A Realistic Look at the Model 1911 Service Pistol

By Chuck Hawks

Colt M1991
Illustration courtesy of Colt's Mfg. Co., Inc.

I should probably state at the outset that my personal experience with Government Model 1911 pistols is long, but thin. The first autoloading pistol I ever owned was a military 1911 and that was back in the middle 1960's. At the time, my only other handgun was an (old model) Ruger Blackhawk .357 Magnum revolver. The .45 ACP M1911 proved inferior to the .357 Blackhawk in intrinsic accuracy, practical accuracy, reliability and downrange ballistics. Ergonomics is a personal matter, but I discovered that, in autoloading pistols, I preferred the more angled grip of the Luger, Glock, Ruger .22, etc. When I got the chance, I sold that first Model 1911.

Over the years I have had experience with other Model 1911 pistols, including modern examples from manufacturers such as Colt, Kimber, Remington, Ruger, SIG SAUER, S&W and Springfield. There are reviews of most of these on the Handgun Information and Product Reviews pages. Most were reasonably satisfactory pistols, but none of them were particularly impressive in terms of accuracy or reliability when compared to many of the other handguns I have reviewed. On the other hand, I liked the SIG version well enough to purchase the test pistol for my personal use.

I have never been caught-up in the mystique of the 1911 pistol, nor do I ascribe magical properties to .45 caliber bullets. I consider both the 1911 pistol and the .45 ACP cartridge to be good for their intended purpose, particularly in the context of the time (1911) when they were adopted by the U.S. military. I am, however, not a 1911/.45 "true believer," which perhaps qualifies me to write about the Model 1911 pistol a little more objectively than many gun scribes, whose primary purpose seems to be to sell 1911 clones for the manufacturers.

History

The Model 1911 was one of the best, probably the best, service pistol available in 1911. It served the U.S. military very well in the First World War. It also served, at least adequately, in WW II, Korea and Vietnam. In all of these later wars, of course, pistols had a negligible overall impact.

Most shooters today are not aware that the 1907 U.S. Army service pistol trials found the (.45 cal.) Luger ergonomically superior, easier to field strip and about twice as accurate as the Colt prototype pistol ultimately adopted as the Model 1911. (2.4" for 10 shots at 25 yards for the Colt, compared to 1.3" for the Luger.) The Board memorandum stated, in part, that the Luger "possesses manifest advantages in many particulars . . .." However, the Colt pistol was superior in reliability when packed with dirt, an attribute that was to serve it well in the coming war (WW I).

The Luger performed well in the trials and the Ordinance Department ordered an additional 200 .45 Lugers and 10,000 cartridges to issue to troops for actual field testing. (DWM had built only two .45 Lugers for the U.S. trials.) However, by then (1908) the Luger had been adopted by Germany and six other countries. DWM production was completely allocated and they could not fill the U.S. order. Consequently, they withdrew from the competition. All is well that ends well and I think the U.S. Army made the correct decision when they adopted the made in USA Colt pistol as the Model 1911. We probably weren't inclined to buy ammo and pistols from Germany, in any case!

The .45 ACP Model 1911 remained the Army's service pistol long beyond its era, a fact 1911 fans cite as evidence of its greatness. However, its longevity as the Army's service pistol is actually more indicative of the lack of importance ascribed to pistols after WW II. In fact, the U.S. military plain didn't care about handguns and was loathe to spend money to acquire new pistols of any sort. The retention of the Model 1911 for so long had nothing to do with the superiority of its design and everything to do with the military's limited budget and the necessity to fund more important projects. When the U.S. finally did get around to conducting trials of service pistols in the 1980's, the Model 1911 was found to be clearly inferior to newer designs.

The era of the Model 1911's design superiority over other service autoloaders had ended by 1935, when FN/Browning introduced the Hi-Power (P-35). This pistol was and is an improved, Browning short recoil design specifically intended to correct the Model 1911's most obvious shortcomings. Its introduction basically rendered the Model 1911 obsolete. The Hi-Power quickly became the most widely used military service pistol in the world, adopted by some 50 nations. (The USA was the only major power to adopt the Model 1911.)

During WW II, Germany became the first major military power to adopt a double action (DA) service autoloader, the Walther P-38. After the end of the Second World War, most other powers began adopting DA autoloaders when their P-35's and other single action (SA) service autoloaders required replacement. Today, modern DA autoloaders predominate in military service around the world and the most popular service cartridge in the world, by far, is the 9mm Luger (9x19mm).

The Influence of Jeff Cooper and "Practical" Pistol Competition

Model 1911 pistols are still popular today in the U.S., a tribute to the power of legend, nostalgia and the persuasive prose of certain gun writers, particularly the redoubtable Jeff Cooper and his disciples, who were really big fans of the 1911 pistol. Mr. Cooper was one of the founders, in the 1950's, of what became the "modern" school of tactical pistol craft and "practical" shooting competition. He started the Bear Valley Gunslingers, which evolved into the South Western Combat Pistol League and later was the first President of IPSC. He opened the famous Gunsight training facility and developed its curriculum. Perhaps not surprisingly, Gunsight and other shooting schools founded by Cooper's disciples heavily promoted the use of the 1911 pistol in their classes and IPSC adopted rules for their matches that were gerrymandered to favor the 1911 (and similar) pistols.

Look, for example, at the six or seven shot strings required in such matches, followed by mandatory reloads, rather than the 13--or more--shot strings made possible by more modern pistols. Also note the "power factor" (based on momentum, which has little or no correlation to stopping power in the real world), established to ensure that the .45 ACP cartridge would be the obvious choice for competition use. It should be no surprise, given this situation, that 1911 based pistols have been very successful in such competitions, since the rules are slanted to favor them!

Most modern service autoloaders (HK, SIG SAUER, Glock, Beretta, etc.) outclass a stock 1911 service pistol. They are at least as accurate, will shoot more times on a single magazine, function longer without jams or malfunctions and are safer to carry with the chamber loaded. These factors are inconsequential in "practical" pistol matches, but they are crucial in the real world and have been amply demonstrated in testing by the U.S. military and many other agencies.

Accuracy

1911 fans often claim that their favorite is more accurate than other service pistols. Here at Guns and Shooting Online, we have not found this to be the case. The better modern service autos are at least as accurate, out of the box, as a Model 1911. So were some of the other early 20th Century service pistols, including the Borschart, Mauser Broomhandle and Luger P-08, all of which predate the Model 1911.

Here are the mean average 25 yard group sizes, fired from rests, for centerfire Model 1911 pistols recently reviewed by Guns and Shooting Online: Colt M1991 = 5.58", Colt M1911 Rail Gun = 2.9", Kimber Custom Stainless Target II = 2.73", Metro Arms American Classic II = 2.5", Remington 1911R1 = 2.53", Ruger SR1911 = 2.5", Ruger SR 1911 = 3.66", and Springfield 1911A1 G.I. Model = 3". The mean average 25 yard group size achieved by these eight 1911 pistols was 3.18".

For comparison, here are some mean average 25 yard group sizes achieved with other well known service pistols in Guns and Shooting Online reviews: Baikal IJ-70A (Makarov) = 3", Beretta 90-TWO Type F = 3", Browning Hi-Power Standard = 2.9", CZ 85 Combat = 2.73", Glock 20 SF = 2.06", Luger P-08 (a 93 year old test gun!) = 2.2", SIG SAUER SP202 = 2.86", Smith & Wesson M&P = 3". The mean average 25 yard group size achieved by these eight pistols was 2.72".

Trigger Pull

Another advantage touted by Model 1911 fans is its supposedly "far superior" trigger mechanism. Out of the box, the typical issue 1911 trigger pull is not superior; it is usually mediocre (or worse).

We measured the actual trigger pull weights of unmodified Model 1911 type pistols recently tested by Guns and Shooting Online with these results: Browning 1911-22 A1 = 6.5 pounds, Colt M1991 = 6.5 pounds, Colt M1911 Rail Gun = 4.75 pounds, Ithaca Model 1911A1 = 4 pounds, Kimber TLE/RL-II = 4.5 pounds, Metro Arms American Classic II = 6.5 pounds, Remington 1911R1 = 4.75 pounds, Ruger SR1911 = 5.25 pounds, SIG SAUER 1911-22 = 6.1 pounds, and Springfield 1911A1 G.I. Model = 5.1 pounds. The average pull weight for these 10 Model 1911 pistols was 5.4 pounds and most of them came with plenty of take-up and/or grit before they released. Remember, these are all single action only triggers.

For comparison, here are some of the unmodified, single action trigger pulls measured for other common service pistols reviewed by Guns and Shooting Online: Baikal IJ-70A (Russian Makarov) = 5.75 pounds, Beretta 90-TWO Type F = 5.25 pounds, Browning DPM-D = 4.25 pounds, CZ 85 Combat = 5.25 pounds, DWM Luger (1920 vintage) = 2.25 pounds, SIG SAUER P-220 = 4.4 pounds, SIG-SAUER P-226 = 4.5 pounds, S&W 5906 = 5.5 pounds, Springfield XDm = 6 pounds, Walther P99 = 4.5 pounds. The average pull weight for these 10 pistols was 4.77 pounds and most of them also came with plenty of take-up and/or grit before they released. Unlike the 1911's in the paragraph above and with the exception of the DWM Luger, all of these are double action pistols that, when carried normally, do not require racking the action, cocking the hammer, or releasing a safety in an emergency to get off the first shot.

Field Stripping

Another alleged 1911 virtue is its ease of disassembly (field stripping) for cleaning. Experienced 1911 owners often brag that they can disassemble their pistols blindfolded, as if that meant anything. (Almost anyone can learn to field strip most pistols--and rifles--for cleaning when blindfolded.) In fact, most autoloading pistols are easier to field strip and reassemble than a 1911, including such common service pistols as the Luger P-08 (first produced in 1900), Walther PP (1929), Browning Hi-Power (1935), Walther P-38 (1938), Russian Makarov (1951) and modern service pistols from Beretta, CZ, Glock, HK, Kahr, Ruger, SIG SAUER, Taurus, Walther, et al.

Size and Weight

The standard M1911 is a large, heavy pistol. It measures about 8.5" long and weighs 2.44 pounds (empty). This substantial weight is principally due to its all steel construction, which is good for longevity, but makes it a burden for daily carry. In addition, flush magazines hold only seven cartridges and extended magazines hold eight cartridges. The 1911's undersize grip panels and very rounded back strap tend to concentrate recoil in a small area of the shooter's hand.

Contrast these numbers with the specifications of the Glock 21, which is probably the most popular of the modern .45 ACP caliber service pistols. The G21 is 8.22" long and weighs 1.65 pounds. A standard G21 magazine holds 13 cartridges and "Plus 2" extended magazines hold 15 rounds. The Glock's polymer frame and wide backstrap help moderate recoil.

The .45 ACP Cartridge

Model 1911 fans are usually wedded to the .45 ACP cartridge, although genuine Colt Model 1911 pistols have also been chambered for the 9mm Luger, .38 Super and 10mm Auto cartridges. Indeed, the Model 1911 pistol and the .45 ACP cartridge are usually synonymous. 1911 owners brag about the superior stopping power of their beloved pistols. However, the terminal effectiveness of any handgun is a matter of the cartridge and load used, not the pistol itself. If the .45 ACP is the best cartridge for a particular purpose, many modern pistols are chambered for it.

.45 caliber true believers generally have an inflated idea of the effectiveness of the .45 ACP cartridge, particularly when shooting FMJ (military ball) ammunition. Jeff Cooper repeatedly stated in his articles that .45 ACP ball ammo was 90% effective for one shot stops and no caliber was any better. (This figure was not based on any original research, but rather on his subsequently discredited "short form" for guess-estimating stopping power, which completely ignored the terminal advantages of expanding bullets.) Unfortunately, this gross mis-information is still widely quoted today.

Cooper was eventually proven wrong, since .45 FMJ loads are actually about 60-64% effective and many other cartridges and loads, including most .45 ACP JHP loads, exceed that figure. Studies of actual shooting results make this abundantly clear.

In the real world, .45 FMJ loads have proven to be a slightly less effective man stopper than modern .380 JHP loads, which many .45 fans consider "mouse gun" fodder. Ignorance is apparently bliss for the .45 caliber true believers.

This is not to say the .45 ACP, when loaded with modern JHP ammunition, is not an effective cartridge. With its best loads it is right up there with equivalent .357 SIG, .40 S&W, 10mm Auto and .45 Long Colt loads and close to the .357 Magnum, the most effective anti-personnel handgun cartridge of them all.

Summary and Conclusion

The M1911 legend was born in 1911, when the Browning designed Colt semi-automatic pistol was adopted by the U.S. Army. At that time it was certainly among the best, and possibly the best, military service pistol in the world. It performed very well in the trench warfare of the First World War, which cemented its reputation and popularity in the United States.

In 1929, Walther introduced the PP (Police Pistol), the first successful DA autoloader and in 1935 FN/Browning introduced the P-35 Hi-Power, the first modern pistol with a double stack magazine and other improvements over Browning's earlier 1911 design. The Walther P-38 was adopted by the German Army in 1938. By the end of the 1930's, the Model 1911 was obviously becoming outdated.

The Model 1911 soldiered on in U.S. service, but objectively it had become a pedestrian pistol. Volume 1911 production was maintained during WW II, as numbers were more important than sophistication and, in any case, handguns had virtually no impact on the course or duration of the war. At the end of WW II (1945), Army procurement of M1911 pistols ceased.

After WW II there was a growing movement within the U.S. military to replace the 1911 with a more modern service pistol, but budgetary constraints prevented any action being taken. Thus, the 1911 continued to serve during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

In the 1980's, with the surviving M1911 pistols worn out, trials to select a new service pistol were finally initiated. In the course of this testing it was demonstrated that several modern service pistols were clearly superior to the M1911 in accuracy, capacity, safety, reliability and overall performance. Ultimately, the Beretta and SIG SAUER pistols won the competition. (Glock had declined to participate, as their production capability was already stretched to the limit and they could not accept another major contract.) The Beretta M92F was selected as the new U.S. service pistol (M9) over the SIG, based on its lower cost.

Today, Model 1911 pistols remain very popular with U.S. civilian shooters, apparently due to nostalgia, mystique and the peculiarly American cult of the .45 caliber cartridge. (Colt Peacemaker type 1873 revolvers remain popular in the U.S. for the same reasons.) However, major military and police forces in the U.S. and around the world, based on the results of multiple and intensive trials, have overwhelmingly chosen to adopt Glock, SIG SAUER, Beretta and other modern service pistols. The Model 1911's accuracy, reliability, trigger pull, magazine capacity, size, weight and overall performance are generally adequate, but not outstanding when compared to later pistols. An impartial analysis can only conclude that the Model 1911, while still an effective fighting pistol for niche applications, is obsolescent and has long been superseded as the "World's Best Service Pistol" by subsequent and improved designs.




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Copyright 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.


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