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1911: The First 100 Years, 2nd Edition

1911: The First 100 Years, 2nd Edition

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1911: The First 100 Years, 2nd Edition

751 pagine
5 ore
Jul 30, 2019


Celebrate the Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911 in 1911: The First 100 Years, 2nd Edition! 

Now, in one fascinating, illustrated volume, authority Patrick Sweeney celebrates the greatest fighting handgun ever designed, John M. Browning's legendary 1911 .45.

  • Early predecessors of the 1911
  • 1911 history and development
  • Today's factory 1911 models
  • Competition 1911s and top 1911 gunsmiths
  • Custom 1911s that shoot as good as they look
  • Lavishly illustrated with 1911 photos collected from around the world

For the collector, for the shooter, for the historian--for anyone interested in the evolution of this truly American classic, 1911: The First 100 Years, 2nd Edition is a must-have volume, and builds upon the wildly successful and popular first edition, with even more history, models and information on this timeless pistol design.

Jul 30, 2019

Informazioni sull'autore

Patrick Sweeney is a certified master gunsmith and armorer instructor for police departments nationwide. He is author of many Gun Digest books, inculding Gun Digest Book of the 1911 Vols. 1 & 2, Gun Digest Book of the Glock Vols. 1 & 2, Gun Digest Book of the AR-15 Vols. 1, 2, 3 & 4, Gunsmithing: Rifles, Gunsmithing: Pistols & Revolvers 1 & 2, and Gunsmithing the AR-15 Vols. 1 & 2.

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1911 - Patrick Sweeney



I began shooting back in the 1960s (yes, I’m old), and I learned by doing. Alas, the first handgun I shot was not a 1911. It was, of all things, a Dickson Cheyenne, a German-made .22 LR revolver. Not the greatest of guns — and one the family shot so much we wore it out — but it was a start.

The next one was a Ruger Blackhawk in .357 Magnum. I learned to shoot it, as well as reload for it, and from there things just kept going.

By the mid–1970s I was a shooter and reloader, feeding a Colt Diamondback with a single-stage press. I had been reading Guns & Ammo Magazine religiously since the very early 1970s and had been keeping abreast of the changes in shooting. However, I had not heard about the Columbia conference, the formation of the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC), until after it happened.

In September 1977 I shot in my first IPSC match. I won, and I was hooked. I had started working at a gun shop in 1976 and, as a result, I had access to lots of info and all the firearms and ammunition my meager income could command. I also managed to read all the back issues of the popular firearms periodicals of the day. As a bonus, a collection of guns and gear we bought at the gun shop included a collection of Gun Digest editions going back to the mid–1950s — another bonanza of information! A surplus Ithaca 1911A1 pistol came to the shop, and I quickly snapped it up. I already knew that a box-stock 1911A1 wouldn’t be competitive in IPSC competition, and even if it was, who wanted to be stock? So, I had the local wizard gun-plumber, Frank Paris, work it over.

The 1970s were a different time. America still ruled the world, although the Soviets argued the point. The British had just divested themselves of their world-encircling empire but would not yet have all the consequences come back to haunt them. Since then, things have changed a lot, and we’ve learned a lot.

One thing you’ll have to get used to in my style is the personal approach, especially in this book, where a lot of what I’m discussing were things that I did, or that happened while I stood next to the guys who did it or talked to the guys who did it. I will, however, from time to time use the editorial we as in we did this or we learned that. Do not be confused: I am not saying I was standing next to Jeff Cooper, when in 1977, we learned that a 9mm was hard-pressed to keep up with a .45 in the scoring system. I’m merely saying that the knowledge was quickly disseminated, and the lesson learned so thoroughly that it is now something everyone knows (which makes it ripe for reassessment).

I bopped from gun shop to radio broadcasting and back to a gun shop while still doing on-air radio, this time as an apprentice to a master gunsmith, Dan McDonald. I learned a lot, and when he retired (early, in the opinion of many) I worked for the new owner of the shop. Soon after that would come another change of hands, and I was pretty much on my own. Working as a self-employed gunsmith offers a lot of opportunities: the chance to work long hours, delving into the intricacies of many firearms; to drink huge amounts of coffee (OK, that one I learned from radio); to seriously ignore one’s social life; and to shoot vast amounts of ammunition.

Our shop depended on deer hunters, so starting each late summer (for the smart ones) and into the fall I’d be cleaning hunting guns, mounting scopes, and test firing and zeroing rifles, shotguns and handguns. During a typical workweek leading up to opening day you would find me loading up the truck and heading to the range before dawn. I’d set up and be shooting the minute the club rules allowed. Often, I’d be able to finish and return to the shop before noon, when I’d write the guns up, rack them and work on the next slew needing cleaning, repair and testing. What does this have to do with the 1911? Simple. I shot everything. If it came in needing a fix, it probably needed to be test fired, which simply meant I had a chance to shoot many different firearms.

My competition adventures expanded on that experience, and one of the major matches I attended was the Second Chance Pin Shoot. Now it’s simply called, The Pin Shoot, as the Second Chance trademark is owned by someone else. On the practice range you could shoot anything that was legal and wouldn’t damage the range.

I’ve shot a lot of ammunition through various models of the pistol we’ll be discussing, but curiously, I’ve shot relatively few of the guns illustrated or mentioned in these pages. Oh, I’ve fired variations of the models in the past, but not these particular guns, for this book. After all, do I really want to be in the position of phoning someone up and telling him that I’m going to have to go after the ammo maker because the factory ammo I was using blew up his mondo-expensive pistol, or his one-of-a-kind collectible? Nope. So, I didn’t shoot many of them.

Also, this is not a collector’s minutiae book. I’m not going to attempt to nail down the serial-number gap between changes in the radius of a machining operation or try to detail the five types of slide stops that were accepted by the Department of Defense. No, if you want to track down serial-number fonts and inspectors’ stamps, there are plenty of books for that. Were I to do the same thing, I’d simply be providing you with the same information they’ve already ferreted out. Not my style.

Also, this is not only a book about the 1911, but a record of that pistol in a given time. A lot of things changed over the course of the previous century — perhaps someday to be called The American Century in history books, or The Modern Century or who knows — while the 1911 wasn’t changing (much), and I want to let the newer readers know about those changes.

We have a long road ahead of us: not just in this book, but in life and times. Some of the firearms you’ll see herein are truly one of a kind, as all the other examples of them have been lost to wars, confiscations, use and abuse.

But they’re all 1911s. So enjoy!



March 29, 1911 was not just the beginning of a new century. It was the beginning of a new world. We like to think of ourselves as modern and living in a time of breathtaking advances, but the first decade of the 20th century was not just the start of a new century, it was the start of The Modern Age. In the first 10 years of the 20th century, so many things changed, and changed fundamentally, that afterward nothing was the same. I’ll admit that a big aspect of that change was The Great War itself — aka World War I — but the war accelerated things that were already going on. Before 1900, the world was pretty much as it had been before. Oh, there were things such as electricity, flush toilets, repeating rifles and medical anesthetics that hadn’t existed during the time of the Caesars, but they were not common. Afterward, however, almost everything was overturned.

And we were late to the party. Other military organizations had already jumped into the new era.

Some new things weren’t new. The punch card, for example, had been invented in 1801 by Joseph Marie Jaquard. It was used in the 1890 census in the United States, speeding up the report from the census from the eight years the previous one had taken to only three years. Compared to lopping five years off a Constitutionally required report, a pistol was old hat. Some things were new. Until 1903, Coca-Cola contained 250 milligrams of cocaine per liter of soda. Oh, and Cocaine and Heroin were trademarked drugs, sold pretty much over the counter. Marijuana was an over-the-counter product, along with a medicine called Laudanum, which was powdered opium in an alcohol base. Yow!

In 1904, the vacuum tube was invented by John Ambrose Fleming, an English electrical engineer and physicist. This became the essential part of radio, radar, sound recording and television. What to do for entertainment in 1911? The moving pictures at the time were short, silent and not yet the huge draw they would become. One or two reels in length, each shorter than 15 minutes, they were produced on celluloid film. That film was beyond flammable — it would spontaneously combust and the flames could not be doused with water. Nonflammable film had been invented in 1910, but it would not be widely adopted for several decades. Most movies were first produced in New York, but in 1911 the Nestor Film Company was the first to move to Los Angeles for the days and days of sunshine during filming.

Before the 1911 was invented, revolvers such as this ornately engraved Colt Single Action Army were the ne plus ultra of self-defense sidearms.

There was no radio broadcasting that had taken commercial form. There were newspapers, and every town of any size had at least two major presses and a list of smaller ones. Joseph Pulitzer founded the Columbia School of Journalism in 1912. Prior to that, a journalist was anyone who worked for a newspaper, and all it took was a willingness to work. Literacy was fairly common, but a large number of newspapers were published in the languages of the recent immigrants, such as German, Italian, Greek, French, Polish, Russian, Swedish and almost every other language, depending on where in the country you were.

With all of the change happening, one might wonder why a pistol was a big deal. To understand just what a leap forward the 1911 pistol was, you must have a grasp of what things were like when it was adopted by the U.S. Army, as a number of other significant events happened in that year.

The first issue of Boys Life magazine was published on January 1, 1911. In 1912, the Boy Scouts of America bought it, and it then became its official publication. In 1911, the Olympic record time for the 100-meter freestyle stood at 1:05.6 seconds. Today, that time would probably not win a local high-school meet, and the Olympic record currently stands at 46.91 seconds, nearly 20 seconds faster. At the start of 1911, the President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Charles Ebbets, announced he had purchased the property to build a new concrete and steel stadium to seat 30,000 fans. To put that in context, existing stadiums for most teams at the time were simply a ring of wooden bleachers around the playing field.

Hank Greenberg, the Hall-of-Fame Detroit Tigers first baseman, was born on January 1, 1911, and as far as I can tell, never played a single game in Ebbets Field. Of course, after 1959, no one played baseball in Ebbets Field, either, as the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and the old, small, out-of-date stadium was torn down. And you thought pro teams moving from one city to another was a 21st-century thing?

The 1911 World Series saw the Philadelphia Athletics against the New York Giants. Philly won, four games to two. The New York Yankees wouldn’t appear in the World Series until 1923, when it beat the Giants, four games to two. The Athletics moved to Kansas City in 1954.

If you’re a fan of the movie Bad Day at Black Rock (and you should be), its director, John Sturges, was born on January 3 of the momentous year of 1911. Its star, Spencer Tracy, had been born at the turn of the century and was not quite 11 years old when the 1911 pistol was adopted.

College football, while quite popular, was not yet the national obsession it grew into by the 1920s. As a result, teams played in much smaller venues than what we are accustomed to today. The Michigan Wolverines, for instance, played its 1911 season in Ferry Field, not Michigan Stadium. Ferry Field seated only 18,000 people, about what a basketball arena or a Texas high-school football stadium holds today. It wasn’t until 1926 that Fielding Yost built Michigan Stadium, aka The Big House, with its then-record 72,000 seats. On the other side of the country, UCLA didn’t even have a football team in 1911 and wouldn’t form one until 1919. The Rose Bowl, first played in 1902, wasn’t played in the current stadium until the 1923 game. And it took until the 1963 game for the formal Pac-10 vs. Big-10 champions as the Rose Bowl team’s arrangement.

College football was also the only football being played at the time. The NFL, or at least the predecessor to it, the American Professional Football Association, wasn’t formed until 1920. It became the NFL for the 1922 season. The NFL agreed to merge with the AFL in 1966, and the Super Bowl was formed as the championship between those groups.

A plain M1905 pistol, which Colt made for a short while as it worked out the details on which the Army insisted and which preceded the final test in 1911.

Today we’re worried about concussions in sports. In collegiate football, the forward pass was not legal until 1906. In the 1905 season 18 players died and 159 were seriously injured. One has to wonder, in the time before The Great War, what constituted a serious injury.

In December 1911 Roald Amundsen was the first human to reach the South Pole. Despite his less than happy life, Amundsen fared better than Robert Scott. Scott also struck out for the Pole in that same season but reached it a month later than Amundsen. Scott and his expedition perished on the return to the coast.

At the time, Scott was the better-known adventurer, and his tragic expedition received a great deal more notice due to having an official photographer, Herbert Ponting, on staff. The newspapers and magazines of the time were eager to publish the photographs. Ponting had taken the pictures at great personal effort, as the cameras and other photography gear he chose weighed 200 pounds. Imagine his disappointment upon returning from the ill-fated expedition to discover that the late Scott, eager to finance the trip, had pre-sold the image rights to all the photographs taken!

Also in January 1911, the U.S. Navy achieved the first landing of an aircraft on a ship when the Curtiss Pusher biplane piloted by Lt. Eugene Ely, USN, landed on a specially constructed deck on the cruiser USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay.

In February 1911, Gustave Mahler conducted his last concert. On March 7, the United States sent 20,000 troops to the Mexican border, just to keep things on the up-and-up. On March 13, L. Ron Hubbard was born. For those who have known only of Dianetics, he was quite prolific as a science-fiction author prior to his self-help work. He also founded Scientology.

Marshall McLuhan, of the medium is the message was born that fated year. As was Hubert Humphrey, the vice president under LBJ, who lost to Richard Nixon in the 1968 election. On March 24, Joseph Barbera was born, he and his partner William Hanna (born in 1910) being the creators of the Flintstones and countless other cartoon characters. On March 25, Jack Ruby was born. He would lead an otherwise undistinguished life until November 24, 1963, when he was immortalized on camera as the killer of Lee Harvey Oswald. On March 26, playwright Tennessee Williams was born, for which theatergoers for decades after would be thankful.

March 1911 was not entirely a good month, though. Nazi war criminal Joseph Mengele was born March 16, and on March 24 there was a history-making fire in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in which 146 women, mostly immigrant women, were killed. The doors of the factory were locked shut during working hours, leading to the doomed workers’ inability to escape. As a result, fire codes across the nation were created or updated.

The Cadillac Motor Car Company was hard at work developing one of the truly great innovations of the industry: the electric starter. At the same time, Henry Ford was busy perfecting the assembly line. (No, he didn’t invent it, but he did perfect it.)

In 1908 a Ford cost $850 and required 12-and-a-half hours of factory floor time to produce. A Ford Model T Open Runabout, unequipped, listed for $600 in 1911, and fully equipped went for $680. In 1911 Ford would make and sell 34,500 of these 20-horsepower beauties at its brand-new, state-of-the-art facility in Highland Park, Michigan. At the average weekly wage of $9 dollars, that was a lot of money for a car, but they were almost unbreakable due to Ford’s use of vanadium-alloy steel. By 1913 Ford had gotten the production time down to 93 minutes and was able to drop the price even more to $440.

Not only did the early Colts lack a thumb safety, they didn’t even have grip safeties or magazine disconnectors.

Speaking of automobiles, the world land speed record was set on April 23, 1911, by Bob Burman. He drove a Benz on Daytona Beach and reached the speed of 141.732 mph. Also, the first Indianapolis 500 was held in 1911, won by Ray Harroun with an average speed of 74.602 mph. That’s six hours and 42 minutes of racing in an open-cockpit car. Harroun’s car sported an innovation: a rear-view mirror.

Of course, not everyone drove a car, which meant the major cities of the world were awash in horse manure. Everything that moved was set in motion by horsepower, manpower or steam. Trolley cars moved via horses, and a horse worked a four-hour shift. Every delivery cart, cab, private carriage and messenger required a horse or horses, and each of them required lots of food and water — which, in equine-processed form, was promptly deposited on the streets. Futurists predicted that by the middle of the century Manhattan would be covered in horse manure to the third-story windows. Thankfully, such a dire predicament did not come to pass. Complain all you will about smog, but in 1911 the automobile was seen as the savior of the city.

By 1911 Thomas Edison had pretty much lost his current war with George Westinghouse and alternating current (AC) became the American domestic standard.

In August 1911, Public Act 62-5 was passed, fixing the House of Representatives at 435 people. (The law did not go into effect until 1913.) On August 22, the staff of the Louvre discovered the Mona Lisa had been stolen. It would remain lost until 1913.

The infamous Sullivan Act went into effect in August 1911. It required a license to own or carry a concealed firearm in the city of New York. Thus began the now century-plus-long struggle over the subject of gun control laws.

Nostalgia be damned, you would not want to live in the first decade of the 20th century. In America, the housing situation would, by today’s standards, have most of us living in poverty. How about these stats: a quarter of homes had running water; one in eight had flush toilets; and fewer than that had electric lighting. A grand total of 5 percent of homes had telephones. One in five had a refrigerator, and 5 percent of American homes had a washing machine. The term scullery maid referred to the lowest-ranking domestic servant who did all the cleaning, which included producing vats of boiling water for scouring, mopping and laundry. It was not unusual for scullery maids, who were all female as there were no male maids at the time, to be scarred or die from accidents with vats of boiling water as they tried to keep up with the laundry.

In 1911, Lt. George S. Patton, USMA class of 1909, was posted to the 15th Cavalry at Ft. Sheridan, Illinois, where he practiced to compete in the modern pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics. Dwight Eisenhower was a plebe, graduating in 1915, the class the stars fell on. That class was so-named because 59 of the 164 of them made general officer. In 1911 Captain Douglas MacArthur, USMA class of 1903, was head of the Military Engineering Department and Field Engineer School. These officers would have plenty of time to become familiar with the 1911 pistol before first going to Europe for The Great War and then later for World War II. In 1911, one Harry Truman, having been turned away from USMA due to poor eyesight, was a Corporal in the Missouri Field Artillery. He was very good in artillery and was promoted to captain before heading over to France in 1918.

In 1911 the average life expectancy in America was 51.5 years, with men at 49.9 and women at 53.2. Kinda makes retirement at 65 take on a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

Music in 1911 usually meant live music. People who wanted music either learned to play or went to the theater. Low-class folks went to music halls, while well-off folks bought an Edison cylinder player or went to expensive music venues. For the most part, music sales meant sales of sheet music. Edwardian-era techno-geeks were in a tizzy. Would piano players be replaced by pianolas — a machine you rolled up to your piano and loaded with music, and it played the thing. Pianolas had the machinery built in. Now we call them player pianos, if we think of them at all.

The Justice Department brought a lawsuit against U.S. Steel in 1911 on monopoly charges. American steel production in 1911 was 23,676,106 tons, of which U.S. Steel produced more than half. America produced more steel than any other country at the time. America made the bulk of that steel for one good reason: railroads. In 1911, America had twice as many miles of railway as all of the European countries combined, including Russia. Production now is measured in metric tons, which are 2,200 pounds each. In 2017, Italy made 24 million metric tons of steel, and it was tenth on the list of producers. Tops on the list was China with 832 million metric tons. The United States is fourth on the list, behind China, Japan and India.

The Germans had been busy adopting the Luger, and by 1911 they had plenty on hand.

In 1911, the female ideal was the Gibson Girl, as drawn by Charles Dana Gibson. Tall, shapely, with a wasp waist, hair pulled up in a bun, and lacking the bustles, frills and other fashion accouterments of the earlier Victorian age, the fashion lasted from the 1890s up through World War I.

The 1910 census counted 92,228,496 citizens, residents and legal aliens. Today, California, Texas and Florida almost match that. Do a thought experiment and visualize where you are. Then, remove three out of four people. That was the population density of the United States in 1911, and 92 million would put the ranking at sixteenth in the world now, behind Vietnam and ahead of the Congo.

In a century, we went from khakis and campaign hats to digital camouflage, body armor and a pistol like this Hilton Yam 10-8 Consulting tactical. But the base gun is still a 1911. Not much changed from when John Moses Browning and Colt perfected it for the Army.

In 1911 America was not the arsenal of democracy. The British army at that time consisted of 247,000 men, and that included those stationed in the colonies. They would land in France in 1914 with six divisions of infantry and five brigades of cavalry — fewer than 100,000 men. Germany had a standing army of 870,000 men in 50 active divisions, plus 48 reserve divisions. All German adult males served a short stint in training and then went into their reserve units. The French had 47 divisions: 770,000 men in active-duty units, 46,000 colonial troops and a similar reserve system as that of the Germans. Italy had 300,000 men in its army but had severe shortages of trained officers and NCOs. The real heavyweight was Russia with 1,432,000 men in active duty with another 1.5 million in reserves. Yes, the Russian army was heavy in lightly equipped infantry units with not much more than the rifles and bayonets they were carrying. Still, that’s a lot of men.

In 1911 the U.S. Army consisted of 190,000 men, and combat-experienced troops had seen the war with Spain, the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Philippine Insurrection. The U.S. Army was mostly a frontier-patrolling force and had no officers experienced in troop movements and combat with anything larger than a company-sized operation.

The hull of the Titanic was launched May 31, 1911, outfitted by March of 1912, and sailed on her maiden voyage April 10, 1912. After that, it was a short ride to the iceberg.

As a final example of just how different things were in 1911, consider that the democratically elected American president was a rarity in heads of state. A list of who was in charge of which countries that year would include the following:

King George V, King of England and the British Dominions, Emperor of India

Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary

Albert I, King of the Belgians

Frederick VIII, King of Denmark

Wilhelm II, German Emperor, King of Prussia

Otto, King of Bavaria

Frederick Augustus III, King of Saxony

Wilhelm II, King of Wurttemberg

Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy

Guillaume IV, Grand Duke of Luxembourg

Wilhelmina, Queen of the Netherlands

Haakon VII, King of Norway

Mehmed V, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire

Alphonso XIII, King of Spain

Gustaf V, King of Sweden

Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia

Xuantong, Emperor of China

Mutsuhito, 122nd Emperor of Japan

Faisal Bin Turki, Sultan of Oman

George I, King of the Hellenes (Greece)

Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia

Obviously, the idea of democratic selection of governments had a long way to go. Along with the United States, there were also some elected presidents in Europe and a few other locales here and there. Most of South America was run by so-called presidents, but the actual process of electing them could hardly have been called democratic.

In a few years, most of those monarchies would be gone.

America was then, and is now, exceptional.

One more thing, something that happened before 1911 but bears a great deal on The Great War. In 1905, one John J. Pershing, having graduated West Point as First Captain, 30th in his class, was still, despite 20 years of service and multiple combat campaigns, a captain in the Regular Army. The President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, suggested he be promoted: colonel would be good, lieutenant colonel satisfactory and even major would do. The Army, insisting on seniority as the sole metric, refused.

The British army, felt strongly enough about big-bore revolvers that it still authorized the use of the .455 Webley.

The President has one option in promotions: suggesting officers to the rank of brigadier general. So, Roosevelt did just that. The Senate confirmed Pershing and, as a result, he jumped over 835 senior officers to his star. That’s how Black Jack Pershing became Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in 1917. He was that good.

To handgunners the world over, 1911 will always stand out as the year in which the world’s greatest semi-automatic pistol was finalized. In fact, this may be the most enduring event of that event-filled year. The 1911 pistol is an amazing machine. It disposed of more power than any other commonly manufactured military sidearm then, and it is still highly regarded in that measure. It is durable not because of its super-secret alloy or heat treatment, but by its basic design.

You can find no other item designed in the first decade of the 20th century still in common use, and still essentially unchanged from the original. If you do scour the museums and history books and find something made then that I’ve overlooked, my trump card is this question: is that object still commonly believed to be the best tool for the job? The 1911 is.

To illustrate how fortunate we are to have the 1911 pistol, consider for a moment what likely would have happened had John Moses Browning turned the spotlight of his genius in another direction. What if, in the early 1890s someone had recognized Browning’s mechanical acumen and lured him away? What if Henry Ford had said, John, we know that Winchester is paying you five- and ten-thousand dollars a design for guns, but have you ever looked at automobiles? Here’s a gasoline engine. Think you can improve on it?

What if Browning had been wooed away to design aircraft? When the Wright brothers took off on that windy December day in 1903, they used an engine with many aluminum components. In developing that engine, they had asked engine manufacturers for a power plant that weighed less than 200 pounds and produced at least eight horsepower. The Wright Flyer engine produced 12 horsepower. I can’t imagine it being more than a day’s work for Browning, once he’d gotten a handle on internal combustion engines, to produce a design for a 200-pound engine with much more horsepower than 12.

In 2018, Dan Wesson introduced its 50th Anniversary 1911. It featured elegant scroll engraving and eye-catching simulated ivory grips on a deep-blued frame. It is among many limited production 1911 models, celebrating not only John M. Browning’s iconic design but also various historical watershed moments. When companies need a classy commemorative, the 1911 gets the nod.

Or, what if, when faced with the lawsuit from Mauser over patent infringements on the Springfield M-1903, the U.S. Army had told Browning it needed a rifle right away? Bolt gun? Sure, he could have designed one for them, but I can’t imagine that he would have stopped there. Considering how quickly he designed the BAR, how much trouble would it have been to make a prototype self-loading rifle?

None of this happened, of course, and we have the 1911 pistol to show for it. If the 1911 were introduced for the first time today, it would unquestionably be welcomed for its simplicity and well-thought-out design. As remarkable as it was a century ago, the 1911 is even more remarkable today. Readers, we present the MODEL 1911 US ARMY PISTOL, .45.



The decade leading up to the announcement of the 1911 pistol, as we have seen, was quite amazing. The advances in firearms technology? Not so much. The most significant developments in firearm design had just ended, and that situation would, other than the 1911 itself, remain so for another generation. However, leading up to the first decade of the 20th century, things had been quite exciting.

One aspect of that change was in physics. Before the turn of the century, physics was simply smaller and smaller versions of Newton. Atoms were still theoretical for the most part, as the various experimenters had not yet figured out a way to explain all of its attributes. If atoms were puzzling, light was mysterious. Extrapolating from others’ experiments in sound, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley built a test device to explore light. Sound propagates through air and water. Electricity propagates through copper wire. So, light had to propagate through something, right? The theory was that light traveled through something called the luminiferous aether. (I kid you not; look it up.) In 1887, they built a device that split a light beam, reflected the split beams off mirrors at right angles and then recombined them. If the two light beams traveled across or against the current of the luminiferous aether — and the test-rig design was intended to do just that — they would show the differences when the recombined beams displayed interference patterns. They built the device in the stone basement of a building at what is now Case Western University. To eliminate experimental error, they had a large marble base, and in a container on that base they floated the device in a pool of mercury.

The result? Nothing. The Michelson-Morley experiment is the most famous failed experiment in physics history. They failed to discover what everyone knew had to exist. Because they had conclusive proof that the aether did not exist, there had to be some other explanation. Maxwell had defined light as an electromagnetic wave back in 1873, but in 1900, Max Planck came up with the quanta theory of light. Ever since, we have used a schizophrenic definition of light as both a particle and a wave. Which is it? That depends on which of those two best explains the situation you are in. Yes, sometimes life is multiple choice.

Up until 1884, gun powder was blackpowder, and it produced billows of smoke, even from small arms. Accounts of gunfights by cowboys in the Old West are replete with mentions of billiard halls filled with smoke from only two combatants, and the entire Civil War was fought like earlier wars at close range in part due to the clouds of obscuring smoke that covered the battlefield.

Only when Paul Vielle of France developed a smokeless powder that could be used in small arms did things change. While repeating rifles had been in service prior to 1884, they all suffered (and suffered mightily) from the voluminous smoke and rust-inducing residue of blackpowder. Plus, blackpowder burned with a hideous inefficiency, leaving behind mounds of residue, which posed a big problem to any repeating arm. Smokeless powder produced little smoke and even less residue. It set off a small arms war among the major powers, and within a decade everything was different.

The whole repeating, magazine-fed rifle phenomenon finally culminated in the 1898 Mauser and its U.S.-made clone, the 1903 Springfield. Oh, there had been other rifles designed in much the same time period, and many served quite well. The main contender was the Lee-Enfield, a very good service rifle in British use.

The whole repeating, magazine-fed rifle phenomenon finally culminated in the 1898 Mauser and its U.S.-made clone, the 1903 Springfield.

The Borchardt was the first successful, self-loading pistol. Photo courtesy Rock Island Auctions

While the ’98 Mauser could be made in a whole host of calibers, and even scaled up later to cartridges suitable for elephants and tanks, the Lee-Enfield could not. It was perfect for the cartridge it had been designed around, the .303 British.

Other contenders in the fray included the French Lebel, the Italian Carcano and the Austrian Mannlicher. What they all had in common over older rifles was range. The drawbacks to the blackpowder rifles were not just limited to smoke and powder fouling, but also concerned power and range: to gain power you could not increase velocity, so you had to increase bore size. Beyond a certain point, soldiers couldn’t manage the recoil. As a result, most military rifles of the late blackpowder era were .45 caliber or so. A 400- to 500-grain (just under to just over an ounce) bullet that was launched at suitable military velocity kicked something awful. Basically, they were fighting wars with 12-gauge slugs as far as recoil was concerned.

Combine the low velocity (1,300 fps at best) with heavy recoil and lots of smoke and you have rifles that were tactically good to a couple of hundred yards, max. Sure, they could be stretched to greater range by a good shot, but all rifles perform better in the hands of a marksman. The problem for firing at distance is estimating the range. If you were firing a blackpowder .45-caliber rifle at an object about 900 yards away, a small error in range estimation could mean a miss, and a miss by a goodly margin.

When the military standard changed to a .30-caliber bullet of 200 grains or so at 2,000 fps, things got better. And when nearly everyone soon switched to spitzer bullets (the French lead the way, which was good, but they stuck with the 8mm Lebel cartridge, which was not), the result was a distance race. A sharp-pointed more-or-less .30-caliber bullet weighing 150 to 170 grains traveling at 2,500-plus fps could be counted on to shoot accurately to 1,000 yards without the recoil of a .45-caliber rifle bullet. And range estimation was less critical, due to the flatter trajectory.

If you study rifles and riflery of the time, you’ll read about the belt buckle hold. Why the belt buckle? Simple: the new spitzer bullets shot flat. If you held your front sight on the belt buckle of an enemy soldier, the distance at which you could count on a hit was over 300 yards. At 100 yards, the bullet would be almost a foot high, rising more, then dropping, until it went down to knee level or so out past 350 yards. Beyond that distance, you used a long-range sight instead of the combat sight.

As a result, the armies of the world quickly focused on terrain control. A small-unit commander was expected to direct the fire of his men out to the horizon. The American Army small arms manual of 1909 had detailed instructions on range estimation (you had to be good at it to get promoted as an NCO), and firing on moving targets at distances well past 600 yards was done for score.

The Borchardt with a shoulder stock made a handy carbine, even if it was underpowered. Photo courtesy Rock Island Auctions

Now, lest you think this is all so much hooey, consider the task of a rifle company commander. He had 130–180 riflemen

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