Read this before you buy your first 1911

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If you’re about to surrender to the 100-year-old call of John Moses Browning, we’re here to help. You can probably count as many Model 1911 configurations as stars in the sky. So to make sense of all the choices, we enlisted a guy who knows his way around the 1911 like Darrell Waltrip knows his way around Daytona.

As the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta’s primary firearms instructor, Larry Vickers worked in a place that put more than a million rounds a year through 1911s. He’s a founding member of the International Defensive Pistol Association and is a member of the American Pistolsmiths Guild. When he says he’s seen everything that can go wrong with a 1911, I believe him.

“Now, I shoot a Glock,” Vickers tells me. “Make sure you tell guys that the 1911 is a pain in the ass. If they don’t like messing around with the pistol and spending a grand to really get it tuned, then they should forget it.”

Modern pistol designs have made the 1911 obsolete in its role as a combat sidearm. It’s finicky and demands constant attention that a warfighter can’t afford to offer. But when it’s tuned and running well, it’s the most accurate pistol out there.

Warnings aside, the pistol’s appeal is strong and romantic. Picking up the pistol feels like shaking hands with John Wayne. It shoots man-sized rounds and, when tuned, it shoots a quarter-sized group at 50 yards.

But the 1911 is not a plug-and-play platform. Even a $2,000 semi-custom 1911 likely will need a pricey trip to a gunsmith for tweaking. Changing out all but the simplest parts will demand expert hand filing and fitting.

“I’ve had guys sell their pistols after taking my 1911 armoring class because they realized the gun just wasn’t for them,” Vickers says.

If you can’t be swayed — and you have the patience and the budget — here’s an idea of what to look for as you step into the world of the 1911.

[Bonus! Here’s a link to the above image as a hi-res jpeg you can use for your desktop wallpaper.]

SLIDE & FRAME

Vickers’ first choice for a base gun is a government-model, carbon steel Colt, Springfield or Caspian frame and slide set. They’ve been making guns the longest and have proven reliable in his experience, Vickers said.

Why avoid stainless? There are so many finishes to protect a carbon steel gun from corrosion that there’s no need to mess with stainless. Most guns with stainless frames have nonstainless parts and the gun won’t match. Plus, stainless steel will gall, or abrade against itself, though Colt solved that problem.

“The way they did it,” says Vickers, “is by adding carbon to the steel. While it won’t gall, it will eventually rust under certain conditions.”

BARREL, GUIDE ROD & BUSHING
A 5-inch stainless steel barrel chambered in .45 caliber will offer fine performance, reliability and corrosion resistance. Stainless barrels can be abused and will always come back for more. Chromoly barrels, however, rust. Even popular chromoly Kart match grade barrels will rust. If you go that route, get the barrel blued or parkerized for corrosion resistance.

The original 1911 guide rod guides the recoil spring inside the slide. The spring runs outside the rod, and as the action slides, the rod keeps the spring in line as the slide moves rearward. Full-length guide rods purport to give the spring more guidance by increasing its length, but there is no evidence they do anything but make the gun harder to field strip. The added weight up front may reduce muzzle flip, but it’s a personal choice.

The bushing is another part from the original design that can be tinkered with. You might see bushingless designs (also called “bull barrels”) out there. These remove the barrel bushing and rely on exact machining to fit the barrel with the slide’s barrel opening. Pass on these until you know what’s involved in their use and service. Same goes for shock buffs — your gun can chew them up and cause malfunctions.

EXTRACTOR
This one is a religious argument. Browning’s original design has an internal extractor, like these shown on the Colt and Springfield guns. Later designs introduced the external extractor in an attempt to make the gun more reliable with less tinkering. The external extractor is a theoretic improvement over the internal design because its spring pressure doesn’t need to be tuned. But most people — Vickers included — will say the designs never worked correctly. He calls out Smith & Wesson alone as doing it right, but advises shooters to go with the proven internal extractor in all other cases.

MIL-1913 RAIL
If you want to run a light or laser, or want the option of doing so down the road, go for a rail. Aftermarket rails can be welded, clamped or bolted on, but if you’re going to go that way, just get a frame with an integral rail. It’ll end up costing less and will be one less thing to worry about.

UNDERCUT TRIGGER GUARD
Also called a high grip cut, this contouring of the grip below the trigger guard allows a higher grip, more in line with the bore, and may improve control of the pistol. Vickers says it offers a little more comfort, may help control the pistol and can be overdone.

TRIGGER
This is the heart of the 1911. Like the word “snow” to the Inuit, there are many ways to describe the break of a 1911 trigger: glass rod, icicle, carrot breaking. The 1911 has the most crisp and tunable trigger of all handgun designs. The most popular trigger options are long, medium, short and flat. The length has less to do with the length of pull and more to do with the size of the trigger as measured from the rearmost point of the trigger housing to the forward end of the trigger. Short is good for small hands, long is good for big hands, but be careful — long triggers can crowd the trigger guard when used with gloves. Flat triggers have become popular because they work without regard to finger placement. As far as pull is concerned, a practical, safe trigger for a 1911 is no lighter than four pounds for practical use. Any lighter, and it’s a competition-only gun.

MAG RELEASE
Competition or duty shooters may want an extended mag release. If you’re carrying concealed, the slimmer profile of a standard mag release will work well and may be more comfortable. Aside from the height of the mag release, look at the shape of the button. Some have beveled edges for comfort.

FRONT STRAP CHECKERING
The front strap runs down the frame from the trigger guard. It’s one of the main grasping surfaces, and it’s common to see it roughed up or checkered. Coarse checkering for duty use is 20 lines per inch, suitable for gloved hands (17 lpi shown); while 30 lpi works for carry guns. Hand checkering a pistol is time consuming and expensive, so get it at the factory or pay a gunsmith dearly for it later. Skateboard tape with a strong adhesive is an alternative.

MAGAZINE
When it comes to mags, 1911s are notoriously finicky. Factories save money by providing cheap mags with new guns. Vickers advises that you simply throw away the mag that comes with your gun and get Wilson, McCormick or Tripp mags. If you can’t afford new mags, at the very least, you must get baseplates for your factory mags to help seat them during reloads.

SIGHTS
To have the greatest choice of sights, look for a slide already cut with Novak dovetails, front and rear. Be aware that although popular, Novak-style sights will loosen eventually. They must be checked and even installed with some Loctite. Fixed rear sights work for everyone except serious competition shooters. Look for a front sight with a roll-pin to prevent any movement. A ledge on the rear sight for one-handed charging looks good on a feature list but is seldom used. Fiber-optics sights work great during the day, but are useless at night. Practical shooters should look for night sights.

Also, have a look at the slide top. Slide top milling and serration will give you some extra front sight height for faster sight acquisition.

GRASPING GROOVES
Grasping grooves, also called slide serrations, on the rear of the slide are standard on all 1911s. Up front, grasping grooves aren’t popular with traditionalists though you’ll see plenty of pistols sporting them. If you need to clear a malfunction in a hurry, you will be grateful for all the leverage and purchase you can get on the slide. Some shooters also like to “over-hand” press-check by running the slide from the front. There’s no right or wrong way, but there are shooters that will always keep their hands as far away from the muzzle when given the choice. If that’s you, then you can pass on the front grooves and save a few bucks.

HAMMER
The original 1911 design has a spur hammer. These work on a stock gun, but once you get into any beavertail grip safety, the spur hammer is a no-go. The beavertail gets in the way of the longer hammer. Contemporary designs use a rounded, commander-style hammer.

Skeletonizing looks cool and saves weight, but be aware that a lighter hammer speeds up movement and improves lock time. Both are good, if the rest of your pistol is set up for it. A good hammer and sear are EDM machined out of tool steel. If you do swap your hammer, make sure you replace the sear along with it.

THUMB SAFETY
Look for one that’s slightly extended for easy manipulation. Ambidextrous safeties are generally meant for lefties. Despite their name, they rarely work or hold up as well when used by righties. If you’re a lefty, Vickers suggests the new Wilson Combat Bullet Proof ambi thumb safety. It’s a novel design machined out of billet steel that is stronger where traditional safeties often fail.

Also, make sure you have no  burrs or sharp edges on your safety. Get one that feels good at the shop or be prepared to have a gunsmith take the edges down. Your thumb will thank you.

BEAVERTAIL/GRIP SAFETY
A beavertail is a must-have. The exaggerated horn allows a higher grip without the danger of the slide tearing railroad tracks down the webbing of your hand. Beavertails are often combined with the grip safety into one curved piece of metal. Upgraded designs have a palm swell at the bottom that assures positive activation of the safety.

DROP SAFETY
Firing pin safety’s are fairly common and widely seen as a necessary evil. They do exactly what they say; prevent the gun from firing if it’s dropped. The way they work is to add a bar that interrupts the firing pin’s forward progress unless it’s raised up out of the way as the trigger or grip safety is squeezed. Purists will tell you that they negatively affect the quality of the trigger pull. Colt’s Combat Elite has a firing pin safety. These are also referred to as a drop safety, Swartz safety or “Series 80″ safety (referring to Colt’s adaptation.) If you’re after for a Colt without the firing pin safety, look for a “Series 70.”

Smith & Wesson doesn’t use a drop safety on the E-Series. Instead they use a titanium firing pin that is lighter than a normal steel firing pin. This means there’s less moving mass hitting the primer if the gun is dropped on it’s muzzle. When slammed home without the strength of the hammer and mainspring, there isn’t enough force to ignite a primer in a waist-high drop.

GRIPS
Grips are either wood or composite and come in different thicknesses, profiles and patterns. Big hands might go for thicker grips, but look for a good contour that fills your palm. Wood grips are probably the most popular and arguably can be the best looking, but are not as durable or as grippy for sweaty hands as composites made by companies such as VZ Grips. A year of serious shooting and training (think dry fire, reload and draw practice) can wear out a set of wood grips.

MAINSPRING HOUSING AND MAGWELL
Mainspring housings come two ways, flat or arched. Flat works with most, but if you have large hands, look for arched. Also, when looking at the MSH, decide if you want a magazine well, as they are often combined. An extended and flared magwell guides the narrow mag into place during reloads. They are necessary for competition and helpful in a duty pistol but add unnecessary bulk to the pistol butt on a concealed-carry rig. At the least, if you don’t want to get a full-on aftermarket competition magwell, make sure the the inner walls of your factory magwell is at least beveled.

LAST WORD
If you’re headed down this road, you’ll want a worthy gunsmith riding shotgun. Hints for finding one come from Sam Hatfield, a successful gunsmith out of northern Virginia: “If they don’t have a wait time, forget them.” Good gunsmiths are rare, and people know them. Hatfield, a former member of the Army Marksmanship Unit, suggests that service in a top-tier military marksmanship shop is a great indicator of expertise. Another is membership in the American Pistolsmiths Guild.

Thanks to our friends at Virginia Arms for helping us with our armoring questions and firearm transfers.

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  1. Wow, finally a non-hyped, straightforward article on the 1911-A1 and its’ place in the handgun world. My hat’s off to you. Very good article. I’ve spent many, many hours at a workbench working on the 1911’s and at the gun range with these type pistols as well, and what you say is spot-on. Very good !

  2. Great article!
    Wish the article would have commented on compact designs, and whether there is any REAL loss in reliability….

  3. Truly honest commentary and spoken like a true 1911 owner! I own several 1911s. Easy to love. Easy to shoot accurately. Easy to fix, maintain, and tune they are not.

    My favorite pistols to shoot are my 1911s. They would never follow me to a combat zone though.

  4. I disagree with this statement “Modern pistol designs have made the 1911 obsolete in it’s role as a combat sidearm. It’s finicky and demands constant attention that a warfighter can’t afford to offer.”
    I have an Ed Brown SF with more than 4000 rounds down it, only clean it every 500-600 rounds and I have never had to tune it. The only issue I ever get is carbon build up where the round won’t seat, thats when i know its time to clean it. I still have a 3.5-4 pound break, never get FTF or FTE.

    And reguarding this “But the 1911 is not a plug-and-play platform. Even a $2,000 semi-custom 1911 likely will need a pricey trip to a gunsmith for tweaking.” I know people that had some issues with other high end guns, ie Yotes and Wilson. All they did was call them up, tell them the issue and send it back, everything was fixed for free, along with shipping.

    I am a proud ower of a limited run of Shot Show special edition Ed Brown SF (Tan frame, black slide) my everyday carry gun, and a full up custom 1911 by Jeff Meister.

  5. RMCFrank on

    @Chris: I don’t mean to slight your experience in any way, for all I know you’re a veteran serviceman with many deployments in different parts of the world under your belt, just like Mr. Vickers himself. I just think that what he meant by his ”modern combat pistol” comment was that modern designs are more consistent with the extreme rigors of long term warfighting in current warzones.
    Surely you don’t carry your 1911s in a 4-season sandbox with extreme weather for 15 months on with only light and infrequent cleaning. I believe Larry meant that those conditions are exactly what modern platforms will face with more success than Browning’s design.

  6. One reason the 1911 is largely “obsoleted” as a warfighting pistol is that if/when repairs/rebuilds need to be done, most parts require hand fitting, which is time consuming and requires a skilled and knowledgeable armorer/pistol smith. These are dying arts in these days of ever growing parts-changers vs. skilled labor in all industries. There are some well-known reliability tuning tips/tricks to these, and I’m a little disappointed they were not touched upon. This article is little more than a down and dirty accessory guide. I expected something more to help current, new, and future owners from a build quality standpoint.

  7. Bear Blue on

    Are we talking about the same service pistol that our grand/great-grand parents carried in Europe/Asia for 4 years, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada. The same pistol that the MEU/MARSOC continue to use in the Middle East/South West Asia/Africa

  8. Vickers is nuts. You do not have to spend an additional $1,000.00 to make a 1911 functional and reliable. You will probably want to spend $80.00 on a trigger job, but that’s it. If you buy a Kimber, the trigger job is not necessary. My 1984 Lightweight Officers Model never fails me.

  9. @Chris: It’s obsolete because a 500 dollar gun will do the same and have drop in parts.

  10. I use a rifle till my ammo runs out, then I use a springfield armory 1911 till the ammo runs out…then I beat you with it! If I hit you with a glock you laugh, If I hit you with MY 1911 you’re out!! You need a real pistol to pistolwhip!! (and mine will not melt)

  11. For all those stating that 1911 is still a viable service pistol, and using the argument that a semi-custom can go back to the shop, what you’re forgetting is that without the capacity to ‘ship it back’ off a ship (think limitations of the MEU(SOC) Pistols), access to a qualified 1911 smith is a very real limitation, whereas a modern design that is built with the intention of leveraging modern metallurgy and machining processes can have true plug and play.

    While the exact one grand figure quoted is subject to a fair bit of wiggle room, somebody who as spent as much time as Larry in tuning and fixing 1911’s might have some insight that is deemed valuable – at minimum, this posits that spending $500 on a 1911 won’t get the same level of reliability as a $500 Glock, which is pretty true.

    For a fastidious civilian pistol owner who can comfortably fire and carry a heavy .45ACP pistol, the 1911 is a platform without parallel, and still the best available design a century on.

    To take on a deployment, I wouldn’t feel comfortable without having a set of pre-fit spares (amounting to almost a spare pistol), but in a military logistic system that struggles to provide simple interchangeable items; in a service pistol we’d be better served by a less mechanically accurate pistol that is cheaper, easier to maintain, and easier to logistically support, freeing up resources to improve the weakest part of most military small arms weapon systems: the user.

  12. RMCFrank on

    In ”my” army we still use made in 1937 Browning HPs for the exact reason Sgt A just stated. Amen I say to you.

  13. With all due respect, Mr Vickers needs a lot of laxative.

    He seems to forget that the basic service design WORKED just fine as a service pistol for four major wars. It did not need spares kits and thousand dollar tune ups to do what it was supposed to do.

    It was put together by the millions using off the shelf parts and they worked, it was design as a last ditch weapon. It was intended for use in confined spaces, very close ranges and as a back up to other weapons. It did this job better than any other pistol in history.

    Find a decent war surplus rem rand or colt and slap some hard ball in any mag and it will work. It will for your kids and for there kids. When people start dicking with 1911’s is when they start needing $30 dollar mags, expensive trigger jobs and all sorts of “fixes”. Realistically the only improvement a real GI gun benefits from is better sights.

  14. USArmy SF for ten years. Deployments in Iraq Afghanistan and a few other messy spots. My 1911 was on my chest or in my hand every day and I never had any problems and was NEVER outgunned.

  15. The 1911 as shipped from Kimber or Springfield are fine arms for police or civilian use but they are too tight for combat. The original specs for the 1911 left a little room for sand, carbon and dry steel, Colt still makes them loose like John Browning, hallowed be his name, intended.
    I have a 1991A1 that rattles if I shake it. It shoots better than I can and has worked just fine after dunking it in sand… I was curious. It won’t reliably hit a quarter at fifty yards but that’s what the scoped Super Blackhawk is for. Across a room or a street it’s more than accurate enough and

  16. Excellent article and quite truthful in a number of ways. I think most of you misunderstood what Mr. Vickers was trying to say. The 1911 is an excellent fighting pistol that has a long and proven history with our military. But in today’s world, not all users are as capable, or comfortable, with the responsibility of maintaining a 1911. Don’t get me wrong, I love my 1911s. But being on a budget, I’ve limited my purchases on Rock Island Armory and Springfield basic models. They are reliable and last an entire range session of over 200 rds as long as I clean them afterwards. They start to get hiccups around the 400-500 mark. My friend on the other hand shoots a Glock and he cleans them 2-3 times a year. He likes shooting my 1911s because of how the trigger feels and how the pistol shoots but he does not want to deal with the maintenance part of it.

    In the end, it’s the simplicity of modern designs that wins people over, they’re just easier to live with. I mean, how many people do you see driving old muscle cars compared to new sub-compacts?

  17. Bear Blue on

    When was the last time any normal soldier got to fire 200+ rounds from his sidearm in a single setting and fired or even carried anything close to that in combat between cleanings. I have never met an NCO that would let a soldier not clean his weapon after an range session or once they had a safe moment following a contact.

  18. Huh, so the gunsmith reccomends spending at least $1000 on getting your 1911 tuned by a gunsmith as soon as you buy it… Imagine that.

  19. Mike Orick on

    I was issued USAF 1911 match guns from 84 – 88. They worked fine, but I did not work on them, the armorer did.

    For 2011 I bought a SA Mil Spec. Had everything I wanted and nothing I did not. So far, so good. No problems w several hundred rounds of various FMJ and Hornady FTX in OEM and Metalform 7 round mags. I clean and lube ‘em every 250 rounds/month, whichever comes first.

    I would bet my life on it for home defense/carry, and not loose any sleep over it.

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