Defense Media Network

M45A1: A New Colt .45 for the 21st Century

Few combat firearms are more personal than pistols. Much of this connection centers on the fact that successful marksmanship with a pistol is a matter of personal skill, practice, and hand/eye coordination. For more than a century, the pistol of choice for members of the U.S. military was the Colt M1911 .45-caliber semi-automatic. Originally designed by the incomparable John Browning, the M1911 “rail gun” and its .45-caliber ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) round have been the standard for hitting power and reliability over 11 decades. Even though the M1911 was replaced in U.S. military service by the Beretta M9 9 mm pistol in the 1980s, many units and communities within the U.S. armed forces continued to use the M1911 for specialized purposes. Much of this desire to stay with the M1911 had nothing to do with nostalgia, but rather with the vastly superior hitting power of the .45-caliber ACP round. Also designed by Browning, this round had several times the mass of a 9 mm round and could, quite literally, “stop a charging Moro warrior dead in his tracks.”

The most notable of those services holding out on giving up the M1911 was the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), which always loved the pistol for its incredible stopping power and maneuverability in close quarters combat situations. To this end, the USMC actually began to remanufacture M1911s at the Marine Corps Weapons Training Battalion’s Precision Weapons Section (PWS), located at Quantico, Va. There, Marine gunsmiths would disassemble selected M1911s down to the frames for examination and precision alignment. The weapons were then reassembled with new grips and ambidextrous thumb safeties, a new trigger assembly, high-visibility sights, precision barrels, and finally, improved magazines by Wilson Combat®. Known as the “MEU(SOC) .45,” they were mainly reserved for use by Marine Expeditionary Units (Special Operations Capable), or MEU(SOC)s. The result was a virtually new weapon with improved accuracy, softer recoil (like a 9 mm Glock), and the classic firepower of the .45 ACP round.

On July 20, 2012, the USMC Systems Command announced that the winner of the new CQBP pistol contract was Colt Defense LLC of Hartford, Conn., the original manufacturer of Browning’s classic M1911 more than a century ago.

The remanufactured pistols became treasured throughout the Marine Corps, especially since only a handful were ever seen outside of the USMC, and generally as presentation weapons given to senior officers and officials. So eventually the Marine Corps began to consider a new procurement of .45-caliber pistols, and bought a number of Interim M1911 Close Quarter Battle Pistols from Kimber while it considered its options. In the early years of the 21st century, USMC units were fighting across the globe in environments from the mountains of Afghanistan to the Philippines and Africa, relearning combat lessons from the 20th century that had been long forgotten. This included the need for compact, reliable, and maneuverable firearms, particularly in close-quarters combat situations. In addition, Marines began to see the nature of their opponents change, with body armor and pre-combat pain medication usage becoming common in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The Beretta M9 and the 9 mm pistol round were felt to be inadequate for these kinds of emerging threats.

The requirement for a new pistol became more pronounced, especially when the new Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) battalions were created, and the Close Quarter Battle Pistol (CQBP) program was started, with a number of submissions from various firearms manufacturers. The actual CQBP requirement itself was long and involved, initially calling for a level of parts interoperability with the original M1911 pistol. However, as the procurement moved along, features like a seven-round magazine and overall system reliability began to take hold in the minds of the USMC evaluators. On July 20, 2012, the USMC Systems Command announced that the winner of the new CQBP pistol contract was Colt Defense LLC of Hartford, Conn., the original manufacturer of Browning’s classic M1911 more than a century ago.


The new CQBP, designated M45A1, looks and operates much like the M1911 pistol used in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Colt photo

The new CQBP pistol, designated M45A1, looks and operates like the same M1911 pistol used in World War I by Sgt. Alvin York and World War II by Sgt. Audie Murphy. However, the M45A1 is a highly evolved version of the classic Colt .45. The key new feature of the M45A1 is a dual recoil spring system (adapted from the Colt 10 mm pistol line) that spreads out the recoil force of the big .45 ACP rounds over a greater period of time. In effect, by lowering the peak force of the recoil pulse, the apparent recoil force upon the user is greatly reduced, which increases accuracy overall. For anyone who has ever fired one of the older M1911 pistols and has felt “beaten up” by the weapon, the M45A1 should prove a much more pleasant pistol to use, in addition to reducing wear and tear on the pistol itself. In addition, the new weapon also has a number of detail upgrades that should greatly enhance pistol marksmanship by users of the M45A1. These include:

Novak “three dot” Tritium night sights, and a Wilson Combat seven-round magazine;

• 5-inch National Match barrel, lightweight enhanced hammer, beveled magazine well, and a lowered and flared ejection port;

• G10 grips, an ambidextrous safety, a solid aluminum trigger (with a 5-pound pull), lanyard loop, and improved cocking grip separations;

• Mil Standard 1913 “Picatinny Rail” on the under side of the weapon for mounting flashlights, laser sights, and other accessories; and

Cerakote Firearms Coating finish in desert tan on the slide and frame to prevent corrosion and wear.

The initial order for 4,036 M45A1s (at $1,875 per unit) is actually an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract procurement with an initial value of $22.6 million. Early reports from those who have fired the new weapons are universally good, with reports of vastly improved reliability over the Beretta M9, and impressive “out-of-the-box” accuracy and smoothness. And while the USMC will always have a special place in its heart for the M1911 and its derivatives, the M45A1 may well be the pistol that makes Marine marksmen fall in love all over again. It is, first and last, a combat pistol with more than a century of combat experience packed into its design. For those who wear the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, you have something to look forward to when you get to fire this weapon for the first time.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2013-2014 Edition.


John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-194681">


    Why not a 13 round magazine?

    One of the excuses for the Beretta was its larger magazine capacity.
    To which, the American rifleman magazine promptly had a contest demonstrating fitting a 13 .45 ACP double sided magazine to the M1911 was within the capability of a lot of private hobby machinists, with a grip increase in thickness of a hard to feel quarter inch if I recall correctly, some claiming it was better than before.

    The American Rifleman magazine demonstrated back in the 1980’s that the main new piece of equipment would be the double sided magazine, as most of the original pistol grip was kept and reused.


    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-194730">

    Interestingly, the Marine Corps decided to not even go with the 8-round magazine that has become pretty popular, at least unofficially. I’m going to have to look for the article you mention. I’ve personally never felt the 1911’s grip to be too big, but others have, and in the era when the M9 was chosen, one of the concerns was the smaller hands of females entering the service. The 1911 then was deemed a bit large for a typical woman, but that may have had less to do with the size of the grip than the perceived recoil, which, in the case of the M45A1, seems to have been substantially reduced.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-196083">
    Steven m. Williams

    If your worried about how females entering the service will be able to deal with a weapon when determining if its effective or not, your criteria for selection is totally screwed up. Durability in combat, hitting power, rapidity of reloading and cost should be what your worried about. If females can handle the weapon perhaps they have chosen the wrong line of work.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-196085">

    Can civillians purchase these?
    If so, where? And how much?

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-196335">
    Lewis Bradne

    I was told my law enforcement and other experts that the .40 caliber has more stopping power than the .45ACP round. They say the .40 will penetrate body armor.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-196768">

    It all depends on how it is loaded. A military round by international law must be a ball round. That said, a heavy bullet with a hot load will go a very long way to slowing an opponent down. The 1911A1 frame can handle the pressures of a hot load very well.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-198092">
    chuck clark

    one round one kill. nuff said.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-201895">
    Abraham Edelheit

    I don’t see why the USMC (and DOD in general) don’t do the two obvious things: First, return the 1911 to service (as the M-45, or any other nomenclature). Second, test the S&W .40 Cal (10mm) against the .45 ACP to see which has the best stopping power. If they happen to be about equal (which is what I think, but can’t prove) then switch to the .40 bullet in the Colt pistol. This should allow a 10 round magazine with no other modifications, will still be slim enough to fit in almost anyone’s hands, and will a much better sidearm than the M-9.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-201901">

    A lot of people like the .40, no question of that, and it’s performance statistics are impressive. Part of the reason for staying with the .45 cartridge, though, is that it’s already in the logistics system, even if not in quantities like the 5.56 and 9 mm, and going to a .40 caliber handgun would also mean having to procure yet another caliber of ammunition. The other thing is that the 1911 and its derivatives are tried and true options. In the end, that’s probably the most important aspect.