Dick Metcalf waxes lyrical about the Colt Government Model 1911. I agree that the Colt 1911 is to autoloaders what the Colt Single Action Army is to revolvers: an obsolete design sustained by sentimental attachment of nostalgic fanboys. Here is why:
Far from the “Best Pistol Ever”, the 1911 design is demonstrably inferior to its descendants. Locating the barrel with a bushing at the muzzle and a swinging link at the breech makes it easy to tune for accuracy or reliability but hard to standardize for drop-in spare part replacement and tricky to take apart and put back together. A 1911 built tight for accuracy will not shoot reliably until it has been broken in with thousands of hardball rounds, at which point it will have loosened up to become less accurate. The exterior of the 1911 bristles with hard edges and delicate notches. Its ergonomics are so poor that only collector editions are made without beavertail tangs, memory groove grip safeties, extended thumb safeties, and cut or arched mainspring housings. Its construction standards are so lax that three generations of gunsmiths have put their kids through college by charging fees for hand-fitting for accuracy and reliability tune-ups. Its lore is akin to that of Harley-Davidson Big Twin, the flagship product of the oldest surviving motorcycle manufacturer in the world, which putters around in grand style as long as the rider abstains from going too fast or turning too abruptly.
“Its straightforward, user-friendly design cannot be outclassed for reliability, accuracy, endurance, and effectiveness.” Oh, really? In the late 1960s, the US Navy ran a test using an accurized softball competition 1911A1 pistol shooting Remington 185-grain .45 ACP jacketed wadcutter match ammo. At the outset the gun printed 20-shot 2.5" groups at 50 yards out of a machine rest. About every 5000 rounds, it was put back into the machine rest and retested. In each of these tests through 25,000 rounds, it still shot the same size groups. At 30,000 rounds, the groups had opened up to about 3.5"; at 35,000 rounds, the groups were about 4.5". For comparison purposes, numerous Swiss shooters report no degradation of factory-grade accuracy in a SIG P210 after firing 250,000 rounds. These milspec guns were tested on behalf of the Swiss Army to put 10 rounds into a 50mm circle at 50 meters, and did so consistently over five times the lifespan of a 1911. As Ken Hackathorn and Larry Vickers pointed out while explaining the supersession of the 1911 by the HK45, “at 50,000 rounds, a 1911 needs a severe overhaul. It’s going to need to be rebuilt and it’s going to have a lot of parts that are worn out.” Back in its heyday, that was a reasonable expectation of of a military sidearm’s lifespan. Thus Julian Hatcher described in the 1953 Gun Digest a 5,000 round endurance test administered by the U.S. Army around the end of WWII to a number of service autopistols. Only the Colt M1911A1 passed. The German P38 came in second with 10 malfunctions, one broken extractor, and 2 other parts replaced. Among the blowback pistols, including the Walther PP and PPK and the Mauser HSc, each had at least 36 malfunctions, with the PPK coming in the worst at 83. All of the blowback frames cracked before completing 5,000 rounds. The PP outlasted the rest, firing 4,142 rounds before cracking the frame. This was par for the course for pistols that could be expected not to fire more than 50 rounds in annual qualification, but totally inadequate for entrants in the modern offensive handgun weapon system, as evaluated by Hackathorn and Vickers. Put simply, Colt’s beloved relic fails to live up to the standards of accuracy, reliability, and ruggedness, maintained by modern service auto pistols.
“How well can a Government Model 1911 pistol shoot? Generally, a top-of-the-line Colt-manufacture .45 Gold Cup new from the box can be reliably expected to deliver 2.5-inch, five-shot average groups at 25 meters from a rest. Give it to a top-grade pistol-smith for refinement and you’ll get a gun that will put match-grade loads into a 1-inch circle at that distance.” This is no tribute, but a reproof. The factory-accurized Colt Government Model National Match Gold Cup is far too tight to merit the accolades for reliability earned by its predecessors in military trials; all the more so once it has been “refined” by a top-grade pistol-smith. Four decades ago Colt tacitly acknowledged these shortcomings in their stillborn SSP design, which dispensed with the separate barrel bushing and barrel link of the 1911, taking its design cues from Charles Petter’s French M1935A and its successor, the Swiss P210. The one-piece slide differentially-bored to support the tilting barrel cuts in half the clearances required by the replaceable barrel bushing; the barrel cam that superseded Browning’s swinging link in the Radom ViS-35 and the FN GP35, as derived from the his own 1927 patent for the Grande Rendement prototype of the latter, enables drop-in barrel fit for a unit construction slide; the integral hammer action that can be removed and replaced without tools, as introduced in the Tokarev TT30, simplifies maintenance and allows for drop-in unit-level armorer repair of ignition malfunctions; and the Luger-patterned frame with its rails enveloping the slide makes for their far more consistent alignment. These design changes amount to genuine corrections of John Moses Browning’s venerable masterpiece. To maintain its ongoing supremacy over its successors is an insult to the intelligence of modern handgunners.