The ergonomics of the pistol were exemplary, especially when you consider that the field of ergonomics was still in its infancy. The grip angle had been changed from that of the the M-1900-1905 series, to one more in keeping with the shooter’s wrist angle. The combined thumb and grip safeties were well-positioned, easy to use, and natural in movement.
In 1911, Colt only knew one way to make handguns: the right way. Their handguns were objects of art, the pinnacle of the craftsman’s skill. Each military 1911 pistol was given the same care their commercial pistols would have received.
The parts were made from forgings, machined with care and hand-fitted. Once fitted, they were turned over to the polishing crew, who took great care to buff each of them to a mirror finish, without blurring rollmarks or knocking off edges. Then the pistols went off for blueing. In 1936 Colt wrote a book, A Century of Progress, that extolled their products. Not much had changed between 1911 and 1936. Their blueing procedure had changed, but not much.
Once buffed, each pistol was dunked in oil to protect the finish. Once a rack of pistols was ready, they were degreased and placed in the blueing ovens. Yes, ovens. But wait, it gets better. The degreasing process consisted of vats of boiling gasoline. The ovens were charcoal-fired for a while, then changed to gas ovens during WWI. They ran at a temperature between 610° and 670° F. The base of the ovens had a layer of bone charcoal and oil, to provide a small amount of carbon to the process.
The pistols rotated in the oven for five hours, slowing blueing as they spun. The result is a finish that cannot be duplicated by modern processes. The surface polish is so unmarred that the finish seems to have depth. The blueing has a color and clarity unmatched by modern hot chemical dip blueing. The finish is so deep, nearly three-dimensional, that it’s difficult to reproduce in photographs.
It also was not as durable as the Army liked. The bright polish showed scratches, and the blueing wore too easily. Remember, in 1911-12 the US army was not just a barracks force, they had units in the jungle in the Philippines and Cuba; the Marines had units on naval vessels; and the Navy was buying pistols for their own use. So, at about serial number 2400, Colt changed the polishing process. They had the crews stop a polishing grit sooner, and the duller finish (which is still a high-gloss finish by today’s standards) was “good enough.”
The pistols were marked on the slide “Model of 1911 US Army” except for those sent to the Navy, after Naval adoption in 1913; these had “Model of 1911 US Navy” markings instead. There were plans to mark the ones meant for the Marine Corps with “Model of 1911 USMC” but none were ever so marked. The Army simply issued the pistols and did not mark them with the unit of record, a habit beloved by European armies. Collectors of Lugers, for instance, go to great lengths to find unit-marked pistols, and track down just what the sometimes-cryptic markings mean. The US Navy, however, marked the pistols that went to ships, at least those that went to battleships. A 1911 with “BB” and a number indicates which battleship it went to, for example; this sort of thing provides a hot area for collectors.
This article is an excerpt from Patrick Sweeney’s 1911: The First 100 Years. Click here to order your hardcover copy.