The United States of 1911 was a very different America than today. There were only a few paved roads, mostly in cities. Automobiles were largely playthings for the wealthy. The Model “T” Ford had been manufactured since 1909 but wouldn’t actually go into mass production until 1913. The airplane was still a curiosity. There were no commercial flights. On those occasions when a trip of any length was necessary, railroads were the only option. Most people stayed close to home and lived in the same locale for their entire lives.
World War I would take millions of Americans away from small towns and off the farms and send them to Europe for the first time. Telephones were the exception rather than the rule. Music was recorded on wax cylinders and played on huge spring-powered “gramophones” that manually amplified the sound through a large trumpet shaped speaker. Movies, then called “cinema,” were silent and in black and white. The primitive technology of the time made them flicker as they were shown, engendering the term “flicks.” Talking films or “talkies,” were 16 years in the future. The Titanic would not go down until the following year.
Into this America that was so different, the U.S. Army introduced a new .45 caliber pistol designated the M1911, indicating the year in which it was adopted. Of all the technologies that existed in 1911, none have survived virtually unchanged except the M1911 pistol. The Luger and Savage pistols that competed against the M1911 for the army contract are now collector’s items with no practical self-defense, military or law enforcement purpose. The Savage has long been out of production, and what few Lugers are still manufactured are intended for collectors and sporting purposes.
Revolvers are no longer seriously considered for military or most police use, although in 1911 revolvers were the overwhelming weapons of choice for military, police and civilian self- defense. On the other hand, one could pick up an original M1911 today and take it into harm’s way knowing with certainty that if it were in good repair, the pistol would be every bit as reliable as one of modern manufacture. No other small arm in history has been on the front lines of military and law enforcement service for so long.
The M1911 did not spring directly from John Browning’s drawing board into the holsters of American servicemen. (There were no women in the military of 1911.) The Army began conducting tests of .45 caliber pistols and revolvers in 1907, but none were considered satisfactory for military service. Handguns tested included examples from Colt, which hedged its bets by submitting both a pistol and a revolver.
DWM submitted its Luger pistol that had already been adopted by the German military, except it was in .45 caliber for the U.S. trials. Today, .45 caliber Lugers are virtually priceless because so few were manufactured. Savage submitted a .45 caliber pistol that was prepared especially for the Army’s test. Like the Luger, the Savage is today a valued collector’s item.
Smith & Wesson submitted a revolver, apparently thinking that the conservative military wouldn’t adopt a “newfangled” semiautomatic pistol. The 1907 tests showed that the automatic pistol had a long way to go to meet military requirements. All candidates had malfunctions including both misfires and jams. The revolvers exhibited no such performance defects, but the Army didn’t abandon its effort to find a semiautomatic pistol.
Testing continued over the next few years as the Army brass tried to decide between a traditional revolver and the largely unproven pistol. A Cavalry Board commentary at the time stated, “The automatic pistol has no advantage over the double-action revolver for mounted service.” This pronouncement was based on the idea that a cavalryman needed one hand free to wield his saber and the pistol required both hands to work the slide if the pistol were carried in the approved “Condition Three”—hammer down and chamber empty, whereas the revolver could be drawn from the holster ready for use.
Like so much else that was state of the art in 1911, horse cavalry no longer exists, but it would take World War II to end it once and for all. As an aside, as far as is known to the author, who carried an M1911A1 in the Army for many years, Condition One, the favored mode of 1911 carry today, was never approved for the military. The best we could hope for was Condition Two, actually not very safe.
Why the Army decided to replace its .38 Long Colt double-action revolvers with a .45 caliber handgun is worth discussing. In the early 20th century, the United States was involved in the Philippine Insurrection, a “small war” waged against Moro tribesmen who prior to battle would take large doses of mind-altering drugs and bind their arms and legs to curb blood circulation in case they were wounded. These fanatical warriors could be shot repeatedly with the recently adopted .38 Long Colt pistol with little effect.
To correct the situation, the Army removed single-action M1873 .45 Long Colt revolvers from storage and issued them to troops in the Philippines. The problem was solved for the short term, but Army authorities realized that the .38 caliber round was inadequate as a military pistol cartridge and so began searching for a larger, more powerful cartridge and handgun to go with it.
Tests continued on into 1908, 1909 and 1910. The Savage and Luger pistols fell by the wayside, leaving only the Colt .45, which Browning continued to improve. The 1907 and 1909 versions of the pistol had swinging links front and rear, so the barrel dropped out of battery somewhat like a parallelogram. The direct ancestor of the M1911 was the M1909. The earlier pistols had proved so unsatisfactory to the military that Browning went back and started from scratch.
The first prototypes of Browning’s new pistol were demonstrated to the Army in August 1909. Thorough testing revealed that although the new pistol was significantly improved, it still fell short of Army requirements. For one thing, there was no manual safety, a feature that was essential from the military’s viewpoint.
Several other modifications were called for, including the now-classic 1911 grip angle, a different extractor and ejector, a one-piece sear, a grip safety and an enlarged ejection port. There were a few other minor modifications, but the Model 1910 pistol that resulted was externally virtually indistinguishable from the M1911. However, the M1910 did not put an end to the pistol’s problems.
During testing, the M1910 developed cracks both in the frame and the barrel. The frame cracks were due to the grip opening being too large, thus weakening the frame. The barrel cracks were caused by the link slot in the lug and by locking lugs that completely surrounded the barrel. These problems were corrected, and along with a few other modifications, the pistol that was to be adopted as the M1911 was submitted to the Army in early March of that year.
The only fault found in the new pistol was the shape of the hammer and when this was corrected, the Army designated the new handgun Colt Automatic pistol, caliber .45, M1911 and formally adopted it on March 29. The M1911 continued in production essentially unchanged until 1923, when the M1911A1 was introduced and established as the definitive version of the pistol. Several other nations subsequently adopted the M1911, including Argentina and Norway. The pistol was also used by Britain in caliber .455.
The M1911A1 established the features that characterize virtually every variant produced since. It featured an extended grip safety, a clearance cut on the frame behind the trigger, a knurled and arched mainspring housing, a knurled and shortened trigger, and wider front sight.
Modern M1911s have for the most part returned to the longer trigger and flat mainspring housing, while further enlarging the ejection port and drastically modifying the grip safety to let the pistol ride lower in the hand, enhancing control by redirecting recoil forces. The M1911A1 pistol served as the standard handgun for the U.S. military until 1983, when the 9mm M9 pistol was adopted.
Despite the adoption of the M9, many special operations units continue to use the venerable M1911A1 in modified form. The reason for this is the same as that which originally caused the adoption of the M1911—the M9’s 9mm cartridge simply isn’t a very good “people stopper.” There recently have been disturbing reports from Afghanistan and Iraq regarding the propensity of the M9 pistol to become clogged with sand and jam. The M1911 has no such problems.
The M9’s disappointing performance has resulted in informal calls for resurrecting the M1911 for general issue, not just for elite military Special Forces units. In fact, one U.S. military service has quietly begun buying small quantities of a modified version of Springfield’s “Operator” for special operations use.
In modern law enforcement, the M1911 has enjoyed a renaissance. The “wonder nines” of the 1980s have fallen from favor in both military and police special operations units because the 9mm bullet lacks terminal ballistics in comparison to the .45 and the .40 S&W cartridge.
For general duty use, most American officers favor the .40 S&W cartridge, but many special tactical teams prefer a .45, most often a M1911, not only due to the pistol’s legendary reliability and stopping power, but because the grips of most high capacity .45s are too large for personnel with small hands. The M1911 grip size is suitable to almost any size hand and the grip angle is such that the pistol points naturally. The M1911 is also relatively thin and thus can be carried under clothing without “printing” and revealing its presence.
There are many manufacturers of the classic M1911 pistol for what seems to be an endless market, but Springfield Armory
has established an enviable reputation as a producer of high-quality, reliable M1911 pistols. Springfield Armory pistols are used by the FBI Hostage Rescue Team and their regional SWAT teams, and also by many other federal and local special operations units.
Elite Marine Corps special operations units use M1911s built largely from Springfield Armory components. A recent photo from Iraq shows a special operations Marine holding his MEU-SOC (Marine Expeditionary Unit-Special Operations Capable) .45 on Iraqi prisoners with a Springfield Armory logo clearly visible on the slide. Every U.S. military special operations organization continues to employ the venerable M1911, many of them Springfield Armory pistols. The FBI uses Springfield Armory M1911A1 pistols almost exclusively, as does the U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group.
When the FBI decided that it required an M1911-type pistol for its regional SWAT teams, it issued a request for procurement (RFP). The RFP was for a 5,000-unit order, but once the lucrative contract was set, any government agency would be able to buy direct from it without going through a lengthy procurement process.
There was no specific manufacturer in mind; the FBI issued what is called a “performance requirement” that simply lists specific performance standards that must be met by the successful bidder. In the case of the FBI pistol, the criteria were extremely stringent. In addition to features found in most custom M1911s, the FBI raised the bar to standards that only the finest firearm could meet.
The new pistol was required to feed almost any hollow point cartridge, although Remington Golden Saber and Federal Hydra Shok were specified. Our test shooting revealed that Springfield’s FBI pistol, designated “Professional Model” for commercial sales, reliably fed any hollow point, flat nose or semi-wadcutter cartridge we could find.
The trigger pull was initially specified to be 5 to 6.5 pounds, but the requirement has since been changed to 4.5 pounds. Our test pistol was slightly outside the specification, with an average trigger pull of only 4 pounds, but broke like the proverbial “glass rod” without creep or backlash. The new pistol was required to carry a 50,000-round warranty.
The accuracy requirement, however, was yet another requirement that bordered on the impossible. This stipulated that the pistol fire three consecutive 10-shot groups no larger than 1.5 inches at 25 yards from a Ransom Rest using service ammunition. The pistol then had 20,000 rounds fired through it and was again tested for accuracy. No more than a 15% accuracy reduction was permitted.
A single stoppage over 2,500 rounds disqualified a pistol from the competition. Several notable manufacturers of 1911 type pistols submitted bids and test pistols, but when the testing was completed, only Springfield’s candidate met the performance criteria and the rest, as the old saying goes, is history.
Springfield originally designated all pistols built to the FBI standard “Bureau Model,” but the FBI protested, so the name was changed to Professional Model. All Professional Model pistols, whether for government issue or commercial sale, are identical and carry the serial number prefix “CRG.”
The Springfield Armory FBI pistol is an unqualified success, but what makes this pistol arguably the premier production M1911in the country? First impressions lead one to think that the FBI Pistol looks to all the world like any custom M1911, but the devil is in the details, and it is the details that make the Springfield Armory Professional Model arguably superior to almost any other.
Each pistol has every component fitted to the closest tolerances possible while maintaining reliability and accuracy. Each Professional Model begins with a forged Springfield frame and slide. Only the best components are used to assemble the pistol: Nowlin barrel, Novak tritium sights, a Wilson “Bullet Proof” extractor, Videcki trigger and ambidextrous safety.
All of these components are available “off the shelf,” but it is how Springfield’s Custom Shop builds each pistol that makes them special. When the shooter disassembles the pistol, he finds that each major component—barrel, barrel bushing, slide stop and slide—is numbered with the last three digits of the pistol’s serial number. None of these components will fit any other pistol.
The ambidextrous safety is slightly narrower on the right so it doesn’t “bite” the shooter’s knuckle like some others, or worse, be forced up into the “safe” position which could cause one to have a VERY bad day in a gunfight. The slide stop pin is slightly recessed into the right side of the frame so it cannot be inadvertently pressed, thereby immobilizing the slide, another “show stopper” in a crisis.
The slide fits the frame with absolute perfection—there is no discernable play, and the slide feels as if it were moving on ball bearings. The front and back straps are checkered with 20 lines per inch checkering to ensure positive grip. For easy tactical magazine changes, the Professional Model comes with an extended magazine guide, fully contoured to the frame and grips. The magazine release is slightly extended for positive release. Needless to say, mags drop free every time.
Each Professional Model, like its FBI counterpart, is equipped with six Metalform seven-round magazines, each with an extended rubber bumper pad for positive insertion. The seven-round mags are our only real complaint about the pistol. Many consider eight-round magazines to be less reliable than their smaller capacity brethren, but we have never had a stoppage with our eight-round magazines.
After we decided that we just had to have the Professional Model and made arrangements to purchase it, we ordered six Cobramags manufactured by Tripp Research. These magazines are the most significant improvements in 1911 magazines since the pistol was introduced. Strong words, but these magazines have so many improvements over any other that the list is really too long for inclusion here.
Most significant is the positioning of the cartridge .080 higher than any other magazine. This puts the cartridge in almost a direct line with the chamber. The follower is reinforced with stainless steel at the slide stop interface to prevent failure. The eight-round magazines are designed from the outset as such, and are not converted seven-round magazines like most others. The feed lips have also been modified for enhanced reliability. The list goes on, but the message is clear—if your life depends on your M1911, regardless of manufacturer, have a Cobramag up the magazine well and a couple of more in reserve.
It is difficult to describe in words just how “right” every aspect of Springfield’s Professional Model is. The slide is incredibly smooth. The trigger pull is remarkably consistent, varying no more than a few tenths of an ounce. With its Black T finish as specified by the FBI, the Professional Model also looks right. Best of all, the pistol shoots!
In a word, the Professional Model is synergistic, with its parts all working in concert to achieve a result that is greater than their sum, a tribute to the craftsmen at the Springfield Custom Shop who build these outstanding handguns. Since the 1911 was introduced so many years ago, many pistols have come and gone, but the 1911 endures.
As the M1911 approaches its centennial, it remains the handgun of choice for those whose duties take them into the world’s dark places where a handgun must absolutely, positively function reliably, be accurate, and deliver the optimum in stopping power.
The M1911 fits these criteria, and Springfield Armory’s Professional Model carries the M1911’s attributes to new levels of excellence. If we could have only one handgun, it would be an M1911, and the first in line would be Springfield Armory’s Professional Model. Charlie Cutshaw is a small arms, ammunition and infantry weapons editor for Jane’s Defense Information. He served as an Army infantry, ammunition and intelligence officer prior to retiring in 1996. His military assignments included a tour of duty in Vietnam as an adviser. He currently lives in Alabama, where he is a full-time writer and reserve officer. He may be reached at CQCutshaw@aol.com