December 12, 2023
Since their inception, many handguns have come and gone. Several have remained in our minds as special, yet only one is considered iconic. The 1911 pistol designed by John Moses Browning holds that rare space as a reliable workhorse even 112 years after its official release.
While there is a sense of nostalgia for this heavy metal fight stopper, there is more to it than that. The history of the 1911 begins long before the adopted dated name. In 1898 America went to war with Spain and quickly ended up in treacherous jungle warfare against the Moro tribesmen in the Philippines. While the effectiveness of the soldiers’ Springfield rifles was good, there was a less than enthusiastic response to the issued Colt Model 1892 .38-caliber double-action revolvers. So much so, the old Colt Model 1873 single-action revolver was brought back into service. Those handguns dated back to the Plains Indian wars.
An after-action review of the combat in the Philippines resulted in the Thompson-LaGarde test in 1904. This was a military testing event that was focused on determining what handgun cartridge was needed for military use. They tested a wide variety of current cartridges available at that time and determined that, “… a bullet, which will have the shock effect and stopping effect at short ranges necessary for a military pistol or revolver, should have a caliber of not less than .45." In 1906 the military began evaluations of several pistol designs as well as the suitability of the new .45 ACP round. Enter Colt and its semiautomatic submission as designed by John M. Browning. After extensive testing, the Browning pistol was officially adopted by the United States Army on March 29, 1911, and thus became known officially as the Model 1911. Two years later the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps would adopt the same pistol.
The 1911 would see battle around the world and develop a reputation as a trusted friend in dangerous places. It began developing a larger-than-life reputation during World War I, fueled by the story of Sergeant Alvin York stopping six German soldiers with six shots during this Medal of Honor action in the Argonne Forest. The biggest testing ground, however, came during World War II when the military put more than 3 million pistols into service. From volcanic islands in the Pacific to the frozen fields of Europe, the 1911 saw action in every theater of combat. It would continue in service during the Korean War as well as Vietnam. The 1911 continued to see military use until 1985 when the 9mm round was adopted as the primary service round for pistols. That would not however be the end of the 1911.
There are currently over 100 different companies manufacturing versions of the 1911 pistol. Some are custom shops building made-to-order guns, and others are large-scale manufactures that maintain a lines and families of 1911 pistols. The popularity of the 1911 has ebbed and flowed over the years, but there seems to be a bit of a renaissance for this pistol. This has really grown since 2011 and its 100-year anniversary. While some may argue that there has never been a down time for Mr. Browning’s workhorse, it is undeniable that its popularity has grown.
A good example of this can be seen with Remington. In the 1910s, the company produced countless 1911-style pistols for the government. When the First World War ended, so did Remington’s production of the 1911. Fast-forward to April 2010, when the company announced that it would once again be producing 1911s. Decisions such as this are not made purely on sentiment and nostalgia. The market for these pistols has grown and Remington made the choice to enter that market.
While there are several multi-platform companies such as Remington, there exists a group of gun manufacturers that almost exclusively deal with 1911s. One of the first names on that list is Wilson Combat. Founded in 1977, Wilson has built some of the finest 1911s on the market. Add to that list names like Nighthawk Custom, Ed Brown, Les Baer and STI — now Staccato — and you can quickly see the demand for these pistols is high. The skills required to build reliable and accurate 1911 pistols eclipses most other gun building. “Fit and finish” are more than catch phrases for serious custom builders. As with any piece of finely made hardware though, there is a price. While prices run a vast spectrum, a serious custom 1911 can easily cost in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. Not for the faint of heart or light of cash.
The 1911 is and interesting specimen in the gun world, too, because in many cases it is both a functional tool and a collector piece. With a variety of factors driving value, including rarity, history and condition, prices can vary. Possibly one of the most expensive 1911s ever sold belonged to Clyde Barrow and received a winning bid of over $240,000.
Some of the factors that make the 1911 a popular gun go much further than the “cool” factor. With a smooth single-action trigger and heavier frame, the 1911 is accurate and easy gun to shoot. The pistol has also proven versatile, and has been produced in many configurations. From a full-size government model with a 5-inch barrel to the Defender with its 3-inch barrel and shortened frame, there is a spectrum of sizes. One of the early popular modifications, though, was to chamber the gun in .38 Super caliber for use as a competition pistol. The weight of the frame, length of barrel and good trigger made it a natural base on which to build a competition gun. We now see the 1911 chambered in 9mm, .357 Mag., 10mm, and .22 LR, as well as other interesting calibers. Along with being the most used pistol by the world’s best USPSA / IPSC shooters, the 1911 is also the predominant centerfire pistol format at the Camp Perry National Championship Bullseye pistol matches.
While not as prominent in law enforcement and military circles as it once was, the 1911 nevertheless endures. The Hurst, Texas, Police Department has issued the 1911 as a duty weapon since 1974. The 1911 also sees action with some military units including the Marine Corps MARSOC unit. One of the last known prominent events around the 1911 occurred in 1993 when U.S. Delta Force operators, Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randall Shughart, were inserted into a helicopter crash site in Mogadishu, Somalia. The story was later brought to light in the book “Blackhawk Down.” After Shughart was fatally wounded, Gordon continued to protect the wounded pilot, eventually fighting to the death with his 1911 pistol. It is this type of valor and courage that the 1911 seems to personify.
The truth of the matter, though, is that the 1911 is a work of art. To the serious gun aficionado, the lines and build of the 1911 call to a time when function and form went together. A well-made 1911 is the product of true craftsmanship. The men and women who are true 1911 smiths are no less artists than any person with a paintbrush. References to the 1911 equate it to a fine car where time and attention were paid in order to create the best product.
But is a 1911 for everyone? That depends on several factors including your experience with handguns. Undoubtedly the 1911 is not as simple to run as a polymer-frame striker-fired pistol. The grip safety and thumb safety have caused more than one issue with new shooters. Additionally, the 1911 requires more service than its plastic-gripped cousins. While some say a Glock only needs the “thought” of lubrication, a 1911 must be kept lubed. The most brutally honest words on the subject were uttered by firearms expert Larry Vickers. If you want a true measure of how well you would handle a 1911, he states that you should, “Take a look at your lawn mower. Do you take care of it or is it set in a corner of your garage covered in grass and dirt?” If it is the latter, then you might rethink the 1911.
The 1911 is a mechanical marvel. The design based on John Browning’s 1989 patent has been a fundamental blueprint or reference point for pretty much every centerfire autoloader produced in the 20th and 21st centuries. Very few mechanical designs have been copied, cloned or referenced as much as the 1911. While not currently seen as a cutting edge or new tool, the 1911 has secured itself a place in the hearts and minds of gun owners around the world; a classic weapon that has found a new and growing following.
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