With the blessing of the Army, in 1908, a Texas-born ordnance officer began to design a .45-caliber gas-operated pistol to compete against John Browning's Colt-produced M1911.
Then-Captain William Allen Phillips at the time was an officer at the military's Pennsylvania's Frankford Arsenal where he, as noted by an Army journal, "energetically undertook experimentation on small arms." His pistol, an experimental gas-operated semi-automatic, was constructed over the course of two years with the barrel rifled at Springfield Armory while the rest of the components were produced at Frankford.
Keep in mind that, at the time, auto-loading handguns themselves were novel, with only a few reliable designs in circulation. Then, as now, most of those used either some sort of short recoil system or a simple blowback action to operate. Gas-operated firearms were generally in the realm of rifles and were in their early stages.
In a handgun, such an action promised a few desirable traits such as the use of a fixed barrel with a low bore axis, which promised accuracy. On the downside, gas guns were-- and still are-- bulky and require complex machining to run correctly.
Which brings us to the Phillips gun. Using a 5.75-inch barrel, the pistol was 9.4-inches overall, roughly the size of a Desert Eagle Mark XIX today (more on that later).
The cost to develop the prototype gas gun by 1910 was $700, which adjusts to about $19,000 in today's dollars.
While the experimental handgun was said to have operated "fairly successfully," by the time it was sent to Springfield Armory for testing as part of the pistol trials that ultimately adopted the Colt M1911 as the Government Issue standard, that was no longer the case.
Apparently, this early assessment was optimistic. Springfield Armory's testing of the Phillips revealed that the ejector was too long, and in eight out of the 12 round fired, the pistol malfunctioned. In addition, on the thirteenth round, the bolt return pin screw was shot to the rear and hit the shooter over the eye. The 'locking pin unlock' broke in two, and a piece also broke off the locking block. No further rounds were fired.
Today the pistol is preserved in the extensive collection of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site. While the concept had been around for a couple of decades before Phillips' attempt-- Colt firearms designer Carl Ehbets filed a patent on such a pistol in 1894-- it is still neat to see such historical prototypes still around a century later.
For your firearms nerds out there, Phillips wasn't the only U.S. Army officer to work on a gas recoil pistol in the 1900s. Isaac Newton Lewis, best known for the pan-magazine light machine gun that carries his name, also came up with a gas pistol that never made it into production.
Of course, the best-known American gas-operated pistols to reach commercial production were Wildey J. Moore's designs in the 1970s while a host of European guns such as the Heckler & Koch P7, Steyr GB, and Walther CCP pistols use a hybrid gas delayed blowback action. Perhaps the most commonly encountered gas-operated pistol family in the U.S. today, barring AR-15 and AK-style handguns, is the Desert Eagle family.
As for Phillips, he went on to serve in Panama and Mexico, was the government inspector of powder at DuPont where he patented new ways of drying explosives, took a break from the Army to run Remington's Union Metallic Cartridge Company, and command Aberdeen Proving Ground as a colonel during World War I. He died in 1925, aged 59, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
We would like to extend our special thanks to the curator of the Springfield Armory Museum, Alex McKenzie, for his help with this piece.