The 1911: America’s Greatest Pistol

It was carried by American troops for over a century. Untold numbers of civilians own one. Why is the 1911 the greatest pistol in U.S. history?

The 1911: America’s Greatest Pistol
An example of an M1911 used during World War I.Courtesy Rock Island Arsenal

The pistol that we know as the 1911, originally designed for use by American military forces before World War I, has been has been used by our troops—and carried by untold numbers of civilians—for over 100 years.

And just a few years ago, the U.S. Marines ordered 4,000 1911s from Colt.

If that’s not the mark of a successful pistol, what is?

While the Colt M45A1 CQBP (which stands for Close Quarters Battle Pistol) that the Marines ordered in 2012 for their Special Forces units is probably the last of the U.S. military’s fighting 1911 platform pistols, the Marines wanted it for two excellent reasons: performance and dependability. Like the 1911s before it (the M1911 and M1911A1), this platform evolved over decades. This wasn’t just testing in a lab under controlled conditions, but in the trenches of the Somme Offensive during World War I. The 1911 was also at the Battle of the Bulge, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima in World War II. It was there at the battle of Pork Chop Hill during the Korean War. Tunnel rats in Vietnam used the .45 to flush out enemy fighters from complex underground tunnel systems in the late 1960s. It was at the first Iraq war.

With the SIG-Sauer P320 just named as the new official sidearm of the U.S. Army, it's worthwhile to take a look at what led up to it—and why the 1911 is the greatest pistol in U.S. history.

The 1911: America’s Greatest Pistol
WWI Doughboys pose with their M1911 pistols. The M1911 saw limited use during WWI.web photo

The Need for More Power

The backstory of the 1911 starts with the U.S. military’s quest for a new sidearm caliber, along with the bold step by the U.S. Department of War to test cutting-edge semi-automatic pistol designs. This was at the turn of the 20th century, a time when standing armies still had mounted cavalry troops—cavalry as in horses, not motorized armored vehicles.

That quest brought about a clash between those military types who stubbornly insisted warfare would be conducted like it was during the time of Napoleon, and those who believed technology would transform warfare. Needless to say, the technology side won, and the 1911 pistol was as much a part of the change as the machine gun, grenade, tank and airplanes. The new pistol reflected some valuable old lessons learned in past conflicts.

This all happened because in the early 1900s, there was a desperate need for a better, more powerful sidearm. The jungles of Cuba and Philippines at the turn of the 20th century proved that new, high-tech weaponry was not always the best solution. U.S. troops were facing frenzied Moro fighters hopped up on narcotics, slashing razor-sharp bolos and other primitive weapons. When they charged, and they often would, hand-to-hand fighting would result. The latest high-tech fighting handgun—a Colt Model 1889 double-action revolver with swing-out cylinder, chambered in .38 Colt Long—in theory gave our troops an edge, but in reality, our soldiers found that the new Colt lacked stopping power. The round was anemic and nearly useless against an enemy delirious with rage and fighting a guerrilla-style war. During the Philippine–American War from 1899 to 1902, there were numerous reports of enemy combatants who had to be shot numerous times to subdue them.

The 1911: America’s Greatest Pistol
This commercial advertisement from 1914 touted the U.S. Military’s success with the M1911 pistol.web photo

During the Spanish–American War, which was fought in 1898, rumors started to bubble up from the ranks to the top brass that the new Colt revolver was a liability. Teddy Roosevelt himself insisted his Rough Riders be issued the old Colt SAA revolvers in .45 Long Colt. (If such a scenario sounds familiar, it’s because today there are similar complaints from U.S. troops using the Beretta M9 pistol chambered in 9mm who encountered enemy combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Back in the jungles of the Philippines at the turn of the century there was a dire need for a powerful sidearm.

The stopgap solution was to re-issue the old Colt Single Action Army revolvers, which had been mothballed after the Indian Campaigns. They were slow to load and unload and slow to fire, but they were chambered for that man-stopping .45 Long Colt cartridge. Colt Manufacturing and Springfield Armory re-barreled old horse pistols with 5.5-inch barrels. They were nicknamed the Artillery model since the refurbished revolvers were first issued to light artillery.

A New Round—and a New Gun

In the meantime, the U.S. Army was testing new cartridges and new self-loading pistols, and results were so-so. The Thompson-LaGarde Tests in 1904 assessed a variety of pistol calibers—7.65×21mm Parabellum, 9×19mm Parabellum, .38 Long Colt, .38 ACP, .45 Colt, .476 Eley, and .455 Webley—to determine the optimum bullet type and velocity as well as stopping effect. Five head of cattle at the Nelson Morris Company Union stockyards were the unwitting participants in a test that eventually brought our military to the conclusion that a .45 caliber handgun provided the best shock and stopping effect. The test also used cadavers suspended in the air to measure the sway and movement of the body as it was hit with different calibers from varying distances. The wounds the calibers caused in the cattle and cadavers were examined in detail. Colt and John Browning had been working on a new .41 caliber cartridge, but the cavalry wanted a .45, so the cartridge design was revised in 1904 and named the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol).

The 1911: America’s Greatest Pistol
It was carried by American troops for over a century. Untold numbers of civilians own one. Why is the 1911 the greatest pistol in U.S. history?
An example of a U.S. Model 1911A1 manufactured in 1943 by Colt.Courtesy Rock Island Arsenal

John Browning, who was then working for Colt, had been working on a military pistol and produced the Colt Model 1907 in .45 ACP, which had promise but was plagued with jams. Browning revised the design and offered up the Colt Model 1909, but U.S. Department of War gave a thumbs down to it because the cavalry thought the pistol was overly complicated for use by troops and it lacked a safety mechanism. Browning himself fired 500 rounds through a Model 1909 with no jams or malfunctions, but the military didn’t budge. Browning went back to the drawing board, but he was getting closer.

The trial held in 1906 involved a variety of European and U.S.-made prototypes. After the first round of tests, a DWM Luger pistol from Germany, a Savage, and the Colt Model 1910 were left standing. With tweaked designs the trials resumed in 1910, with the Savage pistol against the Colt. The Savage failed, but the Colt Model 1910 survived the extensive testing with no failures. At one point during the testing, a single Colt pistol was subjected to 6,000 rounds fired continuously. As the pistol heated up it was dunked in a bucket of water to cool down and the testing continued.

That Model 1910 pistol evolved into the Colt M1911, which was formally adopted by the U.S. Army on March 29, 1911. The gun was adopted by the Navy in 1911 and the Marines in 1913.

The 1911: America’s Greatest Pistol
Prior to being deployed, U.S. troops are trained with the M1911A1. Note the one-hand aiming that was the norm back in the mid 1940s.web photo

From the Testing Ground to the Battlefield

It wasn’t long after adoption that the 1911 had its baptism under fire. It performed well enough in the trenches in France during World War I, but some enhancements were recommended to make the pistol more effective. Soldiers with large hands found that the short spur of the grip safety and the hammer pinched the web of their hand (referred to as hammer bite). The flat mainspring housing also caused soldiers to shoot low. The solution was the M1911A1, which included an arched mainspring housing so soldiers hit higher, a scallop in the receiver near the trigger so the pistol was more comfortable to shoot, larger sights, a longer grip safety, and checkered plastic grips.

By World War II, numerous manufacturers—including Remington-Rand (the typewriter company), Singer (the sewing machine company), Ithaca Gun Company, Union Switch & Signal, and Colt—produced the M1911A1. The design would remain the same. Some 2.7 million pistols were produced, but all production stopped after WWII. Those M1911A1 pistols were rebuilt and reissued to live and fight another day in Korea, Vietnam and the first Iraq War. Some pistols were rebuilt numerous times.

The Civilian Side

There’s another story about the 1911—its use by non-military shooters. That began in 1912, when the M1911 pistol became available to the commercial public. These pistols were similar in size and features to military models but were offered in high-blue and regular finishes. When the military moved to the M1911A1, Colt also began offering commercial M1911A1 models.

The 1911: America’s Greatest Pistol
A tunnel rat in Vietnam descends into a hole with a flashlight in one hand and a 1911 in the other.web photo

A second caliber choice was offered staring in 1928, when Colt introduced a 1991 chambered for .38 Super. As civilians and military competitive shooters soon became aware, the 1911 pistol can be accurized for competition shooting. Starting in 1934, the first target 1911 pistols were Super Match .38 commercial models that featured a match-grade barrel, slicked-up action and an adjustable rear sight. Rimfire conversion kits and an Ace model were produced during WWII, making the .22 LR the third caliber choice in the 1911.

As most competition shooters know, the 1911 pistol has evolved into a superior target pistol with such models as the National Match, Gold Cup National Match, Gold Cup Trophy National Match and others being produced for bull’s-eye competition.

The 1911: America’s Greatest Pistol
Lt. General William Keys (Ret.), former President and CEO of Colt, with the M45A1 just prior to the U.S. Marine Corps adoption of the gun in 2012.web photo

A Modern 1911: The CQBP

By 1986, the M1911A1 design was at the end of its life cycle. You can only rebuild a 1911 so many times. The 9mm Beretta M9 replaced the M1911A1 as the official U.S. sidearm, but the enthusiasm for and popularity of the 1911 platform could not easily be quelled. Special Forces and units with the Navy and Marines continued to use the 1911, and in July 2012, the U.S. Marines contracted for 12,000 M1911 pistols for MEU (SOC) forces. The new 1911 was designated M45A1 CQBP, or “Close Quarters Battle Pistol.” Compared to the M1911A1, the M45A1 is what the modern-day shooter expects in a 1911 pistol.

The M45A1 CQBP is manufactured from forged stainless steel. The receiver, slide, slide stop and barrel go through a forging process to make the steel stronger and tougher as well as to hold tolerances more closely. The finish spec called for a dull, non-reflective surface, so it wears a desert tan Cerakote finish. The barrel is match grade. It wears a UID (unique identification) label on the receiver, which is a 2D Matrix symbol that contains data and can be read by a reader camera, similar to a barcode. Other features include a dual recoil spring assembly so recoil feels softer, an integral Picatinny rail so the gun can incorporate a tactical light, an upswept grip safety and an ambidextrous manual safety, a long solid trigger, a flat mainspring housing (like the original M1911), texture G10 grips, and Novak 3-dot, Trijicon night sights. The M45A1 is fed from seven-round Wilson Combat magazines.

The 1911: America’s Greatest Pistol
A Marine with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit fires an M45 A1.web photo

I averaged two-inch groups with Federal American Eagle 230-grain FMJ ammo that clocked a muzzle velocity of 838 fps. I ran eight boxes of different factory ammo with different bullet types and weights, and the M45A1 demonstrated it could exceed the USMC requirement of an average minimum of 300 rounds between stoppages. The pistol runs flawlessly.

In hand the M45A1 feels comfortable, as if you’ve fired this pistol you entire life. The rail gives the weapon slightly more heft than an M1911A1. The felt recoil was soft (Colt used the same dual recoil spring system that’s employed in their 1911 Delta Elite chambered in 10mm.) Two recoil springs are nested together help reduce recoil and prevent frame battering.

Times change. The military changes it collective mind, and the M45A1 CQBP might be the last of the 1911 pistols. In October 2016, the USMC Spec Ops announced the M45A1 was being replaced with the Glock G19 in 9mm.

The 1911: America’s Greatest Pistol
The M45A1 Close Quarters Battle Pistol, which was issued to certain U.S. Marine units in 2012.web photo

But the 1911 continues to serve as an example of an excellent sidearm. Consider this quote from Lt. General William Keys (Ret.) and former CEO of Colt: “The 1911 is an old design but it’s a great gun. It’s a gun that is designed to shoot and kill. And it does that. Using the gun in combat is whole different experience than shooting tin cans. There are a lot who think they know the gun but they don’t. The gun in combat is part of you. You bond with it as much as you do the guys you fight with.”

Robert A. Sadowski is the author of Shooter's Bible Guide to Firearms Assembly, Disassembly, and Cleaning, Shooter's Bible Guide to Combat Handguns, 50 Guns That Changed the World, and numerous other gun books. See all of his titles here.