M1911 vies with the Browning HP
as being one of the most successful pistol designs ever produced. The model 1911 has been produced in the millions and is in service all over the world some 70 years since it’s introduction in 1911 (hence the model name, 1911). However, the design of the M1911 predates even 1911. The weapon was based on a Colt Browning Model 1900 design. This weapon was taken as the basis for a new service pistol required by the Army. The US armed forces had decided to switch to a .45 cal size ammunition; the goal was to develop a pistol with such incredible stopping power
that a single hit almost anywhere on your enemy would knock even a large man back a few steps and then knock him over. In short, the Army wanted a “Pocket Cannon” with which to arm rear echelon and non-rifle infantry troops, such as mortar squads.
A series of trials in 1907 proved the viability of the .45 cal ammunition over the previously used .38 cal which was too light to fully stop a charging enemy soldier in the height of an adrenaline rush.
So, in 1911 the Pistol, Automatic, Caliber .45, M1911 was adopted as the official pistol of the United States Armed Forces. Production, at first, was slow, but by 1917 was well enough underway to equip, at least in part, the rapid expansion of the US Army for its new role in France.
As the result of that early battle experience it was decided to make some production changes to the basic design, and from these came the M1911A1. The changes were not extensive, and were confined to the grip safety configuration, the hammer spur outline and the main spring housing. Overall, the design and operation changed very little. The mechanism is one of the strongest and most reliable ever built, whereas many contemporary pistol designs employed a receiver stop to arrest the backwards progress of the receiver slide, the M1911 had a locking system that produced a more positive stop. The barrel had lugs machined into its outer surface that fitted into corresponding lugs on the slide. When the pistol was fired the slide recoiled, allowing the cartridge end of the barrel to drop enough to allow the next round to be stripped off the magazine and into the firing chamber. The slide was then pushed forward by a spring, straightening the barrel and lining it up with the firing pin and slide-mounted sight. When the round was fired the process repeated, until the magazine was expended – at which time the slide would lock the action open, the spent magazine ejected by the soldier and another inserted. Using only the thumb of the right hand the action could be closed, stripping the first round off the top of the new magazine and readying the pistol for use.
What made this pistol ideal for combat was its redundant safety features. The M1911 has a half-cock safety, meaning that the hammer can be partially cocked; when it is in this position squeezing the trigger will not cause the hammer to fall on the firing pin. Another safety, common to many semi-automatic pistols, is that if the hammer is resting on the firing pin, pulling the trigger will not draw the trigger for firing as is the case with double action revolvers. When the hammer is cocked a thumb switch can be switched up for safe and down for fire. Finally, the M1911 had a grip safety, the weapon will not fire unless the user had a firm hold of the grip. This means that the weapon will not discharge if dropped, even if the trigger is bumped. The action is comfortable and easy, allowing the pistol to be carried cocked, but safe. The weapon can be drawn, the safety snapped off, and the pistol fired very quickly.
The Colt 1911 is a very effective weapon, but it does require training to accurately fire, especially in combat conditions.
I have fired a number of modified Colt M1911 pistols at a target range. The grip is comfortable and fits easily into the palm. All the safeties are quick in operation and at the fingertips. The weapon is well balanced, and with a little practice and instruction, one can become proficient in the use of the weapon. The pistols I fired were modified for competition shooting. They had improved sights and refined trigger mechanisms. All were Clark Custom models of varying modifications, from a M1911 frame re-tooled to fire .38 cal wad cutter ammunition up to a .45 cal Clark Heavy Slide (the weapon had a sight rail mounted on the slide that helped slow the action and dampen the recoil with the added mass while increasing the accuracy of the sight).
- Cartridge: .45 cal ball
- Length overall: 8.6 in (219 mm)
- Length of barrel: 5.03 in (128 mm)
- Weight: 3 lb (1.36 kg)
- Muzzle velocity: 825 ft (252 m) per second
- Magazine: 7 rounds
Source for part of the history and specifications: The Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War II. Much of this information is from instruction from my father, US Army Col. S. Rathofer (Ret.) when he was teaching me my grandfather’s sport, competition pistol shooting.
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