A Legend Turns 100

March 2011


Imagine if you will, a formation of American soldiers chasing Pancho Villa into Mexico in 1916, or moving forward toward the enemy in France in 1918, carrying .69 caliber flintlock muskets or Simeon .54 caliber flintlock pistols. Or tomorrow over the skies of Helmand Province, a Bleriot monoplane chugging its way across the sky, barely making headway in a 30-knot wind. Or armored cruiser USS Olympia, dwarfed by even the smallest frigates, chugging black clouds of coal smoke as she tried to keep up with the Midway (CV-41) Carrier Battle Group as it makes its way to Desert Storm.

An absurd notion, surely, to expect a century-old weapon or weapon system to have any place on a modern battlefield. Yet, after a century of the most profound technological development in the history of mankind, one weapon does remain. That weapon is one is the iconic M1911 .45 automatic. Official nomenclature is the Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911, but those who adore it know it as “the .45”, or “the 1911”.

The pistol design is the brainchild of the man the Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale called “the greatest gun designer who ever lived “, John Moses Browning. Browning gave America more than half its 20th Century small arms arsenal, as the inventor of the M1917 .30 caliber water-cooled machine gun, and its air-cooled descendant, the M1919 series, the latter of which which still soldiers on in .30-06 and .308 calibers in several of the world’s arsenals. The Browning Automatic Rifle, still the finest weapon of its type ever made, carries its inventor’s name. John Browning’s other icon, the M2 .50 caliber heavy machine gun, affectionately known as “Ma Deuce”, has yet to meet its equal in eight-plus decades of service. There are many other designs, shotguns and rifles, pistols and machine guns, which bear Browning’s stamp of genius, as well.

But today, it is an occasion to recognize what is simply the greatest handgun ever designed, the M1911. Its story has been told here before, but is worth the re-telling in part. The weapon remains a favorite in military, law enforcement, and with civilian shooters of all ages, despite newer and more advanced designs using high-capacity magazines and polymers in frame and slide. The M1911 in .45 caliber remains a favorite because of its ease of handling, reliability, accuracy, and power. Though replaced as the US sidearm beginning in the late 1980s by the 9mm Beretta P92 (which, ironically, has a pistol grip too large for smaller female service members and is being replaced in some services), the 1911 remains in service with a number of special forces units, and with USMC MARSOC units, among others.

An amazing service record for one of the greatest ever weapons of war. And it will be one hundred years old tomorrow. Though sometimes shortened or widened, or festooned with gadgets, rails, sights, and lights beyond description, the M1911 remains in essence little changed from the weapon officially adopted a century ago, 29 March 1911, as the Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, Model of 1911.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, History, Marine Corps, Navy

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    I gots mine, a Colt Series 70/MKIV.

  • xrlw1a

    Olympia is a protected cruiser not an armored cruiser. The armored cruisers were pretty sweet though.


    The M1911 is an excellent service pistol but its longevity is more a testiment that pistols are just not that important to a modern military service, so they are rarely changed once they are good enough. And the M1911 has always been at least good enough. I would wager that most soldiers that carried a M1911 would have been almost as effective if they had been carrying a Colt SAA in .45 Colt or .44spl. In most cases where pistols are really important, say SEALS for instance, the M1911 has been replaced with something marginally better for the specific application. Even the switch to the Beretta was more because Congress mandated a switch to 9mm when the M1911s were finally wearing out and needed to be replaced than that it was vastly superior. Pistols just aren’t as important as rifles, machineguns, and the like.
    Now the M2HB, the fact that it is still around and still one of the premier heavy machineguns in the world, that is truly amazing!

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Have to challenge your assertions, both that the SEALs and Delta folks carry something else (when I saw them doing their thing in 2004, they uniformly carried the 1911), and that the SAA or .44spl would have been “just as effective” for the soldier. If there is a house to clear, or a close fight brewing, you want a hand-ejecting wheel gun or that damned Beretta? No thanks. The 1911 is the best battle pistol ever. I own an SAA and love it, but it cannot begin to do the things a 1911 can.


    You miss my points.

    First, SOCOM developed the HK23 SOCOM specifically to do all those cool things you need a pistol to do. It won out specifically against a highly modified M1911 pistol. It is arguably somewhat better for that role than a M1911 based pistol but each have their strengths and weaknesses. And few people would argue that there are not better weapons than a pistol for virtually every one of the roles. Say a SMG, carbine, or shotgun. Pistols tend to be backup weapons except when you are really space constrained like in tunnels and such.

    Second, I said “I would wager that most soldiers that carried a M1911 would have been almost as effective if they had been carrying a Colt SAA in .45 Colt or .44spl.” and I stand by that. Most people who carried a M1911, or the new Beretta now, never had to worry about clearing a house or a close fight. It was carried by rear echelon personnel, sentries, ship companies, pilots, and others. The vast majority never used it in anger and, in the few times they would possibly use it, would never need more than 6 rounds. So a Colt SAA would be “almost” as effective. As reliable as a M1911 is, a SAA, for most users, is more reliable, easier to maintain, and easier to use. A SAA is definitely not better for clearing houses although some would argue it would be better for tunnel rats.

    Nothing I have said is criticism of the M1911. I own two. Its a great design that has stood the test of time extremely well. There is really nothing out there, for a military weapon, that is that much better. But a secret to its longlife is that military pistols, economically, just aren’t worth changing that often. If we hadn’t changed to 9mm, we would probably still be carrying it becasue it is good enough. Even if it is a relatively heavy, 7 shot, single action only design. But no one ever won or lost a war as a result of a design of a service pistol.

  • Chuck Hill

    The US did not seem to be making cruisers in 1911, but I can’t help but think a Drayton Class destroyer, 883 tons (fl), five 3″/50 and 29 knots would work pretty well against Somali pirates.

  • AT1 Charles Berlemann Jr

    The only critisim I would have of either a Colt SAA or even any one of the many S&W Military Police revolvers and the reason they are no longer primarly carried by anyone in either law enforcement or the military is the inability to have any stopping power and you can’t reload on the run like one can with a semi-auto pistol. I would just cite the 1986 Miami-Dade shoot out where two FBI agents were dropped by two bank robbery suspects who were more heavily armed. Two biggest things the investigation found was that trying to reload a revolver on the run, was a pain. That even with the .357 standard side arm of Federal Agents at the time wasn’t enough power to drop a body. On the civil side this lead to the adoption of the .40S&W as the standard cartridge for most police forces. While on military side, this lesson was learned during the Philippine Insurrection of the 1900’s; where it was found the M1898 Semi-auto pistol or the S&W Model 10 chambered for .38 wasn’t enough to put down some of the charging and drugged up Moros.

  • Mike M.

    It’s worth remembering that the Mk23 pistol got a less than enthusiastic reception. Not surprising, considering that the thing is the size of a Walker Colt.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Nobody said a pistol will win the war. Or even a battle. I just want it for my little piece of it. And for that, there is none better, anywhere. True in 2011 the same as in 1911.

    Which is a remarkable accomplishment and worthy of note.

  • JC

    I thought everyone already knew that your side arm is what you use to fight your way back to your rifle!

    That being the case, the M1911A1 or any variant thereof will do just fine.

    carry on!

  • It.Just.Works.
    w/r, SJS
    (Springfield Armory M1911A1)