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A Case for Military’s Return To a .45 ACP Pistol in Future

Discussion in 'Firearms' started by E.L., Apr 19, 2006.

  1. E.L.

    E.L. Moderator of Lead Moderator Emeritus Founding Member


    A Case for Military’s Return To a .45 ACP Pistol in Future
    by R.K. Campbell
    Contributing Editor

    The 9mm-.45 ACP Debate Continues

    In the Feb. 10, 2006 issue of Gun Week, Roving Editor Jim Williamson questioned the wisdom of the US military abandoning the idea of a 9mm pistol in deciding on the next generation of military sidearm to replace the M-9 (Beretta 92 F). In this issue, R.K. Campbell offers another viewpoint, arguing for adoption of a new .45 ACP but retaining some features of the M-9.

    I have said it before, but the phrase bears repeating. The 1911 is an enigma. A contemporary of the Edison phonograph and curved dash Oldsmobile, this handgun has survived and remains at the top of the heap. Like the controlled feed Mauser action, the 1911 is recognized as the finest of designs, although much modified from its original production. Improved, yes, but the improvements build upon the excellence of design that marked the original.

    Today, the demand for 1911s seems endless. I recall when there were three Colts—the Colt Government Model, the Commander, and the Gold Cup. Then, Colt went to the Series 70, and this liberal tightening of the pistol was gradually accepted. A decade or so later, Springfield introduced a quality clone gun that gave Colt a run for their money. Today, a much longer article would be needed to list all 1911 variants available.

    After a 9mm pistol was adopted by the Army in 1981, doomsayer’s predicted the demise of the 1911 in the face of competition from double-action pistols, 9mm pistols, and high-capacity pistols. These handguns have become popular, and significant numbers are serving. However, I respectfully submit that these pistols no more replaced the Colt than the tactical folder has replaced the Ek Commando knife.

    The 9mm pistols replaced the Smith & Wesson Model Ten in police issue and various sundry revolvers among civilians. The 1911 was the choice of the trained operator or those in the know and has remained so. It is the preeminent handgun of the modern warrior. Those at risk have spent considerable sums in attaining 1911s, and in some cases deploying them against regulation.

    Modern 1911
    The military has realized their mistake and issued a call for 645,000 .45-caliber pistols. Any resemblance to our present enemies and the Moros would paint the degenerates we now face in a flattering light, but they are men, and motivated men are difficult to stop with a small-bore pistol. As the 1911 approaches its 100th year of production, it will be back in the holsters of American fighting men where it belongs.

    There are arguments pro and con on the 1911, but we must remember we are not going to replace a modern pistol with a relic. The modern 1911 that will be chosen will resemble the original outwardly, but it will be a highly developed pistol worthy of use in this century. The pistol it replaces, conversely, was developed in the early 1970s and is due for replacement.

    The maker gave the Army exactly what they asked for. The Army asked the wrong questions. On a personal level, I take handgun choice seriously. For over 20 years, the handgun was more than a lifejacket; it was on my side every day. Handgun reviews are a chance to shoot a pricey toy for some, but you will not see much of that in my early work. I gave house room only to working handguns and the same is true today.

    I feel a commitment, even an obligation, to share my experience regarding fighting handguns with the public. For some the words are entertainment, but for others the advice on personal defense has been well taken. More than once I have received letters from someone who used a handgun I recommended in defense of their life. In all cases, the 1911 performed as expected.
    Personal Stake

    It is interesting to note that men who save their lives with the 1911s often note, “The gun saved my life,” while those using lesser handguns will credit tactical movement or marksmanship. The man or woman behind the handgun counts for the most, but the 1911 is the best handgun for the trained operator to be behind. I have no financial stake in the outcome of the new government order, but I have a personal stake that cannot be overstated.

    Several young members of my family are in military service. While I am proud of my police service, there is little comparison to the danger of military service and the discipline and physical conditioning required. A soldier will see more danger in a month than most cops experience in a lifetime. They need to be well armed.

    The facts are irrefutable and easily recognized in a fair shoot out. The 1911 rules in competition. Competition is not combat but it is a contest. The geometry of the piece leaves all others behind. A low bore axis allows the 1911 to set low in the hand, limiting muzzle flip. The clean, straight-to-the-rear trigger compression makes for excellent hit probability. The grip fits most hands well, unlike the bulky grip needed to accommodate the double column magazine of the present service pistol.

    I simply cannot understand any claim for superior hit probability with the 9mm. The Police Marksman’s Association study published some years ago showed the 9mm pistols in police service producing a hit one time in four. The .45 showed a much higher percentage, a reflection on training, but perhaps on the efficiency of the pistol as well. Remember, police and military focus is reversed in training.

    The Cartridge
    The police train mainly on the handgun with lesser long gun training. The military, special units aside, train little with the handgun. The 1911’s low bore axis, straight-to-the-rear trigger compression, and excellent ergonomics make for greatly improved handling over any other design save perhaps the Browning High Power. And the High Power is a small bore.

    That is a real question: the cartridge. The big bore has proven to be more effective than a small bore pistol cartridge time and again. The Thompson LaGarde test of the early 1900s simply validated what we had seen in the Philippines. While some question combat reports, consider the fact that quite a few of these actions resulted in the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor. This medal is given only after an investigation and congressional review.

    It is quite interesting that those who doubt, as an example, Sgt. Alvin York’s feat of dropping seven enemy soldiers with seven rounds of .45-caliber hardball, would never have taken the issue to his face when he lived. While exemplary, his action is by no means unique. To the best of my knowledge the single greatest combat feat attributed to the .45 ACP cartridge is the neutralizing of 35 enemy soldiers in Europe in a few minutes, in house to house fighting, but I have to state these rounds were fired from a submachinegun.

    Before you send the letters in concerning hardball .45, let me say I have seen the effect of .45 hardball. I have experienced a failure of the .45 ACP brought on due to insufficient penetration of a highly recommend expanding bullet load. I have not shot drugged goats that were wired to a machine and seriously doubt anyone else has either.

    Female Recruits
    If the handgun is limited to non-expanding ammunition, then the .45 is logical. The load of choice must have good primer seal, a crimped primer, and excellent case mouth seal. Careful powder selection in GI .45 ball gives little to no muzzle flash and a clean powder burn. I think we could do much worse than to adopt the Hornady flat nose jacketed bullet that was originally developed for the US Military.

    There have been concerns that female recruits cannot handle the .45. If you feel the distaff side cannot handle a .45 you have not attended the graduation and training exercises I have! My daughter-in-law (US Army) has no problem with the .45, and hopes that if the day comes she will be issued the .45. Her brother-in-law, my other son and a US soldier, feels the same, but neither thinks about the pistol much.

    The M4, the SAW, and missiles are more important. My son ran daily for four years in high school and emerged as Soldier of the Cycle from basic training, winning the General’s Medal and other commendations as well. As a former sergeant presently in officer’s training, he has learned to swim underwater with a combat load. Occasionally one of the female recruits becomes concerned with having outpaced him on courses.

    As an example, when climbing, the Army has taught female soldiers to use their lower body strength more profitably in climbing, which is proportionately greater than a male soldier’s. I have trained reservists as young as 17 years old to handle the .45. They rack the slide easily, and the comments are universal.

    Respect Power
    They appreciate and respect the power of the .45. They do not desire to run a combat course and find 50 rounds neatly stitched in a circle; we could do that with a .22. They know that the pistol is a last ditch weapon that is designed to quickly get on target and make a stopping blow. The .45 will do so.

    Confusing pistol and rifle tactics has led to the adoption of inappropriate gear. As for manipulation and the manual of arms, I have had recruits of both sexes, still in their teens, quickly and properly manipulating the .45. I don’t think that these young men and women should find the .45’s manual of arms a challenge.

    After all, they are in fields requiring the use of computer and missile gear considerably more complicated than a single-action pistol. The 1911’s controls are simpler to manipulate than the double-action pistol’s slide-mounted safety. After all, don’t quite a few agencies specify double-action pistols be carried off safe to simplify training?

    When addressing the issue of the new .45, it is obvious the pistol will not be a GI-type .45. The new choice will have improved sights and some type of modern finish. I seriously doubt we will see a fully developed tactical pistol on the line of the Springfield Bureau Model. These pistols are expensive and the accuracy demanded is not necessary for general issue.

    We can make an accurate pistol or a service pistol. The service pistol should not incorporate a full-length guide rod. The pistol should have a barrel bushing that is only finger tight. The pistol should have the ability to be field-stripped quickly.

    This can be easily accomplished in a handgun that retains the ability to group five rounds into 4 inches at 25 yards, adequate for the task at hand. The grips will probably be of a space-age material, either Micarta such as the CZ Gator grips or perhaps simpler rubber grips such as the Hogue. The sights will be high visibility units. If Smith & Wesson is a player, the sights will be Novak; if Kimber, they will be McCormick. The finish will probably be a modern Teflon-based self-lubricating finish such as Bear Coat.

    There are things about the present service handgun that are good and we do not wish to go backwards in that regard. We should not make the same mistake the military did with the Beretta in accepting substandard magazines for military service. No fault of the pistol, these magazines were not worthy of combat. I believe the Metalform magazine is well-suited to quality mass production and would be a strong choice for the new service pistol.

    The present service pistol has shown an ability to resist corrosion due to its finish. A stainless 1911 with a darkened finish or a special coating would be ideal. In police and military service, the Beretta 92 has a good reputation for low rates of accidental discharge (AD). While safety is between the ears, some pistols have a frightening reputation for ADs.

    A semi-automatic pistol with no safety, regardless of the trigger action, abrogates many of the advantages of the type. The new pistol should maximize the benefits of modern safety technology. There are basically two types of firing pin locks for the 1911. The Colt Series 80 pistol features a plunger that is activated by trigger compression. The firing pin cannot move forward unless the trigger is pressed completely to the rear.

    Second System
    Despite naysayers, this system has proven effective and reliable. It is patented and whoever adopts this system must license it from Colt. The second system, used by Kimber and Smith & Wesson, features a firing pin block that operates off of the grip safety. This safety has the advantage of allowing trigger work to be accomplished with no regard to the firing pin block.

    The drawback is that if the grip safety is not fully depressed the hammer will fall, but the pistol will not fire. A large grip safety with the proper index will go a long way towards solving that problem. Another option, pursued by several top-end makers, is to adopt a lightweight firing pin with a heavy firing pin spring. This will prevent the firing pin from taking a run forward from inertia if the piece is dropped.

    Finally, the piece will not have an adjustable trigger, even if the adjustment screw is epoxied closed at the factory. No, we will not be adopting a GI .45 nor a full-blown custom-quality .45, at least in my opinion, but we will be arming our young warriors with a hell of a pistol. One they deserve.

    At present, who are the frontrunners? First, we have to consider production capacity. Some of the custom shops make very nice pistols, and they are highly regarded. But the actual numbers produced are small. At present, both Kimber and Smith & Wesson have the capacity to produce pistols in considerable quantity and they have suitable pistols in production. It may seem strange that Smith & Wesson’s 1911 is considered, but life is nothing but exciting!

    The SW1911 and the Kimber Custom II are similar pistols with excellent performance predicted. Each has proven consistent in manufacture, with the repeatability of quality demanded in modern manufacture. Kimber has the inside track, having received military orders from special units.

    In history, a few men stand out in the development of the 1911. John Moses Browning designed the piece but Col. John T. Thompson aided in testing the cartridge against living animals and in developing the .45 ACP cartridge. (Thompson also was instrumental in assuring large-scale war production in American plants, notably Remington, during World War I and he is the inventor of the Thompson submachinegun.) Later, Col. Jeff Cooper’s clear incisive writing convinced us of what we already knew; the 1911 .45 is the preeminent combat pistol.

    Another colonel, Robert Young, USMC, delivered a pistol to the USMC’s Precision Weapons Section at Quantico, VA, that may define the future of military 1911s. The Marines quite simply demanded the .45 be kept in service for special units, those relying upon the pistol for critical operations.

    Young’s pistol featured a standard extractor, a standard recoil plug and guide, Novak sights, a beavertail grip safety, and a trigger compression of 4-5 pounds, clean. Wilson Combat magazines would be used with what became the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) pistol. Col. Robert Coates later was involved in upgrading the 1911 as well. This pistol is commercially available as the Kimber Warrior, a close approximation of the MEU pistol.

    Both Reliable
    I have fired both the Kimber and the SW1911 extensively. Each has proven completely reliable given a minimum of maintenance. I have replaced the factory guide rods and recoil springs with a standard guide rod and WC Wolff premium springs. I have experienced no problems with the grip safety activated firing pin block, with one of the Kimber pistols approaching 11,000 rounds of ammunition.

    The SW1911 features an external extractor. Not specified in previous military purchases, this extractor may have an advantage in long-term wear and in ease of replacement. It is a simple pin-in unit while standard extractors must be fitted. I believe either company would be wise to consider alternate finishes and features in the upcoming competition.

    Of course, there may be a surprise. The Marines, as an example, have considered building their own .45s from quality parts. While largely unheralded and little recognized for their achievements, military pistolsmiths are responsible for originating the great majority of innovations and improvements concerning the 1911, including the successful development of Officer’s Model pistols.

    I think the upcoming tests and acquisitions will be interesting. Technically, the armed forces may or may not conduct a test but may simply purchase what they desire out of hand. The top runners will be companies with a proven product and the requisite production capability to meet the armed services demands. The coming months will be interesting.

    Support Gear
    There are too many good pistol magazines to purchase substandard gear, so we will let that lie. But a number of holsters have gotten my attention that may prove frontrunners for serious use. We are aware various Safariland security holsters are in use by special units. These are good holsters but perhaps a bit expensive for general issue. Two standouts come to mind that are advanced examples of the full flap holsters.

    Soldiers on the move, with a long-term front line commitment, require load-bearing gear that protects the weapon. There is nothing to compare to a full flap holster in this regard. London Bridge Trading Company offers a full flap fabric holster of excellent design. The holster features not only a protecting flap but a thumb break release as well. For general use, the flap may be closed.

    Paratroops especially have come to appreciate security holsters, as a single retention holster has proven inadequate at times in resisting the shock of a parachute deployment. The London Bridge Trading Company holster features dual retention. Yet, on guard or point duty, the holster flap may be folded back and the result is a modern thumb break holster offering a degree of security and real speed.

    DeSantis Leathergoods also offers a flap holster with an inside thumb break. This holster was originally designed to offer rangers and mounted officers full protection to the sidearm. However, when the flap is removed—the flap actually snaps onto the holster—the result is a more or less standard-appearing duty holster with thumb break. I believe that a full flap holster with dual retention would be ideal for all around service.

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