Browning’s 1911, a contemporary of the Model T, Sopwith Camel…
by R.K. Campbell
The 1911 is an enigma. A contemporary of the Ford Model T and the Sopwith Camel biplane, the 1911 has not only survived, it remains in front line use. Of course there have been modifications but any trooper trained on the 1911 circa 1912 could easily handle a modern 1911. Technology has advanced but the basics were in place a century ago.
About the time the 1911 was adopted for service, a biplane was tested with a jet engine! Sure, the 1911 is getting long in the tooth but just the same the confluence of design makes for an unforgettable, distinctive pistol. The history of the 1911 may have begun with a gleam in the eye of the inventor, John Moses Browning, but the stalwart combat intelligence of the US military also played a part.
The revolver had served the world’s armies well but about 1890 self-loading designs began to appear. The first largely successful design was the Mauser 1896. While the Mauser is no longer in production, certain design features such as the oscillating wedge lockup are still in use. In America, the double action revolver was very popular. Unfortunately in 1892 the concept was far from perfected and the US Army adopted the fragile and underpowered Colt Model of 1892 in .38 Colt. I can only wonder what they were thinking.
When pressed into combat in Cuba and the Philippines the .38 proved practically worthless. The historical reference comes not only from soldiers who were present but also from doctors on the scene and historians. The Army quickly reissued the Colt Single Action Army, a robust and reliable single-action revolver chambered for the proven .45 Colt cartridge. The stopping power problem was addressed but America was one of a very few nations with a single-action revolver on the front lines in 1903.
Britain possessed a rather efficient break top .455 revolver and the Europeans were working with the new autoloaders. The confluence of designa big bore cartridge and the self loaderwould result in the greatest fighting pistol of all time. Browning first developed the Colt 1900 .38 ACP pistol. The 1900 is very important as an evolutionary handgun that gave both Colt and Browning much experience. Those who look upon the handgun scene today may not realize just how important Browning’s innovations were. Prior to the development of the Colt pistols the working parts of self loading pistols were exposed. The Mauser and Luger designs were exposed to the elements. Browning designed a slide that contained the barrel and firing pin. This was a revolutionary concept eventually adopted by practically every maker of self-loading handguns. By 1905 Colt had a .45 automatic caliber pistol in production. Browning went through the process of eliminating the dual swinging links of the 1900 and creating a big bore handgun using the same .900 inch long case length as the .38 ACP.
But his job was far from over. The Army insisted upon important additions to the design, including a grip safety that prevented the pistol from firing if dropped and a slide lock safety. The 1911 went through several important design steps. The Army spaced the handgun tests over several years. Colt had minor competition from some makers and a major threat from Savage. There was even a Luger in .45 ACP tested. Many historians feel that the primary contribution of the Savage pistol was to prompt important modifications and improvements to the Colt design. The final firing test of the Colt was impressive, unprecedented for the day. The 1911 model pistol fired 6,000 rounds of ammunition without a stoppage or any type of problem with fitting or parts. The Colt was adopted by the Army and arrived in the Philippine in time to take part in major actions against the Moros.
The 1911 played the major role in the famous last cavalry charge in Mexico, in which a group of cavalry troopers decimated a gang of Mexican bandits. In World War One, the Colt proved its worth time and again. There is no question that the Colt 1911 was by far the best suited of any service pistol for use in trench warfare. Lessons learned on the battlefields of France were translated into improvements in the Colt pistol. Although we call all present 1911s simply “1911” the fact is these are 1911A1 pistols. The finger grooves in the frame and detail improvements in the sights and grip safety, as well as a shorter trigger, were incorporated into the 1911A1.
Shooting matches at Camp Perry led to the National Match pistol and the popular Gold Cup National Match. During World War Two the 1911 again proved its worth. After the war, calls for a lighter pistol resulted in the development of the aluminum frame Colt Commander. A multitude of compact pistols have followed. During its heyday, Colt had little credible competition to the 1911. A few Spanish makers offered 1911 copies or near copies best described as ironmongery. But beginning in the early 1980s, competing makers began to offer clones of the 1911 pistol. These pistols were of varying quality to say the least, but they paved the way. Springfield Armory Incorporated is among the best known of these pistols. Kimber rocked the 1911 world on its heels with the introduction of a custom grade 1911 handgun on a production basis. Today there are various makers of the 1911 and while there are magnificent handguns availableLes Baer and Wilson Combat come to mindthe situation is buyer beware. Anyone who is able to purchase slides and frames from an outside vendor may make up a parts guns, and quality and reliability are the bottom line for the user, if not always for the seller. The established makers became established makers by producing a credible product.
Today the 1911 handgun is carried by professionals in the armed service and more harness cops than ever. Civilians have recognized the attributes of the 1911 and regard it as a prime personal defense handgun. Those who appreciate the 1911 are not driven by the low bid but rather a desire for excellent performance. The attributes of the 1911 that appeal to a discerning shooter include a low bore axis, straight to the rear recoil and a controllable, consistent trigger compression. The pistol is flat for the caliber, allowing good concealment. There is no handgun faster to an accurate first shot hit than the 1911.
The 1911 rules practical handgun competition for good reasons. It is sometimes noted that a competing type wins the occasional competition. This is a tribute to the shooter but in many cases you will find that the competing type has been modified extensively to make it more like the 1911 handgun. I didn’t choose the 1911 handgun because it was expected of me or for a sense of history or emotional attachment, although these are important elements. I adopted the 1911 because I recognized its good features. I was in a position in which my life could depend upon the handgun. When that situation is present, all other arguments other than combat efficiency are moot.
The cartridge the 1911 fires is the .45 ACP. Despite revisionist history and posturing by those who should know better, the laws of physics as well as historical research favor the .45. As the .45 passes its 100th birthday, there is no replacement in the hearts and minds of Americans. The 1911 has enjoyed a long 100 years and the wild ride is far from over.
If you wish to learn more about the 1911 be on the lookout for 2011’s smash hit from Krause Publications and Robert Campbell, a new book on the 1911 pistol. And if you wish to keep enjoying the firearms you love support the Second Amendment Foundation!
In order to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1911, I ordered a special holster from Hayes Holsters. This company is the only company I am aware of that offers not only first class leather holsters but also superb quality laser engraving. The holster illustrated is a mix of my heritage and beliefs coupled with stunning craftsmanship. Hayes Holsters also offers beautifully turned out handgun grips. You will be surprised at the high tech manner in which the order is processed, with an electronic template that allows the user to gradually design their own custom grade masterpiece. You can learn more online at Hayesholsters.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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