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?
…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.
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.