The 1911 handgun is a respected firearm and among the greatest fighting weapons ever designed and manufactured. It is enjoying a practically unprecedented run at the top of the heap of some 109 years.
While the original 1911 isn’t quite the handgun we deploy today, anyone that can use the oldest 1911 will be able to fire and use the most modern 1911 easily—and vice versa.
Why the 1911 Was Needed
The 1911 has been called an invention of war intended to replace the practically worthless Colt 1892 .38 revolver. The failure of the .38 to stop Moro warriors was an important factor. The 1892 Colt was far from a robust design that tended to give trouble.
The Army brought the Single Action Army .45 back into service to solve the wound potential problem. Interestingly, many savvy shooters of the day saw it coming and did not trust the Colt .38 even before its dismal failure.
Webb Hayes, the son of former President Rutherford B. Hayes, was an army officer serving in the Philippines. He took his 1878 double-action .45 to war. Leonard Wood carried the Smith and Wesson double-action .44 revolver.
It simply made no sense to adopt the .38 Colt, but the Army wanted a modern double-action swing-out cylinder revolver and did so. (The .38 Colt is considerably weaker than the modern .38 Special, by the way.)
The Army still needed a cartridge capable of dropping war horses, an original design parameter of the .45 Colt. With European forces arming with self-loading pistols, the U.S. Army recognized the advantages.
Here’s one question for you: had the Army went to war in the Philippines with a robust and reliable double-action swing-out cylinder .45, would we have developed the 1911 .45 Automatic?
That is an interesting question, as the Brits kept the .455 Webley revolver many years past its prime.
Early 1911 Developments
The 1911 was a development of the 1900 .38 ACP. Since the .38 ACP uses a .900 inch long cartridge case, optimum for a relatively thin grip that fits most hands well, the .45 ACP also features a .900 inch cartridge case.
The pistol went through several modifications, from the 1905 to the 1911. The 1911 features a low-bore axis, allowing the pistol to sit low in the hand, a straight-to-the-rear single-action trigger compression and a locked-breech action.
The pistol survived harrowing initiation and proved reliable. Officially adopted in 1911, the handgun proved a sensation in battle during the Mexican Revolution, taking part in actions such as the “last cavalry charge.”
Interestingly, a few individuals did not adopt the 1911 and kept the SAA .45. George S. Patton never gave up his Colt SAA and Douglas McArthur, in particular, racked up an impressive record with the big .45.
But the efficiency of the self-loading action with a big-bore cartridge could not be disputed. The 1911 saw a great deal of action during World War I. Frank Luke, Alvin York and others put the .45 to good use.
After the Great War, there were complaints leveled at the 1911. The long trigger and flat mainspring housing tended to make the pistol fire low. A short trigger and arched mainspring cured this problem.
The sights were improved and the hammer spur changed to prevent hammer bite. Finger cuts in the frame were added to make for improved trigger reach. The improved pistol was the 1911A1. All modern 1911s are 1911A1-types, although we usually just call them the 1911.
Along the way, the 1911 was chambered for other calibers, including the 9mm Luger and .38 ACP Super.
During the years between the World Wars, a considerable amount of improvements were realized on the 1911. Most of these were intended to allow the pistol to compete at Camp Perry and the National Match.
We began to see just how accurate a 1911 could be given proper barrel fitting, good high-visibility sights and a smooth trigger. Colt offered the National Match pistol as a factory version of the pistol custom pistolsmiths turned out.
The Gold Cup/National Match was a finely tuned target gun generally considered not as robust as the Government Model. In 1950, Colt offered an aluminum-frame pistol with a shorter slide in the Commander.
Beginning with the Series 70, a steel-frame Commander was added and the even shorter Officer’s Model came in with the Series 80 (featuring a shorter grip frame as well).
As the Colt became more popular in competition, the pistol was modified with a series of upgrades that addressed the shortcomings of the pistol. (At least there were shortcomings in target shooting.)
A set of high-visibility sights, a smoother trigger action and a speed safety were all that was needed to make the pistol an even greater combat handgun.
Custom pistolsmiths such as Armand Swenson devised and fabricated ambidextrous safety levers and beavertail grip safety levers. The beavertail safety addressed the concerns of those that sometimes failed to fully depress the grip safety.
The 1911 was perfected into a sophisticated combat pistol, albeit an expensive one requiring custom-grade gunsmithing.
Kimber rocked the world with a pistol featuring upgrades in an affordable factory handgun. The rest of the 1911 world scrambled to keep up.
Forward-cocking serrations, a speed safety, good sights and an excellent trigger were available in a factory handgun for less than the price of an upgraded package from a reputable gunsmith. Springfield followed with its excellent Loaded Model.
Other issues were addressed including safety. The original 1911’s inertia firing pin could possibly take a run forward if the pistol were dropped dead on the muzzle from sufficient height. This would fire the pistol.
While not common, this concern was highlighted in extensive testing. Colt addressed this concern with a positive firing pin block. The firing pin remains locked in place until the trigger is pressed fully to the rear, releasing the firing pin.
Springfield addressed the problem in a different manner, using a lightweight firing pin powered by an extra power firing pin spring. This neatly solved the problem of drop safety without resorting to complications in the lockwork.
The 1911 rail gun is a fixture among 1911 shooters today. This design allows the 1911 to mount a modern combat light. Other improvements include a ramped barrel in some models.
The ramped barrel fully encloses the case head and makes for greater safety with heavy loads. Popularized by Bar Sto Precision, the ramped barrel is popular in 9mm and .38 Super, but also useful in .45 ACP.
The modern 1911 shooter may own a handgun with the original attributes of a straight-to-the-rear trigger compression, low-bore axis and reliability intact, but one which is even more ergonomic and with features not available for any price in the recent past.
Guncrafter Industries, Nighthawk and Wilson Combat offer high-end 1911 handguns that are in the top strata, but immediately available without a years-long wait. The 1911 has seen many improvements and remains the finest combat handgun ever invented.
What’s your favorite handgun? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.