Have you ever held a 1911 and just wondered how much history was behind it? What role did it play in shaping our history? What kind of person could create such a simple yet complex idea? Good or bad, guns are involved in almost every major change in our history, held both by people set on wreaking havoc and those willing to give their lives to protect the world from the evildoers. Without debate, the 1911 is one of the most iconic and history-laden guns the world has ever seen.
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John Moses Browning was one of the most gifted firearms inventors the world has ever seen. The 1911 was his answer to the US Army’s quest for a replacement for the revolver currently being carried. The Army tested it, selected it, and the gun went on to become a legend. During the testing period, the 1911 was fired 6,000 times without a single malfunction. It is even reported that this was the first time a handgun had undergone military testing with no failures at all.
But who carried the 1911 and what purpose did it serve? Let’s look at a few people throughout history that have carried the 1911 and forever entwined their stories with it.
Sergeant Alvin York
I can’t really talk about the 1911 without first telling the WWI story of Sergeant Alvin York on October 18, 1918. York, who was a Corporal at the time, was behind enemy lines and receiving fire from a German machine gun nest. A bullet struck his helmet but did not penetrate his skull. York is known for his expert shooting with a rifle, but on that day, it was the 1911 that saved his life.
York had been using his Enfield rifle which held five rounds, to pick off the Germans soldiers. But when six of them charged at York, he switched to his 1911. He started by firing at the ones furthest away so the ones in front would not know he was taking them out.
York was still using his M1911 when he took the remaining Germans captive. By the end of the day, York and the six other American soldiers with him had taken 132 soldiers captive. General Julian R Lindsey was reported to have said “Well, York, I hear you captured the whole damned German army,” to which York replied, “No sir, I only have one hundred and thirty-two.” York received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1919 for his actions that day.
Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone
As WWI history is entwined with the 1911, so too is the .45 caliber with WWII. In 1942, Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone became a legend of his day and the US Marines for his actions at Guadalcanal. During a three-day period, Basilone used a machine gun and his 1911 pistol to kill 38 enemy soldiers. Basilone was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day. He later died in action on Iwo Jima. Only two Marines received both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross during the war, and Basilone was one of them.
There are countless other stories from WWI and WWII of heroic acts of US Soldiers wielding the 1911 handgun. So many 1911 pistols were used during WWII that other companies besides Colt were contracted to make them. Companies like Remington Rand, Ithaca Gun Company, Union Switch & Signal, and Singer all built 1911’s.
Out of all the side arms that have been produced over the years, Browning’s 1911 is the only one that has been used through so many wars and for so long. If any handgun has earned the title of Battle Gun, it is the 1911.
Texas Ranger Charlie Miller
Outside of the military, the 1911 would continue to grow in use and popularity. Much of this was because of the men who continued to trust it because of its reliability and excellent stopping power. Charlie Miller, a Texas Ranger for more than 50 years along with a short time as a Federal Prohibition Agent carried none other than a .45 caliber 1911. Miller served under several prominent Rangers like the famous Frank Hammer who hunted down Bonnie and Clyde.
Miller was about as much of an old-school, cowboy-style cop as there ever was. On one occasion he reportedly got tired of being ignored at a coffee shop and pulled out his 1911, shot a hole in the coffee urn, and filled his cup as the coffee poured out. It is believed he shot seven or eight men during his career as a Ranger though some believe there may have been more. Miller carried his Colt M1911 for most of his career and took part in making the gun standard issue for the Texas Rangers.
Al Capone and His “Sweetheart” 1911
Not everyone that helped make the 1911 famous did so in a good way. Al Capone, AKA “Scar Face,” was one of the most famous and horrific mobsters to ever live. It is said his favorite handgun was a 1911. Capone had a life of crime and was elevated to the title of Boss by the age of 26 after his boss Johnny Torrio retired. Capone was ruthless and blamed for countless murders, including the 1929 St Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Capone’s Colt .45 caliber 1911 with a serial number of “C 837” is reported to be his favorite handgun which he nicknamed “Sweetheart.” In 2001, Capones Colt 1911 sold for $1.04 million at Witherell’s. This makes Capone’s 1911 one of the most expensive handguns in the world. Other guns and artifacts of Capones were auctioned off at the same time, bringing in just over $3 million.
Another person worth noting on a short list of people who contributed a historic moment to the 1911 is Special Agent Charles Winstead. Winstead, along with two other FBI agents shot gangster John Dillinger on July 22, 1934. Winstead was using his agency issued 1911. Dillinger was pronounced dead at 10:50 pm outside of the Biograph Theater in Chicago.
No one has ever been able to track down what happened to Winstead’s 1911. Most historians suspect it was turned back into the agency when he left the Chicago field office. Winstead, who is reported to have fired two shots at Dillinger, died on August 3, 1973, at the age of 82.
1911 History Continues On
The stories go on and on, each one adding something new to Browning’s invention. People who have carried the 1911 are part of what makes it such an iconic weapon. Its history makes owning one even more significant for some of us, from the simple plain jane M1911 to the many different versions and calibers available today.
Now, 1911s are available in different barrel lengths and come chambered in 9mm, 10mm, and more. Some may wish to stick with the thin .45 ACP single stack 7-round mags while others opt for the more modern “2011” that can hold double stack mags. It can be carried in fashion on a shoulder holster or concealed nicely with an IWB holster. A 1911 can be customized and made special to the owner. But even then, it carries with it a long history that will continue to live on in each 1911 made.