October 24, 2022
By Jeff John
European smallbore mania swept the U.S. Board of Ordnance in the late 1880s, leading to adoption of the pitiful .38 Colt to replace the supremely efficacious .45 Colt. Failure in combat led Ordnance to return to a .45, but in a new self-loading pistol and cartridge. John M. Browning and Colt won the competition among the world’s makers, setting off a strenuous evolution over the next six years culminating in the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol, Model of 1911. The so-called Government model featured a five-inch barrel and Browning’s short guide rod and barrel bushing designs, and the pistol received only cosmetic changes until after World War II. Then, the U.S. Army flirted with a switch to Georg Luger’s 9x19mm, along with a new double-action pistol.
Colt and others vied to replace the heavy, 38-ounce 1911A1 Government model with a smaller, lighter arm. Colt argued soldiers were familiar with the manual of arms of its single-action 1911 and submitted one with a shortened slide, 4.25-inch barrel in 9mm and a new frame made of the miracle material aluminum. With tight budgets, thousands of M1911s and plenty of .45 ammo on hand, the military passed on a new handgun, but a smaller, lighter pistol that didn’t sacrifice power was a boon for those who wore sidearms daily. Upon its debut in 1949, Colt’s new 25-ounce Lightweight Commander Model, with its signature ring hammer was a hit. It was chambered in 9mm, .38 Super and especially .45 ACP.
In the early 1970s, it was time to replace the aging M1908 Colt .380 long issued to generals in the Army and Air Force. The U.S. Rock Island Arsenal modified a Government model into a shortened 1911 with a 3.5-inch barrel called the M15 General Officer’s Model Pistol. Splashed in the gun magazines, it was a hit with shooters, but it wasn’t available to them. Fledgling maker Detonics soon offered a similar cut-down Government 1911, and it equally electrified the concealed-carry world. Its 3.5-inch barrel had no bushing, two springs captured on a rod and the shortened frame had a six-shot magazine.
By 1985, Colt began offering a similar six-shot 1911 with a shortened frame, short, heavy barrel and a shorter bushing. Dual recoil springs—one inside the other—aided cycling. Such small 1911s became a favorite with law enforcement and concealed carriers. By the late 1990s Colt had discontinued them, but companies like Kimber and Springfield Armory offer them today.
On the civilian side of the ledger, in the 1950s a chap named Jack Weaver came up with a unique perspective— shooting with both hands and using the gun’s sights, as opposed to point shooting or hip shooting. His principles were embraced by one Col. Jeff Cooper, who almost single-handedly brought the 1911 to prominence at a time when the revolver reigned. Back then, though, sight designers and makers were few, and they were mostly dedicated to the slow-firing Bullseye competition crowd, not defensive shooting.
Gunsmiths like Armand Swenson, Frank Pachmayr and Jim Hoag learned how to make the 1911 as accurate and reliable as a revolver, and fixed or adjustable aftermarket sights were the first things many of these gunsmiths added. They also created things like extended safeties, slide stops and ambidextrous safeties to make it easier for people to shoot and operate the 1911. The cat was out of the bag, and by the 1980s Colt was no longer alone in the 1911 field. New makers offered better sights and tighter tolerances than Colt. The 1911 became a Mr. Potato Head, with many parts easily swapped out by laymen.
Today the market is loaded with aftermarket 1911 parts, and custom makers like Nighthawk, Ed Brown, Wilson Combat and others take great pride in their own parts’ designs and are happy to sell them to 1911 tinkerers. Other companies specialize in sights designed for defense in any kind of lighting condition, rear sights the shooter can use to rack the slide in case of emergency, combat sights, carry sights and more. Want to add a laser? Change grips? Any quick internet search will turn up options—and lots of them.
9mm vs. .45 ACP
The rise of the light, high-capacity double-action 9mm set off the decades-long, contentious “9mm vs. .45 ACP” controversy. The .45 remained clearly superior when the comparison was slow, fat full metal jacket bullets versus fast, small full metal jackets. But in time, as new expanding bullets capable of reliable feeding and great terminal performance arrived for the 9mm, the scales began to tip in the smaller caliber’s favor.
Gun size and weight now predominate the argument, and the 9mm is an increasingly popular choice for 1911 fans. Big-caliber fans aren’t being left behind, though. The 1911 design was once enlarged to handle the long, powerful .45 Winchester Magnum. The huge L.A.R. Mfg Grizzly was a massive 1911-style pistol that weighted up to a hefty 48 ounces. While L.A.R. is no longer with us, the 10mm Auto cartridge has gained steam in recent years.
The 1911 rode on the hips of soldiers, sailors and Marines for three-quarters of a century, and many Marines still used one in Afghanistan. It became a popular arm for law enforcement, target shooting and self-defense. Despite the lower cost and prevalence of polymer pistols, the 1911 combines traditional materials of metal and wood with grace and beauty. May it long live supreme.