A very common question that I receive is “Which 1911 should I buy?” Users of all skill levels generally ask about a 1911 that they can use more or less out of the box. Let’s face it folks, the 1911 was designed in an era where handwork was cheap and technology was expensive. The 1911 was meant to be meticulously hand fitted for optimum function. These days, you shouldn’t expect to get that type of skilled labor AND all the parts for under $1000. If you shop smart, figure on getting most of the parts and some of the labor. The rest is on you.
Based on the current market, here’s what’s hot, broken down by price ranges and applications. Note that my recommendations routinely change based on what is available, and you should not feel buyer’s remorse because you purchased what I may have recommended last year or six months ago.
The Kimber 25th Anniversary gun is a good bet for a basic 5" gun. It's a modern styled service grade pistol with a standard Browning format firing pin setup, and an internal extractor for the purists. The Series II safety, despised and bemoaned by many consumers, is absent from this gun, which is otherwise identical to the basic Custom II. The current production Series II safeties work well for most shooters, but given the choice, I think every hardcore 1911 guy would pick a gun without the extra parts. Only 1,911 of these will be made, so get one now. Overall a pretty decent value in a basic level gun, and my current top pick in this category.
In light rail 1911's, the Kimber Warrior is the hands down choice. It is also a straight up Browning 1911 - internal extractor and no added firing pin anythings. The gun is set up for duty use without much in the way of major modifications, and would be ready to run with only a light tuneup. With its smooth front strap, it would also be a viable choice for a more extensive rework where custom front strap texturing is desired.
If you require a gun with a firing pin safety, the Smith & Wesson 1911 appears to be a strong contender – great parts quality, extremely functional external extractor design, the best factory dehorn going, and very reasonably priced. It’s main drawback is its firing pin safety system, which seems to suffer from some timing issues where the block does not completely free the firing pin before the trigger actuates the sear. If you have a sample that has fired 500-1000 rounds without incident, then you have a winner that’s suitable for refinement. The telltale sign of the timing problem is nicking and denting on the larger diameter section of the body of the firing pin.
If you want a higher end “production custom,” the Springfield Professional is a good bet. I’ve seen a lot of these guns and have a few myself. They have consistently improved since the original run of guns, and overall are very nicely done. Still, they are not to be confused with a full out custom built gun, as they lack some of the finer details and finishing touches in order to meet a particular price point. That price point, which is around $2000-2100 street, is pretty fair considering what you’re getting. What they offer is cleanly executed checkering (some of the best on a production type gun), a nice beavertail fit, a blended S&A mag well, premium grade components, real Novak sights with Trijicon inserts, and excellent accuracy from the match fit Nowlin barrel. These guns can still benefit from a little bit of gunsmith massaging, but can become a pretty great gun. I feel that this is a better value than similar “semi-custom” or “production custom” contenders in the same price range. Professional models come with 5 Metalform magazines, which I generally replace with CMC Power Mags. It’s also available with the shortened Operator light rail frame.
Once you have bought your gun, do yourself a favor and ditch the factory mags and buy some Chip McCormick Power Mag 8 round magazines and Winchester white box 230 grain ball ammo. Oil it generously, clean it every 250 rounds, and go to town. After you’ve put about 500 to 1000 rounds through the gun, then you’ll get a feel for what it might need.
A light workover by a good 1911 smith will improve your gun’s overall feel, reliability, and long term durability. Routine inspection of the existing parts for wear and damage will be more productive than dumping in a ton of money up front to gut the gun and replace all the parts. For this work, go to a smith that specializes in 1911’s, not the general gunsmith at your local range who might work on 50 different styles of guns and the occasional 1911. The overall cost of this basic tune-up will vary with the smith you choose, but you’ll get what you pay for.
With careful shopping and some effective gunsmithing, I feel that it is possible to maximize an off the shelf gun to approach the more expensive custom and “custom production” models on a budget. Happy shopping.