Why the U.S. Military Dropped the M1911 Workhorse Pistol – Sometimes the U.S. military makes a weapons switch with little fanfare, media coverage, or controversy. Not so with the replacement of the M1911 with the Beretta M9. Military personnel wondered why a handgun that had proved itself for over a hundred years in nearly every war, conflict, and military action since World War One would need to be swapped for another model. Even though the M1911 was mostly phased out it is still used by certain units of the Marine Corps and special operations forces.
So why was the M1911 retired? One reason was capacity. The Beretta M9 had a magazine that could hold 15 rounds – more than double the number of bullets of the M1911. The other reason was an effort to standardize the M9’s nine-millimeter ammunition among NATO members. The M9 also had less recoil than the M1911, according to some users of both pistols.
The below is a short history of the M1911 and why it was ultimately retired.
History of the M1911
Before the M1911 made an appearance, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps handled the Colt M1892 .38 revolver in the Spanish-American War in 1898. This had a counter-clockwise rotating cylinder and soldiers and Marines learned to load it as quickly as they could. They just had to open it by yanking back on a catch on the left side of the gun. Then an ejector rod sent the spent bullets outward.
The Americans were given control of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war and the locals chafed at another colonial master robbing them of sovereignty and independence. This turned into the Philippine-American War of 1899 to 1902 with an additional insurgency by Moro guerrillas – Muslims who were fighting for religious motives.
Tough Fighting Called for a Powerful, Semi-automatic Handgun
The fighting was mostly in jungles where the hot, humid weather created conditions less favorable to the M1892 revolver. The Moros were fanatics. They kept advancing in a menacing manner even when wounded. They even had crude body armor that was surprisingly effective. The Americans found out the revolver had inadequate stopping power in the hand-to-hand fighting. The Moros could endure several shots before expiring.
The Army wanted to replace the .38 caliber bullet with something more powerful and also yearned for a semi-automatic pistol instead of a revolver. Legendary gunmaker John Browning stepped into this situation. He first developed the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol round in 1904. After competitions among several gun makers, Colt produced the M1911, and it entered testing with models against Savage and Luger. The Colt M1911 finally won and was adopted in 1911.
Then It Proliferated Mightily
It distinguished itself in combat during World War One. Thousands more were made. Then during World War Two, the military ordered nearly two million. The general design remained the same and some parts were interchangeable. It was then the go-to sidearm during the Korean and Vietnam wars. The tropical environment of Vietnam required the pistol to be maintained and cleaned properly, but the .45 ACP round otherwise proved its mettle.
The comfortable feel of the Colt M1911 makes for easy shooting. The grip has an angle for a relaxed press of the trigger. It weighs 39 ounces with a five-inch barrel. Concealment is easier since the pistol is not very thick. However, the magazine is typically only seven or eight rounds, and the effective range is 50 meters.
But What About Fighting the Soviet Army?
The United States was concerned with what the battlefield with the Soviet Army would look like. Yes the .45 ACP had stopping power, and this was needed with the Soviets potentially streaming through the Fulda Gap in Germany. Fulda is the area that included the border between East Germany and West Germany to the Rhine River. This was considered the likely avenue of approach of the Red Army and Warsaw Pact hordes. The Americans believed they could be outnumbered and overwhelmed in bitter combat that would devolve into close-quarter fighting.
Did the M1911 Just Not Have Enough Bullets?
Would seven-plus one rounds in the M1911 be enough ammunition for such a conflict? The Army wanted a higher-capacity magazine for its main sidearm. The Army was already upgrading its M16 rifle and soldiers could carry six 30-round magazines along with one mag in the weapon – for a capacity of 210 rounds. The 5.56mm round from the M16 tumbled through its target and often wounded its foe. This would slow down the advancing Soviets and their allies as they would be forced to treat the wounded. The more ammunition that could be carried the better. This concept was applied to the pistol as well.
Also, it made sense for the pistol round to be standardized with bullets used by NATO partners. The M1911 also had high recoil in the opinion of some users, which was a concern for soldiers that were not sufficiently trained in its use. The 9mm round would have higher velocity and travel flatter.
Was the Beretta M9 Better or Worse?
These factors forced the military to look for another pistol option and the Beretta M9 was introduced in 1985 – mainly because of its cheaper cost than competitors. Not everyone agreed with this change. The Beretta was seen by some as a downgrade. The 9mm round was criticized for not having adequate stopping power. These critics believed it would be a disadvantage in hand-to-hand combat. They thought the capacity issue could be addressed by transforming the M1911 into a double-stack pistol to hold more rounds.
Unfortunately for these proponents, the Beretta won out. The remaining fans of the M1911 such as Marine Special Operations and some in Delta Force got an upgraded model that had a rail system for accessories like optics and lights. The M1911 is still a legend and a powerful symbol of the U.S. military, and it lives on with many civilian collectors.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.