The first 100 years of the 1911 (Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, Model of 1911)

John Moses Browning

John Moses Browning, the inventive genius who revolutionized the world of repeating firearms by perfecting the gas and recoil operating systems in long guns, machine guns, and pistols. Browning is credited with 128 U.S. patents, but unofficially designed a number of experimental and prototype guns that were never patented.

By Lee Boyt

In the annals of history, John Moses Browning was one of the most — if not /the/ most — prolific and forward-thinking weapon inventors of all time, credited with at least 128 gun patents. And that’s not including one-off experimental projects. John M. Browning wasn’t the first to invent the machine gun, nor was he the originator of the semi-auto pistol. However, Browning designed his guns to be simple, reliable, and soldier-proof — guns with unprecedented abilities to neutralize the enemy on the business end of the muzzle.

A Browning firearm doesn’t require a great deal of technical savvy to use. Load the ammo, point the gun and pull the trigger. Done deal. Maintenance is about as challenging as shining a pair of shoes; clean ‘em up real good, make sure the laces go back where they belong, and you’re finished.


After years of creating rock-solid, mechanically operated rifles and shotguns (primarily for Winchester Repeating Arms), Browning began experimenting with harnessing the gases expelled when a cartridge was fired. Winchester wasn’t interested in Browning’s gas-operated firearms, which strained the business relationship between Browning and Winchester.

Landing on his feet, John M. Browning devised a rudimentary gas-operated .45/70 caliber, belt-fed machine gun with a cyclic rate of fire of 600 rounds per minute, (U.S. Patent 471,783, March 29, 1892).

Machine Guns

John M. Browning demonstrated a crude gas-operated, fully automatic machine gun to Colt in early 1891. Browning continued to refine his machine guns, and the U.S. Navy began testing them in 1893. After further fine-tuning, Colt started manufacturing the Colt Model 1895 Automatic Machine Gun. The Navy initially ordered 50 units in 1896 and 150 more Model 95s in 1898.

When he demonstrated the weapon to the upper management of Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, to say they were suitably impressed would be understating the obvious. Colt liked the gun’s performance so much, Browning was invited back to demonstrate the machine gun for several military officers, and that show was successful, as well.


Colt’s President John Hall asked John M. and Matt Browning to stay a couple of days to visit and to get to know each other; the brothers readily agreed. While at Colt, Matt (the business-minded of the siblings), chatted up John M. Browning’s innovative firearm design capabilities to Hall and the great future that lay ahead for the inventor, and that Colt should share in Browning’s future, if possible. The pleasant and profitable relationship between Colt and the Brownings that began that day endured for seventy years.1

At the end of their stay, Hall offered Browning a lucrative royalty contract, but John M. declined the deal, promising Hall that he’d have the first chance at a new machine gun, if it were ever developed; then John and Matt Browning packed up the gun and went home.1

Browning further reinforced his credibility as an ingeniously practical firearms inventor, and established the foundation of working relationship with Colt whose mission was to be the number one weapons provider to the U.S. military. And because Colt was already involved in the government’s inner circle, there was incredible potential for selling a lot of Browning’s guns in the future.

Unfortunately, peace seemed to be breaking out, with no real wars in sight, save for repressing outlaws and exerting military advisory missions in third world protectorates – so there wasn’t much demand for machine guns at the time. But Colt did manufacture the Model 95 Automatic Machine Gun for a Navy contract; the first time the U.S. Government had bought automatic weapons. The Marines used the Model 95 to great effect in Peking during the Boxer rebellion, and in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Model 95 was affectionately called “The Peacemaker”.


By the late 1800s, the implements of war were undergoing major transformations – long arms went from muzzleloaders to breach loaders to lever actions to bolt-operated repeaters, and machine guns that could fire hundreds of rounds per minute.

Keep in mind that the Calvary was still a major component of the Army, and the search for a better side arm for the mounted troops had begun during the 1890s. It was these horseback troops who initially balked at adopting a semi-auto pistol, a gun perceived to be complicated and difficult to use with one hand while maneuvering his horse around the battlefield, endeavoring to defeat the opposing forces and not get shot in the process.


Model of 1911 Pistol

This an excellent sample of the Model of 1911, made by Colt for the U.S. Army in 1913. Although the finish shows some holster wear, and the checkering on the grips exhibit a bit of wear, overall the gun would be a fine addition to anyone’s collection. Fortunately for the public, this pistol resides in the National Firearms Museum, and not tucked away in an aficionado’s gun vault.


Facing the reality that his machine guns probably weren’t going to become an overnight sensation, John M. Browning knew that his gas/recoil method of operation really did work; now all he had to do was to use this technological breakthrough to take advantage of the world’s growing interest in semi-automatic pistols.

With that in mind, John M. fabricated a .38-caliber gas-operated semi-auto magazine pistol that he demonstrated for Colt’s Vice President John Hall in the summer of 1895. Apparently, Hall could foresee the potential of semi-automatic pistols; Colt filed the patent for Browning (U.S. Patent 580,923, April 20, 1897).

Throughout the years 1895 to 1896, Browning worked relentlessly to make as many all-encompassing gun patents as he could in order to rule the firearms markets for dozens of years to come. In his spare time, John M. would design, build, and extensively test prototype pistols to hand-carry to Colt’s headquarters in Connecticut from his home in Ogden, Utah, on several occasions.

His hard work paid off. On January 24, 1896, Browning and Colt signed a licensing agreement for the inventor’s pistols. The effort that would result in Colt’s Government Model of 1911 had begun.2


John M. Browning’s experience in pistols had been pretty much in the civilian/commercial sector; Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre (FN) in Liege, Belgium had been making small .32-caliber Browning-designed semi-auto pistols for distribution in Europe for years.

Browning’s gut told him that a semi-automatic pistol would soon become the sidearm of choice for the armies of the world. Colt agreed, and in late 1898, the U.S. Army Board of Officers announced they were planning to test a variety of revolvers (with the eventual intention of upgrading the U.S. Calvary’s service weapons).

Arriving at Colt’s from the Springfield Armory, the officers shot four Colt revolvers, and the new semi-auto .38 pistol that just happened to be on hand at the time. The Board’s review inferred that the semi-automatic gun probably had a promising future, but the pistol still needed more work to make the grade. If your glass is half-full, this is a pretty good report for the semi-auto’s first real shootin’ match.

Model of 1900

Less than a year and a half later, the Colt .38-caliber test pistol went to the Springfield Armory for several weeks of extensive testing of exclusively semi-auto pistols — including a “Broomhandle” Mauser, and a Mannlicher — big names in the industry. The Colt put the other guns to shame, to the extent that the Board ordered a quantity of Colt Model of 1900 pistols for evaluation in the field, under real-world conditions, to determine if the .38 A.C.P. had the power to stop the enemy and if the semi-auto design could withstand the rigors of everyday use.


Nearly every branch of the military flogged the Colt’s semi-auto pistols in one way or another, providing valuable feedback on how to improve the gun. Colt listened to its customers, incorporating nearly every change without question or hesitation, releasing evolutionary versions of the initial Browning design over the next several years, including the:

  • Military Model of 1902 .38 caliber
  • Military Model of 1903.41 caliber
  • Military Model of 1902/Browning .45 Prototype of 1904
  • Models of 1905 (and 1907 variants), 1908, 1909, 1910 .45 caliber
  • Model of 1911 Special Army .45 caliber
  • Model of 1911(Various versions/calibers)


Fed up with the ongoing debate of small/fast bullets versus big/slow bullets, Chief of Army Ordnance, Brigadier General William Crozier, put two of his best men on the case: Captain John T. Thompson of the Infantry and Major Louis A. LaGarde of the Medical Corps. This pair of professional soldiers headed to the stockyards to shoot live cattle and dangling human cadavers with rounds ranging from .30 caliber to .476 caliber.

Not surprisingly, the morbidity rate was higher when an animal was shot with a large bullet; the hanging dead people tended to exhibit a more pronounced pendulum effect after being capped by a mega-round. The smaller calibers weren’t as efficient in dispatching the cattle and merely put little holes in the suspended dearly departed.

The bottom line was that the new pistol had to be at least a .45 to do get the job done right the first time.

Colt finally hollered “uncle” and began making Browning’s semi-auto in .45 A.C.P. caliber, (Models of 1905-1911) which is what the military had wanted since Day One.

As it is with bringing any new product to market, the Colt .45 was tested ‘till it broke, the weaknesses made stronger, and then tested some more.


The Ordnance Command narrowed the field to two guns: the Savage .45 Caliber Pistol, Model 1911 and the Colt Model of 1911 Special Army. Over the course of two days, the pair went head to head in a duel to the death, so to speak.

Each pistol was to fire 6,000 rounds, in 100-shot strings, after which, the gun would be allowed to cool off for five minutes. After every 1,000 rounds, the firearm would be cleaned and oiled prior to resuming the test. In addition, each weapon would be required to shoot damaged/dirty/rusted ammunition, to simulate conditions encountered in battle.

Think about it. Each bullet weighs 230 grains; there were 6,000 bullets, which works out to about 197 pounds of lead blowing down the barrel, and the shooters’ hands probably ended up in worse shape than the gun’s mechanisms.

The Savage performed admirably: only 37 breaks or malfunctions in 6,000 rounds.

The Colt Model of 1911 Special Army met expectations: no breaks, malfunctions or problems while doing the job it was supposed to do: shoot 6,000 rounds.

Within a matter of weeks, the Ordnance Department made the Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, Model of 1911 the official side arm of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Excerpts from The Army and Navy Journal, in an article dated April 1, 1911 provide some of the background on the new weapon:

“After twelve years of investigation and five years of experiments, the War Department has adopted an automatic pistol. …

The official report of the board of officers, which was made public March 29, shows that the Service has secured the most powerful, accurate and rapid firing pistol that has yet been produced. It is a .45 caliber, eight-shot automatic pistol. Seven of the cartridges are in the magazine and one in the chamber when the pistol is ready to be fired. The rapidity with which it can be discharged is shown when it is known that one man fired 1,000 rounds in thirty-eight minutes. By the official test, the pistol was fired 6,000 times without any damage to it.

… Two pistols were submitted to the board for test, one by the Savage Arms Company, the other by the Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company. The ammunition used was of recent manufacture by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company, had a jacketed 230-grain bullet and was loaded to give a muzzle velocity of 800 fps.

Of the two pistols, the board is of the opinion that the Colt’s is superior, because it is more reliable, the more enduring; the more easily disassembled when there are broken parts to be replaced, and the more accurate. It equals in these qualities the Colt .45 caliber revolver, Model 1909, while being superior to that arm in balance, safety and rapidity and accuracy of fire and interchangeability.

… The board therefore recommends that the Colt caliber .45 automatic pistol of the design submitted to the board for test be adopted for use by foot and mounted troops in the military service in consequence of its marked superiority to the present Service revolvers and to any other known pistol, of its extreme reliability and endurance and of its fulfillment of all essential requirements.” … 3


Even though the 1911 Special Army pistol functioned flawlessly during the 6,000-round endurance test, John M. Browning saw a need to make the gun even better, reducing the number of parts from 61 to 53 for simplicity. More importantly, added a thumb safety to allow the pistol to be carried fully loaded, with a round in the chamber, a full magazine, and the hammer pulled back, enabling the user to shoot instantly, even one-handed. These and other ideas are in the text of the final patent (U.S. Patent 1070582, granted on August 19, 1913).

After the end of World War I, the Ordnance Department initiated the process of upgrading the original Model of 1911 pistols, including various changes per Browning’s 1913 patent. Colt delivered 10,000 of the newly renamed Improved Automatic Pistols, Caliber .45, Model of 1911 to the Springfield Armory in 1924.

As expected, there was quite a bit of bureaucratic confusion concerning the original 1911 and the Improved 1911; therefore, in 1926, the Improved/Transition firearms were reclassified as Pistol, Automatic, Caliber .45, M1911A1.


The M1911/A1 was the official side arm of the U.S. Military from 1911 to 1985, when it was replaced with a 9mm pistol to be better accepted by those countries whose butts we’ve saved more times than they’ll admit.


John Moses Browning designed the precursor to, and the final version of, the Model of 1911 about a century ago. That’s a long time – and the fundamental elements of his original patents are evident in nearly every semi-automatic pistol made, even many of those on the market today.

Browning’s inventions are unique specimens of functional common sense; look at a John M. Browning patent drawing and you’ll have one of those “geez, why didn’t I think of that?” moments.

Thanks, Mr. Browning.

One-Stop Shopping

Around 1880, John M. Browning and his brothers completed their new gun factory, and moved equipment from Jonathon’s old shop. Matt, the business-minded Browning, insisted on setting up a retail sporting goods store in the front of the building.

The Browning’s guns were displayed in the retail store, and the firearms sold quite well.

The building pictured (circa 1926) appears to be the Browning Brothers factory/store on the lower level; note the plaque next to the plate glass window on the right. It reads: “Browning Bros. Co. Everything for every sport for every season”; one-stop shopping at its finest.


A Bit of Backstory

In the mid-1820s, at the ripe old age of 19, Jonathan Browning — John Moses Browning’s father — considered himself a proficient gunsmith, repairing the primitive firearms of the day in a small shop next to his house in Tennessee. He fabricated replacement parts using the skills acquired as a blacksmith’s apprentice during his youth.

Over time, Jonathan became a devout Mormon. He packed up his family and trekked to the western frontier, finally settling in Ogden, Utah, where he married two more wives (in addition to his original wife who came with him from Tennessee) and sired a total of 22 children — 11 from Tennessee and 11 in Utah.

John Moses was child number 12, the oldest of Jonathan’s second wife. His brother Matt (number 13), quickly bonded with John Moses and the two were extremely close their entire lives.




What’s up with all those patent dates on the left side of the slide?

  • Apr. 20, 1897 was John M. Browning’s first gas-operated semi-automatic pistol that he demonstrated to Colt’s president, John Hall
  • Sept. 9, 1902: Browning’s first recoil-operated pistol
  • Dec. 19, 1905: J.M Browning’s second recoil-operated pistol
  • Feb. 14, 1911: The patent for the Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, Model of 1911
  • Aug. 19, 1913: Browning’s refinements to the Model of 1911





Colt’s Manufacturing Company LLC


John M. Browning Firearms Museum


Kahr Arms/Auto-Ordnance


National Rifle Association Museum



Remington Arms Company, Inc.


Smith & Wesson



Springfield Armory/Springfield Inc.





1. John Browning and Curt Gentry, /John M. Browning: American Gunmaker/ (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964), pp. 153, 295

2. William H.D. Goddard, /The Government Models: The Development of the Colt Model of 1911/ (Andrew Mowbray Incorporated – Publishers, 1998), pp. 41

3. R.L. Wilson, /The Book of Colt Firearms/, (Blue Book Publications, 1993) pp.431-432

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