Thursday, August 1, 2013

The M1911A1 Pistol - Birth of a Legend

Origin: The United States

From 1911 to 1924, this remarkable pistol was designated the M1911.

Since 1924, the legendary pistol has been officially known as the M1911A1

Designer John M. Browning

Weapon type: semi-automatic pistol

Manufacturer: Originally Colt, later many many others.

Specifically: Its weight is 2.437 lb; overall length is 8.25 in; barrel length is 5.03 inches for a standard Government model; cartridge is the .45 ACP; its action is a short recoil operation; it has a muzzle velocity of 830 fps; and it feed system is 7 rounds using standard magazines.

The Legend

The M1911 is a .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) semi-automatic, magazine fed, recoil operated pistol.

It is a "single-action" design, meaning that it cannot be fired from a "hammer-down" condition like the modern "double-action" semi-automatics today.

But while its first shot is in "single-action," unlike a single-action revolver, the M1911 does not need to be manually cocked for each shot because the hammer is automatically cocked each time the slide is cycled.

While some consider single-action a drawback, it allows for smoother trigger pull - and also, many such as myself believe that the M1911 has greater accuracy than double-action designs.

It is also one of the safest pistols ever made, with a mechanism-locking engageable thumb safety, a grip safety that disconnects the trigger if the shooter is not actually gripping the weapon, a half-cock position on the hammer, and a spring-retained firing pin that does not rest on the primer and can only be overcome by the force of the hammer dropping from the fully-cocked position.

Newer models also have an internal firing pin block for added redundancy.

The Designation Confussion

From 1911 to 1924, it was designated the M1911.

Because of a few basic improvements in 1924, the updated adopted model became the M1911A1.

Several other countries including Norway and Argentina also adopted domestically-produced M1911s as their standard-issue sidearm.

It is considered possibly one of the greatest pistols of all time by many and almost universally held as having remained superior in certain aspects such as durability and, by virtue of the more-powerful cartridge that it uses.

To many, including me, there is no match to its lethality.

And yes, it surely out performs in that department to the Beretta M9 which replaced it as standard military-issue.

Its reliability and lethality is legendary.

In fact many original M1911s that were used in World War I are still fully functional today. Some M1911s are known to have fired well over a million rounds, and are still in use.

The M9 is not as hardy as it frequently has to be rebuilt after firing just 5,000.

The M1911 was designed by the legendary American gunsmith John M. Browning, who also created the M2 .50 caliber machine gun among many other weapons.

John Moses Browning's design influenced many later pistol designs, including the HK USP.

Today it is used by more than 28 nations.

M1911s are still manufactured today by many companies including Colt, Springfield Armory, Kimber, Remington, Smith & Wesson, SIG Sauer, Les Baer, Wilson Combat, Ed Brown, Armscor, Rock Island Arms, and others.

Each manufacturer offers specific options, with some of them producing Commander and Compact models in addition to full-size.

Though not the official sidearm of the military today, after 100 years of service it is still in service with some United States military units to this day as well as many law enforcement agencies.

Originally produced by Colt, during World War II had wartime mass-production contracts were also given to Remington Rand, Remington UMC, Ithaca, Springfield Armory, and Union Switch & Signal.

As the standard U.S. service pistol, it served in World War I, World War II, Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

Though replaced by the M9, the M1911A1 was used in the Persian Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, and in conflicts throughout the world.

It is estimated that well over 3 million have been used by the U.S. over the years.

The M1911 is still carried by some U.S. forces.

Its formal designation as of 1940 was Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911 for the original Model of 1911 or Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911A1 for the M1911A1, adopted in 1924.

The designation changed to Pistol, Caliber .45, Automatic, M1911A1 in the Vietnam era.

In total, the United States military procured around 3 million M1911 and M1911A1 pistols in military contracts during its service life.

The M1911 was used extensively by the United States Military as its primary issue sidearm from 1911 through 1986. And yes, believe it or not, its still being used today by our military.

Imagine that for a moment. What other piece of equipment that was designed over 100 years ago, and has seen almost no change in its construction, and is still in use today?

None that I can think of! And yes, that in itself is a testiment to its legendary qualities.

The M1911 was replaced by the M9 pistol as the standard U.S. sidearm in the early 1990s, but due to its popularity among users, it has not been completely phased out.

Modern M1911 variants are still in use by some units within the U.S. Army Special Forces, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps.

Designed by John Browning, the M1911 is the best-known of his designs to use the short recoil principle in its basic design.

The pistol was widely copied, and this operating system rose to become the preeminent type of the 20th century and of nearly all modern centerfire pistols.

It is popular with law enforcement, personal protection, civilian shooters in competitive events such as USPSA and IDPA, International Practical Shooting Confederation, and Bullseye shooting.

Compact variants are popular civilian concealed carry weapons, because of the design's inherent slim width and the power of the .45 ACP cartridge.

The M1911 pistol originated in the late 1890s as the result of a search for a suitable self-loading - or semi-automatic - pistol to replace the variety of revolvers then in service.

By the late 1890s, the United States was adopting new firearms at a phenomenal rate.

Several were new pistols such as a series of revolvers by Colt and Smith & Wesson for the Army and Navy. Others were two were all-new service rifles, the M1892/96/98 Krag and M1895 Navy Lee.

The next decade would see a similar pace, including the adoption of several more revolvers and an intensive search for a self-loading pistol that would culminate in official adoption of the M1911.

"Automatic" firearms?

Hiram S. Maxim had designed a self-loading rifle in the 1880s, but was preoccupied with machine guns.

Nevertheless, the application of his principle of using bullet energy to reload led to several self-loading pistols in 1896.

The designs caught the attention of various militaries, each of which began programs to find a suitable one for their forces.

In the U.S., such a program would lead to a formal test at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century.

During the end of 1899 and start of 1900, a test of self-loading pistols was conducted, which included entries from Mauser with the famous C96 "Broomhandle", Mannlicher and his Steyr Mannlicher M1894, and Colt with the Colt M1900.

This led to a U.S. Army purchase of 1,000 DWM Luger pistols, chambered in 7.65 mm Luger, a bottlenecked cartridge.

During field trials these ran into some problems, especially with stopping power. Basically, the .32 ACP was too anemic. And yes, even other governments had made similar complaints.

Consequently, DWM produced an enlarged version of the round, the 9 mm Parabellum which is known currently as the 9×19 mm NATO.

It was a necked-up version of the 7.65 mm round. Fifty of these were tested as well by the U.S. Army in 1903.

America needed a .45!

American units fighting Moro guerrillas during the Philippine-American War using the then-standard Colt M1892 revolver, in .38 Long Colt, found it to be unsuitable for the rigors of jungle warfare.

And yes, this is particularly in terms of stopping power.

Fact is the Moros used drugs to inhibit the sensation of pain, and the .38 Long Colt simply did not have the stopping power to knock them down and keep them there.

One story has it that troops in the Philippines wrote home and had their families send their father's 1873 Colt Single Action Army pistols in .45 Colt to get some stopping power into their hands.

The rest of the story goes that that made the Army revert to reissuing the M1873 Colt service revolvers to the troops there.

Whether that's true or not, it is known that the U.S. Army did in fact briefly revert to using the M1873 single-action revolver in .45 Colt caliber which had been standard during the late 19th century.

The heavier bullet was found to be more effective against charging tribesmen high on opium.

The problems prompted the then–Chief of Ordnance, General William Crozier, to authorize further testing for a new service pistol.

The 1904 Thompson-LaGarde Pistol Round Effectiveness Tests

The Thompson-LaGarde Tests were a series of tests conducted in 1904 to determine which caliber should be used in new military handguns.

US troops had considerable difficulty stopping the Moro warriors and other combatants with the .38 Long Colt, and the U.S. Army began to consider the problem.

The task was assigned to Army Colonel John T. Thompson of the Infantry, and Major Louis Anatole LaGarde of the Medical Corps.

The tests were conducted at the Nelson Morris Company Union Stock Yards in Chicago, Illinois, using both live cattle outside a local slaughterhouse, as well as some human cadavers.

Several different calibers were used during the tests including the .476 Eley (UK), 7.65x22mm Parabellum (.30 Luger), 9x19mm Parabellum (Germany), .38 Long Colt, .38 ACP, .45 Colt (US) and the .455 Webley (UK).

The first day of testing involved eight live cattle. Seven were shot through the lungs using different caliber rounds, and the effects recorded.

The remaining animal was shot through the intestines with the .476 Eley.

If the animal took too long to die, it was put down by a hammer blow to the head.

Results were highly variable due to differences in shot placement, round types, animal size, and the number of times the animal was shot, according to reports.

For the second day, the test procedures were changed so that each animal would be rapidly shot in the lungs until the animal had died or 10 rounds had been fired.

For this test, five to ten animals were used. LaGarde said sixteen cattle and two horses were shot.

Again, results were highly variable, and weapon jamming also contributed to the variability this time, according to reports.

The cadaver tests were conducted by suspending the body, and measured the sway caused when the body was shot from different distances.

As the suspended body constituted a ballistic pendulum, this measured the relative momentum of the rounds to some extent.

After the tests, Thompson and LaGarde stated:

"The Board was of the opinion that a bullet, which will have the shock effect and stopping effect at short ranges necessary for a military pistol or revolver, should have a caliber not less than .45. ...

None of the full-jacketed or metal-patch bullets (all of which were less than cal. . 45) showed the necessary shock effect or stopping power for a service weapon. ...

We are not acquainted with any bullet fired from a hand weapon that will stop a determined enemy when the projectile traverses soft parts alone. The requirements of such a bullet would need to have a sectional area like that of a 3-inch solid shot the recoil from which when used in hand weapons would be prohibitive. ...

Finally the Board reached the conclusion that the only safeguard at close encounters is a well-directed rapid fire from nothing less than a .45-caliber weapon.

With this end in view soldiers should be drilled to fire at moving targets until they have attained proficiency as marksmen."

Though the Thompson-LaGarde Tests have since been criticized as being "highly unscientific" and not credible, others such as Julian Hatcher and Jeff Cooper regarded the tests as well conducted.

They see the recommendation as fully supported by the evidence available to the board, and empirical evidence subsequently available concerning stopping power and handgun effectiveness.

The Army did not pay attention to the critics.

Instead, they followed the 1904 Thompson-LaGarde pistol round effectiveness tests recommendations by Colonel John T. Thompson stated that the new pistol "should not be of less than .45 caliber" and would preferably be semi-automatic in operation.

This led to the 1906 trials of pistols from six firearms manufacturing companies - Colt, Bergmann, Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM), Savage Arms Company, Knoble, Webley, and White-Merril.

Of the six designs submitted, three were eliminated early on, leaving only the Savage, Colt, and DWM designs chambered in the new .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge.

These three still had issues that needed correction, but only Colt and Savage resubmitted their designs.  Though there is some debate over the reasons for DWM's withdrawal, most doesn't hold water.

Some folks say that DWM felt that there was bias and that the DWM design was being used primarily just as "show" and was not taken seriously.

But that does make much sense, especially if one considers the earlier 1,000 DWM Luger pistol purchase of the DWM design over the Colt and Steyr entries back in 1900.

More Tests!
John Moses Browning

From 1907 to 1911, another series of field tests were held to decide between the Savage and Colt designs.

Both designs were improved between each testing over their initial entries, leading up to the final test before adoption.

Among the areas of success for the Colt was a test at the end of 1910 attended by its designer, John Browning .

On 29 March 1911, the Secretary of War approved the Colt Caliber .45 Automatic Pistol. It would become the longest serving handgun in US military history.

It is one of the most enduring handguns in American History.

The gun, designated M1911 for Model1911, now often called just "1911," was adopted 12 years after the military considered using a ".45 caliber" in an "automatic handgun."

Its inventor, John Moses Browning, had worked on this project for 16 years.

In 1911, the right combination of design, capability, and reliability was proven in a 6,000 round endurance test.

Yes, its true, over the course of two days, a single M1911 pistol fired over six thousand rounds.

It's said that when the gun began to grow hot, it was simply immersed in water to cool it.

The Colt gun passed without a single malfunction, while its competitor the Savage design had stopped 37 times.

Below is a picture of the first M1911, the one used in the test that fired the 6,000 rounds. Note the discoloration from where it got hot and was quenched.

And for what happened next? Well, the rest is history!

Photo from M1911 forum

Yes, the rest is history.

Story by Tom Correa


  1. I wish I had one of those. A Colt 1911 and a Colt Single Action Army. If only I could afford them.


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