April 20, 1897 is not one of those dates that stays in your memory, like December 7th or the 4th of July. Even I have to admit I didn’t know the significance of the date right off the top of my head. But there it is, engraved along the left slide of every Model 1911 pistol made by Colt that I have ever held. It is the date of the first patent awarded to John M. Browning for what would become the most remarkable handgun design ever.
Today, the Model 1911 is clearly the most iconic U.S. Military sidearm in history. Over seven million of them have been manufactured since the U.S. Ordnance Board adopted the pistol for the U.S. Army in 1911, making the single-action, semiautomatic, magazine-fed, recoil-operated pistol the most produced handgun design in history.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, as they were looking for a cartridge with knockdown power, the Ordnance Board for the U.S. Armed Services actually selected the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge before selecting the gun that would fire it. Somewhat taken aback by the inefficient “stopping power” that the standard .38-caliber cartridge (then-standard Colt Model 1892 revolvers were chambered in .38 Long Colt) had against Moro guerrillas during the Philippine-American War the U.S. military wanted a harder-hitting cartridge.
In 1906 this search for a better handgun to shoot the .45 ACP led to military test trials. Six firearms manufacturing companies submitted pistols. Of the six, three were eliminated early on, leaving a Savage, Colt, and DWM chambered in .45 ACP. These three handguns still needed tweaks, but only Colt and Savage resubmitted their designs. Field tests from 1907 to 1911 were held to decide between the Savage and Colt designs. Six thousand rounds were fired from single Colt and Savage pistols over the course of two days. When the guns began to grow hot they were simply immersed in water. The Colt passed with no reported malfunctions. The U.S. Army then adopted the Colt Model 1911 on March 29, 1911, thus gaining its designation, Model 1911. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps adopted it in 1913.
I’d like to think the Model 1911 was chosen because it is, well, perfect. Browning’s design was relatively simplistic. Using Newton’s laws of physics, namely every action has an equal and opposite reaction, his delayed blowback system became that basis for dozens of semiauto clones for the next one hundred years.
Think of the Model 1911 in these terms. On the day Browning was awarded his first patent for this pistol design, two brothers were working diligently at 22 South Williams Street in Dayton, Ohio, repairing bicycles. Looking to the sky, Wilbur and Orville Wright could not imagine that in 5 years they would become stewards of the legacy of Kitty Hawk and powered flight. In the intervening 112 years the world has witnessed the age of flight, which in turn begat the space age. Man has traveled to the moon and back and sent satellites and communication devices to the edges of our own solar system.
Planes today don’t look like they did 112 years ago. Heck, your computer doesn’t look like it did 12 years ago, and your phone has changed drastically in just the last 12 months. But you know what hasn’t changed at all in those 112 years? Even with all the advances in technology, the one thing that hasn’t changed a bit, the one item that is still as effective and relevant today as it was when it was first produced, is the Model 1911. It is still being used by our men and women in uniform and still delivers the knockout punch needed when lives are on the line. And it still gives a rush of adrenaline when you pull the trigger—each and every time.
And John Wayne could never have convincingly pulled off his Sergeant Stryker persona in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) without “Ole Slabsides,” as it has become affectionately known.
During the last 100-plus years, the Model 1911 pistol has been widely copied. It is still popular with civilian shooters in competitive events. The Model 1911 would serve as the standard-issue sidearm for the U.S. Armed Forces from 1911 to 1985. In total, the U.S. military bought around 2.7 million Model 1911 and 1911A1 pistols, and civilians bought—and are still buying—millions more. The Model 1911 was replaced by the 9mm Beretta M9 pistol as the standard U.S. sidearm, but due to its popularity, the Model 1911 has not been completely phased out. It’s a remarkable piece of American history that most people aren’t even aware of.