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Chronicling the Colt 1911 – One of the Most Popular Guns in World History

By: Joe Warta

It is widely accepted as a must-have in the American gun enthusiast’s arsenal. One of the most popular handguns in world history, it was the go-to for the United States military for most of the 20th century. The Colt M1911, having been in service since 1911, has seen more than its fair share of action and has amassed an impressive history.

The story starts in 1906. The U.S. Army realized it could not continue to be an effective fighting force with its .38 Long Colt revolver. The U.S. suffered brutally during incursions in the Philippines at the hands of the local Filipinos, who were able to withstand the fire of American .38 Long revolvers and inflict severe damages to the Americans with their swords. This situation led military leaders to search for an alternative: a semi-automatic that could fire a larger .45.

John Moses Browning, an employee for Colt, had invented a firearm that nearly fit what the military was looking for in the form of the Model 1900. The only problem with his semi-automatic handgun was that it was chambered to shoot a .38 bullet instead of a .45. Browning changed the 1900 to chamber a .45 instead, and submitted it for consideration to be the U.S. Army’s next handgun. Before a board of Army officials, seven different firearm manufacturers were tested, but Savage Arms and Colt were the last two contestants standing in the competition for whose weapon would become the next standard-issue handgun for the Army.

The weapons underwent rigorous testing to ensure they could withstand heavy use in the armed forces. Both Savage and Colt failed the initial testing and were asked to make improvements for a second round. During the second round of tests, both manufacturers had improved, but Colt took the edge. In fact, the M1900 broke the record for most shots continuously fired from a firearm, at 6,000 rounds (the record was broken again by Browning in 1917 when his machine gun fired 40,000 continuously). The committee in charge of choosing the next handgun favored Colt, saying it was “superior, because it is more reliable, more enduring, more easily disassembled when there are broken parts to be replaced, and more accurate.” The name of the firearm was then changed to Model 1911. Two years later, the M1911 was adopted by the U.S. Navy and Marines as well.

The M1911 was first tested in combat in the U.S. military response to Pancho Villa’s incursions into United States territory. Shortly thereafter, World War I provided the M1911 its next great test. The firearm was wildly successful and became a favorite among American troops. It also saw its part in making history as well: the famed Alvin York, who fended off six German soldiers with six shots, subsequently earning the Medal of Honor, had the M1911 to thank for his success against his enemies. With a few minor changes requested by troops in WWI, the 1911 was reintroduced as the M1911A1.

Back at home, American law enforcement agencies began to adopt Colt as their preferred sidearm brand as well. Texas Rangers, the FBI, Border Patrol, Prohibition Services, and local law enforcement agencies all favored the M1911 over any other handgun. The Colt Model 1911 was an explosive success into the late 1930s, and the events of the next decade would only cement its mark on world history.
The advent of World War II found the world in great need of quality firearms, and Colt was ready to fulfill that need. At least in part.

The M1911 was so in-demand during World War II that Colt couldn’t even keep up with what the military needed. Thus, Ithaca, Union Switch, Remington-Rand, and other manufacturers were recruited to assist in the production of the famous firearm. Argentina, Canada, and Norway even joined in on the action in producing M1911s. Several nations produced their own knock-off versions. Overall, nearly 3 million M1911s were produced for the war effort between 1941-1945.

After World War II, the 1911 was still the standard handgun for militaries around the world. It saw significant combat in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. But, pressure from NATO to adopt a 9mm handgun forced the 1911 out of popularity and, ultimately, into retirement in 1985. The 9mm Beretta 92FS ultimately replaced the .45 Colt M1911A1.

Despite the U.S. military’s official retirement of the firearm, the Colt 1911 is still in demand among private shooters, dozens of militaries, American law enforcement agencies, and even a few special forces groups within the United States military, and it has been used by the U.S. in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf War, and others.

A mainstay of the firearms history, the Colt M1911A1 is likely one of the most popular handguns ever made. It is not surprising that the 1911 is still popular, and this special gun will continue to be so for years to come.

Joe Warta is a student and former intern at the National Association for Gun Rights, writing from North Carolina. Contact him at jpwarta@ymail.com.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.