Skip to main content

The 1911 for Beginners

Serial number one. This is very possibly the pistol that went 6000 rounds without a single malfunction.

Serial number one. This is very possibly the pistol that went 6000 rounds without a single malfunction.

Introduction to the 1911

The 1911 is probably the most beloved design of gun-designing legend John Moses Browning. It was used in both World Wars as the standard-issue sidearm, as well as in Korea and Vietnam. It was also used in several other wars, as a nonstandard sidearm. It has been used in sport shooting for over a century. It is the official firearm of Utah. The 1911 even shot down an enemy airplane during World War 2. More than 100 years old, it is still one of the most common handgun platforms on the market today, with nearly every major firearms manufacturer offering a 1911 of some sort, and new ones hitting the market all the time. It may be safe to say, that the 1911 is the most loved semi-auto handgun of all time, and certainly the most iconic.

History and Development

The development of the 1911 pistol started in the late 1890s, when the U.S. Army started searching for a suitable auto-loading pistol to replace the several models of revolvers currently in service at the time. In the 1880s, Hiram S. Maxim designed a self-loading rifle. The idea of using the cartridge energy to reload a firearm led to several auto-loading pistol designs around 1896. This lead the U.S. to start a program, which would lead to formal testing at the turn of the 20th century.

During late 1899 and early 1900, a test of self-loading pistols was conducted using the Mauser C96 "Broomhandle," the Mannlicher M1894 and the Colt M1900. American units fighting Moro guerrillas during the Philippine-American War using the current issue Colt M1892 revolver chambered for 38 long Colt found it to be unsuitable in terms of stopping power. The army briefly went back to the M1873 single-action 45 colt since the heavier bullets were found to be much more effective in stopping charging tribesmen, who often used drugs to inhibit the sensation of pain. These problems promoted General Willian Crozier to authorize further testing of auto-loading service pistols.

The Colt M1900.

The Colt M1900.

In 1904 Colonel John Thompson and Louis LaGarde performed what would become known as the Thompson-LaGarde test, which was performed on live cattle, as well as human cadavers. The test was conducted using 7.65x21 Parabellum, 9x19 Parabellum, 38 ACP, 38 Long Colt, 45 Colt, 476 Eley, and 455 Webley. The testers came to the conclusion that the new service pistol should be no less than 45 caliber, and would preferably be semi-automatic.

This led to the 1906 trials of semi-automatic pistols. Six firearms manufacturers submitted designs. Three of these designs were eliminated early on, leaving the Colt, Savage, and DWM designs all chambered for the then-new 45 ACP. All three had issues that needed correction, but only Savage and Colt resubmitted their designs. Between 1907 and 1911 a series of field tests were conducted to decide between the Colt and Savage designs. Both designs were improved between testing.

Savage 1906 model trials pistol next to a 1911

Savage 1906 model trials pistol next to a 1911

One of the big wins for Colt came during the 1910 testings, which were attended by John Browning. Six thousand rounds were fired from a single pistol over two days. When the pistol would begin to grow hot, the shooter would dunk the pistol underwater to cool it. After 6000 rounds, the Colt had no reported malfunctions. On the other hand, the Savage had 37.

The Colt was formally adopted by the US Army on March 29th, 1911. The Marines and Navy formally adopted the 1911 in 1913. And thus, a legend was born.

U.S. Military Use

We first see the 1911 used in battle towards the end of the conflicts in the Philippines. As a matter of fact, a painting of the last battle in the Philippines, the battle of Bud Bagask, shows a 1911 in use. It was also used in 1916 during the "Mexican Expedition."

Painting of the battle of Bud Bagask

Painting of the battle of Bud Bagask

World War I

The M1911 saw its first serious use in World War I. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the U.S. had about 75,000 M1911s on hand, manufactured by both Colt, and Springfield Armory. At this point in time, Colt was the primary manufacturer of both the M1911, and the U.S. military's machine guns. There is only so much that a company to do to increase production. Contracts to build M1911s were given to several companies including National Cash Register Company, North American Arms, Savage Arms, Caron Brothers, Burroughs Adding Machine Company, Winchester, Remington-UMC, Lanson Monotype Company, and Savage Munitions.

Out of these, Remington and North American Arms were the only two to complete any pistols. North American Arms only completed a small number of tool room pistols, and none ever actually made it to battle. When the war ended in November 1918, the contracts were dropped with the other companies. By October 1918 the government had handed out contracts for more than 2.7 million 1911 pistols. By the end of the war, less than 600,000 had actually been produced.

Probably the most famous use of the 1911 during WWI was when Alvin York used one to shoot and kill six German soldiers who charged him when he ran out of rifle ammunition while single-handedly taking out a German machine-gun nest in October of 1918. At the end of the battle, York and his seven men had captured 132 men and 35 machine guns.

Battlefield experience during WW1 led to some changes to the 1911 design in the 1920s. These changes can go unnoticed by an untrained eye. The modified pistol, dubbed M1911A1, had a shorter trigger, cutouts behind the trigger, an arched mainspring housing, longer grip safety spur, shorter hammer spur, wider front sight, and a different grip checkering pattern. Guns with serial numbers higher than 700,000 are the newer M1911A1, whereas serial numbers lower than 700,000 are the older standard M1911.

Upper - M1911 Lower - M1911A1

Upper - M1911 Lower - M1911A1

World War II

When Japan bombed the U.S. in December of 1941, the US army entered the Second World War with the same problem that they had in early 1917; not nearly enough handguns for the numbers they would soon need. If the war department had let the companies that held contracts finish building the guns that had been requested during WW1, there would not have been nearly as much of a scramble to get pistols onto the battlefields. Since the M1911A1 had been adopted in 1926, the contracts issued to build pistols during WW2 were for the new design. Contracts were issued to Remington Rand, Ithaca, Union Switch And Signal, Harrison and Richardson (they only produced a few guns, which failed inspection), and Singer. Colt and Springfield Armory also continued to build M1911A1 pistols for WW2 as well.

Springfield, attempting to make the pistols both faster and cheaper, tried making them out of stampings. Although these worked, they were not true 1911s. They were hideously ugly and did not work well. There were only about 20 of these stamped 45 pistols made.

A example of a stamped Springfield 45 pistol

A example of a stamped Springfield 45 pistol

During WWII Owen Baggett used a 1911 pistol to shoot down a Japanese Zero pilot while parachuting after his bomber was destroyed. One of the pilots came close to Baggett as he parachuted and pretended to be dead. The pilot came slowed the plane to almost a stall and opened the cock pit to get a better look at his victim. When he did, Baggett pulled up his pistol and fired four rounds. The plane stalled, spiraled and crashed. Sources on the ground said they later found the plane, crashed, and the pilot, who had been ejected, with a single bullet hole in his head. Owen Baggett holds the title of the only man to ever shoot down an aircraft with a 1911 pistol.

By the end of WW2, so many 1911 pistols had been built that the government canceled all post-war contracts, and chose to rebuild guns coming back from the battlefields. Guns coming back from battle went to arsenals to be rebuilt. Guns that were beyond fixing were parted out and used for donors for other guns. These guns were sandblasted and parkerized instead of being blued.

The 1911 was also used in Korea and Vietnam. By this time though, the 1911 was starting to show its age and wear, considering there were still guns being issued that had been used in WW1. The U.S. started to search for a newer, double-action pistol chambered in 9mm, and in 1985 they adopted the Beretta M92.

The 1911 was also used in other countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Spain, China, South Korea, South Vietnam, the Soviet Union, the UK, and quite a few others.

Civilian Use

Starting in 1913, military 1911s from both Colt and Springfield armory were available through a special program to NRA life members. This program was shut down just before the start of WW1 and there are very few of the special NRA pistols out there. The ones that were available through this program have NRA stamped underneath the serial number.

In 1929 Colt introduced the 38 Super on the 1911 platform. The 38 Super was quite the hot little number back in its day and was one of the very few pistol rounds that would pierce through a car door. The 38 Super had remained somewhat popular since then and is still used in competitive shooting by a fair number of people.

It is hard to tell who was the first manufacturer besides Colt to offer a 1911 pistol. Springfield Armory began producing 1911 pistols in 1974 right after the company was bought by the Reese family. Around this time, Auto Ordnance started producing 1911s, as well as Llama. Since then the 1911 market has grown, and there are currently so many models of 1911s on the market that it would be nearly impossible to count them. Over the years, over 100 different manufacturers have produced 1911 pistols of some kind or another.

1911s have been chambered for just about every handgun cartridge that will fit the frame. Even rimmed cartridges like the 38 special have been adapted to work on the 1911. The 1911 has been chambered for the 22 LR for a long time, and there are still some of the old ones around that had a floating chamber so that it would simulate the recoil of the 45 ACP. There are conversions for 460 Roland which is up near the magnum class of handguns. 9mm, 40 S&W, 10mm, the screaming 22 TCM: it's all been done, and most popular calibers can be had in factory guns.

2011 Pistols

in 2011, in honor of 100 years of the 1911, STI came up with the 2011 platform, which is a highly modified version of the 1911. The 2011 featured a double-stack magazine, as well as a polymer grip frame. The 2011 is somewhat popular among competitive shooters because of the extra magazine capacity, and it is also somewhat lighter than a steel-framed 1911. STI offers 16 various models of the 2011 pistol, and there are a few other companies that offer a 2011-style gun.

STI 2011 pistol

STI 2011 pistol

Drop Safeties

During the '70s and '80s, when everyone started to sue everyone else for stupid stuff, several states began to require drop safeties on handguns. Most of us are familiar with the Ruger transfer bar safety that was introduced during this timeframe when Ruger recalled every single action revolver made before 1973. Colt's answer for this was to introduce the series 80 style guns, which have a plunger on the firing pin, and a lift arm that is activated by the trigger. As the trigger is pulled, the arm pushes the plunger up and holds it there as the gun is fired so the firing pin can clear the plunger. If the plunger is in the down position, the firearm can not be fired. Because the safety is part of the trigger system, it does make the trigger a bit more creepy than the guns without it. Kimber offers the Swartz firing pin block on their series II pistols, which is activated by the grip safety. Most modern 1911s have some sort of drop safety, even if it is as simple as a stronger firing pin spring paired with a lighter firing pin.

A image of the parts making up a series 80 safety

A image of the parts making up a series 80 safety

Caring for the 1911

Compared to modern polymer-framed pistols, the 1911 is quite a simpleton. It is a genius design in its own way. It can be taken completely down to the frame with basic tools in about 10 minutes, and the hardest part of putting it back together is getting the pin lined up with the sear and disconnect. Just about any part of the 1911 can be replaced at home if you have an understanding of gunsmithing and firearm repair.

Taking a 1911 down for cleaning is not quite as easy as some of the more modern pistols I own, but it is not the hardest thing I have ever taken apart either. After checking to be sure the gun is unloaded, simply push down on the recoil spring plunger far enough to pivot the barrel bushing clockwise, and then release the pressure on the spring, and pull it out. Then, turn the bushing counterclockwise all the way, and then pull it straight out. Now, pull the slide back until the slide stop is lined up with the takedown notch on the slide, and pull it straight out. Push the slide forwards off the frame, flip it upside down, remove the spring guide rod, and then pull the barrel out of the front of the slide. Reassembly is the opposite of takedown.

One note: when putting it back together, be careful when putting the slide stop pin back in. I've seen so many 1911s with the dreaded "idiot scratch" from the slide stop pin that it makes my heart scream in pain.

1911s like to be oiled. I usually take mine down to the frame every 500 rounds or so for a detailed cleaning, and when I put it back together, I make sure to put a light coat of oil on most of the internal parts. Whenever I take the slide off, before I put it back on, I turn it upside down and drip two drops of oil in each one of the grooves in the slide the frame rails ride in. You want enough oil to keep the gun working smooth, but not enough to where it starts to collect dirt. I have tried grease on the frame rails, but it does not work very well and tends to actually cause cycling problems.

Buying Your First 1911

There are so many 1911s on the market right now that it is really hard to suggest just one good one as a first 1911. For the money, the Rock Island FS series are very nice guns. They can be had for about $500 if you watch for one. I have one that was a Davidson's exclusive and it has never given me a problem. One of the nice things about the Rock Island 1911s is that they do not use any kind of firing pin block safety. Springfield Armory makes some really nice 191s, and Ruger now has several variants on the market, including a lightweight aluminum alloy commander model. It really depends on your budget, and what features you want. Mil-spec? Loaded commander? There are so many options out there.

My first 1911 was a Springfield Mil-spec model. Once I shot it for a while, I got a good feel for the platform, and then I knew exactly what I wanted in my next one. And that is where I learned the beauty of the 1911. They are not quite as Lego-like as the AR15, but they are close, and I was able to build the Springfield into a gun I was very happy with. Unfortunately, things come up, guns move on, and the Springfield is no longer with me. But I learned more from that first gun, by buying one at what I could afford and then building it into what I wanted than I ever would have by just buying one that looks cool.

So whether you are a new owner, looking to buy your first 1911, or even if you have owned one for a long time, but have never done anything with it. The 1911 is a wonderful firearm platform, and you could do with it anything you put your mind to.

A very fine example of a modern 1911 pistol

A very fine example of a modern 1911 pistol

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Tom on December 17, 2016:

Nice article, Daniel.