A History of United States Military Sidearms, Part 3: 1911 - 1945

A History of United States Military Sidearms, Part 3: 1911 - 1945


By the time the M1909 revolver was adopted by the US military, there had been incredible advancements in weapon technology happening for quite some time. Gone were the days of charging into battle with cap and ball revolvers and single shot muskets. Self-contained metallic cartridges were the standard; by the early 1900s, guns were being loaded and shot faster and more accurately than ever before.


While the M1909 revolver was adopted later, the US Military had been experimenting with semi-automatic pistols since the turn of the century. Luger, Colt, and Mannlicher had all been producing semi-automatic pistols, and models had been tested, and even purchased, for limited field use and experimentation.

In 1906 the US Army started conducting pistol trials for a new semi-automatic sidearm to be chambered in the new .45 ACP cartridge. The tests went on for four years, until 1910, when the designs had been narrowed down to models by Colt and Savage.

The final tests were held in 1910. The designer of Colt's entry, John Browning, made a personal appearance to show what his pistol was capable of.  Over the course of two days the US Army put the two pistols through the paces.

A single Colt pistol was fired 6,000 times over the two days with zero malfunctions. If the pistol became too hot, it was dunked into a bucket of water before firing resumed with no issue. The Savage model experienced almost 40 malfunctions over the last two days of testing, and thus the Colt was selected to be the new US Army sidearm.


Having been adopted by the US Army for the year 1911, Colt's pistol became known as the Colt US Army Model of 1911, or just ‘the 1911’ as we all know it today. The M1911 was a huge change from every sidearm that had ever been issued to the US Military. The new pistol was a semi-automatic, single action pistol that held 7 rounds of .45 ACP in a removable box magazine.

The design was extremely easy to handle, fast to reload, and provided improved stopping power over previous issued sidearms. It was incredibly reliable as well, and could be field stripped for easy cleaning and maintenance. It would soon have a huge test ahead of it —the trenches of Europe during The Great War.

The demand for 1911 pistols was so great during World War I that it was contracted out to several other manufacturers for production. Production could not keep up with demand, and because of this, two new revolvers would be put into service in 1917 to supplement the need for 1911s.


By the time the United States entered World War I in 1917, the need for sidearms was greatly increased. Due to incredible demand, both Colt and Smith & Wesson started producing revolvers that could accept the same .45 ACP cartridge used by the M1911 pistol. Both were designated the M1917, and both utilized half-moon clips to load and extract the automatic pistol cartridge from the revolver's cylinder.  

The revolvers were quickly issued to the US Military in various roles, and would continue to see use through the 1950s. While the moon clips were not as quick to reload as the magazine on the 1911 was, the revolvers were still extremely reliable and proved to be effective in the field.


Drawing on experiences learned during World War I, several changes were implemented to the M1911 in 1924, and this new model became known as the M1911A1. All of the changes were intended to allow a wide range of shooters and hand sizes to utilize the pistol more effectively. No internal changes were made, and so the M1911 and M1911A1 could share parts as needed.

The M1911A1 changes included:

  • Shorter trigger length for easier pull
  • Reshaped contours around trigger to allow better access to trigger
  • Arched mainspring housing (replacing the straight housing on the M1911)
  • Extended grip safety spur and shorter hammer spur (this helped to eliminate hammer bite)
  • Wider front sight

With these changes, the M1911A1 became the new standard US Military sidearm. Due to the need for pistols after the US became involved in World War II, several manufacturers started to produce the M1911A1 for the US Armed Forces. From 1911-1945 the United States produced more than 2 million model 1911 and 1911A1 pistols, and  once again this sidearm proved to be a valuable asset through a World War.

UP NEXT: 1946 - 2000

As we've covered, from 1776-1910, there were numerous models and variations of pistols issued to the US Military. Changes were made every few years as technology advanced, but with the introduction of the M1911 and M1911A1, the US military would not see a change in their standard service pistol for an astonishing 75 years.

In our next article, we'll cover the 1911's use until 1985, and the modern pistols the US Military started using since the 1980s, as well as some specialized models designed for US Special Forces that saw service in Vietnam, the Middle East, and around the world.