History of the Colt 1911

“Two world wars!” This is a statement you’ll often hear from 1911 fans who think the platform is still the best. This is in reference to the service that the 1911 saw in both the first and second world wars. The statement has become somewhat of a joke, as we all know the pistol didn’t actually win either of those wars, but I actually find that the words do the classic firearm a disservice. The 1911 has seen far more action than just two world wars. I’d like to take time to give credit to the 110 year-old design that just won’t quit. Sit back, enjoy some butterscotch hard candies, and listen to a tale that spans a century. This is the history of the Colt 1911.

A New Age of Firearms

The man above, if you are unaware, is John Moses Browning. If firearms design had its own Mount Olympus, he would likely sit at the top, lightning bolt in hand. Thought of as one of the greatest designers of all time, John Moses Browning worked with firearms from the time he was seven years old. That young boy would grow to design several of the world’s most popular firearms, including the Colt Model 1903 Pocket, the Winchester Model 1887, and even seven calibers. 

Browning designed the 1911 in the late 1890s. In 1906, the U.S. armed forces were seeking to replace the current standard issue sidearm. The 1911 overpowered the competition, which consisted of firearms including the Savage Model 1907 and the Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM) Luger, chambered in .45 ACP. The pistol was adopted and given the official designation Model of 1911, which would later be changed to M1911. Three years later, the M1911 would take part in its first world war; The Great War.

The M1911 saw its first major use during WWI. The large caliber, semi-automatic pistol was a clear advantage over the .38 Long Colt M1892 revolver that it replaced. However, data collected in the harsh conditions of the muddy, bloody, four year war lead to the first major revision of the design. These changes, implemented in 1924, after the fighting had stopped, gave the M1911 its new designation as the M1911A1. Though the changes were largely external (a shorter trigger and a longer beavertail, among others), the intent was simply making the gun simpler and easier to shoot.

You need two world wars to make the opening statement of this article. Starting in September of 1939, we had one. Throughout the war, nearly two million M1911A1 pistols were produced. With increased demand, production was spread among several companies. Even Singer, known for their sewing machines, played their part in producing M1911A1 pistols. While WWII 1911 holsters were far from great, U.S. soldiers managed to deploy the pistols and cross the Rhine. The 1911 went on to be used in countless conflicts around the world including the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars.

Evolution of the Platform

Like all things, firearms must evolve to keep their relevance. Even a design as loved and respected as Browning’s 1911 had to get with the times, lest it be forgotten to all but the bookworms.

Photo by Rock Island Auction

In 1970, the world was introduced to the Colt Government Mk. IV Series 70 1911. While it looked largely the same, there were some significant design changes. One of the most notable was the collet barrel bushing.

This new barrel bushing was split, using four “fingers” instead of one solid tube. Though it was less solid and more prone to breaking, the collet bushing provided better lock up with the barrel, leading to better accuracy. Among other changes, the Series 70 pistols were made available in 9x19mm, 9mm Steyr, .38 Super, and .45 ACP. Shortly after, in 1971, the Lightweight Commander was introduced. These pistols were lightened, using an aluminum frame for comfort while carrying. The guns mated a shortened slide with a standard-sized frame. The Combat Commander shared the Lightweight Commander’s dimensions, but was heavier due to an all-steel frame. The introduction of the Colt Government Mk. IV Series 80 in 1983 added an internal firing pin safety. It also did away with the collet bushing, due to concerns of their integrity.

Photo by Pierangelo Tendas

In 2014, the United States Marine Corps ordered 12,000 M45A1 CQBP (Close Quarter Battle Pistol) handguns. These were a modernization of the then 103-year-old design. The sights were upgraded to tritium night sights. The single recoil spring was swapped for a dual spring system, to help tame the recoil of the .45 ACP cartridge. The safety was made ambidextrous, and most obviously, the guns were given a desert tan Cerakote finish.

The Future of the 1911

With all of that history behind it, where is the 1911 going? As we see more shooters opting for lower weight, higher capacity options, what place does a 39 ounce, eight round gun have in our world?

Photo by Staccato

While they’re not technically 1911s, I thought the 2011 platform is worth mentioning. As a step toward the future of the 1911 pistol, I believe the 2011 is the right step. Combining the capacity advantage of a plastic fantastic, with the legendary trigger and shootability of the traditional 1911 makes sense. These guns find a middle ground that addresses some issues and highlights triumphs of 1911-style firearms.

Photo by Sam Weitzner

A wider variety of calibers makes the gun a good option for those who are more sensitive to recoil. Some 9mm 1911s hold 10 rounds in a magazine, which might be low by today's standards, but the weight of the gun will eat up that energy, making it more pleasurable to shoot.

Photo by Jeff Cramblit

The 1911 is still prevalent in the competition world. High speed, low drag, $4,000 guns are not uncommon. If professional shooters are still using them, there must be a reason. I personally know police officers who still carry a 1911 and trust their lives to them. Aftermarket support is great for 1911s, as well. The gun has been around for so long, 1911 concealment holsters are abundant. Paired with a good belt for CCW, and you’re ready to roll.

Photo by Nighthawk Custom

Whether you believe that the 1911 won two world wars, or you think that they are completely irrelevant, I think we all need to admire what the design has done for firearms. Nearly all modern semi-automatic handguns sprang from this design. I still hear people on the range say things like, “It’s no 1911 trigger, but…” Though its popularity may be dwindling, the 1911 changed the world, changed the way we think of firearms design, and deserves a spot in your safe.

Did you find this article helpful?
Share it with your friends