John Browning’s iconic 1911 is one of the most popular and modified handguns ever designed. The gun is an excellent platform right out of the box for a variety of tasks, including self-defense, plinking and competition because of its inherent accuracy, ergonomics and short, crisp trigger.
But as good as the pistol is, anything created that long ago can be enhanced and redesigned, especially when used in ways other than its original purpose. For example, John Browning couldn’t have foreseen the rise of pistol competitions, which have spawned an entire cottage industry to provide parts to enhance the 1911 platform. Other enhancements come from military, law enforcement and civilian self-defense arenas.
The list of available 1911 upgrades runs from the desirable to the practical to the questionable. So what are some practical 1911 upgrades to consider? For this article, I’m going to take a look at the top five enhancements that I feel are the most important to upgrading a stock 1911. You may or may not agree with my choices, and that’s fine. These enhancements also may not be at the top of your list because the requirements for a Bullseye competitor will be different for a member of a SWAT team, or a civilian with a CCW permit, and that’s what makes the 1911 such a great gun—it can be set up for your individual shooing needs.
If you shoot your pet 1911 enough, especially in a competitive environment, you will become dissatisfied with its level of accuracy. If the pistol is being used strictly for defensive purposes, especially in an indoor environment, you can anticipate the range to be measured in feet rather than yards, and the factory barrel will definitely do the job. But if you want to hit milk jugs at 40 to 50 yards or get into some form of practical shooting, which can sometimes offer man-sized targets with 8-inch-diameter scoring zones at 60 to 70 yards, then a properly installed match-grade barrel and bushing will give you that level of accuracy.
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There are two types of aftermarket barrels: Match or gunsmith fit, and match-grade pre-fit. Either of these types will deliver the goods at long range, but the gunsmith-fit barrel will have the edge in accuracy as the range gets longer. The pre-fit barrel will still give good accuracy because the bore and chamber dimensions are held to tighter tolerances. But as a professional gunsmith who has installed over 500 match-grade 1911 barrels in my career, I will say that nothing can compete with a good, well-fitted match-grade barrel in a 1911 for accuracy.
There are many options when it comes to match barrels, such as stainless or chrome-moly steel, supported or unsupported chambers, and bushing or bushing-less designs. These could be good topics for another article, but let’s just say that when you’re investing in a match-grade barrel and bushing for your pet 1911, consult some knowledgeable shooting buddies that have gone through the process as well as a friendly, experienced 1911 gunsmith.
I feel that the main requirement for any handgun is to place the projectile being fired onto the point of the target you are aiming at, regardless of whether the pistol is being used for competition or defense, and since the handgun is the most difficult firearm to fire accurately, having a set of rugged, highly visible sights is critical to achieving that accuracy. Even though the tiny mil-spec sights that were originally installed on the 1911 were used effectively for many years in major conflicts around the world, they are really too small and too imprecise for accurate aiming to be of much use for either accuracy or speed work unless we are talking about large targets at close range, so replacing small, hard-to-see sights with a set of good aftermarket sights is at the top of my list.
Fortunately, the Brownells catalog includes no fewer than six pages of both fixed and adjustable sights, not including the reflex sights that are popular with competitive shooters. Larger yet low-profile, high-visibility fixed sights are very popular with shooters who use their 1911s for concealed carry and even competition because of their ruggedness. Once the gun is zeroed for a particular factory load or handload, fixed sights tend to stay put even under heavy use. The sights are also larger and give a great sight picture when the pistol is deployed at speed and at close range, and align easily when used at longer ranges. I know many shooters who compete in IDPA matches who swear by fixed sights because they tend to use just one competitive load.
Adjustable iron sights used to be popular with Bullseye shooters until reflex sights took their place. Practical competitors like USPSA shooters use adjustable sights because lighting conditions and longer ranges can affect the point of impact. Point-of-aim/point-of-impact changes due to lighting can be 4 to 5 inches at 50 to 60 yards, so precision is paramount. Also, if you use factory ammo at longer ranges, different lot numbers can change the point of impact at 50 yards. Different bullet weights can also affect the point of impact.
The notches of adjustable rear sights are large and help gives a very precise aiming point when combined with the square blade of the front sight. There are quite a few installation options with front sights, as they can be installed either with a tenon or dovetail, and options run the gamut from tritium to the very popular fiber-optic inserts, or in some cases both, with tritium inserts in the rear sight and a fiber-optic front sight. This option is highly visible in any lighting condition.
This enhancement includes not only the trigger itself, but also the trigger pull quality. Remember, if you put a match barrel in the gun, the inherent accuracy is increased, but if the trigger pull is set at 6 pounds and has a lot of creep, you will not get the accuracy that the pistol is capable of delivering. So, this modification includes replacing the heavy, short, steel trigger with a lightweight alloy or carbon-fiber unit, but also replacing the hammer, sear and disconnector and performing a trigger job to lighten the trigger pull and eliminate bad features like creep. Again, this must be performed by an experienced, knowledgeable gunsmith, but a 1911 with a good, crisp 3-pound trigger, when combined with a match barrel and a good set of sights, will be capable of better accuracy than the average shooter can take advantage of.
Performing an efficient and fast reload is an important skill, whether the user is a competitive shooter or CCW permit holder. There are many types of oversized magazine wells available for 1911s, some which simply slip on underneath the grip panels while others need to be installed by a knowledgeable gunsmith and involve machining and welding, and the price of each varying widely between the two.
This 1911 upgrade includes both types of safeties: grip and thumb. The original thumb safety on the 1911 operates positively, but it also has a pretty small surface, so a wider and/or longer thumb safety is a common enhancement to allow for easier manipulations during high-stress situations. Ambidextrous thumb safeties are also common to competitive shooters who may have to fire a stage with only their weak hands, but many CCW permit holders don’t like them because the weak-side safety lever may snag when drawing the gun from underneath clothing, or “print” when the pistol is concealed. The great aspect of this modification is that it can be personalized to the individual shooter by grinding and shaping the safety lever to suite his or her needs.
Beavertail-type grip safeties are almost must-have modifications to 1911s these days, as the wide surface of the beavertail spreads the recoil over a broader surface at the web of the hand, which makes it much more comfortable when firing hundreds of rounds, and the upswept design lets the shooter get a higher grip on the gun, closer to the axis of the bore, which aids in controlling the sharp recoil of full-power .45 ACP loads.
The bottom line is that these are my top five 1911 upgrades. The best part about these enhancements is they don’t have to be incorporated into the gun all at the same time. So, as you gain skills with the gun, you can add these 1911 upgrades whenever you see fit. Check out some of the different examples of 1911s set up in various ways in the gun cases of your local, well-stocked gun shop, and talk to your fellow shooting buddies to see what they liked or disliked about some of the modifications they have had performed on their 1911s. It will go a long way toward helping you form your decisions and may save you time, money and disappointment.
This article was originally published in “America’s Handgun Model 1911” 2017. To order a copy, visit outdoorgroupstore.com.
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