The 1911 Mafia : A Personal Reflection

I was very careful when first starting out in the shooting sports.  I hung out for hours at a local shooting range, asking the old hands endless questions concerning their hobby.   What was the best caliber?  The best design?  The best manufacturer?

Their recommendations led me to purchase a 1911 chambered in the .45 ACP cartridge, and made by the hoary gun firm of Colt.  It took less than 200 rounds for the brand new, factory fresh gun to fail in a catastrophic manner.

1911 catastrophic slide failure

That was both the first and last 1911 I have ever owned, as well as the first and last gun from Colt.

I sent the gun back to Colt, and they replaced it without comment.  According to my buddies at the range, such failures were not uncommon at the time when it came to Colt firearms.  Unlucky me, I had just drawn the short straw in the 1911 lottery.

The guys behind the counter wouldn’t give me full credit for the 1911, even though it was a new gun sent as a replacement for the crappy hunk-a-junk their flawed advice prompted me to buy in the first place.  I peered through the glass of the display case where the used guns were kept, and spotted a matte black beauty that looked pretty neat to my admittedly inexperienced eye.

s&w model 39

It was a S&W Model 39 with rubber grips, and the asking price was a great deal less than the trade in for the Colt.  Seems I could get the gun, as well as a hefty supply of ammo, as long as I gave up the 1911.  As you might imagine, I jumped at the chance!

Chambered for the 9mm Parabellum cartridge, the Model 39 feeds from an 8 round single-stack magazine.  It came with an adjustable rear sight, and I put all that more-or-less free ammo to good use by carefully shooting and adjusting, shooting and adjusting, until it was zeroed in.  I learned a lot about proper gun handling from that firearm, as well as a great deal about effective armed self defense.  Years later, it was the first gun my first student ever fired in my charity self defense course.

I thought Model 39 was pretty snazzy myself, but my gun talking friends let it be known that I was no longer their friend.  I chose a 9mm over a .45, a Smith over a Colt?  Apostate!  Heathen!  Limp-wristed girly man!  Unwashed freak!  Might as well learn how to play guitar and vote Democrat, you filthy hippy!

filthy hippy

This might seem to be an extreme reaction, but I’ve run across it from time to time over the years.  There was one instance where I was approached at the firing range while conducting a class.  This concerned citizen was unhappy because I was teaching my students all wrong, as I didn’t have any guns chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge.  How could my students defend themselves with such paltry firepower as I had available?  They would shoot and shoot and shoot, and the best that could be hoped was that the bad guy would die of infection in a few days time!

Sounds like a joke?  I thought so at first, but he didn’t much like the way I laughed at his suggestion.

This attitude seems to have withered a lot over the past few decades.  I would have to attribute it to the vast numbers of new shooters who have joined our ranks, most of whom are only interested in carrying a concealed firearm for emergency self defense.  Added to this is the dizzying array of new designs that have been introduced to cater to this desire.  It is tough to maintain that only a 1911 chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge is suitable for defense when the nightly news is full of stories where the bad guys were stopped by something else.  I suppose most people just forge ahead in the way that they find comfortable, and ignore the old guard.

If only I had done that, back in the day!

So what happened to that M39, what I considered to be my first gun even though it was actually my second?

As mentioned before, it was used in my charity self defense course.  I tried to keep it going as long as I could, replacing this or that part when they became worn, but it eventually succumbed to a case of diminishing returns.  All in all, about six or seven thousand rounds were fired through that used gun before I finally had to let it retire.  There are people alive today living free from fear because of that gun.

I think that is a pretty good legacy, even if it wasn’t chambered for a forty-five.

17 thoughts on “The 1911 Mafia : A Personal Reflection

  1. There was one instance where I was approached at the firing range while conducting a class. This concerned citizen was unhappy because I was teaching my students all wrong,…

    This strikes me as remarkably cheeky. No matter whether he was correct or not*, it is rather poor form to interrupt someone else’s lesson and attempt to correct them.

    * I presume not; I don’t expect that being hit by a 9mm handgun round is a particularly pleasant experience.

    • “This strikes me as remarkably cheeky. No matter whether he was correct or not…”

      The .45 is certainly more effective than the 9mm, if for no other reason than it makes bigger holes.

      How much more effective? I could be wrong, but my experience leads me to believe that the bigger round produces about 20% more damage in the bad guys.

      Another way to look at it is that one only needs to shoot violent criminal five times to produce a certain level of damage with a .45 ACP, while six rounds are needed when using a 9mm Parabellum cartridge.

      I’ll let you decide if this renders the smaller caliber ineffective.

  2. Hmmm . . . interesting story james.

    Some random observations from a, these days, completely armchair gunfighter:

    1. I gather Colt went through a very bad period at one time, with an awful lot of industrial strife. Possibly James’ 1911 was a bird from that period.

    2. Received wisdom is the S&W M39 was not particularly reliable unless you downloaded the magazine by one round. James’ *experience* differs.

    3. A lot of people have expressed the support for the 1911/.45 combination as their ideal choice for a handgun.
    3a. This, and this is an impression I have formed from various literature & the web, has turned into an almost cult like belief in it’s perfection.

    Anyway that’s enough of my random witterings, except perhaps a 3b, Almost?

  3. Until very recently, down here in FL security officers were limited to .38/.357revolvers(chambering .38 only or 9mm. Semi’s had to have de-cockers and positive safeties. SO being an old curmudgeon, I opted for a 39 and a 3914; the pair cost six bills. I changed the hammer on the 3914 to a standard hammer and life is good.

  4. I started my pistolsmithing and shooting-industry career 43 years ago. Like most of the other leading ‘smiths at the time, the 1911 Colt was my platform of choice. Its what we had. After four decades working, training and shooting with these things, I’ve never seen the carastrophic failure in a new Colt described here. Cracks? Of course, if you run them hard. The slide parting at 200 rounds? Nope. I find it strange that the writer condemns the 2911 (with all its resl advantages and known quirks) out of hand in favour of a pistol widely regarded as inferior that he had to thtiw away after multiple rebuilds and only 7,000 rounds.

  5. Your used M39 only ran “six or seven thousand rounds”? What were you running through it — NATO submachine gun ammunition?

    Have you ever considered the idea that if you had a “catastrophic” failure in a Colt after “less than 200 rounds” followed by dead-lining a S&W M39 after “six or seven thousand rounds” that there might be an odd pattern here that might not involve the firearms as much as one might think?

  6. “Your used M39 only ran “six or seven thousand rounds”? What were you running through it — NATO submachine gun ammunition?”

    The M39 was a “police trade in”, and was pretty much at the end of its life when I got it. Hence the very low price.

    The 1911 was being fed standard Winchester practice ammo. White box hadn’t been introduced at that time, but it was pretty much the same thing.

    The point I’ve been trying to make is that seven grand from an old worn out Smith beats 200 from a brand new 1911 any day.

    I know that 10911 fans won’t agree with me, but that also is a point I’m trying to make.

  7. “Police trade-in” does not equal “old worn out”, far from it in my experience. The Illinois State Police were probably the source of your M39 — they adopted it in 1967 — and I’m willing to bet that less than fifty rounds per year were fired through most of their M39s until they were replaced in 1981.

    While I’m not a 1911 fanboy, I’ve muddled around in their guts more than once as a 45B in the Army, and I’d like more data on your “catastrophic” malfunction. I’m guessing that it wasn’t the pistol in your photo, considering that’s a Dan Wesson frame.

  8. “I’d like more data on your “catastrophic” malfunction. I’m guessing that it wasn’t the pistol in your photo, considering that’s a Dan Wesson frame.”

    You are right that my gun isn’t shown. I didn’t take any pictures at the time. The picture above is just what I could find that was closest.

    I was at the firing range, shooting at a slow and steady pace, when I saw something big fly about eight yards downrange from the front of my 1911. Turns out to have been the recoil spring, the recoil spring plug, and the barrel bushing. The entire front of the slide from the front sight on forward had cracked off neat as you please.

    This occurred late in 1985, and some people assure me that the quality of Colt products took a nosedive in the 1980’s due to a strike. Maybe so, but the strike started in the same year I bought my 1911. I’m not sure that there would have been enough time for a post-strike gun to make its way to my gun store in Ohio, but whatever. The guys who owned the gun store weren’t surprised about it in the least, so it couldn’t have been all that rare.

    It has also been suggested that firearms are mechanical devices, and sometimes in a blue moon a lemon leaves the factory no matter how diligent the quality control efforts. This is certainly true, and I hold that statement in high regard. Perhaps I should not judge an entire product line on one bad experience?

    I would agree, except for all the times my students suffered problem after problem with their own brand new 1911’s. Their experiences were never as bad as mine, but feeding problems are legion. I simply don’t want to bother working out which defensive ammo will work in this or that 1911 when just about any other autoloading handgun design feeds just fine when loaded with popular defensive ammunition. Best to just buy a more modern design for less money and avoid the hassle.

    So every single experience I have had with 1911’s have been negative, while the vast majority of my experiences with other designs have been positive. Personal experience is completely subjective, but that is why I partly titled this essay “A Personal Reflection”.

    • The entire front of the slide from the front sight on forward had cracked off neat as you please.

      From the front sight forward? Sorry, I’m going to have to throw the BS flag on that one.

      If it was an early stainless gun, I might buy it cracking at the stress riser formed by where the safety lug or recoil spring tunnel meets the body of the slide, but the area you describe is not even stressed.

      Your story doesn’t pass the smell test, Jimmy.

  9. I’d like to hear more about the experience you mentioned that led to the “20% more damage” figure. How did you gather this data? Do you find that “damage” inflicted was due to caliber, or more a function of what combination the player rolled?

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