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1911s, Accuracy vs Reliability And Are Tight, Hard Fit Guns Worth It?

I’m reposting an article from our early years today. I am trying to get some other things finished for later this week and so I don’t have a lot of time today for a new post. This one caused a lot of butthurt when it first went up. Some smaller full custom shops ( now Tango Uniform) did NOT like what I had to say and had some mean things to say about yours truly for a few weeks over this one.I’m sure some of the commentors will tell me how wrong I am all over again. Like last late summer/fall, I may post stuff from our early days for those who likely never saw it as we have a mountain of content in the back of the basement no one sees anymore.


This post is not easy to sum up with a short title. It contains my thoughts on the 1911 in its custom form, if the high end super pricey custom guns are worth it, And my thoughts on how they often give the 1911 a bad rap by people who do not care to take the time to understand some of the down sides of the tight fit match and carry guns. Apologies for the rambling nature of the post.  Also I want to warn it is my opinion and you may not agree, If you can not handle that, I do not know what to tell you other than don’t bother posting in the comments complaining to me about how wrong I am.  I have spent a long time with 1911s and have my opinions on them. Everything  below is given as opinion and personal experience and observations only.

I am always having discussions with people about accuracy. Readers who check here regularly know that it is a topic I often write about. I give my thoughts on what guns I find to be accurate, the amount of accuracy you can expect from rack grade combat guns and the distance that those guns are capable of shooting to way beyond the common knowledge of the internet experts along with the fire arms magazines. I put great effort into showing that most factory guns are more capable than most people will ever know.  A match barrel does indeed have it purpose and can give a great deal of improvement, but the barrel that comes from quality factory guns are a lot better one may think, despite the fact  that the match barrel selling merchants would like you to  believe them to be crap.

When it comes to factory barrels and accuracy, self defense is one of those times people would understandably want as much accuracy as they can use. Even if they can not actually use i due to their skill level. The model that in my opinion, gets the short end of the stick when it comes to higher accuracy demands for self defense is my beloved 1911.  For the almost 30 years I have been using the 1911, I can remember being told that all this and that kind of work has to be done to the gun to make it accurate. No factory 1911 is all that accurate some said ( and still do) and a lot of specialty shops have popped up to cater to this idea.  But this is often at the cost of reliability.  The 1911 was made to work withing certain specs. It was made to work when filthy and muddy and with little cleaning, And the military models, when made to the correct specs and dimensions and with good ammo, will work.  the problem I always see, are 1911s not made to the military combat specs.

To me, it is important to have one that meets the original specifications. I want it to always work and to be accurate. After a recent conversation about it for the 1 millionth time, I decided to show a little testing of what a nice loose, proper 1911 is capable of.

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Using the V-Tac target, I fired a full magazine of just plain old ball ammo from 25 yards, off hand. The ammo is nothing special, it is not match or Black Hills or handloaded. It is just military ball.  I fired at the head and the center of the chest.

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While it is certainly not a tight pretty little group. Who would argue against this being acceptable for ball ammo, off hand no bags or rest, at 25 yards? All but one round feel in the box of the head. The “flyer” is not a great shot. But I would think it would be a good chance it would probably stop the fight anyway, or at least make the attack second guess his commitment….  Maybe not, but the other shots would have gave him pause. Note the between the eyes hit just happened to end up that way, not by any special effort.

In my mind, for a 1911 so loose it rattles, and ball shot off hand at 25 yards, this will do the job pretty well while giving me a gun I know will work every time.

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The second mag was fired at the chest as seen above. Again this was within the kill box of the target using plain ball. All nine shots are good hits to me.  The gun grouped a but better due to a large area to aim at and be able to see my front sight against it better, but not a drastic improvement.  Three hits seem to be pretty good CNS hits while four hits are in the heart and lung area with at least another hit in the other lung.

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the back side of the target has very hand Bullseye  targets on the back that are exactly placed on the opposite of the head and chest. Compare the front hits with the scoring of the bullseye on the back. I think this is a great feature without getting the shooter hung up on worrying over some kind of score while they see the human anatomy on the front. Few bad guys are likely to have black bullseyes on them so I don’t suggest spending too much time on them when training for self defense.

Again, while not good enough for Camp Perry. Not bad at all for ball.  Of course this would be a different matter with my chosen self defense carry load. My daily carry ammo preforms better than ball. but, my gun is still a looser fit gun that gives me the combat gun reliability I demand.

This bring me to another of my pet topics about the 1911.  I DO NOT believe or recommend a hard, tight fit gun for self defense or combat.  I know you can find plenty of people out there who will want to argue with me about this. But you don’t have to spend much time on gun forums to see some guy complaining about how is multi thousand dollar custom Ed Brown or Les Baer 1911 let him down at a training course.  Well. there is a reason for that.  the 1911 is a combat gun meant to go to war, to be in mud and gore. rain, snow and with little cleaning. It was originally meant to be loose. Those tolerances allowed mud and carbon to get all in the gun while giving it enough room to breathe and move. A gun with the slide/frame so tight you have to beat it open, is not going to give you that.

That is not to say I think a 1911 should look like the original with no upgrades. I am not a follower of the “don’t  put anything on the 1911 JMB did not put there.”  I think ambi safety and better sights are a must have, among a few other things, but the the gun I use to protect myself will never be “tightened up” or a “hard fit”.

Tight fit guns have a place, and if you want one thats fine.  But, if I was not going to be shooting a bullseye match at Perry, I would not carry one for self defense without a very long testing period. It is not that these guns are not quality. Because they are custom guns and they are made to a high quality. But sometimes that works against you when things get dirty.  It is one thing to have something to pass down to your kids and show off at a BBQ and be a investment.  But, I do not believe the super expensive, custom 1911s to be better choices for self defense over a 1911 with a looser fit.  They are beautiful to be sure. but to me, that is not good enough.

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The gun I carry every day, is a Colt XSE.  It comes from Colt as you see it expect for the grips with gold medallion.  The reason I love the XSEs so much, is that they have a lot of the upgrades a custom gun comes with but is not a hard fit 1911. The barrel locks up tight enough to improve that accuracy over a USGI issue. but it is not so tight to cause any possible problems if it gets very dirty. I have used this gun a long time and shot it so much I could not even count.  It has never failed me.  The first year I got it, I left it soaking in a silty creek for eight hours and fired it, I froze it in a freezing rain and snow. I opened it and poured powder fine dirt in it and one day I fired 1,000 rounds though it in about 30 minutes after not having cleaned it for many rounds before it, except to oil it.  The gun became too hot to hold but still worked.  It is also so loose that it rattles like a pebble in a empty milk jug.  But it still works and I can make the hits well within what is needed.

My personal standard for a 1911 is to be able, off hand, to keep all my shots on a human head at 25 yards. all in the chest kill zone at 50 yards, and to be able to hit a man at 100 yards with my quality self defense loads at a minimum. I don’t expect it to do all that with ball ammo or sub par plinking  rounds, but it does not need to. It has to be comfortable  and have ambi safeties and sights big enough for me to see.

That is not too much to ask with modern guns. but due to the flood of 1911s made by so many companies trying to cash in on the guns popularity, it  is not as common as it would seem. All the crap copies have given it a bad rap among some, that it does not deserve when made to the specifications originally meant for a pistol to be used in muddy trenches, volcanic sand on Pacific Islands, snowy mountains in asia and the Jungles of Indochina. The USGI 1911 lasted so long because it works when made right with combat in mind.  And in my very personal opinion, the hard fit 1911 is about as useful for fighting as the cheaper coat tail riding knock offs from other countries and even quite a few made here.  When it comes to tight, hard fit 1911s sometimes there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  Save the 2,500-5,000 dollar custom guns for family heirlooms, Bullseye or hanging on the wall or just shooting for pleasure and the enjoyment of having an investment grade gun.   If you do choose to have a custom high end, tight fit 1911 made and decide to carry it.  test it until you know it will work no matter what. For your own sake, get it filthy., abuse it within reason, if you are afraid of a blemish, then you are already going down the wrong road.  Beat the hell out of it to make sure it works.  If you ignore all I have said, at the very least, when it fails  you at a training class when it is subjected to a high rate of fire and round count for the first time. at least tell the Trainer/instructor that looseorounds warned you.

18 thoughts on “1911s, Accuracy vs Reliability And Are Tight, Hard Fit Guns Worth It?”

  1. Yup, the whole “jam-o-matic” rep that’s been going around the last couple years or so is super annoying. Guess it’s the cool guy thing now. One customer brand that I have seen good performance out of is Wilson, although i think they have a bit more “combat” minded angle. My pops has run his so much the finish is wearing off a bit and I’ve never seen a hiccup. Mine is a (sadly now due to company choices) an early Springfield loaded and has just the right amount of jiggle and like you said it’s just fine and probably more accurate than me (especially now).
    As an anecdote we got hold of what appears to be an unfired 1911 from i think 1917 if I remember the serial range correctly, that is amazing tight. and a 1911A1 with a bit of use (air corp/air force souvenir) that rattles like crazy.

  2. I’ll have some thoughts on this issue later tonight. Overall, an excellent article.

    I’ll leave this thought here before tonight: Doesn’t everyone recognize that the AK-47 (and clone) rifles have a famous reputation for reliability, that they go “bang!” under the most adverse conditions? Why do they do that? Mikhail himself said that Americans want to keep “tightening things up” but that the secret to his success was to give “parts room to move.”

    • I’m surprised you didn’t chime in on my J W Fecker scope article from a few days ago. I was looking forward to see if you had anything to say all week after that one.

      • I’m sorry to disappoint. Your JW Fecker article was all news & learning to me, and I very much appreciate that you did all that work on it.

        When I’m not able to add useful information on the guns/optics/etc articles, I tend to keep my yap shut. I’m a regular reader, so I assure you I read your Fecker piece all the way through and cataloged that information in my skull.

  3. Magazines are the other cause of the 1911s reputation for poor reliablity. Early magazines were never designed to run anything other then ball ammo and the large number of manufacturers caused other problems. If you use high quality magazines with modern feed lips it will solve a lot of problems.

    The 2nd thing I have seen is lack if maitance. 1911s like to be better lubed and require more frequent spring changes then a Glock.

    My every day carry gun, for the last 11 years, is a .38 Super XSE LW Commander. I think the XSEs are some if the best 1911s Colt ever made

    • Yea you are right on the mags and if I had time today I would have added more to update that with it,

      the XSE are my favorite guns colt has made in the 1911 and I was sorry to see them go. I tried very hard to convince them not to drop them. they hey do know the XSE line is missed and how popular they were.

    • Magazines can and do cause any detachable magazine semi-auto to have reliability issues. I don’t care if it is a 1911, a M1 Carbine, a M1A, AR-15, Beretta 92/M9, whatever. I see this issue all the time. A gunowner will come to me saying “something’s wrong, it fails to feed” and one of the first things I do is examine the magazine.

      I cannot properly express just how many times I’ve cleaned a pile of gunk, crud and corruption out of a magazine. Most gun owners don’t know they should clean their magazines, especially .22LR blowback pistol magazines. You would not believe how much lube, unburned powder, burned powder and other crap is down inside a .22LR magazine in a blowback action pistol/rifle. If you want to take a shortcut in cleaning an all-metal magazine, get some carb or brake cleaner from the auto parts store, go outside (really, please, go outside do not do this inside!), put on some rubber gloves and safety glasses, then put the little red tube onto the card/brake cleaner, put that red dingus into the magazine and spray. Let the cleaner slosh around, then upend the magazine, top end down. Repeat a few times. You could be amazed at what comes out…

      Don’t use the brake/carb cleaner on magazines with plastic components (eg, mag followers) – it might melt them.

      • Well, I’m open to the possibility that it’s user error, but there are only three ways I’m aware of to get a cartridge from the top of the magazine into the chamber, and all three result in the nose of the bullet getting snagged on the feed ramp.

        I suspect that the smoothing/polishing job that I had done on the feed ramp is the culprit. I’ve read that the aluminum alloy frames don’t like those.

        Which is part of the problem with 1911s: a 1911 isn’t a 1911. The pistol that passed the military’s trial just isn’t the pistol I own. The blueprints will look pretty similar and lots of parts will interchange, but they are very different animals.

  4. OK, some comments on tight 1911’s, accuracy out of 1911’s and tight allowances/tolerance in guns in general. I’ll try my best to make this as succinct as possible on a subject where I could carry on for quite some time…

    First, to the “reputation” by younger shooters that the 1911’s is a “jam-o-matic.” Well, this isn’t true, as veterans from the era when the 1911 was the issue sidearm already know. Further, the acceptance test of March, 1911 required the entered pistols (the Browning design built by Colt, and Savage’s entry) to be able to fire 6,000 rounds with breaks every 1,000 rounds for only “cooling, light maintenance (like a quick wipe-down) and oiling” – which the 1911 passed with flying colors. The Savage did not – it suffered broken parts, as it had in the 1910 trials. The .45 ACP Luger didn’t even make it to the 1910 trial. Lugers are notoriously finicky about their cleanliness, but grown men are just obsessed with them. It’s like putting a supermodel in the midst of a bunch of men – put a Luger on a table in front of grown men and they cannot help but ogle, ooo, aaahh, and want to fondle it endlessly. But are Lugers “reliable?” They’re just as reliable as a high-maintenance woman. They’re reliable until something small goes wrong, and then they have a hissy fit.

    So when I hear Glock (it isn’t always Glock owners, but it seems most often to be) owners claim that the 1911 is a jam-o-matic, I ask if they know how the 1911 came to be adopted by the US Army as their sidearm of choice. Invariably, they know nothing about the 6,000 round test without breakages, stoppage, jams or other malfunctions.

    Second, many of the changes custom pistolsmiths make to 1911’s for “custom” or “match” guns have rather little to do with accuracy – or, should I say, they are not major contributors to accuracy. For example, tight slide:frame fitups – in my experience (and I’m going to use that qualifier a couple more times) do not contribute that much to accuracy (or more mathematically, precision) in the 1911. But holding the muzzle end of the barrel snugly within the slide? Oh, now we see significant improvements in group size – even with a looser slide:frame fit.

    So how to provide a snug fit of the muzzle inside the slide? Glad you asked. I would ask readers to open a new window and use your favorite search engine to find “Colt 1911 collet bushing” and see what the solution was: a spring steel collet barrel bushing. The “fingers” of the bushing were sprung inwards, so as to center and hold the barrel without slop whilst the gun was in battery. When the gun fired, the spring properties of the collet fingers would allow the barrel to drop at the rear and the collet to slide backwards on the barrel.

    Third, the barrel fit to the lugs in the slide, and the rear hood into the breech slot are of less importance, but still give return for the effort… and this is where the tight fits cease (IMO/experience) making a return worth the decreased reliability. Think of the whole situation for a second here: If you have a barrel that repeats to the same lock-up points fore and aft in the slide, and your sights are mounted on your slide (and only your slide), what increase in accuracy/precision can tightening the slide onto the frame provide? Think about it in terms of other guns: How much accuracy (precision) do you gain on an AR because your upper fits onto your lower like a bank vault? Not much. Your sights (be they telescopic or iron) are on the upper receiver, your barrel is mounted on the upper, the BGC is held in lockup inside the upper… how much accuracy/precision are you going to gain because your upper closed onto the lower with absolutely no wiggle or slop? A little. In my experience, you gain much more from putting a quality barrel on an upper that has been trued with a gas tube that fits perfectly centered into your gas key and then getting a quality trigger/hammer set. But that’s just me.

    It’s the slide/frame slop (or lack of it) that, IMO/experience, robs 1911’s of their reliability, usually by slowing down how fast the slide is running forward due to excessive friction. Suddenly the slide/barrel won’t finish going into battery – or the round being picked off of a full magazine added enough more friction to make it an issue. Some reliability can be lost if the front bushing is too snug, or the rear of the barrel requires a scrupulously clean chamber/hood area. But it’s usually these wickedly snug & polished slide/frame fits that cause the gun to not go into battery because of some dirt or grit (or lack of lube).

    OK, some more details about the Series 70 Colt collet bushings: These were an elegant engineering answer to the issue of accuracy/precision on Government-model 1911’s without paying big bucks for hand-fit parts. The idea went like this: The barrel was turned to a slightly smaller diameter behind the bushing lock-up area. The spring collet bushing was put onto the barrel – and the bushing should not be removed from the barrel after that. To break down the gun, you take the barrel out with the bushing at the same time. The bushing was basically a set of four spring ‘fingers’ that would hold/center the barrel in the bushing, and still allow the barrel to slide through the bushing easily. It didn’t require hand-fitting to individual barrels, to get the lock-up snug – all it required was a small reduction in barrel OD behind the lock-up area. Some people claim the collet bushing was “failure prone.” Really? Colt made 70’s with that bushing for 15+ years. Most failures of which I’m aware were on guns where the owners pulled the bushing off the barrel and tried to force it back on by hand, without using some guide to assure even pressure applied to the collet all the way ’round. BTW, you should not try to put a collet bushing onto a barrel that doesn’t have a bit of diameter removed behind the lock-up area.

    Later mods to 1911 barrels and bushings attempted to snug up the muzzle’s fit in the bushing without sacrificing reliability. Barrels were made with spherical ends, conical ends, that would fit into slides without bushings, etc. IMO, the collet bushing was the simplest, easiest and most cost effective way to increase the accuracy/precision of the 1911. One of the more reasonable attempts to deliver real results with less work is the Briley spherical bushing setup. Look on Brownells’ web site for it. It’s not that expensive in the overall scheme of things. On my 1911’s, I was taught to fit an oversized bushing into the barrel, then to the barrel straight-on. Then I go in with an abrasive bob on a Foredom tool and carefully remove some material from the inside bottom of the bushing rear of the center of the bushing, and some material from the inside top of the bushing, so the barrel can tilt down as the slide comes rearward and the rear of the barrel drops. When the slide comes forward, the barrel then gets centered by the small “band” of metal that is concentric with the outside of the bushing. For someone like me, this is trivial work. For someone who doesn’t do gunsmith-type fitting of parts on a regular basis, this is a bunch of try-n-fit work that usually exceeds their patience.

    Lastly, I want to talk for a second about how reliability goes down, in general as allowances/tolerance disappear. I’ve made several rifles (for myself and others) that have “zero headspace, tight bolts, bushed firing pins” etc, etc – in addition to having a top-quality barrel. These rifles have to be treated like a finicky baby, cleaned assiduously or else, the bolt starts become quite difficult to close. Remington 700-style rifles where I make the barrel’s bolt nose recess allowance only 0.001″ over the bolt nose diameter, zero headspace, lapped bolt lugs, a sleeved bolt, etc, etc – damn, those are finicky rifles. Accuracy/precise? Sure. But I wouldn’t ever take one to a shooting course or competition where I can’t clean it every 10 to 30 rounds.

    Guns, all guns, need at least a little bit of slop in order to handle the reality of the world – ie, that real-world shooting situations mean some grit, some dust, some dirt, some carbon/powder residue, etc. That’s the real world. 1911’s that have their slide/frame fits so exquisitely tight that a little bit of grit will make it no longer go into battery is a gun for the pampered match range, not a shooting course in the dirt/dust, nor CCW carry. It’s the same thing with benchrest rifles vs. hunting rifles. Take a benchrest rifle hunting, and you’ll likely find out just how finicky these rifles are. Take an original Mauser, 1917 or 1903 hunting, and you can’t kill that rifle, and it will always work.

    • Ahh the collet. My mom’s gold cup had that (obviously since it was a series 70) and it did end up breaking a finger. Granted it lasted all the way to the early 2000s before it did. And apparently no one ever knew about keeping in on the barrel. Even my gun nut pops never left it on that I saw. Wish I had known back then.
      God I love those gold cups. They’re just big old hunks of buttery smoothness

      • for whatever reason, colt stopped providing the collet bushing on series 70s before they stopped making series 70s. Enough people complained or didnt “get it” so they gave in and started shipping series 70s with standard bushings a few years before the series 80 guns came out. and of course new production series 70s use the standard bushing

    • I’m sure the WeaponsMan is in Valhalla, nodding approvingly at your nice distinction between accuracy and precision.

  5. My Colt’s always worked just fine. (1970 Gold cup, 2016 Combat Elite 2-tone) I agree with needing ambi safeties since I am a lefty.

  6. +1 on the collet being misunderstood. I have a S70 Gold Cup that shoots like a house on fire. I don’t put a lot if rounds through it and I am very careful when rotating the collet.

    Great point in magazine maintenance. Nobody ever does it.

    I should have bought a second XSE Commander as a spare when I could. .38 Supers are near impossible to find. I have a Wiley Clapp that I rather like, but it wont replace my 1st Commander.

  7. Never a truer word was spoken brother. I have an expensive tight fitting long slide 1911 target pistol and it is very accurate. It is also almost guaranteed to malfunction when dirty. If I clean it before every match I’m good, otherwise disappointment awaits. I would never trust it with my life.

    I’m obsessive about keeping my guns clean so this doesn’t bother me, and the gun fulfills its purpose of punching holes in paper. Right tool for the right job and all that.

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