So, you read my thoughts on the 1911, and you know that this pistol can be a serious contender, but the gun takes some knowledge and work. To recap, in the words of Larry Vickers: if you treat your gun like you treat your lawn mower, then you probably should stick with a Glock, HK, or similar that don’t require much maintenance to keep going, manufacturing assertions aside.
Choosing a weapon’s platform is more complicated than just “hey that looks cool”. The gun has to fit the shooter, and the shooter’s mission. If the gun isn’t comfortable to shoot and something the shooter LIKES to shoot, it’s already a poor choice.
Folks make the argument every day that they shoot their carry gun enough to know what they’re doing, and then practice with something else. One of the things that make folks like Brandon, Jack, and the others so effective at their jobs, though, is that they train relentlessly on their weapons and know them inside and out. Shooters who are the most successful are so because their ability to use the platform they run is based on muscle memory and ingrained habits that take little conscious thought to employ.
Now, still with me? Good.
Making the Choice
Before we talk about the 1911’s training specifics, we first have to overcome the largest stymying factor to the 1911 as a combat platform: choice. There’s simply a lot of choices, and not all of equal quality. How much should you spend? What should you look for? Which brands work best? What can I trust?
These questions leave the shooter with two paths: Buy the gun that looks good to you and then make it run right after the fact if it doesn’t; or spend weeks researching, wading through thousands of conflicting opinions, and ultimately get frustrated enough to just buy the one you really wanted in the first place.
This is a pitfall that gets many first-time buyers of the platform, and for those who are using this gun for more than recreational or hobby shooting, is one of the major areas of concern.
Many experts in the field of tactical shooting will tell you that to be sure of your weapon, you either invest in a high-dollar gun, or buy a more budget-minded gun and then spend the equivalent to the difference in costs to have a gunsmith make it run right. While this may have been true in the past, many new options are on the market that have stellar reliability out of the box, and come with the features that make the gun an effective platform.
The first step in this process is to determine what your intended use and expectations are for the firearm. Are you looking for a combat weapon, or are you looking for a gun that you can take to the range and play with? Is this a gun for competition, or simply a basic tool? For the purposes of this article, we’ll take the example of choosing a sidearm for combat/duty/personal defense as our decision, as the requirements for this category are unique, and don’t involve some of the specialized items you might want for competition or strictly target use.
Since we’re going with self defense, my first recommendation is to stay away from any budget gun from a brand you’ve never heard of. AIT? Armscor? Joe’s Discount 1911s? If you haven’t heard of it, then chances are most other people haven’t either, and they don’t have a huge presence in the market.
That’s not necessarily bad, but a big name in firearms and a lot of popularity also means that the brand is more likely to be familiar with and known by companies that make aftermarket parts, and the bigger names in firearms tend to have better warranties and the like.
It’s similar to buying any other tool. The house brand may not be bad, but unless you plan to always shop at that store, a more common name in tools means more people are familiar with it. This also brings up that more popular brands likely have more experiential data out there from other shooters to help get an idea of what works and what doesn’t.
Secondly, the less custom features and bells/whistles, the better. Think about the M4: the more you modify it and add crap to it, the less useful it becomes. Most guys who have gone into combat will tell you that they run their guns with pretty basic accessories like better sights, maybe a custom grip or stock, and maybe a light or laser if they really need it. The fancier 1911s get when it comes to production guns, the more the gun is going to cost without necessarily being better.
Finally, try to stick with builds of the gun that eschew major variations from the original design. Bull Barrels and reverse plugs and other modifications can be good options, but they also change the basics of how the gun is field stripped and serviced, making the gun less desirable as a serious combat arm. Also, compact and subcompact 1911s radically change the basic engineering of the firearm to such a degree that they can induce reliability issues.
Something that makes the 1911 fairly unique in the gun world is that, because of its being a widely-known design and commonly-built design, it has several tiers of firearms, and determining the difference is rather difficult. What sets an Ed Brown or Wilson Combat apart from a Rock Island Armory or Springfield Loaded?
Because of the 1911’s history of being taken from a combat pistol to a match-grade bullseyes-at-50-yards accurate gun and its surrounding mythos, there is a wide range of 1911 varieties which can be expressed on a bell curve.
At one end you have the “low end” 1911 which is, generally, about like an average glock: Not fitted ultra-tight, not the smoothest or most accurate of firearms, and generally lacking a lot of the “custom” features of the higher end versions.
The secret to this end of the spectrum is that these guns will tend, by and large, to be reliable with less work simply because of their not being fitted as closely or as finely as the higher end guns. If you build the gun to specs that add a little bit of wiggle room, and you make the parts to be less sensitive to fitting and polishing, then you take out some of the main complaints of the 1911: You gain a greater chance that parts can be swapped out without major fitting, and a lower chance that fouling or other such issues will stop the clockwork from running.
At the other end of that curve are the high-end semi-customs and custom-built guns. Like swiss watches, these guns are the epitome of the 1911’s myth: Highly accurate, smooth, and extremely reliable. Guns on this end, especially the Springfield Professional and such, really are meant to be workhorses, and will run with the best guns out there.
They do take a little more attention because they are built to a higher degree of accuracy with regards to fitting, and replacing parts will likely take more work (or a trip back to the factory) because they are precision fit by hand and no two guns are exactly alike.
In the middle of this curve are the most prevalent of 1911s: fit together with more precision, more accurate, and with more features.
Here is where the best choices in guns can be had: Smith and Wesson’s E-series 1911s, The Colt Rail Gun and other moderd variations, Sig’s 1911s, Springfield’s Loaded and TRP lines, and even the Ruger SR1911. All of these guns are what I would term to be Tier 1 pistols, because they bring the best bang for your buck, without sacrificing your entire budget and/or body parts.
It’s also my experience that the vast majority of the guns from these companies run like a raped ape, and can face the harshest treatment you can throw at them.
One key that anyone choosing a 1911 also needs to keep in mind is that the quality of the accessories and parts very much affects the reliability of the gun. Discount magazines, budget-class parts, and cheap ammo can be the bane of any platform, especially Ol’ Slab Sides.
The biggest failure I see when instructing or attending classes is because of the most innocuous thing: The magazine. A 1911 can be perfectly reliable, but an off-brand magazine that’s slightly out of spec can stop it up like Uncle Melvin after the county fair’s corndog-eating contest. Sure, buying Wilson, Tripp, or Chip McCormick mags can be pricey compared to Cousin Bubba’s Backroom Imports’ finest, but when it comes down to it, these magazines are tested and retested to run in the platform no matter the circumstances.
Also, and this applies to any platform of gun, not just the 1911, springs are a wear item. Shoot the gun a lot, and the spring goes through hundreds of compression cycles, and as is the nature of steel, eventually loses its elasticity. If you have a weak recoil spring or mainspring, then the forces of recoil can cause increased wear on parts, and in the case of really dirty guns with really weak springs, cause the gun to fail to cycle properly.
Most manufacturers will recommend in the 1911 to swap your firing pin and recoil springs as a set, and to do so every 3-5k rounds. I’ve run a recoil spring for over 10k rounds straight, and while the gun still ran right, it definitely became more sensitive to cleaning and lubrication.
As a habit, I usually make it a point to completely strip the gun down every 3k rounds and clean everything, replace springs, and check the parts for wear. It doesn’t usually take more than 20 minutes, and it gives me the chance to look for signs of damage that could cause a catastrophic failure.
Before you buy, make sure that you handle any 1911 that catches your eye. Some makers cut their guns differently, and though the differences are subtle, some will fit you better than others.
It’s important that, like a Samurai or Jedi, you become one with your pistol, and find the pistol that suits you. It’s also a long-term commitment on your part because, like any good tool, they are only as effective and useful as your care of them allows them to be. If you are interested in the art of the 1911, however, you’ll take the time and treat it like an old friend. Stay safe, and shoot straight, and be sure to check out Part 2!