Making the Compact 1911 Reliable

Earlier today (at the time I wrote this), 1911 guru Bill Wilson posted an excellent article on his blog on the secrets to making a short format 1911 pistol work reliably. Bill explains, “the basic functional difference between a full size (as John Browning designed it) 1911 pistol and a compact version with a 4.25″ or shorter barrel is slide mass and speed.” The point of the article was that these guns can indeed be made to run reliably if you know what you’re doing. The key lies in controlling spring weights, slide speed (hammer spring and firing pin stop geometry), a carefully tuned extractor, and careful ammunition selection. Follow the right formula, keep up on your preventative maintenance, and you can have a reliable compact 1911 (assuming it was set up correctly to begin with.)

In our 1911 classes, Hilton and I have always recommended against the compact format 1911s, and Bill’s advice seems to run contrary. But upon careful consideration, it really doesn’t. Remember that we speak in the context of large unit or agency issue, and the caveats above are simply impractical to do for a department issuing a hundred or two of these pistols. Even if the agency allows the individual user to carry a sidearm of choice, many times the ammunition chosen is dictated by policy and won’t necessarily fit the parameters outlined in Bill’s article.

Contrast that to the current production M&P or Glock 19, which will typically run right out of the box. Yes, I am aware some Glocks have extraction issues, but this is usually solved with a drop in FRE from Apex Tactical Specialties. I have found that inside of 20 yards I have no performance deficit in terms of speed or accuracy. In fact, I would argue that I gain speed in the form of faster recovery from recoil and quicker followup shots on target as evidenced by my Bill Drill times. As for marksmanship, I can usually shoot 280 or better on the FBI Bullseye Course with my G19 which is within 90% of my ability with the 1911 on the same course of fire. All this with a pistol that costs a fraction of a quality 1911 properly set up for service use.

I’ll end with an experience at a marksmanship course a few years back. My good friend, a dyed-in-the-wool 1911 fanatic Dean Caputo, and I were attending a course with Larry Vickers. Dean was shooting his Colt Officer’s model that he had deemed 100% reliable. Before a scored course of fire, I asked him, “Are you sure your pistol is going to work?” He gave me that look like I had just snuck out of his sister’s room four hours after the prom. Much to my amusement, his pistol choked halfway through the course of fire. Now Dean has quite a bit of 1911 experience, and immediately diagnosed the problem. He had just over 200 rounds through the pistol without changing the recoil spring, and the Officer’s model is very sensitive to weak recoil springs. A spring change was all it took to get the gun back up and running (for the next 200 rounds.) Contrast that with a Gen 2 Glock 19 he’s had for decades. I think he was on the original spring that came with the gun, and it had miserably failed the armorer recoil spring check. Yet it kept chugging right along through an entire GSSF match. The on site armorer examined the gun and upgraded just about every small part with the latest generation versions.

Sure the 1911 is pretty, has a great trigger, and its aesthetics are unrivaled. But if we are to be honest with ourselves on what is the most practical choice for a defensive firearm, the choice seems fairly obvious to me.

This entry was posted in 1911, Modern Service Pistols by Tim Lau. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

20 thoughts on “Making the Compact 1911 Reliable

  1. Well said. I love the 1911 and have just finished building a vintage Colt Commander for my (hopefullly one day) Son, but I carry a Glock M19 and choose that as my “go to gun” whenever I can.

    • ahh… the ye old ‘buy a Harley fo sho, ride a Honda to work’ – reality of 1911’s…

      sad, but true…for most, unless one is a truly dedicated aficionado/practitioner/OCD-caretaker/gunsmith of the 1911 platform like Bill Wilson, Larry Vickers, Hilton Yam, et al…

  2. I’m with you Tim, I love the 1911, its a pure enthusiasts handgun. However, I feel the micro framed 1911s are insufficient to the modern striker polymer handguns. When this comes up some 1911 owners will “claim” they have 2,000 + rounds without a stoppage, but as your article’s example demonstrated we all know that stoppages are a common occurrence with the micro 1911’s. Reliability is a major issue and lets not forget magazine capacity. I prefer the added firepower of 15+1 to 7+1. Great article!

  3. Did I read that right, an officers model 1911 only lasts for 200 rounds on a recoil spring? I’m not a 1911 guy so I don’t know bit that must be a misprint. Some shooters would have to change their recoil spring several times a month. Is that right?

    • Not a typo. That’s two hundred (200) rounds. That info comes right from Dean, a Colt Master Armorer Instructor. That is also why the Officer’s Model went away. The dual spring system in the Defender lasts longer and is a superior gun to the Officer’s Model.

      • Perhaps also discontinued because it was 3.5″ bull barrel bushing weapon?

        Wilson uses a bull barrel with reverse plug in all of his Professional (4″) models.

      • 200?… that has to be a mistake.. I put nearly that through my Ruger the first day I took it out.. hasn’t missed one or jammed etc. All that has been shot through it has been cheap steel TUL ammo from Walmart to prove the naysayers.. haha still works flawlessly and hasn’t missed a beat.. Im very meticulous about my cleaning, but I feel that this is far underscoring the reality of a quality 1911. Compact or not..

        • No, it isn’t. Please read carefully, it is the interval for a Colt Officer’s Model, NOT a full size Govt Model which runs 3,000 between spring changes.

  4. It seems as if there’s a coordinated effort here to discourage use of the 1911 through multiple, recent, somewhat repetative articles. Is there a specific reason these are all coming up somewhat recently? Don’t get me wrong, I encourage the time you guys put in this blog and the quality you guys provide informationally is second to none, I’m just not quite sure why the recent push.

    • If by “recent,” you mean the last 3 years or so…then sure. The tide of the training industry has turned away from the 1911, and many of the special teams who used to run the 1911 have moved away from them. We are merely reflective of the trend in moving to modern pistols, for the same reasons that the rest of the industry has. It would be disingenuous of us not to appropriately educate our readers on the 1911 rather than just romanticize it.

  5. All valid points and well made. However, the title is something of a misnomer. Shouldn’t it be more to the order of, “Why the compact 1911 is a pain in the ass.” ?

  6. As John T***** (aka 1911Tuner) has espoused for decades and as the Army noted 96 years ago, a critical feature controlling/enabling slide speed is the radius on the firing pin stop in conjunction with the hammer spring.

    From one of John’s many posts…
    “The original specs as set forth by John Browning and the Dream Team called for that radius to be .078, or 5/64ths inch. In January 1918, in response to complaints of the slide being too difficult to hand-cycle with the hammer down…the army ordnance board approved a change to the present-day 7/32nds radius.”


    “My whole point with the 1911 is troubleshooting and correcting functional issues. Reliability is my focus. The small radius stop is a reliability tweak. No more and no less. If it didn’t enhance reliability, I wouldn’t waste my time. The fact that it stabilizes the extractor and makes ejection more consistent is a bonus.”

    How does it enhance reliability? By slowing the slide in recoil, thus reducing not only the recoil spring’s backward shove on the frame…it reduces the level of whack when the slide hits the impact abutment…which is what causes muzzle flip…what we recognize as recoil.”

    If you have a honking big radius on a small format 1911 FP stop, you’ll need a F250 Super Duty truck spring for a hammer spring to slow down the slide and absorb the kinetic energy stored in the slide!

    I traveled to John’s shop some 3 decades ago for some tutoring on radius’ing the FP stop for different 1911 formats. The hammer spring one selects should be based on the the radius of the FP stop.

    And, assuming one is a proponent of the Miller “hard fit” barrel method, timing is first achieved at the barrel legs, then fine tuned with the FP stop radius and finally hammer spring.

    And for those of you who are going to comment on the Army carrying their 1911s hammer down in 1918…once the Calvary had been issued the 1911, and like any new product back in the day, techniques for new weapons came from first hand use and often took years, if not decades to tweak.

    And what is most fascinating, since the 1911 started being significantly modified by Bullseye shooters in the 60s, it has garnered a bad rap for reliability and function. Yet, the original 2 prototype pistols submitted to the Army for T&E by JMB went through 6000 rounds without a single malfunction! This begs and answer to the question, why fix something that ain’t broke? Yes, I know, Bulleye shooters are attempting to make one very small hole (grouping) on paper! But, aren’t the rest of us simply looking for a reliable, EDC 1911?

    • Not sure what your point is, since the square FP stop was covered in Bill’s article which I referenced. Keep in mind the reliability of the 1911 is predicated on shooting standard pressure ball ammunition out of Government sized steel framed pistols using 7-round magazines. We now ask the pistol to shoot a variety of modern hollow point ammunition with varying bullet profiles using platforms that vary quite a bit from the Govt model using 8-round mags, all of which contribute to a potentially less reliable setup. It can be done, but not without additional setup, cost and an educated user.

      • The point was…

        The notionthe square firing pin stop or even the small radius being some kind of recent thought, is not the case. The concept of small radius stops has been around long before Bill traded his jewelers bench for the 1911!

        And, Bill was not the first 1911 ‘smith to pick up on flat wire for magazines as was touched on in Hilton’s article. Yes, Bill likely did more private sector R&D on the flat wire, derived from NASA, for tweaking the 7 round mag into a reliable 8 rounder; but, not the first.

        Bill’s point was reliability of small format 1911s and how to get there.

      • And my main point was…and has nothing to do with magazine capacity…

        When one begins to tweak the 1911 away from the JMB design, can and should one expect to get the 6000 rounds without a malfunction that JMB achieved in the Army’s trials? Or simply 200 rounds between recoil spring changes like Tim’s buddy’s 1911?

        And…some 1911 ‘smiths will argue that the recoil spring sole function is to simply strip the next round from the magazine and prevent excessive frame battering while returning the slide into battery.

        Tim, I know you’re a Glock aficionado and that is fine! But, to address 1911 short-comings one must address the deviations in design.

        I am a proponent of 7 rounds in a 7 round tube. Having said that, I have more than my fair share of Wilson and McCormick Power Mags of 8 round variety. My EDC 1911 is stuffed with a Wilson 8 rounder and a Tripp 10 rounder in the pouch. Yes, I am going to have to perform a reload to match the 17+1 in your Glock 17. But, I have yet to run a mag dry during a hostile event CONUS.

      • And I whole-kindheartedly agree…

        “We now ask the pistol to shoot a variety of modern hollow point ammunition with varying bullet profiles using platforms that vary quite a bit from the Govt model…all of which contribute to a potentially less reliable setup. It can be done, but not without additional setup, cost and an educated user.”

        A tweaked 1911 or one that varies from the original design will require user knowledge how to maintain such a pistol or have 24/7 access to a 1911 ‘smith.

  7. Hilton/Tim/Dean

    I was given a Colt OACP in 1988 by my dad. It has sentimental value and I will carry it driving a desk in my plain clothes police office job. My very first shot with it in 1988 sent the weak factory recoil spring system flying. Back then Kings Gun Works was in and they made a heavy duty guide rod and bushing system and I sent them my gun and they installed. It has ran good since then however I don’t shoot it much these days (except quals once a year and countless dry fires)

    It is currently getting a cosmetic make over and the dual factory recoil springs need replacing. I still have a new set of Colt dual springs….and not sure if they still make them.

    Is the Colt OACP factory dual springs still the preferred spring or since we are to replace at the 200 round mark….does it matter which recoil spring it use…like the single Wolff spring or other quality spring manufacture.

    thanks in advance….your friend from South Texas (Mike)

  8. I carry and recommend a Para Ord Warthog 3″ 10+1 compact. Although they originally stated (double) spring set should be changed out at 1500 rds, both of my Warthogs have thousands of rounds through each with no sign of wear or spring fatigue. Maintenance mandatory! The flaw with this compact is excessive drillings (channels) for firing pin and extractor that clog with fouling. The firing pin spring can/has clogged with garp to the point of light primer strikes and FTF. The “power extractor” (hinged claw) starts chucking empties in all directions. The solution is complete tear down and thorough cleaning after 250 rds. That includes pulling and cleaning firing pin and spring, extractor, and firing pin safety block plunger (which can get stuck firmly in the depressed position). Other than that, the Warthog is a 100% reliable double stack compact that is as accurate as a full frame and the most comfortable 1911 platform to carry. Wouldn’t choose any other!

    • Friends don’t let friends buy Para Ordnance. Poor quality frame castings, low quality parts and other issues make it a poor choice for a 1911 platform in general. You may get lucky and find one that is OK but across the board, we have seen too many issues to recommend them for serious use. Add the reliability issues of a short slide stroke and double stack 1911 mags and you’re setting yourself up for failure.

  9. To paraphrase “1911s are what you show your friends, Glocks are what you show the bad guys.”

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