The 1911 Style Pistol – A Gunsmiths Perspective on Maintenance and Reliability
By Phillip Lebow
The 1911 is one of the oldest, and most reliable pistols still available. While the design is over 100 years old, it is still a viable defensive handgun, as attested to by its continued production, and its many variants.
For the modern 1911 user, it’s important to pay attention to the most common wear items on the gun. Let’s go over a list:
Recoil springs: Very important for the reliable function of your gun.
They don’t last forever! They are cheap to replace, and easily changed as a part of normal cleaning. If feeding issues are developing over time in your gun, look to the recoil spring first, especially if you like shooting the hotter defensive ammo (Cor-Bon, and such)
For a normal full size 1911, I recommend staying with a stock 16 or 17 lb recoil spring. Stronger springs tend to increase the return velocity of the slide and make the gun more sensitive to magazine spring conditions, causing feeding issues. Full size 1911s have the longest spring life, due to having the highest slide mass, and the lowest slide velocities. This also makes them more tolerant of magazine spring wear.
Shorter 1911s such as the Commander, S.A. Champion, and similar 4” or so guns have a higher slide velocity due to their lighter weight slides and shorter slide stroke. This is why they typically have recoil springs in the 20-22lb class. The higher slide velocity, means the springs have to store more energy, and decelerate a faster moving slide. Accordingly, the life of the recoil spring(s) are shortened, requiring more frequent replacement for reliable functioning. In the Springfield Champion and Colt Commander, I prefer the flat wire recoil spring and guide rod assemblies made by MGW rather than the stock factory items. The MGW items are more reliable, and easier to work with than the factory pieces. The very compact 1911’s such as the Colt Officers, the Defender and other sub-compact 1911s are very hard on their recoil springs, and the springs have a relatively short working life. Recoil springs tend to be specific to these guns, so keep a couple of spares on hand. Due to the short light slides, the slide velocity is very high.
Slide velocity is tied to the feeding cycle of the gun. Feeding cycle? The feeding cycle starts when the slide unlocks from the previous shot and the gun is in recoil. The muzzle rises, more or less sharply, depending on the size of the gun and the velocity of the bullet leaving the
barrel. Shorter guns having sharper recoil impulse rise more rapidly, due to their faster moving slides, and smaller inertia resisting recoil induced motion.
Why do we care? Well, as the gun is rising in recoil, the mass of the ammunition in the mag, wants to stay in the same place, due to its own inertia. So, relatively, the ammo in the magazine moves DOWN into the magazine under recoil, compressing the mag spring, and moving down from the feed lips.
Meanwhile, the slide is completing its stroke, compressing the recoil spring, and storing energy in it for the return trip forward, and also cocking the hammer against the hammer spring. The action of cocking the hammer also helps decelerate the slide. When the slide stops, and starts returning to battery, it has to pick up a cartridge from the mag, on its way forward. The recoil spring has to store enough energy, to accelerate the slide forward, to drive a cartridge out of the magazine feed lips, up the ramp into the chamber, and force the barrel into the locked position. Not to forget friction as well. Lots of stuff gets done by that recoil spring!
Don’t use recoil buffers on defensive guns! Just replace the springs!
Did I mention that 1911s are not just a bunch of parts, but are a collection of dynamic systems?
As the slide comes forward, the mag spring has to drive the column of cartridges upward against the feed lips, in time for the slide to pick up a fresh cartridge and push it into the chamber. If your mag springs are weak, or become weak, the cartridge won’t get up to the feed lips in time to level out and be ready for pick-up. The results of this are failures to feed, where a cartridge sticks up in the ejection port, or it just tilts and jams under the barrel hood, missing the chamber. What has happened, is that the cartridge arrived late, and instead of the breech face catching the base of the cartridge, as it should, it catches in the extraction groove in the brass case, causing the tip-up.
Well, what’s problem? There is a very small, but finite increment of time, when the slide has gone to the rear in recoil, paused, and is returning. During that time event, the magazine spring must overcome the downward motion of the cartridges due to recoil. Then the mag spring must drive the column of cartridges back up into the correct position against the feed lips, in time for a successful pick-up by the breech face of the slide. Weakening mag springs are common. If feeding with a particular mag starts to develop problems, check it for obvious damage to the feed lips, or for a bad follower (especially the plastic ones). If nothing obvious shows, it is time to replace the mag spring. If all the mags are the same age, you should replace all the mag springs at the same time. Just against possible failure at a bad time.
I like the mag springs made by Wolff Springs for their quality and durability.
That goes for their recoil springs as well. If you are replacing the spring in the Wilson magazines, it is a good idea to use the replacement plastic followers that come with the springs. A chipped Wilson follower, will not lock the slide back when the mag is empty.
That reminds me. Another symptom of weak mag springs is failure to lock back on the last shot.
So, your 1911 spring condition is critical to the functioning of your gun
The other springs:
The spring powered plungers that hold the slide stop down, and provide a detent for the thumb safety. If the safety is not positive in operation (bad news, especially in cocked-and- locked carry) Replace the plunger spring. Also, if the slide stop is ‘self energizing’, that is, locking back un-expectedly, change the spring. Self-energizing is caused by the slide stop moving upward into the locked back position. The upward motion of recoil causes the stop to rise against the bottom edge of the slide, due to its inertia. When the slide stop reaches the locking notch in the slide edge, it locks back. Extended and ‘heavy duty’ slide stops are especially bad in this regard. Sometimes gunsmith adjustment is required to get positive operation of the slide stop, but this is less common with today’s, better parts.
The hammer spring: This spring rarely needs replacement. Some shooters will replace the stock hammer spring with a lighter target spring intended for the Colt Gold Cup. This reduces the pressure the hammer exerts on the sear, improving the trigger pull somewhat. Unless you are shooting light target loads all the time, stay with the stock hammer spring. Remember, as we mentioned before, it helps decelerate the slide at the rear of its stroke. With standard loads and the target spring, battering of the frame, and the lower extension of the slide at the front will occur, causing operational issues, and shortening the life of your nice gun. This is especially true of aluminum framed 1911’s.
The sear spring is inside the rear of the frame, under the grip safety and mainspring housing. This spring controls the disconnector, and the sear in your 1911. During a trigger job, the gunsmith will adjust this flat spring for the pull weight desired, and make sure the disconnector works. If not installed correctly, the gun won’t fire, or will fire one shot and stop, or the hammer will not stay cocked, preventing operation. In a worst-case scenario, with a complex of errors, the gun can run away, fully automatic, out of control. Bad news for you and those around you. Let your competent ‘smith deal with this for you unless you are intimately familiar with the inner workings of the 1911s. A good smith performs a series of safety checks on your gun, after he works on it, to insure your safe operation of all controls and operations. Before he returns it to you!
Please don’t allow your “good buddy” or a shade tree mechanic work on your 1911 trigger unless you have utter confidence in their skills, and have seen other successful work by them.
I was nearly shot by a know-it-all auto mechanic who declared he could do a trigger job on a 1911 with just his fingers and a big file. He smugly showed me the gun, and loaded it, of course, and when he dropped the slide to demonstrate how well it fed, the hammer followed, and the gun fired. He narrowly missed me, his younger brother, and a friend standing nearby. Words were understandably exchanged.
Other 1911 issues:
Firing pin springs: Replacements come with Wolff recoil springs. Put them in when you get them. Weak firing pin springs will allow the firing pin tip to protrude from the breech face during the feeding cycle. The cartridge head will hit the pin and not feed up into position causing a feeding jam. Not common on the bigger 1911’s, but important on the very short guns.
Feeding issues: Some 1911 types come with very basic frame ramps and the barrel throats. finishes may be rough (relatively) that is, not highly polished, or not large enough to feed shorter hollow points. This applies to both standard non-ramped barrels as well as supported ramp barrels. Most of the manufacturers have moved beyond the “it only needs to feed ball..” mentality, fortunately, but production pressure has eliminated some hand finish work. Feeding hang-ups due to roughness can be cured by some careful gunsmith polishing.
On non-ramped barrels, issues can arise from the bottom-rear of the barrel throat overhanging the frame ramp. Ideally, when the slide is back, the bottom of the barrel throat should be 15 to 30 thousandths forward of the frame ramp’s top edge. Overhanging barrels cause feed stoppages. This usually only seen on out of spec. guns or ones that have been carelessly rebarreled.
Other feeding issues are caused by the extractor. If the extractor has been adjusted too far into the breech face, failures to feed will occur intermittently. The cartridge rim will hit the inside of the extractor, slowing the slide, and using up needed energy to chamber the round. An easy adjustment. This sometimes occurs after extractor replacement. Now, just to clear up a point, there is extraction and ejection. We all know the difference, right? Extraction is when the fired case is pulled from the chamber. Ejection occurs when the fired case is pulled back, by the extractor (!) and against the ejector, which kicks the case free of the extractor and flings it out of the gun. Clear?!
Extraction is pulling the case from the chamber, ejection is flinging the empty out.
An interesting tidbit. A stiff extractor is not detrimental to either feeding or extraction,
or ejection, providing it is adjusted correctly. Worn or tired or limp extractors will give problems in all areas, but may be hard to diagnose. I like the Wilson Bulletproof Extractors for replacements. For those of thicker wallets, the Millenium Custom II extractors are great, to the tune of $85.00!
Replacement slide stops usually work OK. On some guns, the slot in the part of the stop that rides inside the slide rail may be too narrow, to allow the stop to rise fully. This can fake you out and make you think you have a bad mag spring. A little work with a needle file fixes this.
Also, the top, rear of the slide stop, which has the little lug that catches the slide notch, can be too tall, and not be clear of the slide when it is in the down position. This will cause false lockback at inopportune times. The cure is to file the top of the little lug until it clears the slide rail by 10-15 thousandths.
Lots to go wrong here. Lots of shooters like to change the safeties on the 1911s to something they like better than the stock item. The safety is the one actually fitted part on the 1911. Repeat, the safety is the one actually fitted part on the 1911. They don’t always drop in and work! The safety has a lug on the inside that positively blocks the sear from disengaging from the hammer. If the safety dropped in and seemed OK, it may not be correctly holding the sear. Possibly it may allow the sear to rise in the hammer notch enough to fire, or simply rise part way.
There are three checks for these conditions;
(1) WITH AN UNLOADED GUN!, cock the hammer, engage the safety, pull the trigger, and see if the hammer falls. If so, see your gunsmith.
(2) UNLOADED GUN! Cock the hammer, engage the safety, pull the trigger. Then disengage the safety, and see if the trigger pull is shorter or lighter than normal. If it is either of those conditions, the sear is rising on the hammer lugs, and not resetting. See your gunsmith!
(3) UNLOADED GUN! Cock the hammer, engage the safety, and pull the trigger. Now, hold the rear of the gun close to your non-deaf ear, and pull the hammer back. If you hear a tiny, sharp snap or click, that is the sear, snapping back into the fully engaged position on the hammer! See your gunsmith!
Safeties that won’t go into the frame, or can’t be engaged, are that way, because the fitting surface of the safety lug is too tall to engage the sear. See your gunsmith!!
Good operating 1911s that are losing accuracy over time, that is after thousands of rounds, are rarely shooting out their barrels. Usually, it is the barrel bushing that has worn. Typically, a new, tightly fitted barrel bushing will restore accuracy for thousands of more rounds.
Other accuracy issues. Lots of hot loads, can over time, stretch the barrel link, causing accuracy loss, and feeding issues.
1911 Myths: Tight fitted slides increase accuracy dramatically.
Not so. Tight fitted slides only get you the last 3-5% of accuracy.
A good barrel, with a well fitted bushing and consistent rear lock-up will buy you more accuracy than any slide fitting job.
The downside to very tightly fitted slides, is a severe loss of reliability. A target fitted tight slide will jam on a shred of brass, or a grain of powder. On the target range, this is no big deal. Maybe you dropped 10 points. On a street or defensive gun, this kind of malfunction is Death! In my humble opinion, a defensive gun should be fitted moderately close, and the slide should run free until the last 3/16ths to 1⁄4 inch of travel, where it lock ups tightly. In the hundreds of police and defensive 1911’s I’ve worked on, this has provided utter reliability, with sharp accuracy.
What the 1911 is all about.
There is much more about the 1911, but it involves custom work. Sight replacements are common, but many of them involve milling on the slide. You want a competent gunsmith/machinist for this, to avoid loose unsightly (pun) finished work.
Custom barrels are another issue. Aside from replacement factory barrels, there is no such thing as a drop-in. On a plastic Glock maybe, but not on a 1911. All high-quality aftermarket 1911 barrels require an understanding of the geometry of the barrel and its motion, and a goodly quantity of precision tools. Not to mention a milling machine for best work. Yes, they can be done by hand with special hand tools, but the machined results are far superior. If someone tells you they can do it all with a flat file and a round chainsaw file, they may be right, but you will likely have a badly fitted expensive barrel, and possibly other damage. Ask a 1911 specialist. It is not a black art, it just requires careful precision work. So, beyond that, optical sights, etcetera, those are topics for another paper.
Philip Lebow Master Gunsmith