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Choosing a 1911 for Duty Use

Choosing a 1911 for duty? Before we begin our discussion, it is important to understand that the requirements for a duty 1911 are significantly different than those of a 1911 used for competition or CCW. What is acceptable for one application is not necessarily desirable or even appropriate for another. A competition gun will typically expect to see a very high round count but relatively little actual carry. A weapon selected for CCW use by a private citizen can expect to be carried only in a concealed manner, and not typically exposed to weather and impact in the same manner as most duty weapons. By its nature, a competition or CCW gun tends to be at the center of its owner's attention, as it is a special and singular tool. Depending on the LEO's assignment and duties, the duty pistol may be only one of many pieces of kit requiring maintenance and attention at the end of the shift or mission. The adage of "just take care of your gear" has a different meaning for an officer assigned to a tactical unit, as the pistol may be competing for maintenance time with a host of other critical equipment such as body armor, helmet, gas mask, eye protection, duty rig, radio/commo equipment, primary entry weapon, secondary/specialty weapons (breaching guns, sniper weapons, gas delivery platforms), and other specialty equipment. Ideally, the duty 1911 should not require a disproportionate amount of maintenance time for the end user with such an assignment.

So which 1911 to choose for duty? Agency policy permitting, your budget will pretty much determine what you can have in your duty holster. Remember that these things will ride in an exposed holster and be subjected to rain, sweat, constant handling, and the hard knock life of being around work vehicles, concrete walls, and gun lockers at the jail. Further, if you are involved in a deadly force incident, your 1911 may be held as evidence for some period of time. You will likely want an identical backup in the event that you are off admin leave and back on the street without your original pistol. You absolutely need to be a diehard 1911 aficionado, and must be ready to accept that you could buy two to four of any other modern service pistol for the price of one 1911 that is good to go. You will not find any true bargains, nor should you be looking for one when your safety is on the line.

First off, if you are truly serious about running a 1911 for service use, it needs to be a full sized 5" gun in .45 ACP. There certainly are any number of examples of Commander and other compact 1911s that work or can be made to work just fine, and for CCW use they can be a viable option for some users. However, take a look at the history of unit issue service 1911s - LAPD SWAT, USSOCOM, USMC Det-1, USMC MEUSOC, FBI HRT, FBI SWAT, and let's not forget over 95 years with all the branches of the U.S. military - and you won't find ANY major units that use anything other than the original full sized gun. Why? After you field 50 or 350 guns at once and run thousands or even tens of thousands of rounds through them during training cycles, you'll figure it out. By virtue of their design, the shorter format 1911s reduce the window of functional opportunity for the magazine and slide to work together to feed, chamber, extract, and eject. This is an incontrovertible fact of life. Proper weapon setup, spring rates, and magazine maintenance are critical in running the shorter guns. Keeping after a few 1911s as a single hobbyist or aficionado is different than running a bunch of guns for a large unit. Remember that weapon down time equates to lost training and operational time. You want to minimize your maintenance issues, not increase them. Lastly, a full sized 1911 is very arguably a more efficient shooting and ballistic delivery platform than a smaller sized variant for the majority of users.


Here are the basic specifications to examine for a duty 1911:

•Full sized Government Model 1911 format with 5" barrel length and steel frame for increased reliability and durability.
•Chambered in .45 ACP, as that is the caliber in which the gun was designed and functions best. The greatest number of magazine options are available in .45 ACP.
•Standard Browning barrel without integral feed ramp. Ramped barrels have very steep feed ramps that don't feed well. Hollowpoints can also catch at the bottom of the integral ramp, creating further feeding issues.
•Standard milspec short recoil spring guide rod and plug.
•Recoil spring rating of 17-18.5 lbs to improve durability with full power duty loads.
•Availability of ambidextrous safety for left handed users.
•Type of firing pin safety system, if any. See below for further.
•Light rail or standard dust cover.
•Type of finish.

The quality of the factory components will come into play when looking for a gun to use more or less out of the box. MIM (Metal Injection Molded) components, which have received an excess of attention in recent years, tend to vary in quality like anything else, but they can generally be expected to have a useable service life of 5,000 to 10,000 rounds. Some quality MIM components work exceedingly well, and I personally have witnessed a large number of guns with MIM small parts where service life has exceeded 30-40,000 rounds. Budget grade small parts that are "good enough" for a hobby level gun that may not get used very much are unacceptable for a service pistol where we should reasonably expect a service cycle of 3-10,000 rounds per year for 3-5 years. Be honest with your math in calculating your round count, as this article is meant to help you choose a reliable service weapon, not a fun time plinker for Sundays at the range.

Firing pin safeties typically fall into the Colt Series 80 pattern which are actuated by the trigger (Colt Series 80, Para Ordnance, Sig GSR) and the Swartz style safety which is actuated by the grip safety (Kimber, Smith & Wesson). Of all the firing pin safety mechanisms on the market, the original Colt Series 80 - in a Colt - is the most reliable of them all. The platforms utilizing the Swartz safety are a less than ideal choice across the board due to the inherent reliability problems of the design. The Swartz safety is extremely sensitive to the fit of the grip safety to the frame and the timing of the grip safety's trigger blocking arm. Tolerance issues can also lead to a Swartz safety that will time properly when the grip safety is depressed a certain way, and time differently when depressed a different way. This will typically be a product of loose fit of the grip safety to the frame tangs and/or loose fit of the thumb safety shaft through the grip safety. It is possible to have the grip safety timed such that the trigger will be able to release the sear well before the firing pin safety plunger has been moved far enough to clear the firing pin. Problems with improper timing of the Swartz safeties can lead to a situation where you get a "click" when you wanted a "bang." That's a serious problem. Unless department policy mandates a firing pin safety, I would choose a 1911 without one. It is possible to have a drop safe 1911 without the firing pin safety, and given the potential reliability problems with a poorly executed system, the perceived risk of drop safety is outweighed by the real risk of a failure to fire.

My feeling is that a duty 1911 absolutely needs a light rail interface. There are a host of choices, all of which feature some variation of a Picatinny rail. As long as you use a common light such as the Surefire X300, you will have duty holster choices. The ubiquitous Safariland 6004/6280 family is available for most of the common rail guns in conjunction with the Surefire X300 and Insight M3/M6 lights.

The finish of the weapon will be of importance for reducing maintenance headaches for the user. Traditional polished blue finishes are very pretty, but tend to fare poorly in humid or wet environments. If you are working out in the rain, it is usually not an option to stop what you are doing to either cover your gun or wipe it down with an oily rag. It is not unusual to observe rust forming right on the weapon during a long patrol or operation in a wet environment. For a carbon steel gun, I recommend matte Parkerizing as the bare minimum finish for duty use. Parkerizing is very functional and cheap to reapply when worn. For even better corrosion resistance, an excellent choice would be one of the various thermally cured spray on finishes such as KG Gunkote, Cerakote, Birdsong Black T, Nighthawk Permakote, et al. Remember that exposed metal will rust, no matter what the manufacturer of the finish claims. Matte stainless usually works quite well, but remember that the porous surface of the steel will trap moisture and can still rust if neglected. Matte hard chrome, Melonite, and some of the newer finishes such as Ionbond Tungsten DLC and nickel boron offer a variety of valuable properties, but can be hard to properly apply and will need to be stripped and reapplied in the event of a weapon repair or rebuild. Keep this in mind, as duty 1911s will typically require several rebuilds during their service cycle.

Now that we have addressed the various points of consideration, letís move on to available weapon choices. My recommendations, which follow below, are not meant to be a comprehensive examination of all the industry offerings, but rather my particular thoughts on certain 1911s based on my experience and personal preference.

For a factory light rail 1911, the current top choice is the Colt Rail Gun.  The overall build and small parts quality make this a leader in its price range.  All the rail guns are stainless underneath, whether they are silver, black, or tan on the outside.  Forged slides and frames and a predominance of forged and bar stock small parts make the Colts a real performer.  Newer guns have the sharp edges addressed, which helps make them more friendly to the hand and holster.

Any of the other new production Colts, such as the 1991A1 (O1991, O1091), Series 70 reproduction (O1970A1CS, O1070A1CS), XSE Series (O1980XSE, O1070XSE, O8011XSE), Rail Gun (O1070RG, O1980RG), and Colt Gunsite Pistols (CGP) are all viable for duty use. The CGP is out of general production, but you'll still find them floating around, especially direct through Gunsite. Given a choice between the stainless and blue models, I'd pick the stainless for ease of refinishing after some very basic modifications. If policy dictates that you need a firing pin safety, the Colts are the way to go. 

The Springfield Loaded Full-Size MC Operator (PX9105MLP), with the green and black paint job, is also a very solid option. It bridges the quality between the Loaded and TRP grade 1911s and is an excellent value. These guns exhibit excellent overall build quality and tend to run well out of the box. The correct Picatinny spec light rail, corrosion resistant finish and overall configuration of the MC Operator lends itself well to duty use. The TRP models with the standard dust cover (PC9107LP Stainless, PC9108LP Armory Kote) are also excellent choices for a traditional format gun.

If you want to bridge the gap between a full blown hand built custom and a lower priced/entry level production 1911, the Springfield Professional is an excellent choice. You'll get extremely high build quality on a standardized feature set with a reasonable wait time.  I have seen a lot of these guns and have a few myself. Statistically, there are more of the Professional Models out in real street service than any other factory custom 1911, so the quirks are pretty well worked out. They have consistently improved since the original run of guns, and overall are very nicely done. They offer cleanly executed checkering (some of the best on a production type gun), a nice beavertail fit, a blended S&A mag well, premium grade components, real Novak sights with Trijicon inserts, and excellent accuracy from the match fit Nowlin barrel. These guns typically work very well right out of the box, though they should be monitored closely during their break in period. It is available in a standard dust cover format (PC9111) and with the shortened Operator light rail frame (PC9111LR). If you find one of these on the secondary market, it is preferable to pick a later production specimen that has the Trijicon sight inserts and pinned front sight. Very early (low three digit CRG 1xx serial numbers) guns had IWI sight inserts and no pins in the front sights. While these were good guns, the sight inserts do not wear very well and you will want to replace them with Trijicons. Each run of guns differs as to whether their ejectors are pinned or glued, but the Springfield Custom Shop will pin the ejector if you desire.

What are the main pitfalls of running a 1911 for duty? Weapon maintenance and end user responsibility are the two big issues. The end user needs to be dialed in to the gun's quirks to be able to run it effectively. The day of handing out rack grade 1911s to the masses and using them for duty are over. A unit, team, or department that is looking at running 1911s MUST have the following in place for any reasonable level of success:
1) Two 1911s issued to each user, to allow for continuity when (not if) one weapon goes down for service. Lacking this, the issuing unit needs to have a large pool of spare guns to lend out to users when a gun goes down for maintenance.
2) Dedicated and highly skilled gunsmith support. Being able to maintain the weapon is key, and it requires more than a one day armorer school to learn how to effectively maintain this gun.  **If you do not have access to a specialized 1911 gunsmith to support this program, you will not be successful.
3) Transition training of 24-40 hours for the end users so that they may learn the unique manual of arms and proper maintenance of the 1911.

In light of the above, 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.

Magazines are a big issue, and users need to try not to become married to a set of magazines. When they stop falling out, stop locking back, or the first time they stop working, they need to either be addressed or replaced. The mags are the weak link, so get over it and throw them out when they give up on you.

Extractor tension is another problem, and stovepipes and double feed (Type 2 and 3) malfunctions are not to be tolerated. Replace the extractor when these start to occur, as retensioning the existing unit is only a temporary fix. I expect only a 5,000 round service cycle on a standard Browning format extractor. Some important caveats are necessary in explaining this very harsh and short service interval. Once the extractor is properly set up - and this will require a skilled hand for fitting as well as some test firing - the extractor should be good to go for its whole service cycle. Once it starts to let go, it is on the downhill slide and more problems will continue to surface. The first time you get a profound extractor related malfunction, don't shrug it off, you're going to get more. Certain brands of extractors will often last 10,000-15,000 rounds or even longer without incident, but I don't necessarily bank on that. If you perform routine detailed inspections and replace them every 5,000-10,000 rounds, you probably will not have too many headaches. Proper fitting is critical to extending the service life of the extractor. A properly designed external extractor would solve the extractor related problems, but the choices are currently limited and the track records of the designs vary in success.

Do you need to have your gun customized or worked over in order to carry it for work? Not necessarily, but most typically that is the case. You really need to shoot the gun for 1000-1500 rounds, to include about 500 or more rounds with duty ammunition to have a good feel for what the gun is doing. Do not just put "200 flawless rounds" through the gun and declare that it is "completely reliable." That is not a statistically significant cycle of service. You may as well tell a race car driver that his car is good for that 500 mile race after you drive it around the parking lot once. You need to be able to fire 1000-1500 rounds through the gun without ANY malfunctions. Cleaning and lubrication every 200-400 rounds is an acceptable interval of maintenance while evaluating the weapon for suitability. The 1911 is a design that requires hand fitting for maximum performance, and while a hot rodded or tuned gun (by a skilled 1911 specialist, not your local range hack) will always be better in many ways than any factory gun, a stock gun may do the job IF the hand fitting at the factory was done right.

The 1911 is an aficionado's weapon, and requires a true dedication to it for the proper level of success.  

Good shopping and good hunting.

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