Let’s start here: I love the 1911. A 1911 was my first gun, and I still love it. 1911s shoot great, and the history can’t be topped. When I hold my 1911, I feel like I’m holding John Moses Browning’s hand.
But I don’t carry my 1911, and if you ask my opinion, I wouldn’t recommend it for you, either. Why? Let’s go through the reasons. (Click on any pictures if you want to view them bigly.)
Even a 1911 isn’t a 1911
First off, the “1911” is a pretty overloaded term. Are we talking about a $400 import pistol, or a $12,000 Cabot Black Diamond Deluxe, Limited Edition? Or are we talking about a Les Baer that “only” costs $3,000? Or are we talking about a mid-range Springfield, S&W, Colt or SIG 1911? Each of these is a different animal, and many of them have limited parts interchangeability. Each is more or less suited to daily carry. If you can only afford a $400 carry pistol, you’re probably way better off with a police trade-in Glock than you are with a bottom-drawer 1911. If you are considering carrying a $12,000 pistol, then I don’t know what to tell you. The reality is that some 1911 manufacturers know how to make better pistols than others, and some of them do it better on some days than they do on others. Good luck fishing a good 1911 out of the sea of 1911s.
Many 1911s aren’t very reliable by modern standards. There, I said it. Many, many pixels have been spilled on the Internet arguing this point, but 1911s have earned a reputation for being finicky, and in my opinion it’s deserved. One fellow went through old issues of Gun Tests magazine to look at reviews of Tauruses, Glocks and 1911s from various manufacturers and document the reliability that Gun Tests found. I won’t steal his thunder, but suffice it to say, Gun Tests’ findings don’t differ remarkably from the 1911’s Internet reputation.
Additionally, many firearms trainers have expressed their dissatisfaction with the reliability of 1911s in their classes. Trainers get to see hundreds or thousands of guns annually in the hands of many different shooters under relatively punishing conditions, so they have an interesting perspective that most of us don’t have. Trainer Tim Lau teaches a 1911-specific course, and reports that 75% of 1911s fail the test fire portion of the class!
If you have a reliable 1911, great. If you’re buying a 1911 and hope it will be reliable, well, you’d better have a good testing plan to determine if you got a reliable one or not. Have I mentioned the 1911 Extractor Test?
One of the weak points of the 1911 is the magazine. Some 1911 users recommend the use of factory magazines. Others recommend Wilson Combat magazines. But will the 7-round magazine work best or is the 8-round magazine OK? Good grief.
The 1911 was absolutely state-of-the-art. In 1911. Which was more than a century ago. John Moses Browning, the pistol’s designer, had been in the process of revolutionizing pistols for a little over a decade at that point, and the 1911 was the culmination of that work up to that point. It was awesome and it served the US military well for decades.
But it’s not 1911 anymore. There are certain features of the 1911 that would never be designed that way these days. How do I know that? Because no pistols have been designed that way for decades. Even John Browning abandoned some of these features in a later pistol design. Some examples of outdated design on the 1911 are:
The barrel lockup on a 1911 is an outdated design. Part of the trick of a recoil-operated semi-auto pistol is that the slide and barrel need to move backwards together, locked, under recoil for a fraction of an inch before the bullet leaves the barrel, then the barrel disengages from the slide and the slide continues rearward. John Moses Browning invented this, and actually held a patent on the slide for several years. The way the 1911’s barrel locks into the slide is by two lugs machined into the top of the barrel that lock into two grooves in the slide. This works, but is expensive to machine. Much more common nowadays is the top of the barrel locking into the ejection port of the slide.
The barrel link itself is also outdated. Pistol designers have moved to a slotted design for dropping the barrel out of lockup. Browning had experimented with a number of different designs for disengaging the barrel from the slide before arriving at the 1911’s design. Interestingly, Browning’s 1923 design for what became the FN Hi Power eliminated the barrel link in favor of a slot design similar to what is used today by Glock, Sig, Smith & Wesson, FN and many other manufacturers in their newer designs. (This original design was also striker fired and featured a double-stack 9mm magazine. So there’s that.)
The 1911’s extractor relies on leaf spring tension to function correctly. Modern guns use coil springs that are less subject to wear. Additionally, the 1911’s internal extractor is difficult to replace. Modern pistol designs use external extractors. Newer 1911s from manufacturers like SIG and Smith & Wesson have external extractors, but how much improved they are over the original design is open to debate. (See also: “Even a 1911 isn’t a 1911.”) Have I mentioned the 1911 Extractor Test?
The 1911 is difficult to take down. Most modern pistols field strip to four parts: frame, slide, barrel and recoil spring assembly. The 1911 takes down to eight parts: frame, slide, barrel, recoil spring, recoil spring guide rod, recoil spring plug, barrel bushing and slide stop. And that’s not to mention updated 1911 designs that require things like bushing wrenches to disassemble.
- The 1911 is difficult to reassemble. Each of those eight parts has to go back in the right place. Putting the slide stop back in requires threading it through the barrel link, which isn’t rocket science, but is a bit tricky. Additionally, inserting the slide stop back into the frame incorrectly will result in a big scratch on the side of your 1911. (This is called an “idiot mark.” Yes, my 1911 has one. It’s visible in all the photos here.)
The 1911 was designed for ball ammunition, and feeding hollowpoints can be problematic. Ball ammunition has a round nose, and in .45 ACP, it’s a big, round nose. Hollowpoints have a flatter nose profile, and the 1911 was simply not designed to feed them. The 1911 has a feed ramp on the frame that meets the barrel as it pivots downward under recoil. More modern gun designs have a feed ramp built into the barrel, eliminating the seam between the feed ramp and the barrel. Some modern 1911s have a barrel with a throated chamber to help feed hollowpoints, but others retain the sharp edges of the original. Yet other modern 1911s have a modern barrel with an integral feed ramp fitted. (See also, “Even a 1911 isn’t a 1911.”)
The original 1911 firing pin design is not drop safe. That means that if you drop a 1911 with a loaded chamber, it might go off due to the firing pin striking the primer with enough force to detonate the primer. 1911s with so-called “Series 80” firing mechanisms are drop safe. (This is called “Series 80” because Colt’s so-called “Series 80” pistols had this mechanism.) Other manufacturers messed around with releasing a firing pin safety when the grip safety was pressed, but by far the most common way to make a 1911 drop safe is with the Series 80 mechanism. (See also, “Even a 1911 isn’t a 1911.”)
The 1911 is a heavy pistol for what it is. Springfield Armory’s Mil Spec 1911 rings in at 39 oz. unloaded. The Glock 21 weighs about that much with 14 rounds of .45 ACP on board. (It weighs about 30 ounces unloaded.) Smith & Wesson makes a 1911 with a scandium frame that weighs about 29 oz. unloaded. (MSRP is $1449.) It will still only hold 7+1 or 8+1.
It Stinks in 9mm–and every caliber other than .45 ACP
The 1911 was designed around the .45 ACP cartridge, and that’s the only cartridge it really does well. Decades ago, competitors ran 1911s in .38 Super, but .38 Super went out of fashion. Plenty of 9mm 1911s are rattling around these days, but you’re carrying a large, heavy pistol with a 9 round magazine. A Springfield Armory Range Officer 1911 in 9mm weighs 41 oz. unloaded. That’s over twice the weight of a Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 9mm (19 oz.) for one additional cartridge. And did I mention that 1911 magazines can be a real pain? Now try getting them in unusual calibers.
Colt was one of the first manufacturers to market with a 10mm back in the day, with the 1911-pattern Colt Delta Elite. Colt, Rock Island Armory, Dan Wesson and Kimber all have 10mm 1911s in their catalogs today. How well various 1911 chambers support hot 10mm loads is a a subject of contention. Do your research. And frankly, 10mm is not a great pick for a daily carry round for most people.
The Design Shrinks Poorly
All other things being equal, semi-auto pistols with shorter slides and barrels are going to be less reliable than pistols with longer slides and barrels. The reason for this is that three things need to happen when a semi-auto cycles: the spent casing needs to eject, the hammer needs to cock (or the striker needs to be reset) and the fresh cartridge needs to be loaded into the chamber. A whole bunch of springs work together to coordinate all this, notably the recoil spring, the magazine spring and the hammer spring. The shorter the slide, the more finely-tuned all those springs need to be. 1911s seem particularly susceptible to problems in this regard. Trainer Rob Pincus has offered that the first person who runs a 1911 with a 3″ barrel through a whole two-day course without a mechanical malfunction or operator error with regard to the manual safety would get his tuition money and ammo money refunded.
If you are bound and determined to make it a 1911, then make it a 5″ Government Model-sized 1911.
(A number of fully miniaturized pistols based on the 1911 have been released over the years. Colt released the Mustang back in 1983, and there’s been a recent spate of similar guns like the Sig P238, the Sig P938 and the Kimber Micro 9. Those are not 1911s and aren’t what I’m talking about in this article. The section above addresses pistols with the 1911 operating system that have shorter slides and barrels than the original 5″ Government Model.)
“What, do you think you’re smarter than John Moses Browning?”
No. But I’m convinced that John Moses Browning wouldn’t design the 1911 in 2017. Why am I convinced of this? Because nobody else has designed a pistol like the 1911 since 1911. I have no doubts that if Browning were raised from the dead and asked to design a service pistol, he’d spend a bunch of quality time with more modern designs, see their benefits, and incorporate them into his new design. And the US Patent and Trade Office has on record that Browning patented a double-stack 9mm striker-fired pistol in 1923. This was an early prototype for what became the Browning Hi Power. So perhaps you’d like to get 1911 John Browning to argue against 1923 John Browning?
“The Glock grip angle stinks!”
If you don’t like the Glock grip angle, don’t get a Glock. There are lots of other modern pistols out there that aren’t Glocks and don’t have the Glock grip angle.
“I need a manual safety.”
There are lots of modern pistols with manual safeties. I would recommend one of those over the 1911.
“It worked for the US military for decades. The military wouldn’t use an unreliable pistol for decades!”
No, they wouldn’t. But the US military didn’t shoot hollowpoints with their old 1911s. And you should use hollowpoints for defensive purposes.
If the Department of Civilian Marksmanship ever releases the old 1911s to the civilian markets, I expect that you’ll find them pretty reliable with ball ammo. Based on what I’ve heard, I also expect you’ll find many of them to be ill-fitted, shot-out rattletraps, many of which will have a hard time hitting the proverbial barn door.
I’ll also note that in 1985, when the US military went looking for a pistol in 9mm, the US military didn’t choose a 1911 in 9mm for its new service pistol. It chose the Beretta 92 (with an honorable mention going to the SIG P226). And in 2017, the US military didn’t choose the 1911 for its new service pistol. It didn’t even choose an updated 1911 for its new service pistol. It chose the SIG P320 (with, from what I understand, the Glock 17/19 coming in a close second). Astute observers may want to consider that before appealing to the authority of the US military on handgun procurement.
If you don’t want my advice, then you are under no obligation to take it. I assure you that there will be no hard feelings. (I have at least two friends who carry 1911s semi-regularly.) But if you’ve made it this far without reaching for the “Back” button or the comment field, then give it a good think: Is your 1911 really reliable, or are you chalking real malfunctions up to “ammo issues” or “magazine issues?” How many “ammo issues” or “magazine issues” does a pistol need to have before you relegate it to range fun and find something more reliable for everyday carry?
I think there are better options if you want to look for them.