Friday, June 3, 2011

Colt 1911 Turns 100

March 29, 2011 marked the hundredth anniversary of the adoption of the Colt 1911 .45 Auto pistol as the official sidearm of the U.S. Army. This might not seem significant except that it would be hard to find any other mechanical contrivance that has been around for 100 years without significant alterations. John Browning first patented a similar gun in 1897, later producing a 1905 model that fired the ".45  Rimless Smokeless" cartridge.

The government bought about 400 of these and Colt kept refining the design until it became the 1911 of today and a hundred years ago. Browning had the good sense to license his patents instead of selling them outright as he had done with Winchester.

There have been many new designs in operation, but most never caught on. Remington produced a semi-auto pocket pistol designed by John Pedersen that was a fine design, but died during the depression. John Browning once told Maj. Gen. Julian Hatcher (of Hatcher's Notebook fame) that Pedersen "was the greatest gun designer in the world." High praise indeed, but most gun fanciers today, if they know anything about him at all, it's for his invention of the "Pedersen Device", that turned a bolt action Springfield into a semi-auto. Browning's design pretty much rendered obsolete knee type "toggle" actions such as the Luger and Borchardt designs used or the sliding bolt of the Mauser "Broomhandle" of 1896. There were also attempts at innovation that make you wonder what the designer was trying to accomplish, such as the L.E.S. P18 gas delay action. There was also the MBA Gyrojet, but it at least has the excuse of firing a rocket projectile instead of a conventional metallic cartridge.

Although a revolver and not a semi-auto, the Dardick pistol with its "trounds" was another weird "innovation."
Webley and Scott sold a so-called "automatic revolver" called the Webley-Fosbery in .455 Webley and .38 A.C.P.. from 1901 to 1915, but it would probably not have lasted even without competition from Browning designs because it was heavy, complicated and prone to stoppages.

Something that probably will eventually revolutionize semi-autos was marketed for a short time in the '60s by Daisy as the .22 VL (Van Langenhoven) and fired a caseless .22 round. It does away with the problem of ejecting the empty case, but it has drawbacks also, such as fragility and not protecting the powder. These drawbacks will probably be overcome eventually. Years ago, I read that the VL was killed by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms because Daisy did not have a license to produce firearms, but only air guns and BB guns. Since the powder charge was ignited by compressed air and not by a conventional primer, it was contended that it wasn't a firearm. This may be a lot of malarkey, but it has the ring of truth.

One of the reasons for the 1911's longevity is that it is about as reliable as any machine can be made and it has good stopping power for a handgun. In one of the tests it was subjected to before adoption, it was fired 6000 rounds without a malfunction. During the war in the Philippines, it was found that many of the Moros could not be stopped effectively with the .38 Long Colt, so the Army brought some old .45 Single Actions out of mothballs to serve the purpose. After the war, the War Department commissioned some tests that were conducted by Col. John Taliaferro Thompson and Major Louis Anatole LaGarde which involved shooting cadavers and measuring the arc of the swing - they were suspended by a rope - caused by bullet impact. Cattle were also shot by various calibers and the length of time it took to kill the animals was recorded. As might be expected, the tests concluded that bigger bullets worked better than small ones. These tests are usually referred to as the Thompson-LaGarde Tests. About 20 years ago, I tried to get my hands on a copy, but could never find it even after enlisting the help of the Library of Congress. Louis LaGarde wrote a book called Gunshot Injuries, in which he describes some of the conclusions, but doesn't reproduce the full text. Similar tests were done in France in the 1880s and perhaps elsewhere.

If you tried to run a race with an engine designed in 1911 against modern engines, you wouldn't win too many races, but you can still win combat matches using the hundred-year-old Colt. Most of the refinements have to do with "improving" (and not always improving) the existing parts, such as extended safeties and slide releases , beaver-tail grip safeties, different hammers, ambidextrous safeties. better sights, better grips, beveled magazine wells, polishing various parts and enlarging the ejection port. The gun is still so popular after 100 years that many companies offer them in versions already "tricked out." None of this has anything to do with the basic design of the gun; it's as though you bought a car and put some custom wheels, driving lights, great sound system, different gear ratio, etc.on it. You still have the same mechanical arrangement that you started out with. This is a great gun, but it is not to say that you should rush out and buy one if you are not a shooter.

If you want a gun just for protection, you don't need anything all that great; just something reliable that you can shoot passably well. I hate to see non-shooters buy semi-autos. Most people would do better to buy a serviceable revolver in .38 Special such as a Charter Arms or Iver Johnson, or if you really want to get extravagant; a Smith & Wesson or Colt. The best gun to have is one that you'll have with you.

Somebody once wrote to Jeff Cooper with the question, what would he rather have in a gunfight; a .25 ACP or a .32? Neither is what anybody would want in a crisis, but Cooper answered, "The first one I can get my hands on."  There are some pretty good small revolvers in large calibers, such as the .44 Bulldog, made by Charter Arms. I had one of these and it was fine for its purpose, but isn't what you would call and enthusiast's gun.

A Military 1911 Manufactured by Remington UMC
Over the years, lots of companies have manufactured the 1911 and 1911 A1s, Colt's, Springfield Armory, North American Arms of Canada, Remington UMC, Singer Sewing Machine, Union Switch & Signal Co., Remington Rand, Ithaca and many more. If guns are still using metallic cartridges in 100 years, I think the 1911 will still be around and in use then.

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