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 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 pistol may be finicky, and that it requires considerable skill at maintenance and repair 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 pistol 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, 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 era, 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. Considering the speedy second shot, ability to replenish the ammunition supply quickly, handfit, and human engineering, 1911s were rated excellent in their 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 made shooters rate the pistol as 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. Knowledgeable men who 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 fieldstrip 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 pistols 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 that was 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 fieldstrip 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 — is it 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 contribute 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. This means beginning with a match-grade, oversized barrel, and individually fitting the barrel 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 pistol 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 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 8-round magazine with a true 8-round spring, versus the all too common 7-round magazine modified to accept 8 rounds with only casual reliability.
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 7-round magazines. The magazine springs must feed from full compression to almost no compression (first round to last). Some magazines are simply 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 off the recoil spring.
Back to the magazine, the feed lips control the attitude of the cartridge. The locking 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 too wide for feed reliability and the overall cartridge length was short of the necessary 1.250 OAL for the 1911 pistol design. It would be like putting diesel fuel in your gas engine truck — it would choke, and it would not be the machine’s fault.
Hornady XTP is an example of quality modern ammunition designed for both expansion and reliability. The majority of WWI-issue 1911 handguns will run well with the Hornady XTP because Hornady designed the load to feed in the 1911. It did not design a load for expansion and expect you to modify your pistol.
The bottom line — a quality 1911 pistol 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.
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 7 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 WWII — 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 shaken 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.
1911 Pistol Testing
1911 handguns, 25 yards, average of two 5-shot groups fired from a solid benchrest position
|Black Hills 185-grain JHP
|Kimber Eclipse GI 5-inch
|Springfield GI 1911A1
|SIG Carry Stainless
|Black Hills 230-grain JHP
|Para GI Expert
|Ruger CMD SR1911
|Kimber Pro CDP
|Fiocchi 230-grain Extrema
|Rock Island Tactical 5-inch
|Para GI Expert
|Springfield Tactical Response Pistol (TRP)
What do you think about the 1911 pistol? Do you have a favorite model? Share your experience with us in the comment section.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in January of 2014. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.