There are bargains to be found in the used 1911 market if you know what to look for.
By Patrick Sweeney
You’ve decided to take the plunge, and buy a 1911. But which one, and how to keep from getting a lemon? Which one to buy could fill another article or three, and the usual question that follows is “Why only one?”How to buy one is easy. Look through the catalogs, decide which new one you want, and hand a check over to your dealer. Oh, you don’t have that much set aside for a pistol? You still have to buy magazines, ammunition, reloading supplies and other gear? Hmm. Well then, used it is. When you go to purchase a used 1911 (or any firearm for that matter) keep in mind that a bargain you have to repair is no bargain. Unless you went in with your eyes open, and planned to learn from doing the repairs yourself, pass on a 1911 that requires more than a little bit of work to get running one hundred percent. Whenever you’re buying a 1911, you’ll need the proper paperwork for your jurisdiction, the money, and a good magazine. A cleaning brush wouldn’t hurt, but isn’t an absolute must.
|Sights can be expensive to change, so be sure to either get what you want, or be happy with what you can get. Otherwise, your “bargain” becomes an expensive Project Gun.|
Before you set out to buy one, (or inspect one presented to you) you have to have some idea of just what it is you want. Buying a pistol without your “must-have” items, and then installing them later can be expensive. Do you need adjustable sights? If they are a must-have item, pass up deals without them. A low-mount installation of adjustable sights can add $200 to your total. If a high-ride grip safety is an absolute requirement, it will cost $75 to $200 to add one, depending on if the style you want requires refinishing of the frame after installation. One of the fellows at my gun club can’t understand why his guns always end up being so expensive. Well, when he picks up a clean, used 1911 for $350, then has a gunsmith add a low-mount Bomar sight ($200), Ed Brown beavertail and thumb safety ($175), Bar-sto barrel ($200), and since the frame is in the white where the grip safety was blended he then gets it reblued ($100), its easy to see how he could have $1025 in a basic 1911. And it still doesn’t have a “good” trigger pull, magazine funnel, recoil spring guide rod, etc, etc.
Does checkering matter to you? Do you have to have a match barrel? Is a particular finish a requirement? Buying a pistol without your “must-have” items, and then installing them later can be expensive. Is a particular finish a requirement? Buying the wrong one, and adding later can be frustrating. And expensive. What about caliber and magazine capacity? If you’re looking for a high capacity 1911 for competition, buying a single-stack 1911 doesn’t help your search, no matter how good a deal it is. And you can’t easily convert the 1911 (or any pistol) from one caliber to another.
What it is, you’re stuck with. You should settle on all these variables before shopping. Whether what you are looking for is a solid frame and slide set to build on, or a basic 1911 that you plan to simply shoot as-is, careful selection will save you a lot of money later.
Used 1911s (and other firearms, too) fall into three categories: Slightly used but not abused, experimental subjects and the abused, and competition guns. There is a lot of overlap between the latter two categories. A slightly used 1911 would be like the Ithaca I started with: It came back from wherever the government had it in some GI’s pocket or dufflebag, and spent a couple of decades getting very occasional use. An experimental subject would be like many of the 1911s I repaired when I was doing commercial gunsmithing. Someone decided to try their hand at some repair, customizing or fitting, and ended up with an inoperative pistol, which eventually found its way to my bench. Competition guns are almost always built with top-quality parts, but could have seriously high mileage on them. An example of a competition gun would be my bowling pin Stock gun. It is a Colt Series 70 with a Bar-Sto barrel fitted. It is clean (when I haven’t shot it lately) the slide is tight and the barrel locks up like a bank vault. But it has in excess of 30,000 rounds of .45 ACP+P ammo through it, and twice that of standard .45 ACP. My Pin gun has twice that total through it, as it was my main IPSC pistol for over a decade. Used does not mean abused but you have to inspect carefully to make sure.
|An extra barrel or additional magazines add to a deal only if you want them or can sell them to someone else–otherwise, what would you do with them?|
Keep in mind that there is nothing you can do to a 1911 short of crushing it or attacking it with a welding torch that can’t be fixed. But some repairs are very expensive. The expensive errors are almost all errors of commission. Someone went to do something, and either did it badly or did it incorrectly, and the result is an inoperative 1911. The worst examples from top to bottom: incorrectly milling the slide for sights, incorrectly fitting a barrel, over-grinding the feed ramp to make it feed better (usually in conjunction with grinding the barrel), butchering the grip safety installation, and ham-handed checkering. The saving grace of all these faults is that they are immediately obvious. They are also deal-killers. Unless the owner is willing to practically give you the pistol, you can’t buy a 1911 with any of these faults and repair it for a reasonable sum.
The non-obvious stuff is the danger, for you may not see them and end up with a larger repair bill. As I go through the litany of ills the 1911 is heir to, you may think “Why buy something that can go wrong in so many ways?” The answer is simple, the 1911 is not unique in many of these faults, and seeing them listed all at once can be a shock. Very few 1911s have any of these faults, and most can be fixed at little cost.
The 1911 buying inspection routine is as follows: Pick it up (with the owner’s permission) and ask if you can dry fire it. You won’t for the first couple of minutes, but be sure to ask. Make sure it is unloaded. Look closely at the finish and edges. Are the roll marks clear? Are the edges sharp? (If it has been de-horned and they aren’t supposed to be sharp, has the de-horning job been evenly performed over the whole pistol?) Uneven roll marks can mean it has been polished and refinished. If the polisher was that bad at his job, what else is wrong? If the polisher was good, what did he have to polish out to hide? Are the sights vertical? Tilted sights usually mean poor machining. Is the grip safety gap even? Is it tight? Does the grip safety move smoothly? Check the frame. Is there checkering, stippling or some other friction-enhancing addition? Is it well done, or do the lines wander? If stippling, is the pattern even, with a clean border? Or is it random whacks with a hammer? Turn it over and look at the magazine opening. Has it been beveled? Was it machine done, or by hand? Is it even and flowing, or can you see the individual file passes in the steel? There are two tests you should not do, one because it is abuse, and the other because it doesn’t tell you anything. First, do not crash the slide closed on an empty chamber to “test the sear engagement.” We used to do that in the old days, but it is simply abuse of the sear and hammer engagement. If you do it today, the owner is likely to snatch the pistol away from you and tell you to get lost. The other test is to press the chamber down with a thumb and see if it moves. All it tells you is if the barrel moves or not. I’ve seen 1911s where the barrel moved, that shot tight groups, and I’ve seen barrels that were tight, that shot random patterns. (The exception would be with gunsmith-fit match barrels. For the money charged, that barrel had better be tight.)
|Inspect the lugs for wear or bad fitting. The right lugs have been cut too far, and you’ll need to replace the barrel.|
Now for the tests you will do. Cycle the slide slowly. A 1911 slide should move smoothly from one end to the other with no binding or hesitation. Keep your hand on it as it moves full length forward and back. Are there any tight spots? Does the slide bind as the locking lugs pass over the chamber? When it starts moving forward, does the slide hang up on the disconnector? When the slide contacts the hood and the barrel begins to link up, does the movement become jerky or binding? Is the fit so tight you have to press the slide with your thumb to give it the final closing? Tight is good, as it can always be loosened if need be. Binding is not. A slide that binds can be caused by barrel misfit or by twisted or warped frame or slide. If it binds, you’ll be checking it again later, assuming the price is right.
If it passes the visual inspection, go on to test the function of the safeties. Cock the hammer and dry fire it. Is the trigger pull very heavy or very light? A trigger pull in either extreme may require new parts and fitting. Dry fire again, and hold the trigger back. Slowly cycle the slide. If the hammer won’t stay cocked, someone has filed the top of the hammer, in an attempt to decrease the distance the hammer has to fall from over-cock to the sear. You’ll need a new hammer to fix it, so factor that cost into the purchase price.
With the hammer cocked, push the thumb safety on and off. Does it move smoothly? Or does it require great effort to push on and off? I once had a fellow try to sell me a 1911 that had a thumb safety so hard to push off I nearly needed both thumbs. He tried to tell me that when I was in a life or death situation, I would be so pumped up from adrenaline that I’d never notice how hard it was to push off the safety. I handed it back and kept walking. With the safety on, pull the trigger. You needn’t go overboard, ten pounds of force will do. Release the trigger and push the safety off. If the hammer falls, you’ll need a new thumb safety fitted. (More cost.) If the hammer stays back, dry fire again. Is the trigger pull different than it was before? If so, the safety is almost releasing the sear, and will have to be re-fitted or replaced.
While you’re at it, check the disconnector. With the hammer cocked, ease the slide back just a bit and try to dry fire. The hammer shouldn’t fall. If it does, the disconnector is worn or overly stoned and will need replacing.
Back to the safety checking. Does the grip safety move freely? When you push it in, does it pop back out when released? It was fashionable in the old days of IPSC shooting to have the grip safety pinned or otherwise deactivated. Many competitors still do. Whether you decide to deactivate or not, buy a pistol with a working grip safety. Cock the hammer and hold the frame so you don’t press the grip safety. The hammer shouldn’t fall. Release the trigger, shift your grip so you do press the grip safety and dry fire. Was the pull different? As with the thumb safety, a different pull indicates the grip safety is almost failing the test, and will have to be re-fitted or replaced.
With the safeties inspected, go to the magazine you brought. Only perform the tests with a top-quality magazine like a Wilson, McCormick, Ed Brown, Clark or other name brand. Insert the empty magazine. Does it move smoothly in the magazine well and lock in place? Press the magazine button. Does the magazine drop free? A binding magazine could be as simple as an overly-long grip screw or grip screw bushing, or a misadjusted three-leaf spring. Or it could mean a bent or dented frame. If the pistol seems to be a bargain, find out which it is. If it isn’t a bargain, pass it up. With the magazine locked in place, cycle the slide. Does it lock open? If it doesn’t, look at the slide stop notch. Does it come all the way back to the slide stop catch? If not, there are probably multiple buffers inside. Some competition shooters prefer a light recoil spring and a stack of buffers, and are willing to shoot a pistol that won’t lock open when it’s empty. If when you take the slide off there aren’t a bunch of buffers, pass on the pistol. The slide or frame is warped, and the slide can’t cycle full length, keeping it from locking open when empty.
|Everyone checks the barrel this way, but it doesn’t really tell you much about a 1911.|
So, the slide locks open and the magazine drops free when the slide is back. You’re ready to go on to the critical areas, barrel and slide. Close the slide and inspect the fit of the barrel. The muzzle should be immovable. The chamber should fit the slide with no visible gaps in the hood. Grab the slide and try to rock it from side to side. A little movement is no big deal. A tight gun may or may not be accurate, but it is a good start provided the slide cycles smoothly.
Disassemble the slide and barrel from the frame. Look closely at the upper lugs of the barrel. The front corners should be sharp and clean. If the front corners are rounded or beveled, or worse yet, set back, quickly look at the slide. If you see the same, pass on it. While a new barrel is a cost you might be willing to bear, a new slide and barrel is too much. A barrel with rounded lugs can be replaced, but not if the slide is also damaged. The damaged slide will simply eat up your new barrel, and you’ll still end up replacing both. Turn the barrel over and look at the lower lugs. The lug seats should be smooth curves. You should not see any file marks, flat surfaces or peened areas on them. If you do, you should have a gunsmith look it over to see if the barrel needs refitting. I have an abused 1911 in the safe that is a classic example. The locking lugs started to peen, and the shifted stress broke the bottom lug off. The owner had the lug welded back on. It functions, but you can’t hit anything with it. In the Ransom rest, it shoots 25-yard groups that are an inch wide and two feet tall.
Look at the breechface. It should be free of extra file marks. While the factory fitters may have left some, extensive filing is a bad sign. Some shooters insist in inspecting the extractor. I don’t, as it is easy enough to replace and tune, and I’ d buy (and have bought) a 1911 lacking one, and simply drop one in later.
Take the barrel and set it down on the frame saddle. There should be a gap between the top edge of the frame ramp and the bottom edge of the barrel ramp. If you don’t have at least a thirty-second of an inch gap, the pistol isn’t going to feed properly. I have seen a few examples of misinformed shooters polishing the ramp until the two ramps blend smoothly together. The problem is, the barrel is not always tight against the saddle when the bullet is feeding. The gap acts as a curb to keep the bullet from the bottom of the barrel ramp. If there is no gap, the round may catch on the barrel ramp and stub in feeding. If the ramp has been polished out, repairing it can get expensive. One alternative is to weld the frame and re-cut the ramp. Another is to have the frame machined for a barrel with an integral ramp.
|(Right) The grip safety gets the same kind of check as the thumb safety, by making sure it is unloaded and then pulling the trigger with the grip safety up. (Left) Check the slide fit and function by cycling the slide and feeling for tight spots.|
Since you have the barrel out, you may as well look at the bore. Is it clean? Does the bore look shiny? Turn it around and look at the muzzle. Look closely at the bore at the muzzle. If you’re peering down the bore from the chamber, a slightly pitted bore may still look shiny. At the muzzle you’ll be able to see the bore for what it is. For a long time we haven’t had to worry about pitting. The older pistols that saw corrosive ammo have dark bores now, and for many years all there was non-corrosive ammo. With surplus ammo so cheap, and who knows if some foreign stuff really is non-corrosive, we all have to start looking at bores for pitting again. Pitting usually starts in the corners of the rifling, so look closely.
So, you’ve got this poor guy’s pistol apart on the table or counter, what do you do now? Ask if there is a return policy. If there is, get it in writing. As you put it back together, total up the prospective repairs you’ll have to make to get it running. Not the stuff you want to do to improve it, but what it takes to make it run properly. A tight gun may or may not be accurate, but it is a good start provided the slide cycles smoothly. Take the amount you’d be willing to pay for it and mentally subtract the cost of repairs. If the total that’s left is near what he’s asking, let the bargaining begin! Be sure the return policy is part of the receipt, and all particulars and details of the pistol are noted, and get it to a gunsmith you trust as soon as possible. When you leave it, tell him that you just purchased it and want an inspection and estimate. Tell him that you have an “X” day return agreement, and need to know if it is a good purchase before the deadline. If it turns out there is some hidden flaw, get the description in writing, so you can return it.
If you go through the inspection process, you won’t have to worry, and can enjoy your new (to you) 1911 for many years to come.