Consumer Information

Taking a Look at Changes in the 1911

Springfield Lightweight Operator

The 1911 handgun is a respected firearm and among the greatest fighting weapons ever designed and manufactured. It is enjoying a practically unprecedented run at the top of the heap of some 109 years.

While the original 1911 isn’t quite the handgun we deploy today, anyone that can use the oldest 1911 will be able to fire and use the most modern 1911 easily—and vice versa.

1911 - pre-1911A1 models
These 1911s are true pre 1911A1 models. While the greatest handguns of their day there are better choices today.

Why the 1911 Was Needed

The 1911 has been called an invention of war intended to replace the practically worthless Colt 1892 .38 revolver. The failure of the .38 to stop Moro warriors was an important factor. The 1892 Colt was far from a robust design that tended to give trouble.

The Army brought the Single Action Army .45 back into service to solve the wound potential problem. Interestingly, many savvy shooters of the day saw it coming and did not trust the Colt .38 even before its dismal failure.

Webb Hayes, the son of former President Rutherford B. Hayes, was an army officer serving in the Philippines. He took his 1878 double-action .45 to war. Leonard Wood carried the Smith and Wesson double-action .44 revolver.

It simply made no sense to adopt the .38 Colt, but the Army wanted a modern double-action swing-out cylinder revolver and did so. (The .38 Colt is considerably weaker than the modern .38 Special, by the way.)

The Army still needed a cartridge capable of dropping war horses, an original design parameter of the .45 Colt. With European forces arming with self-loading pistols, the U.S. Army recognized the advantages.

Here’s one question for you: had the Army went to war in the Philippines with a robust and reliable double-action swing-out cylinder .45, would we have developed the 1911 .45 Automatic?

That is an interesting question, as the Brits kept the .455 Webley revolver many years past its prime.

1911 .45 caliber double action
If the Army had deployed a .45 caliber double-action revolver such as this Smith & Wesson 1917 against the Moros, perhaps the history of the 1911 would have been much different.

Early 1911 Developments

The 1911 was a development of the 1900 .38 ACP. Since the .38 ACP uses a .900 inch long cartridge case, optimum for a relatively thin grip that fits most hands well, the .45 ACP also features a .900 inch cartridge case.

The pistol went through several modifications, from the 1905 to the 1911. The 1911 features a low-bore axis, allowing the pistol to sit low in the hand, a straight-to-the-rear single-action trigger compression and a locked-breech action.

The pistol survived harrowing initiation and proved reliable. Officially adopted in 1911, the handgun proved a sensation in battle during the Mexican Revolution, taking part in actions such as the “last cavalry charge.”

Interestingly, a few individuals did not adopt the 1911 and kept the SAA .45. George S. Patton never gave up his Colt SAA and Douglas McArthur, in particular, racked up an impressive record with the big .45.

But the efficiency of the self-loading action with a big-bore cartridge could not be disputed. The 1911 saw a great deal of action during World War I. Frank Luke, Alvin York and others put the .45 to good use.

single action army
Even after the introduction of the 1911, top, many shooters continued to fire and use the Single Action Army, bottom.

Fixing Drawbacks

After the Great War, there were complaints leveled at the 1911. The long trigger and flat mainspring housing tended to make the pistol fire low. A short trigger and arched mainspring cured this problem.

The sights were improved and the hammer spur changed to prevent hammer bite. Finger cuts in the frame were added to make for improved trigger reach. The improved pistol was the 1911A1. All modern 1911s are 1911A1-types, although we usually just call them the 1911.

Along the way, the 1911 was chambered for other calibers, including the 9mm Luger and .38 ACP Super.

1911 handguns
Early 1911 handguns had small sights that were more difficult to use than modern examples.

Further Improvements

During the years between the World Wars, a considerable amount of improvements were realized on the 1911. Most of these were intended to allow the pistol to compete at Camp Perry and the National Match.

We began to see just how accurate a 1911 could be given proper barrel fitting, good high-visibility sights and a smooth trigger. Colt offered the National Match pistol as a factory version of the pistol custom pistolsmiths turned out.

The Gold Cup/National Match was a finely tuned target gun generally considered not as robust as the Government Model. In 1950, Colt offered an aluminum-frame pistol with a shorter slide in the Commander.

Beginning with the Series 70, a steel-frame Commander was added and the even shorter Officer’s Model came in with the Series 80 (featuring a shorter grip frame as well).

As the Colt became more popular in competition, the pistol was modified with a series of upgrades that addressed the shortcomings of the pistol. (At least there were shortcomings in target shooting.)

A set of high-visibility sights, a smoother trigger action and a speed safety were all that was needed to make the pistol an even greater combat handgun.

Custom pistolsmiths such as Armand Swenson devised and fabricated ambidextrous safety levers and beavertail grip safety levers. The beavertail safety addressed the concerns of those that sometimes failed to fully depress the grip safety.

The 1911 was perfected into a sophisticated combat pistol, albeit an expensive one requiring custom-grade gunsmithing.

1911s - modern officer's model
Left to right: Modern Officer’s Model, Commander and Government Model 1911s.

Near Perfection

Kimber rocked the world with a pistol featuring upgrades in an affordable factory handgun. The rest of the 1911 world scrambled to keep up.

Forward-cocking serrations, a speed safety, good sights and an excellent trigger were available in a factory handgun for less than the price of an upgraded package from a reputable gunsmith. Springfield followed with its excellent Loaded Model.

Other issues were addressed including safety. The original 1911’s inertia firing pin could possibly take a run forward if the pistol were dropped dead on the muzzle from sufficient height. This would fire the pistol.

While not common, this concern was highlighted in extensive testing. Colt addressed this concern with a positive firing pin block. The firing pin remains locked in place until the trigger is pressed fully to the rear, releasing the firing pin.

Springfield addressed the problem in a different manner, using a lightweight firing pin powered by an extra power firing pin spring. This neatly solved the problem of drop safety without resorting to complications in the lockwork.

springfield operators - 1911
These Springfield Operators, a Loaded, left, and Lightweight, right, are among the finest modern rail guns.

Today’s 1911

The 1911 rail gun is a fixture among 1911 shooters today. This design allows the 1911 to mount a modern combat light. Other improvements include a ramped barrel in some models.

The ramped barrel fully encloses the case head and makes for greater safety with heavy loads. Popularized by Bar Sto Precision, the ramped barrel is popular in 9mm and .38 Super, but also useful in .45 ACP.

The modern 1911 shooter may own a handgun with the original attributes of a straight-to-the-rear trigger compression, low-bore axis and reliability intact, but one which is even more ergonomic and with features not available for any price in the recent past.

Guncrafter Industries, Nighthawk and Wilson Combat offer high-end 1911 handguns that are in the top strata, but immediately available without a years-long wait. The 1911 has seen many improvements and remains the finest combat handgun ever invented.

Colt Government Model
This modern Colt Government Model features improved sights over the original.

What’s your favorite handgun? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.


Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Handloader
Rifle Magazine
Handguns
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns



Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (9)

  1. I own several 1911’s. I carried one in the Navy before they switched to the 9mm. Today my favorite that is my EDC is a Dan Wesson Classic bobtail. I put some Mammoth Tooth grips on it. This gun puts up close groups with little recoil. It is a Commander size so it is easy to carry. But it may be too big for concealed carry, I open carry in a Savoy holster. I just can’t see carrying a 9mm for protection. The 45 will take care of any problems and unlike a 9mm or a 38, I won’t have to tell any assailant to sit down because they are shot.

  2. I have the Springfield Loaded 1911 in black and stainless but I still prefer the 45 colts myself. I buy Rugers most of the time. The 1911 will always be my favorite semiauto.

  3. I still have the first Colt Combat Commander (steel frame) I bought new in 1978. I put better sites and an Armalloy finish on it and it still shoots sweet. Since then I’ve had a great variety of M1911s all in .45 ACP – Colt, Kimber, Norinco, and a parts gun I built myself. My new favorite EDC sidearm is a Ruger SR1911 Commander (aluminum frame) with factory Nitride finish, Trijicon 3-dot night sites, and the sweetest trigger I have ever experienced on a M1911. I used this pistol to qualify for my Idaho Enhanced Concealed Carry Permit. Everyone else in the class was shooting 9mm Tupperware Wonder-Nines. In a pancake holster my Commander disappears under medium weight clothing. Yeah, its old school like me and the .45 ACP round is proven to work so I will continue my love affair with the M1911.

  4. Back in the early 2000’s, a friend that I knew only for a short time, willed me his entire collection of Presentation Firearms. Given to him buy those that really didn’t want them (i.e. Car Dealerships), and neither of his two sons wanted either, because of his disassociation with them as a parent. Two of the Presentation Firearms were M1911A1’s produced by the Singer Sewing Machine Company, of which one of them I actually use. Even knowing that by doing so, devalues it’s price…

  5. Here’s a bizarre phenomenon:

    On a scale of 1-5, I’d say the original 1911 came with control levers that rated a 3 (size and angle) in terms of being easy to manipulate.

    As alluded in the article, in the 90s and early 2000s Kimber and others started to offer “factory custom” 1911s with all the aftermarket accessories, including big, perpendicular “4” or “5” control levers. CZs and some other traditional pistols moved in the same direction.

    At the same time other, mostly polymer-frame, semiauto pistols came on the market. Most of them come with tiny, rounded-over nubbins (rating a 1) for controls. If you buy “custom, aftermarket, extended” levers for something like a Glock, at best you get a 2 – still smaller and more rounded over than even a 1911-vintage 1911. If the market were trending one way or the other, I’d get it, but I can’t wrap my head around this sprint in opposite directions.

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