Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

The 1980s were rough on Colt. Their former dominance in the handgun market was challenged by the likes of Smith & Wesson, Beretta, and a relative newcomer, GLOCK. With the replacement of the 1911A1 in military service by the Beretta 92 Series, Colt lost a strong marketing tool.

For generations, they’d marketed the 1911 series as being “America’s Fighting Pistol,” a handgun capable of taking the harshest punishment across the globe. So the adoption of the Beretta as the M9 hurt. So did the lack of quality that Colt was suffering as a result of a UAW walkout that lasted four years.

As the New York Times reported 1986:

Since Jan. 24, 1,100 workers have been on strike at the factory here and at a newer and larger plant in West Hartford that makes commercial guns. The dispute, between Local 376 of the United Automobile Workers and the Colt Firearms division of Colt Industries Inc., is primarily over wages and fringe benefits, according to both sides.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

The company said it was continuing work at 70 percent of prestrike levels, with 600 permanent replacements for the strikers and 180 of the strikers who have returned to work. ”We’re going to go back to running our plants and trying to produce our products with the new people we have,” the Colt vice president for personnel, Richard S. Reibeling, said.

Quality suffered, and the once-common royal deep blue finishes and hand-fitting of parts went by wayside as replacement workers came in. Entire runs of guns were left to be finished by less skilled workers. As I recall, an entire batch of Colt Trooper MK IV Revolvers that were to be polished and blued were instead parkerized and sold as the Colt “Peacekeeper”.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

With the lack of quality control came outside competition. Norinco and Springfield Armory, smelling blood in the water, jumped into the 1911 game and started to take away Colt’s USA market share. Norinco, a Chinese state-owned company, produced some very highly regarded 1911 .45ACP pistols and sold for incredibly cheap prices. Springfield Armory, also started their long courtship with IMBEL of Brazil and had them make 1911s for them.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Norinco and Springfield Armory made 1911s.

In light of all those challenges, Colt went back to the drawing (and marketing) board. The first step was ending the strike and getting their skilled talent back. As reported by the New York Times in 1990:

The start of the 7 A.M. shift on Wednesday was delayed an hour while the jubilant workers, armed with banners proclaiming ”We Beat ‘Em and We Bought ‘Em,” celebrated their victory after four years on strike with a spirited rally outside Colt’s gritty, brick factory building.

”It’s like being home again,” said 62-year-old William Smith, who maintained the gun-making machines for 22 years before he and 1,050 other members of United Auto Workers Local 376 walked off the job on Jan. 24, 1986, after 10 months without a contract. ”I always took pride in the Colt product,” he said. ‘We all did. I was so damn happy to be hired here at Colt 22 years ago,” Mr. Smith said. ”I wanted to work here where they made the guns.”

The second step was getting back to making guns that were affordable and reliable. Colt took the basic MK IV Series 80 Government Model 1911 .45s and looked at what could be changed to lower manufacturing and production costs.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Factory Colt MK IV Series 80 Government Model.

One of the things Colt learned from its competitors was that, at the time, the no-nonsense military look sold well. Both Norinco and Springfield Armory made guns that looked like the American WWII-era US G.I. contract guns.

That was lucky for Colt. It meant less time finishing the guns. Instead of the laborious polishing and blueing, a “no-frills tough guy attitude” set of features was included. A matte parkerized finish was applied, black plastic grips replaced wood, a nylon mainspring housing and trigger pad substituted for alloy, and, complete with a set of plain black sights, the pistols shipped from the factory with two seven-round magazines.

Finally, with a bit of clever marketing, a simple “COLT M1991A1” slide rollmark and the serial number range picked up where the original US G.I. contract pistols left off in 1945. Colt even cashed in on the general gnashing of teeth that former service members and gun aficionados had towards the Army’s adoption of the 9mm and the Beretta as the new military service pistol. They had the gun all ready for release by its namesake in 1991.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Their ad even threw in a veiled jab at Springfield Armory, which hadn’t been around for WWII.

Other than those changes, the guns in the 1991A1 line were made just as well as the blued MK IV Series 80 Government Model pistols of the same era.

Colt never officially ceased production of the 1991A1, but in 2000 it was updated as customer tastes changed. The parkerized finish became a semi-polished blue finish, the nylon trigger and black plastic grips became an alloy trigger and wood grips, and the gun was no longer called the M1991A1.

After the change, it was re-christened the Series 80 Government Model and the change was reflected on the rollmark. Colt collectors refer to the older pistols as “Old Rollmark” (ORM) guns and the newer ones “New Rollmark” (NRM). The model SKU itself is the same, however: #O1991 for the blued model.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Left is a current production O9911, and on the right is a pre 2000 production gun with an upgraded trigger.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Courtesy of A. Valdes

My Colt 1991A1 Series 80 was born in 1994 and has had a two small changes since it left the factory. I swapped the OEM grips for a set of Hogues and changed the mainspring housing from flat to arched. She also proudly wears the large billboard-style old rollmark. Other than that, she’s stock.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Courtesy of A. Valdes

The 1991A1 came with the some upgrades as the standard MK IV Series 80 had and also got an additional one. A lowered ejection port, a beveled magazine well, and refinements to the feed-ramp and barrel-throat to provide for reliable use of hollowpoint ammunition.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Also, as a Series 80 gun, there was a trigger-actuated firing pin block (see arrow above), and the revised hammer had a half-cock shelf, rather than a half-cock hook from previous generations (e.g. the Series 70). This was so the hammer would fall to half-cock if the shooter’s thumb slipped while attempting to cock the pistol. The firing pins themselves weren’t changed.

The Series 70 pin (top one) is the same as the Series 80 (bottom one). The front and rear sights were also made larger than what was found on the MK IV Series 80 guns. Lastly, a solid barrel bushing was used instead of the delicate Series 70 collet-style bushing. It also was cheaper for Colt to produce.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Collet versus solid barrel bushing

Field stripping is a breeze. If you’ve done one 1911, you can do them all. But since this is built more along the lines of a mil-spec USGI 1911, the tolerances are far looser.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Courtesy of A. Valdes

The sights, as I said, are a step above regular USGI sights, but they aren’t anything to write home about. They work and provide an adequate sight picture. You can drift the rear sight for windage with a punch and hammer. As you can see in the photo below, I had to move mine slightly to the left.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Courtesy of A. Valdes

The machining is on par for a 1911 of this price range: passable, but not anything that will win a beauty contest. In today’s market, it equals what you’d see on a Rock Island Armory pistol or one of the Turkish imports. But the frame is machined from a forging, not a casting, as you’ll find on today’s budget import guns, and it’s made in America.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Courtesy of A. Valdes

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Notice the Series 80 Firing Pin Block. Courtesy of A. Valdes

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Courtesy of A. Valdes

Yes, I’m wearing pink hearing protection. It’s still Breast Cancer Awareness Month after all.

I was shooting Everglades brand ammunition. They’re a local Florida company and do factory new and affordable quality reloaded ammo. I was trying to chronograph it but my batteries died.

Retro Gun Review: Colt 1991A1 Series 80 in .45 ACP

Pie Plate at 15 yards free-standing. Courtesy of A. Valdes

The 1991A1 shoots as you’d expect. A USGI Mil-Spec. The trigger and accuracy is good enough for minute of bad guy.

In the end, the Colt 1991A1 Series 80 was, to a degree, the last of the affordable Colts. The newer production models have become more of a status symbol than a working man’s gun. Colt has left behind the idea of being the everyday person’s gun and has cashed in on being a collector’s/prestige item. The positioning is about quality and branding, not toughness and handling. Yes, their current productions guns can be rode hard and put away wet, but they aren’t marketed that way anymore. The 1991A1 was and is the last of that era.

Specifications: Colt 1911A1 Series 80

Barrel Length: 5”
Sights: Tall, Square Notch
Weight: 41.5oz
Overall Length: 8.5”
Safety: Thumb safety, Grip Safety, Firing Pin Safety
Grips: Black Plastic Panels, replaced with Hogue
Finish: Parkerized
Caliber: .45 ACP
Capacity: 7+1 or 8+1
Magazines: two included
Price: Found online between $450 and $600

Ratings (out of five stars):

Style and Appearance * * * 
Standard 1911 with bad factory OEM grips. They’re brittle plastic and known for breaking. But it has the classic lines of a USGI 1911.

Customization * * *
The factory sights are good for the period, but to get them replaced, you’ll need some machining. As for the finish and anything else, it depends on your bank account. I swapped the mainspring housing for less than $20.

Reliability * * * * *
It’s a beater-grade 1911 from Colt, right when they regained their talented staff. It works to the point of feeding spent shell casings.

Accuracy * * * *
It’s far better than I am, but it isn’t a match grade 1911 by any means. This is a working man’s gun.

Overall * * * *
The reliability is what you’d expect from a gun like this. IT WORKS. It’s a good-enough-looking gun and a no-frills 1911 that captures the spirit of the WWII USGI gun with slightly better sights. The grips are bad, but Hogue make the best affordable replacement grips anyway. This exact gun is no longer made by Colt, but it still lives on as the Series 80 Government Model with a better finish and significantly higher price tag.


  1. avatar little horn says:

    what the hell? why do we need this posted AGAIN???

    1. avatar Bob says:

      I think you got the guns confused. The last 1911 article TTAG did was about a current production .38 Super. Not the original production Colt 1991A1 and the history that went behind it’s design and marketing.

      They are honestly two different guns of two different eras.

      I have to say, I like Luis’ gun articles since they go into the history and mindset of the era and aren’t just straight technical reviews like other websites do. He is a great asset to the writing staff for TTAG.

  2. avatar =BCE56= says:

    Good review, and the history matches my experiences.
    I bought my first 1911, a Gold Cup, for about $525 in ’80 or ’82. I wanted the Top of the Line. It was real nice but not my cup of tea. So I traded it for a pristine 586 and a NIB SA 1911 A1. Springfields were going for about $275 at the time, seemed like a decent trade. (It never occurred to me Colts would slip so badly, or that the Gold Cups would go out of production.)
    Sent the SA to Kings for some custom work- trigger, hammer, undercut, sights, safeties etc. Top-notch work, I was satisfied with the results and still have that pistol.
    But I still wanted something else.
    Bought a S 80 “enhanced” Combat Commander. That one cost about the same as the earlier Gold Cup. It looked OK at first but I never really cottoned to it. Sold it and tried several others from various makers- Norinco, Colt, and even a Taurus…
    Got the Kuhnhausen manual to familiarize myself with the care and feeding of 1911s.
    By now I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted in a 1911.
    Next up was a Kimber Stainless Compact (+/-$900). The price was a little shocking
    but Colt’s reputation was still in decline and Kimber was on the way up. And it had no firing pin safety. The Kimber wasn’t perfect as delivered but it was pretty close. I worked out some bugs and replaced a few parts to suit myself.
    Kimber reviews seem harsh these days but my experience has been quite positive. This pistol has proven reliable and accurate for thousands of rounds and I would not hesitate to stake my life on it.
    More recently I got a last-production Para Elite Commander, stainless slide and frame with a nitride finish. Though it has a firing pin safety and some plastic and MIM parts it shows considerable promise. Trigger responded to a light stoning and it has never failed to feed any ammo tested. Close out priced at $500 it seems like an excellent value.
    Another work in progress is a pre-S 80 nickel Combat Commander. This one is tight and reliable and has a good trigger but the factory edge breaks are truly crappy. One of these days I’ll rework the corners and have it replated, for now it’s just a banger.

    DW Vigil and Valor series pistols look pretty good but they don’t sell them around here.

  3. avatar AlanInFL says:

    I should had brought the 1991 full size when it was at $400 at Walmart in Daytona Beach in 1993/1994.

  4. avatar Ogre says:

    I have a Colt M1991A1 Compact/Officer’s model in .45 ACP that I got from a sandbox vet for $500 and pimped it a little. I put Trijicon night sights and CT Lasergrips on it and got a trigger job. I’m pretty happy with it as a carry gun. Not an EDC, but when I carry it I don’t feel under-gunned in the least.

    1. avatar adlib says:

      have one of those i picked up used some years back, for the same price, actually. fun little tank of a gun.

    2. avatar Aleric says:

      I bought a lightweight commanders in 91 as well, carried it for about 5 years until I realized it was way too heavy and clunky to keep carrying. Kimber changed it all.

  5. avatar Mike Oregon says:

    I inherited one of these about 15 years, it didn’t run good. Having no experience with 1911s I put it in the safe and kinda forgot about it. Then a year ago a gunsmith buddy said let me look at it. A new recoil spring and some lubrication, well it runs good. Decent accuracy as well. Being a lefty I did add a ambidextrous safety also.

  6. avatar WhiteDevil says:

    “Colt’s Breaks Labor Law’s.” Goddamn, that gave me a headache.

    1. avatar tmm says:

      I can get a headache damn near every time I go to the internet. 🙂

  7. avatar Mark N. says:

    Colt pistols are no longer sold in California. To improve quality and reliability, Colt invested in new computer controlled milling machines just before the bankruptcy (too little too late), and California therefore labels it a “new” gun subject to the state’s microstamping requirement as well the requirement of having a mag disconnect safety. We can still get the 1873s, but that is a gun that has priced itself out of the market. The Colts start at $1400 or so (and go stratospheric depending on the finish), while a bargain basement Italian clone can be had for under $400, and a factory tuned version for between $700-$800.

  8. avatar Joe B says:

    My ORM 1991 was purchased inexpensively as a police trade-in. It was originally issued by the Yuma County AZ Sheriff’s Dept. and has their logo engraved in the slide.

    Its parkerized finish is a bit worn, but that makes it look even better. When my FFL and I opened the package containing the pistol, he remarked, “Wow, now THAT’S a damned serious looking gun!” I agree 100%.

    It’s very accurate, and as reliable as the sunrise,

  9. avatar DD says:

    Great review!..I totally agree,I purchased a M1991A1 govt in the spring of 1992.I carried it everywhere and shot the hell out of it..never had a problem with the grips like some have would shoot Remington 185 grain +p the best.for some reason at the time i thought that was the load to have…at 10-12 yards it would eat the center of the target up..but I traded it off to buy something,hell I can’t even remember what I traded for now..should have kept it.

  10. avatar Aaron says:

    i have both a Norinco government 1911 and a Colt series 80 1991a1.

    i think i paid $189 in the 90s for the Norinco and about $800 for the colt 3 or 5 years ago.

    the Norinco actually has a much lighter trigger. plus it doesn’t have the series 80 firing pin safety plunger. the tiny plunger and its seperate spring have to be removed to remove the extractor and firing pin for cleaning. it’s easy to drop and lose, and it makes reassembling the gun a chore because you have to do 4 things at once: 1 – hold the plunger down so the firing pin can be depressed, 2 – keep the groove in the extractor lined up with the slot that the firing pin stop goes into, 3 – keep the firing pin depressed so that the aforementioned groove isn’t blocked, and 4 – insert the firing pin stop.

    i enjoy shooting both, but the series 80 is even more complicated than other 1911s.

  11. avatar Kap says:

    Series 80 pistol are non starters for me after they modified a system for no reason when all they had too do was make a stiffer firing pin spring! actually unlike Kimber they were too cheap to pay royalties for a simpler firing pin lock system!
    Series 80 pistols are tough too change internal components more time on assembly

  12. avatar raptor jesus says:

    Recently fondled a Wiley Clapp model 1911.

    The “handprint” of the Clapp grip didn’t even line up to the checkering on the frame (hint – it’s supposed to). Shocked it got out of the factory that way. If they missed an obvious detail like that, it makes me wonder what QC missed on the inside.

    Meanwhile, I’ve had two Rock Islands with no hiccups between them. Heavy and crude but, well, they get the job done and they punch holes through holes.

  13. avatar Jimbo66 says:

    I love reading articles like this. I really enjoy the comments too. Nothing like a lover of the 1911. I’ve had a fascination with them for 40 years but until 4 years ago never owned one. After all this time of wanting to own a Colt 1911 I have to say I love my SR1911 from Ruger. I’ll probably still get a Colt but now I’m just not as rushed. After all, if you raised your kids right you’ll have someone that will cherish them like you did. Owning firearms is a right not a privilege. It can’t be taken away.

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