This might be a little long, but here's a blog series I wrote on the matter:
For the latest updated version of this content see here: http://gunstuff-jd.blogspot.com/2009...e-revised.html
It's broken up into parts, seems like this topic comes up quite often.
Purchasing a 1911 Revised-12-26-2009
1911 Buyer's Reference Guide - Revised 2009-12-26 (Part 1)
So every now and then (every other week) it seems someone asks for input on which 1911 to buy, or which 1911 is best. This is going to cover most of the bases on 1911s. This is not meant to be the most elaborate description of every 1911 ever made, or a piece of propaganda for any one make and model. This is just a brief or rather not so brief overlook of various makes, models, and features of the more popular 1911 brands available.
Some of you may be reading this and thinking “Why should I give a hoot what this guy thinks or has to say?” We’ll let me just say it now, I’m no expert, I’m not a gun smith, I’m not a professional shooter, I’m not some ex-Navy seal that’s killed umpteen million people with a 1911 and one arm tied behind my back, I’m just a prior Marine Corps Radio Tech that has had over a dozen 1911s from different makers, some have been good, some great and some horrible, the wife and I had have had the following 1911s.
One Llama, two Colts, four Para Ordnances, four Kimbers, one Springfield, one Les Baer, one Wilson Combat, and one Ithaca from 1944. I’ve learned a lot about 1911s, shot plenty of other 1911s, and heard many a horror story about them as well has lived my own horror stories. Having spent the last six years handling, shooting, studying, and researching I AM STILL learning more and more about this type of pistol and I’m the last person that will give a hoot what you have to say about what I have to say, so let’s get to it shall we.
To say that one 1911 is better than all the others is just not accurate, some are better than others, but there is no "One 1911 to rule them all"
Before we get started, let’s take a minute to familiarize ourselves with some 1911 terminology.
The original design, patented in 1911 and the 1911-A1 which began in 1926 are different pistols than what we are seeing on the shelves today, while not much has changed, there have been some “enhancements”. Please understand that when I say “1911” I am referring to the genre of pistols based on John Browning’s original design, this is why I refer to them as 1911 pattern pistols. There are multiple books and websites covering the history of the 1911 so I see no need to cover that information.
Firing Pin Safeties:
Series 80: In most terms this refers to the Colt series 80 and mainly it reflects that it has a firing pin safety, most makers of 1911s incorporate this type of firing pin safety in their design. The series 80 firing pin safety incorporates a firing pin block that prevents the firing pin from moving unless the trigger is pulled. Personally, I can’t tell the difference in trigger pull, but that’s just me and I don’t obsess over what my trigger pull is provided I can hit what I’m aiming at in an efficient manner.
Here is a picture of the series 80 firing pin system.
Colt Series 80 Firing Pin Safety
Kimber uses a different firing pin safety known as the Swartz Safety that was originally used in Colt pistols (briefly) but was abandoned, this design is actuated by the depressing of the grip safety and care must be used in assembly that the grip safety is not depressed as that will cause the lifter to protrude from the frame and can be damaged by the installation of the slide.
Kimber Swartz Firing Pin Safety
Of the two, I prefer the Colt series 80 design as removal of it does not require the removal of the rear sight like the Swartz safety, not that I would ever advocate the removal of a safety device. Given a choice I would not have a pistol with a firing pin safety.
Some prefer the Swartz style safety as it does not effect trigger pull like the Series 80 mechanism, however as the Swartz safety is activated by the grip safety, if the parts are not fitted well, it is possible to deactivate the grip safety but still have the firing pin block in place.
Government Model (Gov’t): This generally refers to any 5” 1911 in standard configuration, it has the full 5” barrel with bushing, (although some models do exist with the 5" bushing-less bull barrel) and full frame which will hold with modern magazines 8 rounds of ammunition.
Commander model: The original Commander model has a 4.25” bbl with bushing and full frame, several makers do not use the bushing barrel, but instead have a 4” bull barrel instead with a full frame, for Kimber this is the Pro model, and Springfield refers to it as the Champion.
CCO: This was the Concealed Carry Officers model since discontinued by Colt; this was the 4.25” upper from a Commander mated to the compact frame of the Officers model which with modern magazines hold 7 rounds. For Kimber this is the Compact model, several others make guns in this configuration or a similar variation and their nomenclature differs.
Officers: Originally this was a 3.5” barrel on a compact frame which is .5” shorter than the full frame of the Gov’t model and Commander. With modern magazines this will hold 7 rounds of ammunition. Springfield refers to this size as the “Compact” model.
Defender or Micro: This is a 3” upper on a compact frame, these models in most if not all cases will have a 3” bushing-less bull barrel. Kimber refers to this as the “Ultra”, while Springfield refers to it as the Micro, other makers have different nomenclature for guns of similar size.
Long Slides: Long slide models have 6” or longer barrels on full frames, these pistols are mainly used in competitions and for hunting, as the purpose of this piece is geared mainly for defensive use, I am not going to cover these models, they are only mentioned here to show the variety of options available.
The following is a common question, and a good one at that.
“I know that there are 1911 pistols with 3 inch, 4 inch, and 5 inch barrels available. Which length is the best choice for a balance of reliability, accuracy, proper ballistics performance, and concealment?”
Looking at the factors listed:
- Ballistics performance
A Government Model gun will generally have the most mechanical accuracy, the longest sight radius, and the highest muzzle velocity, but the least amount of concealment. The Gov’t is historically the most reliable size of 1911 as it is the original design and the geometry of the pieces were designed around the .45ACP cartridge.
A 4" will generally be more mechanically accurate than a 3” gun, but less accurate than a 5” gun, have less muzzle velocity, a shorter sight radius, but is easier to conceal than a 5" gun. Reliability wise, the 4.25 models with a bushing barrel have a good track record. Some of the 4” bushing-less models have had some issues.
A 3" Has the least amount of mechanical accuracy, muzzle velocity, sight radius, but will be the most easy to conceal. Of all the sizes, the 3” 1911 has the worst reliability record from almost all manufactures. Current models are getting better, but they still have a tendency to be buggy creatures.
Now looking at my statements, please understand that concealing a 5" gun is not a hard thing to do; great number concealed carriers do it every day.
So to answer the question, a new in the box, 4"-4.25" 1911 will most likely be the balance of reliability, accuracy, ballistics performance, and ability to be concealed.
The Commander sized guns are the happy man in the middle so to speak, they are not as long as the 5" so they will clear the holster more quickly, and still offer more recoil absorbing mass, while still maintaining a longer barrel and sight radius while being able to carry a full length magazine.
So here's where it gets tricky, the hardest thing to conceal on any gun, is the grip area of the firearm. While the smaller Officers size guns have a shorter grip to ease concealment, you're cutting your slide mass, sight radius, barrel length, and capacity. While some have no problem concealing the grip (see my bit on the 5" guns) some do, if you want the benefits of a Commander sized gun but also want the benefits of an Officer's size gun you need to get a gun with the Commander length slide and barrel, but has the officers size frame like the Colt CCO, and the Kimber Compact. There are other makers of this style 1911 which will be discussed later in this text.
The original magazines for the Government Model held seven rounds, while the Officers model held six rounds, so how do you get eight rounds in a seven round magazine? You chop the skirt of the follower. Generally I prefer the Tripp Research Cobra mags, Wilson 47D mags, or the newer version of Chip McCormick mags, I could probably do a whole other section on 1911 magazines, and probably will so I won’t go into detail, all I’m going to say in this piece is in most cases, you’re better off ditching the magazines that come with your thousand dollar shooter and spend about $100 on good magazines. Recently I’ve began using the Wilson Elite Tactical Magazines (ETM) and I’m happy with them.
Guide Rods and Spring Guides:
There are different types of guide rods, the original design which consisted of a short spring guide and plug is thought to be sufficient and the easiest to manipulate when it comes to field stripping the gun. Full Length Guide Rods (FLGR) come in different varieties, mainly one and two piece rods. The two piece rods require a tool to take the rod apart during field stripping while the one piece rods should be short enough to manipulate the barrel bushing (if applicable), the two piece rods have a tendency to come apart at inopportune times such as when shooting and the once piece rods can be kind of a pain sometimes during maintenance. There are also specialized recoil reducing assemblies on the market which will not be addressed in this text. Bushing-less guns generally have one piece rods that require even more tools (commonly just a piece of stiff wire such as a straightened paper clip) to remove the spring assembly from the gun.
There are proponents and detractors of each type of rod, it is thought that a FLGR will prevent “spring bind” and improve accuracy. I will offer the following: Most of the match grade bullseye 1911s that I’ve seen win competitions both in the past and currently usually have a GI style plug and guide. Your Colt National Match pistols which are a gun of choice for accuracy competitions as well as the Les Baer PPC and National Match guns have a GI Style plug. The models I’ve had that came with a one or two piece rod usually end up with a GI Style plug and rod and I’ve never had an issue with a recoil spring not working properly. As with most things, it’s a matter of preference.
1911 Buyer's Reference Guide - Revised 2009-12-26 (Part 2)
So first let’s look at some of the different companies making 1911s, this is a really long list and it's not even complete, recently there have been more importers of 1911s made in the Philippines and it’s hard to keep track of them all and note affiliations.
I group the manufacturers in to three tiers by overall cost of their average gun.
Rock Island / Armscor
Rock River Arms
Pending on what you want, there are MANY fine providers of 1911s out there, of this list the only one's I would suggest to totally stay away from are the Charles Daly models, the older Llama/Firestorm as there are newer models coming in from a new manufacturer under the Firestorm name that seem to be a decent product or any "home brew" 1911 that you may come across unless you know a thing or two about 1911s, there are many home gun smiths that can make what looks like a great 1911 that may or may not be worth the money.
To keep things simple, I'm not going into buying used; all the following info is based on the assumption that items being purchased are new in the box from a reputable dealer.
So you want a 1911? What exactly do you want? Do you want a "Government" size all steel frame, or how about carbon steel, not stainless? Do you want a light weight frame? Compact? Sub-compact? Micro?
There's a ton of different options out there regarding which size you even want and pending on what size and options you want will greatly influence the opinions given regarding what kind of 1911 you want or should buy.
If you want a basic 1911 like your Grandpa use to carry in WWII, you don't go to Kimber, if you want a 4" bushing-less bbl, on a compact frame, you don't go to Colt. Looking at the list of manufactures above, and starting at tier 1, we'll go over some of the options.
1: Auto Ordnance (AO):
AO makes mainly GI model 1911s, and one Custom Stainless, that's not a lot of options if you want a carry gun, as they are 5" guns, and if you don't want stainless, why invest in refinishing an Auto Ordnance? I have heard few complaints on the AO line and have had absolutely ZERO experience with them, most of the time they don't even get brought up when people ask for advice on which 1911 to buy. Why this is I don't know, but if I recall correctly, I've only met one guy who carries one and he was very happy with it. But looking at the Custom Stainless with it's MSRP of $813; I'm not surprised that one would look elsewhere.
My pick from AO would probably be a GI model, as there’s no way I’d pay the $700ish for the Custom AO, I’d rather have the GI and put about $300 into work and probably end up with a better gun than their custom, there’s just not enough value in the AO line to justify spending over $600.
2: Rock Island Armory (RIA):
These are probably the highest rated low budget 1911s Everyone that does have one seems to love it. They come in more than one size and two basic packages as they offer a GI style model and a Tactical Model with Novak or Novak style sights, ambidextrous thumb safety, and a nice beavertail, all for on average less than $550. They also offer a compact model. A lot of the misgivings about the RIA guns is that there is no "Company" website to view the models, the guns are associated with ArmsCor and some info can be found on the ArmsCor website listed above, oddly enough the most info on RIA guns I've found as been on M1911.org and the SARCO Inc. website, which unfortunately isn't working right at the moment, but usually they have a nice lay out where you can see some of the different RIA models. RIA 1911s are available in .38Super and .45ACP.
If I had only $500-$600 to spend and I wanted a 5" 1911 with some of the "needed" add-ons, the RIA Tactical would probably be the gun I would buy if I didn't want to buy a used gun, as the case is I managed to find an older, used, Springfield Loaded back when they still came with a blued finish for $450 and that was my first "Real" 1911. It should be noted that the Rock Island guns do not incorporate a firing pin safety and do have (or rather did not have at the time up this update) an increased poundage firing pin spring to prevent a drop fire.
My pick from RIA would have to be the Rock Island Tactical, this puts you pretty close to a Springfield Loaded at a lower cost than the PT1911, all you need is some night sights and you have a damn good 1911.
Taurus began making 1911 models about 2 years ago, boasting that they gave all the great smith work that the high end gun makers charge you more for. Personally, I think that's a load of crap because all those options minus the checkering are almost standard on the center piece gun of the major players, you look at the Springfield Loaded models, the Kimber Pro Carry II or Custom II, the SIG GSR, or the S&W 1911s, and all those things are standard. According to the advertisement, all these features come up to OVER $2100! But I have a Wilson Combat and Les Baer in the safe that didn’t cost that much. You can get a pretty nice Springfield TRP for half that.
All those bells and whistles don’t change the fact that Taurus' just cost less than the other major gun makers, if you compare a Beretta 92FS and a Taurus PT92, or a Taurus revolver and a S&W revolver and you'll see why there's a price difference, the same can be said of the PT1911. I'm not bashing the gun, I think it's great that there's a lower cost 1911 out there filling the gap between the bare bones GI models and the other 1911s out there, but it's not the end all, be all of the 1911 world that some make it out to be. It is what it is, a well priced 1911 that isn't quite as nicely fit or finished compared to the other guns, and the price is climbing on them.
Think of it this way, if they are giving you all these options for free, how are they making a profit? Another misgiving I have on the PT 1911 is the key-lockable hammer, as there have been cases of this lock failing and locking at inopportune moments. The PT1911 is equipped with the Series 80 firing pin safety.
The PT1911 currently only comes in 5" configurations, a railed version is available which you won't find on a Rock Island, and in 2009 models in 9mm and .38 Super, as well as a double stack .45ACP model were added.
My pick for Taurus would have to be the Stainless Pt1911 as the blued finish reportedly doesn’t hold up for squat and I’d hate to have the gun refinished for almost half if not more than half of what I paid for the gun.
1911 Buyer's Reference Guide - Revised 2009-12-26 (Part 3)
Colt has been making the 1911 since day one almost 100 years ago and it shows. They offer some of the finest 1911s in an affordable price range. But
call me crazy, but I'm just not impressed with Cot's current options from the factory. I find them to be too edgy, and not equipped with the same features that I can get on a similarly priced gun from the other major players.
HOWEVER, if you're looking for a 1911 to take to the range, or just want a 1911 that won't loose value, or want something that you plan to have smithed to your liking, I would greatly advise getting a Colt Series 70 (pre firing pin safety) reproduction. If you plan on spending in the $1300+ range and want a 5" gun, the Colt Special Combat should be an item on your list of prospective purchases, after all Colt is the original maker, and they've been doing it a LONG time. The Colt family of 1911s is still one of the finest product lines available. The frames, slides and small parts are thought my many to still be among the best in the business and there is something to be said for them not getting too caught up on all the whiz bang enhancements and a WWI Reproduction is a must for all serious 1911 enthusiasts.
If you’re looking for a base gun for custom work, you can’t beat the Series 70 reproduction guns. Colt has offerings in .38 Super, .45ACP and 10mm now that the Delta Elite as it has been reissued. They have been previously offered in .40 and 9mm as well.
My pick from Colt: Special Combat Carry
5: Dan Wesson
Dan Wesson was purchased by CZ some years ago and has been turning out top notch 1911s since. They are US made in NY and are among the top of the line in the mid tier as well as having some very attractive 3rd tier options as well such as the Valor and Valor Bobtail. If you want a bobtail from the factory (most makers will consider hacking of a corner of the frame grounds to void a warranty, or so I would think) costing less than $2K, a Dan Bobtail Commander is just the thing for you. I have not heard one complaint on a Dan Wesson product yet, and if I had an endless budget, I would buy one in a heart beat, but as it is I have several guns that fill the bill as a compact carry gun but if I were to want another commander sized 1911 in the ball park of $1k, this would most likely be it.
Dan Wesson also offers several 5" guns in varying calibers, .45ACP, .40S&W, 9mm, and 10mm as well as several Commander sized guns and one CCO sized gun. One model is available with an aluminum frame, but the majority of the models are steel framed and do not come equipped with a mechanical firing pin safety.
My Pick from Dan Wesson: Dan Wesson V-Bob.
Kimber has a vast offering of different models / option packages in all manner of sizes and different calibers. Kimber does have a bit of an on-line history of having issues with QC and guns not functioning properly, barrels that rust over night in transit to dealers, and horror stories of customer service. I'm just stating the fact that such a history and opinions exist. There are literally thousands of people that have Kimbers that work 100% and never have an issue, and rant about great customer service. On a positive note, Kimber has supplied multiple Law Enforcement agencies such as the Los Angeles Police Dept. (LAPD) and the now disbanded Marine Corps Special Operations Command Detachment One.
Don't let the majority over ride the minority; take both sides into account before making your decision to buy. The one thing that did drive me nuts about our Kimbers is that for some reason the ends of the barrel near the muzzle had a tendency to rust, I’ve NEVER had that issue with any other 1911 including my Llama. If you get a Kimber and it runs 100% it’s hard to find a 1911 that you will like better. If it doesn’t run and you get a raw deal, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Kimber does have something that not all the makers offer, and that is a CCO sized gun offered in the Kimber compacts. That’s a 4” upper on a compact frame. Several calibers are available pending on exact package. As noted earlier Kimber uses the Swartz firing pin safety in their Series II guns, currently, Kimber does sell some guns that do not have the firing pin safety. The SIS and Warrior models do not have a firing pin safety incorporated in the design.
My pick from Kimber: SIS Pro, as much as I hate the cocking serrations on this gun, I love the fact that it’s a steel framed 4” gun, does not have the series II firing pin safety, and has the other things I like having on a 1911, such as some nice wood grips, night sights and the 30lpi checkering.
A Kimber Warrior is a close second.
7: Para Ordnance
I've had 4 Para models, both single stack and double stack, some single actions, and some Light Double Action models (LDA) I only have a few complaints on the Para family of pistols, one being that the Parakote finish on their pistols is not the equal of other "baked on" finishes, such as that of Kimber’s Kimpro finish. My other issue is that the double stack magazines cost around $50.00 ea. Para Ordnance guns are equipped with the Series 80 firing pin safety.
However, if you want any of the following, a ramped barrel, a double stack hi-cap 1911, a single stack 1911, a double action only 1911, or a combination of the above, Para is the gun maker for you. I will also add that if you do go with a double stack 1911, that you get a good belt and a holster with off set mounting attachments to better offset the weight of the heavier gun.
Para offers guns in .38 Super, 9mm, .40 and .45.
My pick from Para: Tac 4 LDA, I hate the ParaKote finish, and 13+1 of .45ACP is nice thing to have, but as they only offer that in the “Carry” line of Paras, I’d remove the bobbed grip safety for an upswept model as the bobbed one was not comfortable for long periods of shooting.
8: Sig Sauer
Sig has been making fine guns for many a year, when the GSRs started hitting the line there were some issues that were accredited to a bad batch of either slides or frames, They have an impressive line up of 1911 models including 5" target guns, standard 5" guns, 4.25" Commander variants with an honest to goodness bushing barrel, and CCO sized guns with officer sized frames and 4.25" bbls. Sig 1911s incorporate the Colt Series 80 style firing pin safety and have an external extractor but have has few if any reported issues with them. Sig is not offering the GSR in other calibers than .45ACP
The main issue with the Sig GSR line is that the contours of the slide that scream Sig, will not fit in most 1911 holsters, I have tried squeezing a GSR into my Galco Avenger OWB holster and it could be done provided I loosened up the tension screw, most holster makers that I've researched don't have a listing for GSRs specifically.
If you go the GSR route, do your holster research beforehand, make some calls, send some emails and see what's what with the holster selection for a GSR.
My pick from Sig: GSR Carry in black Nitron.
S&W came out with their 1911 line a few years ago and they have a pretty impressive line up of well equipped 1911s They are the only ones to my knowledge offering a scandium alloy framed 1911 and have guns in all four sizes including some railed models: full, Commander, CCO, and Micro. My two gripes with S&W is that they do not offer a steel framed Commander sized gun and they incorporate a Swartz style firing pin safety as opposed to the Colt Series 80 style safety. Although there is currently one full size model that does not have the firing pin safety. S&W 1911s come in .45ACP and 9mm pending on model.
S&W 1911s have an external extractor, Kimber tried this and it seems that as a result of customer demand they went back to the internal extractor. By all reports S&W got the external extractor right.
My pick from S&W: Gunsite Commander
10: Springfield Armory:
Springfield has a good product line with their non-custom line and also has some overlap into the custom section with their custom shop guns, the "Professional" models from SA are extraordinary guns and were selected by the FBI and Marine Corps Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) for use by their Recon units.
Springfield has different categories based on package options.
GI: This is just your basic no frills 1911A1 pattern pistol, it has that GI look of your Grandpa’s issue pistol and generally sells in the $450 range on up.
MILSPEC: Take your basic GI, and slant the cocking serrations, and beef up the sights a bit and this is what you get, it is available in stainless steel or a parkerized version.
Loaded: The loaded line is bread and butter 1911; it has everything that is generally considered a must on the 1911 it has your night sights, beaver tail grip safety, good fit and finish, and ambi safety.
The Loaded comes in different sizes as does the above mentioned GI, the loaded can be found the following sizes:
Loaded Full Size = 5" bbl, full frame
Loaded Champion = 4" bushing-less bbl, full frame available in stainless steel, or two tone black over OD w/ alloy frame.
Loaded Compact = 3.5" bushing-less bbl, compact frame, available in stainless only.
Loaded Micro = 3" bbl, compact frame, two tone stainless over black alloy frame.
Then you have you're Operators, which is Springfield’s name for their railed guns. These come in several variants and sizes. The 5" loaded can be found in 9mm, as well as the Springfield EMP which has been redesigned to work better with shorter cartridges, the EMP also comes in .40S&W
One step below the custom line is the Tactical Response Pistol (TRP): The TRP is a very well equipped gun in the $1400 range; it offers fine 30lpi checkering, ambidextrous safety, enhanced magazine well, G10 grip panels and Armory Kote finish.
My pick from Springfield Armory: TRP Armory Kote.