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The M1911: The Greatest Pistol in the World

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Article first appeared at American Rifleman.

Excerpted from Arms and the Man, Vol. 50 No. 1, April 6, 1911.

Up to March 29, 1911, the official military hand arm of the United States was the Colt’s .38 caliber revolver. But on that day, as a result of the movement of powerful forces too strong to be resisted and which have been acting for very long, that good old revolver became obsolete and in its stead there was marked for the holsters of this Nation’s defenders the .45 Colt’s automatic; the latest, the most deadly, the finest and the best hand arm which had yet to be produced by man.

From the very beginning of those definite steps that the War Department people have taken to investigate the usefulness of the automatic pistol as a hand arm, the readers of Arms and the Man have been fully advised.

It is known to you that the present Chief of Ordnance, Brig. Gen. William Crozier, his chief assistant, Col. John T. Thompson and other officers of the Army have long had an abiding faith in the ultimate demonstration of the superiority of the automatic pistol over the revolver for military use. Perhaps Colonel Thompson was one of the earliest as well as the staunchest of these believers in ultimate automatic supremacy.

For a decision to be rendered it only remained that there should be developed an automatic pistol which should show a marked superiority over the present Service revolver and to any other known pistol. A pistol which should be reliable, full of endurance, and which should meet the essential requirements of a military hand arm.

A board sat upon this matter, trials were made, tests were undertaken, automatic pistols were bought and issued, but for the purpose of this narrative, it shall be chiefly useful to recapitulate in the briefest possible terms those events which have transpired in the last four years since the board of officers headed by then Colonel, now General, Philip Reade, brought in a finding that the automatic pistol—if possessed of the qualities which we have lately enumerated—would be superior to any revolver, to which finding was added the statement that the Colt’s and Savage pistols were found to show most promise of being ultimately satisfactory.

Practical effect was given to this report by a recommendation that 200 of each of these forms of pistols should be purchased and issued to troops for field trial. The purchases were made and the issues took place.

The Colt’s Company had been making automatic pistols for some years. The Savage Company had but lately begun the manufacture of automatics and their activities had up to that time been devoted to one caliber, .32, exclusively. Both deserve much credit for their activities; probably the Savage people are the more deserving because theirs through less experience was the more difficult task.

The pistols went into the hands of troops and the reports which came back from those who used them made it evident that neither pistol was fully up to the extremely severe requirements of the Ordnance Department.

The officers of the Ordnance Department say that the field tests of the two pistols proved to be more in the nature of a development of the pistols than a test of them. Both of the companies availed themselves of the opportunity offered by the Department to alter their weapons, to remove the defects which use by troops had disclosed. These alterations both companies undertook and more and other trials took place.

Thereafter and continuously the Ordnance Department conducted other tests both formal and informal of each of the pistols.

Both of the manufacturers as a result of these various tests, from the knowledge gained thereby, continued to improve their weapons. As the pistols were made better the requirements of the Department, grew more difficult to fulfill. The pistol, which at the end of 1910 seemed not wholly satisfactory, would probably have been considered a magnificent if not an almost perfect pistol in 1908.

However that may be the result of experiments, tests, and improvements and trials is the evolution of two of the finest military hand arms which have ever been made. For, pay particular attention to this: It is not enough to say that the Colt’s pistol was found to the be the better of the two and therefore chosen as the military hand arm of the United States, it must also be remembered that in the report of the board which finally tested these weapons these words are used:

“As a result of the test both pistols are thought by the board to be of suitable balance weight, caliber, energy, accuracy, simplicity and safety for use in the military service.

“The Savage pistol fulfills the requirements originally imposed as vitally essential for military hand arm but in the language of board, ‘Of the two pistols the Colt’s is superior because it is more reliable, the more enduring, the more easily disassembled when there are broken parts to be replaced and the more accurate.’”

To quote further from the report, speaking of the Colt’s Automatic .45, the Board remarked:

“It equals in these qualities the Colt caliber .45 revolver, Model 1909, while being superior to that arm in balance, safety and rapidity and accuracy of fire and interchangeability.

“The Colt’s pistol embodies all the features considered essential, desirable and preferable, by the Board of Officers convened by Special Order 305, War Department, Washington, D.C. December 28, 1906, except that there is no automatic indicator showing that the pistol is loaded or indicator showing the number of cartridges remaining in the magazine. There are however, a few riveted parts, and the Board is uncertain whether the pistol would function properly with non-jacketed bullets.”

The final recommendation of the Board summing up its conclusions is this:

“The Board therefore recommends that the Colt caliber .45 automatic pistol of the design submitted to the board for test be adopted for use by foot and mounted troops in the military service in the consequence of its marked superiority to the present service revolver and to any other know pistols, of its extreme reliability and endurance and of its fulfillment of all essential requirements.”

The action taken by the Secretary of War has of course the effect of making the .45 Colt’s Automatic the service arm. It takes the place of the Colt’s .38 caliber revolver as the authorized weapon for the Army and the National Guard.

Issues of the new pistols in place of the revolver will be made to the Army as fast and as soon as the manufacturers can supply them. When the Army is furnished and a sufficient reserve accomplished to comply with the law, issue will be made to the Organized Militia of all of the States.

The adoption of the pistol as it was presented two years, or a year ago, would have given us a weapon far less satisfactory than the present one. We can now feel assured that until someone has invented a newer and better thing, or until improvements now unmade are accomplished on existing weapons, the United States has for its official hand arm “The Greatest Pistol in the World.”

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