Someone once said, you either “get” the 1911 or you don’t. I suppose that is true, and I want you to get it. I don’t want to keep the 1911, blessings, peace of mind, or safety to myself. I want to share.
The 1911 was developed by America’s greatest gun inventor, John Moses Browning. No other shared his understanding of the fundamental principles of human engineering. The pistol was designed to provide soldiers a self-loading handgun with approximately the killing power of the .45 Colt revolver cartridge. It did so.
A few famous individuals, including Brigadier General George T. Thompson, had a hand in developing the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol cartridge. The cartridge and the pistol complement one another. The .45 ACP operates at low working pressure, offers excellent accuracy in the right handgun, and features a full powder burn. With the original 230-grain load, seldom is there any muzzle flash — usually a warm glow or sparks if there is any signature. The effect against an enemy is proven.
At the time of its introduction, the .45 ACP cartridge was designed to be effective against enemy war horses, dangerous animals including jaguar, and to be as reliable as possible. Despite revisionist history and muddy science, the .45 ACP remains among our best defensive cartridges.
After World War I the pistol was pressed into another role at the National Matches. Army gunsmiths welded and built up pistols until they were accurate far beyond the original specification. Army accuracy acceptance standards were a five-inch group at 25 yards and a 10-inch group at 50 yards.
Many Colt 1911 handguns were more accurate than that. When Colt introduced the National Match, the pistol would eat up a bullseye at 50 yards. Along the way, the 1911 became the 1911A1. We simply call it the 1911.
The 1911 has been significantly changed. The advantages of a grip and grip angle that fits most hands well, a low bore axis, and the safety features of a slide lock safety that firmly locks the sear out of battery and a grip safety that locks the trigger are intact.
The original 1911 was designed for use from horseback. The cavalry was the spearhead of the Army. The pistol had to be instantly ready for action hence the cocked-and-locked ready mode. The pistol had to be drop safe. If a trooper dropped the pistol the grip safety would spring into action preventing trigger movement.
The pistol is fast to reload. The original test fire was 6,000 rounds without a malfunction. With modern manufacturing behind it, the Springfield 1911 Bureau Model went through 20,000 rounds of Remington 230-grain Golden Saber, without a malfunction, while maintaining a 1.25-inch, five-shot, 25-yard group.
Cheap 1911 handguns that were made to sell, won’t meet this standard but then they are for recreation. Neither will a very tight bullseye gun that was built for accuracy and regular maintenance. And that’s fine. So long as you understand the standards.
The following pistols are 10 of the most important 1911 handguns ranging from the first to the most modern and a few words on each. Before you complain your favorite isn’t included, I should share that this isn’t a catalog of images borrowed from manufacturers. I have test fired and owned each of these handguns. We have features coming along on the Ruger SR1911 and Girsan 1911s as well. Just the same, please share your experience with the 1911 and favorite models. Whether you read with or against the grain, you must admit these are exceptional handguns.
Colt 1918/Colt Black Army
To recap a thrice told tale, when the United States went to war in Europe during WWI, we had perhaps 30,000 Colt 1911 pistols on hand. We were raising a million-man Army and normally issued pistols to every soldier. Colt contracted Remington Arms to make 1911s and develop the Black Army.
The Black Army used a black finish that was much easier to apply than the original blue finish. They were a cheaper Colt, and now, they are a rarity. This example has been completely reliable and groups five-shots into 4.0 inches with Remington 230-grain FMJ ammunition. The trigger breaks at 7.4 pounds. While heavy reset is rapid, the trigger is a fine combat trigger.
Argentine Modelo 1927
Argentina adopted the 1911 first as the Modelo 1916. Later, with 1911A1 improvements, it adopted what became the Modelo 1927. Some of the first pistols were Argentine-marked Colt pistols but most were Argentine produced 1911s. The fit, finish, and quality are first class and comparable or equal to the Colt.
The parts may be harder, and the pistols usually weigh about an ounce more than a Colt. The steel was carefully selected. Many of these pistols are still in use today. They are a piece of history, and a well-made handgun by any standard.
After World War II, the Army decided it wanted a lightweight handgun. Colt had developed a shorter 1911 as early as the 1930s. The Commander pistol features a 4.25-inch barrel versus the Government Model’s 5-inch barrel.
World War II technology allowed the development of durable aluminum frames. The original Commander was an aluminum frame pistol weighing but 27 ounces — compared to the Government Models 40 ounces. The pistol was shipping by 1950.
In 1970, Colt introduced the Combat Commander, a steel-frame version. The pistol illustrated is a satin nickel-finish Combat Commander. As issued, the pistol would group five Winchester 230-grain FMJ loads into five inches at 25 yards, and about six inches with the 185-grain Silvertip. A Bar-Sto Precision barrel cut the average group size in half. The original short beavertail safety has been known to bite some hands.
G Madore Practical Shooting 1911
Pennsylvanian George Madore worked on many handguns prior to his death about 15 years ago. Among these were Hammerli 208 handguns and quite a few 1911s. I have seen several 1911 .45s he modified, and the .45 illustrated is an exceptional example of the gunsmith’s trade.
Among his innovations was a tab on the barrel to snug up barrel fitting. He also figured out a way to mount an Aimpoint sight on a 1911 — not on a rail or a mount but fitted directly to the slide.
My Madore 1911 is a Bullseye Colt. The piece features a GI slide and a Series 70 frame. As I looked more closely, I found modifications that were popular in the era.
For example, shooters often failed to hit the standard GI or Colt commercial grip safety — didn’t depress it sufficiently to release the trigger — and competition shooters therefore often blocked the grip safety. Sometimes the guns were modified by running a thin wire through a hole drilled in the frame and grip safety. Others were simply taped shut. This is a target pistol but one that is reliable and would make a fine go-anywhere do-anything pistol (with a grip safety returned to its original function).
Colt National Match
The original National Match featured high visibility fixed sights, and later Stevens, then Eliason sights. Finally, we saw durable Bomar sights in the later National Match and Gold Cup pistols.
Considerable skill is demanded in fitting a match-grade barrel. The trigger actions were polished, and the spring housing was checked. The pistols featured adjustable match-grade triggers. The National Match illustrated features a barrel bushing type compensator.
While recoil is reduced, the pistol is more accurate with the factory bushing. A good, tight, Gold Cup-type .45 will put five shots into two inches with a target load and is remarkably easy to shoot well. Lighter recoil springs are supplied to allow the use of target loads.
Coonan .357 Magnum
This pistol demonstrates how much stretch is built into the 1911 handgun. The slide lock safety and grip safety of the 1911 are an advantage. Many years ago, master pistolsmith Jim Clark Sr. designed one of the first 1911 match pistols to function with the .38 Special cartridge.
Recreating the 1911 to feed a rimmed revolver cartridge — and a full wadcutter at that — was no easy task. The later rimless .38 AMU was also developed. The Coonan pistol chambers the .357 Magnum cartridge.
I have fired the pistol extensively and even handloaded for this beast. It functions well and is accurate. Due to the locked-breech design, the self-loading .357 Magnum Coonan develops more velocity than a revolver of similar barrel length. While not for everyone, the Coonan is to the 1911 what NASCAR racing cars are to your family sedan.
Springfield Lightweight Loaded Model
Springfield combined an aluminum frame with a full-length Government Model slide to give us a pistol with a full sight radius and 5-inch barrel velocity, accuracy, and reliability. I carried this handgun for more than 10 years and arguably got more than my money’s worth. I did not experience a single failure to feed, chamber, fire, or eject.
I know what a pistol looks like after 10,000–20,000 rounds of ammunition have been ran through it and how much time it takes experienced shooters to fire a thousand rounds or so. Most of the high-round counts posted by internet fanboys and eBay commandos are bull excrement — and the popular press sometimes fumbles its math as well.
Practicing a minimum of 50 rounds a week, including a great deal of handloads, adds up over a long period of time. The pistol illustrated logged just over 20,000 standard pressure loads. The frame was fine with the normal well-worn anodizing. The original ramped barrel was fine. Accuracy never lost its edge.
After 550 years with the 1911, and three books on the 1911, this is the 1911 I fired the most. A close runner up was a hard-chrome Series 70. I used it in bowling pin shoots and carried it on duty. My ‘pin load’ was a 255-grain SWC at 838 fps. I also used the Hornady 250-grain XTP at 840 fps.
The Colt frame cracked in front of the slide, but the pistol did not cease operation or fail to properly function. It was retired at 12,500 rounds, almost all handloads. A friend I lost track of used it for years with the cracked frame.
Rock Island 1911
The Rock Island 1911 pistols use cast frames and slides rather than forged steel. They are the biggest selling 1911 in America for several years in the past decade. I have yet to see a Rock worn out or sporting a cracked frame. I have had to tune the occasional extractor, replace an ejector, and change recoil springs.
I have had at least the same amount of effort with other makers. Notably, when Rock introduced a 9mm version, it hit the road running without trouble. 9mm Luger pistols have been problematic in the 1911 platform. The .45 was designed for a cartridge with a 1.250-inch overall length. (.38 ACP, .38 ACP Super, and .45 ACP.) Modified magazines don’t always work out. The Rock did. Among the inexpensive 1911 handguns, the Rock is proven and worthy of consideration.
Of the pistols covered, I have the least experience with Tisas. I like the forged steel frame and slide. Cast frames have proven durable and so have aluminum frames. Tisas, it seems, may make a good basis for a build — for those who still do this type of thing. I have seen the usual teething problems with the Tisas but nothing in the design or execution gives me pause.
An extractor needed adjustment. That’s about it as far as problems go. These pistols represent a good value and have features that are impressive considering the price.
Springfield Tactical Response Pistol
When Springfield won the FBI contract for a SWAT team pistol, it developed one of the most capable 1911 handguns ever crafted. The pistol is also very expensive. The Tactical Response Pistol isn’t inexpensive, but it is an affordable alternative to the Bureau Model.
The pistol is tight, very tight, and expressly reliable. Accuracy is something surprising. While on demand, accuracy is what matters on occasion the pistol has demonstrated a five-shot 25-yard group of 1.65 inches. 2.0 inches is the average. I am very pleased with this pistol. While you may pay more for a 1911, I cannot imagine a better service-grade handgun.
These 10 handguns are all interesting. They range from economy grade to the gun makers art. They are all 1911 handguns, and the heritage is interesting and valuable part of America.