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Sidearm centennial: Gunmakers, military historians celebrate 100 years of the Model 1911

Mar. 10, 2011 - 05:37PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 10, 2011 - 05:37PM  |  
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One hundred years ago on March 29, legendary gunmaker John Moses Browning achieved one of his great successes when the U.S. military adopted his .45-caliber pistol.

The adoption occurred after a grueling endurance competition between Colt's Special Army Model 1910 and the Savage Arms Model H. The two .45-caliber pistols fired 12,000 rounds each before Browning's design and Colt's manufacturing proved superior.

The Army launched the search in the early 1900s after deciding that its .38-caliber revolver had not provided enough stopping power during engagements in the Spanish-American War. It chose Colt's Browning design, and the pistol the Model 1911 became a workhorse in most of the 20th century's major wars.

To mark the anniversary, Colt Defense is producing a special line of anniversary M1911s, some of which feature ornate engraving and 24-karat-gold trim.

But the company is far from the only one investing in the M1911 market. The pistol remains popular with military members, police and firearms enthusiasts, prompting new designs every year, even though the military made the 9mm M9 Beretta its standard pistol in 1985.

Colt Defense, which spun off from Colt's Manufacturing in 2002, went all-out with the anniversary line. The most striking model is a one-of-a-kind pistol boasting more than 300 hours of engraving. It has ivory grips with the likeness of Colt‘s founder, Samuel Colt, on one panel and a World War I-era "doughboy" soldier on the other.

The company is donating the pistol to the National Rifle Association Foundation, which will auction it this spring at the 2011 NRA meeting in Pittsburgh.

"The 100th anniversary of the Colt 1911 pistol is a special celebration for our company," said retired Marine Lt. Gen. William Keys, president and CEO of Colt's Manufacturing. "We are proud of the role we‘ve played in supporting the men and women who serve our nation in combat and defend our freedoms."

The one-of-a-kind Colt 1911COLT001 is virtually priceless. Colt also is releasing two models to allow more fans and collectors to commemorate the 1911. The display-ready ANVII features a polished blue finish, smooth cocobolo grips, slide engraving with 24-karat-gold highlights and a glass-topped walnut display case.

Colt's most affordable anniversary model is the O1911ANVIII. It's based on the model O1918 and has custom rollmarks on the receiver and slide that commemorate the pistol's 100-year run.

The O1911ANVII will cost $2,295 and be limited to 750 pieces, while the more affordable O1911ANVIII will cost $1,500 and be limited to a single-production run that will fulfill all orders placed by Nov. 30.

Colt may be the first name in 1911s, but other companies rolled out new lines of M1911 pistols this year. Some are meant for the line, and some are meant for the show case.

The Royal was Kimber's third pistol, released in 1995. It got a new safety and the corresponding "II" designation back in 2002 and hadn't been touched since. For the centennial, Kimber dressed it up with a charcoal blue finish from Turnbull Restoration. This process alone costs about $600 per gun and requires the machining of special carbon steel parts to take the new finish. The new bone grip panels are meant to look like ivory without the price or protest. It's priced at $1,938.

Smith & Wesson of Springfield, Mass., is making a push in the M1911 market this year with its new enhanced "E" series. They're a major upgrade over the company's previous M1911s, featuring a precision hand-fit trigger, chambered and recessed muzzle, titanium firing pin, slip-resistant fish-scale slide gripping points and oversized extractor, company officials said.

The base model, the SW1911, is listed at $919, and the top-end model, the SW1911 Scandium, is listed at $1,369. The pistols are available with a military-standard 1913 Picatinny rail, front and back tritium night sights, an ambidextrous safety and a scandium alloy frame, which company officials say weighs the same as a comparable aluminum frame, but with wear characteristics approaching steel.

Springfield Armory of Geneseo, Ill., released a new M1911 for 2011 called the Range Officer. The company says it's a competition-ready pistol designed with affordability in mind. It has a steel frame, beavertail grip safety and a lowered and flared ejection port. The suggested price is $939.

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