjustable-sighted National Match, in 1933 (reintroduced, in 1957, as the Gold Cup), and, in 1931, a full-sized .22 called the Ace, followed by a more refined Service Model Ace, in 1936. There have since been countless 1911 variations encompassing lowered ejection ports, extended ambidextrous thumb safeties, accessory rails, night sights, beavertail grip safeties—refinements even John Browning may not have envisioned.
It was as a battle weapon that the Colt 1911 is best revered. Counting both Models 1911 and 1911A1, more than 2,695,000 government pistols were produced, comprising the longest continuous run of any Colt’s firearm. Today, more than 100 years after its adoption by the Army, the 1911 is still very much with us, as a collectable, a shooter, and as various models still produced by the same company that first gave it life.