In 1993, then-Pfc. Sean Lamphere received an M1911 pistol as part of the 11th Engineer Battalion at Fort Stewart in Georgia. It had a front sight that was cocked 10 degrees off center, and nearly all the bluing had worn off from what he assumed was decades of service.
He was right about that last part — the pistol was about 50 years old when he received it.
For more than 80 years the Army’s weapon of choice was the M1911 — beginning in World War I and running through Operation Desert Storm.
A new sidearm was called for by the military following engagement in the Philippine Insurrection that ended in 1902. Created in 1911 by William Moses Browning, the pistol was originally produced by Colt.
During World War II, the Army purchased so many of the .45-caliber pistols that it never had to buy another. It was officially decommissioned in 1985, though young soldiers like Lamphere continued to shoot with them years after. The M1911 was so beloved by troops that many called for its return during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan claiming its replacement, the Beretta M9, was not as powerful.
For the first time, large quantities of this piece of military history will be available for civilian purchase. In the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress directed the Army to transfer up to 10,000 of the sidearms to the Civilian Marksmanship Program for sale this year and next. After 2019, transfers are discretionary.
“That’s shocking,” Lamphere, a 44-year-old Austin, Texas resident, said when he learned people were lining up to pay nearly $1,000 for the weapon that he eventually traded in for a Ruger.
Starting June 4, people can apply to purchase one of the 8,000 made available this year. Since they were decommissioned, the pistols have been in storage at Anniston Army Depot in Alabama.
The Army pays the Defense Logistics Agency about 61 cents per pistol per year for storage, so this year’s transfer of 8,000 saved the Army about $5,000 in storage fees, said Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman. The Army does not receive any money for the weapons, and taxpayers don’t pay for the sale. Instead, it goes to the nonprofit national marksmanship program to support competitions, safety courses and more.
Training future Olympians
Established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt to improve the rifleman marksmanship of the armed forces, the program’s goal is to train and educate U.S. citizens in the responsible use of firearms and air guns through safety training, marksmanship training and competitions. In 1996, the CMP separated from the government and became a private organization, but continues with the same mission, said Steve Cooper, marketing director.
It maintains various types of gun ranges, provides directives for shooting clubs, hosts competitions and offers classes with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit. It also supports many youth and Junior ROTC programs. Over this summer, Cooper said the CMP will host five weeks of matches. Their young people’s competitions have become a feeder for Olympians.
Cooper said the sale of the M1911s will support all these programs.
“It’s been off the hook — literally phones ringing off the hook,” Cooper said of the M1911 interest. “It’s a variety of people: historians, collectors, family members of veterans who fought in wars dating back to World War I.”
‘It put the enemy down’
Military weapon historian Leroy Thompson said he understands the interest in owning a “Government Model,” as these specific M1911s are known.
“There are still a lot of veterans who that was the pistol they were issued, trained on, whatever, and it sort of has an association with their time in service,” said Thompson, author of “The Colt 1911 Pistol,” which outlines the history of the weapon. “It’s not just chance to get a 1911. You can buy new 1911 pistols that the prices are competitive, but those are not ones that saw service.”
He said there are many reasons that the Army may have used the M1911 for so long, but most likely it’s because they’d purchased so many and didn’t want to spend the money on something else.
“On the other hand, it’s a very durable weapon. For troops who used it, it put the enemy down and they didn’t get back up … The criticism of the Beretta is they did shoot people and they did keep fighting,” Thompson said.
He added that for years, the front-line troops of the Army and Marine Corps used a rifle, machine gun, artillery piece or tank as their primary weapon, and there was no need to replace the pistol. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need to carry a sidearm all the time increased, as did the need for a weapon like the Beretta, which has a double-action trigger mechanism that allows for a quicker reaction time.
“Also, the 1911s were just getting old,” he said. “When Desert Storm took place, they were 80 years old. They were just wearing out.”
The CMP has said it is pricing the M1911s based on their condition — between $850 and $1,050. The price also factors in the costs of building a vault to house the weapons, transportation and insurance. Cooper said. Just getting ready for the sale has cost about $100,000.
Some veterans have balked at the prices.
“They are historic pieces and not your average 1911 you can buy over the counter,” Cooper said. “We have costs and also are trying to put fair pricing on these for what they are: valuable historic relics. We don’t want them to be treated lightly.”
Some of the pistols have been deemed more valuable and set aside for auction. Cooper said those include weapons with parts that have matching serial numbers.
Thompson speculated that other more valuable M1911s would be those made by the Singer sewing machine company during World War II. Singer made an initial run of 500 pistols, but the quality was not what the military expected, he said. Those 500 were issued, but they are the only ones from Singer.
“An authentic Singer 1911a1, seen in as-issued condition, could sell for $100,000. The odds that a Singer is in that group are fairly small, but that would definitely go into the auction,” Thompson said.
Aside from condition, other things that raise the value include pistols from WWI, which would be marked by the U.S. Navy, and weapons with specific serial numbers known to be used by the Marine Corps.
Despite a more involved than normal gun purchasing process, interest is expected to exceed availability. The CMP will randomly generate numbers for each application and use a random selection process.
“We are really excited about it,” Cooper said. “We know it’s going to be a lot of work. We will be very careful to make sure everybody has a chance to get one.”
For details on how to buy an M1911 from the CMP, go to their website.
© 2018 the Stars and Stripes
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