Entry level 1911s

So you want to buy a 1911 to start competition shooting, but you don’t know which one to get.  Assuming for the moment that you’ve got less than $1000 to spend, you do still have some options available to get started in IDPA Custom Defensive Pistol or USPSA Single Stack.  First off, you have to pick a gun.  There are lots of options out there, and we’ll look at 3 of them that seem to pop up a lot.  One thing that we’re avoiding is any “GI” type guns – guns with spur hammers and no beavertail grip safeties are going to require modification to be “competition ready”, the goal here is to buy a gun, buy some mags and get shooting.

Taurus PT-1911 – Our first entrant is the 1911 from Taurus.  These usually come with a street price around $500-$650, and have a good number of the features that you’ll want on a gun.   The big pros with the Taurus are the forged frame and slide.  The cons are that some aftermarket parts such as magwells, grips, and some internals that would be “drop in” on other models may require some extensive fitting to work with the Taurus.  The Taurus also comes from the factory with either Heinie or Novak sights, which is a major improvement over most “factory” guns.  The Taurus PT-1911 is available in .45 ACP, .38 Super, and 9mm.

STI Spartan – Next up is the STI Spartan.  This is STI’s “entry level” 1911, available in .45 ACP or 9mm.  The STI Spartan features STI’s BoMar style adjustable rear sight and a fiber optic front sight, making it the winner in terms of “quality sights out of the box”.  The Spartan’s slide, frame and barrel are all made by Armscor, and the gun’s internals and other parts are all STI parts.  This gives you a 1911 full of reliable internal parts for a fraction of the price of the STI Trojan.  Retailing for right around $650, the Spartan is also backed by STI’s excellent customer service, which is another point in its favor.  Also, most aftermarket parts will fit the STI Spartan, including magwells, which are basically required to be competitive in IDPA and USPSA.

Lastly, we have the ParaUSA GI Expert ESP.  This is a step up from Para’s base level GI Expert, and includes some additional features to make it more competition friendly.  The white dot front sight is replaced with a fiber optic, and the grip safety is now a true beavertail grip safety allowing for a higher hold on the pistol to mitigate recoil.  The GI Expert ESP is available only in .45 ACP, however it can be had for less than $600, which is a steal.  Also, unlike both of the other guns on this list, the ParaUSA GI Expert ESP is produced entirely in the US at Para’s facility in North Carolina.

There are a lot of factors that go in to picking an entry level 1911.  Some people will say to not buy one for less than a thousand dollars, because you’re going to end up spending that much anyway.  Personally, I like the entry level guns.  It gives you something to shoot without breaking the bank, and it’s a good way to try on the 1911 platform for size.  If you end up not liking them, you’re not out $1500, which would be a hard pill for anyone to swallow.

My order of personal preference for the guns above would go like this:

  1. STI Spartan – the Spartan’s biggest “go” point is that it’s backed by STI.  They have a reputation for excellent customer service, and I do not hesitate to recommend their guns to anyone.
  2. ParaUSA GI Expert ESP – While this lacks some of the advanced features of Para’s other guns such as the Power Extractor, LDA trigger, or double stack magazine; there is something to be said for a well built 1911 that works and is made in the USA.  I’ve had great experiences with my ParaUSA LTC, and would definitely shoot this gun.
  3. Taurus PT1911 – For an entry level 1911, you can definitely do worse.  There are a lot of people that will bash the Taurus, and while it finished 3rd behind the STI and the Para on my list, I have seen a lot of PT1911s during IDPA matches, and they all had one thing in common – they all worked.  I’ve seen stoppages in high end Kimbers more than I’ve seen Taurus PT1911s barf, so for an entry level gun I’d not be uncomfortable recommending one of these.

One caveat to add though, and anyone that’s shot 1911s will realize this.  You may buy an entry level gun to avoid spending a ton of money on 1911s, but if you end liking the platform…well let’s just say you should be prepared, because this rabbit hole goes a long way down.  The 1911 platform is a great way to get in to competition shooting, and the guns we’ve listed above will all serve you well as starter pistols, but eventually you’ll start craving a little bit more.

Later, we’ll look at accessories to go with your new Single Stack Gun!


  1. So, pardon my ignorance (I shoot revolvers mostly) but what is a magwell? A google search just turned up a bunch of different grips?

    1. A magwell is basically a flared funnel looking thing that goes on the bottom of the grip. It’ll help guide the mag into the weapon.

  2. Honestly, if you like the STI then you might want to save another several hundred dollars and just go straight Armscor through RIA. Same slide, frame, and barrel. Different lockwork, but my RIA’s trigger is great and I’ve never done a thing to it. Their customer service is first rate and they monitor the RIA board on 1911forum.

    I bought my GI Rock as a 1911 project gun that I wouldn’t mind screwing up. It hasn’t been perfect, but for $300(!) I have no room to complain. A $100 in parts later and I still haven’t screwed it up and I like it even more.

  3. Great post. Especially the part about the rabbit hole going a long way down. Looking forward to your follow ups.

  4. So, pardon my ignorance (I shoot revolvers mostly) but what is a magwell? A google search just turned up a bunch of different grips?

    A magwell is a large magazine-guiding funnel that is pinned to the bottom of the pistol frame so the shooter can have the fun experience of chambering nothing but thin air every now and then.

  5. One of my regrets with buying my 1911 (a Springfield GI, my first pistol, ever) was that the front sight is staked in and the rear sight has an odd dovetail. So I can’t upgrade the sights without replacing the slide or having the current slided milled.

    When I buy another 1911, what terminology should I look for to know if the slide accepts a standard size sight?

    1. The rear sight on Springfield Armory 1911A1’s is standard GI spec size as far as I know, but the front sight is an odd size.
      There are 2 ‘standard’ tenion sizes, small and large, Springfield for some reason uses a “medium” size, if you want a new front sight buy a large tenion front and file it to fit, it will then need to be staked in place, this ‘can’ be done with a standard pin punch, but is much easier with a staking tool made for the job.

      I went the other route and made my own sights for my Springfield, took a few days but turned out very well, 3 dot sights with a plenty wide rear notch. (getting older and need a good amount of light on each side of the front blade)

      I’d also recommend a Les Baer beavertail grip safety it will require some frame alteration, if you cannot do this then get a gunsmith to do it, I did my own but that’s me.

      I also beveled the mag well opening and adjusted the extractor, mine was WAY too loose. Take off the slide and slide a round under the extractor, there should be just enough pressure to hold the round in place, if it is hard to slide under or if it falls off the face it needs adjusted.

      Go to Brownells web site if your extractor needs adjustment, they have a wonderful article about how to adjust one, actually almost anything you need to know about your 1911 is probably there.

  6. Freiheit:

    You sound like you’d like to look for “Novak” sight cuts. That’s the standard for carry-style 1911 sights these days.

  7. Here’s a second vote for the RIAs. We have two at the Manor, a 1911SC which is effectively an Officer’s Model and a two-tone Tactical that’s the wife’s range gun. The SC is my current light carry gun. I’ve never had a malf and I’ve put thousands of rounds through it.

    i’d happily pick up an RIA Tactical for my heavy carry piece but I’ve already got a Springfield Armory 1911 that I’ve dumped about $2K into getting it smooth and reliable. The only reason I don’t kick myself for spending that much instead of getting a Rock is that when I bought the Springfield RIAs weren’t yet available in the U.S.

    As an aside, the STI you reviewed uses a significant number of parts (frame, slide and barrel) from Armscor.

    Mrs. Knitebane is looking really hard at the RIA 1911 Match. Centerfire Systems has it for $599. Reviews indicate that it’s effectively a twin of the STI Spartan.

    1. I think you misunderstood what was meant by “starter pistol”.

      It was meant as a basic entry level pistol, not a blank firing pistol.

  8. “The only reason I don’t kick myself for spending that much instead of getting a Rock is that when I bought the Springfield RIAs weren’t yet available in the U.S.”

    The Springfield is also forged where the Rock is cast/extruded from billet. Where the Springer is strong, the Rock is merely strong enough. I expect that to show up in the service life of the pistol at some point.

    1. “The Springfield is also forged where the Rock is cast/extruded from billet. Where the Springer is strong, the Rock is merely strong enough. I expect that to show up in the service life of the pistol at some point.”

      It wasn’t the cost of the Springfield that I regret. It’s how much gunsmithing it required to be as reliable as the Rock was out of the box. Maybe I got a lemon, but the Springfield wouldn’t chamber hollow points when I first got it, it *required* a bushing wrench to disassemble and the fixed sights were useless. Three different gunsmiths later, it’s quite usable and reliable. The Rocks have been that way from day one.

      On the difference between forged parts and MIM parts, STI has something to say on that matter:


      1. I believe he’s referring to the difference between a forged frame and a cast frame, not the miscellaneous internal parts. With the number of materials courses I had to take as an engineering major, I’m pretty particular about the frame being forged as well.

        As for the Springfield, you either got a lemon, or some of their models just aren’t set up as well as others. I have a Springfield Operator with 2500 rounds through it. The only time I’ve had any feeding issues with it was during my first IDPA match, and it appears that was most likely due to having just cleaned it and not worked in the lubricant at all. (I had not realized the whole “don’t over-lube doesn’t apply to 1911s). Once I had 10 rounds through it, it worked like a champ again (well, except for when I didn’t seat the magazine during a reload in the second string.

        1. One of the issues my Springfield had was that the slide was too tight and was binding on the frame, so either a factory goof or a previous gunsmith used too much vise. I’m not hating on it, just pointing out that just having a recognizable name stamped on the slide doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to get a perfect gun. Now that mine is fixed it’s reliable enough for a carry gun. It just took some work to get there.

          While there is no doubt that MIM parts, including frames, have less strength than a forged unit, I’d be interested in seeing any data anyone has on whether a *quality* MIM frame is sufficiently less robust as to make a difference in the long-term reliability of the part.

          The same kinds of arguments came up some years back about aluminum alloy parts (especially on rifles) and no one now will walk away from a well built gun with quality alloy parts.

          Considering the rep the Rocks have for quality construction and many reports of thousands and thousands of rounds fired without a problem I’m somewhat puzzled as to why it wouldn’t be considered for an entry-level 1911, especially considering that a no-frills GI-type RIA can be found for around $400 and a well-equiped tactical model is still over $100 less than the three pieces listed.

  9. +1 for the Taurus. I bought mine a few years ago when they first came out and it has functioned flawlessly.

  10. Am curious why Kimber didn’t make the cut? Know the web tends to bash them, but have yet to understand why…mine have been outstanding, and same for others I know that have them…Thanks,

    1. Kimber’s aren’t really what I think of when I think “entry level” 1911. Sure, you can get Kimber with all the features on the STI Spartan, but it’s going to run north of $800.

  11. my cousin’s going to be in the market for a 1911 later this year…thanks for posting this, as i’ve directed him here (hi, V) for a few ideas he might not have considered.

  12. Thanks for this, I’ve been looking at getting a 1911 to keep my Glock company and this helps a ton. Also convenient that STI is just up the road from me, I may have to take their factory tour.

  13. One other thought, never overlook the used market.
    My Springfield was $250 used. In NIB condition.
    Couldn’t pass that up even though it was a GI model, added a beavertail safety, 3 Wilson Combat mags, and still cheaper than the Entry Level guns.

    The only problem with it was the extractor was way loose, I wonder if the previous owned had a habit of dropping a round in the chamber and slamming the slide shut on it?
    Not good for 1911 extractors. Always load from the magazine!
    Anyway was an easy fix and it saved me alot of cash so I’m not complaining!

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