The Colt 1911: Browning’s Masterpiece
By Geoffrey Norman

The 1911 Colt .45, as American as a killer apple pie. After more than a century of service, the Colt .45 will still stop an enemy cold. No wonder they're still blasting away.

The Colt 1911: Browning’s Masterpiece


The 1911 is one of those rare things for which the word ‘iconic’ is actually appropriate: a truly an American gun.

Sergeant Alvin York used a 1911 to win a Medal of Honor by capturing over 130 Germans.

During World War II, American troops needed so many 1911's that even the Singer Sewing Machine Co. began manufacturing them.

The 1911 is still in production — if not now as standard issue for the military, then for the robust civilian market.

Before there was the Beretta and before there was the Glock, there was the Colt 1911 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol).  It was the creation of John Moses Browning, the great designer of American firearms, who made his first gun in his father’s shop in Utah, when he was thirteen.  When still in his twenties, Browning sold the first of his 120 patented designs to Winchester — a single shot rifle.

From there, Browning moved from glory to glory in the world of arms. He designed the lever-action Winchester rifles that co-starred with John Wayne in all those old Westerns. For the sporting market, he designed pump and auto-loading shotguns that were produced in the millions, in both the U.S. and Belgium. He designed automatic rifles and machine guns, some of which are still in service with the American military.

This is a truly American gun and the height of Browning’s artistry. Functional and tough.

But if you had to pick his signature design, you might settle on the 1911.  It is one of those rare things for which the word “iconic” is actually appropriate: a truly American gun and the height of Browning’s artistry. Functional and tough.

After years of tinkering, Browning built these qualities into the 1911 because that was precisely what the market demanded — that market being the U.S. Army which was looking for a sidearm that would handle a round more powerful than the .38 Long Colt, which was standard issue at the time, but had shown a lack of stopping power in combat. In the Philippines, where the Army was fighting a protracted last battle of the Spanish-American War, enemy soldiers sometimes continued to fight after being hit by .38 bullets. That wouldn’t happen with the .45.

The gun the army was looking for had to be an autoloader, as opposed to a revolver. And it had to be able to stand up to hard, dirty use, and still be easily taken down and cleaned. Millions were made by various manufacturers.

There were a number of entries in a competition to determine which handgun would become the new standard issue weapon.  All were subject to what we would today be called a “stress test.”  It was, decidedly, not a beauty contest.

The finals in this competition came down to Browning’s Colt entry against one from Savage. Having fired some 6,000 rounds without malfunctioning, even after being dragged through the mud, the Colt won in a walk.

Colt had its contract and Browning had another patent, and within a handful of years, the 1911 was confirming its worth, and then some, in the most rigorous stress test of all — when America entered the First World War. Famously, Sergeant Alvin York (aka Gary Cooper) used one win a Medal of Honor (and an Oscar) by capturing over 130 Germans.

A generation later, in one of the most celebrated mano a mano episodes of World War Two, an American airman whose bomber had been shot down by a Japanese Zero, was floating to earth when the Zero pilot came screaming around to finish him off. But his “defenseless” target wasn’t so defenseless, after all. He got the pilot first with his 1911.

Indeed, at one point during World War II, so many 1911’s were needed for use by American troops that companies other than Colt began manufacturing them. Some had familiar names and a history with guns.  Others … not so much. The Singer Sewing Machine Co., for instance, made a gun, and if you happen upon one in the attic among your grandfather’s forgotten possessions, be aware that there are those out there who will pay handsomely for that pistol. Singer’s run of 500 represents a mere .01% of the 5 million five million that have been made to date.

The 1911 would go on to see service in Korea.  And then Vietnam.  In fact, our military used Browning’s semi-automatic pistol from 1911 all the way into the Eighties, when it was replaced by the 9 mm Beretta for reasons that are still — well, unclear. Because the 1911 wasnt broke, not by a long shot. It is still in production — if no longer as standard issue in the military, then for a robust civilian market, where the gun comes in everything from plain vanilla at around $500 to caviar at over $5,000.  And you can pick up one at a gun show for — well, whatever you can haggle.

I own two.  One is a military hand-me-down.  It has “had some work done” so its lines are less severe than they were, and it has shed a little extra metal and weight.  It is what it is.

But the other is a Ronin, made by the Springfield Armory, and it is a handsome piece that comes in at the affordable end of the 1911 price range. The machinery is seductively smooth and crisp. I got some tips on shooting this gun from 24-time USPSA National champion Rob Leatham and if it is good enough for him, it’ll work for me.

 The basic 1911 – in any platform and under any cosmetics – is rugged and almost brutal in its simplicity.  As American as a Ford pickup. Or, perhaps, a military deuce and a half. Many American shooters love it precisely for its lack of glamour.  For its pure, brute functionality.  They call it, affectionately, old slabsides.”

The gun is not exactly fun” to shoot in the way the Ruger 10/22 rifle is.  Nor are the replicas of the old single-action revolvers that come in .22 caliber. The 1911 is too serious for that.  But that doesnt mean there isnt a lot of satisfaction in taking it to the range and getting handy with it, then bringing it home and taking it down and cleaning it.

Too, simply by owning it, you know you are in procession of a piece of American history.

Speaking of which, though the military has officially moved on, wiser heads know better. The 1911 is still in service among some of the elite units.