How many people do you know who have created something that lasts more than 100 years? Although I have several acquaintances whom I admire for their accomplishments, it’s doubtful that what they’ve created will still be in use after that much time.
But that’s what John M. Browning did. The semi-automatic pistol design called the “1911” was accepted as the official sidearm of the Armed Forces of the United States of America exactly 100 years ago today, March 29, 1911.
And while the U.S. military recently moved on to the M9 for its primary sidearm, there continue to be several elite organizations within the military as well as various police departments that still carry the 1911 on a daily basis. It is also the favorite carry of many citizens and, in states where “open carry” may be seen, it is the most common firearm on someone’s hip. And several official sports, not the least of which is the NRA’s Conventional Pistol or “Bullseye” competition I write about, require it. There’s even a recognized category of “Cowboy” shooters in the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) which emphasizes dress and firearms no later than the 1890s who, nonetheless, compete with the anachronistic-to-the-sport 1911.
The 1911s popularity is not one of nostalgia. On the contrary, the firearm is a beautiful blend of form, function, power and utility that is rarely found in engineered products. It is that near perfection that has drawn the eye, and the wallet, for more than 100 years. John Browning’s design does what it’s supposed to do, and it does it extremely well.
Today, long after his patent has run out, you can purchase brand new 1911s in an enormous variety of styles, sizes and calibers. Plus, there’s the aftermarket for replacement barrels, grip safeties, attachments for rails to say nothing of grip materials, colors and styles.
Here’s my ball gun, an example of the 1911-A1 style that is arguably the most common to be found.
Mine began as a custom-built example in the 1960s with an Essex upper and lower. The source of the internal parts, the sights and grips used at that time are unknown but they have undoubtedly been replaced and refined many times over. I purchased the firearm well used a couple of years ago from a Bullseye shooting friend in Arizona. Most recently, I fired it in an EIC (Excellence In Competition) “leg match” in mid February where only service pistols are permitted. Prior to each such match, the trigger must be weighed and this February, the Air Reserve gunsmith who was doing this noticed this gun’s manufacturer and, in particular, its low serial number (removed from picture).
“That’s an interesting number,” he said. “Where’d you get this?”
I explained it was made by an Air Force gunsmith in the 1960s and, after passing through several owners, it had come to me with uncounted rounds downrange looking battered and tired. I had packed it off to an expert in South Carolina for some TLC and a new Kart National Match barrel; “make it shoot accurately,” was my instruction. When returned, this 1911 proved itself to be a tack-driver extraordinaire, as good as or even better than when it was new. So while my example isn’t a century old, to the unaided or uneducated eye, few would recognize any difference from Browning’s design except perhaps the target-grade sights and trigger.
It is a classic.
Compared to most of my other firearms, the stock 1911 is very light and has a center of balance inside the shooter’s grip. It feels and acts like an extension of the arm and, when raised to shoot, most find the sights naturally aimed at the target.
The legislature of the state of Utah where John Browning lived and worked in Ogden recently adopted the 1911 as its official handgun.
My second 1911, the “wad gun”, is a youngster in comparison and has two obvious modifications, the scope and the grips.
I bought it new from a Phoenix AZ gun store. It is a Springfield Armory MilSpec variant of the 1911-A1. Originally, the MilSpec model sported larger iron sights than the military-issued model.
But since then, there have been many visits to different gunsmiths, local and distant, where it has been tweaked, tuned, prodded, modified and then re-tweaked at least a dozen times.
The first set of changes included replacing the sights with a “rib” along the top of the slide and attachment of a “red dot” tube for aiming. This “scope” does not magnify the target. Instead, looking into the tube from the shooter’s end, a red dot can be seen and when properly adjusted, the red dot will appear to sit on the target precisely where the shot will land. The red dot is visible only to the shooter — there is no tell-tale laser beam between shooter and target. And the system is extraordinarily accurate.
The “trick” is, as with any handgun, aligning the sight to the aiming area and then moving the trigger straight back without disturbing the sight. This feat is a classic “easier said than done” and most shooters, myself included, train — not “practice” — for years to do so.
The second visible modification was the removal of the standard slab grips to be replaced by custom-fitting, right-hand only competition grips. Several manufacturers make these, each with their own specific “ours are best because” ideals. I selected a design from Nill-Griffe, similar to the ones seen here at this link. The custom fit makes for a more repeatable and, hence, consistent grip which is essential in Bullseye competitions. But those grips and the red dot sight obviously render the firearm no longer practical as a holstered sidearm.
My wad gun has become, you could say, a thoroughbred race horse. It performs to an amazing level of accuracy, the primary feat to be accomplished in Bullseye competition, but at the expense of utility. This 1911 is now a specialist, tuned for the specific job of high-precision target shooting.
Most recently, that same Air Reserve gunsmith mentioned above made two careful and surprisingly light passes with his best stone on cold steel to give my wad 1911 a “roll trigger”. When squeezed — not pulled — the trigger feels like you are pressing on a soft pillow rather than breaking a glass rod. The original crisp trigger now feels somewhat like rolling a ball beneath your finger, hence the name.
There are many internal changes in addition to the trigger feel. For example, my “wadder,” like the ball gun, has a Kart National Match barrel for accuracy. Also, the recoil spring between the top slide with the red dot and frame in the shooter’s hand has been replaced with a twelve pounder instead of the standard eighteen. This is because, with the combination of the red dot and custom-made ammunition with 200 grain Lead Semi-Wad Cutter (LSWCs) bullets instead of the standard 230 grain Full Metal Jacket or FMJ projectiles, and because they are then propelled with 4.0 grains of Hodgdon’s Clays (up recently from 3.8 to give better performance in cold weather) which I custom reload on a Dillon 650 progressive press a few evenings a month, the slide moves quite differently.
That is, when the wad gun fires, it has a completely different feel. The combination of red dot and lighter loads in the ammunition make it softer, much easier to manage in recoil and, therefore, to get back onto “the bull” at the center of the target for the next shot. And to the attentive ear it also has a completely different, almost liquid, sound as the action cycles in a fresh round.
When I do my part, whether firing at a target 25 or 50 yards away, when the trigger breaks, the hole appears exactly where the dot was sitting. The gun could, as the saying suggests, drive tacks. It’s that accurate.
My 1911s are for shooting. As you can see in the photographs they are well used and, while not necessarily visual beauties, they are both highly functional. I shoot the wad gun more than any other firearm in my collection, but the ball gun with its exceptionally light feel and potent recoil, is a thrill to shoot well.
Some would say that thrill is a “guy thing”. And while I wouldn’t argue, let me add that there are many female shooters, very accomplished with this same firearm, who would take significant exception to such an attitude. Gripped correctly with the wrist and elbow locked stiff and hard, the recoil is not much more than that of significantly smaller and less potent calibers. It is completely manageable even by juniors. My granddaughter at age 12, after careful instruction on safety and operation which she then diligently followed in a well-supervised environment, had no problem with the recoil.
She grinned broadly with each of her shots from the ball gun.
But 1911s don’t have to be black, scratched or ugly to shoot well.
My son, for example, has the pretty 1911 in the family.
His is a stainless steel, full-size series 80. It’ll shoot FMJs as well as my wad loads and, while it’s a factory-original Colt, well, it’s a real Colt and it’ll hold its own in any service pistol match.
Colt is the penultimate as well as the original manufacturer of the 1911. Their examples continue to be the most sought after 1911s today as well as 100 years ago. If you’ve got a Colt, you’ve got the real McCoy.
The look and feel of John Browning’s 1911 design has made it one of, if not the most popular handgun designs in the world. I’ve got two at the moment but would like to have a Commander for concealed carry, one in 38 Special for center fire matches and maybe one of those elongated specials with the 6″ barrel. Of course, each will be sent off for various tweaks, adjustments and personal customizations. And I love custom grips so, in addition to buying them, there are several tools and jigs available for those who’d like to make their own from fine woods or other materials.
How many 1911s is enough?
In a recent Top Shot episode, Brian Zins — US national champion ten times (and still counting) — said he couldn’t even begin to count how many he had.
100 years today.
That’s really something, Mr. Browning.
Happy Birthday, 1911.