The 1911 .45 ACP combat pistol, invented by John Moses Browning, set the groundwork for most modern pistols. It’s a trusted combat handgun that has been used in more theaters of combat than any other weapon. The 1911 is still a popular choice as a self-defense/carry gun to this day, especially for concealed carry due to its slim profile.
So why does the pistol have a reputation for reliability issues? Despite its distinguished pedigree and extensive military service, the 1911s that you can buy from Wilson Combat, Kimber, STI or even Ruger, and Springfield Armory aren’t the same 1911 that was originally manufactured by Colt.
Small variations in manufacturing and assembly can cause some issues, but there are ways to minimize or completely eliminate problems you may be having with your 1911. Here are three ways to easily improve the reliability of your 1911 pistol…if it needs it.
Magazines are a very big deal for the 1911. Many malfunctions can be caused and remedied with this seemingly simple piece of equipment. If you look at how a 1911 feeds ammunition, you’ll notice that the cartridge does a lot of work in the process.
The cartridge makes a sharp turn up in order to get in line with the barrel. Compare this to something like a GLOCK or other modern pistol. GLOCKs have the cartridge more in line with the barrel from the get-go, so the slide pushes it mostly straight in. The cartridge does less work so it’s less prone to getting hung up.
If the magazine’s lips let go of the cartridge too early, hold on too long, or the mag spring is too stiff or weak, this whole process can get hung up.
Then there’s magazine life. Some mags may work initially, but due to poor design/materials/manufacture, can wear out quickly. Wilson Combat, Tripps Research, and Chip McCormick are three magazine manufacturers that are known for their reliability. If you are having feeding malfunctions with your 1911, pick up one of those magazines and see if that doesn’t solve the problem.
The extractor is probably the BIGGEST culprit for most 1911 feeding malfunctions. It’s also one of the easiest things to fix since it doesn’t require any power tools.
Extractor tension is the first thing to look at. This is the amount of force the extractor uses to grab a case. If the extractor has too much tension, the cartridge will have trouble getting under it, causing a stoppage.
Adjusting the tension is all about feel. If you pass a case through the extractor it should feel “magnetic,” not hard like a physical speed bump, but like moving a piece of metal past a magnet.
Another way to test for proper tension, and the way I prefer, is to place a cartridge under the extractor and give the slide a few good shakes. The cartridge should fall out after 2-3 good shakes. This also requires some “feel” on your end since a “good shake” can’t really be measured. As long as the case doesn’t fall free from gravity alone, or require real effort to remove, you should be okay.
You can adjust the tension of your extractor by bending it. I like using the slide, though there are plenty of other ways to do it.
Stick the hook end in and bend. Bend towards the hook for more grab and away for less. This is a light touch kinda thing. It doesn’t take much effort to adjust the tension, so make small adjustments. You may end up going back and forth between too much and too little a few times before finding the sweet spot. Be patient and gentle.
Here’s a good video from Wilson Combat that illustrates this.
Another thing to adjust on the extractor is the hook contours. You want the bottom edges to be rounded and smooth so the case is easily guided under the extractor. If the edges are sharp or square they can snag the brass.
Shaping the hook with a small needle file and sanding with high grit like 600 or higher will do it. If you can, polish it. Most modern extractors SHOULDN’T need this if the tension is set properly. But it won’t hurt. If I’m messing with the extractor, I’ll usually contour and polish the underside.
All of this pertains to feeding issues. If you’re having extraction/ejection issues, make sure the rake on the extractor hook is correct. It should be neutral or slightly positive. A negative rake may allow the case to slip off the extractor before it is extracted or ejected. If the extractor has a negative rake, squaring it may solve the problem, but it also may require a new extractor.
This step requires some gunsmithing, so a Dremel or rotary tool of some sort is kinda required. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this yourself, have a good gunsmith do the work for you.
First, you want to properly throat the barrel. I recommend using a needle file or metal scraper for this step unless you are VERY confident in your Dremel skills. Most 1911 barrels have limited throats. This creates hard corners and edges that are good at snagging case mouths and bullets (see the right barrel in the above photo).
Match the existing angle and carry it up both sides so that edge is removed. Be VERY careful that you stay away from the opposing chamber wall. Don’t scratch that.
Before sanding and polishing, check the barrel throat to feed ramp gap. There should be a gap between where the feed ramp ends and the throat starts. This gap should be roughly .031″.
This can be tricky to measure, so don’t worry too much about whether you have “enough” gap and just make sure you have “some” gap. What you DON’T want to see is the throat line up perfectly with the feed ramp on the frame. That can create a snag point for incoming cartridges as well as make it harder for cartridges to get up and in.
Fix this by maintaining the existing angle on the throat and pushing it back a little. A “little” is the keyword here. Too far and you can have unsupported brass.
Once fully throated and the gap is set, polish the ramp to a mirror finish. This includes the feed ramp on the frame. Be sure to maintain the angles.
A great test to see if you were successful in your reliability improvement job is to feed an empty case. If your 1911 can feed an empty case, then feeding wadcutters, hollow points, and ball ammunition should be no problem.
Bonus tip: replace your recoil spring every 5000 rounds.
I want to point out that some of what I described — especially the throat work — is best left to a competent gunsmith. Even better, a gunsmith who specializes in 1911s. Messing with an extractor isn’t a big deal. It’s a cheap part that’s easily replaced. The barrel, on the other hand, is not so cheap or easy Outside of giving it a good polish, I don’t recommend hacking away at your barrel unless you’re prepared to buy a new one and have a gunsmith fit it.
While these are the main things I would look at for improving your 1911’s reliability, everything else plays a part in the end result, too. If the bushing and barrel fit is off, it won’t run right or be accurate. If the trigger job is botched, you’ll get hammer follow or just have a horrendous trigger pull.
The thumb safety needs to be properly fit otherwise it will put unnecessary pressure on the sear or allow the gun to fire even when the safety is engaged. The grip safety should be tuned so it disengages with minimum movement. You can drastically change the feel of the gun by playing with the mainspring weight, recoil spring weight and the angle of the firing pin stop plate.
That being said, if you have a gun built by a good gunsmith or a good manufacturer from good parts, you will have a handgun that’s as reliable as any other and SIGNIFICANTLY more accurate. I’ve gotten 1.5-inch groups at 50 yards from a ransom rest. I’ve heard about 1911s doing 1-inch or better, though I have yet to see it myself. If you don’t think that level of accuracy matters, then you’ve never been held responsible for every bullet you’ve fired.
The 1911 platform is still the king in the competitive world and a go-to weapon system for many professional gunfighters for a lot of very good reasons.