Browning M1911 handgun (image copyright © 2004 Lasse Jensen)
To many people, especially outside the United States, a firearm is an object of dubious merit. And yet at the time of writing, the British nation is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Supermarine Spitfire, every bit as much a killing machine as the Browning pistol. Like it or not, weapons are one of mankind's most fundamental tools, helping to shape the course of human history more actively than any other type of manufactured object (and in fact, both the handgun and the WW2 fighter plane were conceived as defensive weapons, not offensive). So the Browning is in, and it's the classic 20th century pistol.
The gun illustrated above no longer exists. It's a M1911A1 US Army 45 Colt made in 1945 by Remington Rand and was destroyed in 2004 after being confiscated in Iraq. It differs very little from the original M1911 first adopted as the standard-issue handgun in the United States Armed Forces in 1911.
John Browning and the Colt Model 1911
The M1911 was designed by John Moses Browning (1885-1926), an innovative American gunsmith who designed firearms for such names as the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Colt's Manufacturing Company, and Remington Arms. His father Jonathan Browning (also a gunsmith) had settled in Ogden, Utah after the Mormon Exodus of 1847 and John's interest in firearms began at an early age, working in his father's gun shop.
Jonathan Browning (Senior) died in 1879. In the same year, John and his brothers opened the Browning Gun Factory in Ogden but they lacked capital, and in any event John was more naturally inclined to design than salesmanship. For a number of years he designed firearms for Winchester, including a single shot and various other repeating rifles and shotguns. Browning and Winchester parted company after a disagreement over production of a new repeating shotgun, which was subsequently produced by Fabrique National de Belgique in Liège, Belgium.
So it was that John Browning was working for Colt when in 1906 the US Army Ordnance Board began a selection process to replace the standard-issue .38 revolver. He had already developed a .38 calibre cartridge-based automatic pistol and he reworked the design to .45 calibre. Several companies including Colt submitted samples, and in 1907 three designs – from Colt, the Savage Arms Company, and DWM (Deutsche Waffen und Munition Fabrik) – were selected for further field testing and development. DWM opted not to submit further samples.
Finally, in 1910 the Colt and Savage pistols were subjected to a '6,000 round test' (attended by Browning himself) with 5 minutes cooling after each 100 rounds and cleaning and oiling after each 1,000 rounds. The Savage model malfunctioned 37 times against none for the Colt. In 1911 the Ordnance Board reported that "of the two pistols, the board was of the opinion that the Colt is superior, because it is more reliable, more enduring, more easily disassembled when there are broken parts to be replaced, and more accurate." It was selected as the official sidearm of the Armed Forces of United States, named Model 1911.
A slightly improved version – the M1911A1 – was introduced in 1926, after which the design remained fixed through World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars until the Browning was officially replaced as the United States Armed Forces primary handgun by the (M9) 9mm Beretta 92F/FS in 1985, but the 'stopping power' of the .45 is still favoured by a number of military and law enforcement establishments in the US and elsewhere. It also became popular with civilians, for personal defence, recreation, and sport, and is prominent in film – from The Getaway (Steve McQueen), to Bonnie & Clyde (Warren Beatty), Marathon Man (Dustin Hoffman), and Saving Private Ryan (Tom Hanks).
The M1911 remains in production by a number of arms manufacturers throughout the world. It is well-documented on the web (see further reading web-links below). John Browning died in 1926 in Liège, while working on a self-loading pistol for Fabrique National de Belgique, the current owners of the Browning Arms Company formed in Utah in 1927.
Browning M1911 further reading on the web
- Bert Kortegaard's M1911A1 .45 Caliber Pistol reference site.
- M1911.org – "An Internet reference, with all you ever wanted to know about the M-1911."
- The M1911 at Wikipedia.
- Syd's "Why the M1911?" page at The Sight.
- Massad Ayoob's "1911: The classic homeland security pistol."
[ First published March 11th, 2006 ]