Patented on Valentine’s Day in 1911 by firearms genius John Browning, the M1911 has been in continual production and use for well over a century – and for good reason – it’s an instantly recognizable classic that has improved on Browning’s original design time and time again.
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|
Where did the 1911 pistol come from?
Landing on the now-classic design after a 15-year gestation period that saw a dozen different semi-auto Colt pistols before it, Browning’s single-action single-stack masterpiece was a big gun.
Using a 5-inch barrel to produce a pistol some 8.5-inches overall and with a weight in the 3-pound range with a loaded 7-shot magazine, all still specs that remain roughly standard even now.
A capable revolver replacement
Built around the .45ACP, which Browning also invented, the M1911 was developed for the Army to replace a series of .38-caliber double-action revolvers which the service found wanting after a poor performance from said wheel guns during intense small-unit actions against insurgents in the Philippines.
Beating out a crowded field of more than 20 competitors from around the world, including Luger, Webley, and Savage, the Colt/Browning gun remarkably went 6,000 rounds without a single jam while the closest competitor had to be cleared 37 times during the same tests, winning over the Army trials board and sending the big .45 into standard adoption in 1911.
Although augmented by other handguns in times of emergencies, the M1911 remained the frontline sidearm of the U.S. military until 1985, through both World Wars, the Korean War, Vietnam, and most of the Cold War.
Even at that, the Marines clung to much-modified M1911-style rail guns as late as 2020 for select units in the fleet. After all, it is a war-winner.
What to Look for in a Quality 1911 Pistol
1. Trigger Feel
After combat service chasing Pancho Villa across the deserts of northern Mexico, then with the Doughboys on the Western Front and the Marines in the Banana Wars, a number of improvements were ordered by the military to the basic M1911 design.
This included a decrease in the trigger width and adding a relief cut to the frame near the trigger guard for better control, swapping out the thin front sight for a thicker one for faster acquisition, then replacing the flat mainspring housing with an arched one and extending the beavertail for better ergonomics and to cut down on slide bite.
The resulting change, adopted in 1923, was the M1911A1, and today is the standard form of the pistol.
2. Commander, Officer, Government, & 2011 Variations
Further changes came to the family in 1949 when Colt introduced a more compact, slightly shorter, and lighter version of the M1911A1 dubbed the Commander, which used a 4.25-inch barrel and rowel hammer.
The weight savings came from using aluminum alloys in the frame and setting the gun up for 9mm, none of which proved extremely popular at the time. In 1970, the company ditched the alloy for steel and upped the ante back to .45ACP, which was more of a crowd-pleaser.
Today “Commander-length” M1911s are increasingly in demand, especially for those looking to carry. This is contrasted against the more full-sized original GI or “Government” 1911.
Going even smaller, in 1976 Detonics debuted their Combat Master, based on the Army’s custom chopped-down M1911 produced for issue to generals.
Using a 3.5-inch barrel and a shortened grip, which dropped capacity down to 6-rounds from the traditional 7, others caught on and soon even Colt was making “Officer” model M1911s.
Going even smaller and downgrading the caliber to .380ACP led to the Mustang series and other, more concealed carry-friendly guns that aren’t really even 1911s anymore as they are blowback action.
On the opposite side of the spectrum from getting smaller, in 1990 Para USA introduced their P-series double-stack 1911-style pistols which offered as high as an 18+1 capacity, although they filled the mitts and required a He-Man grip to fire one-handed. While Para came and went, bought and snuffed out by Remington, the double-stack 1911 concept today exists in the 2011 by STI/Staccato.
The more you know…
3. 70 Series v 80 series 1911s
In 1970, Colt introduced the MK IV M1911A1 which included a new type of bushing, termed a collet bushing, that tightened up the often notoriously sloppy “GI” style barrels and much-improved accuracy. Such guns became an instant hit on the competition circuit. Fast forward to 1983 and Colt did away with the old “70 Series” for the new and improved “80 Series” guns which added a firing pin lock and plunger arrangement to the internals of the gun.
The 80 Series was pitched as offering improved safety, especially for those who carried their M1911A1 “cocked and locked” with a round in the chamber and the hammer locked back by the manual thumb safety. On the downside, the extra workload put on the 80 Series trigger group gave what some felt was a bit of a “mush” to the trigger, and many preferred the more old-school GI trigger or the tighter 70 Series layout.
Today, most production M1911A1 style pistols run an 80 Series trigger style, with the firing pin lock, for liability reasons, although Colt has brought back the 70 Series for competition models Today, most production M1911A1 style pistols run an 80 Series trigger style, with the firing pin lock, for liability reasons, although Colt has brought back the 70 Series for competition models, albeit at competition model price points.
4. National Match Variations
Speaking of competition, Army armorers in the pits of the DCM National Match Pistol Trophy competitions in Camp Perry began applying various fixes to standard GI models as early as the 1920s to get them to run a bit better.
The list of additions and tweaks soon became well-known as civilian shooters cycled through the Matches and came in contact with these early tuned guns, with the budding competitors promptly heading to their local gunsmiths with a list of demands.
By 1932, Colt got into the game proper, offering their National Match .45 Automatic model with a “hand-honed velvet-smooth action,” select match barrel, and better Patridge-style sights.
By 1957, Colt debuted the Gold Cup National Match, their first “out of the box” competition M1911A1 with Eliason sights and hasn’t looked back. Today, many 1911 makers offer comp and race gun-oriented models while others work National Match features into their standard production guns– and will usually be happy to tell you all about it.
5. Caliber Choice
From the beginning, Mr. Browning designed the M1911 around his .45ACP cartridge, which remains the default chambering for such pistols over a century later. While the fat 230-grain round is a handful, it has the benefit of being subsonic, lending this attribute to great use in suppressed firearms.
Likewise, with today’s advances in ballistic research, better magazines such as those made by Chip McCormick or Wilson Combat, and improved throat/chamber specs gleaned from generations of hard use, the .45ACP has become reliable in most current-production M1911 models, even when using hollow-point defensive rounds
That’s not to say the M1911 only comes in .45. On the contrary, almost as soon as it was introduced, Colt started marketing it in other calibers such as .455 Eley/Webley Auto for British military contracts, and .38 Auto Rimless Smokeless, a long-cased cartridge that Browning invented a decade prior to the M1911s adoption.
Then came the Prohibition-era .38 Super, which is a spicier version of the aforementioned .38 Auto. In 1931, Colt developed the Ace, a .22LR variant with a floating chamber that almost duplicated the feel of the GI .45. Eventually, 9mm Luger and 10mm Auto were added to the menu and have since become widespread.
The final choice on caliber between four modern options– .45ACP, .38 Super, 9mm, and 10mm– is truly up to the user these days.
Ultimately, each of the below 1911 pistols are great choices overall, especially when you consider the breadth of options with this handgun. The best overall choice is dependant upon the price point, versatility, features, and overall use case you’re shopping to fulfill, and we hope this guide makes it easy to find a great fit for your needs. Good luck!
The Best 1911 Pistols Reviewed
1. Auto-Ordnance (Best 80-Series 1911)
In the business of making M1911A1s for over 40 years, Auto-Ordnance has been owned by Pennsylvania-based Kahr for the last half of that and in that period has really stepped up their game.
Besides Desert Eagle- and Thompson-branded guns (both Kahr subsidiaries), as well as commemorative models, AO’s 80 Series BKO model is about the best U.S.-made GI-style 1911 on the market for the money.
2. Colt 1911 (Best 70-Series 1911)
Of course, the company that kicked the whole thing off over 100 years ago is still cranking out Mr. Browning’s classic.
Besides the $1,300 Gold Cup National Match and $1,700 M45A1 rail gun, Colt offers what they term the 1911 Classic, a 70 Series gun that comes standard with a national match barrel and is offered in choices of either .45 or 38 Super and with a blued or stainless steel finish. Best yet, the Colt 1911 Classic has an MSRP in the $800 price range.
3. Ed Brown (Most Custom)
When it comes to top-tier 1911s, Ed Brown has been making them in spades for a generation. Besides competition and carry models, they have a whole Tactical Line of which the SOCOM variant is so operator-level it will make you cry.
A rail gun that is ready for any accessory, it is also suppressor- and optics-ready right out of the box. Did we mention it comes standard with a Trijicon SOCOM RMR?
4. Kimber Rapide (Best Multi-Caliber)
Kimber, now centering their operations in a new facility in Alabama, has long been delivering a host of 1911s to the market in multiple flavors. While their Grand Raptor will turn heads, the new Cadillac of their line is the Rapide (Black Ice) series. These come standard with a DLC-coated barrel, slide lightening cuts for faster lock time, a V-cut aluminum trigger, and Tru-Glo TFX Pro day/night sights.
The best thing is that they come in 9mm, 10mm, and .45ACP.
5. Rock Island Armory (Budget Option)
Born in the U.S., the 1911 is as American as apple pie and blue jeans. However, as many of Uncle Sam’s allies inherited surplus Government models after WWII, the genie was let out of the bottle and is growing. One such country that started rolling their own, so to speak, is the Philippines, where Rock Island Armory got so good at it that they started exporting their locally made versions to the States in 1996.
Since then, they have perfected their game, making rock-bottom (see what we did) affordable 1911-style pistols in a multitude of calibers (to include their own interesting .22TCM cartridge), sizes, and finishes.
6. Ruger (Best Commander Series)
No longer content to let Colt have all the fun, in the past decade or so, other American gunmakers with household name brand recognition have jumped into the market and done it well. One of these is Ruger, whose SR1911 line is actually larger now than Colt’s and includes full-size, commander, and officer-sized models as well as those geared to target and competition use.
In the latter, Team Ruger’s champion, Doug Koenig, has been lending sage input to his own line of carefully hand-fitted SR1911 Competition Models that leave little off the table.
7. Sig Sauer (Best Match 1911)
When it comes to .45ACPs, Sig Sauer actually came to America with one as their flagship model, the original P220/BDA in 1975. The company, now centered in New Hampshire rather than Germany, has a lot of irons in the pot but still found time to enter the 1911 market in 2004.
In Sig fashion, they currently make several superb examples of the breed including Fastbacks with rounded grips, the all-black Nightmare, and the high-end Emperor Scorpion rail guns, the latter with a flat dark earth PVD finish over a stainless steel frame and slide, G10 grips, and SIGLITE night sights.
8. Springfield Armory
Illinois-based Springfield Armory started making their own forged receiver and frame 1911A1 models in 1985, introducing them in both .45 and 9mm, which was novel for the time. Now, fast forward 35 years, and Springer is still in the 1911 biz and doing a fine job of it, having supplied the Marines with updated Government models for several years.
Today, their Ronin series guns, still using forged slides, are hard to beat. With a 1980s-ish throwback two-tone design of a hot salt blued forged slide with a lightweight satin Cerakote-finished forged alloy frame, they are available in both full- and commander-sized variants in either 9mm or .45.
Talking once again of imported 1911s, Brazilian-based Taurus introduced their PT-1911 models over 15 years ago and have made them in a staggering variety of calibers (including being one of the few to market a .40S&W chambered pistol), sizes, and finishes. Their stainless models are affordable and feature-rich, including Heine or Novak sights, front slide serrations, extended beavertail grip safety, skeletonized triggers, and a flat mainspring housing.
Best yet, with a large factory recently completed in Georgia, they are increasingly American made. Taurus’ competition team captain, Jessie Harrison, has of late been sweeping national titles with one of the company’s tuned 1911s.
Ultimately, each of the above 1911 pistols are great choices overall, especially when you consider the breath of options in with this handgun. The best overall choice is dependant upon the price point, versatility, features, and overall use case you’re shopping to fulfill, and we hope this guide makes it easy to find a great fit for your needs. Good luck!
- NRA National Firearms Museum, The 1907 Army Pistol Trials, December 22, 2016
- National Park Service, Museum Collections, Semi-Automatic Pistol
- Huntinglife.com, Taurus Shooting Team Captain Jessie Harrison Wins at USPSA, August 9, 2020
- Scott Engen, History of the 1911, January 24, 2011
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