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Brownells Retro 1911 Review

Brownells and Ed Brown team up to build an early competition-style 1911.

Brownells Retro 1911 Review

What you need in a defensive pistol are sights you can see, a trigger you can manage, and 100 percent reliability.” Jeff Cooper wrote that because for a long time those three things were not givens on handguns. It did not take long for guys like Ed Brown to make them givens, and once we could be certain of getting those three aspects in a handgun, the market moved on. But there’s a lot to be said for the simple things in life.

Brownells has teamed up with Ed Brown to build a 1911 that looks like the IPSC guns of old but which performs much better than many did back then. Brownells calls it ’80s retro, but really the look was en vogue back in the 1970s. I know, because I lusted after pistols that looked just like this one when I started competition. We called them “California guns” because that’s where they came from when we first noticed them.

Brownells and Ed Brown recreated the look of these original IPSC pistols, while providing the three essentials that Cooper required—but not adding on the cost of the extras. I had a chance to test the second one off the line: the BRN-1911, serial number B10002.

Besides the superior build, there are a few changes from the old days. To achieve a durable, corrosion-resistant frame back then, gunsmiths hard-chromed carbon-steel frames because stainless steel was new and not to be trusted, even actively avoided. Now stainless is a known and trusted quantity, and there’s no need to use hard-chrome.

Brownells Retro 1911
The blued steel slide has cocking serrations on the rear only, and the contrasting stainless frame gives it a great look. The controls are all Ed Brown’s.

The gunsmiths at Ed Brown take a frame and a slide—which they make themselves—and carefully mate the two. This is both easier and more precise when done in-house, because the machine operators can work with each other. The bench pistolsmiths don’t have to depend on some supplier following the blueprints. And built-to-order frames and slides are a lot easier to fit than an out-of-the-box gun, where you never know what might have to be tightened and what might have to be loosened.

With the slide and frame rails machined to not-quite-fitting status, it then becomes easy for the bench guys to make them perfect. Not that the job is easy, because it still has to be perfect.

Once the slide and frame are fitted, the barrel gets installed. Since Ed Brown makes its own barrels as well, this fitting is also an easier process because the dimensions are exactly what the gunsmiths want.

The slide is blued steel, with 19 vertical slide serrations on the rear only. On top is an Ed Brown adjustable rear sight, and it is the same pattern as the old BoMar sight. Forward of that is a front sight mounted in a transverse dovetail, commonly known as the Novak pattern. Both front and rear are period-correct plain black steel.

Brownells Retro 1911
BoMar was the sight back in the day, and since they’re no longer made, Ed Brown came up with its own BoMar pattern sight.

Inside the slide is the Ed Brown match barrel, fitted with a match bushing and standard guide rod—just the way John Browning designed it. The fit is snug enough to be accurate but not so tight you can’t wrestle them apart for cleaning. On the back end of the slide, there is a regular extractor, not a Series 80 design—thank you, Ed Brown. The ejection port is lowered and scalloped.

The frame’s frontstrap is checkered at 25 lpi. Back in the day, you had your choice of 20 lpi or 30 lpi. The 20-lpi choice was for the serious competition shooter and was more aggressive while the 30-lpi option was for show guns.

The 25-lpi checkering as done by Ed Brown on the Retro is perfect. Evenly spaced, clean, sharp enough without drawing blood, and not a flat spot in sight.

Brownells Retro 1911
The 25-lpi checkering on the frontstrap is today’s ideal—not too aggressive, not too tame. The double-diamond grips are good-looking and traditional.

The mainspring housing is arched with traditional vertical grooves in it. This is period-correct for many shooters of the time. Getting the mainspring housing checkered was a small detail, but it was a relatively pricey one, and a lot of shooters just couldn’t be bothered. A lot of us didn’t even bother matching the Parkerized mainspring housing, the USGI one we installed, to the hard-chrome or blued frame.


One detail that is period correct but that could have been pulled forward into modernity is the top edge of the frontstrap. On the Retro 1911, it has not been lifted—that is, the radius of the juncture from frontstrap to trigger guard has not been made higher and tighter. We didn’t do that in the early days, but we do now, and it does make a difference in your grip. You can have the radius lifted and the frame bead blasted again if you like.

Underneath, Ed brown has done a period-correct magazine well bevel. It wasn’t until after the pre-compensator days that we started bolting, welding or soldering on ever-more-gaping magazine well funnels.

Finally, the grip panels are cut in the pattern known as the double diamond, where there are diamonds left uncheckered around each grip screw. The wood is cocobolo, the wood of grips for the 1970s, ’80s and even into the ’90s.

The grip safety, thumb safety and trigger are Ed Brown. The design of the grip safety and thumb safety didn’t come about until the 1980s, but I find them so perfect in fit and feel that I’m willing to overlook that they’re somewhat out of sync time-wise.

The Brownells Retro 1911 comes with a pair of Ed Brown magazines, each with a capacity of seven rounds. Shooters of today might be surprised to find that, yes, it was considered entirely appropriate to enter a competition with magazines holding only seven rounds—and even walk about in one’s daily routine with such “low-cap” magazines.

Brownells Retro 1911
Big mag well funnels were not a thing in the early days of competition, so the Retro sports a simple bevel for easy reloads.

The trigger has an aluminum body and is made lighter by means of three holes through it. This reduces sear slap as you chamber the first round. The trigger is everything you’d want in a 1911: clean, crisp, no creep, with only a minimal amount of overtravel.

In testing I had no illusions that I was going to find anything untoward. Ed Brown and crew have been building reliable 1911s for three decades, and they know what they’re doing.

Since the Retro 1911 would make an excellent carry gun, I wanted to test suitable carry or duty loads. Those who practice with factory ammo will most likely be doing so with plain old hardball, so I shot a bunch of that.

Two other loads filled out the array. I decided to test the Retro with ammo that duplicated what we all shot back in the day: the H&G 68, in this case simulated by the Black Hills 200-grain lead semi-wadcutter

The “Sixty-Eight” was a hard-cast lead semi-wadcutter with a single grease groove, a bevel base and a long nose. The radius of the nose was designed to be in the exact same location on a loaded cartridge as would be the radius of a 230-grain full metal jacket. It’s a semi-wadcutter that feeds like hardball.

I have probably deposited something like four or five tons worth of H&G 68s into backstops across America in my shooting time. It shot as I remembered: beautifully.

I also tried a relatively new load: Black Hills HoneyBadger, a solid-copper 135-grain bullet with a fluted “X” shape to its nose. It does not expand, but it stops in ballistic gelatin as if it were. It shot very well. In fact, none of the loads tested showed anything but top-end performance out of the Retro 1911.

Simply put, the Brownells Retro 1911 shot as you’d expect a hand-built 1911 to shoot: like a dream.

Brownells Retro 1911
Notes: Accuracy results are average of four five-shot groups from a Sinclair shooting rest at 25 yards. Velocities are averages of 10 shots, measured by a LabRadar chronograph programmed to measure velocity 15 feet from the muzzle. Abbreviations: FMJ, full metal jacket; FN, flatnose; JHP, jacketed hollowpoint; LSWC, lead semi-wadcutter; RN, roundnose

The question people will ask is whether it’s a deal at $2,500. Let’s do some arithmetic. My first 1911 cost me $179 in 1978. I ended up spending another $500 over time rebuilding it into a pistol that would have been a clone of the Brownells Retro. That process took me a couple of years and several spoiled matches due to parts breakage (slides made in World War II wear out) and meant I needed a backup gun. Adjusted for inflation, that comes to $2,200 in today’s dollars. In January 1980, if you had told me I could have had this pistol for $770 with no waiting time for a ’smith to build it, I’d have hurt myself reaching for my wallet.

No, getting the Brownells Retro, right now, with all these features, is almost like magic.

Brownells Retro 1911 Specs

  • Type: 1911
  • Caliber: .45 ACP
  • Capacity: 7+1
  • Barrel: 5 in.
  • OAL/Height/Width: 8.7/5.6/1.3 in.
  • Weight: 40 oz
  • Construction: stainless steel frame, blued steel slide
  • Grips: cocobolo, double diamond
  • Sights: BoMar pattern rear, blade front
  • Trigger: 3.5 lb. pull (measured)
  • Price: $ 2,500
  • Manufacturer: Ed Brown
  • Distributor: Brownells, 

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