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August 22, 2013

John Browning & The Birth of the M1911

By Joel R Kolander

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The sight of a M1911 pistol evokes over 100 years of firearms history in a single glance. Carried on the hips of thousands of G.I.s and invented by “the greatest firearms inventor the world has ever known,” it has a special place in American history. But what about its own history? How did it come to be and how did it starts its legendary journey? Come with us as we explore this iconic and revered pistol and then show you some prime examples of its early prototypes that will be up for sale in Rock Island Auction Company’s 2013 September Premiere Auction.

Lot 1804: Desirable Early Colt Model 1902 Military Pattern Semi-Automatic Pistol

First things first, the M1911 was not actually “invented” in 1911. That designation instead reflects its March 29, 1911 official date of adoption by the U.S. Army. The journey of the semi-automatic pistol starts almost two decades earlier. Semi-automatic pistols had already been invented long before the 1911, the first of which to enjoy any level of commercial success being the Borchardt C-93 followed soon after by Mauser’s C96 “Broomhandle.” For that matter, Maxim had already patented his fully automatic machine gun midway through 1883. That in mind, it seems that the semi-automatic, especially the M1911, was a bit behind the times. However, the development of a U.S. made semi-automatic pistol would still be a great boon to U.S. troops.

The Philippines declared war on the United States on June 2, 1899. It lasted only until 1902, but gave rise to the Moro Rebellion, a conflict that would last until 1913. The Moro were a local tribe that lived in the southern islands of the Philippines, known for their fanatical guerrilla fighting. The Moro were no stranger when it came to warfare, having fought the Spanish for years prior to encountering the U.S. Army. At that time, the U.S. soldier’s standard sidearm was the Colt M1892 .38 caliber double action revolver. Unfortunately for U.S. forces, when locked in combat with the Moro tribesmen, they found the revolver to be unsuitable for the task. The hand-to-hand combat weapon of choice for the Moro tribesmen were several distinct bladed weapons, most notably the kris. When the kris was placed in the hands of a man motivated by a cocktail of hatred of occupying forces, religion, and the natural octane of adrenaline, he could do much damage to U.S. troops before being brought down by the smaller cartridges. This situation was documented by one recent author, when he writes,

“In response to problems encountered by American units fighting Moro guerrillas during the Philippine-American War, the then-standard Colt M1892 revolver, in .38 Long Colt, was found to be unsuitable for the rigors of jungle warfare, particularly in terms of stopping power, as the Moros had very high battle morale and frequently used drugs to inhibit the sensation of pain.”

A painting where a U.S. soldier finally wields a 1911 against the Moro.

There is speculation that the Moro would take various types of drugs before their battles, a debate that also revolves around other berserker-style warriors. Given their Islamic religion this seems unlikely. However, it seems to be the current, popularly accepted history. Their fierceness in battle is recalled by Gen. John ” Black Jack” Pershing in a letter to his wife stating that, “the fighting was the fiercest I have ever seen. They are absolutely fearless, and once committed to combat they count death as a mere incident.” The army tried several different sidearms to remedy their “anemic” firearms, even the 9mm Luger, but its ineffectiveness was documented in a quote of Brig. Gen. Samuel S. Sumner when he said, “The Luger automatic pistol as a hunting pistol and for dress occasions is attractive and useful. I have one which I prize highly, but for field service, in the hands of officers and men, it is a failure. It is too complicated, and cartridges often jam, but the main defect is that the bullet will not stop a Moro.” The Army eventually reissued the M1873 Colt .45 revolvers, the “Peacemakers,” as they were still plentiful.

While M1911s were not developed in time to be used against the Moro in any notable capacity, except perhaps the 1913 Battle of Bud Bagsak, the early struggles against the Moro did give rise to the well-known Thompson-LaGarde field tests held in Chicago, Illinois. The Thompson-LaGarde tests took place in 1904 to find out just which caliber of weapon the U.S. military should be using in its handguns. These tests took place using live and dead cattle as well as some human cadavers used as ballistic pendulums! As one can expect the tests have drawn harsh criticism for being unscientific, predetermined, as well as inhumane, but in the end the tests concluded that “the only safeguard at close encounters is a well-directed rapid fire from nothing less than a .45-caliber weapon.”

This new requirement in mind, six manufacturers submitted entries into the 1906 trials to find a new military handgun. Three of the designs were eliminated early with Colt, Savage, and DWM remaining as the sole survivors. Improvements would gradually be made to each model and subsequent tests would be performed, but in 1910 the Browning would set itself apart from the Savage, the only remaining competitor at that time. A test was held and personally attended by John M. Browning (JMB) himself, where the M1911 fired 6,000 rounds over the course of two days with no malfunctions; the Savage suffered 37. The story goes that when the Colt sample became too hot it would simply be dunked in a pail of water to cool it. The Colt would be formally adopted by the Army on March 29,1911 and was then bestowed with its famous moniker. The initial order of 31,344 pistols would be more than one third of the entire company revenues for 1910.

There is so much more to talk about regarding the genius of Browning, the early importance that the manufacturing prowess of Colt would have for our country, Browning’s other contributions to the world of firearms, and the many later roles that the M1911 would hold. However, today we’re here to show off early models and prototypes, so we’ll have to hold the M1911’s story to just its birth and a general one at that. If you want the minutia of every adjustment, modification, patent, letter, and model that Browning and Colt worked on, may I recommend the book The Government Models: The Development of the Colt 1911 by William H.D. Goddard. It is oft considered the authoritative work on the subject, is unrelenting in its thoroughness, and shows large, detailed photos of each example discussed. Oh, and the second gun discussed in this article (Lot #1775) is from his phenomenal collection.

Rock Island Auction Company is proud to offer several Browning-Colt prototypes that were steps on the journey to this legendary firearm. The first is a 1900 U.S. Navy contract model that features the “sight safety.”

Lot #3588: Extraordinary Documented U.S. Navy Contract Colt 1900 “Sight Safety” Model Semi-Automatic Pistol with Factory Letter

This scarce pistol is all original and one of the first Model 1900 semi-automatic pistols produced for the U.S. Navy. The “sight safety” is an extremely rare feature that incorporated both the rear sight of the pistol as well as the safety. Like most safeties it worked by blocking the hammer from striking the firing pin when engaged. The Model 1900 was the first semi-automatic pistol manufactured by Colt and also the first of JMB’s successful semi-automatic pistols. The sight safeties were an early feature and considered especially rare. Making this particular pistol even more exception is that it is part of the original 250 Colt contracts pistols that were shipped to the U.S. Navy in October 1900. They were shipped in 5 lots of 50 and this pistol was in the third of them. It lists the Colt serial number of 1146 on the right side of its frame and the Naval serial number of 146 on the left. It’s about as early as it gets regarding Colt semi-automatic production (i.e. non-prototype) pistols and this one is in excellent condition.

Sight safety visible in front of the hammer spur. Also notice the case-hardened hammer, screw, and magazine catch.

Lot #1775: Extremely Rare Documented Colt Model 1900 Sight Safety/Browning Slide Lock Prototype Semi-Automatic Pistol

This particular Colt Model 1900 might appear very similar to the one listed above. After all, they’re both Colt 1900’s, right? Correct, to a point. The right side of the receivers and slides look identical other than condition. Take a good long look at the left side of the slide and receiver on this pistol. Starting to see the differences? There’s a notch out of the slide and the addition of a small vertical, thumb operated “switch”? That, dear reader, is the prototype for the slide lock and its release switch. That’s right! The feature now found on virtually EVERY semi-automatic pistol! He created it to quell the criticism that the gun required two hands to initially fire, a complaint absent from the proven, popular revolvers. Browning personally pulled this pistol, serial #1433, from the Browning Bros. store stock and added his new, revolutionary feature after constructing it himself out of steel. Aside from the small switch, the additional hole in the frame above the trigger, and the small notch removed from the slide just forward from the serial number, this pistol looks like any other Model 1900. Revolutions sometimes arrive quietly.

Showing a close up of the sight safety and a inconspicuous looking slide release lever at lower left.

During improvements JMB submitted 5 patents: parallel ruler hesitation locking, slide lock, single link barrel, grip safety, and thumb safety. Each improvement would have its own prototype. The pistol showing the “parallel ruler” feature resides in a Browning family collection in his hometown of Ogden, Utah, and the other three prototype pistols are in private collections. Knowing that this gun is one of the five Browning prototypes AND fashioned by Browning’s own hand, it can be easy to forget that this gun also still features 90% of the original blue finish and has the desirable sight safety.

Lot #3551: Exceptional and Rare First Year Production Colt Government Model Semi-Automatic Pistol with Low Three Digit Serial Number C183

This model should look a little more familiar to fans of the Government Model, though this pistol is anything but modern. Timeless perhaps, but not modern. It is a first year production of the Government Model and its condition is exquisite. This revolver was made in 1912, and is serial number C183. Colt would make up through C2030 that year and pistols with the “C” prefix (“C” for commercial) would only be manufactured through 1949. The gun’s condition will meet the requirements of any collector. The finish is gorgeous and shows the deep, gorgeous, early finishing process that Colt used before the Army declared it “not durable enough.” This resulted in Colt no longer buffing the pistols to a blued mirror finish around serial no. 500 and after serial no. 2,400 the process changed greatly and the resultant finish would be gray/blue in color. The peacock blue accented small parts add another level of eye-catching beauty to this phenomenally kept weapon.

If you miss the bid on this one, you can always catch serial number C502 in Lot 1779, still a first year production and in an equally gorgeous condition. You could also bid on C1878 in Lot 1797, which is a second year model and as beautiful as the first two. Colt collectors, you have been put on notice.

These are some of the highlights of the early Colt models that will be for sale in our September Premiere Firearms Auction to be held September 13th-15th, 2013, but they are far from the only ones. We’ll have another low serial number, first year production, a Russian contract, a Brazilian contract, Aces, a Singer “Tool Room Prototype,” a Colt 380 vest pocket hammer pistol prototype, rare finishes, fancy grips, cased models, a test pistol, and a Colt-Jolidon semi-automatic prototype. And those are just the Colts! We’ll also have several early Savage semi-automatic prototypes and even a DWM 1902 American Eagle “cartridge Counter” Test Luger. You want early semi-autos pistols for sale? We’ve got ’em at Rock Island Auction Company!

“Firing the Automatic, a snapshot somewhere in France.” Here, a Marine
demonstrates the 1911 for the French in a well-known 1918 photo. Goddard notes
in his book that, “In the Sunday Globe Magazine, it illustrated an article entitled,
“Eight Million Shots Ready for the Hun.”


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

Linn, Brian McAllister. The Philippine War, 1899–1902 (Modern War Studies [Paperback]). University Press of Kansas, 2000. Print
Sweeney, Patrick. 1911: The First 100 Years. Iola, WI: Krause Pubns, 2010. Print.

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