Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The 1911 - no longer the best choice in a defensive pistol?

Hilton Yam, well-known gunsmith, competitive shooter, martial artist and law enforcement officer, has written an article that encapsulates my own feelings about the M1911 pistol design as a service and defensive weapon.  Here's an excerpt.

Over the years, I have had numerous agencies and individual LEO’s ask me for advice on selecting 1911s for service use.  The longer I was involved in this effort, the more failures I saw in the concept of the 1911 in a role as service pistol over more modern designs.  One agency with whom I had a close relationship required some assistance getting their fleet of Kimber 1911s running correctly.  Fast forward 4 years and a lot of visits and phone calls to help troubleshoot broken down guns, and I was eventually able to convince this agency to discontinue the use of their team 1911s and have the team use the M&P issued to the rest of the agency.  The phone has been very quiet since they went to the M&P.  While some have taken issue that it was a small sample (sure, only over 30 guns with all the same problems….not a trend at all), their problems were fully representative of common 1911 ailments – magazine issues, feedway issues, slide stop problems, extractor problems, loose plunger tubes, and intensive maintenance/inspection.

Tim [Lau] and I taught a few 1911 specific classes in the last couple years, and we typically saw a failure rate of over 50% of the student pistols in each class.  Something that really resonated with us was a pair of LEO’s who came to one class with the 1911s that they carried for work.  The guys enjoyed the class so much they came back again the following year.  This second time they still brought their 1911s, but told us they started to carry Glocks at work after seeing all the things that went wrong with the student guns and how difficult it was to keep the guns in top shape.

. . .

It is easy to get caught up in the mystique and history of the 1911, but the design is over 100 years old, and we have learned a few things about designing and manufacturing since then.  If you enjoy the craftsmanship of a finely built 1911 or you enjoy tinkering on your own, by all means continue to enjoy them.  However, if training, shooting, and performance is your primary goal and you lack the resources, time, patience, or knowledge to keep after a 1911, then be realistic and choose something more modern.

There's more at the link.

In another interesting article, Mr. Yam discusses 'Choosing a 1911 for duty use', and makes the point that:

In light of [several issues described in detail in the article], the 1911 is not currently recommended for unit/agency level issue.  The level of logistics and end user dedication required for this to be successful is higher than most units or agencies can support.  With proper motivation and knowledge, it is possible for individual end users to be successful with the 1911, but results will likely be quite poor when the gun is issued en masse without the proper oversight.

Both articles are highly recommended reading.

I have to agree with Mr. Yam.  I love the 1911 design as a highly effective piece of technological history.  For several years I carried a World War II-production Remington Rand 1911A1 that had been modernized and customized for my requirements.  It saved my life on more than one occasion.  However, firearms technology has moved on since the 1911 was designed over a century ago.  I find that shooters who don't train frequently (i.e. at least every 2 weeks) can lose the 'fine touch' that it takes to handle a single-action weapon like the 1911 pistol with safety and maximum effectiveness.  It's a weapon for well-trained and -practiced shooters.  It calls for frequent refreshment of one's 'muscle memory' and handling techniques.

If you're not going to practice more often than once per month, I strongly recommend a pistol such as the Glock, Smith & Wesson M&P, or an equivalent weapon.  It'll be much safer for you, and the pistol will be just as effective in your hands (if not more so) than the older design.

OK - now to brace myself for incoming slings and arrows from outraged 1911 fans . . .



The Raving Prophet said...

I'm a 1911 fan.

He's not wrong.

The 1911 is from an era when skilled hand fitting was cheap and machining cost real money. That situation has reversed. The design requires skilled assembly and it isn't hard to screw up. It also has a multitude of small parts that are prone to failure (such as the plunger tube coming loose).

It is still a very functional and workable design, but it's not what I'd recommend to someone who is new to guns or to someone who needs a basic defensive tool. It's not even what I'd turn to for an intensive pistol class with thousands of rounds fired in a short period of time. I think there's better choices for that.

That doesn't mean I don't think it's a good choice for self defense- the fact of the matter is that people won't be shooting a thousand rounds or so without down time for cleaning or maintenance in a defensive encounter. If a gun will shoot 200-300 rounds without a hiccup, that's more than enough. I will even carry 1911s for defense, but I've vetted them and know they work.

But yes, technology and manufacturing have moved on, and for many people there's better choices for certain tasks. But if one likes shooting, that person ought to pick up a 1911 for the collection and discover why it's been so popular for so long.

rremington said...

I will NEVER give up my 1911!!!!!!!! It is God's own Sidearm!

But I carry a Glock 19. Lighter, smaller, holds more rounds.

The Jack said...

I say this as someone who has a 1911 on his hip at this very moment.

If I had to do it again, I'd probably go with a full-size Kahr 9mm and a matching pocket model.

(Glocks don't *point* as naturally for me, and I have issues with the fiddly parts in the M&P)

A 1911 can be a fine and reliable carry piece, but the gun will have greater odds of needing work or tweaking.

Yes, with the new offerings in 1911's that's a fine difference, but for a pure carry gun, you'll have less hassle and worries with a modern design.

Rich S. said...

I agree with Mr. Yam. I love my 1911, but I carry a Glock.

The 1911s we have in the house ARE reliable, but they are full-size high-end guns, and they don't get shot much.

In comparison with striker-fired guns, I'm just not comfortable with the control setup on a single-action pistol. If I practiced more regularly, it might be different, but I just like the long trigger stroke of a Glock. I'm always worried that the safety will accidentally be disengaged and that I will have a negligent discharge.

My partner, who is a fairly new shooter, fell in love with the Sig238. She wanted to replace her J-frame Smith with it. She shot it well, but she never really got to be confident with the controls. Something was always wrong with the drill when she tried to move fast. After a few months, she moved on to a striker-fired pistol, and I'm happier for it.

Anonymous said...

I carry a 1911, I am skilled and knowledgeable in its operation and short comings. I am older than most and therefore knowingly accept its limitations. Do I recommend the 1911 to anyone else, no.

Anonymous said...

We who love guns sometimes forget they are TOOLS, and most people need a hammer and a few wrenches, not a lathe. I'm biased toward the Makarov; I can't get my to fail even when I try. But it's a 50 year old design, and there are better ones out there.

Still hard to beat a revolver, though...


Anonymous said...

"...a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age"? Or as Jeff might observe not suited to the "Age of the Common Man".

It has been a long time since I had to shoot anyone with a 1911, but I still cherish it. Guess I'm a relic.


Skip said...

In the winter I'll shoulder a Kimber Gold Match. In a defensive action I know it will go bang nine times in a row. Match shoot it 500 times without clean and lube, prolly not.
Summer is a CZ P-75. Light, 11 rounds (Cal.) good trigger.

Anonymous said...

the problem is that '1911' is like saying 'kleenex'. it means any pattern pistol by any mfg'r. a 1911 needs to be properly made to proper specs. I don't recall anyone saying the design was unreliable before everyone and their brother started making them. now all kinds of corners are being cut and parts cheaply made to reduce cost. the hanneken, woodfill, murphy pistol seemed to work just fine until modern experts tinkered with the design.

Anonymous said...

I have a Dan Wesson 1911 made in 2006. I would take it any day over plastic Glocks, etc., as my 1911 is all metal. It doesn't like to feed hollow-points, but it will feed ball ammo all day long. It's also accurate as Hell, as long as you don't get too pumped up with adrenaline when shooting it.


Paul said...

I've one of the Taurus models of 1911's and while I like the gun and shoot it well, I would not trust it to cycle reliably. I've got other guns to carry. I am fond of the m9 design. But my #1 carry is a Kel Tec PF9 right now.

Comrade Misfit said...

I don't think he's wrong. But I cannot get comfortable with striker-fired handguns. They feel to me like a ND just waiting to hapen.

LoFan John said...

Anonymous 5:38AM hit it on the head. Lumping all "1911"s together is like throwing Glocks in with every other polymer-framed and striker-fired design. He's right, also, about the old GI models being reliable in action. Now it seems many guys want it to be as reliable as an old GI gun and as accurate as a Gold Cup, etc. We have indeed made advances in materials and in manufacturing since Browning's day, but don't the Glock and the M&P both use a short-recoil, tilting-barrel action? The 1911 is the trunk of their family tree. If some of these essayists would concede that and then say "but (Glock-M&P-SIG-etc.)offer great reliability with lighter weight and great availability and support at less cost" they'd get less argument.

Anonymous said...

Heretics! Unbelievers! Deceivers!

Take yourselves from John Moses Browning's' land of milk and honey and wander the wasteland of polymer and polygonal rifling.

May you return to the flock when you repent and bring us baskets full of Wilson Combat magazines.


Ed Jones said...

I prefer Chip McCormick Power Mags myself, it's all in the quality of the equipment.

Anonymous said...

Next year we're going to have a birthday party for mine, as it turns 100 years old.

ZenDarb said...

I attended a few IDPA matches with my Glock. Now I am NOT a Glock 'fanboy,' but after seeing the number of these "hot rod" 1911's fail during the match, there is NO WAY I would trust my life to one of those guns.

Sure, they are pretty and the history is great, but the sheer pickiness of the gun and the high rate of malfunctions effectively rule it out for a self-defense weapon for me. YMMV

Will said...

"the problem is that '1911' is like saying 'kleenex'. it means any pattern pistol by any mfg'r. a 1911 needs to be properly made to proper specs. I don't recall anyone saying the design was unreliable before everyone and their brother started making them. now all kinds of corners are being cut and parts cheaply made to reduce cost. the hanneken, woodfill, murphy pistol seemed to work just fine until modern experts tinkered with the design."

I was at a class that had 3 Glocks fail. Then add all the recent problems that Glack has had with their newer versions. No gun design is failure proof. Kimber apparently went to hell when they were run by some idiot, who did the same thing at Sig.

When you put finances above quality, you get junk, guaranteed. Lots of products/companies have been ruined by this mentality.
"after seeing the number of these "hot rod" 1911's fail during the match..."

This is a major problem with the 1911 design. It leads people to screw with it. (This includes manufacturers!) The history of "hotrods" is someone modifying a car to increase some area of performance. Invariably, this sort of thing leads to the creation of failure points elsewhere in the vehicle due to increased stresses, or a narrowing of ability to handle normal functions as a side effect of the mods.

Most hotrods, whether car or gun, are essentially junk, due to a lack of understanding of the inherent drawbacks of modifying the factory design.

Most people have little, to no, ability to look at the overall design, and understand how their various changes will blend with the other stock and modified parts they are assembling. I'm talking of both professionals and backyard guys. The percentages of either group that comprehend this are small.

Actually, people who work on aircraft have the same problem, judging by the historical results. It's just they kill more people as a result, which is why it is an area that is so highly regulated, I think.

Anonymous said...

Well I see I got here late again. But I will post my 2 cents worth anyway.

Like the Peacemaker, the 1911 is an iconic American design.
A quality 1911 is a joy to own and to shoot. I have owned many and enjoyed them all. Something intangible about the way they handle is very satisfying. And when one understands how they operate, the engineering and how the components work in harmony it is easy to see why the 1911 is so popular.
But as Will mentioned in the comment above,there are many parts that must work together, and if out of tolerance will cause considerable frustration. The 1911 requires attention to detail, both in fitting and operation.
Modern machining techniques such a CNC milling and cast/MIM parts have brought reasonably-priced pistols to the market in recent years.
Value of these mid-priced 1911s make them an attractive alternative to some of the newer designs available.
But before trusting your life to one, owners will be well advised to test them thoroughly. After 100 years, there are few secrets in this platform.
Pioneers such as Col. Cooper, Frank Pachmayr, and Bill Wilson figured out what makes these pistols tick years ago. Others such as Laughridge, Lauck, Clark, Brown, Bowen, Novak and many others continue to refine and improve this timeless design.

The 1911 is not for everyone. But if you have one I urge you to study it. If problems should arise, and they may, I have found the Kuhnhausen books to be invaluable. Even if you do not contemplate performing remedial or custom work yourself, his manuals will supply the information needed to discuss such work with your gunsmith.

I currently own several 1911s, as well as other pistols and revolvers.
But I know without a doubt what I would grab if the chips were down: My pet 1911, massaged over the years and proven reliable.

(steps off soapbox.)