Firearms like the M-16 or AK-47 assault rifle might be more familiar names to the public, but perhaps no gun in history has enjoyed more popularity, dependability, longevity and been copied more than the Colt 1911 handgun—celebrating its 100th anniversary next year.
“I think John Browning had no idea how successful his pistol would become,” said Doug Wicklund, senior curator for the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va. “It was better designed than any car. It was a way to translate a .45 caliber bullet, which had been used in single-action guns in the “Old West” for years, into a semi-automatic that could fire seven rounds continuously. It was better than any rifle at the time in magazine capacity.”
Called simply the M1911, the pistol John Browning developed was the first to feature the innovative “short recoil” design, emulated by pistol manufacturers ever since. Browning, born in Utah in 1855, is credited with 128 gun patents, but is most famous for developing the first gas-operated machine gun, and the telescoping bolt device on pistols called a “slide.”
For decades the 1911 Colt was the standard sidearm of the American military services and, though the M9 Beretta finally replaced it in 1985, the venerable 1911 is still used in an official capacity today.
“The 1911 continues to be used by some military units in modified form, using World War II frames with modern parts,” Wicklund noted. “The older guns have been through conflicts including Korea and Vietnam, and have been re-built many times. While their accuracy might not be as great as some of the modern models, they still do what’s necessary to get the job done.”
In fact, the gun is considered a classic all over the world.
John Caradimas, a pistol enthusiast and publisher who started a website about the 1911 Colt in the 1990s, and who lives in Greece, said it was the first really dependable gun ever built.
“It passed the test for the U.S. Army and it lasted so many years and is still in service after 100 years; it is a very significant firearm,” he said. “It’s still in high demand. Some might say a modern Glock (Austrian) pistol is more reliable, but when you consider the Colt was designed in 1911, and there are thousands of them still being used.”
Caradimas said one of the reasons for the gun’s enduring popularity is that it can be so easily customized with modern parts.
“Also, the angle of the grip makes it easy to handle,” he noted. “You can change almost every part and there are a lot of manufacturers who make parts for the 1911, about 500 of them. You can make the gun the way you want. It’s almost like the gun becomes an extension of yourself.”
Caradimas added that interest in the 1911 has never faded.
“It’s had a longer life than any other gun,” he said. “I have a couple of them as a shooter.”
Ralph Price, owner for over 20 years of J&D Guns & Ammo in King City, a small town in Central California, said the 1911’s perfect 11-degree-angle grip was copied by other makes, such as Ruger.
“The gun, the degree of angle to the receiver, is a natural to point,” he explained. “The older models, if you shake them, the parts inside rattle. But because of that, if the gun got dirty, it didn’t jam. Since those early days the gun has evolved. They took a great gun and made it more refined, more accurate.”
Price said a number of companies besides Colt got into the business of producing 1911-type models including the sewing machine company, Singer, business machine maker Remington Rand, and Union Switch, a supplier of railway signaling equipment.
Though somewhat slow-moving by today’s standards, The .45 slug the 1911 fires still carries a lot of stopping power.
“It’s a slow bullet, and to a trained eye if you stand behind the shooter, you can see it fly,” Price said who was once a firing range master for the Monterey County Sheriff’s Dept.
Price said, Colt 1911 original models are avidly sought by collectors because they go up in value.
“I just sold my last one,” he said. “An original 1911 model built for the army can be worth about $6,000. A modern 1911 A-1 sells for about $600.”
Price called the 1911 the most copied gun on the planet.
“It’s dependable, people still use it,” he said. ”There have been more copies made than any other gun. It’s the most cloned gun, with numerous variations because it can be easily modified. It’s a work horse that won’t die.”