The most classic and timeless of American firearms, the 1911 has sleek lines that are instantly recognizable and a fan base that has spanned centuries. However, is this gun still a great choice for defense, competition, and collectors? We cover a selection of the best 1911 builders so you can make a fully informed choice — be it a build kit, project gun, or bespoke masterpiece.
Comparison of the Best 1911 Pistols
|Best 80-Series: Auto-Ordinance 5″ 1911|
|Best 70-Series: Colt 1911 Series 70|
|Most Custom: Ed Brown KC9 1911|
|Best Multi-Caliber: Kimber Rapide Stainless|
|Budget Option: Rock Island Armory GI Standard|
|Best Commander Series: Ruger SR1911 Commander|
|Best Match 1911: Sig Sauer 1911 Match Elite|
|Also Great: Springfield Armory 1911|
|Also Great: Taurus 1911 Full .45 ACP|
What to Look for in a Custom 1911 or Kit
When the 1911 first hit the market in, well, the year 1911, the lone 1911 builder was Colt– who made product exclusively.
By the time World War I– known then as the War to End All Wars or simply just The Great War– rolled around, the design was shared to other manufacturers such as North American Arms and Remington Arms-UMC while the U.S. Army’s Springfield Armory plant began making their own in 1914.
Then the days of Colt-only production settled back in domestically from 1919 until 1941 when another war came and, again, other makers such as Remington-Rand, Ithaca, Singer, and U.S. Switch & Signal got into the act to arm the GIs of WWII, only for Colt to be the last company standing again after 1945.
Fast forward to the late 1970s, and small custom pistol makers like Auto Mag, Clark, Essex, Caspian, Omega, Safari Arms, and Randall began to make in-roads into Colt’s market as millions of war surplus parts and guns were floating around.
In the 1980s, Springfield Armory, Inc (the company, not the old Army arsenal which had closed in 1968) and Auto-Ordnance were building guns that started to win early high-power competitions such as the Steel Challenge, whose competitors included a young Chip McCormick and Bill Wilson.
At the same time, overseas budget makers like Llama and Star in Spain and China’s Norinco were making semi-compatible budget knock-offs for import to the U.S.
By the 2000s, big-name players both in America and overseas realized there was an enduring demand for 1911 style pistols– a design that by then was purely in the public domain– and soon, Ruger, Sig Sauer, Smith & Wesson, Taurus, and others had taken the plunge into making their own versions.
There has never been a better era or selection of 1911s at any time in history than there is today. We’ll have a rundown of the best out there in our product list.
2. 70 Series or 80 Series
Old-school 1911s saw another shift in the 1970s from the M1911A1 standard when a collet bushing, which better centered the pistol’s barrel, replaced with the original bushing design. This led to so-called “70 series” models which are prized for accuracy. To some 1911 owners, this is the pinnacle of the design’s development, and it should have stopped there.
Then came the “80 Series,” which Colt began in 1983. This included a flared and lowered ejection port to improve reliability, as well as adding a safety plunger to the slide that increased drop safety at the expense of adding some extra take up to the trigger. While ostensibly safer than 70 series guns, a lot of users frown on 80 series pistols due to this extra creep in the trigger pack.
3. Frame Ergonomics
The basic pistol that John Browning gave us had the same types of ergonomics that every other handgun had in the 1900s– slick frames and front straps, lightly checkered grip panels, and tiny slide serrations. Classically styled models of the same pistol persist with these ergos today.
However, better models, meant for hard use, have recognized that this isn’t the age of the Ford Model T and millions of people dying of smallpox every year and have updated their guns with front strap checkering/stippling, aggressively stepped front and rear slide serrations, and extended beavertail grips.
4. Guide rods
The standard short, or mil-spec, guide rod and bushing is what most 1911s ship with today. Better models will have full-length guide rods with accompanying match-grade bushings that have a reputation of taking out some of the slop from the gun’s recoil cycle.
The good news is that this is, other than the magazine, the easiest thing to swap out on a 1911 and can be done during a simple field strip, so it is an easy upgrade (or downgrade, as some prefer the old-school guide rod) no matter what you end up with.
One of the key features that keep any 1911 working is the magazine. Due to the widespread availability of aftermarket magazines– especially in .45ACP– for these guns, most 1911 builders just ship their pistols these days with a single mag.
Don’t be discouraged if it is a low-quality, unmarked “GI” style mag for this reason as many 1911 users have their preferences and will quickly ditch the factory-supplied magazine in favor of their proven Chip McCormick, Ed Brown, Wilson Combat, or Mec-Gar. Likewise, if you have magazine-induced issues/jams with your new (or new to you) 1911, try the simple step of getting a quality mag.
Standard “GI” style 1911s, which are the most common, have integral fixed sights that are hard to pick out in some circumstances and cannot be adjusted. Today’s better models will have dovetailed adjustable sights that can be replaced with a simple sight pusher (or vice if done carefully).
While the fixed sights are correct for those looking to have a more traditional gun, those who want a 1911 that can clock in at the range or when needed in a defensive situation have a range of excellent day/night sights available.
Railguns, 1911s that have an accessory rail on the dustcover of the frame, are relatively new to the model.
Introduced in the past decade or so, guns like the Colt M45 and Springfield Operator line include this feature to allow weapon-mounted lights and lasers, items that John Browning possibly never dreamed his pistol would carry.
While this adds weight and bulk to an already heavy gun, the extra ounces can also help curb muzzle flip to provide faster follow-up shots.
Plus, while largely unneeded for a range gun or a collector who wants a “Saving Private Ryan” piece, the benefits of a WML in a home defense scenario are obvious.
1911, 1911A1, or 2011
The pistol initially adopted by the Army in 1911 was significantly different than most “1911s” you come across today. To be correct, most are actually 1911A1 models. That more modern standard was adopted in 1927 after the gun had been in use for a generation and the military had feedback from thousands of users in combat.
The 1911A1 has a shorter trigger, an arched mainspring housing on the back of the grip, a relief cut to the rear of the trigger along with a longer hammer spur and beavertail grip safety to allow for better ergonomics, and thicker front sight.
Longslide, Government, Commander, Officer, or Defender
Not all 1911s are the same length. Full stop. The default standard is the original Government model that remained the only offering on the market for the gun’s first four decades or so of production.
This gun runs a 5-inch barrel, which gives it an 8.25-inch overall length and weighs around 40 ounces due to all that slide. Models that go longer than this, popular with old-school bowling pin shooters and precision handgun hunters, are referred to as Longslides.
Moving shorter, Colt introduced a whittled down 1911 with a 4.25-inch barrel, dubbed the Commander, in 1950 and the size has remained popular, especially for carry use. In 1985, the Officer model, which had an even shorter 3.5-inch barrel matching slide, was also shorter and used a 6-shot magazine because of the drop in height.
The smallest 1911s that are still chambered in .45ACP are Colt’s Defender (3-inch barrel), the Colt New Agent (3.25-inch), as well as Kimber’s Ultra Carry II (3-inch).
From the very beginning, the 1911 was chambered in .45ACP and that caliber remains the most popular for the model today, both in terms of complete pistols and kits.
To up the power factor of the pistol during the Prohibition Era, Colt started making some in what was known then as .38 Superauto, now just known as .38 Super, by pitching it as capable of penetrating the automobiles of bootleggers and Roaring 20s gangsters such as John Dillinger (who ironically was also a fan of the caliber).
Today, you’ll find plenty of guns and associated build kits in 9mm Luger/9mm Para as well as 10mm Auto.
To keep it short, any of these four calibers are effective for either competition shooting or defensive use but two– .38 Super and 10mm Auto– are harder to find, generally more expensive, and have fewer loadings available than the common .45 ACP and 9mm.
Purists, of course, hold that the only “true” caliber for 1911s is .45, but it should be pointed out that models using the smaller 9mm have a slightly greater magazine capacity and, even with the current ammo shortage, are still cheaper to shoot.
The Best 1911 Builders
A name that has been around since the 1920s, today’s Auto-Ordnance has been part of Kahr Firearms for the past two decades and they make a great series of GI style 1911s.
Available in Government (5-inch barrel) and Commander (4.25) formats, they have a matte black finish carbon steel frame and slide, use 80-series internals, and, important for many, are made in the U.S.A at a price that is closer to what is seen from overseas imports.
If you want a bespoke, centerpiece gun for a collection, Cabot Firearms is the way to go. They offer several different 1911 variants including their Damascus, Better Than Custom, Cabot Private Reserve, and OAK (One of a Kind) builds.
For instance, they have a Big Bang set of pistols that were crafted from a 77-pound piece of billion-year-old meteorite, Price on Request.
The oldest name in the 1911 game is, of course, still making them. Today, Colt offers more than 50 models of this famed gun in their catalog ranging from small-batch collectors (The Black Army, Custom Carry Limited) to competition pieces (Gold Cup Trophy, National Match) and small format carry guns (Defender, New Agent).
One of the best deals is their 1911 Classic, offered in .45 and .38 Super with a Series 70 firing system, national match barrel, staked on front sights, and spurred hammer for about $800.
4. Dan Wesson
5. Ed Brown
Ed Brown has been a custom 1911 maker for some 50 years, proving that they know exactly what they are doing when it comes to the platform. Besides competition and aristocratic collector’s guns, they excel at Carry models, making what could be the best bobtailed 1911s with the smallest footprint on the market that do not sacrifice performance.
If you would rather have something more unique, they have a Custom Build page with over 100 custom options to create your perfect combination.
Alabama-based Kimber is one of the most recognizable 1911 builders in the U.S. and has over a dozen models in their catalog at any given time. These include railguns (such as the Warrior line), optics-ready models (Custom LW Nightstar, Aegis Elite Pro), two-toned models, and flashy top-shelf guns. One that hits a lot of boxes is the Rapide.
Offered in 9mm, 10mm, and .45 with a Black Ice or all-black finish, the Rapide has just about every ergonomic upgrade that can be offered, making them feel great, while a match-grade barrel and bushing, lighten-cut slide, and crisp 4-pound triggers make sure they shoot as great as they look.
7. Les Baer
A race gun maker with some three decades in the biz, Les Baer Custom does not make cheap guns, but they do make a superior product. While they will build you anything you can dream of, they also offer several off-the-shelf models that have proven popular enough to fit most needs– all guaranteed to shoot 3-inch groups at 50 yards.
Their tuned Baer Custom Carry is available in .45ACP, .38 Super, and 9mm, all with night sights, crisp 4-pound triggers, and National Match frames, slides, and barrels.
8. Nighthawk Custom
Billed as “Hand building the world’s finest 1911 pistols,” Nighthawk Custom crafts their guns with a “One Gun, One Gunsmith” philosophy rather than via assembly line work in which a dozen or more workers, of varying skillsets, will have a hand in the pistol’s construction.
Yes, this makes Nighthawk’s guns more expensive, at least when compared to value makers, but when you pick one up you feel the difference. With more than 40 different fully-machined Government, Commander, and Officer-sized 1911s in their catalog, they tend more towards carry and practical-use guns than to competition models.
One of their neater guns is the GRP Recon series which includes an accessory rail, a dehorned outline, Heinie Ledge Straight Eight Tritium night sights, and well-thought ergonomics.
9. Rock Island
One of the more popular 1911s that hail from overseas makers, Rock Island Armory/Armscor are produced in the Philippines and are very basic guns.
For those not ready to build a 1911 and are interested in a more entry-level 1911 that can be easily upgraded without breaking the bank, it is hard to go wrong with one of these well-liked single-action pistols.
Their GI series is probably the best bargain in the 1911 world and includes a frame and slide made of 4140 steel, button rifled barrels, and Series 70 internals.
Ruger is one of the largest firearms makers in history, one of the few that are publicly traded on Wall Street. They got there by leveraging CNC manufacturing to produce interesting new designs.
Once they got there, they turned time and attention to take a stab at the 1911 game and, with their SR1911 series, did it very well. Offering full-size, Commander, Officer, and target models in 9mm, 10mm, and .45ACP today, they are solid guns for anyone interested in the 1911.
A hallmark of Ruger is their manufacturing processes, and you can tell when you pick up one of these as they have excellent slide-to-frame fit and smooth slide travel regardless of model. Interestingly, all their 1911s use a flat mainspring housing rather than the more common curved style, as well as oversized surface controls, a skeletonized hammer, and a titanium firing pin for faster lock time.
11. Sig Sauer
A company created as a German-Swiss hybrid; Sig Sauer has successfully transitioned since the
1970s over the past few decades to become an American company.
Now, their headquarters and primary factories are in New Hampshire, their P320 modular pistol series is the standard U.S. military sidearm, and they have introduced a line of 1911s, because America, baby.
With Emperor, Equinox, Fastback, Spartan, and TACOPS models, they have brought John Browning’s classic into the 21st Century with rails, extremely durable modern finishes, excellent sights, and some of the best factory triggers on the market.
One great example of their line is the Sig Sauer Emperor Scorpion, a full-sized M1913-standard rail gun with SigLite night sights, skeletonized trigger, G10 grips, and a Coyote PVD-coated stainless slide and frame.
12. Smith & Wesson
Massachusetts-based S&W put their third-gen 4500-series pistols to bed in the early 2000s, replacing them with the polymer-framed M&P45s and, for those looking for something more traditional, introduced their take on the 1911– the SW1911.
Over the years, Smith has taken care to use top-quality components such as Wolff springs, Texas Armament match triggers, Hogue grips, McCormick hammers, Briley barrel bushings, Wilson magazines, full-length heavy guide rods, and Novak Lo-Mount Carry sights. Today, they have switched to a more inclusive in-house production of at least nine different SW1911 models that all have four-digit (without the decimal point) price points. Among the best is their Performance Center models.
Uncommon for large-scale gunmakers today, they also offer an Engraved 1911 model with a glass bead finish, machine scroll engraving (hand engraving optional on special order guns), and a wooden presentation case.
13. Springfield Armory
This Illinois-based company, which has used the name of the famed Army arsenal for the past 50 years, has manufactured and imported 1911s for almost that entire run.
Today, from ultra-compact EMP micro pistols to longslide 10mm TRPs, there is a Springer 1911 for almost any application. They also believe in not cutting corners, being known for their use of fully forged (not cast) frames and slides, beautiful hot salt bluing, and match-grade barrels while still coming in at an affordable price, often hitting the sub-$1K mark when it comes to asking prices.
One of their better offerings at that affordable level is the Ronin family of pistols which includes full-sized (5-inch barrels) and Commander-sized (4.25) variants in 9mm, .45ACP, and 10mm that comes standard with a hammer-forged barrel, fiber optic front sights, and a “Tactical Rack” rear sight.
A newer entry into the world of imported 1911s is the Turkish firm of Tisas. Imported by SDS of Knoxville, Tennessee, and others, these guns are built like a tank and have overcome a “not made here” out of hand dismissal after users weighed in with what they found out about this budget .45.
Made with forged sides and frames, they have a good fitment and quality control, which is key to a functional and reliable firearm.
Besides their plain jane GI models, they also offer Tanker variants which are a Commander-sized model that comes standard with polished chrome-lined barrels, lowered ejection ports, and Series 70 internals, all for a price below $500.
15. Wilson Combat
Bill Wilson has been on the 1911 circuit for 50 years, first as a competition shooter then as a magazine and accessory maker, and now as a custom and semi-custom builder.
A true innovator in the arena of 1911s, the “WC” logo is often seen on components for other makers’ guns. Full-up designs from Wilson include their American Combat Pistol, and the Bill Wilson Carry Pistol.
The latter is a functional beauty, “a shooter’s carry gun” that can clean the clock during competition but is meant to be concealable in size. Standard features include an Officer’s size slide and frame, a lightweight integral light rail, crisply tuned 3.5-pound trigger, and a fluted stainless steel barrel.
What about building your own 1911?
Some people are uninterested in owning anything approaching a stock 1911, even if it’s from a custom shop. These intrepid folks would rather pay the iron price by assembling or building their own, and the good news is there are a number of kits and components on the market to help make this relatively simple, provided you’ve got a little experience with JB’s famous pistol.
Just like it says on the tin, 1911 Builders has 80% kits in .45ACP and 9mm as well as a wide array of barrels, slides, triggers, and components to put your dream 1911 together in your garage. They offer frames in 4140 Steel, 416R Stainless, 7075 Aluminum, and cover everything from Government, Commander, Officer, & Double Stack kits, so you’ll likely find what you need.
Not cheap though — the full 80% kits will generally run you $1,000 or more.
A *slightly* more wallet-friendly option, Stealth Arms also covers a wider array of calibers than 1911 Builders, with kits in .45ACP, 9mm, 10mm, .38 Super, and .40 S&W. They also have a Tactial option that shaves off a considerable amount of weight for those uninterested in lugging 40oz of freedom around. Only cover Government and Commander sizes though.
History of the 1911
While enough books to fill a library have been produced on the topic of the 1911 or, more correctly, the M1911 have been penned, the nutshell is that this single-action pistol was given to the world through the efforts of firearm genius John Browning with a patent granted, poetically, on Valentine’s Day 1911.
The first, and most loyal, customer was the U.S. military, for which it was designed and the gun in various formats was the standard sidearm of every branch of America’s warfighters through World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and most of the Cold War.
Ostensibly replaced after 1985 by the Beretta 92 (adopted as the M9), Marine special operators continue to use the gun in small quantities today as does assorted Army marksmanship teams even as the Beretta itself is being replaced by the Sig Sauer P320 (adopted as the M17/M18).
Following the military’s multi-generational love affair with the “Two World War Winner,” law enforcement and the public have been buying the gun in a blizzard of variants for over a century.
Today, elite police tactical teams from the U.S. Marshals to local SWAT teams still use the 1911/2011 in an age when they could have replaced chosen much younger designs. Perhaps they know something…
Far be it from us to dissuade you from buying or building your own dream 1911, but there are a few things anyone seriously considering undertaking the project.
The 1911 has been called an “expert’s pistol” because is single-action with a slide stop/manual safety and beavertail grip safety that requires a more extensive firing sequence than, say a Glock which is more point-and-shoot.
Likewise, field stripping the gun to clean and maintain it is much more complicated to take down than a more modern design, often leaving first-timers frustrated and with “dummy marks” on the frame of their new 1911.
Going further, the pistol is a very dated design, literally hailing back to an age where horses were more common than automobiles, telegrams were the primary source of rapid communication with people in the next city, and airplanes were novelties made of wood and canvas.
Early models required extensive hand-fitting to work properly due to the variance between components, making them either exceedingly expensive due to such fitting or overly “sloppy” rattle traps made to circumvent that process to make more affordable guns.
While modern machine fitting and CNC production techniques have gone a long way to eliminate this pitfall — and modern 80% kits give you the opportunity to hone these components to your own specifications — several of today’s better 1911 makers still caution to this day their guns may need a 500 round “break-in period” to run properly, something you just don’t see in manuals for a Sig Sauer P365, S&W M&P or Glock 19.
The 1911 is, without a doubt, the people’s champ when it comes to semi-automatic pistols as proven by its widespread production more than a century after its debut.
While 9mm double stack Glocks have been a top-seller for a generation, there are still likely several 1911s in circulation for every G17 or G19 out there. While some of the reason for this popularity is nostalgia– they have been in literally thousands of films, TV shows, and video games while the trope of “just like my father/grandfather had” will always be strong– one of the primary factors for this is that they work and work very well.
A properly fit 1911 will outlive the owner, shoot well due to its long sight radius and light trigger– which all of today’s “competition-ready” polymer-framed pistols copy– and is easily supportable as just about any gunsmith in the U.S. cut their teeth on the model while parts are perhaps the most widespread of any on the market.
Indeed, while building a 1911 may not result in an ideal “first” gun, it should be no serious gun owner’s “last” gun.
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