Battle of the Guns: Glock vs. the 1911

Feature 1911 Glock
Trigger Single action: Hammer must be cocked before trigger can be pressed Safe-Action: Firearm is not fully cocked until the trigger is pressed fully rearward
Safeties Frame-mounted and grip safeties, Series 80 pistols include a trigger-actuated firing pin block. Three passive safeties: Trigger safety, Firing pin block, Drop safety
Frame material Steel or Aluminum Polymer
Barrel lock-Up Barrel lugs mated to slide lugs, Barrel link attached to the slide release lever, Barrel bushing at the muzzle Linkless barrel with a rectangular breech locking into the ejection port on the slide, No bushing at the muzzle
Magazine capacity 7 rounds, .45 ACP 17 rounds, 9mm
Grip angle 18 degrees 21 degrees
Weight 38.4 ounces 24.9 ounces
Barrel length 5 inches 4.49 inches
Total number of parts 58, Colt Govt. Model, Series 80, counting stock screws and stock screw bushings individually 35, including magazine parts

Glock vs. the 1911 Summary:

Ever since the Glock pistol was introduced in the mid-1980s it has been compared to the 1911-pattern pistol. The two weapons could not be more different even though the Glock is based on John Browning’s locked-breech design. The 1911 was originally designed to fire the .45 ACP round, but was adapted to other calibers. The Glock Model 17 was designed to fire the 9mm round and was also later adapted to fire other rounds. Today, both designs can be found in all calibers from .380 ACP to 10mm. Choosing one over the other is largely a matter of personal preference, but the striker-fired Glock does represent a design advancement over the 1911.

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When the United States military adopted its first auto-loading service pistol, the cavalry charge was still an accepted and effective means of fighting wars. In the 101 years since that pistol first hung on the hips of American soldiers, the face of modern conflict has changed immeasurably. The Colt Model 1911 has seen it all. The gun has been dragged through the mud, dunked in the ocean, scorched and polished by desert sands and frozen by bitter mountain winds. Battle-hardened mercenaries and over-achieving bull’s-eye shooters have used it to good effect. It has been torn down, declared dead and rebuilt more times than anyone can remember. In all corners of the world, the 1911 earned its legendary status by being a versatile and effective tool for any number of users. Some say it is the greatest gun of all time. That’s a great way to start an argument.

Legend? Yes. But Unsurpassed? Well…

That John Moses Browning created a work of art when he designed what would become the Model 1911 pistol is without question. Yet, between that first design and today changes in everything from metallurgy to manufacturing have been eroding the 1911’s dominance. Chambered in 45 ACP, the round for which the gun was built, the model 1911 is a robust pistol. But to show you just how much things have changed over the years, consider that in the past some shooters described the gun and the round as producing “heavy” recoil. A close friend of mine, a U.S. Marine who saw combat in Korea, still thinks the 45 ACP “kicks like hell.” Compared to the 44 Remington Magnum, 454 Casull or the 480 Ruger, the recoil of the 45 ACP is simply noticeable and for most shooters it is quite manageable.

But just as no art critic can change the beauty of a painting by pointing out some faults, I don’t want to be accused of deriding the 1911 by claiming that some modern pistols are better. Still, as much as I will try to make this an objective look at various pieces of machinery, firearms selection remains a very personal and subjective decision.

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Perception No. 1: The 1911 has the quintessential “feel” of a pistol

The feel of a pistol is perhaps the most subjective of the criteria used to judge one. Just about any experienced shooter will talk about the “perfect” grip angle and ergonomics of the 1911. It’s so good that other gun makers have tried to copy it. The Ruger 22/45 and more recently the Springfield Armory XD series polymer pistols mimic the grip angle and the XD even utilizes a grip safety. But is that “feel” a product of ergonomic testing and development, or is it just the feel of a gun that’s so common everyone knows how it’s supposed to feel? The 1911 was a trusted friend in two World Wars and two major anti-communist engagements. It worked.  Men came to count on it. And when they no longer had government sanction to defend their lives with that pistol, they used the same gun for their target games. Perhaps shooters came to accept, then later “love,” the feel of a 1911 the way one would embrace any other everyday object. It became the standard because it was the most commonly used tool – the one to which most shooters could relate.

Take this little test. Make a fist. Now maintain the fist and quickly, at shoulder level, point your index finger at the wall. There’s the grip angle of the Glock.

This speaks to point-ability, recoil control and the natural ergonomic principles that create better shooting. The bore axis on the 1911 is higher than most of the newer pistols in its class. The higher the barrel is above your hand, the more leverage the gun has working against you as the projectile is fired. As a result you get more felt recoil. Custom gunsmiths have been working to reduce the height of the bore axis on the 1911 for years. Most of them apply a different grip safety and modify the rear of the frame to allow the web of your firing hand to be higher.

Modern Smith & Wesson, Beretta and H&K pistols build this lower bore axis right into their design. Springfield Armory kept the angle the same, but designed the polymer frame to get your shooting hand higher. It feels like a 1911… only better.

The 1911 design wasn’t even 20 years old before the military attacked it with the first round of changes. Following World War I, the changes that became the 1911-A1 were adopted for various reasons, one of which was that many doughboys reported that shots from their pistols were going low. It may have been the result of those tiny original sights, or perhaps shooters were adopting that natural Glock angle and instinctively pushing the muzzle down as they thrust the pistols forward at the charging enemy. The end result left soldiers with a new arched mainspring housing that was supposed to help keep the muzzle up. It was a quick fix and typical of a government agency that thinks hardware can overcome a training deficiency.

By the time World War II boiled over, the stopping power of the 1911 had become legendary. Soldiers and even some law enforcement officers had used the pistol just about everywhere and the word was out. The 1911 in 45 ACP made the old 38 Special look as wimpy as it really was. With all that good press, the 1911 became the gun to have. After the war, with millions of 1911s issued around the world, the gun to have was indeed the gun everyone did have, and perhaps that legendary feel is the result of so many people singing the praises of an effective weapon.

But before I get accused of hating the feel of America’s favorite sidearm, I should also point out that for the average shooter, the Glock 21 chambered in 45 ACP is just too fat to allow for a good shooting grip. You’ve got to have a pretty big hand to get your fingers around that double-stack 45 ACP magazine. As a result, Glock created the 45 GAP (Glock Automatic Pistol) to provide 45 ACP ballistics in a package that fits into the original Glock 17 frame. Glock also created the Glock 21SF with a shorter frame, allowing the use of the 45 ACP in a frame more people could handle. So it wasn’t just the 1911 that got redesigned soon after introduction. That original Glock 17 frame, built to handle the 9mm round, provides a much better fit for the average shooter. Long before the appearance of the 45 GAP, the 40 S&W split the difference between the power of the 45 ACP and the size and magazine capacity of the 9mm. Today the 40 S&W challenges both the 45 ACP and the 9mm in terms of popularity, especially among law enforcement agencies.

In real terms, most single-stack 45 ACP pistols, regardless of the maker, are easy enough to grip. During the dark days of the so-called assault weapons ban, when pistols were limited to 10-round magazines, many thin and small guns created what amounted to a new class of pistols. With the law now history and regular-capacity magazines once again legal, given the same general size of grip frame, what would you rather have: eight rounds of 45 ACP, 12 rounds of 40 S&W or 45 GAP or 17 rounds of 9mm?

Before you decide, don’t just pick up and hold the pistol in the gun shop. Find a way to test fire it.

Related: Ithaca Gun Company’s Precision .45

Perception No. 2: The 1911 is a marvel of engineering

It was in 1911. But as revolutionary as the pistol was when it was first built, modern design and production techniques leave the 1911 looking like what it really is: a springboard for better ideas. John Browning himself came up with the Browning Hi-Power, a 9mm pistol almost as legendary as the 1911. Even Jeff Cooper, the man who came close to making us all believe the 1911 can walk on water, described the Hi-Power as a fine pistol, but he added that it’s a shame the gun is not made in “a caliber of consequence.” The point is the Hi-Power is an advancement of the 1911 design. And even if you agree that all modern auto-loading pistols owe their action and some part of their heritage to the 1911, you must also agree that many of the new designs are simpler, more efficient and just plain better.

The situation that immediately comes to mind is the feed path of 1911. The bullet, as it is stripped from the magazine, goes on a roller coaster ride before arriving in the chamber. Is it any wonder that 1911 owners all know about things like ramped barrels, internal polishing and workshop magazine adjustments? A whole industry has sprouted around making the 1911 feed reliably with anything other than ball ammo. Yes, you can make the 1911 design ultra-reliable. Springfield Armory did it for the FBI contract pistols, but it was a challenge. And didn’t anyone notice the look of surprise when a 1911 actually passed that grueling set of standards?

Modern designers have taken the great attributes of the 1911, improved on them and incorporated them into today’s pistols. One “for instance” is the Beretta M-9, the sidearm that replaced the venerable 1911 in the U.S. arsenal. The M-9, using the same basic function of the 1911 — reciprocating slide, locked-breech barrel and magazine feed — will digest anything. In most cases it will even take in and spit out crappy hand-loads. But using them voids the warranty.

You will never have to worry about hand-fitting a barrel in a Springfield Armory XD or a Glock. You won’t have peened locking lugs and if you buy a different barrel for such a pistol, you don’t have to wonder if you get the link, too. The beauty of advancing technology is that designers have been able to use John Browning’s original ideas and make them better. I would argue that holding on to old ideas purely for nostalgia’s sake puts you at a disadvantage.

Perception No. 3: The 1911 is indestructible

The 1911 is one tough gun. I’ve seen video of a police officer smashing the side window of a car with his 1911 before firing at an armed felon. The gun never malfunctioned and the shots were on target. But put a 1911 side-by-side with some newer designs and start feeding the guns magazine after magazine and see which one malfunctions first. Your arm will be sore from the recoil but you’ll find that some of the new guns, especially the polymer models, will take abuse like you never dreamed of and still continue to function AND hold their accuracy.

Yes, factory original Glock sights are weak and fragile, but the rest of the gun goes on forever. Sure, you’ve heard all the slide separation stories about the Beretta, but such incidents were rare and have been corrected. There surely have been complaints about the 1911 as well; it’s just that shooters and gunsmiths have had a century to correct things. And even with all that time and effort, I would still put a box-stock polymer pistol from just about any maker up against a box-stock 1911 in a 5,000-round torture test.

The two most-tested pistols in the world have to be the Beretta M-9 and the Glock. The SIG very likely won the U.S. military pistol trials but the contract went to Beretta for political reasons, a subject that has ignited feature-length arguments. The fact remains, however, that the test was tough and Beretta passed. The test devised by the Austrian Army for the Glock pistol was even tougher. The 17 criteria included a 20,000-round test that required the pistols to be disassembled, measured for tolerances and reassembled after 15,000 rounds. Then they had to complete the final 5,000 rounds. When Miami PD was considering the Glock, the pistol was dropped, kicked, run over with a vehicle, doused in salt water and sand – you name it. The gun never failed and in 1987 Miami became the first big police department in the United States to issue the Glock.

While the 1911 is a tough pistol, its design elements are more than 100 years old. There are better ways to build a barrel; better ways to lock it to the slide and better ways to make pistols feed and function. The 1911 still works, but the newer designs are simpler and stronger.

Perception No. 4: The 1911 can be all things to everyone

Now, we’re talking about the true strength of the 1911 design! There are two reasons that the 1911 is the most customized pistol in the world. First, because it can be so easily customized. Second, there’s usually a need.  And with a century of history, there is not a part or screw or pin that has not come under scrutiny. If someone can make a dollar by creating a part for the 1911, he will be making that dollar far into the foreseeable future.

Barrel bushings, mainspring housings, hammers, sears, safeties — you name it and someone somewhere is making an aftermarket part, accompanied by what is very likely a legitimate claim that the part improves the performance of  the 1911. As a cynic, I am required to say, “That’s because the 1911 needs so much improvement.” As a realist, I am compelled to say, “These modifications, whether they be major or minor, allow the shooter to make the gun work for his specific requirements.”

How long will it be before shooters are turning the Glock or a Springfield Armory XD into an ultra-high-tech IPSC race gun? You’re starting to see some movement in that direction, but honestly, more parts are available for the 1911. The 1911 benefits from the economy of scale. Make parts for a gun with a 100-year track record and you have a big market. Get one percent of the 1911 market and you have something. Get one percent of the SA XD market and you might just be catering to 100 other guys and me.

There’s a reason why more than a dozen firms make 1911 pistols and several dozen more do custom work and aftermarket parts. The demand for the parts is there. People love the 1911 and our economy requires that such a demand be satisfied.

Are other pistol designs better? You bet. But those pistols are standing in the shadow of a legend and it’s really easy for shooters to say, “Yeah, that (insert the name of your favorite new design) may work now, but let’s see what happens in 100 years.”

There’s something to be said for power… especially staying power.

Related: Learn what to look for when choosing your best gun…

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