War Dogs – The Colt Model 1911A1 Part 1
The handgun of The Greatest Generation in .177 caliber
By Dennis Adler
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 to the present day, the Colt Model 1911A1.
Designed by John Moses Browning, his earliest patent for a semi-auto is dated April 20, 1897; a date that would appear on the slides of Colt semiautomatic pistols for nearly half a century. Between 1900 and 1911 Browning’s designs would make the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Co. one of the world’s leading producers of self-loading pistols. The road leading to development of the Model 1911 was well traveled by Browning with an entire series of semi-auto designs for Colt’s beginning in 1900.
One of the great incentives for further development by Browning and Colt 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. Changes in design were a rounded hammer, a shorter firing pin (deemed necessary to avoid accidental discharge if the hammer were inadvertently struck while a cartridge was chambered), notched rear dovetail mounted sight, and checkered hard rubber grips. To meet Ordnance Department requirements the military versions had a longer grip squared at the butt, as opposed to the rounded contour grip on civilian models, a lanyard swivel on the lower left side of the grip frame, a slide stop on the left side of the frame, and an 8-shot magazine, whereas civilian versions carried one less round. The 1902 Military remained in the Colt’s catalog until 1928 with production reaching over 47,000 examples.
In between production of the Model 1902, the Model 1903 and development of the first Hammerless semiautomatic Colt pistols, came a design that is regarded as the quintessential stepping stone to the 1911, the Model 1905. The new .45 ACP handgun was cataloged as the “Model 1905 45 Automatic Pistol.” The similarities between the Models 1905 and later Model 1911 are unmistakable, as are the differences. Colt’s first .45 caliber semi-auto used a rimless smokeless cartridge designed by Browning.
The new gun and cartridge were exactly what the U.S. military had been waiting for; an autoloader with comparable power to the venerable Colt Single Action Army which had remained the nation’s principal military sidearm until 1892. The big .45 caliber Peacemakers had unwisely been supplemented since then by a series of less effective .38 caliber double action revolvers chambered in .38 Long Colt, .38 S&W, and .38 Special; adequate sidearms but not the stopping power of a Colt .45. (The .45 caliber Colt New “Service” double action revolver came along in 1909, but it still was not the gun the U.S. military wanted as its standard issue sidearm). In 1905 the notion of a .45 caliber semi-auto had greater appeal to the U.S. military than a .45 Colt revolver. Unfortunately, as a military sidearm the Model 1905 left a lot to be desired. To the average serviceman it was complicated compared to a revolver, and recoil with the .45 ACP semi-autos was substantial. After having the 1905 and 1907 versions rejected, for the 1910 military trials Browning and Colt’s made additional changes to the grip design and angle, which Browning stated would further improve handling. After an initial field test in February of that year, Colt 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 rendered a more favorable opinion but presented yet another list of critiques that Colt would have to address. These would lead Browning and Colt’s to the final design for the Model 1911 adopted by the U.S. military On March 29, 1911 as “U.S. Pistol, Automatic, Calibre .45, Model 1911.”
The original Model 1911 design remained in continual use until the improved Model 1911A1 was introduced in 1924. The 1911A1 was distinguished by a new style short trigger, new larger grip safety and most notably an arched, knurled mainspring housing that fit the palm swell of the shooter’s hand. The new model eventually replaced all of the original military 1911s and became the standard commercial version although today’s modern 1911s often have the original flat mainspring housing, which has become the more desirable of the two designs.
The original Browning design would see service in the First World War, and by the end of World War II, the U.S. government had procured more than 2,550,000 Model 1911/1911A1 models for the military.
The Tanfoglio 1911A1 Variation
There are a variety of 1911A1 CO2 models on the market, as well as the latest tactical versions, but only a few are accurate to the original c.1924 style Colt Model 1911A1, including the Tanfoglio Witness 1911. The Tanfoglio, aside from its name in white letters across the left side of the slide, is the most accurate in detail to the c.1924 variation. The Tanfoglio features a raised checkered mainspring housing, early-style Colt hammer, smaller trigger, the original style small thumb safety, and original military-style sights. The Swiss Arms Model 1911 is almost identical to the Tanfoglio and offers another version of the early 1911A1 design.
In terms of accurate handling the Tanfoglio is a full duty-sized pistol and virtually a 1:1 copy of the early 1911A1 model and will fit any 1911 holster from almost any period of time. Since the .177 caliber pistol operates exactly the same way as the cartridge-firing Colt .45 ACP, using the Tanfoglio for practice helps to improve actual gun handling skills such as trigger control and sight acquisition. This is particularly true with the more difficult early Colt military sights since the slide operates the same as an actual 1911A1 model, beginning with racking the slide to chamber the first round. The CO2 powered blowback action sends the slide recoiling with authority after each shot and the slide locks back on an empty magazine. If it had a correct finish and no brand name markings on the left side of the slide, the Tanfoglio Witness 1911 CO2 model would be the most authentic copy of the c.1924 design available as an airgun.
In Part 2 we look at original WWII era 1911 models from other manufacturers, yes there were others, and the .177 caliber Remington 1911 RAC, the second most authentic 1911A1 CO2 model available.