The history of the 1911 pistol’s design and the nature of its many uses and special-purpose modifications are far too broad to be effectively addressed in a single book chapter … or, indeed, in a single book. A substantial section of a firearms library could be devoted to 1911 books by Donald Bady, Dave Lauck, Tim Mullin, James Serven, Layne Simpson, Bill Wilson, Larry Wilson, et. al. Today’s Gun Digest listing of every variation of currently produced 1911 pistol might well exceed the entire section on semiautomatic pistols in a Gun Digest of the early ‘50s.
Thus, a treatment of the topic in article length demands a specific focus, and no 1911 is more pleasing to focus on than the Colt National Match.
1911 Colt National Match Review and Pedigree
Tim Mullin’s ode to this pistol, American Beauty, states boldly, “…no finer semi-automatic handgun than the prewar Colt National Match ever left the factory, and anyone who owns one of these American Beauties holds a national treasure in his or her hand.” In terms of appearance and workmanship, few would argue with him. There are more accurate pistols today, and more user-friendly ones, but none with the pure Quality with a capital “Q” that permeates this rare and storied handgun.
Those experts who knew the pistol during its short life had good things to say about it. Said Elmer Keith, “It was fitted with target sights, a match grade barrel and carefully honed action parts. Trigger pulls were carefully adjusted. These fine pistols were marked on the left side ‘National Match Colt.’ This was and is, a very fine match .45 auto…The Super Match was a fine target sighted and selected Super .38, but is no longer made. It was brought out soon after the introduction of the National Match .45 Colt.” Actually, most NMs wore that marking on the right side of the slide.
A contemporary of Keith was Charlie Askins, who used a Colt .45 automatic along with .38 Special revolver and .22 auto by the same maker to win the national pistol championship in the 1930s. He once wrote of the National Match .45, “This is the Government Model with target sights and a target barrel, finely fitted and finished. Heretofore the targetmen fell on this gun and felt they had the best. It is believed Colt halted the production of the National Match grade simply because it was too expensive to manufacture and it could not thereafter be offered to the public at a popular price. Hand labor is a costly proposition and a good deal of highly skilled hand effort had to go into the completion of each pistol.”
A Brief History
Born as an expensive gun in the depths of the Great Depression, the finely crafted National Match sold better than expected but was never destined to be a mass-market success. The addition of the Super Match, a .38 Super with the same treatment, differing only in markings, caliber, and cartridge capacity, did little to change the inevitable.
When production ceased with the outbreak of WWII, the epoch of the Colt National Match had come to an end. While Mullin notes that a few were assembled from leftover parts after the war’s conclusion, the company chose not to make it a catalog item. However, the concept was resurrected in 1957 with the Gold Cup. The first runs were marked only “National Match” on the slide, and later “National Match Gold Cup,” and finally just “Gold Cup.”
According to one of the great Colt authorities, James E. Serven, “The ‘National Match’ first appeared in the 1933 Colt catalog. In all general specifications it resembled the standard 1911 model. However, Colt workmen gave these pistols very special attention. The action was hand-honed, a selected, carefully targetted [sic] match barrel was used, the trigger was checked and of course there was the ‘hump-backed’ checked arched housing.”
As Serven noted in his updated 1964 edition of Colt Firearms, “In 1957 the Colt Company resumed manufacture of a deluxe .45 automatic target pistol, naming this model the ‘Colt Gold Cup National Match.’ Working parts are hand-fitted; the pistol is meticulously made and super-accurate for championship shooting. Slack between the barrel and slide is automatically eliminated. The very wide, grooved trigger is fitted with an adjustable, spring-loaded trigger stop…Finish is Colt ‘Royal Blue’ with sandblasted areas where glare might affect aim.”
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To Mullin and many other purists, only the prewar guns are the true American Beauties, the original National Match Colts of legend. Whether or not the Gold Cup generation measured up is a matter of debate among 1911 enthusiasts to this day. Serven seems to have been impressed with the Gold Cup incarnation. So was Charles M. Heard, a popular gun expert of the day, who described it in 1960 as the “Colt ‘National Match’ .45 ACP, factory accurized and custom crafted for target. Trigger pull: 4 lbs., adjustable with trigger stop. Full target sights, straight back-strap. Has all other features of Government model. REMARKS: My tests only proved this gun to be all that is claimed for it and expected of it. May be used for match target, combat, or self-defense; still the most powerful semi-auto made.”
The argument over the Gold Cup’s right to wear the mantle of the National Match wasn’t entirely nit-picking. While the original National Match was a true heavy duty Government Model .45 or .38 Super finely polished and blued and then fitted with match barrel and altogether slicked-up, the Gold Cup was seen as a lighter weight, lighter duty gun. Circa 1949, Remington had come up with a factory target load in .45 ACP that captured the bullseye shooters immediately: a 185-grain semi-wadcutter loaded to a mid-range velocity of only 770 foot-seconds velocity. It did not reliably cycle a Government Model pistol with its heavy-duty slide and full power recoil spring built for a 230-grain GI hardball round at 820 to 850 feet per second.
Recognizing this, Colt lightened the slide of the 1957 series National Match/Gold Cup .45s. NRA’s technical staff writer for American Rifleman, M.D. Waite, “outed” this fact in his December 1957 review of the new pistol.
Waite wrote, “Our preliminary firing tests indicated uniform functioning with both full charge and mid-range ammunition. This puzzled us a bit until we noted that the interior of the slide is cut away somewhat to reduce its weight approximately two ounces. It is thus unnecessary to change recoil springs when using factory ammunition of differing recoil potential….”
Rumors spread that this made the gun weak. It certainly did not make it inaccurate, and the Gold Cup worked as advertised. Added Waite in that seminal test of the budding Gold Cup, “When machine-rest tested at 50 yards, our gun shot possible-size groups with commercial wadcutter ammunition but did not perform quite so well with government-loaded Service ammunition.” The very top champions kept on using Government Models that had been accurized by Chow, Clark, Dinan, Giles, Shockey, and other master pistolsmiths of the period.
Adding to the Gold Cup’s bad rap for fragility were its sights. Crude by today’s standards, the Stevens National Match adjustable rear sight of the prewar years at least did not break or fly off the gun. A relatively large number of original National Match pistols had sturdy fixed sights that offered a larger sight picture than the standard service pistol, the best of these being the excellent high visibility sights manufactured by the King Gun Sight Company and for some time available on the NM pistols from the Colt factory. King made a practical sight that was adjustable for windage but not elevation.
Alas, Colt management in the latter half of the 20th century manifested some truly egregious short-sightedness and loss of institutional history. The Gold Cup generation of the National Match series was never offered with fixed sights. Instead, it came with the Elliason adjustable rear sight and an undercut Patridge front. The front sight was not properly staked and would often depart from the slide within 500 rounds of hardball, though it lasted longer with the “softball” target loads.
The Elliason rear sight proved to be superb on the Python revolver, where Colt offered it as an extra-cost option, but it did not stand up to the rocketing slide of a 1911, particularly with full power .45 ammo. Secured with hollow pins, the Elliasons often came loose when the pins cracked.
All this was a shame, because the Gold Cup was beloved by handgunners including cops of the Sixties and Seventies who wanted a gun that would feed the jacketed hollow point ammo that was becoming popular but didn’t want to send their Government Model to a pistolsmith to throat its feedway for the high performance rounds. A Government Model or Commander of the period was “mil-spec” in that regard. It would feed fine with the 230-grain round-nose full metal jacket military cartridge (or, from its introduction in the early 1970s to this day, with the Remington 185-grain JHP whose nose duplicated the ogive of hardball), but would often balk at hollow-cavity projectiles with wider mouths. The Gold Cup, designed to feed the softball round, with its strangely shaped button nose and short overall length, was much more amenable to the hollow points once Lee Jurras’s pioneering Super Vel ammunition company got the ball rolling in that direction in the Sixties.
Unfortunately, many of the people who wanted beautifully made Colt .45 automatics with the gorgeous Royal Blue finish, which gave the deep, rich blue-black of the prewar National Match pistols a solid run for the money, wanted heavy duty fighting handguns. The Gold Cup’s reputation for fragility, to whatever degree it may or may not have been deserved, got in the way of that. By the time Colt started using the same heavy-duty slide dimensions as the Government Model, it was too late to change the Gold Cup’s image. Sales of the Gold Cup were long disappointing. Colt briefly offered the Combat Elite, in essence a Gold Cup with fixed sights but without the gorgeous finish and without the advertising it should have had, and it went by the wayside. Colt produces in dribs and drabs a pistol they call the Gold Cup Trophy today.
In time, with the big resurrection of the 1911’s popularity, new manufacturers came along to fill the void. The Kimber pistols, particularly the Gold Match, and the upper lines of the Springfield Armory 1911A1s, especially the TRP (Tactical Response Pistol) with fixed sights and the Trophy Match with sturdy BoMar or equivalent adjustable sights, are today’s heirs to the National Match concept. They will not have the lustrous, captivating finish of the best Colts of yesteryear, however, though they’ll be proportionally more affordable than the NM was when Colt introduced it in 1933.
Production pistols of fine quality, like the Bill Wilson and Ed Brown lines, come closer. Perhaps most in keeping with the NM tradition are the top-line pistols from Rock River Arms and Les Baer. The latter two brands are the only out-of-the-box 1911s likely to take you to the winner’s circle today at Camp Perry without aftermarket custom work. More accurate than the Springfields or Kimbers, each can be ordered in a super-tight version that guarantees accuracy on the order of 1.5 inches at 50 yards. That’s more than the Colt National Match in any of its incarnations could offer. But even these fine pistols will not come with a finish that matches a prewar Colt National Match, or the best of the Gold Cups in Royal Blue.
The few thousand National Match pistols shipped out of Hartford in the less than a decade of their epoch also presaged the “combat custom” 1911 so popular today. The best of the current craftsmen, Mark Morris and Dave Lauck and Dick Heinie and a handful more, will give you today’s equivalent of a National Match for several thousand dollars after a considerable wait. These guns will be much more user friendly, with lighter and cleaner triggers, beveled magazine wells, beavertail grip safeties and other amenities. But, geared for heavy duty, they will come with a finish that cannot equal the beauty of that old National Match.
Shooting the National Match and Its Successors
Way back in the Fifties, Jeff Cooper said that all the Government Model really needed was a lighter, crisper trigger; throating to feed high efficiency ammo; and more visible sights. Given that hardball was about all you could buy over the counter for a .45 auto before WWII and the NM fed it just fine, the National Match pistol had anticipated the Colonel’s needs and delivered them amply when Jeff was a youngster. It is a formula that has stood the test of time.
Some say that the Gold Cup generation of National Match pistols raised the bar with its slanted slide grooves and flat top slide.
Whether these truly enhance performance is an unresolved debate, but I for one just like them esthetically. The original National Match is so rare and precious today that virtually no one actually carries or shoots one anymore. If they did, they would fit them with beavertail grip safeties and perhaps larger-profile thumb safeties (maybe even ambidextrous), and throat them for JHP ammo.
The last person I knew who carried an original National Match “for real” and used it as such was Bill Allard. Bill was the partner of the NYPD Stakeout Squad’s famous Jim Cirillo, and the only man on that high-risk unit who killed more armed opponents in gunfights than Cirillo. Allard’s favorite pistol – used in more than one of those shootings – was an original Colt National Match .45 with high fixed sights, a gun he had special permission to carry on duty. He has since retired his pet National Match to the gun safe, and now, in retirement, carries a Kimber .45 auto daily.
In an early Gold Cup with the lighter slide, I’d be sparing with hardball and would use no +P ammo at all. With light loads, use a light spring; with heavy loads, use a heavy spring. The 1957 concept of one spring for both helped lead to the Gold Cup getting that reputation for fragility. With a lighter spring, the slide comes back harder and hammers the frame proportionally more.
Do not expect 1-inch groups at 25 yards or 2-inch groups at 50 unless the gun has been accurized or you’ve paid extra for a top-line Les Baer or Rock River pistol. That degree of accuracy never seems to have been present in the original National Match, and as Waite noted was not present with ball ammo in the Gold Cup. (Even the short-lived Gold Cup factory-chambered for the .38 Special wadcutter cartridge was disappointing in its accuracy, according to most testers.) My own National Match cracks the 1-inch/25 yard mark, but only because it was accurized by the USAF Marksmanship Training Unit at Lackland AFB. In conventional configuration 1911 pistols in the National Match mold made more recently (as opposed to long-slide or compensated target guns), only my custom Colts by Morris, Lauck, et. al. will deliver that magic inch.
The one exception is my Springfield TRP Operator, whose heavy extended frame with flashlight rail alters the 1911 silhouette unforgivably for the purist. It will do an inch on the nose for five shots at 25 yards with Federal Gold Medal 185 grain Match softball. The rest will do in the neighborhood of two inches at 25. For practical purposes, that’s a good neighborhood, and about where the original National Match and Gold Cup dwelt with service hardball ammo. The finest “boutique .45s” from semi-custom houses such as Ed Brown’s and Bill Wilson’s will deliver an inch at 25 yards with the best ammo, too.
Although I’ve shot original Colt National Match pistols, the only one I ever owned was a 1962 production Colt marked “National Match” and not “Gold Cup.” It had already been accurized at Lackland and fitted with BoMar sights for the Distinguished (service pistol configuration, .45 hardball) bulls-eye matches when I got it, around 1970, for $100 from a bullseye shooter who was giving up the game and wanted to get rid of his equipment. Its gorgeous Royal Blue finish was soon marred by constant presentations from concealment leather and, before long, police duty holsters.
The thumb snaps of the period did not have the cushions you see today to protect a gun’s finish from metal-to-metal drag during the draw.
It never jammed until the day (at Bianchi Cup, naturally) that its extractor gave up the ghost. I pretty much wore out the trigger and Bill Laughridge at Cylinder & Slide Shop replaced it with the much better Videcki unit. I won guns with it at Second Chance, won a police combat state championship with it, and even took my share of trophies with it in the bulls-eye days of my youth. I eventually retired it to the gun safe and ultimately gave it to my ex-wife, who was my young fiancee when I bought it. My younger daughter likes to liberate it from her mother’s gun safe and take it to the range, like giving a retired racehorse some exercise.
Over the years, the deep lustrous blue of the top-line Colt finish lost its appeal. Having ruined that finish once, I was more interested in rugged gun surfaces that didn’t wear and better resisted corrosion. By the late ‘80s I was spending more time with the new generation of National Match inspired pistols. These days, Kimbers and Springfields and “combat custom” Colts fulfill my 1911 needs, along with Ed Brown, Nighthawk, and Wilson Custom guns. I used a Kimber Gold Match to first make Master in IDPA’s single action .45 division, and shot the Springfield Trophy Match at Camp Perry one year.
Yet for me, as for anyone who appreciates handguns, the great old Colt National Match remains the piece de resistance. As a tool, this accurate yet reliable gun was the apotheosis of the powerful semiautomatic service pistol in its time, and it spawned generations of similar guns in the decades that followed. As an icon of fine craftsmanship, it deserves the “American Beauty” title Tim Mullin bestowed upon it. Colt’s Custom Shop today has the ability to resurrect this pistol in its original glory. So does the Performance Center at Smith & Wesson, who could duplicate the original NM’s old world blue-black finish that looks like liquid, on their SW1911 .45.
I really wish they would. Great beauty … unparalleled functionality in its time … that honed action that racks so smoothly, it feels like running your hand over Waterford Crystal … the Colt National Match pistol was truly one of a kind. It would find a much more receptive market if reincarnated today.
This article is an excerpt from Massad Ayoob's Greatest Handguns of the World.