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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Overall Length: 8.5”
Safety: Thumb safety, Grip Safety, Firing Pin Safety
Grips: Black Plastic Panels, replaced with Hogue
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.