I’m a big fan of the 1911 platform. There’s a lot right in that design. And they’re super fun to shoot. Let’s spend some time talking about what to consider if you’re looking to buy one.
The 1911 has some obvious shortcomings, like a single-stack magazine and its weight. There are handgun designs that carry bullets more efficiently today. However, the 1911 fits nearly every hand as a result of the narrow, single-stack magazine, points well, absorbs recoil well, and has an excellent trigger. They are fun to shoot.
As I put this together, the 1911 design has been around for 106 years. Splendid! That does, however, mean that things have changed a lot. The basics are the same, but we’re no longer sole-sourcing parts from Colt, and we’re no longer only trying to run US Army 230 grain ball ammo through it. Be aware.
Recall that the original design had a 5″ barrel, a steel frame, was chambered in .45 ACP, had relatively loose tolerances, and held seven (7) rounds in the flush-fitting magazine. The further you diverge from this, the more you hit tolerance stacking difficulties. So the more difficult it will be to get it running well.
Now, one could get a very fancy 1911, like my Springfield Professional. That’s an excellent choice, though not customisable at all. There are, of course, many other excellent places to get semi-custom (pick from a features list) or full custom (specify everything), though expect to pay a premium and wait. If you can find one configured to your liking, a bit more of a premium will let you skip the wait. These are very, very nice guns and you can be sure they’ll run well, even if you choose some bizarre configuration. Of course, this isn’t the only way to get a nice one.
There are lots of good guns from companies like Colt, Springfield Armory, Dan Wesson, etc. out there that will be cheaper than the semicustom builds, but still offering quality and desireable features. However, it is a little harder for one to choose a pistol in this price range. At the low end, you tend to get USGI-pattern clones from various foreign companies. There is little to differentiate those. At the high end, you cannot go wrong. Choose a smith or a company you like, spend some pleasant hours on the phone with them talking about your build, pay a large fee, and wait. You will be taken care of. But what about the rest?
Jeff Cooper commented that all you needed in a 1911 was sights you could see, a good trigger, and a dehorn job. We are not as minimalist as the great Colonel, but this is an excellent place to start. For sights, you ought to be sure they’re mounted with dovetails. Avoid the USGI-pattern mounts. Dovetails will let
you a qualified gunsmith fit different sights should you wish something else. There is no one standard pattern of 1911 sight dovetails, so do your homework and see that your gun has a common one. It is easy enough to have the sights changed out to something you prefer if you can’t find a gun in your price range that has what you like, so long as you have done the rest. If you do not know your sight preference, it may be expensive to ascertain it. Personally, I would suggest a high visibility front post and a plain rear, with the rear notch rather wider than the front post. Add tritium if you insist. As with many things, your tastes may differ, and I shan’t bother to argue with you.
Triggers are very important. They are one of the reasons people still love 1911s. A well set up trigger will make you look good. There’s not much I can tell you, not being a hardcore pistolsmith. Most reasonably well put together 1911s will have a decent trigger. For a good, or better still, a great trigger, you will have to pay more. Fortunately, you get what you pay for. I would not obsess too much about the weight, so long as it isn’t ludicrously heavy. The short, crisp characteristics that are so easy to come by are far more important then whether your trigger measures four or five or howevermany pounds. I should also point out that modifying the trigger on a 1911 is most certainly not something that can be done by a talentless hack, like modifying the trigger on a Glock or M&P. If you want changes to the trigger characteristics of the 1911 you bought, see a proper 1911 specialist pistolsmith. This is not something for a guy with youtube, files, and a kitchen table.
A dehorn job is definitely nice to have, though I wouldn’t obsess over some of the slick guns out there. And I probably wouldn’t send a gun off, but that’s just me. Avoid guns with obvious snag points. This is as good a time as any to segue into feel. The feel of a 1911 is pretty important if you’re picking one. They all point the same (superbly). Some thought should be given to the grips, though these are quite simple to change out. Do not hesitate to do so. I would strongly suggest using flathead grip screws, as John Moses Browning intended. If they come loose, it is easy to tighten them back up in the field with the rim of a .45 ACP cartridge. To hell with “modern” hex, torx, or whateverx bits.
Personally, I’m also a big fan of checkering on the front and backstrap. Since the backstrap is the mainspring housing, it’s easy enough to change out if you don’t like the one you’ve got. You can add checkering/texture up front by sending to a gunsmith. At a cost of course. I think it’s easier to get this from the factory. A well-stocked gun store will have many examples for you to feel, but it is how they perform on the clock that counts, so find a rental desk if you can. As an example, Fishbreath complained quite a bit about the 20 lpi checkering on Dana1, until he got some range time. And then he understood and could appreciate the checkering. Though, he still might prefer something a trifle less aggressive. Note also that while a good gunsmith can usually add checkering to the front of a well-built (i.e. not too thin) frame, he can’t often change it. Something to keep in mind.
Let’s also talk magazines. There are many manufacturers, and some are better than others. This is a rather annoying Achilles heel of the modern 1911: there is no longer a standard magazine design. There is no ‘factory standard’. I have had good experiences with Wilson Combat ETM HD magazines and Tripp Powermags. I have also heard good things about Chip McCormick magazines. I would not recommend deviating from these three brands. I would suggest buying one or two of each and seeing if your gun has any preferences, and then buying more of those. Do not cheap out on magazines. Note also that my brand recommendations do not change if you are choosing a 1911 in some not-.45 ACP caliber.
1.) My aforementioned bureau gun.