1911: Before the Great War

The Battle of Bud Bagsak, where the new 1911 pistol reportedly served well.

The Battle of Bud Bagsak, where the new 1911 pistol reportedly served well.

The 1911 was definitely a harbinger of things to come, and the US Army wasn’t the only service that adopted a big-bore autoloader. Webley & Scott offered the British Army a self-loading pistol in 1913, the Webley & Scott Pistol Self-Loading .455 Mark I. It fired a proprietary cartridge, the .455 Webley Automatic. The .455 WA had a semi-rimmed case, and while slightly larger than a .45 ACP, it could be wrestled into a 1911, a feat Colt quickly accomplished.

The British Army was underwhelmed, but the Royal Air Corps, in need of firearms, adopted it and used it throughout the war. Among its other odd features (an oddly-angled grip and seriously ugly looks) the recoil spring was a massive “V” spring under the right grip panel. Should you ever have and shoot one, and the spring breaks, you are done.

An FN M-1910 pistol of the type used to assassinate Arch-Duke Ferdinand. On display in an excellent little arms museum in Tournai, Belgium

An FN M-1910 pistol of the type used to assassinate Arch-Duke Ferdinand. On display in an excellent little arms museum in Tournai, Belgium

Also, the Webley pistol did not use the magazine follower to lock open when empty. It just knows. Considering the beautiful balance of a British shotgun, and the great feel (if odd looks) of the Webley revolvers, you had to wonder of the designers really had their hearts in the self-loading pistol project.

At the end of June of 1914, the old world came to a screeching halt, and the new world was ushered in by blood. The Europe of today was not the Europe of then. There were France, Germany, and squeezed off to the side, Switzerland. Between them, buffering them from the empires to the West (Russia and Turkey) and Italy, was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a crazy-quilt of nations and nationalities, and sectarian violence was common.

On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand – the Archduke of Austria-Este, Austro-Hungaria, and Royal Prince of Hungary and of Bohemia, and the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne – was visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina on an official function.

Unbeknownst to him, there was a conspiracy to assassinate him as he traveled in his motorcade. The conspirators, armed with hand grenades and pistols, lined the route. Two of the assassins selected that day failed to act, but one – Gavrilo Princep – did, throwing a grenade that missed the Archduke’s car, an enormous Graf & Stift convertible with its top down, but wound ed the passengers of a trailing car.

Princip, having missed his opportunity, went into a local shop. The Archduke, upon finding out one of his party had been injured, wished to pay his respects to the victim at the hospital. The drivers, however, did not get the word of the new destination and drove back along the same path they had taken just before.

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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