February 12, 2021
By James Tarr
Reliability makes or breaks a firearm, and the magazine is the heart of a pistol’s reliability. If the magazine isn’t reliable, the pistol isn’t reliable. With a design as old as the 1911, however, that’s not the whole story.
Now well over a century old, the original magazines for the 1911 worked just fine with the ammunition that pistol was designed for and around: .45 ACP 230-grain full-metal-jacket “ball” ammo. These days, however, we want our 1911s to feed hollowpoint ammo reliably.
If that wasn’t enough of a handicap to overcome, many modern consumers have increasingly come to love 1911s chambered in 9mm, a cartridge that is significantly shorter and narrower than the .45 ACP, making it a completely different animal to deal with. I’ll start with .45 magazines.
The original follower design for the 1911’s magazine is a simple piece of bent steel that presented the cartridge at the correct angle for feeding into the chamber; it also pushed up the slide stop after the last round.
When the breech face of the slide moves forward and impacts the top rear of the topmost cartridge in the magazine, it has a tendency to force the nose of that cartridge downward. This nosedive is what is commonly known as “cartridge tilt.” If you take an original 1911 magazine and push down on the front of the follower with your finger, the follower will tilt down, somewhere between a little and a lot.
With the big, rounded nose of a full metal jacket, tilt is not much of a concern; the cartridge still feeds. However, with the open, usually flat-faced and sometimes sharp-edged cavity of a hollowpoint bullet, if it doesn’t hit the feed ramp at the proper angle, the edge of the hollowpoint could hang up. Or it will hit the feed ramp too low, bounce up and jam against the barrel hood.
Most modern 1911s have polished feed ramps with slightly adjusted angles to make them more reliable with hollowpoints. And the entrance to the chamber is usually beveled a bit as well for the same reason.
But cartridge tilt is not good, so close to 50 years ago gunsmiths started looking into “non-tilt” or “anti-tilt” followers for 1911 magazines, and these days pretty much every quality 1911 magazine has a non-tilt follower. Push down on the front of the follower and it doesn’t tilt at all before the spring compresses and the follower begins sliding down into the body of the magazine.
I started shooting competitively in IPSC/USPSA matches in 1993. At the time there were a number of better-than-GI aftermarket magazines from companies, including Shooting Star, Metalform, Mag-Pak and Wilson Combat—perhaps the most well-known and most successful of the day, which paired a stainless steel magazine body with a black polymer anti-tilt follower. While every one of them featured an improved, non-tilt follower and they all worked, interestingly, none of them used the same design.
These days, if you own a 1911 there’s a good chance you own magazines made by Mec-Gar, as they likely came with the gun. They are the OEM pistol magazine supplier for half the world’s firearms companies and have been making better-than-GI 1911 magazines almost since the day they opened in 1965.
Stainless or blued magazine bodies, anti-tilt followers, standard or extra-capacity magazines, in 9mm, .38 Super, .40 S&W or .45 ACP you can get any kind of 1911 magazine you need from Mec-Gar, with all the modern design improvements. They’re plentiful and priced less than “big name” magazines.
Many of the 1911 gunsmiths from “back in the day” are now selling improved magazines, as they know better than most what it takes to keep that gun running. In addition to the Wilson Combat magazines, you’ve got CMC (Chip McCormick), Tripp Research (Virgil Tripp is the “T” in “STI”), Nighthawk Custom and Ed Brown Products all producing exceptional mags.
These days, most everybody has gone to stainless steel magazine bodies, as they require less maintenance. And magazine springs have improved in quality and performance as well, with some companies using chrome silicon steel or adding coils. The CMC Power Mag spring, for example, has 18 coils and is twice as long as the magazine.
Magazine base pads are now easily removable for cleaning. And even with stronger springs, magazine capacity has been increased by one or more, depending on caliber.
The feed lips of a magazine are far more important than most people realize. As the top cartridge is pushed forward by the slide, at some point it is released by the feed lips. Release it too soon and the loaded round could pop right out of your ejection port. Release it too late and the bullet will nose straight into the feed ramp.
One main problem, even with quality magazines, is that feed lips tend to spread over time, so a magazine that has been reliable forever, suddenly isn’t. On original 1911 magazines, the sides of the magazine body were rolled over just a bit to form the feed lips, but most modern magazines sport a much more aggressive taper on the feed lips.
CMC’s Railed Power Mag takes feed lip design to another level. Instead of a more aggressive taper, designers have actually rolled the steel of the feed lips over on the inside, vastly increasing strength and magazine life.
Now let’s talk about 9mm magazines. The 1911 was designed around the fat .45 ACP cartridge, and the shorter (by 0.106 inch) and slimmer 9mm proved problematic in standard 1911 magazines. It’s only been in the past decade or so that 9mm 1911s have become as reliable as their .45 ACP counterparts—thanks to ramped barrels, but mostly due to improvements in magazine design.
Ed Brown is one company that’s gotten it right. If you peer inside the Ed Brown magazine, you’ll see a steel spacer welded inside the rear of the magazine. This keeps the front of the 9mm cartridge not just the same distance from the feed ramp every time, but also the same distance from the feed ramp as you’d get with a .45 ACP cartridge.
The feed lips are also the proper length, so the cartridge heads up toward the chamber at just the right moment. You’ll also see a groove in each side of the magazine. These ensure the rounds cannot move side to side so the bullets hit the feed ramp at the same spot every time.
One other small feature seen in Ed Brown and other 9mm 1911 magazines is the front of the magazine body comes up higher than you’ll see with .45 ACP magazines. This prevents the bullets from nosediving, and the front of the magazine actually works as a sort of additional feed ramp to the cartridge as it exits the magazine.
While these brand-name 1911 magazines cost more than the no-brand GI leftovers you might find in a box at the local gun show, trust me: You get what you pay for.