The 1911 pistol is one of the most enduring firearms designs in the world. The original handgun — the Colt M1911 — was remarkably innovative for its time and demonstrated a level of rugged reliability never before achieved in a semi-automatic pistol.
However, firearm innovation is like a roaring train, and the 1911 is an old pistol design. While the 1911 handgun is still popular 110 years after its adoption by the U.S. military, those who seek a ‘modern’ gun feel might find the standard 1911 lacking. Those looking to upgrade a 1911 have a vast array of options, including barrels, sights, compensators, and grip safeties to make this outstanding piece of art live for at least another 110 years.
The Popularity of the 1911
John Browning’s design has remained popular for more than a century. Although its service in the United States armed forces declined following the adoption of the Beretta M9 in 1985, it continues to see widespread use among private citizens. The two principal applications are: competitive target shooting and self-defense.
Competitive Shooting with the 1911
As a competitive shooting pistol, the 1911 has shown itself to be highly versatile. Available in various cartridges, from the original .45 Auto to the later .38 Super, the pattern has matured since its inception in the early 20th century.
Using a 1911 as Self-Defense
In the role of a self-defense weapon, the 1911 is a reliable, accurate, and highly ergonomic firearm. Its single-stack magazine and narrow grip, the crispness of its stock trigger, and the feel of its all-steel construction, never went out of style.
Benefits of Upgrading Your 1911
Over the years, several improvements have been made to the Colt M1911A1 or Colt Government Model Mark IV Series 70 by firearms designers, pistol smiths, and tinkerers alike. There are numerous benefits to upgrading the 1911 platform, including:
- Reliability: increasing the functional reliability with non-FMJ ammunition, to handle different loads, and to eject spent cartridges consistently.
- Ergonomics: increasing your comfort when shooting and your ability to manipulate the controls, especially when time is a factor.
- Accuracy: upgrading your sights to contrast in the dark, and that you can adjust for different loads.
- Recoil control: reducing the recoil and controlling the muzzle’s position which will help you recover your sight picture faster and improve your overall shooting experience.
The standard Colt Government Model barrel is 5”. More compact variants, such as the Commander and Officer’s ACP, reduced this length to 4.25” and 3.5”, respectively. Regardless of the barrel length, however, there are certain upgrades that you can purchase relative to the G.I. original.
These include match-grade barrels made from corrosion-resistant stainless steel. Besides the material, a barrel with a polished feed ramp that can accommodate defensive ammunition, such as jacketed hollow-point bullets, is mandatory in an open or concealed-carry handgun.
Another option is a bull barrel fitted to the slide, eliminating the need for a separate bushing and locking up more consistently.
The first enhancement that many notice regarding the slide is the ejection port. In modern pistols, it’s enlarged and lowered relative to the G.I. model. This operation, also known as “scalloping”, promotes a more consistent ejection pattern and more effectively preserves the brass for reloading.
More aggressively cut charging serrations, and serrations on the front and rear of the slide, along with the injection port change, increase traction and the number of charging points on the pistol.
Sometimes used interchangeably with a muzzle brake, a compensator’s primary purpose is to control muzzle climb or flip. Compensators are used in rapid-fire weapons such as competition handguns, submachine guns, and assault rifles.
In contrast, a muzzle brake is designed to reduce rearward recoil, especially in heavy-caliber rifles and shotguns.
While the 1911 pattern is available in various cartridges, the most popular remains the original .45 ACP, the 9mm Luger, 10mm Auto, and .38 Super. The lighter calibers have a noticeable advantage regarding muzzle flip and attendant sight recovery. To reduce the time interval between firing the pistol and recovering your sight pictures with heavier calibers, such as .45 ACP and 10mm Auto, one option is the recoil compensator.
For this, you’ll need a barrel with a threaded muzzle that extends past the face of the slide. A recoil compensator directs escaping gases upward when attached to the muzzle, exerting downward pressure on the barrel. The effect is reduced sight recovery time.
Another option is barrel porting. Rather than attaching a separate device to the muzzle, which adds weight and may interfere with the cycle if not correctly synchronized, porting consists of cutting holes, sometimes angled.
1911 Sight Upgrade Options
The original M1911 and M1911A1 service pistols had low-profile fixed combat sights, which the shooter could adjust to combat drift. With no contrasting colors, visibility was low, and the sights would all but disappear in the dark or against a dark-colored background.
Iron sights on a service pistol typically take the form of a front blade that you align with a rear notch. Once the sights are aligned with each other and the target, the resulting image is called the sight picture. Sight upgrades, relative to the legacy combat sights that adorn WWII military service weapons, include the following:
Three-dot fixed combat:
Three-dot sites, which is one of the most common firearm sights, have three white or green dots that must be aligned for an accurate shot. The 1911 three-dot sights are simple, usually low-profile, and rounded or dehorned to reduce the risk of snagging on clothing or equipment. Some sets feature a rear sight with an abrupt angle to enable one-handed emergency charging. The pistol slide retracts on the holster mouth, gun belt, or another suitable surface to clear a stoppage.
Adjusting the elevation and windage of the rear sight of your 1911 can allow you to accommodate different bullet weights, shifting the impact point. This can be especially useful when experimenting with varying types of ammunition for hunting or target shooting.
For low-light environments, iron sights illuminated using tritium are a solution to the less-visible black combat sights of a standard 1911. Competition shooters also often use fiber-optic front sights to collect and amplify ambient light during the day. While not self-illuminating at night, many 1911 shooters now favor fiber optics in conjunction with tritium for a day/night set.
When attaching a sound suppressor to your 1911 pistol, the suppressor’s outside diameter may obscure standard-height iron sights. To achieve a reliable sight picture, several companies manufacture elevated or high-profile sights that you can align above it.
Grips on the 1911
The 1911 frame has two escutcheons into which you screw grip panels. The original M1911 grip panels were made from checkered wood with a double-diamond pattern. During WWII, these were replaced with checkered brown plastic. Companies now manufacture grip panels made from various materials such as cocobolo wood or G10 fiberglass laminate.
There are also wraparound grips for the 1911 that cover the frame’s front strap. However, the grip is not limited to the panels you can buy and screw directly to the frame. The front strap is traditionally smooth but an increasingly common upgrade involving texturing the surface.
Two of the most common surface treatments designed to add texture are:
One of the most popular ways of increasing traction on the 1911 is to machine several rows of intersecting lines into the pistol frame’s front and back straps. Measured in LPI (lines per inch), this increases the grip’s coarseness, ensuring that the 1911 is less likely to slip out of your hands when shooting. However, the lower the number (e.g., 25 LPI vs. 40 LPI) the more aggressive and abrasive the checkering will be. If you have sensitive skin, you may prefer a more finely cut pattern on your 1911 pistol.
Vertical or horizontal grooves are usually cut into the slide of 1911 pistols to assist in charging the weapon, but you’ll also find them added to grips. While not as effective as checkering a 1911, one or two vertical serrations are among the least offensive to sensitive skin and don’t detract from your comfort.
Upgrading 1911 Grip Safeties
The grip safety in the 1911 is a passive device that you depress when you acquire a full firing grip on the pistol. Whether it’s necessary or desirable is a matter of vigorous debate, although John Browning dispensed with this feature in his subsequent designs. In any event, the grip safety is still included by most manufacturers of 1911-pattern handguns, except for some rimfire training and subcompact concealed-carry weapons.
The original grip safety spur on the 1911 was lengthened to prevent hammer bite, in which the hammer spur would strike the webbing between the thumb and the forefinger in shooters with larger hands. However, a further enhancement is the upswept beavertail safety, which is more protective and easier to activate. Many grip safeties of this type have a memory bump, which ensures that the safety will be engaged regardless of whether you’re able to acquire a full firing grip.
Manual Safety Changes on the 1911
Besides the grip safety, the primary safety is a manually activated thumb lever on the left side of the frame. As the 1911 is a single-action-only handgun, the preferred method of carrying the pistol is cocked and locked, also known as Condition One. This consists of the following: full magazine in place, round in the chamber, hammer cocked, and safety on. The manual safety is disengaged as you draw the weapon from its holster.
The 1911’s original manual safety lever did not provide sufficient surface area to swipe with your thumb on the draw stroke reliably. Modern enhancements include an enlarged or flared speed safety that you can’t miss. In modern pistols, this lever is also often ambidextrous — accessible from either side.
Magazines for 1911
The magazine of the 1911 typically holds between 7 and 9 rounds of ammunition, depending on the caliber, in a single feeding column. This is called “single stack” mag. Several companies have sought to improve on the standard G.I. magazine by introducing self-lubricating followers, extended base plates, using corrosion-resistant materials, such as stainless steel, and increasing the feeding’s thickness lips to more effectively resist deformation
The magazine well is the compartment in the frame of the 1911 into which you insert a magazine. When reloading the 1911, especially under stress or time pressure, a squared or sharp edge on the butt of the frame can snag on the edge of the magazine. An enhancement to remedy this is to bevel or flare the entry to the magazine well. This allows you to insert a magazine rapidly and smoothly, saving precious fractions of a second.
Dust Covers for the 1911
The part of the frame, forward of the trigger guard, is called the dust cover in semi-automatic 1911 pistols. Typically unadorned, many manufacturers add a Picatinny accessory rail (or “Pic rail”). This modern enhancement allows you to attach weapon lights and laser aiming devices. Considering the extent to which 1911-pattern handguns are used for home defense and concealed carry, many shooters regard the ability to attach a light as essential.
The trigger on the 1911 is the sliding type rather than the pivoting variety seen in many other semi-automatic pistols. The U.S. Army adopted a shorter, more reliable design to replace the gun’s more extended variant.
Modern 1911 trigger upgrades include skeletonizing to reduce weight — three-hole triggers are popular among competition shooters — over-travel adjustment screws, and trigger mechanisms that have been polished and tuned for a light, crisp break. The length of the trigger that suits you will depend on the size of your hand.
Trigger Guard Undercut
When the M1911A1 was introduced, Colt machined relief cuts into the frame, immediately behind the trigger, as part of its efforts to increase the handgun ergonomics. In subsequent decades, the trigger guard was also modified by competition shooters and others intent on increasing recoil control. One of these modifications was to square the rounded trigger guard and checker the front face, allowing the shooter to wrap the support hand’s index finger around it.
That modification has since fallen by the wayside, but one that has taken its place is the trigger guard undercut. The point at which the front strap meets the trigger guard is raised so that you can seat your strong hand higher relative to the bore’s axis. This reduces leverage during recoil and helps keep the muzzle down.
Spring Enhancements for the 1911
Whether you want to increase the service life, dampen the recoil impulse, or upgrade the compression spring weight to function more reliably with +P loads, several manufacturers offer recoil spring enhancements for the 1911 platform. These run the gamut from flat-wire springs to dual-spring systems (i.e., one spring inside another).
A hammer-fired SAO (single-action-only) handgun, you must first cock the hammer with the thumb or by retracting the slide to fire the pistol. The original hammer was solid and checkered. Colt’s technical staff shortened the hammer spur to reduce the hammer bite risk in the A1 model, but further enhancements were soon to follow. In 1950, when Colt introduced its compact Commander variant, they changed the hammer to a rowel type — a ring with ridges along its outside diameter.
Today, skeletonized hammer designs prevail, as cutting down the weight also increases the hammer velocity, reducing lock time.
Full-Length Guide Rods
Providing a custom and highly stylized appearance, some shooters install full-length guide rods to increase the operating cycle’s smoothness and add weight to reduce recoil.
Though they aren’t upgrades to the pistol in the same way that drop-in replacement parts or modifications are, holsters are nonetheless integral to your efficient use of a firearm for sporting or tactical applications. Traditionally made from leather, new materials, such as Kydex, have become increasingly popular in recent years. A good holster should accomplish the following:
Help Maintain Control of the Pistol
One of a holster’s primary functions is to allow you to carry your sidearm securely. Retention serves two purposes. It ensures that regardless of what physical exertion you’re engaged in — running, jumping, crawling — your 1911 remains by your side. It also protects the gun from unauthorized access.
Cover the Trigger Guard
When you place your hand on the grip, your finger should not enter the trigger guard until you have drawn the pistol, raised it to eye level, and your sights are on the target. Part of this is trigger discipline and practice. However, the design of the holster also plays a role. If the holster for your 1911 covers the trigger guard, it forces your index finger to remain straight alongside the frame as you draw the pistol. Holsters that require you to curl your index to depress a locking latch predispose you to unintentionally squeezing the weapon’s trigger on the draw stroke, which increases your likelihood of experiencing an accident.
Provide access when you need it
If you carry a 1911 concealed or openly for self-defense, you’re carrying an emergency tool for saving your own life and the lives of others. As a result, when you need to access your firearm, you’re apt to need to rapidly. Rather than carrying a 1911 handgun in a pocket, in an off-body location, such as a backpack, or your vehicle, the holster provides reliable access when you need it most.
Upgrades can encompass both enhancements to the weapon itself, such as match-grade barrels and high-visibility night sights, and accessories vital to its proper use, such as high-quality holsters. The strength of the 1911 platform is its versatility. More than one hundred years old, and yet through consistent industry and end-user innovation and upgrading, the pistol has continued to hold its ground as a viable competition and combat firearm. It will be the work of its loyal following that carries this iconic handgun into the 22nd century. At We The People Holsters, we can help you find the perfect holster for your 1911.