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Easy Upgrades for your 1911 Pistol: DIY Guide

Modern 1911s have a lot come a long way with features, but that doesn't mean you can make yours even better. Here are a few easy upgrades that you can easily do at home.

Easy Upgrades for your 1911 Pistol: DIY Guide

I’ve long been a fan of 1911s, especially those of the custom variety. Over the years, custom builders have driven the larger manufacturers to include more and more enhanced features on their out-of-the-box 1911s. Today’s pistols from Springfield Armory, Colt, Dan Wesson and Kimber are far more shootable than the USGI-style guns of old. Still, some of them can use a few tweaks to enhance performance or suit their owner’s esthetic preferences. Here are some easy upgrades that you can make to your 1911 without stepping too far into gunsmithing territory. We will focus on the three areas that are most important when it comes to shootability: grip, sights and trigger.

1911 Sight Upgrades

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If a front sight is staked-on, rather than dovetailed, it’s best to leave it alone or send it to a professional. The rear sight is less problematic once the dovetail size is established. Believe it or not, though, there’s no standard rear dovetail size for sights on a 1911. Going back to my Springfield Armory Garrison example, this handgun used a Novak cut rear. Assuming that the rear sight can be removed by a hobbyist, which is not always the case, there are many options available. I’m partial to those made by John Harrison at Harrison Design. I used his Extreme Service Rear Sight on my Garrison, coupled with the factory front. XS Sights are another favorite that I prefer for defensive-minded handguns. XS has several styles available for each of the common dovetails, but their Big Dot Night Sight set are going to be one of the best options.

1911 Grips

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The fastest and least-expensive way to personalize a 1911 is by swapping-out the factory grip panels. Dozens of varieties exist for every taste or preference. For a modern grip that adds functional texture and style, look no further than VZ Grips. They offer numerous styles, textures, colors and varieties ranging in price from the $29.99 Operator II Polymer to G10 models starting at $65 per set.  For wraparound-style grips that provide texture to the fronstrap, it’s hard to beat the classic Pachmayr ($44.98). These have been around for decades and are perhaps best known today due to their use on the Marine Corps’ MEUSOC 1911s. I also love classic checkered wood grip panels and these can be had from a variety of sources. When I was looking for a set to dress up a Springfield Armory Garrison, I bought walnut panels ($49.99) from Hogue.

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A key element of the 1911’s grip is the mainspring housing, which forms the backstrap of the pistol below the grip safety. Swapping out a factory polymer housing for a checkered steel unit is a simple and worthwhile upgrade. These are offered by virtually every 1911 parts maker out there, though my favorites are made by revered custom pistolsmith Stan Chen. Stan produces both blued and stainless housings that are fully machined from steel billets. They offer smooth units as well as checkering at 20, 25 and 30 lines-per-inch ($47 and up). The company also produces a Shooter-Installed Magwell ($149) that combines a mainspring housing with an extended magazine well that contours perfectly to most factory frames.   

1911 Triggers  

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Many of today’s factory 1911s use fire-control parts made using Metal Injection Molded (MIM) parts. They usually work just fine, but replacing them with machined steel parts is a worthy upgrade and usually results in a far better trigger pull as well as improved longevity. I don’t recommend that untrained individuals fiddle around doing home trigger-jobs. Buying and fitting a kit from a single maker such as EGW, Nowlin, Wilson Combat or Extreme Engineering is the way to go. I’ve been pleased with Harrison Design’s Extreme Service Ignition kit ($129.95) which includes a hammer, disconnector and sear. These should drop into most 1911s though, at times, the thumb safety must be filed to accommodate the new parts. Instructions are included, but if you doubt your ability with a file, consult a pro. While you’re at it, replace the factory polymer trigger with an aluminum unit. Note that these are usually oversized and must be filed or machined to fit. I use a milling machine, but a hand file or belt sander would work, too. Take your time. Using the Harrison kit, I achieved a clean 4.15-pound trigger pull on my Garrison with zero tuning. Another option altogether is Nighthawk Custom’s Drop-In Trigger System ($299; nighhawkcustom.com). Truly a one-piece, drop-in solution, this module contains the hammer, sear, disconnector and hammer strut in one enclosed unit. This is ideal for someone who doesn’t want to fiddle with parts but is interested in sending the pistol out for custom work. I’ve tried it and it works as-advertised!

Next-Level 1911 Upgrades

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If I were going to take things a bit further, my next upgrades would be to replace the thumb safety, grip safety and slide stop with fully machined parts. These operations require a bit more skill but a dedicated hobbyist should be up to the task. As always, remember to work slowly and, when in doubt, consult a pro. Be suspicious of much of what you’ll find on YouTube unless you trust the source. If you are able to find a copy, the Make Ready with Hilton Yam 1911 Duty Tune DVD is a great resource for an individual looking to upgrade his or her own 1911. Mr. Yam also provides online training resources as well as parts on his website. The 1911 is one of the greatest handguns ever designed but it can become far more shootable with a few key upgrades. For a variety of reasons, today’s 1911s are some of the best that have ever been produced, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. Customizing a 1911 can be an endless endeavor, and a number of fine books have been dedicated to the subject. Focusing on the components that can be installed by a hobbyist is a great way to improve the function of your handgun without adding significant cost.




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