No pistol magically enhances shooter capability. As master shooter and 1911 gun smith Ned Christiansen notes, "The difference between a great gun and a mediocre one is usually not realized until the user has attained a certain level of competence." Such is the case with the Model 1911 Colt Government Model pistol.
Even with the emergence of high-capacity polymer frame handguns, the Model 1911 Colt Government Model pistol continues to be a preferred duty handgun of many law enforcement officers and agencies. By total numbers, the new design polymer pistols hold the biggest slice of the police market, and what I write here is not intended to take away from those designs. But there are obvious reasons why a nearly 100-year-old pistol has established itself as a first-line police duty handgun.
I have carried a John Browning-designed, single-action semi-auto pistol as my primary pistol or backup duty handgun for more than 30 years. I started with a P-35 "High Power" and a Series 70 Colt .45 auto. As a shooter in the very early days of sport pistol shooting, I took these same pistols, along with my Colt and Smith and Wesson .357 and .44 mag revolvers, to those embryonic matches and came away with what I considered defining concepts, although it was clear early on that among the thousands of shooters I spent time around, there was no universal answer or absolute.
My first partner, David Shannon, a combat-hardened Vietnam veteran, was the fastest man on a revolver I had seen until I met Jerry Miculek at the Second Chance Body Armor Pin Shoots in 1980. From them, I learned that speed of shooting coupled with accuracy was not ruled by semi-autos. The number of available rounds before reloading was obviously a plus, but if you hit the target(s) with what you had, and hit them hard and clean, round count was not the overriding issue.
Much of our early learning was based on our reading of experienced lawmen. We studied Bill Jordan's book, No Second Place Winner, and there's no doubt he was an exceptionally skilled shooter. His ability with his Smith Model 19 revolver is legendary. In those days, we all carried revolvers. I took from my observation and study of shooters under stress (whether it was a match where the only bad ending was not winning a trophy or prize or a street fight where it was life or death) that the bullet that doesn't strike the target effectively has little or zero value. Handgun magazine/ammo capacity is not the answer to accurate fire, it only allows more or less of it. The more part is far less of an issue than the less part, because a single round can end the fight whereas many rounds fired off target into the community can be a disaster.
Bottom line: A 1911 pistol, with a single stack magazine capacity is not a handicap to a skilled officer.
From the police perspective in a gunfight, the ultimate task in defense of life is the ability to place that small handgun projectile at a very specific point in space. This must be done under extraordinary stress and excitement, at varying distances, often in low light conditions, with the officer and the offender moving. In summary, I believe accuracy rules. The best choice of a duty handgun is the one an officer can shoot with best accuracy on demand under the harshest of conditions.
The 1911 pistol is inherently one of the most accurate ever designed. In many areas of sport shooting, the 1911 rules. We can debate functional accuracy. If we simply go by statistics, the vast majority of deadly force events that lead to shootings will be close range, where pure accuracy is not the issue. If you go only by statistics, you need not carry any firearm because the number of officer-involved shooting incidents is so low. But that's not an acceptable answer: No one can answer where, when and who will be involved.
At times, distance is a critical element of police response. The armed offender may be 25 yards or farther away in a mall or school hallway. At distance, shooting ability depends on an accurate firearm. I prefer a handgun capable of two-inch groupings at 25 yards, not four or six inches. So long as we don't sacrifice reliability for accuracy, my choice will always be the type of pistol that is most accurate and reliable, and allows me to shoot best. As I have proven to myself over these many years, that is the 1911 pistol. I see the same recognition and acceptance among the many SWAT and patrol officers with whom I have trained.
Fitting the Pistol to the Shooter
If accurate gunfire is the ultimate end product, then proper fit of the handgun must factor into the gunfight success equation. Accurate placement of shots in a gunfight comes from the fusion of shooter and firearm. It is the direct result of the officer's conscious and unconscious ability to operate a handgun in a life-threatening environment. This is best achieved with a handgun that properly fits the officer's hand.
The fit of the duty handgun, just like the fit of the officer's boots, is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. No one would order all officers to wear a size 9 boot; why then are we doing what amounts to the same thing with handguns?
With the various duty pistols, many of the grip sizes and distance dimensions from backstrap to trigger face are simply too big and too long. The officer with medium to smaller hands cannot center grip the pistol and obtain proper trigger finger position. This causes the shooter to choke, or shift their hand around to the side of the grip, and leads to a weakened grip position that creates sideways pressure of the trigger finger. What we see with right-handed shooters is a constant impact of rounds low left of target and the opposite with lefties, caused by pressing the trigger down and left instead of directly back center and horizontal.
This is so common that we designed a law enforcement basic shooting skills course for our regional police training authority to address it. Although we can gain ground with our troubled shooters by enhancing technique, a brick in the hand is always a brick. The solution was allowing them to shoot a properly fitted pistol. I gave them my 1911 to use, and the officers shot a ragged center hole. They commented on how well the pistol fit their hand and how short and crisp the trigger was. The rub: Their agency would not authorize its use. These men and women were desperate to achieve and were denied the opportunity and capability. This remains true as you read this. The size 9 boot issue rises again.
Attributes of the John Browning/Colt 1911 Design
Because the 1911 pistol allows the use of arched or flat mainspring housings, enhanced grip safeties and trigger lengths, it can be set up to fit virtually any hand size. This is a big plus for those considering the 1911. A competent armorer can customize the pistol to almost any need, and a skilled gunsmith can truly tune the pistol to the shooter. A number of recent pistol designs do allow the back strap to be changed, but none has the capability to adjust the trigger length to the extent the 1911 does.
Some will argue that the expense of such modification does not justify the choice of the 1911. It is true that a well set up and "tuned" 1911 will run well over $1,000, and the very top line producers will charge more than double that amount. But what price do you put on your life and those around you? If it's your best chance of success in a career in which success means life, where do you draw the line on cost?
Safety is the foundation of our work, and any tool we handle daily under difficult conditions must be simple to operate and reliable. The pistol must be able to withstand being dropped on hard surfaces and when holstered being slammed into auto doors or building corners.
All said, the 1911 pistol, when it is set up properly, is as trouble free as any other design I have used and equally safe. It incorporates at minimum a thumb safety, grip safety, hammer safety and, in some models, a firing pin safety.
The Bottom Line
The pluses of the 1911 are many and spelled out above. Minuses include:
As we reach the 100-year mark for the 1911, time and design improvement have only made it better. The Browning-designed Colt Government Model pistol and the many copied versions will continue to serve as one of the most serviceable police/military duty handguns.
To see what other experts are saying about the 1911 and weigh in on the discussion yourself, visit http://connect.lawofficer.com/forum/topic/search?q=1911