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The Model 1911 Pistol

By David Tong

Colt Model 1911
Illustration courtesy of Colt's Manufacturing Company.

It occurred to me when formulating ideas about this article that so much has been written, re-hashed, and bandied about this "venerable" sidearm, that it may be well-nigh impossible to say anything new! Thus, I shall put the 1911 into personal focus, based upon my experiences as an apprentice pistolsmith, combat pistol competitor, reloader, and lately, concealed carry permit holder. Over twenty-eight years and counting.

My first experience with the 1911 was in the Boy Scouts during a desert camping trip to Red Rock Canyon in the Mojave Desert, now sadly closed due to the Clinton Administration's naming the area a National Monument. As a student of history for as far back as I can remember, certainly the .45 had an awesome presence in my imagination, and when my assistant scoutmaster let me touch a few off in his GI WW II Remington-Rand, unsupported offhand, it surely did not disappoint.

Back in the late '70s and early '80s, I apprenticed with Mr. James Hoag, a custom pistolsmith of some renown, still in business in suburban Los Angeles. In those days the only ballgame in town was Colt. And business was good because although the quality of steel in the early-to-mid production of the Series 70 Government Model was terrific, the internal machining of the slide was not, because Colt had spent so little money on improving their manufacturing process over the decades, plus debilitating labor strikes.

Stuff like locking lug recesses not being cut in one clean oval semi-circle plunge cut, rough tool marks throughout the slide rails, rough breech faces sometimes not cut with the shallow angle per the original blueprint to assist reliable feeding, collet spring bushing breakage, off-centered broaching of the barrel channel . . .. You get the idea.

We, like many others, recognized that the Colt 1911 was a raw canvas that virtually needed rebuilding as delivered in their wood-grained cardboard box. It didn't help our opinion much that the later Series 80 incorporated such "improvements" as a plastic mainspring housing, very obviously investment cast grip and thumb safety components, and the somewhat problematic firing pin safety system which made achieving a crisp trigger without over-travel more difficult.

New 1911s from Colt are far better; since the Colt patents have long since expired the competition has forced them to become better. Springfield Armory builds the FBI Hostage Rescue Team pistols, Kimber was chosen by LAPD SWAT and the U.S. Shooting Team, plus there are the semi-production makers such as Les Baer and Wilson Combat who build perhaps the nicest out of the box 1911s ever.

The reason is the computer revolution, with the attendant precise manufacturing tolerances that can be maintained. It is now possible to more economically, efficiently, and quickly produce this all steel, formerly labor-intensive pistol. The best makers still insist on hand fitting for the last bit of dimensional accuracy and, in the right shooter's hands, practical accuracy as well.

So much for the short technical overview. Why, in this day and age of more modern, safer, lightweight, polymer-framed pistols would someone still choose a 1911? A real good question Pilgrim, so I'll share my reasons.

I won't make too many apologies for the older safety technology inherent in John Browning's design. The 1911s trigger-blocking grip safety, sear-blocking thumb safety, disconnector, deep half-cock notch, and hammer-protecting grip safety tang, are as safe as most modern designs except for not being able to put the piece on "safe" during loading and unloading. It may be trite, but the best "safety" is the one God placed between our ears, and handled responsibly 1911s are just as safe as any potentially deadly machine can be.

Newer versions include a firing pin lock for additional insurance against accidental discharge from dropping the piece, but as I mentioned earlier, sometimes the resultant somewhat creepy trigger pull that results can be a hindrance to fast and accurate shooting.

The main reasons for using a 1911 are the slender feel that fits the average man's hand, the low bore axis that geometrically minimizes muzzle flip and allows for fast first and relatively quick follow up shots, and the light, crisp, short stroke trigger pull. Then there is the .45 ACP cartridge's well-known reputation for adequate defensive power without excess penetration, muzzle blast or flash, the long-term reliability and durability of the heavy steel construction, and the narrow profile that allows for pretty good concealability. When you add to all these attributes the ability of a thinking pistolero to purchase a good pistol off the shelf, the (mostly) inexpensive customizability to idealize sights and ergonomics, the huge array of holsters, ammunition available, and the ease of reloading a nice big case, you have pretty compelling reasons to choose a 1911 for your main pistol.

Downsides, there are a few. At 39 ounces empty, most civilian concealed permit holders may prefer something lighter if one carries all the time, such as the Kimber Tactical or the new Smith & Wesson Scandium SW1911Sc, or the even smaller Colt Defender and other "ultra-compact" clones. That lovely trigger gives police administrators and some gun writers fits due to real or illusory liability concerns because of the possibility of "accidental" discharge. (Keep your index finger alongside the slide, frame flat, or curved behind the slide stop pin.)

Felt recoil might seem high to a beginner, though I openly question whether a light alloy or polymer-framed .357 SIG or .40S&W is really any easier to control. I don't think so; there's always a trade-off between portability and shootability.

I don't what to get into a shouting match about the relative stopping power of the 9mm Parabellum, .357 SIG and .40S&W. To me the .45's rather low 17,000 c.u.p. load pressure and its proven stopping ability without resorting to law-enforcement only 9mm "+P+" or the even snappier and noisier SIG and Smith rounds are good arguments in its favor. Plus the fact that .45ACP is so highly developed that there is an inherent accuracy advantage over the .40 S&W and .357 Sig. It would take a lot to persuade me to abandon Federal's 230 grain Hydra-Shok round if I ever had to resort to using the pistol in a defensive scenario.

Some might opine that having more rounds is an advantage of the smaller calibers, and I'd agree. It's cold comfort to know that FBI statistics about police shootings indicate that most engagements occur within seven FEET, with no more than five rounds exchanged in total, if you have a less than statistically probable incident facing you! Unless one carries a Para-Ordnance or STI wide body and sacrifices the concealment advantage of the standard 1911 format, your gun's standard ammo load is going to be seven or eight down, and one up the spout. Do you practice enough to make them count when it counts? Accuracy, Power, and Speed are an inviolate triumvirate, one does not take precedence over the others.

The better to best-grade production 1911s are somewhat more expensive than a less machine-time-intensive cast alloy or injection-molded polymer pistol, and that is a valid concern that only you can decide. The MSRP of a Kimber Custom II is $745 with most of the popular features factory-installed, climbing to the wrong side of two grand for a Baer or Wilson pistol. (Mostly due to the extensive and beautiful hand-fitting those makers employ.)

In closing, to me there is also the whole issue of history and nationalistic pride in carrying an icon. Certainly I'm speaking from a partisan admirer's viewpoint, though I've taken pains to be balanced. Shooters are, by and large, a pretty patriotic lot. Without delving into the mire of current world politics, I find it reassuring that this product of an early Twentieth Century American genius is still present, and relevant.

Note: Complete reviews of Colt, Springfield, Valtro and Kimber 1911 type pistols can be found on the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2005, 2016 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.