Cost and the 1911 – Part 3

A Wilson Combat "CQB" chambered in 9mm

We’ve covered previously how the 1911 no longer exists and discussed why. While the original 1911 was very durable and reliable it wasn’t a stupendously accurate or ergonomic sidearm. Talented gunsmiths like Hoag, Clark, Swenson, Wilson and others brought a number of innovative parts and modifications out for the 1911 which made the pistol more accurate, more usable, and more desirable.

They did most of this work on 1911 pistols manufactured by Colt. Colt has been selling 1911 pattern handguns on the commercial market since it came to be, and were selling the predecessors of the 1911 pistol before that. Colt has tinkered with the basics of the pistol over the years, offering some mild variations on the original 1911 pattern designed to offer more accuracy or more utility. Growing up I always had a thing for Colt Gold Cup pistols partially because of the name, partially because of how pretty they are, and partially because of the level of hand-fitting and attention those guns received at the factory. For the most part, though, Colt still made 1911 pattern pistols for commercial sale with the same basic parts…and thus flaws…of the original 1911. They still did the basics pretty much the same way that they always had, though…using quality materials that made for a very durable pistol that was an excellent starting point for a custom build.

As the world progressed and inflation made everything more expensive, the cost of building a 1911 skyrocketed. The 1911 wasn’t alone, of course. Just about any firearm made entirely of quality metal became more and more expensive to manufacture. To give you some idea of why, take a look at this video that Caleb took a while back at the S&W factory:

Forging high quality steel as you see in the video is expensive and time consuming. The raw frames you see as the end product of that process will then need to have much of their material carefully removed to produce a finished 1911 frame. In the Colt factory they accomplish that with a series of machines that have been in use for decades, each station performing a particular operation or two to bring the frame closer to the finished product. Other manufacturers might accomplish the same goal with a CNC machine. Either way, it takes a lot of time (which is the same as money) and effort to turn that frame-shaped forging into a finished frame. It’s an expensive process…and that’s why so few manufacturers use it.

Colt and S&W are one of the few manufacturers who make the major parts (like the slide and the frame) of their 1911 from high quality forgings. Most of the more inexpensively priced 1911’s you see on the gunstore shelves are made with major parts that come from casting. Casting isn’t evil in and of itself, but when it comes to long term durability forged components tend to hold up better than cast components. If you’re looking for a 1911 that you use for occasional plinking at the range the difference between a cast frame and a forged one may never be important to you, but on a duty/carry gun you will live with for daily use for years? You probably want a quality forged frame and slide like Colt still uses in the 1911 pistols they manufacture.

Even though Colt still forges the major components of their pistols the old fashioned way, they’ve found ways to save money in other areas of the pistol. Colt has been using polymer mainspring housings on some of their 1911 pistols since at least the mid 1980’s. (I had a 1986 vintage MKIV that came with one, for example) Small internal parts like the sear and the disconnector are now made by the metal injection molding (MIM) process which is more economical than the old fashioned way of carefully whittling a sear or a disconnector out of tool steel. Colt has had its ups and downs over the years, but these days the 1911 pistols they are putting out are really nice. I’ve had the chance to handle and inspect quite a few of the “New Roll-Marked” Colt pistols and they’ve all been very well made pistols…and all the ones I’ve fired have worked splendidly. Colt manages to turn out a solid 1911 pattern pistol that I wouldn’t have any reservations about buying. They’re certainly not the cheapest 1911 pattern pistol on the shelf, but they’re made to a reasonable quality standard with quality materials and will hold their value over the long term. You can’t really say the same about many of the cheaper guns on the shelf made from castings and poorer-quality MIM processes with spotty quality control.

Still, it’s possible to build a 1911 pattern pistol better than the NRM 1991 pistols that Colt is producing. Imagine that somebody had the crazy idea to build a 1911 pattern pistol as good as it could be built from the ground up. Imagine that they decided to eschew any of the cost saving steps above and instead decided to make every single part of the pistol using either high quality forgings or bar stock. Imagine that every slide, frame, and barrel was machined in house to very strict tolerances and designed with very tight clearances so that the amount of time necessary at the gunsmith’s bench to get a superior fit was minimized. Imagine that every small part like safeties, disconnectors, and sears were machined out of high quality tool steel and then heat treated for strength and durability. Imagine that all these parts were carefully assembled by a team of experienced gunsmiths with years of experience.

That would be a pretty darn expensive way to make a 1911, wouldn’t it?

A Wilson Combat "CQB" chambered in 9mm
A Wilson Combat “CQB” chambered in 9mm

and now you know why a pistol from Wilson Combat is priced the way it is. When you really think about what goes into the gun, though, the price tag looks pretty darn reasonable. Take, for example, my friend Todd’s new 9mm 1911. I’m sure in the relatively near future he’ll post something outlining all the work that master pistolsmith Jason Burton put into making that pistol, but the quick and dirty version is that it was the result of hundreds of hours of work, over 100 hours (that’s 2.5 average work weeks, folks) just at the bench. Taking a pile of parts from different manufacturers, even good ones, and getting them all fitted together correctly so that they all play nicely takes a lot of time and skill.

Wilson Combat produces their guns using frames, slides, barrels, and small parts that they make in-house to their own specifications…all designed to play nicely with each other from the getgo. There’s certainly a good deal of work and skill put into the assembly of the final pistols, but they don’t have to spend as much time on labor-intensive processes like fitting the slide and frame together properly when both are machined for a proper fit in the first place.

Gratuitous mag well in the fading sunlight shot...
Gratuitous mag well in the fading sunlight shot…

While there’s only one company making Glock pistols, everybody and his second cousin seems like they are making a “1911” pattern pistol these days. You can find a “1911” pistol starting at about $400 and ranging all the way up to holy-crap-you-can-buy-a-new-car-for-that-price range if you go nuts and splurge on an engraved, fire-blued gun with genuine ivory stocks. Most folks, I find, don’t really understand why there is so much difference in the price of what they assume is the same gun. The truth is that the $400 dollar 1911 made from entirely cast parts in the Philipines really has very little in common with a Colt or a Wilson or an Heirloom gun other than being based on the same original design. Sure, it’s a “1911” but when you look under the hood at how the gun is made it’s pretty clear that the person putting down the purchase price for the Colt or the Wilson or the Heirloom isn’t just burning money.

In the same vein, you often see folks who take one of the cheaper 1911 pistols and install some aftermarket parts like a new barrel or some Wilson “Bullet-Proof” internals to upgrade the gun and misunderstand the result. There’s certainly considerable benefit to performing those kind of modifications but the end result it is not, as I’ve seen alleged a few times, the same as buying a complete Wilson gun.

The goal with these articles is basically consumer advice. I find that lots of folks like the idea of a 1911 and really want one, but they’re often confused by the sheer number of options on the market…and often when they turn to the internet to do research they are hip deep in utter nonsense faster than you can say John Moses Browning. The key to a happy experience with 1911 pattern pistols is to know what you want. If you want a casual plinker so you get some of that old 1911 flavor on an occasional range trip, or a gun you can take apart and beat on without worrying too much about it then shopping at the low end of the price spectrum will likely give you exactly what you want. If you want a good quality gun that will be reasonably accurate, reliable, and is likely to survive many years of use and carry…and maybe you’d like to have some light customization done to make it suit you a bit better…then go buy yourself an NRM Colt. If you want a 1911 pistol made as good as it can be and to your exact specifications, bite the bullet and get on Wilson’s waiting list. (This goes double if you want said 1911 in a heretic caliber like 9mm) If you want a one of a kind custom masterpiece that’s as much a work of art as it is a functional firearm, talk to Jason Burton and figure out when he can spare a couple of hundred hours to build you one.

If you understand the 1911 and what you’re really looking at on the gunstore shelves, you have a much better chance of getting the gun that suits your purposes. Most of the disappointment folks encounter, at least in my experience, is when their purchase doesn’t meet their purpose. The person looking for a solid carry gun where all the major components will go for a six figure round count without breaking a sweat probably isn’t going to get that from the $400 cast RIA sitting on the shelf. The Colt next to it for twice the price, though, has a much better shot at achieving that result.

There are some goods in this world where the differences in prices between brands is entirely a function of branding and marketing, but in the world of the 1911 pistol that’s not the case. The price differences really do reflect significant differences in the way the guns are manufactured. Some of those differences may be very important to you, but then again some of them may not be. At least if you know what those differences are you can make an intelligent decision for your needs. I would never suggest that somebody who wants a fun plinker has to spend $3,500 bucks on a Wilson CQB with some custom touches, nor would I suggest that someone in Todd’s situation who needs a reliable carry gun with a light trigger buy themselves a Taurus 1911.

…ok, to be fair I wouldn’t suggest that anyone ever buy a Taurus 1911 unless I hated them with a purple passion and wanted to see them suffer…but you get what I’m driving at. It’s entirely possible to have a happy 1911 ownership experience if you do a little bit of research and if you’re honest with yourself about what your budgeted price really buys.

 

 

15 thoughts on “Cost and the 1911 – Part 3”

  1. That was a well written article and I couldn’t agree more. Each 1911 is an example of “you get what you pay for”. Great article Tim.

    Tony

  2. It’s always seemed strange to me that both of 1911 style pistols I own, cost me less than 500 bucks brand new, but yet they are totally reliable and purr happily along while I watch guys at the range with 1911’s costing 3 or 4 times more failing time and time again..

    1. When you get a custom 1911, often times they NEED several hundred rounds through them because they are so tightly built, the 1911 I had built was this way. That said, the slide is like it’s on ceramic ball bearings. With a less expensive 1911, they may be more reliable out of the box because they are NOT fit as tight and have looser tolerances. Race guns, well that’s a different chapter.

      1. Mr. Rumblestrip is describing a “hard fit” 1911 where all the parts are built oversized slightly and have to be basically filed down by hand to make them fit together…and that very tightly. I don’t think that’s strictly necessary to make a gun accurate and reliable over the long term.

        As to the class phenomenon, I’ve seen my fair share of 1911 pistols choke too. As an example, I attended a 1911 specific class once where everybody who showed up was a 1911 owner and enthusiast and barely 50 rounds into the first day of live fire people were experiencing malfunctions. The major culprit was: Lubrication. Believe it or not a lot of folks didn’t realize you can’t do the 3 drops of lube thing on a 1911 like you can on a Glock. (Even though the manual for the Glock doesn’t even call for that)

        Simple things on the 1911 aren’t necessarily so simple. They need to be lubricated properly to function. They need to be fed with decent magazines to function, too…and getting the right magazines can always be something of a pain, too. As an example, I bought a custom 1911 once (not a Wilson) and the manufacturer sent it with some of their own 1911 magazines…and the gun absolutely wouldn’t function with those magazines. I used Wilson 7 round magazines and the gun ran splendidly without problems.

        I once watched the slide and barrel of a Colt Gold Cup launch downrange after a shot because the aftermarket slide release the owner had put in the gun gave up the ghost and completely fell out of the gun during a string of fire.

        If you buy enough $500 1911 pistols and shoot them enough, sooner or later you’ll find examples that suck absolute donkey water or that experience a serious problem or even breakage. If you’re around 1911 pistols in general long enough you encounter simple issues like bad magazines, failure to properly lubricate, or even not replacing recoil springs when required that negatively impact what you’re seeing out of the pistol. There are often warning signs about these kinds of issues but, at least in my experience, most users don’t really know to look for them to perform preventive maintenance or get an issue resolved prior to that moment where the gun stops working and they stare helplessly trying to guess what’s wrong.

  3. Great series of articles. The tone of the article suggests you are wrapping it up. You seemed to only mention Colts and Wilson versus low end. Are Springfield and Sig Sauer 1911 of similar quality to Colts as I’ve seen them competitively priced with them.

    1. The answer to that question gets even further down the rabbit hole. Every 1911 marked “Springfield” isn’t made the same way. Some of the stuff they used is made in Brazil, some in the United States…etc. Their upper end custom shop guns are, to the best of my knowledge, made with forged major parts made here in the USA. (If I’m wrong someone please correct me) I don’t have a lot of knowledge about the guts of the Sig 1911 manufacturing process, but I believe they are made out of forged parts.

      As for “quality” that’s a tough call. The worst 1911 I’ve ever owned was a Springfield “Loaded” model. Because of that experience and seeing widely varying results from other Springfield 1911 pistols I’d buy a Colt over the Springfield every time. Then again I’ve met a few FBI guys who seem to do alright with their Springfield 1911 pistols, admittedly those are custom shop guns though. When I look at the 1911 pistols on the typical gunstore shelf these days the NRM Colts are the only guns that really interest me personally.

      More importantly at the pricepoints the guns sit at, you’re going to see a lot of common themes in terms of cost saving measures like MIM parts, polymer bits, etc. If you’re considering a purchase it’s worth looking hard at all the information you can to see which cost-saving measures you can live with vs. which ones you want to avoid. I’ve got no problem with Colt’s MIM small parts (disconnector, sear) for example, because at least so far it seems like they’re done correctly. They can even be filed on by a competent smith without much worry…or they can be easily replaced if you choose to do so.

      It’s also worthwhile to inspect things like the relationship of the feed ramp to the barrel throat on a particular gun you’re looking at because I’ve seen a number of guns that get that wrong…and it can be very expensive to fix.

      1. I have a Springfield Loaded target model, which is basically the same as a Loaded. I bought it with the intention of building it up with custom parts for USPSA competitions. Out of the box it did not run well. Lots of feeding problems. After adding an Aftec extractor I have not had any problems for over a thousand rounds, but I still would not consider it a carry gun.

        For me this was just something to use as a range and competition gun and I wanted a starter 1911 that I could begin to learn the platform on. Half the fun for me is tinkering so although I would probably have a better gun overall by just spending the money I did on upgrades on just a better gun in the first place, I’ve had fun working on it.

        For an actual carry or duty gun (or even someone who was more serious about competitions than I am), I would never recommend it.

        1. I’m a big fan of learning 1911’s using a less expensive model and doing some tinkering. I have a couple of Colt Sistema pistols I snagged from Lipseys many moons ago for a song that I’ve used for that. They were in really rough shape when I got them but I’ve done a bit of tinkering with them and learned a lot in the process.

          1. Yup. That’s the problem with 1911s, an $800 gun I bought just to learn the platform. I love it but it’s a black hole for money

    2. I have a Springfield TRP Operator for almost 5 years, Zero issues since purchased (yes I do shoot it) and I am guessing I’ve had it apart for maintenance at least a half dozen times. I use stock magazines and even the (per some folks) dreaded Kimber Tac mags, without issue. It’ll sit for months at times and when I take it out, it runs flawlessly. I would say they’re around middle of the road price wise. I also have a Kimber Super Carry Pro HD, it too has provided the same trouble free experience in the 3 years I’ve owned it; using nothing but Kimber magazines. Some may say if I am not a competition shooter it hasn’t really been put to the test. All I can say is: often times, things used less often are those which experience issues, yet I have not. I also own an RIA Officer model, going on 6 years soon. It did have issues with the slide not locking back a few times after I reassembled it after maintenance. May have been faulty ammo, spring not seated properly, I really cannot say for sure. Those boxes of ammo are gone, gun has been apart many times since and has not experienced any further issues. I also use stock mags and have tried the Kimber Tac mags in it, no issues.

  4. Taurus makes 1911s?

    Huh.I always thought they made 1:1 scale metal models with realistic feed simulations.That’s why they’re cheap :-).

    1. Understand that use the term “Taurus 1911” in the loosest possible way. I wouldn’t want John Moses Browning to haunt me.

  5. Awesome article Tim. I’ve found that if you want a 1911 to play with, almost any “1911 pattern” pistol will do if you don’t mind the occasional jam every two or three boxes of ammo. My personal 1911 was a Caspian fitted together by someone who knew what they were doing, and the gun works well. It is a cast frame gun though, so I don’t expect it to last 100,000 rounds, but I’ll run it until it breaks.

    The trick is that there is “Good casting” and there is “Bad casting”, same as there is “good forging” and “bad forging”. Somebody who uses a cast frame from the Philippines is likely not using a good one. The Pine Tree foundry (which Ruger uses for their revolver frames) is the one that supplies Caspian and so I expect that while it may not have the same durability as a forged Colt frame, it will likely last longer than a “forged” Taurus 1911-like object

  6. Caleb wrote an article where he referred to AR15 Quality Tiers. This article (or at least this part of the article), seems to echo that idea, but with 1911s.

    What you should do in part 4 is talk about different 1911s from the same manufacturer. How is a $2000 Kimber different than the $700 dollar Kimber (or Springfield, Colt, S&W. etc). Again, going into the differences in materials, parts, labor, features, etc

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