How Smith & Wesson took a 100-year-old weapon design and made it better


One of the oldest gun companies in America produces its own version of one of the most exemplary handgun designs in U.S. history.

Smith & Wesson’s handgun series based on the 1911 platform stays true to the roots of the weapon while adding a number of desirable features for modern firearm enthusiasts. The company produces a full 1911 line, from traditional to contemporary, for collectors and carriers, in a full range of sizes.

(This first appeared last month.)

The 1911 pistol was invented by prolific small arms designer John Moses Browning at the turn of the 20th century. Browning paired the pistol with his new .45 Automatic Colt Pistol, a large, heavy subsonic cartridge that delivered over 400 foot-pounds of energy to the target. The association of a semi-automatic pistol capable of holding eight rounds with the .45 ACP manstopper cartridge was in response to reports that US revolvers in .38 Long Colt often failed to stop Filipino insurgents in close combat .

Although the 1911 missed the Philippine insurgency, it was well positioned to enter World War I alongside the US military. The American Expeditionary Force issued the 1911 in large numbers where they fought in the trenches in WWI. Minor changes in design resulted in the 1911A1 designation during the 1920s. Over a million pistols were produced for the United States and Allied forces during World War II, enough for the armed forces to keep the 1911 in. frontline service until the 1980s.

The 1911 dominated the U.S. commercial firearms industry for decades, and coupled with the design and use of the weapon by the military for over sixty years, resulted in a weapon that threw a wide cultural shadow. Few guns have their own enthusiastic fan base like the 1911 did, and today most gun manufacturers address this group with their own take on what many consider it John Browning’s masterpiece.

Smith & Wesson makes a wide variety of 1911s, starting with the E SW1911 series, moving on to the Performance series and finally the Performance Pro series. The company also produces equivalents to traditional large government pistols, Commander compact pistols, and subcompact officer series.

The base of the company in 1911, the Series E 1911, is built on the model of a typical government model. The pistol has a 5 inch barrel, weighs 39.6 ounces, and carries eight rounds in the magazine plus an additional round in the chamber. It features laminated wood grips, Novak style white dot sights for low light shooting, and a beaver tail safety grip. The E 1911 series is finished in brushed stainless steel and features an aggressive fish scale grid pattern on the slide.

The company 1911 Performance center is the next model and involves a considerable amount of work generally considered custom in the handgun world of 1911. The Performance Center pistol features a port slide, action work performed by gunsmiths Smith & Wesson, a barrel grooved, crowned muzzle, polished feed ramps and ambidextrous manual safety. The pistol also features adjustable sights, an improvement over those of the base 1911 E-series. The performance center enhancements are complemented by a finer thirty lines per inch checkerboard pattern on the blue G10 laminate grips of the gun.

To complete the Smith & Wesson 1911 series, Performance Pro range. Those sporty features from the 1911s that are often added by gun owners as high end and borderline luxury features. The Pro line includes all the features of the Performance series with the addition of an oversized external puller, full length guide rod, extended magazine well and stoned hammer and trigger for improved trigger operation. The Pro line is also finished in matte stainless steel and features authentic wood handles instead of laminate.

The SW1911 line also differs in size. 1911 handguns are generally divided into 5-inch barrel “government” full-size handguns, 4.25-inch “commander” compact barrel handguns, and “officer” barrel subcompact handguns. 3 inches. This allows the 1911 hobbyist to choose the handgun size that meets their needs, whether it is a government-sized scope pistol, a commander for concealed transport, or an officer for discreet concealed transport. Smith & Wesson’s handgun line offers 1911s in all three sizes, although their version of the Officer pistol is only available in the performance series.

More than a hundred years after its introduction, the pistol of the 1911 series continues to perform well. Smith & Wesson’s homage to the 1911 series blends tradition and innovation, adding new functionality while remaining recognizable as one of John Moses Browning’s timeless inventions. The unmatched cachet of the pistol, acquired over time, will ensure that it will be part of the Smith & Wessons range for decades to come.

Kyle Mizokami is a San Francisco-based writer who appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign police, War is Boring and The Daily Beast. In 2009, he co-founded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.

Image: Smith & Wesson.

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