A Brief History of the Model 1911 Handgun - NSSF Let's Go Shooting

A Brief History of the Model 1911 Handgun

Among the numerous handgun designs available today, possibly the most recognizable and endeared pistol is the U.S. Government Model 1911. Chosen by the U.S. Army in 1911 after some years of rigorous field trials that involved six different designs from different continents, the pistol that John M. Browning designed for Colt’s won the contest hands down. Built around a brand new cartridge, the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP), the recoil-driven 1911 proved to be a much more effective implement of warfare and self-defense than did its predecessors. It was and still is an auto-loading wonder.

During the original field trials, the powers that be mutually agreed that the stopping power of the .45 Colt was what they were after, as the stopping power of the .38 Long Colt then in use was less than desired. Those military men also wanted a cartridge with a rimless design, so that it would feed well from a spring-loaded magazine located in the handle of the pistol. The new .45ACP would drive a 230-grain round-nosed bullet at a subsonic velocity of 850 feet per second, delivering plenty of knockdown power.

The operation of the 1911 pistol isn’t all that complicated. A slide on the top of the firearm is pulled backward by the shooter and released to load the pistol, the slide moving a round from the magazine up and into the gun’s chamber as the slide goes forward—just like every other semi-auto handgun you’re familiar with. Recoil from the first shot sends the slide rearward, ejecting the empty case as it does so. The slide then moves forward again, chambering another round and ready to fire when the slide finishes its forward movement. The entire cycle repeats every time the shooter pulls the trigger, until the last cartridge is fired. At that point, the slide remains rearward—“locked open”—showing the shooter both that the magazine is empty and that the chamber is clear and safe.


Working the slide on a Colt 1911. Photo courtesy Phil & Suzie Massaro.

The 1911 first saw duty during World War I and was an immediate success. Since then, Browning’s brainchild has seen action in nearly every major military conflict the U.S. has been involved in. The design has been copied and cloned by many companies, with some good upgrades and some neat additions over the years, but one thing remains the same: the design itself is one of the best ever produced.

Why? First, the pistol’s simple design makes it utterly reliable. Malfunctions from feeding or ejection are rare and the firearm can be fired after being dragged through mud or buried in the sand. I’ve seen very few 1911s that don’t go bang on a regular basis. An added plus is that, generally speaking, any firearm adopted by the U.S military is rock solid.

Second, the 1911 is easily customized. There are many aftermarket companies that have been very successful in the last few decades, and the list of custom options is longer than Santa’s naughty-and-nice compilation. Laser sight grips, skeletonized triggers, custom hammers, optimized springs—the list goes on and on. Some 1911s are even as colorful as their owners, featuring first-rate engraving or grips made from exotic materials.

Finally, although the classic 1911 was originally chambered for the .45 ACP, there are many different cartridges to choose from today, including the .38 Super and 10mm Auto. In any one of the 1911 compatible cartridges, there are a wide selection of bullet shapes and sizes, not to mention bullet construction.

For 119 years, we’ve been enjoying the benefits of the collaboration of Colt and Browning—and that’s not something that’s about to change anytime soon. So next time you’re shopping for  another gun to add to your collection, consider the 1911. Whether a brand new model fresh off the Colt’s assembly line or an older, well-cared for version you find in the used gun case of your favorite gun store, it is, without doubt, like having a piece of history in your hands.