Best Pistol Ever: What Makes the 1911 So Good?

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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