America’s Top General In Afghanistan Packs An Old School 1911 Pistol

A week ago, the top American officer in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General Scott Miller, appeared at a meeting with Afghan troops armed with a version of the iconic .45 caliber Colt M1911 pistol, which has served across the U.S. military for more than a century now. For now, this is Miller’s issued sidearm, but the historic handgun is becoming an increasingly rare sight in the hands of American troops. The last major user of M1911 variants, the U.S. Marine Corps, plans to stop issuing them within the next four years.

Afghanistan’s TOLONews grabbed the pictures of Miller during a stop in either Uruzgan or Kandahar province on May 28, 2019. Lieutenant General Zia, Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister of Defense, and Brigadier General Koshal Sadat, the country’s Deputy Minister of Interior for Security, accompanied the American officer, who is presently head of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A). 

“It is standard practice for General Miller and all other soldiers to carry their issued weapon while in combat,” a spokesperson for the Resolute Support Mission told The War Zone in an Email regarding the event. Of course, Miller did not appear to be in combat during the visit.

But it’s still not surprising that he was carrying a pistol while making these sorts of stops in Uruzgan and Kandahar, where insurgent activity remains high. In addition, insider attacks continue to be a serious threat to coalition forces in Afghanistan. Miller himself was involved in one such incident in October 2018, which claimed the life of controversial National Police General Abdul Raziq. The American general reportedly drew his sidearm during that shootout, which also left U.S. Army Brigadier General Jeffery Smiley – head of Train, Advise, Assist and Command – South (TAAC-S) – wounded. 

The pictures that TOLONews took of him in the field showed he was carrying the single-action pistol “cocked and locked,” indicating the gun is in ‘condition one’ and ready to fire. The pistol’s manual safety is presumably engaged and typical M1911 pattern guns also have a grip safety that the shooter has to depress with the web of their hand in order to fire. Astute observers also noted that none of the Afghan troops shaking hands with Miller were armed themselves.

The Resolute Support Mission public affairs office did not say what particular make and model the gun was, but confirmed that it is Miller’s “issued weapon.” We don’t know what unit or other organization issued the gun to him. The all-black pistol does not appear to be one the Marine Corps’ standard issue M45A1s, which are among the most ubiquitous and modern M1911-style pistols still in widespread U.S. military service, but also have a distinctive tan Cerakote ceramic finish. But more on those guns and other specialized examples in a moment. 

A Marine fires an M45A1., USMC

It can be hard to spot specific makes and models of M1911s and derivatives of the general pattern. Often simply called just as the Colt .45s, the design has evolved in many different directions in the decades since Colt first brought it to market and remain very popular on the U.S. commercial market, including versions in other calibers, such as .40 Smith and Wesson, 10mm, and 9x19mm. 

The gun’s origins trace to the turn of the century as the U.S. Army began a search for what would become its first standard-issue semi-automatic sidearm. The Army’s experiences fighting Moro guerillas during the Philippine-American War between 1899 and 1902, in which troops complained bitterly about the limited stopping power of their .38 caliber Colt M1892 revolvers, informed the service’s requirements for the new handgun. Legendary gun designer John Browning, then working at Colt, crafted what would become the Model of 1911, or M1911, which used its own then-new ammunition, the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) cartridge.

Though adopted in 1911, gun’s first major combat outing was with Army troops along the U.S.-Mexico border during the Punitive Expedition five years later. It then went on to particularly notable service with American forces in Europe during World War I. In the interwar period, Colt began producing the M1911A1, which featured a number of external refinements, but which generally so minor that they are largely unnoticeable at a glance to the untrained eye. Various companies would get U.S. government contracts to make the pistols to meet demand and the design quickly became popular among militaries and on the commercial market around the world.

A Remington-made M1911A1., M62 via Wikimedia

M1911s and M1911A1s continued to serve alongside each other in World War II and for decades afterward. The guns remained one of the primary standard issue sidearm throughout the U.S. military until 1986, the year after the Army officially adopted the 9mm Beretta M9 and as other branches began to follow suit. It is worth noting that .38 caliber revolvers had also remained in widespread use, especially with the U.S. Air Force, up until that point.

The Army felt that a 9mm pistol, such as the Beretta, would offer a number of advantages over the M1911, including a larger magazine. Though there are more modern examples with larger magazine capacities, many 1911s retain the original 7-round magazine design. However, U.S. special operations forces, as well as the U.S. Marine Corps, continued to use M1911-style guns afterward, favoring its larger .45 caliber round over 9mm. 

In the 1990s, Marine armorers at Marine Corps Base Quantico made a number of customized M1911A1 for Force Reconnaissance and other specialized units, which became known as the MEU(SOC) pistol – standing for Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) – or M45. In 2012, the Marines began buying improved M45A1s from Colt, which notably had a small accessory rail on the underside of the frame and the Cerakote finish. The initial versions of the finish proved to be ill-suited to wear and tear in the field and wore off quickly.

A closeup of an M45A1 showing wear to the finish., USMC

The Army’s top-secret Delta Force was another a particular proponent of the design. Miller, perhaps not surprisingly, is a veteran of Delta Force, having served with it in Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq, at least that we know of. The general has also previously been head of the top coalition special operations element in Afghanistan and the commanding officer of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command

Delta Force founder U.S. Army Colonel Charlie Beckwith “preferred the .45ACP, mentioning in his memoirs that the round didn’t tend to over penetrate – a vital consideration he felt when shooting pistols around hostages or other non-combatants,” according to Leigh Neville’s Guns of Special Forces, 2001  -2015. “Delta’s original pistols were apparently match grade M1911A1s with the adjustable rear sight replaced by one designed by a Delta armorer.”

Delta Force subsequently transitioned to versions purchased first from Caspian Arms and then STI International. By the 2010s, Delta Force had reportedly largely shifted to Glock pistols in 9mm or .40 Smith and Wesson, which have become increasingly popular with U.S. special operations forces, in general. The Austrian design is both easier to maintain and has a higher magazine capacity. 

An STI Tactical, an M1911-pattern pistol., STI International

There is a possibility that Miller was able to request one of Delta’s specialized M1911 variants after he took up his newest post in Afghanistan, if he hadn’t been carrying one as his personal sidearm the whole time. But there may be increasing pressure in the coming years, even for general officers, to abandon these pistols in favor of designs that are in more widespread use.

In May 2019, the Marine Corps confirmed that they were planning to phase out all of their M45A1s, along with their Beretta M9s and recently purchased Glock M007s, in favor of the new Sig Sauer M18 by 2023. The M18 is the compact variant of the Army’s new Modular Handgun System (MHS) pistol family, which other services are in the process of adopting and that you can read about, in general, more here.

As already noted, U.S. special operations forces have also increasingly moved away from the M1911 in recent years, though that’s not to say that .45 caliber pistols have gone away. The U.S. Navy SEALs adopted a particularly large design from Heckler and Koch, known as the Mk 23 Mod 0, in the 1990s. In 2010, they began issuing a variant of the more manageable Heckler and Koch HK45C, known as the Mk 24 Mod 0.

But, if General Miller is any indication, it seems very likely that M1911s and variants of that design will still keep going to war zones with American forces, even if in increasingly more limited capacities, for some time to come.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.