November 23, 2022
A well-equipped 1911 is one of the most-shootable handguns ever devised. For decades, it was the combat semiauto handgun, rivaled only by the Browning Hi-Power. Today, polymer-framed, striker-fired handguns offer great ergonomics, lots of capacity and excellent reliability. On paper, these handguns have made the 1911 obsolete, yet the design endures. The fact is that many shooters, myself included, simply shoot a good 1911 better than we do other, arguably more capable, designs.
If you’re new to the 1911 world, there is something that you should know. You cannot treat it like a Glock and expect it to perform to its potential. The reality is that 1911s require a bit of cleaning and maintenance from time to time. I have my own experiences and opinions when it comes to keeping a 1911 running, but I don’t live and breathe this topic on a daily basis. Jeremy Sides does. Sides is a gunsmith who has been employed by the Springfield Armory Custom Shop for more than two decades. He is a member of the American Pistolsmiths Guild, an honor that is only extended to the best in the business. We reached out to Sides for a few tips on keeping your 1911 running strong.
Cleaning A 1911
As far as cleaning intervals go, Sides doesn’t feel like it needs to be done on a constant basis, “They’re not too critical,” he said. After a shooting session, he field-strips his gun and does a basic cleaning. “I clean the rails and run a swab through the barrel. Any commercial cleaner will work just fine,” Sides told me. “I’m old school, I like Hoppe’s Number 9.” My own cleaning process is pretty much the same—I wipe down the rails with a paper towel and run a patch or two down the bore. Finally, I run a toothbrush or pick in-between the extractor and the breech face to remove any debris that might be trapped there.
For most users, that’s as far as it needs to go. “Usually, you don’t ever need to tear into the frame,” Sides said. “If it’s a carry gun, after 500 rounds or so you might want to clean out the inside of the frame if you’re handy enough with the 1911 and feel confident tearing it apart. It’s common to see lint buildup inside the frame on a carry gun.” Inspecting the parts for corrosion is another recommendation, particularly in humid climates. “If you’re down south, it’s a good practice to take it apart and make sure that rust isn’t forming.”
Any basic cleaning kit should work on a 1911, but my personal choice is the Handgun Cleaning Kit sold by Wilson Combat. This kit includes everything you’ll need and contains a few 1911-specific elements including a barrel bushing wrench, an extractor brush and a polymer tool that is ideal for cleaning the frame rails.
Lubrication For 1911s
It’s not a great idea to run a 1911 dry but it doesn’t need to be dripping with oil to work properly. “We like a thinner oil; we stay away from thick lubes,” Sides said. “The only places that you really need to oil are the [frame/slide] rails and where the barrel rides—the barrel hood and the portion of the barrel where it contacts the bushing.” I also put a bit of oil into the locking lugs where the barrel and the slide meet. A small drop of oil on the top of the disconnector is a good way to lubricate the firing mechanism without disassembling the frame. FYI, magazines should not be lubricated.
The only really “consumable” parts on a 1911 are the various springs, namely the recoil and firing pin springs. There is some debate as to how often springs need to be replaced. “My personal opinion is that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Sides said. “We recommend that shooters go 2,500 to 5,000 rounds before they start replacing springs.” These guidelines refer to the recoil spring, though Sides has seen cases where firing pin springs have failed after significant use. Mainsprings and sear springs rarely need replacement. Ed Brown recommends swapping recoil springs every 3,000 rounds, a number that many other builders seem to agree with. In terms of recoil springs, the type of spring used is also a factor. Wilson Combat, for example, recommends changing conventional springs every 3,000 rounds while it’s flat wire springs can last 40,000 rounds.
I’ve always viewed gun cleaning sessions as opportunities to inspect my handgun, looking for cracks as well as worn or broken parts. In terms of what to look for, Sides recommends paying attention to the extractor since the hook can sometimes break off. The ejector is another potential problem area. “Every now and then the ejector can break. There are two tongues that stick down [into the frame] and they can break off. The extended area of the ejector that actually pushes on your brass is another area to keep an eye on.” Safety checks are always a good idea as well. “With the gun unloaded, make sure that your safety is functioning properly.”
Don’t Be An Idiot
When looking at a used 1911, it is not uncommon to find a scratch that curves downward from the slide stop towards the triggerguard. Commonly known as the “idiot scratch,” this is an entirely preventable problem. When reassembling your pistol, press the slide stop straight into position rather than turning it into place. Filing a small bevel at the appropriate spot on the back side of the part can make this task even easier, though this is a task better suited for a gunsmith or advanced hobbyist.
The 1911 platform has morphed over the years and, these days, double-stack guns such as the Springfield Armory Prodigy are growing in popularity. On these guns, Sides recommends keeping an eye on the magazine springs. “Sometimes the mag springs can get weak, which can affect your feeding. If you’re having any issues, try a different magazine to determine whether that is the problem. Everything else is pretty similar [to a single-stack gun].”
After reading this, one might conclude that 1911s are finicky creatures prone to constant breakage and malfunction. This is not true. There is a reason that this handgun served the U.S. Military in combat for seven decades and remained in service with special operations units even longer. Take care of it, and it will take care of you. All 1911s are not created equal, so choose a brand and model with a reputation for quality and reliability—there are several out there. As far as upgrades go, having a gunsmith replace any MIM parts with fully machined steel components is rarely a bad idea.