Buying a Used 1911
When you’re considering a used 1911, start with a good visual inspection. Has the exterior been abused? Hammer marks or rough file marks on the outside should make you wonder how careful the previous owner was with the inside. If the original blued surface is now gray from years of use and carry, but the owner never dropped it and fired it seldom, you have a great opportunity. The looks are likely to bring the price down, but mechanically it can be just fine. If it is a pistol used in competition you might be able to find some answers by asking about its history with other competitors. Did the previous owner have a reputation of always shooting unreliable guns? Or were his pistols always reliable, just ugly?
After the visual inspection, start checking the operation. If you haven’t already done so, make sure the pistol is unloaded, and tell the clerk at the store that you want to perform some safety checks. Cock the pistol and dry fire it. Was the trigger pull very light? A very light trigger pull will have to be made heavier to be safe and durable. Or was it very heavy? Did it feel as if it was crunching through several steps before it finished its job? A very heavy or gritty trigger pull will have to be made smoother and lighter.
Execute a “pencil test.” Cock the pistol and drop a pencil down the bore, eraser end first. Point the pistol straight up, and dry fire it. The pencil should be launched completely out of the pistol. If it isn’t, something is keeping the firing pin from its assigned duties. Find out what before you buy.
You must perform a mechanical safety test. Cock the hammer again and push the thumb safety on. Holding the pistol in a firing grip, press the trigger a bit harder than you would to fire it. Seven or eight pounds of pressure is sufficient. Let go of the trigger, and push the thumb safety off. Now hold the pistol next to your ear, and slowly draw the hammer back. You should not hear anything. If you hear a little “tink” when you draw back the hammer, the thumb safety is not engaging fully.
If you heard the “tink,” here’s what happened. When you pulled the trigger with the safety on, the sear moved a tiny amount until it came to bear against the safety lug. It shouldn’t have moved at all. The hammer tension kept the sear from moving back into position when you pushed the safety off, leaving the sear partially-bearing on the hammer hooks. When you held the pistol close to your ear and drew back the hammer, that tension on the sear was removed. The sear spring pushed the sear back in place, causing the tink you heard. If the hammer stayed cocked, the sear only moved a tiny amount. The fix is easy. What if you never got to the “tink?” If the hammer fell when the safety was pushed off, before you even tried to listen, the thumb safety fit is very bad and you will have to buy and fit a new safety. In the worst case, the hammer falls even when the safety is on. These also need a need thumb safety. Considering the amount of work needed, and the possibility of other things being badly fit, you might just want to pass on this particular 1911. Unless, of course, you can get it for a very good price, and want to do the work yourself anyway.
Next test the grip safety. Cock the hammer, and, holding the frame so you do not depress the grip safety, pull the trigger. Release the trigger, and, now grasping the pistol so you do depress the grip safety, hold the pistol up to your ear again and draw the hammer slowly back. If you hear that tink again, the grip safety is barely engaging. Look at the grip safety. Because some competitive shooters don’t feel the need for one, they grind the tip of the grip safety off where it blocks the trigger. If this has been done to the 1911 you’re thinking of buying, you will have to have the tip welded back up, and fit it to the trigger. If the tip hasn’t already been ground off, or otherwise altered, you’re looking at an easy fix. It is probably just a simple mis-fit, which you can correct with careful peening.
The last test you need to perform is hammer/sear engagement, or hammer flick test. There’s a good way and a bad way to perform this test. In the caveman days we would lock the slide open empty. Then we would release the hold-open lever and let the slide crash home on an empty chamber. This is more like abuse than a test, especially since it doesn’t fairly test the hammer sear engagement. Continued “testing” this way can actually do harm to your hammer and sear. In the modern, improved “flick” test, you cock the hammer, grip the pistol so the grip safety is depressed, and hold down the thumb safety. With your other hand, flick the hammer back against the grip safety, and let the hammer go forward to sear engagement. This non-destructive test can be performed until the cows come home, or your fingers bleed, and will not harm the sear and hammer hooks. If, however, during this test the hammer falls — even once — the hammer/sear engagement will require work. You cannot depend on this pistol to stay cocked when firing. The pistol may simply require re-stoning the engagement surfaces, or it may require a new sear, or both new sear and hammer. Until you look at the engagement through a magnifier, there is no way to tell.