Development of the Model 1911 Pistol Video

Hi guys, thanks for tuning into another video episode on Forgotten I’m Ian and I’m here today at Rock Island Auction House. We’re taking a look at some of the guns in their 2014 December premiere auction. Now this particular auction I thought – I looked through the catalog and I figured this would be an excellent opportunity to go through the entire developmental history of the Colt 1911, because in this auction there’s an example of almost every single variant. So we’ve got them all laid out here and we’re going to start at the very earliest and move through the latest and see what’s what. So the story of the 1911 really begins back in 1896. John Moses Browning patented four different handgun mechanisms all at the same time, that were all approved in 1896 and they were – one was a patent for a rotating barrel gun that was never actually manufactured, one was a patent for basically a handgun version of his 1895 gas lever machine gun.

A prototype of that pistol was made but it never went into production. One of the patents became the FN Model 1900, straight blowback pistol, extremely popular in its day, and one of the patents was the tilting barrel mechanism that would be used to become the 1911. So Browning made some examples of this gun, it seemed like the most practical military gun of the four types of design and in 1898 he sent an example to the U.S. Ordinance Department to try and get their interest in it as a military pistol. They were interested, he made some improvements to the gun and the first production model of the pistol was the Colt Model 1900, which we have an example of here. So bring the camera back and we’ll take a closer look at each of these guns in a little more detail. So the very first version here we call the Colt 1900 although it’s interesting that Colt never actually adopted this designation themselves. At the time this was simply known as the Colt automatic pistol. It was the only Colt automatic pistol so it didn’t really need a special name and this was kind of brand new technology at the time. At any rate, several hundred of these were purchased by both the U.S. army and the U.S. navy in a couple of different batches. Overall 4,200 or so of these were manufactured between 1900 and 1902. What makes this version – well we can see there are a number of major differences from today’s 1911. The grip – the slide is longer, the grip is shorter, the grip is deeper, the controls are completely different. You can see there’s no slide stop, there’s no manual safety, there’s no grip safety. There is, in fact, a safety and we’ll get to that in just a moment. The caliber that these guns were chambered in was the .38 ACP or .38 automatic colt pistol. This was – is a semi-rimmed 9 millimeter or .38 caliber case developed by Colt, specifically for their automatic pistols and now what makes this particularly interesting is and particularly rare is the safety. This is called the sight safety variant and all of the early 1900’s were. They cock the hammer and the safety is actually the rear sight here. When I snap it down that physically blocks the firing pin from moving forward and safe’s the pistol. At the same time you can see that the rear sight notch is in the hammer and when the safety is engaged, you don’t have a sight picture. When the safety is disengaged then you do have a sight picture, albeit a little tiny one. Now this was the very first mechanism that Colt used for a safety on these pistols and it turns out it was not well liked. There are a couple problems with it. It was – first off it was not particularly simple to deal with. If you have the gun in a shooting grip it’s not really – it’s a little awkward to get to that safety to disengage it. It also – the way that it interacted with the firing pin weakened the firing pin. The cut out required in the firing pin was a problem. And firing pins on these sight safety models have a tendency to break. So there are a number of other features that U.S. military personnel complained about. They complained that the grip was too short, they thought the gun was too front heavy, they didn’t like the fact that it wasn’t really one handed friendly, so you’ll see if I rack the slide it does not stay open even though the magazine’s empty. There was no last round hold open on the Model 1900 so in order to reload the gun, you had to take the magazine out – and this does have kind of an interesting heel release. You actually push this lever forward and you can then pull out the magazine. This held seven cartridges but in order to reload the gun was a two handed operation because you had to put the magazine in and then it took two hands to rack the slide and chamber a new cartridge. Similarly, it really took two hands to operate the safety. People didn’t like that. The military didn’t like that. Now, in fact, they didn’t like it so much that not all of the 1900’s were actually manufactured with this safety. It didn’t take that long before Colt realized it was a commercial problem and started replacing them. So the next version that was produced was called the Colt Model 1902 Sporter. Originally this was just called the Model 1902. Colt started calling it the Sporting, the 1902 Sporting after they introduced the 1902 Military model just so they would have a way to differentiate between the two guns. In practical terms, the Model 1902 was really just a product improved 1900. Most of the features remained the exact same. One of the most significant changes is they got rid of the sight safety and they replaced it with what we would recognize today as a much more typical Colt 1911 style rear sight. Now some of the early 1900’s were actually manufactured with this sight towards the very end of production and some of the original 1900’s were later – went back and were retrofitted with this different style of rear sight. This is an example of a gun that has been retrofitted. This was originally manufactured with a sight safety. We can tell that because you can see there’s a pin right here that the safety pivots on. This pistol still has the hole for that pin. It’s been filled and it doesn’t do anything anymore but it has the sight safety hole and then it also has this pin which is to hold in place the new style of firing pin retaining plate. So this fixed one of the main complaints about the 1900. The firing pin was much stronger. Once they did that it didn’t have cutouts in it that would weaken it. So it’s interesting to note that on the 1902 sporting model, they’ve gotten rid of the sight safety and they didn’t actually replace it with anything else. This model of pistol simply has no manually operated safety at all. In total about 6,900 of the Model 1902 Sporting pistols were made. That was between 1902 and 1907. It’s interesting to note on a lot of these early developmental versions they kept selling them well after they’d replaced them with newer technology which in retrospect isn’t all that surprising, you know? The same thing happens with all sorts of products. Not everyone immediately goes out and buys the newest and best version. Now this is a 1900 that was converted into the sporting style with the new rear sight. This guy is actually a new production Model 1902 Sporting. We can see this has the round hammer that was introduced. You’ll find both round and spur hammers on the 1902 Sporting. They used both until the hammers – the spur hammers were all used up. You can also see the style of the slide serrations’ changed. Instead of being square flat cuts they’re now angled cuts, like saw teeth almost which give a little bit better gripping surface. That was a military request that Colt put into effect on all of the commercial pistols as well. Other than that, this is still basically just a product approved Model 1900. It retains the same round butt, has the same short grip frame and magazine. Pretty much everything else stayed the same. So at the same time that Colt was releasing this 1902 Sporting model, which was done to try and get more commercial sale of basically the 1900 pistol that they already had tulling for, they were also making an adapted version to satisfy some of the military complaints. So they were running production of the 1902 Sporting and the 1902 Military at the same time. Here’s our slide. And this is a very important piece that we will discuss in a moment. What’s interesting mechanically about the early versions of the Colt is that instead of having one barrel hinge pin and a barrel bushing, which is what we’re used to today, they actually pivoted the barrel in two places at both of these pins. There are two links and the barrel goes down and backward, up and forward, down and backward. So when you fire the pistol – this is still a short recoil action, the slide moves backward and as the slide starts to move it pulls the barrel with it. And as the barrel starts to travel it also starts to drop. Once it travels far enough it drops down enough that these locking lugs are completely out of the locking recesses in the slide up here. At that point the barrel stops moving, obviously it’s pinned in place, and the slide continues to move back, ejects the empty round and then cycles forward under sprint pressure and chambers a new round. The spring, the recoil spring for the Model 1900 and 1902 and actually all the way through up until about 1908, the recoil spring is here underneath the barrel. Now the safety issue – the major mechanical safety issue with these pistols – and this is something that one needs to be aware of if you shoot them because overpressure ammunition can cause a serious problem with these guns – so the slide actually disassembles from the rear. Take the magazine out. So the slide on these guns comes off to the rear. The only thing that holds it in place is this little locking block. This runs through here and this is what ensures that the recoil spring is acting on the slide. So if you shoot really hot ammunition and you break this locking piece, the slide will actually recoil straight off the back of the gun and potentially into your face. Bad thing. This was, this was acknowledged. This was an understood problem that Colt got around to dealing with a little later on. However – we’ll go ahead and put this one back together and take a look at the details of the military model. You can see there’s a plunger in the front that I can push in, that pushes on the recoil spring, that is for assembly and disassembly. Once I have the slide in place, all I need to do to reassemble the gun is use this plunger to put pressure on the spring – I use that to depress the spring – that locking wedge drops right in – and when I release the spring, that now ensures that the recoil spring acts on the slide. Done. So actually very simple to disassemble. So this is an example of the Model 1902 Military version of the Colt pistol. These were produced, believe it or not, starting in 1902 and then all the way up through 1928, and in total about 18,000 of them were made so several times as many as the sporting model. This addressed a lot of the military’s complaints. For one thing the grip frame has been lengthened, the magazine capacity was increased from seven to eight. If we take a look at this compared to the 1902 Sporting, you’ll see the addition in the grip there. In addition to this, the military model came with a lanyard ring and loop and as a result, the butt of the gun is squared off instead of being rounded. Between this being squared off and the entire thing being lengthened, these had a much – a significantly longer grip, are definitely better to fit in the hand. They still have a rather awkward overly vertical grip angle and that’s something Colt would address later on, not quite yet. The slide serrations were moved to the rear of the slide at the request of the military. We have the first actual control on the ground other than the sight safety. That is a slide release so on these when the magazine is empty, the slide does actually lock back and then the shooter, being right handed, can drop the slide with their firing thumb. The 1902 Military is still chambered in the .38 ACP cartridge. When these were tested by the military they did really extremely well. These went through what was at the time a fairly standard 6,000 round endurance test. The guns were allowed to cool every 100 rounds and they were cleaned every thousand rounds. The 1902 Military went through the 6,000 round endurance test with no failures of any kind, which is really quite impressive. One of the main problems at this point was that the military wasn’t sure that they were comfortable with a .38. Right around this time, the very early 1900’s, there was a test done by two officers named Thompson and LaGarde who they did some cadaver testing with cartridges and they came to the conclusion that the military really needed a cartridge of at least .41 caliber, preferably .45 caliber. Now Thompson had some pretty intimate connections with the Colt company and it seems very likely that he tipped them off to let them know that the army was going to be changing its requirements to require a .45 caliber pistol. Because Colt went and started developing the .45 ACP not longer after this gun went into production knowing that the military was going to be requesting something a little bit bigger. So while they were working on that they also wanted to try and maintain good commercial sales of this pistol that they put so much development work into, so they simultaneously also started working on the Model 1903 Pocket Hammer specifically for the commercial market. So that’s the next gun we’re going to take a look at. While they were working on development of a .45 caliber pistol for military requirements, Colt was also trying to ensure good commercial sales. This is the 1903, what was called the Pocket Hammer to distinguish it from the 1903 Pocket Hammerless which was a plain blowback design also being marketed at the time. And, in fact, the 1903 Pocket Hammerless is one of Colt’s extremely successful pistols with more than a half a million produced. The Pocket Hammer wasn’t as successful but it’s an important developmental step in this story of the 1911. So this is basically still a Model 1902 with a couple slight improvements. The slide serrations have been moved to the back and the barrel and slide have been shortened by an inch-and-a-half. It retains the same seven round magazine, we have the same magazine release system. There’s the mag. This pistol still has no controls on it, has no manual safety, has no slide stop, it does not lock open on the last cartridge. And this was intended for the commercial market thinking that people would be a little more apt to buy a slightly more compact version of the pistol. And that was, that was true. Colt played that one right. About 31,000 of these pistols were made. They were actually in production until 1028 and there were still some stock being sold off until 1930 of these. So up to this point this was the most commercially successful of all the Colt automatic pistols of this type. Now you’ll see this one has a spare hammer, as with some of the other models. You’ll find these with both spur hammers and rounded hammers like this. Now developmentally this is a bit of a dead end. Colt put this on the market and they then they immediately went back to working on trying to get their military contract, so. I do want to point out the finish on this is very impressively intact and it’s a good example of just this absolutely gorgeous dark blue glossy finish that Colt put on virtually all of these early pistols. They all have this – unfortunately it’s a fairly delicate finish and it hasn’t survived well on most of the guns, but absolutely fantastic looking. This marks a major turning point in this family of pistols because it is the first of them to feature the .45 ACP cartridge. By this time the Thompson-LaGarde tests were public knowledge and the army had formerly requested a .45 caliber pistol and this was basically Colt’s response. It has most of the models of the 1902 military. You can see it has the same squared off grip, has the same grip angle still – they haven’t changed that yet – the magazine length is the same as the 1902 Military, although instead of holding eight cartridges it now only has seven because they’re the larger .45 caliber cartridges. You’ll find these with both rounded and spur hammers. Colt went back and forth on all of these models pretty much. Now you can see the two pins here and mechanically this is the same mechanism as it went back all the way to the Model 1900. It has two swinging links that lock the barrel in position, so the barrel drops down in a linear fashion. It doesn’t tilt like the final 1911 design did. However, we do have the slide stop back in place so when this pistol is empty, it does lock open. We still have the original early version of the magazine release where you pull this lever forward to remove the magazine and it still doesn’t have any sort of manual safety, doesn’t have a grip safety, none of that’s been added yet. Now the 1905, a few of these were sent to the army as samples. Ultimately a batch of 200 of what was considered the Model 1907 were sent to the army for formal trials. Those 1907’s were never made commercially, but the 1905 was made commercially. In total about 6,100 of these were manufactured between 1905 and about 1913. So not one of the more successful guns. Of course at the time .45 ACP was a brand new, untested proprietary cartridge really. Colt marketed these humorously with the tagline “the most powerful small arm ever invented,” which is baloney, frankly. Even at the time there were more powerful pistols out there. But what can I say? I guess the marketing department got a hold of the design. So this pistol is basically identical to what the U.S. army ended up testing in 1907. The requested the guns in 1906, they actually did the tests in 1907 and this was again to determine a new service pistol for the United States military. Now there were a whole bunch of competitors. Colt ended up being one of the leading ones. One of the other leading competitors was actually the Savage company which had produced a version of its Model1907 .32 automatic pistol scaled up for .45 ACP. One of the other competitors, of course, was the Lugar. A couple of sample Lugar’s were made in .45 caliber for these tests and after the testing the result was basically Colt was the best of the – the best performing pistol, Savage was number three and Lugar was number two. And basically the Ordinance Department wanted to do – they wanted to give the company some time to improve their guns and they wanted to have a runoff test between the best two competitors. So they requested 200 more pistols from Colt and 200 from Lugar or from DWM Lugar pistols, in order to do more extended field trials. Colt said that’s great. Lugar turned down the request. At the time they had a bunch of other contracts in the works and the idea of re-tulling to do a couple hundred guns in .45 for the U.S. Army – which at the time, was a pretty small not a particularly significant military force in world perspective – it just wasn’t worth it to them. So they turned down the opportunity. The Ordinance Department then turned to the Savage company. They’d come in number three, well if Lugar didn’t want to continue in the trials they offered the opportunity to Savage. Savage was perfectly happy to provide 200 more guns and this is an example of one of those. Savage made a rotating barrel automatic pistol. This is, this is a little bit out of context for our video here on the 1911, but there are two of these available in this December auction and they’re a gun you really don’t get to see very often, so I thought we’d pull this one out to take a look at. This was really the main competitor to the Colt so there was a chance for awhile that this gun would be adopted instead of the Colt as the new U.S. Army pistol. As it turned out the Colt was chosen and it’s a good choice. I fired one of these guns and it is definitely not as good as the 1911. It’s a lot more obscure, of course, because it didn’t go into production, but the army made the right choice on this one. All right so there are a couple guns that are missing from this lineup here and they’re right at the end of the developmental cycle. So the first one is the Model 1907. These are the guns that were actually put into the later U.S. military trial. They are basically identical to 1905’s with the difference that they have added a grip safety at the request of the military. We’re also missing the Model 1909. That is the first model that was done with the single link tilting barrel instead of the parallel two link dropping barrel mechanism. And that was also produced in extremely small numbers. About two dozen of those were made again only for military trials. They were never sold commercially. And then lastly the Model 1910 which was the final gun developed before the 1911, obviously. And the Model 1910 is the gun in which the grip angle was changed from the rather straight early version to what we’re more familiar with today on the Model 1911. Now that Model 1910 also went through a standard 6,000 round endurance test with the military and it actually had quite a few problems. A lot of the parts in them weren’t properly hardened and the barrel locking lugs had been cut a little bit deeper than they should have been and ultimately the gun cracked the frame and also cracked the barrel which is a fairly catastrophic problem. The guns were sent back to Colt for a little bit of improvement, they changed the design in locking lugs and changed a few details in the frame and when they came back with what was, in fact, the Model 1911, that gun went through another 6,000 round endurance test and that time – this time it performed flawlessly. Had no failures of any sort whatsoever. While the Savage, it’s competition at the time, this – at that point the Savages had been upgraded by the factory, the Savage factory, to address a few of their problems. Well even that last test Savage was still suffering malfunctions and parts breakages and at that point the army made the final decision to adopt the Colt. So it was this exact version of the gun, the Model 1911, it was adopted at that point and became the U.S. official army service pistol. Kind of just in time for World War I. So let’s take a closer look at this guy. Alright. Now at long last we actually get to the model of 1911. By this point, of course, we have pretty much all the features that you know and recognize today. We have the – the grip angle has been changed, the grip safety has been added, our manual safety has been added, our slide stop has been changed to the more modern version, the magazine release has been moved to a thumb button instead of a heel clip. Now this is a pre-World War I manufactured gun. It probably saw service in World War I. I really like the guns that have all this good honest wear on them. I just get a kick out of that and – so that’s why I picked this particular 1911 to take a look at. Now the features of the 1911 are primarily interesting when we compare them to the 1911 A-1 because mechanically this gun is in it’s final configuration. Of course one of the main mechanical change from all of the earlier versions is that this now has a tilting barrel, it has a single pivot pan here and a barrel bushing up front, so the barrel actually tilts down like this when you fire instead of coming straight back and dropping down, like the early guns. This, of course, was the standard U.S. military pistol through World War I and World War II and Korea and Vietnam and all the way up to the adoption of the biretta. However, it didn’t survive all that long in this exact form. In 1924 some changes were adopted that turned this from the Model 1911 to the Model 1911 A-1. The A-1 of course being a standard military term for an upgrade that isn’t a completely new item. So the ones that are easiest to point out, the main spring housing on the back here went from flat on the 1911 to arched on the 1911 A-1. This has the effect of further sharpening the grip angle which makes the gun a little more comfortable for most people. The military certainly preferred it. The grip safety was extended. You can see it comes farther out, does a better job of protecting your hand. There were scallops added at the back of the trigger guard on the A-1. Makes for a little bit easier trigger reach. In addition, the trigger itself was shortened and the face of the trigger was checkered. So you can see on the 1911 here we have a longer and smooth trigger. In the 1911 A-1 the trigger is shorter and the face is checkered. Gives you a little better grip on it. In addition, the sights were changed. I have the 1911 on the left here. You can see it has a smaller rounded sight. The 1911 A-1 on the right has a wider rear sight. So the picture didn’t change all that much. They didn’t really change the notch but they did use a wider sight which does aid in in acquiring the sight picture. Now the one other version we should take a look at while we have these here is a fairly rare variant generally known as a 1924 Transitional gun. Of course 1924 is the year that the A-1 variant was adopted and what they did at that point is they still had a lot of parts – this particularly slides from the original 1911 production and they didn’t want to just throw those out, so for a short time they were using a mixture of parts. You can see this has a grip safety from an A-1, has the scalloped trigger guard cuts, has the arched main spring housing. It does actually have the wider rear sight but the slide is still marked model of 1911, U.S. Army just like this Model 1911 and whereas on the A-1 they’re actually marked A-1. So transitional guns are fairly rare but they’re an interesting little side note historically and, of course, one or two of them are available in this auction so I figured we should pull one out and show that to you as well. So I hope you guys learned something about the development of the 1911. I hope you enjoyed watching the video. Of course this is an auction house like I said. All of these pistols on the table here and many more are available for sale in Rock Island’s December auction. So I’ve got links to each one of these guns in the text below.