From John Moses Browning’s first design to the original
Model 1911 the future was already written
By Dennis Adler
“The Board recommends that the Colt Caliber .45 Automatic Pistol of the design submitted to the Board for tests be adopted for use by foot and mounted troops in the military service in consequence of its marked superiority to the present service revolvers, and to any pistol, of its extreme reliability and endurance, of its ease of disassembly, of its accuracy and of its fulfillment of all essential requirements.”
– U.S. Ordnance Department Board of Officers report, March 20, 1911
Success in the truest sense must be measured by more than achieving a place in history; it must ultimately be gauged by its longevity throughout history, and there is only one handgun design from the early 20th century that has remained in continual use as a military and civilian pistol to this very day, the Colt Model 1911.
The CO2 model that is the most authentic in appearances and working features to Colt’s 1911A1, is not a Colt branded pistol but rather one from Swiss Arms, which presently builds the best performing contemporary 1911 CO2 blowback action models; the TRS and MRP rail pistols. Swiss Arms also has a true to the c.1924 version 1911A1 carried by U.S. forces in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and even to this day in the Middle East. But let’s step back to a time before the First World War when the U.S. military, including the U.S. Cavalry, were still carrying Colt’s revolvers at their sides. The year was 1910 and America’s most famous arms designer, John Moses Browning and the Colt’s Patent Firearms Mfg. Co., were on the verge of a breakthrough in the development of a self-loading pistol that would meet all of the U.S. Ordnance Department’s demands for a new, self-loading military pistol.
The history behind the Swiss Arms 1911A1
Browning’s earliest patent for a self-loading pistol is dated April 20, 1897; a date that would appear on the slides of Colt semiautomatic pistols for nearly half a century. However, between 1900 and 1911, Browning’s designs would make the Colt’s Patent Firearms Mfg. Co. one of the world’s leading producers of self-loading pistols for the U.S. military, lawmen, and civilians.
Browning and his family had been responsible for one of the earliest small caliber autoloaders to find favor with lawmen at the turn of the century, the Belgian-manufactured FN Model 1900 chambered in 7.65mm (.32 ACP). At around the same time, Browning licensed his 1897 patent design to Colt’s for that maker’s Model 1900, which was chambered in the new .38 rimless smokeless caliber (originally called a Colt Automatic Pistol Hammerless cartridge or CAPH, later shortened to ACP), a cartridge more closely related to the .38 Long Colt, then in use by the U.S. military for the Colt’s double action revolver. Browning’s Model 1900 formed the basis for an entire series of semiautomatic pistols that would lead to the Model 1911.
The Road from 1900 to 1911
One of the great incentives for further development by Browning and Colt’s in the early 1900s was the U.S. military’s keen interest in 7-shot semi-autos. Both the Army and Navy procured Model 1900 Colt pistols for evaluation, around 50 for the Navy and 200 for the Army. The improved Colt Model 1902 (sporting) automatic pistol found even more favor with the government. Although not adopted for use by the military the Model 1902 remained in the Colt’s catalog until 1928.
In between production of the Model 1902, Model 1903 and development of Colt’s first Hammerless semiautomatic pistols, was a design that is regarded today as the quintessential stepping stone to the 1911, the Colt Model 1905. Chambered for the new .45 ACP cartridge (also invented by John Browning) the semiautomatic pistol was a commercial success, but again not quite what the Ordnance Department wanted. Granted, the similarities between the Model 1905 and later Model 1911 are unmistakable; there are some very obvious differences as well. On the surface, Browning’s new gun and cartridge were exactly what the U.S. military had been waiting for; an autoloader with comparable power to the venerable .45 Colt Single Action Army, which had remained the nation’s principal military sidearm until 1892 when the big .45 caliber Peacemakers was unwisely supplemented by a series of less effective .38 caliber double action revolvers chambered in .38 Long Colt, .38 S&W, and .38 Special.
In 1907 the U.S. government placed an order for 200 of the new .45 ACP semi-autos modified to military specifications with a grip safety, which was engineered by Colt factory designers Carl Ehbets and George Tansley. The 200 contract models (which differed from civilian models built in 1907) also had to be designed to accept a detachable shoulder stock (which Colt’s later offered as a shoulder stock holster for the civilian market), and be redesigned with a spur-type hammer, rather than the civilian style rounded hammer. It would also require a lanyard loop so soldiers could tether the handgun to a braided lanyard worn over the shoulder. Cavalry field tests still found numerous faults with the design for military application so Browning and Colt’s reworked the design in 1909 and again in 1910 to meet the military’s requirements. Among the most notable improvements was a change from the double link barrel locking system of the 1905 to a single toggle link that would be used in the Model 1911. (The 1905 had the barrel pinned to the frame via two pivoting barrel lugs, thus it was attached at both the muzzle and breech ends, which made it an inherently accurate handgun but also much harder to fieldstrip) For the 1910 military trials Browning made additional changes to the grip design and angle, which he stated would further improve handling. After an initial field test in February of that year, Colt’s made a few more modifications, at which point the 1910 looked essentially as would the 1911, with the exception of a thumb-activated safety. A second series of tests were conducted in November and the military’s Board of Officers presented yet another list of changes that would have to be addressed.
The Final Military Trials
On March 3, 1911 the new Colt (Model 1911) semi-auto performed flawlessly, firing 6,000 rounds of ammunition, and addressing all of the Ordnance Department’s concerns, including the addition of an external safety, so the gun could be carried with the hammer cocked (although military protocols stated that the guns were to be carried with an empty chamber). On March 29, U.S. Secretary of War Jacob M. Dickinson approved the selection of the Colt Browning as the “U.S. Pistol, Automatic, Calibre .45, Model 1911.”
The Model 1911 was adopted as the official sidearm of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and federal agencies. The government’s initial order was for 31,344 pistols and six years later the 1911 would see service during WWI. By 1945 and the end of World War II, more than 2,550,000 Model 1911/1911A1s had been produced for the U.S. government and its allies.
The second version
Browning’s original 1911 design remained in continual use until the improved Model 1911A1 was introduced in 1924. The A1 was distinguished by a new style short trigger, and notably an arched, knurled mainspring housing that fit the palm swell of the shooter’s hand. As production continued the original small size thumb safety was replaced by a longer version. The 1911A1 eventually replaced all of the original military 1911s in service. The design also became the standard commercial version, although today’s modern 1911s often have the original flat mainspring housing which time has proven to be the more desirable of the two designs. The Swiss Arms 1911 CO2 model is true to Colt’s 1911A1 first variation, which still retained the original small thumb safety.
Today, Colt’s latest versions of the 1911 are used by elite U.S. military and Special Operations units, as well as various local, state, and federal Special Response Teams across the county and around the world. After more than a century the Colt Model 1911 is still one of the most significant firearms designs of all time and there is no sign that this handgun will ever go out of style, in any caliber. That is the ultimate definition of success.
In Part 2 we will examine the attention to detail in the Swiss Arms 1911A1 CO2 model.