We become so used to seeing certain things in movies that it's difficult to imagine a time when they didn't exist. Try to imagine a Manhattan skyline before the Empire State Building, San Francisco Bay without the Golden Gate Bridge, or London minus red buses and Big Ben.
Now imagine someone with a handgun and it not being a Colt .45 (with the possible exception of Harry Callahan). This most iconic of weapons is older than you may think, but it proves that when a design is good in the first place, it needs little in the way of changes over the decades-or, in this case, centuries. It was in the late 1800s that the Colt .45 began to take shape. In 1884, the year construction of the Statue of Liberty began, Hiram S. Maxim patented a weapon that would change the face of warfare: the machine gun. Suddenly, revolvers were old hat, out of date; automatic weapons were the way to go. The U.S. Army needed to provide its soldiers with a handgun that could stop an enemy in its tracks with a minimum of time or fuss.
Twenty-nine years earlier, a boy was born to a Mormon couple in Utah: John Moses Browning. Browning's father was a gunsmith, so it was no surprise that, by the age of 14, he had built his first gun-a single-shot rifle. He went on to become the most prolific designer of guns in history, his talents sought by two of the major manufacturers of the time, Winchester and Colt.
Colt was reluctant to put Browning's radical designs into production, so he moved to Belgium, where a company called Fabrique Nationale (FN) employed him. Other manufacturers were starting to introduce automatic handguns and FN launched the .32-caliber Model 1900 after buying Browning's patent.
He went back to the States and designed another automatic pistol, this time finding acceptance by Colt, who launched it as a .38-caliber gun. Colt's problem was not with Browning's forward-thinking designs, but getting the Army to take notice-something that would inevitably secure the future of the company.
The beauty of Browning's pistol was its simple design. Sleek and futuristic in form and devastatingly effective in function, the self-loading mechanism used the recoil energy of firing a bullet to reload the next. The cartridge that held the slugs was slim enough for the pistol to be carried discreetly. But the generals still weren't convinced.
After unrelenting pressure from Colt, the Army announced a competition to supply a new handgun, but with one minimum requirement: it had to be .45-caliber. Smaller-caliber bullets didn't have the stopping power. In 1907, trials began on a variety of sidearms from a number of different makers. After three months of rigorous testing, the 1911, it came to be known worldwide as the Colt M1911. There was an earlier Colt .45, but that was a revolver-the equally iconic Peacemaker-which became as much a part of western legend as Wyatt Earp. The M1911 was made in the millions-used in action during both world wars as well as the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts.
Interestingly, the U.S. Army, when testing for a replacement firearm, found that the M1911 met every requirement, but the Beretta was chosen. In 1992, however, during Operation Desert Storm, those new Berettas started to malfunction and cupboards had to be raided for the old .45s.
Browning's design must have been truly shocking in the 1890s. Had anything before it looked so industrial, so purposeful? Comparing it with the ornate, fussy designs of typical 19thcentury weaponry provides a feel for how utterly different it was. The always will be, a formidable allrounder. Ironic, considering it came from a peace-loving evangelist.