Warning: Know Your 1911s

For more than 100 years, the 1911 has been a rugged, reliable design. But despite its storied history, it’s important to have a detailed knowledge of the iconic pistol before talking to customers about what to buy.

Warning: Know Your 1911s

People might disagree on exactly how large the 1911’s share of the pistol market might be, but most people agree that it is substantial. That means you as a retailer should be familiar with this 100-year-old handgun design and should understand why the pistol is still in such high demand.

1911 History

If you’re going to talk 1911 pistols with your clientele, it is wise to know some history about the handgun that some people call the best pistol ever designed. The designer was John Moses Browning — often referred to as a small arms design genius. Considering that his life span was 1855 through 1926 and that some of his designs are still in wide use today, it’s clear that he was truly a man ahead of his time.

John Browning learned the gunsmithing trade in his father’s shop as a child and quickly demonstrated his aptitude by coming out with his own rifle and shotgun designs. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, Browning had already designed functional midcaliber autoloading pistols. The military urged Browning to increase the caliber to .45 for improved combat effectiveness, so he designed a .45-caliber pistol by 1905.

The .45-caliber pistol continued to be refined from 1905 to 1911, when the pistol won a U.S. military contract to become the official military sidearm. It remained standard-issue until the Berretta 9mm pistol replaced it in 1986. Subsequent complaints about the 9mm being ineffective in combat have led many to return to the .45 ACP and the 1911 pistol design.

1911 Development

There is no question that John Browning’s basic 1911 design was genius, but the platform continued to evolve — even a pistol with 100 years of proven performance can improve. Browning modernized the pistol’s design in years after 1911, and others have taken those modernization developments even further. In some cases, this is where things get complicated. 

Some 1911 refinements have actually hurt the design. The basic 1911 pistol was designed to be simple, rugged and reliable under field conditions — anything that takes away from this performance is viewed by many as counterproductive. Often an upgrade idea might be good, but lack of modification skills and knowledge by the gunsmith causes the problems. There are probably more 1911 pistols ruined by inexperienced attempts to “improve” them than from any other single reason. 

Retailers must be keenly aware of this problem, as it is very common for 1911 pistols to be improperly altered on the inside, then traded in or “dumped” at retail gun shops because the problems cannot be repaired. Be very cautious about taking in 1911 pistols as trade-ins. An expert should inspect all 1911s before taking a trade-in.

The original model 1911 was slightly modified and became the 1911A1 in the 1920s. A shorter “Commander” model of the .45 ACP 1911 was brought out, as well as a .22-caliber training conversion. Various special editions, target models and safety upgrades were brought forth on the 1911 design in the following years. However, the big advancements came from the gunsmiths who specialized in advancing the 1911 design.

There have been many demands put on the 1911 to perform well in a variety of arenas, including military service, police duty, bull’s-eye competition, IPSC combat competition shooting and similar events. Author and shooter Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper helped the 1911 gain wide attention by many shooters. His training school at Gunsite Academy and practical shooting competition became the testing laboratory for the development of many improvements for the 1911 pistol.

Why Is The 1911 So Great?

This is probably going to be one of the first questions you’re asked by your retail customers looking at a wide array of less-expensive polymer pistols in your display case. As a retailer, you should probably first determine if your potential customer is going to be a serious shooter or a buy-it-and-leave-it-in-the-safe type. If he wants to be a serious defense shooter and is going to get smart on the operation of the 1911 pistol, then by all means explain the merits of the 1911.

The pointability of the pistol speaks for itself when someone handles the gun. The muzzle generally points where the shooter points due to its grip angle. The single-action trigger pull is the same, first time, every time. There is no grip shifting required due to the pistol starting in a double-action mode then changing to a single-action pull for subsequent shots. There are multiple levels of mechanical safety on the 1911 pistol, including a manual thumb safety. The manual thumb safety can be a life-saver in a gun grab or wrestling-type situation.

Many of the more modern pistols are simply point-and-pull pistols, meaning the gun can be fired by even untrained assailants who are successful in getting their hands on your pistol. And when it comes to durability, a high-quality steel 1911 pistol shooting standard velocity cartridges and receiving basic maintenance will generally fire hundreds of thousands of rounds without frame fracture.

One of the next questions your potential 1911 customer will ask is what brand should they buy? There are so many 1911 manufacturers in the market today that this can be a difficult question to answer.

There are the well-known, large-production brand names. There are midsized production operations making semi-custom pistols. There are high-end 1911 specialists who make ultra-detailed pistols, and there are companies that make junk. If you want to maintain a long-term customer base, you are better off making your sales recommendations based upon quality and long-term reliability rather than the higher profit margin that some companies offer to the retailer. The more experience you have with 1911s, the better recommendations you can provide.

Get to know your customers and their expected use for a 1911 and you will be able to advise them best.

1911 Accessories

The 1911 accessory world has become a business of its own. If you have a wide variety of 1911-shooting customers, from defense to optic competition, you might serve them best by stocking a full range of accessories. How deep you want to go depends on the level of 1911 experience your store has. You can be assured that if you sell a product, there will be a customer asking you to install it for them. If you don’t have the installation capability in your shop and you can’t refer them to a highly skilled 1911 gunsmith, then it is probably best not to stock certain “gunsmithing required” accessory items.

If you offer full-service gunsmithing in your store or have a referral source for accessory installs, then the 1911 accessory market is wide open for your business.

Today the 1911 market for your retail store can be what you want it to be. It all depends on your motivation to learn and experience what makes the 1911 a timeless and popular design. 


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