Monday, August 18, 2008

An unsentimental journey.

My pal Breda recently went out for her inaugural 1911 experience. Judging from the pictures, it looks like she rented your basic Colt 1991A1. Judging by the text, the target, and the big ol' grin, it looks like she had a great time. This is because she did it right: quality gun, name brand ammo, knowledgeable help, and a positive attitude.

True Confession: My early 1911 experiences were nowhere near as good...

It is often said that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I regret to say that more than once I have fallen victim to having a little knowledge. Allow me to embarrass myself and set the Wayback Machine for almost eight years ago to the day...

Back in ’00, a guy made a post on The Firing Line about the reliability of the 1911-type pistol. I responded in high dudgeon with a list of the 1911-type pistols I’d owned and a litany of the woes I’d suffered while shooting them. On the surface, it read like a fairly knowledgeable post.

I was not a novice at the time. I’d been slinging guns across the glass for a living for, oh, seven years or so. I’d shot competitively, both smallbore rifle and action pistol. I’d dabbled at reloading. I’d owned probably a half-dozen pistols of the type that could loosely be termed 1911s. I was less than happy with the breed.

I cringe reading it now.

In the intervening eight years I have had what is almost a college edjumacation in firearms, with a minor in 1911s, and looking at that post is like looking at a high school yearbook; it was amazing how much I knew that wasn’t so.

Did you see where I referred to a “G.I. Springfield”? Yeah. It wasn’t. I mean, I knew it wasn’t military; but I thought the frame was made for a government contract. The “NM” in the serial number stands for “National Match”, right? (Hint: No.)

Everyplace I referred to “factory mags” or “G.I. mags”, I now realize that I meant “$5 gun show mags”. My “factory” Colt mags may have said “Colt” on them, but they didn’t have the horsie on them and had probably never been closer to Hartford than 500 miles. I knew a CMC or Wilson mag by looking at it, but everything else got automatically lumped into the "factory/GI" mag category in my mind. Why I expected a cheapo "USA" mag to work in a 1911 when I wouldn't let one within a hundred yards of my Glock remains one of life's great mysteries.

Being a savvy shooter, I had a “gunsmith” friend work on 1911s as soon as I bought them, without even shooting them first. I had him “ramp and throat” them. What he did was ruin them. I knew just enough about 1911s to trash a perfectly good gun.

Further, since they were all used when I bought them and I had no idea how to properly check one out, JMB himself only knows what kind of boogered-up shadetree smithing failures I was proudly carting home to mangle even more.

I was lucky in two respects in 2001. First, I started working at a shop with a gunsmith who really, really knew his stuff; Shannon Jennings taught me more about how 1911s work than I can properly credit. As an added bonus, working under the same roof as a guy with a known reputation let me see plenty of ruined guns when they were brought in for his ministrations. Seeing what is done wrong is as instructive in its way as seeing it done right.

Second, I bought a LNIB Springfield Professional, complete with the Wilson mags it shipped with from the factory. That let me see what a good 1911 was supposed to be like.

Needless to say, my views changed a bit. I’ve owned at least eighteen different 1911 pattern pistols since then (not counting the Radom or Double Beagle in the photo below)…

Other than the Detonics Combat Master and the Colt GI/ParaOrd hybrid, both of which were absolute basket cases that I purchase with open eyes, hoping to resurrect them, I never had a real problem with any of the lot.

Of course, this time around, I knew what I was looking at when I bought a used one. Also, this time around, I resisted the temptation to show how savvy I was by having them “ramped and throated”. You know, for reliability.

If I learn as much in the next eight years as I did in the last, I'll really be dangerous...


Earl said...

Yep, but you will still be a great person to read, dangerous or not. But the next eight years you will get much better about careless wisdom, and the danger will be hidden better, although as soon as someone says a woman with a weapon, another fool will faint.

José Giganté said...

I suppose I came into the 1911 love-fest when the interwebz was hitting it's stride and you could get decent info on guns. Of course I've also been one to not break what ain't broke and while the temptation to break out the dremel on my 1911's has at times been mighty, I've resisted. None of the three 1911s I own have had any work done to improve function as it hasn't been necessary.

One of the most important things I think I've learned about the 1911 is how mag sensitive it can be. Even good mags, after many drops will cause you fits.

DirtCrashr said...

I have a '43 A1 Colt - with Risdon, Scovil and General Shaver magazines. It's all I can afford and it shoots ball really good, and I'm leaving it that way, but shootin' it - tiny sights and all!

tomcatshanger said...

I've never understood what "ramped and throated" is in relation to firearms.

Cowboy Blob said...

*GASP!* You owned a Glock? :)

Saladman said...

That's still kind of a back-handed tribute to the 1911, though. If a gun dealer needs expert advice to know what's what, why should I bother with that learning curve? Especially when I'm only going to own 1 or 2 handguns, and just want them to work out of the box?

I've noticed elsewhere on the web that the thing about getting gun advice from experts is they tend to own and work on a number of guns, while the kind of person who needs advice is likely to be the person with only one or a few. (Actually, more so other places than here, but now I notice it more.)

All a round-about way of saying I'll stick with my Glock.

bob said...

The 1911 pattern gun is not for everybody. Most people will be best served by a Glock, XD, or M&P which are going to work reasonably well right out of the box. Or, better yet, get a revolver. As a metaphor, when you set out to get an education you can stop with a high school diploma or you can go on to get a PhD. It is entirely up to you.

Zendo Deb said...

Yeah Bob. Some people like restoring Ford Model Ts and some people restore Model As and some people would rather just drive something that didn't need to be tuned up every other Tuesday. It all depends on how much you want to learn about automotive technology.

Zendo Deb said...

I did buy a 1911 recently. (two years ago?) And no, it didn't work properly "right out of the box."

I didn't have the custom trigger stuff installed that everyone tried to sell me. 50 bucks to have a gunsmith install a new leaf spring.

I hardly ever shoot it. I don't carry it. All I do is clean and oil it.

og said...

my heavily bubbaed gunshow parts 1911 (style) pistol is- internally, anyway- bone stock. I have polished the ramp so it didn't have the consistency of sandpaper, and the trigger is a bit rugged, but it always goes bang, even with non-horsie mags. A tribute to the design.

Plus it feels so damned good in my hand, it's as if JMB designed it for ME.

The Raving Prophet said...

The 1911 is an old design, and its age is showing. I would be the first to admit that it has very definite flaws, especially when compared to more modern designs like the Glock or CZ 75.

That said, the 1911 platform will produce incredible results to those who invest the time and effort to learn about it. Nothing else has a trigger that is near as nice. Nothing else fits quite as well.

For those willing to own and care for a gun that needs more TLC than a generic shooting appliance, the 1911 will reveal itself to be pistol perfection.

Zendo Deb said...

I guess I should say the 1911 worked out of the box, if you think an 8 pound trigger pull (or that's what it seemed like) was within specs.

Tam said...

"For those willing to own and care for a gun that needs more TLC"

Really? 'Cause I put dick-all in the way of "TLC" in mine. I hope they don't find out that they are supposed to need it. ;)

I clean 'em thoroughly every other range session or so, though, so if that's what you mean by "TLC", color me guilty.

(The "TLC" thing is a big myth. A standard 1911 needs no more "TLC" than a CZ-75...)

Tam said...

Zendo Deb,

"I didn't have the custom trigger stuff installed that everyone tried to sell me. 50 bucks to have a gunsmith install a new leaf spring."

If your 'smith was going to install a new 3-finger spring for $50 and call it a "trigger job", you need to fire your gunsmith and find one that knows what the hell he's doing. ;)

Brigid said...

If I learn half as much about good quality weapons of history in my next 40 years as you have in the last 8, I will be satisfied.

My 1911 was a gift from my brother, a classic one he's had for years, well cared for. He was badly injured in a motorcycle wreck, the loss of one leg kept him from riding for good, the other leg being so badly mangled, then repaired, the doc said if he as much as bumped it hard he'd lose it too. So he lost his second love.. . the bike. So I gave him back his first. .

I'm not sure who had more tears in the eye when I gave him back the beloved 1911. He or I.

unix-jedi said...

I bought my 1911 not long after I ventured out on my own.

$400 at a gun show. Colt with US Government markings.

Showing it to a neighbor, the hammer dropped while we were checking it out. Turns out the previous owner had raped the guts not knowing what he was doing. Some Wilson Combat guts later, and a new stainless barrel picked out at the gun show, with the bushing that barely fit it - and it shoots far better than I do. Always been flawless since. Had to replace the slide stop recently.
Turns out it was made in 1943.
The Mrs. now has a 80s series Commander, totally untouched. So far, it's only jammed on her once (never yet for me) - and she was limp-wristing it after a long day at the range.

The only "change" I really want is a tac rail to hang a light off of. I'm sold on the light being on the gun for nighttime events. (And now I just have to get a frame with one.)

Steve Skubinna said...

I was still in when the 1911 was the service pistol, so basic GI models were what I learned to shoot and continued to shoot for years. So later, long after the Beretta M9 was on the scene and I wanted a 1911 for my own, I got the closest new gun to the basic service pistol I could find - an SA GI.

No mods at all, because that would have spoiled what I wanted. The out of the box, no bells and whistles 1911 firing ball ammo works fine for me, every time. I don't think I give it TLC (unless cleaning it after every shooting session counts) although it probably gets more consistent care from a single owner than its military cousins got over the course of a service life that lasted for decades, or even a half century for individual pistols.

Unix, I learned low light shooting with the Harry's technique, which is still my preferred method with pistol (for a carbine I want the light on the gun). For one thing, it lets me use the light without the pistol, and I can directly illuminate without pointing the gun. If you're not familiar with it, I recommend you find somebody who can teach you. You might like it better than a rail mounted light.

Or you may not. Whatever feels the most natural. You need a tailcap switch to do it right, and some people have a hard time holding the light that way. In my case, holding the light reversed in my fist works well and I can match it up with the pistol quickly.

E said...

The 1911 style of pistol is made by like 20 manufacturers. Of COURSE some of them stink.

Saying it's a problem with the 1911 design in general is just pure dumb-assedness.

If there were 20 companies making Glock clones you can be sure there'd be all of the same problems - except in the Glock case, there'd be even more kabooms.

John B said...

I got a brand-new llama .45. Only difference I can see is the extractor. And the manual that came with it spent a whole defensive page explaining the reason behind the change. I have shot it for years now. mostly ball, but I have put some 2000 rounds of hollowpoints out of their misery. Past the expiration date nonsense. I just replaced the barrel, bushing, and all the springs. With Springfield parts. I didn't like the new barrel so I changed it back, still shoots sweet.

My first love was an $800 long slide that a roomie put up as security for a $150 loan, he told me I could shoot it, so I did, after 18 months, I thought he was gone for good, I had the slide engraved. He showed up two months later and wanted his gun back.

I feel philosophical about the experience, I got the best 18 months of that gun's life. Every time he shows up at a range or shoot, everyone asks him, Isn't that Big John's Grapefruit .45...

Plus he paid me $100 extra for keeping it for a year and a half.

Matt G said...

Holy crap. I remember reading that post a few minutes after you posted it.

Cowboy Blob-- Not only did Tamara own a Glock, but there was a time when she owned what was arguably the most famous Glock on the InterWebs.

I've given thought, on more than one occasion, to purchasing that Glock 29. But she sold it to Oleg, who sold it someone else (Derek?), who sold it....

Tamara: A brutally honest post. Good on you.

Johnny said...

Just another example that demonstrates that, if they don't know you can't tell 'em. The difference between knowledge and wisdom. Facts and information.

The problem is most people never get it.

Matt G said...

Hey, Tamara! Look at the all-star cast wishing you well after the crash.

What fun, doing old searches of old memories.

(...Uh, for those of us not wearing metalic inserts in our arms....)

BryanP said...

I finally gave in and bought an RIA 1911 on a whim recently. So far it's accurate, fun to shoot, and hasn't so much as hiccuped. That said, if I needed to reach for a handgun for "serious reasons" it wouldn't even be on my mind. I've put enough rounds through my XD45 and P220 that I trust them both to work every time without fail.

the pawnbroker said...

guys trying to sell or trade to me their "hot-rodded" 1911's often asked for a premium to reflect the usually several hundred in mods they'd had done...what they got was a "negative premium" reflecting the marketplace fact that most mods are poorly done and do more harm than good, and when done right were usually specific to the tastes of the user, and of no value...even negative subsequent owners; that speaks volumes.

breda's experience reinforces that a good gun can be, and most often is, good right out of the box.


The Raving Prophet said...

I should probably add that when I said the 1911 takes a bit of TLC, I meant that you need to take a little time to inspect it every now and then. CZs and Glocks don't have things like plunger tubes that can come loose or lower barrel lugs that can potentially crack. A little look-see every now and then after a range trip will save a lot of grief later- you don't want to find out that your plunger tube has come loose when you draw to defend against a threat.

My P-01, 642, 327, and other guns don't have those issues. But then, I don't shoot those quite as well as my 1911s.

TJH said...

It amazes me that even the best self-loader in the world can be brought to its knees by a recycled-tuna-can box magazine--rifle and handgun alike.

In the 10 millimeter world, it appears that the choice is either truncated cone or truncated cone. Whatever the reasons, this results in a high degree of uniformity, and must count for something. The 9 and the 45 are expected (unrealistically, in my opinion) to suck down everything without a glitch.

I wonder how many guns are blamed for the shortcomings of the accessories? My personal experience with the 1991A1 has been good. I've heard so many complaints about the accuracy of stock Colts, yet when I tried my father's at the range a couple years ago, it printed a nice, tight group, albeit a bit low. The stock trigger was 'eh', but certainly better than the single-action on my S&W 4506.

I mostly buy used handguns after careful inspection. It is amazing how many of these turn out to be accurate with the right hand loads.

Tam said...

Raving Prophet,

"CZs and Glocks don't have things like plunger tubes that can come loose or lower barrel lugs that can potentially crack."

Just picking one of the two you mentioned: Glocks have trigger return springs that break; striker channels that get cacked up and tie up the striker; slide catch springs that can break and cause the slide stop to bounce up under recoil, locking the slide back with the mag still full; plastic guide rods that can crack and bind the slide. In my experience, all of these are at least as frequent (and some much more so) than cracked barrel feet or unstaked plunger tubes.

FWIW, I've seen as many sheared cam blocks on Glock barrels as I have sheared 1911 barrel feet (two occurences of each in the past ~15 years...) but I readily admit that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data".

Critical failure points on carry guns need to be inspected. I don't care if you're carrying a Colt SAA or an HK Mk.23, there is some part on it that is prone to breaking and binding the works and needs minding.

Serious toters don't tote magic non-breaking swords.

Matt G said...

I'm actually a little shocked that we haven't seen anyone say "Well that's why I carry a revolver!"

Even the super-reliable K-frames, fired with moderate loads, can fail. Ejection rods get bent, pawls get stretched, lockwork seizes, etc.

Magic wands... ain't.

That's why we carry a backup. "Two is one...."

mcthag said...

Tam, how dare you be reasonable in discussion about firearms parts reliability? This is the internet, you are required, by law I think, to be irrational.

Now, please post about how YOUR Blast-O-Matic 2k+8 is better than anything you've ever owned and clear your palette of this logical discourse!

That aside, I guess I have been the luckiest gun owner on the planet. My Glock 21 never ka-boomed. Three 1911s in a row functioned flawlessly. I read the horror stories and start to wonder if mine are next. Thank goodness, it hasn't happened to me! Yet?

I have noticed the internet gets all the negative reporting and hardly any of the positive. Everyone with a problem will post a detailed rundown of what went wrong. Hardly anyone posts when nothing goes wrong.

TJH said...

If you're really intereseted, a great way to get a kaboom is to use someone else's hand loads. Preferably if that someone likes to believe that the advertised unit production is achievable without skipping quality assurance tests.

I'm always surprised by how far outside of the recommended limits a gun will operate before it blows apart--thanks to the Internet. It takes a special talent to make your gun a failure analysis candidate, but you can spot him if you know how.

Tam said...

Much like motorcyclists, there are old handloaders and there are bold handloaders... ;)

Zendo Deb said...

"If your 'smith was going to install a new 3-finger spring for $50 and call it a "trigger job", you need to fire your gunsmith and find one that knows what the hell he's doing. ;)"

NO - I refused to buy the trigger job. And I had him install it because I am not a gunsmith, and I know the damage amateurs can do. I have no desire to be a gunsmith. I just want the damn things to work.

Probably one reason I don't like the 1911 all that much. Too much TLC to keep them humming.

The AK-47 - which of course no "gunnie" likes - can be completely abused and still work. The SKS can be abused even more. Try to abuse a custom 1911 - drag it through the mud, refuse to clean it, ignore the rust - and see how it works. Kick the bolt on an AK and it will work fine. It may not be the most accurate weapon out there, but it gets the job done.

That is the problem with 1911s. If I have to spend a load of money on a new gun to make it work right... well I'm not interested. I wouldn't own one at all, except I got talked into it by some folks who won't shoot anything else.

Like I said, I don't use it much. With the reduced trigger pull, it is accurate - well it was always accurate, but now I can shoot it. I just don't like it all that much.

Ambidextrous (and large) safeties, and the long slide make it less-than useful as a carry gun - not that I bought it with that in mind. But I don't shoot competition pistol - doesn't interest me like I thought it would. So I just clean and oil it.

And as I said in a different post. Sure, you can spend 200, 500, or more customizing your 1911. My nephew spent a couple thousand customizing his truck - from the brakes to the suspension to the horn. I don't have that much interest in custom autos (or trucks) or firearms. If you do, great. Knock yourself out. I much prefer to spend my hard-earned money on oil stocks, uranium stocks, defense contractors. The return on investment is much higher.

Zendo Deb said...

And it may not have been 50 bucks, I only remember that it was no more than 50.....

Like I said, not an issue.

I probably put 2 or maybe 300 rounds through the thing. A hundred or so when it was new. A hundred or so when I got it back.

Tam said...

Zendo Deb,

"Try to abuse a custom 1911 - drag it through the mud, refuse to clean it, ignore the rust - and see how it works."

Like this? Or like the way 1911's were dragged through mud and dust from Chihuahua in 1916 to Kandahar in 2002?

I don't know where people get this idea that 1911s need to be babied. (Or that other CCW guns can be ignored.)

"Oh, I don't ever have to clean or maintain my weapon because it's a Glock / revolver / AK / whaterver..." Some people's kids, I swear. ;)

The Raving Prophet said...

1911s can work just fine without expensive mods. My Taurus 1911 (often viewed with disgust because of the rollmark on the slide) is a great shooter.

The problem with reading internet reports is that everybody with a problem will post while those who are plenty satisfied never sought out those fora to compliment the product. Reading about problems on the internet is much like reading about the manufacturer and salesman claims.

If the manufacturer says something about the product, multiply their claims by 0.5. If it's the salesman, multiply by 0.25. If somebody is going on about their negative experience, multiply the failure likelihood by about 0.3 (yeah, I pulled that last one out of my rear).