1911 as a Modern Service Weapon

Recently, I got a call from an officer from a neighboring PD asking if I could take a look at his 1911. You know, because it wasn’t working. I asked him a few questions, and it turns out this particular example was a Colt Rail Gun, but really it could be any permutation of a 1911 Government Model that populate the local gun shops. He said the pistol was giving him fits, he had lost confidence in it, and asked if I could take a look at it.

Of all the 1911 pistols out on the market, Colt probably does the best job putting out guns that generally work out of the box, as seen in my article: Colt Reliability Out of the Box. But they aren’t perfect. So I asked this officer (over the phone), what is it doing? He said it was having feeding issues and also “jamming a lot.” I told him that doesn’t really tell me anything. His response, “Well, I’m not a gun guy.”

I could go into a diatribe about how many cops don’t make enough effort to educate themselves on the tool that could save their life, or that of their partner, but that is for another day. I have heard Ken Hackathorn and Larry Vickers say, “The 1911 is an enthusiast’s weapon.” No truer words have been spoken. The 1911 requires more end-user intervention than any other pistol in modern service in terms of setup, maintenance, and selection of magazines/replacement parts. It requires a more educated shooter to keep the gun happy and running. I told this officer that if he is not interested in learning about the 1911, then perhaps this weapon system was not for him. Clearly, that was not the answer he wanted to hear.

I truly believe that every professional should have a basic knowledge of the cycle of operation and a general idea of how that mysterious hunk of metal and plastic on their hip operates, but I know I will never see that in my lifetime. So that said, if that is the lowest common denominator we have in a unit/agency/department, one of those newfangled plastic guns is a better choice for them than a 1911.

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About Tim Lau

Tim Lau has over a decade of experience as an end user, armorer and instructor. He has worked for several well known firearms training organizations, and holds multiple firearms instructor certifications. He owns and operates 10-8 Consulting, LLC, which provides industry consulting services as well as marksmanship and specialized firearms training to qualified civilian, law enforcement and military personnel.

17 thoughts on “1911 as a Modern Service Weapon

  1. If your not a “gun guy” then dont carry a gun. It’s that simple.

    • The problem is that they have to carry a gun as part of their job. It is not the priority in L/E work, and most aren’t gun guys. Just like they drive issued police cars at a higher performance level than most of the public, and most aren’t “car guys” either.

      I am not a good “mechanic” or “gunsmith”….yet love high performance vehicles and guns. This means I have to have a solid relationship with mechanics and gunsmith’s when I want to drive a “classic” muscle car, or the classic “muscle pistol”. My 1911’s run great because even though I couldn’t do the work, I knew what needed to be done. Tim is right on the money on this thing….1911’s as a primary hard use duty pistol is not for those not willing to stay on top of them. I saw this at my old place when they allowed 1911’s as an optional duty pistol. Two things happened…most of those who ran out and bought a “generic” sub $1000 1911 are back to their polymer service pistols, or those who are dedicated have moved up into the high end Nighthawk, Wilson, and custom Colt and Springfield level. That is really the choice with a 1911-understand the tool or get a “modern service pistol” instead of an enthusiast pistol.

    • I suppose I will have to be the guy that will have to take exceptions to the article. In a 23 year LE career that stretched from 1978 to 2001, I have been issued half a dozen handguns, including a S&W 686 that was a total piece of junk. I would never have attempted to fix any of those handguns. Instead of foolishly attempting to correct the malfunctions myself, I turned them in to the departmental armorers. I think anyone reading this post would agree that is the wise thing to do.

      I don’t believe any of those armorers thought any less of me by consulting them.

  2. Tim…

    I am not surprised that LEOs and I would haazard a guess, most LEOs, are not gun guys/gals!

    The vast majority of active duty DoD personnel are not gun people! Most are not even issued a weapon unless down range. And even then, most are not skilled with any tactic(s), save square range qualification.

    So LAV’s and Hack’s comment is not surprising. A gun enthusiast transcends all societal subgroups. And, most gun enthusiasts enjoy nothing more than punching holes in paper. Gun enthusiasts whose profession dictates they go in “harms way” to protect others are a very very small group of folks; my guess, less than 1% of even 1% of the population.

  3. I’ve got over 100,000 rounds through my 1911, and it’s certainly “jammed” fewer than 100 times during that time (and even then invariably as a result of one of my own reloaded rounds). Only serious malfunction happened a year or so ago when one of the plunger tube pins sheared off.

    That said, I bought it as a new gun from Wilson, so the set-up was excellent from the start (and was priced accordingly). I do a field-strip cleaning after every outing with the gun, no exceptions, and twice a year I detail strip it to its smallest components (only grip bushings, plunger tube, and ejector remain attached to the frame), and soak and thoroughly clean everything. It’s been my daily carry and competition (IDPA) gun for going on 20 years, and I’ve been very happy with it. In that sense I guess I could be called a “1911 guy”.

    That said, were I recommending a pistol to most anybody (including myself) who asked it would be a Glock 9mm, or something comparable (I’m not very familiar with the other plastic guns). I forget the price of my Wilson (bet my ex-wife still remembers, though), but it was certainly some multiple of a Glock’s price. Glock’s a perfectly good (even excellent) tool for its intended purpose, and take all that “saved” money and “unsave” it on ammo and training. 🙂

  4. I know how this may come off and I sincerely mean no harm. But I have to ask, how many LEO’s who have died in the line of duty, could still be alive today had they understood their weapon a lil better? Had they been running steel days earlier and found out their mag spring is weak or their extractor is “clocking”?

    I guess we’ll never know, but I had to put that out there.

    • I would venture you could say the same thing about if they understood their vehicle and driving better….and the number would be far higher. The biggest issue is that a pistol often is nothing more than a “badge of office” to many who carry a firearm as part of their work, and those who make the decisions on the amount of training and level of competency with the use of the firearm as one of the two most likely areas of getting injured or sued (use of force and driving) tend to be the worst offenders at never having been good in those areas themselves.

      • True. Of the LEO line-of-duty losses I’m familiar with malfunctioning weapons seem to have played a negligible part. I’m representing a third generation of LE, and remember stories from my dads department of those who chose the option of carrying semi autos back in the 60s and early 70s. There were a lot of horror stories about range malfunctions if not just the 1911, but also with the S&W 9s, and mist if it was the result of NO training and a limited understanding of the weapon. I still see that in the range occasionally, even as virtually everyone has gone thru an academy with a semi auto. I’ve seen those with Glock 27s have a lot of feeding problems because they don’t understand how to shoot the pistol. That said, while many in LE are not gun enthusiasts, only a small majority could be described as incompetent with their handguns. A 1911 is only for those shooters, LE and civilian, who are going to seek to master the weapon.

  5. Hey Tim, I couldn’t agree more about the 1911 being an “enthusiasts” gun. The first center fire handgun I purchased was a Springfield Armory GI 45, and I have learned quite a lot about its function since then. The GI 45 is not my go to gun but more a project gun. I have been thinking of installing a new match grade barrel, probably a Wilson combat barrel. I have researched into the fitting process and all it entails and believe I am capable of properly installing it. But I am curious as to what the essential tools are to install the barrel, I know I need calipers, lug cutting tool, pillar files, barrel block, and others but what would you recommend are essential, as I do not want to spend more than I have to. I know it would be cheaper in the short run to pay a gunsmith to install one, but I enjoy working and learning about the gun myself.

    Thanks for your time and the awesome content!

    Riley M.

  6. Agree with everything stated. I have a 1911 that is giving me fits right now the first of my dozen or more 1911’s I have owned ( all colts except for a couple les baers) to give me any trouble.
    If anyone can venture a guess I will appreciate it. It runs flawless to the last round in the mag then releases to round in the mag early so it does not slide the rim under the extractor with a predictable stoppage. Happens with a variety of mags ( colt factory wilson 7/8 rounds metalform you name it. Sometimes it will even lock the gun back (go to slide lock) with the last round laying on top of the mag. Any ideas?

    • Are you using +P or high performance modern ammunition by chance, or does this happen with standard 230 gr. ball as well? That malfunction is typical of a unique malfunction that occurs in P7’s when used with ammunition (usually 147gr.) that over-functions the pistol (its gas operated) and when the slide hits the end of its travel at a greater speed and momentum than usual or spec’d, that jarring through a steel frame pistol causes the last round in the magazine to jump above the feed lips and causes a similar malfunction. I could see the same thing occurring with an undersprung 1911 running something like Federal +P HST that is well known to be very hard on 1911’s and recoil springs in particular.

  7. I don’t even bring this fact up about 1911s anymore. I just let people think what they want.

  8. Thanks Darryl – this confirms what at least one other knowledgeable 1911 guy told me- essentially told me to try a fresh standard power or extra power spring- it happens with both my reload ( which works perfectly in a couple other guns and factory ball

  9. There was once a state trooper, who is now retired, didn’t carry a round chambered due to “religious beliefs”. We were all shocked thinking he was good to go if we ever needed him. Talk about not being a gun guy…

  10. One item that’s been over looked is the loss of the teachable moment. This would have been a real good time to take ten minutes and explain the type of malfunctions a 1911 can have and some of the simple changes that can be made to narrow them down (Magazine, Extractor, Ammo, Lube). This might have started the guy down the road to being “a gun guy” and we are all better off the more LEO’s that become “gun guys”.

  11. I understand all these comments involving concern about the special maintenance concerns of 1911’s, but then I contrast them with the experiences being reported by Todd Green over at pistol-training.com. He’s running a Springfield 1911 Warren Tactical model (it’s put together in the custom shop and higher end then the TRP but not quite to the level of a professional model) that’s not even in .45 …..it’s a 9mm. He’s closing in on 60,000 rounds, all documented, and it’s been a pretty solid performer. Those of you familiar with Mr. Greens work no that he’s not a hardcore maintenance guy, going a thousand or more rounds between basic cleanings and the gun runs and runs. He’s even commented that it does seem to demonstrate performance that is not in keeping with the enthusiast gun reputation the 1911 enjoys in these parts. My own experience with 1911’s I’ve carried as duty weapons also hasn’t shown them to be any more or less problematic then most guns other officers have carried. I stick to Springfield 1911’s so maybe if I were a Kimber guy I’d have seen more issues but so far my experiences seem to contradict the 1911’s reputation.

    Thinking about the question of how often a pistol malfunction has led to an LEO death or injury, I am not aware of it ever happening. In every shooting I have knowledge of, the pistols function wasn’t an issue as they all (1911 included) functioned as they were designed to. Now how the specific round performed, particularly in defeating intermediate barriers, like a car windshield, has been an issue. In one case for example, a 230 grain .45 round did just fine through a windshield while a .40 didn’t do so well. Then there’s the famous FBI shootout that led to the 9mm falling out of favor a couple decades back.

    Of course, short of the N. Hollywood shootout, I’m not personally aware of an LEO shooting where rounds were fired or needed from a second magazine either. Considering that, I’m a firm believer that you should carry the gun that you shoot the best with as the operator failing to hit his intended target is a greater risk then the gun failing to function. Not to say you shouldn’t do all you can to make sure your specific gun reliable and I do try and do so with my carry gun.

    • I am familiar with Todd’s test and am equally surprised at the performance he is getting. Keep in mind that our opinion is formed from many years of doing this, and my observation sample tracked very large samples of guns across well over a decade of use and over a million total rounds. Our classes also affirm our observations. Keep in mind that 1911 users often accept a few initial setup issues in terms of extractors and magazines etc, something which would not normally be considered ideal with unit issue service pistols.

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