In March 2011, then Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill into law that designated the Colt Model 1911 .45 caliber handgun (or M1911) as the official firearm of the state. Utah thus became the first state to name an official firearm, and it did so to mark the 100th anniversary of the iconic semi-automatic pistol.
“It does capture a portion of Utah’s history,” Utah State Representative Carl Wimmer, a Republican who had sponsored the bill, told the Reuters News Agency at the time. He added, “Even bigger than that, it captures a portion of American history.”
A Browning Design
Despite bearing the Colt brand, the M1911 was actually the work of prolific American firearms designer John Moses Browning of Ogden, Utah. It was adopted by the United States Army in March 1911, which is how it came to receive the designation “Model 1911.” It was first combat tested by the U.S. military in Mexico in 1916, during the pursuit of bandit-turned revolutionary Pancho Villa.
It was subsequently adopted by the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps in 1913, and became just one of several firearms carried by U.S. soldiers during the First and Second World Wars designed by Browning. He was also responsible – not surprisingly – for the Browning M1917 and M1919 .30 caliber machine guns, and of course the Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR.
The U.S. military had called for a new sidearm after the standard issue .38 caliber service revolvers failed to have the necessary “stopping power” when soldiers faced off with Moro warriors in the Philippines in the early 20th century. Another significant advantage of the M1911 was that it could be field stripped without any tools – and apart from the grip screws, the M1911 was designed without any fasteners. Some of its components can even be used as tools in the stripping/cleaning process.
One requirement of the U.S. military was that the Model 1911 had both a grip and manual safety. This was to help ensure cavalry soldiers could avoid accidentally shooting their horses while drawing the sidearm.
Due to the military’s needs during both World Wars, other companies produced it under license for the U.S. military, yet it was always still a “Colt 1911.” That is because the firearm was built to a military contract spec, and every company that produced them had to work to the same set of details and blueprints. Today, however, there are plenty of variations – and now more than 50 different companies produce some version of the 1911.
U.S. military personnel carried the M1911 through both World Wars, the Korean War and Vietnam. The M1911 was only retired as the standard sidearm of the U.S. Army in 1985, when the Beretta M9 was adopted. However, some soldiers – especially Special Forces operators – loved the M1911 so much that it never entirely disappeared from the ranks. After all, nothing beats a classic like the Colt M1911 .45.
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.