1911: Before the Great War

Springfield, as a government arsenal, had its own markings. Here you see the American Eagle on the slide of a Springfield 1911.

Springfield, as a government arsenal, had its own markings. Here you see the American Eagle on the slide of a Springfield 1911.

Along with the pistols made by Colt, the government required Colt to provide the government arsenal, Springfield, with drawings, tooling and assistance to provide pistols as well. In today’s logistical environment, where as much as possible is commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) product, the idea that the government would have its own plant, to make its own pistols, is interesting. The accountants figured that they could make pistols there for about two-thirds the cost of the Colt pistols, and since they weren’t getting as much money as they needed from Congress (some things never change) the Army could get more pistols for less money, which was considered a good thing.

Alas, the project was nothing but a source of headaches. Colt sent the drawings, but drawings (especially back then) were only part of the story. It takes an experienced machine operator to produce parts and not scrap. And once a product is being made, the interplay between departments, supervisors and machine operators is the make-or-break difference. In the end, Springfield could not make 1911 pistols as fast or as economically as Colt.

The 1911 was also not available commercially early on, and when it became available, it wasn’t in sufficient quantity. Having gone to the trouble of testing, developing, and co-designing the pistol, the Army expected to be first in line for production.

An early Colt, made for the Navy (the serial number gives it away) and showing the level of polish. Photo by Kevin Williams.

An early Colt, made for the Navy (the serial number gives it away) and showing the level of polish. Photo by Kevin Williams.

There was a small problem with the magazines. Today, we take sheet-metal pressings or stampings for granted. Heck, we make automobiles in their entirety from stampings. Except for things like engine blocks, transmissions and heavy structures (which are in most cases castings) your entire car can be an assembly of sheet metal stampings that are bent, folded, creased and welded. But in 1911, sheet metal pressings were a new thing. Magazines were a new thing. Magazine-fed rifles used machined rails as integral parts of their receivers, to guide each cartridge in turn to the chamber.

The magazine of a pistol could not be so built. It would be cost-prohibitive to make a near-disposable item like a magazine from machined parts. So they were stamped, folded and welded. (It would be a long time before impact extrusion was advanced enough, and cheap enough, to be used to form magazine tubes.)

If the magazine lips were too soft, they would bend under use. If they were too hard, they would crack. They had to be just right. Unfortunately, that wasn’t easy. Early on, the magazines were the weak link. A method of cyanide-hardening the lips of the magazine was developed, which produced a magazine that was two-tone.

The hardened part of it would stay bright and not take blueing. But the corners of the folds would be stress points, and the tubes would crack. So Colt designed magazines for a while that are known as “keyhole” mags. To give the lips enough flex to feed, but hardness enough to not bend, the spine of the magazine was punched, and a slot also stamped out from the hole upwards. That, combined with a radius on the clearance slot to reduce stress, produced a magazine that was hard but had flex.

This article is an excerpt from Patrick Sweeney’s 1911: The First 100 Years. Click here to order your hardcover copy.

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