The 1911 has unequalled ergonomics, is easy to customize for each user, and is capable of excellent reliability when properly set up and maintained.
A modern production 1911 typically needs a little gunsmith attention at some point in its life. It is not the same as the gun that was carefully handcrafted at the Colt factory nearly a century ago. When Colt first started producing the gun way back in the day, they were the only ones making it - their parts, their mags, ammo to their spec. The design has been around for so long that any particular 1911 is now made with parts made to various specs that have wandered away from the original for one reason or another, and is fed with ammo and mags that have similarly changed or evolved. This is the reason why the 1911 does well with tuning by a skilled hand, something that it often does not receive at the modern factory. The gun also needs proper cleaning and maintenance to reach its full potential.
Weapon handling protocol:
Always ease the slide down on an empty chamber, never slam it shut from slide lock. A G.I. rack grade 1911 may do fine when you slam the slide on the empty chamber, but a gun with a tuned trigger and fitted barrel will do better without it. The jarring of the slide slamming down on an empty chamber can cause the hammer to follow and the sear nose to crash into the hammer hooks. Your trigger job will last longer if you ease the slide down. Further, the lower lugs on a match fit barrel take a lot of impact when they contact the slide stop, and without the buffering effect of the round feeding into the chamber, you increase wear on your barrel by slamming the slide on an empty chamber. It's not the end of the world if the slide drops on an empty chamber, but it's not a good habit to develop either. It is the sign of an amateur 1911 handler.
Thumb cocking the hammer can sometimes result in the hammer slipping out from under the thumb and falling to half cock. Some hammers are designed with a half cock notch that protects the sear nose, but many do not. Excessive crashing of the sear nose into the half cock notch will degrade your trigger job. If you are fumble fingered, try cycling the slide to cock the hammer for dry firing. This may seem picky, but I see this occur constantly.
Contrary to popular opinion, dry firing is not harmful to modern 1911s. Old guns with soft breech faces may have exhibited peening problems from the firing pin strike, but a modern gun should be plenty hard. Serious shooters dry fire practice frequently, and well made guns do not experience any ill effects from it.
Always load using the magazine to feed rounds into the chamber. NEVER drop a round into the chamber with the slide locked back, then drop the slide onto the chambered round. The extractor is NOT meant to pop over the case rim. The round is meant to slide up UNDER the extractor hook during feeding from a magazine. This breech loading technique is exceedingly abusive to your extractor and will cause loss of extractor tension at the least, and in the worst case scenario will cause the extractor hook to break. If you are looking to load the gun to its maximum capacity, chamber a round from the magazine, remove the mag, load another round into it, and reseat the mag. Give the mag a tug on the baseplate to ensure that it is seated.
Before field stripping, check to ensure that your weapon is clear.
1) Rack slide back, hold with right hand, and pull slide stop out with your left hand.
2) Pull the slide off the frame, keeping the recoil spring captured.
3-4) Set the frame aside, release the recoil spring and remove from the slide assembly.
5) Tip the barrel down out of lockup, and push forward about halfway. This will permit easier turning of the bushing and reduce wear on the full diameter portion of the last .5" of the barrel, which is generally fitted tightly to the bushing in match grade guns.
6) Turn bushing clockwise to 7-8:00 and pull out recoil spring plug. Non milspec 1911s often have the recoil spring plug tunnel cut straight through, and can have the plug pulled from rear.
7) Turn bushing counterclockwise to 4:00 and pull out barrel/bushing assembly. Separate. This is as far as you will need to go for routine maintenance. After maintenance, go to the section below for reassembly.
Please note that the detail stripping described below is best accomplished in a controlled shop environment with the proper tools. If you are not familiar with the components of the 1911, you may wish to seek additional assistance before attempting this for the first time. Complete field stripping as described above.
Remove right side ambi safety, if applicable. This can be accomplished by working the right side lever up and down while pulling away from the frame. Once a sufficient gap is made, it is possible to insert a small screwdriver blade next to the pin and pry it out. Do not attempt to pry or force the lever from the end most distant from the pin, as it is easy to bend or break the lever.
1) Remove left side safety by moving lever up and down while pulling out to the left.
2) Manually decock the hammer, being careful not to let it strike the frame. Damage to both the frame and hammer can result.
3) Using either a pin punch or a Brownells Mainspring Housing (MSH) Pin Tool (Brownells part number 080-850-000) , drive out the MSH pin from the dimpled side, usually from left to right.
4-5) Slide the MSH out. Remove the grip safety and sear spring.
6) Use a 3/32" punch to push the hammer and sear pins out to the left.
Remove the hammer, sear, and disconnector. If your gun is a Colt Series 80, also remove the trigger bar lever and plunger levers. Be careful to observe the relationship between the various parts.
7) Remove the magazine release by simultaneously depressing the release while gently turning the magazine catch lock counterclockwise. The catch lock will disengage from the frame and the tab will turn into the body of the release. Be sure that the lock tab is fully cleared from the frame recess. Push the release out to the right.
8) Remove the trigger bow from the rear of the frame. The trigger can be relatively fragile, so be careful not to crush or deform the bow, or cause the shoe to be moved on the bow.
9) Using a punch, Brownells MSH tool, or 10-8 Armorer Block with the fixture pins to depress the mainspring (MS) cap in the MSH. Use a 1/16” pin punch or allen wrench to push the cap retaining pin out from the front (gripping surface of the MSH) to the back (side facing the frame). Gently ease off the spring tension and remove the MS cap, MS, and MSH retainer out of the MSH. Milspec and Colt mainsprings tend to be crimped tightly onto the cap and MSH pin retainer, so they may not need to be separated for routine maintenance.
10) Turn the slide upside down. Use a 3/32" punch to depress the firing pin. Once it is clear of the firing pin stop, slide the stop away from the slide and release the firing pin from the slide. Remember that the firing pin is under spring tension, so do not fire it across the room.
10a) For Series 80 only: Push down on the firing pin plunger, to free the firing pin for any movement.
11) Remove the extractor by inserting a punch (or better yet, a nonmarring nylon tool like the 10-8 Armorer Tool) into the firing pin stop groove and pulling rearward. Some extractor hooks are too wide to clear the breech face, and can be removed by gently pushing on the extractor hook at a 45 degree angle to the breech face (ie. Rearward and out from the axis of the slide). Use a nonmarring nylon tool to avoid damage to the extractor and breech face.
12) For Series 80 only: Pull extractor out approximately 1/16" and remove firing pin plunger and spring. Remove extractor as above.
1) Reassemble the MSH by first placing the MS cap on one end of the MS, and the MSH pin retainer on the other end of the spring. Load the subassembly into the MSH tunnel, being sure that the MSH pin retainer stays on the spring. Use a punch or Brownells MSH pin tool to push the MS cap down past the retainer hole. Insert the MS cap retainer pin into the MSH with the enlarged side facing the rear of the MSH. Gently release tension on the MS cap.
2) Reinstall the trigger into the frame.
3) Install the magazine release from the right. Lightly depress the magazine release while gently turning the magazine catch lock clockwise. As the release moves to the right, the catch lock tab will engage the frame recess. Be sure that the lock tab is fully engaged in the frame recess.
4) Lay the disconnector with the shovel (the flat end that engages the trigger bow) end down, and seat the sear on it with the nose facing up. Place the assembly into the frame with the head of the disconnector in the frame hole and the shovel end on the rear of the trigger bow. Insert the sear pin, ensuring that both sear and disconnector are engaged on the pin.
4a) For Series 80 only: Insert the plunger lever into the frame, with its upper extension flush with the top of the frame. It is helpful to use forceps and apply a small drop of grease (TW-25B, Slip 2000 grease, etc.) to the right side of the lever to tack it into the frame. This small step keeps the parts from falling out and saves a lot of grief and profanity down the line.
4b) Install the trigger lever (also tack it in place with a drop of grease), ensuring that its upward extension engages properly with the plunger lever. Install the sear and disconnector as above. Move the trigger bow to check that the trigger bar lever engages and moves the plunger lever. If it does not, remove and properly reinstall the components.
5) Align the hammer with the pin hole and install the pin. Leave the hammer forward (decocked). • Place the sear spring with the bottom end in its frame slot. Check that the leftmost finger is laying ON TOP of the left sear leg, not underneath it. You can pull the trigger to check for proper movement.
6) Position the sear spring in the frame, with the tabbed lower end in its slot in the frame, and the left leg positioned atop the sear (see arrow).
7) Push the MSH halfway into place to secure the sear spring.
8) Place the grip safety in position, and align the hammer strut in the recess inside the grip safety. Slide the MSH into place to engage the two tabs on the bottom of the grip safety, ensuring that the hammer strut enters the MSH and properly engages the mainspring cap.
9) Install the MSH pin (the dimple traditionally goes on the left side, but it doesn't affect function either way) by tapping into place with a plastic hammer.
10) Cock the hammer, feeling for proper engagement with the mainspring cap.
Insert the detent plunger and spring assembly. Note that the GI spec for this spring has a dogleg in it as shown. This keeps the parts from launching during disassembly.
11) Place the left side thumb safety in position, use a pin punch or 10-8 Armorer Tool to depress the detent plunger, then snap the safety into place. Install the right side of the ambi safety if applicable.
12) Insert extractor into slide. Install the firing pin and use the punch to push the firing pin in far enough to clear the firing pin stop cutout.
13) Install the firing pin stop and release the firing pin.
13a) For Series 80 only: Insert extractor into slide and align plunger cutout with hole. Turn slide right side up and insert plunger and spring. This will help keep the plunger spring from falling out or kinking up in the slide. Push the extractor into place to lock the plunger into the slide. With the slide upside down, depress the plunger and install the firing pin. Push the firing pin in far enough to clear the firing pin stop cutout and release the plunger. It will hold the firing pin forward. Install the firing pin stop and press the plunger to release the firing pin.
14) Slide the barrel in through the front of the slide, about halfway in.
15) Install the bushing and turn counterclockwise to 7:00.
16) Install the recoil spring plug (this step is unnecessary with non GI spec guns with spring tunnels bored straight through) then turn the bushing to 6:00. Slide the barrel into full lockup.
17a-c) Load the recoil spring and guide assembly from the rear. Keep the spring captured with your left hand as you feed the spring in with your right. Ensure that the link is pointed downward, not to the rear of the slide.
18) Slide the top end assembly onto the frame rails, leaving the slide in its forward most position.
19) Align the link with the slide stop pin hole and push the slide stop in through the frame hole. If necessary, tip the slide back and forth about 1/4" or so to allow the slide stop pin to move past the barrel lugs. Once the pin is in place, leave the slide at rest in its forward (in battery) position.
20) Use the slide stop lobe to depress the detent plunger by pressing it into place from about 1/8" or 1/16" below the plunger tube. It is not necessary to swing it in a big arc - you'll only guarantee that you'll slip off the detent plunger and scratch the frame and slide. The "idiot mark" is the sure sign of an amateur. Installing the stop with the slide forward allows you to position the stop without having to worry about keeping the slide from slamming shut.
21) Move the slide back to line up the slide stop with the takedown notch, and snap the slide stop into place.
My preferred lubricant is the 10-8 Performance Lube, which is a suspension of moly particles. It is an extremely efficient lubricant and takes the place of both oils and greases for both mission and range use. Our previous standby choice, TW25B, a lightweight milky consistency Teflon bearing grease, is excellent for carry and deployment. It does not dry off, run out of crevices, and is resistant to harsh weather and sandy/gritty environments. It is a good choice for general carry and mission use. For range use, a light oil such as FP-10, Militec, or Kellube is fine. I do not recommend Break Free since the oil needs to be shaken to mix up the Teflon particles. For tightly fitted guns, this oil tends to drain out or dry with carry, and does not provide adequate lubrication without reapplication. A good compromise is to combine a light grease, such as Lubriplate or Tetra grease, with one of the above oils. This gives the benefit of long lasting lubrication and adhesion with the lubricity of the oils. Some tightly fitted guns will not function well with straight Lubriplate or Tetra. Conversely, using straight TW25B is much less complicated and achieves the same end result. The greases can be applied with a small brush, such as the acid brushes available from Brownells (part number 080-001-024) and MSC. Simply apply some of the grease, add a few drops of oil over it, and brush evenly over the contact area. Our latest discovery is the 10-8 Performance Lube, which is a suspension of moly particles.
Frame: Apply lubrication to the rails (Pic C) and the disconnector head (Pic B). The trigger bow, hammer, sear, disconnector, and applicable Series 80 levers should be lubricated lightly during assembly. The hammer and sear engagement surfaces should be lubricated often. I use Trigger Slick, a molybdenum disulfide grease originally marketed by Chip McCormick. A similar product is available from Brownells as Action Lube Plus (part number 083-050-002). TW25B or 10-8 Performance Lube is also effective. Before a range session, throwing a drop of lube down onto the front of the hammer (Pic A) while the gun is assembled is helpful for maintaining lubrication on this critical wear area.
Slide: Lubricate the radial lugs (Pic E), the rear of the hood extension (Pic D), the lower lugs (Pic H), link, and full diameter of the muzzle end of the barrel (Pic G). The bushing/barrel contact area should be generously lubricated (Pic G). During assembly, light lubrication can also be applied to the circumference of the rear of the firing pin body (where there may be oil grooves on some brand firing pins), the middle lug and the locator pad of the extractor. These have minimal effect, but are also moving (or slightly moving) parts that may increase overall system friction, depending on your gun's setup. You can also apply a few drops of lube to the slide stop pin (Pic I) and recoil spring guide (Pic J).
The lubrication method outlined above will prepare your pistol for extended periods of carry and will normally be fine for a range session of 1-200 rounds, even after carrying for several weeks. While at the range for an extended session, class, etc. you may fire a larger volume of ammunition before you have a chance to strip and clean your weapon. To increase reliability between cleanings, here are some lubrication points that can help. With the gun cocked but slide closed, place a drop of oil in front of the hammer to lubricate the hammer hooks/sear nose contact. This point is easily located between the rear of the frame and the bottom of the hammer’s strike face. Apply oil to the front of the barrel hood to lubricate the radial lug recesses - this is the most critical area to oil, as it is an area of very high friction. Too much is just fine here. Lock the slide back and apply oil to the disconnector head and to the exposed area of the barrel/bushing contact area. Put a drop of oil on your finger and rub it on the rear of the barrel hood extension. On a properly fitted match grade barrel, this area will bear fully against the breech face during lockup.
Maintenance and Field Checks
The 1911 was designed in an era when guns were expected to be hand fit at the factory, and some modicum of field maintenance was expected. In the modern era of mass production and interchangeable CNC parts, the 1911 is definitely behind the power curve in certain aspects. However, for a dedicated and knowledgeable end user, the 1911 has no equal in terms of its capability to harness the raw performance of the shooter. For non-dedicated personnel, they are better served by a modern, low maintenance weapon such as a Glock, SIG, or HK. That said, the dedicated user can perform certain checks to ensure maximum performance from the 1911.
Poorly manufactured, out of spec ammo is the main source of problems for the 1911. Your 1911 may or may not tolerate out of spec ammo. If it is not ramped and throated to feed other than ball ammo, you are stuck with ball unless you get the gun worked over. Poorly done barrel throating jobs are the single most common ailment in used 1911s, so buyer beware.
If your gun is having problems chambering rounds, take the barrel out of your gun and drop each round into it to see that it chambers properly. Look for high primers, crushed or flared case mouths, and other imperfections.
Do not expect your gun to run everything, especially if it is fitted with a match barrel designed to improve accuracy. You can't put 87 octane fuel into your Ferrari and expect it to run properly, so don't feed low quality ammo to your tuned 1911. Find a few brands of practice and carry ammo that your gun likes, then stick with them. If your gun is able to run with other ammo, great, go ahead and use it. If it doesn't, then look to your ammo as your first source of problems. Different brands of ball ammo vary widely in terms of bullet profile, crimp, and overall length, so don't expect ball to be instantly reliable. There is plenty of BAD ball ammo out there.
After bad ammo, bad magazines are the biggest culprit in gun malfunctions. See our 1911 Magazines article for up to date information.
Keeping a fresh recoil spring in the gun is the best thing you can do to prolong weapon life and reduce frame cracking. Change recoil springs every 3-4000 rounds. When you change recoil springs, also change the firing pin spring. I use 17 lb standard rate recoil springs, 19 lb mainsprings, and extra power firing pin springs from Wolff Gunsprings (http://www.gunsprings.com/). For a 5” gun using normal pressure .45 ACP loads, 18.5 lbs is about as high as you should go. If you run an 18-18.5 lb recoil spring, then use a 23 lb mainspring. The mainsprings last a very long time, and most guns never need them changed out. If you carry your gun a lot, ie. it is cocked all the time, then consider changing the mainspring every 2-3 years or 15-20,000 rounds just as cheap insurance.
Buffs can reduce frame cracking problems in your gun as well as softening the recoil impulse somewhat. Guns shorter than a 5" Govt model will probably not run with buffs in place, as these guns already suffer from a shortened recoil stroke and a commensurate loss of reliability. Shooters trained to "slingshot" the slide after a slide lock reload will not be able to run a buff in their gun, as the loss of slide travel will not allow the slide stop to become disengaged by this technique.
Check your buff for wear every time you clean the gun. They can last 1000 rounds or even longer, but I usually recommend changing them every time you clean the gun (about 200-500 rounds). The best buffs are from CP Specialties, available through Brownells (part number 169-001-000). The use of buffs absolutely requires a dialed in user, as failure to replace a worn buff can lead to a shredded buff coming apart inside your gun and tying it up. A casual or negligent shooter is probably better off running the gun without a buff.
This is chief source of mechanical failure in the 1911. The extractor controls feeding, extraction, and ejection. You should periodically check the tension of the extractor to ensure that it is still providing sufficient tension. Disassemble the gun, and take a 230 gr ball round (preferably an inert/dummy round) and slide it up under the extractor. The extractor should hold the round against the breech face no matter which way you turn the slide. Remove the extractor from the slide and clean it every 500 rounds. A short .22 caliber brush fits into the extractor tunnel in the slide and makes short work of cleaning it. The extractor requires skilled gunsmith fitting and tuning, so do not expect a new part to drop in, and don't try to tune it yourself.
Once the extractor loses enough tension to begin to exhibit Type 2 and 3 malfunctions (stovepipe, double feed), then it is time to replace it. Retensioning it only delays the inevitable - total loss of tension or hook breakage - and will lead to more malfunctions as the extractor continues to degrade. I have found that most modern internal extractors have a minimum service cycle of about 5000 rounds, after which they statistically begin to show some loss of tension. It is at this interval that I begin to preemptively replace the extractors. I consider it just like periodic oil or tire changes in your car - you can run either until they fail, or you can change them while they still have some service life in them and head off trouble before it crops up.
After approximately 250-500 rounds, I field strip the 1911 and clean it. I use Shooter's Choice and a .308 chamber brush (Brownells part number 084-450-030) to clean the barrel. I only make one or two passes, the main intent is to keep the chamber clean. A wet patch and a couple dry patches are about all I do for barrels. If you shoot lead bullets, be sure that the chamber, especially the shoulder and rifling leade (the transition from the chamber to the fully cut rifling) areas, are clean of bullet lube and lead shavings. If you shoot decent jacketed ammo, you won't have as much barrel or chamber cleaning to do. If you let the chamber get dirty, you may have failures to go into battery or other feed related malfunctions. I like using an M16 toothbrush to clean everything else on the gun. I avoid the use of brake cleaner, as the toxic fumes are a serious concern. Further, some in the precision rifle community have commented that the interaction of the ammonia in bore solvent and the chlorine in brake cleaner can cause corrosion or accelerated wear/etching in 416 stainless barrels. I prefer not to risk it, so I don't put brake cleaner near my guns. For a spray degreaser, I use and recommend 725 Cleaner/Degreaser from Slip2000. It is a non-toxic water based cleaner that is both effective and safe. As noted above, clean the extractor and its tunnel in the slide about every 500 rounds. Keep the important contact surfaces in the slide and frame as clean as possible - breech face, radial lug recesses, disconnector rail on the slide, feed ramp, frame bridge. A mag brush (Brownells part number 566-100-045) is good for cleaning both the mags and the mag well. Look for rust inside the mag well, as any finish will wear from repeated loading. Clean the magazines periodically, being sure to clean powder residue from inside the feed lips and tube as well as on the follower and springs. The mags do not need lubrication inside.
I detail strip the lower of the pistol every 1000-3000 rounds, typically depending on the environment to which the gun has been exposed. If I stood outside in the rain with the gun, I will typically detail strip it as soon as possible. Exposure to grit, sand, mud, and other penetrants will require immediate detail stripping. The tritium capsules on some brands of sights are mounted with very soft tubes or adhesive that will not react favorably to cleaning solvents. Same goes for grips, paint filled logos, and fiber optic sights. Keep the solvents away from them if in doubt.
The foregoing was a compilation of techniques and maintenance procedures that I have developed over the years. There are other ways to reassemble and maintain the pistol, but this is what has worked for me. With the proper attention, it is possible for your 1911 to be malfunction free for thousands of rounds. The original military test for the 1911 required 6000 rounds to be fired without malfunction, and I do not feel that this is an unreasonable interval to achieve with a properly maintained modern pistol with good ammunition and magazines.