Cost and the 1911 – Part 1

M1911_A1_pistol

The term “1911” gets used a lot to describe a particular style of firearm that is nominally similar to the handgun designed by a collaboration of John Moses Browning and the U.S. War department for military adoption in 1911. It’s really an inaccurate term because the 1911, the gun that the US military adopted back then was a highly specific spec  for a pistol made to very exacting standards and doesn’t really exist anymore. Today US military small arms are made according to what is known as a Technical Data Package that dictates the manufacture with highly specific requirements in materials, tolerances, and quality control measures that weapons have to meet in order to be accepted on the contract between the DOD and the manufacturer. The same sort of thing applied back when the 1911 was being manufactured for the US military. The War department had a very detailed spec that the pistols and the ammunition had to meet.

Folks often talk about loose “tolerances” on the old 1911 pistols but they are usually confusing the concept of manufacturing tolerances with designed clearance between parts in the final product. Tolerance has to do with variations in the dimensions and performance of manufactured parts/final products and back in the day the tolerances for manufacture of a 1911 pistol were very strict. (Just as they are with current weapons like the M9 and the M4) Consider that 1911 pistols manufactured by Colt, Remington-Rand, Ithaca, Singer, and Union Switch and Signal all had to work with the specified ammunition and, even more importantly, work with spare parts regardless of manufacture. You could take a gun from each manufacturer, completely disassemble them, mix all the parts up, and then reassemble all the parts into perfectly functional weapons again regardless of who originally made them. You do not achieve that with loose tolerances. When you consider that a GI in the Pacific could be issued a pistol from any of the contracted manufacturers and that he could be stuck with a broken gun if it could only work with parts from the original manufacturer, the strict tolerances used on the military 1911 pistols makes sense.

 

The 1911 was made with forged steel frames and slides, high quality tool-steel internal parts (like the sear and disconnector) and all of this manufactured to extremely strict tolerances…and parts that failed to make that standard were scrapped. In the days when the 1911 was being produced for the military contracts, that’s how most firearms were manufactured…and even by the standards of the day it was an expensive way to make guns. The resource constraints of WWII pushed engineers and manufacturers to experiment with new materials like stamped steel in the production of firearms in an effort to save manufacturing time, precious materials, and money.

That was the world of the 1911. It was relatively expensive and involved to manufacture, it had some ergonomic issues, tiny sights, and wouldn’t necessarily shoot very tight groups…but by gum it worked and if something broke you could drop in a replacement with hardly any tools and it would be right back up and running. If we leave out that whole “expensive and involved to manufacture” part, doesn’t that list of features sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound an awful lot like the benefits listed for the polymer pistols everybody is buying today?

Think about it: The 1911 was the Glock of its day. More rugged, reliable, and sensible to use than the Luger or the C96 or other semi-automatic pistols of the time. It was made of relatively few parts and could be disassembled entirely and reassembled easily in the field. It worked in humid jungles and nearly arctic cold, in deserts and rain forests alike. Remember that in the original 1911 trials Mr. Browning’s creation fired 6,000 rounds without malfunction while only being cleaned and lubricated every 1,000 rounds. Literally no other semi-automatic handgun on the planet at that time could touch that kind of performance.

So how is it that when we talk about “the 1911″ today nobody is picturing the gold standard of reliability and durability in a handgun that the 1911 once was? That returns us to the first sentence of this piece…”the 1911” we know today isn’t really a whole lot like the gun that the War Department adopted. The 1911 doesn’t exist in production anymore. Instead we have a lot of 1911-pattern pistols from a number of different manufacturers that are made to wildly different specifications, tolerances, clearances, and unfortunately standards. The market today expects 1911 pattern pistols to function with ammunition and even chamberings that didn’t exist when the 1911 specs were laid down. We also expect several ergonomic improvements to the pistol that weren’t really contemplated when John Moses was at his drafting table.

 

A company could certainly manufacture a run of pistols identical to the original 1911 in every respect, but that pistol would be just like the original: a hand-pinching handgun with almost useless sights shooting large-ish groups that is dead-nuts reliable with hardball ammo and excellent long term durability. Oh, and thanks to inflation, the price of steel, and the cost of machining high quality parts it will cost between double (extremely optimistic) and triple (probably more likely) the cost of a Glock. Few want a pistol with those kinds of features at that kind of pricepoint.

That brings us to one of the biggest issues with the 1911 pattern pistol and why the term 1911 is no longer synonymous with reliability…namely the pricepoint. More on that later.

10 thoughts on “Cost and the 1911 – Part 1”

  1. What you say makes a lot of sense, Tim. I shoot quite a bit in IDPA and USPSA matches. I rarely shoot my Springfield 1911-A1 “Loaded” pistol in those matches unless I am just “in the mood”. However, I keep it clean and I have not had reliability issues with it. HOWEVER, I have said to friends several times that it seems that those shooting 1911 type pistols have more malfunctions during IDPA matches than any other pistol out there. Which had always surprised me since I had always heard the hype about 1911 superiority/reliability from supposed “experts”. On the other hand, those shooting Glocks or XD(M)s or whatever seem to rarely have any malfunction issues unless they just completely had no idea what they were doing (new shooters, etc.)

    It also meshes with my experiences in the military. I was a Dental Officer in the Army from 1989-1998. I was deployed to Desert Shield/Desert Storm from Dec. 1990 – June 1991. Just before leaving Germany( stationed at Katterbach Airfield near Ansbach (Headquarters of the 1st AD at that time), we were “issued” our “personal defense weapon” which in the case of the dentists were old beat up Colt 1911 pistols that I always joked appeared to have been actually manufactured IN 1911! They rattled like crazy and we were concerned that they just might fall apart as you walked. They were pretty worn out. We went to a range and did some familiarization firing of these pistols as it was the absolute first time that any of the dentists had ever seen their “Personal Defense Weapon”. We were supposed to go to the range annually and “qualify” with these pistols but that was always cancelled due to lack of “resources”. They were kept in the armory in Nuremberg where our DENTAC Headquarters was which was an hour or so drive from Katterbach.

    Anyway, my particular 1911 functioned adequately (I was one of the few dentists who had any experience with shooting pistols of any kind). It came apart extremely easily for cleaning. The pin practically feel out on its own! However, some of these pistols were in pretty bad condition. One fellows pistol jammed/stovepiped after ever round he fired. I don’t know if he was limp wristing or what. Another fellow who claimed to be experienced said that his pistol was so bad that when he fired it, it would hit on the target next to the one that he was aiming at. Pistol or operator error. I don’t know.

    But the “piece de resistance” was when we were issued our “basic load” of ammunition for our “PDW”. We were all given ONE magazine with 5 rounds of ball .45 ACP! That was it! WE complained but we told tough shit essentially. We then requested that we just turn in these pistols as they were essentially useless but we were told that we were required to have a PDW and that what we had been issued was it! We then joked that why didn’t we just give them back 4 of the rounds (Barney Fife!) because all we would need was one round to shoot ourselves in the head if Sadam’s Republican Guard stormed our sand berm surrounding our EVAC Hospital that we were assigned to out in the desert along the main supply route just below the Iraqi border!

    Fortunately, we never needed to use our PDW and were finally given permission to store it in our lockable foot lockers that arrived about a month after we were in the desert.

    1. Hah, that seems to pretty much sum up the military’s approach to handguns and handgun training. Makes the new service pistol testing seem even sillier.

  2. I love to shoot my 1911’s and rarely have any malfunctions. I shoot a S&W, Colt, and Les Baer, and I also shoot in both IDPA and USPSA, and my experiences have seen relatively few 1911 malfunctions. I submit that most malfunction are the result of, 1) amateur gun-smithing, 2) poor lubrication, and/or 3) magazine problems. Barring tinkering, sloppy lubes and cheap magazines, the 1911 should run just fine.

  3. Didn’t find a 1911 under the Christmas tree again this year eh Tim…And you would have been miffed if there had been a glock under the tree instead.
    Really Tim if you must compare a glock to something then use a comparable item…like a boat anchor without a rope or chain attached to it.

  4. I have a Springfield loaded that I shoot USPSA with. When I got it, I had lots of feeding malfunctions. An Aftec extractor solved my problems and it has been 100% for around 500 rounds since. Once I get a few thousand more through I’ll consider it good. The Loaded is a decently expensive gun (I paid around $850), and it basically would not run in factory state. I know 1911s from Les Baer, Wilson and their ilk run well, but they are also way outside the cost of a military side arm. I like my 1911 and love to shoot it in matches, but realistically it is not a good modern military sidearm compared to what else is available.

  5. Looking at the 1911 clones as a commodity product, we can determine easily enough why some folks have problems .

    One-the typical gun buyer is better described as a collector.Precise tolerances to ensure optimum function are wasted on a customer who shoots it 500 times , period.Thus , the business model of many 1911 clone firms is to produce a malfunctioning pile of cosmetically perfected parts- then when the two out of ten paying customers who actually shoot more then 100 rounds a session complain, those guns are replaced out of pocket using the profits earned from the collectors.

    Two- its tough to justify high quality construction when its all “Underhood” and no one knows quality from crap. From an earnings standpoint, the firm which makes pretty junk might indeed outperform the quality company -because cosmetics are easy to see and thus easy to sell. Selling on quality nowadays is a good way to go belly up as a mass market company-how many consumer 1911 companies advertise “Precise Quality Control and Vetted handgun design?”

    Three -the competition is fierce, thus pressuring manufacturers further to cut costs wherever possible.

  6. This is the difference between Windows computers and Apple computers. Because Apple controls all the hardware and software, their computers are reliable and easy to use. Because Microsoft has to account for millions of possible hardware configurations, including varying levels of design and support from the vendors, Windows PCs have a dubious reputation.

    But a good builder like Alienware or a custom job by an enthusiast will blow the doors off anything out there.

  7. Very informative article with well articulated points. I am looking forward to the other parts. I like the “1911 pattern” handguns and carried one for several years in LE. I own several of them and shoot them for fun. However now a days I carry a polymer wonder nine on duty and off. Why? Well…. Progress. The wonder nine is easier to carry, is less expensive to run and most important, the capacity allows me to manipulate less if a critical incident occurs. I make a distiction between “shooting more” vs ” manipulating less”. The target (s) has a vote on how many times it gets engaged, so “shooting more” may or may not be needed, and my crystal ball cant make an accurate prediction on this. One of my trainers once told me that we don’t know what the threat will look like, where the fight will take place or what it will take to win. In terms of manipulating less, I expect to have to run my weapon under the worst conditions such as having to use it off hand only, not beeing able move (injury, stay behind to protect someone / unable to retreat), impaired visibility (injury or low/no ligt), multiple agressors, etc. These issues can be mitigated somewhat (not made worse) by having a tool that requires less manipulation (eg: taking out of action, allbeit temporarily, to reload it) My three 17 round magazines are the equivalent of about 6.4 1911 eight rounders. Please understand that I do have a long romance with my 1911’s and if I had to take them out on a date that I would have to remember their limitations and adjust.

    1. Al,
      I second that emotion.
      I’m an old revolver cop. I carried Smith K-frames or Ruger Speed-Sixes on the job for over 20 years, till we went to the flat guns. I still own and love K-frames.
      My retirement carry gun is a Smith M&P 9mm compact. Why? Well, as much as I love my revolvers, the little auto is lighter, smaller, more concealable, carries twice as much ammo (plus one extra) and is easier and faster to reload. In other words, progress.
      I kinda feel like the old cowpoke who finally traded in his Single Action Army for one of those newfangled self-cockers. Nostalgia is fun, but progress is good.

  8. I daresay that even in a capacity restricted state, I’d still choose a Glock with 10 round mags. For me, the Glock is easier to shoot to about the same level (2.5″ groups at 25 yards is fine for me) that I am capable of shooting a 1911, but more importantly, as my “game gun” as well as my carry gun, my glock can be reloaded much faster. The 1911, even with a mag well, has a slower reload because the mag well is just so much harder to insert a magazine.

    As I do not live with a capacity restriction, I choose the wondernine handily. My G34 is the same size as a 1911 and with the right holster, is easy to carry.

    I do wonder however, if I am the only one to not have any reliability gripes with my 1911. It has worked without issue for about 3,500 rounds now. Properly set up, a 1911 is no less reliable than any other pistol. It is simply heavier, limited in capacity, and in a caliber that offers no benefit over its contemporaries…the only real advantage it has is that the trigger is easy to manipulate and it fits a lot of hand sizes well because the slim design. But even that is less of an issue.

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