The Colt National Match and Its Descendants

The legendary J.H. Fitzgerald had a lot to do with the National Match. He’s seen here adjusting a 1911 at Camp  Perry circa mid-1930s in Tim Mullin’s American Beauty.

The legendary J.H. Fitzgerald had a lot to do with the National Match. He’s seen here adjusting a 1911 at Camp Perry circa mid-1930s in Tim Mullin’s American Beauty.

According to one of the great Colt authorities, James E. Serven, “The ‘National Match’ first appeared in the 1933 Colt catalog. In all general specifications it resembled the standard 1911 model. However, Colt workmen gave these pistols very special attention. The action was hand-honed, a selected, carefully targetted [sic] match barrel was used, the trigger was checked and of course there was the ‘hump-backed’ checked arched housing.”

As Serven noted in his updated 1964 edition of Colt Firearms, “In 1957 the Colt Company resumed manufacture of a deluxe .45 automatic target pistol, naming this model the ‘Colt Gold Cup National Match.’ Working parts are hand-fitted; the pistol is meticulously made and super-accurate for championship shooting. Slack between the barrel and slide is automatically eliminated. The very wide, grooved trigger is fitted with an adjustable, spring-loaded trigger stop…Finish is Colt ‘Royal Blue’ with sandblasted areas where glare might affect aim.”

To Mullin and many other purists, only the prewar guns are the true American Beauties, the original National Match Colts of legend. Whether or not the Gold Cup generation measured up is a matter of debate among 1911 enthusiasts to this day. Serven seems to have been impressed with the Gold Cup incarnation. So was Charles M. Heard, a popular gun expert of the day, who described it in 1960 as the “Colt ‘National Match’ .45 ACP, factory accurized and custom crafted for target. Trigger pull: 4 lbs., adjustable with trigger stop. Full target sights, straight back-strap. Has all other features of Government model. REMARKS: My tests only proved this gun to be all that is claimed for it and expected of it. May be used for match target, combat, or self-defense; still the most powerful semi-auto made.”

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Today, the mantle of the National Match has fallen on the shoulders of the custom houses. Dave Lauck at D&L Sports built this “LFI Special” to the author’s specifications on a new 5-inch Colt. It will stay in an inch at 25 yards, and he can’t recall its last malfunction.

Today, the mantle of the National Match has fallen on the shoulders of the custom houses. Dave Lauck at D&L Sports built this “LFI Special” to the author’s specifications on a new 5-inch Colt. It will stay in an inch at 25 yards, and he can’t recall its last malfunction.

The argument over the Gold Cup’s right to wear the mantle of the National Match wasn’t entirely nit-picking. While the original National Match was a true heavy duty Government Model .45 or .38 Super finely polished and blued and then fitted with match barrel and altogether slicked-up, the Gold Cup was seen as a lighter weight, lighter duty gun. Circa 1949, Remington had come up with a factory target load in .45 ACP that captured the bullseye shooters immediately: a 185-grain semi-wadcutter loaded to a mid-range velocity of only 770 foot-seconds velocity. It did not reliably cycle a Government Model pistol with its heavy-duty slide and full power recoil spring built for a 230-grain GI hardball round at 820 to 850 feet per second.

Recognizing this, Colt lightened the slide of the 1957 series National Match/Gold Cup .45s. NRA’s technical staff writer for American Rifleman, M.D. Waite, “outed” this fact in his December 1957 review of the new pistol.

Waite wrote, “Our preliminary firing tests indicated uniform functioning with both full charge and mid-range ammunition. This puzzled us a bit until we noted that the interior of the slide is cut away somewhat to reduce its weight approximately two ounces. It is thus unnecessary to change recoil springs when using factory ammunition of differing recoil potential….”

Rumors spread that this made the gun weak. It certainly did not make it inaccurate, and the Gold Cup worked as advertised. Added Waite in that seminal test of the budding Gold Cup, “When machine-rest tested at 50 yards, our gun shot possible-size groups with commercial wadcutter ammunition but did not perform quite so well with government-loaded Service ammunition.” The very top champions kept on using Government Models that had been accurized by Chow, Clark, Dinan, Giles, Shockey, and other master pistolsmiths of the period.

Adding to the Gold Cup’s bad rap for fragility were its sights. Crude by today’s standards, the Stevens National Match adjustable rear sight of the prewar years at least did not break or fly off the gun. A relatively large number of original National Match pistols had sturdy fixed sights that offered a larger sight picture than the standard service pistol, the best of these being the excellent high visibility sights manufactured by the King Gun Sight Company and for some time available on the NM pistols from the Colt factory. King made a practical sight that was adjustable for windage but not elevation.

Alas, Colt management in the latter half of the 20th century manifested some truly egregious short-sightedness and loss of institutional history. The Gold Cup generation of the National Match series was never offered with fixed sights. Instead, it came with the Elliason adjustable rear sight and an undercut Patridge front. The front sight was not properly staked and would often depart from the slide within 500 rounds of hardball, though it lasted longer with the “softball” target loads.

This article is an excerpt from Massad Ayoob’s Greatest Handguns of the World. Click Here to get your copy.

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