The 1911 has to be one of the most copied pistols in existence. A cynical person would say the patents are long expired so that’s why so many are made, but let’s be real: If the design of the 1911 was not solid as it is, the over-100-year-old pistol design would have been superseded by more modern designs and concepts. Even with the advent of the higher capacity 9mm pistols that are standard fare today, the 1911’s single-stack never died. In fact, it was after the High Capacity revolution started that more and more companies adopted the 1911 design.
The M1911 got its designation from the year that the military adopted the pistol, but the design and the origin story of the 1911 started almost 20 years before that. Around the 1890s, the military was trying to modernize its firearms to self-loading systems. During the Philippine-American War, it was learned that the .38 Long Colt was not sufficient enough to stop the drug induced Moro rebels. In fact the .38 caliber revolvers were so ineffective that the military units reverted back to older single action (cowboy style) larger-caliber revolvers.
The U.S. Military had requirements for a semi-automatic pistol and wanted at minimum a .45-caliber cartridge. John Mosses Browning developed in conjunction both the 45acp cartridge for use in his prototype Colt Semi-Automatic Pistol. The military did extensive testing with multiple designs and quickly narrowed the field from six designs to three, eliminating all the non-.45-caliber designs. After the first round of eliminations, only two companies (Colt and Savage) made updates to the designs to continue with further testing and improvements.
One final test before adoption was the origin of the military’s 1911’s reliability credibility. Over two days of intensive shooting, both the Colt and Savage designs were submitted to six thousand rounds in various scenarios. Both designs were stressed enough that they became too hot to handle … so to cool them off, they were dunked in buckets of water and forced to continue shooting. At the end of the day the Colt Automatic pistol had zero malfunctions. The M1911 was born that day and subsequently adopted just in time for widespread use in WW1.
The deep muddy trench warfare was the proving ground that furthered the M1911’s mystique. Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Alvin York used the accuracy and stopping power of the M1911 and .45 ACP to his advantage, taking out a German bayonet charge. Abbreviating the long history, the M1911A1 ended up being fielded as a sidearm in WW2, Korea, Vietnam, and beyond. Even to this day the 1911 is actively being used by U.S. military, like the Marine Force Recon units.
What sets the1911 apart from other pistol designs? Well, it’s the ergonomics and the .45 ACP cartridge itself. Military 230-gr. ball ammo travels at around 830 feet per second with even a lower chamber pressure than a 9mm round. What this means is that you are shooting a fat bullet just fast enough to get the job done. Add in the weight and size of the M1911, so shooting the pistol it does not beat up the shooter or the pistol.
After World War II, the military had so many 1911’s that they just kept rebuilding existing pistols instead of buying new ones. Even with rebuilt “parts,” users were easily able to qualify and the reputation for reliability never went away. The biggest attribute to the accuracy has to come from the 1911’s trigger. As a single action design the trigger has only one job…to release the hammer.
The relatively light weight of the trigger pull combined with the short movement and reset meant that even novice shooters could quickly master the trigger. Even a “bad” 1911 factory trigger is better than most tuned modern pistol triggers. The 1911 basically sets the standard of what a trigger should be.
Military 1911s have been upgraded throughout the years; first in 1924 with the 1911A1. The A1 version was the standard that the military used for most of the 1911’s service life. On the civilian side, though, the pistol’s development never stopped and is basically a whole more refined pistol.
Adding things like ambidextrous safeties, beaver tails, sights, triggers, even Picatinny rails for attaching lights extended the life of the 1911 design for a whole new generation of shooters. When the Marine Corps awarded Colt a contract in 2012 for pistols, they required all these modern upgrades that were developed by the civilian market.
Although military pistols were required to be within military specs and all parts are mandatorily interchangeable, the same cannot be said for the civilian side. When you have hundreds of companies all with different goals developing products for the 1911, the days of drop in parts have largely been lost. Even things like changing a thumb safety, parts come over sized to fit the most pistol brands possible and have to be fit to an individual pistol by a gunsmith.
For grip safeties it can get confusing where manufactures have developed individual standards and each is not compatible with each other. On the flip side, there has not been a better time to own a 1911. No matter what your goal for the pistol, there’s surely more than a handful of manufacturers, gunsmiths, and accessory makers ready to help you.
The modern versatility of the 1911 design comes from the fact that it comes in different sizes. Even in the big .45 ACP, the 1911 can come in a micro compact 3-inch barrel all the way up to 6- or 7-inch barreled versions. The platform is so adaptable that it can be chambered in everything from a .22LR, 9mm, .38 Super, 10mm, 50GI all the way to the super exotic like .38 special and .357 Magnum. (Yes you read that right: There are 1911 semi auto pistols that shoot .38 Special and .357 Magnum revolver ammo. No matter what your needs are there is a 1911 to fit the role.
As we noted, one of the biggest drawbacks to the original 1911 design was the capacity. With a single-stack magazine, standard capacity was either 7 or 8 plus one in the chamber. In the early 90’s with the explosion of shooters rushing to shoot things like USPSA competitions, a hardware war of sorts began. Limited capacity meant having to reload multiple times on a single stage, driving your time up, and losing you points. This drove shooters to other pistol designs. But remember when I said that the 1911 trigger was better than most modern high-capacity designs?
Enterprising companies like STI took the 1911 design and made it modular. The revolutionary 2011 was a polymer wide body framed 1911, and in major calibers like .38 Super, giving you capacities above 25 rounds in one magazine. The biggest development since the original 2011 pistols is in the ammo; 9mm has been developed to such an extent that the performance approaches that of older major caliber ammo. The Tacticool gunners want the best capacity, cool looks, unequaled performance all with the less recoil that the 9mm allows.
Do you think John Browning would be turning in his grave knowing that the most popular 1911s are 9mm? Or he would be happy that for over a hundred years his original designs are still the basis of ongoing development?
James the “XDMAN” Nicholas Mr UnPewFessional himself
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