John Moses Browning’s iconic 1911 pistol is one of the most well known and widely recognized handguns ever produced. It served in the US Military for well over 70 years, and many insist that it is still a superior handgun even today.
The 1911 remains a highly sought after handgun, with used models often selling for more than $1,000 in excellent condition. But how do you spot an original Colt 1911A1 specimen in excellent condition? Or, if you’re simply searching for a reliable shooter, how do you identify someone else’s problem gun that they’re trying to pawn off onto an unsuspecting buyer?
First, know what you are looking for. If you’re looking for an original Colt M1911A1 make sure that you are familiar with the slide markings that are found on that pistol. Be wary of an old collectors piece that looks brand new: that should raise some red flags. Older guns will usually show some wear and generally have a nice patina. Anyone attempting to pass off an antique collector’s piece that appears like it just rolled off the factory floor should be questioned as to how their pistol retains such an original finish.
Give the pistol a once over, checking the grip screws for damage and inspecting the rest of the gun for scratches, marring, or tool marks that may indicate incompetent work having been done perpetrated on the pistol. Make sure you have adequate lighting, as damage may have been concealed by having the finish retouched. Normal holster wear along the slide is perfectly acceptable and can indicate a well loved and well cared for gun. I bring a small flashlight along with me when shopping to help highlight any flaws in the pistol.
Ask the seller if you can field strip the pistol or, if they protest, if they would field strip it for you. This will help you check that all the parts are original and allow you to see any excess wear and tear or damage to the pistol. If the seller refuses to allow the pistol to be broken down this should again throw up some red flags. There is no reason a 1911 pistol, even a 99 year old collector’s piece, can’t be field stripped for inspection prior to purchase. If you find some replacement or non-factory original parts, don’t dismiss the gun. While this may lower the value of the gun, it shouldn’t preclude a purchase unless you are dead set on having a perfect all-original collector’s piece.
With the pistol field stripped, check for replacement parts and excess wear and tear. If all you want is a good shooting pistol, replacement parts should not dissuade you. Check the frame and slide rails for straightness and smoothness. Look for burrs along the rails and check for any bulges on the rail and slide that may indicate that the pistol may have been damaged by overpressure ammunition. At the same time, inspect the barrel for any bulges. Inspect the bore and make sure that it is clean and the rifling sharp. Keep a sharp eye for any tool marks or scratches inside the bore, around the crown of the muzzle, on the feed ramp, or inside the chamber. Examine the breech face for any scratches, excess wear, or peening. The feed ramp on Government model 1911s should have a small 2 millimeter step at the top of it; many amateur gunsmiths get dremel-happy and grind this smooth, but it is necessary for the proper feeding and performance of the pistol.
Some 1911 pistols have a hole where the back of the slide stop enters the frame, and cracking may be present in the rail just above the hole. This is actually normal, so much so that most modern 1911 handguns have this entire section of the rail cut out. If you find cracking here don’t panic, just be aware that you may want to have a competent gunsmith cut out that section of the rail.
Reassemble the pistol and, using your own Colt Factory magazine or high end aftermarket magazine such as a Wilson or Chip McCormick (unloaded obviously), insert the magazine and check for fitment. The magazine should fit snugly without wobbling around, but should still be able to drop freely when you hit the magazine release.
Next you will need to function check the pistol. Check with the owner first to make sure they are OK with you dropping the slide and dry firing the gun. If they refuse, offer to use a snap cap (I find it useful to carry a couple of snap caps when hunting for used bargains at gun shows for just this reason.) If the seller still refuses to allow you to dry fire a used pistol, even with a snap cap, it is safe to assume that the gun is defective and that the seller is hiding known flaws.
With the empty magazine still inserted, pull back the slide and see that it locks back securely. Using the slide lock lever, release the slide so that it snaps forward. Make sure that the hammer does not follow. Repeat this a couple of times. After double checking to ensure the pistol is unloaded, perform a dry fire and keep the trigger pulled to the rear. With the trigger still pulled, pull the slide back and release it making sure the hammer still does not follow the slide (it should remain locked back). Release the trigger and pull it again: the hammer should fall. When dry firing the pistol, pay attention to how much pressure is needed on the trigger to trip the sear. One common problem found on 1911s is a sear that has had too much material stoned off of it in an attempt to lighten the trigger pull. If the sear hooks are ground too far, the pistol can be extremely dangerous, able to fire even with the safety on. While this can be fixed with a replacement sear, it should send up a red flag and cause a potential buyer (you) to look for other modifications that may have damaged the pistol. After dry firing the pistol, lock the slide back and examine the breech face to make sure the firing pin is not protruding.
Almost all 1911 models are equipped with some form of a half cock. Test the half cock by pulling back on the hammer until the first engagement. Pull the trigger: the hammer should not fall on older 1911s. On newer Series 80 models, the half cock is very close to the firing pin and the hammer will fall when the trigger is pulled, though it will not have enough force to actually fire the gun. On older military style 1911s the hammer should never fall from the half cocked position.
Test the pistol’s safeties by first engaging the thumb safety. With the safety engaged and the hammer cocked back, push forward on the hammer with your thumb. It should not fall. When you attempt to pull the trigger with the safety engaged, it should feel solid and not budge. If it feels mushy, or if the hammer falls, there is sear damage and the pistol is not safe. With the thumb safety disengaged, test the grip safety by holding the gun without pressing down on the grip safety lever. With the hammer cocked, pull the trigger: the hammer should not fall. If it does, the grip safety may be excessively worn, or may have been disabled. Another way to check for excess wear on the grip safety is to depress the grip safety and pull the trigger. Keeping the trigger firmly pressed to the rear, release the grip safety and then the trigger. The grip safety should stay depressed until the trigger is released whereupon it should pop back out. Finally, check the disconnector by cocking the hammer and then pushing the slide about 1/8″-1/4″ back. With the slide pressed out of battery, pull the trigger: the hammer should not fall.
Examine the sights on the pistol. Aftermarket fiber-optic or tritium sights are a nice addition to a fine pistol, but take a moment to see that they have been professionally installed. Marring or tool marks on the sides of the sights may indicate a less than professional install. The same can be said for the grips. Unless they are night sights or ivory grips, such add ons do not enhance the value of the gun, but cheap or poorly installed grips and sights can certainly devalue a pistol. Learn to be able to spot cheaply manufactured and poorly installed aftermarket parts. The presence of these parts or accessories can be a red flag that indicates that the previous owner did not have a healthy respect for the gun and couldn’t be bothered to invest in professionally installed quality parts.
There are literally millions of Colt 1911 pistols and clones made by dozens of manufacturers. While manufacturer quality does vary some, the biggest things to look for when shopping for a used 1911 are modifications made or damage done by the previous owner. Whether you are looking for a good carry pistol or an old collectible Colt 1911A1, it helps to be able to spot the gems among the junk.