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.
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).