Living with the Model 1911 Caliber .45ACP Pistol
By Panhandle Rancher
Warning: the following article is intended to provide an overview on the safe handling of the M1911 series caliber .45acp semi-automatic pistol. This article is not a substitute for professional hands on instruction, which the shooter must have before proceeding to load and safely handle this weapon.
Many consider the Browning designed Colt Model 1911 (named from the year adopted by the US Government) semi-automatic, short recoil pistol, chambered in .45ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) the finest combat pistol of all time. Others have a love/hate relationship with this venerable weapon but all recognize that it is a war proven man stopper. Over the decades, this fine weapon has been gradually improved and streamlined however the fundamentals of operation and safe handling remain unchanged.
US Government service in a three-letter organization provided me with some of the very best training in fighting techniques with handguns. Several things happen over the course of years and even decades when shooting from an unending box of ammunition: one becomes smooth and in so doing speedy, accuracy improves dramatically, and one learns what really works and what does not. Speed and smoothness of use come naturally with time and if rushed, all sorts of unintended consequences may follow, perhaps even lethal. Concentrate on always handling weapons in measured, controlled, and smooth manner without jerkiness or overt abrupt motion. Proper practice over a period of time will produce speed of deployment as a byproduct of safe handling and shooting.
This article will discuss how to make certain a 1911 series pistol is actually safe for the shooter to handle, how to almost completely eliminate the possibility of an accidental discharge (based upon decades of being around pistolarios professional to gang banger), and will offer suggestions on the carry, shooting, and cleaning of this century-old weapon design.
The reader may have been trained by the military or in a law enforcement academy and consider himself or herself an expert with this weapon. Due to the long period of time it has been in use, a number of bad and even dangerous handling and shooting techniques have been taught. Regardless of your experience level with this or any other handgun, I urge you to read this article in detail. Comments, observations, and suggestions are always welcome and I look forward to hearing from you.
Shooters in the United States have a wide selection of handguns from which to choose. A choice right for one may be awful for another. The frail or weak may be better off with a revolver as manipulating a pistol slide demands both a measure of strength and dexterity. The small-handed shooter of normal strength may be better off with a revolver or pistol in a smaller caliber, as these weapons tend to have a smaller sized handgrip. For those with normal sized hand and strength, the 1911 has long proven to be a superb combat weapon. With proper training and experience, this pistol is capable of exceedingly fast deployment, great reliability, and awesome accuracy.
Modern handguns fall into broad categories, break action, revolvers, pistols, and short barreled rifles meeting the legal definition of a pistol. Some handguns have even been manufactured that are bolt action (Remington XP-100, the first I believe in that third category), single shot break action (the Thompson Contender) and others made from shortened double barrel shotguns, another type of break action.
A double action trigger pull is long and heavy; the single action trigger pull is short and light. Revolvers are generally fed from a revolving cylinder and can be both double action and single action as in the S&W Model 10, or single action only as in the Model 1873 Colt Single Action Army (SAA), also known as the Peacemaker and ‘the gun that won the west.’ This revolver is often chambered in .45 Long Colt.
Pistols are generally magazine fed, self-loading, and semi-automatic in function. Pistols may have an external hammer, an internal hammer, or striker. They may be double action only, double action on the first shot and thereafter single action (the SIG P220 for instance), or single action only, such as the Colt 1911 series pistol.
Both the Model 1873 Colt SAA revolver and Browning-designed Colt Model 1911 semi-automatic pistol (and variants) are known colloquially as ‘Colt .45s,’ These two handgun models are generally chambered for two non-interchangeable .45 caliber cartridges of approximately the same power. This article will focus on the pistol.
Each of these handgun action types were designed to fit a particular need. Each has distinct advantages and disadvantages. Some handgun designs such as the 1911 may require more training in safe handling than other designs but generally provide a perceived advantage as a combat weapon. The ability to safely carry a modern 1911 with round chambered and hammer cocked coupled with a light single action trigger makes this pistol a very fast first round on target weapon.
Safe handling of the 1911
So then, how does one handle the 1911? The glib answer is with care. The shorter any firearm in overall length, the easier it becomes to inadvertently point the muzzle on a partner, bystander, treasured animal, and/or valuable inanimate object. Accordingly, more accidents seem to occur with pistols than with rifle and shotgun.
The 1911 pistol is a single action only self-loading, magazine fed, semi-automatic characterized by a very light trigger; and although capable of single action firing, revolvers are primarily double action with long and heavy trigger pull. If your finger is on the trigger of a 1911 at the wrong time with safety off, this weapon is ready to discharge, and all too often with sad and sorry result. It is one thing to deliberately and with witting intent, take pistol in hand with the intention of ending a human life. It is quite another to take pistol in hand and accidentally wound self or worse, kill your spouse or child. Each has serious ramifications but the latter, oh the unending and mournful grief.
The first three rules of safe firearm handling enumerated below are often heard and stand the test of time. The fourth rule is based upon personal experience and if followed along with the preceding three rules, should completely eliminate the possibility of an accidental discharge.
Rule One: Don’t point the muzzle of a pistol or any other firearm toward anything you don’t intend to shoot.
Rule Two: Keep the slide safety (sometimes called the manual safety, slide lock safety, or thumb safety) engaged and your trigger finger outside of the trigger guard until ready to shoot.
When under stress of imminent combat these first two rules are paramount.
Many 1911 series pistol platforms are not safe with hammer down and round chambered. An unexpected blow on the lowered hammer with a round in chamber may cause a predictable loud noise. Accordingly, the modern 1911 can be safely carried in a holster with round chambered, slide safety engaged, automatic grip safety engaged, and hammer cocked. One has only to draw, unsafe the weapon, and fire. If the pistol is always maintained in a cocked and locked condition with chamber loaded, there is never a doubt of the lethal status of the weapon.
Always keep that trigger finger outside of the trigger guard and slide safety engaged until ready to fire. Haste coupled with an awkward position, for instance sitting in an automobile or laying prone on the ground, makes it very easy for a finger to accidentally come in contact with the trigger when drawing and holstering. Make absolutely certain the slide safety is engaged and the trigger finger outside of the trigger guard until ready to fire.
[finger outside of the trigger guard, slide safety engaged]
Rule Three: Accidental and unintended discharge commonly happens with the so-called ‘empty’ weapon. Always, always make certain the pistol is empty, magazine removed, and no round chambered, before handling for any purpose other than to intentionally discharge the weapon.
Rule Four is a partial safeguard when Rule Three is disregarded: After shooting and cleaning the pistol, load the magazine, chamber a round, activate the slide safety, remove the magazine, top with an additional round, reseat the magazine in the pistol gently until it latches, and holster the weapon. DO NOT handle the weapon outside of its holster again until intentionally intending to shoot. Following this and the preceding rules should almost eliminate the possibility of a handling related unintentional discharge. It should go without saying that alcohol and many drugs, over the counter, prescription, and illegal, make handling and shooting of any firearm exceedingly dangerous.
Rule Four necessarily includes a prohibition against dry firing. Dry firing, or snapping the hammer on an empty chamber or one with a chambered dry fire cartridge made for this practice, has probably been the cause of more unintended discharges than from any other form of weapon handling. Dry firing has long been advocated as a method of developing trigger and weapon control however when this practice is regularly engaged in, that unexpected loud noise is occasionally heard. This happens with experienced target shooters and trained police. An innocent woman was recently killed by a policeman wielding an ‘empty’ weapon during a police academy practice exercise, http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-police-academy-exercise-death-20160810-snap-story.html.
The only really safe way to practice tactics involving pointing a firearm at other people is to have the firing pin removed and a quarter inch in diameter gas relief hole drilled in the barrel just after the chamber!
How to safely ensure the 1911 is unloaded
Withdraw the weapon from the holster and ensure the slide safety is engaged. Keep the trigger finger outside the trigger guard and point in a safe direction. Remove the magazine, empty if necessary, and ensure the magazine contains no ammunition. Re-insert the empty magazine into the pistol, and snick off the slide safety. Hold the weapon in your strong hand. If you are right-handed, the thumb on your right hand will lay alongside the left hand side of the pistol handgrip; if left handed the thumb of the left hand will lay alongside the right hand of the pistol handgrip [see photo’s below]. Some pistols have friction ridges toward the muzzle. The same technique is used with the forward ridges however care must be used to ensure no body parts extend beyond the muzzle. Lefties using the forward friction ridges have their right hand palm ready to catch an ejected round.
Pointing the pistol in a safe direction and with trigger finger remaining outside of the trigger guard, pull the slide to the rear until it locks back. The empty magazine follower should automatically engage the slide hold open locking mechanism. Verify the chamber is clear and remove the magazine. The weapon is now safe for handling and if necessary can be disassembled for cleaning. With a little practice and dexterity, it is possible to engage the slide hold open mechanism with the right hand thumb. This is however not recommended for unloading the pistol because if a loaded magazine is seated and the slide accidentally slips from the fingers of the weak hand, a round will chamber.
Resist the urge to slam seat the magazine into the grip well. This practice is often dramatically depicted in the movies to emphasize determination and if followed religiously, is guaranteed to eventually deform magazine feed lips, damage the magazine latching notch, and cause damage to the magazine latching mechanism of the pistol. Any of which conditions can cause ammunition feed problems with predictable jams. Gently, press the magazine into the grip well until seated properly. This is always more difficult with a full magazine. A telltale click of the magazine latch will accompany proper magazine seating. Tug on the extending forward edge of the magazine floor plate to ensure the magazine is fully seated and locked into place.
[showing improper technique]
A commonly seen loading and unloading technique begins by holding the pistol in the right hand with muzzle pointing to the left. The slide is covered in the top middle with the left hand, gripping the side between the fingers and thumb/palm. This method is dangerous and should never be used. This technique requires the shooter’s left and right thumbs to be on the same side of the slide, pointing in opposite directions. The left hand covering the slide makes it difficult to observe and control muzzle direction. The ‘cover the top of the slide’ technique even when properly executed obstructs the shooter’s view of a large part of the barrel orientation and points the muzzle in a lateral more difficult to observe orientation with muzzle often aligned with the shooter’s left underside forearm.
Another popular combat taught technique is similar but with the pistol muzzle pointing forward with the rear half of the slide gripped between the fingers and palm of the other hand. When executed properly this method is safe. We, however, have a lifetime of gripping objects using our opposing thumb and fingers and many find the finger/palm approach unrealistic and unnatural.
Some 1911s have a loaded chamber indicator or witness slot in the rear of the barrel. The former may be as simple as an extractor protruding from the outside rear barrel area indicating a round is chambered, and the latter, a small slot milled in the breach end of the barrel allowing a portion of the rim of a chambered round to be seen. If your weapon has either type loaded chamber indicator, make checking of the witness device a routine practice, especially when handling an unfamiliar weapon. If your weapon is always maintained in a locked and loaded condition, then there is no need to ever perform a press check or to be uncertain as to whether a round is chambered.
Why use both thumbs facing toward the muzzle technique of slide manipulation?
The body is biomechanically more suited to rack the slide while holding the weapon with left and right thumbs pointing in opposite directions on the same side of the slide. This method makes use of opposing large chest muscles. You probably have done this in the past or observed others doing so. This points the weapon laterally across the body, sometimes toward the left forearm and usually to the left hand side for right-handed shooters. This potentially aims the muzzle toward a partner or other bystander and certainly not in the normal direction the eyes are pointed. Racking the slide in this manner to either chamber a round or to remove a round from the chamber absolutely ensures that it is difficult to track where the muzzle is pointing because the barrel and muzzle are hidden below the left hand and forearm.
Safe slide manipulation as described earlier with thumbs pointing in the same direction but on opposite sides of the pistol ensures the weapon is pointed at least somewhat forward with muzzle oriented in an easily seen and highly controllable direction. This action is more difficult bio-mechanically and thus not commonly seen. Make this both thumbs forward on opposite sides of the pistol technique a habit whenever racking all semi-automatic pistol slides. It will become easier with practice. This method is depicted in the operator’s manual from Springfield Armory http://www.springfield-armory.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/1911Manual_5.pdf pages 21, 33, and others. Unfortunately, a dangerous method of uncocking the hammer of older model 1911s is shown on the same page (a safe technique for all 1911 models is described following).
Strive never to allow the slide to slam shut if not stripping a round from the magazine into the chamber. Doing so can cause damage to frame, slide, and sear, potentially wrecking a good trigger. Chambering a round from the magazine reduces slide forces to design thresholds. An exception to this rule follows.
How to test the 1911 for proper operation and safety functionality
The modern 1911 pistol can be safely carried with chamber loaded and hammer cocked only because of multiple redundant safeties and proper training with the pistol. The correct function of these safeties should always be verified after field stripping and cleaning.
- Ensure the pistol is unloaded following the previous instructions.
- With empty chamber and magazine removed, ease the slide forward into battery. Holding with a normal one-handed grip, point the pistol in a safe direction and squeeze the trigger. The hammer should drop.
[hammer in half-cock]
- Testing the half-cock sear notch. Point an empty pistol in a safe direction. With the slide forward and hammer down, ease the hammer back toward the cocked position stopping after the first click. With safety off, grip the pistol normally and while still pointing in a safe direction, squeeze the trigger. The hammer should not drop out of the half cock position. The Colt Mark IV Series 80 model introduced after 1983 will drop the hammer but with reduced force supposedly insufficient to actually fire a round. Series 80 1911s also have a firing pin block safety with internal levers and a plunger to positively block the firing pin from moving until the trigger is pressed. The pistols also have a redesigned half cock notch eliminating the possibility of the weapon firing if the hammer is struck. Other modern manufacturers of 1911s have incorporated some or all of these features and if so, should be described in the operator’s manual. The half cock sear notch is designed to catch the hammer should it slip while being lowered and is not intended as a normal carry position.
[Pistol hammer completely lowered]
There are many older design 1911 pistols in circulation. Treating every 1911 as if it were of the old style avoids a multitude of problems, especially when handling an unfamiliar 1911 series pistol.
- Sear reset test. Point an empty pistol in a safe direction and with hammer down, pull and hold the trigger. Pull the slide back and engage the slide hold open mechanism. Press down the slide hold open mechanism permitting the slide to slam into fully closed battery onto an empty chamber. Yes, this might cause damage as pointed out earlier but easing the slide down will not provide enough of a shock to fully test the sear reset mechanism. With the slide now in battery, the hammer should remain in the cocked position created when the slide was pulled back. Release the trigger and pull. The hammer should fall normally. If the hammer fell automatically following the slide closing, a dangerous situation exists that may permit full and likely uncontrollable automatic fire. Do not shoot the pistol until the sear reset is repaired to full functionality.
- Slide safety test. Hold the empty weapon in the right hand, slide closed and hammer cocked. Pointing in a safe direction, engage the slide safety. Still holding the weapon as if to fire, squeeze the trigger. It should not move much if at all. The normal shooting handhold automatically disengages the grip safety yet the hammer should not fall due to the action of the slide safety. Other than a very slight movement of the trigger, no perceived movement of any mechanism should occur within the pistol. Grip the rear friction ridges of the slide with the left thumb and outside first finger (thumbs on each hand are pointing in same direction on opposite sides of the pistol). Try to pull back the slide. It should not move. Squeeze the trigger again and release. Disengaging the slide safety should not cause the hammer to drop.
[grip safety disengaged]
[grip safety engaged]
- Grip safety test. With the empty weapon pointed in a safe direction and slide safety off, cock the hammer. Reposition the holding hand so as to disengage the grip safety [see photo’s above]. Squeeze the trigger. It should either not move or move very little. The hammer should not fall.
[safety disconnector test]
- Safety disconnector test. With an empty weapon pointed in a safe direction, manipulate the slide ¼” back out of battery. The grip safety should be off (pressed into grip). The slide safety mechanically cannot be engaged. Squeeze the trigger. The hammer should not drop. Ease the slide forward, squeezing the trigger in increments of slide movement. The hammer should not drop until the trigger is pulled with slide closed in battery.
[interlocking barrel and slide ridges that lock the barrel to the slide]
- Barrel lock engagement. With an empty pistol pointed in a safe direction, slide fully forward in battery, with grip and slide safeties disengaged, forcibly push down on the exposed area of the chamber. There should be very little or no movement. Keeping as much of the body as possible out of the path of the barrel, try to push the barrel back into the slide. Again, there should be very little or no movement. A lot of movement in either of these tests indicates that the barrel is not locking up with slide in battery. Firing the weapon in this condition may damage the weapon and shooter.
[barrel locking engagement]
Faulty barrel locking may cause the action to open before pressure from firing subsides (indicated by the bang when the bullet exits the barrel) and the partially unsupported brass case from the opening action and/or primer may breach from the high pressure. If so, a dangerous release of high-pressure gasses, powder, powder residue, brass fragments, and primer fragments may result. Always wear protective eyeglasses and hearing protection when shooting any firearm.
- Slide lock open (or back) on empty magazine test. With an empty chamber, no magazine in the firearm, and slide forward in closed battery, point the pistol in a safe direction. Insert an empty magazine into the slide well. Pull the slide fully to the rear and release. The magazine follower should raise and automatically engage the slide hold open locking mechanism to hold the slide open. There are numerous magazine manufacturers and magazines for the 1911 have been made over many decades resulting in large variations of fit, finish, and wear. As a result, this test should be duplicated with every magazine used with the weapon. Features such as the automatically held open slide on empty speeds the process of reloading.
- Magazine release test. Point an empty weapon in a safe direction and insert an empty magazine fully into the magazine well. Holding the pistol in a normal firing position, press the magazine release. The empty magazine should drop from the pistol. Repeat this test with all magazines used with the pistol.
- Magazine drop test. Hold a fully loaded magazine at shoulder level and drop on a hard ground level surface. No rounds should eject from the magazine. Repeat for all magazines used with the pistol.
Should the pistol fail any of the above tests it should be inspected by a competent gunsmith and repaired as needed. Magazines failing Steps 9, 10, and 11 should be replaced with properly functioning magazines.
How to safely lower the hammer on a 1911 pistol with round chambered
There is only one way to safely lower the hammer on a loaded 1911 pistol. The hammer is lowered in exactly the same manner that the pistol is properly handled: with care.
One popular manufacturer shows a method whereby the hammer is gripped between the thumb and first finger, trigger squeezed, and hammer lowered. This practice followed often enough with an early generation 1911 will eventually result in a loud noise accompanied by ringing in the ears. Likewise will lowering the hammer by use of a thumb over the external margin hammer friction ridges. With either technique, the hammer will eventually slip, the half cock safety fail, and that loud noise will occur.
The competent pistol handler will habitually keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction with slide safety engaged while keeping the trigger finger outside of the guard until actually ready to shoot. If for some unlikely reason, that unexpected loud noise is heard, no serious damage should result. With this safe handling posture as a starting point, and firm understanding of the following three actions, the hammer can be safely lowered to the full down position.
The shooter is encouraged to practice and master the following safe method of lowering the hammer with an empty pistol before attempting with a loaded chamber.
- Hold the cocked pistol in the right hand. While always pointed in a safe direction, interpose the thumb of the left hand between the slide and hammer[see picture below].
- Squeeze the trigger. The hammer should move slightly coming to rest on the outer margin of the left thumb.
- Roll the left hand and thumb toward the body while at the same time gradually lifting the thumb from between the hammer and rear of slide. This allows a controlled release and gentle lowering of the hammer.
With a little practice, the hammer can be safely and quickly lowered on a loaded chamber and without pinching the thumb.
……….Check back tomorrow for Part 2.