Is there a “dream” gun that you’ve always desired to own? (How about a classic Colt?) Don’t let me dissuade you from fulfilling your wishes but realize that a used 1911 may come with complications that you never bargained for.
My recent purchase of a rare Colt Mid Range model 1911 (which shoots .38 cal. wadcutters) was a learning experience. It is an expensive gun that should have been in perfect working condition when I purchased it, but this wasn’t the case. When I received the gun, everything had been methodically packed, including an extra magazine which he kindly sold to me for $100. He told me the gun worked fine, albeit with a certain brand of ammo.
Unfortunately, he explained after I already purchased the gun, was that the ammo manufacturer had gone out of business.
Aesthetically, it was in good enough shape–some of the bluing on the slide had worn off. That wasn’t a big deal. More importantly, as I soon discovered, there were problems with both feeding and ejecting. The seller was 3000 miles away and wasn’t about to admit that he’d sold me a gun that didn’t quite work, much less return my money.
I didn’t have a clue how to begin fixing it.
The more I asked questions of knowledgeable friends, the more I realized that with a 1911, there can be a myriad of reasons for failure to feed and eject. The magazine might need to be tuned, the recoil spring might need to be replaced or the extractor could be bad. Or all of the above. Even ammo could be an issue.
Where to begin?
A little help from my friends
I started by swapping out the recoil spring, which didn’t solve the problem. From there I had a gunsmith tune the magazines—also to no avail. For good measure I replaced the magazine springs, which also, didn’t do anything solve the problem.
I tried a number of different loads, which didn’t improve reliability. One gunsmith suggested that I sort out the brass on the reloads according to head stamp. His logic was that the dimensions on the shells all vary per manufacturer, and that the extractor might favor certain sized shells.
Then there was the condition of the extractor, which we checked for tension. It seemed adequate but who knew?
I was still at a loss because the gun still hiccuped and spit out damaged shell cases.
Fortunately, I found someone online to help me sort things out through on Bullseye-L Forum (the same place where I originally found the seller of the Colt). A fellow named Jimmy out of Monroe, Georgia was kind enough to help me diagnose the problem and sort through the issues. He was convinced the extractor was the culprit and suggested fashioning some dummy rounds (sans primer), loading them in the magazine and racking the slide to see if the extractor was able to eject the round.
I tried his suggestion and after doing so it was obvious that the Colt had difficulty ejecting the dummy rounds.
Time to replace the extractor. So I sent away for a new one from Brownells (which has an enormous inventory). I then had my gunsmith replace and tune it. Voila, mission accomplished.
With the right load and bullet (more on that later) the gun functioned pretty darned well. It wasn’t flawless, there’s still tuning to do but it was certainly much improved—at around 95% reliability. For the time being, I’ll take it…
Adding a Red Dot
Now that the gun was functioning reasonably well, it was time to shoot it.
This Colt is a target pistol and with my aging eyes, I wanted a red dot. The easiest thing would have been to tap a few holes in the slide and add a Weaver mount. Of course if I did that I’d adulterate the slide, decrease the value of this firearm and in general mess up an otherwise semi-pristine Colt. What I opted for instead was an old fashioned grip mount, a one piece affair, which attaches to the left hand grip by means of the same screws used to mount the grip.
Again, Jimmy from Georgia came to rescue. He offered to send me the mount (that is no longer manufactured) from a company called NPC. I reciprocated by sending him some sights for an AR 15.
Fortunately, I owned a decent red dot from Ultradot, a brand that is favored by Bullseye Shooters. Ultradot makes reasonably priced, robust optics that are not well known outside of the Bullseye space. Manufactured in Japan, the dot is very crisp and in general of higher quality than similar optics coming out of China. The length of the scope was perfectly suited for the mount but I needed rings. I scrounged through my many boxes of “gun stuff”, seeking a set of rings and found something that seemed like it should work. Well, it sort of worked. The screws that were meant to hold down the base of the rings had trouble clearing the slot on the mount. I forced the issue and in doing so, stripped one the screws. Not good.
What to do? Warne to the rescue. This Tualatin, Oregon company is a venerable manufacturer of mounting systems, mostly for rifles. The Warne rings, were an ideal solution. Instead of messing with screws, the ring is cinched down using a square crossbolt that engages the little slot on the weaver mount perfectly. I opted for their quick detach mount, which isn’t a traditional solution for a Bullseye Gun but it it was incredibly easy to deploy. To quote my colleague Graham Baates, the Warne system “puts equal pressure all the way around the scope body versus just the top and bottom like conventional rings.”
No muss, no fuss and no stripping of screws. Thank you Warne. I now have a working, Bullseye gun.
Finding the right bullet
Fortunately, there are a plethora of loads for this gun and similar semi-autos (such as the Smith and Wesson 52-2 and the Clark Custom guns) that only shoot 38 Special wadcutters. Typically this gun calls for Bullseye, Winchester 231, WST or 700x powders. It wasn’t a mystery finding the recipe for the load, the challenge was to find a decent bullet.
These guns love hollow-based 148 gr wadcutters (HBWC) that are slightly soft. The hollow-based design allows them to expand and the accuracy can be breathtaking. The good news was that I had a few rounds left from a company called Star Bullets, which were superb.
The bad news was that Star is no longer in business so I had to find a replacement. For science’s sake I tried the standard 148 grain wadcutters—both lead and plated, but they simply didn’t work on this gun.
The solution came from a company called Roze Distribution which manufactures a line of Zero brand bullets (and ammunition). This Cullman, Alabama company (a family owned business) manufactures competition quality products at a very competitive prices. I’d never used anything except Star in the past so I was spoiled. Zero did the trick. The bullets are priced at Price: $72.45 per thousand if you buy 2000 or over and you can buy them directly from the company.
Storing the treasure
After all my issues in getting the gun to function I needed to keep the rust away this finicky little pistol. Hawaii is notorious for humidity and if you’re near the sea, just about anything ferrous in content will oxidize. This was the most expensive gun I’d ever purchased and I wanted to make sure it was stored correctly. I decided to go with a Plano All Weather Pistol Case.
These cases are both watertight and airtight so at least I would be able protect the gun. It’s fabricated from ABS plastic which is very durable.
The hinges are constructed with a robust metal pin binding each hinge together for a tight fit so the top stays true when it’s opened. It has two layers of 2″ thick high density pluck foam padding inside, a 1″ thick high density foam padding on the bottom under the pluck foam pads and a 1″ thick high density egg create foam padding glued into the top of the case.
It can fit one large gun up to 17″ in length or four to five regular size pistols plus a little extra room for accessories. The interior dimensions, from the Plano web site, are 18.75″ x 14.25″ x 8.25″. The pluckable, interior foam is 16.5″ x 12″ and has two apertures in the front of the case for padlocks.
I like that there are a total of four clasps, instead of the usual two that you’d find on a case this size.
Price is about $85 on Amazon and it will fit four average sized handguns. It’s a great insurance policy.
So what can we learn from this adventure?
Brian Takaba, a gunsmith and manager over at X-Ring Security on Oahu, near Honolulu, says that it’s not really uncommon for a used 1911 to malfunction. In fact, he says, “You can expect a flaw or two.” Said Brian, “1911s are not reliable to begin with. The design is over 100 years old. Even the Model T automobile, which came out in 1927, is more modern!”.
Controversial statement? Perhaps, but the lesson is when you’re buying a used gun of that style and vintage, you can anticipate problems from the get go. The good news, or at least what I learned, is that with a little common sense (and a good gunsmith nearby) you can resurrect your dream gun.