Friday, February 01, 2008

So you want to buy a 1911? A basic primer

Arrighty then... You've just seen "Sin City", "Pulp Fiction", or "Last Man Standing"... or maybe you've been watching too many episodes of "The Unit", but you've got the itch.

You're a gun owner already, or at least you've shot before; and all the gun rags are full of them... but you don't know anything about them.

Maybe you've only shot your dads .22

Maybe, God forbid, you're a Glock shooter...

And now... you want the purest expression of personal defensive firearms perfection ever created. Gods gift to gunnies, through the genius of Holy St. John Moses Browning.

You need a 1911.

But, how do you get started? Who do you ask? Won't my counterstrike guild hate me for abandoning the church of St. Gaston? Won't the gun shop mafia laugh at me for not knowing about the holy hogleg?

Nay my son; the church of Browning is a forgiving church. We, like the Jesuits, understand that once presented with the light of truth; mans great gift from god of reason, will lead him to the righteous path.

We do not fear, or hate our misguided "safe action" brethren; for they know not what they do. We love and pray that they will see the light.

Now, in all seriousness, the 1911 is the most popular single model of handgun in the United States; and most likely, it's the second most manufactured centerfire handgun in the world ( the K frame S&W revolver being number one. I say "most likely", because the makarov may be close, but reliable production numbers of it, and all it's clones... who knows).

There's about a hundred years of history there; and there are literally hundreds of different manufacturers, gunsmiths, configurations, and variations to consider.

As 1911 guy, let me break down some of those major factors for you.

I. Size and configuration
II. Manufacturer (or smith)
III. Options
IV. Chambering
I. Size and Configuration

Ok, so first, there are three basic sizes, all originally introduced commercially by Colt, and thus canonically referred to by the Colt name (though technically "Commander" is a Colt trademark).

You may see a given model of 1911 referred to by the model it's manufacturer chose, or frequently, by the Colt designation:
1. Government Model: 5" barrel, full sized grip frame, 7 or 8 round magazine. Kimber calls this size "custom", Springfield calls it "full size", most everyone else just calls it a 1911, or a Government model.

2. Commander: 4" or 4.25" barrel, full sized grip frame, 7 or 8 rd. magazine. Kimber calls this size "Pro", Springfield calls this size "Champion", others often call this size "custom", "compact", or "carry".

3. Officers model: 3" or 3.5" barrel, shortened grip frame, 6 or 7rd magazine. Kimber calls this size "Ultra" , Springfield calls this "Micro-Compact" (or their 3.5" barrel the Ultra-Compact". Most others call it something like micro-carry, ultra-carry, ultra-compact, hideout, undercover etc...
Additionally, there are some other variations, including the long slide (typically a 6" barrel and slide), the CCO (commander barrel and slide on the officers frame), and a few have put an officers slide and barrel on a full sized frame, with several different names.

There is some controversy among Colt purists (irritating wankers for the most part) about whether a 4" gun should be classified as "commander" length, or a 3" gun as "Officers length", because technically the original Colt models were 4.25" and 3.5" respectively. Of course as of right now, the only officers length gun that Colt manufactures is the "Defender", and it's a 3" gun.

Oh and a note on names: Different manufacturers are inconsistent about what they call their different sized 1911s. In fact, sometimes the same manufacturer isn't consistent with model names. Kimber and Springfield have both changed what they call different sizes more than once.

II. Manufacturer or gunsmith

There are pretty much 4 tiers of 1911 manufacturer:
1. Discount 1911s: These are usually made in the Phillipines. Examples include Rock Island, Charles Daly etc... In general I would say avoid them.

Some people will rave all day about the excellent deal they got and how their gun was perfect etc... Unfortunately anecdote does not equal data; and from working in gunshops and doing gunsmith work, I can tell you that far more people have been very unhappy with their cut rate 1911s, than those who have been happy.

If you get a golden sample; great, you just saved $200; but honestly, is saving $200 worth the 80/20 shot you're going to get a lemon?

There are two exception to this rule:
Taurus, who sell one of the best 1911 for under $800. Theirs lists for $600 (a lot more than the Phillipine models, but a lot less than a Kimber or Springer of similar feature spec) and other than some early QC problems they've had (pretty much every Taurus has QC problems in the early production run), is just as good as any other production model 1911... Once you get any issues worked out... which may take a trip back to the factory.  They offer a lifetime warranty on all their guns, so all the guns with problems get fixed; but their customer service is less than great, so there were a lot of delays in shipping etc... 
Only one quality 1911 manufacturer offers a basic model at a much lower price point than their main line; STI, a small volume semi-custom maker. Their "Spartan" model, is a reasonably well featured 1911, made with offshore parts (Phillipine), but still high quality fitting and good quality control; and selling for $660 list (or around $600 retail). 
STI is a great company, who really support gun rights (they won't sell guns to some states because of their gun laws for example). Well... excellent but for one thing. Order a gun from them, and it may take three months to get to you. They're VERY busy, mostly producing high end competition 1911s.
If you're on a very limited budget, and you want a low priced 1911, I STRONGLY recommend you look at the Taurus, or the STI. 
Actually... honestly I recommend buying something other than a 1911 if you're shopping in this price range; unless this is your second or third gun. 
Expect to pay: $400 to $600 or so. Basically cheaper than a used top tier 1911 in good condition. Other than the Taurus or STI, I'd rather buy a better gun used though.

2. Factory standard: These include Colt, Kimber, Springfield Armory, Smith and Wesson, SIG, Para-Ordnance, Dan Wesson, and a few others (the ones I mentioned are combined, damn near 100% of the market)

Though there are brand partisans, mostly they are full of it. Chest beating for brand loyalty, which never made much sense to me. This is especially true of Colt, and Kimber; which to me seems mostly like people either fetishizing history, or working themselves up to feel better about the elevated price they paid (don't even get me started about the HK lunatics).

All the major manufacturers are roughly equivalent in quality for a given feature set. All use certain cast or MIM parts. Most of them have their frames and slides forged in Brazil or Argentina; and only final machined here in the U.S. (even though other than Springer, they don't label them as such).

Of this group, Para-Ord, S&W, SIG, and Dan Wesson are the only manufacturers doing their own forging, or at least using forgings done in the U.S. or Canada (Para-Ordnance used to be Canadian, and did their own forgings in Canada; but they moved to the US a couple years ago, and I'm not sure if they still do. At some point, all three of the others have used Caspian forgings, but again, they may have changed by now. Someone has reported to be that Paras U.S. frames are all cast in house now) for any models at all ; and I'm not even sure they're still doing that. I've heard from various sources that all of them have offshored or moved to investment casting (nothing wrong with a good casting, it's just hard to get right, and very easy to get wrong); but I haven't confirmed it.

So, what are the real differences?

S&W and Springfield cost a bit less than the others at a given feature level, and SIG, Colt and Kimber a bit more. Dan Wesson, S&W and SIG use slightly higher quality (Ed Brown, Les Baer, and Wilson Combat) small parts on all their guns. Kimber and Springfield use higher quality (in house) parts on their high end models.

Colt has excellent quality control, but poor customer service. Kimber has poor quality control, and awful customer service. Both S&W and Springer have excellent quality control and customer service.

Dan Wesson is now owned by CZ, who has a reputation for excellent quality control and customer service, but they are new to the 1911 business and the new Dan Wesson line hasn't had much time to build up a market history as of yet. That said, all indications so far are very good; especially since they have decided to use hard parts from STI and Ed Brown (two of the best custom manufacturers in the business). I almsot put DW in the "semi-custom" category because of this.

Oh and both Colt and Springfield offer some low end models, with the most basic features. If you don't like the "modern" 1911 features , you can get a Springfield Mil-Spec, or GI model; or a basic 1991 or a repro WW2 pistol from Colt. The Colts are still Colt expensive; but the Springers list out at $600.

Oh and one thing that almost all of the factory 1911s have, is poor magazines. It's one way for the factories to save money. If you think you've got an unreliable junker of a gun, try shooting it with a high quality magazine from Wilson Combat, or Chip McCormick and see if that fixes the problem.

If you buy a SIG, an S&W, or a Dan Wesson, you don't have that problem; because they come with Wilson or McCormick mags already.

Expect to pay from around $600 to around $1300.

3. The factory/semi customs: All the major manufacturers play in this space; but S&W, Kimber, Colt, and Springer all have a MAJOR production effort devoted to it (in fact, all Colts guns except the basic 1991 are "custom shop"). They use higher quality parts, and have their in house custom shops do the final machining, assembly, and QC.

Also, the larger custom manufacturers like Ed Brown, Les Baer, Wilson Combat, Rock River, STI, SVI, and Nighthawk all have offerings in this market position as well.

Amusingly, almost all of the factory/semi customs (except Kimber and Springfield armory), use parts from Ed Brown, Les Baer, Wilson Combat, or STI; and most of them (again, excepting Kimber and Springer) use frames and slides from Caspian or STI. So what you end up with when you order from one maker, are probably the same actual parts you would get if you ordered the same features from another maker. The only differences being the finishing, and the specifics of gunsmithing etc...

All are excellent; and they have any number of models and features to choose from, at several different price points.

Expect to pay: anywhere from around $1200 to around $2500.

4. Full custom: This is the domain of the custom manufacturers listed above; as well as a few high end custom gun smiths  (Ted Yost, Hank Fleming, Wayne Novak, Bill Laughridge, Clark Custom etc...).

They use the highest quality parts, and meticulous hand machining, fitting, final assembly, testing, and quality control. They also fit a gun specifically to you, with whatever features you want (and leaving off those you don't, which can be more important).

The gunsmiths who have good reputations in this business have it for a reason. They all do great work, and it's hard to say one is any better than another.

Expect to pay: anywhere from $1500 all the way up to $5000 for standard 1911s; without accounting for any fancy decoration, engraving etc... which can run into the five figures range.
III. Options

Whoooo boy this is a big one... The 1911 is easily the most customizable; and most customized pistol of the modern era. There are literally hundreds of thousands of different parts and options to deal with; and you can (and I have) write individual articles on each of them.

Let's just keep it to the basics shall we?
1. Frame materials: Most of the frame configurations mentioned above are available in several different frame materials. Traditional is of course carbon steel (usually blued), but most manufacturers also offer stainless steel, and lightweight aluminum options. Some even offer titanium, or polymer frames.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each choice:
  • Carbon steel is strong, durable, and relatively cheap; but it is heavy, and has essentially no corrosion resistance.
  • Titanium is light, strong, and corrosion resistant; but expensive to manufacture and machine, difficult to finish, and can crack easier than the others.
  • Aluminum is light, corrosion resistant, and easy to machine; but not as strong or wear resistant as steel, and more expensive.
  • Stainless is corrosion resistant, but more expensive than carbon steel, more difficult to machine finely, and to finish (you pretty much need one of the cured finishes)
  • Polymer is cheap, easy to manufacture, and corrosion resistant; but it's hard to keep it to tight tolerances, durability for some parts is iffy (they usually put steel inserts in various places to help compensate), and it's ugly.
2. Single or double stack: Almost all manufacturers offer their frames in the traditional single stack configuration; which typically holds 6, 7, or 8 rounds (at least in .45 acp). Many manufacturers also make doublestack models, which as the name implies are thicker in the grip, and hold as many as 14 rounds (in .45 - as many as 18 in 9mm).

3. Trigger: different lengths, weights, faces, materials, and pull weights are available. Try a few, figure out what's comfortable, and go with that.

My personal preference is for a short, extra light, aluminum trigger, with a curved smooth face; but no-one makes them so I usually end up with serrated faces. Most people prefer long or extra long triggers, with serrated faces.

As to trigger feel, I like a trigger between 2.5# and 4.25# in weight, with little takeup, a crisp break, and no overtravel (all my triggers are adjustable for overtravel).

A lot of people find that trigger weight too light, and like a little bit of takeup (my wife for example), which lets them comfortably stage the trigger. A short and light trigger takes them by surprise. Personally I think that's a good thing, but that's just me.

4. Hammer:
Again, you have different shapes, weights, and materials are available. There are three basic styles:
  • The spur, which is long, narrow, and flat; and usually has a serrated or knurled cocking surface

  • The rowell, which is round, has a hole through the center, and serrations. Sometimes called the commander hammer, or the HiPower hammer, because both configurations use this style by default.

  • The skeleton: If you took the long part of the spur hammer, grafted the circle part of the rowel onto the tipl, and hollowed out the middle, you would have a skeleton hammer. This is the most popular style in premium and custom guns today.
There are also numerous other styles that involve bobbing off bits from one of the above, or changing the shape a bit one way or another.

As to material, I personally recommend going with a forged and machined tool steel part; but cast parts, MIM parts, even titanium hammers are available.

5. The grips: This is utterly a matter of personal preference. It effects both ergonomics and looks; but as with a trigger, try a few different styles and types out, see what you like, and go with it.

Also, you should remember, the grips are the single easist change you can make to a 1911. You can completely alter the look and feel of the gun with a simple $20 (or $200 or more depending on your tastes) grip change. So if you like a gun but don't like the grips, go for it, they're cheap and easy to change.

6. The grip safety: There two choices to make with a grip safety
  • Beavertail or not. A beavertail allows you to grip the gun deeper into the web of your hand; and also prevents hammer bite. I recommend beavertails to most people for most guns. Without it, you have to have the gun sit a bit higher, which worsens recoil control. Some people simple dislike the way they look.

  • Speedbump or not. A speed bump, is a bump, hump, or wedge shaped protrusion on the bottom back of the grip safety, that helps your hand more positively disengage the trigger blocking mechanism; and also helps you index your grip by feel a bit faster. Some people find them uncomfortable or awkward.
I personally recommend that people get a beavertail, with some kind of bump; because they really do improve ones grip and indexing; but some people just hate them.

Oh and some folks either pin the grip safety in the deactivated position; or replace it with a solid piece that has the same effect. I don't care for this option, simply for liability reasons; but if you really hate the grip safety, it's up to you.

Again as to materials there are several different available; but as the grip safety is not a stressed part, most just go with standard cast steel or aluminum.

6. The safety: Again there two choices to make here

  • Single sided or ambidextrous. Some people prefer to have a safety on both sides of the gun for left or right handed use. Some people prefer to keep the safety right side only, both for looks, and to reduce points to snag on.

  • The shape of the safety itself. There are several different shapes; wide, narrow, long, short, bobbed etc... Again some people don't like how various styles look or feel.
Honestly, there are advantages and disadvantages to whatever you chose; just go with what feels good in your hand.

Whatever you choose though; I HIGHLY recommend going with a forged and machined steel part here. I've had safeties fail on me due to accelerated wear from a poorly cast part. Being forged doesn't guarantee it's better; but you've got a much better shot as far as I'm concerned.

7. The sights: To my mind, the most critical option; the sights are your second most important interface with the weapon after the trigger... and only slightly less important at that.

There are many visual options here, including plain black, three dot, tritium (night sights), fiber optics; as well as several construction or style options like low profile, high profile, target style etc...

Basically, again, other than strongly recommending night sights on any gun intended for defense; it's a matter of personal preference, and what you intend to use the weapon for.

8. The barrel: There are two basic barrel styles here.
  • Bull barrels have thicker metal machined in a cone-ish shape at the muzzle end, and engage the slide directly to lockup the muzzle end.

  • Standard barrels keep approximately the metal the same thickness throughout, and engage a bushing in the slide to lockup.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both; it generally end up being a matter of personal preference again. The one big difference is that bull barrels tend to move the balance of the gun a bit further forward than bushinged barrels.

Either one can have either a "standard" aka "thumbnail" feed ramp; which uses a partial feed ramp built into the frame, and a partial thumbnail feedramp cut into the chamber; or they can be a fully ramped barrel; which cuts the feed ramp out of the frame, and builds it into the barrel.

Generally speaking, fully ramped barrels are stronger, and feed better, so I prefer them; but some do not (I'm not sure why, other than perhaps traditionalism).

9. Guide rods and Recoil control: This is probably the single most controversial option on 1911 type pistols (which is a bit odd, because they are standard on most other types of automatic pistol). The subject is a bit too long to go into in a paragraph. I wrote an entire article on the subject here: MuthaFLGR

Honestly, except for match guns, and guns shooting odd calibers, it makes little practical difference; so I say do what you like.

No matter what you do though, the first thing you should do when you get the gun broken in, is buy a couple of higher power main springs (from Wolff for example), and use the heaviest one that your weapon will cycle reliably with.

10. The finish: There are a lot of options here; with modern polymer based finishes, nearly anything you'd like in fact.

I personally prefer matte or brushed stainless steel; because it can't wear off, and you can machine it, or buff/brush/blast scratches out without refinishing. Others prefer traditional blued finishes, which are beautiful, but not very wear or corrosion resistant.

Many pistols are now coated with cured (heat, chemical, or both) ceramic, or polymer based finishes; which can be had in nearly any color. Some of them even have nickel, or teflon, or other materials embedded in them, to add wear and corrosion resistance.

My personal recommendation is to choose a wear resistant, and corrosion resistant finish (as I said, I generally prefer satin or matte stainless for this reason); that matches whatever aesthetic you prefer.
IV. Chambering

OK guys, no holy wars in comments here, take that to THR/TFL if you want.

The traditional, and still most popular chambering for the 1911 is .45acp. It represents a good balance between size, weight, power and wounding performance, shootability, and cost.

Most people will want their 1911 in .45

That said, there are many other options. My wife has 1911s in 9mm and .380acp for example (technically the .380 is a shrunken 1911 clone not a true 1911). I have a 1911 in 10mm (my favorite gun in fact). Also popular are .40S&W, .38 super, and several chamberings that are used in pistol competitions.

Pick whatever chambering works for you. It's your gun, enjoy it as you like.

Personally, I think everyone should have a 1911 in .45... if you want some in other calibers as well, go ahead; but always have the .45. It's what St. Browning would have wanted.