Savage Model 1907: The Gun That Could Have Replaced the Army's 1911 9mm

November 20, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: GunGunsHistoryMilitaryTechnologyColt 1911

Savage Model 1907: The Gun That Could Have Replaced the Army's 1911 9mm

So what happened? 

In the 1939 movie The Real Glory, elite U.S. Army officers arrive in the southern Philippines to mold the Filipinos into a military force to defend their villages against marauding Moro tribesmen. In one scene, a burly, sword-wielding Moro attacks the Army unit’s commander. The Moro charges through a hail of lead unleashed by other officers, including Dr. Bill Canavan (Gary Cooper), and fatally wounds the colonel before succumbing to the gunfire.

Later, Canavan drops five spent bullets from the Moro’s body on a table in front of his fellow officers and the parish priest. “I thought I missed when I shot at that juramentado, but I guess I didn’t,” Canavan said. “He had enough lead in him to sink a battleship. I wonder what kept the beggar going with all those slugs in him. Must be some drug.”
[text_ad]

The scene was realistic. During the Army’s early years in the Philippines, such incidents created a crisis of faith among U.S. soldiers—faith in their weapons. That crisis led the Army to adopt one of the most famous firearms in history, the 1911 Colt, but the outcome might have been very different. Generations of American soldiers might have gone into battle with 1907 Savages instead.

The Need For Increased Stopping Power

The trouble began in 1899. When the United States won the Spanish-American War and annexed the Philippines as a colony, it unexpectedly entered a conflict more costly, longer, and deadlier than the war with Spain had been. The Moro tribesmen of the southern Philippines proved especially difficult to subdue. Fiercely independent, fanatical, courageous in battle, and predatory, the Moros had never submitted to the Spanish and proved no more willing to accept their new American overlords.

 

A shortage of American troops at the onset of the Philippine insurrection in 1899 delayed a showdown between the U.S. Army and the Moros, but once Emilio Aguinaldo’s rebel forces surrendered in 1901, the Americans moved to deal with the Moros. After diplomatic efforts to conciliate the Moros failed, U.S. troops quickly bested them in open battle.

In the 1939 movie The Real Glory, elite U.S. Army officers arrive in the southern Philippines to mold the Filipinos into a military force to defend their villages against marauding Moro tribesmen. In one scene, a burly, sword-wielding Moro attacks the Army unit’s commander. The Moro charges through a hail of lead unleashed by other officers, including Dr. Bill Canavan (Gary Cooper), and fatally wounds the colonel before succumbing to the gunfire.

 

Later, Canavan drops five spent bullets from the Moro’s body on a table in front of his fellow officers and the parish priest. “I thought I missed when I shot at that juramentado, but I guess I didn’t,” Canavan said. “He had enough lead in him to sink a battleship. I wonder what kept the beggar going with all those slugs in him. Must be some drug.”

The scene was realistic. During the Army’s early years in the Philippines, such incidents created a crisis of faith among U.S. soldiers—faith in their weapons. That crisis led the Army to adopt one of the most famous firearms in history, the 1911 Colt, but the outcome might have been very different. Generations of American soldiers might have gone into battle with 1907 Savages instead.

Before the tests began in earnest, the Army rejected most of the entrants as unsuitable and focused mainly on the Colt, Luger, and Savage pistols. After some delays, the pistol trials began in January 1907. From the beginning, Colt’s entry enjoyed an advantage. The Colt Company had existed since 1848 and had supplied revolvers to the Texas Rangers, U.S. Army, and U.S. Navy since the Civil War. From the 1870s into the 20th century, Colt’s 1873 Single Action Army and New Army models equipped the U.S. Army.

The handguns Colt submitted to the Ordnance Board following the Spanish-American War were designed by the greatest creative genius in firearms history, John Moses Browning. Under Browning’s guidance, Colt first offered its semiautomatic pistol to the Army in 1900 and constantly supplied improved versions to meet the Army’s evolving requirements. In 1905, when the Army complained that the .38 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) cartridge would not suffice, Colt quickly developed the .45-caliber ACP cartridge and supplied an improved pistol chambered for it. Colt had the experience, brains, resources, and determination to win the Army’s next sidearm contract.

Savage Model 1907: An Art Deco Handgun

Colt’s upstart American challenger seemed a long shot at best. The Savage Arms Company had come into existence only 13 years prior to the Ordnance Board trials. Its founder, Arthur Savage, had designed an advanced lever-action rifle that eventually would become the classic Savage 99. When in 1892 the U.S. Army sought a replacement for its trapdoor Springfield rifles, Savage submitted his modern, eight-shot lever action, but the Army adopted the 1892 Krag-Jorgensen bolt-action rifle instead.

When the pistol trials began, not only had Savage Arms never sold a weapon to the Army, it had never produced a pistol. Seeing the commercial success that Colt’s semi-automatic pistols enjoyed, and the prospect of a lucrative government contract, Savage decided to enter the market. Inventor Elbert Searle provided the design the company needed. Searle had designed and held the patent for the 1907 Savage. His pistol came to Savage Arms’ attention just in time to provide the company a credible entrant into the Ordnance Department’s 1906 pistol trials. Scrambling to perfect and produce a sample handgun for the trials, which the Army had rescheduled for January 1907, Searle completed the first 1907 Savage just under deadline.

The result was a handsome weapon. Sleek and beautifully finished, the 1907 Savage was described by some as an art deco handgun. The innovative design employed no screws except those retaining its grips. Not only could a soldier easily disassemble the weapon without tools, but the disassembled pistol contained only 34 component parts, fewer than its Colt competitor. Unlike most other semiautomatic handguns, the 1907 used no flat springs, relying instead on more robust coil springs. The Savage used a staggered-round box magazine—the first commercially produced pistol to do so—giving it a maximum nine-shot capacity, one more than the Colt’s single-stacked magazine.

Recognizing that the winning entrant would equip cavalry troopers, Searle even built a cleverly designed folding lanyard loop into the 1907’s magazine well. Savage Arms Company had produced an impressive challenger to the Colt in a remarkably short time.

Savage vs Colt: Fighting For the Military Contract

However promising the Savage, Colt, and other pistols looked, the Ordnance Board did everything in its power to uncover their weaknesses. One test involved blasting each pistol with fine sand for one minute. After this treatment, the tester blew and brushed the sand off the pistol and fired it to assess its reliability. In another torture test, each handgun was degreased, its barrel plugged, and the weapon immersed in a corrosive solution for five minutes. Another reliability test followed. The Savage bested both the Luger and the Colt in the sand test and delivered projectiles at a higher velocity than either.

After the first tests, the Ordnance Department concluded that the Luger, Colt, and Savage pistols merited further testing. The newcomer, Savage, had acquitted itself well and remained in the running for a sizable military contract, but this success presented fresh difficulties. After each round of tests, the Ordnance Department requested design improvements. An early competitor in the process, Colt, blessed with deep pockets, continually incorporated the changes into its evolving design. The Ordnance Department informed Savage that it wanted the front sight moved rearward, the ejection port relocated, and a grip safety added.

The Army offered contracts to Luger, Colt, and Savage for 200 of the improved pistols to undergo field trials with active-duty units. The manufacturers would receive $25 per copy. Colt quickly agreed to fill the contract at that price. Georg Luger apparently suspected that the U.S. Army had little interest in a European design for its next sidearm, and politely declined the offer. The .45-caliber ACP Luger became an extremely rare collector’s item.

Savage Arms considered the military project risky, expensive, and time-consuming, but the company saw growing potential for a smaller-caliber civilian version of Searle’s 1907. When, in October 1907, the Army agreed to pay $65 for each of the .45 ACP 1907s, Savage relented and signed a contract to produce the test pistols. Savage may have committed to the next phase of the competition because a military contract would help the company retrieve expenses it incurred tooling up to produce its Commercial .32-caliber ACP pistol. As efficient as this may have seemed, Savage’s commercial development of the .32-caliber model may have diverted its limited resources from the military competition.

Unlike Savage, Colt made the military contract its top priority. The Army clearly intended to replace the company’s 1873 Single Action Army and New Army revolvers, and Colt long arms generated little revenue. Colt realized that its success depended on selling semi-automatic handguns to the Army’s Springfield, Massachusetts, armory. By March 1908, the Army received 200 sample Colts.