Evolution of the 1911 in Pictures

The evolution of the 1911 started in 1898 with the pistol that became the Colt Model 1900. Chambered in .38 Auto, it was a locked breech, short recoil operated pistol that sported a twin linked barrel…one fore and one aft…and a non-tilting barrel.

The Colt Model 1900

The next step was the Model 1905…the first one chambered for the .45 Auto cartridge which consisted of a 200-grain jacketed RN bullet loaded to an advertised 900 fps. The 1905 was essentially a shortened Model 1900 with little else changed. It retained the twin links, non-tilting barrel, and rear slide dismount of the Model 1900.

Utilizing the 234-grain bullet loaded to 830 fps, the recoil forces of the new .45 cartridge proved to be too much for the relatively fragile M1905, and unwrapped them quickly in the hard tests required by the US military. The 1905 saw success in the commercial market when put to limited use, and many remain in serviceable condition today.

The Colt Model 1905

Another attempt to enable the pistol to stand up to the new cartridge brought the Model 1907 to light, with beefing up in key areas to stand up to the cartridge…which failed. The 1907 retained the same twin-linked barrel and rear slide dismount. The grip safety appeared on the Model 1907 as an incorporated part of the design.

It was becoming more apparent to Colt and to John Browning that a complete redesign would be needed in order to deliver the .45 caliber automatic pistol that the US Army had requested. The Model 1907 was never produced in large numbers and thus saw only limited sales on the civilian market.

The Colt Model 1907

In the Model 1909, we start to see the pistol that finally became the 1911. The 1909 had the familiar single link tilting barrel and front slide dismount of the 1911. The grip safety was retained, and the new pistol held up to the cartridge well enough to warrant limited military issue…but it still needed work as lower barrel lugs fractured at the junction with the barrel within 5,000 rounds.

The Colt Model 1909.

The Model 1910 was actually a prototype 1911, with only eight produced. This one held up to rigorous testing…but the US Army Ordnance Board had one final request. They wanted a manual, slide locking safety for the horse-mounted cavalry. The pistols were returned, and six of the original eight were retro-fitted with the now familiar thumb safety and returned for evaluation. It was accepted, and the date set for the now famous 6,000 round trial that resulted in the adoption of the Model of 1911 US Army.

The Colt Model 1910.

A word on the .45 Auto cartridge.

It wasn’t…as is widely believed and often claimed…an attempt to duplicate or even approximate the ballistics of the .45 Colt round…which in its original 40-grain loading drove the 255-grain lead bullet to 970 fps. The original loading made the 1873 Colt SAA the most powerful handgun in the world…at distinction that it held until the .357 Magnum came along 62 years later.

The .45 Auto was meant to duplicate the ballistics of the shorter .45 Schofield cartridge that consisted of a 230-grain lead round nosed bullet at an advertised 750 fps. The thing is that those figures were derived from firing the Schofield cartridge in a .45 Colt chamber, which…with its long jump to the barrel…caused it to lose velocity. When fired in the Schofield revolver, the bullet’s velocity was (nominally) 810 fps, which is…for all practical purposes…the .45 Auto’s ballistic twin.

10 thoughts on “Evolution of the 1911 in Pictures”
  1. Actually the 44cal Patterson Colt was more powerful than the 45long Colt. The Patterson was the ( 44 magnum ) of it`s time. And it was the round that held the record for most powerful handgun cartridge until the .357 Magnum. Not the 45long Colt, sorry : )

    1. The Patterson revolver was never produced in.44 caliber. There were only two. Early on, it was produced in .28 caliber and later in .36. You may be thinking of the .44 Dragoon…which wasn’t a cartridge arm…and didn’t equal the .45 Colt’s original ballistics. The Dragoon’s maximum velocity with the 180 grain bullet were claimed…but never duplicated by any one that I know. I played with one for a time back in the 70s, and I never managed to break a thousand fps. When they stopped using baloon head cases for the .45 Colt, the powder charge was first reduced to 32 grains, then finally to 30…which produced 850 fps from the 5.5-inch barrel…down 120 fps from the original 40 grains. That was the one the 180 grain ball fired from the Dragoon nearly matched.

  2. The grip angle of the Model 1900 through the Model 1909 seems to be significantly (and suddenly) different from the angle, one year later, of the Model 1910 (and eventual Model 1911). Any idea why JMB made this change seemingly overnight? Was it for the shooter’s comfort, for improved feeding, or both?

  3. Tom, like so many other things, the change came on request by the Army Ordnance Board. The “Straight Handle” was changed to the “Angled Handle” to improve pointing

  4. FWIW: Most folks don’t realize that the US Army rarely issued the .45 Colt cartridge, and when they did, it was often not a full-power load. Mike Venturino has a January 1874 vintage box of Frankford Arsenal .45 Colt ammunition. The box label clearly indicates that it was only loaded with 30gr of blackpowder, not the 40gr seen in commercial ammunition.

    Once the S&W Schofield revolver was approved for service, the US Army began to move away from the .45 Colt cartridge. Frankford Arsenal received its first order for production of the .45 Schofield cartridge on August 20, 1874. Like other cartridges of the era, these used internally-primed copper cases. With the transition to Boxer primers, the Cal. .45 Revolver, Ball, Model of 1882 was adopted July 3, 1882. On June 13, 1887, the case specification became a hybrid of the Schofield-length case with the smaller rim of the .45 Colt case. Early .45 M1882 cartridges used a 230gr projectile loaded over 28gr of blackpowder. By 1901, this was reduced to a 225gr projectile loaded over 26gr of blackpowder. Procurement of blackpowder Schofield-length cartridges continued as late as 1920.

    In 1898, US Army Ordnance purchased 650,000 commercial .45 Colt (40gr blackpowder) cartridges from UMC for use in the Philippines. However, these turned out to be over-pressure, causing split cases and blown primers. (Outside of possible QC issues, I’m going to guess that the issue was compounded by the lengthy transport and storage time in excessive heat.) In 1903, Frankford Arsenal ordered 10,000 additional commercial .45 Colt from UMC. Once again loaded with 40gr of blackpowder, these cartridges were purposefully dedicated for proof firing refurbished Colt revolvers.

    The full-length .45 Colt case (albeit with a wider rim) was revived for the smokeless Cal. 45 M1909 Revolver Ball cartridge, but even that was loaded fairly light. Vintage Frankford Arsenal box labels claim 725 fps.

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