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Thread: What does a "black army" Colt M1911 look like?

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  1. #1
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    What does a "black army" Colt M1911 look like?

    What does a late Colt M1911 manufactured during WWI look like? And why do some people call it a "black army"?

    Here is a late 1918 Colt M1911 pistol that is all original finish and correct as manufactured.



    "Black army" is NOT a Colt finish. It is a term used by some to refer to a rough, crude appearance to the blue finish of Colt M1911 pistols made during and immediately after World War I; those made and shipped between May 1918 and March 1919.

    The finish itself was the same oven blued process as used on the "brushed blue" Colt M1911 pistols made from about serial No. 170,000 to about serial No. 310,000-350,000; those manufactured between mid-1917 and mid-1918.

    So what is the difference? Why does the finish appear to be darker on the later pistols? The darker appearance on the late pistols is due to the surface preparation prior to finish being applied.

    Colt's eliminated the final polishing step on the M1911 pistols made after May 1918 to increase the rate of production during WWI. They also took other measures and eliminated other milling steps to expedite the production.

    Did all this pay off? Yes...and no. The pistols were produced at a much faster rate of production. More pistols were manufactured in the last 10 months of M1911 production than had been produced in all the prior years combined. Between January 1912 and May 1918, the U.S. Government purchased just over 300,000 Colt M1911 pistols. Colt's manufactured about 325,000 M1911 pistols May 1918 to March 1919. That's quite an accomplishment.

    However, quality suffered with the higher rate of production. The finish on most WWI production Colt M1911 pistols proved to be far less durable than that of the pistols produced earlier.

    Many attribute the poor durabilty of the wartime finish to the pistols' coarse surface not holding the blue finish. That appears to be true.

    However, I believe the root problem with the poor rate of finish retention is due to the rushed surface cleansing and preparation. The pistol surfaces were dipped in hot gasoline for de-greasing. I believe the coarse, crude surfaces made it more difficult to remove the gasoline and other contaminents from the surface. When a surface isn't properly cleansed and prepared, the finish applied simply does not properly adhere to the surface. The results are flaking and corrosion over time.

    Therefore, almost immediately after WWI, it was necessary to refurbish many pistols due to their finishes not standing up to handling, use and the elements associated with the war. Many pistols manufactured during this time frame didn't even make it over to Europe before the war ended November 11, 1918.
    The finish on even those pistols, over the years, did not prove to be durable. Most that remained in military stock ended up being arsenal refurbished, and refinished with the new phosphate Parkerized finish.

    So in the long run, the rushed wartime production probably did not pay off. However, the requirements of small arms was met during The Great War, and Colt's deserve credit for their part in accomplishing that paramount feat.

    Today, the result of all this accounts for the "mystique" around these pistols. Very few exist today that are still all original finish and have any significant condition remaining. The vast majority of late production Colt M1911 pistols have been refinished or are extremely poor condition.

    The pistol I show here is the best original late Colt M1911 I have ever had the opportunity to acquire. I sometimes hear of better pistols, but I've yet to examine one better I believed to still be original finish.

    Now, why are these pistols called "black army"? The BLUED finish appears darker, due to the rough, coarse surface polishing. These pistols have areas on them that took a lot of time to polish on the earlier-produced pistols. The rounded and contoured surfaces required much more time and energy to polish. So those areas were simply neglected on these pistols.

    Look at the crude prep on the trigger guard of this pistol.


    Look at the transition back to a relatively well-polished surface on the recoil spring housing of the receiver. Look how "black" the coarse surface is compared to how "blue" the polished surface is.


    So what color are these pistols? That answer depends on how dry the pistol is. When all the oil is removed from the surface, the finish is clearly blue, and not that much darker than what we normally see on the "brushed blue" pistols. When oil is applied, the finish significantly darkens.

    When examining or photographing a pistol, I sometmes use acetone or alcohol to de-grease the surface. On these pistols, that makes a lot of difference in how they appear under bright light. You see the pistol, and not the oil.

    The late 1918-1919 Colts do not compare in beauty to the pistols produced prior to WWI. However, they are a legitimate sub-variation to be sought by collectors today. They're interesting to examine, and they represent what wartime-production M1911s look like.

    Here are a few more views.









    You might notice the grip panels on this pistol have 13 rows of checkering between the points of the large double-diamonds. We normally think of Remington Arms-UMC pistols with 13-row grips. However, many original late Colt M1911 pistols have been observed with these grips. The appearance of these grips is slightly different than those used on the Rem-UMC pistols.

    You can see there is browning and corrosion on this pistol. That is just the facts of life with these pistols. If you don't see brown under bright light, you better look closely and know what you are looking at, if considering a purchase.
    The only change most people should make regarding their old .45's today is to leave them alone.
    Last edited by Scott Gahimer; 29th June 2009 at 15:08.


  2. #2
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    Thanks for a nice post. Ulfman sweden
    Hi! My name is Ulf, and I have pistolitis..too...
    Last edited by ulfman; 20th January 2009 at 09:18.


  3. #3
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    What's the story behind the humped-back contours of the frame tangs? Was some specific machining operation deleted, or ?
    "A grip safety is just another excess moving part. I have never known one to prevent an accident, and moreover, it is difficult to postulate a circumstance in which it might." Jeff Cooper

  4. #4
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    Yes, just another step that was eliminated to speed the rate of production. These pistols just are not finished out to the same degree the earlier pistols were.

    The heart-shaped cutouts in the frame beneath the grips is another example of eliminating a step and the time involved to perform it.

    I'm fairly confident that's why some of the late grips are not checkered to 15 rows, and why the checkering is slightly cruder. I suspect the cruder grip took less time to produce.

    We often see "last ditch" German and Japanese WII weapons, where time and expense was greatly reduced to turn out a functional weapon, but without all the luster and beauty of the pre-war and early-war pieces.

    I am also a Walther collector. There is a substantial difference in fit and finish on the early pistols compared to the late-war pieces. This is the same thing here. Nothing more. The late M1911's are just simply crude.
    The only change most people should make regarding their old .45's today is to leave them alone.

  5. #5
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    With your approval, Scott, I'm gonna make this one a "sticky", as we seem to get a number of questions about "Black Army" pistols.
    "I calculated the odds of this succeeding versus the odds I was doing something incredibly stupid, and ... I went ahead anyway." - Crow T. Robot
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  6. #6
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    No problem. Hopefully it will be useful.
    The only change most people should make regarding their old .45's today is to leave them alone.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tom
    With your approval, Scott, I'm gonna make this one a "sticky", as we seem to get a number of questions about "Black Army" pistols.
    This Thread serves the purpose of a Sticky! It is very well written, and contains images that assist in relating the intended information. I can foresee a niche, where all of Scott's writings on the 1911 are in one location for easy access.

    Rich
    Certified NRA Instructor Pistol & Shotgun
    ~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~
    "There Is No Greater High Than Defeating Armed Felons" Rich-D

  8. #8
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    I had always thought that "black army" was actually "black oxide" which is a finish I have on many tools for use where chromed or non-oxided tools could cause sparks. As always, Scott, you offer great insight and clarification so I now can relay the correct information to folks who have asked me about the "black army" term. I have incorrectly assumed it was actually black oxide.
    "Those who expect to reap the blessings of liberty must undergo the fatigues of supporting it."
    - Thomas Paine

  9. #9
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    The term "black army" seems to hypnotize some fellows into a state where they think they're looking at a gold mine instead of a crude, poorly finished late Colt M1911.

    Mr. Clawson, in his book, states: This roughness caused the bluing to appear almost black, which is commonly referred to by collectors as "black finish."

    Where does the term "black army" come from? Back before we had the Internet and the capability to easily post or e-mail photos, we relied on written descriptions only, in correpondence and magazines such as Gun List.

    There wasn't nearly as much published information at that time. Serial ranges and finishes were not known by nearly as many people then. Blued finishes were often referred to simply as 1) commercial/bright or 2) military/army. To further qualify what type of finish a late Colt M1911 had, you'd hear people say a pistol had the "black" army (type) finish.

    That let people know the finish was an army type, not the bright commercial blueing. It also told them which type of army finish (the late, dark one...with no real luster or beauty).

    Before long, "black" army became "black army". Ralph Shattuck years ago coined the phrase "black widow" to market late production Lugers with a dipped chemical blue finish, no straw colored small parts and black plastic grips instead of wood. Those byf41 and byf42 pistols often had the black plastic mgazine bases that were not numbererd, too.

    The early Lugers with a rust blue finish, strawed small parts, matching numbered wooden grips and matching numbered magazins were, by far, better sellers. The term "black widow" caught on and added mystique to Lugers that hadn't been a good seller up to that point. Buyers thought there was something special about them because they were "black widows".

    I think the same thing has happened in the .45 collecting community. "Black army" is a term many simply don't understand. It has nothing to do with who the pistols were issued to. It has nothing to do with a different type of blue finish. It has nothing to do with being a rare or highly sought after variation.

    It is only a descriptive term which describes the darker appearance of the same blued finish Colt's had been using on ealrier pistols. By using the term "black army", we have created something of a frenzy out of nothing.

    I will admit, however, it is a convenient way to describe these pistols. Black army...two words. That's all.

    Those two words, when spoken, tell me we're talking about a late 1918-1919 Colt that probably doesn't have a good finish, or has more than likely been refinished. It tells me we're talking about a pistol that had all kinds of shortcuts taken in producing it to rush production because of WWI. It says the final steps of polishing were omitted. It tells me the surface and contours are crude and ugly when compared to the earlier Colt pistols. It says bare basics; nothing handcrafted or beautiful.

    We often hear "Is this a Black Army?". Black Army is not a noun. It is a descriptive adjective which indicates the crude appearance to the surface and finish of a late Colt M1911.

    So if a pistol is Parkerized, nickel or chrome plated, bright blue, polished smooth or has any signs of superior workmanship...the answer is No.

    If a Colt M1911 is in the serial range 310,000-629,500 and has a crude, coarse and roughly polished surface with a low-luster blued finish... and shows all sign of originality...then Yes, that pistol probably has the black army type appearance.

    I don't think a person should pay a premium price for a pistol with poor condition, or especially because it has poor condition. that's what many buyers do.

    Some sellers seem to use the term "Black Army" to imply they have something special. The only thing that makes one of these pistols special is if it is all original, correct and is in exceptionally good condition. We need to pay for originality with condition, not for the name "black army".

    When a nice late pistol does surface, I'd agree, it is something out of the ordinary.
    The only change most people should make regarding their old .45's today is to leave them alone.

  10. #10
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    Great information. Wanting to start 1911 or 1911A1 collection. Ran across this one 1911 - WWI “Black Army” re-issue with black oxide finish. New. $1,150.00. Is this a good price if all original?

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