If there was a ribbon for the title of “America’s pistol,” there's no doubt in my mind it would hang from the trigger guard of a 1911. John Moses Browning’s masterpiece served our military from the time they rode into battle on horseback until the specialized units retired it just a few years ago. No other American military small arm has ever served for so long.
The 1911 shares an equally long tradition as a law enforcement handgun. By the time my great-grandfather and his fellow U.S. Army soldiers pursued Pancho Villa in the Punitive Expedition, the 1911 had already been chosen by some of the desert Southwest’s hardest lawmen. Several generations of G.I.s returning from the world wars decided it would make a dandy police sidearm when they traded army green for police blue, and the gun made a name for itself in the fight against motor bandits, gangsters and common criminals. By mid-century, the 1911 had become the clear choice for the minority of American lawmen who weren't bound to a double action revolver.
WINDS OF CHANGE
Despite this success, the 1911 fell on hard times around the 1970s. The mayhem and violence of the “peace and love” era spurred some foolish attempts to blunt the authoritarian image of the police, in the hopes it would pacify the criminal masses. In an era where administrators repainted black and whites in softer colors to make them look less aggressive, there was little enthusiasm in some places for an “army gun” that (horrors!) was carried with the hammer cocked back – something which prompted many citizens (and chiefs!) to develop a case of the vapors.
The 1911 hung on in isolated pockets – mostly on the left coast and in the Southwest – but got left behind in the “Wondernine” rush of the 1980s and early 1990s. A funny thing happened on the way to the show, however, because the old warhorse started to make a comeback in police holsters by the post-9/11 era. This was a hopeful development for the centenarian, but sadly the design continues to face resistance and has even been replaced in some of the traditional 1911 strongholds, over the loud objections of the officers.
STILL A CONTENDER
While it's increasingly fashionable to mock the 1911 as an outdated and unreliable design, there's a solid argument for the modern 1911 as a law enforcement duty pistol.
Some of the strengths that make the modern 1911 eminently suitable for police use include:
1. Debugged technology
The 1911 has been around the block…a hundred times…and the kinks have been worked out. We know what it takes to make the 1911 work and keep it that way. By comparison, some of the newer guns have had a more difficult teething period. It's often been difficult to keep up with the number of product recalls, “upgrades,” generational changes and agency teletype warnings in the polymer era.
Some of the new polymer guns have exhibited significant design and quality control issues, and we’ve seen several agency transitions come to a screeching halt when problems arose with newly adopted designs. We’ve seen manufacturers blame design flaws and QC issues on ammo selection, shooter technique, the phase of the moon and a hundred other things when their plastic pistols wouldn't work, as the 1911 quietly soldiered on. This makes sense since its beta-testing was complete around 1924.
The modern 1911 has more mechanical safeties than any other popular service pistol. Grip safety? Check. Disconnector safety? Check. Drop safety? Check (even the non-“Series 80” guns are drop safe with their lightweight firing pins and heavy springs, or Swartz-style firing pin blocks).
Unlike most of the popular striker-fired duty guns, the 1911 boasts an external thumb safety, which requires a separate, deliberate action to ready the gun for firing, instead of relying solely on trigger finger discipline in a moment of stress.
The 1911 also has an external hammer, which aids an officer’s awareness of the pistol’s condition, and facilitates a dramatically enhanced level of safety when reholstering by allowing an officer to “thumb check” the hammer and restrain it as the pistol is seated.
Safety-conscious administrators who get a little weak-kneed when they see a cocked and locked 1911 in a duty holster should remember that the 1911 has more layers of redundant safeties, and requires more deliberate actions to fire than any striker-fired design ever invented. In fact, most of the striker-fired guns in duty holsters are the functional equivalents of carrying a 1911 with the hammer cocked and the safety OFF. Think about that for a moment.
Despite having a large frame and slide, the 1911 is flat and has some curves in the right places to help it ride comfortably when concealed and minimize printing. Some of the modern designs, with their boxy slides and grips, feel like you're trying to conceal a section of 4” x 4” post in your waistband, but the 1911 rides close and doesn't tend to print as much, which undercover and off-duty officers will appreciate.
The 1911 is an exceptionally ergonomic pistol. The grip to frame angle seems to hit the sweet spot for most users, allowing the gun to point where desired without conscious correction. The beavertail of the modern 1911 helps to tame recoil and improve control. Most important, the thumb safety is perfectly accessible and operates in the proper direction, disengaging on the downward stroke as the hand naturally closes to assume a solid grasp. The slide-mounted safeties popular on other guns are harder to reach, and operate in the wrong direction, forcing the user to open and weaken his grip on the pistol to disengage the safety. These guns run counter to our physiology and don't support our normal reactions to stress like the 1911.
The 1911 has a long grip from stem to stern, by virtue of being designed around the .45 ACP cartridge, but its single-column magazine makes it relatively thin compared to double stack pistols.
Since it's the original “modular pistol,” triggers, grips, mainspring housings and grip safeties can be mixed and matched to change the trigger reach and fit it to most any hand. Same with the safety lever, magazine release and slide stop, which can be swapped for extended controls that put them within easy reach of a short thumb.
It's been known for a long time that the “manly .45” is an excellent gun for a woman’s (typically) smaller hand. Female officers who struggle with pistols that have wide, boxy, double stack grips with long trigger reaches will usually shoot much better with a properly fitted 1911, and so will men with smaller hands.
Another aspect of the 1911’s adaptability is that it has kept pace with the times. The modern 1911 has an equipment rail for lights and lasers (which won't make the gun choke, as we saw with some of the popular polymer models), and some variants can accommodate slide-mounted optical sights.
The 1911 does not require the trigger to be pulled as part of the disassembly. This feature helps to reduce serious injuries caused by negligent handlers, and prevent unwanted holes in police station lockers, walls, floors, ceilings and furniture.
The 1911 enjoys robust market support. Spare parts, holsters, grips, sights, tools, lights, lasers and other supplies are abundant. Just about every major pistol manufacturer makes a variant of the gun, making it the most widely offered and varied design on the market. Agencies won't have to put up with terrible customer service from a maker with exclusive rights to parts and maintenance support – a situation that has caused one notable brand’s otherwise excellent products to be dropped by many agencies.
8. Proprietary nature to the user
Respected police trainer Massad Ayoob noted several decades ago that the 1911’s external safety lever affords an extra degree of safety to an officer who has been disarmed by an attacker. There have been many documented incidents where attackers disarmed officers equipped with semiauto pistols but were unfamiliar with the operation of the safety lever, which prevented them from firing the gun. Interestingly, this situation may be even more probable now than it was when Ayoob first reported on it in the mid-1980s, because the striker-fired era has accustomed new generations of thugs to pistols that require nothing but a trigger pull to fire the gun. As a result, the 1911’s safety lever may give an officer a brief opportunity to recapture his weapon or access another one to end the threat after being disarmed.
9. Practical accuracy
The single action trigger of the 1911 is typically short and light, allowing shooters to do good work with the pistol. The handling qualities of the design are so strong that the 1911 dominates in all the shooting sports where multiple targets must be hit under time pressure – conditions which bear more than a passing resemblance to those found in a gunfight.
The manual of arms on the 1911 promotes consistency across weapons platforms. Like the patrol rifle and shotgun, the 1911 requires the user to first deactivate a manual safety prior to firing, and that manual safety operates in the same direction on the 1911 and popular AR rifle (which has replaced the shotgun entirely, in many agencies). Since officers will fire many more rounds through their pistol in training than they will with their long guns, equipping them with a 1911 promotes good habits that will carry over to the less familiar weapons. Officers who train extensively with pistols that only require a trigger press to fire will sometimes forget to off-safe their long guns in a moment of stress or place them back on safe when the danger is over. The 1911 forces officers to be conscious of the safety lever, enhancing safety and consistency in training and operations.
BUT WAIT, THAT'S NOT ALL!
The objective arguments in support of the 1911 are compelling enough, but there are a host of subjective factors that must be considered as well. The 1911 is a design with a rich history and a reputation as a hard-hitting pistol that stops fights quickly. These qualities have endeared it to many officers, who feel more confident carrying this pistol than any other.
When an officer is confident in his equipment, and his ability to use it, it translates into improved officer presence. That, in turn, helps to improve an officer's control of the situation, deter assaults on the officer and reduce the chance the officer will need to use force at all.
Confidence and pride in equipment is an important part of morale – something which is frequently in short supply these days, as the attacks and demands on the profession become more extreme.
FACTS, NOT EMOTIONS
The case for the 1911 as a law enforcement duty pistol is a strong one. As with any other police weapon, there are strengths and weaknesses to the design. Additionally, there are training and maintenance issues that must be carefully attended to in order to ensure the greatest reliability and success with the pistol. However, the 1911 has proven, over the course of 100-plus years, that it's capable of doing the job efficiently and safely.
Police administrators should give it a fair chance, and evaluate it on the merits, not the hype. If they do, they’ll find there's still a lot to like about Browning’s masterpiece.
This article, originally published 10/26/2018, has been updated.