As far as semi-automatic pistols go, the M1911 pistol needs no introduction amongst firearms enthusiasts. Developed by John Browning in 1911, this semi-automatic pistol saw use in two World Wars, with John Browning’s design beating out competition from other name-brand firearms manufacturers like Luger to earn that distinction.
Not only was this pistol a hit with the United States Army, but other defense arms of the country like the Navy and Marine corps adopted it as well. So, to pay homage to this legendary self-loading pistol, let’s learn the history of the 1911 Colt pistol.
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America at War
At the end of the 19th century (around the 1890s), the US army was involved in two major wars: the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the Philippine-American War, an offshoot of the first war.
When the Spanish sunk the American battleship USS Maine in February 1898, America declared war on Spain, with the Navy destroying the Spanish fleet a month later at Manila Bay. Following the Spanish Navy’s decimation, the US ground forces invaded to overthrow the government and occupy the islands.
One of the Philippine islands seized by the Americans as the spoils of war was home to Moro tribespeople. The Moro had resisted the Spaniards using religious fanaticism and psychedelic drugs. As a result, these battle-hardened indigenous people turned their wrath to their new invaders, giving rise to the Philippine-American war.
While fighting the Moro guerrillas in a war that would last fifteen years, the army troops had to engage in close-quarters combat against an enemy armed with long blades and numbed to pain by drugs.
Possessing a .30 caliber Krag or a .38 caliber revolver, the US armed forces discovered that the revolvers lacked the stopping power necessary for battles in a theatre surrounded by jungle. Wartime reports were rife with stories of the Moro taking multiple bullets in their stride while continuing to hack and slash at the American soldiers.
The situation was so bad that older .45 caliber revolvers were brought back into active service. These guns, dating back to the Plains Indian War, demonstrated a better ability to stop an assailant with one well-aimed shot.
Thompson LeGarde Tests
With the setbacks it faced fighting the Moro warriors fresh on its mind, the US military carried out a series of weapons tests in 1904. These tests aimed to determine how well several cartridges used by the military performed.
As such, the military collected data on their ammo’s stopping power, penetration, and energy transfer, with dead and live cattle serving as test subjects.
When the tests concluded, the stakeholders involved reached the consensus that they needed bullets with a caliber no lower than .45. This was necessary if they wanted their pistols and revolvers to have the stopping power required for troops to prevail when shooting at an enemy at close range.
The 1911 Is Born
For the above reasons, the US army decided it needed a replacement firearm. At the time, the military had two newly-adopted service rifles: the M1892 and M1895, and desired a pistol to use along with them. Chief among the army’s wishlist of features was a self-loading pistol with a .45 caliber capacity.
It wasn’t long before several manufacturers (including Colt) rose to the challenge, submitting their designs for consideration in 1906. However, of the six companies that submitted designs, only three were asked to make revisions: Colt, DMW, and Savage, who dropped out of the race soon after.
Between 1907 and 1911, Colt and DMW refined their pistol designs and put them through numerous tests, with one test held in 1910 seeing a pistol chew through 6000 rounds.
While Colt’s pistol emerged from the tests defect-free, the same couldn’t be said about its rival: the Savage designs revealed a whopping 37 defects. Meanwhile, a quick dunk in cool water was all Colt’s firearm needed to cool off when it got too hot.
Adoption and Entry Into Service
The US army formally adopted Colt’s design as its service pistol on the 29th of March 1911. By 1913, Colt’s pistol was in the hands of most American forces, including the US Navy and Marine Corps.
The M1911 entered service in 1916 in Mexico. On the 9th of March 1916, the rebel general Pancho Villa and his men attacked Columbus, New Mexico, killing 18 civilians and US service members. Villa’s attack on New Mexico was followed by another in Texas, resulting in the deaths of more US soldiers.
Responding to these attacks, then US president, Woodrow Wilson, ordered General John J. Pershing to capture Villa with a force of 5000 men. Although General Pershing’s expedition proved fruitless, the M1911 was first used in the ensuing battle to capture Villa.
The 1911 Pistol and the First World War
As fate would have it, the US military came into possession of Colt’s self-loading pistols right around the time the US entered the First World War. In that theatre, Colt’s pistol’s stopping power was undeniable, with its success on the battlefield prompting the company and US-government-owned Springfield Armory to ramp up production.
Such was the 1911’s effectiveness that soldiers earned the Medal of Honor, thanks to the gun. For example, Sergeant Alvin York won the medal because he was able to stop six German soldiers in an attack using one bullet for each belligerent.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Frank Luke won the award posthumously for bravely fighting to the death against a German infantry when his biplane was shot down over a French battlefield. Before falling in that battle, he had used a .45 caliber pistol to defend himself.
M1911 Modifications and Banana Wars
By the time the Great War (a.k.a WWI) ended, Colt introduced new features that improved the pistol’s design, including an arched mainspring housing, better sights, a shorter trigger, and ergonomic adjustments in the design. This improvement to the original model was called the M1911A1.
Sadly, John Browning, the M11911’s designer, died of a heart attack shortly after some of the above modifications were finalized. He passed on the 26th of November 1926.
Inspired by the US military’s successes, law enforcement agencies like the US border patrol, the Texas Rangers, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation adopted the M1911 as their firearm of choice.
During the US’s emergence as a military power, service members used the M1911 in several minor conflicts in South and Central America and the Caribbean, occasionally called the Banana Wars.
World War II and Beyond
In the leadup to the US’s entry into the Second World War in 1941, roughly 3 million M1911 pistols had been manufactured. Moreover, the gun had been produced in other versions like .38 super and .22 LR caliber and a lightweight Commander version, to name a few. In addition, manufacturers like Remington Rand, Signal Co., and Union Switch produced the firearm under license.
Thus, during the war, the military issued its servicemen and women the pistol as a standard sidearm.
Over the years, the M1911 played a role in conflicts that arose long after the Second World War ended, including the Vietnam and Korean wars. Moreover, US soldiers and special forces used the M1911 during both Gulf wars.
In the 1970s and 80s, attempts were made to replace the M1911 as the military’s standard sidearm. After extensive trials, they settled on Beretta’s 92F, as it was widely acknowledged that a 9 mm handgun would be an effective weapon for the changing nature of warfare the country was experiencing.
However, these plans were scrapped when the US military experienced the same issues the M1911 had been manufactured to solve, i.e., lack of stopping power. As such, the military reverted to the M1911, modifying the firearm to modernize it.
Meanwhile, during peacetime, the M1911 came to be used not by soldiers and marines with extensive battlefield experience, but by ordinary citizens, at shooting ranges, and in formal competition. In addition, the handgun’s popularity in the civilian market gave rise to accessories and customization.
1911 Handguns in the Present Day
Although the 1911 pistol hasn’t been used in the US military for many years, you might still see FBI agents, SWAT teams, and Los Angeles Police Department officers carry this handgun. Additionally, the 1911 is a popular gun for concealed carry among civilian gun enthusiasts, who desire it for its reliability.
Since its creation more than a century ago, the M1911 has enjoyed steady demand, resulting in the US military’s Marksmanship Unit developing and releasing an upgraded version of the gun in 2004 called the M1911-A2. Outside the US, the military of countries like Greece and Bangladesh use the M1911.
The M1911 is a pistol that has earned its place in the annals of world history. This beloved firearm has seen action in two World Wars and more minor conflicts of equal importance to America’s history, making it a fantastic firearm to own if you’re a semi-auto enthusiast.