Colt M1911 – The U.S. Military Transition to Semi-Automatic

Colt M1911 – The U.S. Military Transition to Semi-Automatic

There is an old English proverb that states “necessity is the mother of invention”. Sure whoever first spoke these words was likely referring to basic tools for survival, but if we look back through the ages at inventors such as Eli Whitney or Thomas Edison, we will always find that a basic human need inspired their efforts. This can also be said for the creation of firearms, although it was typically war that sparked the initiative and not just a desire for softer fabrics and indoor lighting. This was certainly true when the U.S. Army began their search for a new service pistol more than 100 years ago, which would eventually lead to the adoption of the iconic .45 caliber Colt Model 1911.

Throughout the 20th century the battlefield quickly evolved more than it ever had before. Nations were taking to the sea and air, and slowly leaving behind the days of soldiers on horseback. Wars were being fought with guerrilla warfare tactics, and troops were digging into trenches for long drawn out battles. With this evolution came the need for modern weaponry. Luckily there were innovative thinkers like John Moses Browning. He was one of the most prolific firearm inventors the world has ever known, and he has more than once provided the engineering breakthroughs that changed the face of battle.

His list of inventions is extensive, but the recoil-operated M1911 design was perhaps one of the most enduring military weapons ever created. It still remains one of the most respected modern handgun designs and continues to be duplicated by companies around the world.

So what was so necessary about the M1911? Well to begin that story we need to go back a few years before it became the M1911. Perhaps even further back than its inception, when America was entrenched in the Spanish-American War of 1898. It was the conclusion of that conflict that first led American troops into a unique and unfamiliar style of guerilla warfare. At the close of the war with the Spanish, the Treaty of Paris was signed, relinquishing the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States.

The Spanish Empire had held these islands under their tyrannical rule for centuries. So understandably the Filipino people were eager to gain their independence. The United States was in a difficult situation as they needed to find a way to liberate these lands, but also aid them in establishing laws and governing bodies of their own. They would also have to occupy the islands to defend them against foreign invaders. This did not sit well with natives of the Philippines. The First Philippine Republic, which began to establish an organized resistance in the north when it appeared that Spain would lose the war, rejected the Treaty of Paris. They saw it as just another effort to suppress their independence. Who could blame them? They were being transferred between the more powerful countries like currency. They had no reason to trust any intruder on their soil and weren’t going to let another country occupy the islands without a fight. This became the basis for the Philippine-American War that lasted nearly three years, and ended with another U.S. victory, and with the creation of the Philippine Organic Act. The POA essentially assured that the Filipino people would eventually govern themselves and become independent of foreign involvement if certain conditions were met, primarily peaceful cooperation.

Great! It seemed everything was worked out. Sadly, that was not the case. The First Philippine Republic troops were not the only forces on the islands resisting American involvement. There was a much fiercer and less willing group of opposing warriors that wanted no part of foreign interference no matter what agreements were made. These were the Moros, a group of Muslim tribal people from the southern Philippines that had long rejected the presence of the Spanish and their Christian influence. They began their own rebellion while the Philippine-American War was already happening and continued to fight well over a decade after it had ended.

Which leads us to the events that sparked the journey to find the .45 caliber semi-auto 1911. Most of the conflicts with the Moros were fought up close in the jungles and rugged terrain, often eliminating the usefulness of the U.S. Army troops cumbersome Krag-Jorgensen rifles. The situation was probably far worse for the volunteer units that were merely armed with leftover black powder M1873 Springfield rifles.

American troops and especially the Calvary often resorted to using their sidearms in these close proximity battles, which at the time was the standard issue Colt 1892 Revolver chambered in .38 Long Colt.

The small caliber of the 1892 proved to be ineffective against the Moros. The tribal warriors wore leather body bindings that served as armor, and often fought high on opiates to limit the effects of pain. Soldiers would empty their revolvers into the insurgents, and still succumb to the blades of the Moros Kris Swords. Imagine being armed with two guns and still losing a battle to an enemy that was mostly armed with swords. Seems improbable, but it was the reality of the situation.

As a temporary solution the United States Army issued some of the M1873 Single Action Army Revolvers (Peacemakers) chambered in .45 Colt that were previously taken out of service when the American Indian Wars had ended. The heavier round proved more effective and a well placed shot could halt the advance of these drug-fueled warriors.  

However, the issue with the stopping power of the Colt 1892 did not end with the temporary replacement. The problem became important to the Ordnance department and its ineffectiveness encouraged efforts to replace it.  The Peacemaker simply provided more power while the Army looked to find a permanent replacement. Around this time the technological advancement of auto loading pistols was beginning to draw attention, and many gun builders were already working on design ideas, including John Browning.

When Browning first began addressing the issue of a self-loading pistol there were two working competitors, the 1896 Mauser Broomhandle and the 1900 Luger. Both were chambered for .30 caliber jacketed bullets that reached respectable velocities. The Swiss Army had adopted the Luger in 1900; so the U.S. decided to purchase 1,000 Luger pistols chambered in .30 Luger caliber and issued them to the Calvary for testing. Unconvinced that a semi-automatic was the direction they wanted to go, the Ordnance Department relied on the feedback of the Calvary. They felt that the soldiers on horseback were in the greatest need of a reliable handgun and would provide the input needed in making the decision. The Calvary reported that the pistol would need to be more rugged and easier to handle with one hand. The caliber was also found to be too small to warrant any change. This feedback would serve as a guideline later when the trials for the automatic pistol were established.

The first real step in the process was the 1904 Thompson-LaGarde pistol round effectiveness tests. It was named after Colonel John T. Thompson of the Infantry and Louis Anatole LaGarde of the Medical Corps who conducted the tests. During this primitive testing phase, the two Army Officers compared a number of calibers, including the 9x19mm, .38 ACP, .45 Colt, and 7.65x21mm Parabellum (.30 Luger). They used cattle marked for slaughter and donated human cadavers to test the penetration, and to provide a crude estimate of velocity of each round. This led Colonel John T. Thompson to declare that any considered replacement should be no less than .45 caliber, but the pistol should be semi-automatic in operation.

Colonel Thompson was a strong supporter of automatic weaponry despite much opposition thinking that the common soldier would easily waste ammunition. He would later go on to invent his own automatic weapon after the close of WWI. Can you guess which one? It’s the Thompson submachine gun or “Tommy Gun”, but we’ll leave that story for another time.

By this time John M. Browning was already well respected as a gun inventor. He had affiliations with several manufacturers, which had all enjoyed success from his designs. His long-term relationship with Winchester had brought about some of the greatest lever-action rifle designs ever made. His patents were also put into production by Fabrique Nationale, Remington, and Savage, but the relationship that fits into our story is with Colt.

John Browning’s previous work with Colt included the 1895 Machine Gun, which he had invented with the aid of his brother Matthew in less than a single day. The U.S. Army had used the Colt 1895 in the Spanish-American War and in the conflict with the First Philippine Republic. Browning had also already achieved success with several semi-auto pocket pistols, a short-recoil operated design which Colt produced into their .38 caliber 1900 (Patented in 1897), and the blowback-operated Fabrique Nationale Model 1900 (Patented 1899). Colt had also manufactured the Model 1902 short recoil .38 and Model 1903 Hammerless blowback-operated .32 Pocket Pistols based on Browning designs.

So naturally the combination of Browning’s ingenuity and Colt’s high manufacturing standards was a perfect recipe to tackle the Army’s current call to action. The initial design that the pair came up with,was the Colt 1905 chambered in Browning’s newly designed .45 rimless cartridge. In an effort to draw attention Colt wasted no time proclaiming it to be “The most powerful small arm ever invented” in their 1906 catalog.

On December 28, 1906 the War Department issued a Special Order to announce the trials of 1907.  In it the following was stated, “A programme of test will be drawn up and the trial conducted and expedited in the most practical manner for the purpose of ascertaining a design of automatic pistol or revolver best adapted to fulfill the requirements of the military service.” The Ordnance Department had further requested that all entries be prepared to use a .45 caliber cartridge that they had designed by the Frankford Arsenal. The rounds were manufactured in both rimmed and rimless cartridges allowing the entry pistols to be compared to a baseline revolver chambered in the same caliber.

In the Annual Report of the Chief of Ordnance dated March 28, 1907, the stringent scrutiny that each entry underwent during testing at the Springfield Armory was outlined, as well as the final opinion of the board at the conclusion of testing. The handguns evaluated in the testing were seven automatic pistols, two revolvers, and one automatic revolver. The builders listed in the report included Colt, Savage, Luger, White-Merrill, Bergmann, Knoble, and Webley-Fosberry.

In the summary of the testing, the board concluded the following; “From a careful consideration of characteristics of each weapon and of the tests made by the board, it is of the opinion that the Savage and the Colt automatic pistols possess sufficient merit to warrant their being given a further test under service conditions.” The report then goes on to outline each pistol's most desirable features before noting what was to be expected to succeed in the next round of trials. “It is, however, desired to emphasize the view of the board that both pistols should be changed in certain particulars for the military service, and these changes should be required of the manufacturer before either is considered for final adoption.” This statement was accompanied by an approval for the purchase of 200 of these pistols for additional field testing by the Calvary. Savage, for some unknown reason, initially declined to build the 200 pistols, and so the Luger entry was ordered for testing instead. The refusal may have been due to financial restraints because ultimately Savage would produce the 200 hundred pistols after making their 1907 model commercially available. The Luger order was never fulfilled due to difficulties using American ammunition, leaving the competition for an automatic service pistol to be battled out between the two favorites of the 1907 trials.

For Colt and John Browning this meant addressing some of the issues that were noted by the board and implementing the desired features that were missing from their initial entry. This included finding a way to add an automatic safety, cartridge indicator, and making the gun easier to disassemble.

Colt did find an immediate, yet small, victory at the conclusion of testing. Their .45 caliber double-action revolver was just one of three revolvers used in the trials, and it gained a clear recommendation for service while automatic arms testing continued. “As a result of careful consideration of the tests made and as a result of the views hereinbefore presented the board recommends as follows: That sufficient Colt double-action revolvers, caliber .45, be issued to arm the troops in the Philippines as soon as practicable.” Again a Colt revolver would become the temporary fix as long as the demands of war required it, and until a service pistol could be selected.

Over the next few years, the basic design of the 1905 underwent several experimental changes in an effort to gain approval from the government. They tried variations to the design details that included, but were not limited to changes to the slide lock, the addition of the grip safety, and the required cartridge indicator.

On November 10, 1910 the two final entries were submitted to the board for evaluation, they were the Colt Special Army Model 1910, which had been vastly improved from its predecessor, the 1905, and the improved version of the Savage 1907. John Browning was present for the trials along with Colt executives, two engineers and a mechanic. For Savage an equal representation was present, which also included their pistol’s inventor Elbert Searle.

Each arm was inspected for the required safety device and was then put through the timed field strip and complete disassembly. The Colt was more easily field stripped, but took longer to completely disassemble than the Savage. This could be attributed to the Colt pistol having 64 parts as opposed to the Savage’s 45 parts. Then came the velocity tests where the Colt pistol managed to squeak by Savage 858.4 f/s to 846 f/s. The accuracy and rapidity test also went in Colt's favor and the penetration ability proved inconclusive.

The endurance test was by far the most telling when 6,000 rounds were fired through each pistol at intervals of 100. After each 100 rounds fired, water was poured through the barrel and after each 1,000 rounds the pistols could be cleaned and oiled. At the end of the testing the Savage had 43 malfunctions and needed 13 parts replaced, and the Colt had just 12 malfunctions and 4 repairs.

Each entry now had just five months to prepare for the final endurance test. With their weaknesses brought to light during the first round of trials, both entries were provided with valuable information that they needed for improvements.

On March 15, 1911 the trials were reconvened. The endurance test would be the same 6,000 rounds, except this time the pistols would now be given 5 minutes to cool between each 100 shots fired. The Colt performed flawlessly as the Savage seemingly began to fall apart. The Savage would endure 31 malfunctions and several broken parts. The final tests were conducted with ammunition that was purposely under-loaded and over-loaded with powder and with inferior primers. Final calculations were made and the trials concluded.

The board recommended the adoption of the Colt Caliber .45 Automatic Pistol for military service on March 20th. Then on March 23, 1911, the Secretary of War approved the new pistol, and it was officially dubbed the Model of 1911.

Soon after in 1913, the Moro rebellion had ended, at least for the time being. More uprisings would come much later in the 20th century, but the United States would have little need for involvement, as the Philippines would cease being a protectorate of the U.S. in 1946.  

War however, would occur several more times throughout the century, and the M1911 would remain the United States Armed Forces standard issue service pistol through several of the next major conflicts.

In 1917 the United States would enter World War I, and the need to rapidly produce the M1911 would cause the spread of military contracts throughout the firearms industry and beyond. Pistols for the war efforts were produced by Springfield, Savage, Winchester, as well as lesser known companies, and the contracts even included the National Cash Register Company.

The Calvary, which had historically provided the feedback needed for the army’s acquisitions would cease to exist, as they no longer had a feasible place in modern warfare. So the feedback from war veterans would provide the necessary information for changes. Since the M1911 was used throughout the military branches, they had more than enough critique to enlist improvements. The most prominent issue was that not all soldiers were the same. Those of smaller stature or perhaps just smaller hands had some difficulties, so modifications were ordered to accommodate all shooters.

The new version of the 1911 would include a longer grip safety spur, shorter trigger, an arched mainspring housing, shortened hammer spur, wider front sight and simplified grip panels. The modified version was designated as the M1911A1 in 1926.

Then came World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam. Through them all, the Army saw no reason to replace the reliable M1911 semi-auto pistols. The 1911 would remain in service until 1985 when the United States Armed Forces standard service pistol was changed to the more modern and tactical Beretta M9.

The M1911 still remains a favorite among competition shooters and collectors. It is certainly worthy of a much wider conversation that could include its current service, variations, clones and customizations. However, there are many passionate M1911 enthusiasts, and those articles and conversations are in no short supply. So as a final thought, we will just reiterate that John Browning and his designs were truly revolutionary, and without his determination, our troops may have entered into the wars of the 20th century ill-equipped for the task. His semi-automatic design will stand as the basis for future pistols to be judged, and will likely continue to find a following among handgun shooters for many years to come.

To see The 1907 Report of Board on Tests of Revolvers and Automatic Pistols issued from the Chief of Ordnance, click here.