In my article about the Savage Trials Pistol, I discussed how Savage and Colt had a final “shoot off” to see who would win the contract to be the standard issue military sidearm. We all know the result, the Colt fired 6000 rounds without issue while the Savage had 31 malfunctions and 5 parts breakages. Therefore, the Army awarded Colt the contract on March 29, 1911 to manufacture the M1911 (or Model of 1911). Even though the contract was awarded at the end of March, it took the government and Colt some time to get production up and running. There were lots of details to sort out including how the pistols should be marked, tested, and accepted by the government. In fact, only 50 pistols were made in 1911. Today collectors call these “first day of production” pistols – they are the only 1911s actually made in 1911. Therefore, the first year of production generally refers to 1912 . . .
As soon as Colt got their military production squared away, they worked on releasing a commercial version of the Model 1911. It was introduced as the “Colt Government Model Automatic Pistol” in March of 1912. The name is confusing today, but at that time Colt wanted to reinforce the connection that it is the same gun as “what the government uses.” The pistol sold to the public at $22 versus the $14.25 that Colt charged the government.
The finish on these early Colts is very unique. At the time Colt finished the guns (even the military models) the only way they knew how – to perfection. Each part was hand polished using a series of specially designed polishing wheels. In addition, each part was polished at least four times using increasingly fine abrasives. The final polish was achieved using walrus hide and whale oil. By the time the workmen (we would call them craftsmen today!) were done, the entire gun had a brilliant mirror-like finish.
An example of Colt’s polishing wheels – note this is a later picture when Colt had already reduced the amount of polishing being applied!
After the gun was polished, it was degreased with a boiling gasoline bath! It would then go into a coal fired oven which had a layer of charcoal and whale oil at the bottom. The guns would rotate in the oven rotisserie style for several hours. Periodically a workman would come along and scrub the guns with oakum (a type of fiber) and whiting (a type of ash). This scrub would clean away any charred material as well as polish the gun even more! If that wasn’t enough, the entire process was repeated up to six times until the workman was satisfied with the color and depth of the bluing.
To say the finish looks amazing is an understatement. It is very hard to describe what the finish looks like, as it is very dynamic in nature. In direct light it has a light-blue color to it. In indirect light it has a metallic black look. If I were to summarize it looks like “black chrome”. The same gun in direct and indirect light:
In addition to the mirror-like reflective finish, Colt also applied a “fire blue” to the small parts. All of the small parts were placed into a cast iron vessel containing a charcoal and bone mix. It was heated until the small parts took on an iridescent blue color. The small parts with their turquoise color really pop against the reflective mirror-like finish.
While the finish is indeed quite handsome, the military was less than impressed. I guess the last thing you want in a battle situation is a highly reflective gun with brilliant blue accents! At the military’s request the finish was toned down until eventually the gun was mostly a dull, dark black (the so-called “Black Army” finish). Unfortunately with the switch to the dull black finish, the exact technique for the original brilliant finish has been lost in time. Not only did Colt switch from coal to gas ovens, but some of the materials are now simply unavailable — sperm whale oil anyone?
The pistol shown is my first year of production Colt Government Model. It was sold by Schoverling, Daly, & Gales, a large New York retailer of firearms. An interesting fact, it was the partners behind this retailer that started the brand “Charles Daly.” Here are a few interesting pages from their 1912 Catalog, introducing the Colt Government model for the first time (click for larger size).
Happy Birthday! This gun was shipped today (November 27), way back in 1912. Even at 101 years old, this old Colt is as functional and beautiful as ever!
About the author: Beetle is an amateur collector, writer, and photographer. His favorite FFL had this to say to him: “you like all the weird stuff.” He can be reached at email@example.com.