The most noticeable difference between this pistol and the original 1911 is the front cocking serration. These serrations were originally devised to give operators with gloved hands a chance at manipulating the pistol, clearing a malfunction or loading the piece. Examples of modifications of this type exist on handguns over 40 years old, but never at the level they are seen today.
Whether or not you need them they are there, and there are no down sides. With the exactness and precision of modern CNC machinery, S&W is able to offer a quality 1911 with front serrations at a fraction of the cost of custom work of the type. Moving to the rear, we see the pistol features a slightly enlarged slide lock safety. I like this for two reasons.
First, I can hit the safety more quickly when taking the piece off safe. Second, when involved in tactical movement I may quickly sweep the safety on safe. The safety is positive, clicking into position just as it should. In the modern fashion the grips are rubber. They are from Hogue (PO Box 1138, Dept. GWK, Paso Robles, CA 93447; phone: 800-438-4747; on-line: www.getgrip.com) grips, and this means considerable research and effort went into their design. These grips properly support the plunger tube.
The grip safety is of the beavertail type. Some shooters have a problem consistently depressing the grip safety quickly, and I admit I am one of these. Practice helps, but the enlarged safety funnels the hand into the grip and adds to an already low bore axis. These safeties also spread recoil out on a wider area. The trigger is of the lightened or skeletonized type. The sights are among the best ever fitted to a 1911, the original Novak low mount.
There is a different type of safety on the SW1911 than found on many other pistols and it bears explanation. The original 1911s feature an inertial firing pin. Simply put, the firing pin is held to the rear by the firing pin spring, sometimes called the firing pin return spring. When the hammer strikes the firing pin, the firing pin runs forward and strikes the cartridge primer. The firing pin spring then returns the firing pin to battery.
When the hammer was at rest, on the firing pin, the nose of the firing pin does not touch the primer of the cartridge that is chambered. However, it was discovered that if the pistol were dropped from a sufficient height, and the piece landed on the muzzle, the firing pin could take a run forward under inertia and fire the pistol. Drop tests results vary, but in some cases the height at which the pistol could be induced to fire was surprisingly short. Several fixes were used by different makers. (When SIG introduced a positive firing pin block in 1975, market pressure was certainly a factor in developing a firing pin block.)
Colt developed the positive firing pin block found on the Series 80. The Colt block uses a plunger that keeps the firing pin locked to the rear until the trigger is pressed completely to the rear. I have enjoyed several pistols with this block, and the trigger action has been smooth. However, there have been complaints concerning this type of block. Some companies have gone with lightweight firing pins and stronger firing pin return springs, and this seems to be a viable solution. S&W has adapted a modern version of another system.
There is a plunger in the slide that is actuated by the grip safety. The grip safety must be fully depressed in order for the firing pin to be released for forward travel. In theory, with a firing pin block that does not affect the trigger action, a smoother and lighter action may be had. It does make trigger jobs simpler and less prone to missteps, but anyone not intimately familiar with the inner workings of the 1911 has no business performing surgery on the piece!
All of the improvements to the 1911 embodied in the SW1911 are great, but there is one that may be controversial. The original extractor of the 1911 was of good spring steel and quite rugged in action. It has to be of good quality and properly fitted for good function. During the previous decade, I have replaced quite a few balky extractors with a unit from Wilson Combat (2234 CR 719, Dept. GWK, Berryville, AR 72616; phone: 800-955-4856; on-line: www.wilsoncombat.com). The extractor is very important for proper function. In fact, while the 1911 is supposed to headspace on the casemouth in a perfectly set up pistol, quite often the extractor controls headspace. (Ammunition has much to do with the equation.)
S&W has gone to an external extractor powered by a short spring. While some say the new design is actually more complicated by virtue of more parts, a keen eye for design shows much less possibility of improper fitting. There is only one way to mount this extractor, and replacement would require none of the fitting that is necessary with a standard extractor.
The internals should be mentioned. There were no obvious tool marks and attention to assembly was obvious. Many 1911s of the past needed a feed ramp polish to be reliable with a full range of ammunition, and the SW1911 ramp is bright and clear. Of course, there is more to the story than a feed ramp polish.
Some pretty odd bullet styles have come and gone and modern ammunition manages to combine hardball-like feed reliability with an expanding bullet. Also, modern magazines present the bullet higher in the feed cycle. In other words the bullet nose is directed into the chamber rather than directly onto the feed ramp. With a combination of better ammunition, a smoother feed ramp and better magazines, the SW1911 is guaranteed to feed properly.
Ammo to Try
I felt the slide roll over the frame with a practiced hand. The fitting of the locking lugs was good, with no drag, and the link did not catch. This is a pistol fitted with skilled hands. I attempted to put away any preconceived notions. S&W big stainless double-action pistols are renowned for feed reliability and toughness, and there was no reason the SW1911 should be any different, but a firing test would tell the tale. I carefully field stripped and lubricated the piece. 1911s are desirous of proper lubrication, and a range test demands more lubrication than carry.
To be fair, I proceeded with proven loadings of good quality. I had on hand a considerable quantity of ammunition put up in new Starline Brass (1300 W. Henry St., Dept. GWK, Sedalia, MO 65301; phone: 800-280-6660; on-line: www.starlinebrass.com). This load uses the Sierra 185-grain JHP, a match grade accurate bullet, over enough Winchester 231 to generate 1,050 feet-per-second (fps). This is a good steppy load with excellent accuracy.
I also had several boxes of handloads using the Sierra 230-grain FMJ bullet at about 820 fps. It is good to test fire a new 1911 with the standard weight and full power loads to get a good idea of the qualities of the pistol. I also hand on hand a good supply of Winchester’s (427 N. Shamrock St., Dept GWK, East Alton, IL 62024; phone: 618-258-3340; on-line: www.winchester.com) white box USA ball ammunition. A 230-grain pill at 850 fps, this load always gives good performance.
A 1911 that will not digest lead bullet handloads with good function and accuracy simply is not going to be economical to fire and use, so I included a quantity of handloads using the Magnus Bullet Co. Inc. (PO Box 239, Dept. GWK, Toney, AL 35773; phone: 256-420-8610; on-line: www.magnusbullets.com) 200-grain SWC bullet over enough Winchester 231 to generate 850 fps. Finally, as a test of the SW1911 to handle modern +P pressure ammunition, I had on hand Cor-Bon’s (1311 Industry Rd., Dept. GWK, Sturgis, SD 57785; phone: 800-626-7266; on-line: www.corbon.com) renowned loads in not only 230-grain but 185 and 200 grains as well.
There is a theory that testing a handgun with only one type of ammunition gives consistent results, but I can verify from long experience that quality pistols often like one type of load over the other. This has much to do with bullet weight and velocity, the cut of the barrel, and perhaps the basic harmony of the action.
Whatever else we expect from a 1911, we must understand that a tighter handgun that sacrifices reliability for accuracy is a target pistol while the looser pistol is a service handgun. The SW1911 is definitely an accurate service handgun. I burned most of the ammunition firing at targets at known and unknown range to get a feel for the pistol. I fired at paper targets representing a threat, at dirt clods and at fallen limbs from 10 to 100 yards away.
A smooth 5-pound trigger compression helped, but the Novak sights were the key element at play. (And, perhaps, a fellow with tens of thousands of rounds in with the 1911.) The pistol hits well. The piece does not squirm in the hands; the Hogue grips take care of that. I am a sucker for wild custom grips, but there is nothing not to like about the Hogue grips on this piece. I found the SW1911 can be fired as quickly accurately as any 1911 I have ever holstered.
I established the pistols reliability and good traits in several range sessions. I fired over 600 rounds without cleaning, and while the slide began to slow down, the pistol never failed to feed, chamber, fire and eject. After a thorough cleaning I recorded the 5-shot, 25-yard groups in the chart with loadings proven for accuracy.
During testing I replaced the grips, on a whim, with Smith & Alexander (PO Box 496208, Dept. GWK, Garland, TX 75049; phone: 800-SA2-1911; on-line: www.smithandalexander.com) figured checkered grips. The results are striking. They really transformed the looks of this pistol. For carry, I used the Wellsmade custom holster I obtained some years ago. George Wells is a trained Orthoist, the man who makes and fits artificial limbs. As such his knowledge of the human body is unprecedented in his field. With proper dimensions to aid him he will craft a holster that fits like few others. My example is well designed and executed in Elephant hide.
Overall, I find the SW1911 impressive. It is as good as any other 1911. We live in a consumer driven market economy, and we usually get what we pay for. To get a better 1911 will require more funds, and the next jump up is a big one. To spend a little less we may not realize our investment. As the man at Rolls Royce said, “Quality remains after the price is forgotten.”