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It served as the standard-issue sidearm for the United States Armed Forces from 1911 to 1986.

It was widely used in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Designed by John Browning, the M1911 is the best-known of his designs to use the short recoil principle in its basic design.

These pistols are highly regarded by modern collectors, with the 920 examples stamped with German Army inspectors proof (Waffenamt) codes and the unknown number of unmarked examples assembled by the Norwegian resistance movement (the "Matpakke-Colt" or "Lunch Box Colt") being the most sought after.

German forces also used captured M1911A1 pistols, using the designation "Pistole 660(a)".

The Colt gun passed with no reported malfunctions, while the Savage designs had 37. Many persons unfamiliar with the design are often unable to tell the difference between the two versions at a glance. Ordnance Office, David Marshall Williams developed a .22 training version of the M1911 using a floating chamber to give the .22 long rifle rimfire recoil similar to the .45 version.

The M1911A1 was a favored small arm of both US and allied military personnel during the war, in particular, the pistol was prized by some British commando units and Britain's highly covert Special Operations Executive, as well as South African Commonwealth forces.

So many 1911A1 pistols were produced during the war that the government cancelled all postwar contracts for new production, instead choosing to rebuild existing pistols with new parts, which were then refinished and tested for functioning. These arsenal rebuilds consisted of anything from minor inspections to major overhauls of pistols returned from service use.

There is some debate over the reasons for DWM's withdrawal—some say they felt there was bias and that the DWM design was being used primarily as a "whipping boy" for the Savage and Colt pistols, though this does not fit well with the earlier 1900 purchase of the DWM design over the Colt and Steyr entries. of Montreal, the Burroughs Adding Machine Co., Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and the Lanston Monotype Company, but the signing of the Armistice resulted in the cancellation of the contracts before any pistols had been produced.

In any case, a series of field tests from 1907 to 1911 were held to decide between the Savage and Colt designs. Battlefield experience in World War I led to some more small external changes, completed in 1924.

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During field trials these ran into some problems, especially with stopping power. Consequently, DWM produced an enlarged version of the round, the 9×19mm Parabellum (known in current military parlance as the 9×19mm NATO), a necked-up version of the 7.65 mm round. This led to the 1906 trials of pistols from six firearms manufacturing companies (namely, Colt, Bergmann, Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM), Savage Arms Company, Knoble, Webley, and White-Merrill).

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