Defense Media Network

M45A1: The Return of the M1911 .45 ACP?

Marine Corps purchase of 12,000 M45 Close Quarter Battle Pistols could mean the iconic .45 ACP is the shape of things to come

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.

Sgt. Jude Calin, with 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Maritime Interception Operations (MIO) assault force, practices quick magazine change drills on a M1911A1 .45 pistol during training at the NATO Maritime Interception Operations Training Center (NMIOTC) in Souda Bay, Crete, Nov. 9, 2010. USMC Photo by Master Sgt. Christopher Matt

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.

Cpl. Aaron Cardenas (left), a security element team leader of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, fires the MEUSOC .45-caliber pistol as Cpl. Aaron Hyman (right), a Deep Reconnaissance Platoon team leader with the MEU, coaches at the range in Guam, during a close quarters battle firing drill. Marine armorers custom-built almost 800 MEUSOC M45s with specially selected parts. The new purchase of M45s will be built by Colt. DoD photo by Lance Cpl. Kamran Sadaghiani

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.

By

Brendan McNally is a journalist and writer specializing in defense and aerospace. Brendan began his career...

  • I carry a Springfield 1911, which is similar to the Cold 1911 and it has extreme stopping power and is my weapon of choice. When I shoot it, the target goes down without hesitation and the USMC should be the pioneer to bring this caliber back into full force.

    Semper Fi

  • Actually, the .45 acp has a bit over 400 foot pounds of energy, and the 9mm Parabellum has only a bit less than 400 footpounds, so recoil is almost identical, but in comparable weapons the .45 is far more accurate, since any variation in projectile weight has less effect on a 230 grain bullet than it does on a 115 grain bullet.

    Also, filling the large bore of the .45 requires a much faster burning powder, which produces dramatically less muzzle flash than a nine, a serious consideration in low light operations.

    The primary reason the .45 has superior stopping power is it’s inferior sectional density, i.e., the wide bullet slows down faster and leaves all it’s energy in the target, while the fast and narrow bullet drills through, leaving perhaps 100 foot pounds of energy in the target, and most of 300 foot pounds behind it. The overpenetration of the 9mm was a serious reason so many police departments left it for .45′s and .40′s.

    Also, the M9 Beretta can’t function reliably without it’s vertically sliding lock block being constantly soaked in oil, which turns it into a dirt magnet. The 1911′s vertical lockup, directly between the barrel and slide, is virtually foolproof and eliminates the often fragile seperate lockblock found on Berettas, Glocks, and Walthers.

    For reference, I design firearms for a living, and have worked at Colt’s, S&W, and Stag Arms/CMT.

  • Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    With respect to felt recoil, though, the weight of the weapon matters as well, along with the actual design of the weapon, doesn’t it? A 9 mm Browning P35 at more than two pounds is going to have less felt recoil than a 9 mm Glock 17 at 1 pound 7 ounces, isn’t it? Likewise an all-steel .45 from whatever manufacturer is going to have less felt recoil than some of the compacts.

    Regardless, your points on the stopping power of the .45 are well taken, as are your comments on the overpenetration of the 9 mm, although that’s a well-known problem. Experience doesn’t lie. Nor does gelatin.

    Thanks for your comment.

  • Lyle F. Padilla

    The military is slowly shifting back to the .45, and I’ve been saying that they would, ever since they decided to do the switch to the 9mm in the 1980s (but I was a lowly company grader back then and nobody listened to me, not that they’d listen to me as a field grader today even if I weren’t retired).

    The impetus for switching to the 9mm was to standardize with the sidearm ammunition used by other NATO troops. but history is repeating itself, almost exactly 100 years later. The Army had standardized to the .38 at the turn of the last century. Then they discovered during the Moro Insurrection in the Philippines that the .38 didn’t have the stopping power needed in close-in combat against the insurrectionists who would attack while doped up on hashish and morphine, so they went back to the .45, coming up with the Colt Model 1911 such as Ray’s version above minus the fancy customization.

    The Moros were Islamic warriors, by the way. And the American “.38″ is actually a misnomer, as the bullet diameter is actually .357 inches. And if you do the math of converting metric to English, 9 millimeters=.354 inches. DUH! Those who fail to learn the lessons of history…

  • This is a CC of a conversaation I’ve been having with Brendan.
    That’s less than $1,900 a pistol, which is actually a decent price for an all milled, all forged pistol. Go to castings and you could cut the price to about $900-$1,000, but they wouldn’t hold up very well under a military lifestyle. I recently saw a new Ruger 1911 (all Rugers are cast) that needed it’s slide tightened up after only a few months of active shooting. By comparison, I also recently saw an original 1915 production piece that had been through at least 5 barrel changes. Presumably many more, since military armorers stopped putting the pinpricks inside the dust cover that denoted barrel changes sometime back around the beginning of the Vietnam war. But a minimum of 100,000 rounds, and probably a considerable multiple of that.
    We get our forgings from Bourden Forge in Middletown CT, who have been making them for more than 80 years. I have a piece of paper on the wall that says I’m supposed to know something about metallurgy, and I grimace when I hear people say that “modern” castings (MIM, etc.) are as good as forgings.
    Castings work fine in compression, but are more than questionable whenever there is a repetitive torsional load. Developing a grain structure along the line of flexure means the same difference in steel as you would find between an archer’s bow made of long grained wood and another made of particle board. Either the load is transferred and shared across a coherent area or it’s concentrated between individual granules, what we egghead engineers call a stress riser. I’ll believe castings work well in that environment when auto manufacturers start using cast connecting rods in their engines.
    Another thing to consider is that most semiauto pistols are 90 degree guns, meaning that the bore is perpendicular to the breech face. They start unlocking as soon as the slide begins it’s rearward movement. A properly made 1911 is a 91 degree gun, meaning the barrel and breechfach are pointing downhill one degree. This gives a slightly longer dwell time before unlocking, but even more so, it creates a secondary “toggle-lock” effect when the pistol has to process an occasional hot round.
    Important a century ago, when quality control in loading machines might not have been as good as it is today. Even more important now, when everyone and his cousin has to put Plus P and +P+ loads down the tube to prove his manhood. Interestingly, the original 1905 was also a 90 degree gun, and the toggle/longer dwell idea was added by the military review board as an enhancement. So, the 1911 might not be entirely a John Moses Browning design, rather a joint effort improvement of the basic Browning with input from General Thompson of Tommygun fame, and a young Captain named Julian Hatcher, who went on to essentially reinvent modern ballistics, firearms metallurgy, and forensics.
    I’ve often wondered what effect the initial cycle delay build in to the 1911 by the review board had on General Thompson’s later use of the Blish lock, or friction delay, that he put in his submachinegun design. A different mechanism, borrowed from naval artillery, but the same effect, ensuring a slower beginning to the extraction cycle, resulting in a more positive grab by the extractor and less chance of rim damage to the cartridge case.
    Add in the .45′s much lower operating pressures, 17,000 psi to 22,000 psi for most target and service rounds, with a Plus P not exceeding 27,500psi (LUP, same thing when you’re working down in that range). Compare that to the low to high 30K range found in 9mm’s, .357 SIG’s, and .40′s. Then throw in the self tensioned internal extractor, rather than the spring loaded external extractor that so often develops a “float” with high pressure rounds, resulting in stoppages.
    The last is not theoretical. In tests run with the Hartford CT police ERT team, external extractor S & W 1911 slides were developing 5 stoppages per 1,500 rounds, admittedly under insane conditions. Including being fired with the slide against pavement and concrete walls, upside down, and other indignities. But replacement slides with conventional 1911 extractors, properly tensioned, run clean under the same circumstances.
    It’s important to remember that, in developing a pistol in those days, untold tens of millions of rounds of ammo were used. A financial constraint that would preclude development of a new weapon today, at least one with the same degree of reliability. Small wonder every modern full power semiauto service handgun in production today is to one major extent or another a son of the 1911, extemporized modifications of the original.
    The one thing modern 1911′s have over the original is dramatically better triggers. The original was designed for a cavalryman or infantry officer to use in a last ditch defense against a saber, lance, or bayonet at 20 feet. Browning and the Board put a brutal 9 pound trigger on those things, with a sear engagement surface on the hammer that was over square, requiring the trigger pull to cam the hammer backwards before it released. A wonderful safety feature, along with a half cock stop to catch an accidentally jarred hammer, a thumb safety, and a grip safety. The weapon was designed from scratch to be as near foolproof as possible in the hands of a frightened soldier fighting at hand to hand range.
    Today, we routinely put 3 to 4 pound triggers on pistols, with no more than ten or fifteen thousanths of an inch over travel after a glasslike break. Any match grade 1911 can fire one inch groups from a rest at 25 yards, and most production guns can keep them inside 3 inches.
    As for the effectiveness of the .45acp cartridge, look up the Thompson-LaGarde tests the U.S. Army ran, using .30 (7.65mm) caliber pistol ammunition, 9mm, .40 caliber, .45, and .50, on various live animals from goat to cattle size, as well as a number of human corpses salvaged from executions around the country. The .45 was the hands down winner, and rightly deserves the title of “only scientifically designed cartridge”.
    There is a practical upper limit, proven over a century of use, to the pistol weight the typical shooter can carry and handle during firing. It works out at about 40 ounces. Up to that weight most people shoot better than with a lighter weapon, the biggest complaint I have against plastic recievers. The lighter plastic framed weapons intrinsically kick harder due to less weight, and also due to a higher weight balance. With the center of mass closer to the slide, the shooter’s wrist is effectively at the end of a longer lever. One reason so many Glock competitors have gone to stainless steel frames from CCF. The other being that when the Glock lock breaks, as they so often do, the shooter retains his fingers, rather than having his hand come apart along with the frame.

  • Extremely stellar news. I trust there will be a contract buy of the correct ammunition.
    i support the MEU-SOC 45cal shooters back in the 80′s (back when specops was not a career enhancer) at Lejeune. The system was filled with Israeli .45cal ammo that burn so hot it blew the upper receivers apart. Had to be creative and beat the system to obtain Winchester match. as well as get Winchester in the system. To be a shooter you need to shoot daily as it is a perishable skill. Hope someone; somewhere is hoarding or buying .45cal.

  • Lyle F. Padilla

    Just to clarify my reference to “Ray’s version” in my earlier comment, the post was copied and pasted from a comment I made on Facebook on my friend’s customized M1911. I’d forgotten that I’d made that specific reference until after I reposted it here.

  • It’s doubtful that Marine Corps’ Systems Command is being anything but truthful and I would be cautious about statements like “widely hated” about the M9. The question is one of mission and I think here is where the answer lies. USSOCOM along with the Big Services have a new focus and that is the Pacific Basin. There is legitimate concern with China projecting its national interests in the region with military power, so then move by MARSOC reflects that focus. Over the coming months, that change in emphasis will surface throughout the entire supply change. The more interesting question is not so much a 9mm to 45 ACP change but rather why was the 1911 selected over the SIG P220, HK USP or Glock 21, 30 and 36. Part of that answer is the experience that the USMC has had with the M1911 and M1911A1, but should that drive the decision?

  • A large part of the reason for MARSOC choosing the 1911 is the Marine special operators familiarity with the weapon Which has been in constant use with Force Recon in the form of the MEU(SOC) 1911 custom designed,,built , and maintained at WTB Quantico. However the creation of MARSOC has outstripped WTB’s ability to build & maintain that many custom weapons, hence the M45 program.

    Also keep in mind MARSOC isn’t the only unit receiving these weapons. It’s also the entire reconnaissance community and Maritime Raid Force Security Elements, there’s talk of the other specialized Marine units including, Scout Snipers, ANGLICO, & FAST CO, being issued the M45.

  • Sal, I have a “Wall Of Shame” in our pistol assembly area, showing numerous exploded Glocks and attendant bodily damage.

    I wish I knew who does their advertising. A quarter of a century in the American market, selling a weapon designed from the word go as the cheapest unit that would function, and they have staggered from one disaster to another. Every Golck made before September 1990 had to be returned for a new frame, as the roll pins put in the synthetic frame were unhardened, causing deformation and slamfires. Several police officers shot themselves or others loading the weapons.
    The reason for the asinine flat topped slide was that originally said slide was a 6mm sheetmetal stamping formed over two plugs and welded. When the welds began cracking, Glock went to an American CNC company and had them start producing a solid slide for them out of barstock. Not as good as a forging, but much superior to the fragile weldment.

    The frames undergo a continual modification to improve strength in the scary weak area just above and in front of the trigger guard, but they have still managed to blow up .45 GAP’s, .45acp’s, .40 S&W’s, and the 357 SIG cartridge is a timebomb waiting to happen. In October 2010, the New Mexico State Police blew up 3 brand new guns with factory ammo.

    At the end of the day, even if you get one that holds together, you still have a weapon that has no safety (the trigger in a trigger is a disaster waiting to happen, and is actually more easy to brush than a standard model). You have plastic sights that wipe off against a barrier. And you have the notoriously poor reliability of the Gen4 Glocks, which essentially specialise in down time.

    The HK USP, minus the silly rubber wipe ring, is mechanically a 1911, essentially an admission by HK that everything they’d made until then in a handgun was a wildly overengineered teutonic toy, with far too many bells and whistles and nonexistent ergonomics.

    The P220 also has a stamped and welded slide, albeit with a much better grade of workmanship that the Glock. The hammer drop function is one of those cutesy Eastern European tricks that really have no practical function, and the lack of a real safety is missed, especially by police department lawyers.

    The SIG firing pin block, al la the Series 80 Colt, is also a destroyer of of precise trigger pulls, as on the Colt ’80. Add in a double action trigger (Col. Cooper’s elegant answer to a question never asked) that must be used, along with a first shot, the most important one, usually thrown wide due to the massive difference between trigger pull on that first shot versus the following single action shots.

    Add in the Teutonic aversion to manual safeties, along with the average policeman’s 50 shots per year mandatory minimum number of shots fired, and it is a lawyer’s wet dream.

  • I was active duty during the change over and we were some upset Marines then. I worked closely with MP’s and had several as friends and again the attitude toward the M9 was anything but favorable. I can still hear the expletives my NCOIC used. Now that was some entertainment.

    In 1987 when I started my Law Enforcement career, I had to go through this again. I guess Beretta was winning contracts left and right. Both in combat and Law Enforcement the main concern is stopping power, which is mainly obtained by the larger caliber. I have heard all of the arguments and bore witness to, and partaken in testing of the 92F and 92FA and the only positive was magazine capacity.

    I for one, am glad to see the 1911 come back, if for nothing else than tradition.

    Semper Fi

  • I am glad to see the 1911 return. While I have shot an used a 92fs for many years you just can not a 45 acp if only ball ammo is used. Hollow point ammo can make any round effective. But a 45 1911 has a proven track record. The ones we had were in pretty bad shape mags had weak springs etc etc but these pistols had seen over 60 years of use do not see any of the plastic toys with that kind of service life! How many rounds fired? Plus the money stays in the U.S.

  • Use an extended magazine, and the 1911 7-round mag can be mitigated. You may not need this on defense; you’ll be fortunate to get off more than three rounds of defense.

    Load iterations of sequenced HPoint, flat nose, then ball. Or straight Hpoint.

    HP rounds can be waxed.

    No need for P or P+. Do the math. The design is for penetration/force dispersal, not pass thru.
    The intention is to completely incapacitate instantaneously, not to aerate/swiss cheese. (Read: KILL).
    Targets will never be more than 10-15 meters distant. Think 3-7 m. Small red dot makers may have a role here.
    Read the reports of ChiComs storming over artillery berms in Korea. Canadians dropped their Browning 9mm and snatched up dead Americans’ 1911s.