The Colt model M1911 series of pistols is one of the most successful small arms designs of the 20th Century - and in all of warfare history for that matter. The handgun has been produced in quantity in the United States, Argentina and Norway (the latter two under license production as the m/1914 and the Model 1927 respectively) and was fielded in both World Wars and many of the major and minor conflicts of the century - eventually becoming a commercial success for the Colt concern. The M1911 continues service in many forms today (2012) and is still a favorite among sporting, security and casual operators the world over.
The M1911 was a design by famous American gunsmith John Browning and was based on his earlier Model 1900 design. By 1905, the system was refined to the point it could compete for government contracts. With so many like-minded automatic weapons companies vying for such lucrative government deals with the US military, it was decided that all interested parties should compete through trials to be had in 1907. The requirement of the government was for a modern, semi-automatic pistol capable of firing the lethal 230gr bullet - a bullet which had already been made for another Colt product. By the end of the trials, only the Colt M1911 remained against a Savage sidearm with Colt eventually earning the US military deal.
The Colt M1911 was chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge and this was fed from a stout 7-round detachable box magazine. The large, man-stopping rounds promoted an equally large pistol grip (which housed the magazine) and filled up the firing hand rather completely. Muzzle velocity was 830 feet-per-second giving the required man-stopping capability that went on to become a staple of the pistol's service record. Additionally, the pistol proved to be wholly reliable and robust even in the heat-of-battle, qualities that would ensure its survival through the countless conflicts it would be featured in.
The external design of the M1911 proved the classic semi-automatic frame. A slide covered the internal working functions as well as the barrel. The magazine was inserted into the base of the pistol grip in the traditional way. The pistol grip was well-angled up to the receiver. The curved trigger assembly sat within an oblong trigger ring which gave good support when firing. Various levers along the side of the receiver controlled a safety, magazine release and slide release. Wooden or rubber grips straddled the metal pistol grip frame. A tang overhung the rear area of the grip and sat over the firing hand's web. Overall weight was roughly 2.4lb (sans magazine) with an overall length of 8.25 inches (the barrel measuring just over 5 inches).
In practice, the weapon was very sound with a manageable recoil, the slide quickly moving rearwards to allow ejection of the spent cartridge and introduction of a live one into the chamber. The "semi-automatic" nature of the weapon meant that there was one cartridge fired for every trigger press. The initial cocking of the weapon was handled by manually pulling the slide to the rear with the support hand - this introducing the initial live round into the chamber and setting the hammer. Of course the safety would have to be set off for active management of the mechanism. The semi-automatic short-recoil action allowed for all seven .45 ACP rounds to be fired as fast as the operator could press the trigger. As semi-automatic pistols proved more complex internally than revolver types, they required regular cleanings to keep an optimal action.
The Colt M1911 entered US Army service in 1911 and would be fielded as the standard-issue sidearm for both the United States Army and Navy from 1911 to 1992. British forces would also take the weapon into inventory for their Royal Navy and Royal Flying Corps ranks up until the end of World War 2. After its service in the preceding World War, the M1911 underwent some minor modifications during the post-war years which led up the new standardized designation of "M1911A1" appearing in 1926. From then on, the M1911 would undoubtedly solidify its place in the history of small arms.
Throughout its history, the Colt M1911 family has been produced through a variety of US and foreign sources. Some included the Ithaca Gun Company, the Union Switch & Signal Company, the Singer Sewing Machine Company and Remington Rand. The original Colt M1911 was produced by the Colt concern, Remington Arms-Union Metallic Cartridge Company and the Government Arsenal at Springfield. Over 2 million M1911s went on to be produced since inception in 1911. John Browning's lasting design no doubt inspired hundreds of similar models to appear over the last 100 years - many designs unashamed of borrowing the classic well-accepted Browning look. A plethora of civilian models have also been released by various parties.
It is noteworthy that the M1911 has still been seen in combat zones like Afghanistan and Iraq. The formal US military designation for the M1911 was "Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911". It has since been replaced as the official sidearm of US forces by the Italian Beretta M92F (in the US inventory as the "M9"). The US special forces MEU(SOC) was developed from reworked M1911A1 pistols.