In the first years of the 20th century, the US military was looking for a new standard sidearm in a .45-caliber cartridge, and set up a series of trials to choose one. The entrants to the 1907 pistol trials included many of the prominent semiauto pistols of the day, like the Parabellum (aka Luger), John Browning’s design that would become the Model 1911, the Bergmann-Bayard, and the Webley-Fosbery. Among these submissions was a design from the Savage Arms Company; basically a version of their .32ACP model 1907 pistol scaled up to .45ACP.
In the initial testing, the Savage did fairly well, although it did suffer a few dozen various malfunctions over the course of 913 rounds. It was recommended for further field trials by the testing board, along with the Colt/Browning pistol. The result of these extended trials was the selection of the Colt/Browning, as it proved a more durable and reliable design than the Savage.
Having now had the opportunity to fire the Savage, I could concur with the Army decision to choose the Colt over the Savage. The Savage is a decent pistol, but inferior to the Colt 1911 in a number of ways. It has more felt recoil, it is physically larger and bulkier,and its controls are more difficult to operate. Granted, many of these things could be fixed with further refinement (as has been done with the 1911 in 106 years since the trials). As it stood in 1907, the Savage had a surprisingly stiff trigger and tiny sights, which made it difficult to shoot accurately. The magazine release was a bit awkward to use, and the slide lock was both very small and not conveniently positioned. The grip was generally good, although designed at too close to a right angle to the bore (a bit like holding a TT33 Tokarev).
Mechanically, the Savage is a locked action using a rotating barrel and recoil operation. However, the dwell time during which the action remains locked is very brief. As soon as the slide begins to move rearward, the barrel rotates and opens – in most other rotating barrel designs there is a bit of rearward locked travel allowed, so that pressure can drop before the breech opens. The Savage does not incorporate this. Instead, the barrel turns counter-clockwise to unlock, and the rifling spins the bullet in a clockwise direction. This causes the bullet to exert a force on the barrel clockwise, presumably preventing it from rotating until the bullet has left the muzzle. This does seem to work in practice, as still frames from the video show muzzle flash (indicating the bullet has left) while the cocking piece remains forward:
However, the unlocking does occur faster than in other locked-breech handguns. When looking at the frame-by-frame shooting footage, I was treated to this impressive display of flash emanating from every opening of the gun as it cycled. If the action stayed closed a bit longer, this unburned powder would presumably have blown out the muzzle instead of the breech…
After the Trials
Over the course of the field trial, many of the Savage pistols were returned to the company for repair, and at the end of the period they were all factory refurbished. The guns were later sold back to Savage as surplus (for $6 each, compared to the original price of $65), since the design had not been adopted. Happily, this allowed them into the civilian market – which is why they can still be found today.