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Colt’s .45 Automatic: Iconic Design Marks Centennial

Posted on 08 May 2011 by John Rippo

On March 29, the centennial of one of the longest-lived designs in US industrial production occurred. That was the date in 1911 that the US government adopted a new “automatic” pistol for the armed forces of the United States. The Colt “Government Model” was the result of nearly a decade of experimentation and testing by its inventor, John Moses Browning in partnership with the Colt Firearms Company of Hartford, Connecticut and the pistol became a defining element of the American army and culture throughout the 20th century.
The Colt .45 has remained in production ever since 1911 due to  a dynamic combination of mechanical dependability, ergonomic suitability and lethality. Though the .45 requires a good deal of intense training to master and a strong arm to stand the shock of repeated firing, generations of American soldiers came to praise its ease of function—or “pointability” to hit a target without relying the pistol’s sights for aim. The heavy, slow moving slug is renowned for “stopping power” which  immediately disables or kills its victim. In 1911, the  cavalryman’s  horse was as likely a target as an enemy soldier, so  the .45 was made powerful enough to kill a horse at close range. The army had a saying, “Nobody gets wounded with a .45,” that inspired confidence in the soldiers armed with the automatic. The pistol is well made and tough to break and even with indifferent maintenance some examples that are as old as the design itself are still as ready for use as they ever were.
The .45 automatic is something of a misnomer. Pistols of its kind are more accurately known as “self-loaders” and this design form was strongly desired by top brass in the US Army a century ago. “Automatics” were seen as modern, compact and faster shooting than the revolvers the military used then, but suffered grave limitations in actual use because no one really knew how to design one that worked well enough to replace the old fashioned large caliber revolver. Early automatics blew themselves apart when firing powerful cartridges and they were too complicated for the average soldier to handle. It took Browning years of patient, incremental development beginning in 1897 before a suitable mechanism was developed.
The Colt .45’s mechanism depends on a locking device of meshing barrel rings and grooves in the upper part of the pistol aka the slide, that when fired hold together long enough for the bullet to emerge from the muzzle and the gas pressure to drop. Slide and barrel continue to move backward from the gas pressure raised by the discharge of the cartridge. As they move, a pivot under the barrel turns, unlocking the barrel from the slide and pulling it downward, positioning it to accept another cartridge from the magazine. The slide continues backward to its stop, carrying the empty cartridge case with it to an ejector which knocks it free and away. A spring pushes the slide forward again where it lifts a cartridge from the magazine in the pistol’s handgrip and feeds it to the chamber end of the  barrel. When the slide and barrel line up and lock into place again, the trigger engages a lever, readying the pistol to fire. When the shooter pulls the trigger, the hammer drops and process repeats.
Browning’s inspiration for this mechanism originally came from a parallel ruler and his early automatic pistol designs are still called “parallel ruler types” to this day. The 1911 model modified that articulation, allowing the gun to dissipate the stress of firing from the barrel into its surrounding bearing,or “bushings”. This solved the problem that ruined earlier designs that snapped their barrels in two after a only a few shots.
Browning’s prototype fired hundreds of rounds without failure in grueling test against several competitors and emerged a clear winner. Production began in mid-1911 and the services began to receive them in 1912.
Any weapon is a menace to those untrained in its use and Browning was well aware that soldiers used to a revolver might be at risk with his new automatic pistol. The 1911 was designed with two kinds of safety systems to prevent the pistol from firing at the wrong time.  A switch in the grip must be squeezed by the shooter before the pistol will fire; this usually prevents a 1911 from going off if dropped, at least in theory. Another latch at the rear of the pistol frame locks the hammer back in the “fully cocked” position. The hammer can also be thumbed back to a “half cock” position which  some claim is a third safety. Modern gunnery instructors tend to frown on the half cock safety feature and drum into their student’s skulls that their trigger finger and constant awareness are the best safety mechanism ever invented. Over the decades, other variations were tried, but one hundred years on, the originals still appear on every gun of the type turned out today.
At a century’s remove, it’s hard to imagine that at least one major arm of the US Army was not much interested in the automatic pistol. The cavalry liked their revolvers and wanted to keep them and had some good reasons for their preference; the revolver could be used with only one hand while the 1911 requires two hands to get it “into battery” or loaded for the first shot. Extracting the magazine from the pistol was difficult for horsemen who had to keep a handrul of reins in the left hand while operating a weapon with the right. If their right hand was wearing a glove, it made doing anything with a magazine—and automatic pistol—much harder to accomplish. Magazines easily got lost and a lost magazine left the automatic pistol useless. Still, the army pressed on with its development in spite of continuing criticism from its elite corps. The decision was the right one in the long view; the horse cavalry is gone while the 1911 automatic is still around.
Gun writers for the past century have often told a tale of how the 1911 Colt was designed to combat an all too effective insurgency in the Philippine Islands that followed the Spanish American War of 1898. When the Philippinos realized that their independence came with American strings attached, many of them revolted and began a guerilla war against US forces in the islands. The Moros—a particularly fierce band of muslim islanders determined to rid their homeland of foreigners—were particularly feared, especially when the Americans realized that their .38 caliber revolvers did not stop charging Moros armed with barongs, a kind of heavy machete that could chop down small trees and American soldiers with equal ease. The US Army demanded some heftier firepower, so the legend runs, and the Colt .45 was the result. While a good story, it isn’t entirely true. the Colt .45 took years to develop and by the the time it was ready for battle, the Philippine fight was over. The .45 automatic missed the boat for the so-called Philippine Insurrection.
The Colt .45 spawned other automatics used by other countries—Mexico, Argentina, Norway, Russia and the UK either bought Colts or designed their own forms from the original; while a later Browning design inspired by the 1911 became the sidearm of France, Great Britain, Belgium, Canada, China, Australia and New Zealand. Many modern automatic pistol designs owe Browning for their inspiration if not their design features.
San Diego has its own remote tie to the Colt .45 automatic too. In 1918, the A. J. Savage Arms Company was built at west end of Market Street, fronting the railroad tracks. The gun mill was specially intended to produce the .45, though it’s doubtful if any were ever made there. Collectors of early .45′s rage endlessly over whether complete specimens came from San Diego; a small number of slides were known to have been made at A.J. Savage and these turn up on pistols assembled for WWII service. Commonly called “Augusta Arsenal” models, they command a fair premium in the collector market.
There are plenty of legends surrounding the Colt .45;  of a Japanese plane brought down by one during World War II; of an Italian  tank stopped by an army private with a .45 who shot the tank’s crew through their defective armor; of bears, sharks and moose killed by .45′s; of Pancho Villa’s horsemen having their horses shot from under them and charging soldiers stopped cold—and permanently—after being hit with .45 slugs; of cars and boats having their engines shot to pieces by them—the list is endless. But what is not disputed is the .45’s power was usually enough to settle fights in the Americans’ favor and its dependability kept it in the arsenal long after many European armies all but discarded handguns from their forces. The American army has traditionally been a pistol-packing kind of organization in which non-coms, officers and soldiers whose jobs burden them with too much equipment to carry a rifle are traditionally armed with a pistol. Coupled with traditional tactics of using pistols offensively instead of for personal defense, the .45 became a preferred weapon for many soldiers in the trenches of World War I or the jungles of the Pacific Islands of World War II where fighting was at close range and often started with a nasty surprise from the opposing side.  When it was adopted, the Colt .45 was believed to be a perfect quick firing, hard-hitting companion to the 1903 Springfield rifle which was celebrated for its ability to hit a man at extreme distances measured in hundreds of yards. All bases seemed covered by the firearm combination, and the choice of weapons proved adequate in two world wars and for decades thereafter.
But in the late 80′s, some in the miltary procurement system decided to phase out the venerable war-horse in favor of a new, 16-shot automatic pistol in 9-millimeter caliber. Long favored by NATO, the 9mm offered the advantage of standardization of munitions which had already been imposed on small arms in all NATO forces. The American pistol was the last hold out and finally went out of service in 1988, to be replaced by the Italian Beretta Model 92. Though the Beretta and its derivations are excellent weapons, they rely on having a lot of cartridges ready to use when needed. This is said to make up for the inferior power of the 9mm compared to the .45. American police forces have adopted the 9 mm caliber in many automatic pistol designs and the FBI has done all it can to make a law enforcement  loading for the smaller cartridge so that it functions like the .45 does.
The American public developed an affinity for the Colt .45 over the years, bred by veterans who used them in service, and the list of after-market modifications, alterations and presumed improvements to the original machine is enough to fill volumes and keep endless cottage industries going. The Colt .45 underwent several official changes over the years, but the mechanism remained unaltered and in this the Colt seems unique in US military history. Few of our weapons in the modern machine age remained in service for some 70-plus years without major modification, but the Colt did—and this is all the more remarkable considering that its inventor, Browning, created it from paper clippings, wooden models carved by hand and rough machined prototypes that were hand fitted together and refined until the finished design worked as intended. Browning combined his innovative effort with a novel ergonomic sensitivity for how the shooter’s hand ought to fit the gun grip, and this resulted in a powerful pistol that can pointed quickly onto a target. Many afficionadoes of the .45 say that it is a far better gun for quick, point-and-shoot work than for careful, aimed target shooting, and the military- approved stance for target shooting with the pistol is hardly convenient, easy to learn or easy on the arm for that matter.
The Colt .45 Government Model Automatic was one of best elements of design, functionality and durability that the US produced in the 20th Century and is a worthy example for every designer to learn from. It is perhaps the last American industrial element still in production and commercially available a century after its introduction, and if anything can point to a kind of perfection of form and utility, this must be it.

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