It’s not unusual for a new 1911 owner to struggle with the disassembly and reassembly required to clean the firearm correctly. Very common to this endeavor are frustrations associated with having the recoil spring plug hit the ceiling then rebound to places unknown, or scratches along the side of the frame made by attempting to align and push the slide stop lever/disassembly pin into its proper position.
I struggled with these particular items myself and scratched up a beautiful Springfield Armory stainless steel 1911. I’ve seen others scratched similarly. On one occasion, I launched the recoil spring plug right through the plastic cover of a fluorescent lamp in the ceiling.
Additional difficulty comes with a gun featuring a full-length guide rod as opposed to one that is shorter. I struggled with these items even after I was in a position where I was supposed to know what I was doing. I was an instructor and other shooters looked to me for guidance. A sincere desire to get it right led me to an epiphany.
Those guns were made to be issued to soldiers and sailors who would be faced with the challenge of maintaining their weapons under less-than-ideal conditions and in a manner in which they would count on it in life-or-death situations. For the guns to work in that environment, they had to be easy to maintain. I needed to know what the military instructors were teaching their recruits about cleaning the 1911 pistol.
Well, there you go. As a former military man, I knew there would be a published field manual with the cleaning process broken down into simple steps. I searched high and low and finally located a reprint of War Department Field Manual 23-35, Automatic Pistol Caliber .45 M1911 and 1811A1 Field Manual on Amazon. A big part of this manual is shooting instruction, but it did have a section on disassembly and reassembly for the proper cleaning of the gun.
The steps outlined made sense, but there were no pictures and no mention of the three things the drill sergeants had to have explained when teaching recruits how to take a 1911 apart and put it back together. With knowledge of those three items, the process holds no secrets.
Number one is understanding the barrel bushing. There is a little tab on that bushing located at the 7 o’clock position when looking at it from the front. That tab matches in size exactly with an opening in the frame at the bottom of the barrel. It is this alignment that allows the barrel bushing to be removed at the proper time.
The second piece of information relates to knowing the correct notch on the slide for removing the combination slide lock/takedown pin. Although it appears the backend of this pin is supposed to come out through the same notch used to lock back the slide during gun operation, that’s not the correct notch.
There is another, much smaller notch on the left side of the slide a little less than an inch to the rear of the larger notch used to lock back the slide. When this small notch is perfectly aligned with the locking tab at the back end of the slide lock/takedown lever, the slide lock/takedown lever can be easily removed from the gun.
The third piece of information is related to this same piece and comes into play when you’re putting the gun back together. The tab on the back of the slide lock/takedown lever is made with several angled surfaces. These angles are there so the tab can be pushed up into position while pressing in on the spring-loaded retaining pin that is in a tube fastened to the frame.
With that pin pushed in, your next action of pushing the slide lock into place should be simple and without resistance. Attempting to put the gun together without an understanding of how the angles and pin work together, many people resort to a screwdriver or other tool to force the piece into place which usually results in scratches on the 1911 frame. The key to remember is that if you’re having to force it, something is not aligned correctly.
Now that we know about the three items that often cause gun owners difficulty, let’s go through the process of disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling a typical 1911. First, remove the magazine and set it aside, then check the chamber to ensure beyond a doubt the gun is unloaded. Pull the hammer back and push the thumb safety into the on position. This will lock the slide in place for the next step.
Hold the gun vertically with the barrel up and the beavertail resting on your workbench surface. Press down on the recoil spring plug and rotate the barrel bushing clockwise so that it is 90 degrees to the left as seen from the front of the gun. It’s important that you hold the recoil spring plug while rotating the bushing to keep it from flying off into hard-to-find land.
There is a tool that ships with many guns for this purpose. If you didn’t get one with your gun, they are easy to find online. Just search for “1911 Barrel Bushing Wrench.” On many guns you can remove the plug without a barrel bushing wrench. Once the barrel bushing has been rotated out of the way, carefully let the spring pressure off the plug, then remove the plug and set it aside.
Now, rotate the barrel bushing counterclockwise until the two legs are pointing approximately 45 degrees right of the bottom of the barrel opening as seen from the front. This should align the tab with the opening beneath the barrel and allow you to pull the barrel bushing off the barrel and set it aside.
If your 1911 has a full-length guide rod, you will need to follow the procedure associated with your particular gun to remove the end of the rod. Most of the ones I’ve seen have an Allen screw in the end of the rod that allows you to take off the end of the guide rod.
With the recoil spring plug and barrel bushing removed, take off the thumb safety and move the slide to align the small takedown notch with the tab at the very end of the slide lock. This is the smaller notch on the slide. In fact, it is so small it is easily overlooked at times. When it is aligned properly, the takedown lever can be removed by pressing the pin on the opposite side of the slide.
If it feels like you need to force it, the alignment is not correct. Carefully and slowly move the slide back and forth a little bit at a time until the pin moves. Press it in until it’s flush on the right side, then pull it out from the left side of the gun. With the pin removed, you can easily push the slide right off the front of the gun which is the next step in the process. The barrel, plus the retaining rod and spring, will come out with it.
Remove the recoil rod and spring, and set them aside. This may require a little jiggling. Remove the barrel by pulling it out the front of the slide. You now have the gun disassembled — as far as is necessary to properly clean it.
Cleaning kits are available in all sizes, but just a basic kit is all you need for cleaning your pistol. You’ll need a bronze brush of the appropriate caliber size, with a rod used to push it through the barrel, and a small brush similar to a toothbrush for eliminating debris from various parts. You’ll also need some small cotton cleaning patches.
There are three chemicals needed to properly clean your 1911, and these are available from various manufacturers. I like to use Lucas Oil Products, made by the same folks who provide lubricants for most of the NASCAR cars.
First, we’ll soak the bronze barrel brush in bore solvent and run it back and forth through the barrel a few times. Push the brush through from the breech end of the barrel, so any copper or lead you’re pushing out will go outside of the gun rather than in the chamber area. Now, remove the brush from the cleaning rod and just using the rod itself (or you can put on a jag, if so inclined).
Push a small white patch through the barrel. Push several through until you get a clean one. If you’re going to be putting the gun up for a while, put a small amount of oil on a patch and push that one through last.
Using the contact cleaner, spray the inside of the gun liberally to remove any gunpowder residue. Note: some contact cleaners leave a white residue when they dry. I spray oil on these parts of the gun then wipe it dry. Before reassembling the gun, judiciously apply gun oil to the inside of the barrel bushing, the slide rails, and any other place where metal-to-metal contact is obtained during gun operation.
Reassembly begins with inserting the barrel back into the slide and putting the guide rod, and guide rod spring, back in place. As you push the slide back on the frame rails, watch the barrel link to ensure you will be able to see the hole in it as it slides into position where the takedown pin goes through the slide and the link.
Gently pull on the front of the barrel to ensure the link has been captured before completing the assembly. Align the back tab of the takedown lever with the small notch in the slide and push it upward, then in to compress the slide stop plunger. Let the angles on the slide stop do the work. You shouldn’t have to pry the plunger with any kind of instrument.
With the action up and in, you’ll feel it snap into place. Cock the hammer (if it’s not still cocked) and install the barrel bushing. Rotate it to the 90-degree clockwise position, and install the recoil spring plug. Next, work the slide back and forth a few times to distribute the lubricant, wipe off any excess lubricant that has seeped out of the various openings in the gun, and you’re done.