One of my favorite handguns to shoot for sheer enjoyment is the .45 caliber model 1911. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a big history buff, so I can appreciate the pistol’s military service record and development. But with the design now 105 years old, can it truly compete with modern designs, or is the 1911 effectively dead?
That’s a tricky question – one that requires knowledge about the current state of handgun design, what constitutes an “effective” defensive handgun, and what affect both have on usability. Even a cursory glance at weapon design reveals that all types of firearms are moving towards lighter, smaller and more ergonomic designs.
Ever since Heckler and Koch introduced their polymer-framed VP70, and Glock catapulted the popularity of polymer pistols to surpass all others, “lighter” has been the name of the game. There’s a reason companies like Smith & Wesson and Ruger have discontinued production of metal-framed handguns such as the 5900 series and the P95 – they’re less popular and more expensive to produce than polymer-framed guns.
Which isn’t to say metal-framed guns don’t have their merits, but lighter guns mean carrying more ammunition, which is inarguably an advantage. But I’ll stop there, so as to not venture too deep into the 9mm vs .45 ACP debate.
Back to the second portion my original point: What constitutes an effective defensive handgun? A firearm designed for self-defense (either military, law enforcement or civilian) needs to meet a minimum of four criteria to be considered effective:
- Function reliability even without lubrication or regular maintenance
- Able to consistently hit a 6-inch target within self-defense range (typically within 25 feet)
- Fire a round proven to reliably stop an attacker with reasonable shot placement
- Carry at least five rounds of ammo and be easily reloadable
The 1911 barely meets the first criteria. Not because the design isn’t capable – I’ve seen 1911s that rattle like an old toolbox that run like a scalded dog – but because its magazines can be a total crap shoot. The overwhelming majority of 1911s that suffer from reliability issues can be traced back to faulty magazines.
Shooters should stick with new-production magazines from companies with solid reputations like Chip McCormick Customs. These guys have been working on, running and building 1911 magazines for 3 decades. So I called the owner, Chip, and asked him about the importance of magazines.
“Magazines lie at the heart of (the M1911’s) reliability,” Chip explained. “Browning never intended 1911 magazines to be extended, or be run as hard as competitors tend to these days.”
He explained that because of this, the 1911’s design doesn’t leave enough room for extra material (and thus increased durability/reliability) to be readily added to its magazines. Which is why it’s imperative to choose good magazines built from high-quality materials.
With good mags and top-notch ammunition, the 1911 is more than reliable enough for military, law enforcement or defensive work – which brings us to accuracy.
The accuracy guidelines aren’t as arbitrary as they sound; I used the 6-inch metric as a rough approximation of half a human head.
Because it provides a worst-case scenario minimum for acceptable accuracy – the ability hit the thoracic “T” section of a human skull on an assailant just outside the 21-foot Tueller drill distance. This 21-foot guideline is the result of a series of experiments to determine at what distance a rushing attacker can reach a cop before the cop is able to draw and fire their gun.
Because these experiments were done with cops using duty holsters, I added roughly 20 percent to 21 feet to obtain my stated distance criteria of 25 feet in order to compensate for shooters having to draw from concealment.
As for the thoracic “T-zone,” that is the area on a human face that when struck by a bullet, instantly incapacitates a human being by piercing the brain stem. Doing so cuts off the brain’s ability to communicate with the central nervous system, preventing a would-be assailant from continuing their attack.
All but the most shot-out 1911 barrels are easy capable of accurately placing rounds within this T-section/6-inch target at 25 feet. Most are capable of doing so at double that distance, but firing at an assailant at such a distance would call into question the necessity of, and thus legality and ethics of, such a shot. Regardless, the point remains that the average 1911 is plenty accurate enough for our purposes.
The second-to-last requirement I tend to simplify to recommending only firearms chambered in calibers issued to modern militaries. So no .32 ACP, or .25 ACP. This requirement is based on FBI suggested requirement of minimum tissue penetration depth necessary to reliably incapacitate adversaries. Their studies found that depth to be approximately 12 inches.
The 1911’s standard, .45 caliber 230-grain FMJ round has proven itself in a half-dozen theatres of operation over the course of more than 8 decades of service. Furthermore, FBI ballistics test conducted in the late 1980s determined that .45 caliber 230-grain JHP (like those found in most 1911s used for home defense) are 95 percent effective at achieving the 12 inches of tissue penetration needed to effectively incapacitate bad guys.
Grim terminal ballistics aside, any firearm capable of these feats is acceptable, but capacity still plays a part in the defensive handgun equation. A Thompson Center Contender, breech-loading single-shot handgun chambered in .45-70 Gov is a less-effective tool for self-defense than an eight-shot .38 Special revolver from a purely numerical standpoint.
The five-round criteria baseline is to make sure people don’t disregard snub-nosed .38 J-frame revolvers. These little guys are very difficult to control, but are surprisingly accurate.
Keep in mind that higher capacity isn’t always beneficial to the shooter; there comes a point of diminishing returns on either extending magazines on pistols chambered in common calibers, or shrinking the cartridge to fit more rounds in flush-fitting magazines. The former will eventually make the firearm too heavy, awkward and unwieldy to be practical. And the latter can lead to rounds with lackluster terminal performance. Here again, the 1911 still stands high enough to compete with modern designs.
While flush-fitting magazines (on standard-sized) are limited to 8+1 rounds on full-sized 1911s, 10-round extended examples don’t add much bulk to the design and give shooters a decent number of rounds to dispatch. Sure, this is fewer rounds than many modern automatics, but still more than enough to dispatch the majority of threats – at least based on the average number of shots fired in defensive encounters, which is just two rounds.
This isn’t to say a two-shot derringer is sufficient; it isn’t. Not simply because its short barrel and diminutive size make is equally difficult to aim, shoot control and reload, but because people who carry guns do so to hedge their bets against possible threats. Why would someone go to the trouble of carrying a gun if they’re going to limit themselves to two cartridges?
Because the 1911 meets or exceeds all the aforementioned criteria, it’s not only a solid choice for serious self-defense use, but also on par with more modern designs, right?
Yes and no.
The 1911 is a solid platform, but advances in firearm tech means carrying one versus a lighter gun with higher capacity magazines puts the shooter at a distinct, measurable disadvantage. But the 1911 isn’t simply a pariah for the 9mm vs .45 ACP debate, it brings its own set of advantages over modern designs.
For example, the gun’s slim grip and that grip’s angle make it comfortably fit the hands of most shooters. Also, the unique trigger design makes for a light, crisp and straightforward pull that makes keeping the pistol on target while pulling the trigger much easier for inexperienced shooters.
So, while pistols such as the Glock 19 carry more than twice as many rounds, the striker-fired design’s spongy triggers can be difficult for less proficient shooters to use without pulling the gun off-target.
So do these restrictions apply only to new shooters?
In many ways, yes. Guys such as Jerry Miculek, who fire millions of rounds a year, could stop a dozen knife-wielding attackers with a revolver faster than the average shooter with a belt-fed machinegun. But this doesn’t mean shooters need to take out a second mortgage to afford the ammunition they need to be effective. They simply need to train enough to be proficient with their firearm of choice.
A 1911 in the hands of a total novice is as useful as a screen-door on a submarine. But with a few hours of familiarization, and 30 minutes of reloading and dry-fire practice a week, anyone can weld a pistol with enough skill to defend themselves – provided they have the will to fight.
The 1911’s design could certainly benefit from higher magazine capacity, like something on par with the Springfield XDm in .45 ACP or the Glock 21 in the same caliber. Higher capacity frames like those from Infinity and STI exist, but are vastly more expensive than standard capacity 1911s. But it’s safe to say, as the 1911 continues to evolve, it’s far from obsolete.
I guess the rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated.
Images by Jim Grant