WW1 French Contract Colt 1911 for Tank Crewmen

France was in an interesting position during World War One of being a primary supplier of rifles and machine guns to its allies, but a major importer of handguns. In addition to a great many Spanish pistols of several types, the French government purchased both revolvers and Government Model 1911 pistols from Colt. Specifically, they purchased 5,000 standard commercial 1911s off the shelf from Colt, with deliveries starting in April of 1915 and ending in January 1916. These appear to have been issued to tank crewmen, but not exclusively. It is unclear how exactly they were distributed, but after the war they were sold as surplus through Belgian dealers.

These French purchase 1911s were not given any markings by the French, and appear as standard commercial 1911s. They can only be identified by serial number and by Colt factory letter. We know the whole of the order was fulfilled with pistols between number C17800 and C28000, but only about half of the guns in that range went to France. Colt did not ship the guns as a continuous serial number range, but rather took them basically at random from warehouse stocks. To date, no complete listing of their individual serial numbers has been made.

Thanks to Ozark Machine Gun for loaning me this pistol! Check out his cool machine gun rental range in Missouri, and his sales on GunBroker.

26 Comments

  1. Jeez, kind of a big gun to give tankers. (Not like there’s a lot of room inside the two men French Renault tanks!)

    Honestly surprised that they didn’t give them something smaller. 32 ACP or 8-9mm.

    • Maybe those were the only pistols instantly available, when the Frend put out the contract for tenders? Those are off the shelf pistols after all. The USa was not yet officially taking part in the war so Colt had stocks of freshly made M1911 pistols.

  2. Ian Hogg in his Military Small Arms of the 20th Century states the French used the 1911 as a starting point for their Model 1935A pistol. Do you have an opinion on this ?

    • Dear Mr. B: The question should be, who DIDN’T use the 1911 as a starting point? Also excludes Browning himself. FN with the Hi-Power, Star, Tokarev, the French pistol designers, Ballester-Molina, SIG, S & W with the Model 39, … Plus those people who bought 1911s outright start to finish, like the Norwegians, Mexicans, Argentines, and Winston Churchill when he went to the trenches in 1917. Mr. M has stated (approximately) that the Glock is just an ultimate 1911 refinement.

      • Dear LDC: Obviously I should’ve been more precise with my query. Had not known of French usage of the 1911 before today. My Q goes to whether the 1911 was the main source of inspiration rather than all the other Browning/FN models around in Europe then. Sure has that 1911 look to it.

        • Dear Mr. B:

          I also did not know of this French purchase (I knew of British buys), but it seems to me the 1911 (and most Browning products) have tinged weapons design all over the world.

          I am told that the French were developing their 1935, in fair secrecy, at the same time FN was refining the GP 35 Hi-Power, also in secrecy. I believe Star was making 1911-style pistols as early as 1922, in 9mm Para, 9mm Largo, and even .45. I don’t remember if Astra had jumped on the bandwagon by then. The precursor Colts with tilting barrel, the 1908 and the .45 “pocket” model, had been openly sold commercially since inception, and by 1934, the 1911 had been around two decades, even adopted by Norway in 1914, if not produced in large numbers until after WWI.

          As the Ruby was a copy of the Browning 1903 and early Walthers copied the Browning-FN 1910 slide disassembly, and the Chauchat was inspired by Browning’s long-recoil system (shotgun or rifle is open to question), I think it fair to suppose there must have been a heavy 1911 influence on the 1935A, especially the use of the swinging-link dropping barrel, the lug-to-groove matchup locking system, and of course the overall layout.

          I don’t know if there is paperwork, or anybody left alive, to confirm this. If Mr. Hogg cited a source I would be glad to know it, and if Mr. M has heard something from his connections or research I would be glad to know. I thank you for raising the question.

          What I want to know is if the subsequent 1935S, with the ejection-port lockup, was directly inspired by the pre-war Webley or was just a case of great minds thinking alike when seeking simpler manufacture.

          • Dear Mr. LDC
            I only have Hogg’s assertion in his MSA 20h C as a source. Since he is no longer available to query we must hope Ian’s curiosity will seek the truth

      • Lawrence of Arabia carried a 1911 in the Great War as well–not a Webley as in the movie. He was into mechanical things.

  3. From the same period, I have a Colt “Government Model” (marked on the frame) in .455 Eley. They were purchased for the Royal Flying Corps, who passed them on to the Royal Air Force when it was formed by amalgamating the Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps and were issued to aircrew as late as 1945. Colt also sold its Military and Police Model revolver to the British in .455 Eley

    What’s distinctive is their beautiful commercial bluing as opposed to the US military’s Parkerized finish. (This is NOT my pistol, but is sisters whose picture I found on line)

    https://stateofguns.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/colt-m1911.jpg

    https://warpathmilitaria.com/product/rare-british-issue-colt-1911-455-eley-pistol-0/

    https://www.thefirearmsforum.com/threads/1917-british-contract-455-colt-government-model-pistol.136799/

    https://www.invaluable.com/auction-lot/c-colt-model-1911-british-455-eley-semi-automatic-897-c-0f94bef9a2

    This is, along with my early Browning High Power IS my collection, the rest are working guns

  4. At about the 4 minute mark, Gun Jesus makes an appearance (Ian is a time traveler!) taking a prisoner at gun point

    • Both Colt New Service and Smith and Wesson N-frame Hand Ejectors (Second Model) were made in 0.455in.

      Colt also made 1911s in 0.455in Webley Self-Loading (WSL), primarily for the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).

      Some of both remained in British service through the Second World War.

      Note that while the 1911 in 0.455 WSL can fire .45 ACP, it is not advisable due to cartridge case length differences resulting in potential headspace problems.

      The issue should not really arise, as any .455in 1911 can accept a standard .45 ACP barrel and recoil spring with no modifications. The extractor and ejector will work perfectly well with .45 ACP “as is”.

      cheers

      eon

  5. It is interesting to see from the French manual that officers, senior NCOs and mounted men were to get either a Lebel revolver, a 1911 or a 7.5mm pistol, whilst the grunts were left to make do with only 7.5mm automatics.

    I assume that by 7.5mm the French meant 7.65mm, though why they bothered to change the nomenclature I don’t know. I’d call it a .32 ACP anyway.

    • .32 ACP is more than enough to punch through a person and his clothes at “spitting distance” unless the recipient of the bullet was wearing a particular grade of plate armor. And nobody wore steel helmets with solid face plates at the time, but I could be wrong…

    • “(…)I assume that by 7.5mm the French meant 7.65mm, though why they bothered to change the nomenclature I don’t know. I’d call it a .32 ACP anyway.”
      To enhance confusion 7,65 mm Long cartridge seems to be developed from cartridge for Pedersen Device and there is known specimen of latter with inscription REM-UMC 32 ACP see An sampling of Pedersen device variations….. chapter: https://www.oldammo.com/july07.htm

  6. Makes sense. I have built a full size replica of a French (and US) FT tank and it is clear that the tank needed something other to protect itself on the flanks. A .32 was just not going to cut it. The FT had pistol ports on both sides of the turret in addition to a cupula with vision slits.

    • re: ports. sound like convenient holes to stuff stuff in, such as grenades and the like. as in, what goes out must come it, sorta.

    • As a child I saw a Renault tank outside the Smithsonian. Most interesting was the little brass plate at he rear which said “mild steel for training purposes only” I understand the US gave a bunch of these to the Canadian Army in 1939 for training use – there is photographic proof of this

  7. As well as Lawrence of Arabia, another famous Brit, Winston Churchill, carried a 1911 into service during the First World War. He got his, #C15566 in 1915 and it’s apparently on display in the Churchill Museum in London, England.

      • Not uncommen back then in the British Army (and most armies in the world really). Officers were required to buy their own weapons within guidelines. Hence lots of variations on the service swords as well as the pistols, because many put their own preferences in them.

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