Aside from the grip safety check, which is unique to the 1911, these tests can be performed on any other pistol you might be considering for purchase, though double-action pistols require a modification of the thumb safety test. With the DA pistol unloaded and the hammer cocked, again place your pencil down the bore eraser end first. Point the cocked pistol up, push the hammer drop safety down to its safe position, and drop the hammer. The pencil had better not move at all. If it does, something is seriously wrong with the safety, and the future travel plans of that pistol include a trip to the factory. Push the safety off. With the muzzle pointing up, dry fire the pistol. Pick the pencil up off the floor, or investigate the firing pin’s malfunction.
With the safety checks out of the way, look for signs of abuse or experimentation. Take the slide off the frame and look at the frame rails. Have they been peened to tighten the fit? Even an ugly peening job can be fine, if the parts have been lapped for a smooth fit. If you’re looking at an after-market frame and slide combination like the Caspian, put the slide back on the frame without the barrel and recoil spring assembly. Such combinations left the manufacturer as a tight fit and were lapped to slide smoothly. If the pistol is now very loose, it has had many, many rounds through it. The barrel may need to be replaced. The price had better reflect this.
With the slide off, look at the feed ramp. Has it been polished? Polishing is fine. Has it been re-ground, altered or subjected to an incorrect “feed” job? These alterations can be a problem. If the ramp has been incorrectly altered, the pistol will feed poorly, and if the top of the feed ramp has been rounded off, the pistol will not feed at all. Take the barrel and place it on the frame in its unlocked seat, ahead of the feed ramp. Push it all the way back into the cutout, and check the relationship of the barrel to the feed ramp. There should be a small gap between the bottom of the barrel and the top of the feed ramp. A gap of 1/32nd of an inch is about right. A smoothly rounded and blended fit is the indication of a bad feed job. Such a pistol will feed only with round-nose, full-metal-jacket ammunition, if at all. Anything else will hang up. The fix, which involves welding the frame and re-cutting the surfaces is expensive. Unless you can get the pistol for a song, pass on it.
Look closely at the barrel. The feed ramp of the barrel should not be altered, only polished. Ramping the barrel deeper into the chamber was a prehistoric method of ensuring reliable feeding, and is not an acceptable practice anymore. An over-ramped barrel has to be replaced. Look at the locking lugs. Are they clean and sharp? They should be. If they are rounded, or show a set-back shoulder or burred edge, the barrel was improperly fit to the slide. If only the barrel is damaged, a new barrel properly fitted will solve the problem. If the slide locking lugs are also damaged, then you have to replace the top end. Putting a new barrel into a slide that has rounded, set-back or otherwise damaged locking lugs will only damage the new barrel, wasting your money.
Look at the barrel bushing. Some bushings are cast of soft metal, and the locking lug will deform against the harder slide. If it hasn’t already, then in short order the wear will harm accuracy. A new bushing solves this problem at low cost.
Are there cracks in the frame? Many shooters worry about visible cracks, though some do not matter. A crack in the dust cover over the recoil spring is not a concern unless it is extensive, or you are planning to mount a scope right there. This common crack results from contact between the top edge of the dust cover and the slide. Many shooters feel that since the stress between the dust cover and the slide has been relieved by the crack, any problem has been solved. If, however, you still want to eliminate the crack, you must first file down the top of the dust cover to keep it from contacting the slide. Then have the crack welded. Another common crack, through the left rail at the slide stop cutout, is so normal and harmless that Colt actually incorporated it into the design when they began machining the cutout hole completely through the rail.
About the Author: Patrick Sweeney is the author of many of Gun Digest books' best-selling titles, including Gun Digest Book of the 1911, Vols. I & II; Gun Digest Big Fat Book of the .45 ACP, Gun Digest Book of the AR-15, Gun Digest Book of the AK and SKS, Gun Digest Book of the Glock and Gunsmithing: Pistols and Revolvers, among other titles. A master gunsmith, Patrick is also Handguns Editor for Guns & Ammo magazine.
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