Savage Couldn’t Beat Colt’s M1911

But the company's pistols were popular with civilians

Savage Couldn’t Beat Colt’s M1911 Savage Couldn’t Beat Colt’s M1911
Even though it lost out to Colt’s M1911, the Savage Model 1907 was undoubtedly one of the finest commercial pistols of its day —... Savage Couldn’t Beat Colt’s M1911

Even though it lost out to Colt’s M1911, the Savage Model 1907 was undoubtedly one of the finest commercial pistols of its day — well-designed, finely-manufactured and revolutionary in many respects.

In the early 1900s, Elbert Searle of Philadelphia began working on a series of semi-automatic pistol designs. He patented his first, U.S. Patent #804984, in November 1903. Searle patented a more refined design, U.S. Patent #804985, in October 1904.

In 1905, Savage Arms acquired the rights to Searle’s blueprints and began refining his designs for

production. Searle envisaged a series of pistols that would be scalable to different calibers, and which Savage could sell to both the military and civilian markets.

French army Savage M1907 with lanyard loop. Source

In 1906, the U.S. Army announced trials for a new .45-caliber pistol to replace the Colt .38 service revolver, whose performance during the Spanish-American War and the Filipino Insurrection had been disappointing.

The pistols trials didn’t start until early 1907, giving Savage and Searle time to refine a version of their pistol capable of firing .45 ACP. Searle patented his final refinements in April 1907 as U.S. Patent #936369.

U.S. Army Board of Musketry conducted a series of trials between 1907 and 1911. The Army asked as many as 20 manufacturers to submit designs. Firms including Webley, Colt, DWM — a.k.a. Luger — Mauser, Smith & Wesson and Savage all submitted pistols for testing.

In 1908, the Army narrowed the eligible pistols to half a dozen … and then just three. The Savage 1907, the John Browning-designed Colt 1911 and the Luger.

Savage’s pistol had the advantage of an impressive eight-round, double-stack magazine, a revolutionary design feature at the time. The .45 ACP Savage incorporated a grip safety, which the Army had specifically requested. The toolroom prototype survived 900 rounds, impressing testers.

The Army ordered 200 pistols from the three manufacturers for field trials. At this point Luger withdrew, not wishing to tool up for such a small number of guns for a relatively small potential contract. Savage, too, initially declined to supply the pistols — and then changed its mind.

In total, Savage produced 288 .45 ACP pistols. This total included prototypes and a batch to replace pistols that went missing in transit. The unit price for the Savage was an extremely expensive $65, compared to just $25 for the Colt.

During the next stage of testing, the Army fired 6,000 rounds through each pistol and exposed them to mud, dirt, water and sand. The Army necked down to the Colt and Savage. The testers reported a number of problems with the Savage, including a poorly-designed ejector, a grip safety that pinched the operator’s hand, broken grip panels and slide stop, magazine catch difficulties, deformed magazines and a needlessly heavy trigger-pull.

The Colt 1905 Military Model, from which the M1911 evolved, went through a series of changes and design improvements, eventually giving it the edge over its rival. On March 3, 1911, the trials board reported that, of the two pistols, “the Colt is superior because it is the more reliable, the more enduring, the more easily disassembled when there are broken parts to be replaced and the more accurate.”

The Army adopted the Colt as the Pistol, Semi-Automatic, .45 caliber, Model 1911.

Savage turned its attention to the civilian market, initially offering pistols chambered in .32 ACP, the premier semi-automatic self-defense cartridge of the day. Production of .32 ACP pistols began in 1908. A .380 ACP version with a nine-round magazine followed in 1915. In the early 1920s, Savage replaced the M1907 and later M1915 with the Model 1917.

A Savage ad featured in Outdoor Life, dating from 1911. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Savage was a canny advertiser, soliciting endorsements from celebrities such as Buffalo Bill Cody and Bat Masterson. The company’s slogan invoked the pistol’s large magazine capacity. “Ten shots quick!”

The Savage pistol featured a rotating barrel that slowed the opening of the breech. Searle accomplished this by having the barrel rotate in the opposite direction to the bullet’s spin.

How effective this was in the .45 ACP is questionable. Testers complained of snappy recoil. The Savage had a concentric recoil spring surrounding the barrel and a separate breech block assembly including the hammer, firing pin and block. Like the trials Savage, the commercial M1907 also had a double-stack magazine holding 10 rounds of .32 ACP. The design was all but screwless. Later models used screws only to retain the grips.

The Savage was popular for its ergonomic characteristics, ease of disassembly and stylish lines. The pistol’s greatest shortcoming was its magazine release, located at the base of the grip. To release the magazine, the shooter had to depress a recessed catch.

While the U.S. Army passed on the Savage, the French army purchased 27,000 .32-ACP M1907s. Portugal bought 1,200 to equip the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps that fought in France in 1917 and 1918.

Despite losing out to the Colt M1911, Searle’s design went on to be a commercial success, with sales exceeding 200,000. Savage finally withdrew from the semi-automatic pistol market in the late 1920s.

This story originally appeared at Historical Firearms.