Why this classic pistol remains the standard of comparison!
By Chuck Taylor
Though it’s been in continuous service for 87 years, the venerable Colt model 1911 in .45 auto is still the premier self-loading combat pistol. In fact, it dominates nearly every facet of handgunning, from the national matches at Camp Perry, to IPSC competition, to the hunting and boondocking field, to the Sands of Iwo Jima, and even the streets of San Francisco!
And in its thus-far unparalleled tenure as a general-purpose service pistol it has seen a multitude of modifications and has seen use in virtually every kind of natural and tactical environment as well. Old Ugly has been cussed and discussed more than any other handgun in history, and continues to ride an unprecedented wave of popularity shared by no other handgun.
We’re often told these days that the M1911 is an antique and an anachronism belonging to a by-gone age. Some say that its condition one (cocked and locked) mode of carry for imminent use is unsafe or politically incorrect and claim that it lacks mechanical reliability or is inaccurate. Others say that training to use it safely requires too much training and that such training isn’t time or cost-effective in comparison to a DAO revolver or self-loader.
And yet in spite of its critics, the M1911 continues to be the preferred handgun of millions, be they competitive shooters, police officers, personal defense oriented civilians or military personnel. How can this be? What is it about the M1911 that the so fascinates so many people? And if it really is inaccurate or unsafe or unreliable, how can such a rapt fascination have ever occurred in the first place, much less continued to the legendary levels seen today?
The answer is deceptively simple really. The M1911 isn’t inaccurate, nor is it mechanically unreliable; nor is that unsafe. What it is is simple; no more, no less. In its target configuration, it holds most of the records at Camp Perry, the premier accuracy contest of all. And, in slightly altered target form, it remains the dominant pistol for all IPSC shooting, too. Obviously, were it inaccurate, this situation could not exist.
The culprit here is a bias and assumption. If we recover a rusty M1911 from the sand at Omaha Beach, clean it up and shoot it, it will generally keep all of its shots inside a ten or twelve-inch circle at 50 meters. To a target shooter, this won’t do, but for a soldier, this is more accuracy than he can use.
If we take a typical M1911, hold it in our hand and briskly shake it, we note that it rattles slightly, another characteristic generally assumed to cause less accuracy but such is untrue. I have a first-production run M1911 that rattles as described, but from a Ransom Rest with nearly any kind of 230-grain FMJ (ball) ammo, it prints three shots into one-inch at fifty meters, time after time. Is that accurate enough for you? It sure is for me! And this also shows that tight tolerances aren’t the only issue to consider where accuracy is concerned.
What’s really important is that the moving parts go back to the same place each time, even when fouling is present, not how tight everything is. This is why all service pistols seem a little loose—they need such tolerances to function in the widest possible variety of environments. In a bullseye match, we may get an alibi if our pistol malfunctions because it’s too tight and doesn’t function reliably, but when you life’s on the line, there are no alibis.
In short, one doesn’t use a target pistol for self-defense in the real world; nor does he use a service pistol for an extreme accuracy contest like bullseye shooting. It all boils down to selecting the right tool for the job, not the other way around. So assuming that because a given M1911 rattles a bit, it’s inaccurate is a serious error.
Moreover, much of the weapon’s legendary status was achieved because it has repeatedly demonstrated excellent mechanical reliability under an awesome variety of field conditions—in heat and cold, wet or dry, in mud or dust. It could not have survived past the first few occasions in which it was used, much less survived and proliferated to its current status otherwise.
Another erroneous assumption is that because of its single action mode of functioning, the M1911 is somehow unsafe or that it requires more training than other weapon types. Negligent discharges are caused by inept gun handling (a training function) or occur because someone has butchered the weapon’s internal parts (a gunsmithing function), not because its design is inherently invalid. Too many years of history show otherwise, as do the number of other weapons utilizing the same concept.
Another reason the M1911 is so popular is because it’s so easy to work with under stress. It’s controls are well-located for quick, efficient use and require no fine motor skill to operate, a major advantage when the adrenaline is pumping through your veins like a high-pressure pipeline. In fact, the slide stop/release, magazine release button and thumb safety of the M1911 are so easy to operate that no additional training is required. Even when the gun is being presented from a holster, proper training technique incorporates disengagement of the thumb safety at the appropriate time. As practical firearms go, we’ll search far and wide for something as easy to use effectively, particularly under stress, as Old Ugly.
In addition to its other combat-proven features, the M1911’s caliber is also a major reason for its reputation. The .45 ACP cartridge was specifically created for and made its first appearance in the M1911 and has earned an unequaled reputation for not only inherent accuracy but stopping power against armed and determined adversaries as well. As this is written, the .45 ACP can be found in nearly every possible bullet weight, configuration and load specification—a true cartridge for all seasons.
Virtually every one exhibits more accuracy than all but the most accomplished shooter can actually use, functions well, and produces manageable recoil, making it suitable for a very wide spectrum of missions, from self-defense, to target shooting, to hunting, to general boondocking functions. No other cartridge in existence—even the 357 Magnum—can claim such high marks in all of these areas.
The M1911’s critics are almost always those whose perspective isn’t sufficiently clear to understand it, and this prevents objectivity. The fact is that, like it or not, the M1911’s popularity is based clearly and definitively on its superior physical characteristics and a nearly century-long record of superior performance. This is a matter of record and is the direct result of its unique combination of accuracy, mechanical reliability, and “user friendliness” (especially under stress).
In fact, the M1911’s record is so good, that it’s built by more manufacturers than any other handgun today, in more different versions and is the basis for the widest array of custom guns in history. Let’s be real here—were it intrinsically faulty, none of this could have happened.
So, if you’ve heard that Old Ugly is on the way out, you’d better look again, for such is simply untrue; quite the opposite. Everything it has had the capacity to do for the last eight and a half decades remains valid. It thus remains King Of The Hill and will likely continue to do so well into the next millennium. To produce a handgun with better or more practical capabilities will be difficult and perhaps impossible. And I, for one, feel that we can look forward to watching the M1911 continue to dominate the handgun world well into the foreseeable future.
Thanks to Chuck Taylor for permission to use this article.
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Chuck Taylor and the American Small Arms Academy on his web site.