How did John Browning intend the 1911 to be carried?

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1911 School.

Subject: Cocked and locked and ready to rock…the way that JMB intended! Right? Well, no. Not really. John Browning didn’t have a free hand with the 1911 and he didn’t do it alone. The 1911 was designed by a committee. Browning was hired to guide and direct as he worked on past designs to bring the US Army’s request for a new automatic pistol to reality. Simply put, he and Colt’s team of engineers and designers gave’em what they asked for…no more and no less.

There was no intent for the gun to be continuously maintained in Condition One…neither by Browning nor the US Army. It was to be a military sidearm, and…as has always been military protocol…it was to be kept with the chamber empty and the hammer lowered unless and until action was imminent or the order was given to lock and load. This is true of all military arms, from the pistol to the 155 self-propelled howitzer.

Second…Browning’s first submission of what we recognize as the 1911 was the Model of 1910, which didn’t yet have the manual safety that we’ve come to call the “thumb safety.” That was the request of the US Cavalry and the reason was so that the mounted trooper could quickly make the gun safe and free up both hands to regain control of a frightened, unruly horse on the premise that the gun would be redrawn shortly afterward. Even in those unenlightened days, the thinking heads realized that a man might neglect to get his finger away from the trigger should he have to reholster the pistol under the stress of a fight…a point that Gaston Glock either failed to consider or decided to ignore.

Browning rather gave the choices of Conditions 1…2…3…or half cocked. Beyond that, he probably didn’t give a rotund rodent’s rump what they did. A case of:

“Here ya go, boys. Here’s the pistol you asked for. You can do this, this, or this. You figure it out. I’m headed to Belgium.”

If the truth was known, he was probably pretty sick of the whole affair by the time he finished with it, and was ready to move on.
Thus, the 1911 CAN be carried cocked and locked, but it wasn’t designed or intended specifically TO be carried that way. An option. Nothing more.

Third. The grip safety was also added on request of the US Army, and it first appeared as a tacked-on addition on a few of the Model 1905s, and incorporated into the design on the 1907. Like the Model 1900, 1902, and the 1905, the 1907 still used the pivoting trigger, non-tilting twin-linked barrel, and rear slide dismount. Those pistols didn’t hold up to the recoil forces generated by the required .45 cartridge, so a complete redesign was needed. That came with the Model 1909. Here, we see the first real resemblance to the 1911. It used the tilting barrel, single link, sliding, straight-line trigger, and forward slide dismount. Like the 1907, it had a grip safety, but no thumb safety…and still relied on the captive half-cock notch for its manual safety.

Specail Combat Government-5

Which brings us to the often maligned grip safety.

The grip safety was and is a drop safety…not a carry safety…made necessary by the heavy steel sliding trigger. It was discovered that should the pistol be dropped from the average height of a mounted trooper, it was highly likely that it would land muzzle up, and the mass of the trigger was often enough to roll the sear out of the hammer hooks far enough and for enough time to miss the half cock notch…resulting in a discharge directed upward at the horse or the rider…or other horses and riders in the immediate vicinity.

They weren’t at all concerned with muzzle down discharges because if it happened on natural ground, the bullet would go harmlessly into the dirt, and if it happened on hard pavement, the bullet would stop the instant it struck the pavement. Muzzle up discharges worried them…and thus the reason for the grip safety.

Modern lightweight, low mass triggers make this less of a concern, but it’s still a very real possibility. For this reason, I advise against disabling the grip safety when the question comes up.

When the concerns over the relative safety of a cocked and locked 1911 are voiced, I try to describe the way that the lockwork functions to put these fears to rest. Although no loaded gun can ever be completely safe, the 1911 is as safe in that mode as any loaded gun can be. Browning was the master of redundancy and designing one part to perform two or more functions, and he always had a backup system in place. In this case, the backup system is the short, almost instantaneous sear reset and the half cock notch which serves the dual purpose of manual safety and hammer arrest in case it slips off the full cock notch, or the hammer hooks both break at the same time.

Lastly, when the concerns of cocking or decocking the 1911 show up, I demonstrate proper technique when I can…and try to describe it when I can’t. Hunter Eliott and I made a short video because if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth 10,000. Yes, I know that Condition One is the “best” way 99.9% of the time, but as sure as the sun rises in the east, somebody will cock and lower the hammer on a hot chamber, so I figured that it might be a good idea to see how to do it safely. The video contains a bonus demonstration of a safe pinch check, which has also brought howls of distress. I’ll add it in my next comment.

Stay tuned!

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10 Responses to How did John Browning intend the 1911 to be carried?

  1. LouisianaMan December 13, 2016 at 11:17 pm #

    I love your articles! Among many other things, they do a great job of showing why the stock 1911A1 is plenty of gun for most people, because John Browning designed features into it that most of us will never even know! Do whatever you like for your hobbies, but think hard before you “customize” a well-designed, well-built handgun you keep handy for fighting purposes. Ed McGivern used stock revolvers and standard ammo, generally limiting any customizing to things like front sights–if that. Magazines are typically the most overlooked component of a semi-automatic or automatic weapon and the likeliest to cause a problem, and fancier or more expensive doesn’t necessarily equal “better.” Neither does “hi-cap.”

    Thanks for showing us in detail just how much and why this is true! I knew magazine design wasn’t simple–otherwise we wouldn’t have so many problems with aftermarket gear–but your articles are real eye-openers.

  2. LouisianaMan December 13, 2016 at 11:19 pm #

    PS: obviously ai just read your article on mags, lol. But this one on safety features is equally an eye-opener!

  3. Walt Kuleck February 28, 2017 at 7:01 pm #

    “…it was to be kept with the chamber empty and the hammer lowered unless and until action was imminent…”

    For those who carry concealed for defensive purposes, that simple sentence fragment says it all. We who carry must be in Condition Yellow, prepared to shift instantly into Orange or Red as needs be. Thus, it’s necessary to conclude that “action is imminent,” because “action” can start at any time, any place. The soldier in barracks or on the march or even on sentry can assume that they will have at least a moment’s warning that “action is imminent.” We who carry cannot assume that we will have the opportunity to prepare for action; we must act as if that “action is imminent” at all times and in all places. The good Colonel suggested as I have written, “Condition One and Only.”

    Respectfully, Walt
    PS Y’all would love my Pocket Hammer .38; Colt built it with all the safeties that they included in the Single Action Army: zero.

    • Hunter Elliott February 28, 2017 at 7:04 pm #

      Oh I agree with you 100% Mr. Kuleck but the discussion is John Browning designed the 1911 to be carried safely in a number of different ways. I prefer Condition One myself but it is not that JMB designed the gun to only be carried that way. Would you agree sir?

  4. Walt Kuleck February 28, 2017 at 8:10 pm #

    Absolutely! However, I wonder how much JMB actually carried a pistol 🙂 . The original M1900 sight safety quickly disappeared, replaced by..no safety at all. Thus, I would submit, again respectfully, that JMB wasn’t all that “safety-minded” when it came to mechanical pistol safeties! The only safe way to carry the early .38s, including my Pocket Hammer, is hammer down on an empty chamber. I’m certainly not interested in carrying with the hammer down on a cartridge, or cocked and unlocked! Did I read you correctly that both the thumb and the grip safeties were added at the insistence of the Army?

    It’s awfully fun to try to read minds more than a century later; your article is well-written and argued, and worth reading for all.

    Warmest regards,

    …and it’s “Walt,” please, Hunter!

    • Hunter Elliott March 1, 2017 at 6:40 pm #

      Thank yoU Walt, though as we have talked it is tough for me to call you by your first name all things considered and how much I respect you. The original 1910 had a grip safety, ensuring the mounted cavalry had a solid enough purchase so as to not lose the firearm during recoil. Note the lanyard was included. It was the thumb safety that was added by the Army’s request for trials.

  5. Walt Kuleck March 1, 2017 at 8:59 pm #

    I will admit to being perplexed, Hunter. You’ve stimulated some puzzlement about what John Browning was really about re safeties. The original FN 1900 had a thumb safety, the Colt 1900-1902 and Pocket Hammer no safety at all! (except for the ineffective, short-lived sight safety). Then we return to Belgium, where the 6.35mm FN 1905/6 had only a grip safety, but nearly contemporaneously the Colt Pocket Hammerless had both grip and thumb safeties! Come to think of it…why the Pocket Hammerless (it has a hammer, albeit hidden) with two safeties, the Pocket Hammer, none?

    Did JMB include a safety only when either the contractor (FN or Colt) or the customer (Belgian or US Army) demanded one, the other, or both? One could argue as the direct lineal progeny of the 1900/1902, the lack of safeties isn’t surprising. I’ll admit to not having a good answer. Perhaps when the M14 book is done I’ll go back and do some more digging in the patents and docs!

    • Walt Kuleck March 1, 2017 at 9:01 pm #

      Correction: the lack of safeties on the Pocket Hammer isn’t surprising.

  6. John Travis March 2, 2017 at 5:39 am #

    Howdy, Walt!

    Browning’s intended manual safety on all his exposed hammer guns was the captive half cock notch. The one notable exception was the ill-conceived and short-lived rear sight safety on the 1900 Model, and that was somebody else’s idea.

    You can see evidence of the half cock safety in the Winchester 1892 and 1894 carbines, as well as the 1897 shotgun. This carried over to his exposed hammer pistols. His “hammerless” designs had the thumb safety.

    You can also find mention of the half cock description in the 110 patents, where he describes it as the “Safety Position” and gives instruction on lowering the hammer to that position with one hand, made possible by the modification of the Model 1909’s grip safety tang.

  7. Walt Kuleck March 2, 2017 at 9:13 am #

    Thanks, John! I never thought of the half-cock notch in that light, but you’re right. I’m still not gunna stuff my Pocket Hammer in my, well, pocket anytime soon, though

    Best,

    Walt

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