An operator must have a defense tool that delivers utter reliability in a caliber that is tactically effective. Only one basic handgun design has delivered this for nearly a century—the king of defensive pistols: the 1911. And it just keeps getting better.
There are dozens of good defensive handguns and a few really bad ones. More modern designs from Glock, S&W, Walther, etc. all have fans and are successfully used all over the world. The Glock, for example is reliable, available, maintainable, durable, and affordable. It’s very easy to train with, very accurate, and simple to maintain. At about $500, a Glock is affordable to almost anyone. Why then, would anyone opt for a 100-year-old design that costs at least twice as much? The FBI, HRT, LAPD S.W.A.T., USMC SOTG and many other elite groups have gone back to the 1911, even though they can have any pistol in the world. There has to be a reason.
I will admit that I am biased toward the 1911. My first handgun shooting was on a Colt Ace and a National Match .45. I have tried and owned almost every handgun available. This includes those made in the U.S. and around the world. However, I always return to John Moses Browning’s most famous pistol. For me, it’s a matter of having spent so many years on the gun that no other feels right. It’s also the ability to work all the controls without thought.
Actually, 1911 isn’t even a correct term to describe a modern 1911-pattern pistol. A true 1911, which roughly pre-dates World War ll, had crude sights, a beautiful gloss blue finish, checkered walnut stock panels, and a nasty habit of biting the hell out of the web of the shooting hand. It was followed by the 1911A1, the post-war commercial guns the Series 70 and Series 80 Colts and NS (new stuff). Some of the NS has followed the basic design, added a few improvements, and come up with great service pistols. Some of the NS also has offered questionable solutions to non-existent problems, with prices high enough to require oxygen. Let’s focus on a basic fighting pistol that an average guy can afford and how to train with it. First, we’ll discuss what a service pistol needs to be.
Duty 1911 Must-Haves
It must be reliable! I had a student come to me for the Handgun Combat Master test. He proudly showed me his new, $2,500, super bang stick and told me how well it shot. The problem was that the tolerances of the gun were so tight that he had constant stoppages, literally clearing a malfunction on every magazine. Since shooting is largely mental, his concentration and confidence were so beat up he didn’t have a chance on the test.
My rule-of-thumb for 1911 reliability is that I have to take it apart with my fingers. If I need a bushing wrench, it’s too tight for service work. I don’t want an oversize barrel link, match barrel, hand-fit match bushing, or a full-length guide rod: I want stock parts that do not adversely affect the reliability. If my 1911 rattles when I shake it, I’m happy. If I have to shoot 3,000 rounds to break it in, it’s too tight.
It has to be accurate. Accuracy is very subjective, and we all have different standards. I once handled a pistol that the gunsmith swore would shoot 2-inch groups at 50 yards. Since I don’t carry a Ransom Rest with me, who cares? If this level of accuracy is possible, it comes at the sacrifice of reliability. I recently obtained a Kimber Warrior and the timing was ideal for this article. I shot eight rounds into one hole at 10 yards—that’s more than adequate for a service pistol.
A 1911 needs a good trigger. The above-mentioned Warrior trigger breaks very cleanly at 3.5 pounds, which is about as low as I’d go on a duty gun. Most of the guns I use break between 3.5 and 4 pounds. The above-mentioned gunsmith told me he could give me a clean 12-ounce trigger—no thanks. Know what works for you.
The sights need to be fixed and highly visible. Wilson, Novak, Heinie, and others all make good, robust sights. I’m partial to plain black, but three-dot, tritium, or other configurations work for some people. I do have night sights on two pistols, but they fill a limited role for me—bedside, with a Surefire light attached, for things that go bump in the night. I don’t like adjustable sights for service pistols, finding them too fragile for hard use. The series 70 Gold Cup is a thing of beauty, but I just shoot match wadcutter through it. It would not be my first choice for fighting.
What two safeties are on your 1911? Older 1911s need to have both safeties replaced. An upswept beavertail like the Wilson, with a pronounced “memory bump,” and an oversized thumb safety should be installed. Since the proper use of the safety is crucial to the operation of the 1911, changing these two parts is mandatory.
Additional, non-critical features can be considered, depending on preference. I like the Smith and Alexander magazine well, because it adds a quarter inch to the length of the grip. Grasping grooves can be milled into the front of the slide to aid in press checks. An ambidextrous safety can be added for support-hand shooting. I don’t need a lanyard ring, but if you work on boats or aircraft that’s different. I’m not a fan of weapon-mounted lights for most uniformed work.
The above list is all that you need, and nothing that you don’t. Stock guns with these features can be had from Colt, Kimber, Springfield Armory, and some custom pistolsmiths like Wilson Combat. I sent a series 80 Colt to Wilson Combat, who did the modifications perfectly and promptly. Two of the semi-custom guns were built for a little over $500 each (not counting the Birdsong “Black T” finish). The bottom line is that a perfectly suited defensive pistol can be had for $1,100 to $1,200.
1911 Training: On & Off Duty
Training with the 1911 involves a couple of distinct issues—the grip and thumb safeties. The operation, techniques, and tactics of pistolcraft are generally the same, regardless of the weapon used, but the manipulations of the two safeties on the 1911 present unique training issues. I refer to two safeties, not three, because no 1911 should be used that has a firing-pin block—this is an invention by lawyers, for lawyers, and should be avoided in serious defensive pistols.
Virtually all 1911 trainers, including such high-speed guys as Paul Howe, require the use of the safety; the safety goes “off” as the gun comes up, then goes “on” as soon as the gun comes off the target. I tell my students that the safety is riveted to a spot in the air—the pistol just rotates past that point, while the safety remains behind.
A warning on the above: I only allow my students to go on target once the decision has been made to fire. All searching and challenging are done from guard or the low ready position, not pointed on threat. With this in mind, once the gun comes up, on target, the safety is off. Firearms equipped with manual safeties/selectors should be trained on to manipulate these devices as the weapons are used. It does not matter what S.W.A.T. team you’re on or how good you think you are—if you’re that good, you should be able to learn to use the safety.
The thumb rests on top of the safety at all times, except when under the safety to put it back on. I’ve had a number of students insist that the thumb be under the safety; inevitably, they accidentally turn the gun off during a firing string, when the thumb bumps the safety on. It’s no big deal during a training session, but turning the gun off in a fight is a bad thing.
Because the thumb is high on the safety, we need the “memory bump” on the grip safety. The grip safety must be fully depressed to allow the pistol to go “bang.” Some older Kimber models with a “two” after the model, are equipped with firing pin blocks that are connected to the grip safety. The grip safety should be fully depressed when the operator establishes the firing grip on the stocks and unsnaps the holster—this ensures that it will be off when the pistol comes to bear on the threat. I recommend that the thumb safety be depressed as the gun punches out, on target, or when held close to the body during weapon-retention shooting.
New Gun Transitioning
I recommend 16 hours, minimum, of transition training before allowing an officer to carry a 1911 on duty, regardless of what he carried before. One West Coast department adopted the 1911 for duty use. They found that many officers failed to take the gun off-safe, and were unable to shoot. The answer, rather than properly training the officers, was to adopt a policy of taking the gun off-safe as soon as presented from the holster; The officer then runs around off-safe until he decides to holster. The argument is that a 1911 is the same as a Glock, so no safety is needed. Why not be safe rather than sorry, particularly when lives are at stake? There is lots of case law saying that safeties/selectors need to be used. Train properly, end of subject.
I’m a driver, not a mechanic. I generally understand the way my gear works, but I’m no gunsmith. I do know, though, that a hammer-fired pistol and a striker-fired pistol are very different in method of operation. Carrying a cocked and unlocked 1911 is like carrying a cocked revolver into a fight.
An added bonus is that the1911 has one of the smallest grips available. This should not be surprising, because hands 100 years ago were smaller. Officers with small hands will find it easier to use than larger pistols. It can be further shrunk by adding a short trigger and thin stock panels. A lawsuit against the FBI resulted in a finding that “reasonable accommodation” must be made, so the 1911 is an answer for small hands.
Choosing Your Duty Gun
So, what should the officer or department buy for a duty pistol? I’m very partial to the Colt Gunsite model, a series 70 action gun made in both stainless and blue steel. It comes with a short trigger and thin stock panels, which I replaced, and shoots and runs very well, and it’s one of the guns I go to first. I use a couple of other semi-custom Colts, shoot a Gold Cup now and then, several Kimbers, and I keep a Springfield TRP on the nightstand.
However, an officer may want night sights and an ambidextrous safety, and may want the ability to mount a light. He doesn’t want a firing pin block. This Kimber Warrior disassembles like a stock 1911, and has all the features mentioned. They can be found for as little as $1,050 in trade magazines, and I’d imagine that department price is lower. Yakima, WA, S.W.A.T. went to the Warrior, and the team is very happy with them. The Warrior in my possession went to Front Sight with a student of mine. He ran 500 rounds through the gun, had no stoppages, and was very pleased with the accuracy. His only complaint was that the bottom edge of the stock panel was a little sharp. This was corrected by the addition of an S&A mag well. Based on my limited evaluation of Kimber’s Warrior, this may be the best all-around stock pistol for a department to consider.
Another 1911 winner on my block is the Springfield EMP. This miniature, 9mm 1911 was introduced in 2007. I bought one, and am very pleased with its performance. It is very accurate, reliable, and holds 10 rounds. I carry it concealed in a belly band, or as a second gun, support side, when I go to the city.
It’s really gratifying to me that this fine pistol is making such a strong comeback. I have 50 years on the gun, and like it above all other autos. Quality 1911s are in such high demand in “The Sandbox” that a buddy sold his Desert Warrior, with two mags and 50 rounds of Hydra-Shok, for $3,000 when he left. It is a testament to the genius of Browning, the innovations of guys like Bill Wilson, and the commitment to excellence of firms like Colt, Springfield, Kimber and others, that the 1911 will be around for another 100 years. It is truly the Return of the King.