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Colt .45 Emendations

March 2023
2min read

In “The Gun the Army Can’t Kill” (August/September 1983,) Mr. Andrews is thoroughly in error by opening the .38 versus .45 debate by stating that “ever since the 184Os the standard Army sidearm had been the .45-caliber single-action pistol.” This is not so. In the 184Os the standard Army sidearm was a muzzle-loading cap-and-ball, single-shot pistol of caliber .54. This big-caliber, black-powder percussion pistol was the standard sidearm of the U.S. Army from 1842 until the Civil War, when the Union ordnance certified no fewer than ten makes of sidearms, all of them blackpowder, cap-and-ball revolvers of .36 or .44 caliber.

A .45-caliber single-action pistol did not become a standard Army sidearm until 1873, when the U.S. ordnance placed a trial order of eight thousand Colts for cavalry use. These handsome revolvers were continuously produced by Colt until 1941 and were later reinstated after popular outcry. This particular weapon was the gunfighter’s gun, of which we have seen so much in the movies.

It is true that the service pistol initially used in the Philippine insurrection was a .38 (double-action) Army-issue revolver. It was found insufficient, and an appeal was sent back home to retrieve the old single-action .45s. The problem was not so much “stopping power” as it was the complicated double-action mechanism and weak mainspring of the .38, compared with the simpler, stronger mechanism of the single-action .45.

John Browning, who had already perfected a .38 automatic, quickly perceived from the Philippine experience that the U.S. Army would standardize on a .45 automatic rather than on his .38, then being tested. He hastened to strike a deal with the Colt factory for undertaking manufacture of the bigger caliber. The prototype .45 was produced as the 1905 Colt Model, and the U.S. ordnance ordered four hundred for testing in 1907. This model evolved very slightly to become the 1911.

Your article also states that for the change from the .38 service revolver to the .45 automatic Colt, “the work at hand was to bowl a man over in his tracks at a distance of only a few yards. ” No slug from a sidearm, .38 or .45, will bowl a man over. The stopping power or striking force of the slug can have no more impact than the recoil; otherwise the one pulling the trigger would be bowled over, because every action is accompanied by a reaction of equal force in the opposite direction, as most high school seniors know. The striking force of a .44 Magnum, even today, throwing a 240-grain ball (muzzle velocity 1,470 feet per second, almost twice that of the Model 1911 .45 Colt automatic) would strike a stationary two-hundred-pound man at arm’s length with one-twentieth the force of another man walking into him .

I remember watching a Stalingrad battle scene (1942), filmed inside a factory where Soviets with a machine gun were defending a room against a squad of Germans, approaching from the next room. The Soviet photographer, in as much peril as his buddies, managed to frame the barrel of the Russian machine gun on the left, with the doorway to the adjacent room framed at the right of the film sequence. The German squad leader came slowly through the doorway, nearly upright, cautiously holding his rifle at a slanted, ready position. He was caught full force by the blast of the machine gun, perhaps ten slugs. He crumpled like a puppet having all the suspending strings severed at once. He was not bowled over. He didn’t even fall forward; he buckled, knock-kneed, and collapsed with no motion except straight down in a heap.

It is not meant by these comments to disparage in any way the Colt 1911 automatic . 45 as an effective sidearm with the longest service life of any automatic, nor to belittle the eyewitness accounts of its performance given by Mr. Andrews. After all, what somebody thinks is so is another matter, for if the combat finger on the Colt trigger believes the hefty half-inch slug has the knockover power of a bowling ball, and if the other soldier looking at the muzzle end of the Colt believes it too, we have a Sgt. Alvin York and a Congressional Medal of Honor. This is the way it was in the Argonne on October 8, 1918, with a hundred or so prisoners warily eyeing the motions of York’s Model 1911 caliber .45. The prisoner count has been variously given, which is understandable in light of York’s parting remark to the surprised staff: “Lieutenant, there wasn’t time to count ‘em.”

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