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them, mix all the parts up, and then reassemble all the parts into perfectly functional weapons again regardless of who originally made them.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.