Happy Birthday, Model 1911!

By David Tong

Colt Model 1911
Illustration courtesy of Colt's Manufacturing Company.

It is difficult for this writer to be unimpressed by a century of service by a firearm. Actually, more of John Moses Browning’s designs have endured and remain in active use than those products of any other individual. Witness the many millions of Winchester lever action rifles, most notably the Model 1894, which have harvested more deer than any other rifle in North America.

Do you own a pump shotgun? Browning designed the Winchester Models 1893 and 1897 and ushered in a new age of greater-than-two-shot shotguns. He introduced the tilting bolt lock up, tube-fed template, which remains to this day.

Witness the millions of Browning long-recoil machine guns, some in continuous service since The Great War, which ended in 1918. The M2 .50 caliber “Ma Deuce” is a staple on nearly every Western armored vehicle. Witness the millions of Browning automatic shotguns, namely the long-recoil “Auto-5,” produced on two continents by FN of Belgium and Savage and Remington in North America and whose basic operating principles are still in use in gas system-free designs today.

Mr. Browning was an inspired genius. He invented for the semi-automatic pistol two elements shared by every popular and successful design manufactured today; the recoiling slide and the short-recoil tilting barrel. The latter's timed unlocking allowed the use of higher-pressure, more powerful cartridges, without the needless complexity of competing designs that have mostly become historical footnotes.

At first, Browning designed a number of small, blowback auto pistols, such as the FN 1900 in 7.65 (.32ACP) caliber and the 1903 Pocket in 7.65 and .380ACP, but he quickly realized both the marketability and greater power made possible by a barrel that dropped out of battery with the slide’s recoiling motion. This led to a number of so-called “parallel-ruler” Colt pistols such as the Models of 1902 and 1905, which introduced the .38 ACP (in high-pressure trim, today’s “.38 Super”). The design had a fatal flaw though, in that the sole means of stopping the recoiling slide was left to a small transverse steel block, whose failure meant at least severe injury to its wielder. Remaining examples shouldn’t be fired for this reason.

The experience of the U.S. military during its colonial phase at the turn of the 20th Century proved a watershed. At the time, the Army Cavalry still held most of the influence in the design of handguns and the rounds they fired, so we entered the Spanish-American fracas with a Colt double-action revolver firing the .38 Long Colt cartridge. This round proved inadequate, as most of the after-action reports at the time stated that even multiple center hits failed to stop the Philippine Moro warriors.

These fighters were called “juramentado,” berserk and crazy, which might have been due to taking drugs. In any event, attempts to interest the military in small caliber pistols went nowhere after the “Insurrection” was put down, especially when legend has it that re-issued of .45 caliber Single Action Army revolvers appeared to be far more effective. No less than Deutsches Waffen und Munitionsfabriken, Berlin, the maker of the world-famous Parabellum (Luger) pistol, was unable to sell the Model 1900 7.65X19mm pistol to the Cavalry.

If one is stuck with round nosed projectiles, made necessary by both the pistol designs of the time as well as by the U.S. becoming a signatory to the 1907 Hague Convention that proscribed bullets other than fully-metal-jacketed designs, a larger diameter slug was what worked best. (109 years of use of the 9X19mm with RNFMJ bullets has provided us with a working database of unsatisfactory results, including during our current Global War On Terrorists.)

Browning had already designed several of the parallel-ruler Colt handguns, the Models 1905 and 1907 (that added a grip safety at the Army’s request) with an earlier version of the .45 ACP cartridge. This launched a 200 grain bullet at approximately 800 fps. The Army wanted a heavier 230 grain bullet at 840 fps and in 1910 Browning invented the tilting barrel system for the new pistol.

The Army was generally pleased with the arm and its round, but desired that Browning add a thumb safety to the Model 1910 design, as the Cavalry wanted to ensure safety while mounted. The notion of horse-mounted troops was beginning to look a bit quaint by that year, given the advent of mass machine gun fire, but Browning, ever willing to produce what the military wanted, made the modifications and created the Model of 1910 “Special Army Model.” This later became the Model 1911, which was adopted by the U.S. military in March of that year. While he may have been aware of how significant this pistol might become, it would have pleased him no end to know that the weapon and its cartridge would serve as our official service pistol for 74 years, and that it still serves in both Army and Marine Corps Special Operations personnel 11 years into the 21st Century.

In an era where computers double in speed every 18 months and automobile models are often replaced in four year cycles, the notion that something which remains so permanently part of our shooting landscape must strike some as anathema to progress. Some will say, with justification, that modern jacketed hollow point bullets have largely equalized the playing field in the smaller and lighter-recoiling rounds, such as the 9X19 and this is generally correct if the bullet displays terminal ballistics as designed. If it opens too fast when encountering hard resistance, such as heavy bone or combat equipment, it may lack the penetration necessary to make it to the vital organs or central nervous system of one’s opponent. If it fails to open it is no better than hardball, leaving a small wound track.

In my own analysis, while the 9X19 is the most popular round in terms of military acceptance, this is a result of treaties and NATO community continuity. U.S. production capacity can supply our allies with ammo supplies far in excess of those other nations in times of need.

The 9x19’s primary advantages would be magazine capacity, pistols that can fit smaller hands better (not in the case of the U.S. M9, however) and lighter recoil for better practical accuracy. However, this highly experienced author, slightly built, has no issues dealing with the recoil of the .45, even in very rapid fire. One might also cogently counter with the thought that any incremental design progress exhibited by the smaller calibers could also be incorporated into the larger ones and this has indeed happened.

The 1911 is universally admired for its satisfactory single-action trigger, which (when carefully manufactured) makes it an easy combat pistol to shoot accurately. While I would not choose to carry one thus modified, I am aware of many individuals who have reliable, three-pound and under trigger pulls for their carry gun.

The 1911 captures the imagination due to its history and the exploits of the men who have carried it into harm’s way. Without devolving into an anthropomorphic fog about why one might prefer one design over another because of something like this, we shooters surely have our preferences and they are not always entirely logical. The 1911 pistol design is old. So are true-isms like chivalry, courtesy, God, honor and manners.

As a recent email exchange that the author has enjoyed with a serving member of the U.S. military Special Ops in the Sandbox suggests, the sun has not set on the 1911. It remains the choice of many armed professionals who fight the good fight for all of us, and while the author is certainly not unaware of the advantages of more modern designs, having owned and shot most of them, in the dark place when the hair on the back of your neck stands up, a 1911 will still suffice and it pleases me that, like the Winchester ’94, the story of its second century of hard work is yet to be written.

Note: Complete reviews of Colt, Springfield, Valtro and Kimber 1911 pistols can be found on the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2011, 2012 by David Tong and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.