From the punitive expedition to Mexico before World War I to the mountains of Korea, American service members relied on one iconic pistol above any other, the Colt M1911. In fact, some special operators still carry modified and reworked versions of the same sidearm today.
The famous pistol came, like many of the best weapons, from an urgent battlefield necessity. Soldiers and Marines fighting the Spanish in the Phillippines during the Spanish-American War ended up in combat with a rebel group that had been active in the islands for years, the Moro.
The Moro fighters were known as fanatics and used opiates to keep going even if they were hit. The troops engaged in combat with them found out quickly that their pistols, .38-caliber weapons, often needed a few hits to bring down a fighter. This gave attacking Moro fighters time to get an extra couple knife swings or trigger pulls in before they were killed.
Soldiers reached back to their last sidearm, the Colt Model 1873 Revolver which fired a .45-caliber round. The .45 got the job done, and the Army put out a call for a modern weapon that fired it, preferably with semi-automatic technology and smokeless powder.
After a long competition, the winner was a Colt pistol from famed designer John Browning. It was a semi-automatic weapon that fired the desired .45-caliber cartridge packed with smokeless powder, allowing troops to defend themselves with lots of firepower on demand without giving away their position.
The Army designated the weapon the M1911 for the year it was adopted and got it out to the field. The gun got a trial with the Punitive Expedition to Mexico in 1916 where it performed admirably, but it cemented its place in troops’ hearts in 1917 when the American Doughboys carried it with them to Europe.
In World War I, the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps carried the weapon. Army Cpl. Alvin C. York was part of an attack through German lines to destroy or capture some enemy machine guns. The initial attack was successful but everything went sideways and York was the highest ranking of the survivors.
In a famous move, York managed to kill many of the Germans and capture 132 of them nearly on his own. During the engagement, he killed six Germans in six shots with his M1911 and it was that pistol that he pointed at the German commander’s head when he demanded and received their surrender.
Army Lt. Frank Luke, Jr., another Medal of Honor recipient, used the pistol after he was shot down in an attempt to fight off the German infantry trying to take him prisoner. While Luke was eventually killed, he took seven of the infantrymen with him.
Love for the M1911 spread to America’s allies. Great Britain, for instance, bought the guns for the Navy and the Flying Corps. In World War II, the Colt M1911 was once again the pistol of choice and Americans were lucky enough to get it as standard issue.
Through Korea and Vietnam, the M1911 was the standard sidearm and a favorite of troops who cited its stopping power, ergonomics, and reliability.
But the weapon’s .45-caliber ammunition made it less operable with NATO allies and when the U.S. encouraged standardizing weapons and ammo across the alliance, it was sent to the chopping block. In 1992, the military branches transitioned to the Beretta M9 and its smaller 9mm ammunition.
But some M1911s are still floating around as special operations units reworked the M1911A1 variant introduced in 1926, allowing them to use the .45-caliber ammunition.
In fact, the Marine Corps ordered 12,000 new M45A1s from Colt. The M45A1 is basically a modernized M1911 that, of course, fires the .45-caliber round. But the 1911’s days might be numbered as Marine special operations troops are scheduled to ditch their .45s and pick up Glocks over the next several years.