by Jim Higginbotham
“This is the finest close quarters combat handgun ever designed.” Said my friend and fellow firearms instructor Ken Hackathorn holding up a 1911 .45 Pistol in front of a class he was teaching at RangeMaster back in the late 1990s. I could not have agreed more. Ken may have changed his mind since then, I do not know, but I haven’t changed mine.
According to 1911 authority William Goddard, the first lot of 1911s (other than test pistols and tool room samples) were assembled at the Colt plant on 28 December 1911 (barely making it into the year the pistol was christened). They were shipped the first week of January. The rest, as they say is history. The collecting of 1911s is a joy and a field all to itself. But after 100 years, the 1911 still soldiers on, and not for nothing.
My focus is on use of the 1911, not collecting, but I am a student of history and the history of the 1911 in use for what it was intended is one of sublime success. My intent here is to touch on that use as well as some personal shooting impressions. I intend to spend a good bit of time on the “real” 1911. That is to say, U.S. Military issue and Commercial Government Models made before 1924 when the transition was begun to the 1911a1. To be sure the 1911a1 has very few fleas on it, but it is a slightly different pistol in my estimation.
My first personal experience with a 1911 was not exactly an auspicious occasion. My father was an excellent shot, worked for the Army for most of his adult life and was a WW-II veteran. Like many former military men he had an abiding respect for the .45 Automatic. And so, other than an old double barreled shotgun that had belonged to his father, the only firearm that he owned was an ex military 1911 for which I believe he paid the munificent sum of $15.
At the age of five, I had my first encounter with this pistol. It did not bode well. My dad had to help me hold the gun up but I was the one to press….ah jerk…on the trigger. Ear plugs? Real men did not use earplugs in the early 1950s! So their little boys didn’t either. Eye protection you ask? Nobody thought about it.
When I touched that pistol off I thought the world had come to an end! There was noise, and recoil and I probably would have dropped the blamed thing if my Dad’s hands hadn’t been wrapped around mine. To add injury to insult the hot empty case dropped right down the neck of my shirt and stayed there!
My next one 10 years later, didn’t do anything to improve my assessment. My first centerfire handgun was not a 1911, it was a 1911a1. I saved up money from soft drink bottle deposits and at age 15 bought a surplus Remington Rand .45. I did not buy it because I wanted a .45 Automatic. I bought it because I wanted a center fire handgun and it was cheap. By accident of birth and circumstances I was able to purchase this gun legally, though the owner of the pawn shop insisted that my Mother vouch for me. Just two years later I could not even purchase ammo as the 1968 Gun Control Act started taking effect.
To try and keep a long story short, I could not shoot this gun accurately and it completely convinced me that the stories about “rattle trap” G.I. .45 autos were true. I probably would have labored under that delusion the rest of my life had I not a few years later, purchased a brand new Colt Mk. IV Series 70 in shiny nickel. Now this gun would shoot! I began to work with it. Factory ammo was accurate (you would not want me shooting at you at 200 yards with this gun!) and handloads were even more accurate (there weren’t near as many different loads available from the factory in those days). Mind you all old G.I. guns aren’t superbly accurate, there is some luck involved.
One day I dug out the old cheap Remington Rand that had lain around gathering dust for many years. To my utter shock this gun had “accurized” itself while lying in that drawer! It shot every bit as good as the Mk. IV. It even tuned in some 1.5” groups at 25 yards with the selected handloads; it shot about 2” with .45 Ball (Federal Match factory 230 JRN). I didn’t even consider the fact that maybe I just didn’t know how shoot it before…no not me. That was around 1972. 30 years later I used an identical unmodified gun to first qualify on the current (2002) Army rifle qualification course then a short time later qualify Sharpshooter on the same course. I use it today occasionally in demonstrations.
From that point on I started getting more involved in the practical use of firearms, competed a little (I have never been a real competitor, but used competition to gain some skill), continued in law enforcement off and on at first, and became a gunsmith – mostly out of self defense so I could afford custom guns. For the rest of my shooting career the 1911 was the gun I would turn to for most of my handgun needs. To be sure, for 30 years it was mostly a custom 1911. But today I have been going back the other direction more and more. Apparently John Browning knew a thing or two about pistols. I am a slow learner.
While a cottage industry built up around modifying the 1911, and I was certainly a beneficiary of that, I have to say, the original product as produced from 1911 to the 1960s should get a lot more credit than the pundits tend to give it. Indeed many of the criticisms of the 1911 platform you will see in various forms in books, magazines and on the Internet (some legitimate gripes) come from there being too many producers and too many versions. Our focus here will be on the real deal – the 1911 and 1911a1 U.S. Military issue and the Commercial Equivalent made from 1912 on up until the advent of the Mk. IV in.
Before we leave this area please allow me to recommend the excellent and recent book “The 1911, the First 100 Years” by my friend Patrick Sweeney. This book, available at most normal booksellers (I got mine off the shelf at Banes & Noble), covers the history and of the pistol as well as the modern interpretations. I also recommend both volumes 1&2 of the Gun Digest book of the 1911 by Patrick as good info on the pistols available today.
Naturally, any body of work by the late and great Jeff Cooper will make mention of the 1911.
Enough gab and background how do they shoot and how are they used and who has used them?
Well let’s first look at the originals I have fired Government Models that were made as early as June of 1912, but most of mine were made from 1916 to 1918 with one made in 1922. Occasionally I carry these guns for self defense purposes. I don’t feel the least bit apprehensive about it, though normally I do carry gun made a bit later. Two of my favorites are guns made in 1943 and 1957 respectively. See I “dig” new-fangled stuff!
The things that separate the originals from the run of the mill “rattle trap” G.I. guns is fit. Unless they have been arsenal rebuilt and refinished they are usually nearly as tight as the modern CNC machined guns. At least those made by Colt. I have only held and fired a couple of original Springfield Armory (not S.A. Inc the modern manufacturer but the actual U.S. Military Arsenal/Armory) or Remington UMC 1911s. They were indeed well made but I just have not seen many. 1911a1s, as a class tend to be a little “looser” and slightly less accurate.
Most folks know that the original versions had a long trigger and a wide spur hammer (there are actually several shapes and lengths to the hammer and grip safety up until around 1918). The most common combinations of wide hammer and grip safeties are noted to cause “hammer bite” to the web of all but the skinniest of hands. I have found that oddly enough the very early guns with the longest hammers and shortest grip safeties don’t do this to me but the typical 1917 or 1918 gun will. Naturally we don’t chop up good 1911s today since they are a piece of history but I have seen them cut up with abandon in the past.
The tiny “thumbnail” sights are also common. The profile of the rear sight is familiar, at least after 1914, but the notch is a tiny “U” and the front sight is small and rounded. It is pretty easy to miss in dim light and glares a bit in bright light. Never the less it is surprising how accurate these guns can be. They are in fact more accurate than all but the most accomplished shooters.
I have a used commercial Colt shipped in 1917 (early so it was probably made in late 1916). By some great good fortune our county coroner gave me a bag full of .45 ammo he thought was to old to be useful. It was all head stamped 1918! It dawned on me that if I shot that ammo in that gun I would know pretty much what a doughboy could expect from his sidearm. I went to the range in the back yard and after firing a magazine of modern ball ammo to see where the gun hit. It hit about 4” high at 25 yards which is fairly normal for the WW-I age guns – I backed off to 100, went prone and let fly two rounds at my little ½ size metal man silhouette. With a “ding” for each report I knew I hit the target, with a center chest hold. I waddled down to the target and there just left of center were two hits within two inches of each other. Now to be sure, some of that was luck. The gun and load are not capable of shooting an average of 2 m.o.a. (minutes of angle) as you will see with the shorter range groups with normal ammunition. Still it goes to prove a point, the original gun, as issued and unmodified (except for some file work someone did to the front strap to make it less slippery to grip) using contemporary ammunition is quite capable of standing up to the test out to 100 yards. No holdover, no nothing – the original “point and click interface!”
An interesting aside is that in interviews Winston Churchill’s body guard, Walter Thompson assures us that anyone who got within 100 yards of the “Bulldog” was easy pickings for him and his 1911! I have a friend from England who assures me that Winston purchased a 1911 at the earliest opportunity; he asserts that it was made in 1915. I have seen the gun but not handled it. It looks right for a 1915 gun.
We can go on and on about how well the 1911 can be used, but it should really need no introduction in that realm. Modified 1911s have dominated every sport from Bulls Eye to Bowling Pin Matches to Action and Practical Shooting sports. The first International Handgun Metallic Silhouette Championship Match (steel animal targets at 50 to 200 Meters) was won using a 1911 (I haven’t heard of a big IHMSA match won with one since however). Just behind the customized 1911s in performance you may be surprised to find that it is not some other sort of custom gun but an unmodified 1911! Sure competitors need their “edge” but the biggest edge is the design of the pistol itself. It starts you with a leg up!
Competition has a way of “stacking up” irrelevant aspects of shooting until they become important enough to make a difference. A big match with big name professional shooters will see the leaders separated by fractions of a second. Shooting sports are fine, I support them. The more people enjoy firearms the better I like it. But it is not just mistaken to use sports as a gauge of lethal performance it can cost you your life. Certainly not enough space to go into that here, but it needs to be said. There are over 5 dozen factors that can seriously affect the outcome of a gunfight! Only a fraction of those are under the control of the fellow defending himself. And it is extremely rare to find one that is settled by fractions of a second – that is because it takes entire seconds, and even minutes in some cases, for a bullet that hits the heart or lungs to take effect. Not always, there are absolutely no absolutes (to play on words), but it is a norm you must expect.
Some of the modern day pundits have some criticisms of the 1911 Platform. I will go so far as to say with so many companies out there making 1911s of varying quality there could be some validity to some of those. But I wish to keep this article to the real thing, as designed by Saint John Moses Browning (it is now the official State Gun of Utah BTW, how cool is that?!). But let’s briefly look at those in the light of real fighting not how they affect your ability to win a plaque at a match.
First is that it looks dangerous carried cocked and locked. So what? To this day the U.S. military puts firearms that are carried cocked and locked in the hands of people who were clerking in a grocery store or flipping hamburgers the week before and with very little training (not slam on folks in those jobs the point is they are not technical or very mechanical in nature). It is called an M-4.
Even worse, police forces will put in the hands of officers, who also don’t get much training relatively speaking, that is carried “cocked and UNLOCKED”. Most guns carried like this don’t have the manual safety or the grip safety that a 1911 has. There is nothing wrong with this by the way. It just means what we have always known. Safety is the purview of the person holding the gun, not in the gun itself. Grow UP! Are 1911’s “dangerous”? Of course they are. We would not be carrying them if they weren’t! There are a lot more guns out there today that take a lot more training to manage without endangering the carrier or the public they are carried to protect.
No particular order of priority here but second is the complaint that is often heard that the 1911 was designed to work with FMJ ammo. Of course it was! There were no snazzy JHP bullets at the time the cartridge was designed (1904 though I think J.M.B. had already drawn it out in 1902. He could read the writing on the wall). Again, so what?. My original unmodified 1911s run fine with just about any of the Federal JHP or Expanding bullet line, the Winchester JHP line and the Remington JHP line. I have had a few stoppages with the Speer Gold Dot (a well designed bullet for terminal effect but I have had failures to feed them in my Glocks, Berettas, Sigs, XDs and S&W M&P also). The trick dear reader is to select a bullet that hits the feed ramp at the same place. Test your gun. Don’t use what doesn’t feed. There are plenty of loads that do.
Third is a related, and goofy, complaint that the 1911 does not have a one piece feed ramp. Well you can get one, and guess what? They are a lot more finicky in getting them to run! Once you do they run OK but J.M.B. had designed guns with one piece feed ramps a lot earlier than 1911. He would go back to it in 1922 when he first designed what would become the “high power” but his son reports the 1911 was always his favorite. With reason I think. Either design works in guns they were designed for. For God’s sake, don’t let someone ruin your 1911 by grinding the existing feed ramp in the frame until it matches the back of the barrel. That little 1/32” step is important.
Fourth is that it does not have an external extractor. Big deal, the gun functions. It wasn’t a problem for 75 years until people started making parts in strange ways using cast or injection molded parts and were paying people not to work (don’t get me started). Kimber tried to correct this “problem” and it nearly drove them into bankruptcy. Today a Kimber 1911 has…you guessed it…a J.M.B. designed torsion bar extractor…the way God meant the 1911 to be designed. In shooting well over 1/2 million rounds through various 1911s I have broken exactly one extractor – when I fired a steel cased 1942 made round in one that was corroded. Care to guess how many Glock extractors I have replaced? Nothing really wrong with a Glock – they are in fact excellent fighting guns – but, contrary to advertising hype nothing is perfect in every example that has been produced.
Fifth, the staked plunger tube will get loose. True, sometimes. Again, so what? Select a set of stocks (like J.M.B. did) which will hold it in place even if the rivets do get loose, end of problem. By the way, they are “stocks” (or stock panels) not “grips”. “Grip” is what you do to a pistol not what you put on it, manufacturers terminology to the contrary notwithstanding.
Sixth, it does not hold enough bullets. Well, what is enough? People survive, or sometimes lose, gunfights for many reasons but if you spend more than two seconds standing still in the line of fire you are in deep trouble! If you survive in that circumstance it is due to luck not your gun and what caliber or how many bullets it holds. Just how many rounds can you fire effectively (not just flinging rounds downrange) in two seconds – this includes your reaction time so it probably means how many rounds can you fire in one second of trigger time! If you aren’t firing you need to be reloading, every time you get the chance! But don’t do it standing still in the line of fire! I won’t say it does not matter how many rounds your gun carries, but in the real world it matters less than how you run your gun and how well you hit with it. Get used to the idea that a .45 Auto will not knock people down with a hit to the arm or hand, or even the heart! Neither will a .44 Magnum. Get real.
Seventh, the sights are too small. I’ll buy this. It was probably the first thing I changed on a 1911. But, having said that, I am much older and my eyesight is much deteriorated but now that I know how to use the sights fast under pressure I have fewer problems hitting with the old G.I. sights. It is also good to remember that from the outset Colt offered as an option 1/10th inch sights (they were about 2/10th inches high). That is all one needs. I certainly don’t really need night sights nor do I need glowing red plastic inserts to get melted or fall off.
So, how does the 1911 stack up on the “two way range”. Well, since it was conceived as a fighting pistol, as one would imagine it has done well in both the military and civilian world. The earliest reference I can find to the 1911 actually being used in a fight was during the waning days of the Philippine Insurrection in the battle of Bud Bagsak in which General John “Black Jack” Pershing personally led the U.S. troops in a four day battle. There is a famous painting featuring an officer (not Gen. Pershing) in the center with his 1911, titled “Knocking out the Moros”.
The extended struggle for the occupation of the Philippines, many claim, is indeed the “necessity” that was the “mother” of the invention of the 1911 pistol. True enough the 1911 only made it for the curtain call of the rebels but it was the very tenacity of these people, who could withstand many hits to the torso from either the issue revolver in .38 Long Colt or the issue .30-40 Krag rifle with full patch bullets. As an interim fix the Army pulled the old 7.5” Colt Single Action Army revolver and whacked the barrels off to 5.5” (also known as the “artillery model”). Many do not realize that the military load for the .45 Colt, a 230gr LRN over 28 grs. of black powder was actually less powerful than the .45 Auto at around 750 fps. The first .45 Auto load however was a 200 gr. FMJ at 900 fps, it was changed to 230 grains early on.
If the Philippine Insurrection was the testing ground for the 1911, World War I lay right around the corner and was the proving ground. We don’t have space to list the number of fights in which the 1911 proved itself. We should point out here that pistols do not win wars…maybe. Pistols are the personal defensive weapon of warriors however. Both future generals George S. Patton Jr. and Gen. Douglas MacArthur saved their own lives with a pistol well before world war one – neither with a 1911 to be sure but their skill with handguns did allow them to have a future. And regardless of any criticisms, earned or not, it is at least arguable that without both these men World War II would have taken a different path. Many thousands of people owe their lives (and many thousands enemies their deaths) to a handful of pistol shots.
It should be almost unnecessary to mention the heroic action of Corporal (later Sgt.) Alvin Cullum York. On the 8th of October 1918 on hill 223 near Chatel Chéhéry France, fate awaited the tall woodsman from Pall Mall, Tennessee when he became the last non-commissioned officer of his platoon to remain unwounded. He took matters into his own hands and single handedly dueled a German Machine Gun Company…and Won! Numbers vary from report to report but it is safe to say that Cpl. York killed around 28 of the Germans. In a famous episode a German Officer lead a group of men around York’s flank to rush him. Numbers vary here also, and some claim it didn’t happen this way, but York’s own diary says that he engaged and dropped 6 Men that charged him using his 1911. No Virginia, it wasn’t a Luger – the movies aren’t always right. And yes Alvin did bring back a Luger for a souvenir, with which his grandson almost shot him back home. He also brought back a number of his favorite pistols – the 1911! It has been my privilege to handle one of those but it wasn’t THE 1911 he used in the fight.
Just miles away and four days later a young Lieutenant by the name of Samuel Woodfill did much the same thing but in this case he charged into the trenches with the Germans and having fired both is rifle and pistol dry picked up an axe handle and killed the last two. He also was awarded the Medal of Honor. It is a sad testament to our school system that I never heard of Sam Woodfill until I had long been out of college. Yet in 1921 he was such a famous American hero that the N.Y. Stock Exchange shut down simply because he visited New York City!
I have no idea if History is actually still taught completely in our schools but from World War One until World War Two the U.S. Military was involved in a series of “small wars”. These were various occupations, “diplomatic missions” (which often resulted in incidents), and anti-insurgency actions. It was during the Haiti campaign that two Marine Officers made their mark, rising to the rank of Brigadier General and Lt. General. Those men were Herman H. Hanneken and Louis B. “Chesty” Puller.
As far as the 1911 is concerned Hanneken’s experience was certainly the more flamboyant. He managed to penetrate deep into the Haitian rebel territory with an able BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) man at his side and make short work of the rebel leader Charlemagne Péralte with a couple of rounds of .45 ball. For this risky endeavor he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
It was also between the wars that civilians and civilian law enforcement officers – I know some officers think differently but if you are not governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) then you are a “civilian” – began to take note of the effectiveness and reliability of the 1911. Prominent among them was a group called the Texas Rangers. Even famous rangers who were weaned on the Colt Single Action Army, like Frank Hamer, and his brother Harrison were won over by the charms and advantages of the slab sided auto. It is claimed that Frank used a Super .38 at times, and no doubt he did, but I have also read of at least one incident where he had a .45 auto. Frank’s original carry gun “Old Lucky” a 4 ¾” S.A.A., sold at auction by the way for $165,000 (before the buyers premium).
As many know it was a .45 Auto in the hands of FBI Agent Charles Winstead brought an end to the fast and furious run of desperado John Dillinger, and many of his cohorts, like Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd and “Baby Face” Nelson (Lester Gillis) were also brought down by 230 gr. Ball…sometimes fired from a 1911, sometimes from a 1921 or 28 Thompson.
World War II history is replete with stories of the 1911 in combat where it went on saving lives. Too many to even attempt to cover a significant part of the total but, in keeping with the theme that pistols don’t win wars but the save the lives of warriors who can be important, we probably should mention that Mr. 1911, Lt. Col. (then Major) Jeff Cooper saved his own life by the proper application of one shot, fired one handed using the sights, as he was charged by a samurai wielding Japanese soldier while he was poking about during the Island campaigns. His first pistol fight had actually been while using a Single Action Army .45 Colt. He never gave me the exact details but my impression from his personal retelling was that he quickly ditched the SAA in favor of the 1911 and the rest, as that say is history!
I cannot leave this without paying homage to a man I knew. A neighbor and the nicest fellow anyone could ever know. His name was Ernest R. Kouma, and during the Korean war he fought a personal fight alone, for hours, after he dismounted his tank in which he was shot nine times. In this fight he used the externally mounted .50 M2 until it ran out of ammo, then he used his 1911 until it ran out of ammo and then he used the guns the enemy brought to him as well as his bare hands to kill some 250 men…in one fight! Naturally he was awarded the Medal Of Honor, I suspect because there wasn’t a higher one to give him. I can attest that Ernest liked guns and hunting. He loved the 1911, with good reason.
More tales of men and women, and including some of the above, using the 1911, and other weapons for real can be found in the excellent work of artist, cartoonist and author Paul Kirchner. Two of my personal favorites are “Deadliest Men” and “More of the Deadliest Men Who Ever Lived”.
I am over long here but the 1911 has continued and does continue to safeguard America’s Warriors and Peace Officers to this day. Some don’t realize that there are still over 20,000 regular 1911a1s in military use today. Ltc. Col. Higgins can be seen wearing one of these at the scene of the capture of Sadam Hussein. That does not count the “high speed low drag” units that purchase special versions of the 1911 like Marine Detachment 1 and MEUSOC, some (not all) Delta Force (1stSFOD) and Navy SEALs.
A Century of extraordinary service! And fit to fight on another 100 years!
1911 100 year T-Shirts available at Shirts http://www.cafepress.com/+1911_anniversary_tshirt,452205754
Or at www.defensivefirearmsassociation.com
“Knocking Out The Moros” poster in various sizes at:
Paul Kirchner’s Books: Deadliest Men and More of the Deadliest Men Who Ever Lived can be found on Amazon.com
The 1911, The First 100 Years , The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 Vols. I and II , by Patrick Sweeney are available at Amazon.com, and other popular book sellers.