When the Marine Corps’ Systems Command in Quantico announced in late July it was awarding a five-year, $22.5 million contract to Colt for roughly 12,000 new M45A1 Close Quarter Battle Pistols, speculation immediately erupted that it might actually be the first indication that the tenure of the U.S. military’s current standard service sidearm, the much-detested, 9mm Beretta, might finally be ending.
Quantico, of course, insists this is not the case at all, that the M45A1s are merely destined for MARSOC, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, whose elite troops use a wide variety of non-standard weapons, including an earlier MEUSOC M45 version of the M1911, in their deployments. Perhaps if the M45A1 were any other weapon, their explanation might be more readily accepted. But since the M45A1 is a development of the M1911 .45-caliber ACP automatic pistol, it’s hard not to attach deeper meaning into it.
Probably nothing in the Pentagon’s long history ever stirred quite as much controversy and anger as its 1985 decision to replace the M1911 with the 9mm M9 Beretta. The M1911 had been in continuous use since before World War I and had reputation as a tough, reliable, hard hitting weapon. In its nearly eighty years in the American military inventory, it had undergone only a few, extremely minor, modifications during the 1920s, stemming from experience gained using it in the trenches.
The M1911 had its origin in the 1890s, when the Army first began looking into what were then called self-loading pistols to replace the many different types of revolvers it was then using. With the Indian Wars behind them, the Army turned to smaller caliber revolvers, including the M1892 .38 Long Colt. While it worked well enough against Spaniards and Cubans during the short, Spanish American War, its performance against highly-motivated, fanatical, often drug-crazed Moro tribesmen during the Philippine Pacification was a much different story. Even when shot multiple times at close range with the .38, the Moros wouldn’t go down. It was enough to make the Army decide to develop a much larger caliber automatic pistol.
Beginning in 1904, the Army ran competitive tests that continued through 1911. The competition boiled down to two designs; one from Savage, the other from Colt. The Colt pistol was the brainchild of John Browning, the great American firearms designer. His design operated on the short recoil principle, in which the locked barrel and slide recoil only a short distance, then unlock and separate. It also utilized the gas energy from a fired cartridge to eject the empty casing and then reload the next round into the chamber.
Both the Colt and Savage designs underwent numerous modifications as they progressed through the testing. In the final phase of the tests, each pistol had six thousand rounds fired from it over a two-day period. Whenever the guns got hot, they were cooled by being dunked into water. While the Colt continued to operate flawlessly, the Savage reported thirty-seven malfunctions. In the end the Colt was picked, being given the designation M1911, for the year of its adoption by the armed forces.
Besides being tough and reliable, the M1911’s great virtue as a weapon was its incredible stopping power. Simply put, whatever it hit, went down. It served surpassingly well throughout both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and all the little conflicts in between.
Not that the M1911 didn’t have its share of detractors. It was heavy, had excessive kick and was notoriously inaccurate at anything beyond close quarters. This has been found to be due to two factors: one mechanical, the other the shooter.
Most experts agree that mechanical accuracy of the M1911 is dependent on several things: maintaining a good vertical lockup and a snug hood-to-slide fit between the barrel and the bushing as well as between the bushing and the slide. This is a problem that can be fixed with a few dollars worth of parts. In a sense, the real problem is that proficiency using an M1911 pistol requires constant practice and .45 ACP rounds are not cheap.
By the later 1970s, there was pressure both within and outside the services to replace the M1911 with something lighter, cheaper and of smaller caliber. By this point there were, for the first time, significant numbers of women in the ranks as well as soldiers of smaller physical stature. Many complained that the .45-caliber pistol, with its weight and kick, constituted overkill. At the same time, there was pressure from NATO to standardize to the same 9 mm caliber as the other members.
A competition was held, which stretched out for several years and caused a certain amount of controversy. In the end, what was picked was the Beretta 92F 9mm, which was then designated the M9. On the face of it, the 9mm Beretta has a lot going for it. The 115-grain or 124-grain full metal jacket 9 mm round is faster and more accurate then a similar .45 caliber round. The M9 magazine carries fifteen rounds, compared to M1911’s seven. It is also cheaper and requires a lot less frequent practice to maintain proficiency.
The 9 mm round also has better penetration than the .45 round, but this is also its shortcoming. Better penetration also means that much of the round’s kinetic energy never gets transmitted to the body it is hitting and is lost upon exit. As a result, it lacks the M1911’s legendary stopping power. While the Beretta might be fine in normal use, against highly motivated, some might say fanatical enemies, such as our military has been increasingly encountering in recent years, it could be considered less effective. In a way, it’s the Philippine pacification all over again.
Currently the M9 is slated to be replaced by an as-yet undetermined future sidearm. During the last decade there have been several initiatives, for example the Future Handgun System, which merged with the SOF Combat Pistol program to become the Joint Combat Pistol. At one point reverting to a .45-caliber weapon with Picatinny rails for attaching lasers or night vision or other scopes was considered. In 2006 the program was suspended after the Army dropped out. A new initiative is underway for a Modular Handgun System, calling for a non-caliber-specific weapon with a variety of handgrips, magazine options and fire control devices as well as Picatinny rails. It has yet to be funded.
It’s difficult not to view the Marine Corps purchase of 12,000 M45A1 pistols as anything less than the beginning of a larger move back to the M1911. Even if it isn’t, it has to be the single largest purchase of Colt .45s since World War II. It is entirely possible the Marines really intend them only for MARSOC. But then, they might just be quietly taking the lead while everyone else continues to argue requirements.