In this instalment of our 12 part series on Military blueprints, we look at the American Colt 1911.
The 1911 pistol was designed by legendary firearms designer, John Moses Browning. It was a refinement of his earlier semi-automatic pistol designs.
The basic principle of the pistol is recoil operation. As the expanding combustion gases force the bullet down the barrel, they give reverse momentum to the slide and barrel which are locked together during this portion of the firing cycle. After the bullet has left the barrel, the slide and barrel continue rearward a short distance.
American units fighting Moro guerrillas during the Philippine–American War using the then-standard Colt M1892 revolver, .38 Long Colt, found it to be unsuitable for the rigours of jungle warfare. Particularly in terms of stopping power, as the Moros had high battle morale and often used drugs to inhibit the sensation of pain. This had lead to the brief reversion to the Colt Single Action Army in .45 calibre. the heavier bullet being more effective against charging tribesmen. The US Military set out to procure a new pistol in .45 calibre, and preferably semi-automatic.
Six companies put forth designs in the new .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge. Only the pistols from Savage, Colt and DWM were accepted for testing. After several years of tests only the Savage and Colt designs remained. In one of the last tests, attended by Browning himself, six thousand rounds were fired from a single pistol over the course of two days. When the gun began to grow hot, it was simply immersed in water to cool it. The Colt gun passed with no reported malfunctions, while the Savage designs had 37.
The 1911 was offically adopted by the US Army and Marine Corps in 1913. It’s first combat use would be in the First World War. Well suited for the close and brutal combat of the western front.
The experience gained on the battlefield would lead to some changes during the inter war years. The M1911A1 changes to the original design consisted of a shorter trigger, cutouts in the frame behind the trigger, an arched mainspring housing, a longer grip safety spur (to prevent hammer bite), a wider front sight, a shortened hammer spur, and simplified grip checkering. These changes were done largely to make the gun easier to shoot with smaller hands.
During the Second World War the 1911 was found in all theatres. The 1911 was a favoured small arm of both US and allied military personnel during the war, in particular, the pistol was prized by British Commando units and the highly covert Special Operations Executive, as well as South African Commonwealth forces.
The Colt 1911 has the distinction of being the only pistol of the Second World War to shoot down an aircraft. 2nd Lt. Owen Bagget’s B-24 bomber was shot down over Burma and whilst the crew bailed out, Japanese fighters began strafing the parachuting airmen. Bagget played dead, hoping that the pilots would ignore him. One of the planes approached Bagget, slowing down and opening his canopy. Bagget drew his 1911 and fired four shots at the pilot and watched as the plane stalled, then plunge to the ground.
Demand for the pistol increased greatly in the run up to and during the Second World War. Approximately 1.9 million 1911’s were procured by the US government. After the war the Government cancelled all outstanding orders, instead choosing to rebuild existing pistols with new parts.
Since the advent of photographs, service men and women have carried pictures of loved ones with them. And if you didn’t have a loved one, there were always pin-up girls. Pictures were kept in pockets, bibles and under helmets. Soldiers started to take discarded plexiglass and carve it into replacement grips for their 1911’s, and under these clear grips they would place pictures. Often the picture would only be placed under the right grip, so that a right handed shooter could quickly see how much ammo he had left. This practise was common amongst most warring nations at the time.
The 1911 would continue to admirably serve US Forces in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. But by the 1970’s it was beginning to show its age. Through a decade long selection process, the 9mm Beretta M9 was chosen as the successor to the venerable 1911 in 1986. However the 1911 is still the service pistols of several nations and in use amongst US Special Forces operatives.
Incredibly popular with civilian gun owners for collecting, recreational purposes and for self defence. It is favoured by some as a concealed carry weapon due to its slim size and powerful bullets.