The 1911 Pistol — Reliability and Accuracy

By Bob Campbell published on in 1911, General, Guest Posts, Handgun Ammunition, Handguns, Range Reports

Today we see a great deal of revisionist history in the media, often tainted with rose-colored glasses and a personal agenda. Young people seem to demand more continuity from their comic book epics than from their history professors. However, when you level the criticisms and fallacies toward a firearm that has served Americans well for over 100 years it is more than irritating. When that same firearm has saved your life more than once, perhaps it is time for a report.

Captain Matthew Campbell shooting the 191 .45 pistol

Is the .45 controllable? Capt. Matthew Campbell says so.

Colt Commander, circa 1975.

Colt Commander, circa 1975—does it get any better?

As a peace officer for over 20 years, I made reports on a daily basis that had to stand up in court. I could not interject opinion, and I was not looking for an argument of the facts, only presenting accurate information. We should apply the same to writing about firearms and you may count upon that integrity with this article. An example of the opinions causing some of us to bristle are those stating the 1911 may be finicky requiring considerable skill at maintenance and repair if it is to be considered reliable. Now, anyone can take a good thing and ruin it; going too cheap, using inferior aftermarket parts and inconsistent ammunition may cause any firearm to give trouble.

Such statements show a lack of experience and perhaps even historical ignorance. Which 1911 are you talking about—parts guns made from poor or worn parts and assembled on the dining room table? You are not talking about my Kimber, Para Ordnance GI Expert, SIG or Springfield! I am not being uncharitable; everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. Let’s look back to the original Army test of the Colt 1911; a pistol with softer steel and perhaps less consistency than modern CNC machined pistols. It was a great handgun; the best of its day but just the same let’s look at the technology of the day with respect and admiration. They don’t make them like they used to for a reason. Modern is better. The original Colt fired some 6,000 rounds during the test program. Fired until it was too hot to touch, dunked in a bucket of water, cleaned and oiled every 1,000 rounds, the pistol came through the test without a single malfunction.

Chosen on its ability to perform reliably, the 1911 will stop a determined adversary. The speedy second shot, ability to replenish the ammunition supplies quickly, hand fit and human engineering, 1911s rated excellent in its day and still are today. Intelligent engineering concerns determined the cocked and locked carry that some seem to fear today. The pistol needed to be safe to carry, safe if dropped—however soldiers should not drop their pistols—and yet be instantly ready for action. The cocked and locked carry with the hammer fully to the rear, the slide lock safety locking the hammer and the grip safety locking the trigger deemed the pistol excellent.

Two 1911 pistols posed over a Springfield 1903 A3 and AR-15 rifle

The old and the new—from the Springfield 1903 A3 to the AR-15, the 1911 remains at the top of the heap. (Colt 1918 and Springfield Champion Operator)

Originally designed for use from horseback, the 1911 was so successful during the last cavalry charge in 1916 Mexico it will probably work for you. I know that in a historical sense, there were other cavalry charges, including the Australian charge at Beersheba, but I am confining myself to American history today. Knowledgeable men that could have obtained any firearm adopted the Colt. T. E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, and his brother purchased Colt 1911s as soon as possible. Lawrence’s brother reported the pistol was leagues ahead of anything else. He is still correct nearly 100 years after the Great War that took his life.

The pistol design allows you to easily field strip it without tools. A case rim or a coin to address the grip screws and you are on your way when taking the pistol down. Modern variants feature full-length guide rods, tightly fitted barrel bushings and even Allen head grip screws that complicate matters. These firearms have become sporting guns. Like a finicky sports car, they are not as reliable as the forefather of the type. There are proven and reliable modern 1911 handguns that do possess accuracy potential greater than that of the original 1911. These include the Kimber Custom II as used by LAPD SWAT and the Colt service pistol recently purchased by the United State Marine Corps. Other firearms such as the Les Baer Monolith and Kimber Gold Match are wonderfully accurate but they are specialized target pistols. A field strip requires special tools; in most cases, special target grade ammunition is needed to coax the best performance from these handguns.

When modified with various upgrades usually relating to accuracy, it is any wonder the handgun is no longer as reliable as it once was. The ambidextrous safety may work loose and the too tight barrel bushing may cause the pistol to tie up. Never mind the MIM extractor. The bottom line is none of these accessories actually contributes to increased accuracy. The only improvement realized in absolute accuracy comes from careful barrel fitting. The barrel hood and locking lugs must be properly fitted and this means beginning with a match grade oversize barrel and fitting the barrel individually to the firearm. Ask Les Baer. His pistols are not semi-custom handguns. They are fully custom fitted with a file to CNC machined slides and barrels that are built under his control. The Kimber Custom Shop also knows a bit about proper fitting.

Para GI Expert with several loaded magazines of ammunition

A fun day at the range with an inexpensive pistol, the Para GI Expert.

Another trick concerns reliable feeding. In my experience, even those purchasing a good quality 1911 often use poor quality magazines. There is no shortage of inferior feed devices. You should trash these magazines if you intend to bet your life on the 1911, or if you expect good reliability. The Metalform product features a flush fit as Browning intended and is of high quality. Metalform offers a dizzying variety of magazines including the obligatory models with the base pad and a very well designed eight-round magazine with a true eight-round spring versus the all too common seven-round magazine modified to accept eight rounds with only casual reliability. D and L Sports, Dave Lauck, offers a professional grade magazine in both seven- and eight-round capacity. The eight-round magazine features a true eight-round magazine spring. It is worth betting your life on.

Quite a few 1911 handguns come with the least expensive, low-bid magazines. In one case, a new Springfield TRP arrived with a set of magazines that refused to feed the last round reliably, and the TRP is a superb handgun. These were converted seven-round magazines. The magazine springs must feed from full compression to almost no compression; first round to last round and some are not up to the task. It is possible to blame the majority of 1911 malfunctions on the magazine with recoil springs a close second. Don’t cut coils out of the recoil spring.

Back to the magazine, the feed lips control the attitude of the cartridge. The cocking block catches the case rim and presses the cartridge forward into the chamber. The feed ramp is partially on the frame and partially on the barrel. There is a requisite 1/32-inch gap between these two surfaces. With a quality magazine and a proper gap between the control surfaces, you will have good feed reliability. The key is quality ammunition. You do not have to fire Federal Gold Match in your 1911—Wolf 230-grain ball works just fine for practice if not match shooting.

However, the ammunition has to be within specifications. The problem with many of the early generation hollow point bullets was the nose was too open and wide for feed reliability and the overall cartridge length was short of the necessary 1.250 OAL for the 1911 design. It would be like putting diesel fuel in your gas engine truck—it will choke and it is not the machine’s fault. Hornady XTP is an example of modern quality ammunition designed for both expansion and reliability. The majority of WW1 issue 1911 handguns will run well with the Hornady XTP because Hornady designed the load to feed in the 1911. They did not design a load for expansion and expect you to modify your pistol.

The bottom line—a quality 1911 with service-grade magazines and ammunition is as reliable as any handgun, more reliable than most and more rugged than any I am aware. Other advantages include the speed into action of a cocked and locked handgun. No other type equals the speed to an accurate first shot or the control demonstrated by the 1911. In my opinion, the wound potential of the .45 ACP cartridge is unequaled in a compact controllable package.

While revisionist history also attempts to downplay the effectiveness of the .45′s, real world experience and historical research indicate that with military FMJ ammunition the .45 is approximately twice as effective as the 9mm. With expanding ammunition, the .45 has a considerable advantage over lesser calibers. You cannot change the laws of physics and the 1.6 inches of frontal diameter of the .45 does a lot of damage, letting blood out and air in. This is 60% more frontal area than the 9mm, not a silly 1/10-inch larger as some will try to convince us. With 230-grain bullets versus 115-grain bullets, the .45 also has twice the mass of the 9mm.

1911 Accuracy

1911 Pistol barrel and target

This is fast work at 7 yards with the 1911 and 230-grain ball ammunition.

Accuracy has two components, intrinsic and practical. Locked into a machine rest, a handgun without sights and grips may be accuracy tested. Perfect accuracy would be a .451-inch group—it will not happen past seven yards. Practical accuracy includes considerations such as the quality of the trigger compression and sight picture. You can more easily manage a rough trigger off the shooting bench. The potential for accuracy in a pistol revolves around the demands. Are we going to Camp Perry or looking for a combat pistol? In the combat pistol, reliability is a million times more important than anything else is. The National Institute of Justice defines reliability as the propensity of the firearm to fire with each press of the trigger. Reliability is there with the 1911. Today’s 1911s are made using far superior steels to anything available in WWI or WW2—yet these were great pistols. The Government accuracy standard for the 1911 was 5-inch dispersions at 25 yards and 10-inch dispersions at 50 yards, with the pistol sighted to fire a bit high at the shorter distance and more or less dead on at 50 yards. Some GI pistols were more accurate, some were not, but even those that rattled when shook were accurate enough for Government Work because the barrel lugs and barrel bushings were tight enough. New pistols manufactured to tighter tolerances mean less eccentric wear, greater accuracy and in many cases greater reliability.

Is a tighter gun more accurate? The Springfield Bureau Model fired 20,000 rounds without a stoppage while maintaining an average group of 1.25 inches at 25 yards with the Remington Golden Saber loading. It is always interesting to sit down at a benchrest and give a .45 a run for its money. Like all quality handguns, the 1911 likes some loads more than others while a few will be remarkably consistent from one load to the next. It is all in the hands of the trained shooter that stays in practice. As for the 1911, well, it is my handgun and it is an American icon. I admit that I may lose my objectivity at times when discussing America’s pistol but so be it. A sense of history and emotional attachment do that to a person. The 1911 is too good to ignore. If anything, I have understated the value of the pistol. Try one on for size and you will not regret the decision.

Accuracy Testing

  • 1911 handguns
  • 25 yards
  • Average of two, 5-shot groups fired from a solid bench rest position
Load Model Group
Black Hills 185gr JHP Kimber Eclipse GI 5-inch 3.0 inches
Springfield GI 1911A1 4.0 inches
SIG Carry Stainless 3.2 inches
Black Hills 230gr JHP Para GI Expert 3.0 inches
Ruger CMD SR 1911 2.8 inches
Kimber Pro CDP 2.25 inches
Fiocchi 230gr Extrema Rock Island Tactical 5-inch 2.5 inches
Para GI Expert 3.0 inches
Springfield Tactical Response Pistol (TRP) 1.9 inches

 

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What do you think about the 1911 pistol? Share your experience with us in the comment section.

 

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

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Comments (13)

  • Dr. Flash Tattoos

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    The 1911 pistol is a truly remarkable weapon. It has stood the test of time and still continues to perform well. I also think that the 8 round magazine is more than enough for this pistol (better grip versus a cumbersome grip due to the expanded clip and heavier weight). All in all, if you are looking for a piece of history and firepower in your hands, then look no further.

    Reply

  • Martin Pierce

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    Everything you say is true. So, when i bought my series 70 @ police supply I also bought origonal colt mags at the same place. 10 I still use today when I bought it in “72. I also have the 9mm, .38 super, & .22 ace conversions kits to go along with it.

    Reply

  • SATTANI PRECISION 1911

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    The 1911 is of work of art in form and function.A timeless classic like a HARLEY DAVIDSON. While other poly designs may have their benefits a custom 1911 will always be collectable and desirable.
    Ive been involved with 1911s for decades and I’ve competed in: USPSA,SCSA STEEL CHALLENGE and USCA TWO-GUN.
    Not being happy with the performance of many so-called “customs” which are production semi-customs at best with tooling marks and 5-6lb gritty triggers. I started building my own and however I’ve found the following to be great 1911s out of the box using (chip or wilson mags): LES BAER and CLARK CUSTOMS (clark was the friendliest company I’ve ever spoke with and they allowed me to pick their brain on subjects related to my customs which not many pistolsmiths would do) ,CLARK Barrels are HARD FIT(lower lug/hood) so they shoot as good as a 1.5″ BAER. S.V.I. Is a great company but has a 12-16 month wait. TED YOST makes gorgeous heirloom quality 1911s in AZ. I will only own series-70 design non-swartz safety 1911s as a personal preference and prefer either traditional blue or hard chrome for (run&gun) 1911s. These NEW spray and bake “xxx-kote” Polane-T “tactical” 1911s i see lately in magazines don’t embody what i consider a 1911 should be. It seems like having a desert tan or flat dark earth color is more important than fit/finish,crisp trigger/reset and most important,reliable cycling with the magazines it comes with!
    I decided to build my 1911s for friends,family and interested competitors,with the fit and finish of an HEIRLOOM quality 1911,hand checkering,(old school) NITRE BLUE pins,45 degree reverse crown,jeweling, with the precision/accuracy of a competition 1911 custom with a hard fit barrel/bushing,hand stoned sear/hammer and attention to detail with fitting/polishing all controls.

    GOD BLESS AMERICA-

    Reply

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