A number of law enforcement agencies across the country are either standardizing on or authorizing officer carry of Model 1911 type pistols. So, we evaluated the Smith & Wesson
version not only from the usual standpoint of features and shooting qualities, but for day-to-day patrol use as a duty pistol.
Before going into the SW1911, though, we must explore the M1911 itself and why it is suitable for general law enforcement duty, if officers are properly trained in its use. Many special response teams, such as those of LAPD, FBI and U.S. Marshals’ Service are issued M1911 type pistols, not to mention many military special operations teams. Other agencies using or authorizing M1911s for duty carry include San Diego, CA; Texas Rangers; Tacoma, WA and my own Killen, AL Police Department. M1911s are generally not department issue to most patrol officers but are authorized for duty carry after training and qualification.
There are many advantages and few disadvantages to the Model 1911 system. Getting the M1911 into action from Condition One (cocked and locked) is faster than any other semiautomatic pistol, once one is trained in its use. The M1911, especially a modern version like the SW1911, is perfectly safe to carry in that condition.
Not only does the SW1911 have external safeties, but the pistol has several internal safeties, as well. The SW1911 has a firing pin safety that physically blocks the firing pin and prevents it from contacting the cartridge unless the grip safety is fully depressed. The grip safety also blocks the trigger, so there are two internal safeties in one component of the SW1911.
Not all M1911 pistols have the firing pin safety feature, but the SW1911 does, and we recommend it in today’s litigious society where maximum safety is necessary to prevent lawsuits. As an officer safety issue, the cocked and locked configuration has occasionally saved officers when a “bad guy” obtained the officer’s M1911, but was unable to fire it because he couldn’t figure out how to work the safety. As ludicrous as this seems, the inability to operate a cocked and locked M1911 is not unusual, even with some officers whose only handgun experience has been with other types of pistols or revolvers.
The inability of personnel unfamiliar with the M1911’s operation to fire it has been proved in real-world testing. A suspect may be able to obtain my SW1911 duty pistol, but if he is a typical thug, he probably will not be able to immediately use my SW1911 against me, giving me time to get to my backup.
There are other LE issues with any 1911 type pistol, however. One major issue is Condition One carry and the public, or even other police officers. During qualifications in the state of Alabama, part of the process requires that the pistol be returned to the holster after firing, then be drawn upon command and a set number of shots be taken within a specific time limit.
As I finished firing one stage during qualifications with my SW1911, I locked the pistol and returned it to my holster in preparation for the next stage. The range officer looked down in horror at my “cocked and locked” SW1911 and said, “Charlie, your pistol is COCKED!” I replied, “That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” but he wasn’t having any of that.
As far as he was concerned, I was supposed to start with the hammer down. It took intervention from the chief to convince him that Condition One was the appropriate and safe way to carry any M1911. This can also be an issue with untrained civilians, who see what appears to be a cocked pistol in an officer’s holster. The officer’s assurance that “cocked and locked” is the accepted way of carrying an M1911 may not go very far to assure unknowledgeable personnel, including administrators, who may be unfamiliar with firearms in general and the M1911 in particular. This, however, is no reason to avoid carrying an SW1911.
Let’s take a look as to why the SW1911 is a viable sidearm not only for special response teams and SWAT, but for properly trained patrol officers. The M1911 is the fastest pistol to get into action. Police officers are not routinely involved in fast-draw contests, but when an officer needs that pistol, it may be needed right NOW! In an extreme situation, as the 1911 pistol is drawn, the thumb sweeps the safety off as the pistol clears the holster and is brought into alignment with the target. The trigger finger stays off the trigger until the pistol is “on target,” which is standard procedure with any firearm.
Once the decision to shoot has been taken and the pistol is on target, the finger goes to the trigger and the pistol is fired. If the officer is in a situation where it is not clear whether or not it will be necessary to fire, the procedure is slightly different. In these circumstances, it is always advisable to keep the SW1911 locked, with the thumb poised to sweep the safety off and pull the trigger.
Because the SW1911 can be gotten into action instantly from “safe,” there is no real advantage under most circumstances to disengage the safety as soon as the pistol is drawn. If the safety is taken off as the pistol is drawn, the trigger finger MUST stay off the trigger until it is necessary to shoot.
Another advantage of the SW1911 is that when the pistol fires, the trigger is automatically reset and the hammer cocked. There is no change in the trigger pull or feel between shots. The SW1911 trigger is the same, time after time, shot after shot. This is not the case with handguns with trigger safeties, or with double action/single action (DA/SA) designs that are double action on the first shot and single action thereafter.
The DA first shot has a completely different pull length and weight from every shot thereafter and requires a slightly different grip once the pistol goes into SA mode. This affects accuracy and the speed of follow-up shots. Since the SW1911 is always SA, it is consistent with every shot, making it easier to shoot accurately than other types of pistols.
The grip angle of the M1911 is the best ever in terms of natural pointing ability. It is so near to perfection that most other handgun manufacturers use it to this day, including Heckler & Koch, Springfield XD pistols and Taurus’ latest pistol for LE use, the 24/7. No handgun points as naturally as an M1911, unless, of course, that pistol has the 1911’s grip angle.
The subject of magazine capacity has come up during the course of our qualification with and duty use of the SW1911 that is the subject of this article. The SW1911 holds only eight rounds in the Cobramags that we chose to use with the pistol. Our previous .45 ACP duty pistol had a magazine capacity of 13 rounds, so a loaded magazine in the pistol and two in the mag pouch gave a total of 39 rounds. We now carry a total of five eight-round magazines—one in the pistol and four on our duty belt for a total of 40 rounds. The ammo weighs about the same and the weight of the extra magazines is negligible.
Finally, there is the legendary reliability of all M1911s. This handgun has stood the test of time in the worst possible real-world situations for nearly 100 years and continues to do so to this day in the hands of the nation’s military and law enforcement personnel.
Agencies that can choose any handgun they desire, regardless of cost, almost invariably choose M1911s because they know that the M1911 combines rock solid reliability with proven lethality. Most modern M1911s like the SW1911 have a service life of about 50,000 rounds before requiring gunsmith servicing. For most officers, that equates to more than a lifetime of shooting unless the officer competes in police matches.
With all its advantages, the M1911 is not for everyone. The M1911 is different from most handguns in police service today and, because of that, it requires training in its features and use. The officer who decides to carry an M1911 must train with it so that its features become second nature. The M1911 requires a manual of arms that is unique to single action pistols.
First, the user must assure himself that the pistol is indeed LOCKED anytime it goes into the holster and remains so until it is time to pull the trigger. Unlocking and firing an M1911 can be accomplished as quickly as simply pulling the trigger on other pistols because unlocking and firing are a single action. The technique of using the M1911 is easily learned, but like all training, it must be ingrained and “hard wired” into the user’s psyche so the M1911’s manual of arms is conducted without conscious thought, and this requires practice until it is learned.
For the officer who is not willing to undertake the challenge of learning the M1911, it is best to stick to another pistol or revolver. But for the officer who is willing to undertake learning the M1911, the reward is a pistol that remains in use not only by Special Forces, but by many individuals and organizations that consider the M1911 to be the finest combat handgun ever designed. We count ourselves among that number, and for the officer who wishes to obtain a duty M1911, the SW1911 is an excellent choice. Let’s take a look as to why.
It is perhaps one of the world’s ultimate ironies that Smith & Wesson now manufactures one of the finest M1911 type pistols in existence. Rather than simply produce a clone of John Browning’s classic design, S&W chose to continue the best features and make a few improvements that actually set the SW1911 apart from other M1911 type pistols.
The most obvious upgrade is the extractor. If there was ever a weak point of the M1911, the extractor was it. The original extractor necessitated that the tension be exact in order to ensure positive extraction. The extractor itself was the tensioning medium and was subject to failure as the tension weakened in use. For that reason, many shooters replaced extractors periodically to ensure that their pistols worked when the chips were down. S&W designed a new type of extractor that should last the life of the pistol. Unlike the original, the SW1911 extractor is external and is tensioned by a coil spring that is more reliable than the original.
The SW1911 also has a firing pin safety that is similar in appearance to the Colt Mark IV Series 80, but instead of being driven from the trigger, the SW1911 is driven by the grip safety. For this reason, trigger pull is unaffected and the device still provides a positive firing pin safety by pressing a blocking pin in the slide and allowing the pin to move forward when it is struck by the hammer.
Another SW1911 safety feature is the loaded chamber indicator, consisting of a small notch in the barrel hood that allows the shooter to visibly observe if there is a cartridge in the chamber. While this does not replace opening the slide and checking the chamber, it is a welcome supplement to good firearms handling procedures.
Our test SW1911 was finished in matte stainless with black finished controls and Hogue rubber grips. Our SW1911 is very striking in appearance and we were immediately taken with its appearance and quality of assembly. While the SW1911 has forward slide serrations for “press checking” to determine load status, we do not find these necessary, although they seem to be de rigueur for custom grade 1911s these days.
The SW1911 also comes with a full-length guide rod, another common feature that actually does nothing to enhance the pistol’s performance. Many customers want these features, and S&W is in business to give customers what they want. The SW1911’s mainspring housing is aluminum, checkered at 20 lines per inch. The aluminum should stand up about as well as steel and is far better than the plastic components used by some M1911 manufacturers. The front grip strap is vertically serrated, and we find that this provides control equal to that of pistols having checkering, plus the serrations don’t get uncomfortable during a day on the range.
The sights are optional Novak Lo-Mount tritium units installed by the Smith & Wesson Performance Center charge team. Trigger pull was just over 4.5 pounds with a slight bit of take-up. There was no discernable creep or overtravel. The fit of slide to frame is excellent with minimal play in any direction and as can be seen from the accompanying table, accuracy was excellent.
The magazine well is flared to facilitate reloads. The SW1911 functioned with rock solid reliability with all brands of ammunition we shot through it. There was never a stoppage of any sort. About the only complaint we have regarding the SW1911 is the silly statement on the dust cover: “CAUTION: CAPABLE OF BEING FIRED WITH MAGAZINE REMOVED.”
Disassembly for cleaning was about as straightforward as standard M1911s, except that the recoil spring has to be removed before the guide rod can be withdrawn. As mentioned, no special tools are necessary, a decided improvement over some M1911s with full-length guide rods that require Allen wrenches or other tools for disassembly.
All in all, we believe that S&W has hit a home run with its SW1911. If our test sample was indicative of overall quality and reliability, S&W has also created a good value with a suggested MSRP of approximately $950, although local gun shops discount them for about $200 less. There are no visible machining or tooling marks to be found anywhere on the SW1911 that we tested, a feature usually to be found only in more expensive pistols.
We believe that Smith & Wesson has what is arguably the best M1911 type pistol on the market for day-to-day police use because of its many unique features coupled with a reasonable price. It deserves a serious look by any individual or organization considering M1911 type pistols for duty use.Charlie Cutshaw is a small arms, ammunition and infantry weapons editor for Jane’s Defense Information. He served as an Army infantry, ammunition and intelligence officer before retiring in 1996. His military assignments included a tour of duty in Vietnam as an adviser. He currently lives in Alabama, where he is a full-time writer and reserve officer. He may be reached at CQCutshaw@aol.com.