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Firearms Legend: How the US Army’s M1911 .45 ACP Gun Was Born

M1911. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

How the M1911 Gun Was Born: Following the American Civil War, the United States was most certainly not a major military power on the global stage. Even when the U.S. Army did take part in campaigns against the Native American tribes, units were seldom at authorized strength. For the most part, soldiers served as relatively small detachments at posts scattered throughout the nation’s vast western states and states and territories.

M1911: The Origin Story 

When the United States went to war with the Empire of Spain in April 1898, there were roughly 2,100 officers and 26,000 enlisted men in the U.S. Army. That number would swell to nearly 80,000, yet it was hardly a sizeable force compared to the other world powers of the day. Moreover, many of the soldiers were issued weapons that could be described as antiquated – including the Springfield Model 1873 rifle.

During the Spanish-American War, the Army’s standard sidearm was the Colt M1892 .38 Long Colt Revolver. It featured a counter-clockwise rotating cylinder, and it could be opened for loading and ejection by simply pulling back on a catch mounted on the left side of the frame. Empty cases could be easily removed by simply pushing back on an ejector rod to activate a star extractor. The six-shooter revolver could be quickly reloaded and the cylinder clicked back into place.

The revolver proved to be among the better weapons used in the conflict with Spain, and it was also carried by United States Marine Corps officers during the Boxer Rebellion in China (1901), while some British officers preferred it as their sidearm of choice during the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1901).

However, the Colt M1892 .38 Long Colt Revolver was found not to be up to the rigors of jungle warfare during the Philippine-American War and Moro Insurrection. One problem was that the weapon performed poorly in the humid conditions, but the bigger issue was that the .38 caliber just didn’t have the necessary stopping power.

The Moro Rebellion

After the Spanish-American War, the Philippines came under the control of the United States. That didn’t actually sit well with some of the locals who saw that they were trading one colonial master for another. The United States Army found itself in a conflict that has largely been forgotten – and one that is typically only taught in specific majors of higher education today.

The Philippine-American War, also known as the Filipino-American War, was essentially a continuation of the Philippine Revolution against Spain. After the U.S. took control of the archipelago, the First Philippine Republic objected to the terms of the Treaty of Paris and fighting broke out soon after. The war continued until July 2, 1902 when the Philippines became an unincorporated territory of the United States.

However, the fighting didn’t end everywhere in the territory.

In addition to the Filipino-American War, there was also the Moro Rebellion, and it involved the Muslim tribal peoples who lived in the Southern Philippines including Mindanao, Jolo and the neighboring Sulu Archipelago. Much like the British campaign in the Sudan in 1898, the Moro Rebellion saw a modern army face off against a force that seemed to be from another century.

The indigenous people, known as the Moro, were known as extremely tough warriors. They wore armor with plates made of either black water buffalo horn or brass plates connected with butted brass mail, and donned Spanish-style helmets that seemed out of the “conquistador era.”

The British easily routed the Sudanese, who also resembled a medieval army with chain mail, shields and spears, in a short series of battles involving modern firearms, the Americans had it far worse in the jungles of the Philippines.

Where the Sudanese attacked in mass in the open desert, the Moro conducted short but devastating raids and retreated back into the rugged terrain. The conflict could have been seen as a portent for the insurgency the U.S. military would face in Afghanistan a century later. It is easy to see why the Moro rebellion has been described as America’s first endless war and the fighting didn’t end until 1913.

Despite adhering to the Muslim faith, the Moro warriors often took drugs to inhibit the feeling of pain in battle, while the hallucinatory effects would allow the warriors to feel invincible.

Between the armor, the drugs and simply the fact that the Moro – who had resisted foreign rule for 400 years – were bad asses in the truest sense meant that the .38 round lacked the stopping power the Army needed. Stories were told of U.S. soldiers found lying dead with their throats cut next to a dead Moro warrior who had taken six shots to the chest.

The situation was so desperate that for a while soldiers reverted to the M1873 single-action revolver in the .45 Colt caliber as the heavier bullet proved to be more effective against the charging tribesman.

The Army needed a better sidearm, and U.S. Army’s Chief of Ordnance, General William Crozier, authorized testing for a new service pistol and cartridge to go with it.

Development of a New Cartridge

The Spanish-American War may have ended in victory for the United States. The naval victories at Manila Bay and Santiago Harbor certainly played a major role, however, the war only served to highlight that the United States needed better small arms. In addition to having to supply some troops with the antiquated Springfield M1873 rifles, the Army still relied on Gatling Guns as the U.S. Army lacked sufficient numbers of the Colt Browning M1895 machine gun. There is even an often-told story of how one of the Rough Riders’ fathers supplied his son’s unit with a pair of the machine guns so that they’d be better armed when heading off to Cuba.

During the war the new M1892/96/98 Krag rifle was seen to be inferior to the German-made Mauser bolt action rifles that the Spanish carried. It would soon be replaced by the M1903 Springfield, but finding the new pistol would prove to take longer.

The 1890s had been an era of great strides in firearms design, and prolific American firearms designer John Browning – who with his brother developed the aforementioned M1895 machine gun – had been tinkering with a self-loading or semi-automatic pistol. In 1904, Browning developed the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP), also known as the .45 Auto, a rimless straight-walled handgun cartridge. The round was selected during the Thompson-LaGarde Tests, which were conducted by the U.S. Army to replace the .38 Long Colt cartridge.

Colonel John T. Thompson, who would go on to develop the Thompson submachine gun chambered in the .45 ACP after the First World War, and Major Louis Anatole LaGarde of the U.S. Army Medical Corps. oversaw the tests, which were conducted at the Nelson Morris Company Union Stock Yards in Chicago, Illinois. It involved using both live cattle outside the slaughterhouse as well as some human cadavers. When used against the donated corpses, the distance the body swung when hit by the round was measured and used as an indication of the bullets stopping power.

The .45 ACP was tested against the 7.65×21mm Parabellum (.30 Luger), 9×19mm Parabellum (Germany), .38 Long Colt, .38 ACP, blunt and hollow-point .45 Colt (U.S.), .476 Eley (UK), and the “cupped” .455 Webley (UK).

Following the tests, Col. Thompson recommended that the new pistol should not be less than .45 caliber and that it would be semi-automatic in operation.

The 1906 Pistol Trials Lead to M1911

In 1906, seven firearms manufacturing companies including Colt, Bergman, Deutsche Waffen and Munitionsfabriken (DWM), Savage Arms Company, Knoble, Webley, and White-Merriell, took part.

Today, it may be impossible to consider that the Army could have adopted anything other than the Colt M1911 .45 pistol – which became just of many of John Browning’s weapons designed for the U.S. military – but another firearm seemed to be well liked.

That was the P08 Luger.

Developed by Georg Luger, who worked closely with arms designers Ferdinand von Mannlicher and Hugo Borchardt, it was the first semi-automatic service pistol to be adopted by any military. Interestingly that wasn’t in Luger’s native Austria or even Germany, where the gun would become infamous. It was actually Switzerland and those first ‘Lugers’ were chambered for Luger’s new 7.65 Parabellum cartridge – the name of which came from the Latin “Si vis pacem, para bellum” or “If you seek peace, prepare for war.”

Luger was looking to find buyers for his new pistol, and when Germany did initially adopt a weapon, it was in the newly designed 9x19mm Parabellum round also designed by Luger.

In the 1907 pistol trials, the Luger was considered alongside designs by Browning, who was then working for Colt, and Savage. The U.S. military required that each designer supply 200 examples in .45 ACP. The Army had already purchased some 1,000 7.65 Lugers and a few in the 9mm, but it required the pistols be in .45.

As the 1906 trials moved forward, it was actually down to three finalists that included Colt, Luger, and Savage.

Colt M1911 Vs. Savage

Both Savage and Colt manufactured their respective quota of 200 weapons, but Luger only made two. Georg Luger had felt that it was doubtful that his foreign design would be successful over two American contenders and essentially withdrew from the competition.

The 1906 .45 Savage may have seemed to be the frontrunner. The delayed blowback pistol had nine fewer parts than the Colt, held more rounds than the Colt, required fewer tools to completely disassemble than the Colt, and it was noted to be more accurate than the Colt. It passed the sand test in half the time the Colt took.

Yet, unfortunately for Savage, it also had 40 percent more jams and misfires than the Colt. The board also found the Savage to be quite violent in discharge and heavy – even as the board’s own report lists the Savage as weighing only 1/2 ounce more than the Colt. In addition, the board found the Savage Auto to have the same deficiencies as the Colt, including no loaded chamber indicator and no automatic safety.

Field tests of both the Colt and Savage pistols continued for several years, during which time John Browning worked with Colt to address any issues, while Savage also refined its pistol. At one point, Savage reportedly even put political pressure on the military, but in the end the final showdown occurred on March 15, 1911.

The Colt-improved M1911 went up against the Savage Model 1910. More than 6,000 rounds were fired from each of the two pistols. The Savage had 37 misfires, while the Colt had none. In addition, the Colt consistently grouped better in the accuracy tests and was much quicker and easier to disassemble than the Savage. The four years of refinement under John Browning’s watchful eye resulted in a firearms masterpiece.

M1911: An Amazing Legacy 

The Colt M1911 was unanimously approved by the U.S. Army Testing Board and adopted on March 28, 1911. By late April of that same year, contracts totaling more than 30,000 M1911 pistols began a relationship between the Army and Colt that would last 75 years and produce a total of more than 6 million pistols. Only in the 1980s was the gun that was first adopted to have the stopping power to take on the Moros finally retired in favor of the Beretta M9. Even today, the M1911 is still a top seller the world over.

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

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.