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Best Pistol Ever: What Makes the 1911 So Good?

by G&A Staff   |  May 23rd, 2013 30

For more than 10 decades the Colt Government Model 1911 has been without challenge the most recognized, most imitated, most influential, and most used semiautomatic handgun in the world. Some call it the best pistol ever. It is to autoloaders what the Colt Single Action Army is to revolvers. If anything, the Model 1911 pistol—in all its forms, chamberings, and variations—is more popular today worldwide than it has been at any time since John Browning applied for the basic patents under-lying its design.  No other firearm on earth can match its record for longevity, versatility, and performance.

Its basic mechanical design, based on John Browning’s original 1898 patent for a recoil-operated autoloader mechanism, has been the foundation or point of reference for virtually every other centerfire autoloading pistol subsequently produced by handgun manufacturers everywhere for the entire 20th and 21st centuries, and it is more widely copied and imitated than any other pistol ever made. It held its position as the official sidearm of the U.S. Armed Services for 75 years, which is longer than any other continuous-use military arm in any nation’s history.

Due to its extremely widespread use by military forces in many nations, more people have handled or fired some form of the Model 1911 pistol at least once in their lives than any other sidearm ever made. Worldwide, dozens of parts assemblers and manufacturers are presently producing clones and semiclones of the Model 1911, plus a gazillion parts and component makers, and not to mention the authentic versions still offered by Colt.

Even now, after more than a full decade in the 21st century, when high-tech double-action autoloaders with space-age polymer components firing high-pressure metric-designation cartridges have swept many military and law enforcement markets, the venerable all-steel Government Model single action in original .45 ACP chambering remains a continuingly strong seller. Demand for the Model 1911—in all chamberings, all configurations, from all manufacturers and custom pistolsmiths—is, in fact, at an all-time high. After the full-size 5-inch Model 1911 itself, the 4-inch “Commander” format has been the most popular variant among those who carry a 1911 concealed for more than 50 years.

Why has the Model 1911’s position been so strong, so dominant, for so long? Simple. Its straightforward, user-friendly design cannot be outclassed for reliability, accuracy, endurance, and effectiveness. It pretty much shoots where you point it, goes bang every time you squeeze the trigger, and is hard to wear out.

I have marveled over my first real experiences with this gun as an instructor at the 3rd U.S. Army Non-Commissioned Officer’s Academy at Ft. McClellan, Alabama, back in the early 1970s. I was detailed to shoot pistol demos for the infantry training battalion there. The instructor cadre used Model 1911A1 .45s straight from the post armory that had originally entered service during World War II and had received nothing but maintenance from the mixed-parts piles ever since. God only knows how many thousands of infantry trainees had handled them or how many hundreds of thousands of hardball rounds they’d fired. They were rough and worn (some would rattle when you shook them), but I never picked up even one that wouldn’t still shoot the chest out of a standard military silhouette target at 50 feet with a magazine full of hardball 230-grain FMJ ammo.

Another strong testament to the Government Model’s enduring position as top gun is the fact that the world of autoloader sport and competition shooting remains dominated by the classic-form Model 1911. It is the predominant centerfire pistol format at the annual Camp Perry National Championship Bullseye pistol matches, and it’s the pistol design of choice for a vast majority of USPSA/IPSC action shooters—in spite of a temporary popularity for double-action based pistols. Most of the world’s top pistol competitors briefly tried other designs, then returned to the proven Model 1911.

Moreover, the Government Model design is not limited to its original .45 ACP application and in action-pistol competition circles is primarily chambered for the .38 Super, 9x23mm Winchester, and other 9mm-caliber rounds. On the top end the Model 1911’s mechanical ability to handle high-intensity cartridges was demonstrated by Colt’s successful introduction of a 10mm Delta Elite version of the Government Model back in 1987. And Colt (as well as many others) has offered scaled-down, smaller-frame Model 1911 formats for smaller, personal defense-oriented cartridges like the .380 ACP as well. Whenever new auto cartridges have come along, the Model 1911 has demonstrated that it can accommodate them and even handle loads like the .357 Magnum, .45 Win Mag, and .44 Magnum in beefed-up adaptations, such as the Coonan Arms and Grizzly Win Mag pistols.

How well can a Government Model 1911 pistol shoot? Generally, a top-of-the-line Colt-manufacture .45 Gold Cup new from the box can be reliably expected to deliver 2.5-inch, five-shot average groups at 25 meters from a rest. Give it to a top-grade pistol-smith for refinement and you’ll get a gun that will put match-grade loads into a 1-inch circle at that distance. The same holds true for Gold Cup-type 1911s from top manufacturers, such as Kimber, Les Baer, and Springfield Armory. A standard-grade basic .45 ACP Government Model setup from any of the good-quality platform manufacturers will usually hold in the 3.5- to 4.0-inch area to start, and if you take such a plain-Jane pistol to the same good pistolsmith, he can turn out an end product as good as the tuned Gold Cup. The basics are there; they just need to be worked up.

Accuracy of the Model 1911-form autoloader, in any chambering, is dependent on two primary factors: a solid lockup of the slide to the frame in battery and close fitting of the barrel bushing. In the premium-grade Colt Gold Cup, for example, less than solid slide-to-frame fit is cured by the simple expedient of extra care taken in the factory to hand match individual slides to frames and to polish and hone their fitting. Sloppy barrel-to-bushing fit, the cause of most of the accuracy problems with earlier solid-bushing, service-grade Government Models in general, was corrected in the Series 70 redesign by the introduction of the collet bushing, which “grips” the specially configured barrel with spring-tension “fingers” that ensure there’s no slack between the barrel and the bushing at the muzzle. The barrel is thus held more firmly in relation to the line of the sights.

Government Model 1911 pistols from manufacturers other than Colt will perform as well right out of the box as is the quality of the company producing them. Some are really exceptional, holding tightly to the original Model 1911 manufacturing specifications and dimensions. Some are solid, middle-of-the-quality-road products that deliver an excellent value for the price. Some are truly horrendous. But unless the manufacturing quality is so bad that the basic reference points and dimensional relationships of the parts are not within standard specifications, even the most inexpensive and sloppily fitted Government Model clone can be custom upgraded into a premium-performance pistol.

This is why “generic” Model 1911s from companies other than Colt are used so widely by top-line pistolsmiths to build high-end competition guns or tactical and defense guns. The cost of the basic gun is less than the brand-name version, and the same refinement work is going to be done to it anyway. If the basic specs are there, it doesn’t matter whether the rollmark on the slide says Colt or MyGarage GunWorks—the end product is going the be the same $2,000 worth of refinement. The only difference is what you pay for the starting point.

All of which emphasizes why all the top pistolsmiths and spokesmen for Model 1911 manufacturers with whom I have spoken about the Government Model’s past and future are uniformly convinced its long-term prominence is guaranteed for as long as firearms exist: versatility and adaptability. Among handguns, the Model 1911 is the most customized and customizable platform in existence. The list of calibers and uses to which it has been applied is essentially endless. It is a proven foundation for more different handgun applications than any other pistol design imaginable.

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  • Cooleemee Edd

    Excellent Article! Thanks so much.

  • William

    To me, the 1911 is a beautiful piece of machinery.

  • Brian L.

    It is so good due to the simplicity of design and the reliability of the firearm. I shot them in the Navy in 1973 for qualifications. Even the ones we had (while older than dirt) still shot great. I shot Sharpshooter while my now ex-wife shot expert with them.

  • Michael Zeleny

    I agree that the Colt 1911 is to autoloaders what the Colt Single Action Army is to revolvers: an obsolete design sustained by sentimental attachment of nostalgic fanboys. Here is why:

    1. The 1911 design is demonstrably inferior to its descendants. Locating the barrel with a bushing at the muzzle and a swinging link at the breech makes it easy to tune for accuracy or reliability but hard to standardize for drop-in spare part replacement and tricky to take apart and put back together. A 1911 built tight for accuracy will not shoot reliably until it has been broken in with thousands of hardball rounds, at which point it loosens up and becomes less accurate. The exterior of the 1911 bristles with hard edges and delicate notches. Its ergonomics are so poor that only collector editions are made without beavertail tangs, memory groove grip safeties, extended thumb safeties, and cut or arched mainspring housings. Its construction standards are so lax that three generations of gunsmiths have put their kids through college by charging fees for hand-fitting for accuracy and reliability tuneups. Its lore is akin to that of Harley-Davidson Big Twin, the flagship product of the oldest surviving motorcycle manufacturer in the world, which putters around in grand style as long as the rider abstains from going too fast or turning too abruptly.

    2. “Its straightforward, user-friendly design cannot be outclassed for reliability, accuracy, endurance, and effectiveness.” Oh, really? In the late 1960s, the US Navy ran a test using an accurized softball competition 1911A1 pistol shooting Remington 185-grain .45 ACP jacketed wadcutter match ammo. At the outset the gun printed 20-shot 2.5″ groups at 50 yards out of a machine rest. About every 5000 rounds, it was put back into the machine rest and retested. In each of these tests through 25,000 rounds, it still shot the same size groups. At 30,000 rounds, the groups had opened up to about 3.5″; at 35,000 rounds, the groups were about 4.5″. For comparison purposes, numerous Swiss shooters report no degradation of factory-grade accuracy in a SIG P210 after firing 250,000 rounds. These milspec guns were tested on behalf of the Swiss Army to put 10 rounds into a 50mm circle at 50 meters, and did so consistently over five times the lifespan of a 1911. As Ken Hackathorn and Larry Vickers pointed out while explaining the supersession of the 1911 by the HK45, “at 50,000 rounds, a 1911 needs a severe overhaul. It’s going to need to be rebuilt and it’s going to have a lot of parts that are worn out.” Put simply, Colt’s relic fails to live up to the standards of accuracy, reliability, and ruggedness, maintained by modern service auto pistols.

    3. “How well can a Government Model 1911 pistol shoot? Generally, a top-of-the-line Colt-manufacture .45 Gold Cup new from the box can be reliably expected to deliver 2.5-inch, five-shot average groups at 25 meters from a rest. Give it to a top-grade pistol-smith for refinement and you’ll get a gun that will put match-grade loads into a 1-inch circle at that distance.” This is no tribute, but a reproof. The factory-accurized Colt Government Model National Match Gold Cup is far too tight to merit the accolades for reliability earned by its predecessors in military trials. All the more so once it has been refined by a top-grade pistol-smith. Two decades ago Colt tacitly acknowledged these shortcomings in their stillborn SSP design, which dispensed with the separate barrel bushing and barrel link of the 1911, taking its design cues from the Tokarev TT30, as further refined by Charles Petter’s French M1935A and its successor, the Swiss P210. The one-piece slide differentially-bored to support the tilting barrel cuts in half the clearances required by the replaceable barrel bushing; the integral hammer action that can be removed and replaced without tools allows for drop-in unit-level armorer maintenance; and the Luger-patterned frame rails enveloping the slide make for far more consistent alignment. These design changes amount to genuine corrections of John Moses Browning’s venerable masterpiece. To maintain its ongoing supremacy over its successors is an insult to the intelligence of modern handgunners.

    • Rattlerjake

      Very well stated. I love my 1911’s, but they’re just for fun, I would never rely on one in a continuous use scenario, there are numerous other handguns that are far superior today.

    • Shaun Whit

      In my mind at least, the 1911 was passed up even before WWII as the world’s best autopistol by the Hi Power. Few armies other than the US have used the 1911. Numerous pistols made since are more practical. While I too love 1911s, you are of course right to argue that the bushing/barrel link is a major weakness. Still, it’s hard to criticize without offering a alternative. It’s not the SIG P210, I would argue that much. The SIG P210 is just a playtoy of the rich nowdays, and even when it was issued a highly accurate yet highly eccentric piece.

      • Michael Zeleny

        While the 1935 Hi Power represents an advance over the 1911 design in supplanting the swinging link with a barrel cam, and the replaceable bushing, with one screwed into the slide, its trigger linkage is far too convoluted for precision, and its construction, far too flimsy for durability. In this regard, the Radom ViS-35, with its rugged build and direct sear impingement is a far better candidate for superseding the 1911. As for the SIG P210, the Swiss Army got what it paid for in 1949, just as it does so at present, with Glock 17 and 26.

  • Bobb Todd

    “at 50,000 rounds, a 1911 needs a severe overhaul. It’s going to need
    to be rebuilt and it’s going to have a lot of parts that are worn out.”

    That’s like saying a car will need to have worn out parts replaced at 300,000 miles. duh!

    At current prices for ammo it would cost nearly $25,000 to run 50k rounds of .45 through a 1911! That’s if you can find ammo! I think under normal use most folks won’t need to worry about doing an “overhaul” of their 1911s.

    • Michael Zeleny

      This response misses the target in several respects. First off, Hackathorn and Vickers are discussing military requirements for durability without concern for the price of ammo, let alone for civilian capacity to procure it. Secondly, I’m hardly alone among civilian shooters in firing well over 1,000 centerfire rounds a month and not wishing to overhaul my handguns every two years. Lastly, a pistol outclassed by its competitors by a factor of 5 can hardly qualify as the “Best Pistol Ever”.

      • Bobb Todd

        “I’m hardly alone among civilian shooters in firing well over 1,000
        centerfire rounds a month and not wishing to overhaul my handguns every two years.”

        Firing well over 1,000 rounds every month? Again I say under NORMAL use most folks won’t need to worry about an “overhaul” of their 1911s. I own multiple guns, but I understand there are some folks that only own one.

        • Michael Zeleny

          When you use a gun for work or protection, you should train with what you carry, to the point of a conditioned response. I will stipulate that this requirement doesn’t apply to people who only play with guns for fun, but that’s not the demographic discussed by Hackathorn and Vickers.

          • Bobb Todd

            And it takes you 1,000 rounds every month to stay trained? lol Go buy some more 9mm! I’ll take my 45 every day of the week.

          • Michael Zeleny

            Well, I can’t quite measure up to French gendarmes firing 150 rounds of full-power .357 Magnum ammunition during daily range practice. But we must do the best we can.

          • Edmund Charles

            If it took 1,000 rds per month to stay ‘qualified’, few police or military would be ‘qualified’ and forget the criminal elements who do no have the patience for such practice. Granted a pistol does require more training than a rifle and perhaps this is why most military organizations place more emphasis on rifle/carbne instruction than pistol shooting.

  • t_reese

    I trusted the one I carried in ‘Nam and I trust the one I’ve been carrying since I retired from the military in ’91. You couldn’t give me another semi auto of any design!

  • Independentrd

    I’m an old man now, but I have a fondness for virtually all versions of the 1911. I’ve been more than a fair ti middling shot since I first handled a 1911 around 50 years ago. However, for self defense and target I also have to admit the 1911 is not among them. First I should back up and say my experiences with the 1911 have not been as good as the author’s. Yes I have fired models right out of the box that were capable of competitive shooting, yet I’ve never fired one that didn’t rattle if you shook it. Military models are likely to get a new bushing and or barrel to keep them within usable standards so I can understand why he didn’t fire any that weren’t up to standards while I have fired colts that would have had a problem hitting a man sized target at 50 feet.

    Then there is the trigger for carry. On the first shot it cocks and fires the firearm and on successive shots it only fires it. The trigger pull goes from a muscle building 9# (giver or take) to about 2#. I’ve always had a problem with that.

    For a 45 recoil is very mild, but from something heavy enough to use as a club if you run out of ammunition, it should be mild. One shooter remarked “They should sell this thing by the pound”.

    If I don’t have to cock it with the first trigger pull, I can’t match it with any revolver.

    Now days I much prefer the model 21 Glock which is a DAO 45, or the model 17 in 9mm. Although the tiny and very uncomfortable to shoot Ruger and S&W 5 shot Titanium 38 spl +P, or 357s are so small and light you can forget you have one on you, are a good choice for carry. You are unlikely to go through several boxes of ammo at the range either. <:-))

    As I said, these can be very uncomfortable to shoot, but if you need it, I doubt you'd even notice the recoil. Match accuracy? It's a 2" barrel, what do you expect.

    There are the tiny DAOs in 45 and 9mm. I've not fired one of those, but my guess they aren't exactly mild either.

    Yes I have a fond spot for the 1911 and the Single action army and like to shoot them. Both have plenty of knock down power while the 1911 is very rugged, but neither are the ideal modern weapon

    • Mikc

      I play with 1911’s but a Glock is with me at all times when it counts.

      • Independentrd


  • cwdotson

    The 1911 is not “tricky to take apart and put back together.” The damned thing works, old design or not, “nostalgic fanboys” or not. Glocks are not bad and are my second choice. And, to the person complaining about the first trigger pull cocking the weapon, do you know what a 1911 is?

    • Michael Zeleny

      The damned thing works alright. But its blessed successors work much better, as witness the evidence I cited above. Not everyone needs 100 yard accuracy and 250,000 round durability. But when you do, the 1911 is best set aside for a modern design.

  • SalManila

    My initial indoc to the 1911 was for Topside Watch on a submarine. We were told it was as accurate and deadly to throw, as it was to shoot. Generally, our yearly “requal” with it was 5 rounds from the top of the sail, at sea, and all 5 rounds had to hit the water. Sometimes we’d get to go to the range and get yelled at when we requaled.
    40 years later I inherited a CMP 1911, circa 1916. Someone had re-blued it and replaced the grips with new Colt grips. There’s also a crack through the “US Goverment” stamp on the frame below the recoil spring but it was my father’s. I had to get a CCW just to take possession of it (CT) but after all of that, I picked it up from the local FFL. A friend convinced me to take it to his club and shoot it. I was not interested at first but bought a box of shells and out we went.
    A hobby was “born”. I joined the club and after a year I have retired the Colt and replaced it with a Kimber 1911. The Colt is to be passed on. Of the pistols I now own, the 1911 is still my favorite. It just “fits”. It is a fine gun that both my father, myself, and my son carried in the service. I do not own any “plastic” guns. GRIN

  • john4637

    Great article regarding a great weapon. Must pick a small bone, the oldest arm in the US military arsenal in continuous use up to today, is the Marine Corps N.C.O. sword, the cavalry saber , issued for use by Marine NCO’s in 1858. But I’ll stick with you, when in a jam I’ll take the 1911 any day of the week!

  • DER

    I’ve shot a Randall Combat model for 27 years. Out of the box it performs as well as a Gold Cup. The 1911 is the most ergonomic handgun, it is an extension of the hand and points rather than aims. Now the 1911 is not for the novice. But it is the most accurate and best practical stopping power of any defensive handgun in the market. After 27 years it is also dependable.

  • Wendell Harlow

    I used one as a Marine NCO and learned to love it. I managed to qualify “Pistol Sharpshooter” with a 1911 that probably came into the inventory somewhere around WWII. She was still serviceable and, as my range score proves, deadly accurate.

    I am the proud owner of a Kimber Custom Target II with a pair of custom Hogue simulated ivory Marine Corps grips. Miss Kimber is a tack driver and I’ve yet to encounter a failure to feed or eject with the Hornady 230 grain hollowpoints I use.

    I trust my life to that little beauty. Sure, there are those who do not care for the 1911. But then, that’s why God made blondes, brunettes, and redheads. Clearly though, there’s a whole lot of us that DO love “old slab sides” to this day.

  • Michael Mason

    How is it that no one has come up with a better sidearm in over a hundred years?

  • noahdiamond

    For carry revolvers, the Ruger SP-101 357 Magnum Snub Nose. Anything else is a step down.

    For carry auto-loaders, either the Ruger P95 9mm or the Colt M1911-A1. Anything else is selling yourself short.

    This is of course my subjective opinion, and not a fact to be followed… But it’s really hard to beat a 1911 in reliability. The Ruger P95 9mm is only added along side because it’s practically indestructible and has a good magazine capacity. I carry the stainless model. To me, it is basically a cross between a 1911 and a Beretta 92fs. I do like the option of decocking the hammer when on safe with the option of firing the first round in double action as it adds to the safe and reliable function of a firearm, as you can carry it chambered and decocked with the safety on, and when you need it, just pull, flip and fire.

  • bacon artist

    1911 is awesome….but it takes a great deal to make one reliable…
    the glock has it licked for reliability…though the 1911 wins for beauty, shootability, trigger pull and overall carry design.

  • HKFan

    I recently attended a defensive pistol class; the guest master-instructor is just as famously known for his samurai-martial arts instruction back west. Both of them carry Glocks, and his east-coast affiliate referred to HK’s as overpriced pieces of crap.

    I thought about that, then laughed over the absurdity of the comment. Overall, given the thought mode behind this article, I found my decision to go with the HK USP to be very sound. This pistol is just what you think it is- an updated version of America’s venerable favorite. For me, the USP combines the weight-saving polymer of the new designs along with an enhanced capacity, and somewhat more conventional lockup that older hands are familiar with, not to mention a number of configurable options.

    Essentially, I don’t feel HK was wrong in their approach to take a Glock and smash it into a 1911. It doesn’t bother me knowing that HK is taking their share of the market, when you consider that Glock did not make the first polymer framed handgun (HK did).

    Overpriced? Maybe. Competition-tuned 1911s can get pretty expensive; if you’ve looked at Kimber, those aren’t cheap either. Both brands have a reputation for high accuracy out of the box. The moron I bought my USP from was typically stupid about it, as if no one ever came into his store to spend as much, if not more money on, customizing a 1911..

  • Y K

    The 1911 is easily made “reliable” by throating the chamber, adjusting the extractor, and polishing the ramp [and] slide [frame] rails – all simple things to do even by a novice and the 1911 is the fastest combat pistol around; accurate, powerful and nicely concealable even in a 5″ model.

    I have carried one for decades and I won’t carry anything else.

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