Monday, February 2, 2009

The Union Switch & Signal M1911A1 pistol

My father was a man who loved military weaponry.
He served as an infantryman in World War 2 and never lost his interest in the guns that equipped the American and German armies. He paid scant attention to collecting the guns of the Japanese, British and Italians although he was conversant with their technical specifications. Pretty much all guns interested him to some degree, but the personal weapons, the small arms of WW2 absorbed him. I acquired the bug from him.
After he passed away my younger brother and I inherited several of his firearms, and one of those which I was fortunate enough to acquire was this M1911A1 made by the Union Switch and Signal corporation - (click on photos to enlarge them)

Generally speaking, military issue M1911s are judged to be more or less collectible based on the number that were made by a particular manufacturer. By far the most collectible from WW2 are those made by the Singer Sewing Machine company. Singer produced only 500 to prove to the US Ordnance Board that they could meet the specifications, make the gauges and pass the inspections. After delivering the pistols and all the required parts and dies to the board they then decided that they'd rather make other materiel for the war effort - and they never made another M1911A1. That fact, and the fact that many of those 500 were issued and then lost in the war makes them supremely collectible. A Singer M1911A1 can fetch $30,000-50,000 at auction!
In contrast, other makers turned out hundreds of thousands of M1911s, so their basic production models have less cachet and less collectible value. Of course, Colts that are uncommon because they were limited runs, commercial production or had special features or unusual characteristics also fetch high prices.
But Union Switch and Signal made only 55,000 M1911A1s in 1943, which makes their guns second only to the Singer pistols in scarcity among
production M1911A1 models. Every other maker - Ithaca, Remington-Rand and Colt - produced more pistols than USS did.
I believe that this pistol is one that my Dad had had since the early sixties. It's in excellent condition, with minor blemishes to its exterior finish. The interior is spotless. It's possible that the only time that this gun was fired was when I shot it for the salute to Colonel Jeff Cooper on the anniversary of his death in 2007, done in concert with a number of other Ravens, which is what some of us who've graduated Gunsite like to call ourselves since that's the symbol the colonel chose for his school.

This pistol has all the correct markings and so far as I can determine from the reference texts which I've consulted is a true and correct USS M1911A1.
The pistol is shown in the photographs with a Boyt military issue holster from 1942 and a British-made magazine pouch from 1943 carried on a genuine military web belt. Those belong to my brother, and have a history of their own which I plan to relate to you in future.
Compared to the newest generation of whiz-bang 1911s that's on the market now, with every conceivable gadget and "improvement" built into and onto them, the gun seems almost primitive.
Almost, but not to the discerning eye. These guns were built to a very high level of precision for a firearm in mass production. The lines are clean and the parts are tight, made to close tolerances. The finish is durable and had to meet very specific standards. The slide fits tightly and glides smoothly on the frame, closing with an authority compelled by the sixty-five-year-old recoil spring. The trigger is crisp and light.
The sights are small, yes, but for the uses to which this pistol would have been put, fighting at close quarters and often in the dark, hand-to-hand and nose-to-nose, the reliability of this pistol would have been far more important than the size of its sights: that, and the caliber for which it was chambered. Alone among the armies of the world, the United States relied on a caliber pushing a wide, heavy bullet that dealt a solid blow to the enemy. The British also had large-bore pistols, but their velocities and impact energies were anemic compared to the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) round.
Hefting this gun you have an appreciation for the men who carried them on patrols, in the trenches, through the mud and everything the weather could throw at them. You can understand why they held this solid fighting pistol in such high regard, even to this day.
All that, and it was my Dad's. It stays in the family.


Jim Aubuchon said...

I have been lucky enough to acquire a US&S also.
I purchased it from the son of the original carrier of the pistol in WWII. I know the person Edward Eugene Wilcke was a paymaster late in WWII in the pacific theatre. I have the holster (WWI) and the dual magazine holder (also WWI) and a WWI web belt.
The holster and magazine holder are original to the weapon as are the 3 "R" marked magazines. The web belt was a later addition but it is a WWI dated belt.
The pistol sat in the holster for over 50 yrs and has some speckling on the top of the slide and a few scratches but is all original.
I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to acquire it. I have been searching for more information on the ensign who carried it, but have found nothing. I did get a letter from the son about the pistol (his fathers initials are in the holster) I would like to find a photo of Edward during WWII but neither his son or grandson have any photo's.

Anonymous said...

I have also aquired a M1911A1 from my father. It has the correct markings and was manufactured by Remington Rand.(United States Property Us Army) I am having trouble finding information on the serial # beginning with 155,XXX where would be a good place to look for some history on this weapon? My dad bought it from an elderly gentleman back in 1968

Chaz said...

The Blue Book of Gun Values will have a listing of all the various 1911s and their scarcity. That will tell you approximately when it was made.
Finding history on an individual pistol isn't as easy, that will have to come from the people who knew the owner or who owned the gun. If you live in Kentucky, Antique and Modern Firearms in Lexington is one of the best places to get information on any kind of older gun.
You could also try contacting various 1911 collectors groups and see what they can offer you, but much depends on what you want to know. Some things they simply won't know.