The unending popularity of John Browning’s Model 1911 design is due in equal parts to its simplicity, reliability and durability. No other handgun has been subjected to more words, tinkering, accessorizing or imitation and still survived—let alone remain in demand.
After World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam, thousands of 1911 pistols found homes with the Doughboys and GIs who’d carried them in combat. In the late forties and early fifties, Government Models were being sold out of arsenals for less than dirt. Some of them had seen action. Some had never been through basic training. Harbor no hopes of buying any used M1911 or M1911A1 at such prices today, unless it’s a total junker.
If you scan and compare a few sources on gun values, you’ll find that a Colt military M1911 can bring at least $2,000 if in very good condition and $450 if the condition is poor. The commercial, meaning civilian, version of the same gun has a serial number prefixed by the letter “C”, was produced from 1911 to 1925, is close to the military in value and was replaced by the M1911A1. Pre-WWII commercial models of the A1 can also run in the $2,000 price range. With the exception of fit, finish and their “C” prefix, they are identical to military models.
In 1971, the Colt M1911A1 was replaced with the manufacturer’s Series 70 Government Model, which differed from its predecessor in its slightly heavier slide and a modified barrel bushing. In turn, the Series 70 was replaced in 1983 by the Series 80. In some quarters, full credit for the new pistol is somewhat dubiously awarded to Colt’s legal department since it is equipped with an additional safety feature, a passive firing pin block. While Gun Tests totally abhors the lack of safeties, this safety has a negative effect on trigger pulls.
As a result, many a Series 80 Gold Cup purchaser has rated the trigger on his or her gun as unacceptable out of the box. That’s not the way things ought to be with a match pistol costing $1,000. For that reason, if no other, the owner of a used Series 70 Gold Cup usually can ask and receive a price equal to or exceeding a new Series 80.
As a matter of fact, due to the presence of that passive safety, the preference for a Series 70 over a Series 80 runs across the Colt line. Fortunately, the 1911A1 hasn’t totally vanished from production. All Springfield Armory M1911A1 pistols are true to the A1 design, as are stripped down, newly-manufactured receivers that are available from Caspian or Essex. The good thing about the Series 80 firing pin block is that it makes it impossible for the gun to discharge unless the trigger is pulled.
With all of the preceding as background, what should you actually do before purchasing any M1911 or M1911A1 pistol? Start with an examination of the safety systems. After making sure the magazine is empty and the chamber is unloaded, do the following safety checks:
Safety Check 1. Cock the hammer. Move the two-position thumb safety upward to its engaged position. Grip the pistol to depress the grip safety and squeeze the trigger hard two or three times. If the hammer falls, the thumb safety is faulty.
Safety Check 2. Disengage the thumb safety. Ensure the hammer is cocked. Hold the pistol without depressing the grip safety, then squeeze the trigger. If the hammer falls, the grip safety isn’t functioning correctly. Next, with the hammer cocked, point the muzzle downward and squeeze the trigger. If the hammer falls, the grip safety is being depressed (and disengaged) by its own weight, which is another indication that the grip safety isn’t working properly.
Safety Check 3. With any 1911 up to and including a Colt Series 70 pistol, draw the hammer back to its half-cock position and squeeze the trigger. If the hammer falls, it indicates a problem with sear/hammer engagement. Draw the hammer back again, this time to almost full cock, and let it slip out from under your thumb. If the hammer falls past the half-cock position, it will have to be replaced.
With a Colt Series 80 pistol, there is no half-cock notch on the hammer. It has been replaced by a safety stop, or ledge. Unlike the half cock notch, it is not a manual safety and should not be engaged by hand. The quickest way to check it for proper function is to pull the hammer back to almost full cock and let it slip forward as previously described. If the hammer strikes the firing pin, the stop is badly damaged or broken. A Series 80 without a fully functional safety stop can go full auto and needs a new hammer.
Safety Check 4. Cock the hammer. Retract and hold the slide 1/4 inch to the rear, pull and hold the trigger all the way to the rear, then release the slide. If the hammer falls, the top of the disconnector is worn. Now, lock the slide back using the slide catch, squeeze the trigger and simultaneously release the slide. If the hammer falls, it’s a second indication something is wrong with the disconnector. Finally, release pressure on the trigger and squeeze it again. This time the hammer should fall. If it doesn’t, it’s a third indication the disconnector’s out of whack. It could also mean the sear spring is weak.
Once you are done with the safety checks, field strip the pistol. If whomever is selling the handgun objects to your doing so, inform the offended party, “No strip, no sale.”
With all objections having thusly been overruled, check the barrel for burrs at its muzzle end, then take a look at the bore. It should be free of pitting, bulges and the lands should be well defined. Inspect both upper and lower barrel lugs for signs of excessive wear or peening. The barrel link should move freely, but without the slop that indicates either a worn link or a worn link pin. The barrel bushing ought to be free of burrs and fit the barrel without excessive play.
After the barrel comes the slide. Are its barrel locking lugs badly worn? If so, it will affect lock-up. Look at the nose of the extractor. Is it broken or deformed? Either will result in extraction problems. Press on the rear of the firing pin to force its tip out of the slide’s breech face. (When you’re dealing with a Series 80, you’ll first have to depress the firing pin block.) If the pin doesn’t show itself at all, or very little, it could be broken or worn. When you release the rear of the firing pin, note whether it returns smartly to be flush with the rear of the slide. If it’s sluggish, the cause could be nothing more than dirt. Then again, the spring may be weak or broken.
Besides taking a close look at the frame’s rails for burrs or dings, there are a couple of its component parts to examine. One is the ejector, the other is the plunger tube. Grab each individually between finger and thumb and see if you can wiggle them. The ejector is pinned and the plunger tube is staked, so under no circumstances should they be loose.
Two Final Tests
Not that all the above isn’t important to your evaluation, but there remains two final tests. With the pistol reassembled, load seven dummy rounds in the magazine. Dummy rounds are cartridges without a primer and powder. Insert the magazine into the pistol. Briskly hand cycle the slide until the magazine is empty to expose extraction or ejection problems and assure the slide automatically locks back after the last round.
Lastly, remove the magazine and release the slide into battery position. Keeping your finger off the trigger, grasp the slide firmly with one hand while holding the receiver just as firmly with the other. Try to move the slide up and down, then side to side. A minimal amount of play is permissible. Anything more strongly suggests a poor slide-to-frame fit, which means the pistol probably won’t be very accurate.
Do Your Math
All of the problems we’ve alerted you to here can be corrected. If any glitches show up during your evaluation and you still want the gun, stall a little. While expressing serious interest, use the excuse that you want to think about the deal for a day or two. Take that time to contact a reliable gunsmith and get a quote on whatever work there is to be done. Whatever it’s going to cost you should be deducted from the seller’s asking price. It’s called horse trading, and it can spare you from being saddled with someone else’s problems.