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1911s Handguns

How The 1911 Operates

by G&A Staff   |  June 3rd, 2011 10

The elemental features of the Government Model have become so conventional to auto pistol design that most anyone who has ever handled any autoloader of any type (even .22 rimfire) is already basically familiar with how the 1911 operates—even if they have never actually held or fired the real thing. In fact, most non-1911 autoloaders, even those as “different” as massive gas-operated Desert Eagle magnum pistols, trace their basic configuring points to John Browning’s original placement of the operating mechanisms for the 1911 Government Model.

Click the photo to enlarge.


In simplest terms, the Government Model 1911 is a magazine-fed, recoil-operated, single-action autoloader with an exposed hammer. When the gun is fired, recoil energy from the discharging cartridge propellant powers the jointly locked slide and barrel a short distance to the rear while the bullet exits the muzzle and chamber pressure drops to a safe level. Then a toggle-link on the barrel pivots around the slide lock pin, stops the barrel from further movement backward, and pulls the barrel downward to unlock it from the slide, allowing the slide to continue its motion fully rearward, extracting and ejecting the fired cartridge case, compressing the recoil spring, and pushing the hammer into the cocked position. After the slide reaches its full rearward travel, the expanding recoil spring propels the slide forward to strip a fresh cartridge from the top of the magazine, guide it into the chamber, and leave the gun cocked and ready to fire.

When the last cartridge in a magazine is fired, the magazine follower presses upward on a slide stop lever on the left side of the frame, which engages a small notch in the side of the slide and holds it locked to the rear. The shooter can then unlatch the empty magazine by depressing the magazine catch button at the rear of the left side of the trigger guard, allowing the magazine to fall free of the gun, insert a fresh magazine into the magazine well, and depress the slide stop lever, which releases the slide to spring forward and recharge the firing chamber with a fresh round. This reload procedure provides for great economy of motion, and with practice an average shooter can reduce the interval between the last shot in one magazine to the first shot from the next magazine to about 1.5 seconds.

The original Model 1911 design provided for two safety mechanisms. The manual safety lock (thumb safety), located at the top left rear of the frame, locks the slide and blocks hammer disengagement when engaged (the manual safety can be made ambidextrous with a variety of widely available accessory parts). The self-engaging, spring-powered grip safety also blocks disengagement of the hammer from the sear and is built into the backstrap of the frame. It is always engaged except when the shooter is fully grasping the gun in a firing grip. Plus, many modern-design Model 1911 pistols (called the “Series 80” design by Colt) also have an internal self-engaging firing pin lock that automatically prevents the firing pin from contacting the cartridge except when the trigger is pulled fully to the rear in firing mode or, in other designs, when the grip safety is depressed. Taken together, these safety mechanisms provide great protection from accidental discharge and make the gun very easy to operate free from worry.

The combination of well-designed operating features have from the beginning provided the Government Model mechanism with a great reputation for safety and reliability in operation, which is fully testified to by its ongoing service in life-or-death duty situations and its near universal use by the world’s fastest and most accurate pistol competitors.

For Shooting Times’s 1911 tribute cover story, pick up a copy of the September issue (on newsstands July 19).

  • William Wolfe

    It is my favorite go to handgun for home defense.John Moses Browning had it right over 100 years ago.It will go on long after I'm in the ground.

    • Alan_T

      Amen !

  • paul krawic

    john moses browning was the god of firearms.many of his designs are still in use being currently manufactured over 120 years later.he designed the longest used sidearm in u.s. military history,and the m2 heavy machine gun is still widely used in virtually every mounted vehicular application addition to these accomplishments he designed many handgun and rifle cartridges which are widely in use today,often spanning more than 100 years.there should be an altar to browning in any firearms museum on earth because his designs have been cherry picked for practically 90% of all semi auto pistols in exsistence to this day.

  • Bob Cash

    This is John Moses Browning's 1911 semi-auto .45 caliber pistol that is more popular now than ever before. Reason why is like a prior comment said – Mr. Browning got it right long ago and it has stood the test of time. This is a short, concise, good piece of info that would be good for newer shooters to read to learn about a 1911 and most of this would apply to other semi-auto workings. It was a huge mistake (How could this happen? Politics…) when in 1985 the US GVMT replaced the reliable and much loved 1911 with the foreign made Beretta 92 SF 9mm or ‘M9’ in GVMT nomenclature. I myself have owned a Brazilian-made Taurus 92 that is an exact copy of the Beretta 92 and it is a very good gun, but certainly not of the stature of the 1911 .45. More and more special groups of our service have gone back to issuing the 1911A1 (the 1938 ‘upgrade’ by Browning to add minor features asked for by the Army) that these tactical special forces demand in a handgun. One has to wonder what may have gone on in the selection of a foreign-built firearm to replace our all-American 1911, shame on 'them' I'd say. If the issue was to use the 9mm NATO round, 1911’s have and can be manufactured in that caliber. Or if the requirements were to have a larger capacity handgun, the US companies have ‘double stack’ magazines to hold the extra rounds in a 1911 modified to hold ~twice their original 7+1 capacity. The 1911 will never go out of style or favor with shooting enthusiasts who like the design and the .45 round.

    • Alan_T

      Double shame on them !

  • http://none Bellamy

    John Moses Browing desgned a awesome 45apc and your article is a wonderful info for someone who is not familiar with the features on his design. Our goverment made a very hasty mistake in going to a Beretta 92 9mm made outside of the USA. Springsfield has a 1911 in a 9mm, 38spl and a 357mag and it's a great design. They also have a 6 inch 1911 45apc for someone who is a target shooter. The 1911 A-1 will be around another 100 yeras until they start using laser to replace it. The USA can manufacture any type of firearm with out going to outside country. Japan is now making rifles for Browning company and they are importing it in to the USA.

    My son has asked me for my 1911 A-1 45 apc as a hand down to him and he will get all my other gun collections.

  • Larry

    The perfect pistol. I have quite a few pistols and bought them all new thinking that this would be the one that I would always want to carry. Finally I got smart and bought my first 1911 .45 and it has been love ever since. There actually was a perfect pistol and it goes with me everywhere.

    Japan is making rifles for Browning now I have a .22 that is absolutely awsome. Japan is great with steel no problem here. They do just as good a job as Belgium did.

  • George Liquor

    Real men carry 1911s. Plastic guns are for pussies.

  • esquerre

    We both fully appreciate the great engineering work that John Browning accomplished with the 1911! The 1911 is our "pride & joy"! BRAVO!

  • Alan_T

    No pistol fits my hand better than a 1911 ( up untill Colt lost the patent , we called them . 45 Automatics )

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