The M1911 is a single-action, semi-automatic, magazine-fed, recoil-operated handgun chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge, which served as the standard-issue side arm for the United States armed forces from 1911 to 1985. It was widely used in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The M1911 is still carried by some U.S. forces. Its formal designation as of 1940 was Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911 for the original Model of 1911 or Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911A1 for the M1911A1, adopted in 1924. The designation changed to Pistol, Caliber .45, Automatic, M1911A1 in the Vietnam era. In total, the United States procured around 2.7 million M1911 and M1911A1 pistols in military contracts during its service life. The M1911 was replaced by the M9 pistol as the standard U.S. sidearm in the early 1990s, but due to its popularity among users, it has not been completely phased out. Modern M1911 variants are still seen in use by the U.S. Navy.
Designed by John Browning, the M1911 is the best-known of his designs to use the short recoil principle in its basic design. The pistol was widely copied, and this operating system rose to become the preeminent type of the 20th century and of nearly all modern centerfire pistols. It is popular with civilian shooters in competitive events such as USPSA, IDPA,International Practical Shooting Confederation, and Bullseye shooting. Compact variants are popular civilian concealed carry weapons, because of the design’s inherent slim width and the power of the .45 ACP cartridge.
Early history and adaptations
The M1911 pistol originated in the late 1890s as the result of a search for a suitable self-loading (or semi-automatic) handgun to replace the variety of revolvers then in service. The United States of America was adopting new firearms at a phenomenal rate; several new handguns and two all-new service rifles (the M1892/96/98 Krag and M1895 Navy Lee), as well as a series of revolvers by Colt and Smith & Wesson for the Army and Navy, were adopted just in that decade. The next decade would see a similar pace, including the adoption of several more revolvers and an intensive search for a self-loading pistol that would culminate in official adoption of the M1911 after the turn of the decade.
Hiram S. Maxim had designed a self-loading rifle in the 1880s, but was preoccupied with machine guns. Nevertheless, the application of his principle of using bullet energy to reload led to several self-loading pistols in 1896. The designs caught the attention of various militaries, each of which began programs to find a suitable one for their forces. In the U.S., such a program would lead to a formal test at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century.
During the end of 1899 and start of 1900, a test of self-loading pistols was conducted, which included entries from Mauser (the C96 “Broomhandle”), Mannlicher (the Steyr Mannlicher M1894), and Colt (the Colt M1900).
This led to a purchase of 1,000 DWM Luger pistols, chambered in 7.65 mm Luger, a bottlenecked cartridge. During field trials these ran into some problems, especially withstopping power. Other governments had made similar complaints. Consequently, DWM produced an enlarged version of the round, the 9 mm Parabellum (known in current military parlance as the 9×19 mm NATO), a necked-up version of the 7.65 mm round. Fifty of these were tested as well by the U.S. Army in 1903.
Following the 1904 Thompson-LaGarde pistol round effectiveness tests, Colonel John T. Thompson stated that the new pistol “should not be of less than .45 caliber” and would preferably be semi-automatic in operation. This led to the 1906 trials of pistols from six firearms manufacturing companies (namely, Colt, Bergmann, Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM), Savage Arms Company, Knoble, Webley, and White-Merril.
Of the six designs submitted, three were eliminated early on, leaving only the Savage, Colt, and DWM designs chambered in the new .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge. These three still had issues that needed correction, but only Colt and Savage resubmitted their designs. There is some debate over the reasons for DWM’s withdrawal—some say they felt there was bias and that the DWM design was being used primarily as a “whipping boy” for the Savage and Colt pistols, though this does not fit well with the earlier 1900 purchase of the DWM design over the Colt and Steyr entries. In any case, a series of field tests from 1907 to 1911 were held to decide between the Savage and Colt designs. Both designs were improved between each testing over their initial entries, leading up to the final test before adoption.
Among the areas of success for the Colt was a test at the end of 1910 attended by its designer, John Browning. 6,000 rounds were fired from a single pistol over the course of two days. When the gun began to grow hot, it was simply immersed in water to cool it. The Colt gun passed with no reported malfunctions, while the Savage designs had 37.
Following its success in trials, the Colt pistol was formally adopted by the Army on March 29, 1911, thus gaining its designation, M1911 (Model 1911). It was adopted by the Navy and Marine Corps in 1913. Originally manufactured only by Colt, demand for the firearm in World War I saw the expansion of manufacture to the government-owned Springfield Armory.
Battlefield experience in the First World War led to some more small external changes, completed in 1924. The new version received a modified type classification, M1911A1. Changes to the original design were minor and consisted of a shorter trigger, cutouts in the frame behind the trigger, an arched mainspring housing, a longer grip safety spur (to prevent hammer bite), a wider front sight, a shorter spur on the hammer, and simplified grip checkering by eliminating the “Double Diamond” reliefs. Those unfamiliar with the design are often unable to tell the difference between the two versions at a glance. No significant internal changes were made, and parts remained interchangeable between the two.
Working for the U.S. Ordnance Office, David Marshall Williams developed a .22 training version of the M1911 using a floating chamber to give the .22 long rifle rimfire recoil similar to the .45 version. As the Colt Service Ace, this was available both as a handgun and as a conversion kit for .45 M1911 pistols.
World War II and the years leading up to it created a great demand. During the war, about 1.9 million units were procured by the U.S. Government for all forces, production being undertaken by several manufacturers, including Remington Rand (900,000 produced), Colt (400,000), Ithaca Gun Company (400,000), Union Switch & Signal (50,000), and Singer (500). So many were produced that after 1945 the government did not order any new pistols, and simply used existing parts inventories to “arsenal refinish” guns when necessary. This pistol was favored by US military personnel. Singer produced pistols in particular are highly priced collectibles, commanding high prices even in poor condition.
Before World War II, a small number of the original M1911 pattern pistols were produced under license at the Norwegian weapon factory Kongsberg Vaapenfabrikk, which were designated “Pistol M/1914″ and unofficially known as “Kongsberg Colt”. During the German occupation of Norway the production continued. Norway never updated the design to the M1911A1 standard. These pistols are highly regarded by modern collectors, with the 920 examples stamped with Nazi Waffenamt codes and the unknown number of unmarked examples assembled by the Norwegian resistance movement (the “Matpakke-Colt” or “Lunch Box Colt”) being the most sought after. German forces also used captured M1911A1 pistols, using the designation “Pistole 660(a)”. The M1911 pattern formed the basis for the Argentine Ballester-Molina and certain Spanish Star and Llama pistols made after 1922.
General Officer’s Model
From 1943 to 1945 a fine-grade russet-leather M1916 pistol belt set was issued to some generals in the US Army. It was composed of a leather belt, leather enclosed flap-holster with braided leather tie-down leg strap, leather two-pocket magazine pouch, and a rope neck lanyard. The metal buckle and fittings were in gilded brass. The buckle had the seal of the United States on the center (or “male”) piece and a laurel wreath on the circular (or “female”) piece. The pistol was a standard-issue M1911A1 that came with a cleaning kit and three magazines.
From 1972 to 1981 a modified M1911A1 called the RIA M15 General Officer’s Model was issued to General Officers in the US Army and US Air Force. From 1982 to 1986 the regular M1911A1 was issued. Both came with a black leather belt, open holster with retaining strap, and a two-pocket magazine pouch. The metal buckle and fittings were similar to the M1916 General Officer’s Model except it came in gold metal for the Army and in silver metal for the Air Force.
In 1986, the M15 and M1911A1 were replaced with the Beretta M9, which is the current sidearm issued to General Officers in the Army and Air Force.
After World War II, the M1911 continued to be a mainstay of the United States Armed Forces in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It was used during Desert Storm in specialized U.S. Army units and U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalions (Seabees), and has seen service in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, with U.S. Army Special Forces Groups and Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance Companies.
However, by the late 1970s the M1911A1 was acknowledged to be showing its age. Under political pressure from Congress to standardize on a single modern pistol design, theU.S. Air Force ran a Joint Service Small Arms Program to select a new semi-automatic pistol using the NATO-standard 9 mm Parabellum pistol cartridge. After trials, the Beretta 92S-1 was chosen. The Army contested this result and subsequently ran its own competition in 1981, the XM9 trials, eventually leading to the official adoption of the Beretta 92F on January 14, 1985. By the later 1980s production was ramping up despite a controversial XM9 retrial and a separate XM10 reconfirmation that was boycotted by some entrants of the original trials, cracks in the frames of some pre-M9 Beretta-produced pistols, and despite a problem with slide separation using higher-than-specified-pressure rounds that resulted in injuries to some U.S. Navy special operations operatives. This last issue resulted in an updated model that includes additional protection for the user, the 92FS, and updates to the ammunition used.
By the early 1990s, most M1911A1s had been replaced by the M9, though a limited number remain in use by special units. The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) in particular were noted for continuing the use of M1911 pistols for selected personnel in MEU(SOC) and reconnaissance units (though the USMC also purchased over 50,000 M9 handguns). For its part, the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) issued a requirement for a .45 ACP handgun in the Offensive Handgun Weapon System (OHWS) trials. This resulted in the Heckler & Koch OHWS becoming the MK23 Mod 0 Offensive Handgun Weapon System (itself being heavily based on the 1911′s basic field strip), beating the Colt OHWS, a much modified M1911. Dissatisfaction with the stopping power of the 9 mm Parabellum cartridge used in the Beretta M9 has actually promoted re-adoption of handguns based on the .45 ACP cartridge such as the M1911 design, along with other handguns, among USSOCOM units in recent years, though the M9 remains predominant both within SOCOM and in the U.S. military in general.
Current users in US
Many military and law enforcement organizations in the United States and other countries continue to use (often modified) M1911A1 pistols including Marine Corps Special Operations Command, Los Angeles Police Department S.W.A.T. and L.A.P.D. S.I.S., the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, F.B.I. regional S.W.A.T. teams, and 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta (Delta Force). The Tacoma, Washington Police Department selected the Kimber Pro Carry II or Pro Carry II HD as optional, department supplied weapons available to its officers.
The M1911A1 is popular among the general public in the United States for practical and recreational purposes. The pistol is commonly used for concealed carry thanks in part to a single-stack magazine (which makes for a thinner pistol that is therefore easier to conceal), personal defense, target shooting, and competition. Numerous aftermarket accessories allow users to customize the pistol to their liking. There are a growing number of manufacturers of M1911-type pistols and the model continues to be quite popular for its reliability, simplicity, and patriotic appeal. Various tactical, target, and compact models are available. Price ranges from a low end of around $400 for an imported Armscor/Rock Island model to more than $4,000 for the best competition or tactical models from such as those by Dan Wesson, Wilson Combat, Ed Brown, Les Baer, Nighthawk Custom, and STI International.
Due to an increased demand for M1911 pistols among Army Special Operations units, who are known to field a variety of M1911 pistols, the Army Marksmanship Unit began looking to develop a new generation of M1911s and launched the M1911-A2 project in late 2004. The goal was to produce a minimum of seven variants with various sights, internal and external extractors, flat and arched mainspring housings, integral and add-on magazine wells, a variety of finishes and other options, with the idea of providing the end-user a selection from which to select the features that best fit their missions. The AMU performed a well received demonstration of the first group of pistols to the Marine Corps at Quantico and various Special Operations units at Ft. Bragg and other locations. The project provided a feasibility study with insight into future projects. Models were loaned to various Special Operations units, the results of which are classified. An RFP was issued for a Joint Combat Pistol but it was ultimately canceled. Currently units are experimenting with an M1911 platform in .40 which will incorporate lessons learned from the A2 project. Ultimately, the M1911A2 project provided a test bed for improving existing M1911s. An improved M1911 variant becoming available in the future is a possibility.
The Springfield Custom Professional Model 1911A1 pistol is produced under contract by Springfield Armory for the FBI regional SWAT teams and the Hostage Rescue Team. This pistol is made in batches on a regular basis by the Springfield Custom Shop, and a few examples from most runs are made available for sale to the general public at a selling price of approximately US$2,700 each.
Marine Expeditionary Units formerly issued M1911s to Force Recon units. Hand-selected Colt M1911A1 frames were gutted, deburred, and prepared for additional use by the USMC Precision Weapon Section (PWS) at Marine Corps Base Quantico. They were then assembled with after-market grip safeties, ambidextrous thumb safeties, triggers, improved high-visibility sights, accurized barrels, grips, and improved Wilson magazines. These hand-made pistols were tuned to specifications and preferences of end users.
In the late 1980s, the Marines laid out a series of specifications and improvements to make Browning’s design ready for 21st century combat, many of which have been included in MEU(SOC) pistol designs, but design and supply time was limited. Discovering that the Los Angeles Police Department was pleased with their special Kimber M1911 pistols, a single source request was issued to Kimber for just such a pistol despite the imminent release of their TLE/RLII models. Kimber shortly began producing a limited number of what would be later termed the Interim Close Quarters Battle pistol (ICQB). Maintaining the simple recoil assembly, 5-inch barrel (though using a stainless steel match grade barrel), and internal extractor, the ICQB is not much different from Browning’s original design.
The final units as issued to MCSOCOM Det-1 are the Kimber ICQBs with Surefire IMPL (Integrated Military Pistol Light), Dawson Precision Rails, Tritium Novak LoMount sights, Gemtech TRL Tactical Retention Lanyards, modified Safariland 6004 holsters, and Wilson Combat ’47D’ 8 round magazines. They have reportedly been used with over 15,000 rounds apiece.
Other users over the world
Norway used the Kongsberg Colt which was a license produced variant and is recognized by the unique slide catch. Many Spanish firearms manufacturers produced pistols derived from the 1911, such as the STAR Model B, the ASTRA (company)|ASTRA 1911PL, and the Llama Model IX-A, just to name a few. Argentina produced a licensed copy, the Model 1927 Sistema Colt, which eventually led to production of the cheaper Ballester-Molina, which resembles the 1911, but is not actually based on it. Thailand produced a licensed M1911 copy as the Type 86 and the weapon is still seen armed in the Army.
The German Volkssturm used captured M1911s at the end of World War II under the weapon code P.660(a).
The Brazilian company IMBEL (Indústria de Material Bélico do Brasil) still produces the .45 in several variants for military and law enforcement uses.The Greek Hellenic Army issues the M1911 as a sidearm. These are World War II production American pistols supplied as military aid in 1946 and afterward as the U.S. aided Greece against Communist expansion. The Royal Thai Army uses the M-95, a copy of the M1911 chambered in the .45 ACP round, and still uses USGI M1911s supplied as military aid during the Vietnam War era.
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB Forces), an anti-terrorist tactical team in Bangladesh uses this weapon. And the Armed Forces of the Philippines issues Mil-spec M1911A1 pistols as a sidearm to the special forces, military police and officers. These pistols are produced by Armscor and Colt.
A Chinese Arms manufacturer, Norinco, exports a clone of the M1911A1 for civilian purchase. Importation into the U.S. was blocked by trade rules in 1993. Norinco also manufactured conversion kits to chamber the 7.62x25mm Tokarev round after the Korean War.
In the 1950s, the Republic of China Army used original M1911A1s, and the batches are still used by some forces. In 1962, Taiwan copied the M1911A1 as the T51 pistol, and it saw limited use in the Army. After that, the T51 was improved and introduced for export as the T51K.
- Colt Government Mk. IV Series 70 (1970–1983): Introduced the accurized Collet Barrel Bushing (1970–1988).
- Colt Government Mk. IV Series 80 (1983–1988): Introduced an internal firing pin safety.
- Colt M1991A1 (1991-2001 ORM; 2001–Present NRM): A hybrid of the M1911A1 military model redesigned to use the slide of the Mk. IV Model 80. The 1991-2001 model used the old Colt rollmark engraved on the slide. The 2001 model introduced a new rollmark engraving.
Since its inception, the M1911 has lent itself to easy customization. Replacement sights, grips, and other aftermarket accessories are the most commonly offered parts. Since the 1950s and the rise of competitive pistol shooting, many companies have been offering the M1911 as a base model for major customization. These modifications can range from changing the external finish, checkering the frame, and hand fitting custom hammers, triggers, and sears. Some modifications include installing compensators and the addition of accessories such as tactical lights and even scopes. A common modification of John Moses Browning’s design is to use a full-length guide rod that runs the full length of the recoil spring. This adds weight to the front of the pistol, but does not increase accuracy or reliability and does make the pistol more difficult to disassemble. Custom guns can cost over $5000 and are built from the ground up or on existing base models. The main companies offering custom M1911s are: Springfield Custom Shop, Ed Brown, STI International, Nighthawk Custom, Wilson Combat, Les Baer and Astra Arms in Switzerland. ISPC models are offered by both Strayer Voigt Inc (Infinity Firearms) and STI International.
Browning’s basic M1911 design has seen very little change throughout its production life. The basic principle of the pistol is recoil operation. As the expanding combustion gases force the bullet down the barrel, they give reverse momentum to the slide and barrel which are locked together during this portion of the firing cycle. After the bullet has left the barrel, the slide and barrel continue rearward a short distance.
At this point, a link pivots the barrel down, out of locking recesses in the slide, and brings the barrel to a stop. As the slide continues rearward, a claw extractor pulls the spent casing from the firing chamber and an ejector strikes the rear of the case pivoting it out and away from the pistol. The slide stops and is then propelled forward by a spring to strip a fresh cartridge from the magazine and feed it into the firing chamber. At the forward end of its travel, the slide locks into the barrel and is ready to fire again.
The military mandated a grip safety and a manual safety. A grip safety, sear disconnect, slide stop, half cock position, and manual safety (located on the left rear of the frame) are on all standard M1911A1s. Several companies have developed a firing pin block safety. Colt’s 80 series uses a trigger operated one and several other manufacturers, including Kimber and Smith & Wesson, use a Swartz firing-pin safety, which is operated by the grip safety.
The same basic design has been offered commercially and has been used by other militaries. In addition to the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol), models chambered for .38 Super,9 mm Parabellum, .400 Corbon, and other cartridges were offered. The M1911 was developed from earlier Colt designs firing rounds such as .38 ACP. The design beat out many other contenders during the government’s selection period, during the late 1890s and early 1900s, up to the pistol’s adoption. The M1911 officially replaced a range of revolvers and pistols across branches of the U.S. armed forces, though a number of other designs have seen use in certain niches.
Despite being challenged by newer and lighter weight pistol designs in .45 caliber, such as the Glock 21, the SIG Sauer P220 and the Heckler & Koch USP, the M1911 shows no signs of decreasing popularity and continues to be widely present in various competitive matches such as those of IDPA, IPSC, and Bullseye.
Cautionary language against placing the index finger along the side of the gun to assist in aiming was included in the initial manual on the 1911 which was published in 1912. This is found in other military manuals on the 1911 up to the 1940s.
As of March 18, 2011, the state of Utah in the United States, as a way of honoring their native son, M1911 designer John Browning, adopted the Browning M1911 as the “official firearm of Utah”.