September 24, 2010
By Patrick Sweeney
The 1911 has been America's pistol for 100 years and is still going strong.
By Patrick Sweeney
In November 1910, Colt and Savage test pistols were fired by the Army for 1,000 rounds each. Both test pistols broke parts and exhibited shortcomings. Both companies went back to the drawing board, and in March 1911 they resubmitted pistols for testing. Twelve thousand rounds later--6,000 for each gun--Colt was the winner.
Existentially minded firearms pedants might argue as to the birth date of the 1911 pistol: November 1910--the day the design was first formally tested--or March 1911--its adoption date--but the "1911" name stamped on the side has remained to this day. [Ed. note: And true existentialist pedants might actually argue for the date of John Browning's patent application, February 17, 1910.] Either way, you're going to be reading a lot about this famous gun in the coming months.
To understand how we've gotten where we are, you have to know where we've been. So we'll jump into the way-back machine and set the dial for 1911.
In 1911, there was no penicillin, radio or TV. Phones were new, electric lights were new, and even in the cities there were a large number of houses that still had outhouses.
In 1911, the cavalry was the premier military branch--king of the hill, cock of the walk. Cavalrymen had the status that fighter pilots would receive a generation later. And cavalry was worried only about other cavalry. Artillery? It couldn't adjust fire fast enough to match cavalry movement. Infantry? An impediment to be found, maneuvered around, harried and, if possible, ridden down.
And as much as cavalrymen loved their horses, they realized that often the best way to deal with opposing cavalrymen was to shoot their mounts. For the infantry officer, his concern was having small arms capable of stopping cavalry. Without that, his unit would be harried and dispersed, and his men would be ridden down.
The gun that started it all: Colt 1911 No. 1.
You'll read again and again that the Moros of the Philippines were the reason for the selection of the .45 as our caliber. Nonsense. Everyone wanted a .45, and the Philippine insurrection was the means to that end--hence all possible blame was heaped on the Colt 1892 .38 revolver.
While John Moses Browning made his first self-loading pistols for Colt in .38 Auto, and the Army tested them, when it came down to really putting a pistol through the grind of refining and selecting, only .45 caliber pistols were requested.
You see, the sidearm is uniquely defined in American use: the fighting handgun. In the rest of the world, a sidearm is seen as a badge of office, a symbol of authority and a poor tool for shooting anyone or anything with. Only Americans depend on it for more than that.
The pistols of 1911 and the next couple of generations were not the pistols we associate with the 1911 pistol of today. I've handled and fired a bunch of early guns, and they are uniform in a number of regards: They are made of relatively soft steel; they have tiny sights; and the triggers, while very crisp, are heavy by today's standards.
If you have a pre-A1 1911 pistol, don't shoot it much. Even through World War II, the slides the various manufacturers produced are relatively soft. My first 1911A1 was an Ithaca, made in 1943, and I shot the slide to scrap in a couple of years of early IPSC practice and competition. Colt began making "hard" slides after the war--slides that were properly and completely heat-treated--and those can withstand lots and lots of shooting.
The also-ran, Savage's .45, was the last contender to be beaten out by the Colt. The Savage was doomed by small-parts breakages.
Even when the sights were "improved" to the A1 standard, they were still minuscule. Why? Cavalry again. Cavalrymen shot on the move, at close range, by pointing as they rode by. It was decades after the cavalry was disbanded before we had decent sights on the 1911 pistol.
The triggers back then were very clean, very crisp, but heavy. I've handled more than one where the trigger pull was as high as seven pounds. However, there's no crunch, no creep, no grit--just take up the slack and then press for the shot. You could do a lot worse for a defensive pistol. And remember, this was a pistol trigger in an era when a double-action revolver trigger pull might be in the high teens for weight.
If it had those drawbacks, how and when did it change? What drove the improvements we now take for granted? One man: Jeff Cooper. He developed and began the shooting discipline of IPSC.
Unlike earlier forms of competition, it did not have a rigidly defined format. You had to solve a problem, not simply fire a rote number of rounds. The faster and more accurately you could do this, the better your score and the greater your chances of winning--and the greater your chances of surviving in the real world.
Prior to the development of IPSC, there were actually two 1911s: the target and the combat. The target 1911 was accurate and easy to shoot but unreliable in anything but a target range environment. The combat 1911 was utterly reliable but not accurate enough for precise work. IPSC demanded the positive attributes of both, and competitors soon required that of gunsmiths.
They also required durability. Before IPSC, nobody shot a whole lot of ammo. Oh, a lot of shooters said they did, but they didn't really.
In the early 1970s, everyone "knew" that a 1911 barrel was shot out after 5,000 rounds. I know how that rumor got started. The Marine Corps marksmanship team bought new barrels at the start of each season so they'd have an advantage over other teams. Since full-time Bullseye shooters of that time period would shoot 5,000 rounds a year in matches and practice, everyone assumed the USMC was buying new barrels because their old ones were wearing out at 5,000 rounds.
Now, a slide from before the era of a Colt hard slide will expire in less than a decade of that much shooting. But a properly made slide will not. How long will it last? Properly fitted, I don't k
now. I have one gun over 100,000 rounds and several others over 50,000 rounds, and none are showing signs of needing a new slide or barrel.
Oh, and there was one other change made because of IPSC: magazines. It is common in the AR-15 world to worship at the altar of mil-spec. If it isn't mil-spec, it isn't the best. Well, that attitude saddled us with crappy 1911 magazines for three-quarters of a century.
Everyone just used what was available because, after all, those target guns were finely tuned, and everyone expected a "combat" 1911 to rattle. Through it all, magazines were disposable, something you had to test and match to your 1911.
Today the sky's the limit in terms of options — calibers, finishes, whatever. There's never been a better time to be a 1911 shooter.
Today, you have to extend yourself to purchase bad magazines. The pages of gun supply catalogs and advertisements you see in this very magazine are so full of reliable, durable, dependable magazines that if you use them and your 1911 doesn't work well, it is probably not the magazine's fault.
For more than two decades, if you wanted a 1911 in a caliber other than .45 ACP, you were out of luck. Even after the .38 Super arrived, it was another couple of decades before you could have a 1911 in any other size than XXL. But with the advent of IPSC, and uncommonly skilled gunsmiths, the only way for those gunsmiths to stand out from the crowd was to do something different. So you had for a while super-custom "chopped and channeled" 1911s in new and wild calibers, in various sizes and with non-factory options.
Once the market became big enough, the manufacturers moved in, and the new standard was "whatever you want, we make." You can have a 1911 in a slew of calibers and in enough sizes to satisfy any situation, shooter or need. And you can have it for far less than what those custom guns cost us.
Adjusted for inflation, a fully spec'd competition gun of 1982, which would be a good but not top-end catalog item in the better 1911 maker's full-color "wish book," would be run $2,500 or more in today's dollars. And the current pistol would have better-made parts, be better fitted and made with a much higher attention to detail than that 1982 pistol.
We've come a long way since 1911. Faced with a compact, high-cap 1911 of one or another make, in a hot number like .38 Super or 9x23, I'm not sure John Moses Browning would be all that amazed. He might grumble about shortcuts that detract from durability, but if you cut, say, service life from 200,000 rounds to 150,000 rounds, and you increase capacity while decreasing weight, that sounds like a good bargain to me.
So while you're perusing various catalogs, looking at model after model of the 1911--in a near-infinite number of sizes, calibers, weights, finishes and options--consider yourself lucky that you were a gun buyer during the renaissance of the 1911. No one before has ever had it so good.
If you own a gun from the World War II era, try not to shoot it too much as the slides were made of relatively soft steel, and you wouldn't want to ruin a piece of history, would you?