Some firearm designs pass the test of time so well that they never completely disappear. Somewhere there will always be 98 Mausers in production, some company will always produce an autoloader with similarities to the Garand and someone will always make 1911s. The 1911 in its many forms and varieties is simply too dependable, slick, useful and effective to ever be out of production; as long as there are pistol shooters, the 1911 will always be around.
Like any extensively-mimicked design, there are a number of low cost 1911s on the market today. They look a lot like their more expensive current-production counterparts and, in some cases, look a lot like older military-issue pistols, but are they as good? Is a knockoff at a lower price going to give the same good service that the prospective buyer always hopes for? Well, a lot of it depends on what you hope to get from the pistol and what kind of compromises you’re willing to make based upon your needs.
The run-of-the-mill 1911 priced under $800 probably isn’t going to be a tack driver for much of its career. Some lower-end guns will give surprisingly good groups. For example, 1-2 inches at 25 yards, when they are first taken out of the box, but this falls off noticeably after about 1000 rounds. Lower-cost guns generally make use of lower-grade steel in their barrels and bushings and they have very little hand-fitting put into them. By and large, 3 to 4 inch groups will be the norm as time goes on and a good gun should settle into this consistent level of accuracy until the rifling in the barrel is worn down (around 8000 rounds), at which point accuracy really starts to fall off.
More expensive models will give better accuracy for a longer time, but the purchaser needs to ask themselves if this is a concern. What we generally think of as a GI-pattern 1911 is the 1911A1, which was the pistol, used during WWII, Korean and Vietnam Wars. These guns essentially made the reputation of the 1911 but were hardly custom, hand-fit guns. Parts were mixed and matched as military branches saw fit. To this day, it’s hard to find frames with serial numbers that match slides. These guns gave 4-5 inch groups, which was considered more than adequate for their intended range and they were near-universally beloved by our soldiers. Unless small game hunting or competition shooting is in the offing, low-end 1911 accuracy is acceptable. If improved accuracy is necessary, you can always experiment with aftermarket barrels and bushings. Of course, this will increase your overall cost, but some people like to pay a little at a time instead of a bundle up front.
The 1911 is, by no means, the most simplistic handgun ever designed but, thanks to its immense popularity, at this point it is somewhat hard to produce one that’s too difficult to use. Dimensions, materials, springs, bushings and magazines are standardized and have become extremely available in the one hundred or so years since its debut. You can count on most low-end 1911s to offer good dependability in general, with one possible (and common) exception: they might be a bit fussy when it comes to bullet design. Good old 230gr ball ammo will feed reliably though just about any 1911, but the new breed of flat-tipped “flying ashtray” ammo is likely to cause jamming issues in guns that copy the 1911A1 pattern too religiously. This is not a deal-killer for many people, as ball ammo is perfectly useful for self-defense purposes (just be very sure what’s behind the target). As your gun wears and tolerances loosen up a bit, most 1911s will become less selective about the types of ammo that they’ll feed reliably.
If you’ve spent any time looking over 1911s you’ve probably noticed that the lower-cost models just don’t seem as tight as their more expensive brethren. In reality, a tight 1911 didn’t really exist (outside of competition guns) until about twenty years ago. Until the new high-end and semi-custom companies cropped up, just about all 1911s rattled slightly when you shook them. Remember, 1911s were intended to be close-quarters combat weapons; looser tolerances were designed into gun, trading greater reliability for a commensurate decrease in accuracy. To this day, many folks simply won’t trust a 1911 that doesn’t rattle. If you pick one up and it seems a bit loose, don’t worry too much –it’s very possible that it’s by design.
Rattling aside, it doesn’t hurt to work all the controls and the hammer around on a 1911 prior to purchase. If the gun is brand new, everything should work smoothly without any discernible hitches or hiccups. The palm safety should depress easily and pop back fully when you remove your hand. Triggers on 1911’s can, in rare instances, be troublesome, but a single-action trigger isn’t bad. Some are heavier than others are and you may rarely encounter one with a bit of drag, but it’s hardly ever something that one can’t learn to live with.
You should probably pass over standard blued steel budget 1911s. Stainless steel is great stuff that makes for much easier maintenance, but it is also much more difficult to machine well and much harder to finish properly. Low-end 1911s constructed from stainless steel tend to be quite clunky, and while some break-in will eventually smooth things out, it is likely to be a real pain in the short-term. Unless the model you’re looking at makes extensive use of investment casting with a minimum of machining, a blued model is probably preferable.
Who Makes 1911s?
The 1911 wasn’t exclusively an American service arm. Over the decades many other nations made use of John Browning’s pistol and, in many cases, these countries produced their own guns. Some of these, such as a small number of Chinese models, were made without license, but many others were built with the full knowledge and assistance of American companies. Once upon a time Colt actually helped the Argentine government set up a factory to produce their own version of the 1911A1, and during the 1990s a great deal of tooling once owned by government arsenals passed into civilian hands all around the world. 1911s made with this tooling, supplemented by new companies retooling due to renewed interest, caused the 1911 to begin crowding shelves from every corner of the globe.
So, how good are low-cost, foreign-manufactured 1911s? To say the least, the quality varies. Many of these guns come out functioning and feeling like they were made by someone with only the haziest idea of what a 1911 should be, while others are nearly indistinguishable from original Remington-Rands, Colts or Ithacas. When it comes to evaluating foreign-built guns, the buyer is usually better off sticking to guns that are built offshore, but sold domestically under the banner of an American company.
It is not uncommon for American gun companies to outsource the production of certain models and then put a down-home name on the gun. The consumer benefits from the lower prices and most American companies will not import a product that falls below its own quality standards.
An imported 1911 that bears an American brand name is probably at least good enough not to smudge the reputation of the company as a whole. However, if you desire more than just an American affiliation, there are still a number of all-American companies that produce 1911s on the lower end of the price scale. These guns won’t be the cheapest but they’ll offer higher quality, which makes the extra expenditure worthwhile. Many of these manufacturers may only produce 1911s, or at least maintain a small catalog, and they tend to have a very good handle on their work. As small, specialized operations, they’re able to focus on quality and consistency and avoid the issues that jack-of-all-trades operations run into.
While foreign guns are much-beloved in the United States, the case of the 1911 is outside the norm, and the “Made in the U.S.A.” label is still the safest bet when it comes to low-cost 1911’s. You’ll pay slightly more, but will avoid irritation in the end.
Living with the Budget 1911
If you like the look, feel and ergonomics of the 1911 a budget gun is usually well worth taking a chance on. If you encounter feeding issues, most of time, you can counteract this by replacing the magazine. Cheap pistols tend to come with cheap magazines. Switching them out for a more expensive, but a considerably more reliable brand name like Wilson Combat or Chip McCormick (which can give you an extra round as well) is the easiest fix. Eventually you’ll want spare magazines anyway, so spend the extra cash to buy good ones that you can count on.
If the low cost 1911 doesn’t measure up in other departments (like accuracy or reliability), you usually have the option of throwing parts at it. While compared to the modern breed of striker-fired pistols, the 1911 looks like something that definitely requires a gunsmith’s touch. In reality, the 1911 is pretty easy to work with. 18-year-old Army privates learned to tear them down and put them back together for decades with few debacles, and it’s even easier without a drill sergeant breathing down your neck. With practice, patience and a work area where people can’t hear the cussing, the average Joe should be able to strip, clean and reassemble a 1911 with a minimum of fuss and a basic set of tools. If replacement triggers, barrels, bushings, pins or sights are required, you can usually take care of them yourself and learn a lot along the way.
Perhaps the best motivation for purchasing a budget 1911 is the small investment. If you spend $2000 dollars on a 1911, it will almost assuredly be a better gun than its $400 counterpart. The $2000 pistol will shoot nice tight groups and all of your range buddies will ogle it, which is all well and good, but what about other uses? In the real world, there are simply things you’d rather not do to a $2000 gun.
Do you want to leave your Colt 1911 in a gear bag for two weeks while you’re out camping? Do you want to take it out in the fishing boat, knowing that Earl tips the boat over and soaks your gear on almost every trip? In the real world, $400 guns have their place and their owners realize this. Cheaper 1911’s usually take all the same magazines, ammo and holsters that their expensive brethren do, but there’s less weeping when they’re roughed up or lost.
Many people own a $2000 1911 which they use for competition or just to impress. However, inevitability they end up carrying a $400 1911 most of the time. The budget 1911 might not be everything you hoped it would be, but it will usually be enough to do the job.