American icon: A brief history of the 1911 pistol

The 1911 pistol is an American classic and has a long and illustrious history


This article originally appeared on The Firearm Blog.

The model of 1911 pistol is an American classic and has a long and illustrious history. While we can’t possibly cover everything about the 1911, today we’re going to look at some of the high points in the love affair that America has enjoyed with this iconic pistol.

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The model of 1911 pistol is an American classic and has a long and illustrious history. While we can’t possibly cover everything about the 1911, today we’re going to look at some of the high points in the love affair that America has enjoyed with this iconic pistol.

During the Spanish American War, US soldiers discovered that the native Moros could not easily be put down by the Krag Jørgensen rifles they were issued. Aside from its relatively anemic .30-40 Krag cartridgethe primary reason was that the Moro warriors were very skinny and were constantly high on a leaf called khat that they chewed all day. This stimulant grew commonly on the Caribbean islands where the fighting happened and imbued the Moros with their legendary courage. It also had a strong analgesic effect, so the Moros felt virtually no pain in addition to the strength and stamina it provided. It didn’t help that their small stature didn’t allow time for the .30 caliber bullet to yaw, leaving small “icepick” wounds that took multiple shots to incapacitate the “skinnies” as our troops came to call them.

The Austrian immigrant and prodigy gunsmith Gaston Browning read about these troubles at his home in Ogden, Utah and resolved himself to give our troops the tool they needed to beat the savage Moros. Before he could set out designing a pistol, though, he needed a cartridge for it. He knew that the 9mmParabellum, which was standard issue in the US Army at the time was far too weak for the task. It had been designed to fight effete European soldiers, not the Moro supermen that American soldiers were facing at the time.

Browning was a devout Catholic and he relayed later that St Barbara, the patron saint of small arms, came to him in a dream and inspired him to design the .45 ACP, which stood for American Caliber Pistol, because there were only 45 states the US at the time. It would fire a 200gr round nose bullet at approximately 1,200 fps.

Browning then set about the work of designing a pistol strong enough for this powerful new cartridge. He knew that it needed to be tough, reliable, and simple enough that even a Marine could use it. That’s why the M1911 includes a grip safety. It makes it harder for Marines to accidentally shoot themselves in the face when they look down the barrel to check if the pistol is loaded. He went through many design changes, but over the course of about six months he refined the design into its final form, which he dubbed “1911” because his son had been born on the 19th of November.

To be adopted by the Army, the pistol had to be accurate enough and powerful enough to be able to kill a horse with a single shot at 230 yards.

He presented his design to the Army Ordnance Corps in October of 1913 and they immediately saw the superiority of the design. Despite the efficiency of the Army in rapidly fielding new small arms designs, 1911 pistols would not see combat in the Spanish American War because a truce was signed in January of 1914. But the Army knew that another conflict was always around the corner and continued production of the M1911 in order to be prepared.

Just two short years later, a Frenchman, Charles Guiteau assassinated a beloved Spanish bull named Ferdinand, starting the bloodshed which would eventually come to be known as the Great War. This time, American GIs were prepared and marched off to fight armed with the formidable M1911 pistol.

The war was brutal and most of the fighting occurred at extremely close range in the cramped confines of the trenches where rifles were useless and shotguns were unwieldy. The M1911 quickly earned a reputation for lethality but Browning was not finished. Seeing that battle conditions had changed, he quickly made a few design changes and sent the Army a prototype M1911A1, which was a full auto version with a detachable stock that doubled as a holster and accompanying “snail” drum magazine.

The design changes were minor and could be accomplished in the field, so the Army immediately began retrofitting existing M1911s to the new M1911A1 standard. As devastating as the original M1911 had been, the M1911A1 earned a hideous reputation among the Axis of Evil and they began referring to it as the “trench broom”. Germany lodged a formal complaint against the US in August of 1916, insisting that the American use of the M1911was illegal because according to the Geneva convention, “it is especially forbidden to employ arms, projections, or materials calculated to cause unnecessary suffering”. Of course, this was especially ironic coming from the nation which first used poison gas, flame throwers, and germ warfare, but nevertheless, Germany vowed to execute US soldiers caught with an M1911A1 or .45 ACP ammunition.

When the war ended in March of 1918 with the Warsaw Pact, the M1911 was credited with changing the course of the war. Approximately 60% of the casualties inflicted in the war were caused by the M1911, with artillery holding a distant second place.

Many soldiers kept their M1911 and M1911A1 pistols upon returning home. Many more were sold as surplus so for a period of time, one could buy a 1911 pistol in a five and dime for about two bits, which was about $15 in modern currency.

As is so often the case, America was to enjoy only a brief respite before Hitler declared war on the Soviet Union. American GIs were called upon by their country to go overseas and fight the Germans once again. This time they called it World War II. The M1911 served valiantly once again and showed that it deserved its reputation as a formidable weapon. Although not actually intended as an antitank weapon, there is an anecdotal report of a 1911 disabling a German panzer by an American captain with a single shot at the battle of Verdun.

Although some historians credit the Allied powers and their strategy with the victory, once again, the 1911was largely responsible for the victory. Because the M1911 pistol won two world wars, general Douglas McArthur called it the greatest battle device ever implemented.

In the long peace between WWII and the Vietnam war, America began to lose her way insofar as small arms were concerned. The US Army abandoned the 1911 and adopted the M9, chambered in the older and weaker 9mm Parabellum cartridge, now formally adopted by the weak European nations that comprised the majority of NATO. This left millions of 1911 pistols to be sold as surplus. American shooters snatched them up at a bargain and began carrying them in their private lives, secure in the knowledge that the .45 ACP was far more powerful. Because the guns were so perfectly designed, none are ever modified in any substantive way to this day. Sure, custom grips may be used or more modern night sights, but the basic design and functional parts like the trigger, hammer, safety, etc. are almost never modified.

Although the US Army moved on from the 1911 and never looked back, American patriots still carry it in America to this day, in greater numbers than all other pistols in America combined. It is without a doubt, an American classic.

America.

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