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August 20, 2021

Road to the 1911 Pistol

By Joe Engesser

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The famous 1911 pistol is one of the most popular handguns of all time. When it comes to factors like balance, comfort, and reliability, John Browning’s 1911 design has no shortage of admirers. The legendary pistol was eventually adopted by the U.S. Army and went on to become the longest-serving sidearm in American military history, but the 1911’s road to success as a military handgun included numerous early models and experimentation as Browning raced to develop a pistol that would standout against a slew of competitors.

Rare and historic Colt Model 1910 John Browning prototype semi-automatic pistol, Serial Number 3, from the Dr. Robert Azar Collection.

The U.S. Military’s search for a reliable semi-automatic sidearm was a primary driver in the development of John Moses Browning’s .45-caliber pistol. Many of the evolutionary predecessors to the Colt 1911 are rare guns today, with especially scarce examples like the Colt Model 1910 prototype trials pistol considered gun collecting treasures. The Colt 1910 was a significant milestone in the progression of the 1911 design, but the real story begins over a decade earlier.

Early Colt semi-autos have a rich and intriguing history.

1911 Design

The 1911 pistol’s military lineage started in 1898 with Browning’s Colt Automatic Pistol, a gun that would become known as the first production Colt Model 1900. Chambered in .38 Auto, this early Browning design was a locked breech, short recoil operated handgun that was sent to the U.S. Ordnance Department to test the feasibility of an automatic pistol in the hands of army officers.

U.S. Army First Contract Colt Model 1900 pistol, only one of 100 manufactured. Provenance: The Gus Cargile Collection.

Officers stationed in the Philippines had a high demand for automatic pistols, and after initial field testing the Ordnance Department requested a number of design changes and ordered 200 more Colt Model 1900 pistols. These U.S. Army Second Contract models only incorporated two of the recommended improvements, including checkered, thicker grips, and deeper slide serrations that were moved to the front of the pistol.

U.S. Army Second Contract Colt Model 1900 "Sight Safety" Pistol. Provenance: The Dr. Robert Azar Collection.

Reports from the field were mixed, and some of those complaints are reflected in how the Model 1900’s frame differs from its famous successor. A shorter, deeper grip, no slide stop, a muzzle heavy design, and one of the early Browning pistol’s most famous features, its rear sight safety. Having a rear sight that doubled as a safety by blocking the firing pin wasn’t popular with the troops, as both the sight and firing pin tended to wear and made the weapon both unsafe and inaccurate.

U.S. Inspected Colt Model 1902 Military semi-automatic pistol, one of the first 200 produced. Provenance: The Dr. Robert Azar Collection.

The next historic precursor to the 1911 design, the Colt 1902, addressed a number of military complaints and included a lengthened grip, a slide stop, and an increased magazine capacity from seven to eight, though the pistol was still chambered in .38 ACP (which stands for Automatic Colt Pistol). Again, the feedback from the field trials was mixed, questioning the durability of the pistol compared to well-known and comparatively reliable alternatives like the New Army Colt 1892 revolver.

Developing the .45 ACP Pistol

The Thompson-LaGarde field tests of 1904 were conducted to determine which caliber the U.S. Military should adopt going forward. The tests were in part initiated by the poor performance of the Army’s .38 caliber revolvers during the Philippine Insurrection, and Colonel John T. Thompson concluded that nothing short of .45-caliber stopping power was suitable for dealing with a determined opponent like the Moro juramentado warriors during the Moro Rebellion.

Colt Model 1905: the first Colt .45 ACP pistol. Provenance: The Gus Cargile Collection.

In January 1906, U.S. Army Ordnance Chief B.G. Crozier issued a letter of invitation to the gun manufacturing industry to develop and submit new semi-automatic handguns utilizing the then new .45 ACP rounds. Lured by the promise of a rich military contract, eighteen companies initially responded, though only six were able to produce a test sample pistol. Three of those designs were eliminated early, with Colt, Savage, and DWM remaining as the sole survivors.

Only 288 Savage Model 1907 in .45 ACP were made for the 1907 Pistol Trials. They are a rare bird for collectors of U.S. military arms, early semi-autos, and 1911 pistols.

During the next testing phase, DWM would voluntarily withdraw its U.S. Trials .45 ACP Luger pistol design due to concerns that the Americans wouldn't pick a European offering regardless of virtue. The Savage Arms Corporation produced a version of its Model 1907 automatic pistol that was scaled up for .45 ACP and faced off against Colt during the next round of military testing.

Colt Model 1905

In 1904, Colt and Browning had been working on a .41 caliber cartridge. The following year, Browning’s pistol design was beefed up and modified to chamber the larger .45 ACP round to accommodate the military’s request. Enter the "Military Model of 1905".

Colt Model 1905 Military semi-automatic pistol, serial number 596. Provenance: The Gus Cargile Collection.

With an external extractor and a larger grip to house the new cartridge, the Colt 1905 was an important evolutionary leap in the development of the 1911 design. Browning had also reduced the number of parts and simplified the internals, a trend toward efficiency that would continue in later iterations of the handgun.

Colt Model 1905 Military semi-automatic pistol. Provenance: The Gus Cargile Collection.

The Model 1905, while a step in the right direction, proved too fragile to stand up to the recoil forces of the .45 ACP rounds and the rigors of military torture testing. So while the Colt 1905 wasn’t the final answer that the military was searching for, it helped set the stage for the sturdier 1907.

Colt Model 1907

Browning continued to refine his design with the Colt Model 1907, a beefed-up 1905 with a grip safety. This pistol was manufactured under the Army Contract of 1907 for field trials in the same year. While a notable upgrade, the Colt 1907 still proved unsuitable for the .45 ACP round during rigorous field evaluations.

Rare Colt Model 1907 U.S. Army test trials pistol, Serial Number “193”, an example previously sold at Rock Island Auction Company for $18,400.

In June 1909, Colt submitted a letter to the Chief of Ordnance requesting to withdraw all of their test samples, agreeing to modify them to correct the design flaws and return them to the Army for further evaluations. While much of the groundwork had been laid for what would become the iconic 1911 design, Browning realized an extensive redesign was needed to accommodate the power of the new military cartridge.

Colt Model 1909 and 1910

John Browning would continue to refine his pistol with the Colt Model 1909, which replaced the two link barrel lock up design with a single link, tilting barrel system for greater reliability. The 1909 also made improvements to the recently added grip safety, the ejector and ejector port, a new placement for the magazine release, and the weapon’s overall ease of disassembly was also fine-tuned. Browning’s pistol was drawing closer to its final form, but the next prototype was perhaps the most important evolutionary piece in the legacy of 1911 design.

Colt Model 1909 Prototype test trial pistol, an example previously sold at Rock Island Auction Company for $126,500.

Originally manufactured in 1910, there were possibly as few as eight Model 1910 prototype pistols ever produced. Browning made further refinements to the componentry, while other design changes are more outwardly apparent, like the slanted grip, square ejector, angled butt, and most examples included thumb safeties. The Colt Model 1910 is a highly polished prototype that feels just a few tweaks away from its famous successor, and Browning’s genius is evident throughout. In classic Browning fashion, all but one of the 1910 pistol’s modifications involved components that were interchangeable with parts from earlier designs, making the rapid improvements possible.

The Colt 1910 was the final prototype in what would become the famous 1911 pistol. Provenance: The Dr. Robert Azar Collection.

In November of 1910, the Ordnance Board met to pit the Colt and Savage pistols against each other for the second to last time. Each gun was fired 6,000 times in a grueling test, and while both pistols had breakage issues, the Colt Model 1910 emerged as the clear favorite. Still, the military pressed for further refinements, and those subsequent modifications lead to the development of the renowned U.S. Army Model 1911, a design approved on March 19th of 1911.

Colt Model 1910, a rare opportunity for U.S. military automatic pistol collections.

Colt Model 1910 Serial Number 3

One of the issues discovered when testing the Colt 1910 trial pistols was that their grip screws continually loosened when subjected to sustained fire. In the case of the extraordinarily rare 1910 prototype available in Rock Island Auction Company’s September Premier Firearms Auction, Browning’s solution was to switch out the typical grips with a permanently fixed grip design that used studs on the frame and slots in the grips rather than screws for retainment.

The Colt 1910 is one of the top-tier offerings in Rock Island Auction Company’s September gun auction.

Browning filed a patent for his fixed grip concept that went on to be approved by the U.S. in 1913. The idea of permanent grips, while consistent with John Browning’s tendency for streamlined engineering and minimizing the number of parts in his guns, never appears in any of the Browning 1911 pistol designs that followed, making the Colt M1910 serial number 3 a true rarity among rarities and possibly a one of a kind pistol 1911 design.

The Colt 1910 prototype deserves a top spot on any list of rare and historic firearms.

The Colt Model 1910 serial number 3 looks every part the direct predecessor to the revered Model 1911. Retaining 85% of its original high polish blue finish, this mechanically excellent prototype is still in exceptionally fine condition. Already one of only twelve or fewer produced, this Model 1910 prototype with the unique fixed grip and lack of a thumb safety would become the centerpiece of even the most extensive Colt semi-automatic pistol or U.S. military handgun collections.

Colt Model 1910, a scarce and important piece of the 1911 pistol’s development.

The 1911 Pistol Design

On May 5, 1911 Browning’s pistol was officially accepted as the “Automatic Pistol, Calibre .45, Model of 1911.” Following its adoption by the Army, the Model 1911 was also selected by the Navy and the Marines. The 1911 design we know today had truly arrived, and the storied pistol would soon go on to serve thousands of GIs in World War I and beyond.

Documented early production, Two Digit Serial Number 14 U.S. Colt Model 1911, from the Dr. Robert Azar Collection.

Browning’s 45-caliber semi-automatic pistol set a new design standard for American military sidearms and went on to help the United States become back to back World War champs. Only the first 51 of these iconic pistols were produced in the year for which they were named, making a “true” Model of 1911, like the Two Digit Serial Number 14 example offered in September’s Premier Auction, another headline-worthy gun.

Two Digit Serial Number 14 U.S. Colt Model 1911, a gun included in the first shipment of 50 pistols sent to Springfield Armory on January 4th, 1912.

In service, the 1911 pistol design earned a reputation as a rugged, reliable sidearm that was comparatively easy to maintain. Other manufacturers were eventually granted contracts to meet the growing demand, and nearly two million 1911 pistols were produced during the Second World War. The 1911 served for 70 years as the standard American Military sidearm. Despite its eventual replacement by the Beretta M9, the 1911 pistol is still carried by numerous officers to this day.

The 1911 pistol design provided America a reliable sidearm through two world wars and beyond.

Buying and Selling a 1911 Pistol

The 1911 genre is more popular than ever today. Browning’s landmark design continues to be produced by dozens of manufactures across the globe, with pistols like the Kimber 1911, the Sig Sauer 1911, and the Ruger 1911 a consistent hit with shooters and collectors during Rock Island Auction Company’s Arms & Accessories Day auctions. Classic 1911 pistols are prominently featured during Premier auctions and Sporting & Collector auctions, with demand for historic collector pieces continuing to grow.

Serial Number 193 U.S. Contract Colt M1911 pistol, another highlight from September’s Premier Firearms Auction. Provenance: The Dr. Robert Azar Collection.

The Rock Island Auction newsletter offers readers new gun blogs and gun videos every week on pistols like the 1911, America's back to back World War champs, as well as features on popular U.S. Military arms like the M1 Garand, the Armalite AR-15, the M17 pistol, the M60 machine gun, and more, and check out our free gun catalogs for the latest highlights!


[Meadows, Edward Scott] U. S. Military Automatic Pistols Volume 1 1894-1920

[Goddard, William H. D.] The Government Models: The Development of the Colt Model of 1911

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