April 01, 2022
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John Moses Browning, one of the most prolific firearms designers of all time, created one of the most timeless handgun designs ever, the 1911. This single-stack .45 Auto handgun was a mainstay sidearm for the United States military through two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and served well for 74 years until its replacement in 1985. Even with this official replacement by the Beretta M9 (Model 92FS) 9mm, the 1911 continued to be carried by Special Operations Forces. An updated 1911 variant was even adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps in 2012 as the Colt Mfg. CQBP. With success found not only with the U.S. Military, but militaries abroad, how does this combat workhorse translate to modern carry and civilian self-defense?
Frequent any gun forum, firearm social media page, gun shop or magazine and you will likely find a 1911 handgun mentioned, and an ensuing argument. The 1911 design is likely one of the hottest debated handguns in existence, and is coupled well with its equally debated caliber, the .45 Automatic (Auto., ACP). It seems there is minimal "middle ground" when discussing it and people either love it or hate it. For those who are infatuated with the 1911, they will often times start with its involvement in "two World Wars", "stopping power", "man stopper", "Lords caliber" and you may even hear the age old adage "they all fall to .45 ball" (a nod to the military’s .45 Automatic 230-grain FMJ load). Many of these people also fondly remember the Apollo missions, the "duck and cover" Civil Defense turtle and Walter Cronkite.
On the opposite side of the coin, many non-1911 believers will flock to the popular 1980s "wonder 9s", or the 1990s double-stack .40 S&W or .357 SIG. They will back up their claims against the 1911 and necessity for the "bigger is better" ideology in bullets with "bullet technology", "recoil management", "quicker follow-up shots" and "higher capacity". Mostly neutral are the 10mm and "big bore/magnum" revolver carriers which typically mind their own business with their "best millimeter" and "king of the hill" .357 Magnum (or other magnum revolver). While the "double-stackers" call the 1911 carriers "Fudds" and "Boomers", the 1911 carriers shake their heads, wondering where they went wrong in raising the "wonder 9" crowd.
Now that a (joking) profile is given of opposing sides, what about the handgun in question? Is the 1911 a viable choice for self-defense? More specifically, in a modern concealed carry world? The answer is somewhat tricky, as we aren't viewing a specific firearm, made by a specific company. The 1911 at this point is a firearm design manufactured by numerous companies, in numerous parts of the world. Quality varies, as does purpose for the handgun, with pricing varying from the $300 range, up into the several thousand dollar range. This article will be taking a practical approach to this, with more modern handgun offerings. It will not touch on the 1910-1940s, early production and "war guns" (those firearms produced by varying companies for use in war, such as World War II), as these are largely collectors pieces and not as suited for feeding hollow points reliably.
I will be looking at Series 70 and beyond 1911s, 2011s and variants, as they are typically those found in holsters or those purchased for defensive purposes. Finally, the last rules will be: stock handguns, supplied as they come from the factory and out of the box. Also, handguns will have a MSRP cap of $1,500. While Wilson Combat, Nighthawk Custom, Les Baer, Ed Brown produce among the finest handguns on the market, their expense places them out of the reach of the average firearm owner, especially for carry purposes.
The handguns for this evaluation will be personally owned firearms and those which I have experience with and trigger time with. Two handguns will be chosen from opposing sides, one full-size and one carry model. For the 1911s, my choices are the popular SIG Sauer 1911 Scorpion Elite Carry and Colt 1911 XSE Combat Elite. Both are nicely outfitted defensive 1911s, with proven reliability using hollow point offerings from Federal, Winchester, Remington and PMC. I will choose the Glock 19 Generation 3 "Mariner" and SIG Sauer P226 for the opposing side. Both handguns offer optimal reliability, good accuracy, and great capacity to size ratio.
Both the SIG Sauer Scorpion Elite and Colt Combat Elite ran flawlessly with all Hollow Point and Full Metal Jacket loads used. Federal’s Hi-Shok 185 and 230-grain, Speer’s Gold Dot 230-grain, Winchester’s PDX-1 230-grain, Winchester’s USA 230-grain Hollow Point, PPU 185-grain Semi-Jacketed Hollow Point and my typical .45 Auto target load, the Nosler 185-grain Hollow Point Match. Both proved to be absolute tack drivers with all ammunition offerings with one exception, the SIG Sauer 1911 with Armscor USA 230-grain FMJ. The SIG shot it reliably, but accuracy did suffer. In the Colt Combat Elite, the Armscor shot pretty well, producing fist-sized groups at 10 yards. For all other ammunition choices, accuracy was great, practically cutting the center out of a B27 silhouette target.
Both handguns use steel frames, which absorb a lot of the .45 Auto's "shoving" recoil, making fast follow-up shots achievable and accurate. Double taps are easily obtained with an overall fair degree of accuracy. While both 1911s point shoot well, the SIG 1911 carry gun excelled here, along with target acquisition and re-acquisition. Both 1911s excel in the basic requirements for a defensive handgun. They were reliable with all forms of ammunition, accurate and easy to effectively shoot.
Looking outside those basic requirements, one must look at capacity, recoil mitigation and effective follow-up shots. The age old adage of "just hit what you shoot at" is technically true, but the world has changed in the past 30 years. No longer is it a single potential robber as the assailant. Now those who carry in public are faced with potential urban shootings, rioters, riots or possibilities with multiple assailants. This is where capacity plays such a large role. The limited capacity to size ratio does harm both the Commander and full-size 1911 models. While double-stack 2011 offerings do exist, they can be large and quite cumbersome for all but the largest of hands. This leaves the single-stack 1911 holder with 7 to 10-round magazine options, which are extremely limited compared to other handgun offerings today.
Both the P226 and Glock 19 Mariner performed well on the range, reliably shooting all forms of 124-grain NATO ball, 115 to 147-grain FMJ and Jacketed Hollow Point ammunition. Using IMI Ex-Star 115-grain JHP, Winchester PDX-1 124-grain +P, Federal HST 124 and 147-grain and Hornady XTP 124-grain, all ammunition performed flawlessly and produced acceptable groups at 7 and 10 yards. The Glock 19 Mariner came from the factory with 17-round magazines, but for this evaluation, I did use my 15-round carry magazines, as well as 18-round flush fit Mec-Gar magazines in the P226.
Both handguns performed the most basic tasks of a self-defense handgun perfectly, but these double-stack handguns excel over the 1911 in other areas. The Glock 19 exceeds the capacity of the 1911 by nearly double, while the P226 pushes over double the capacity of the 1911. The 9mm does offer flatter recoil, resulting in faster follow-up shots and slightly better recoil mitigation. The double-stack 9mms win in capacity, but when using +P ammunition, the follow-up shot times do drop and barely surpasses the .45 Auto. In short, +P and +P+ ammunition has an abrupt "snap" that slows down accurate double and triple taps.
Does the 1911 have to be this $4,000 top tier handgun to be reliable, accurate and protect one's life with? Absolutely not, that is one of the most ignorant statements I see floating around the internet about defensive 1911s. I used two sub $2,000 handguns with stellar results and both are from more than reputable companies.
Will the 1911 jam? I have yet to experience a jam in either the SIG Sauer Scorpion Elite Carry or Colt Combat Elite XSE. Will the 1911 function with Hollow Points? Modern, quality built 1911s will absolutely function with hollow points. These companies purposefully build modern defensive 1911s to function with all forms of modern ammunition, including Hollow Points. That said, my 1927 production date Colt will not function with Hollow Points, only FMJ ammunition.
Is the 1911 as outdated and horrible of a handgun as internet lore suggests? Is the 1911 as perfect as their carriers say? In short, the answer is “No”. The 1911 is a dated handgun design. However, it has gracefully stepped into the 21st century far better than its "Hi-Power" brethren (the 2022 FN High Power). It is still a single-stack handgun, which translates to limited capacity. I personally prefer more ammunition.
In my opinion, the 1911 is a perfect side arm for the well-trained, who also have access to a rifle first and foremost. For the civilian arena, the 1911 is a handgun that should be carried by a person more trained and practiced on that platform; in short, the 1911 is not a carry gun for the novice.
- The US military field tests from 1907 to 1910 came down to Savage Arms and Colt, with Colt eventually winning.
- The .45 ACP cartridge was developed in 1904.
- The ACP in .45 ACP stands for Automatic Colt Pistol.
- It was adopted March 29 of 1911 and dubbed “Model of 1911 U.S. Army”.
- It was formally adopted by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps in 1913.
- The designation was changed to “Model 1911” in 1917 and then M1911 in the mid-1920s.
- Experience during World War I led to the M1911A1 being adopted in 1926.
- The U.S. military procured around 2.7 million M1911 and M1911A1 pistols during its service life.
- The 1911 was designed to act as its own armorer’s tool kit. The pistol can be taken apart and reassembled (except for grip bushings, sights, and plunger tubes) without special tools. Even the grip screws could be turned with a case rim.
- The pistol was phased out in 1985 due to so many simply being worn out.
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About the Author:
Michelle Hamilton has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice/Homeland Security, is a serious student of wound ballistics, military history, small arms design and manufacturing and is a competitive shooter.