The following story originally appeared on my first website, jwilsonsworld, on 11/22/2002.
The Colt .45 automatic: King of the fighting handguns...
I find it remarkable that a handgun that was designed and entered military service over 90 years ago is still one of the most respected and used guns in the self defense gun market. Many gun designs have come and gone in the last 90 plus years while the model 1911 design has remained virtually unchanged, despite many newer designs and the "short comings" of the 1911 design "old slab sides" goes on and on and is considered by many experts to be the ultimate self defense tool. When you decide to get serious about self defense the 1911 is considered by many to be the only option. "Old ugly" gets the last laugh on all the competition.
My first experience with "old ugly" goes back to the late 70s, I wasn't even a teen yet but I already had several years shooting experience and my Dad decided that I was big enough to fire his Colt .45 automatic, his gun was a 70 series that had the polished nickel finish and was a beauty to behold. We went to an area behind my cousin's house, it was a dump area and there were no houses nearby to worry about. I found a nice target a safe distance away, an old concrete statue that someone had discarded. I set my sights on the statue and fired, I remember the distinctive sound of the .45 going off and the sight of huge chunks of concrete being blown off of the statue, slowly with each successive shot the statue became a shapeless lump until finally there was not much left. That was my first experience with the .45 auto and it illustrated to me personally what shooters have known since the 1911 and the .45 acp cartridge originally came out, the .45 auto means brutal firepower at your fingertips.
I didn't buy my first .45 until years later, it was 1991 and I bought a used series 70 model. This particular .45 auto was just your standard blued model with the smooth wood grips that Colt was building in the mid 70s, it was in average used condition and cost me the grand sum of 375.00. You could buy one of new Colt 1991 models that had just came out for only a little more but that used 70 series with it polished finish really caught my eye and I had to have it.
That particular Colt is long gone but since 1991 I have never been without a 1911 in my house. It is my favorite handgun design and I think its design is nearly perfect for what I want in a handgun. Most of the 1911s I have owned have been Colt but I can't put down any of the other quality gun makers, I have owned Springfield armory products as well as Para-Ordnance, and they were great guns. I have also heard great things about Kimber and Dan Wesson and some other brands but I usually end up with a Colt. Please understand when I talk about the "Colt 45" I am talking about any 1911 design based on the Colt model, despite my brand loyalty I would feel very safe with any of the brands listed above, and would not think twice about using them to defend myself or another person in trouble.
What is so great about the 1911 design? It has been around for over 90 years basically unchanged, is it really that great? I think so; let me explain what things I love the most about the 1911.
One of the things I love the most about the 1911 design is the size of the gun itself, I have owned many .45 automatics of different designs and the Colt .45 has them all beat. Some of the guns I have owned in .45 acp include the Smith and Wesson 4506 and 4516, Sig 220, Ruger P90, and the Glock model 21. All of the above .45s are huge compared with the Colt! The Colt .45 is thin and svelte compared to the above. One of the things that make a gun easier to carry is the thickness of the gun, and comparing .45s the Colt wins hands down! The Colt compares about the same for overall length and height with the models above but the above guns are much thicker than the 1911 and in some cases like H&K full size model is nearly twice as thick as the Colt! You might wonder why I go on about how thick a gun is but I find that is a major factor in your comfort level and ability to conceal when carrying a gun on a belt, I think its probably as important as the weight of a handgun for carrying.
Another thing I like about the 1911 is the single column magazine and the resultant grip area of the Colt. Since the 1911 was designed for the average man and my hands are average sized I find that the grips fit my hand perfectly. How a gun fits your hand is the most important factor when shooting a gun (especially in rapid fire) and the Colt is perfect in that department. I have owned larger .45s like the Glock 21 and while it was a reliable well made weapon it was much harder for me to shoot it well, because of the 13 round magazine of the Glock it is much harder to get a good shooting grip as compared to the Colt.
Another feature of the Colt I really like is the thumb safety, I really like a gun that has a positive safety system for carrying, it greatly reduces the chance of accidental firing compared to a gun like the Glock which has no manual safety at all. Several years ago our local police switched over to Glocks and there were several accidental shooting resulting. Also having a gun, which can't be fired until the safety is disengaged could actually save your life if a bad guy got your handgun from you, if the bad guy didn't know how the gun works it could give you a few seconds that just might save your life.
One of the best features of the Colt .45 is the single action trigger, while you can train to use a double action or double action only pistol no one can really argue that they are better, all that you can argue is that the other trigger types are safer for the untrained. Simply put the single action trigger is the absolute best action to have when using a gun in a life threatening situation (which is probably the whole point if you are carrying a gun in public), it is much more consistent and it is much easier to shoot it faster and more accurately than any other trigger type. It does require more training and effort to learn to use a "cocked and locked" .45 than the other trigger designs but I believe that it is really worth the effort.
What about some of the flaws of the 1911 design? Of course no design can be perfect and that includes John Browning's famous offspring, but I believe that the flaws in the 1911 design are small and overstated. The one "failure" of the 1911 that I heard (or even read) about the most is that the 1911 is not reliable right out of the box and requires some modification to make it useable. My experience with the 1911 is exactly the opposite of this opinion, it has been my personal experience that the stock Colt is the most reliable and it is only when you start messing with the design things start to go wrong. I learned a valuable lesson very early on in my gun experiences and I think it has saved me a lot of money, and aggravation. One time I was at my favorite gun range with my Colt 70 series, and right down from me was a gentleman with a highly modified Springfield armory 1911. You could see by this gun that it had been "tricked out" and it appeared it had just about every custom option that you could think of, it probably cost this guy at least double what the gun originally cost to build this masterpiece. The only problem was that this gun would not work, this guy tried everything but his nice custom .45 just wouldn't keep running, it kept jamming, I don't think it fired more than 3 rounds in a row without some malfunction, meanwhile my stock 70 series fired mag after mag without a problem. Finally this guy was so embarrassed he just got up and left taking his jammed gun with him. This taught me an important lesson that you have probably heard yourself, if it's not broke, don't fix it. Most automatics including the 1911 don't need to be "fixed" with the possible exception of some minor personal things like sights or grips, or occasionally an auto might need a throat job if you want it to handle specific hollowpoint rounds. The point I am making with all of this is that the any well made auto works fine if left alone in its original condition and when you start changing things you just increase the chance of failures. If you just have to customize your 1911 at least send it to someone who specializes in 1911s and has a reputation for great work, it will probably cost you more in the initial cost but in the long term you will be better off. Most of the failures I have personally experienced with the 1911 have been caused by the magazine and since this is the weak point on any automatic pistol we can't really blame the 1911 design. All I can say about mags is that you get what you pay for, there are a lot of good magazine brands out there, 2 of my favorites are the stock Colt and the Wilson magazines. Another "failure" of the 1911 design is the extractor, it is said that the 1911 extractor is not up to modern standards. Let me say that I have owned dozens of guns based on the 1911 design all using the same extractor system and I have never experienced a problem with the extractor or a broken extractor, and I don't know of anyone that has, maybe I'm just lucky in this department.
What about the .45 acp cartridge itself? The .45 was originally designed to be a "man stopper" and after all of these years it still holds up very well. It is my favorite cartridge for self defense, having in my opinion the best combination of stopping power and at the same time is the most manageable of all the major calibers. Even the old military "hardball" 230 gr full metal jacket round nose bullet will stop a man 65% of the time with a good hit to the chest, and using some of the modern hollow point loads the "one shot stopping power" of the .45 acp goes up into the mid and high 90s. But it is not just the stopping power; if all you were worried about was the stopping power you could go with the .357 magnum, which is still the #1 stopper. Have you ever fired a short barrel .357, especially inside a small room or in low light conditions? If you did fire a .357 under those conditions you could expect to be temporally blinded and receive some major hearing damage, and getting off multiple shots fast would be nearly impossible compared to the .45 automatic. You could also use some of the newer cartridges like the .357 Sig but they have problems similar to the .357 magnum, they are harder to control in rapid fire and they produce much more muzzle flash. I'll say it again for dramatic effect; nothing offers the stopping power and manageability of the .45 acp cartridge.
In 1911 our military accepted into service what has become one of the best fighting handgun designs of all time. Over the years it has served us well in several wars and with the police and with the many civilians that have come to love and trust their "old slab sides", and despite the many new designs and calibers that have come and gone since 1911 "old ugly" still remains one of the best choices for people who desire a handgun to protect themselves and their loved ones. I believe that legacy reflects just how great the Colt 1911 design really was all of those years ago. The 1911 will continue to be an admired and used handgun design far into the future, and that idea says more than any words can.