Sunday, December 4, 2016

Musings, 1911

So, there seem to be two schools of thought about the 1911-pattern pistol:
  1. It's an archaic jam-o-matic, or 
  2. It's Certain Death for Evildoers.
The truth, of course, is that it's neither.

Here are some facts*:
The M1911 was designed by John Moses Browning (pbuh) to US Army specs.

The story is well known, the Army went from the Single Action Army revolver in .45 "Long" Colt¹, to a double-action revolver in .38, which proved less than adequate in the Philippines.

At the time, semi-automatic pistols² were just coming into use, and the Army included features that seemed like a good idea at the time.
  • Things like multiple safeties, since it was expected that most of the Army's pistoleros were going to be on horseback.³
  • And lanyard rings, ditto. (Including on magazines!)
  • And sights that are nearly vestigial, since the art of combat marksmanship as envisioned by the military at the time didn't really go in for sighted fire as we know it.
  • Also, of course, it was made of steel because what else was there?
  • Oh, and keep the tolerances somewhat loose to allow for minimal maintenance under field conditions, not to mention so that it will cycle ammunition loaded "kinda sorta" to spec under wartime conditions.
Jump ahead fifty years or so.  A bunch of guys have been exposed to the 1911 and the .45 ACP round but, largely because of Army pistol marksmanship instruction, don't really understand it. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, of officers and technical specialists have been handed a big chunk of metal and told "go qualify", but not really told how to do so. Once again, the #2 pencil is the greatest tool for making sure the unit's numbers come out right... But what the hey, we won, right?⁴

But the war's over, and a bunch of guys are getting together to invent a new sport involving pistol shooting. And it turns out the M1911 is a pretty good tool for that.

But it turns out that these GI surplus pistols can be pretty sloppy indeed, not to mention the sights stink on ice, so...

For the next twenty or thirty years there's quite the industry dedicated to modifying M1911 pistols. Put on new sights, fit a new barrel, tighten the tolerances, maybe jigger together a longer barrel...A lot of guys were simply slapping the slide into a vise and "tightening" the fit that way, because a tighter fit must make a more accurate pistol, right?

Oh, and that 230 grain GI "hardball" round, it's so brutal and punishing! And there must be something better! So in the quest for a better combat round, they experimented, and found that
  1. Rounds other than GI spec 230 grain hardball might not feed so good, so the feed ramp might needs some work, and 
  2. The ejection port is idealized for GI spec 230 grain hardball, and the brass of a round loaded to other specs might not make it out, so better make it bigger.
So those guys who were slapping the slide in a vise to tighten it up were also chopping it and taking Dremel tools to the feed ramp...

Now, it may be hard to remember today, but there were few permits to carry a concealed weapon issued anywhere on America up through the 1990s, and most law enforcement agencies were issuing revolvers up into the 80s.

The market for semi-automatic pistol just wasn't very large.

So the demand for 1911s, modified to the preferences of guys like Jeff Cooper (pbuh, RIP) and his fellow "Leather Slappers" at Big Bear, CA, was mostly met by surplus 1911s, including some imports from Argentina and Norway. Smith & Wesson made their Models 39 and 59, and Browning sold the Hi Power, and a couple of Spanish firms (Star, Llama) were importing "1911-ish"  pistols, but almost any shop keeper who armed himself did so with a revolver. Cops with a Hi Power or a Model 39 were looked at askance. (When some outfit in Seattle called Detonics started making a modernized 1911 in the 1970s, no one knew what to make of it...)

That was then, and this is now, and revolvers are now viewed as... quaint.  All well and good for special uses, and of course we wouldn't to be shot by one, but really so Nineteenth Century.

Just as 1911s are Twentieth Century. Nevertheless, they are ubiquitous. There is a sizable portion of the population that is convinced that  "tactical tupperware" is a passing fad, that John Moses Browning designed the 1911 to God's specifications, and that the .45 ACP is an infallible round. Nearly every pistol maker has a 1911-pattern pistol, including Smith & Wesson and Ruger, who you would figure would resist, since for decades the 1911 was the identified with Colt's Firearms.

When more and more states began passing "shall issue" concealed carry laws, Kimber made the switch from high-end hunting rifles and entered the 1911 market in a big way, such that they managed to become identified with the high-end 1911 market to this day. Other manufacturers started cranking out 1911s as well, and it became common for them to "improve" the design. Eventually, Colt got back into the act, dusting off the original blueprints after a hiatus during which they only made firearms for government entities.

Still, Glocks and Smith & Wesson M&P's are in the lion's share of holsters in the USA, and for good enough reasons. They work, and polymer pistols tend to be less expensive and lighter than all-steel ones.

Also, it soon became apparent that the farther you got away from the original design of the 1911, the less well the pistol worked. Oh, sure, give the thing usable sights, but, really, think twice about futzing with the safeties, the trigger, the extractor and ejector, the dimensions of bearing surfaces...

Meanwhile, there is still an industry selling very high-end 1911s, prices often starting somewhere at "How many months can I skip a mortgage and a car payment?" (Which leads to some saying that you must spend that kind of money to get a 1911 that will shoot at all, let alone straight...)

Those of you who read these babblings will know that I took two classes this year, MAG 40 with Massad Ayoob, and Ernest Langdon 's Tactical Pistol Skills AAR. I shot both of these with my Colt Rail Gun, which is a stainless steel 1911 with a Picatinney Rail on the dust cover for a light and/or laser.

Previous training had been done with a Colt Combat Commander, which is a slightly more compact 1911, though still a full-sized pistol.

Neither of these pistols have given me any trouble that was not obviously ammunition or magazine induced, aside from occasional clumsiness on my part.

Apparently, when I announced at the start of Ernest's class that I was shooting a 1911 in .45, many of the young whippersnappers in the class assumed that I was going to fail, utterly. Granted that my performance was less than stellar, a couple of them expressed amazement that "That 1911 just kept chugging along." Coming from a generation that took it as an article of faith that you could dig up a 1911 in No Man's Land, wash off the mud in a shell hole, and go back to slaughtering the Hun, this puzzled me, until I thought about the above.

Remember a couple of paragraphs above, when I said soon became apparent that the farther you got away from the original design of the 1911, the less well the pistol worked.
So, here's part of the problem:
The 1911 is no longer a model of pistol, it is a pattern, or more and more, a style.⁵
Criticizing the 1911 as an inaccurate jam-o-matic, because you saw a bubba'd example choke on hollow point ammo, is like criticizing sub-compact cars because your cousin's neighbor had a bad experience with a Yugo.
(This post was originally going to be just that last sentence, but I realized that I might need to explain myself...)

Or, you know, all Audi's suck because back in the 80s some Quatros with automatic transmission put themselves in  gear, or VWs are garbage because they gamed the EPA's system and got caught -- and, BTW, how dirty are they really? -- or that scene in Rainman where Dustin Hoffman refuses to get on the plane because DC10s are death traps...

There's a guy in the Salt Mines where I labor who is convinced that for hunting the answer to all his problems is a  more powerful rifle. A .308 didn't do it, so he went to .30-'06, and then to .300 Win Mag., and then to .338 Win Mag., and lately he has been overheard musing about a .338 Lapua... We tell him and tell him that the answer to marksmanship fundamentals is not firepower, but he remains convinced that it ain't the Indian, it's the arrow. well, sometimes it is the arrow, but even then the Indian probably bears the blame, and he certainly bears the responsibility to face facts.

Do your research. There are good 1911s out there. You can get a Colt⁶ or a Springfield for a reasonable price. It will go "bang" when you want -- or need -- it to, and make holes where you want them, if you know what your are doing. Nowadays it will almost certainly work with hollow point ammo. Buy good magazines. Carry with confidence.
* Not gonna include citations; some of what I say may be disputed by others, mostly because I'm making generalizations and/or stating my opinion.

1. At the time, there were two revolvers in "the system", the Colt Single Action Army and the Smith & Wesson "Schofield"; the latter took a different, "short", .45 cartridge. When ordering ammunition for your six-shooter, you specified "Long Colt" or "Short S&W."
2. Commonly referred to as "automatics" up through my teen years.
3. Which is why Uncle Sam decided to stick with a large caliber while the rest of the world was going to round suitable for gallery use in the parlor: You might have to put your mount down.
4. And its not like the pistol is a significant weapon of war, other than to souvenir hungry GI's looking to take a Luger home... 
5. This actually applies to the AR-15 "style" rifle these days, too. 
6. Think about it: Colt made the original 1911s to government spec. If you want your gun to be as close to the original, functional, specifications as possible...


Jerry The Geek said...

I don't know that 1911's are so bad, or so unreliable. I have a 1911 (not a "1911 A1" but one which was built in 1918, according to the serial number) and it still runs just fine.

Back in 1990 I bought a Kimber, and I've been shooting it in USPSA competition off and on for a quarter of a century. Only thing wrong with it is that the trigger yoke broke last year, and I had to get that replaced.

What did I do for modifications?

I got a S&A mainspring housing with an arched/checkered back and a tapered funnel grip-base ... that skinny singlestack is too thin for my big hands, and I wanted a faster reload capability.

I like the 1911 just fine. I've also competed with STI TrueBore race guns, and I have an STI Edge in 10mm (double-stack magazines!) which they call the "2001" model.

Tom R. said...

Yeah, I'm always hearing that 1911's don't work well. Funny, but I've been carrying them for over 50 years and never had a problem with them. They have even saved my rear back when I was in Law Enforcement.

Old NFO said...

I'm like Jerry, 1918 1911 runs fine, shoots well and maybe rattles a little. So what... I have an Ed Brown Kobra and a C&S Commander, they run fine. I need a go to, it'll be one of those 1911s...

D.W. Drang said...

It's these kids today, I'm tellin' ya, what with their hipping and their hopping and their hats on backwards and their britches around their knees...

Left Coast Conservative said...

I attended three intensive combat hsndgun classes over the summer, dshot anout 1800 rounds, and had no malfunctions that were not attributed to magazine issues or operator errors. The gun? A Kimber Custom II, bone stock, but well broken in. I now carry that gun with utter confidence in it, and in myself.