Union Switch and Signal M1911A1

Within two months of his eighteenth birthday, my grandpa left the Bronx, New York and was inducted into the Army of the United States. His listed civilian occupation was “boilermaker,” but he was on his way to an MOS of Intelligence Observer 518 in the 209th AAA Automatic Weapons Battalion in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater.

He passed away a couple of years, and I took possession of his Union Switch & Signal-manufactured M 1911 A1 that he apparently carried during the war.

During WWII, five companies received contracts to manufacture M1911A1s for the war department. Remington-Rand (a typewriter manufacturer) made about 878,000, Colt’s Manufacturing Company turned out 629,000, and Ithaca Gun Company made 345,000.

Singer Corporation (the sewing machine manufacturer) made only 500 units as an “educational order.” The idea was, according to Wikipedia, for “the US Ordnance Board to teach companies without gun-making experience to manufacture weapons.”

It turned out that Singer was too good and too precise to waste their valuable resources producing a pistol that doesn’t require tight tolerances. Instead, their manufacturing capacity was shifted to cranking out precision instruments including bomb and artillery sights.

Finally, Union Switch and Signal (which made railroad signaling equipment) manufactured 55,000 M1911A1 pistols — the second fewest of the wartime manufacturers. US&S guns were unique in some ways and known for their high quality.

In fact, none of the 55,000 pistols inspected and fired by US&S’s in-house Ordnance Department inspector were rejected. All received the “R.C.D.” inspector’s mark in a circle underneath the slide lock, showing that Lt. Col. Robert C. Downie had inspected and approved them.

As so many M1911s and M1911A1s went in for arsenal rebuild or service (becoming “re-arsenaled”), it’s extremely common to find one manufacturer’s slide on another manufacturer’s frame. Manufacturing contracts required total parts interchangeability, so when an M1911A1 pistol went to an arsenal or service depot it would be stripped and each part would go into separate buckets full of those same parts from hundreds or thousands of other M1911A1 pistols.

In some cases it’s difficult to tell what manufacturer made a given frame, since all of them operated from the same specifications and some even duplicated the same serial number ranges. In the case of my grandpa’s US&S sample here, I believe it to be all-matching, all-original. Thankfully, he took this little souvenir (among others) home before it made it in for any sort of service.

On the right side of the frame, Union Switch & Signal inserted double spaces in “M  1911  A1” whereas Colt rolled it out all crammed together (“M1911A1”) and Remington-Rand, Ithaca, and Singer inserted single spaces (“M 1911 A1”). US&S’s serial number range was 1041405 to 1096404, with my grandfather’s numbered 10622xx (I’m “redacting” the final two just ‘cuz . . . call it OPSEC).

US&S frames never carried the crossed cannons ordnance mark in front of the hammer pin, whereas nearly all others did after some time late in 1942.

The thumb pads of both the safety and the slide lock were checkered on Union Switch & Signal 1911s. Other manufacturers often cut serrations into the slide lock instead.

US&S triggers were short in length and stamped, not milled. On the frame, the “half moon” trigger finger relief and radius in front of the magazine release button show slight differences in shape from the other manufacturers.

On the top left side of the slide, nearly where the rounded top meets the slab-sided side, US&S was stamping the “P” proof mark in the wrong place due to a poorly-done Ordnance drawing. This occurred between serial numbers 1060100 and 1082000, give or take a few (prior to 1060100 there were no proof marks). The slide’s “P” proof mark was then moved to where it was supposed to be: centered on the top of the slide in front of the rear sight.

The rear sight sports a square notch.

And the front sight is serrated.

Union Switch & Signal M 1911 A1 barrels were made by High Standard. My grandpa’s pistol sports the “HS” roll mark on the right side of the lower lug (not shown).

For all of these and some other reasons, I believe this pistol is not only 100 percent Union Switch & Signal, but all-original as it was manufactured. At least the major components and controls appear to be original to this specific pistol, right down to the Bakelite grip panels.

My grandpa kept his pistol inside of what I believe is his Army-issue or at least WWII-era leather shoulder holster, original empty magazine inserted.

The box of Western Cartridge Company .45 ACP appears to be from 1952.

It is my goal to keep this M1911A1 in the family for as long as possible. Hopefully one of my girls or my sister’s boy or girl, or one of any of these kids’ possible future children will be interested in doing the same.

More pics (and any of the photos in this article can be enlarged by clicking on them):

Okay, one quick WWII-related grandpa story:

He showed me on his discharge papers how he had qualified as “Marksman” with the M1 Garand. Apparently, he got there and then sandbagged. Hard. Since he once put a short version of this story in an email to me, I’ll copy-and-paste here in his own words:

Did you know that before I shipped out overseas I was training at Fort Ord, (Monterey) CA with a Springfield and was shooting in the upper 200 (target excellence) 210 and stopped and never got my “marksman” medal….and finally couldn’t even hit the target. Why…Rumor had it that the Army was putting together a “sniper” group to go overseas. At the time I was damn good with the M1 and the Browning Automatic.  But a sniper was not a glamorous thought, hanging out in the woods, etc. Today of course, I could have written a book, and made a movie. But then, who the hell wanted to be a sniper.

I don’t know how many times he told me about almost qualifying too high and then sandbagging (haha). I have no idea if it’s true, other than the part about him never receiving a marksman medal apparently wasn’t accurate since it’s right there on his WD AGO Form 53-55.

A few photos of him during his service:

He and both of his brothers served. Air Force, Navy, and Army. That’s him on the right. All three made it home.

Note on the back of the photo reads: “Yoki — Couldn’t be better — I didn’t miss either. LBS” (his initials).

Note on the back of the photo reads: “Omoki [I think] ~ A short burst ~”

He brought these two swords home from Japan, having apparently relieved Japanese officers of them. Both have been in my possession for a long time and, while I lived in San Francisco, I took them to one of the foremost Japanese sword experts in the country.

The katana was found to be a pre-WWII reproduction (a gunto) of an old Samurai sword. It was painstakingly aged and marked to look as though it had been manufactured centuries ago. In fact, all of the furniture was authentic to the Edo period.

However, the sword was mass produced and non-traditionally forged (including being oil quenched). This was, apparently, a very common practice in the lead-up to WWII so the Japanese military could issue swords to its officers, the wearing of which was required.

On the other hand, the wakizashi — the shorter of the two swords — was made in the traditional manner sometime during the years 1560 to 1580. All of the furniture is newer than the blade (and the habaki) and is all likely from the Edo period.

That’s him holding the bottle on the back of a bicycle. The note on the back of the photo reads: “My last drink.” I don’t know what that’s in reference to, as he was a perfectly capable drinker as long as I knew him and well before. He taught the wife and me the joys of a nice, tall bourbon and ginger ale (I’d recommend Trader Joe’s or other spicy, but not too sweet ginger beer).

In fact, he opened up a restaurant in the late 70’s in Westchester, New York and had one of the most extensive menus of imported — from every part of the globe — beers anywhere in the state, possibly the country at that time. Plus quite the burger list, and “The Best Bloody Mary in Westchester County” according to multiple newspaper polls.

Not to mention what appeared to be some good Halloween parties and regional dart tournaments.

After the war he found himself in White Sands, New Mexico doing “missile stuff.”

In the 90’s he joined a program where he served in the IDF during Gulf One and then again a few years later.

He also read to his great-grandchildren.

Though he had been preparing me for his imminent demise for over a decade with jokes like “Any day now, Jeremy; I don’t even buy green bananas anymore,” he was also convinced, if only in jest, that he’d live to 120 while simultaneously saying, “every day on this side of the grass is a blessing.”

He is missed.

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