Finishing Fights: 2 Centuries of the Colt 1911 Pistol

Colt Model of 1911 semiauto .45 pistol.

The United States War Department adopted the Colt 1911 pistol in .45 ACP on March 29th, 1911. The quintessential version of the 1911, the M1911A1, came out in 1924—one hundred years ago! (That’s only 100 years, of course, but it’s spread across two different centuries.)

The 1911 has seen refinements large and small since then, but the design has stood the test of time. In fact, it actually paved the way for the modern service pistols we have today.

Let’s take a look at how we got to the Colt 1911. We’ll discuss how it inspired later designs and of course what the 1911 still has to offer today. 

Colt’s Model of 1911: What Came Before

The story of the Colt 1911 automatic pistol usually begins with the failure of a Colt revolver. But the 1911 is just as much of a creature of its ammunition as it is its design. That aspect dates back to another successful and effective Colt revolver – the Colt 1873 or Model P. 

Colt Single Action pistol
Colt Single Action revolver.

The US Army put a premium on hitting power in their handguns early on. Smaller caliber .36 caliber guns sufficed for the Navy, but the Army continued to issue .44 caliber percussion revolvers. They did so because the heavier round was effective at stopping horses.

This lasted from the Mexican War through the end of the Civil War.

The Colt 1873 served the same purpose. However, it switched from paper cartridges and percussion caps to metallic cartridges. This took the form of the .45 Colt cartridge. 

The .45 Colt was a big-bore black powder cartridge. It could hurl a 255-grain flat-point bullet at close to 1000 feet per second. Later, the Army briefly flirted with adopting S&W No. 3 top-break revolvers. The Colt proved to be the better design, but the more controllable .45 S&W cartridge was adopted with modifications. This round, sometimes called the .45 Schofield or the M1887 Ball round, featured a 230-grain bullet traveling at about 800 feet per second (stop me if that sounds familiar).

Fast forward to 1892. The West was won and the Army began to realize how far behind their equipment was compared to Europe’s colonial powers. Britain, France, and the like were keen on smokeless powder magazine rifles and faster-firing double-action revolvers. This culminated in the adoption of the Krag-Jorgensen and the Colt New Army .38 that year.

The Colt New Army was among the first revolvers produced with a swing-out cylinder. It uses the .38 Long Colt cartridge, which was similar to what the US Navy used in their Navy revolver conversions. [US Army Ordnance Department]
The Colt New Army was among the first revolvers produced with a swing-out cylinder. It uses the .38 Long Colt cartridge, which was similar to what the US Navy used in their Navy revolver conversions. [US Army Ordnance Department]

The Colt New Army was a double-action gun with a swing-out cylinder, among the first of its type. It was fast to fire and quick to reload. There are relatively few accounts testifying to the effectiveness of the .38 Long Colt cartridge when the revolver was first fielded during the Spanish-American War. That may have been because the fight was over within a few months. The pacification of the Philippines after the conflict was far longer, bloodier, and politically complex. 

Wounded American troops outside of Manila in 1899. The men running security around them are armed with Trapdoor Springfield rifles in .45-70 instead of the standard-issue .30 caliber Krag Jorgensen. American casualties during the Phillipine-American War were light but it did serve as a litmus test for the Army's tactics and equipment. [US Army]
Wounded American troops outside of Manila in 1899. The men running security around them are armed with Trapdoor Springfield rifles in .45-70 instead of the standard-issue .30 caliber Krag Jorgensen. American casualties during the Phillipine-American War were light but it did serve as a litmus test for the Army’s tactics and equipment. [US Army]

As the American authorities sought to put down a full-fledged guerilla war while arming the locals through the Philippine Scouts, a call for arms was put out. As it happened, it required a look toward older designs to accomplish both missions. In the case of the American troops in the Philippines, the Colt .38 and even the Krag Jorgensen were found wanting for power against drugged and bound Moro rebels in Mindanao.

Colt 1873s and Trapdoor Springfield rifles were shipped over to replace the arms that had replaced them in service less than ten years earlier. As the controversial war in the Philippines wound down, the Army proceeded cautiously to go back to a .45 while keeping a watchful eye on new autoloading pistols coming out of Europe. 

The two archrivals of the handgun industry, Smith & Wesson and Colt, were quick to come up with a fix for the .38 Long Colt. Smith & Wesson developed a more powerful round, the .38 Special, and offered it in a new swingout cylinder revolver called the M&P in 1899. At the time, the Army was dead set on a return to .45. Colt reacted with the introduction of a heavy-framed revolver called the New Service. 

The New Service revolver in .45 Colt was purchased by Army, Navy, and Marine Corps and became the M1909 revolver. But even as that adoption came in, the Army was looking at an auto pistol.

A Colt Model of 1911 (which preceded the moniker Colt Model 1911, which itself followed just Colt 1911).
A Colt Model of 1911 (which preceded the moniker Colt Model 1911, which itself followed just Colt 1911). Many, many, many companies make 1911 (and now 2011) models these days. These range from high-end, US-made Wilson Combat pistols to solid, reliable imports like the Tisas. (Image courtesy of Gunrunner Auctions.)

Boschardt and Luger: Enter the Autoloading Pistol

Smokeless powder made it truly viable for a firearm to use its own recoil or gas pressure to reload itself. The first autoloading pistols came to market in Europe in the 1890s. The Boschardt came about in 1893 and it was the first to be commercially successful. It was short-lived, however. Other Boschardt designs like the C96 Mauser and the Luger proved to be better designs. The Luger in 7.63 Luger was adopted by the Swiss Army in 1900, and the world took notice. 

In April 1901, Brigadier General William Crozier, the US Army’s Chief of Ordnance, was allotted $15,000 to buy the new 7.63mm Luger. These new handguns were tested by the US Cavalry. In 1903, fifty of these handguns were exchanged for new models in the bigger-bore 9mm Luger cartridge. While testing continued with the Luger at Fort Riley, a new Colt pistol was successfully tested at Springfield Armory. 

Colt Model 1902

This new slide-operated semi-auto pistol is now known as the Colt Model 1902 in .38 ACP. It was the brainchild of John Moses Browning, who successfully marketed his blow-back operated slide action pistols in Europe in the form of the Model 1899 in .32 ACP. Stateside, Browning tinkered with his designs for the US market and sold his first design to Colt in the form of the Colt 1900. The improved Colt Model 1902 continued on in the trials, and an additional $4000 was allotted to buy two hundred of them for the cavalry and artillery. 

Testing continued concurrently with the infamous Thompson-LaGarde trials, which concluded in 1905. Col. John Thompson (of Tommy Gun fame) and Louis Anatole LaGarde had the expressed mission to determine the deficiencies of the .38 and come up with a replacement. Extensive testing on live and deceased cattle in the Union Stock Yards of Chicago yielded unsatisfactory results with the smaller calibers tested: 7.63 Luger, 9mm Luger, .38 Colt, and .38 ACP. The .45 Colt and .476 Webley rounds were favored in the test and the US Cavalry formally requested a new pistol from Colt in caliber .45. 

The .45 ACP [right] is a development from the .45 Colt [left].
The .45 ACP [right] is a development from the .45 Colt [left].

Browning improved the Model 1902 and upsized it for a new cartridge of his design, the .45 ACP. The new Model 1905 was tested by the cavalry, but that year, the Ordinance Board determined that the semi-auto pistol did not outperform the service revolver and, at its current stage of development, was not recommended for adoption. This recommendation was subsequently reversed after the 1907 pistol trials, where the auto pistols were found to be advantageous.

After the 1907 pistol trials, Georg Luger grew disinterested in continuing to chase American orders. When 200 more of his pistols in .45 ACP were requested, he refused to contract. Instead, he focused his attention on what would be the German Army’s adoption of the P08 the following year. With Luger’s departure, only pistols from Colt and Savage were in the running. 

Colt 1911

Based on feedback from the trials, Browning and Colt’s engineers went back to the drawing board. Over previous models that used an exposed extractor and two points of linkage for unlocking the barrel under recoil, the Colt Model 1910 featured an internal extractor that was less prone to ingress.

Colt 1911 history: Browning's patent

It also utilized a simplified slide with a single linkage anchored in place by an enlarged slide release. This model featured the same grip safety carried over from previous models, but the US Cavalry wanted a manual safety, which was retrofitted to some 1910 pistols. 

Colt 1910 Becomes Colt 1911

Browning patented this new Model 1911 on Feb. 14, 1911. Beginning March 15th, the Colt 1911 was tested alongside the Savage Model 1910, the existing service revolvers, and a few other European auto pistols like the Dreyse. The Colt 1911 used for testing fired over 6,000 without a single malfunction. 

On March 29th, Secretary of War Jacob Dickinson officially approved the Colt Model 1911 in caliber .45 (later the M1911) to replace the Colt .38 in official service. This was the birth of what would become an icon that is more popular today than at its inception and has the distinction of slinging lead – and finishing fights – across two centuries. 

1 thoughts on “Finishing Fights: 2 Centuries of the Colt 1911 Pistol

  1. Don Harris says:

    I have a 1911 colt shipped in in 1912 to a base in Ca. it has a 4 digit serial number and verified by colt who researched it and sent me a certificate on the weapon. I have owned it for about 50 years.
    I even have the field cleaning tool that came with it and holster.

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