What a great way to start this blog with the centennial Anniversary of the Colt Semi Automatic Pistol; The Colt Model 1911. The history behind this firearm starts a decade earlier with a battle in the Philippine Islands. The U.S. Marines found themselves in a battle with radical insurgents. It was during this combat mission that the U.S. found themselves in need of a large caliber pistol for defense.
In February 1898 the battleship USS Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor. the United States went to war with Spain. Along with an invasion of Cuba, US Navy forces engaged, routed and destroyed the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in March 1898, in one of the most lop-sided victories in naval history. US ground forces then went ashore to overthrow the Spanish colonial government and occupy the islands. Continuing the armed resistance they had previously shown against the Spanish, the Moro tribesmen of the southern islands engaged the American forces in a long bout of guerrilla warfare that ultimately lasted nearly 15 years. Much of the combat was at close quarters, where the Moros’ long-bladed kris knives were used to lethal effect. US troops were armed with either .30 caliber Krag or Springfield bolt-action rifles and .38 caliber double-action revolvers. While the .30 caliber rifles proved effective in stopping the attackers, the US troop’s handguns demonstrated an unnerving lack of stopping power, resulting in numerous reports of Moro warriors absorbing multiple pistol bullets while they continued to hack away at the Americans. Obviously the US troops’ morale suffered badly in this situation.
The combat pistol situation became so acute that old stocks of Model 1873 Colt revolvers in 45 caliber(commonly known as The Peacemaker), many of which dated back to the Plains Indian Wars were returned to active service, where they quickly demonstrated a much better track record of stopping an attacker with one well-placed shot.
The battlefield experience against the Moros resulted in the famous Thompson-LeGarde tests by the US Military in 1904. In these tests a variety of military cartridges of the day were tested for their penetration, ‘stopping ability’ and energy transfer, using both live and dead cattle at the target medium. While somewhat subjective by modern standards, the tests resulted in an official recommendation “…that a bullet, which will have the shock effect and stopping effect at short ranges necessary for a military pistol or revolver, should have a caliber not less than .45.” About this time two new armament technologies were also emerging – smokeless powder and the autoloading pistol. In 1906 the US Military, under the direction of General William Crozier of the Ordinance Department, began evaluating several pistol designs along with the suitability of a new cartridge that was designated the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (or .45 ACP for short). As these military tests continued over the next several years, the Colt pistol began to emerge as the clear favorite.
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. In fact, during a 6,000 round test fired over two days in 1910 that was personally supervised by John M. Browning, his sample pistol became so hot that it was simply dunked in a pail of water to cool it for further firing. Browning’s sample reportedly passed the test with no malfunctions.
Since cavalry troops were going to be the primary combat users of the pistol, several specific design features, like the grip safety and lanyard ring, were mandated by the horse soldiers. (Nothing will turn a cavalry trooper into an infantryman faster than shooting his own horse by accident.) The Browning pistol design was formally adopted by the US Army on March 29, 1911, and thus became known officially as the Model 1911. The US Navy and US Marine Corps adopted the Browning-designed pistol in 1913.
The Browning-designed 1911 pistol was first tested in combat in Mexico in 1916. At that time Mexico was wracked by revolution and the most prominent of the rebel generals was Pancho Villa. During the early morning hours of March 9, 1916, Villa and his men attacked, looted and burned the small town of Columbus, New Mexico, resulting in the deaths of 18 US soldiers and civilians. Further attacks by Villa’s rebels in Texas resulted in the deaths of several more US soldiers and officials.
In response to the attacks, President Woodrow Wilson ordered General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to lead a force of nearly 5,000 US soldiers onto Mexico to capture Villa. Many of the next generation of US military leaders got their first combat experience on this operation, including an ambitious young lieutenant by the name of George S. Patton. While the Punitive Expedition ultimately failed to capture Villa, it did provide the first major combat test of a number of new military technologies such as the airplane, wireless telegraph, motorized truck transport and the M1911 pistol.
The post-war era saw subtle refinements to the basic Model 1911 design, including the addition of improved sights, an arched mainspring housing, shorter trigger, longer grip safety spur and other ergonomic improvements. Collectively these improvements were completed in 1924 and resulted in the Model 1911A1. Not long after those modifications were formalized, John M. Browning died of a heart attack at the Fabrique Nationale (FN) factory in Herstal, Belgium, on November 26, 1926.
As the United States began to emerge as a major world military power, the Model 1911 saw combat service in a number of different conflicts, including many small actions in the Caribbean, South and Central America. These interventions were considered necessary to provide political, social and economic stability to the region and were sometimes called the Banana Wars.
During this era the Model 1911 also became a favorite sidearm of law enforcement officers nationwide, first in .45 ACP and later in the fast-stepping .38 Super. Among the more notable law enforcement users of the 1911 were members of the Texas Rangers, as well as federal agents of the Border Patrol, Prohibition Service and the FBI.
December 7, 1941 brought the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor and US entry into WW II. The conflict represented the largest war mobilization in US history, with more than 16 million American men and women serving in the armed forces in every theater of the conflict. The Model 1911 was the standard sidearm for almost all US military forces fighting on the ground, at sea and in the air. Total military production of the Model 1911 was nearly 3 million pistols. Combined with the millions of Browning machine guns and BARs produced over the decades, it is easy to see that the guns designed by John M. Browning played a major role in defending freedom and crushing tyranny. The Model 1911 continued to serve with distinction at the side of American servicemen for most of the remainder of the 20th century including Korea, Viet-Nam and other conflicts.
With the end of WW II, millions of US servicemen returned from combat service around globe, eager to enjoy a new life of peace and prosperity. With that post-war prosperity came plenty of leisure time for recreation, and the shooting sports in America literally boomed! Shooting clubs and leagues sprouted up in every city and town, at colleges, high schools, factories and local ranges.
Today the 1911 remains the most popular pistol to date. No matter how many subtle improvements have been made through the years, the basic design of John Browning’s 1911 remained unchanged. Thanks in part to John Browning many servicemen are alive today because of this famous pistol; The 1911 Colt Pistol in caliber .45 ACP (Auto Colt Pistol).