Union Switch and Signal M1911A1
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Within two months of his eighteenth birthday, my grandpa left the Bronx, New York and was inducted into the Army of the United States. His listed civilian occupation was “boilermaker,” but he was on his way to an MOS of Intelligence Observer 518 in the 209th AAA Automatic Weapons Battalion in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater.

He passed away a couple years ago, and I took possession of his Union Switch & Signal-manufactured M 1911 A1 that he apparently carried during the war.

During WWII, five companies received contracts to manufacture M1911A1s for the war department. Remington-Rand (a typewriter manufacturer) made about 878,000, Colt’s Manufacturing Company turned out 629,000, and Ithaca Gun Company made 345,000.

Singer Corporation (the sewing machine manufacturer) made only 500 units as an “educational order.” The idea was, according to Wikipedia, for “the US Ordnance Board to teach companies without gun-making experience to manufacture weapons.”

It turned out that Singer was too good and too precise to waste their valuable resources producing a pistol that doesn’t require tight tolerances. Instead, their manufacturing capacity was shifted to cranking out precision instruments including bomb and artillery sights.

Finally, Union Switch and Signal (which made railroad signaling equipment) manufactured 55,000 M1911A1 pistols — the second fewest of the wartime manufacturers. US&S guns were unique in some ways and known for their high quality.

In fact, none of the 55,000 pistols inspected and fired by US&S’s in-house Ordnance Department inspector were rejected. All received the “R.C.D.” inspector’s mark in a circle underneath the slide lock, showing that Lt. Col. Robert C. Downie had inspected and approved them.

As so many M1911s and M1911A1s went in for arsenal rebuild or service (becoming “re-arsenaled”), it’s extremely common to find one manufacturer’s slide on another manufacturer’s frame. Manufacturing contracts required total parts interchangeability, so when an M1911A1 pistol went to an arsenal or service depot it would be stripped and each part would go into separate buckets full of those same parts from hundreds or thousands of other M1911A1 pistols.

In some cases it’s difficult to tell what manufacturer made a given frame, since all of them operated from the same specifications and some even duplicated the same serial number ranges. In the case of my grandpa’s US&S sample here, I believe it to be all-matching, all-original. Thankfully, he took this little souvenir (among others) home before it made it in for any sort of service.

On the right side of the frame, Union Switch & Signal inserted double spaces in “M  1911  A1” whereas Colt rolled it out all crammed together (“M1911A1”) and Remington-Rand, Ithaca, and Singer inserted single spaces (“M 1911 A1”). US&S’s serial number range was 1041405 to 1096404, with my grandfather’s numbered 10622xx (I’m “redacting” the final two just ‘cuz . . . call it OPSEC).

US&S frames never carried the crossed cannons ordnance mark in front of the hammer pin, whereas nearly all others did after some time late in 1942.

The thumb pads of both the safety and the slide lock were checkered on Union Switch & Signal 1911s. Other manufacturers often cut serrations into the slide lock instead.

US&S triggers were short in length and stamped, not milled. On the frame, the “half moon” trigger finger relief and radius in front of the magazine release button show slight differences in shape from the other manufacturers.

On the top left side of the slide, nearly where the rounded top meets the slab-sided side, US&S was stamping the “P” proof mark in the wrong place due to a poorly-done Ordnance drawing. This occurred between serial numbers 1060100 and 1082000, give or take a few (prior to 1060100 there were no proof marks). The slide’s “P” proof mark was then moved to where it was supposed to be: centered on the top of the slide in front of the rear sight.

The rear sight sports a square notch.

And the front sight is serrated.

Union Switch & Signal M 1911 A1 barrels were made by High Standard. My grandpa’s pistol sports the “HS” roll mark on the right side of the lower lug (not shown).

For all of these and some other reasons, I believe this pistol is not only 100 percent Union Switch & Signal, but all-original as it was manufactured. At least the major components and controls appear to be original to this specific pistol, right down to the Bakelite grip panels.

My grandpa kept his pistol inside of what I believe is his Army-issue or at least WWII-era leather shoulder holster, original empty magazine inserted.

The box of Western Cartridge Company .45 ACP appears to be from 1952.

It is my goal to keep this M1911A1 in the family for as long as possible. Hopefully one of my girls or my sister’s boy or girl, or one of any of these kids’ possible future children will be interested in doing the same.

More pics (and any of the photos in this article can be enlarged by clicking on them):

Okay, one quick WWII-related grandpa story:

He showed me on his discharge papers how he had qualified as “Marksman” with the M1 Garand. Apparently, he got there and then sandbagged. Hard. Since he once put a short version of this story in an email to me, I’ll copy-and-paste here in his own words:

Did you know that before I shipped out overseas I was training at Fort Ord, (Monterey) CA with a Springfield and was shooting in the upper 200 (target excellence) 210 and stopped and never got my “marksman” medal….and finally couldn’t even hit the target. Why…Rumor had it that the Army was putting together a “sniper” group to go overseas. At the time I was damn good with the M1 and the Browning Automatic.  But a sniper was not a glamorous thought, hanging out in the woods, etc. Today of course, I could have written a book, and made a movie. But then, who the hell wanted to be a sniper.

I don’t know how many times he told me about almost qualifying too high and then sandbagging (haha). I have no idea if it’s true, other than the part about him never receiving a marksman medal apparently wasn’t accurate since it’s right there on his WD AGO Form 53-55.

A few photos of him during his service:

He and both of his brothers served. Air Force, Navy, and Army. That’s him on the right. All three made it home.

Note on the back of the photo reads: “Yoki — Couldn’t be better — I didn’t miss either. LBS” (his initials).

Note on the back of the photo reads: “Omoki [I think] ~ A short burst ~”

He brought these two swords home from Japan, having apparently relieved Japanese officers of them. Both have been in my possession for a long time and, while I lived in San Francisco, I took them to one of the foremost Japanese sword experts in the country.

The katana was found to be a pre-WWII reproduction (a gunto) of an old Samurai sword. It was painstakingly aged and marked to look as though it had been manufactured centuries ago. In fact, all of the furniture was authentic to the Edo period.

However, the sword was mass produced and non-traditionally forged (including being oil quenched). This was, apparently, a very common practice in the lead-up to WWII so the Japanese military could issue swords to its officers, the wearing of which was required.

On the other hand, the wakizashi — the shorter of the two swords — was made in the traditional manner sometime during the years 1560 to 1580. All of the furniture is newer than the blade (and the habaki) and is all likely from the Edo period.

That’s him holding the bottle on the back of a bicycle. The note on the back of the photo reads: “My last drink.” I don’t know what that’s in reference to, as he was a perfectly capable drinker as long as I knew him and well before. He taught the wife and me the joys of a nice, tall bourbon and ginger ale (I’d recommend Trader Joe’s or other spicy, but not too sweet ginger beer).

In fact, he opened up a restaurant in the late 70’s in Westchester, New York and had one of the most extensive menus of imported — from every part of the globe — beers anywhere in the state, possibly the country at that time. Plus quite the burger list, and “The Best Bloody Mary in Westchester County” according to multiple newspaper polls.

Not to mention what appeared to be some good Halloween parties and regional dart tournaments.

After the war he found himself in White Sands, New Mexico doing “missile stuff.”

In the 90’s he joined a program where he served in the IDF during Gulf One and then again a few years later.

He also read to his great-grandchildren.

Though he had been preparing me for his imminent demise for over a decade with jokes like “Any day now, Jeremy; I don’t even buy green bananas anymore,” he was also convinced, if only in jest, that he’d live to 120 while simultaneously saying, “every day on this side of the grass is a blessing.”

He is missed.

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51 COMMENTS

  1. Seriously, this may be the best piece I’ve read here.

    Thanks for sharing. The photos really added to the story.

    What a piece of history. You bet he is missed.

  2. Good story, sounds like a hell of a guy. I’m sure that you appreciate the gift he gave you ( I’m speaking of your time with him, not the gun).

  3. A brolly and an Uzi. How old was he when he served with the IDF?

    I was not authorized a sidearm so I had to provide my own. That holster looks a ringer for the one that I carried my Tokarev in.

      • My age bracket. We can still be useful in times of need. The Israelis always have manpower short falls. In 73 I was involved around the edges of the Yom Kippor war. I never saw old guys but i saw plenty of women armed with Uzi’s and doing this type of work.

  4. I love stories like these. More please.

    Jeremy, you did a fantastic job writing with a “campfire story” style, as if you were relating to a group of pals and reminiscing about days gone by and passing down memories to those who will absorb and care for them. The more photos the better, and you certainly didn’t disappoint.

    Great job.

  5. Great article. Great photos. Thanks for sharing some of your family history. Would you happen to know the name of that restaurant he owned?

  6. Very cool, Jeremy.

    I inherited my grandfather’s bring back P.38, and I think I’ll get it out and wipe it down tonight. If I had a pipe, I’d go looking for some Half & Half.

  7. What a great read.
    Thanks Jeremy, and a thanks to your grandpa.

    (Now I’m gonna go dig out my USS and check the serial number.)

  8. Thank you for sharing! While the US&S is not much to look at the story of your granddad and your family is very heart warming. Loved all the pictures of him in various stages of life. RIP old soldier… never alone and never forgotten.

  9. “These are facts, historical facts, not schoolbook history, not Mr. Wells’ history, but history nevertheless. ” — Kasper Gutman in “The Maltese Falcon.”

    Well told, Jeremy.

    FYI, in the late ’70’s, I was working in Westchester. I think I recognize that menu.

  10. Amazing read! Thank you for sharing! I’m fascinated by this idf program that had 70+ year old bad asses guarding the rear lines with uzi’s.

    Looks like he was truly a special man!

  11. God Speed PawPaw! I sure do miss mine. Mom’s Dad was a BAR man in Korea, and Dads Dad was Air Force in the same. Both have a few Purple Hearts in addition to their other medals, and I miss them both dearly. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story brother!

  12. I enjoyed the article and especially the photos, but why are you flexing on all the poors with all the photos of a box of ammo in 2020? Just kidding.

  13. It would cost you a small fortune, but you could ship that 1500s blade back to a swordsmith in Japan and have a period-correct restoration done to it by someone who appreciates the history of that blade…

    • ^^^ “A life well lived”^^^

      Yes. Exactly this.
      I’ve been fortunate to have met some truly remarkable people in my days.
      It’s guys like this who leave me in awe. And momentarily, I wonder if we, as a nation, have anymore of these brave souls left. Then I remember some of our modern day heroes who follow in hose footsteps.

      • It’s up to us, the brave, the honest, the determined, to be such men. My grandfather was one, and inspired three generations of our family. I hope to lead my life in a way that inspires my own grandchildren one day.

  14. Thank you for sharing.

    I am the lucky recipient of a Winchester 97 12g and Ithaca 300e DB 12g from my gramps. The Ithaca I never saw as a kid and did not know he had it. The Win97 was purchased in 1926 by my gramps brother, sold it gramps, who then gave to his son, my uncle, who then gave it to me along with the Ithaca as I’m the only nephew that ever bothers to visit the old fart.

    These have to be the most prized of all my earthly possessions as I don’t have a lot from the man I adored, admired, and wanted to be just like.

    • The pic of your dad with his grand daughter is AMAZING. The world needs more of what I see and feel looking at it. That would be framed all over my house. Its mesmerizing.

  15. Seeing how much the 1911 means to you, have you ever thought of trying to find the family that the wakizashi may belong to? Not trying to push the idea, but imagine if you were somebody in Japan and you showed up at a family members door with that gift!

    Being that old it must have been a family heirloom.

    • “Seeing how much the 1911 means to you, have you ever thought of trying to find the family that the wakizashi may belong to?”

      He *could*, but I doubt the original family even misses it.

      By the rules of war honor, his grandpa got it fair-and-square from a defeated enemy (at the time, not so much any more).

      Besides, it’s now a part of several generations of Jeremy’s family history, by nearly a century now.

      (That blade is now pushing 400 years old. It’s quite possible that the handle material attached to it and scabbard may have been replaced several times by now, so the only ‘original’ part of that sword is probably the blade itself. If it were mine, I’d seriously consider having a Japanese sword smith restore it to a period-correct condition and store it under glass…)

  16. Jeremy,,, you just brought a smile to my face that won’t quit! You are a blessed man to have such a unique Granddad in your life. That’s for taking the time to write this wonderfully full article, it was visually rich and fascinating to get a glimpse into your Grandad’s life. In so many ways those of his era were the “Greatest Generation”. Yes, the items that you chronicled were in themselves of great interest, but their greatest value are that they are keepsakes of a Life well lived.

  17. Super cool. Thanks for the story, so amazing.

    Speaking of 1911s. Picture this.
    Custom 1911 in good ol 45 cal
    One slab has trumps portrait, underneath it quotes “Make America Great Again”
    one slab has Amy Barrets portrait, underneath it quotes “We Do Own A Gun”
    And across the sides of the slide it says
    45 ACB

  18. leon was a badass.
    i never knew either of my gdads. y’all that were close to yours are fortunate.
    i remember the green bananas thing, still hear that one once in a while.
    pops woulda been 120 this year; left me a wooden marlin spike from his time on the uss constitution. not much else.
    cherish that stuff.

  19. The U.S.S. M 1191 A1 was absolutely great. The tie in storys and pics of your Grandfather’s young and old exploits really made for a great read. I thank you for sharing both of these Vets with us.

  20. I too have my grandfather’s US&S 1911. Like yours, it appears to be complete and correct. I am curious if you compared your hammer to published information about the US&S hammers? My 1911 has the same “wide spur” Colt hammer yours has. I was told it is not correct for the gun, but I believe it is- just from the condition, color/finish match, and now you having the same hammer make me wonder if US&S used some “wide spur” hammers. Thoughts?

    • Hi Bryon,

      No, unfortunately I was incorrect about that. Also, the left-side grip on my gun isn’t correct — notice the “ring” around the grip screws on the right side that aren’t on the left side. The US&S grip panels should have that raised ring.

      Here are the comments from an expert who emailed me in response to my article here corroborating much but pointing out these couple of things that aren’t correct / original on the gun:

      3) Unfortunately the hammer is incorrect. US&S pistols should not have the “winged” hammer. all hammers on US&S pistols should be of the “same width” variety, which doesn’t have the flanges or “wings”.

      4) I don’t see the “concentric rings” on the barrel bushing that I like to see on US&S pistols. This doesn’t mean that it’s not authentic, but leaves it open that it may not be a US&S. A big portion of US&S bushings have the concentric rings.

      The combination of the wrong hammer and left grip probably means your grandfather swapped out a few things in the past.

      • Thank you for replying to me. I am interested in speaking to the person who emailed you. Would you mind passing his contact information along? My email is:
        (my last name)@hotmail.com

        Regardless of the completeness of your 1911, the history is real and your connection to the gun is completely authentic. I found a hammer for my 1911, but don’t know if I will swap it because the gun is more valuable to me as my grandfather presented it.

  21. I came across your article while researching the the Union Switch & Signal M1911A1. The reason for my research is because CMP is about to release their next batch of 1911A1’s. I truly enjoyed your article, it gave me a real sense of the history behind the US Gov’t issued 1911’s. Your grandfather is why they are the “Greatest Generation”. I appreciate the fact that you will be keeping it in your family and also passing down the story and real history to the future generations.

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