John Moses Browning and the 1911


The middle name Moses is often included when talking about John Browning to give him “God Like” status in the firearms community. And while John Browning is unarguably one of the most influential gun designers of our time, he’s not actually totally responsible for the 1911 that most of us hold in our hands today.

I know, I know, some of your heads just exploded, but calm down I’m not bashing him. I’m just stating the facts. And if you take the time to read this history on the 1911 you’ll find that what most people call a 1911 isn’t actually a 1911 at all.

The Birth of a Legend

So, let’s start at the beginning. John Moses Browning was Born in 1885, built his first gun at age 13, and was awarded the first of his 128 firearms patents at 24. While he is arguably most noted for the design of the 1911, which he really didn’t design (we will get into that), the reasons he is truly a “God” among firearms designers has almost nothing to do with the 1911 at all. Browning invented the telescoping bolt allowing the autoloading handgun to begin. He integrated the bolt and barrel shroud giving us what is know as the modern pistol slide today. He developed the first gas operated machinegun, shoulders to which people like Eugene Stoner stood to become legends in their own rights. His first gun, a single shot falling block, some would say his greatest invention, the Browning Model 1878. He was responsible for the creation of at least seven calibers, 14 handguns, 10 Shotguns, 11 Rifles, and 6 machine guns directly. And arguably thousands more indirectly. Creating the .50 BMG and the Browning .50 caliber machine gun. Later adopted by the US Military and given the designation M2 but known to anyone that has carried it, put it together, head space, timed it, and fired it as “Ma Duce”.

The Search Begins

Now that we have that out of the way, on to the 1911. At the end of the 19th century the US Military had been plagued with problem related to their sidearms. Moving back and forth between models and calibers in different fights around the world finally the Chief of Ordnance, General William Crozier called for testing and adoption of a new service pistol in around the turn of the century. At the conclusion of the 1904 Thompson-LaGarde pistol round effectiveness testing it was decided that the new pistol should be “not less than .45 caliber”. The Military added that it should be of the latest semi-automatic design and that it should hold not less than six rounds.

ms16 1905 lead

This led to the 1906 pistol trials. There were six companies that sent offerings to the military for consideration. Three were eliminated quickly leaving Colt, Savage and DWM the only ones in the running. All sporting the new .45 ACP caliber of Browning’s design. The pistol submitted by Colt was Browning’s 1905 design, later becoming Colt’s “Contract of 1907” hence the Colt 1907. All three failed the testing and were given time for redesign. Of the three only Colt and Savage resubmitted offerings. There is actually a lot of “old talk” that the DWM offering was superior to the Colt and Savage in every way, but as DWM stands for Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken. A German company responsible for the Luger Pistol, Mauser rifle system and MG08, which would become Germany’s most popular machine gun in the first world war. It is believed that the DWM offered pistol was never given fair or proper consideration with the tensions of the time leading up to the begging of WWI in 1914.

After the famed 6,000 round test of 1910, where Browning’s design managed to chew threw 6,000 rounds of .45ACP ammunition over the course of two days without a single misfire or jam. The Savage design having 37 malfunctions in the same testing, make the Browning the clear winner and choice for our new service pistol. History again casts a shadow of doubt on the trials, as later accounts from people claiming to be part of the actual trails we quoted as saying that Browning’s design had in fact jammed repeatedly during the trails as it got excessively hot. History says that they “only dunked the Browning into a barrel of water to cool it enough to be able to hold it”. While later reports accused the Browning of not functioning properly once an extreme frame temperature was reached. Sceptics say this was ignored and hidden during the trails due to the relationship that Colt and Browning had with the upper leadership of the Military of the time. 

A Winner is Crowned


None the less, after all was said and done, on the 29th day of March, 1911 the military designation of “1911” was given to the Colt pistol and adopted by the US Army. Later in 1917 it was given the designation of “Model 1911”. And finally, sometime in the mid-1920’s it was changed once again to the “M1911”. But by the end of 1913 the US Navy and Marie Corps had also adopted the “Model of 1911 US Army” branded firearm. Just a few years later this design would be tested in combat as the US entered the first world war.

At the end of WW1 there were changes coming to the M1911. These changes consisted of a shorter trigger, cutouts in the frame behind the trigger, an arched mainspring housing, a longer grip safety spur, a wider front sight and a shortened hammer spur. All of these changes were based around comfort and shootability. There were no modifications to the internal workings of the weapon system. The changes were primarily to make the pistol easier for people with small hands to control as well as to stop cases of “slide bite” and pinches on sharp spots. This pistol with the new modifications would be given the designation M1911A1 in 1926 and these modifications were made on all new pistols as well as all the pistols with a serial number over 700,000.

During WWII some 1.9 million M1911A1’s would be produced for our fighting men and women. Contracts were awarded to companies like Remington Rand, who made around 900,000. Colt, who produced another 400,000. Ithaca Gun Company made another 400,000. But the collectibles of the era came from Union Switch and Signal who produced around 50,000 guns. And the coveted Singer Sewing Machine Company M1911A1 of which just 500 were ever actually produced. During WWII the original hot bluing finishing was replaced with parkerizing, and the wooden grips were replaced with plastic.

After WWII the US Military canceled all M1911 & M1911A1 contracts and ordered the current stock of pistols to be issued and re-issued. With an estimated 2.2 million guns in service at the time, the idea and expense of new guns was set aside for rebuild. From the 1920’s to the 1950’s M1911 and M1911A1’s were refurbished at US arsenals and service depots. Any pistol that was inspected and/or rebuilt during this period would be stamped with the arsenal depot’s initials. These stamps include RIA for Rock Island Armory, SA for Springfield Armory among others.

The M911A1 made its way through a few more wars. Being deployed in both Korea and Vietnam with the US forces. But by the end of these wars the M1911A1’s were really showing their age. By the late 70’s and early 80’s political pressure led to the adoption to the Beretta 92FS as the M9 in 1985 and the US Military began to phase out the M1911A1 at that time. However, this was not the last combat that the M1911A1 would see. While almost completely phased out of active-duty units, the M1911A1 was still in wide use by reserve and national guard units alike. This would lead to the platform’s final official combat fielding by reserve units during the 1990-91 Gulf War.

While there are still members of various Special Operations Command units (SOCOM) that have 1911 and their variants available for use. The 1911’s official service with the US military ended completely on an arguable date, sometime between 1992 and 1994. An 82-ish year run as the sidearm of the largest standing military on the planet does buy you some “Browning” points.

But the story of the M1911 does not end there, not even close. At this same time may law enforcement agencies acrost this country were leaving the revolver for larger caliber, semi-automatic weapons systems. The M1911A1 was there to fill that void. With that transition also came the majority of the civilian changes into what we now look at as the 1911. The Colt Government MKIV series 70 changes (1970 – 1983), however minor, were led by a split barrel bushing. The Colt Government MKIV series 80 modifications (1983 – current) were more internal. The series 80 changes brought us the internal firing pin safety and a new sear half-cock. Pulling the trigger on these models will cause the hammer to drop, however the gun will “never go off halfcocked”. Yep… that’s where it came from. Later in the series 80 the industry largely went back to the one-piece barrel bushing as the split bushing did not seam to hold up for extended periods of time and wear.

The End is a New Begining

The pistol that most anyone, that has got to this point in this article learning all kinds of things they didn’t know, consider a “1911” is actually the Colt 1991 series pistol. And honestly, quite a bit different than the original model 1911 that the US Military adopted in 1911. The series 1991 is a hybrid of the M1911A1 and Colt Mk IV series 80. These pistols set out to provide a more “mil-spec” and cost-effective way to bring this icon to the civilian marketplace. While the variants and manufactures couldn’t be any more vast, the author of this article believes to be considered an actual 1911, the first criteria of that honor starts with the name Colt. And honestly, this is where this article stops being about facts, and becomes more about opinion.


I’m really not sure that anyone could completely count the number of manufactures, new, old or out of business. Nor count the number of variants or modifications made to the M1911. What I can say for sure is the gun you find today at your local gun shop is not the 1905 of John Moses Browning’s design. It’s not even the famous “Model of 1911 US Army” that was adopted by the US Army in March of 1911. Yet again, it’s not the M1911A1 was landed in the hands of the US fighting force that beat Hitler and the Nazi empire. It’s still not the M1911A1 that the “tunnel rats” of Vietnam counted on for survival. What you find today from Manufactures like Sig, Kimber, Springfield, Rock Island and of course Colt, along with countless others, is not the “flawless design of John Moses Browning”. Not even close. They are something else. Something better in some ways and something worse in others. What they are for sure is different. As I write this article just days from the start of 2022, the 110 year legacy of the 1911 lives on, and it couldn’t be stronger.

You can’t find a more talked about, more modified, more loved or more hated platform out there. It quite honestly may be the most recognizable handgun in the world. The people that love it, won’t stop talking about it. The people that hate it, won’t stop talking about it. As for me, I respect it. I understand where it came from, and I hope after reading this that maybe just one more person does as well. I love and enjoy shooting my collection of 1911’s. I scour and search the gun shows and sale pages for the dream of the Singer even though I would settle for a Union Switch to hang on the wall. As a gunsmith I love to true and tune a 1911. It’s like artwork to me. There is no feel or look in the hand like the iconic single stacked, cocked-and-locked, slim line design of the modern 1911.

After almost a 30 year shooting career in the Army, Law Enforcement, As a firearms Instructor for the NRA and the State of Oklahoma, a gun smith and a brick-and-mortar gun store owner. I love the 1911, they are so much fun to tune, shoot, and just pretty to look at honestly. The gun I put in my holster every single day to carry should, God forbid, I need it to defend my life or someone I love, is a Glock. But that’s a different article. Thank you for reading.