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5 Great 1911 Upgrades

by Patrick Sweeney   |  September 24th, 2010 0


If your slide has a dovetail front, you can change it yourself. If not, you’ll probably have to take it to a gunsmith unless you have the proper tools.

Okay, you have a brand-new 1911 or perhaps you have a tired old one that could use some TLC. What to do? You can put up with it as-is, or you can improve on the finest sidearm ever made.

The obvious items are worth a mention, if only that. Obviously, clean it and keep it clean. You don’t want to know the percentage of my gross income as a gunsmith came from simply hosing the gunk out of other shooters’ firearms. Nothing makes shooting less fun, nor wears a firearm faster, than not tending to the sludge.

Second, new springs. If you can’t remember the last time you installed a recoil spring in your 1911, then now’s the time. Springs don’t last forever. I’m not so enthusiastic about it that I’ll change spring every 1,500 rounds (except on some models), but I do change them out at the 5,000 figure. At that point I’ve shot anywhere from $750 to $1,500 worth of ammo. I figure a $7 spring is a good investment.

A self-loading pistol is a system, and that system depends on good magazines. Turn down “bargain” magazines and “surplus” magazines as well as “good enough” mags. Yes, the best cost money, but not as much as you’d think, and a lot less than they used to cost in the not-too-distant past. But the big improvements in 1911 shooting fun lie elsewhere.

1. Sights
Unless you have a new pistol that already has the best, you will shoot better if you have proper sights on your handgun. You may have to enlist the aid of a gunsmith here, but high-visibility sights always make aiming easier and shooting better.

You can get night sights, or not. You can get adjustable, or not. But a set of sharp, clear, easy-to-see sights will make life so much easier you’ll wonder how you got along without them. 1911s made in the last couple of decades probably have dovetail slots for the front and rear sights, and on those you can swap sights yourself. If your slide has a front sight lacking a dovetail (a “staked” sight) then you’ll have to have a gunsmith put new sights on.

2. Grips
Yes, they all come with grips. And some are just fine. In fact, if what you have is your dad’s or granddad’s government-issue 1911A1 brought back from the war, you want the original plastic grips. If not, consider changing them.

How to find what’s best? When I do find the one set that work perfectly, I’ll certainly say so. Until then, try grips. Try other 1911s at the gun club. Handle and shoot what you can at matches. Thick? Thin? With built-in mag funnels, like the grips Techwell makes? Only you, and your hands, can tell you what works for you.

Luckily, grips are easy to change and inexpensive enough that you can experiment. Install a new set, try them. Does your shooting improve? Great. If not, try something else and trade/sell the old ones.

3. Sharp Edges
We’re veering into gunsmithing territory here. A well-made custom gun will not have sharp edges that will bite or cut your hands. A custom gun built without consideration for your hands will, as will many factory 1911s.

If you find a sharp edge, a corner or a gap that nibbles on you, do not suffer in silence. If custom, write or phone and report back. If factory, find someone who can de-horn.


Some shooters favor guide rods, some don’t. From top, a traditional plunger setup, a one-piece guide rod and a two-piece rod (the Allen screw is the giveaway).

Be aware, however, that in some circles “de-horning” is something done with a belt sander instead of stones and super-fine files. Get a look at the gunsmith’s work first, and be sure to deliver clear instructions along with your pistol and deposit check.

What bites and what doesn’t differs from hand to hand. Personally, I find the back end corner of the thumb safety to be fraught with peril. If that isn’t beveled, my hand suffers. You might not even notice that corner.

4. Grip Safety
They all come with one. Some are more comfortable than others. Unfortunately, swapping out an old for a new is not as easy as other parts. But what you can do is have your same gunsmith “sensitize” your grip safety.

The purpose of the part is to block the trigger bow from moving. Once you’ve grasped the pistol, the grip safety has no more purpose. However, if the tip of the safety (inside the frame) is so large that only when the grip safety is completely depressed and practically crushed into the frame does the safety clear the bow, you’ve got a problem. Or rather, a potential problem: You might not be able to fire the gun.

I’m not talking about deactivating it, so you IDPA shooters need not have an attack of the vapors. Simply tell your gunsmith you want the grip safety to disengage when it has pivoted halfway. More pivot to disengage isn’t safer, and less pivot isn’t faster to shoot.

5. Guide Rods
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, sooner or later you’ll be tempted to try them. Guide rods come in two types: one-piece and two-piece. The one-piece are not going to unscrew themselves in the middle of a match, but they can be a pain in the butt to assemble and disassemble.


You shouldn’t have to mash the grip safety completely in. Have a gunsmith adjust it so the safety is engaged when it hits the halfway point of its pivot.

Basically, you have to take the slide off the frame, and thus allow the guide rod to “slip” back from the muzzle. That creates the clearance you need to turn the bushing and get the slide disassembled.

Some designs have a small hole drilled into the side of the rod. You lock the slide back, and insert the bent end of a paperclip in the hole, trapping the compressed spring when you ease the slide forward.

The two-piece rods are screwed together in the middle. Easy to assemble and disassemble, they can have the annoying habit of working loose.
Don’t be too enthusiastic about keeping them tight. After all, you have to take it apart sometime, right?

Why a guide rod? Proponents tout smoother functioning and a prevention of recoil spring bind or kink. That it adds a bit weight, up front and under the barrel where it can do the most good, is a minor bonus. Opponents point out that Browning didn’t put one in when he designed the 1911, so why start now?

Remember: This is your 1911, not one issued to you. You can change what you want without asking permission or, having made changes, requesting forgiveness. It doesn’t have to stay pristine and original. You can, however, reverse a lot of these if you wish to.

If you bought your 1911 to keep it new in the box, you’ve come to the wrong church, friend. This particular sect of the Church of Browning believes in anyone doing anything they want in the search for comfort and higher scores. That and surviving encounters with bad guys.

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