What comes to mind when I say “The essential American handgun?” There is one simple answer:
The 1911 has been the classic American semi-automatic service pistol for over 100 years. It was in use by the United States Armed Forces as its main sidearm from 1911 to 1986, and has remained in use by certain units of all four military branches to this day. With modern advances in technology and features it remains a popular choice for law enforcement, hunters, competition shooters, as a range firearm, and for concealed carry and home defense.
So how do you pick the best model?
The goal of this article is not to determine which 1911 is “the best” as that could be debated to no end as there is no shortage of the gun’s manufactures, models, or accessories on the market today. It is meant to be a guide to provide insight to which 1911 you should consider to fill a desired role – whether you need a firearm for home defense, competition, or a recreation of a historic model to enjoy.
How has it changed in the last 107 years?
The basic design and operation of the 1911 has remained virtually unchanged since its introduction. It is single-action only with no hammer decock and is most commonly chambered for the .45 ACP (.45 Auto) cartridge, but is available in other calibers as will be discussed below.
A single-action only pistol means that with the trigger is pulled is releases the hammer to strike the firing pin. The trigger does not cock the hammer as it would a double action handgun. Unlike single-action revolvers where the hammer must be cocked manually by the user, the recoil of the slide pre-cocks the hammer after every round fired. The slide will lock back after the last round to show that all of the rounds in the magazine have been fired.
Is it as safe as a modern handgun?
There are several safeties on a 1911 to ensure dependable operation and carry. A slide lock safety clicks up into place to prevent the slide from moving and the gun from firing. The grip safety must be depressed before the trigger can be pulled. While some do not feature a firing pin block, many modern variants have this safety in place that physically blocks the weapon from firing unless the trigger is pulled.
It was designed to be carried in a “cocked and locked” configuration. This means that a round is chambered and the manually safety is engaged to prevent the gun from firing. While many users may be uncomfortable with carrying in this method at first it is completely safe and how it is designed to be used.
It is never recommended to lower the hammer onto a live round in the chamber as you are bypassing the safeties and running the risk of dropping the hammer onto a live round. Always follow proper gun handling procedures! If you are depending on a firearm for protection always spend the time to train on its operation before you may need it.
What the gun is today
So you’ve decided to buy one. Here are some things to consider before rushing out to your local gun store:
In the last several years there has been a huge influx on the number of style handguns on the market. Almost every manufacturer makes some sort of variant, and several companies make nothing but this models! Before deciding on which model suits your needs you should be familiar with common and optional features found on the modern 1911.
There are three basic sizes that the 1911 is available in: Full Size (Also known as Government), Commander, and Officer’s. You will see some variation in the wording of these sizes but they will almost always correspond to one of these sizes:
- The Full Size/Government is the original size of the pistol and still the most popular. It features a full size frame and grip and a 5″ barrel. This makes for exceptional balance and recoil control and the 5″ barrel aids in accuracy.
- The Commander Size is a slightly smaller version of the Full Size model. It will typically retain the full size frame but feature a shorter slide and a 4″ barrel. It is a comfortable all-around pistol for almost any application and may be easier to handle for some users.
- The Officer’s size is the smallest of the traditional units. It features a smaller frame and grip (with reduced magazine capacity) and a 3-3.5″ barrel depending on the model. The shorter barrel and lighter weight makes it an ideal choice for concealed carry purposes, but it won’t be as enjoyable to shoot or as accurate as the larger models.
When deciding on what your caliber is certainly a huge factor. Do you need the tried and tested .45 auto, a higher velocity round for competition, or something with a huge kick for hunting? These are the four most popular calibers (though not available in every model) today.
- 45 Automatic: The original caliber of the handgun and it continues to be the most popular. .45, while a large round, has less velocity than many other rounds. It is a great choice for a traditional unit, target shooting, personal defense, or concealed carry. .45 Auto is very common and has been proven effective for a long time.
- 9mm: Many newer and compact models are now offered in 9mm. The 9mm cartridge is smaller, faster, and has less recoil than the .45. The smaller size means a larger capacity, and it is great for competition or target shooting, and in the compact ones make for a more comfortably shooting carry gun. More and more are being offered in 9mm.
- 10mm: While not widespread, there are units available in 10mm. The 10mm cartridge packs a huge punch and these days it is typically used for hunting purposes capable of taking down all sorts of game. 10mm is expensive, so if you’re looking for a handgun to shoot a lot this probably isn’t for you.
- .40 S&W: Like the 9mm, some compact ones are offered in .40 S&W for those who want a size between .45 & 9mm. While not extremely popular, especially with the advances in high-end self defense 9mm ammo, there are still a few options available
All will have a manual slide lock safety as well as a grip safety to make sure the gun remains in a safe state until ready to be fired. You will also hear the terms “Series 70” which does not include the firing pin block safety, and “Series 80” which does include this safety.
The Series 80s firearms have an extra level of protection in case the other safeties fail or the gun is dropped, but some say the feel of the trigger is not as smooth. For the casual shooter or on a carry gun you will most likely never notice a difference, but you should know what these terms mean when looking at a potential new model.
The manual safety is available in two configurations – standard, which includes the safety on one side of the pistol (designed for right handed shooters) and “ambi” or ambidextrous which has the release on both sides of the frame for left hand or weak-handed shooting purposes. This is a personal preference and can be decided depending on your intended use.
The grip safety has a slight beavertail to help protect the shooter’s hand from the hammer spur. On older units, and models based on the original design, these were quite small and could lead to hammer bite. Most new products have an extended beavertail for more comfortable shooting.
The original had a simple “GI” style notch sight with no dots or other aiming aids. Over time the sights have improved drastically. Today there are many types available depending on your needs.
3-Dot sights are extremely common and are a good basic sight for almost every use. They are quick, clear, and accurate. Night sights contain small glass vials of a glowing material, also usually found in a 3-dot configuration. These sights are ideal for concealed carry and home defense units as most confrontations take place in low light or night time. Unlike some luminescent sights, true tritium night sights do not need to be “charged up” before glowing.
Adjustable rear sights are also available on some models. These are great for target shooting and competition as you can dial in the exact setting you need based upon type of ammo and distance to target.
Standard Frame/Light Rail
Almost every modern pistol has a light rail on the bottom of the frame for the attachment of weapon lights, lasers, or other accessories. A standard 1911 does not have a light rail, but many full size and some commander size models are available with a light rail frame if desired.
If it is going to be used in a law enforcement or home defense you should definitely consider one with a light rail and a high quality light. The units with rails have far less holster choices available, but having a light mounted on it could make the difference in your defense. This will also allow you to retain full control of the unit with both hands rather than holding the gun in one and a flashlight in the other.
Other Accessories and Options
If there’s one thing that you can do with this gun it is customize it. There are no shortage of aftermarket vendors or accessories available. From grips to sights, triggers, magazine wells, beavertail safeties, and more, there’s no shortage to making your unit uniquely yours.
How do you know which manufacturer is right for you? Here are some things to consider:
Someone once asked me “Does anybody make the Colt 1911 other than Springfield?” Yes, this was a serious question from an uniformed buyer. Not only does both Colt and Springfield make 1911s, there are tons of other companies that make them as well.
While Colt released the original there are tons of companies making their own models today. Some companies focus solely on the model’s production, while others make many other firearms as well. Here are some (but not all) of the most popular manufacturers of the modern unit:
- Colt: They’ve been making these models from the first year and still make them today. If you’re looking for “the original” you’ll want to get your hands on a Colt. Colt has several models available, from the “1991” which they regard as the direct decendant to the original all the way to the brand new M45A1 which is now being put to use by certain units of the United States Marines.
- Springfield Armory: Perhaps the most popular maker of the modern firearm, Springfield Armory has been making these since 1985. They have a huge variety of models and something to fit everyone’s needs and their “loaded” series have many of the modern day improvements shooters are looking for.
- Smith & Wesson: Smith & Wesson started making their first units a few years ago and are still going strong. While they don’t offer the variety as some other companies, their firearms are of high quality and have some unique design features that set them apart from the others.
- Sig Sauer: With their own unique style and several interesting designs, the Sig Sauer series are for those looking for something a little bit different. Unique finishes, commemorative models, and a more modern look set the Sig Sauer models apart from the competition.
- Ruger: While Ruger is probably more famous for making .22 rifles and classic revolvers their SR1911 line packs a ton of features, including being Made in the USA, into a quality unit at a great price point. They aren’t the fanciest or nicest, but they are extremely dependable and get the job done.
- Kimber: Known for producing high-end units and they have been used by several high end agencies. LAPD SWAT, the US Marine Corps, and the USA Shooting Rapid Fire Pistol Team all use Kimber models. Kimber offers a multitude of models each with their own unique features. Kimber pistols are of high quality, are reliable, and are made in America.
- Rock Island Armory: Rock Island Armory initially started building economically priced products that were modeled after the original US Army units for shooters who wanted a classic design without having to shell out the money for a “real” model. Since then they have started making a wide range of models with tons of modern features and in various calibers while maintaining the lower cost. They are quality guns that are a good option if you are on a budget.
- Wilson Combat: Extreme quality, highly desired, and very expensive. Wilson Combat makes some of the best on the planet. If you want the best product, you can get and budget is of no issue you should consider Wilson Combat. They got their start making very popular magazines and aftermarket parts to upgrade this model before manufacturing the pistols themselves.
What Role Does It Need to Fill?
One question should be answered above all others – how will I use my 1911?
While you can read about makes, models, features, and accessories for days on end the first thing you need to determine is this: “What role do I need my 1911 to fill?” Will this be primarily an enjoyable handgun for the occasional range trip? Do you need something compact for concealment? Perhaps you want a recreation of an extremely important piece of US Military History in your collection. Here are some common 1911 roles:
- Multipurpose/All Around Use: Maybe you need it to fill more than one application, or maybe you’ve just always wanted one to add to your collection. Thankfully many units are not “unitaskers” and can be a great choice for various situations. Most manufacturers make standard and enhanced models that fall into this category.
- Competition: If you need a dedicated competition handgun but aren’t a big fan of modern day polymer frame striker fired models, then there are several options dedicated for this. 9mm is a popular caliber choice for competition as it increases capacity and reduces recoil. Target pistols will also have adjustable rear sights and may have extra features like magazine wells to increase reloading time and front strap checkering to help control recoil.
- Home Defense: One of the biggest roles it can play is that in defending your home. Ideal pistols for this category will be full size, chambered in .45 Auto, and have a rail for attaching a weapon light. The added weight from a light on the front of the pistol well help reduce recoil, and the .45 has proven stopping power without the risk of penetrating through drywall or doors.
- Concealed Carry: There have been many innovations with the carry size over the past few years and now there are numerous models geared solely for concealed carry. Many of these pistols will feature smoothed edges for less chance of snagging on clothes, smaller frames, and night sights for easier targeting in dark conditions. 9mm and .45 Auto are popular choices in this category.
- Hunting/Wildlife: If you like to hunt with a handgun, or you live in an area where the local wildlife can sometimes pose a threat, there is a unit for you. Several models are available chambered in the powerful 10mm Auto cartridge that is fantastic for hunting or wildlife defense purposes. “Long Slide” variants are available with 6″ barrels for increased velocity and improved accuracy.
- Classic Style 1911: The original was an important piece of military history, serving the US Armed forces as the standard issue sidearm from 1911 to 1986. If you love history, collecting items from both world wars, or just the classic design of the original model, there are several GI models available that retain the original look and feel of these early models.
Our detailed review of the Best units on the market
You’ve decided to buy a 1911. You’ve done the research, you know what you want your pistol to do, and now you have to decide which model to purchase. Below are our top picks for the best 1911 for each category we outlined above, as well as our picks for best all around units in different price brackets.
For Multipurpose Roles
- Springfield Armory Loaded 1911A1: Springfield has dubbed this model the “loaded” because it is “loaded with all the features that it should have.” They feature an extended ambidextrous safety, extended beavertail grip safety, lightweight hammer and lightweight trigger. They are available with or without a light rail, come in various finishes, and are available with night sights. All of these features are included for a retail price less than $1000, so you get a ton of gun for your money.
- Ruger SR1911: A relative newcomer to this market, the Ruger SR1911 has been extremely popular since its release. It has many of the same design features as the Springfield Loaded, included the extended beavertail, lightweight trigger and lightweight hammer. It has a single-side extended slide safety, 3 dot fixed sights, and comes in a stainless steel finish. Unlike the Springfield Loaded, the SR1911 is made in the USA and is available for under $800.
- Remington R1 Enhanced: Remington’s new R1 Enhanced firearm features a crisp trigger, fiber optic front sight for easy target acquisition, front and rear slide serrations, and a precision-machined slide and frame. The large serrations aid in operation of the slide no matter the circumstance. The modern technology found in Remington gives the shooter a great shooting pistol for an affordable price of under $700.
For Competition use
- Colt Gold Cup Trophy: Colt originally introduced the Gold Cup model in the 1950s as a premier target pistol, and today’s Gold Cup Trophy model is the newest version of that first pistol. It is the best choice for the competitor participating in any shooting challenge. Features include 25 LPI checkering on the front and back straps, an extended magazine well, national match barrel, a fully adjustable rear sight and fiber optic front sight. It is available in both .45 Auto and 9mm. With a MSRP of under $1700, the Colt Gold Cup Trophy is a remarkable high quality competition pistol.
- Springfield Range Officer Elite Target 9mm: When Springfield introduced the Range Offer line a few years ago they wanted to provide consumers a high quality target pistol without the high end price. Now they have released the new Elite Target series which has been designed with even more features in mind for the competition shooter. The frame and slide are both forged steel of match grade quality, and the anti-corrosion Black-T finish is can withstand any environment. It is a full size 5″ pistol with a match grade barrel, has a fully adjustable rear target sight, and an easy to see fiber optic front sight. It is chambered in 9mm for reduced recoil and increased capacity and will cost you just under $1000.
- Kimber Team Match II: This pistol was designed specifically for the USA Shooting Rapid Fire Pistol Team. The US Shooting Team utilizes the Kimber Match II for their Olympic training. Available in 9mm or .45, the Team Match II includes an ambidextrous safety, adjustable target sights, a match-tuned trigger, match-grade hand-fitted barrel, and a beveled magazine well. The frame is finished in satin stainless steel and the slide has a black DLC-finished. A 24K gold USA Shooting Team logo can be found along the side of the slide. Pricing ranges between $1350-$1600 depending on caliber, with the 9mm costing more than the .45 Auto version.
For Home Defense
- Springfield Loaded Operator: Much like the standard Springfield Loaded model, the Loaded Operator has a ton of upgraded features including an ambidextrous safety, extended beavertail, and a lightweight hammer and trigger. The Operator variant is ideal for home defense as it also has low profile 3-dot night sights and a frame rail for mounting a weapon light. The combination of these features, with a price under $900, provides high end features without the high end cost.
- Kimber Custom TLE/RL II: One of the most popular pistols in the Kimber line, the Tactical Law Enforcement series is idea for personal protection. The matte black finish reduces glare, night sights ensure accuracy in low light situations, and the light rail ensures you can mount any light or laser you need to the pistol. The TLE/RL also has an extended beavertail, match grade trigger, and a single side extended safety. In use by LAPD SWAT teams, the TLE/RL is a perfect choice for home defense with a price around $1000.
- Colt Rail Gun: Colt has taken its battle proven design and adapted it to meet the changing needs of its customers the Colt Rail Gun. The M1913 Picatinny Rail offers the adaptability to attach lights or lasers to the pistol, making it an ideal choice for home protection. It features all the extended controls found on the models above, a low glare finish on the frame, national match barrel, and front and rear slide serrations. It is available in both 9mm and .45 Auto and can be purchased for under $1200.
Top Concealed Carry Firearms
- Springfield EMP: First released in 2007, the Springfield Enhanced Micro Pistol was a game changer in the sub-compact market. It has slightly shorter dimensions than typical officer sized product allowing the shooter many advantages and increased comfort and control. All the enhanced features you’d expect out of a quality unit are present, including 3-dot night sights, extended safeties, and a 3″ match grade barrel. It is available in 9mm, carrying 9+1 rounds, or in .40 S&W, carrying 8+1 rounds. It is available in a two tone or all black finish. The overall dimensions make it one of the smallest products available today, and for a price of about $1000 for the two-tone version or under $900 for the all black version you get one of the best carry 1911s on the market today.
- Smith & Wesson Performance Center Pro Series SW1911: Smith & Wesson’s Pro Series compact unit include a unique scandium frame which is also found on some of their revolvers. Scandium is an extremely light, extremely tough material that is great for carry guns due to the reduced weight. The 3″ barrel and slide are both made from stainless steel and the entire pistol has a matte black finish. Extended grip and ambidextrous thumb safeties are standard, and it is available in both 9mm and .45 Auto. While scandium does increase price, these will cost you around $1100, the reduced weight makes for a fantastic carry companion.
- Kimber Ultra CDP: Kimber’s Custom Defense Package series (CDP) are high end carry options without the high end price. The Ultra CDP includes a 3″ barrel, extended controls and safeties, and has Kimber’s “Carry Melt” treatment to reduce sharp edges on all exterior surfaces of the pistol. This reduces the chance for snagging on clothes and allows for a faster draw from concealment. An aluminum frame helps reduce weight and the satin finish reduces glare. Night sights are standard. The Ultra CDP is available in both 9mm and .45 auto for less than $1000 – a steal of a price for all the upgraded features included.
- Remington R1 1911 10mm Hunter Long Slide: Remington’s 10mm Hunter Long Slide is a new comer to the hunting market built off the success of the popular R1 series. The R1 Hunter was designed specifically for hunting purposes. The long slide design features include a 6” match-grade barrel for increased velocity and accuracy. Fully adjustable sights ensure you’re always on target, and the G10 grips give you a firm hold on the snappy 10mm round. The frame also includes a rail for any lights or lasers you want to attach. The 10mm R1 Hunter is sure to be a reliable companion in the field and at an affordable price of under $950.
- Springfield TRP 10mm Long Slide: A new release for 2018, the 10mm TRP Long slide has a forged steel frame and is coated in a Black-T rust-resistant finish. The combination of adjustable night sights and match grade stainless steel barrel ensures accuracy. The rails of the gun offer attachment of lasers or lights. An optimized recoil spring properly balances the snap from the powerful 10mm cartridge. This is an very high end hunting pistol with a price nearing $1600.
- Colt Delta Elite/Delta Elite Rail Gun: The Colt Delta Elite is the classic 10mm 1911 platform, and is now available in a rail version for attaching accessories. Both Delta Elite models include Novak Low-Mount sights, an enhanced hammer, wide slide serrations for increased grip, extended beavertail, and a lowered and flared ejection port for smooth cycling. Both are constructed from stainless steel and have a 5″ barrel. The classic 10mm auto pistol can be yours for around $1050, while the rail version runs around $1200.
It is extremely difficult to narrow down one as “the best”, and as you can see there are tons on the market today. We’ve barely scratched the surface in this article, but hope this will provide you with some information and guidance in your search for your perfect firearm. Do your research, visit your local gun shops, and rent a 1911 from a shooting range if you can. No matter what role you need this gun to fill, there is one available for you. It is a classic firearm design that is loved by many, has withstood the test of time, and will continue to do so for years to come.
Top Rated Classic Guns
- Colt 1991 Series: Colt released the 1991 series as way to allow shooters of having a traditional 1911 pistol with some modern day upgrades. The 1991 includes the series 80 firing pin block safety, and has traditionally styled parts such as a spur hammer, small beavertail grip, and solid trigger. White dots have been added to the GI Style fixed sights for more accurate shooting. It is available in either a stainless steel or polished blue finish. It is a great modern standard gun from the original company and can be had for under $800.
- Rock Island Amory GI Standard: This is a great option for the budget minded shooter who has always wanted a classic style in their collection. This model is a good representation of the original issue chambered in 45 auto. A parkerized finish gives it a tough, non-reflective surface. Other features include a 5″ barrel, wood grips, and traditional controls. For a pistol costing under $450, you can now own a piece of history without breaking the bank.
- Remington R1 Standard: When Colt needed help building this unit during WWII, they first turned to Remington for assistance. The new Remington R1 is modeled after that original US Army firearm with some modern day enhancements to make it a great shooter. The original look and feel of the first issue are present, but Remington has added a 5″ match grade stainless steel barrel, 3-dot sights, and a satin black oxide finish to reduce glare. The steel frame and slide give it the feel and weight of the original model, as do the standard style grip and thumb safeties. Pricing at under $700.
The Best All Around Pistol For Your Budget
- Between $1000 – $1500: If you need a gun that will do it all without compromise, look no further than the Springfield Tactical Response Pistol. The Standard .45 TRP is available in black or stainless finishes and with or without a light rail. The frame, slide, and barrel are all forged National Match quality. Extended controls, enhanced magazine well, light weight hammer and trigger, and night sights ensure you’ll have one of the best shooting pistols money can buy.
- Between $700 – $1000: The Ruger SR1911 continues to impress everyone that gets a chance to shoot it. With more models being released, including a 4″ version, a lightweight frame variant, and a 10mm target model, it gets you a Made in America quality without the huge price tag. The components are solid and we expect it to continually improve and impress with the years to come.
- Between $500 – $700: The Remington R1 is a fantastic base model. The R1’s quality and price are hard to beat out of the box. It already comes with a match grade barrel for increased accuracy, and compatibility of aftermarket parts makes for a great high quality base to upgrade and build your unique custom gun or you can just enjoy a great, classic out of the box.
- Under $500: While you may think it’s hard to find a quality unit for under $500, the Rock Island Armory series are definitely worth looking at. They won’t feature the same fit and finish as more expensive models, and they may not be as enjoyable to take to the range, but they are still of high quality and are worth your time if you are just starting to venture into the world of 1911s.