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Bulletpoints: The History of the 1911

In this month’s Bullet Points, we’re going to take a look back at possibly the most iconic firearm in modern history: John Moses Browning’s venerable 1911. If you’re a regular reader, you should know by now that I’m a huge 1911 fan. The slimness, heft, and the sweet, sweet single-action trigger have all contributed to its being the handgun I can shoot the most effectively, and I’m sure there are many like me. To help everyone appreciate this venerable pistol even better, let’s take a look back at the history of the 1911—one that spans over 100 years, and several prototypes.

At the tail-end of the 19th century, bolt-action rifles, revolvers, and machineguns were the norm on the battlefield. There were, of course, repeating rifles and self-loading pistols, but those had yet to rise to their full potential. The widespread use of machineguns did, however, do a lot to bring to everyone’s attention the feasibility of using the force of firing a round to cycle a weapon’s action.

The story of the 1911 really starts a decade before it came to be, with Colt’s 1900. That pistol is oddly similar to what we know and love as the 1911. It was chambered in 38 ACP, and had a strange safety, particularly by today’s standards. To render the gun safe, the user would have to depress the rear sight, which kept the hammer from acting upon the firing pin. It was unwieldy at best, and required two hands to use with any reasonable ease. It had a barrel that locked into the slide, but unlike the 1911 we know and love, the barrel dropped straight down once it was free of the locking lugs in the slide. This was done through the use of two pivot pins below either end of the barrel, as opposed to the single one we see today. There was also no slide stop, so the pistol was not held open upon firing the last round. The grip was also quite a bit more vertical, but it did look like something that is clearly higher up in the 1911 evolutionary tree.

Shortly after the 1900 was released, everyone realized just how cumbersome the sight safety really was, so Colt improved upon this primary design to produce the Model 1902 Sporting. This pistol was still chambered in the same caliber, and was really little more than a 1900 with a fixed, non-moving rear sight. This meant that the only safety remaining was the one between the shooter’s ears, which didn’t seem to be a problem for the consumers back in the day. This pistol was sold from 1902 to 1907. Concurrently with the Sporting model, Colt also released the 1902 Military model, which sported a longer grip, a lanyard loop, and nothing else aside. It was judged to be a reliable pistol, handily passing the US Military’s 6,000-round stress test with no reported problems.

Around this time, reports were coming in from the field that the .38 revolvers issued at the time were demoralizingly ineffective against the Moro guerillas in the south Philippines, many of whom were hopped up on drugs, and well protected. This lead to the re-issue of the old single-action revolvers chambered in 45 Long Colt, which proved to be significantly more effective at getting the job done.

The change to a larger caliber now brings us to the Model 1905, chambered in the newly developed 45 ACP cartridge. (While we’re here, it’s worth mentioning that the 9mm Parabellum was produced in 1902.) The Model 1905 was one of three pistols from different manufacturers vying to be the Army’s new sidearm, and retained much of the same characteristics as its predecessors: a vertically dropping barrel, basic features, and practically the same look. Since the 45 ACP is a larger round that the 38ACP, the grip, which would be home to an eight-round magazine in the 38, accepted a magazine that holds all of seven rounds. While it still lacked a safety, Colt did add a slide stop to hold the 1905 open on an empty magazine. This, along with an entry from Savage Arms and DWM, were evaluated for their performance. The Model 1905 came out on top, though the army did give the manufacturers a chance to address issues that arose during tests. At that point, DWM decided to drop out of the trials, instead choosing to focus on their other weapons for other militaries. This left Colt and Savage to duke it out, speeding things up considerably.

The trials Model 1907 was created to address the concerns found in the Model 1905, the main addition being a grip safety. The Model 1909 came next, which ditched the double link, vertically dropping barrel in favor for the familiar single-pin tilting barrel that’s in use by so many pistols today. Only very few were made for trials purposes, and once those were evaluated and changed, Colt released the Model 1910, which changed the relatively vertical grip of every M19XX pistol before it to a more angled design. The Model 1910 had a few problems during testing, which Colt then sorted out to finally give us the Model of 1911, later re-designated as Model 1911, and finally Model 1911.

This isn’t the end of the story though. More reports from the field came in, with a lot of invaluable feedback from users. Slight changes were made, such as the inclusion of an arched mainspring housing, cutouts on the frame, behind the trigger, a squared-off rear sight, larger grip safety, and more checkering on some of the control surfaces. The incremental changes warranted a new designation, giving us (absolutely finally) the Model 1911A1. Since then, we’ve seen a few other changes from other manufacturers of the platform: External extractors, firing pin blocks, smaller versions, larger ones, ambi controls, and even two barrels. There’s no doubt in my mind we’ll see even more innovations as time goes on, but one thing is constant: the 1911 isn’t going anywhere.

Also published in GADGETS MAGAZINE December 2015 – January 2016 Issue.

Words and Photos by Ren Alcantara