Prolific firearms designer John Browning created one of the most enduring and iconic firearms ever made with his Model 1911 .45 pistol. It was actually developed for Colt’s Manufacturing Company, and hence often known as a “Colt .45.” In the 110 years since the M1911 was first produced nearly 4.3 million have been manufactured.
However, not every M1911 is a Colt. Here’s why.
When the United States entered the First World War in 1917 it was not really prepared for war. Production was quickly ramped up, however, and sidearms for officers, NCOs, drivers and even machine gun crews were in high demand. Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company and the U.S. government’s Springfield Armory in Springfield, Mass. stepped up efforts and produced more than 68,000 M1911 pistols, yet that didn’t meet the demand. As a result, other companies were awarded contracts to produce the handgun under license. Two of the firms included Remington and North American Arms Company of Quebec, Canada. For collectors today, models from either firm are especially sought after even though it isn’t clear how many were actually issued and sent “over there.”
Several other companies were also reported to have also been contracted to produce the pistol including Savage Arms, Winchester, and even such firms as National Cash Register Company and the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. The war ended before models were actually produced, however.
The M1911 was refined in the interwar era as the M1911A1 with a few subtle changes including a shorter trigger, arched mainspring housing, and a shortened hammer spur.
World War II and Beyond
When the Second World War broke out some 1.9 million M1911A1 pistols were produced and again firms besides Colt stepped up. In fact, Colt only produced about 400,000 of the total M1911s made in World War II, while Remington Rand produced around 900,000. Ithaca Gun Company produced around 400,000 while Union Switch & Signal made about 50,000. For collectors today the most desirable are any of the 500 made by Singer! Even those in poor condition can fetch prices that greatly exceed a Colt or Remington model in excellent condition.
Today, more than 110 years since the gun was introduced, Colt still makes a very good 1911 pistol. It is far from the only one. The reason is that the patent expired a long time ago.
That is because firearms generally receive a “utility patent,” which only lasts about twenty years from the date of the filing of that application; while design patents may only last about fourteen years. As such the M1911 is now made by many companies, some are faithful to the original, while others have taken a more modern turn with their designs.
For purists who demand the Colt name, there is the Model 70, which is as close as it gets to the M1911A1. Then there is the Springfield Armory Mil-Spec, a pistol that offers serious bang for the buck. Made by the Illinois-based firearms company, it could be the next best thing to owning one made in the actual arsenal. It is a truly accurate representation of the original pistol, and it is just one of several models of the M1911 now being offered by the company.
“All Springfield Armory 1911s feature forged frames and slides, setting them apart from competitor’s cast models on the market by surpassing them in both strength and durability,” explained Mike Humphries, the media relations manager at Springfield Armory.
There are plenty of other modern copies/clones out there. For purists and collectors, nothing may beat an original Colt. But if you’re going to the range or looking for a self-defense/home defense firearm the modern versions can’t be beaten even if they don’t say Colt.
“As a military sidearm, the M1911 and M1911A1 are obsolete — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t wildly popular with shooters and collectors,” explained John Adams-Graf, author of Warman’s World War II Collectibles: Identification and Price Guide and editor of Military Trader magazine.
“The market for pre-1945 pistols has ballooned in the last twenty years with everyone hoping to find a rare Singer or North American Arms-made example,” Adams-Graf told The National Interest.
“But those are far and few — and beyond the average shooter’s budget,” he added. “However, the U.S. acquired around 2.7 million M1911 and M1911A1s, so if person wants to get that vintage feel shooting a historic piece, finding an original isn’t hard. Just remember, a lot of pistols means a lot of parts, so be sure to know if you want an ‘all-matching’ example or a compilation piece before you buy —the price difference will be significant.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.