Today (29 march 2011), I celebrate a piece of technology. Those who know me well may find this to be a surprise, but I have a good reason for it. I respect designs that do a job well in an elegent manner. Gadgets that help us to be stupid or that are needlessly complicated fail to meet that standard.
With that caveat in mind, consider the following piece of technology:
One hundred years ago today, the United States Army adopted the pistol designed by John Moses Browning (blessings be upon him) as its general issue sidearm, the M1911. While our military has largely surrendered to the Beretta M9 these days, special forces units still use the good old Colt .45, and the Pentagon is rethinking its grotesque error.
To put this into perspective, think about the level of technology that existed at that time. The Wright brothers were still experimenting with versions of their Flyer. The Model T was only three years into production. Radio transmissions were still sporatic and entirely sent in Morse code.
The idea of a self-loading handgun was only a few years old in 1911. There were competing designs–the Luger P08, the Mauser C96, among others. Colonel Fosbery created a self-cocking revolver that fascinates gun nuts. Browning himself had created several designs that led up to the 1911. As an example of this, I have a Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless that turns a hundred this year–one of his earlier works. What is extraordinary about the 1911 is that its design is used in most pistols that have been made since.
A full-power cartridge such as the .45 ACP requires a means of locking the barrel to the slide during part of the recoil. Browning invented a short recoil mechanism that tilts the barrel downward after it moves back a fraction of an inch, allowing the slide to continue. You can see an animation of the process here:
Watching that happen is a particular pleasure. It’s simple and clever, and it works. It controls an explosion, putting it to double useful work, sending a bullet down range and loading a new cartridge soon after. Browning made a small change for his High Power, and in sincere flattery, most pistols today use his tilting barrel design.
So here we are, one hundred years later, with a handgun that got it right that long ago. I have read comments about the 1911 as the last of the old cowboy guns. It’s a .45, single-action, hammer-fired pistol, usually made of steel–in other words, it’s out of style, according to a modern view. Some 1911s are finicky about the ammunition that they will cycle, and many of them rattle and clank. What’s to love?
Lay hands on yours right now (and you do have one, don’t you?). Compared to many more recent designs, it’s slim. In an inside-the-waistband holster, it is easy to carry concealed. It fits the hand and points nicely, just the way that the Peacemaker does, and its GI sights are easy to use for defensive (as opposed to target) shooting. While it has been produced in other calibers, its typical load is the .45 ACP, one of the two exemplars of handgun cartridges (the other being the .357 Magnum). Just like an old car or a radio with vacuum tubes, the 1911 is a tinkerer’s dream toy.
Yes, my reasons for loving the 1911 are mainly grounded in aesthetics. These days, you can get a pistol with many variations in grip and frame materials, firing mechanisms, trigger function, and on and on. But gun nuts, the people who get to know their pistols inside and out, still find their way to the 1911 eventually.
The 1911 is a work of genius. It demonstrates that one person with talent can make a lasting mark.