There are generally two types of gun people: Those who love John Browning’s iconic 1911 short-recoil-operated pistol and those who think it’s an outdated, unreliable, expensive design with no practical purpose today. Objectively, there’s almost nothing like a great 1911 trigger since the non-pivoting design means the trigger slides straight to the rear, and a good gunsmith can tune a 1911 trigger to break below 2 pounds safely.
Rare and historic Colt Model 1910 John Browning prototype semi-automatic pistol, Serial Number 3, from the Dr. Robert Azar Collection. Photo Credit: Rock Island Auction
However, if you want that kind of glass-rod 1911 trigger in a safe and reliable gun, you must pay for it. Run-of-the-mill 1911s in the "budget" category can have terrible triggers and are unreliable and expensive to fix, say the doubters.
Regardless of your feelings, let’s review a brief history of the 1911 platform. Then we’ll dive into what we think are some of the best 1911s for various purposes and at different price points, so you can decide what might be the best 1911 for you.
History of the 1911
Around the turn of the 20th century, the US military saw the writing on the wall and initiated trials of several semi-automatic pistols for potential adoption as a standard service firearm. Initial trials in 1900 weeded out some 19th-century designs (such as the Mannlicher and the C96 "Broomhandle" Mauser). Poor performance of .38 caliber revolvers against the Moros in the Philippine-American war and the 1904 Thompson-LaGarde pistol-round effectiveness tests led the Army to specify that the new pistol must fire a cartridge of no less than .45 caliber. John Moses Browning, widely acknowledged as one of, if not the most important firearms designers of all time, invented the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge in response.
In 1906-1907, another series of Army pistol trials began. Six manufacturers submitted entries, but three were eliminated due to poor performance. The Savage, Colt (designed by Browning), and DWM ("Luger") designs chambered in Browning’s new .45 ACP cartridge continued in the trials, exposing weaknesses and issues that needed to be resolved. Colt and Savage modified their entries, while DMW withdrew from the trials. The Army held a series of field tests from 1907 to 1911, and both the Colt and Savage pistols performed well overall and were improved after each round of testing.
In one of the final tests in 1910 leading up to adoption, evaluators fired 6,000 rounds from a single example each of the Colt and Savage in a 2-day period. When the guns grew too hot to hold, they were dunked in water to cool down. The Colt pistol passed this brutal test without reported malfunctions, while the Savage design had 37.
In the end, the Colt/Browning design was determined the winner. The US Army formally adopted the Model of 1911 on March 29, 1911, and a legend was born. The pistol was adopted by the Navy and Marine Corps in 1913. The military name for the handgun was changed in 1917 to "Model 1911" and again to "M1911" in the mid-1920s. Colt began civilian sales in 1912.
After WWI, minor external changes were made to the M1911 in response to soldiers’ feedback. In 1926 a new model was announced, termed the M1911A1. A1s got a shorter-reach trigger, clearance cutouts in the frame at the rear of the trigger guard, an arched (rather than flat) mainspring housing, a more extended grip safety and shorter hammer spur, a larger front sight, and plain-checkered grips. Parts remained interchangeable with the earlier variant.
The Model 1911 and M1911A1 saw service in the expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916, as well as all US wars and military actions since until it was replaced as the standard service sidearm by the excellent Beretta M9 in 1985. Due to its stellar handling and shooting characteristics and the real-world effectiveness of the .45 ACP round, the 1911 platform was still used by special military forces and FBI hostage rescue teams until the late 20th century and beyond.
In the early 1970s, Colt introduced the "Series 70" model of 1911, with a collet-style, 4-fingered barrel bushing intended to improve accuracy. In most estimations, this failed as some bushings broke and could lock up the gun. This model was done away with, and nearly all modern 1911s use either a standard bushing or are bushingless, with a "bull barrel" interfacing directly with the slide.
In 1983, Colt introduced the "Series 80" variant, which added a trigger-activated firing-pin block safety. Some critics complain that Series 80 pistols have worse triggers than previous models, but a good gunsmith can build a Series 80 gun with an excellent and safe trigger.
The current Colt catalog lists both "series 80" and "series 70" models, with the critical difference now being the inclusion or lack of a firing-pin safety block and mechanism.
Since early in the 1911s history, the pistol has been a favorite of competition and informal target shooters, has won multiple Bullseye championships, and has excelled in just about every pistol shooting discipline you can name. To this day, the "2011" (double-stack) variant of the 1911 is still the go-to handgun platform for USPSA Open division and 3-gun/multi-gun competition, and many law enforcement officers and civilians continue to carry a 1911 as their primary defensive pistol. The Colt 1911 also quickly became a darling of custom gunsmiths, and a booming aftermarket developed.
Photo Credit: Heirloom Precision
With the advent of the "wonder nine" higher-capacity 9mm service pistols in the 1970s and 80s, the 1911’s popularity dwindled somewhat. But in the late 20th century, partially helped by the 1994 "Assault Weapons Ban," which limited handgun magazine capacity to 10 rounds, the 1911 experienced a renaissance, with multiple manufacturers joining the market to fill the growing need. The 1911 has continued to grow in popularity since, and many would argue that we are now experiencing a "golden age" of the 1911.
Today at least several dozen manufacturers are making 1911-style pistols in nearly every caliber you can imagine, and of course, many custom gunsmiths to help modify one to your exact taste or even build one entirely from scratch if you have the money and the time.
Photo Credit: Heirloom Precision
Who makes the best 1911?
The best 1911 meets your preferences and expectations for features at your desired price point. Asking, "What’s the best 1911," is like asking, "What’s the best car?" Both questions are too broad to be helpful for any person unless we get a little more insight on a few things.
To find the best 1911 for you, you must think carefully about what you actually want and expect from the handgun. What are your priorities? Do you plan to use your 1911 as a fun “range toy”? For plinking? For local practical handgun competition? For formal Bullseye-type target shooting? For home defense? For concealed carry? For law enforcement use? For collecting? For bragging rights? And, crucially, what’s your budget?
Your answers to these questions will help you narrow things down. If the best 1911 in your mind means the highest-quality, most expensive 1911 (not counting 1911s made from meteorites) and money is not an issue, then you will want to look at ordering a full-custom, hand-built pistol from Ted Yost, Stan Chen, Jason Burton, Jeremy Reid, John Jardine, Don Williams, Chuck Rogers, Lou Biondo, Karl Benning, or another favorite top-tier 1911 gunsmith.
Owning a full-custom 1911 from any of these ‘smiths will be a source of pride, and the shooting experience is something you must experience to understand. Every detail has been addressed, every single part is as good as it can possibly be, there are no sharp edges anywhere, and every component works together with the whole like the proverbial Swiss watch.
If you want the best of the best in a 1911 pistol, then a full-custom will likely fit the bill. (And it’ll be a big bill—and probably a long wait. Many of these builders have a years-long waiting list and aren’t accepting new projects.)
Photo Credit: Heirloom Precision
But if for you, "the best 1911" means "a high-quality pistol with no MIM (metal injection molding) parts," it’s hard to beat a Dan Wesson for the price. Dan Wesson 1911s are somewhat of an anomaly in the 1911 world, offering high-quality barrels, some appropriate hand-fitting, and forged/machined or cast/machined parts throughout (including a forged frame), rather than resorting to MIM, which some people find distasteful or lacking in durability.
Several years ago, Dan Wesson sourced their high-quality, machined fire-control parts from Ed Brown, but it’s unclear if that’s still the case. Regardless, all the guts of the gun are good to go. If you shop around, you can typically find an entry-level (in this semi-premium tier) Dan Wesson Heritage for between $1,200-$1,400. Suppose you can save your lunch money for a while and opt for the Dan Wesson Valor. In that case, you won’t be disappointed, as the Valor gets some tasty upgrades such as front-strap checkering, better sights, G10 grips, ambidextrous thumb safeties, a Stan Chen magwell, and a lightweight, flat-faced trigger. Valor’s street price starts at around $1,600.
We understand that $1,200-$1,600 isn’t pocket change, but it would be a Dan Wesson if we had to pick the best 1911 that most people can afford.
Photo Credit: Dan Wesson Firearms
However, your definition of the best 1911 may lie in a price bracket above or below the Dan Wesson, so let’s review some more options for your consideration.
Pricing range for 1911 pistols
As you can see, a good 1911 will cost more than the typical mass-produced, polymer-framed, striker-fired pistol. The 1911 is a 110-year-old design, and the manufacturing and fitting process is more involved and expensive than on modern pistols. The higher-quality parts and the more hand-fitting, the higher the price needs to be.
A full-custom 1911 build will likely cost you well north of $5,000, and the sky’s the limit, really. You gotta pay to play with the big boys.
However, you don’t have to drop 8 racks and wait 10 years for a full-custom build to get a genuinely excellent pistol. If we step down from full-custom, hand-built guns into what some call the “semi-custom” market, starting between $2,000-$3,500, we find brands like Wilson Combat, Nighthawk Custom, Les Baer, and Ed Brown. For many of us, this would be the max of our potential “top of the line” 1911 budget, and one of these excellent pistols might be a once-in-a-lifetime purchase.
In shootability, reliability, and accuracy, it would likely be impossible to tell the difference between these pistols and a $7,000 "full custom" gun and to maximize value, these builders offer “package” builds, or what some would call standard models, with the premium components, features, and finishes that many people would typically select. The Wilson Combat CQB Tactical LE is just one (excellent) example, listing for a base price of around $3,500.
Photo Credit: Wilson Combat
However, these 1911 builders also offer custom touches and services, so you can either order a complete build with the components, features, and finish you want or start with one of their base models and customize it with exactly the changes that make it perfect for you. (Of course, custom work and additional features will cost more, and you can quickly get into the $7,000+ range.)
Stepping down in price into the $1,000-$2,000 market, we have the aforementioned and excellent Dan Wessons and offerings from the Colt Custom Shop and Springfield Armory Custom Shop. These pistols usually aren’t considered authentic customs but are essentially production-tier guns with additional care in selecting, pairing, and assembling components. A Custom Shop gun might get more care when fitting slides to frames, thumb safeties to sears, or grip safeties to frames than a run-of-the-mill production gun. A gun at this price point might get better fire-control components than an entry-level gun from the same company.
If "the best 1911" means "the best 1911 under $1,000," that changes things slightly. Springfield Armory, Ruger, Colt, and Kimber all make basic, good-quality 1911s in the $600-$950 range that will generally hold up to reasonable amounts of defensive, competition, or recreational use and are good platforms for upgrades when desired. A Colt Government Model at about $900 fits the bill for a “real Colt” and is available in either the Series 70 or Series 80 configuration, in blued or stainless finishes. Springfield Armory has a good selection of "mil-spec" 1911s and the Ronin and Garrison lines with thoughtful upgrades. Early Kimbers were considered premium quality for a few years, and they are fighting to regain that reputation. Ruger 1911s are also well-regarded for the price, and Ruger is known for excellent customer service if you have any issues.
Photo Credit: Springfield Armory
Just be aware that your 1911 will likely have multiple MIM and even polymer parts at this level. Whether that’s, a deal-killer is up to you.
If "the best 1911" means "the cheapest 1911," and you just want a reasonably functional 1911 to represent the model in your collection or to play with at the range, then you have a lot to be happy about. Multiple inexpensive 1911 models are available today, primarily from manufacturers in the Philippines, Turkey, Brazil, and Italy.
For several decades, Rock Island Armory (made by Armscor in the Philippines) was your only natural choice if you wanted a "budget" 1911 that actually worked. RIA has earned a good reputation for quality and reliability at the lowest practical price. You can typically find RIA 1911s for between $400 - $500 and sometimes for under $400. Citadel is another brand you might see, also made by Armscor. Iver Johnson 1911s are also made in the Philippines by Shooters Arms Manufacturing. Bottom line: In the entry-level 1911 market, our choice would be a Rock Island.
Turkish 1911s (and many other gun platforms) have gained tremendous market share over the past few years due to their almost ridiculously low prices. 1911 brands such as Tisas, SDS Imports ($319 on sale at the time of this writing), EAA Girsan, Regent, and Umarex are all made in Turkey by various firms. If you want a very inexpensive 1911 to play with, you might consider one of these but don’t expect top quality, ultimate reliability, or super-great warranty service.
Taurus (Brazil) also offers a 1911 for not much dough, and their offerings caught on a few years ago as a reasonably good-quality, budget option available in multiple sizes, calibers, and feature sets. Taurus has been working to improve its quality and customer service over the past decade, and this could be a good choice if you’re in this market.
Italy is known for premium firearm brands such as Benelli, Beretta, Franchi, Pedersoli, and others, but it also produces the Charles Daly brand of 1911s. Built by the Chiappa factory, these reasonably inexpensive pistols have a pretty good reputation for the price (though prices have crept up over the past few years), so check them out and see what you think.
What model should I buy?
Once you’ve narrowed down your intended purpose and “must have” features, you can check out the manufacturers or custom gunsmiths mentioned above and save money if needed (or put a deposit down with your favorite gunsmith and start the long wait).
We’ve talked about the best brands of 1911s above, but which model of the 1911 you should buy, or in other words, which variant would best suit your needs, will again depend on personal preference. Let’s go over some critical differences among 1911 models.
Size and capacity
The GI-issue or "Government" 1911 has a 5-inch barrel, and its full-length grip has a magazine with 7 rounds of .45 ACP ammunition (modern magazines may hold 8 rounds in the same sized magazine). This is the standard size for a 1911. Over the years, there have been two other main variants or models of the 1911: The Commander sized gun, with a standard-length aluminum or steel grip frame but a 4.25” barrel and a shorter slide and dust cover to match, and the Officer’s model, with a 3.5-inch barrel, still-shorter slide, and dust cover, and a shorter grip frame that holds a shortened 6-round magazine (in .45 ACP).
Several manufacturers offer combinations or variations on these three main models, and some build 4-inch barreled pistols and term them “commander” sized guns. Several makers offer “Concealed Carry Officers” models, essentially a Commander-sized upper assembly on a lightweight aluminum alloy Officer-sized frame. Proponents feel this is the best of both worlds for 1911 concealed carry.
Several makers have offered or currently sell "long slide" 1911 variants, with 5.5-inch, 6-inch, or even 7-inch barrels and commensurately longer slides. Arnold Schwarzenegger made the concept famous in 1984’s The Terminator when he scored a .45 long slide with a laser sighting from a hapless gun store owner before blowing him away.
Today, long-slide 1911s in caliber 10mm Auto are reasonably popular for hog hunting or even bear defense, and Dan Wesson’s Bruin is a lovely example.
Photo Credit: Dan Wesson
Starting in the mid-1980s, the "double-stack" 1911 became pretty popular in competition circles, thanks to firms like Para-Ordnance and Caspian, who built proprietary wide-body 1911 frames for gunsmiths to build on. Capacity was astounding, with .38 Super variants holding 20 rounds or more. This changed raceguns forever, and Wilson, Springfield, Kimber, Les Baer, Para-Ordnance, STI, and others began to offer “factory” double-stack 1911s. They were all the rage for a while, and the trend continues in “race guns” for USPSA, IPSC, and the 3-gun competition. However, other than Rock Island Armory, not many brands today still offer a double-stack 1911 under $2,000.
Springfield Armory recently launched their new double-stack 1911 platform, however, called the Prodigy, to compete with the wildly popular Staccato "2011" guns that have made serious inroads in law-enforcement and competition use (particularly since mostly solving the double-stack 1911 magazine reliability problem in their Gen 2 mags).
Bring money, though, as the Prodigy lists for $1,499, while the cheapest Staccato lists for $1,999, and they go up over 4 grand.
Full or standard dust cover
Les Baer popularized their "Monolith" 1911 frame with a full-length dust cover about 20 years ago. It looks striking, and fans swear they shoot softer and recover quicker than traditional 1911s. Several other builders offer this style of frame. Finding a holster that fits may be a problem.
Photo Credit: Arnzen Arms
Frame material: Steel, aluminum, or polymer
The original Colt Commander of the 1950s had an aluminum alloy frame, but it was anything but a commercial success. By the 1970s, the "Lightweight Commander" had garnered some fans, and the company still makes alloy-framed 1911s to this day in varying sizes.
For carry, the advantage is immediately apparent, as the aluminum-framed guns are noticeably lighter than the all-steel variants. However, aluminum isn’t quite as durable as steel, so rails and frames will wear a bit more quickly, mainly if you don’t keep them adequately lubed.
Some makers, such as Rock River Arms, now offer polymer-framed 1911s that claim to offer the benefits in durability and felt recoil reduction of typical polymer-framed guns like the Glock, but in the 1911 platform.
In general, the heavier the gun, the less felt recoil (all other things being equal), so if you buy a super-light aluminum or polymer 1911 chambered in a hot round, you’ll need to practice enough to deal with that.
Photo Credit: Rock River Arms
Time was, you could have a 1911 in any caliber you wanted, as long as it was .45 ACP. But Colt started offering its pistol in .38 Super Automatic in 1929, 9mm in 1950, and 10mm in 1987. Other brands have built 1911s in almost every semi-auto caliber you can imagine.
Though purists scoff at any 1911 not chambered in .45 ACP (as John Browning intended), the 9mm 1911 is becoming extremely popular since the advent of reliable magazines. The recoil is exceptionally soft, and the follow-up shots are super-quick. Today, most 1911s are sold in caliber .45 ACP, 10mm, .38 Super, or 9mm Parabellum.
Rail or no rail
Delta Force operators apparently came up with some clever ways to add lights or lasers to their M1911A1s in the good old days, but the first factory frames with Picatinny rails integrated into the dust cover, came out in around 2001, with offerings from Springfield and Kimber popularizing the concept. Colt and other significant players eventually gave in and started offering 1911s with accessory rails. If you plan on adding a weapon light to your 1911, you should definitely go with a rail gun from your favorite maker if one is offered.