Colt History: A Look Back at the 1911
At the turn of the last century, the United States was engaged in a conflict with Moro tribesmen in portions of the Philippine Islands. The U.S. had seized the islands as a protectorate and one of the spoils of war at the termination of the Spanish-American War. In May 1899, 800 U.S. Marines landed on the island of Jolo. Initially things were relatively peaceful, but a series of mistranslations of a treaty led to the Islamic Moro people to instigate hostilities. Among the Moro was a faction called “juramentado,” Spanish for “one who takes an oath,” an extremely zealous group of Muslims who felt it was their honor-bound duty to kill all Christians. The juramentados were fierce fighters who reputedly bound parts of their bodies prior to combat to reduce bleeding and took local drugs to minimize the perception of pain.
Unfortunately for many U.S. officers, the government had replaced the heavy—but quite reliable— .45-caliber Single Action Army with a lighter Colt double-action revolver. Chambered in .38 Long Colt, the Colt New Army 1892 was a beautifully made gun, but its ballistics—a 150-grain, round-nose lead bullet at 770 fps, yielding 195 ft.-lbs. of energy—were pretty anemic. Even during the war with Spain, the revolver didn’t cut it for American forces. When put up against the Moro juramentados many officers learned of the cartridge’s shortcomings the hard way. Reports of juramentados absorbing a cylinder-full of .38 Long Colts and still beheading the shooter with a keris knife were disturbingly regular. In something of a panic, the Army reissued Single Action Army revolvers from reserve stocks, and purchased some M1902 .45 caliber double-action revolvers. The Ordnance Board established an evaluation committee led by Col. John T. Thompson (inventor of the Thompson submachinegun) and Col. Louis A. La Garde. They determined the need for a semi-automatic pistol that fired a .45-caliber bullet in order to reliably stop close-range combatants.
When the Army announced its intent to replace the .38-caliber revolver with a .45-caliber pistol several companies leapt at the chance for a lucrative government contract. John Browning had already been developing a semi-auto pistol for Colt designed around a .38-caliber cartridge similar to the .38 Super. For a genius like Browning, it wasn’t too difficult a task to upsize both the pistol and cartridge to .45 caliber.
A Browning 9 mm Hi-Power semi-automatic pistol
The pistol trials began in 1906, and samples from Colt, Savage, Smith & Wesson, DWM, Knoble, Bergmann and White-Merrill were tested. Both the Browning and Savage designs were selected for further testing. That testing revealed some shortcomings in both pistols, and the Army asked for more refinements in the designs. Browning traveled to Hartford, Conn., to supervise the changes. He teamed up with a young Colt employee, Fred Moore, and they painstakingly ensured that the pistols to be submitted were the finest they could produce. On March 3, 1911, the Army began a torture test. Each pistol would be fired 100 times, then allowed to cool for five minutes. After each 1,000 rounds the pistols would be cleaned and oiled. After 6,000 rounds, the pistols were tested with deformed cartridges, some with bullets seated too deeply, others not seated enough. The test pistols were soaked in water, mud and even acid. Browning’s design passed every test without a single failure—the first of any firearm to survive such a 6,000-round test.
On March 20, 1911, the Ordnance Board released a report of its findings that said, “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.” Nine days after that report, the Army designated the Colt Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911 to be its official sidearm. Two years later the Navy and Marine Corps adopted the 1911 as their handgun as well.
Other features mandated by the Ordnance Board were a manual safety and a grip safety, a slide stop that locked the slide back after the last round is fired and a half-cock position on the hammer. Feedback from soldiers after World War I also caused the military to make some relatively minor changes to the 1911. In 1924, the flat mainspring housing was given an arch in order to force the web of the hand higher into the grip safety. The trigger was shortened and cutouts on the frame behind the trigger were added to ease access to the trigger. The grip safety tang was lengthened a bit and the hammer spur shortened slightly to prevent hammer bite. A wider front sight and simplified grip panels completed the changes, and the revised pistol was given the name M1911A1.
The 1911 was an instantaneous success—no surprise, given its endorsement by the military—and demand outpaced supply. As World War II approached, the demand for this powerful handgun became even more intense. By the end of the war, nearly 2 million 1911 pistols were made and sold to the government. Colt could not keep up with the demand so other companies were contracted to produce the 1911. The most productive was Remington Rand—the erstwhile typewriter maker—which made some 900,000 pistols. The Ithaca Gun Company added another 400,000 copies, while Union Switch & Signal tossed another 50,000 toward the war effort. Even the sewing machine company, Singer, made some 500 pistols. Today, these “non-Colts” command some hefty premiums.
Other countries also manufactured the 1911 under contract from Colt. Argentina, Canada and Norway have produced 1911 pistols, while between 1914 and 1915, the Springfield Armory made some 30,000 pistols. Spanish gunmakers have made several variations of the 1911 as well. Llama-Fabrinor S.A.L., Star and Astra all have contributed to the plethora of Spanish 1911s. In short, John Moses Browning’s M1911 has made a large footprint worldwide as a military and police sidearm.
Five years after World War II, Colt came up with a smaller, lighter version of the 1911 to cater toward those who did not want to pack the full-size version. The frame was made from aluminum, and the barrel and slide were shortened 3/4 inch. Christened the Lightweight Commander and available in 9 mm, .38 Super as well as .45 ACP, it proved a welcome addition to the 1911 family. When the Series 70 came out, an all-steel Combat Commander was offered to answer some shooters complaints that the alloy frame wasn’t strong enough to withstand a high volume of shooting.
M9 pistol used by the US military; a variant of the Beretta 92FS
An overabundance of lawsuits directed toward gunmakers in the 1970s and ’80s led Colt to develop a firing pin safety that prevented the pistol from firing unless the trigger is pulled completely to the rear. These Series 80 pistols came in many of the familiar 1911 configurations: Government Model, tactical, competition models and both Combat and Lightweight Commander styles with blued or satin nickel finishes. Even stainless steel was finally used to make the 1911 impervious to the elements. Answering the demand for a cut-down of 1911s to pocket-pistol size in .45 ACP, Colt introduced an Officer’s Model in 1985 featuring a 3 1/2-inch barrel and a shortened grip frame with a six-round magazine.
The 1911 was vigorously welcomed by militaries from all over the world from its inception, and it served well in combat. However, by the late 1970s political pressure from NATO to standardize around a double-action semi-auto pistol in 9 mm ushered the great 1911 into semi-retirement. On January 14, 1985 the Army adopted the Beretta 92F as its official sidearm. Nonetheless, several special operation units from the military branches still use the 1911, though often modified and enhanced.
As the 1911 turns 100 years old this month, there are a few who pooh-pooh it as a relic. But take a look along most firing lines or in the holsters of many high-speed, low-drag operators, and you’ll see that grand old pistol providing security and control just as well today as it did a century ago.
How They Operate
Typically, the first round is manually loaded into the chamber by pulling back and releasing the slide mechanism. This is called racking the slide or racking the gun. After the trigger is pulled and the round is fired, the recoil operation of the handgun automatically extracts and ejects the shell casing and reloads the chamber. This mode of operation generally allows for faster reloading and storing a larger number of cartridges than a revolver.
Diagram showing a simple blowback action
Some modern semi-automatic pistols are double-action-only (DAO); that is, once a round is chambered, each trigger pull cocks the hammer, striker, or firing pin, and additionally releases the same to fire a cartridge in one continuous motion. Each pull of the trigger on a DAO semi-automatic pistol requires the same amount of pressure. The Kel-Tec P-32 is an example of a DAO action. DAO semi-automatic pistols are most generally recommended only in the smaller, self-defense, concealable pistols, rather than in target or hunting pistols. A notable exception is Glock-brand pistols which optimize preset triggers (similar to DAO), but the striker is partially cocked back as the slide closes. This allows for significantly shorter trigger pulls than DAO. The trigger spring can be replaced with a lighter one and paired with a low-strength sear connector resulting in lightened trigger pulls to improve a shooter’s accuracy (like models G34 and G35).
Standard modern semi-automatic pistols are usually double action (DA), also sometimes known as double-action/single-action (DA/SA). In this design, the hammer or striker may be either thumb-cocked or activated by pulling the trigger when firing the first shot. The hammer or striker is recocked automatically during each firing cycle. In double-action pistols, the first pull of the trigger requires roughly twice as much pressure as subsequent firings, since the first pull of the trigger also cocks the hammer (if not already cocked by hand). The Beretta 92F/FS, a full-sized, service, semi-automatic pistol is an example of this style of action. A common mode of carry for DA semi-automatic pistols is with the magazine full, a round chambered, and the gun holstered and uncocked with the external safety unengaged or off. The Taurus PT145 is an example of a (SADA) weapon, as it has no decocker and thus has its striker primed from the moment of chambering and only enters double-action mode if a round fails to fire upon the pin’s impact; at other times, it operates as a single-action striker fired firearm.
In contrast, a single-action (SA) semi-automatic pistol must be cocked by first operating the slide or bolt, or, if a round is already chambered, by cocking the hammer manually. The famed Colt M1911 is an example of this style of action. All SA semi-automatic pistols exhibit this feature, and automatically cock the hammer when the slide is first “racked” to chamber a round. A round can also be manually inserted in the chamber with the slide locked back. Then the safety can be applied.
Many SA semi-automatic pistols have a hammer position known as “half-cocked“. Squeezing the trigger will not fire the gun when it is in the half-cocked position, and neither will dropping the gun in this state cause an accidental discharge. During WWII in the Pacific Theater, an unofficial and unapproved carry mode for the SA M1911 by left-handed US soldiers in combat was carrying the gun with the magazine full, a round chambered, the action in half-cocked position, and the thumb safety (accessible only to right-handed users) positioned in the off (or ready-to-fire) mode.The normal mode of carrying an SA semi-automatic pistol is condition 1, popularly known as cocked and locked. Condition 1 (a term popularized by Colonel Jeff Cooper) refers to having the magazine full, a round chambered, the hammer fully cocked, and the thumb safety engaged or on, at least for right-handed users. For many single-action, semi-automatic pistols, this procedure works well only for right-handed users, as the thumb safety is located on the left side of pistol and is easily accessible only for those who are holding the pistol in the right hand.
The primary advantage of the half-cocked position versus the uncocked position in that particular scenario was added sound suppression (of the click of the weapon being cocked). A secondary advantage was the avoidance of accidental discharges if the gun were accidentally dropped. The half cock was revised by Colt in the 1970’s and subsequently other manufacturers – the hammer will fall from half cock if the trigger is pulled on most newer 1911 type guns.
In general, single-action, semi-automatic pistols should never be carried uncocked with the safety off, although many newer SA pistols have modified actions which allow the hammer to exert pressure against the firing pin only when the trigger is pulled. Many modern SA semi-automatic pistols have had their safety mechanisms redesigned to provide a thumb safety on both sides of the pistol (ambidextrous), thereby better meeting the needs of left-handed, as well as right-handed users.
Semi-automatic pistols with different traits have been designed, including those with a magazine fed with a stripper clip, and those with non-removable magazines. These designs are rarely used in modern semi-automatic pistols. The Model C96, or “Broomhandle” Mauser, in its original configuration, has a fixed, non-removable magazine located in front of the trigger, which is loaded directly through the breech from the top of the pistol.
Semi-automatic pistols use one firing chamber that remains fixed in a constant linear position relative to the gun barrel. In contrast, although double-action revolvers can also be fired semi-automatically, their rounds are not fired from a single chamber, but rather are fired from each of the chambers that are rotated into linear alignment with the barrel’s position in turn just prior for each shot fired.
A self-loading pistol reloads the chamber with a new round automatically each time the weapon is fired, without additional action being required by the user. For a semi-automatic pistol, this is typically accomplished by recoil operation. In a machine pistol, in contrast, this can be accomplished by blowback, or less commonly, by gas operation, harnessing gases produced when the gun is fired. The Desert Eagle is a rare example of a semi-automatic pistol that siphons off some of the gases instead of relying on short recoil operation.
A semi-automatic pistol will fire only one shot per trigger pull, in contrast to a “fully automatic” or machine pistol, which continues to fire as long as the trigger is held or until all rounds have been fired. The Mauser M712 Schnellfeuer (German for “rapid fire”), a modified Mauser C96 pistol, is a notable example of a true machine pistol.
While both types of weapons operate on the same principles, fully automatic weapons must be built more ruggedly to accommodate the heat and stress caused by rapid firing, and it can be difficult (and illegal in most countries) to convert a semi-automatic pistol into a fully automatic mode of fire. A selective-fire action pistol, though, can be converted back and forth by means of a switch, and often includes a burst mode, typically for a three-round burst with each trigger pull. Selective-fire weapons are generally used by specialized law enforcement and security personnel such as SWAT teams, hostage rescue teams, anti-terrorist units, or government bodyguards for heads of state. In the United States, selective-fire weapons are not available to civilians unless they live in a state that allows civilian ownership of the National Firearms Act or Title II weapons.
Actions: blowback versus locked breech
Self-loading automatic pistols can be divided into “blowback” and “locked breech” categories according to their principle of operation. The blowback operating principle is suitable for smaller, lower-powered calibers, such as .32 ACP and .380 ACP, as the resistance of the recoil spring and mass of the slide are sufficient to retard the opening of the breech until the projectile has left the barrel, and breech pressure has dropped to a safe level. For more powerful calibers such as the 9 mm Parabellum (9 mm) and .45 ACP, some form of locked breech is needed to retard breech opening, as an unlocked blowback pistol in these calibers requires a very heavy slide and stiff spring, making them bulky, heavy, and difficult to operate. A somewhat commercially successful blowback pistol design in the more powerful calibers was produced; the Spanish Astra 400 in 9 mm Largo and the similar Astra 600 in 9 mm Parabellum. U.S. manufacturer Hi-Point also produces a line of blowback-operated pistols in several calibers, including 9 mm and .45 ACP. Virtually all other service-caliber pistols are locked-breech designs.
As stated earlier, the 1911 auto-loading pistol is one of the most popular handguns in use today. People that own them say “if you ever use a 1911, you will love it and never want to give it up”. The first thing I noticed about the 1911 is the trigger pull. The entire trigger presses straight back as compared to most other guns that have a pivot point at the top. This makes it a lot more comfortable on your finger and seems to be a bit more controllable. Below is a video of field stripping the 1911, You will see it’s a bit more complex than many other guns, like the Glock or Ruger, and takes a little more care and attention to detail. But once you’ve done it a few times it becomes no big deal.
This article became a little more than just a history of the Colt 1911. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I did in presenting it. Please leave your comments and/or suggestions in the comments area below, and thanks for stopping by.
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