GunMag History: The M1911 Pistol

For some gun owners, it’s all too easy to dismiss the M1911 (as in the entire 1911 pistol family) as a relic of the past. However, the history of the 1911 platform is interesting and far longer-reaching than that of, say, Glocks. Whether you’re a fan of the guns or not, their design and production have influenced more modern firearms than you might imagine. That makes knowing something about their background worthwhile whether you have ten 1911s in your safe or none at all.

Although ten in that context is better than zero.

First year Colt 1911 (M1911 history)
First year Colt 1911 pistol. (Photo credit: Historical Investments)

M1911: In the Beginning

The most obvious place to trace the roots of the M1911 is a little skirmish known as the Spanish-American War. When the war ended, the United States took “ownership” of the Philippines, which wasn’t a popular turn of events for the citizens there. Almost immediately, Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo made a declaration of their independence, which was the historical segue from the Spanish-American War to the Philippine-American War.

This is where the Moro Rebellion comes into play. Thanks to the Bates Agreement of 1899, the Moros had some autonomy and were able to stay out of what was going on between the United States and Filipinos. But by 1904, the United States opted to go after the Moros, too. Who were the Moros? We’re glad you asked.

The Moros were southern Filipino Muslims who had already spent around six centuries battling for religious freedom, and they didn’t take kindly to the United States coming into their territory. Among the Moros there was a faction known as the juramentado, a Spanish word that roughly translates to “one who takes an oath.” The juramentado were zealots with the unsurprising conviction they should murder Christians (and, of course, Americans). They had the fighting prowess to back the threat, too.

At this point, this becomes the story of how the U.S. Army found out their duty weapons were all but worthless against religious zealots hopped up on opiates. The guns in question were Colt New Army 1892s chambered in 38 Long Colt—a black powder cartridge. To give you an idea of its capabilities, or lack thereof, when it was loaded with a 150-grain bullet it had a muzzle velocity of 777 feet per second and muzzle energy of 201 foot-pounds. This meant it did not work well, even when it was fired from point-blank range.

How bad was it? Well, if you read the Thompson-LaGarde report, you can find this account: “Antonio Caspi, a prisoner on the island of Samar, P.I., attempted escape on October 26, 1905. He was shot four times at close range in a hand-to-hand encounter by a 38 Colt’s revolver loaded with U.S. Army regulation ammunition. He was finally stunned by a blow on the forehead from the butt end of a Springfield carbine.”

M1902 double-action revolver used in Philippine-American war; despite a larger cartridge its lackluster performance helped lead to the M1911.
The M1902 was a double-action revolver used during the Philippine-American War prior to the introduction of the 1911 pistol. 6” barrel, blue finish, factory checkered hard rubber grips, with lanyard loop in butt. Marked US 1902. (Photo credit: icollector.com)

The Need for a Larger Caliber (and a New Gun)

The U.S. Army realized they needed a better caliber. Soldiers were dying trying to defend themselves with their duty guns, so eventually, the powers that be made a change. The first thing they did was retrieve single-action Army revolvers from storage, and then they bought some 4600 M1902 double-action revolvers. The latter of those were 45-caliber models. (Yes, the M1902 was designed by Colt, too.)

Finally, the military’s Ordnance Board did what the military does and formed a committee to fix things. At the head of that committee were Col. Louis A. LaGarde and Col. John T. Thompson. Thompson, as in the guy who designed the Thompson submachine gun.

The Thompson-LaGarde Report

The Thompson-LaGarde Report of 1904
The Thompson-LaGarde Report of 1904 is somewhat controversial, but it did yield valuable information and helped pave the way for the 1911 pistol.  (Photo credit: Historical Archives)

A quick summary of the study performed by the two men in 1904 is that they shot a bunch of live animals, carcasses, and human cadavers trying to figure out what ammo worked best. A variety of ammunition was tested including .30 Luger, 9mm, .38 Long Colt, .45 Colt, and .476 Eley.

The end results were that the men deduced larger caliber bullets make bigger holes and that shot placement matters. And, of course, that .45 caliber pistols were a must.

The U.S. Army’s 1907 Pistol Trials

Soon after the conclusion and unsurprising results of the Thompson-LaGarde Report, the U.S. Army decided it was time to come up with a new gun to go with their caliber change. Before you stop reading because you feel 45 caliber and 45s in general are overrated, try to remember this was more than a century ago, and technology has come a long way since then. For the era, the 45 was the winner.

Army 1907 pistol trials: this was just a part of the process that led to the 1911 pistol family of handguns
The U.S. Army 1907 Pistol Trials culminated with the M1911 being their new duty weapon. And the lineage of the 1911 pistol was begun. (Photo credit: Historical archives)

Page 85 of the Report of Board on Tests of Revolvers and Automatic Pistols lists the U.S. Army’s requirements for the new pistol:

“5. The following specifications for automatic pistols for mounted service embody the views of the board:

(1) Caliber not less than .45.

(2) The magazine to hold not less than 6 cartridges.

(3) Weight of bullet not less than 230 grains.

(4) Initial velocity not less than 800 feet per second.

(5) Trigger pull, measured at center of contact of finger with trigger, not less than 6 pounds.

(6) A simple and durable mechanism with as few parts as possible, capable of being readily dismotmted and assembled, using as few tools as practicable. The number of springs, screws, and pins should be reduced to a minimum, particularly in the case of flat springs.

(7) As compact mechanism as possible and a shape adapted to carrying in a holster.

(8) Adapted for use as a short-range weapon, not as a carbine.

(9) The breech to be closed and locked before the firing pin can reach the primer.

(10) An automatic safety, such that the arm may be carried cocked and with a cartridge in the bore without danger and be ready for the first shot without any other action than pulling the trigger.

(11) Vertical in preference to side ejection of cartridge case.

(12) Reasonable certainty of action in automatic loading and ejection.

(13) Comparatively easy action in ejecting by hand in case of misfire or jam.

(14) Automatic indication that the arm is loaded.

(15) Automatic indication that the last cartridge has been fired from the arm.

(16) Good balance and a shape of grip adapted to the hand.

(17) A form of magazine catch that can easily be operated by the pistol hand and which allows the magazine to drop out.

The following features are desirable:

(1) No special tools for dismounting or assembling.

(2) Such design and relation of parts that each may be readily replaced if required. Parts riveted together or permanently joined are objectionable.

(3) Loading by box magazine, and not by clip.

(4) An automatic indication of the number of cartridges in the magazine, the mechanism to be so arranged as to prevent the entrance of dust, etc.

(5) A position of the center of gravity as near as practicable to the axis of the bore.

The following features are preferable:

(1) A bolt securely locked to the barrel until the bullet has left the bore.

(2) A bolt in one piece rather than one with a separate head.

(3) A loading mechanism which will permit the use of non-jacketed bullets.”

Fitment, ergonomics, and overall performance were tested by military officers, including Col. Phillip Reade of the 23rd Infantry, Major Joseph T. Dickman of the 13th Cavalry, Capt. Guy H. Preston of the 13th Cavalry, Capt. Ernest D. Scott of the Artillery Corps, and Capt. John H. Rice of the Ordnance Department. Manufacturers who entered semi-automatic designs into the trials included Savage, Knoble, Bergman, Luger, White-Merrill, and Colt. Revolvers from Colt, Smith and Wesson, and Webley and Scott were also considered.

In the end, the officers narrowed it down to a pair of finalists: Savage and Colt. However, the men involved in the evaluations felt true testing of the guns should involve literal years of testing in the field, so they asked the two companies to produce two hundred pistols apiece. Their intention was to issue those guns to service members and see how they ran. Savage declined to participate in extended studies, which removed them from the running. As a result, the military asked Luger, the runner-up, if they’d like to produce an identical number of their pistols for field testing.

Does this mean Luger was involved and beat by Colt? Actually, no. After some time passed, Savage changed their minds and decided they wanted to be involved after all. Only three Lugers chambered in 45 ACP were produced, because their contract with the military was never officially finalized.

Finally, on March 15, 1911, the U.S. Army put the Colt M1911 up against the Savage Model 1910. They fired 6,000 rounds through each gun and recorded each and every failure as either a misfire, malfunction, or jam. When that portion of the shoot-off was complete, they fired purposefully deformed cartridges through the guns. The cartridges had been soaked in everything from mud to acid. Savage held its own, having only 37 failures out of more than 6,000 rounds fired. Colt, however, did not have a single failure. Top that off with the fact the Colt could be field stripped significantly faster than the Savage and it was clear who the winner was going to be. By March 20, 1911, the military Ordnance Board officially released their findings:

“Of the two pistols, the board was of the opinion that the Colt is superior, because it is more reliable, more enduring, more easily disassembled when there are broken parts to be replaced, and more accurate.”

Who was John Moses Browning?

(And what does the gun saint have to do with the 1911 pistol?)

John Moses Browning, the man behind the development of the M1911 pistol.
John Moses Browning was the man behind the creation of the M1911. (Photo credit: Historical archives)

Saint Browning, as many 1911 pistol fans call him, was the man behind the design of the platform. It may seem unusual to hold off referencing him until this late in the story, but the story of the gun is about more than one man. He also founded Browning Arms Company, and on their website is an ode to his genius:

“The Colt pistol that was submitted for these military tests was designed by John M. Browning. Without a doubt the most innovative and visionary firearms designer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, John M. Browning earned the lasting reputation as “The Father of Automatic Fire.” Browning’s design genius was not limited to pistols. Among his other military inventions were the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), numerous .30 caliber and .50 caliber Browning machine guns and the legendary Browning Hi Power, the first successful high-capacity autoloading pistol that soon became a worldwide standard for military sidearms.

Based on the short recoil principle of operation, the John M. Browning design for the US Military pistol trials was a magazine-fed, single-action semi-automatic pistol with both manual and grip safeties that demonstrated a level of durability, simplicity and reliability that no other pistol design of the era could match.”

Browning was, indeed, a brilliant designer, and the firearms industry wouldn’t be the same had he not given us the gift of his expertise and creativity (and we’re not just talking about the M1911 here either).

Types of M1911 and 1911 Pistol Derivatives

X-series 1911 long slide 1911 pistol
An example of a long slide 1911 pistol. (Photo credit: Accuracy X)

Today, there are many different types of 1911 pistol. That first model was what we call a Government, meaning it had a five-inch barrel (among other things). Now there are also long slide models, Commanders, Officers, and Defenders. Each serves its own purpose for hunting, open carry, and concealed carry. There are even double-stack models now that are often referred to as 2011s (but not always). And, of course, they’re not only chambered in 45 ACP anymore, they come in everything from 380 ACP to 10mm, and more.

Yes, You Need One

Here’s the thing about the 1911 pistol platform. It’s an entirely different pistol to run when compared to striker-fired designs like Glocks. Knowing how to accurately fire an M1911 type handgun is a good skill to have and despite your potential misgivings about the guns, there’s a reason they’re popular not only among older shooters but younger ones as well.

modern 1911 pistol examples
Examples of modern M1911 series pistols designed and manufactured by Springfield Armory. (Photo credit: Springfield Armory)

1911 Pistol Punditry

Are you interested in learning more about the M1911 or other 1911 pistol types? We’re always happy to pontificate! Let us know what you’re looking for in the comments below.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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