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Navy Service Pistols

There are some hints in the topics of my other blogs, but for those who don’t know, I am an enthusiast of military history and the history of military technology in particular. Now my general interest tends more towards artillery (especially if it’s old, bronze, and pretty – seriously, check out the two Spanish 24-pounder cannons by the Museum entrance, they’re gorgeous) but smallarms are fun too!

In modern militaries, weapons are standardized as a matter of course; when you’re fielding hundreds of thousands of people, logistics gets complicated if everybody brings their own. It’s far easier if everyone is using the same ammunition, spare parts, magazines, etc. Standardization of firearms for that purpose really began with major European powers in the early 18th century, so by the time the US was founded, this was de rigueur for any national military. By the early 19th century, the US Navy had been established, and had adopted a standard handgun from the US Armory at Harper’s Ferry.

Now… time skip!

What’s the most produced handgun in the world? Anyone? For those who said “Colt 1911,” you win the grand prize! And what is that prize? More info about the M1911!

Colt Model of 1911 pistol, as used by the United States Navy. The Mariners’ Museum and Park, 1937.0023.000023

Most military smallarms models have a service life of a few decades; 30 years is a pretty good run. The Colt Model of 1911 (or variations thereof, mostly the 1911A1) was the Navy’s primary sidearm for 74 years. It remains in limited military service to this day at a record 119 years and counting! These guns were vastly ahead of their time, and have served in every US conflict since the First World War.

So… when was the first 1911 made?

For those who said “1911”… well, kind of. But there’s more to it than that.

Slide of the M1911, marked with patent dates for different improvements to the gun prior to the date of manufacture. The Mariners’ Museum and Park, 1937.0023.000023

Before the Navy adopts a new weapon, it has to go through a bidding process and a set of trials. The Navy puts out a tender to the effect of “hey, we need a new gun; it needs to weigh less than 2.5lbs, fire a .38 caliber bullet, be able to fire 500 rounds without a malfunction, etc. etc. etc.” And then every gun designer and manufacturer on the planet perks their ears up, smells that sweet, sweet government contract money on the wind, and tries to make sure their gun gets accepted as the new official version. The Colt M1911 is no different.

In the collections of The Mariners’ Museum and Park, we have a Navy contract Colt Automatic Pistol (more commonly called a Colt model of 1900 or M1900). Something on the order of 2.5-3 million Colt 1911s (including all 1911 variants) have been produced over the course of the last 119 years. The Colt Model of 1900 began production in 1900 and ended in 1902, with a total production run of just over 4,000 guns. There were only ever 250 M1900s purchased on Navy contract, which were trialed by the US Navy (alongside similar US Army trials).

Colt Automatic Pistol (Model of 1900), as originally trialed by the US Navy. The Mariners’ Museum and Park, 1937.0023.000033
Patent marks, manufacturer, and US Navy markings on the Model of 1900. This gun is number 89 of the 250 purchased by the US Navy in September, 1900 for use in trials to establish a new standard sidearm. The Mariners’ Museum and Park, 1937.0023.000033

Feedback from these trials (such as, ‘I know we asked for a .38, but now that you’ve gone to the trouble of making one, we’ve decided a .45 would be better’, and ‘hey, this safety is garbage, can you maybe fix that?’) led to changes, ultimately culminating in a new model. That new model was officially adopted in – you guessed it – 1911!

It’s incredibly rare, it’s from the US Navy, it’s a key piece of the origin story for the longest serving, most produced military sidearm in world (not American, WORLD) history… and it’s in the collection of your Mariners’ Museum and Park! How cool is that!?

For more information, check out the paper by Ed Buffaloe “The First Automatic Pistol” which you can see on the digital object record for our M1900 (

For anyone interested in a breakdown of the technical differences in different models leading up to the 1911A1, the Youtube channel Forgotten Weapons has an excellent video on the history and development of the Colt Model 1911 (

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