Shooting History: 1913 Production Colt 1911 – Old Gun Review

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Shooting History is our series where we take some old historic guns and, you guessed it, shoot ’em. The idea is to put them through the same testing and evaluations we do for modern guns. If there is something you would like to see reviewed in the series be sure to comment below and we will do out best to get our hands on a “shooter.”  If you missed the first two reviews in this series you can find them here.

For this installment we will be looking at another old Colt pistol that was designed by John Browning.  The best known of the old Colts actually, the 1911.  But not just any 1911 will do for inclusion in this series.  This example was made in 1913 and has an interesting history all its own. But more on that later. First, lets take a dangerously shallow dive into the world of the early 1911s.

Design

There has probably been more written about the 1911 than any other pistol (entire books, in fact). There’s no way to cover the subject in one article. Instead, I’ll go over some of the high points on the specs on the original 1911s, not the A1 update.

The review gun that was made in 1913.

The review gun that was made in 1913.

  • Short recoil operation
  • Grip and manual safety
  • Single Action
  • .45 ACP
  • 7 round magazine

Unlike the later 1911 A1, the original had

  • A flat mainspring housing
  • A wide hammer spur and short grip safety spur
  • No relief cuts on the frame
  • A long trigger
  • Smaller sights

Those are some of the highlights and differences the early 1911s have over the A1.  There are other minor ones that changed slowly during production.  The small things (like fineness of the checkering on the recoil spring plug and the manual safety) happened more like evolutions rather than big platform changes..

But what makes the 1911 such a legendary pistol?  The fact that it was the primary side arm for the US Military from 1911 until 1984 is a big part of the equation.  Lets take a look at the testing and trials that the 1911 went thought to get the job.

Trials and Tribulations

The final design of the 1911 really came about from a series of trials that the US Government put it and other pistols through.  These tests let Colt and John Browning see how the pistol held up.  There were also requirements that the design had to meet.  A lot of the credit for the 1911 design can be attributed to the trials and specifications required for the new pistol.  That is not to undermine the brilliance of John Browning, or his and Colt’s willingness to to tackle the challenge.  The 1911 did not materialize overnight; it was a multi-year process.

Colt 1900.

Colt 1900. (Photo: Coltautos.com)

1899-The Army announces that it is looking for  a efficient and reliable automatic pistol to replace the revolver in use by the Calvary.  A prototype of the Browning designed Colt 1900 is tested.

1900- The Colt 1900 enters production for the civilian market.  It is a semiautomatic pistol chambered in .38 ACP and has a 6 inch barrel.  Other notable design features are the use of two tilting links that allowed the barrel to move a short distance and the rear sight being used as a push button safety. It also features a full length slide.

1900- Also saw more testing of the now in production 1900. It was put through tests with the Mauser C96 and the Styer Mannlicher M1894.  The Mannlicher failed but the Mauser and Colt preformed well enough for an order to be placed for more field tests of the two pistols.

1899-1902- During the Philippine-American War there were reports of the .38 Long Colt cartridge, used in the service revolvers, not having enough stopping power.  This eventually lead to the requirement for the new pistols to be chamber in .45 or something larger.

1900-1905- Browning and Colt make improvements on the 1900 design from feedback during the on going Army field testing.  The two barrel links show to be a weakness in the design.  Colt makes some prototypes in .41 caliber but the two links can not withstand the heavier cartridge and no production pistols are made in this caliber.

1905- Browning designs and Colt releases the 1905 which is the first pistol chambered in .45 ACP–a round which was also designed by Browning.  This design basically is a scaled up 1900 with some improvements made to the barrel links.

1905-1909- More testing of the Colt 1905 and slight changes made to the design continue.  The 1907 variant is worth mentioning as the first of these Colts to have a grip safety (which the Ordnance Board asked to be included).  The two barrel links and pins continue to be the main failure point.

1909- John Browning designs a single link barrel. This proves to be a winner.  Prototypes are made in 1909 and 1910 with further testing done at trials.

1910- The army asked for a different angle on the grip more like what is found on the Luger.  Browning changed the angle from 85 to 74 degrees.  Once the thumb safety was added later in 1910, we have what is the first 1911.

March 1911- The final Browning/Colt design goes head to head with the Savage contender at yet another trial.  The Colt fires 6,000 rounds with no failures. The “Pistol, Caliber .45, Model of 1911” is born.

The Rivadavia.  If you look really really closely you can see the review pistol.

The Rivadavia. If you look really really closely you can see the review pistol in a holster on one of the sailors on deck.

This Old Colt

The review pistol was made in 1913.  It was originally made to be sold on the commercial or civilian market, as the serial number starts with a C. But this old gal ended up enlisting in the Argentinian Navy.

In the early 20th Century Argentina commissioned two battleships to be built in the US.  The two ships were the Rivadavia and Moreno. This was all a part of the bigger and bigger battleship race that the world was in at this time.  When the ships were completed, the Argentinean Navy had the ships’ arms lockers filled with US arms, including this 1911.

Later 1911s would be made in Argentina. If you are looking at them on the used market, check the serial numbers. The first batch was made here–but most were not. And few remain with all of their matching parts.

The 1911s of this era where originally blued, but this one has been parkerized at some point in its life.  A lot of the original parts have stayed with this pistol through the numerous rebuilds it has been subjected too before it showed up in a pawn shop in Reno, Nevada. The pistol is currently at Turnbull for restoration to bring it back to the way it looked in 1913.  Look for an article about the process in the near future.

Shooting

Group from 15 yards.

Group from 15 yards.

So how does this 102 year old shoot?  Like a champ.  It is one of the best shooting 1911s that I have had the pleasure to shoot.  There is one thing you have to look out for when shooting old 1911s like this.  Hammer bite.  With the update to the 1911A1, the hammer was made smaller and the grip safety spur enlarged.  Other than making sure to grip the pistol a little lower to avoid the bite, this 1911 shoots and functions like a… 1911!  I have put at least 500 rounds through it over the past few years without a single malfunction.  The trigger is smooth, creep free and breaks right at 4.5 pounds. I have shot paper, cans and golf balls from 5 to 25 yards with this pistol.  I have rang a 10 inch steel plate from a 100 yards with it as well.  Other than cleaning and oiling, I have done nothing to the gun.  It just flat out works like a 1911 is supposed to.  Either Colt got it right in 1913 or the Argentinean Armors knew what they were doing.  Probably a bit of both.

Relevance

Tiny rear sight.

Tiny rear sight.

I have ended the other articles in this series talking about if the design is still relevant today.  If I was going to use this 1911 as an everyday carry gun, there are two things I would change.  I would put a grip safety on it with an extended spur to cut out the hammer bite.  The sights could use an update as well.  They are tiny by today’s standards. But I will never do any of these things to this pistol.  It is a piece of history and deserves to be preserved, not updated.  That is why it is at Turnbull right now.

So is the 1911 design still relevant?  One that functions and shoots like this one sure is.  We have Colt, John Moses Browning and the countless people involved in the US Army Trials to thank for that.

 

 

The 1905 Colt.

The 1905 Colt. (Photo: Coltautos.com)

Colt 1907.  The first of these pistols to have a grip safety.

Colt 1907. The first of these pistols to have a grip safety. (Photo: Coltautos.com)

The Colt 1909.  The slide lock looks like that on the 1911.  We are getting closer!

The Colt 1909 was the first one to use a single barrel link.  The slide lock looks like that on the 1911 but no thumb safety.  We are getting closer! (Photo: Coltautos.com)

The Colt 1910. A few minor changes and this is a 1911.

The Colt 1910. A few minor changes and this is a 1911. (Photo: Coltautos.com)

Prancing pony on the review gun.

Prancing pony on the review gun.

Government Model.

Government Model.

Marina Argentina.

Marina Argentina.

Paten dates.

Paten dates.

Made in Hartford, sailed to Argentina, to a pawn shop in Reno, then to Arkansas. And a few places in between I am sure.

Made in Hartford, sailed to Argentina, to a pawn shop in Reno, then to Arkansas. And a few places in between I am sure.

A 1911 made in 1913 and a 1903 made in 1916. Which came first?

A 1911 made in 1913 and a 1903 made in 1916. Which came first?

***Big thanks to Coltautos.com — the website for collectors of Colt Automatic Pistols and Revolvers — for the pictures!

{ 30 comments… add one }
  • Sam Lisker March 15, 2016, 6:22 pm

    Interesting that there are no photo credits in your article. Please remove the five photos of my Colts you “borrowed” without attribution from Coltautos.com, or add the proper attribution.

    Thank you,

    Sam Lisker
    Coltautos.com

    • S.H. Blannelberry March 15, 2016, 7:53 pm

      All set!

      Sorry about that Sam.

  • Realist September 21, 2015, 7:26 am

    One item of note is the ”diamond” wood grips; their design changed upon the advent of the A1. My 1911 (manufactured in 1917) is all original sans the ”diamond” grips; been searching high & low for a pair…

  • OFBG March 28, 2015, 10:51 pm

    While I certainly respect the 1911, I won’t own one simply because of the grip safety, which I find both superfluous and annoying. I do own and shoot one of the Spanish semi-clones in 9mm Largo because it does not have the grip safety, and now that the Star model B pistols (also sans grip safety) are available I will acquire one of those as well. If you feel that I am wrong about this, just consider that the HP35 – considered by many to be the ultimate evolution of Browning’s design – has no grip safety.

  • ed gross March 18, 2015, 7:24 pm

    back in the 60s i bought a used 1911 shot it a couple times ,the more i shot the worse i got .there was an nra master shooting next to me one day.he tried it and couldnt hit at 25 yards either/it was like throwing bricks across the st.i traded it in .years later i found out what i had.it was a singer i kick myself today.only paid 65$ for it.

  • Bill Martin March 18, 2015, 11:58 am

    Interesting article but I noticed a couple of misspellings. Where he wrote that the 1911 was to “…replace the revolver in use by the Calvary” it should be cavalry not Calvary. In another place one of the picture captions said “Paten date” It should be patent date. Probably a typo. The use of calvary where it should be cavalry is a common mistake but both should have been caught by the editor. Yeah, I’m picking nits, but that is just me. Otherwise, it was a good article.

  • Bill Hemmings March 17, 2015, 8:15 pm

    How about a 1907 Winchester, .351SL. Very specific only one rifle ever used it nice carbine.

  • Alan March 17, 2015, 10:03 am

    I have my Dad’s 1911 that he brought back from WWII. He was an MP and it was his sidearm and he was the first person it was issued to. Still works and is all original.
    It was made in 1918, the serial number is within 52x,xxx. It is in such good condition, I’ve been offered several thousand dollars for it. But, I won’t sell it because of the family history behind it.

    • petru sova March 20, 2015, 5:34 pm

      My Dad also had two of them but was told on the way back home that anyone caught with any U.S. military pistols would be sent right to prison so he threw them into the Atlantic Ocean as did many of this friends coming back with 1911 guns. When they got to port in the U.S. the MP’s were screaming at everyone to get off quick, get off quick and they never even searched anyone much to the sadness of everyone that threw 1911 pistols into the ocean.

  • Steve Pennington March 16, 2015, 2:14 pm

    It appears as though there are trigger finger cuts milled on it. Perhaps done during a rebuild? Both of my 1911s are without the cuts, even my WWII rebuid.

    • Sam Trisler March 16, 2015, 5:08 pm

      Maybe its the lighting? No cuts like the 1911A1 on this one.

  • RedClayBlues March 16, 2015, 1:09 pm

    Wher do you find these wonderful toys?!

  • Petru Sova March 16, 2015, 12:46 pm

    There are still a lot of myths about the .45 acp and the 1911. The use of the 1911 proved that the .45acp cartridge and the 45 caliber revolver cartridges used before it in the war of Imperialist Conquest of the Philippians that resulted in the slaughter of 1/4 million Philippian’s proved the .45 cal pistols and revolvers worked no better that the smaller .38 caliber revolvers used in the conflict.

    Jan Libourel researched U.S. combat records and found no evidence supporting the .45 caliber superiority. Which brings us to the original .38 acp cartridge that was the better combat cartridge by far. The cartridge John Browning originally recommended. It shot flatter because of higher velocity, and had way more penetration. It was not that much different in ballistics than the 9×19 cartridge that was found in U.S. testing in 1945 to penetrate a helmet at astonishing 125 yards while the dude round .45 acp bounced off of the same helmet at only 35 yards. All this meant that the soldier in the field could carry more rounds of the smaller caliber, a pistol could be constructed to hold greater firepower, the soldier could make more hits in a faster amount of time because of less recoil and less flinching and could more easily hit targets at longer range because of the flatter trajectory.

    The Thompson tests of 1900 and the much later tests of Pistolero Magazine in the 1980’s proved that their was no real difference in killing power between the .38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9mm and 45 acp. All the propaganda as to the .45 acp knocking down a man or spinning him around like a top or making him disappear in a red puff of mist was the pipe dreams and advertisement propaganda of prostitute gun writers pushing for more civilian sales of the 1911 and its new cartridge dubbed as the new 8th wonder of the world.

    WWII combat veterans that saw actual combat have told me back in the1950’s that they traded off 1911 pistols for various 9mm handguns and that when they pulled the trigger they had no trouble killing Germans with it contrary to gun writer myths that people who were shot with anything but the .45acp were able to keep on standing , or run as fast as a speeding locomotive or leap tall buildings with a single bound.

    Even today over 100 years later the U.S. military is still brainwashed into believing the U.S. should drop the superior 9×19 and go back to the .45 acp that was and is a complete failure except at the closest of point blank ranges.

    The WWI 1911’s had some outstanding workmanship and accuracy as compared to the shoddily made inaccurate guns made in WWII that rattled like a marble in a tin can and were so inaccurate that one G.I. told me that when he was on guard duty while fighting in the South Sea Islands he threw away his 1911 and used an M1 carbine because of the greater firepower and better accuracy over the 1911 pistol. He said he had no confidence in the gun because of its in accuracy.

    I think the U.S. screwed up big time when they did not adopt the Browning High Power in 1935 and will screw up again if the succeed in dropping the current 9×19 caliber.

  • MickeyG March 16, 2015, 10:59 am

    I have a Colt 1911 Serial# 88XXX, marked MODEL OF 1911 U.S.ARMY, that has been handed down in our family from my grandfather who carried it in War 1, my father carried in War 2 and Korea, my older brother in ‘Nam in 61/63, and I carried in ‘Nam 64/69. It shows holster wear and wear of 4 wars, but functions and shoots like a dream.
    I have thought about having it restored, but I think I’ll keep it as is and still shoot it on occasion !
    Semper Fi

  • bill schleuning March 16, 2015, 10:33 am

    Thanks for the great article..I inherited a (I believe to be ) U S Army 1917 1911..it’s in great shape and.came with the U.S. leather holster with belt and mag holders… (4) 2 tone magazines …one mag still has 6 bullets marked 1918 on the bottoms..apparently the original owner was some type of officer because I also have the brass command whistle also..id be happy to email you pics to get your take on what it really is..keep up the good work

  • Mr.James March 16, 2015, 10:25 am

    Agreement with previous commenters, best type articles contains good photos, history progressing time line, attractive subject ,exit strategy that leaves the reader wanting more. Carry on. “OH and where can I find one of each.”

  • Retired Navy Spook March 16, 2015, 8:46 am

    Sam, your articles are the ones I look forward to most when the GA newsletter arrives in my in-box. My first experience at formal competition shooting back in the 70’s was with a Colt 1911A1 from a Navy armory, and I qualified expert with it 6 years in a row. And, although I own 4 other handguns (2 9mm’s, a .40 and a .38), the 1911 is still my favorite gun to shoot, and the one I’d most want to have in my hand if a bad guy breaks down our front door.

    • Sam Trisler March 16, 2015, 5:10 pm

      Thank you very much for the kind words.

  • Artemio Salazar March 16, 2015, 8:34 am

    Congratulation very good article

  • Artemio Salazar March 16, 2015, 8:30 am

    congratulation great articul

  • Justin March 16, 2015, 8:02 am

    Thank you for this article – it is nice to see the evolution of the 1911 via pictures in the same series. Interesting to see how the rear of the receiver was shaped to protect from the hammer bite in the original 1900, prior to the adoption of the grip safety. Also interesting to see the magazine release button on the 1900 (which appeared to slide down the grip rather than push inwards) and I wonder if that design change was implemented as a space-saving feature.

  • shootstraight March 16, 2015, 7:32 am

    Very good article,great job!!!

  • Don Kinney March 16, 2015, 7:04 am

    I, also, own a 1911 made in October 1913 according to the serial number, in the 24,000
    range. I’ve been reluctant to shoot it but your sample seems to have faired well, so I’m
    seriously considering it. The Turnbull restoration is of extreme interest now. A follow-up
    is hopefully forth coming. (The sailor comment “on deck ” was pretty funny).

    • Whyawannaknow1 March 16, 2015, 11:41 am

      I have another 1913 made pistol, serial numbers show it was one of a block sent to US Navy that year. It had certainly been military arsenal refurbished at least once, then was sold to my father through the old DCM and used as a target pistol. 102 years after leaving Colt factory (and 60+ years after dad got it), I still shoot it regularly.

      Have a competent gunsmith look at it, then take the old 1911 to the range… Steel pistols don’t die of old age, only neglect or abuse.

    • Sam Trisler March 16, 2015, 5:17 pm

      You can always put a new recoil spring on it. Actually, I would recommended doing that before shooting it. And of course no +P loads! Winchester white box FMJ is what I usually shoot out of this one.

  • David Smith March 16, 2015, 6:23 am

    I inherited C41XX, it is still in original blue (had to replace the barrel bushing) but it still shoots better than I ever will. Great article–keep ’em coming.

  • John March 14, 2015, 2:07 pm

    This is a great series. Well written article. Hope you do other brands. Maybe do some articles on the guns that competed with Colt for the Government contract. The old Savage pistol is pretty cool too.

    • Sam Trisler March 15, 2015, 2:10 pm

      An original Winchester 1873 is up next. I hadn’t planned to run the 3 Colts back to back. I took the Colts to the range on the same day to do the shooting for the articles and the weather has not cooperated since!

  • Will Drider March 14, 2015, 12:03 am

    Execellent article. Supporting pictures were great.

  • Kevin March 13, 2015, 9:45 am

    Really interesting series. Thanks and keep ’em coming!

    (Typo – first sentance, “guested” should be “guessed”) 🙂

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