History of the 1911
The history of the 1911 pistol goes back to well before that eponymous year, as surely as it continues today.
Let's look at some landmarks in its development:
1896: Seeing the future, Colt's Patent Firearms signs John Browning to a contract to do developmental work on automatic pistols for them. "Semi-automatic" will not become the common parlance for such automatically-loading designs until later.
1899: The first Browning-designed autoloaders take form in steel, chambered for a proprietary .38 caliber round.
1902: Colt .38 automatics, in both sporting and military trim, appear on the market. Despite smooth actions and excellent workmanship, they are rickety things that resemble T-squares with triggers.
1903: Initial concept work begins on the cartridge that will be known as the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol. This same year, Colt introduces their famous Pocket Model .32 auto.
1904: The .45 Automatic Colt Pistol cartridge is born.
1905: The U.S. Army has become insistent on a .45 caliber handgun in the wake of the Philippine Insurrection, and is somewhat open to the newfangled autoloading pistol concept, that despite the annoying fact that all the pistols they had tested in the previous five years (including early Colt .38s) have failed to prove totally adequate. Colt quietly begins production of their first .45 automatic, though the Model Of 1905 will not hit the market until early 1906. Like all its predecessors but the Pocket Model, it retains a nearly 90° grip to barrel angle. It will not please the Army for a number of reasons.
1907: An Ordnance test determines that no currently produced automatic pistol is satisfactory for U.S. military needs, but that Colt comes closest.
1908: A grip safety is developed for Colt's .45 pistol, still a work in progress
1909: Colt's classic is now beginning to take shape. It is the first Colt to get the push button magazine release, located behind the trigger guard on the left. Its slide lock lever is a rather crude picture of what the 1911's will be. The ugly square front of the earlier guns has given way to a shorter dust cover portion of the frame, and the gracefully narrowed lower front of the slide, seen in the 1903 Pocket .32 (and the identical-in-appearance 1908 Pocket .380), as adopted on this iteration of Colt's .45 auto.
1910: The shape of John Browning's masterpiece is almost complete, but the 1910 variation lacks a thumb safety. This will be added at the insistence of the Army, which has determined it unsafe to attempt to manually decock a chamber-loaded auto pistol in the heat of battle, one-handed.
1911: The vision is complete. With long trigger and short grip tang, by today's standards, the 1911 has a safety readily accessible to a right thumb, and a flat-back mainspring housing. In the climax of a long series of military handgun tests, the Colt trounces the only other remaining finalist, the Savage. In March of 1911, the United States government officially adopts Colt's Government Model pistol, Model Of 1911, as the standard sidearm of the Army, Marine Corps, and Navy. It will remain so until the mid-1980s.
1912: For the first of many, many times in its long history, production of the 1911 pistol is outsourced from Colt. In addition to Colt's own production, the pistol is now being manufactured at the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Mass. This same year, the National Rifle Association offers its members NRA-marked 1911s acquired from the Ordnance Department.
1914: Norway adopts the 1911 Colt .45 ACP as its standard military sidearm. It is granted the right to produce the guns there, the following year.
1916: Argentina adopts the 1911 as its standard service pistol, and will soon be licensed to produce them there. Mexico will adopt the 1911 shortly after World War I.
1917: With America's entry into The European War, demand so far outstrips production that Remington becomes another licensed 1911 manufacturer, and both Colt (on their separate revolver line) and Smith & Wesson mass produce revolvers that will fire the .45 ACP cartridge with half-moon clips.
1923: A post-war study of small arms effectiveness determines that the 1911 needs a longer, more protective grip tang to prevent hammer bite; an arched magazine housing to cure a tendency to shoot low; more visible sights; and a shorter, more easily reached trigger. These modifications combine to form the Model 1911A1, a designation that does not become official until three years later.
1929: The Colt .38 Super makes its official debut, in a Government Model format identical to the .45. It fires a 130 grain bullet at 1,300 feet per second. Ostensibly, the reason for the new cartridge was to penetrate the body armor worn by gangsters of the era.
1931: Colt attempts to market a blowback 1911 in .22 Long Rifle. Called the Ace model, it will prove unreliable.
1932: The National Match version is introduced. Produced in .45 ACP and .38 Super, this handcrafted beauty will be declared by many purists to be the finest Colt automatic ever manufactured.
1935: Marsh "Carbine" Williams invents a floating chamber device that allows the 1911 to function more reliably with a .22 Long Rifle cartridge. The Colt Service Model Ace .22 pistol and the Colt .22/45 conversion unit are born.
1937: William Swartz's firing pin safety is patented. Colt buys the rights and assembles a quantity of .45s and Supers with it, eventually abandoning the concept as too difficult to machine.
1941: The outbreak of World War II creates a vast demand for 1911A1 pistols. In addition to Colt, they will be manufactured in greater or lesser quantities by such firms as Remington-Rand, Ithaca, and the Singer Sewing Machine Company.
1950: The first shortened (and the first lightened) Colt 1911, the Commander, is introduced. With aluminum alloy frame instead of steel, shortened dust cover, and barrel stubbed from the conventional 5" to 4.25" with a proportionally shorter slide, it is offered in calibers .45 ACP, .38 Super, and 9mm Luger.
1957: The National Match concept is resurrected. The new pistol will be offered primarily in .45 ACP but later, briefly, in .38 Special wadcutter, and will be better known as the Colt Gold Cup.
1970: Colt introduces their Series 70 with collet-type barrel bushing intended to improve accuracy. The collets will prove to be fragile, and this design will soon be abandoned.
1972: The United States Army officially adopts the General Officers' Pistol, a Colt Commander .45 shortened at muzzle and butt for issue to those with stars on their shoulders. A concept created earlier by military armorers, it has already been offered to the public as a custom "Bobcat" .45 by custom gunsmiths.
1973: Louis Seecamp offers a double-action conversion to the Government Model pistol. It will later be incorporated into a short-lived, double-action 1911 pistol, the ODI Viking.
1974: Bob Reese founds a new gun manufacturing firm that after buying the commercial rights to the old government arsenal of Springfield Armory. This firm will be the first to compete seriously with Colt in production of commercial (as opposed to military contract) 1911s, beginning in 1985.
1983: Colt introduces the Series 80 with the first passive, internal firing pin safety since the short-lived Swartz design. It is activated via trigger pull.
1985: The first commercially successful stainless 1911 is introduced by Colt in the '80 series. In the same year, Colt introduces the subcompact Officers ACP, effectively wiping out the mini-1911 market among custom gunsmiths.
1988: ParaOrdnance introduces a wide-body 1911 frame that accepts a double stack magazine, originally designed to hold 13 rounds of .45 ACP. The wide-body, hi-cap platform will soon be copied by several other makers, and Para will begin producing complete 1911 pistols two years later.
1990: Colt introduces its first double-action 1911, the Double Eagle, a design somewhat derivative of the Seecamp concept. It is not greeted with enthusiasm, and will be discontinued in 1997.
1991: Colt introduces its first flat-finish "economy" 1911 for the commercial market, the 1991A1.
1996: Kimber introduces their aptly named Classic, a moderately priced Government Model size pistol with all the usual custom bells and whistles. It will soon become the nation's best selling 1911.
2000: ParaOrdnance introduces the LDA, the first double-action only 1911.
2003: Smith & Wesson introduces their long-awaited version, the SW1911. The SW1911 earns an excellent reputation.
2006: An amazing value at $600 retail, a 1911 from Taurus hits the market.
2007: Springfield Armory announces the first scaled down version of the 1911.