Early in the 20th century, the U.S. Army was looking to upgrade its standard service sidearm. The Army at that time was issuing the Colt M1892 revolver in the rather anemic .38 Long Colt cartridge, and U.S. servicemen found that this piece gave poor results, particularly when employed against rawhide-armored Moro rebels who were hopped up on drugs.
To deal with this, the Army began to re-issue the great old M1873 Colt single action revolvers in .45 Colt, and also purchased a number of big-framed Colt New Service double action revolvers in .45 Colt, dubbing that piece the M1909 Colt. The extra wallop of the .45 round proved much more satisfactory in preventing U.S. servicemen from being pierced by Moro spears, so the Army began to look for a modern, semi-auto sidearm for a .45 caliber cartridge.
Enter John Browning, the Leonardo da Vinci of firearms.
I won’t go into all the ins and outs of that evaluation and adoption process; that would be a story all in itself. A large number of martial sidearms were evaluated, including most notably a .45 ACP version of the Luger, only two of which were made, making this one of the most valuable collector’s items in firearms history. Suffice it to say that the sidearm that was adopted, when all was said and done, was the immortal Colt-Browning 1911, later revised as the 1911A1. Now, after 123 years, the U.S. Marine Corps, the last service still using the 1911, has traded them in.
Marine Corps Systems Command (MARCORSYSCOM) confirmed to The War Zone that the replacement of the M45A1s with new M18s began last year and was completed by October 2022. M45A1s had previously been issued primarily to Marine special operations and reconnaissance units, as well as Special Reaction Teams assigned to the service’s Provost Marshal’s Office.
The service had announced its intention to replace all of its standard-issue sidearms with M18s in 2019. The M18 is the compact variant of the Sig Sauer Modular Handgun System pistol family, or MHS, which the U.S. Army first adopted in 2017 and is now becoming the default sidearm across much of the U.S. military. This includes the U.S. Air Force, where the M18 was also selected to replace the last of that service’s aging .38 caliber M15 revolvers, as well as other more modern pistols.
The last 1911-pattern sidearms had been purchased by the Marine Corps in the early 2000s:
In the early 2000s, the Marine Corps purchased a relatively limited number of new-production .45 caliber pistols based on the M1911 from American gunmaker Kimber Manufacturing. These sidearms were for the new Marine Corps Special Operations Command, Detachment One, the service’s first unit assigned directly to U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). That unit evolved into Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC).
Those guns, known as the Interim Close Quarters Battle (ICBQ) pistol, featured custom stainless steel barrels, improved recoil system components, and a rail for attaching accessories like lights and aiming lasers on the underside of the front end of the frame. They also came with eight-round magazines. Standard M1911A1 magazines hold seven cartridges.
The immortal 1911 really has no historical equal. It has been the longest-serving sidearm in U.S. military history. Almost every company in the business of manufacturing handguns today makes some variation of the 1911. John Browning used many of the features of the 1911 pistol to produce what many consider his greatest creation in sidearms, the Browning Hi-Power, which is still in use in military forces around the world.
While nothing lasts forever, and while it’s easy to see the logistical advantage in a sidearm that uses the NATO-standard 9x19mm cartridge, it’s a sad day for gun aficionados, especially those of us with a fondness for John Browning’s 1911. When I first joined the U.S. Army in the early Eighties, I was assigned as a Company Aidman and so was issued a 1911A1 pistol; that piece may well have been the same one my father was issued as a bomber navigator in 1944.
It was old, worn, and loose, but it worked and shot reasonably well. I have a mil-spec 1911 today, one of the clones made by Rock Island Arsenal (pictured above), and while I favor my.45 Colt sixguns for bumming around in the Alaska woods, from time to time I’ll strap on the 1911 instead. With modern loads, the 45ACP round packs a considerable wallop and is more than capable of deterring predators, two or four-legged, if the occasion arises.
The 1911 may no longer be serving with the U.S. military, but it’s a safe bet that a century from now (assuming the peasantry are still allowed to carry sidearms by then) the 1911 will still be in use among American shooters. The 1911 does have its detractors – every design does – but you really can’t argue with well over a century of success.