June 01, 2020
The 1911 (designed in 1907) has been around nearly as long as Americans have been driving cars — the Ford Model T, generally considered the first affordable car, was introduced in 1908 — so it should be no surprise that it was a prized handgun during the “Roaring 20s”. While designed by John Moses Browning specifically for the military, this pistol was available for sale to the public at least as early as 1912. To celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Roaring 20s it seems only right to cover one of the many retro-style 1911s on the market, in this case the Auto-Ordnance 1911A1.
Officially this model is the Auto-Ordnance 1911A1, GI specs, Matte Black Finish. In size and weight, it mimics not the original M1911 adopted by the military in that year, but rather the M1911A1 from 1924, which served our troops so well through World War II, Korea, in Vietnam — more on the difference between the two in a bit.
This pistol sports a five-inch barrel, is 8.5-inches long overall, and is 5.5-inches tall. With an empty magazine in place this all steel pistol weighs 39 ounces. Auto-Ordnance sells an otherwise-identical version of this pistol chambered in 9mm, but the only chambering for the 1911 in the 1920s was the .45 ACP one, so a sample of that is what I secured. The 45 ACP cartridge was developed by John Browning in conjunction with this pistol. The military wanted a big pistol cartridge with a big heavy bullet and that is what John Browning gave them. The standard military .45 ACP load is a 230-grain FMJ bullet travelling downrange at roughly 850 feet per second.
This pistol is supplied with one seven-round magazine, or one nine-round magazine if you choose to commit heresy and buy the 9mm version. With the pistol, you get a cable lock as well as a cardboard box with a foam cut out for the pistol.
For those of you brand-new shooters, or those people raised on polymer framed striker-fired pistols or on uninhabited desert islands, who don’t know anything about the dinosaur which refuses to become extinct that is the 1911, let me give you a quick primer on this gun. This is a “single action only” pistol. That means that unless the hammer is cocked, this pistol will not fire and is just a very expensive (though stylish) paperweight. If the hammer is down you will not be able to activate the manual thumb safety on the left side of the frame.
Let’s do a little “perception versus reality.” That big cocked hammer scares a lot of people, but the truth is that the 1911 with its hammer cocked and safeties engaged is much more immune to accidents and mishandling than the standard striker-fired pistol design. If something gets wedged in the trigger guard of a Glock/XD-M/M&P etc., they’ll go bang. With a 1911, even though it has that scary cocked hammer, unless both the thumb safety and grip safety are deactivated, pulling that trigger does nothing. And the grip safety is always engaged unless you’re gripping the pistol.
Here’s a little bit of historical trivia for you — in John Moses Browning’s original patent drawing of what became the 1911, you won’t see a thumb safety, just a grip safety. This pistol was meant to be carried by officers (who generally don’t need a rifle) or cavalry troopers (who needed a weapon they could fire with one hand, the reins of their horse in the other). Generally, when it comes to militaries, a handgun is a back-up weapon. If needed it would be drawn and the slide would be racked, chambering a round. The thumb safety was added at the request of the Army.
The thumb safety physically blocks the hammer from falling when engaged. The grip safety is the pivoting lever underneath the web of your hand, and taking a firing grip on the pistol is all you need to do to deactivate it. The grip safety physically blocks the trigger from being pulled.
Over the century of its existence and use there have been untold variations of this pistol, but while John Browning was alive there were really only two, the M1911 and the M1911A1. Most modern iterations of the 1911 in silhouette more closely resemble the original M1911, not the M1911A1 introduced in 1924, which is the version issued to our troops in World War II. The original 1911 sported a flat mainspring housing and a long trigger, such as you see in almost every modern 1911. It also wore double diamond checkered grips, as you see everywhere.
For the M1911A1 several small external changes were made to make the pistol easier to shoot and accommodate shooters with smaller hands. The flat mainspring housing went to an arched model. The long trigger got shortened, and cutouts were added to the sides of the frame making the trigger easier to reach. The grip safety was extended out the back a bit and the hammer spur was shortened to reduce hammer bite. The front sight got widened a smidge. The double diamond pattern on the grips was eliminated for ease of manufacturing.
The most recent “retro” 1911 I reviewed was Colt’s 1911 Classic in these pages last year. The Colt had an aluminum trigger bow and flat polymer mainspring housing. This Auto-Ordnance, on the other hand, has the historically correct steel trigger and arched steel mainspring housing with lanyard loop. Of all of the “retro” versions of 1911s I’ve tested over the years, many in these pages, Auto-Ordnance’s 1911A1 is the closest in specs to the original M1911A1 that I’ve seen. It is not an exact copy, however.
The only real difference between the Auto-Ordnance and an original 1911A1 is that the AO is equipped with a firing pin safety, and I’m sad to see it, although I understand why it is there.
This firing pin safety mimics the Colt “Series ‘80” firing pin safety, which prevents the pistol from firing when dropped — on its muzzle, onto a hard surface (not a common occurrence, but it is possible).
The addition of the safety allows this pistol to be sold in certain states which have more restrictive laws, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Firing pin safeties like this are notorious for screwing up what is otherwise known as the best trigger pull found in a fighting handgun. The 1911 has the trigger pull against which all other firearms are judged, and for good reason. However, that is not the case when you stick a Series ’80-type firing pin safety in the gun, as all those extra parts in both the frame and slide add mush and weight. The trigger pull on my sample was seven pounds even, which for a striker-fired gun would be unremarkable, but for a 1911 is pretty darn heavy. Still, because it is a single action trigger pull, even with the added mush of the firing pin safety parts, total trigger travel length and crispness is superior to almost every striker-fired pistol.
The magazine well opening on this pistol is very slightly beveled. I am not sure whether this was the case on the original M1911A1s but even that little bit of beveling will aid you when it comes time to reload. Getting a single stack magazine into a frame opening that has not been beveled at all is a serious pain.
The original sights designed for the M1911A1, as seen on this gun, are rather small. The nickname for them was “hump and a bump” sights, and be aware that the front sight as seen here has been widened over the even smaller one on the original M1911. This is designed as a military firearm, and the thinking was if you actually had to fire a handgun in combat the enemy would be so close sights would perhaps be a bit superfluous.
These sights work, however they are a bit small and because they are all black, in any kind of complicated lighting environment or under speed they kind of disappear, and you will find yourself aiming the pistol by just looking over the top of it. The only question is whether or not you’ll actually see the sights while you’re doing that.
Here’s a related point — no matter the caliber or even what type of firearm, be it handgun, shotgun, or rifle, there seem to be two common characteristics of firearms designed by John Moses Browning. The first is that they are very size efficient; they are exactly as large as they need to be, and no larger. Perhaps the best example of this that I can think of is the 1894 Winchester “thirty-thirty” lever action, which was designed by John Browning. As rifles go this one is small, thin, and light, but it does everything you need it to do, and the truth of that is shown by the success of that rifle, which is still being made to this day. The 1911 is just as size efficient. The frame itself is only three-quarters of an inch thick, and the slide is just an inch thick. Once you slap grips on the gun it is but an inch and a quarter thick at the grips. It is hard to find even a modern pistol chambered in 45 ACP that is narrower than the 1911, whose nickname was “Ol’ Slabsides,” for as big and heavy as the five inch-barreled, all steel pistol is, it is still flat enough to conceal under a thin shirt.
The second characteristic is that all of John Browning’s designs seem to be very ergonomic. When you pick them up, your hands seem to find the exact place that they were meant to be on the gun. And when you raise them and point them the sights seem to naturally be aimed at the target. This is one reason why the small sights on this big pistol don’t handicap it, and why it is still, over a century later, hugely popular.
If the ejection port in the slide looks a little small to you compared to other 1911s, let me explain. To improve reliability, modern 1911s have ejection ports that have been “lowered and flared.” Lowered means the side of the ejection port has been cut down, and flared indicates a dished cutout at the rear of the ejection port. This wasn’t done just to improve ejection of spent cases but to allow the better ejection of live rounds (such as when clearing a jam), as the original ejection port can be a little tight. Is a lowered and flared ejection port necessary for proper reliable functioning of this pistol? Absolutely not. Your grandpappy didn’t need no darn lowered and flared ejection port when he was shooting Japs on Iwo or krauts in Normandy. He didn’t need three-dot sights either … although, to be honest, he might have appreciated them. The Marines on Iwo Jima probably would have appreciated a few AC-130 Spectre gunships too, maybe some A-10 Warthogs, even a few backpack nukes, but you work with the tools you’re given.
Fit and finish on this pistol were nicely done. I prefer the appearance of the matte black finish as seen here to the gray parkerized GI/retro finish found on some guns. There was a bit of play, just a bit, between the slide, barrel, and frame, but the pistol does not rattle at all when you shake it. The slide, sear, and disconnector of this pistol, the three parts where steel quality is arguably the most important, are machined from solid bar stock.
When I opened the pistol up I was very happy to see that the frame ramp had been polished and properly adjusted for angle, and the mouth of the barrel had been polished and opened up a bit as well. This drastically improves the feeding and reliability of this design and seems a smart move by Auto-Ordnance to make sure that the pistol reliably feeds not just roundnose full metal jacket ammo but some hollowpoints as well.
Both the feed ramp angle and its position in relationship to the barrel mouth (with the slide back and the swinging barrel forward) looked textbook perfect to my eye. My plan was to bring some solid aftermarket magazines to the range as well as the provided seven-round magazine, just in case, because reliability issues with 1911s, as with most pistols, can often be traced to the magazine. However, Auto-Ordnance was wise not to use an original pattern magazine. The included seven-round magazine was manufactured by Checkmate, and features a modern improved non-tilt follower and a very robust spring.
If John Browning’s design of the 1911 was so great, some of you might be thinking, why do all the modern 1911s have different controls such as extended thumb safeties and beavertail grip safeties. The modern improvements to those safeties reflect a change of status for the pistol, and shooting style, more than they do anything else.
As I mentioned, the 1911 was originally meant for military use, where it would probably be carried with an empty chamber, or with the hammer down on a loaded chamber. Back in the day, nobody had even heard of “cocked-and-locked” carry, where the pistol was carried with the hammer cocked and the thumb safety engaged. When it was fired, it was fired one-handed.
However, starting in the second half of the 20th century, due to the efforts of many people including, prominently, Col. Jeff Cooper, the 1911 became the go-to sidearm of non-military professionals. The preferred mode of carry for that crowd was cocked-and-locked, and shooting style became two-handed (initially the Weaver stance).
The original thumb safety was deemed by most users a little too small for comfort and so wider and longer versions were created to ensure positive deactivation by the shooter’s strong-hand thumb during the drawstroke. Cooper’s “Modern Technique of the Pistol” involved shooting the 1911 with a “thumb-high grip,” where the strong-hand thumb rode atop the thumb safety while shooting to keep it from accidentally getting bumped up while firing. Experience showed these high-volume shooters that choking as high up on the gun as possible increased their control … but when doing so, the original narrow grip safety with its sharp edges was not kind to the web of their hands. Wider “beavertail” grip safeties came into being as a result, with the spur hammer replaced with the rounded Commander-style hammer. These changes were to make the pistol a little bit more comfortable to shoot and easier to carry, but the original thumb safety and grip safety as seen on this pistol work just fine.
After heading to the range, I considered deleting my above comment about bringing extra after-market magazines. I never used them, because I never needed them, the provided Checkmate magazine worked just fine. Admittedly, I limited my ammo choices to FMJ and hollowpoints that have FMJ-type profiles, but the gun fed and fired everything.
As the old-timers used to say the M1 Garand, at nine pounds, was too heavy until you shot it. The same could be argued to be true about the 1911. The 45 ACP cartridge has some serious recoil and the weight of this pistol helps to absorb it. And keep muzzle rise down.
This pistol was surprisingly accurate, and I probably could have done better groups if I wasn’t saddled with a seven-pound trigger pull. I found that, if I was shooting outdoors with good light, aiming at a light-colored target, those small sights actually allowed for surprising precision.
In the past, I’ve fired retro versions of the 1911 like this out to 50 yards and beyond. If you’ve mastered sight alignment and trigger control, hitting a man-sized target with a 1911 isn’t difficult at all … provided the Purple Gang isn’t out there shooting back at you with Thompson SMGs.
This gun seems to be intended more as a historical piece, but the sad fact is many people look at a handgun such as this 1911 and think it’s too big and heavy to carry. Most people don’t want their carry gun to inconvenience them, which is why we have so many small, light, polymer framed micro 9mms on the market these days.
Excuse me, but the 1911 was actually designed to be carried. That’s the purpose of a handgun. Despite what feckless Millennials might think, this gun is not too big and heavy to be carried, either openly or concealed. It’s not that you can’t carry it concealed, it is that most people do not want to.
Now, while this pistol lends itself more to open carry, with a good holster and a solid belt for a foundation it is certainly possible to carry this pistol concealed with the right choice of covering garments, provided you have a body size and shape that is conducive to this. What do I mean by that?
If you are five-foot-two and 110 pounds, concealing a pistol this big will be problematic. If you are six-foot-four and have an athletic build, this gun could disappear under a polo shirt. I carried a full size all steel five-inch Government Model-style 1911 every day for over a decade. I did this as a police officer, armored car driver, and private investigator, but I didn’t just carry at work, I carried all day every day, and I carried two spare magazines on my off-side. I was also able, and willing, to dress around the gun.
If you want an authentic period holster you’re going to be looking for something big, and leather, with a flap that covers the gun. If you want a somewhat retro holster that also works for carry, concealed and otherwise, check out the Yaqui Slide, now made by Galco Gunleather. Col. Jeff Cooper first spotted this minimalist belt holster when working in Central and South America after World War II, and brought the design to America in the mid-1950s. Jeff Cooper seemed to prefer to open carry his 1911 in a Yaqui Slide, and this simple holster tucks the butt of the gun in tight enough that it pretty much disappears under any covering garment.
Auto-Ordnance cells 13 different versions of their 1911, but half of those models are just special editions with fancy finishes. All of them are all steel guns with 5-inch barrels. They are offered in .45 ACP and 9mm. This base model gun has a suggested retail price of $695, and as I said, of all the retro models I’ve tested, this Auto-Ordnance 1911A1 comes closest to the original guns.
James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. He is also the author of several books, including Carnivore, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current novel, Dogsoldiers, is available now through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Auto-Ordnance 1911A1 SpecsCaliber:
39 ounces (unloaded, with magazine)Slide Material:
Grip safety, thumb safety, firing pin safetySights:
Ramp front, notch rearTrigger:
7.0 lbs. (as tested)Accessories:
One 7-round magazine, cable lockMSRP:
Auto-Ordnance 1911A1 Accuracy Chart