1911: Before the Great War

Here is the right side of a Navy-batch pistol, showing the markings. Photo courtesy Rock Island Auctions

Here is the right side of a Navy-batch pistol, showing the markings. Photo courtesy Rock Island Auctions

With a real problem on their hands and an interim solution in place, the engineers went to work and finally figured out which alloy, which stamping and which heat-treatment it took to produce reliable magazines without the keyhole. Once the new magazines had been tested, production shifted to the new design, abandoning the keyhole.

The 1911, in its first combat uses, comported itself well. Some arrived in the Philippines before the end of the Philippine Insurrection. In fact, an Army-commissioned painting of the last battle in the Philippines, the Battle of Bud Bagsak, shows a 1911 in use.

Led by Brigadier General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, the 8th Infantry and Philippine Scouts assaulted a fort at Bud Bagask that was defended by hundreds of Moros, and spent four days in combat. Pershing, in a letter to his wife, recounted that “The fighting was the fiercest I have ever seen. They are absolutely fearless, and once committed to combat they count death as a mere incident.” The Moros fought to the last.

A close-up of the roll marking. If you find an “old pistol” in the attic and it has this marking on it, you’re looking at a pistol a century old. Photo courtesy Rock Island Auctions

A close-up of the roll marking. If you find an “old pistol” in the attic and it has this marking on it, you’re looking at a pistol a century old. Photo courtesy Rock Island Auctions

The 1911 pistol was also a hot item to have if you were assigned to the Punitive Expedition of 1916, down Mexico way. Officially known as the Mexican Expedition, and unofficially as the Pancho Villa Expedition, back then they were a lot less squishy about some uses of the language. While a woman’s legs might be called “limbs,” when it came time to kick butt and take names, it was the “Punitive Expedition,” or expedition of punishment. Pancho Villa was the hombre they were out to punish.

Mexico was at the time in turmoil. The Mexican revolution of 1911 had been a mess, and to the disappointment of Pancho Villa (one of the contenders) the US government sided with the Carranza contingent. Villa, having assumed the assurances he’d been receiving would mean he’d be backed as president, was understandably put out. He began attacking American interests along the border, but staying south of the line. On March 6, 1916, he attacked Columbus, New Mexico, and tangled with the 13th US Cavalry. He got his butt royally kicked, losing sixty-seven dead on the scene, and another thirteen who would die later of their wounds.

By March 15, President Wilson had ordered General Pershing to take care of things, and Pershing was already crossing the border. (Today, the first round of press conferences would not have even ended in that period of time.) Taking 4,800 men, Pershing advanced into Mexico without the agreement of the Carranza government, meaning no railway travel. So the US Army used trucks as well as horses and mules for transport and airplanes for reconnaissance. And they packed the new 1911 pistol with them. Well, some did; many old hands still stuck with the Colt SAA.

As a military effort, the expedition did not succeed. The Army did not capture Villa, although in a daring raid, a force led by Lieutenant George S. Patton drove their vehicles right into a small village where Villistas were and captured many, Patton personally killing Julio Cardena, a Villa commander. As a means of stopping the raids, the expedition wasn’t much use. It put the US on temporarily bad terms with the Mexican government, it failed to capture Villa, and it pointed out shortcomings in procedures and equipment in the U.S. Army. But as a live-fire training exercise, it was just what the Army needed before turning toward Europe just a year later.

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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