This year marks the 100th
"birthday" of one of America's most successful and culturally impactive political tools: the 1911 .45 semi-automatic pistol.
Yet this is not just a story about a gun.
Though, of course, this story stars and starts with that gun.
Or rather, our need for it that emerged when U.S. armed forces fought Muslim insurgents on Asian turf that most Americans have trouble finding on a map.
As most of us remember -- especially fans of Mark Twain
and Rudyard Kipling
-- from 1899-1913, the United States fought the Philippine-American War
for control of those Pacific islands. In that conflict that killed 4,165 Americans, our Army battled Moro guerrillas -- fervent Muslims who charged our troops and often failed to be dropped by our soldiers' .38-caliber revolvers. The Army went looking for a handgun that would help keep our guys from getting hacked up in close-quarter combat.
Enter John Browning and Colt firearms
. For Uncle Sam's competitive procurement process, Browning designed a Colt semi-automatic pistol that with individual squeezes of its trigger could fire seven rounds of the .45-caliber bullet -- almost a half-inch-wide slug of lead -- then be quickly reloaded by slapping a cartridge-filled magazine ("clip") into the handle. With its two safeties and ergonomic design, Browning's pistol beat all competitors, firing 6,000 rounds with no malfunctions. In 1911, the Army adopted Browning's .45 as its handgun.
And from our dusty Mexican desert horse cavalry campaigns against Pancho Villa
, through both World Wars
, in the snows of Korea
and the jungles of Vietnam
, right up to today's use by our Delta Force
commandos (even though since 1985 it's not been "standard issue" for our military), the 1911 has been a ubiquitous tool for -- to paraphrase Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz
-- carrying out politics by other means
Probably only two other American military devices have lasted so long and seen such wide use: the .50-caliber heavy machine gun
birthed in WWI and still echoing through the hills of Afghanistan, and the still flying B-52 bomber
built for our Cold War
strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction
but used in Vietnam and other conflicts to rain non-nuclear bombs.
No other tangible American political tool has gone so global.
Politics Daily's military reporter David Wood
saw a Somali irregular officer atop a confiscated UNICEF ambulance in 1977's Ogaden War
wearing a holstered 1911 strapped across his bare chest "like the heavyweight crown of the world," a symbol of authority and rank. A former Marine turned CIA street operative told Politics Daily that "only the Kalashnikov
" (the Soviet-originated machine gun often known as the AK-47
) is as common in global hotspots. Foreign governments use 1911's for their forces and 1911's are carried by many U.S. cops, including Los Angeles's SWAT
units. A D.C. homicide detective who worked an elite anti-narcotics squad similar to that on the HBO
show "The Wire
" (warning: explicit dialog in hyperlink
) customized a 1911 as his off-duty weapon. And this year, the Utah Legislature is poised to honor the 1911 by designating it as the official state gun.
The 1911 shot a hot trajectory through our imaginative culture.
That gun is in a jillion World War
movies. What other pistol would dare fill the fist of Marine Corps
Sgt. John Stryker (aka John Wayne)
in "The Sands of Iwo Jima
"? As movies discovered gangsters between the two World Wars, the 1911 became as much a Hollywood star as the Thompson submachine gun
. American prose-slingers hankering for high impact riddled their stories with 1911's -- especially Mickey Spillane
, who sold 225 million novels. What modern crime writer Max Allan Collins
calls Spillane's "fever dream prose" waxed poetic about the size and intimidating power of the 1911 so often that his fictions vindicate Sigmund Freud
As America hit the 1960's heeding that one-word advice given Dustin Hoffman
in "The Graduate
" – "plastics
" – space-age, sleek new handguns in fiction and real life eclipsed the 1911, as Bruce Willis
articulates in "Die Hard 2
." But the 1911 never surrendered, making key appearances in movies like (Disclosure: from my novel
) "Three Days of the Condor
," Robert De Niro
," and even "Animal House
." The 1911 has its own web fan sites
and the National Rifle Association museum
near Washington, D.C.'s Beltway is planning an exhibit to honor the gun's centennial.
lost control of its 1911 franchise is a fascinating business story, but not what we're aiming at here, just as we're not looking to stand on any of the dozen sides in our political wars over gun regulations.
Nor is our target modifications of the 1911 over its first 100 years. Such critiques are better left to gun masters such as Pulitzer Prize
-winning journalist and renowned novelist Stephen Hunter
Hunter generously let Politics Daily zero the heart shot of any 1911 story: What's it like to shoot one?
With the help of Rick Alexander and Ed DeCarlo at On Target
's indoor shooting range, Hunter led Politics Daily contributors Alison Fairbrother
-- who'd never fired any gun -- Nathan Grady, and me through a shooting session with a selection of 1911's. We donned eye and ear protectors, stepped to the firing line, raised Hunter's 1911's . . .
And blasted holes through paper targets. Felt the whunk
from the booming recoil as 1911's jumped in our two-handed grips. Saw the flash, smelled the powder and hot brass. Thanks to Politics Daily's Colin McDonald
and Loki Films
' Christina Gonzalez, this story's video insert of our adventure captures Hunter's wit and zen
wisdom -- "Lean forward into it [the gun]. You dominate it, it doesn't dominate you . . ."
-- as we fire one of history's most efficient death-dealing machines:
That's what the 1911 is about: Death. Or life.
That's the choice you make when you pick up a 1911 (always presume all guns are loaded). You pick up the 1911, you make some moral decision to enforce your will with life or death choices.
No matter how else we label that choice, it's politics: the 1911 is built to shoot someone else, and such an element of control is the essence of politics.
Just as the samurai sword
says something about the character of medieval Japanese culture and politics, the 1911 says something about our America.
The 1911 is big and heavy and loud and lethal.
It's a triumph of necessity, simplicity, and innovation.
Most of all, it works
As a CIA senior operations officer told Politics Daily, if you hit something with a 1911, "You knock it down."
And that's where the most ironic and powerful political truths of the 1911 emerge: gripping it does not make you right, virtuous or victorious. Past, present and future, those elements are decided by human factors
stumbling through our political world
What does that mean? Where does that leave us?
So much depends
on who's holding what gun.
But that's only one place our fate starts – 100 years ago, 100 years from now, today