A highly religious man who was a former pacifist and the legendary pistol he carried are responsible for one of the most impressive acts of an American fighting man in the nation’s history.
His name was Sgt. Alvin York and during World War I he used a M1911 .45-caliber pistol to stop an attack by six German soldiers while he helped assault a German machine-gun nest near Chatel-Chéhéry on the Western Front.
On Oct. 8, 1918, York drew his pistol after emptying his Enfield rifle at the enemy. Then he was rushed by the bayonet charge—and had one bullet left in his M1911 when four German officers and 128 German soldiers surrendered to him and his command.
He was awarded the Medal of Honor and his name became a by-word for bravery on the battlefield.
To the day he died, York gave credit for his success to God, the men serving with him and the pistol he carried—a weapon that would be commonly known as “the GI 45” and that is arguably the best military handgun ever designed.
The M1911 is second-longest-serving weapon in the U.S. inventory, the standard sidearm for all four branches of service from 1911 to 1985. But even after it “retired,” it never truly went away because of the trusty reputation it gained during use in every conceivable theater, terrain and environment.
The history of the M1911 begins in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, when U.S. soldiers and Marines found themselves locked in fierce combat with the Moro, a knife-wielding native insurgency that combined religious zeal and potent drug use.
Much of the fighting was close-quarters battle and the hopped-up Moros took round after round from U.S. .38-caliber pistols while they continued to hack away at Americans.
If anything positive came from the bloody 15-year guerrilla war, it was the realization that the U.S. military needed a better pistol.
A look back at an older weapon pointed the way to a solution. In desperation, the Army had issued Colt Model 1873 .45-caliber revolvers—dating back to the Plains Indian Wars—to soldiers fighting the Moros.
The heavier round began to turn the tide. It often took just one well-placed shot from the .45-caliber pistol to kill a Moro.
In 1906, Gen. William Crozier of the U.S. Army Ordinance Department began evaluating several pistol designs along with the suitability of a new cartridge designated the .45-caliber Automatic Colt Pistol, or .45 ACP.
The weapons Crozier examined were the then-new semi-automatic self-loading design that’s so common today.
One man who would eventually offer a pistol for consideration was John Moses Browning, the most innovative and successful weapons designer in American history.
Browning created the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle, the M1917 .30-caliber machine gun, M1919 .30-caliber machine gun, the M2 .50-caliber Browning machine gun and the Browning Hi-Power pistol, the first successful high-capacity semi-automatic pistol that became the mostly widely used military sidearm in the world.
Based on the short recoil principle of operation, the Browning-designed Colt for the Army pistol trials was a magazine fed, single-action semi-automatic pistol with both manual and grip safeties.
The pistol was rugged, simple to field strip, and claimed to possess utter dependability.
Those claims were put to a torture test in 1910 when a prototype Colt M1911 fired 6,000 rounds during two days. Browning’s sample pistol became so hot that he dunked in a pail of water to cool it for further firing—and yet it passed the test with no malfunctions. The nearest competition suffered 37 jams.
M1911s—particularly the M1911A1 variant—saw service in the U.S. military during both World Wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Despite the fact that Congress pressured the Department of Defense to adopt the M9 Beretta because it used the standard NATO nine-millimeter round, select units in the U.S. military continue to use the M1911 to this day.
The Marine Corps in particular was reluctant to give up the M1911. Dave Dotterrer, a retired Marine Corps colonel, told War is Boring he trusted the pistol completely.
“It is a great weapon because of its stopping power,” he said. “It instilled confidence in you because the .45-caliber round is a substantial round. It is meant to be a ‘close in’ weapon.”
“I was in a Marine infantry unit that swapped out the pistols for the new nine-millimeter pistols,” said Dotterrer, who retired in 2001. “There was a lot talk along lines of ‘What the heck? What’s wrong with what we had?’”
He said if had to return to the Marine Corps today and choose between the M9 or the M1911, his choice would be easy.
“The M1911 is the greatest pistol ever invented,” Dotterrer said.
But the M1911 had a reputation for intimidating the shooter as well as the enemy. Some people consider the recoil too powerful—even some Marines.
Dotterrer recalled a time in 1973 when he and 264 other newly minted second lieutenants were training at a Marine Corps pistol range with the M1911.
All but one of his fellow officers emptied their magazines at the targets. A lone lieutenant had two rounds left.
The officer complained that the pistol was inaccurate, even though the instructor said the lieutenant was flinching as he fired the weapon, throwing his shooting off. The lieutenant insisted that he was not.
The instructor told the lieutenant to fire the remaining rounds at his target. With every eye on him, the officer leveled the pistol and squeezed the trigger—but it didn’t fire.
“The round had misfired, but both of his arms went up in the air 90 degrees,” Dotterrer said. “All of us gave him a pretty hard time about that.”
Recently, the M1911 made a kind of official return to the Marine Corps in a slightly different guise. For the first time since World War II, Colt will deliver a variant of the M1911 called the M45A1 Close Quarter Battle Pistol. The $22.5-million contract calls for 12,000 new weapons.
The CQPB is definitely an M1911 for the 21st century. It has a flat, desert-tan-colored Cerakote coating, an underbarrel Picatinny rail, fixed Novak three-dot night sights, enhanced hammer to prevent “hammer bite” and an ambidextrous safety.
But it fires the .45 ACP round and shoots like dream.
This article by Paul Huard originally appeared at War is Boring in 2014.