Before we begin our discussion, it is important to understand that the requirements for a duty 1911 are significantly different than those of a 1911 used for competition or CCW. What is acceptable for one application is not necessarily desirable or even appropriate for another.
A competition gun will typically expect to see a very high round count but relatively little actual carry. A weapon selected for CCW use by a private citizen can expect to be carried only in a concealed manner, and not typically exposed to weather and impact in the same manner as most duty weapons. By its nature, a competition or CCW gun tends to be at the center of its owner’s attention, as it is a special and singular tool.
Depending on the LEO’s assignment and duties, the duty pistol may be only one of many pieces of kit requiring maintenance and attention at the end of the shift or mission. The adage of “just take care of your gear” has a different meaning for an officer assigned to a tactical unit, as the pistol may be competing for maintenance time with a host of other critical equipment such as body armor, helmet, gas mask, eye protection, duty rig, radio/commo equipment, primary entry weapon, secondary/specialty weapons (breaching guns, sniper weapons, gas delivery platforms), and other specialty equipment.
Ideally, the duty 1911 should not require a disproportionate amount of maintenance time for the end user with such an assignment. So which 1911 to choose for duty? Agency policy permitting, your budget will pretty much determine what you can have in your duty holster. Remember that these things will ride in an exposed holster and be subjected to rain, sweat, constant handling, and the hard knock life of being around work vehicles, concrete walls, and gun lockers at the jail.
Further, if you are involved in a deadly force incident, your 1911 may be held as evidence for some period of time. You may want an identical backup in the event that you are off admin leave and back on the street without your original pistol. If you are choosing for a department or team, this can also change things for you.
Lastly, if you are a diehard 1911 aficionado, you should be ready to accept that you could buy two to four of any other modern service pistol for the price of one 1911 that is good to go. You will not find any true bargains, nor should you be looking for one when your safety or that of your men is on the line.
First off, if you are truly serious about running a 1911, it needs to be a full sized 5" gun in .45 ACP. There certainly are any number of examples of Commander and other compact 1911s that work or can be made to work just fine, and for CCW use they can be a viable option for some users. However, take a look at the history of unit issue service 1911s – LAPD SWAT, USSOCOM, USMC Det-1, USMC MEUSOC, FBI HRT, FBI SWAT, and let’s not forget over 95 years with all the branches of the U.S. military - and you won't find ANY major units that use anything other than the original full sized gun.
Why? After you field 50 or 350 guns at once and run thousands or even tens of thousands of rounds through them during training cycles, you'll figure it out. By virtue of their design, the shorter format 1911s reduce the window of functional opportunity for the magazine and slide to work together to feed, chamber, extract, and eject. This is an incontrovertible fact of life. Proper weapon setup, spring rates, and magazine maintenance are critical in running the shorter guns.
Keeping after a few 1911s as a single hobbyist or aficionado is different than running a bunch of guns for a large unit. Remember that weapon down time equates to lost training and operational time. You want to minimize your maintenance issues, not increase them.
Lastly, a full sized 1911 is very arguably a more efficient shooting and ballistic delivery platform than a smaller sized variant for the majority of users.
Here are the basic specifications to examine for a duty 1911:
•Full sized Government Model 1911 format with 5" barrel length and
steel frame for increased reliability and durability.
•Chambered in .45 ACP, as that is the caliber in which the gun was
designed and functions best. The greatest number of magazine
options are available in .45 ACP.
•Standard Browning barrel without integral feed ramp. Ramped barrels
typically have very steep feed ramps that don't feed well. Wide
mouthed hollowpoints can also catch at the bottom of the integral
ramp, creating further feeding issues.
•Standard milspec short recoil spring guide rod and plug.
•Recoil spring rating of 17-18.5 lbs to improve durability with full
power duty loads.
•Availability of ambidextrous safety for left handed users.
•Type of firing pin safety system, if any. See below for further.
•Light rail or standard dust cover.
•Type of finish.
The quality of the factory components will come into play when looking for a gun to use more or less out of the box. MIM (Metal Injection Molded) components, which have received an excess of attention in recent years, tend to vary in quality like anything else, but they can generally be expected to have a useable service life of 5,000 to 10,000 rounds.
Some quality MIM components work exceedingly well, and I personally have witnessed a large number of guns with MIM small parts where service life has exceeded 30-40,000 rounds. However, if planning for a comprehensive rebuild, the small parts quality can be considered secondary to that of the slide and frame since most of them will be replaced.
Firing pin safeties typically fall into the Colt Series 80 pattern which are actuated by the trigger (Colt Series 80, Para Ordnance, Sig GSR) and the Swartz style safety which is actuated by the grip safety (Kimber, Smith & Wesson).
Of all the firing pin safety mechanisms on the market, the original Colt Series 80 - in a Colt - is the most reliable of them all. The platforms utilizing the Swartz safety are a less than ideal choice across the board due to the inherent reliability problems of the design.
The Swartz safety is extremely sensitive to the fit of the grip safety to the frame and the timing of the grip safety's trigger blocking arm. Tolerance issues can also lead to a Swartz safety that will time properly when the grip safety is depressed a certain way, and time differently when depressed a different way.
This will typically be a product of loose fit of the grip safety to the frame tangs and/or loose fit of the thumb safety shaft through the grip safety. It is possible to have the grip safety timed such that the trigger will be able to release the sear well before the firing pin safety plunger has been moved far enough to clear the firing pin.
Problems with improper timing of the Swartz safeties can lead to a situation where you get a "click" when you wanted a "bang." That's a serious problem. Unless department policy mandates a firing pin safety, I would choose a 1911 without one.
It is possible to have a drop safe 1911 without the firing pin safety, and given the potential reliability problems with a poorly executed system, the perceived risk of drop safety is outweighed by the real risk of a failure to fire.
My feeling is that a duty 1911 absolutely needs a light rail interface. There are a host of choices, all of which feature some variation of a Picatinny rail. As long as you use a common light such as the Surefire X200, you will have duty holster choices. The ubiquitous Safariland 6004/6280 family is available for most of the common rail guns in conjunction with the Surefire X200 and Insight M3/M6 lights.
The finish of the weapon will be of importance for reducing maintenance headaches for the user. Traditional polished blue finishes are very pretty, but tend to fare poorly in humid or wet environments. If you are working out in the rain, it is usually not an option to stop what you are doing to either cover your gun or wipe it down with an oily rag. It is not unusual to observe rust forming right on the weapon during a long patrol or operation in a wet environment.
For a carbon steel gun, I recommend matte Parkerizing as the bare minimum finish for duty use. Parkerizing is very functional and cheap to reapply when worn. For even better corrosion resistance, an excellent choice would be one of the various thermally cured spray on finishes such as KG Gunkote, Cerakote, Birdsong Black T, or Nighthawk Permakote. Remember that exposed metal will rust, no matter what the manufacturer of the finish claims.
Matte stainless usually works quite well, but remember that the porous surface of the steel will trap moisture and can still rust if neglected. Matte hard chrome and some of the newer vapor deposition finishes such as Tungsten DLC offer excellent abrasion resistance and corrosion protection, but can be hard to properly apply and will need to be stripped and reapplied in the event of a weapon repair or rebuild. I prefer a simpler finish that can be reapplied without incident, as duty weapons should expect several rebuilds during their service cycle.
Now that we have addressed the various points of consideration, let’s move on to available weapon choices. My recommendations, which follow below, are not meant to be a comprehensive examination of all the industry offerings, but rather my particular thoughts on certain 1911s based on my experience and personal preference.
The Springfield MC Operator, which is the "Loaded" grade gun with a green and black paint job, is a leading option. Anecdotal research on these models in the field provides typically positive results in high round count duty settings. T
he correct Picatinny spec light rail, corrosion resistant finish and overall configuration of the MC Operator lends itself well to duty use. The parkerized or stainless Loaded model is also an acceptable duty gun in a normal dust cover format. Note that some generations of the fixed sight Springfield Loaded guns tend to shoot anywhere from 6-12" low at 25 yds with the factory sights, necessitating the immediate replacement of the rear Novak sight with a taller unit.
The newer Springfields are coming from the factory with higher rear sights to correct this problem. If you are able to hand pick a sample, try to select one that has a pinned ejector. While a glued-in ejector works just fine, it is cheap insurance to have a pin.
If you want to bridge the gap between a full blown hand built custom and a lower priced/entry level production 1911, the Springfield Professional is an excellent choice. I have seen a lot of these guns and have a few myself.
Statistically, there are more of the Professional Models out in real street service than any other factory custom 1911, so the quirks are pretty well worked out. They have consistently improved since the original run of guns, and overall are very nicely done. They offer cleanly executed checkering (some of the best on a production type gun), a nice beavertail fit, a blended S&A mag well, premium grade components, real Novak sights with Trijicon inserts, and excellent accuracy from the match fit Nowlin barrel.
These guns typically work very well right out of the box, though they should be monitored closely during their break in period. It is available in a standard dust cover format (PC9111) and with the shortened Operator light rail frame (PC9111LR). If you find one of these on the secondary market, it is preferable to pick a later production specimen that has the Trijicon sight inserts and pinned front sight.
Very early (low three digit CRG 1xx serial numbers) guns had IWI sight inserts and no pins in the front sights. While these were good guns, the sight inserts do not wear very well and you will want to replace them with Trijicons. Each run of guns differs as to whether their ejectors are pinned or glued, but the Springfield Custom Shop will pin the ejector if you desire.
A new contender in the high end "production custom" market is Nighthawk Custom. I am obviously biased in mentioning them, since I helped design the 10-8 model for them. Shameless plugs aside, the Nighthawk shop puts out an excellent product at a fair price for what you are getting. The Nighthawk 10-8 is a fine hand built 1911 that is suitable for duty and is readily available. Read all about it here.
If you must have a Colt, your options include the new production 1991A1, Series 70 reproduction, XSE Government, and Colt Gunsite Pistols (CGP). The CGP seems to be out of production, but you'll still find them floating around. The first three are available in both stainless and blue. If policy dictates that you need a firing pin safety, then choose a 1991A1 or XSE. The Colts have great small parts quality, but their main issues include ridiculously sharp edges and poor assembly. Note that the Colts do not feature an integral light rail, and your most viable options for an attached light are the addition of a Dawson Rail Adapter or the use of a Surefire MR07 light mount.
What are the main pitfalls of running a 1911 for duty? Weapon maintenance and end user responsibility are the two big issues. The end user needs to be dialed in to the gun's quirks to be able to run it effectively. The day of handing out rack grade 1911s to the masses and using them for duty are pretty much over. A unit, team, or department that is looking at running 1911s needs to seriously consider having the following:
1) Two 1911s issued to each user, to allow for continuity when one
weapon goes down for service. Lacking this, the issuing unit needs
to have a pool of spare guns to lend out to users when a gun goes
down for maintenance.
2) Dedicated and skilled armorer support. Being able to maintain the
weapon is key, and it requires more than a one day armorer school
to learn how to effectively change parts in this gun.
3) Transition training for the end users so that they may learn the
unique manual of arms and proper maintenance of the 1911.
Magazines are a big issue, and users need to try not to become married to a set of magazines. When they stop falling out, stop locking back, or the first time they stop working, they need to either be addressed or replaced. The mags are the weak link, so get over it and throw them out when they give up on you.
Extractor tension is another problem, and stovepipes and double feed (Type 2 and 3) malfunctions are not to be tolerated. Replace the extractor when these start to occur, as retensioning the existing unit is only a temporary fix. I expect only a 5,000 round service cycle on a standard Browning format extractor. They will easily last 10,000-15,000 rounds or even longer without incident, but I start looking hard at them at 5,000. If you can, replace them every 5,000 rounds and you probably will not have too many headaches.
Proper fitting is critical to extending the service life of the extractor. A properly designed external extractor would solve the extractor related problems, but the choices are currently limited and the track records of the designs vary in success.
Do you need to have your gun customized or worked over in order to carry it for work? Not necessarily. You really need to shoot the gun for 1000-1500 rounds, to include about 500 or more rounds with duty ammunition to have a good feel for what the gun is doing. Do not just put "200 flawless rounds" through the gun and declare that it is "completely reliable." That is not a statistically significant cycle of service. You need to be able to fire 1000-1500 rounds through the gun without any malfunctions.
Cleaning and lubrication every 200-400 rounds is an acceptable interval of maintenance while evaluating the weapon for suitability. The 1911 is a design that requires hand fitting for maximum performance, and while a hot rodded or tuned gun (by a skilled 1911 specialist, not your local range hack) will always be better in many ways than any factory gun, a stock gun will often do the job if the hand fitting at the factory was done right.
The 1911 is an aficionado's weapon, and still has a place in the modern arsenal for those who are dedicated to it. With proper setup and maintenance, the 1911 can serve you like no other weapon.
Good shopping and good hunting.