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February 27, 2014

1911s of the First World War

By Joel R Kolander

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U.S. military arms are popular with all levels of collectors. Whether you want a M1 Garand to take out and shoot, a pristine M1 Thompson submachine gun for display only, or even a military rarity such as a Pedersen Device, the appeal is abundant. Rock Island Auction Company has long offered military arms from many different nations, but our May 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction has provided us with a special opportunity: every military manufacturer of the M1911 and the M1911A1 will be represented. This is in addition to the Von Norden Collection of German WWII Arms and Artifacts as well as hundreds of other U.S. military pieces such as Garands, Johnson rifles, trapdoors, trench shotguns, swords, M1903s, and even some Tommy guns.

In our previous article, “1911s of the Second World War,” we saw examples and heard stories surrounding the five WWII manufacturers of the famed American sidearm. This article will take a look at the companies that made pistols for the U.S. Armed Forces during World War I and does so as the world prepares to remember the Centennial of this unfathomable event. The first World War began on July 28,1914 and lasted until the armistice on November 11, 1918. After all the trench fighting, chemical warfare, aerial dogfights, and naval battles were over, 16 million were dead and over 21 million were wounded, making it one of the deadliest wars in human history.

Men of the 23rd Infantry on the Western Front in 1918.

Much of this death was courtesy of the numerous innovations taking place: machine guns were developing rapidly past Maxim’s original design and becoming much more reliable, airplanes fitted with these new machine guns and a synchronization gear (a.k.a. “interrupter”) brought the battle to a new front, submarines had advanced well past their military infancy since the U.S. Civil War, chemical warfare was abundant despite the Hague Treaty of 1899, and the British invented the tank, which in turn resulted in many new anti-tank inventions by the Central Powers to destroy them.

Another new invention, in development for a least a decade before WWI, was the M1911 pistol. John Moses Browning had been developing an “automatic pistol” for the military after they felt that their .38 caliber revolvers were under powered and could not fire nor reload quickly enough in combat. The problem had been recognized over a decade prior because in 1900 the government placed an order for 1,000 Luger pistols from DWM for testing and evaluation. Enter JMB and his M-1900. It was not a perfect design, nor were several subsequent designs such as the M-1902, M-1903, or M-1905 (model designations are Browning’s, not to be confused with the military designations). However, as we all know the M-1911 performed best in the Army field trials, firing 6,000 rounds without a single malfunction, and became adopted as the M1911 by the Army in March 1911 and by the Navy & Marine Corps in 1913.

Upon our entry into the Great War the United States had slightly less than 75,000 of these pistols on-hand for just under 80,000 enlisted servicemen. It’s a rather dismal amount of pistols, but seems downright “prepared” in comparison to the amount of other tools of war that the U.S. possessed. We had little artillery, barely anyone knowledgeable on how to effectively utilize it in modern warfare, and under 200 machineguns. Read that again – under 200 machine guns of any type, brand, or manufacturer and most of those had only been purchased for testing of some sort.

Unlike many European nations who are quoted as saying that the war would be over quickly (6 months in some statements), by the time the United States was entering the battle in April 1917, the war had already been going on for almost three years. We had no such illusions of a short conflict and began ordering enormous quantities of arms to arm a military force that was expected to approach one million men for an offensive that would have taken place in the Fall of 1919.


Highly Desirable Pre-World War I Colt U.S. Army Contract Model 1911 Semi-Automatic Pistol

Obviously, all of this meant a boon of production for Colt. Not only were a huge number of sidearms going to be required, but also a staggering number of machineguns. Even for an experienced producer such as Colt, the demand was simply too great. The War Department then stepped in and tried to fill the void. In the government report on wartime manufacturing, “Arms of Industry,” the Army was sending contracts out to numerous parties. One passage regarding the M1911 reads as follows:

“In order to fill the enormously increased pistol requirements of the American Expeditionary Forces contracts for the Colt automatic were given to National Cash Register Company, at Dayton, Ohio; the North American Arms Company, Quebec; the Savage Arms Corporation, Utica, New York; Caron Brothers, Montreal; the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, Detroit, Michigan; the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, New Haven, Connecticut; the Lanston Monotype Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and the Savage Munitions Corporation, San Diego, California.”

They were calling on everyone they could think of to manufacture arms for a war they clearly thought was going to be much longer. In fact, in January of 1918 the War Department released a study stating that the military would need 2.5 MILLION pistols toward the end of 1919. Needless to say, Colt was swamped. They had already expanded once to ship pistols to England, but even with Springfield’s help both manufacturers were way behind on the initial order of 142,000 pistols. Two months into the war, June 1917, Colt received yet another contract for another 500,000 pistols! Using Colt’s production rate in 1900, that order would be the equivilant of six years’ work. They even increased production, along with Smith & Wesson, of the .45-caliber Model 1917 revolvers to satisfy a supplemental government contract for 100,000! At this point they were just pumping out handguns as quickly as possible, and while the government would have obviously preferred the more advanced semi-autos they had to take what they could get.

All in all Colt produced 487,714 of these pistols during WWI, which includes 412,114 of the final contract for 500,000 before the war ended.


U.S. Springfield Armory Model 1911 Semi-Automatic Pistol

While Colt was drowning in contracts for pistols and machine guns, Springfield was struggling to keep up with the demand for M1903 bolt action rifles. They would produce 265,620 M1903 rifles during the war in addition to M1917 Enfield rifles and M1911 pistols.

What did not help Springfield in the manufacturing process of the M1911 was Colt’s “build-by-sample” process. The idea from the Ordnance Department was a good one: ensure that M1911 pistols would have interchangeable parts regardless of what company manufactured them. To do that, one must have specific measurements plus or minus a certain amount; these measurements are referred to as “tolerances.” These ensure that even a gun assembled with some parts that meet the maximum variances and some that meet the minimum variances will still function as designed. The problem arose when Colt went to share their “measurements” with other companies – they didn’t have accurate measurements. Sure, there were some base-level numbers written down somewhere, but ultimately those numbers had been refined by the people making the guns and that’s exactly who had that knowledge. So when Colt sent sample guns to Springfield, Remington-UMC, and Winchester so they could copy them for war time manufacturing, all three companies experienced great difficulty in replicating the weapon and its specifics. In fact, William Goddard states in his book, The Government Models: The Development of the Colt 1911 that, “Winchester’s superintendent, whose production methods were the very model of documented and methodical organization, became practically apoplectic when his company tried to set up its contract production of the Model of 1911. It took Winchester so long to figure out how to specify and build the 1911 that the war ended before they were able to complete any pistols.” Though Winchester should be given some leeway since they were cranking out M1917 rifles as fast as possible due to a government emphasized priority. Thankfully, the other manufacturers did not suffer similar fates. Springfield would manufacture 25,767 pistols and only discontinued production to focus on M1903 rifles.


U.S. Army Contract Remington-UMC Model 1911 Semi-Automatic Pistol

In 1914 Remington was producing guns for several countries and went through several expansions to do so. Czar Nicholas II had ordered one million M1891 Russian rifles and bayonets and also needed cartridges for them. The French also needed ammo, but when the U.S. went to war all other contracts were put to rest. Remington would manufacture M1911 pistols, Pedersen Devices, Browning machine guns, and Mark III flair pistols and despite the previously mentioned issues between manufacturers crafting interchangeable parts, Remington-UMC would have pistols rolling off the assembly line a mere 8 months after receiving their contract. With a government contract for 500,000 pistols, Remington would only begin production in August of 1918 giving them almost 3 solid months of run time. They would complete 13,000 pistols in that time, but were allowed to finish up with what parts they had remaining for a total of 21,676. After WWI, the equipment used by Remington-UMC was shipped to Springfield for storage and later saw use again through various contractors during WWII.

Original Remington-UMC pistols are already rare, but a cutaway model for demonstrator purposes is truly a scarce find! The contrast of “in the white” parts and the blued ones helps draw the eye to it.

Other Contractors

Some of you may look at that list of only three manufacturers and wonder about that large list of companies and cities that received contracts from the U.S. Government to make M1911 pistols. That’s true, many companies did receive contracts to produce pistols since we were so radically behind in making them. However, many of those contacts were rescinded upon the sudden armistice, leaving a lot of companies who were tooling up for production, or had already started, in the lurch. Here’s a short list of them.

North American Arms Co: North American Arms had the same troubles that many other M1911 contractors did: they started late in the war, it took a while to receive the proper manufacturing machinery, they lacked individuals skilled in producing the M1911, and needed adequate drawings and specs. To add to this, North American didn’t have adequate facilities. They had planned to produce the sidearms by leasing the factory of the bygone Ross Rifle Company, since in 1916 Ross rifles were withdrawn from service by Canadian troops (who would switch to the Lee-Enfield). After all was said and done North American managed to produce approximately 104 uninspected, unissued, “toolroom” pistols. That number makes them even more rare than the vaunted Singer M1911A1 pistols of World War II! After the contract of 500,000 was cancelled, many of the remaining parts made by North American were used to complete commercial pistols. North American is the only manufacturer in this section to have produced complete firearms even if none of them were actually delivered.

Extremely Rare North American Arms Model 1911 Semi-Automatic Pistol

A.J. Savage Munitions Co: Savage started producing parts before the war had ended especially slides and recoil springs. Any pistol found with a Savage marked slide will likely have markings known to other pistol makers and is a “parts gun” or gun assembled from spare parts. Savage never assembled a complete gun. Some of these may even be “lunch box specials” by factory workers who would take single parts at a time to assemble a full gun at home.

No serial number or government markings appear on pistol, but it bears the “H” inspection mark, 3 line patent info, and the “S in flaming bomb” markings attributed to A.J. Savage Munitions Co.
The “S in flaming bomb” can be difficult to see, but appears immediately to the right of the patent information.

National Cash Register, Lanston Monotype, Caron Brothers, Savage Arms Corp, Burroughs Adding Machine Co, Winchester Repeating Arms Co: These companies combined had contracts totaling 1,550,000 units, but not one would complete a pistol. Although with Winchester’s experienced firearms manufacturing capabilities it is reasonable to assume that all the necessary parts may have been ready upon contract termination, but subsequently shipped to Springfield for assembly.

It may be hard to believe, but this is a very abbreviated history of the manufacturers of the M1911. Had American production been ramped up sooner, Colt had accurate documents on-hand, and America not been so late to enter World War I, there might be a much greater quanitiy of this revered pistol and from several different manufacturers. Thankfully, the Great War ended when it did. The French had lost 1.4 million men (+4% of population), the British has lost 900,000 men (+2%), the Russian Empire lost around 2 million men (2%), and the Germans lost over two million men (+3.5%). Those figures only include military deaths and not civilian deaths caused by military action, disease, famine, etc.

We’re all grateful to the M1911 and the M1897 trench shotgun (another Browning invention) for their military provenance and proven ability to help clear the trenches in WWI. The history of these manufacturers is also one that needs to be told – those companies that were willing to help a nation in its time of crisis. But the time to remember these weapons and companies can wait. In this Centennial Anniversary of the Great War, let us again remember the millions of young men around the world who left behind their families and fought for their country. Over 110,000 Americans lost their lives in those short years. Let us each find some way to honor their memory during this terrible anniversary. We leave you with the words of Wilfred Owen.

Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


Clawson, Charles W. Colt .45 Service Pistols: Models of 1911 and 1911A1: Complete Military History, Development, and Production 1900 through 1945. Fort Wayne, IN: C.W. Clawson, 1991. Print. of 1911 Production,-1914-1918/us-remington-umc-model-1911-semi-automatic-pistol.aspx

Goddard, William H. D. The Government Models: The Development of the Colt Model of 1911. Lincoln, RI, U.S.A.: A. Mowbray, 1988. Print.

Sweeney, Patrick. 1911: The First 100 Years. Iola, WI: Krause Pubns, 2010. Print.

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