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M1911 & M1911A1 .45 Caliber Pistols

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Invented by John Browning, the M1911 Proved to be Excellent Weapon

M1911A1 pistol

M1911A1 .45 caliber pistol. Public domain photo.

An amazing incident which happened during World War I gives testament to this excellent weapon. In the mist of trench warfare, Sergeant Alvin York, one of the most decorated U.S. soldiers of the war, was charged by six German soldiers armed with fixed bayonets. With nothing more than his M1911 pistol, he shot each one before they reached him.1

Invented by John Browning, the M1911 single action, semi-automatic pistol was developed by Colt Firearms, and adopted by the U.S. forces in 1911. In 1924, the M1911A1 was adopted, which included minor changes to the original model. This gun served the U.S. military for 74 years. Although replaced by the Beretta M9 in 1985 it can still be found in U.S. military service today.

The M1911 can be referred to as the .45 automatic, but this is not to be confused with an automatic weapon such as the sub-machine gun. In the case of the M1911, the word automatic refers to the automatic loading of a cartridge into the chamber. It is actually a semi-automatic weapon in that only one bullet is fired with each pull of the trigger. The weapon has two safeties – a manual thumb safety and a grip safety.

US soldier with M1911 pistol

Photo shows WWII American soldier with M1911 pistol. Image is an enlarged section of the original National Archives photo.

History and Development

The Model 1911 was developed as a replacement for .38 caliber revolver which had failed to stop fanatical tribesmen during U.S. operations in the Philippines (Spanish-American War).

Although other gun designers had introduced self-loading guns, John Browning designed the first .45 caliber self-loading pistol. Colt built Browning's .45 caliber M1905 pistol for a short time while details were worked out the on the M1911. The latter was adopted by the U.S. military in 1911. Use in World War I revealed minor problems which were corrected in the M1911A1.

Prior to World War II the M1911 was issued to soldiers who were expected to be operating other equipment with both hands and therefore could not carry a rifle. This was opposed to an infantryman whose job was to carry a rifle or BAR. New recruits often found the pistol heavy, awkward, and producing a powerful recoil. Difficulties encountered by new recruits in learning to use the weapon, and the fact that the M1911A1 was short range only, lead to a plan to replace it with the M-1 Carbine rifle.

More experienced shooters continued to prefer the M1911A1 because of its superior stopping power and accuracy. Although the 1911 has sometimes had a bad reputation among former US soldiers for inaccuracy, in fact the pistol is actually quite accurate.2 It also proved to be reliable and durable, and so the M1911A1 remained in demand during World War II with 1,750,00 M1911A1 pistols built during this time. After the adoption of the M-1 Carbine, the Colt .45 began to see more use by the military police and aircrew members.

World War II and After


During World War II, the M1911A1 was manufactured by Colt, Springfield, Remington-Rand, Ithaca Gun Company, and a smaller number by Union Switch & Signal. It remained in use by the U.S. military after WWII, seeing service in the Vietnam and Korean Wars and beyond.

On a personal note, my father joined the U.S. Army in 1946, just after graduating from high school. He told me that he carried the M1911A1 while a member of the military police. The night stick was his first line of defense and the pistol was back up. As an experienced shooter and gunsmith, he still praises the .45 semi-automatic and questions the stopping power of its replacement, the Beretta M9.

Even though the M1911A1 was last manufactured in 1945, this 100 year old gun can still be found in service by some U.S. Special Forces today. Interestingly, it was replaced with the .38 caliber Beretta M9, a lighter gun with potentially less stopping power - the same caliber which the M1911 (.45 caliber) was designed to replace. It has been said that you can find no other item designed in the first decade of the 20th century, still in common use, and still essentially unchanged from the original.3 Over 2.7 million Model 1911s were built.

1Timothy J. Mullin. Greatest Combat Pistols – Hands-on tests and evaluations of handguns from Around the World. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1994, p. 340.
2Leroy Thompson, The Colt 1911 Pistol. Oxford ; Long Island City, NY : Osprey Publishing, 2011, p.6.
3Patrick Sweeney, 1911 : The First 100 Years. Iola, WI : Krause Publications Inc, 2010, p.16.

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Legion of Valor Museum weapon displays



Stopping Power

The famous M1911.45 caliber pistol fires a 230-grain bullet, and is well-known for its exceptional stopping power. When fired, the recoil forces the slide rearward which re-cocks the gun. During this brief time, the force also ejects the spent cartridge case and reloads the chamber.

Once initially loaded and cocked (pulling the slide back), this self-loading weapon will fire as rapidly as the trigger can be pulled, until the magazine is empty.