Greatest Cartridges: The Indispensable .45 ACP

Over the past 100 years, the .45 ACP has become one of the most iconic American pistol cartridges every devised.

Over the past 100 years, the .45 ACP has become one of the most iconic American pistol cartridges every devised.

The .45 ACP cartridge was a development of necessity. It was designed in 1904 by one of our most prolific firearms geniuses, the brilliant John Moses Browning, to be used in his newly designed Colt semi-automatic pistol.

At the time of the Moro Rebellion in the Philippines, the US Cavalry there was armed with double action handguns chambered for both the .45 Colt and .38 Long Colt cartridges, and the .30-40 Krag rifle. The Moro insurgents proved to be a formidable opponent. Both the .38 Long Colt and the .30-40 Krag cartridges proved to be largely deficient in stopping the Moro warriors effectively.

Largely as a result of the Philippine experience and the results of the Thompson-LaGarde testing of 1904, the US Army and the US Cavalry decided that a minimum of .45 caliber would be required for any new military handgun.

At the time, Colt and John Browning were working on a .41 caliber cartridge for Browning’s newly designed pistol. They then modified both the pistol and cartridge resulting in the Model 1905 pistol and the new .45 ACP cartridge.

After considerable experimentation involving several different government departments and other involved American companies, they settled on a load consisting of a 230-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 850 fps.

In 1906, the army decided to conduct a series of tests to determine the best pistol to be adopted as the military’s new sidearm, and invited the firearms industry to submit their example to be tested. Models from three manufacturers made it through the first series of tests, Colt, DWM, and Savage. One company, DWM, even though they had made the cut in the first round, withdrew, leaving a shoot-off (no pun intended) between Colt and Savage for the gold medal.

The second trial was held in 1910, with the Browning designed Colt handily coming out on top. It was then adopted as the Model 1911, now an icon among handguns. From that time until 1985, the 1911, and the modification of it, the 1911 A1, chambered for the .45 ACP, was the standard firearm of the US military, a very long time, attesting to the success of the handgun for military applications. It was eventually replaced by the Beretta M9 9mm, although some units retained the 1911A1 as their primary sidearm.

As a youngster, surplus 1911A1s were common items in gun shops, pawnshops and at gun shows. They were not very expensive and surplus .45ACP ammo was plentiful and cheap. The first one I can remember that came my way in a trade was a surplus 1911A1 that someone had chrome plated and fitted with simulated stag grips.

The 1911 pistol is one of the main reasons why the .45 ACP grew in popularity. After 74 years of service as the U.S. Military's sidearm, the pistol and its cartridge more than proved they were battle ready.

The 1911 pistol is one of the main reasons why the .45 ACP grew in popularity. After 74 years of service as the U.S. Military’s sidearm, the pistol and its cartridge more than proved they were battle ready.

I got the pistol and 100 rounds of surplus military ammo for something like $25.00. That would have been in the late 1950s I believe. At the time, I thought the combination was the cat’s meow. In retrospect, it was pretty hideous although it shot well and would have served its purpose admirably if needed.

The ballistics of the .45 ACP is pretty anemic by today’s standards. Even though the standard military load of a 230-grain FMJ bullet at 830 fps is, by most assessments, formidable, ammo manufacturers are continually tinkering with the round.

The SAAMI max pressure is set at 21,000 psi. Higher and higher velocities seems to be the holy grail of loading ammo these days, and consequently, SAAMI approved a pressure increase to 23,000 psi for .45 ACP +P ammo. Why, I can’t say.

For home defense and self defense purposes, it has done very nicely without the increased pressure. It seems to me that the increased pressure and therefore velocity, is a solution to a nonexistent problem.

Added to that opinion, there is a downside to adding pressure to the cartridge. While the standard military .45 ACP cartridge, fired in a Colt 1911A1 or one of the many, many equivalent clones, is by no means a horrifically recoiling combination, it does require training to master. Add to the recoil, and one must also add to the training.

The most common complaint that I heard during my military career when on the pistol range with the 1911A1 firing standard ball ammo, was that it kicked too hard.


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6 thoughts on “Greatest Cartridges: The Indispensable .45 ACP

  1. Gloves

    Great article Tom. Can’t wait for more of them. I love the .45 ACP and the 1911. It is my favorite round for nostalgia purposes. I am hoping that the army chooses something other than the .45 and 9mm. Maybe a manufacture will come up with a great way to tame the recoil on the 10mm.

  2. bhp0

    The .45acp cartridge is the biggest myth since the Bermuda Triangle. Its slow moving bullet has looping trajectory and extremely poor penetration as well as excess recoil. After WWII the U.S. Military got the bright idea to actually test this cartridge 34 years after they adopted it after being lied to by a military man by the name of Thompson who conducted a completely unscientific test with large caliber pistol cartridges v/s small caliber cartridges. When the post WWII test was conducted the Military was shocked that the .45 acp actually bounced off of a WWII helmet at a scant 35 yards while the 9mm penetrated the same helmet at an astonishing 125 yards and may have done so even further but the accuracy of the gun and the skill of the shooters cancelled testing at farther ranges. The ability to carry more ammo with the 9mm and shoot the gun way more accurately due to its lower recoil and hit at longer range because of its much flatter trajectory and penetrate targets like helmets at very long range made it way superior to the .45 acp, (the super dud military cartridge of all time except perhaps when compared to the .455 Webley another dud large caliber round).
    As a side bar a friend of mine tried deer hunting with the .45 acp using the 185 grain expanding bullets and even at close range they failed to penetrate deeply enough to kill deer. The 230 grain worked but only a very close ranges proving what the U.S. military new decades ago and that was the .45acp is a dud round period.

  3. Old Soldier

    The “issue” with the .45 ACP cartridge, if it can be called that, is with the pistol and not necessarily with the round. I saw the transition from the 1911 to the M9 Beretta in the latter 80s and saw the qualification scores in my company take a tremendous leap and the number of failures drop accordingly, especially among my female troops who tended to complain more vigorously about the 1911’s recoil (we were authorized S&W M10.38s for the ladies but the logistics system never delivered). The Beretta was simply easier to shoot and had vastly better sights. When pressed, I had to grudgingly admit I liked the M9 better, although I felt undergunned with the 9mm cartridge. Combat experience has proven this to be true. I own three 45s: S&W 1955 Target, M1911, and a Springfield XDs. In my opinion, the XDs is as easy to shoot as the 1911 due to its modern design. The fact of DoD going on a search for a replacement sidearm with the .45 cartridge back in the spotlight is a testimony to the credibility of the round.

  4. fhedrickjr

    The first thing I thought when I got my hands on a 1911 copy (Norinco) was what a “pussy cat” it was to shoot! I keep a Beretta 92 short barrelled compact (13 + 1) for my Wife as her “house gun”, which she has shot at the range on multiple occasions. Her comment when I let her try my current full size Taurus 1911: “Wow, that shoots nice. Can you leave this at home for me and you carry the Beretta?” True story. I have never thought of the 1911 230gr ball ammo, as a “punishing” round. I have tried many different types of hollow points, from Fiocci, Remington, Hornady, etc, some at standard velocities, some a little hotter at 975 fps. None of these felt any more violent than say, a .40 S&W out of a 4″ autoloader, to me anyway. Maybe the extra velocity is not needed, maybe it just makes the round hit a little harder (which in winter would compensate for heavier clothing, etc.) Why does ANY round need to be +P or +P+? Why do we need Magnum loads: .357 .41 .44? Because they work!

  5. el carrasco

    reason for pressure and speed increase is just boasting , or marketing for customers wanting extreme perfromance. abs no other reason. hace a nice day.anibal

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