Which 1911 for a Duty Gun?

I visit several internet firearms discussion boards, and one of the participants recently inquired which 1911 would be suitable for a duty gun with “minimal mods.” He added that he had carried Sigs and Glocks previously. He also related that he wished to keep his investment around a thousand dollars, he wanted a lightweight frame, and that he was looking for “reliability, ruggedness and some longevity.” He went on to thank everyone for answering, in advance.

This is a very good question, and one that needs answering. My reply to him follows:

This comes from one old cop to another, although you may not be old. It is almost certainly going to piss some people off. Sorry. I put my first 1911, an issued Series 70 Colt, in a duty holster in 1982. Several of them have come and gone since then. I also spent about 11 years as a firearms instructor, for two departments that had liberal firearms policies. What I am about to say is based on experience, and a genuine desire that you do not get into a fight with a gun that won’t work. It comes from seeing dozens and dozens of 1911-pattern guns either work or fail, during qualifications.

Get a steel gun, and learn to live with the weight. Do not buy anything smaller than an honest-to-Colt Commander, meaning a 4 ¼” barrel and conventional bushing- and without a full-length guide rod. Given the poor quality control evident in 1911’s made today, by EVERY manufacturer, you are going to have to shoot the heck out of it, with the ammo you are going to carry in it, before you even remotely consider it reliable. The alloy-framed guns are not amenable to this kind of treatment.

This isn’t Sigs and Glocks we’re talking about here, where you can count on them to at least work when they leave the factory. Current manufacturers of 1911’s are making them to SELL, not fight wars with. All of them are guilty of this. In addition, there is no Army Ordnance Department to hold them to strict manufacturing specifications, check what they are shoving out the doors, and give them hell when they send out a bad batch- along with a returned shipment. These are the conditions that resulted in the 1911’s reputation for superb reliability under adverse circumstances. Unfortunately they do not exist anymore, and you have to be your own “Ordnance Department.” This will require that you have a sound working knowledge of what you are paying for, before you buy it. Get a copy of Kuhnhausen’s “The Colt .45 Automatic-A Shop Manual”- Volume One. Study it like your life depended on it. It does.

Be prepared to purchase copious amounts of ammunition to prove your new gun. While you are doing this, zero your sights precisely for 50 yards, with your duty ammunition. You will also probably have to buy a duty rig to accommodate your new cornsheller, and of course it will have to meet the requirements of your department’s firearms policy. This is getting expensive already, isn’t it? -and we haven’t even bought a gun yet. Buy yourself a half-dozen blue Metalform 7-shot mags with the rounded follower, and welded baseplate. They will stay together if you drop them on the street and they are as reliable as anything on the market. I won’t carry anything else with a 1911 duty gun.

Which gun? You can buy it, build or rebuild it, or have it built. Brand won’t matter as long as the frame and slide are in-spec. Aside from the frame, and the grip safety and other incidental parts, you want nothing but forged or barstock parts. This is particularly critical with the sear, hammer and strut, disconnector, extractor, ejector, firing pin and stop, etc. These are parts that are stressed under firing. MIM sucks. Think of “particle board” metal, and you get the picture. You do not want it in a gun you are betting your life on, and unfortunately practically everyone is using it- remember, they are making them to sell.

Avoid any gun with the “Schwartz” safety like the plague. This includes any S&W or Kimber Series “II” 1911 pistol. There is a reason why elite military units have specified that their guns do not have it. There is a reason why Kimber’s “Warrior” series does not have it. They are prone to breakage and problems during re-assembly. If you must have a firing-pin-block safety, get a Colt Series 80. They are much more dependable in operation, and are well proven over the past 25 years. If you learn the manual of arms for the 1911 and commit it to memory- until it becomes second nature- you will not need any of them. Safety rests between the ears of the person operating the gun.

As the QC evident in mass-produced 1911’s goes down the toilet, I am becoming more prone to build my own, checking every part along the way, and double-checking it’s proper installation and function. At least when I’m done, I know that its reliable, how it was built, and what it is capable of. I am right now, horror of horrors, about to pronounce a totally-rebuilt Auto Ordnance WWII model as “duty worthy.” The frame and slide are perfectly in spec, and the junk parts are nearly all gone. It is becoming exactly what those Ordnance Inspected 1911-A1’s once were. It could have been a Colt, Springfield, Essex or Caspian, or anyone else’s basic GI 1911. As I mentioned before, brand doesn’t matter. What matters is that the gun follows the original blueprint specifications as closely as possible. It can be relatively loose, and still shoot very well. It cannot be extremely tight, and be reliable under adverse conditions.

If I were going out to buy a new 1911 to stick in my holster, I would do one of two things. I’d go find a good clean Colt 1991A1, and look it over like the wares of a used-watch salesman. You will at least be getting mostly forged parts. Buy it as cheap as you can, and shoot the devil out of it until you are confident that it is reliable. It may be perfect right from the box- I have seen several that were, including Commanders. If questions or problems arise, send it to someone who understands the workings of the 1911, and ask them if it need anything- particularly cast or MIM parts that need replacing. When you get it back, shoot it some more. It has to be proven once again. Option Two is to just pony-up and spend the money for an Ed Brown, or similar example from one of the other “custom houses”. I mention Ed because I know that he makes an exceptional gun. He also makes and markets the best parts in the industry, if you are building a gun.

There is another option, and one you should consider. Keep carrying your current duty gun, and go out and get yourself a basic 1911 by a major manufacturer, to try out for awhile. As long as it has a quality, in-spec frame and slide, you can always use it build a gun ON.Good luck, and God bless you for standing in the gap. Don’t try it with a weapon that hasn’t been proven, regardless of the manufacturer or design.



2 Responses to Which 1911 for a Duty Gun?

  1. Dennis says:

    Nice article. No BS, just solid points. I just picked up a new A-O GI 1911. I had a 1985 made stock A-O so I thought something was wrong with this one when it did not make like a Maraca when shaking. What is the list of Cast/MIM parts you found when overhauling your A-O? What did you find needed replacement and with what did you go with? Thanks

  2. Sarge says:

    I think that pretty much everything beside the slide and barrel on these guns is either cast or MIM. The good news is that at 45 ACP pressures, cast main components will last almost indefinitely. I’d changed out the fire control components, extractor, ejector and slide stop. Go with Brown when you can and Wilson when you can’t. The only Wilson part I’ve seen that has a tendency to be bad is their extractors. If I was building a dedicated duty gun, I’d start with something besides an A/O.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *