An Icon of Traditional American Manufacturing Skill and Ingenuity — the Colt .45 1911

By Joe Darby

To many it will be unseemly to praise a firearm in the wake of the terrible recent rash of mass shootings.

I am depressed and angry at these horrible, useless slaughters. The shootings at the elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., were particularly heinous — 19 innocent little souls taken from the families and from all of us who care. These sickening crimes were committed by evil and misguided individuals. I can’t put the blame on an instrument of metal and plastic that we call a gun.

So, rather than write about our increasingly depressing politics, or some other current topic, I want to talk about what is maybe the finest single weapon ever devised by an American manufacturer — the Colt .45 1911 semi-automatic pistol.

I am often inspired in my column topics by other articles that I read. And I just read a fine piece about the history of the 1911 in “Military Heritage” magazine. The article was of particular interest to me because I am fortunate enough to own one of these pieces of U.S. history. I bought it at a gun show perhaps 40 years ago for a few hundred dollars. I’d have trouble affording one today, as they have become valued collector items.

My own pistol’s serial number indicates it was made in 1915, so there’s a good chance it saw action in both World War I and II and perhaps in Korea. It’s olive drab, has some nicks on it and if you shake it, it will rattle. That’s just the way they are. But they pack a tremendous punch for a handgun, can withstand poor care and are just about guaranteed to bring down an assailant if you need to protect yourself. That’s why I keep mine nearby. How often does one have a 107-year-old pistol for self protection?

The pistol’s power is the reason it was created in the first place. When the US Army was fighting Filipino insurgents in the early 20th century, the Muslim Moro warriors would ingest drugs before battle and in that elevated state, were hard to bring down. The Army’s standard hand gun at the time, a Colt .38 revolver, had little effect on a charging Moro.

So, after several years of development and improvements, the Army adopted the Colt .45 in 1911 and it proved to be an excellent decision. It was the service’s standard hand gun for more than 70 years. It is still used by some special forces warriors because of its reliability and power.

Let me recount some random anecdotes about the 1911 and its value to our fighting men.

–In 1969, a Navy SEAL in Vietnam held off dozens of Viet Cong attacking a downed helicopter. He was killing the enemy at a range of 100 yards, an extraordinary distance for a pistol in combat. He ended up taking out between 10 and 37 Viet Cong, the total number still being in dispute. The SEAL and his wounded buddies were later rescued by an Army gunship copter.

–In World War II, an Army colonel shot a Japanese soldier through the tiny embrasure of the enemy’s bunker at a range of 75 yards with his .45.

–A World War II bomber co-pilot, bailing out of his crippled B-24 in the Pacific, actually shot and killed the pilot of a Japanese plane who was machine gunning the helpless airmen in their parachutes. It was later learned the Japanese had died of a single shot to his head.

–In the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in 1944, a US corporal shot and killed the commander of a German tank as he poked his head out of the hatch. The tank retreated. This may be the only time in history a tank was vanquished by a pistol.

Among the proud owners of 1911s over the years Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia. And me. I feel very lucky to own one of the most iconic examples of self-defense implements in American history.