Written by Robbie Hadley
If you were asked to list the greatest inventors in world history, who would come to mind first? Would you say Leonardo DaVinci, Thomas Edison, or Nichola Tesla? Although those juggernauts of innovation are unquestionably worth our time and attention, one of the greatest inventive minds of all time often slips under the radar even though his inventions are known by billions around the world. John Moses Browning was a genius who single handedly evolved human combat. Born to a middle class merchant and inventor in the newly established Utah Territory as one of twenty two children in a polygamous Mormon household, this self taught inventor would move from a small town blacksmith to the US Military’s personal weapon designer. Our recent post on the M2 machine gun highlights just one example of his incredible design prowess, so check that out if you want to see another of his most influential designs. He designed so many weapons used by soldiers in the last century that many books can, and have been written about them. However one of his inventions stands above the rest.
The Colt M1911 semi-automatic handgun forever changed firearms. Acting as the standard issue handgun in all branches of the US Military for almost the entirety of the 20th century, it saw combat in every conflict from World War I to Kuwait. Aside from being one of the deadliest weapons of all time, it was also the first widespread and reliable semi-automatic handgun and it has been the template of which nearly all modern firearms are based off of. This singular invention had such an outsized impact on firearms, war, and firearms as a whole, and one man made it all a reality
John Moses Browning
Born in 1855, John Moses Browning was surrounded by firearms basically from birth. His father was a blacksmith and gun designer who had achieved modest wealth by inventing one of the earliest rifles with a multi shot magazine. Although his design wouldn’t see huge proliferation, it was successful enough in the wild west of 19th century America to make sure the large family wouldn’t struggle.
Browning worked in his father’s workshop starting at the age of seven and learned quickly. He was an excellent student and was awarded his high school diploma early, supposedly after the teacher of his one room schoolhouse said she had already taught him everything she knew.
He apprenticed with his father for several years, but eventually his skills surpassed the older Browning’s. He sold one of his inventions to Winchester in 1878 further solidifying his financial security. It also started his relationship with the US Army that would prove to be the most important business relationship of his career.
By the 1890s, Browning was one of the go to names in gun design. Whether it was for Colt, Remington, Winchester, or the US government, if a simple but effective design was needed, John Browning was the man to talk to. His 1886 rework of an iconic Winchester lever action rifle unquestionably cemented his position as the greatest weapon designer in the world at the time.
However, the world had drastically changed since Browning started designing weapons. His biggest customer, the US Military had just engaged in a conflict unlike any that it had previously taken part of. The Philippine-American War is an often overlooked part of American history that had a larger impact on America than many people realize. The tactics, strategies, and tools that they used in that conflict set the stage for World War I.
One of the many revelations that the war revealed was how outdated many of the standard issue firearms were. The Colt New Army M1892 was the new standard issue sidearm for soldiers. Being significantly smaller and lighter than the Smith & Wesson Model No. 3 Schofield it was replacing, many soldiers were glad for a few less pounds to carry in the sweltering Philippine landscape.
However, this lower weight came with a serious drawback too, a much smaller cartridge. For the last half a century or more, all military sidearms had been .44 or .45 caliber pistols. At nearly twelve millimeters, they were very large rounds with incredible stopping power. Even the toughest enemy combatants could be stopped by a round or two from these devastating sidearms.
On the contrary, the M1892 fired a .38 caliber bullet that came in a hair over nine millimeters and with significantly less powder behind the round. The soldiers found that this was a devastating drawback because even well placed rounds did not guarantee neutralizing an enemy combatant. Also, many of their Philipene adversaries would use copious drugs with analgesic effects to eliminate pain. Even placing six rounds on target wasn’t a guarantee that the threat would be neutralized. Since soldiers using a sidearm were already resorting to a secondary or tertiary weapon, this was entirely unacceptable.
Engineering for Industrialized Warfare
Once again, Browning was the man who was called to fix the issue and asked to work with legendary firearms manufacturer Colt who would handle their production. He was given a set of very ambitious requests by top military brass. Firstly, and most importantly, the round was to be chambered in nothing smaller than .45 caliber. This was to alleviate the stopping power issue faced by smaller rounds. However, this was the lesser request. They also wanted the gun to be a fully functional and reliable semi-automatic pistol. After having supplied the US Military with a fully automatic machine gun for the Spanish American war a few years earlier, they had confidence that he would be up to the task.
However, semi-automatic and automatic weapons were just in their infancy. For those unacquainted with the terminology, semi-automatic refers to any firearm that automatically loads a subsequent live round ready to be fired with the action of firing the previous shot. Although double action revolvers could allow someone to fire six shots in a row without reloading, that was simply due to the mechanism of the cylinder chambering the next round. In semi-automatic weapons, the energy produced in the recoil or from gas expansion in the barrel is utilized to chamber the next round. Importantly, the trigger had to be pulled individually each time a round was to be fired, unlike their fully automatic counterparts in which the trigger could continue to stay depressed for continued fire.
This design offered numerous advantages to troops. Firstly, reloading was extremely quick. Even though the military had long moved away from muzzle loading firearms, revolvers still had to have their rounds slotted into each of the six chambers before they could continue firing, and then they would have to repeat the process just six rounds later. Semi-automatics could utilize a magazine system that would allow for a pre-loaded magazine to slip into the firearm and continue fire after a few seconds. In the field of battle, every second was precious and cutting down on the extremely vulnerable task of reloading was invaluable.
Another advantage was at the rate of fire of the weapon. Although revolvers could be fired very quickly, just see any Old West movie where the protagonist feathers the hammer to empty his revolver quickly, this plummeted the shooter’s accuracy. The unmanaged recoil meant that soldiers had to re-steady the firearm and re-aim in order to take an accurate follow up shot, and anyone feathering the hammer would be lucky to hit the broadside of a barn since aming was impossible while completing this maneuver.
If the design was clever enough, channeling the energy that was released by the bullet as it fired would operate the action of the gun. It had a bonus effect of keeping the firearm much more level by better managing recoil and could allow for extremely fast follow up shots, especially if the firearm was heavy and able to further dampen the recoil.
However, this new style of weapon was not without its drawbacks. Semi-automatics were extremely rare at the time and just as fragile. German firearms manufacturer Mauser had released its Mauser C96 pistol better known as the Broomhandle just a few years before. Although it is iconic in its own right for its beautiful design and also as the inspiration for Han Solo’s antecedently firing sidearm, it was an unreliable disaster. It shot beautifully as long as it was perfectly clean and all of the rounds were made within unimaginably strict tolerances. As soon as the action was exposed to any dirt or a slightly imperfect round, the whole gun jammed making it little better than the broom handle it was named after. This made it practically unusable on the battlefield.
Back across the pond, Browning has just finished designing and selling his first semi-automatic shotgun, the Browning Auto 5. This was a functional and robust weapon, but was heavy and also large enough to handle the shotgun shells with sturdier components in the large, full size action. He had also released the first semi-automatic pistol for the consumer market, chambered in .38, in 1900, but as aforementioned, that caliber was significantly less powerful and many of the components would be obliterated by the far larger .45 caliber round.
This meant that Browning was near square one again. Although he knew how to make semi-automatic firearms, he had been one of their inventors, this was a unique challenge. He needed a more powerful gun that was reliable in all circumstances. It had to be in the more powerful .45 caliber but robust enough to handle the abuse of firing thousands of rounds. It needed many moving parts, but had to be simple enough to be serviced by soldiers in the field. However, he already thought he had some solutions to these problems.
The first issue was finding a cartridge in at least .45 caliber that would be reliable in the more finicky semi-automatic actions. One of the biggest advantages of revolvers is that they can easily fire poorly made rounds of ammunition fairly well, an enormous benefit in the early and haphazard days of individual self contained cartridges. There were more than enough options to pick from. The most famous gun of all time to that point in history, the Colt Single Action Army Revolver, was chambered in the bone rattling .45 Long Colt cartridge. (Take a look at our post on this weapon if you want a closer look at it.) This legendary sidearm was notorious for its incredible power, but the round was too long. Since the action would need to pull each round from the magazine and into the chamber, a long round would bulk up the whole gun significantly. He looked at several other preexisting cartridges, but all of them were deficient in some way or another.
Just as he would do in less than a decade with the M2 Machine gun, he developed his own brand new cartridge for the gun. The .45 Caliber Automatic Colt Pistol (.45 ACP) was created specifically for the new gun it was being designed alongside. As powerful as it was stout, this new round was a perfect fit.
An Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age
With the issue of the cartridge sorted, the rest of the weapon fell into place around it. The final design is one that will look familiar to nearly everyone familiar with firearms or who has played any military shooter video game released since 2007. Even if you hadn’t seen or heard of the Colt M1911 before today, its shape and design are likely familiar because it has become the benchmark for nearly every semi-automatic pistol since its release. From the magazine bearing handle, the under barrel receiver spring, to the integrated grip safety, basically every modern sidearm takes some cues from this design. However, iconic looks were not the chief concern of the US Military. They had to put it through its paces to make sure it would hold up to the rigors of warfare.
It actually didn’t cut muster on its first outing. Although the weapon was impressive, there were still issues with reliability that needed to be sorted before it could see wide adoption by the US Military. There was also some worry within the company since Colt was in competition with Stevens, another American firearms manufacturer, who had developed their own .45 caliber pistol and had hopes to land the lucrative military contract.
In 1910, the final competition was held. Although a great Hollywood depiction of the event could raise the stakes by showing a nail biting competition with many trials and tribulations, it mostly involved military higher ups shooting the gun in different circumstances to see how it coped. In the end, Browning’s design came out victorious. It was officially adopted by the US Army on March 29, 1911 and officially given its now iconic designation of the Colt M1911.
With tensions starting to rise in Europe, it was immediately put into production. But with Americans’ hesitancy to become involved in European conflicts, it wasn’t mass produced. The current plan was to slowly integrate it into the forces until it was the standard issue across all branches of the military. However, this wasn’t to be. The European conflict exploded from small regional disputes into the First World War.
The Start of a Legend
When the US joined the conflict on the side of the allied powers in 1917, there were less than seventy thousand of the pistols produced. This was a trend with American arms and equipment at the time. Their borderline isolationist policies had left America unprepared for a major conflict. With the first wave of troops in June 1917, only fourteen thousand Americans landed in Europe. This ramped up drastically in both troops and weaponry. By the end of the war, almost six hundred and fifty thousand of the sidearms had been manufactured and acquired by the US Military.
Unlike its predecessor, the M1911 was a perfect fit. It had checked every single box that the US Army had asked for and somehow exceeded all of the expectations. The weapon had incredible stopping power, was easy to service and maintain, and could handle massive amounts of abuse while still functioning perfectly. Any doubts that may have lingered in the minds of top brass were completely dispelled.
It served with distinction in the war and was immediately integrated as an essential part of the service kit for troops. Even once the conflict was settled in 1918, many soldiers had already become accustomed to the weapon and wanted one at home, and there were plenty available.
When America entered World War II in 1941, they didn’t have the issue of slow production that had plagued the US in World War I. Nearly three million M1911s were sent with American troops to every corner of the globe. From Iwo Jima to Normandy, the pistol followed practically every single soldier through the tragedy, triumph, and everything in between. If the gun was not an icon before, it certainly was now.
Further adding to its popularity was that other iconic weapons of the conflict such as the Thompson Submachinegun or the Browning Automatic Rifle were illegal for civilian possession unless they were modified to be semi-automatic. However, the M1911 was legal for nearly everyone. Anyone who wanted a piece of iconic and ubiquitous war history could walk down to their local sporting goods store and pull one off the shelf for a modest price.
This wasn’t the end for the M1911’s military service record though. It continued to be carried on the side of troops through the Korean Conflict, Vietnam War, and anywhere else American troops could be found in the middle part of the 20th century. At this point, the M1911 had been the sidearm for four generations of troops who served in conflicts that were wildly different. A kid learning to shoot with his father’s service pistol would be issued his own when he went into the field to fight against a new enemy. Soldiers could assemble and disassemble the weapon blindfolded. The highest ranks of military command would still be seen with the weapon as it was the one that they carried when they first joined the service years and years ago.
However, this incredible run wouldn’t last forever. Although the pistol was functioning as excelently as ever, some innovations in firearms design had started to make the old stalwart of the military show its age by the 1980’s. The largest of these criticisms was that it was heavy. At over a kilogram unloaded, the weapon was a behemoth. Since the rest of a soldier’s gear combined floated at around fifty kilograms and with its large ammunition further weighing down soldiers, some questioned its practicality.
Another criticism was the low magazine size. Although innovations in design had seen the pistol go from a seven plus one in the chamber to eight plus one design, it was still on the low end. The newly introduced M16 assault rifle used banana clips of 30 rounds with far larger cartridges. This meant the 9 shot pistol just couldn’t keep up.
The pistol was officially retired upon the adoption of the Beretta M9 pistol in 1985, one year short of its Diamond anniversary at seventy four years. Although the US Marine Corps continued to use the pistol all the way into the 1990’s, seeing action in the Gulf War, basically all of them had been phased out by the end of the decade. Although some special forces troops may choose to use it as their sidearm, the days of every troop carrying the M1911 are behind us.
A Classic Weapon in the Modern Day
Despite being out of service for over thirty years, the Colt M1911 is still a staple of firearms enthusiasts. With Colt themselves still selling over ten thousand of them a year, and dozens of other manufacturers taking advantage of a century old design that is well out of copy protection, you will find one on nearly every firing range in the world.
From historical replicas meant to emulate the sidearms taken into battle by soldiers in World War II, to high end customs made for elite competition, the M1911 is one of the best selling weapons of all time. It has seen particular favor in some circles of the competition target shooters due to its incredible accuracy. Well over a century after it was first adopted, it is still hard to outmatch it shot for shot. Colt’s Gold Cup line of pistols still utilizes John Browning’s design with precious little in the way of innovation and holds a prime space as one of the world’s premier competition firearms.
Before the M1911, the world was a wild west of revolvers and a few semi automatics that were just as likely to jam as to fire. After the M1911, semi-automatics were the norm and not the exception. If you take a look at basically any handgun released after its adoption before World War I, you can see the fingerprints of this incredible weapon in almost every single design. From the compact German Walther P38 to the massive and overbuilt Desert Eagle, the Colt M1911 has established the design language for what a handgun should be in the modern world.