Probably the most commonly heard complaints about the 1911 .45 auto are, "It doesn't work out of the box." "It jams all the time." "You've got to put hundreds of dollars into customizing it.....and it still doesn't work!" There's a certain amount of truth to these criticisms. Every time I go to a high-level handgun training class, there's at least one other class attendee shooting a customized 1911. I have yet to see such a shooter complete a full day's training without his or her gun choking numerous times. As a matter of fact, I've seen more jams -- and experienced them myself -- with the 1911 than with all other types of handguns combined. Why is that? In this article, I'll try to address what I consider the half dozen or so most common reasons why your 1911 auto won't work.
Before we start, let me make one thing very clear: I love the 1911. I've carried Colt Government Models and Combat Commanders for years, and I'm morally certain I'll carry them again. Some folks have the attitude that the 1911 is perfect -- no weak points, no improvements possible. What a nonsensical attitude! Only with a mature appreciation of the design's strong and weak points and a knowledge of the most common mistakes and pitfalls waiting to trap a 1911 user will you be able to get the most from these guns.
Now, why might your 1911 auto not work? I can think of six reasons. These are, in no particular order: (1) incompetent customization, (2) inappropriate ammunition, (3) lack of lubrication, (4) cheap magazines, (5) flaws in the basic design and (6) a propensity toward small-parts breakage.
Gunwriters love penning articles about their heavily customized .45 autos (and God knows I've written my fair share of them over the years). This seems to have imbued the gunbuying public with the belief that a certain amount of customization is absolutely mandatory on a 1911. Well, that isn't necessarily so. I've spent thousands of dollars on customizing 1911s. In the process of doing so, I've discovered that most of the things you can have done to the gun are simply a waste of money. The more I've learned about the 1911, the less I like to tinker with it. I do feel there are a few things (none of which is extremely complicated or expensive) that can be done to make the 1911 a better gun, but in general I think you're better off leaving the piece alone.
Let's assume you've just gotta have your 1911 customized. How do you choose a pistolsmith? Here's how I look at it: Let only the very best people touch your gun. Conventional wisdom has it you should choose a pistolsmith close to you geographically, so if anything goes wrong with his work, you can take the gun back for correction without having to send it out of state, wait weeks or months for its return and go through the hassle of shipping the gun through an FFL dealer coming and going. I profoundly disagree with this. There simply aren't that many good pistolsmiths out there (although there are a lot of people who think they're good pistolsmiths), and the chances of finding someone truly excellent close to you are very slim. Yeah, it's more hassle to send your gun away to one of the top .45 shops and you'll have to wait longer to get it back, but when you do get it back, it'll probably work, which is not something you can say when you hand it over to the local hack-'n'-slash artist.
At one time, customizing a 1911 made a lot more sense than it does today. Until about a decade ago, the guns available from the factories were set up to feed hardball only. Sights were horribly tiny. Trigger pulls might or might not be extremely stiff and heavy. If you're buying a straight GI gun today, perhaps that might still be the case. If you go for a top-of-the-line gun like an Enhanced Model Colt, however, today's 1911 will come out of the box with a hollow point-compatible ramp and throat job; decent, high visibility sights; a beavertail grip safety; a beveled mag well; and a lowered and faired ejection port. The trigger pulls on recent-production Colts I've tried have been in the acceptable to excellent class. What more do you want?
One of the areas where you want to be especially careful about modifying your 1911 is in the area of trigger pull. Ever seen the hammer follow on a 1911? You're firing the gun, the slide cycles and recocks the hammer, but instead of staying cocked so you can fire the next shot, the hammer follows the slide down and falls to half cock. The same thing can happen when dropping the slide while loading the gun. I've seen both these things happen and have had them happen to me.
You almost never see this happen on a stock gun. You'll see it most commonly with guns on which some enterprising pistolsmith has lessened the hammer/sear engagement and fitted a heavy steel trigger and added a heavy recoil spring. When the slide slams forward on the gun, the gun moves forward, but the heavy steel trigger wants to stay in one place (it's called inertia, folks), so it actually moves back slightly in its track. If the hammer/sear engagement has been compromised, either through taking off too much metal or changing the angle of the hammer hooks, the trigger can actually bounce far enough back to jostle the hammer hooks and sear out of engagement, causing the hammer to fall to half cock.
You also see this happen with guns on which old mil-spec parts have been substituted for the stock Colt parts. Stock Colt parts and most of the quality aftermarket hammers and sears (like Brown, Wilson, Cylinder & Slide, etc.) are heat-treated and hardened all the way through. The old mil-spec parts, on the other hand, are only surface-hardened, and when a smith takes metal off these parts to do a trigger job, he exposes the soft steel beneath the hard "skin." Under use, these soft surfaces begin to peen each other. Typically, with this problem you start out with a decent trigger pull weight: say 4 1/2 pounds. As you use the gun, however, the trigger pull starts dropping in weight - four pounds, 3 1/2 pounds, three pounds - as the hammer hooks and sear round off, and suddenly your hammer starts following.
Can you get around this problem simply by lowering the slide gently to chamber a round? Well, no. The 1911 was designed to chamber a round with the slide moving at full speed. Easing the slide forward will quite often result in a failure to feed. Also, never loading the gun except by easing forward the slide kind of rules out ever doing (or practicing) a speed reload from slidelock, doesn't it? And if you keep the gun for home defense in Condition Three (hammer down on an empty chamber, full magazine in place), I suggest a lot of practice swiftly racking the slide to chamber a round.
Some shooters (and many pistolsmiths) recommend squeezing the 1911's trigger and holding it to the rear while dropping the slide during loading, as well as when doing a speed reload from slidelock. This prevents trigger bounce and also activates the weapon's disconnector, preventing the hammer hooks and sear from pounding each other. I consider this a very dangerous practice.
For one thing, under the stress of a violent encounter (or even while shooting on the range, with or without match pressure) many shooters experience a phenomenon called "cognitive dissonance," which basically means that stress negatively affects the mind's perceptions and clearness of thought. One of the most common results of cognitive dissonance is that you lose your short-term memory. (This is why it's almost impossible for shooters to count their rounds during a gunfight.) If you're doing something that requires you to perform actions in a certain sequence, there's a very real tendency to screw up the order in which you do them. Thus, under stress, "squeeze the trigger, hit the slide stop" becomes "hit the slide stop, squeeze the trigger, " and you've just accidentally fired your gun, probably hitting something you weren't supposed to, possibly even killing an innocent person.
Besides, holding the trigger to the rear while loading the gun is a crutch for an incompetent trigger job. You have two ways around this problem: (1) Leave the gun stock or (2) let only the best people work on your gun. (Where have I heard that before?) Some pistolsmiths will tell you that even a good trigger job will allow the hammer to follow occasionally unless you press the trigger before dropping the slide. When I was discussing this matter with nationally famous pistolsmith Bill Laughridge of the Cylinder & Slide Shop (Dept. GAH, 245 E. 4th Street, P.0.Box 937, Fremont, NE 68025, phone: 402/721-4277), he told me that, in his opinion, a pistolsmith who gave a shooter a trigger job that allowed the hammer to follow for any reason hadn't done his job very well. The Cylinder & Slide Shop is one of the few places of which I'm aware that can give you a trigger job resulting in an excellent trigger pull while leaving the gun as durable as an unmodified version.
I hope it goes without saying that modifications that predictably adversely affect reliability-like tightening the slide to frame fit-are a bad idea.
The bottom line on customization, as far as I'm concerned, is this: Leave the gun alone. If you must customize, do so with extreme moderation and let only the best people touch your gun. You'll be amazed at how much better the piece works when you haven't paid some incompetent person to ruin it.
Shooters want to stuff everything imaginable into their 1911s, and then they seem amazed when much of it doesn't feed reliably. Let's try to avoid as much of the wishful thinking here as possible, shall we? The 1911 is not as tolerant as some of the more modern designs in terms of the range of different bullet profiles it will reliably feed. The fact is that the 1911 was designed to feed hardball, and no matter what you do to it there's really no way around that. Now, I'm not one of those people who says you should only carry hardball in your 1911, but I will say that the farther your.45 load departs from a hardball profile, the more you're asking for trouble.
At one time Colt, Springfield, etc., produced all their .45 autos with feed ramps and barrel throats set up exclusively for hardball; hollow points need not apply. In the past decade or so this has changed. Now you can have a 1911 .45 straight from the factory with a decent ramp and throat job, and the guns will reliably feed hollow points. However, I still believe you're better off if you make feed reliability a main priority when choosing your.45 ammo.
Hollow points that feature a rounded, hardball-type ogive are far more feed-reliable than bullets that have flat-nose, truncated-cone or semi-wadcutter shapes. The.45 ACP is a short, fat, wide cartridge, which is not the most feed-reliable cartridge profile in the world to start with. Aggravate that problem by getting too far from the reliable hardball shape in a gun that was designed from the ground up to feed hardball, and you're just begging for jams.
Some folks argue that your primary consideration in load selection should be stopping power. I disagree: The primary consideration should be feed reliability. Even if a particular .45 load does have deeper penetration (or lack thereof), more expansion (or lack thereof), a "one-shot stop" rating a few percentage points higher than other loads or any other traits you deem desirable, all that does you no good if you can't fire the gun because your "wonder bullet" is hung up on the feed ramp.
If stopping power is the name of the game, the good news for .45 lovers is that the .45 seems to be very forgiving in terms of load selection. If it's a good hollow-point load that'll fit into the chamber of a .45, it should give you a usable amount of stopping power. That being the case, you're free to place the emphasis back where it belongs on feed reliability.
There are a number of effective hollow-point loads out there that feed extremely well in modern 1911s. Hollow-points that exhibit excellent feed reliability are Winchester 185-grain Silvertip JHPs, Remington 185-grain JHPs and 230-grain Golden Saber JHPs, Federal's 230-grain JHP load and Black Hills'185-grain and 230-grain JHPs. Winchester's 230-grain Black Talon JHP load (now sadly unavailable to civilians) was also a very feed-reliable load.
Hollow-point loads for the.45 ACP that, in my experience are testy feeders include the Federal 185-grain JHPs and 230-grain Hydra-Shoks, the Hornady 230-grain JFPs and the CCI-Speer 200-grain JHP "flying ashtrays."
All handguns require lubrication to work their best. My experience and the experiences of the top-flight pistolsmiths whose brains I've picked on this subject lead me to conclude that this is even more true for the 1911 than with most other firearms. Whenever you start feeling smug about mankind's technological progress, remind yourself of this: We have not yet progressed to the point where our handguns will function unless we smear them with dinosaur grease.
How long has it been since you last lubricated your 1911? If it has been more than about three days, the piece is probably bone-dry. Oil evaporates; if you carry the gun muzzle down in a holster, gravity pulls the oil down the slide rails, around the bushing and out of the gun. Some folks tout the various teflon-based lubricants as the cure for this. In my experience, they don't last one bit longer than the natural products.
Every few days, take a minute or so to lube your 1911. Unload the gun; lock the slide to rear. Put a small drop of oil on each slide rail and let it run into the gun. If you have a Colt with the firing pin lock, you might want to take this opportunity to put a small drop of oil on the firing pin lock plunger in the slide. Lightly rub a thin coat of oil on the exposed barrel where it rides the bushing when the gun is cycling. Let the slide go forward and put one small drop of oil on the front of the barrel hood where it meets the front of the ejection port. Cycle the gun's action a few times, and you're in business. Frankly, I like to do a more leisurely job of lubing my 1911s in which I actually field strip the piece, but the quick-'n'-easy method I've just described will be sufficient.
Also, while you're lubricating your 1911, don't overdo it. You don't want to oil your gun like you would oil your salad. Excess lube, especially on the breechface, can attack primers and turn your chambered round into a dud.
I haven't quite figured this out yet, but it seems there are a lot of folks quite willing to pay five or six hundred dollars for a quality 1911 and invest a small fortune in customizing it, but when it comes time to buy magazines to feed the beast, they suddenly try to save a few bucks by buying EL Cheapo-brand mags. Suffice it to say, the magazine is one of the most important parts of the firearm, and buying trash instead of top-quality mags is kind of like wimping out and putting Brand-X retreads on a Porsche.
I don't much care for the eight-round mags with their folded metal followers that Colt provides with their guns (except the 1991A1s, which come with a seven-rounder featuring the traditional split metal follower). If you shoot a lot, sooner or later the folded metal follower in the eight-rounder is going to pop over the slide stop inside the gun, failing to lock the action open when the gun is empty and necessitating manually ripping the magazine out of the gun. The split metal follower in the seven-rounder will do the same thing. This is the sort of thing that can get you killed.
I don't like any eight-round .45 mags. In general, they cause more problems than they're worth, such as difficulty to loading to full capacity, failure to feed the top round off the magazine, extreme difficulty snapping the mag into the gun and failure to lock the slide open on an empty magazine. Eight-round magazines were designed for competition use to feed extremely long bullets like the H&G #68 semi- wadcutters. Shorter rounds, like most hollow points, won't feed reliably out of these magazines.
There is a bewildering array of aftermarket 1911 magazines out there. I've tried most of them, so let me make this easy for you. If you want good mags that will work, I suggest the stainless steel Wilson-Rogers seven-rounders. These are available from Wilson Combat (Dept. GAH, Route 3, POBox 578, Berryville, AR 72616; phone 501/545-3618). The Wilson-Rogers follower design is excellent, and you won't have to worry about it popping over the slide stop inside the gun. There are other decent seven-rounders out there, but remember, I'm making things simple for you, and when you buy the Wilson mags, you can pretty much bet the farm they'll work.
The Wilson-Rogers design comes standard with a thick-plastic slam pad. If that bulky floorplate protruding from the butt of your gun adds too much length to the grip for your taste (vis-a-vis, concealment), Wilson's also sells thin, concealment-oriented replacement floorplates for their mags that are more subtle. An even more low-key approach is to pull the spring and follower out of a Wilson-Rogers and stick it in a stock Colt magazine. This gives you a magazine that doesn't protrude from the gun at all, but still has the great Wilson-Rogers follower design. When I carry a 1911, I've got a hybrid Wilson/stock Colt seven-rounder in the gun and two more Wilson mags behind my left hip in a spare mag pouch.
Now, here's where I may get in trouble with a few folks. Some people seem to regard the basic 1911 design with an uncritical awe. To their minds, the 1911 represents handgun perfection; it is without flaws -- without flaws, you hear me? Any criticism of the gun threatens their perceptions of the universe. Meanwhile, back in reality, the basic 1911 is an antiquated design and it is far from perfect (sacrilege, I know). Come on, folks, if John Browning was alive today, do you really think he'd be designing guns like the 1911? Hell no, (Actually, Browning had moved far beyond the 1911 by the time he died in 1926. In his prototype for the Browning Hi-Power, already completed at the time of his death, he did away with many of the flaws of the basic 1911 design.)
Without trying too hard, I can think of four flaws in the basic 1911 design that range from moderate to serious. Several areas of the gun are prone to small-parts breakage; In some cases, when these small parts let go, the gun is totally disabled and it'll take a pistolsmith to get it back up and running.
A portion of the slide stop projects into the mag well for the purpose of engaging the magazine's follower and locking open the action when the gun is empty. Unfortunately, this also puts the slide stop almost in the path of a cartridge coming out of the magazine. Since the slide stop is only lightly spring-loaded into the down position, if a round of ammo nudges this part during the feeding cycle, it can pop up into the slide stop notch, locking the slide back with rounds still in the gun. This can get you killed. This malfunction usually occurs, if it occurs at all, when firing the gun with hardball and less commonly with shorter hollow-point rounds. If this hasn't happened to your gun, you probably have nothing to worry about; it's only a problem on certain guns. If you do have this problem, a good pistolsmith can dimple the slide stop where it touches the spring-loaded plunger. If the work is done to perfection, the slide stop will never pop up on you, but will still operate perfectly to lock open the empty gun.
The amount of pressure a 1911's extractor places on a cartridge casing's rim is regulated by the curvature of the part in its channel through the slide. This is a crude system. Too much curvature means too much pressure, and the extractor will not allow a cartridge casing to slip up into place, resulting in a failure to feed. Not enough curvature means insufficient extractor tension, resulting in failures to fully extract and/or eject. Most modern firearms use spring-loaded extractors, a far more durable and reliable system. This is a major improvement in firearms design that seems to have passed by the 1911.
The tension of a 1911's extractor can weaken with use. One sure way to screw up your extractor is to drop a round into the chamber with the slide open then drop the slide on the chambered cartridge. This will force the extractor to bend back and around the case rim, eventually abusing the extractor so much that it will lose its tension or even break off in extreme cases.
The barrel bushing/recoil spring plug is a high-stress area of the gun. Not only does the barrel whack around in the bushing every time you fire the piece, but the full force of the recoil spring also bears upon the bushing via the recoil spring plug. If the barrel bushing gives way, your recoil spring and recoil spring plug will depart the front of the gun at high speed. Effectively, the gun is disabled. Now, this doesn't happen very often, but I have had it happen to me while firing a Combat Commander. The bushing shattered, losing the semicircular piece that holds the recoil spring plug in the gun. My recoil system was somewhere down range, my gun out of action. I believe this occured because the slide of my gun came from the factory slightly shorter in front than it should have been. There was a fingernail-size gap between the barrel bushing's flange and the slide; you could move the bushing back and forth with your fingertips. This being the case, of course, the bushing took a hellacious pounding as it jacked itself back and forth every time the gun was fired, and finally it gave up the ghost. You should check your gun to ensure that the bushing fits snugly into the slide.
The exact same problem can occur from a different cause: The recoil spring plug may give way. This is common with hard use of the compact Officer's ACP guns. Most compact 1911s slavishly copy the Officer's ACP's recoil system, so this problem is not limited to Colts. On the Officer's ACP, the only thing holding the recoil spring plug in the gun is a tiny tab that hooks into a slot in the slide. If that small tab gives way (and it often does), your gun is hors de combat by virtue of a missing recoil system. I'm a big fan of the aftermarket recoil spring plugs for Officer's ACP-size guns that use a ring of metal at the rear of the plug to hold it inside the slide. There's no way such a part can come out of the gun.
The plunger tube that runs between the slide stop and thumb safety is a notorious weak spot in the basic 1911 design. This tube contains two little plungers and a spring, the power of which serves both to hold the slide stop in the down position until operated by the follower of the empty magazine as well as to hold the thumb safety lever in the safe or fire position. This is a high-stress area of the gun; every time you flip your thumb safety on or off, you apply force to the plunger tube. Unfortunately, the plunger tube is held to the side of the gun only by two small studs that pass through holes in the frame. It is not at all unusual for one of these studs (almost invariably the rear one) to snap off. I've had this happen myself while shooting, and I've seen it happen to other shooters. When this happens, your thumb-safety lever will wind up in a half-on/half-off position. In an emergency, it would be possible to physically hold the safety lever down in the fire position and still shoot the piece. However, for all practical purposes, the gun is disabled until the plunger tube is replaced.
There's really nothing you can do about this problem except to keep a close eye on your gun's plunger tube for signs of looseness. Some folks say that if your plunger tube is loose, you should simply have it restaked. I don't know about that. If the plunger tube has been loose for any amount of time, that rear stud has probably been abused enough that I'd probably feel better myself simply replacing the tube with a new part.
So, there's a lot to know about the ol' 1911, huh? It's not exactly the simplest or most maintenance-free design out there. The trick here is to enjoy the 1911 design for its strengths, but at the same time don't deny its weaknesses. Let me summarize my advice to maximize your 1911 auto's reliability: Load it with good hollow-point ammunition featuring a feed profile as close to hardball as possible. Use only top-quality magazines. Keep the gun clean and well lubricated. Check your bushing's fit in the slide. Regularly check your extractor tension and the plunger tube staked to the side of the gun for any looseness. If either of these areas shows problems, move instantly to rectify them.
Modifications? Leave the gun as stock as possible. If you must customize, do so with extreme moderation. Either leave your hammer/sear alone or, if you must have a trigger job, let only a shop that knows what it's doing modify this critical area. If your slide stop is popping up, have the slide stop dimpled by a competent pistolsmith. On the small, Officer's ACP-size guns, replace the stock bushing with an aftermarket bushing designed to stay in the piece. Let only the best pistolsmiths touch your gun. I like to put my preferred sights on a 1911, but that's a matter of personal preference and not an absolute necessity. And that's about it.
You in the front row....yeah, you with your hand up. You have a question?
"So, you're saying that you've got to know the 1911 inside out to get the best out of it? You've got to know what ammo to feed it, buy good mags for it, know how the various parts work and know where the weak points are in the design so you can have advanced warning if anything's about to let go. Is the gun really worth all this effort?"
Emphatically, yes; the 1911 is worth it. The 1911's overwhelming virtue is how easy it is to shoot. Quite simply, the 1911 design gives us the shortest, most controllable trigger pull of any handgun. In this area, all other one-hand guns must take a back seat to the grand old design. In my recent article on the easiest handguns to shoot, the Colt Government Model outshot several of the more modern designs, placing third out of five guns I tested. I believe it might have placed even higher, but I was determined that all the guns in my shootout be as stock as possible, so before testing the Government Model I replaced the excellent wooden Spegel grips the piece normally wore with the rubber wraparound grips that had come stock on the gun. The rubber wraparounds really bulked up the grip, changing a gun that had fit my hand wonderfully well into a gun that didn't fit my hand at all. The fact that I was still able to fire the piece well is, I feel, a tribute to the Government Model's inherent shootability.
Another thing I like very much about the 1911 is that it's the only serious, heavy-duty combat handgun out there that can be totally detail stripped without tools. Not to get too Zen here, but when I know I can totally disassemble my carry gun and put it back together again using nothing but my own hands, it gives me a wonderful sense of being one with the gun.
No, the 1911 is not a gun for the casually interested. However, for the dedicated shooter who's willing to take the time to get to know the design intimately, the 1911 is still a superior choice in a defensive handgun. Unlike most things in life, the 1911 has strengths that more than compensate for its flaws. If it's not perfect, well, what is??