1911: The History
Despite what many fans of 1911 history might believe, the Colt 1911’s genesis was not a singular act of omnipotent glory, erupting from the smitten rock to save the wandering desert-laden firearms community from poor firearms engineering.
Yes, its development, manufacture and track record protecting American soldiers make it one of the most significant firearms in American history. Its longevity and staying power have certainly ensured that its competitors at the top are few.
But for John Moses Browning, the road to the M1911 was anything but smooth, simple or gratuitous. The pistol’s evolution is a story of failure, iteration and vigorous pursuit of perfection.
As the 19th century was winding down, the United States Army was desperately searching for something to replace the aging revolvers in its arsenal. The demands for stopping power, reliability and on-the-ground effectiveness drove them to dedicate seemingly limitless effort and resources to source an automatic, or self-loading pistol.
As a result, when looking back at 1911 history, we see that in the decade leading up to 1911 (the year that would become the gun’s namesake) and the gun’s adoption as the official pistol of the U.S. Army, Browning would release a multitude of variants of the rapidly evolving firearm. For the sake of brevity, we’ll address only a few of the noteworthy iterations.
The Colt 1900
The first of these automatic pistols, The Colt 1900, bears a resemblance to what would become the gun that we all know. Looking at it, you can tell the two are related, but compared to the end result, it’s striking to consider how much changed in only a decade.
First of all, the Colt 1900 was chambered in .38 ACP. In fact, it’s not the only gun in 1911 history to do so — it wouldn’t be until 1905 that we’d see the jump up to .45 ACP — more on this later.
The 1900 also had — of all things — an integrated sight safety. When in the lowered, safe position, a true sight picture could not be obtained and the firing pin could not be engaged. To fire the weapon, the rear sight would be flipped up.
Photo Credit: coltautos.com
In this and all other cases, tireless testing (by Browning, Colt and the military) allowed for ample feedback, and the safety was deemed clunky, unreliable and apt to create undue wear-and-tear on the firing pin.
The Colt 1902
The Colt 1902 Sporting was released – yes, two years later — sans safety of any kind, and with the first, though primitive, versions of the recognizable 1911-style iron sights.
Also in 1902, though only for the military at first, Colt released the 1902 Military (creative naming, right?) to address some of the critiques and concerns they were hearing from what would hopefully become their largest customer. Among other changes, this was the first to move the quintessential 1911 serrations to the rear of the slide.
Other evolutions during that decade would alter the grip angle (most aggressively in 1905) and hammer style — from spur style in the 1900 to rounded in 1902, then back and forth several times before settling on the spur for the 1911.
Also worth pointing out in some detail is the bump from .38 ACP to .45 ACP. There had been some debate within the military surrounding the effectiveness of smaller calibers in combat. After extensive testing (on cadavers and cattle, as the stories have it), the military decided that the next handgun needed to be no smaller than a .45 caliber. The Colt 1905 reflected this change, and was Colt’s first autoloader in that caliber.
Photo Credit: milsurps.com
Now John Browning and the Colt company were not the only ones after this massive Army contract; when the Army formally opened the contest for submissions in 1906, six manufacturers submitted designs. Of these six, the pool was narrowed down to three: Colt, Savage Arms, and DWM — the German manufacturer of the Luger P08.
DWM withdrew their submission early on in the process, perhaps due to a large contract recently signed with the German Army. So Savage Arms, with their higher-powered version of the Savage Model 1907, and Colt, with the firearm that would become the M1911, went head-to-head for the U.S. Army contract.
The two would square off in numerous tests between 1907 and 1911. In one particular test, over 6,000 rounds were fired from each of the two handguns over the course of two days; the Colt experienced no malfunctions and the Savage had 37.
On March 29, 1911, the Army announced that Colt had won the contest, and the Model 1911 would become the U.S. Army’s official handgun for the next 74 years. 1913, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps would adopt the pistol as well.
Much effort and development went into the creation of what would undoubtedly become the most influential handgun design in U.S. military history. It’s easy to see how the handgun has become so embedded in American culture. While much has changed between its inception and what we produce today, the present can’t fully be appreciated without understanding the intricacies of 1911 history.