This article is an update of a resource that I had on my old website when I still built 1911s to customer order. A customer contacted me about the article, so I thought I would update the circa 2005 information and put it back out. Please note the usual caveats of “your mileage may vary,” “everyone has their opinion,” etc., etc. These insights are based only on my own research and experience, and if you have built a bunch of 1911s and have your own thoughts, by all means let’s discuss in the comments section.
There are a plethora of Colts to choose from, but they all share certain traits, both positive and negative, in regards to their use as base guns. Historically, Colts have had good quality small parts and metallurgy through all their different production runs. The prancing pony has history and character that no other 1911 can claim, and the traditional cosmetics are hard to beat for an elegant buildup. One of Colt’s biggest problems has always been with quality control. Different vintages of Colts will exhibit machining and workmanship varying from exceptional to abysmal. Many Colts have very sharp edges that preclude their use in stock condition. Countless variations of special featured Government models have been marketed over the years, but the best candidates are those most in line with the traditional 5” 1911.
Colt 1991A1: The current production new rollmark 1991A1 models are really pretty, and a return to Colt’s glorious days of nice looking polished guns. Forged frame, slide, slide stop; bar stock hammer, ejector, and extractor; and other high quality small parts make these new Colts a great deal. A suitable candidate for any level buildup. I prefer these over both the older matte finished, big 1991A1 rollmark guns and the various big “MK IV Series 80” rollmark guns.
Colt XSE: I love the cosmetics of the slide serrations and rollmarks on these guns. Depending on how much you want to do to one, they may have numerous “custom” features that are marginally executed and will be discarded on a full house gun. The earlier XSE guns had a proprietary dovetail cut for the front sight, as well as an unsightly and less than optimal downward angled beavertail grip safety. The front strap high cut is generally not what folks want, but it can be recut. Current production models are the best examples of the XSE, and if you want a gun with modern cosmetics (ie. angled cocking serrations, front and rear) and a Colt horsie, this is the best choice to consider.
Colt Gunsite Pistol: If this pistol had the same style rollmarks as the XSE and was under $1000 street price (it doesn’t and it is not), then it would be super cool. Its main attraction is that it does not have the Series 80 firing pin system. If you want one, these guns are out of general production but can still be found NIB on the secondary market as well as direct through Gunsite.
Colt Series 70: You need to understand what to look for, or else you may end up with some buyer’s remorse. Colt’s QC wandered dramatically during the Series 70 runs. The earlier, big letter (70G prefix and G70 suffix serial numbers) rollmark guns tend to be more mechanically solid, but the mid to late production small letter guns (70B prefix and B70 suffix serial numbers) often exhibited serious machining flaws. The slides on the ”B” serial number guns very often had shallow or rolled radial lug cuts in the slide (see below), which preclude the correct cycling of the gun. There is no saving such a specimen, and it is to be avoided at all costs.
Other issues common to all Series 70 guns include: lines/contours not machined straight, crooked or shallow slide rollmarks, thin or misshapen trigger guards, and thin or wavy front straps. A good specimen is a fantastic choice as a base gun, but it is also very easy to end up with a turkey with some holes or other machining cuts in the wrong place. It is currently safer to go with one of the new Colt Custom Shop Series 70s or other available reproductions that they are making.
Colt pre-70 Commercial: Made in the 50’s and 60’s, most of these guns were examples of the best combination of metallurgy and quality control from Colt. Most are great base guns, but are getting very hard to find in condition that’s usable but not collectable.
Colt Custom Shop Series 70: The new production of the small letter Series 70, they have all the cosmetic appeal of the old guns, but without the mechanical problems. My preferred choice for a base gun for any type of buildup. A bit more money to start, but worth it if you want the Colt tradition.
Colt Custom Shop WW I and WW II reproductions: Same benefits as the Series 70 reproduction, but being limited run items, these are significantly more expensive. If you find a good deal or simply must have one built up, go for it.
Colt Gold Cup: I saved the worst for last. The Gold Cup makes a poor choice as a base gun or even a basic using gun. The staked front sight is notorious for flying off, and the Elliason rear sight’s roll pin is equally well known for breaking. The slide’s raised rib also complicates and limits your cosmetic options. Some holsters won’t accommodate the ribbed slide. The frame is cut for a nonstandard wide shoe trigger, which severely limits your aftermarket replacement options. The factory serrated front strap will also limit your front strap texturing options.
Before you go hunting for a base gun for your dream project, make sure to do your research so that you understand what you are buying. Your gunsmith may also have some input for you as well, and they can likely help you determine the viability of your base gun.