Whether you love it or hate it, not many guns stir as much emotion and controversy as the 1911 does, over 100 years after it’s adoption. There is no question that it was birthed by the fertile mind of firearms genius John Browning. Browning noted the painful lessons paid by American troops fighting Tausūg guerrillas in the Moro Rebellion, February 4, 1899 – June 15, 1913 — the Philippine Insurrection.
At the time, U.S. troops were using the then-standard Colt M1892 revolver. It fired the .38 Long Colt and was found to be unsuitable in terms of stopping power due to the Moros use of drugs to inhibit the sensation of pain. The problem prompted the then Chief of Ordnance, General William Crozier, to authorize testing for a new service pistol.
Following the 1904 Thompson-LaGarde pistol, “round effectiveness” tested the specifications, which stated that the new pistol “should not be of less than .45 caliber, firing a 230-grain bullet at 930 feet per second” and would preferably be semi-automatic in operation. During the final round of testing attended by its designer, John Browning, 6,000 rounds were fired from a single pistol over the course of 2 days and the gun passed with zero malfunctions.
Because of that, and its distinguished service history, shooters have pretty strong opinions about the 1911. Speaking of its service history, on October 8, 1918, during an attack that occurred in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, acting Corporal Alvin York’s actions that day earned him the Medal of Honor. While using his 1911 pistol, York assaulted enemy machine gun positions and captured 132 German soldiers single handedly.
That is just one of many distinguished performances during the 1911’s long and storied history. It was the standard sidearm of the U.S. Armed Forces from 1911 until 1985. So, why all the controversy? I don’t understand it, so let’s investigate.
During most of its service life, the law enforcement and civilian handgun market was dominated by revolvers. Handgun articles in gun magazines and handgun competition was mostly bullseye shooting with revolvers. But something happened during the 1960s and ’70s that upset the apple cart.
The person most credited for what happened was Col. Jeff Cooper. As an influential gun writer, Cooper pioneered the civilian defensive firearms training industry. He was also a major advocate of the 1911. Cooper brought together the top shooters of the day at his Big Bear Leather Slap competitions that led to Cooper establishing the Gunsite Academy in Arizona in 1976.
The instruction at Gunsite was comprised of his modern technique of the pistol which was based around the 1911. That same year, he also led the effort to begin a scenario-based pistol competition league establishing the International Practical Shooting Confederation or I.P.S.C. The dominant pistol used in those matches was the 1911. If you were serious about pistol shooting in those days, you probably owned or wanted to own a 1911.
Back then, Colt was the only company making the 1911 and “You could have one in any color as long as it was black.” The top of the line was the Gold Cup, which had a match barrel and adjustable sights. Other modifications (that we take for granted today) did not exist. It was custom gunsmiths that catered to the competition shooters of the day who created the modifications.
If you wanted your 1911 to feed the ‘new’ hollow point bullets or a beveled magazine well to speed up your reloads, extended beaver tail, checkering to increase your grip, or a larger safety lever, you required the services of a custom pistolsmith. During that time, an entire industry of parts makers and custom shops sprang up to support the shooting craze and the 1911.
The basic design of the 1911 has changed very little throughout its production life. It is basically a recoil-operated design starting with the slide and barrel locked together. After the bullet leaves the barrel, the slide and barrel move rearward (locked together for a short distance).
Then, a link pivots the rear of the barrel downward and out of locking recesses in the slide. The barrel stops when the link reaches the end of its movement. The slide continues rearward, and the claw extractor pulls the spent casing from the firing chamber. The case is then ejected from the pistol through the ejection port.
The slide stops its rearward motion after the hammer is cocked and the recoil spring is compressed. The compressed spring then releases its energy, and the slide is forced forward to strip a fresh cartridge from the magazine and feed it into the firing chamber. At the forward end of its travel, the slide locks into the barrel, and the pistol is ready to fire again. True genius in its simplicity…
Browning’s design is also perfectly ergonomic. Everything is where it should be so it can be operated — simply, easily, and instinctual — with an economy of motion by someone under the stress of a life or death confrontation. If it sounds like I am a fan… well, what’s not to like about the greatest fighting handgun ever designed? I will also admit that the custom features developed by premier pistol smiths did improve on it by considering modifications prompted by the Modern Technique of the Pistol, not as a reaction to any flaws in the design.
Advancements and Modifications
It did not take long for companies to spring up and offer semi-custom 1911s with modifications available ‘off the shelf.’ The market for these premium 1911s spread beyond the competition world and started catching the attention of shooters in general. That was until the 1990s when high-capacity 9mm pistols became popular with law enforcement. This happened because it was less expensive and time consuming to teach those with less strength to shoot than the .45 ACP.
Then, the .40 S&W appeared as the darling of law enforcement along with the cheaper plastic pistols that seemed to put an end to the 1911 — at least in the minds of the less informed. However, faith stepped in, and Congress passed the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 which prohibited the sale of any new magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds. A lot of shooters figured if they had to choose between limited capacity or a bigger bullet, get the one that shoots bigger bullet. That makes perfect sense to me and always has.
Today, there are lots of companies making 1911s and guns based on its design in multiple calibers from .380 ACP to 10mm Auto. So, why do some not like the 1911? I suppose, the main complaint is related to cost and reliability. Some complain that they are big and heavy in relation to their ammo capacity. Admittedly, a good 1911 can be expensive but you get what you pay for… Hopefully, but buyer beware.
As for the reliability issue… Unfortunately, there are 1911 makers whose products are not really that good, but they still charge premium prices. Some make guns that look nice, but tend to be problematic. Occasionally, even some of the good ones can require a little more attention and maintenance than other designs. That said, keep in mind that 1911s can be very reliable but the more you deviate from the original design and calibers, (i.e., .38 Super, .45 ACP, .38 Special), the more problematic they can become.
So, why do people like me love the 1911? Beside it being the most intuitively designed pistol imaginable, I suppose the first thing would be the trigger. The 1911 is the gold standard for what we generally consider an excellent trigger to be. The triggers tend to be light with a very short length of travel and reset.
I like my triggers to be 3.5–4 pounds with a wee bit of take up. You can get yours tuned any way you want — lighter or heavier. It also moves straight to the rear rather than on a pivot. That means your finger stays in contact with the same part of the trigger through the entire trigger press. The 1911’s trigger makes it easy to shoot fast and accurately, because they are extremely forgiving of imperfect trigger control technique.
Pride of Ownership
I suppose the other thing about the 1911 that is appealing is pride of ownership. That pride comes from owning a really well made firearm that’s been in the hands of a highly skilled gunsmith that has built the pistol to exact specifications. A gun like that just compels you to take it out to the range and show it off to your friends and shoot it. That is especially true if it is a Series 70 or 80 with that Rampant Pony on the slide. There are very few handguns that you can buy that evoke the kind of pride of ownership you get from a full house custom 1911. Please remember however that a highly tuned 1911 is not a pistol for slackers and Sunday shooters, it is the tool of an expert and they are very unforgiving of even small mistakes in safe gun handling.
Now I know there are a plethora of cheap to manufacture, plastic, striker-fired gun owners that think the 1911 is a very expensive, old fashioned dinosaur. I also realize that the new, ugly, soulless, plastic guns will fire every time you want them to. The problem is, they will also fire when you don’t want them too. Like when drawing from, or returning them to, the holster. I personally prefer a manual safety. The 1911 has two, safeties — grip safety and thumb safety.
Some say the manual safety is too slow. To them I say, “Hogwash!” If you practice as you should, it has no effect on your speed. I also prefer a slide release to a slide lock because it is much faster and more intuitive. Anyone who says otherwise does not know how the human body works. I don’t like guns that think they are smarter than me and want to make decisions on there own, like the slide that releases automatically when the magazine is inserted. Dangerous!
The firearms industry is trying to respond by offering ways to personalize polymer striker-fired pistols, but most efforts are pretty lame, especially if you like the look and feel of polished steel, wood, horn, and ivory, not to mention engraving and gold inlay. If you do, the 1911 is for you.
The author makes a good case, but you are the ultimate decider. Is the 1911 the greatest handgun of all time? Share your answer in the Comment section.
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