Browning’s M1911 and the Tale of a U.S. Combat Engineer in Italy

Author’s noteThis article is part of an ongoing series on Allied small arms of World War 2. In each installment, we will endeavor to explore the humanity behind the firearms with which Allied combatants defeated the Axis powers. General George Patton once opined, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.” In this series, we will investigate both the guns and the men behind them in the context of the planet’s bloodiest conflict.

The 1911A1 pistol armed generations of American GIs as they marched off to defend democracy against those who wished to snuff it. We stand on the shoulders of giants and do so frequently take our freedoms for granted.

The man was nineteen years old when he blackened his face with soot from a wood stove and crept to within scant yards of a fortified German position under cover of darkness. During the course of the next several hours, he emplaced a minefield within earshot of dozens of Wehrmacht soldiers. He could clearly hear them laughing and talking as he methodically armed his devices and then retreated back to his own lines. His job as a Combat Engineer carried with it all the risks of the Infantry along with the responsibility to emplace and clear minefields. He earned a Silver Star for his actions that night.

The man and his buddies once cleared a German minefield and ended up with a small mountain of disarmed Teller mines stacked up on a secluded Italian beach. A sensible man might have blown the mines a few at a time. However, these were not sensible men. These were American teenagers. They rigged a few blocks of TNT with a generous time fuse and placed it in the stack before retreating behind an ample dune.

The resulting explosion left a crater that could be mistaken for a small harbor and blew out every window in the nearby Italian village. The force of the blast lifted him bodily off the ground as he cowered behind his little hill. He and his mates emerged, ears ringing and sinuses cleared, to laugh about the chaos they had just unleashed.

There is an immutable pathos to be found in the fact that most soldiers are really just glorified children. I know I was. What is wrong with us as a species?

The man had never before been outside Mississippi, so he was curious about Italy and the detritus of war. One afternoon after his duties were complete he struck off alone into a nearby bombed-out village simply to explore. This was a world at war so he carried along his Colt 1911A1 pistol. In a combat zone, a man’s weapon is his constant companion. It is equal part tool and talisman, but one is never without it.

The man wandered into a massive pile of rubble that had once been a large building. In the dim light, he was fascinated with the little-broken things that defined lives once vibrant though now destroyed. Stepping through a wrecked doorway he found himself unexpectedly face to face with his German counterpart.

This other young man was likely on a similar mission, just wandering to satisfy curiosity or assuage boredom. Regardless of the impetus, fate was destined to be exceptionally cruel this day. The young German soldier carried a bolt action Kar98k rifle and was comparably alone.

Both men stared dumbstruck at each other for a pregnant moment, close enough to see the other breathe. Reflexively they scrambled for their weapons, but my buddy was faster. A single .45ACP round to the chest dropped the young German where he stood.

Practical killing is seldom like the movies. The process typically takes a while, and this was no exception. To have been both participant and witness at such close quarters changed this man forever.

This gentleman was not a professional warrior or some highly trained Specops killer. When I knew him he worked in a bank. He was background clutter in the world’s most vibrant democracy. He and his friends were citizen soldiers who abandoned their lives to ensure the blessings of liberty for their fellow Americans for generations to come. They were heroes in every sense. More than 400,000 of them never came home. How can we ever live up to that?

The Gun

The 1911A1 pistol armed generations of American fighting men. Powerful, reliable, and mean, the 1911 is a fistful of Americana.

In the late 1800’s the US military was burning through prototype firearms at an unprecedented rate. Small arms technology was outpacing both tactics and procurement, so government arms rooms housed a uniquely variegated selection. In a single decade, the military cycled through the M19892/96/98 Krag rifles as well as the M1895 Navy Lee. Revolvers from Smith and Wesson as well as Colt filled GI holsters. The Colt M1892 fired the .38 Long Colt cartridge.

The 1911 handgun soldiered on until the late 1980’s. Here we see Sergeant Ronald Payne wielding his 1911A1 as he explores a tunnel complex in Vietnam in 1967. I quite literally cannot imagine the kind of courage required to undertake such a thing.

The war went by several names. It was variously called the Filipino-American War, the Philippine War, or the Tagalog Insurgency. Regardless, this short but bloody conflict served as our rude introduction to the fine art of Islamic Jihad. Muslim Moro tribesmen were known to lash wet leather thongs around their testicles that shrank as they dried, working them into a justifiable frenzy. The .38 revolvers of the day simply weren’t up to the task.

My most prized worldly possession. My wife’s grandfather carried a 1911A1 pistol throughout World War II that bore this handmade sweetheart grip. After his death, last year at age 96 custody of this priceless artifact fell to me.

John Moses Browning was the most gifted firearms designer in human history. He held 128 patents by the time he keeled over of heart failure at his workbench in 1926 at the FN factory in Liege, Belgium. When he built the US government’s new combat handgun and the cartridge it fired he took no chances.

The European standard at the time pushed a 9mm bullet that weighed 115 grains. Old John Moses just doubled that to create the .45ACP that set the standard for man-portable stopping power more than a century later. The recoil-operated semiautomatic handgun that fired it went on to inspire fully 95% of the modern combat pistol designs available today.

We came surprisingly close to adopting a DWM Luger pistol chambered in .45ACP as an American service handgun. These original .45ACP Lugers submitted for the pistol trials in 1906 are arguably the most collectible military firearms in the world. They are quite literally priceless today. Should you trip over one in grandpa’s attic please give me a call. Maybe we can work a deal.

DWM ultimately dropped out of the competition leaving only Savage and Colt. Over the course of a two-day period, a single sample of each fired 6,000 rounds. The guns were simply dunked in water when they grew too hot to handle. At the end of the process, the Savage gun had suffered 37 failures. Browning’s 1911 had none.

The design was tweaked in 1924 into the 1911A1, and this was the gun my friend carried in Italy. I was issued one myself back when I first donned a US Army uniform of my own. When American GIs of both genders are finally packing phased plasma rifles for their forays downrange, old geezers like me will still be looking with longing admiration at the classic manly lines of John Browning’s martial masterpiece.

Trigger Time

The GI-issue 1911 helped free continents through decades of dependable service

When John Moses Browning needed to build a new cartridge he simply took the 9mm Parabellum (left) and doubled it. The resulting finger-sized round sets the standard for stopping power even today.

In its original GI guise, the 1911A1 is indeed a handful. Recoil is not insubstantial, and there are only seven rounds in the magazine. Additionally, before we started lowering and flaring all of our ejection ports the thing was notorious for dropping empties onto the top of your head.

That first 1911A1 I was issued rattled like a tambourine when you shook it, but it went off every single time you pulled the trigger. I’ve shot lots more accurate handguns, but ours had been through the rebuild process a time or three by the time they fell into our mitts in the late 1980’s. Those tired old pistols had been new when my pal earned his Silver Star in Italy.

The rounds are as big as my finger, and they punch nearly half-inch holes, even with pedestrian ball ammunition. When stoked with modern expanding ammo the downrange results are undeniably devastating. I once saw a guy who had been shot in the mouth with one of these things. The back of his head sported a hole that would accommodate a mature orange. It didn’t hurt long.

Ruminations

The 1911A1 is a handful in action. Recoil is not insubstantial, but the gun is unnaturally reliable.

The 1911 pistol is as much a part of the fabric of America as is baseball, fast cars, and pretty girls. Literally, countless young men headed off into harm’s way with one of Mr. Browning’s hand cannons tucked into their belts. When life got extra sucky these guys knew they packed the best combat handgun on the planet.

War defines a man. It also defines a generation. Those old guys came home from the most expansive conflict in all of human history desperate to build and create. They had seen so much death and pain that all they wanted to do was make a world that was fresh, clean, and new. It was this spirit that built the United States into the most powerful and respected nation in all of human history. It remains to be seen if those of us who came of age later can prove ourselves worthy of this precious legacy.

Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the gear we used to outfit our period paratrooper.

Technical Specifications

1944-Production Remington Rand 1911A1

Caliber                            .45ACP

Length (in)                     8.5

Barrel Length (in)           5.03

Weight (ounces)             39

Sights                               Fixed

Action                              Recoil-Operated

Mag Capacity                  7

Performance Specifications

1944-Production Remington Rand 1911A1 .45ACP

Browning 230-gr FMJ/SIG SAUER V-Crown 230-gr JHP

Gun                                Group Size (Inches)        Velocity (Feet per Second)

Browning 230-gr FMJ                       1.5                                 870

SIG SAUER V-Crown 230-gr JHP   1.4                                 857

Group size is the best four of five shots measured center to center at fourteen meters from a simple rest. Velocity is the average of three shots fired across a Caldwell Ballistic Chronograph oriented ten feet from the muzzle.

***Shop GunsAmerica for your next historic gun***

About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 34 comments… add one }
  • ejharb October 3, 2018, 11:12 pm

    I’ve been a fan of many rounds! 38spl then .357,44spl and magnum.even messed with 10mm then 9mm.the .45acp is my favorite and last pistol round.it gives me comfort and my old eyes can see the holes made by it.even the +p rounds don’t bother me recoil wise.
    I just like it.

  • phil September 24, 2018, 9:21 pm

    An interesting tidbit… I came across a .45 pick-up from VN. It was a crudely made .45 colt type. It had a wood frame with a steel barrel and a bolt spring loaded like a pin flare for one round. A trigger mechanism hooked into the assembly when pulled released the pin firing the round. Proving once again it doesn’t take a sophisticated manufacturer to make one and only one round could get you a real one!

  • Cone Underwood, LTC (R) September 24, 2018, 8:52 pm

    Carried one during my tour in the NAM…inherited my father’s from WW II, so glad & proud to have a true piece of Americal military history…the 1911, best of all time.

  • Gary Neely September 24, 2018, 5:12 pm

    Good article about the PISTOL. The .45 auto has always been one of my favorite. I bought my first one, a Gold Cup National Match, at Nigel’s Gun Shop in San Antonio in 1968 for $175. Still have it with the box and receipt.
    I was attending flight training for helicopters and we were enroute from Ft Walters, Tx to Ft Rucker, Al and my friend had to buy it for me because of the 1968 Gun Control Act. I was 18 at the time. When I arrived in RVN in Feb 1968 as 19 year old W1 I was able to obtain a .45 that I carried for 14 months instead of the .38 revolver Aviators were issued. Also found and carried a M3 Grease Gun in my helicopter. Still own a number of .45’s in both pistol and revolver form.

  • Mike Watkins September 24, 2018, 2:10 pm

    Excellent article, Dr.Dabbs. I am also privileged to read your prose in Firearms News occasionally.

    As for Larry and his ilk, we have always (sadly) had to put up with these idiots who are dead certain that Americans have ALWAYS been sent to war only for the enrichment of big corporations. Never mind that in WWII both the Japanese and the Germans were busily eradicating the neighbors they considered their sub-human inferiors. Even in that total mess-up of VietNam, our motivation was to protect a small budding democratic nation from a totalitarian aggressor. Yes lot of mistakes and misconceptions but the motives were never so crass as to sacrifice men so DuPont, McDonnell-Douglas, Colt etc. could make big bucks.

    But I’m not in charge of other peoples’ delusions, so carry on.

    Oh, yeah. The 1911. I’ve been a fan for over 50 years. Since Marine Corps boot camp. Not privileged to carry a 1911 as an infantryman in VietNam, nevertheless I was there and had my eyes opened in a lot of ways you never get, if you haven’t been in war.

  • Samuel Wilson Maples September 24, 2018, 1:46 pm

    thanks Mr. Dabbs I try to read everything you write you are just off the wall enough I really enjoy your writing

  • Robert Campbell September 24, 2018, 12:47 pm

    I grew up on the 1911. Love that gun. Still have a few. If all I had available was ball ammo, I’d still carry something in .45, (and there are still occasions when I carry a 1911 but those are fewer and farther between). Thankfully bullet technology provides us with incredibly lethal rounds in 9mm, (which I now carry) and I like have 20 rounds available before a mag dump. Not looking to provoke a caliber vs. caliber debate here. Just my personal experience and opinion. To each his own. In the end it’s really about shot placement. Always has been, always will be.

  • John Bibb September 24, 2018, 12:26 pm

    ***
    Good article. Great photos of the WW2 troops and equipment. One troop with a Thompson, another one with the Grease Gun. Both with 1911’s–same ammo for both.
    ***
    John Bibb
    ***

  • Dwight Cimino September 24, 2018, 12:08 pm

    My very first handgun I ever owned was a WW2 leftover I bought on the black market in Saigon in 1966. Like the author’s, it rattled like a handful of popcorn in a metal pie pan, . . . but when it was supposed to go bang, . . . it did so every time. I left it in the care of one of the folks I left in Vietnam when I rotated out.

    But it was comforting knowing I had not only a piece of history, . . . but a solid and dependable sidearm if I needed it.

  • David Bevil September 24, 2018, 11:48 am

    My favorite back up was a Star PD .45. It was small and could be carried anywhere a Colt could not but it was the Colt that made me want the .45. No better enforcement caliber.

  • Leslie Davis September 24, 2018, 10:57 am

    Great article. Thanks.

  • Rjl September 24, 2018, 10:35 am

    Thank You Mr. John Moses Browning for your American ingenuity of firearm design for the ages…….

  • paul September 24, 2018, 9:58 am

    Larry, your ability with the written word is rivaled only in your choice in handguns. While it may not be your GO TO WAR option as some put it I some how feel that you could do much worse? Your knack for putting we the readers “there” is something very special to all who recognize that gift.
    Looking forward to more of your good work which will allow those of us that remember and revere the greatest generation can continue to give them thanks they so richly deserve.
    “DOG” is one of my all time favorite names

  • Tom September 24, 2018, 9:56 am

    Enjoyed the article. Larry needs some looser fitting underwear…

  • Kerry September 24, 2018, 9:26 am

    Still have my granfather 1911 from ww1,a colt that still shoots as good today as it did the it was issued to him..have take deers with it an it is my home security gun now going into the 4th generation..

  • Kerry September 24, 2018, 9:26 am

    Still have my granfather 1911 from ww1,a colt that still shoots as good today as it did the it was issued to him..have take deers with it an it is my home security gun now going into the 4th generation..

  • Albert September 24, 2018, 9:10 am

    Great article. Also member of 242th Avn Co. Sugar Bears Ft. Wainwright. Been on Mc.K. also.

  • Tim September 24, 2018, 8:41 am

    I wouldn’t consider fighting a war to stop the enslavement and slaughter of millions of pepole including women and children a racket. I would call it neccessary and just. That being said all the while I was reading this article I couldn’t help but think it would surely help the CMP promote their 1911 sales.

  • Jonathan Rude September 24, 2018, 8:23 am

    Larry, thank you. I could not have put it better. I am baffled everytime I see and hear what might be otherwise intelligent individuals proclaim, “…our democracy…” How can you then believe or respect anything else from them?

  • Joe September 24, 2018, 8:17 am

    Yep, got to love the .45 from Ole John Browning..Go Navy

  • WB September 24, 2018, 7:58 am

    Larry, you nailed it right on the head.
    I agree 100%
    WB USMC 0311 (RET.)

  • Steven Sagri September 24, 2018, 7:32 am

    Well put Larry

  • Joe September 24, 2018, 7:12 am

    The 1911 was the side arm I carried on watch when I was in the military and the 1911 was my bed side companion for several decades. I love that piece !! Now a high capacity smaller caliber hand gun sits by my bedside as i’m getting older and the recoil is less damaging to my wrist. But it still has the same blow back design that my good old 1911 had.

  • Frank Garza September 24, 2018, 7:09 am

    Great article. The 1911 is my favorite handgun to carry concealed and so is the Browning High Power. When I was in the Marine Corps in the late ’70’s, stories about how 1911s saved Marines were plentiful.

    Larry I don’t know what crawled up your butt to make you so cranky, but maybe doc has a perscription or he can recommend some over the counter medication.

    I’ve got 12 screws in my neck from a motorcycle accident (lady ran a stop sign because her phone conversation was more important than stopping at a stop sign) and though I’m in pain most days, I try not to be cranky. And I thank God for all the wonderful medical personnel who helped me.

    I can finally carry and shoot a 1911 without much pain. Life is good..:)

  • Saltwater_Hillbilly September 24, 2018, 6:57 am

    Seems like your drawers are all in a knot Larry…Lighten up Francis. When I read your comment there was enough negative energy to compare to a room full of liberal panty liners. I got several .45s and I would bet my last dollar that between my Glock 30 and Pick your fav 9 mil mine will stop Mr shithead every time when dumping a round in the chest or nugget, your pick on the other hand …the POS European 9mm (or Ima peeing) has on many documented occasions been used by my favorite gangsta rappers to shoot the sh1t outta each other. Please explain why Tupac was shot 5 times with a 9 mm and lived to be killed on another occasion?? lets look at your reply…UH yes the .standard .45 caliber round is 2 times the 9mm…in weight. I’m surprised that escaped you. Your smartness cup seems to overfloweth.
    Just because the good General wrote a book doesnt make it so…Some wars are fought because your neighboring country wants your shit. it aint always about profiteering and money or corporations..Its ideology, religion and pussy that gets more men killed than anything else. All of mine are worth fighting for (and my dogs).
    I found the article entertaining but I wasn’t picking it apart as if I was a professor and the author one of my young grasshoppers…maybe you were just in a pissy mood but the article probably isn’t what set you off my friend. I like shooting stuff…if there are a$$holes that need it…I don’t mind shooting them neither. Smile, life is short

  • Tom Vocke September 24, 2018, 6:56 am

    Wonderfully well written and a fascinating article, thanks for sharing this story and showing the pistol your wife’s grandfather carried in WWII.

  • Evan Caffrey September 24, 2018, 6:52 am

    Excellent article, Larry’s cranky nitpicking notwithstanding. Larry – try prune juice.

  • Larry Campbell September 24, 2018, 4:51 am

    I would like to ask the writer a question or two. Number one is this: Have you ever read the Declaration of Independence? The U.S. Constitution? Perhaps the Bill of Rights? Perhaps he should. And then after he has read those documents, it might actually dawn upon him that the word “democracy” which he apparently loves to use, is never once mentioned. The United States was supposed to be a Constitutional republic. Not a damned democracy. And, NO, the .45 ACP is not twice the size of the 9mm cartridge. If measured in mm, the .45 ACP is 11.25mm…not 18mm. He is also someone who apparently believes in several things that simply are not true. In actual real world results, the ALMIGHTY American .45 ACP in standard military form, meaning FMJ, is approximately 61% effective at producing what is called a one-shot stop. And the measly little pipsqueak 9mm in FMJ form is 60% effective at producing a one shot stop. It is apparent that this man knows very little about things like recoil. Recoil is a subjective thing, but to most people the recoil of the .45 ACP is sort of like a gentle push. Whereas the 9mm is a more snappy round. This entire story reads like some (hopefully failed) attempt to glamorize war and to make us all feel so guilty that we will all rush out to enlist. Most wars are completely uncalled for. I wish that the author of this story…and everyone else reading it would read a really wonderful book called “War is a Racket” it was written by a retired U.S.M.C. Major General. In it, he describes in great detail how nearly ever War, police action and conflict that he fought in was fought not to protect our freedoms, but to protect the financial interests of multinational corporations and international bankers. That does not take away from what brave men and women did, achieved and accomplished all over the world. But stop trying to glamorize war. A very wise man once said: “patriotism is the final refuge of a tyrant.”

    • Steven Bowers September 24, 2018, 8:26 am

      Larry C. – I agree with a lot of what you said, but there are some errors. I will point out just one. Your comparison of the size of 9mm and 45 acp is correct as far as diameter, but the article did not say JB doubled the diameter. The typical 9mm round is 115 grains, while the typical 45 acp is 230 grains – double the mass. Just like a 60″ tv is not double the screen size of a 30″ tv, it is 4 times the size.

      • John Bibb September 24, 2018, 12:35 pm

        ***
        HI SB–I seem to remember reading that Browning was duplicating the same performance as the traditional smokeless powder Long Colt cartridge in a shorter rimless cartridge case. And that the bullet weight dropped from the old LC 255 grain lead bullet to the 230 grain FMJ cartridge after initial testing failures showed that a heavier bullet was too hard on the 1911’s initial design.
        ***
        It certainly wasn’t just doubling the 9mm Luger cartridge. It has a far higher pressure than the .45 ACP cartridge, which is higher than the old .45 LC smokeless powder cartridge.
        ***
        John Bibb
        ***

    • Al September 24, 2018, 9:14 am

      Yeah, you may have some points there, but in your reference to “nearly every war”, I defy you to seriously integrate the attack on Pearl Harbor as something that was driven by a Group of bankers or any other financial interest group.
      ‘Nam’? Ok.
      Korea? get serious.
      So, right off the bat, your reference to that silly Book is just that, silly.
      And IF you actually read with detached logic, you would see he hadn’t really “glamorized” War, but in fact “glamorized” those who fought it, when they really would have preferred to be elsewhere.

      • Robert Campbell September 24, 2018, 12:54 pm

        The attack on Pearl Harbor was the result of the U.S. banning oil imports into Japan. Just ask yourself this one question. What would we do if any country embargoed our oil imports. .(set aside that we may be the leading oil producer now or very shortly). Also put aside the fact we KNEW it was coming and let it happen so we could be ‘pulled’ into that war. Just imagine what we would’ve done in the mid 20th century had another nation attempted that. Also, Gen Butler’s book is spot on. Its a good, easy fast read. Recommend to everyone I know.

        • John L September 26, 2018, 11:44 pm

          Maybe my memory is a little hazy. Seems to me I remember an OPEC oil embargo on the U.S. in 1973. As to the question what would you do? Like any 17 year old I simply siphoned a gallon out of my dad’s pickup now and again to fuel my 50cc motorbike. Yeah, that embargo didn’t affect me at all. But I remember the lines of cars trying to get gas.

        • Alan September 28, 2018, 3:21 pm

          Robert, you missed the point entirely. Please explain how the embargo of Japan BENEFITTED Bankers and business???? Generally speaking, embargo’s hurt business.
          And your claim that Pearl was “the result” of the oil bans flies in the face of facts surrounding the planning of the attack, which began in approximately 1940, but the Embargo’s on Japan were in June, 1941.
          Sorry, no go on that one.
          The Japanese knew LONG before the embargo that they would have to take on the U.S.

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