Doughboy Center

The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces

Ordnance Branch Insignia




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Colt .45

On the morning of 8 October 1918, elements of the 328th Infantry, 82nd Division, United States Army, were pinned down by German machine-gun fire. Seventeen men, under the command of Sgt. Bernard Early, were ordered to out-flank the machine guns.

Alvin York

Sgt. Alvin York

Shortly after they left their own lines, they came across a German officer and several soldiers having breakfast. Believing that they were surrounded, the Germans surrendered. However, before Early could detach a man to take the prisoners back through the lines, intensive machine gun fire swept the patrol. Eight American soldiers survived. Sgt. Early was seriously wounded. As the remaining non-com, Cpl. Alvin York took command of the patrol. While the remaining Americans covered their prisoners, trying at the same time to avoid enemy fire, York spotted the location of the German guns, about 30 yards away. In addition to his Model 1917 Enfield rifle, he also carried a Colt .45 automatic pistol. The German gunners peeked over the tops of their Maxim guns to avoid hitting their own men.

With the appearance of each face, framed in its "coal-scuttle" helmet, York's Enfield spoke. One shot equaled one dead gunner. York was from the Tennessee mountains where firearms were used to put food on the table. Mountain folk were frugal, making each shot count.

Unnoticed by York, several Germans moved forward, locating York's position. Out of sight, they counted the shots from York's rifle, establishing the pattern of his shooting. They counted a series of 5 shots from his Enfield and rushed York to gain the advantage of the few extra seconds it took to reload the rifle.

As the Germans charged, they came into easy pistol range. York brought the .45 automatic into action, stopping the patrol in its tracks. He continued shooting and advancing, killing a total of 25 German soldiers and capturing 132 by himself. York was promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor.

On 29 September 1918, Second Lieutenant Frank Luke, Jr., of the United States Army's 27th Aero Squadron, flew over an American balloon squadron dropping a note, "Watch for burning (German) balloons" just beyond the German lines. As predicted, observers saw the three explosions of three balloons. Luke did not return. It was not until after the war that a grave's registration unit learned the conclusion of Luke's "3-kill" attack.

Lt. Frank Luke

Lt. Frank Luke

After destroying the third balloon, Luke was wounded and his Spad was so shot-up that he could barely control it. Nevertheless, he maneuvered his airplane to strafe German infantry columns. He crash-landed and was immediately surrounded by Germans. Rather than surrender, he drew his .45 automatic pistol and started firing at the Germans. They returned his fire, killing Luke immediately. Frank Luke was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

These two events are among the best known involving the use of John Browning's Colt .45 automatic pistol*. This tough, durable pistol has been used by the U.S. Armed Forces for 80 years. Soldiers have sworn by it and sworn at it. It has a heavy slide and bolt that slams back and forth with each shot, in addition to its strong recoil. Many have found it awkward to use. However, with adequate training, it will serve the user very well.

Editorial Note

Our loyal readers have pointed out that this weapon is not a true "automatic", i.e., you cannot hold down the trigger and fire off the full clip. The editors of the Doughboy Center have consulted and concluded, however, that since the general usage at the time and also the terminology applied by the manufacturer was "automatic" rather than the more accurate "semi-automatic" we will not change the current terminology.

John Browning was born in 1855, son of a gunsmith, in Ogden, Utah. His rifles, pistols, machine guns and shotguns have dominated the field of fire arms for almost 100 years. It was in 1896 that John and his brother, Matthew, approached the Colt Firearms Company in Hartford, Connecticut. They reached an agreement for Browning to work with Colt as an independent designer of firearms. For the first 15 years, they developed probably the most enduring firearm in military history: the Government Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45. Browning and Colt worked closely with the U.S. Army Ordnance Department. Models were field tested by active-duty soldiers, and extensive laboratory tests were made.

Soldiers stationed in the Philippines reported that the .38 caliber pistol then in use was almost useless against the hard-charging Moros. These tribesmen wrapped themselves in tough leather bindings. Swinging their razor-sharp Kris like a windmill, their bodies absorbed two, three or four shots. On reaching the line of U.S. soldiers, they usually managed to kill one or two soldiers before the .38 shots had their effect and they fell in battle. The soldiers wanted more impact; more stopping power.

In addition to reports from the field, the ordnance department made tests with various cartridges and loads. In order to develop a pistol with the greatest impact possible, studies were made by firing into soft wood, clay, carcasses of animals, human cadavers, and live animals.

A look at the ballistics of the Colt .45 and the Parabellum (Luger) 9 mm cartridge highlights the basic differences of these cart ridges.

Cartridge Differences

Characteristics Colt .45 Luger 9mm
Bullet Weight   230 grains   125 grains
Chamber Pressure   12,000 lbs/sq in   24,000 lbs/sq in
Muzzle Velocity   800 feet/sec   1,075 feet/sec
Muzzle Energy   329 ft-lbs   320 ft-lbs

The Colt .45 bullet is a big, slow-moving projectile. When it strikes a target, a great deal of energy is transferred from the bullet to the target. This provides the "knock-down" quality for which the gun is so famous. Officially adapted by the U.S. Government in 1911, production proceeded at a slow pace. Peace-time budgets are never very large.

Parts of the .45 Automatic Pistol
See Key Below

When the United States entered the Great War, there were about 60,000 Colt .45s on hand. The bulk of them had been manufactured by Colt, with a few thousand manufactured by the U.S. Armory at Springfield, Massachusetts.


Service / Yr 1912 1913
U.S. Army   9,950  35,000
U.S. Navy   7,000   6,000
U.S.M.C.     300   1,250
Totals  17,250  42,250

Guns made for these production runs were all stamped UNITED STATES PROPERTY on the frame. The slide carried the inscription MODEL OF 1911 U.S. ARMY on both Army and Marine Corps issue. Those manufactured for the Navy were stamped MODEL OF 1911 U.S. NAVY until 1915 when they, too, were labelled US Army. Production runs increased when the Great War started and continued to increase through 1918. By May 1918, it had increased to 1,000 per day. The summer months of 1918 saw an increase to 2,200 per day. The vast majority of these guns were produced by Colt or the U.S. Armory at Springfield, MA. Remington UMC produced about 21,000. Plans were made for many other companies to start production of the .45 automatic, but the war ended before they were tooled up for production. Since the number available for the doughboys was less than required, the troops in France were also equipped with the less satisfactory Model 1909 Colt .45 revolver.

A number of foreign companies or governments were licensed to manufacture the Colt-Brownings in a variety of calibers. It is interesting to note that Colts at one time were produced under the direction of the Nazi government. In 1915 the Norwegian government was licensed to manufacture the pistols. When Nazi troops occupied Norway in World War II, they ordered the government arsenal to start production. The Nazi's planned to use the pistol to arm their occupying forces. However, only about 1,000 guns were produced in 1941 and 1942.

Numbers Match Image Above

After the Great War, the Army's Ordnance Department evaluated the Colt .45's combat performance. They recommended the following changes:

1. Wider front sight to develop "Patridge-type" of sights, allowing the shooter to quickly align both front and rear sights under various lighting conditions.

2. Longer hammer spur. Both Changes 2 and 3 work together to prevent the web between the thumb and the forefinger being pinched between the hammer and the safety spur when the gun is fired.

3. Longer grip-safety spur.

4. Arched spring housing fills the shooter's hand and checkering backstrap provides a better grip.

5. Relief cuts in the frame around the trigger allowing easier access to the trigger.

6. Shorter trigger with knurled face to avoid the trigger finger from slipping.

These changes were put into production on June 15, 1926 as AUTOMATIC PISTOL, CALIBER .45, MODEL OF 1911A1. This is the version of the weapon displayed at the start of this article.

The pistol remained in service through World War II, the Korean War, and the War in Vietnam. The old war-horse proved to be particularly useful in the tunnel fighting that went on in Vietnam.

The enduring reliability of the Browning-Colt .45 military model is reflected in the fact that about 50,000 pistols "disappeared" from the 380,000 made between April 1917 and November 1918. Including pre-war production, about 100,000 of the 520,000 pistols bought by the Government disappeared in the total six-years between the first orders and the conclusion of the war. A good thief knows a good thing when he sees it!

In recent years, the growing need to standardize the ammunition used by all the NATO governments led to selection of the 9 mm Beretta. The Armed Forces are now in a transition period phasing out the old Colts. The U.S. Marine Corps ran tests on the Beretta and found after extensive firing, some of the frames cracked. However, the switch-over continues.

Sources and thanks: Thanks to weapons expert Sam Lisker of the excellent website,, for the Colt .45 illustrations. An earlier version of this article appeared in RELEVANCE, our quarterly journal. Other past journal articles can be visited by returning to the GREAT WAR SOCIETY homepage. MH

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