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How to Function Check Your 1911

Pilfered from RIA blog


The M1911 of General Lutz Wahl needed little inspection with its stellar condition. It brought $195,500 in December 2019.

Function Check the 1911 Slide & Release

The first step in all gun handling is to ensure the pistol is unloaded. Starting from an empty chamber and unloaded magazine, the first series of tests involves the slide catch and the general fit of the slide to the frame. There are three steps.

  1. The first, with the magazine inserted, pull the slide back to lock and then release it via the thumb release.
  2. For the second test, retract the slide to lock, drop the magazine, and then release the slide by pulling back on it and releasing.
  3. Last, cycle the slide sans magazine.

This series of dry cycles can uncover a lot of potential issues with the slide catch and allows a certain amount of diagnosis. Failure of the slide to catch open on the first cycle can often be the result of wear to the magazine as opposed to a more serious issue with the pistol itself. Repeating the first step with a magazine borrowed from a different 1911 can be enlightening.

Failure to release on the second cycle can also be the result of wear causing the slide and slide stop to bear against each other. It could also be due to an excess of dried grease between the frame and the stop, giving the tester a chance to resolve the issue by applying an appropriate amount of oil in the correct areas.

This M1911A1 by Union Switch & Signal bears an original Dulite finish and would be quite the collection addition. It brought $11,500 in May 2019.

The third cycle essentially acts as a “control group,” ensuring that there isn’t anything else applying force or pressure to the slide stop in operation. This could be something as simple as a piece of springy debris beneath the stop forcing it upward, or as involved as an odd bevel to the rear face of the stop that causes it to interact strangely with the plunger assembly. Either of which could result in a “false pass” in the first two tests.

Additionally, these cycles provide an opportunity to feel for any anomalies in the fit of the slide, frame and barrel; an excessively tight or loose fit of the parts could be a sign of issues. Tightness could easily be the result of dried grease, and the application of oil and some more light cycling often resolves the issue. Excessive looseness is typically not something that can be casually corrected. Note: a certain amount of play in the slide/frame fit is common in 1911/Government Model pistols not specifically outfitted for target or match use.

The M1911 of Sgt. Art Kiely battled its way through the Pacific Theater, and brought $51,750 in our June 2020 Premier Auction.

Function Check the 1911 Safeties & Trigger

The next steps involve the safeties, hammer, trigger, and disconnector. This section of testing can be a bit tricky if you don’t want to dry fire your gun, as applying pressure to the hammer can cause it to behave in an unnatural way. Thankfully, there are a number of answers to this question. Some people use snap caps, put a plastic ballpoint pen body between the hammer and slide, or just put their thumb over the firing pin and letting the hammer hit it (yikes/ouch). Other opt to dry fire it, but while the 1911 is a pretty robust platform, dry firing is a bad habit and we do not endorse it. Resting the thumb of the off-hand directly against the top of the hammer without applying pressure allows the hammer to be caught before it has a chance to be accelerated by the mainspring, and is painless if done right. As always, begin with a fully unloaded pistol.

  1. From full cock, firing pin protected in the manner of your choosing, start by attempting to pull the trigger with no pressure on the grip safety.
  2. Follow this with a second trigger pull with the thumb safety on and the grip safety depressed. No movement should be detectable in the hammer during either pull. Audible noise should be minimal.
  3. Then, with both safeties disengaged, pull the trigger again. There should be a smooth, clean release from full cock. Letting the hammer down, ease it back until hearing an audible click of engagement from the safety notch, and then pull the trigger. If the safety notch is in good order, the hammer should stay up.

Once this is done, perform another repetition of the hammer test, and then (without releasing the trigger), work the slide. If the disconnector is in good order, an audible click should be heard a short distance into the slide’s travel, and the hammer should remain up when the slide returns to battery. Failure at any of these stages, again, could be a symptom of excessive grease, and can potentially be resolved with light oiling.

This pristine Singer M1911A1 belonged to the accomplished Col Owen G. Birtwistle, and came with a archive of his personal history. It found a new home for $253,000 in September 2018.

Common 1911 Function Test Failures

As you can see, old grease is a common cause of basic failures in the 1911 pistols that cross our tables at Rock Island Auction Company. Many of these legendary sidearms consigned to us are finally coming out of long-term storage, and have gone many years without being actively fired. The grease does a very good job of keeping everything in order, but tends to dry out over the years, and generally needs to be addressed before a real feel can be ascertained for the pistol’s current condition.

Following grease, the magazine is often the culprit. Mag issues tend to be found in the section of the follower that engages the slide catch. They are also seen in the notch for the magazine catch. Both of these areas can suffer wear often overlooked in casual inspection, but can still cause failures in operation.

Other 1911 Function Tests

Please keep in mind that this is a BASIC function check. There are numerous other more involved tests that can be performed on different areas of this long serving pistol.

  • Cycling snap caps can reveal feeding and extraction issues, as well as issues with the magazine.
  • Dismounting the firing pin and extractor allows a check for damage, wear, or previous modification.
  • Inspecting the bore visually or with a bore scope may expose previous mistreatment.

Determining the functionality of a beautiful Remington-UMC M1911 like this can help obtain a value. This example brought $10,925 in April 2016

As always, a full and detailed inspection should be performed before attempting to load or fire any gun that has had previous owners. Functionality can be verified independently, but if you’re not sure, it never hurts to visit a trusted, competent gunsmith for a full run-down on your newest 1911 pistol.

If you found this helpful, be sure to check out some of our other educational guides.

What Issue is My Colt Detective Special?
How to Identify a Winchester 1866
How to Identify Antique Firearm Locks
What Model is My Winchester 1873?

https://www.rockislandauction.com/riac-blog/how-to-function-check-your-1911

5 thoughts on “How to Function Check Your 1911”

  1. “[D]ry firing is a bad habit and we do not endorse it.”

    What? The pistol can fight its way across the Pacific but can’t be dry fired? If it’s too fragile to be dry fired, then live firing it must be out of the question, in which case, who cares what kind of mechanical condition it’s in?

    Reply
    • If someone were to come to me with a gun that costs or is worth what some of those pistols are, I would also recommend against dry-firing it. I would recommend against stripping the piece, or anything that could put a wear mark or scratch on it. That includes leaving a fingerprint on them, as some people’s fingerprints are actually corrosive over time on guns. There was a time when I was drinking a pint of grapefruit juice a day that my finger oils were highly corrosive on guns. I could leave a fingerprint on a polished, but not-yet-blued gun for five minutes, and the fingerprint would etch into the steel.

      I would recommend that high-value guns be handled only when wearing nitrile or cotton gloves, oiled down occasionally, and put back into the safe.

      Now, if you come to me with a rack-grade, worth-what-you-paid-for-it 1911? Dry fire away! It won’t be hurt by dry firing. If 1911’s were hurt by dry firing, mine would have exploded by now.

      Reply

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