By Luis Valdes
Yup, you heard right. As a child of the 1980s I grew up in the age of the Wonder Nine. Beretta, GLOCK, SIG SAUER, HK, Ruger, FN, Smith & Wesson, and even Colt either had Wonder Nines on the drawing board or were actively selling them. Every law enforcement agency was dropping the wheel gun and adopting 9x19mm in some way, shape or form.
Hell, even Uncle Sam saw the writing on the wall and ditched their aging 1911 for the Beretta. Films like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, RoboCop, The Rookie, Commando, Terminator, etc….all of them had a ton of Wonder Nine action. They fueled the fire in sales along with every article in every gun rag about the latest agency that had adopted a 9mm. The LAPD, NYPD, FBI, etc….police sales drive a significant portion of the civilian pistol market.
What was happening to the 1911 at the time? Well, it was still being made by Colt and a couple of other companies. But there was a small problem. The majority of them sucked.
Standard procedure back then was you bought a 1911 and then sent it off to your gunsmith to make it work right. They were rattletraps that didn’t feed anything but ball ammo…and that’s if you’re lucky. They were low capacity, large, heavy and virtual money pits. Everyone wanted to shoot the Speer Lawman 200gr JHP, otherwise known as the “Flying Ashtray” and of course the 1911s of the period couldn’t feed ’em unless they were heavily worked on.
Why spend your hard earned money on an outdated piece of pig iron when you could buy a new hi-tech GLOCK or an Italian Stallion Beretta 92? Or maybe the ultra well crafted Swiss SIG P226?
The 1911 was starting to fade away and the Wonder Nines were taking over. Then President William Jefferson Clinton came into the picture and his Assault Weapon Ban into law (and mobilized his opposition). It was a hideous piece of legislation that banned magazines over 10 rounds. Gasp! That should reduce crime! Well, it didn’t, but we all knew that. But we’re not discussing the AWB itself, but its effect on the popularity of the 1911.
In that post AWB world, you could still buy a GLOCK or a Beretta, but why would you? Unless you had a source of pre-ban magazines you felt screwed and cheated. Why carry a full size pistol that could hold 15 to 17 rounds of 9x19mm when by law you were limited to 10 rounds max?
All of a sudden the 1911 became popular again. It was a full size pistol tha all of a sudden was “slim” and carried a cartridge with more “knock down” power. Eight rounds of .45 didn’t look bad compared to 10 rounds of 9×19. In that post-1994 market, everyone and their brother began cranking out 1911s.
Companies across the board updated the design and actually incorporated what used to be considered custom manufacturing processes into production guns. They made them work better, feed better, feel better. The 1911s of today are one hundred times better than most of those produced in the 1980s.
I have a 2011 production Colt XSE Combat Commander and a 1987 production Colt Series 80. The Series 80 still can’t feed JHP even after sending it off to a great gunsmith in the South Florida area. But the Commander feeds everything and anything right out of the box. No tweaking needing.
So how did Bill Clinton and his AWB help fuel the 1911 market? Folks thought, “If I can’t carry or own a full size 9mm pistol with proper magazines, I might as well own something that’s more powerful and the capacity is close.”
Gun magazines pushed 1911’s and the .45 ACP for the simple reason that the AWB gutted the Wonder Nine market. What sold the Wonder Nines was capacity. Restrict that and the market for them dropped out like a rock.
The .40 S&W also gained market share thanks to the Assault weapon ban. Pre-AWB Beretta 92FS, SIG SAUER P226, and Smith & Wesson 5906 guns all held 15 rounds of ammo. Their .40 caliber cousins held 11rds. Buyers wouldn’t feel as cheated by the loss of one round as by with the loss of five.
Post AWB, companies like GLOCK came out with subcompacts like the G26 and G27, guns designed around the magazine capacity limit. Beretta, Smith & Wesson and a few others also introduced compact conceal carry guns. Actually, the conceal carry movement caught on at least in part because of the AWB. States across the country passed pro gun legislation because gun owners were tired of having their rights stripped away and that emboldened the industry to make more CCW capable guns.
So in the end, the 1911 market is what it is today because of Bill Clinton and the Assault Weapon Ban. The AR-15 has also been a beneficiary due to the “If I can’t have it, I want it” mindset that resulted. But the 1911 was saved from the retirement home because of the limit on magazine capacity. It has regained popularity like never before to the point that even companies like Smith & Wesson and Ruger are now making them in addition to their designs. So thanks, Bill, for ensuring that an American classic remains alive and well today.