Interesting Guns No. 107:
by John Malloy
Colt, Star, Detonics pioneered current trend in down-sized 1911s
During the year of 2011, a century after the introduction of the Colt/Browning 1911 pistol, it may be of interest to students of firearms to consider the current trend of manufacturers offering downsized, smaller versions of the 1911. We are today familiar with compact 1911 pistols, which are now made by a number of companies. How did this trend come about?
For the first four decades of its existence, the Colt/Browning 1911 pistol remained pretty much the same. The change from the original 1911 configuration to 1911A1 between the world wars made little difference in the overall size and weight.
With its 5-inch barrel, the big .45 remained, well, big. It was about 8˚ inches long and 5˘ inches high, and weighed about 39 ounces.
This configuration served well. Reports from soldiers of World War I and World War II and other conflicts attested to the reliability and effectiveness of the big government sidearm.
The basic 1911 handgun had gone through years of combat with an exemplary record. Essentially every serviceman held the pistol in high regard. This feeling was well-represented in the 1959 novel, The Pistol, by James Jones. The novel follows the movement of a specific .45-caliber pistol among US servicemen after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Every man who has any contact with the pistol wants to keep it for his own personal protection!
Then, in the aftermath of World War II, the pistol was given new scrutiny. In 1946, for the first time in almost four decades, US military planners considered the possibility of a smaller, lighter pistol. They also began to consider a change to the 9mm Parabellum (9mm Luger) ammunition used by both wartime adversaries and allies.
Colt investigated the possibilities of a lighter Government Model, and developed an association with ALCOA Aluminum. A number of frames were made of aluminum alloys, and test pistols were made. To further reduce weight, the barrel length was shortened to 4˘ inches, and the slide shortened accordingly. A rounded “burr” hammer was used, which also allowed use of a shorter-tang grip safety. The test pistols were made in the by-then traditional .45 ACP and in the .38 Super, which had been introduced by Colt in 1929. With an eye to possible military tests, it was also made in 9mm Luger chambering.
Eventually, the military reconsidered its interest in a 9mm pistol, realizing that plenty of 45-caliber 1911A1 pistols were on hand. In June 1950, the United States became involved in a “police action” in Korea (it was not called the Korean War until later). The 45-caliber pistols, along with the rest of America’s armament, went back into service. Consideration of a 9mm pistol was dropped, at least for the time being.
Colt had already made a decision to market the shorter, lighter version of the Government Model. In early 1950, it was introduced as the Commander Model. Calibers were .45, .38 Super and 9mm.
The smaller, lighter Colt Commander was a landmark pistol. It was the first of the downsized 1911 variants. At 26˚ ounces, it was our first big-bore aluminum-frame pistol. Often overlooked is the fact that the Commander was the first pistol ever commercially produced in America in the 9mm chambering.
The Commander, at 7∫ inches long and 5˘ inches high, was the first downsized 1911. It developed a following. Two decades later, in 1971, a Combat Commander was added to the Colt line. The same size as the original lightweight Commander, the new pistol had a steel frame and weighed 33 ounces.
The Colt Commander, in both its aluminum- and steel-frame versions, had provided a more compact .45-caliber handgun. But there was interest in a .45 in an even smaller package.
The Spanish firm of Echeverria, the company producing the big Spanish “Star” pistols, had evaluated the acceptance of the Commander and Combat Commander. Star pistols were made as “lookalikes” of the full-size 1911, but were somewhat different mechanically. The company decided there was a market for an even smaller, lighter .45. In 1975, Star brought out their Model PD. The new small Star was a shortened and lightened .45 with an aluminum frame. A modified 1911 design, it came with a 4-inch barrel and a weight of 25 ounces. Thus, it was slightly lighter and slightly shorter than the aluminum-frame Colt Commander. With an overall length of 7˘ inches and a height of 5 inches, the Star PD was, for a short time, the smallest .45 available.
One year later, it had lost that description.
In 1976, the year of America’s Bicentennial, the 1911 was introduced in miniaturized form in America by a new firm. Named “Detonics Associates,” the company was based in Seattle, WA. Detonics began producing small pistols on a modified 1911 design. The Detonics .45 was only 7 inches long and 4∫ inches high.
Originally using Colt parts modified by them, and then manufacturing their own parts, Detonics brought out a compact all-steel .45, weighing 31 ounces. It was of innovative design, and featured a 3˚-inch barrel. The Detonics pistol, using the concepts of designer Sid Woodcock, was able to accomplish this short barrel configuration by introducing the cone-barrel positioning system. This system oriented the short barrel in the front of the slide without a bushing.
The short barrel left little space for a recoil spring. This situation was solved by using two short counterwound recoil springs, held captive on a common central rod. The Detonics pistol also introduced an enlarged ejection port, a feature that would be used by many companies in the future.
The Detonics pistol got substantial publicity when it was used on the hit TV show, Miami Vice. It was used in print fiction in the Survivalist novel series written by author Jerry Ahern. The protagonist in the Survivalist books carried two Detonics .45s.
The company grew, offering not only its original compact pistol, but “commander” and “government” size pistols. A new cartridge, the .451 Detonics Magnum, was also developed. With a case .050 inch longer than the .45 ACP, the .451 reportedly pushed a 185-grain bullet to 1,300 feet per second.
The first Detonics guns were made of carbon steel. Serial numbers of production guns started at 2000, with the first 1999 numbers reserved for presentation and commemorative guns. In the 1980s, with the introduction of stainless-steel variants, the stainless serial numbers began at 10,000.
The original Detonics company went out of business in the mid-1980s, but the compact 45 design was highly regarded. The Detonics pistol was later offered by three other companies in different states.
The Detonics pistol started a new trend. Until the introduction of the Detonics pistol, Colt had been the sole source of newly-made true 1911-style pistols. Detonics had shown that another American manufacturer could take the 1911 design and modify it into a new category of pistol. Before the decade of the 1970s had ended, other manufacturers saw opportunities, and began making 1911s of different types in competition with Colt.
By the end of the 20th century, quite literally dozens of companies were making 1911 variants. Some were the familiar full-size version. However, the downsized 1911s had showed the versatility of the 1911 design, and before long, many other companies were making pistols scaled down to accommodate 4˘-, 4-, 3˚- and even 3-inch barrels. Most of the smaller variants used the cone-barrel positioning system that had been developed for the original Detonics.
In summary, for four decades, the 1911 had dominated the big-bore pistol market as a full-size pistol. The first downsized 1911, the Commander, showed that another variant could perform well. Then, the Star and Detonics offerings showed even smaller pistols could be produced.
The appearance of the first downsized 1911s foreshadowed the amazing growth of interest in the 1911 design that began in the 1970s and continues into the present day. We should remember them during the centennial of the 1911 design this year. They are interesting guns.
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