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Modifying the 1911 for Service Use

The legendary 1911 pistol is one of those things that creates urban myth, conjecture, and misconceptions among the firearms community. For many people, the 1911 pattern pistol is simply a wonderful gun that is fun to collect, great to shoot, excels in competition and has endless possibilities in terms of modifications and personalization. All of this is great, and I have guns that fall into all of the above categories. If you are a person interested in any of the aforementioned uses, the information in this article may not be what you are looking for. What we will be looking at here is the 1911 in true service use. That means everyday carry, high round counts, and continual training (shooting at least weekly). It is a gun that you are literally trusting with your life as well as the lives of others.

Full-size, 5-inch, all steel 1911 service pistols are not the guns most people choose in this self-defense role. They are big, heavy, and require constant user attention. If you are not willing to make a substantial lifestyle investment, this is not the gun for you. Like a lot of people, I am very well served by a soulless, polymer-framed service pistol. With that said, I have gone through numerous 1911 phases in life, and like an old friend, I always come back to them with renewed enthusiasm. They bring a sense of confidence, and I will tell anyone that the 1911 .45 ACP pistol is the finest close-quarters gunfighting pistol ever made. However, since most people aren’t doing a lot of close-quarters gunfighting, and because of the other demands of the 1911 on the user, you might not think this is the gun for you. Despite its intricacies, the 1911 has a lot of redeeming qualities, and it would behoove any gun enthusiast to know a little something about them regardless of one’s intent to ever own or carry one. So, if you are still interested, and with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s take a look at three areas of note regarding the 1911 as a service pistol.

What The 1911 Needs

This part is critical. This applies to every single pistol you are staking your life on. You need a 100% reliable, manufacturer-supported, serviceable pistol. There are many of these out there but in the case of the 1911, I have found that the choices are limited. Personally, my hard use service 1911s are almost exclusively Colts, simply because they meet the needed criteria of having factory-trained armorers available for police officers, factory-certified gunsmiths, and a high level of factory support.

As a police officer involved in firearms training and in the firearms industry since college, I have handled tens of thousands of law enforcement service guns. None of them are immune to issues. Just because a company uses state of the art production techniques does not mean that a bad gun (or a bad batch of guns) can’t slip through from time to time. I have seen issue-pistols with unfinished parts, problems with some phase of the cycle of operation (usually extraction and ejection), magazines that are unreliable, and guns that would simply not go “bang” right out of the box. The best thing you can do with any service pistol, and particularly the 1911, is to have an experienced and well-trained armorer go through the gun prior to putting it into service.

Wiley Clapp Colt 1911
This gun is a great example of “what you need”. It is a dead stock Colt Wiley Clapp full-size Government Model. It has had a full inspection by a Colt factory LE Armorer, Chip McCormick magazines that have been function checked, and the original 1911-type safety replaced with a bar stock unit from MARS Armament by the same armorer who checked the gun. The factory slim grips were also replaced with standard-width Craig Spegel Cocobolo grips as they fit my hand better.


A simple cleaning up of some of the internals is a good investment with most of the current popular modern service pistols. In the case of the 1911, things are a little more complicated. At minimum, a good $100 reliability package is a solid insurance policy from an established gunsmith or a good factory-trained armorer. Keep in mind that there is not a single true “drop-in part” in a 1911. While most armorer courses use a simple set of punches for required tools, the 1911 needs files. This is not a job for a hobby smith. It requires someone who knows their stuff and has the right tools. I recently had some time on a $4,000 high performance 1911 from a well-established firearms company. The gun was a work of art, shot well, and seemed to be reliable in a simple range test. However, when subjected to a more detailed examination and inspection by a skilled armorer, that pistol failed numerous function tests and protocols. Making sure your gun passes all function checks, ensuring all the parts are well fit, and determining that the gun is set up to run the performance ammunition you’ve chosen is critical, especially since the springs that work with your training ammunition may be way too light for some of the current +P performance loadings.

Another “need” is to ensure your magazines all work reliably with your pistol. Over a long history with 1911 pistols, this is an area that has given me fits. I have had guns that simply “didn’t like” certain brands of magazines that worked flawlessly in other guns. I have seen more malfunctions and issues with 1911 pistols as a result of either bad magazines or magazines that don’t work with a particular gun. Unlike most of the newer service pistols, there are hundreds of magazine variants out there for the 1911, and they are not  created equal or built to any sort of standard. When your magazines start having problems, trash them. They are disposable. Do not buy used magazines as they are often somebody else’s problems. Currently, most of my hard-use pistols are being run with Chip McCormick magazines that I test and rotate every six months. Do not be afraid to change to something else if you see that there is a reliability or longevity issue with what you are using. Just because it works in a friend’s gun or some super secret military unit uses them does not mean it will work in your gun. So, in short, if you decide to take on a 1911 as your primary everyday pistol, you need to have a professional ensure that it is properly set up and runs flawlessly with all of the magazines and ammunition you will use.