In the arena of handguns, no gun enjoys as great of a mystique or quite so strong a passion as John Moses Browning’s M1911. Truly, this pistol is one of the first mass-produced handgun styles that brought the idea of field maintenance and shootability to the end user in quite this way.
Previous examples of semi-automatic pistols up to that point all were complex, difficult to service, and bulky. With the M1911, Colt and John Browning brought a big bore cartridge to an automatic pistol, and it forever changed the thinking on handguns.
A century of change
When the Army first adopted this sidearm, it was a true sidearm. It was intended to be a backup if your main gun went down and you had to defend yourself at fairly close ranges. For that reason, the gun never had to be that accurate or tight, but it did have to run. And in that regard, the gun performed very well, and worked as it was expected to.
After the war, with a surplus of these guns and a popularity among vets returning home, custom gunsmiths grew up around the aftermarket to begin building these guns into more accurate, tighter, match-grade pistols. By refitting parts and machining parts that were oversized, adding metal here and there to beef it up and recut the frame rails and this piece or that, the gun found a niche in bullseye shooting in a big way. There really weren’t very many options other than this platform, and for that reason, it was the main focus.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, Colt’s Manufacturing wasn’t what it used to be. The guns it turned out were not built as well as they had been 40 years prior, with poor QC, poor fitting, and poor machining techniques. It was at this time more than ever that the 1911 earned a reputation of unreliability and needing a gunsmith tuneup to be the rule rather than the exception.
This was also the time when the patent on the gun ran out.
Gunsmiths turning a tidy profit taking colt guns and rebuilding them for competition or reliability got into the business of producing guns commercially, building pistols commercially with many of the changes that shooters wanted. And, from there, the knockoffs grew and grew and grew.
It’s a platform, not a brand
Fast Forward to the modern age of the 1911. Today there are over 50 manufacturers who all make some version of the 1911.
When this gun was built to military contract specs, it worked because every company making the gun used the same set of details and blueprints, but without that military contract, no manufacturer is held to a certain set of specs. They’re not originals, by the true sense of the word, but each are made to the same basic design spec. This is why a 1911 from Kimber looks the same as a 1911 from Springfield and Ed Brown and Remington and so forth.
However, the devil is in the details here. Many people who malign or even pick up and regurgitate the hate about the platform do so for this simple reason. Like any other similar-but-different item on the market, no two manufacturers agree exactly on how to make this gun. Pin placement, part dimensions, clearances, tolerances, all of these basic details change from brand to brand.
Because of these variations, parts that would otherwise drop in are forced to be made oversized and fitted, as what is too big to work in one brand is undersized in another. Ask any gunsmith about “Drop in” parts, and they’ll explain the same thing.
Another factor that works against this platform is shooter expectations. A shooter goes to the store, picks up a glock, and looks it over. It’s fairly rough in its action, it rattles on its slide, it has a fairly rough trigger, but they understand that the gun is durable and reliable and so they are impressed that it’s built for reliability.
That same shooter comes in to look at a 1911 after hearing all sorts of stories about this legendary pistol and picks up one of the lower-priced models, and feels the rattle, feels the grit in the trigger, and then compares it to a high-dollar 1911 with more fitting, which is tight, smooth, and pristine. Something must be wrong with that lower-priced gun, it’s fitting isn’t perfect and it’s loose!
Because of the 1911’s popularity with accuracy smiths and the reputation of the gun for being “match grade” and the associated marketing of what the 1911 should be, many people who aren’t gun people assume that a 1911 that isn’t tight, perfectly fit, with light, smooth triggers are broken somehow, or are somehow bad. When the gun doesn’t shoot tiny groups, regardless of what they do, that’s a black mark against the pistol, since they don’t differentiate the brand from the platform.
Another expectation for the platform that many new shooters fall prey to is that they can endlessly modify their gun without issue, or use just any parts or magazines. AR shooters, and even Glock shooters these days, know that not every aftermarket part and mag are made equal. Some work, some don’t, and the quality varies from company to company. So our new shooter has spent some money on aftermarket parts and pieces, and find out that their gun suddenly has an issue. Because our shooter has heard that 1911s can be unreliable, it’s an issue with the gun. It must be.
But it takes work, man!
Larry Vickers, the undisputed master smith of the 1911, combat pistol instructor, and former Delta operator, has often said that if you treat your gun like you treat your lawn mower, don’t buy a 1911. There’s nothing wrong with that advice, and in fact, even as a 1911 fan, I agree to a point. Most 1911s don’t take kindly to being left in salt water or shot and forgotten about without a little love. It’s not a gun you shoot then toss in a bag and never have to touch. However, the image that it’s a gun that won’t make it even 1,000 rounds without issues, is false. The key to reliability is to first find and verify a reliable pistol. ANY maker can make a lemon, and the worst thing you can do is to pick up a gun and assume it works. It’s a machine. It is subject to errors or manufacturing defects the same as any other machine. And you as the shooter have the responsibility to first verify that this gun will run without a problem over the course of about 500 rounds. That’s just basic common sense.
Once you’ve got a gun that runs, you as a user have to make sure that you’re doing the maintenance on the gun. Checking parts that wear like springs and extractors and other such parts is par for the course. Giving the gun a little lube occasionally is also on the list. Most good 1911s will run even if you’re just doing the basics, just like an AR or any other gun. But you have to do your part.
A serious pistol
Springfield proved this when they built the Professional model for the FBI’s HRT, the go-to gun for not only the HRT teams but also other law enforcement agents who want this platform. To be chosen, the gun had to run for 20,000 rounds without a loss of accuracy or a failure. The Pro did that. Even the Marine Corps ran 1911s for some of its units, with great success. Even Chris Kyle, in his recent biography, talks about choosing and carrying a TRP from Springfield as his primary sidearm as a SEAL. The gun still serves a serious role for high-end shooters.
Modern iterations of the 1911 are available for every taste. Need more rounds? STI can hook you up with a 1911 pistol that takes 18+ rounds of 9mm. Need lots of .45 ACP? STI and many others have 1911s that can take 15+ rounds of it. And with the right magazines, the 1911 will match most modern polymer guns in .45 ACP at 10+1 rounds.
1911s are even starting to come from the factory set up to run with suppressors and other accessories, adding to the platform’s capabilities.
The 1911 isn’t for everyone, and any shooter who takes seriously his job as a shooter should seriously evaluate the tools he uses to make sure they meet his needs.
The platform has its own baggage, as you might expect for anything that’s gone through a century of change and diversification, and that baggage will be too much for some who want to shoot, but aren’t interested in the nuances of the tools they shoot with.
However, don’t count out this platform as a serious worker. It has a lot of benefits to it, too, but it will require you as a shooter to put in time and effort to learn to use it right.