Written By: Matthew Sharpe
Upon entering the Spanish-American War, most U.S. Cavalry soldiers were equipped with Colt’s double-action .38 caliber revolver, a weapon widely praised for its quick firing and easy reloading. While it was regarded as a well-rounded weapon for common use, some soldiers felt that a .38 caliber bullet was not powerful enough for combat purposes. The predictions would prove true years later, when American soldiers attempted to subdue the rebellious Moros in the southern Philippines. Bolo-wielding Moro warriors, often under the influence of opium, were seemingly invulnerable to the Colt revolver. News reports in the States told of charging natives withstanding five to six slugs before finally collapsing, but not before killing the soldier desperately trying to reload his revolver.
With news of the enemy enduring what should have been fatal hits, the inadequacies of the .38 caliber revolver finally surfaced. Army Ordnance quickly decided that the Army needed a new weapon. To solve the problem, the Army sought the help of American arms producers in a quest to produce a more powerful standard issue sidearm. To determine the force required, Ordnance officers experimented with various bullets by firing at slaughter house cattle and donated human cadavers. Results would show that a .45 caliber cartridge had the most effective stopping power. In addition to pure muscle, Ordnance officers recognized the need for a quick and easy reloading system. They concluded that the best option would be the contemporary “automatic” pistol, a concept that had been in development for a few years beforehand.
In 1906, Army Ordnance publicly released their specifications to gun manufacturers eager to land a government contract. At the time, the only effective automatics were 7.63mm or 9mm pistols, neither of which had the desired stopping power. With an enticing financial incentive at stake, big-name arms producers began designing new models to be submitted into what would come to be known as the 1907 Army Pistol Trials.
During the nineteenth century, most handguns were designed prior to the ammunition that they would eventually fire.
What was unique about the automatic pistols of the 1907 trials is that they were built with the bullet already in mind. In January 1907, pistols from Colt, Luger, Savage, Knoble, Bergman, and White-Merrill entered the competition.
The full requirements called for an automatic pistol capable of firing a .45 caliber cartridge, with specifications including at least a six round magazine, a trigger pull of less than six pounds, vertical ejection of spent cartridges, and easy disassembly for cleaning and maintenance.
After being placed through rigorous examinations and thousands of test fires, Army Ordnance narrowed down the finalists to two of the original seven pistols submitted.
They were the Savage Automatic and the Colt .45. When paired against the Savage, the Colt Automatic fell short in many categories. The Savage was lighter, had fewer parts, could hold more rounds, and was generally more accurate than the Colt. The Savage, however, was prone to jams and misfires, whereas the Colt continued to fire even after severe mistreatment. The Colt was operable when submerged in water and after sand was poured into the chamber, notable qualities even by today’s standards.
Despite impressive demonstrations during the trials, Army Ordnance felt that the automatic pistol was not quite ready for standard issue. Instead, government contracts were signed with Colt, and later with Savage, that allowed 200 of each model to be sent to the Cavalry for field testing. Colt and Savage would spend the next four years perfecting their products in a race to become the official sidearm of the Army. On 15 March 1911, Colt and Savage squared off in what was to be the final resolution. To test the pistols, more than 6,000 rounds were fired from each. While the Savage impressively yielded only thirty-seven misfires, the Colt astoundingly fired all 6,000 rounds without any jams or malfunctions. Additionally, the new and improved Colt could be disassembled with more speed and ease than the earlier Colt model, ultimately proving to be superior to the Savage. In March 1911, the Army officially adopted the Colt .45 as its standard issue sidearm.
Colt’s .45, designated the M1911, received excellent reports from the field and quickly established its reputation among servicemen as a trustworthy weapon. Despite this, skeptics within the Army questioned the practicality of handguns on the modern battlefield. As a result, the M1911was initially not produced in great numbers. Prior to World War I, the Army had only 75,000 pistols in its inventory; more concern was given to supplying soldiers with machine guns and other weapons. While it was thought that the pistol would only be a last resort for the infantrymen, trench warfare often resulted in situations of hand-to-hand combat where a reliable sidearm was the only hope. Compared to the German Luger of World War I, the Colt .45 proved far more lethal.
The 1911 was specifically designed to fire the powerful .45 Automatic Colt Pistol round. Fired at a relatively low muzzle velocity, the round would imbed itself upon impact. The result was a weapon that could knock the enemy over from any entry point on the body, as opposed to the Luger, which was designed for the less lethal 9mm bullet. Because of a limited supply, the privilege to be equipped with an M1911 was originally reserved for officers; few fell into the hands of enlisted soldiers. The demand for Colt’s pistol was so great that Colt Firearms decided to sign contracts with other manufacturers to ensure that a steady supply of pistols would reach the front lines. By the end of World War I, almost all military revolvers had been replaced with the Colt .45 Automatic. With its performance in World War I, the M1911 sealed its reputation as an integral weapon of the U.S. Army.
While many praised its nearly flawless design, certain modifications were made that boosted the gun to near perfection.
Most notably were a shorter trigger, arched mainspring housing, and finger clearance cuts in the frame. In 1926, the Ordnance Committee designated the new model the M1911A1.
With war on the horizon, America saw a significant increase in ordnance production beginning in the late 1930s. Although the M1911’s legendary status had not gone overlooked, priority went to the assembly of more destructive weapons such as artillery, tanks, planes, rifles, and machine guns.
As a result, the supply of M1911s once again fell short of the demand. While efforts were made to produce more sidearms, the existing stock of the M1911A1 was reserved for soldiers entering combat. With assistance from Remington-Rand, Union Switch and Signal Company, and even the Singer Sewing Machine Company, Colt was eventually able to supply the Army with significant numbers of pistols. While most American firefights in World War II were fought with rifles and automatic weapons, the M1911A1 was a powerful supplement for the infantry.
In years to follow, the outstanding performance of the Colt .45 would show up in countless combat reports and Medal of Honor citations. While the M1911 continued its legacy through the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would eventually bring the Colt .45 to retirement.
Many Pentagon officials felt that the American military should make efforts to standardize its arms and ammunition with its European allies, most of which had long adopted 9mm pistols as standard issue. To quell the debate, ballistics tests were conducted in order to determine which would prove superior in a firefight. Once again, Colt’s automatic claimed the victory and continued its career for another thirty years. Eventually politics intervened and the desire for a 9mm became a mandatory decree. This decision was further hastened by the increasing difficulty in keeping the Army’s inventory of M1911s in working order—the last M1911s had been produced in 1945.
In 1985, when the Army officially retired the Colt.45 in exchange for the Italian-made 9mm Beretta, the adjustment was less than harmonious. Many veterans and experienced officers would come forth to attest their loyalty to the Colt, but the necessity to conform to NATO regulations remained. The M1911 ended its career just shy of eighty years, boasting a much longer lifespan than most arms and equipment could ever achieve.
The American conflicts of the twentieth century have called for many new advancements in firearms technology. The Enfield and Springfield rifles of World War I were replaced by the gas powered, semi-automatic M1 Garand of World War II. The Garand evolved into the M-14 during the 1950s. This was followed by the M-16 assault rifle in the 1960s. This progression came from diverse designs, various inventors, and distinct manufacturers. In five wars, the M1911 remained state of the art, undergoing only cosmetic modifications.
Considering that the M1911 was able to keep pace with modern warfare for nearly eighty years is a true testament to the genius of John Browning, the designer of the M1911. A countless number of men owe their lives to Browning’s invention. Its inspired performance empowered a greater sense of security on the battlefield and served as a true “foxhole buddy” for many soldiers over the years. Throughout the twentieth century, the M1911 undoubtedly fulfilled its mission to embody the dependability and resolve representative of the United States Army.