In this hundredth year of the great Colt 1911, how many of us know that the pistol was actually developed in 1905 or that originally there was both an exposed-hammer and a hammerless version? The former is a matter of public record; you can find it in any standard reference on either John Browning or Colt’s firearms. In actual fact, Colt manufactured and sold quite a few Model 1906 .45s of John Browning’s design before it officially became the 1911.
As for the hammerless version, maybe some of you knew about this design option. I didn’t, until I held John Browning’s original prototypes in my hands. In December, Jim Bequette, a camera team and I descended on the John M. Browning Firearms Museum in Ogden, Utah.
The majority of Browning’s original designs are housed there, along with production examples and a wealth of Browning lore, including a recreation of his workshop. We held the original prototypes for some of the most famous lever actions: Winchester’s 1886, 1892, 1894 and 1895; some of the most famous shotguns: Winchester’s 1897, Remington’s M17, Browning’s A-5 and Superposed; and some of the most famous handguns: FN’s 1910, Colt’s Woodsman, Browning’s Hi-Power. And, of course, the great 1911.
With such a wealth of successful firearms, it isn’t altogether clear which was John Browning’s most successful design, but the 1911 is pretty hard to top. With all the copies and clones, it’s almost impossible to say how many millions have been made.
t started with the two tool-room prototypes now housed in the Browning museum. We all know the story: During the Spanish-American War and the Philippine insurrection that followed, the then-standard .38 revolver acquired a reputation for poor stopping power. The Army wanted to return to a .45, and of course many of the European powers were switching to those newfangled autos. Browning designed his first semiautomatic pistol in 1894–1895 and had designed several since then with both recoil and blowback operation. In 1905 he went to work on an improved large-caliber design, fielding two for the Army trials. One was hammerless, the other had an exposed hammer. It seems that he had some confidence that one of his two pistols would win, and indeed the Browning design was the first and only to survive the 6,000-round torture test with no failures.
As we know, the exposed-hammer design was chosen. After a full century of 1911s, the hammerless version looks a bit strange, but both pistols are unmistakable. There were, of course, modifications. Browning’s prototype exposed-hammer pistol has a grip safety and a hammer safety, but no manual one. That was added later. The patent was granted in 1907, and Colt was in production with the Model 1906 .45-caliber semiautomatic before it officially became the M1911 we know and love.
OK, it surely isn’t the last, but it is the latest. In this centennial celebration it seemed appropriate that Browning would introduce its own 1911 and that we’d been bugging the company for a first look. Well, it has one, but it’s certainly not the pistol we were thinking of. While in Browning country, we got a first look at the soon-to-be-released 1911-22.
The 1911-22 is a .22-caliber pistol faithful to the proven John Browning design, except it’s a scaled-down version. The 1911-22 looks the same, operates the same, disassembles the same, but it’s scaled down 15 percent (in fact, there’s also a compact version called the 1911-22 Compact). This doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but the result is a palm-size 1911 weighing just 15 ounces. I suppose I’m biased because I love the 1911 (I’m not alone), but I think this is one of the coolest new handguns I’ve seen in many a year. Jim and I had the chance to run several 10-round magazines through prototype pistols, and there were no hiccups.
As you’d expect from a Browning handgun, fit and finish is superb, and the feel of the handgun is just plain wonderful. After all, it’s a 1911, just smaller.
There is one exception. In the first proto-types, Browning’s engineers discovered that a 15 percent reduction of the triggerguard was a bit too much for some fingers, so they cheated the act a bit here. The difference isn’t visually noticeable, but trigger accessibility is just fine for man-size index fingers, and shooters with smaller hands will love the feel of the gun. Browning’s R&D division, under the direction of Joe Rousseau, works very much as a team, so despite several queries, they wouldn’t tell us exactly whose bright idea this was. Thanks to modern design programming, scaling down the 1911 was probably very simple. Making it work in .22 rimfire was undoubtedly a lot more complex. But it works, it’s cute, and it may be the most interesting “new” 1911 in this 100th year of the genre.