Firearms

The 1911 Pistol — Reliability and Accuracy

Colt Commander, circa 1975.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

 

 

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

 

[bob]

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 (22)

  1. Interesting read about 1911’s and their reliability. After many years of shooting with many different handguns I have only had one bad experience with a 1911 and that was last year. A Colt Defender looked like an ideal carry gun with it’s 3″ barrel and it found it’s way into my iwb holster. Fun to shoot and good accuracy at 25 yards, but it would stove pipe 4 times in one box with 230 good fmj ammo. Cleaning and lubing didn’t help and after the second month of firing it with a total of 300 rounds, it hadn’t improved. I called Colt, explained the fte problem, and was asked for the serial number. I was told it was made over one year ago and out of warranty. I explained that I bought it two months ago was told again that it was out of warranty. Colts failure to stand behind a new gun convinced me to never buy another Colt. Now I’m a happy Springfield owner.

  2. I had a Brand New All Steel Framed Colt Commander or Combat Commander back in the Mid 1970’s. That Shot Over a Foot Low at 25 Yards. To shoot a Pop Can I had to hold the Barrel so High that I could Not see the Pop Can to have any chance of hitting it. So I had a Gun Smith Put a Different Set of Sights on it and It Still Shot Way Low. I Finally got so Disgusted with it that I Sold it to get Rid of the Aggravation.

  3. I love the 1911, but I have put well over 30,000 rounds through a 1st gen Glock 17 without a single malfunction. I also have a S&W M&P 9 1.0 with almost 10,000 rounds through it…not a single hiccup. No 1911 I ever pickup can match that.

  4. OK, I realize i’m going to be the odd man out here, so let me try to lessen the criticism that’s sure to come my way by saying that I own three 1911’s: a Les Baer Comanche, a Gunsite Springfield, and a Colt Combat Commander lightly modified by Jim Clark. And in my 39 year career as a police officer, I carried a 1911 for about 15 years. That said, it has been my (well documented) experience that 1911’s are going to jam somewhere in the 1 to 1.5% range. That’s based on over 15,000 rds through the 3 pistols. By comparison, I have a S&W 3913 with over 7500 rds through it, and one jam; a Sig 226 with 2,350 rds and one jam (0.04% jam rate), a Glock 17 with 1,620 rds and 1 jam (0.06%), a S&W 39 with 2,962 rds and 5 jams (0.17%).

    I know this information to be correct because I began meticulously keeping track of how many rounds I fired, how many jams I got, and what magazines I used, then entering it into a database for easier analysis. Speaking of magazines, the magazines I used for the 1911’s were Wilson, Tripp Magazine’s Cobramag – probably one of the best out there – and McCormick, so I don’t think I can be accused of using inferior magazines in the 1911.

    So how did I come up with a different view on the 1911’s reliability to so many others? There’s a natural tendency to cherry pick data (subconsciously or otherwise) and to remember the successes and forget the failures. Or make excuses for them – oh, I limp-wristed that shot, so I won’t count the jam, that sort of thing. When I was counting jams, if it didn’t work like it was supposed to, IT WAS A JAM. And I recorded it right then.

    Which suggests an interesting question: Why in the world did I stay with the 1911 so long, when there were demonstrably more reliable pistols available. It’s sort of like loving a bad woman: you know you could do better, but you just can’t stand to leave her!

  5. I’m a 45 geek. I have 6 as of now. I have 3 SA, 2 Colts and 1 Sig p220 Combat. I like to tinker with handguns, and do all of my own upgrades. My very first 45 was a SA 1911 -A1 Blued GOVERMENT model. It is now what I call a Loaded model. Shoots bedder than me. The other two are a S/S TRP, and the Black Armory kote TRP. BEAUTIFUL GUNS. My two Colts are Colt combat commander 70 series and the Colt XSE S/S Model. Love all my 45s and Dan Wesson Bobtail is on my list. I’m an ex Army Viet Nam Vet and can’t help myself. Love guns…..

  6. I feel honored to have read such a finely written piece on the 1911. Years ago I had and sold a Norinko .45. Today I regret it. Recently I purchased. Sig P227 Nitron .45. Though not a 1911 It’s a fine firearm. Thank you Mr. Campbell for your excellent article. It was very educational. Also, thank you for your service in law enforcement. It’s a shame that some people only focus on the few bad incidents or even the lies perpetrated by the media. I’m not a Pollyanna but I prefer to believe that most uniformed officers are good people. I can also understand how quickly they might become jaded given the work they do and the people their forced to deal with. I’m definitely going to buy your book.

  7. I bought a 1911 Government Mk IV Series 80 in 2011 to honor JM Browning. On the slide it states 100 years of service pretty remarkable. I have owned the pistol for three years now and shoot regularly at Reeds indoor range in Santa Clara CA. The pistol is overall blued with rosewood checkered double diamond grips, although I do have some “Boned Ivory” grips coming with the US ARMY logo scrimshawed on them. After three years I am just starting to understand the sear/disconnect relationship.

    I shoot 230 gr hardball exclusively and in three years I have not had a jam or misfire. Note: we are not allowed to rapid fire at this indoor range. I am just a sport shooter but love the pistol and all it history I recently bought a muzzle compensator and a 15 yards can put 50 rounds in the black. PS I can do a complete take down and reassembly in 7 1/2 minutes the series 80 parts slow me down a bit. Best Jay Ribera

  8. For 25 years I fired 357 magnums and always felt a bit tortured by the kick on them. Recently I bought and fired a gov. 1911, now own three of them. I can fire them all day long with out feeling any pain. Now I enjoy going to the range. I am not the best in accuracy but who cares. It’s just a lot of fun to fire. One of the 1911’s is a Remington R1s and it is my favorite. It takes any ammo without any type of feed problems. The only change I made was I bought white pearl grips from Hogue, and the feel and look is outstanding. I really don’ like to fire anything else except the 1911. Never knew what I was missing for 25 years. What made me buy it was , in 1956 at the military gun rang at camp Logan, my sergeant had a pearl handle 45 and I always wanted one. To bad I waited so long.

  9. I’m sorry to hear that you had to work among the bullies with badges for so long (the very worst liars and thieves I have ever known were cops!) but I have to agree that the design upon which every modern automatic pistol is based remains the cream of the crop. With all due respect to J.M. Browning, I have to go one step further and say that if it isn’t a Colt, it’s just a copy.

  10. 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-

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. I agree that 8 shots for the 1911 is a draw back. This is why law enforcement with the .40 with 15 shots. I do prefer the 45 compared to a 9. But I also like the fact of 14 rounds per mag because you never know.
    My thoughts.
    GK

  14. I just purchased a Kimber 1911 in .38 Super. I absolutely love it. Took it same day to the range and put a box through it. I have always wanted one in .38 Super.

    As far as the idiot stating if you need more than 8 rounds, why don’t you go read something by Ayoob. You seem to be on his level. More ammo is always better. I’m neither a hater of the 1911 nor a worshiper at it’s alter. I own several different types of handguns, auto-loaders and revolvers; Smith&Wesson, Glock, Beretta, and Sig. I’ve never had difficulty with accurately shooting any of them. Most modern firearms are well made and any well made firearm is intrinsically accurate. For stupid proof reliability a revolver beats an auto hands down. So to answer Kunstman, if you need more than 6 rounds you need to just quit. It is precisely for the ease of reloading and holding more ammunition to begin with that autos have become ascendant.

  15. Great article Bob, thanks. And thanks for your service as well. I was a wheelgun man my whole life, but bought a stainless Girsan 1911 last year, and two Springfield XDs guns about a month ago. I now look for any aricles and books I can find on .45acp or 1911 guns, having rather ignored them largely over the years. I can tell by your article, you have much more you could share. Please do so in the near future. I for one, like your no nonsense style.

  16. Dont ever expect an assailant(s) to run away after you shoot his homey or drop like a ton of bricks from one shot. IF they run great! but dont expect em to run, IF they drop from one round GREAT! but dont expect em to. Thats bad training IMHO.

  17. No Colts in the test?!?!?? That is almost sacrilegious. That was my main weapon in Vietnam. I did not have to beat the jungle with an M-16, but my 45 was never out of reach. I have 3 1911’s……all Colts (a Series 70, a Gold Cup and a 1980RG) and would like to have seen how they stacked up to the Kimber’s, Para’s and Springfield’s. My 1911’s are as close to anything that I own in duplicate. I don’t have one of everything I want yet, but I have 3 sons and if I don’t leave them anything else, they will all have a Colt 45 when I am dead and gone!

  18. Excellent article about the 1911. All said. No other gun in the world has the same proven track record as the 1911.
    A few years back I was looking for a gun asy to conceal for work abroad. Always liked wheel guns, but even a five shot snub nose in .38 was too bulky . Besides, I could not hit a barn door at point blank range with any semi auto in 9mm or .45. like a Glock or Beretta. Test firing my new gun to make sure to have at least some satisfying results, I surprised myself with a very tight group fired from the 2-1/2″ barrel of a Para Ordnance. Target acquisition is as easy as pointing the index finger, the 1911 gun stays locked in your grip and will not roll or tilt. Most likely you hit your target with the fist shot and the adversary will go down. If you are up against 4 or 5 and you drop the first two with the same number of shots the rest will realize you are just warming up and run like hell. A highly decorated WW 2 veteran told me ones :” Headshot? torso shot? Hit by a .45 , the guy goes down and does not return fire !”
    I personally think the grip becomes too bulky with a 14 round mag.If the 8 or 9 rounds plus a spare mag are not enough you are in trouble anyway and need something belt fed.

  19. Robert…If you have 4 or 5 perps, at least 2 are down with your first half a magazine, (I carry 3)+ one in weapon.. if you have practiced enuf, the other 2 will be either leaving or keeping to close cover, if you have practiced your quick mag changes, they won’t know the difference, too many times i’ve seen and read report of so called “experienced” law enforcement or civilians shooting massive amounts and not hitting any thing with their 15-20 round capacity mags. shoot slow, remember slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

  20. kunstmann, I totally agree with you, but what if you are up against 4 or 5 perps? IF MY 1911 8 ROUND IS NOT IN CLOSE WITH A FEW EXTRA MAGAZINES, I could be in deep foo-foo. Always remember the spare mags, and you WILL kick butt.

  21. Comment back at Boomer…If you need more than 8 to put your target down…then you’d better either practice more, or use a shotgun, enuf said.

  22. The 1911 is a part of Americana. It will be with us for as long as we are free men and women.
    I only have one bit of criticism for it. It usually only holds 8 in the mag. The good news is there is at least one brand of 1911 that will hold 14 and it will be my next one. The 1911 Para 14. It comes in many variations and prices with a good reputation. So for those like me who’s only gripe about the valiant 1911 is the capacity; there is at least one option; maybe more.

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