July 22, 2016
By Garry James
Today, the 1911 Government Model, in all its incarnations, is one of the most popular pistols in the world. However, when it first appeared in 1911, only the United States seemed particularly enamored of it — presciently followed three years later by Norway. The Luger, with a provenance going back to the beginning of the 20th century, still was considered world standard.
When World War I started, out of necessity, other countries began looking around for arms to fill their depleted armories, and the 1911 started looking pretty good. It was ultimately used to a degree by Great Britain, Russia and France. But we get ahead of ourselves.
Based upon bad experiences with .38 revolvers in the Philippines during and after the Spanish-American War, U.S. authorities thought a return to .45 caliber was in order. Actually, they had already fielded some revolvers in .45 as a stopgap measure, but something more official was definitely in order.
John Browning's early service-grade auto pistols were chambered in .38, but in 1905, he introduced a .45 self-loader based on an earlier 1900 model. The rimless cartridge that the gun chambered featured a 230-grain bullet which moved out at 855 feet-per-second offering a muzzle velocity of 405 ft. lbs — about 100 more than the .38 ACP.
Browning tendered his 1905 auto pistol to government authorities in the 1907 pistol trials, where it emerged preeminent. Still, testing turned up some deficiencies in the design. Browning, undaunted, went back to his drawing board, and in 1910 submitting his improved .45 where it outclassed its closest rival, a .45 repeater made by Savage.
Accordingly, on March 28, 1911, the U.S. military made things official, adopting Browning's fine new seven-shot .45. Like so many great designs, simplicity was a keynote of the 1911 Government Model. It was a locked-breech single-action employing a swinging link attached to the barrel, which lowered the barrel, permitting the slide to unlock when moved to the rear.
The lock mechanism employed as few parts as were necessary and controls were simple, consisting of a slide release, safety catch, hammer-half-cock safety and grip safety. When the last round had been fired, the slide remained open, ready to receive a new magazine. The first round was then chambered by thumbing-down the slide lock or manually pulling the slide to the rear.
Both the 1911 and its sheet-steel box magazine were fitted with lanyard loops — it being felt prudent by authorities to have the magazine itself also be attached to the trooper so he would not inadvertently drop it during the reloading process. This feature remained for a time, but was eventually regarded as superfluous and more trouble than it was worth, so it was phased out.
The first 1911s were manufactured by Colt and also at Springfield Armory (like the one seen here). This was the only auto pistol made by the national armory and features a rather 19th century-looking American eagle insignia stamped on its slide. Civilian models were also offered by Colt as early as 1912.
Production of the 1911 continued apace, and as it became evident that the United States was going to get involved in World War I, other contracts for 1911s were made with Remington UMC and North American Arms Co. Ltd, in Quebec Canada, the latter only producing some 100 of the autos in 1918. Today, North American 1911s are highly sought-after by collectors and easily bring prices in the five figures.
After the war, the 1911 continued to be produced, particularly for the civilian market, where it enjoyed brisk sales. As good as the pistol was, there were some who felt improvements could be made. So, in the 1920s, the Government Model was slightly modified, most notably with an arched mainspring housing, shorter trigger and extended grip safety and redesignated the M1911A1.
This pistol served the U.S. well through WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Still, developments in double-action, high-capacity pistols caused some to feel the 1911 was a bit old fashioned. In 1985, it was replaced by a version of the 9mm Beretta 92, dubbed by the U.S. military the M9.
There were many shooters and military men then, and a good number today, who questioned the replacement of the Government Model and not necessarily without some justification.
Today, the 1911 Government Model platform is one of the most popular styles of handgun in America. Old or new — it is a classic in every sense of the word.
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