August 28, 2020
By Ryan F. Sullivan
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Last time we brought up the 1911 family of handguns, the focus was on the “basic function check;" a quick rundown of the fit and functionality of the weapon that could be performed without tools or stripping the weapon, and capable of detecting a spectrum of potential mechanical issues. Of course, the basic check is far from perfect. There are a number of potential issues that would go undetected, and require a more in depth examination. In particular, disassembling a 1911 pistol makes it a lot easier to check out. If followed properly, these directions can spare you time, money, and possible injury.
Rare North American Arms Co. Model 1911 pistol, only one of hundred examples assembled. Available this August.
Though not as user friendly as some modern handguns, the field strip procedure of the 1911 is relatively straightforward, and disassembling a 1911 requires a minimum of tools. For the classic model, a ballpoint pen with an intact cap plus a bottle of suitable oil can get you 90% of the way there, and a suitable flat head screwdriver can cover the last 10%. For newer models, where an increased emphasis was placed on the tightness of the bushing fit, a bushing wrench can save a lot of wear and tear on your hands and on the gun. These wrenches are available from a number of vendors, and many manufacturers include them in boxes alongside other basic cleaning tools.
Before taking the pistol apart, I recommend performing the basic check procedure and verifying that the pistol is unloaded as part of your preparations. This basic function check verifies that the weapons is in good order before starting. Also, if the pistol does not function after reassembling, you'll know if it was like that before you got there. A work table/bench isn't strictly needed, but, unless you have a higher than average number of hands, you'll need somewhere to put the various pieces as they come off the pistol.
As a second recommendation, appropriately take the time to deeply examine the finish before attempting to disassemble a 1911, especially the first few times. There are a few areas of the pistol that are prone to excessive and unsightly wear during the disassembly and reassembly procedure. The recoil spring plug, and the frame beneath the slide stop, can suffer wear to the peaks of the checkering, resulting in finish loss or even denting of metal, if the bushing is allowed to drag against it while being turned or if compressed with a hard tool. “Takedown lines," distinctive semi-circular rubs or scratches caused by the slide stop dragging against the frame, are extremely common on military-issued 1911's because they were typically handled without great concern for future collector value. While one can take apart a 1911 without inflicting this wear on it, developing the skill and confidence to do so takes time, and is best done with a pistol of less than pristine condition. On a real 98%+ pistol, you may be better off leaving well enough alone.
There are a few different ways to proceed, but the following is the one that I've found works well for a broad variety of 1911/Government Model pistols. Step one will be to deal with the recoil spring, which can interfere with the removal of the slide stop. Use caution at this phase, as, by design, the 1911's recoil spring is kept compressed even at the resting slide-locked position, and, if mishandled, can launch itself and its plug with enough force to cause harm.
Positioning the rear of the pistol on the work surface, push the plug inward with one hand (use the back end of the pen as if it puts up resistance, and cock the hammer and engage the thumb safety if you find the slide is moving around too much on you), and rotate the bushing with the other (left/clockwise relative to the bore as viewed from the muzzle). The bushing should move far enough to allow the plug to come forward, permitting a controlled release of pressure on the spring. Once this is done, the plug can be set aside. Do not attempt to remove the spring at this point.
Next comes the slide stop, which doubles as the axis pin for the barrel link and keeps both the slide and barrel secured to the pistol. With the spring decompressed, the slide can now move freely back and forth, and the takedown notch (the small, semi-circular cutout just behind the catch notch on the slide) aligned with the slide stop. With these parts aligned, the stop can be moved up, relative to the pistol, and pushed out from left to right. If resistance is experienced at this step, first confirm the slide is properly positioned, then apply some oil, and finally apply greater force using a non-marring punch (or the back of the pen) as a drift to get the stop moving. Once the stop is out and the magazine is removed, it can be set aside, and the slide assembly can be removed off the front of the frame.
Removing the grips is not strictly needed for this process, but doing so can reveal useful information about the pistol, for example, obvious differences between the screw bushings is a clear indication of part replacement or pistol overhaul, and the presence of finished-over pitting in this area is a clear sign of refinishing. Each panel has two screws, which are removed in conventional, counter-clockwise style. While they are generally interchangeable, I suggest keeping track of which screw came from where. One way to do this is to take a sheet of paper, poke four holes in it with the pen, stick the screw shanks into those holes, and then label the paper around each screw to note which position each came from. This technique is also handy when dealing with other firearms with multiple screws, especially when those screws are not interchangeable.
Regardless if you dismounted the grips or not, the frame and grips can be set aside while continuing to deal with the slide. Before the barrel can be removed, the bushing needs to be removed. To do so, rotate the bushing right/counter-clockwise relative to the muzzle, which will allow it to be pulled out from the front. With the bushing out, the only thing holding the barrel in place is the recoil lugs in the slide. Pulling the barrel down slightly, relative to the slide, will clear those lugs, allowing it to slide forward.
Setting the barrel aside, we are now left with the slide, which still has the firing pin and the extractor. Both of these parts are held in place by the firing pin stop plate. Before proceeding, take note of the compressed spring that, although not as powerful as the recoil spring, still holds a hazard of launching out of the pistol; less likely to draw blood, but more likely to land somewhere where it is difficult to find. To free the stop plate, depress the firing pin further into the pistol (the arm of a pen cap is perfectly sized for the job, while the back of the pen is a good tool to drive down the plate if it puts up some resistance). When the plate is about a quarter of the way down, you'll need to take the pen cap out, and about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way down, the firing pin (which, again, needs to be compressed to remove the plate) is free to leave the pistol, at a velocity determined by whether or not you had your thumb over it. The firing pin, unless jammed with grease or experiencing some other issue, should drop free from the slide. The extractor, however, requires a bit more effort and, strictly speaking, isn't really needed for this procedure.
Reassembly is more or less the same procedure in reverse: firing pin, pin stop, barrel, bushing and spring back onto the slide, slide back onto the frame, slide catch back into the frame, plug back into the slide, and the grips whenever you feel like it.
The procedure described above is applicable to a broad spectrum of 1911/Government Model pistols, both vintage and modern. That said, there are some variations on the theme of the basic Browning design that can interfere with the procedure above, due to people making changes. Whether these changes are an improvement or an “improvement” is A) outside the scope of this document and B) likely to start an argument, so we leave that aside. These changes can require a slightly different approach to taking down the pistol.
There are a number of alterations that can be made to the 1911 that can cause issues when trying to manipulate the bushing or while decompressing the recoil spring. Bushing alterations have long been popular, as designers and tinkerers often want to tighten up the fit of the components in that area, which can make it troublesome to remove with the pistol otherwise assembled. Another alteration target is the recoil spring and plug assembly, which can be changed for a tighter fit or to integrate a guide rod for the spring, which again can make it difficult to remove the plug.
For a real-world example of what can do this, in our July Online Sale we had a Ruger 1911 outfitted with a Guncrafters brand bushing, which was designed with a solid front; there is no way to physically access the spring plug to initiate the style of takedown listed above. To get the slide off in this scenario, you essentially need to run the procedure backwards. Instead of removing the plug to decompress the spring, you need to remove the frame.
Manually retract the slide against resistance to align the notch with the slide stop. Techniques vary, but I've had good luck with hooking the thumb of my weak hand in the trigger guard and wrapping my fingers around the top of the slide to pull back, and then getting the thumb of my strong hand around the grip safety and the fingers around the slide to hold the slide back and make the final adjustments. BE CAREFUL when you pull out the slide stop; there's enough pressure on the mainspring to physically launch the slide and barrel right off the pistol. Before attempting to gently release the slide, you need to have your off hand in position to support and control the recoil spring, because as soon as you have the slide forward far enough it's going to want to pop right out. Once the slide is off, you'll need to lay the frame aside and use both hands to support the slide to gently let out the spring. With the spring no longer providing tension, the challenge of getting the bushing out is often significantly lowered, though you may need to play around with the position of the barrel to get enough play to get the bushing out.
Reversing the procedure requires getting the spring back into position by keeping the spring compressed and the barrel link aligned properly while putting the whole assembly back onto the frame at once. Again, during this procedure the spring will be in danger of ejecting itself from the slide and, during the final steps of reassembly, the compressed spring can launch the slide. Be mindful of your surroundings and where parts are likely to land in the event that a hand slips.
The 1911 pistol uses a spring-loaded, inertia-driven firing pin. At rest, the firing pin is not long enough to reach the primer with the hammer down and must be driven forward with force to clear the space and strike the primer. While this was considered sufficient for the time of construction (and still is by many parties), some seek an additional layer of protection to assure that there won't be an inadvertent discharge. There are a few variations on the firing pin safety, though many boil down to two components: a spring-loaded block in the side that physically obstructs the pin from moving forward until pressed in the proper direction and something in the frame to do the pressing (which is typically linked to either the trigger or the grip safety and found in the vicinity of the disconnector on the top of the frame). The part of the mechanism in the frame does not present a problem during this procedure, but the block in the slide can cause stress during attempts to remove the firing pin and stop plate. For this part, a second pen cap may come in handy.
First, lay all other parts aside and set the slide down on its sights on the work surface. The safety device typically looks like a round or rectangular section of metal sticking out from the bottom of the slide, which can be pushed in with a small amount of force. In order to get the firing pin pushed in far enough to release the stop plate, you need to first push in the safety, maintain pressure, and then push in the firing pin. Once the pin is pushed in, pressure can be released from the safety and attention turned to the stop plate. Reassembly requires depressing the safety, properly positioning the firing pin, and positioning the slide stop back in place. Again, as long as the firing pin is in and being held down, you can release the safety.
With the pistol stripped down, all the parts can be inspected for signs of damage or abnormal wear, as well as variations in color and texture that could indicate a replacement or refinishing. Of particular note are high stress/friction areas, like the frame and slide rails, the underside of the slide, and anywhere where metal is cut at a 90% angle. With the barrel off, it's easier to inspect and clean the bore, plus, a number of manufacturer and inspection markings may become exposed during this process. Looking up through the bottom of the slide, the extractor can be checked for damage and wear, as can the firing pin.
An area of particular concern, especially if the pistol shows evidence of alteration or upgrades, is the interface between the ramp and the throat. These are areas of the frame and barrel responsible for managing the transition of cartridges from the magazine to the chamber. In essence, this area of the pistol acts like a funnel to guide the cartridge where it needs to go during the feeding process, and it is a popular target for modifications both moderate (like lightly polishing the area) and extreme (completely redesigning the barrel and frame to integrate more of the ramp directly into the barrel). Opinions on how much is too much vary wildly, but from the standpoint of Browning purists and collectors looking for a pristine example, any modification could be considered too much. Alterations made by previous owners (which can call for heavy scrutiny) can aid reliability in feeding but could also harm much more than it helps (if it helps anything at all). If the upgrades or modifications to a 1911 seem too extreme, or you question what the person who did the modifications was even thinking in the first place, then it would be best to direct your dollars elsewhere.
The Colt 1911 is arguably one of the most popular, effective, and stylish sidearms ever invented. It served troops faithfully throughout both the First World War and the Second World War and helped earn America the title of back to back World War Champs. That being said, it is no wonder that the 1911 pistol genre is so incredibly valuable to collectors as each one tells a different story. With the proper care, attention, and maintenance, these treasures can last, and even function, for an indefinite period of time, and the first step is understanding how to disassemble the pistol.
Exceptionally fine documented 1941 production World War II U.S. Colt Model 1911A1 attributed to Col. William Patteson Thorington, a bomber pilot in the Pacific Theater. Available this August.
As always, a full and detailed inspection should be performed before attempting to load or fire any gun that has had previous owners. Functionality can be verified independently, but if you're not sure, it never hurts to visit a trusted, competent gunsmith for a full run-down on your newest 1911 pistol. If you have any questions regarding any of the information discussed in this article or are interested in the consignment process, please contact Rock Island Auction Company.
If you found this helpful, be sure to check out some of our other educational guides:
Anyone thinking about dipping their toe into the world of firearms collecting should visit one of Rock Island Auction Company’s Sporting & Collector
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