View Full Version : The question that won’t die: Should I shoot my original M1911/M1911A1 or Colt Government Model?

Spyros Georgilis
7th August 2017, 12:17
The question that won’t die:
Should I shoot my original M1911/M1911A1 or Colt Government Model?
An article for M1911.org by Spyros Georgilis


Here in M1911.org we encourage members to search for existing answers to any 1911-related questions they may have, and we take pride in the fact that M1911.org is a resource where their question will more than likely have been answered at least once. But there are some questions that keep coming back. However, few return with anything like the frequency of the one in this article’s title. For this reason, we decided to address the issue, pulling from the collective information that has been gathered on the subject over the years.

Coming into possession of a firearm is always exciting, whether it was bought or traded in. Having one passed down to you, must be another level of excitement entirely — a feeling that the author regrets never to have been able to have. Knowing you own a piece of history, it’s only natural to try and get a feel for it by shooting it; that’s what it was built for, after all.


But is this a good idea?

Experts and collectors like Scott Gahimer, John Holbrook and others have repeatedly contributed in the forum, explaining why they would answer this question in the negative. Collectability in a USGI M1911 depends primarily (if not exclusively) on condition and rarity. By shooting your firearm, ANY firearm, you are adding to it wear that detracts from its value. This is of little or no consequence to most guns, because they are not rare and replacement parts are readily available. In a collectible pistol, however, firing brings with it the risk of irreparable damage that will reduce its value considerably more. All for the benefit of shooting a gun, excitement you can experience by shooting any modern 1911 pistol, closely patterned after an original M1911.

“Yes”, say the critics of this view, “but this is all a bit… clinical. Surely, a few rounds a year won’t do any harm… and after all, Grandpa would want us to shoot his gun, wouldn’t he?”

At this point it would be useful to make a distinction between those who own or seek to own such old firearms for the purposes of having a collection, and those who own one or two such firearms, possibly ones that are all-original and in good condition, for personal or sentimental reasons, and have no plans to sell them.

The collectors

For collectors, assuming they choose what to collect based on condition (what other factors are there?), the answer should be obvious: guns should be stored in proper conditions, handled with care and otherwise be left alone. A point worth considering here is that casual collectors of other military arms, like M1 Garands, for example, often don't mind if a gas tube or a stock has been replaced, to improve the condition of an otherwise 'correct and original' gun. This is clearly not the case with most M1911 and Government Model collectors that we are aware of! Originality is king, and 'Correct' is not the same as 'Original'.

Probably the best summing up on the matter of maintaining these guns for posterity, is this letter to one of our members, e-mailed from the Aberdeen Proving Ground Museum:

Thank you for your inquiry. The folks you refer to may be cautioning you
not to fire the weapon for historical reasons, not mechanical reasons. The
Colt 1911 is an exceptionally rugged weapon. It is still in front line
service, in places where the boots-on-the-ground get their choice.

That said, please keep in mind that every weapon, and every part of every
weapon, has a finite service life. For guns, this is usually expressed in
the number of rounds fired. Except for the springs, there is little in the
1911 that is age sensitive, so most failures are the result of cumulative
stresses of firing the weapon. Anything mechanically made will eventually
break. Here at the museum, we are prohibited from firing any of our weapons
for that very reason, because it is our responsibility to preserve them for

From the wording of your question, I assume you know how to maintain your
pistol in good working order. A well maintained 1911 should be good for
thousands of rounds. Keep in mind that the stress from each shot is
cumulative in the components of the gun. Also remember that without
x-raying the components for defects, it is impossible to know the actual
condition of the components. In all probability, you also do not have the
complete firing history of your weapon, so you cannot determine the precise
firing count. Your pistol could fail on the next round, or be good for
another 5,000 rounds or more, or anything in between.

The real life probability is that you can fire the 1911 as much as you wish,
so long as you maintain and inspect it properly, and that your 1911 has a
good chance of out-living you. Few handguns have ever had the life
expectancy of this weapon. In firing your weapon, though, you must accept
the risk that any given round may be its last.

Ask yourself, if the weapon does fail on you, worst case, can you still
mount it on the wall, say "well, it had a great run!", and still be proud to
have it in your collection? Your answer to this question pretty much
answers your email.

If we can be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me
or any member of the staff.


Jim Petrie

For Ed Heasley
Roy E. (Ed) Heasley
Deputy Director/Curator
U.S. Army Ordnance Museum
Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD 21005-5201

The heirloom owners

For those who own family heirlooms, things are a bit more complicated. To them, such a firearm is a window into the life of a beloved ancestor, one whose accomplishments they are justly proud to recount and do their best to imagine. Surely, therefore, firing this gun, this same pistol held by Grandpa’s war-torn hands, is something they have to experience. Just once in a while. Surely, with good springs, light loads and keeping it down to just a magazine or two per year, maybe using a replacement set of grips to preserve the originals, it’s going to be OK. Isn’t it?

The answer is that it could be OK. But maybe it won’t be.

Maybe the front sight tenon will break. If it does, it’s too small a part to be welded up and refit, so you’ll need to find a new sight, or fabricate one from scratch and have it fitted it to the gun. That will restore the gun’s looks, but the gun will no longer be original.

A reader's bent USGI barrel bushing. The recoil spring had probably been replaced with one that was too long.

The counter-argument goes, OK but this is a gun that will stay in the family; collectible value is irrelevant because it won’t be sold. So original sight or not, it’s still Grandpa’s gun and it’s still recognizable as such.

There are two counter-arguments to this one: first of all, we live in strange times. Things may get better tomorrow, and the day after may throw another curve-ball at any of us. It’s an uncomfortable thought but if one day the only way to put food on the table is to part with a family heirloom, it would be a shame if it has lost a significant percentage of its value due to a random mishap, one caused in the pursuit of an enjoyment you could have had with a modern 1911 pistol.

The second counter-argument is that it’s more than just a sight that might be damaged. Those who frequent the Collectables’ section in our forum may have noticed a small but constant flow of people who ask questions about an old pistol which appears to have been used as a bullseye gun, which has a post-war replacement frame, usually a casting. Ever wondered why the original frame was replaced?

Note also that slides in old USGI pistols were either completely without heat-treatment, or they had been treated only in the places that had been identified as suffering the most in use. As a 10 year-old boy, I vaguely remember my father taking me to his office at work, where I would soon end up sitting at a desk, bored. Eventually I would ‘attack’ a tray full of paper-clips. I had discovered that if I straighten one and repeatedly bend and re-straighten the same spot, it will eventually heat up briefly, then break, with barely any force at all. Even if I bent and straightened it slowly, the same thing would happen, only it would take a longer time. What can I say, there were no wifi-enabled tablets then, to keep me busy, and I thought this was interesting…

An illustration showing likely areas in a 1911 where cracks can occur.

Much later in life, I learned that what I’d discovered in my youthful restlessness is called ‘metal fatigue’ and it’s something that affects everything, from guns, to cars, to airplanes: the wings of planes get bent up and down, every time they take off and land (or fly through turbulence) and their airframes get bent a little with every flight, as the cabin is pressurized at high altitude. Everything that is made of metal and bends with use, gets fatigued. And yes, pistol parts bend, too. According to George Smith of EGW, a 1911’s slide flexes in the area around the ejection port as much as .002” every time the gun fires. That’s with a modern 1911, with a hardened, heat-treated slide. Incidentally, in WWII this area of the slide had not been identified as a high-stress point, so it wasn’t spot-hardened, like the nose of the slide and the slide stop notch!

Some unpleasant evidence

Here are a couple of pictures we have become aware of over the years, showing slides with stress fractures.

A rather worn slide, cracked around the ejection port.

This one took a beating at the inside corner(s) of the slide's spring tunnel.

The point is that there is no way to determine which round will cause irreparable damage to occur, like the one shown in these guns. The 1911 pistol, even in its early form, without heat-treatment on its slide, was a rugged design, one that can take quite a bit of punishment. But the problem is that for all anyone knows, this punishment has already been meted on the gun. Your heirloom could be 40,000 rounds away from damage like this. Or, it could be 3 rounds away.

Replacing a front sight may not ruin Grandpa’s old gun in your eyes. The same is likely true if you need to replace a hammer, a slide stop, a grip, or maybe even that bent barrel bushing. But the slide and frame, surely, are another story. A new (or old USGI) slide may get the gun back in action, but when you hand it over to your children as the gun of their great-grandfather, you’ll know it won’t be what it once was. The bottom line is, how would you feel knowing that the slide or frame that survived a war (or three) and came back for its deserved retirement in your ancestor’s hands, eventually perished in your hands, during a casual plinking session?


A few years ago, our basement got flooded. The water rose high enough for the experience to become rather costly (to put it mildly). But it’s funny: when something like this happens, after the initial shock and the days of sorting through everything, you may find that in the long run, the things that disturb you the most aren’t the most expensive repairs, they are the little things you lost that you can’t replace. What really annoyed me, once everything was mostly back in order, was to discover that a friend's book that he signed and gave to me as a gift, was ruined. It’s still available for purchase (for $29.95), but it can never be the same book.

I can’t begin to imagine the same happening with an old, treasured pistol. If you own one, it need not happen to you, either. Leave it alone. Shoot another gun.

Please go to this thread on the M1911 Pistols Organization discussion forum to discuss this article: http://forum.m1911.org/showthread.php?109795-Discussion-thread-for-our-article-on-shooting-old-treasured-1911s&p=993189#post993189

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