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1911 Pistols - They are not all created equal

When it comes to handguns there is probably no American pistol that is more iconic than the Colt M1911.

Built for battle at the request of the US Army prior to World War 1, the 1911 pistol has remained in military service for over 100 years in one form or another and has won countless shooting matches from Bulls eye to Three Gun.

Despite its detractors, the 1911 boasts a legion of fans and attracts more every year whenever someone new to our hobby says those fateful 8 words: "I really need to get a 1911, someday."

But is it that simple?

Some shooters throw the word around as if they are talking about a specific make and model of a firearm like a H&K USP, Glock 17, Sig Sauer P226 or a Smith & Wesson Model 686. The truth is that a 1911 is more than a particular model; it is more akin to a “platform”.

Saying that you want to buy a 1911 is about as vague as saying “I want to buy a car”.

The 1911 is manufactured by no less than 50 different companies. They range from low quality imports to full custom handguns that can approach 5 figures. At the heart of all of them is John Browning’s basic design from 1911. However, not all of these pistols are the same.

Between 1911 and 1917 those words only meant Colt pistols and for much of those early years, the pistol was restricted to the military.

As the United States entered World War 1 other companies manufactured 1911s to keep up with the demand and this process was repeated for the Second World War.

Many of these pistols were eventually sold as surplus and despite the 1911 being a commercial offering from Colt; this was where the roots of the modern 1911 pistol came into being.

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A host of gunsmiths and parts companies began manufacturing small parts for the pistol from safeties and triggers to barrels and slides.

Eventually some of these companies tooled up and began producing entire pistols.

When the 1911 pistol was designed, the pistol and its components were forged. As a result of the forging process and the property of heated metal to shrink when cooled, many parts were made oversized and carefully hand fitted by gunsmiths to install on the final product.

Forging is not a process used by most of these manufacturers.

Some use CNC machinery to cut their parts; others use MIM (Metal Injection Molding) to manufacture parts for consistency in size and material. These methods have their advantages from a manufacturing perspective, but not so much when it comes to customization.

A common complaint with many new shooters who try to customize their 1911 is that the parts do not fit properly and the handgun needs to be sent off to a gunsmith for installation.

Unfortunately many shooters and even some gunsmiths look at these types of jobs as they would look at changing a tire on their car, when in actuality proper installation is more akin to rebuilding an engine.

The gunsmith must understand the interrelation of the parts in question as a complete system. Not understanding the role of the disconnector, the hammer strut, the sear, mainspring, grip safety and how these parts work together is a recipe for disaster.

Luckily, most modern 1911 pistols come loaded with what were once enhancements or custom features and it truly is a buyer’s market when it comes to selecting a 1911 these days.

The best advice is to simply find one with the exact features that you want in a pistol and go from there.

For a full blown custom pistol it is hard to beat the offerings of Wilson Combat, Ed Brown, Nighthawk or Les Baer. Pricing runs from $2000 to $5000 depending on options and intended use. Most of these pistols will shoot a 1” group at 50 feet.

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For the shooter who wants the classic lines of the 1911, Colt is still making this pistol.

From the simple factory version of yesteryear to the latest design requested by the Marine Corps, Colts are still made the old fashioned way, and their prices reflect this.

Springfield Armory has long been making their version of the 1911 from cast frames that run the gamut from the no-frills “Mil-Spec” to its custom shop offerings that are on par with many of the previous mentioned custom gunsmiths.

Another solid choice would be the offerings by Sig Sauer. The slides are a bit thicker and will not fit in most typical 1911 holsters and purists cannot get over the external extractor, but with over 40 variants with night sights, custom finishes, integrated dust cover rails and threaded barrels, there is something for everyone in Sig’s lineup.

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Many other traditional firearms companies known for other famous models have embraced the 1911 pistol, including Remington, Smith & Wesson and Ruger. Unlike Sig Sauer, they kept the lines closer to the Colts and some models offer the light rail. Of these three only Remington offers a threaded barrel, however.

At the lower end of the spectrum are the imports from Taurus, Armscor and Cimarron Firearms. These are budget priced models that stay true to the original design. Cimarron’s version is a favorite in Cowboy Action Shooting’s subset of “Wild Bunch” matches and Armscor continues to push the envelope in offering different calibers.

There truly is a version for everyone in the marketplace right now, as long as the buyer knows what they want.

Very few semiautomatic pistols endure as a design beyond a certain point. The Lugers, Mauser Broom handles, Beretta Brigadiers, Makarovs, CZ52s, Nambus and numerous others have faded into obscurity, but the Model 1911 still soldiers on over a century later.

Take a look at our 1911 Holsters: 1911 concealed carry holsters


About The Author

Mike Searson is a Marine veteran and a long time shooter, martial artist and historian of fighting and combat. He has written for RECOIL Magazine, Blade Magazine, Concealed Carry, SWAT, Gun Digest, Tactical Gear and covers MMA and Professional Boxing in Nevada and California for a number of news outlets.