A frequent question I get, and which was jsut asked yet again on Kims forums, is which of the dozens (or maybe hundreds) of brands of 1911 should one buy?
Really the answer is dependent on what features you are looking for, and how much you want to spend.
If you want a very simple 1911 that you are not going to mess with much, get a Springfield Mil-spec. You see them for as little as $399, but most sell them from $450 to $499.
For a slightly more complex and featured up gun that you are not going to mess with too much get a Springfield Loaded. Expect to pay $650 to $950 depending on the exact model, and where you buy it. If you wait a few months for them to get their early production bugs worked out, Taurus is now manufacturing a 1911 with great potential, for under $500; but right now they are having some issues. If you don't mind taking a risk on a relative unknown and/or relatively new 1911 manufacturer pick up a Dan Wesson or an Auto Ordnance, which run in a similar range as the springfield (maybe a bit more for the DW).
For a very featured up gun that you are not going to mess with except maybe a trigger job and some new grips, get either an SW1911, a Kimber, or maybe a SIG GSR. These guns start around $850 and go up to around $1350. Also, Detonics is back in business, in the same price and theoretically the same quality range, or maybe even a bit better (but they've only been back a year or so, so we'll see).
For the top end of factory guns, pick up a Springfield Custom Shop gun like an operator, TRP, or professional; a Kimber Custom shop gun, an SW performance center gun, an STI, a Nighthawk, a Rock River, or an Ed Brown or Wilson production gun. These guns start around $1250 and go up to around $2500.
If you are going to do a lot of custom work on a gun, but don't want an out of the box custom, buy either a Springfield Mil-Spec, a Springfield loaded, or a stripped down Colt (or a used Colt in good mechanical but poor cosmetic condition). The colt will retain more value after customization but you pay a lot more for the name (about $200-300 more than the MilSpec). Many notable gun smiths recommend the springfield Mil-Spec or loaded as a base gun for their custom work including Ted Yost and Clark Custom.
Yost built up my springfield champion for only about $500 (on top of a $900 gun); because all he needed to do was some fine work (the champion is a springfield loaded commander in stainless with a lot of custom features already built in); and I had already bought and fited most of the parts I wanted. I ended up with a fully custom gun for a lot less than a frame up build.
You can also buy frames and slides from Caspian or Rock river, and build up with top quality drop-in or smith fit parts from other manufacturers (Kart barrel, wilson hard parts etc...), then have a gunsmith do final fitting and finishing. The sum total of the parts will run you between $750 and $1250 for top quality custom grade parts, or as little as $500 for bargain parts (which most gun smiths wont want to work on). The final fitting and finishing will run you $250 to $500 for basic stuff, and up to about $1000 for more work intensive stuff.
If you are going to buy an out of the box custom gun, go to Wilson Combat, Les Baer, Nighthawk, STI, Ed Brown, Clark, Yost, Novak, Jardine.. well there are a lot, but that list will start you off. Expect to pay from $1500 for a near prodcution gun to $5000 (or more) for a full custom buildup. I paid $2700 for my fully built Wilson on a frame and slide I provided almost 10 years ago (and it was worth every penny).
I do not recommend going with a bargain basement 1911 (most of which are manufactured in the phillipines). Yes, they are cheap, and some folks have had great experiences, but for $150 more you can be assured of a good gun from Springfield.
In terms of buying used guns, springfield, Kimber, Colt, and any of the custom manufacturers I recommended are good options. Some folks like the old Norinco 1911 copies, some dont. Whatever you do, take someone who knows 1911s with you, and run the pistol through my auto pistol checkout, or something similar.