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June 25, 2020

How to Function Check Your 1911

By Ryan F. Sullivan

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At Rock Island Auction Company, we get a lot of questions, and one of the most common is, "does it work?" This is completely fair and totally understandable; a big part of the appeal of a firearm is its dual status as both a historical artifact and a real working tool. If it doesn't work, part of the appeal is absent.

When describing a gun for our auction catalog, we are limited by the tools at our disposal. Most critically, we do not have a range on site (if we did, you could bet your backside that every machine gun would have an extra 100+ rounds through it before it left the door). This prevents us from test firing weapons or safely dry-cycling rounds through them. As such, we are limited to what is typically described as a "basic function check."

The exact procedure varies from weapon to weapon, as many weapon systems have their own quirks that need to be accounted for in an assessment, even among offerings from the same manufacturer. For example, an amount of play in the cylinder that would be considered normal in a Colt 1877 Lightning double action would be unsettling in a Colt Single Action Army, due to differences in how lockup is achieved prior to firing.

What follows is a basic procedure for performing a function check on a Colt 1911 pistol. It is applicable to the Colt 1911, 1911A1, Government Model, Super 38, and any other variations prior to the introduction of the firing pin blocking safety (like the pre-WWII Swartz safety, or later "Series 80" 1911 designs).

The M1911 of General Lutz Wahl needed little inspection with its stellar condition. It brought $195,500 in December 2019.

Function Check the 1911 Slide & Release

The first step in all gun handling is to ensure the pistol is unloaded. Starting from an empty chamber and unloaded magazine, the first series of tests involves the slide catch and the general fit of the slide to the frame. There are three steps.

  1. The first, with the magazine inserted, pull the slide back to lock and then release it via the thumb release.
  2. For the second test, retract the slide to lock, drop the magazine, and then release the slide by pulling back on it and releasing.
  3. Last, cycle the slide sans magazine.

This series of dry cycles can uncover a lot of potential issues with the slide catch and allows a certain amount of diagnosis. Failure of the slide to catch open on the first cycle can often be the result of wear to the magazine as opposed to a more serious issue with the pistol itself. Repeating the first step with a magazine borrowed from a different 1911 can be enlightening.

Failure to release on the second cycle can also be the result of wear causing the slide and slide stop to bear against each other. It could also be due to an excess of dried grease between the frame and the stop, giving the tester a chance to resolve the issue by applying an appropriate amount of oil in the correct areas.

This M1911A1 by Union Switch & Signal bears an original Dulite finish and would be quite the collection addition. It brought $11,500 in May 2019.

The third cycle essentially acts as a "control group," ensuring that there isn't anything else applying force or pressure to the slide stop in operation. This could be something as simple as a piece of springy debris beneath the stop forcing it upward, or as involved as an odd bevel to the rear face of the stop that causes it to interact strangely with the plunger assembly. Either of which could result in a "false pass" in the first two tests.

Additionally, these cycles provide an opportunity to feel for any anomalies in the fit of the slide, frame and barrel; an excessively tight or loose fit of the parts could be a sign of issues. Tightness could easily be the result of dried grease, and the application of oil and some more light cycling often resolves the issue. Excessive looseness is typically not something that can be casually corrected. Note: a certain amount of play in the slide/frame fit is common in 1911/Government Model pistols not specifically outfitted for target or match use.

The M1911 of Sgt. Art Kiely battled its way through the Pacific Theater, and brought $51,750 in our June 2020 Premier Auction.

Function Check the 1911 Safeties & Trigger

The next steps involve the safeties, hammer, trigger, and disconnector. This section of testing can be a bit tricky if you don't want to dry fire your gun, as applying pressure to the hammer can cause it to behave in an unnatural way. Thankfully, there are a number of answers to this question. Some people use snap caps, put a plastic ballpoint pen body between the hammer and slide, or just put their thumb over the firing pin and letting the hammer hit it (yikes/ouch). Other opt to dry fire it, but while the 1911 is a pretty robust platform, dry firing is a bad habit and we do not endorse it. Resting the thumb of the off-hand directly against the top of the hammer without applying pressure allows the hammer to be caught before it has a chance to be accelerated by the mainspring, and is painless if done right. As always, begin with a fully unloaded pistol.

  1. From full cock, firing pin protected in the manner of your choosing, start by attempting to pull the trigger with no pressure on the grip safety.
  2. Follow this with a second trigger pull with the thumb safety on and the grip safety depressed. No movement should be detectable in the hammer during either pull. Audible noise should be minimal.
  3. Then, with both safeties disengaged, pull the trigger again. There should be a smooth, clean release from full cock. Letting the hammer down, ease it back until hearing an audible click of engagement from the safety notch, and then pull the trigger. If the safety notch is in good order, the hammer should stay up.

Once this is done, perform another repetition of the hammer test, and then (without releasing the trigger), work the slide. If the disconnector is in good order, an audible click should be heard a short distance into the slide's travel, and the hammer should remain up when the slide returns to battery. Failure at any of these stages, again, could be a symptom of excessive grease, and can potentially be resolved with light oiling.

This pristine Singer M1911A1 belonged to the accomplished Col Owen G. Birtwistle, and came with a archive of his personal history. It found a new home for $253,000 in September 2018.

Common 1911 Function Test Failures

As you can see, old grease is a common cause of basic failures in the 1911 pistols that cross our tables at Rock Island Auction Company. Many of these legendary sidearms consigned to us are finally coming out of long-term storage, and have gone many years without being actively fired. The grease does a very good job of keeping everything in order, but tends to dry out over the years, and generally needs to be addressed before a real feel can be ascertained for the pistol's current condition.

Following grease, the magazine is often the culprit. Mag issues tend to be found in the section of the follower that engages the slide catch. They are also seen in the notch for the magazine catch. Both of these areas can suffer wear often overlooked in casual inspection, but can still cause failures in operation.

Other 1911 Function Tests

Please keep in mind that this is a BASIC function check. There are numerous other more involved tests that can be performed on different areas of this long serving pistol.

  • Cycling snap caps can reveal feeding and extraction issues, as well as issues with the magazine.
  • Dismounting the firing pin and extractor allows a check for damage, wear, or previous modification.
  • Inspecting the bore visually or with a bore scope may expose previous mistreatment.

Determining the functionality of a beautiful Remington-UMC M1911 like this can help obtain a value. This example brought $10,925 in April 2016

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 found this helpful, be sure to check out some of our other educational guides.

What Issue is My Colt Detective Special?
How to Identify a Winchester 1866
How to Identify Antique Firearm Locks
What Model is My Winchester 1873?

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