The M1911 is a .45 caliber pistol originally made by Colt, and is now the most copied pistol design in the world. It was made in the early 1900s and was used in World War I, World War II, The Korean War, and in the Vietnam War. It is semi-automatic and can fire a bullet each time the trigger is pulled. It can hold seven rounds inside its magazine and one more in the chamber. It was standard-issue side arm for the United States armed forces from 1911 to 1985 when it was replaced by the 9mm Beretta M9 (though the M1911 is still carried by some U.S. forces).
The M1911 is a common pistol design for police special teams because it is reliable in function, easy to modify by a gunsmith, and effective. The ‘1911’ in the name is because the pistol was adopted by the United States Army in the year 1911. M1911A1 pistols have an ‘A1’ added because they were changed from the original design in the 1920s in military service.
Designed by American firearms designer John Browning, the M1911 is the best-known of his designs to use the short recoil principle in its basic design. The pistol was widely copied, and this operating system rose to become the preeminent type of the 20th century and of nearly all modern pistols. Compact variants are popular civilian concealed carry weapons, because of the design’s inherent slim width and the power of the .45 cartridge.
The M1911 pistol originated in the late 1890s as the result of a search for a suitable self-loading (or semi-automatic) handgun to replace the variety of revolvers then in service. Hiram S. Maxim had designed a self-loading rifle in the 1880s, but was preoccupied with machine guns. Nevertheless, the application of his principle of using bullet energy to reload led to several self-loading pistols in 1896. The designs caught the attention of various militaries, each of which began programs to find a suitable one for their forces.
American units fighting Moro guerrillas during the Philippine-American War using the then-standard Colt M1892 revolver, in .38 Long Colt, found it to be unsuitable for the rigors of jungle warfare, particularly in terms of stopping power, as the Moros had very high battle morale and frequently used drugs to inhibit the sensation of pain. The U.S. Army briefly reverted to using the M1873 single-action revolver in .45 Colt caliber, which had been standard during the late 19th century; the heavier bullet was found to be more effective against charging tribesmen. The problems prompted the then-Chief of Ordnance, General William Crozier, to authorize further testing for a new service pistol.
Colonel John T. Thompson stated that the new pistol ‘should not be of less than .45 caliber’ and would preferably be semi-automatic in operation. This led to the 1906 trials of pistols from six firearms manufacturing companies (namely, Colt, Bergmann, Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM), Savage Arms Company, Knoble, Webley, and White-Merril). Of the six designs submitted, three were eliminated early on, leaving only the Savage, Colt, and DWM designs chambered in the new .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge. These three still had issues that needed correction, but only Colt and Savage resubmitted their designs.
There is some debate over the reasons for DWM’s withdrawal—some say they felt there was bias and that the DWM design was being used primarily as a ‘whipping boy’ for the Savage and Colt pistols, though this does not fit well with the earlier 1900 purchase of the DWM design over the Colt and Steyr entries. In any case, a series of field tests from 1907 to 1911 were held to decide between the Savage and Colt designs. Both designs were improved between each testing over their initial entries, leading up to the final test before adoption. Among the areas of success for the Colt was a test at the end of 1910 attended by its designer, John Browning. 6,000 rounds were fired from a single pistol over the course of two days. When the gun began to grow hot, it was simply immersed in water to cool it. The Colt gun passed with no reported malfunctions, while the Savage designs had 37.
Battlefield experience in the First World War led to some more small external changes, completed in 1924. The new version received a modified type classification, M1911A1. Changes to the original design were minor and consisted of a shorter trigger, cutouts in the frame behind the trigger, an arched mainspring housing, a longer grip safety spur (to prevent hammer bite), a wider front sight, a shorter spur on the hammer, and simplified grip checkering by eliminating the ‘Double Diamond’ reliefs. Those unfamiliar with the design are often unable to tell the difference between the two versions at a glance. No significant internal changes were made, and parts remained interchangeable between the two.
World War II and the years leading up to it created a great demand. During the war, about 1.9 million units were procured by the U.S. Government for all forces, production being undertaken by several manufacturers, including Remington Rand (900,000 produced), Colt (400,000), Ithaca Gun Company (400,000), Union Switch & Signal (50,000), and Singer (500). So many were produced that after 1945 the government did not order any new pistols, and simply used existing parts inventories to ‘arsenal refinish’ guns when necessary. Singer produced pistols in particular are highly priced collectibles, commanding high prices even in poor condition.
Before World War II, a small number of the original M1911 pattern pistols were produced under license at the Norwegian weapon factory Kongsberg Vaapenfabrikk, which were designated ‘Pistol M/1914’ and unofficially known as ‘Kongsberg Colt.’ During the German occupation of Norway the production continued. Norway never updated the design to the M1911A1 standard. These pistols are highly regarded by modern collectors, with the 920 examples stamped with Nazi Waffenamt codes (the inspection mark used on military equipment by the Third Reich) and the unknown number of unmarked examples assembled by the Norwegian resistance movement (the ‘Matpakke-Colt’ or ‘Lunch Box Colt’) being the most sought after. German forces also used captured M1911A1 pistols, using the designation ‘Pistole 660(a).’
From 1943 to 1945 a fine-grade russet-leather M1916 pistol belt set was issued to some generals in the US Army. It was composed of a leather belt, leather enclosed flap-holster with braided leather tie-down leg strap, leather two-pocket magazine pouch, and a rope neck lanyard. The metal buckle and fittings were in gilded brass. The buckle had the seal of the United States on the center (or ‘male’) piece and a laurel wreath on the circular (or ‘female’) piece. The pistol was a standard-issue M1911A1 that came with a cleaning kit and three magazines. From 1972 to 1981 a modified M1911A1 called the RIA M15 General Officer’s Model was issued to General Officers in the US Army and US Air Force. From 1982 to 1986 the regular M1911A1 was issued. Both came with a black leather belt, open holster with retaining strap, and a two-pocket magazine pouch. The metal buckle and fittings were similar to the M1916 General Officer’s Model except it came in gold metal for the Army and in silver metal for the Air Force.
By the late 1970s the M1911A1 was acknowledged to be showing its age. Under political pressure from Congress to standardize on a single modern pistol design, the U.S. Air Force ran a Joint Service Small Arms Program to select a new semi-automatic pistol using the NATO-standard 9 mm Parabellum pistol cartridge. After trials, the Beretta 92S-1 was chosen. The Army contested this result and subsequently ran its own competition in 1981, the XM9 trials, eventually leading to the official adoption of the Beretta 92F in 1985. By the mid-1980s production of the Beretta was ramping up despite a controversial XM9 retrial and a separate XM10 reconfirmation that was boycotted by some entrants of the original trials, cracks in the frames of some pre-M9 Beretta-produced pistols, and a problem with slide separation using higher-than-specified-pressure rounds that resulted in injuries to some U.S. Navy special operations operatives. This last issue resulted in an updated model that includes additional protection for the user, the 92FS, and updates to the ammunition used.
By the early 1990s, most M1911A1s had been replaced by the M9, though a limited number remain in use by special units. The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) in particular were noted for continuing the use of M1911 pistols for selected personnel and units. For its part, the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) issued a requirement for a .45 ACP handgun in the Offensive Handgun Weapon System (OHWS) trials. This resulted in the Heckler & Koch OHWS becoming the MK23 Mod 0 Offensive Handgun Weapon System (itself being heavily based on the 1911’s basic field strip), beating the Colt OHWS, a much modified M1911. Dissatisfaction with the stopping power of the 9 mm Parabellum cartridge used in the Beretta M9 has actually promoted re-adoption of handguns based on the .45 ACP cartridge such as the M1911 design, along with other handguns, among USSOCOM units in recent years, though the M9 remains predominant both within SOCOM and in the U.S. military in general.
The M1911A1 is popular among the general public in the United States for practical and recreational purposes. There are a growing number of manufacturers of M1911-type pistols and the model continues to be quite popular for its reliability, simplicity, and patriotic appeal. Various tactical, target, and compact models are available. Price ranges from a low end of around $400 for an imported Armscor/Rock Island model to more than $4,000 for the best competition or tactical models from such as those by Dan Wesson, Wilson Combat, Ed Brown, Les Baer, Nighthawk Custom, and STI International.
Due to an increased demand for M1911 pistols among Army Special Operations units, the Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU) began looking to develop a new generation of M1911s and launched the M1911-A2 project in late 2004. The goal was to produce a minimum of seven variants with various sights, internal and external extractors, flat and arched mainspring housings, integral and add-on magazine wells, a variety of finishes and other options, with the idea of providing the end-user a selection from which to select the features that best fit their missions. The AMU performed a well received demonstration of the first group of pistols to the Marine Corps at Quantico and various Special Operations units at Ft. Bragg and other locations. Models were loaned to various Special Operations units, the results of which are classified. Currently units are experimenting with an M1911 platform in .40 which will incorporate lessons learned from the A2 project.
Marine Expeditionary Units formerly issued M1911s to Force Recon units. Hand-selected Colt M1911A1 frames were gutted, deburred, and prepared for additional use by the USMC Precision Weapon Section (PWS) at Marine Corps Base Quantico. They were then assembled with after-market grip safeties, ambidextrous thumb safeties, triggers, improved high-visibility sights, accurized barrels, grips, and improved Wilson magazines. These hand-made pistols were tuned to specifications and preferences of end users.
In the late 1980s, the Marines laid out a series of specifications and improvements to make Browning’s design ready for 21st century combat, many of which have been included in MEU(SOC) pistol designs, but design and supply time was limited. Discovering that the LAPD was pleased with their special Kimber M1911 pistols, a single source request was issued to Kimber, which shortly began producing a limited number of what would be later termed the Interim Close Quarters Battle pistol (ICQB). Maintaining the simple recoil assembly, 5-inch barrel (though using a stainless steel match grade barrel), and internal extractor, the ICQB is not much different from Browning’s original design. The final units as issued to MCSOCOM Det-1 are the Kimber ICQBs with Surefire IMPL (Integrated Military Pistol Light), Dawson Precision Rails, Tritium Novak LoMount sights, Gemtech TRL Tactical Retention Lanyards, modified Safariland 6004 holsters, and Wilson Combat ’47D’ 8 round magazines. They have reportedly been used with over 15,000 rounds apiece.