Massad Ayoob | Thoughts on 1911 Magazines
My first 1911 magazine came, not surprisingly, with my first 1911 pistol. It was a military surplus Colt, serial number 196246, produced in the year 1918. The checkering was almost gone from its original walnut “diamond” style right grip panel, and the magazine in it was half blue and half white. Didn’t have the lanyard loop on the floorplate that some did, but that would have been redundant to the lanyard loop on the pistol itself. The year was 1960. I was twelve years old.
I think I may still have that magazine somewhere in the giant pile of “gun stuff” accumulated in the course of shooting 1911s for 58 years since. That magazine worked with the only ammo available to me at the time, GI hardball that sold for about $5 per box of fifty as I recall. There was an Army-Navy store in town at the time, and there I bought some GI surplus magazines as spares. Those didn’t work so well. An early lesson learned! I saved up and bought commercial Colt .45 magazines at a gun shop. They worked, too.
Time went on
At the age of nineteen or so, I got my second 1911, a pre-Gold Cup Colt National Match that had been produced circa 1962. It had been accurized and fitted with BoMar sights by the master USAF pistol team armorers at Lackland Air Force Base when its former owner was an airman. It came with magazines I hadn’t seen before, their lips flared toward the front instead of tapered. Shooters with more experience than I had learned that GI spec magazines designed for 230-grain round-nose Full Metal Jacket weren’t 100% with the semi-wadcutter match loads used in bulls-eye matches. The same would turn out to be true with the jacketed hollow points that were only then coming into popularity.
Another Lesson Learned.
As Time Goes By
Almost six decades with 1911 magazines have taught me a few things. I’ve learned even more from having the privilege of picking the brains of some of the greatest master pistol smiths in person. Some – Jim Clark Senior, George Sheldon, Armand Swenson – are no longer with us. Some, thankfully, still are — Bill Wilson, Ed Brown, Les Baer, Nolan Santy, Dave Lauck, and more. I learned to listen to the great champions who shot a hundred thousand rounds a year and more through these guns. It all went into the hopper and through the filter. And, like all of us, I came to my own conclusions and preferences — some of them objective, and some of them subjective.
The Autoloading Firearm is Only as Good as its Magazine
Sure, there are other things that can go wrong with an autoloader, but we all know that if everything else is perfect but the magazine sucks, the gun is going to experience stoppages. In a defensive firearm, we are talking about life-saving emergency rescue equipment. Reliability is simply a non-negotiable baseline. A few years ago, I got a 1911 in to test for a gun magazine from one of the most highly regarded boutique manufacturers. It worked fine…except that the one magazine supplied by the maker would choke the pistol with a 12 o’clock misfeed on the last round. Every. Single. Time. An executive of the company that made the gun told me that they frequently changed magazine vendors depending on who gave them the best bid.
As I said in the article I wrote about it, I switched to Wilson 1911 magazines, and the damn pistol ran like the proverbial Singer sewing machine. I liked it so well I bought it. And I still carry it at least sometimes every year.
Only with Wilson magazines.
Know Thy Magazine!
Super cheap magazines – “made of genuine metal,” as the saying goes – rarely seem to work out well. Spring tension weakens, soft magazine lips spread, and we are reminded that quality lasts a whole lot longer and better than low-bid cheapness.
Use Things the Way They are Meant to be Used
A lot of what a Shooting Coach teaches can be taught by a Life Coach with the exact same principle, and that’s true here. Ray Chapman, one of the Original Combat Masters to whom the legendary Jeff Cooper dedicated his book “Cooper on Handguns” was the first World Champion of the Combat Pistol, and one of my best friends and mentors. Ray shot his way to fame with 1911 .45s and said, “Guns tend to work best in the calibers they were designed to shoot.”
The years have proven him correct. It was in the original .45 ACP that John Moses Browning’s 1911 earned its reputation for battlefield reliability. Chapman found the .38 Super, the second centerfire cartridge introduced for the platform, to be a little more finicky. So did the IPSC shooters who hot-rodded the Super in the early days of its resurgence, some thirty years ago now.
Chapman was a big fan of the 10mm Colt Delta when it came out, and had high hopes for it. However, full power 10mm turned out to peen the parts on a gun originally designed for 21,000 pounds per square inch pressure and now running Norma 10mm factory loads at 37,000-38,000 psi. Ever notice how often even the best 10mm 1911 magazines fail to lock the slide open when the gun runs dry?
And now, let’s talk about 9mm 1911 magazines.
When a Magazine Needs Adaptation, Make Sure That Adaptation of That Magazine Works in Your Gun
The classic example here is the currently popular 9mm 1911. The 9X19 cartridge is shorter than the .45 ACP round that the gun was designed for. The slide of a .45 is relatively massive in relation to the momentum a 9mm round’s recoil can generate to run it. The slide mass/spring compression rate has to be taken into account here, along with the element of the too-short cartridge if we are going to achieve the delightfully mild recoil of a 9mm in a 1911 and still retail that non-negotiable element of reliability.
The first truly reliable 1911 9mm I ever ran across was the excellent Springfield EMP (Enhanced Micro Pistol) engineered from the ground up for the 9X19 cartridge by Springfield’s brilliant Dave Williams. Everything from the cycle distance to the size of the magazine and the grip-frame were built around 9mm Luger-length rounds, and that made all the difference. It is why the EMP feels so compact in the hand – we medium-size people holding one feel like John Wayne must have felt holding a GI .45 – and it is why that pistol has earned such a strong reputation for reliability. The only downside is that it needs its own proprietary, shorter-back-to-front magazines.
The first factory-produced full size (i.e., .45 size) 9mm 1911 I ever found to be maximally reliable was the Nighthawk, and that was the result of a long collaboration between Shawn Armstrong when he was at Nighthawk, and Bob Marvel, both past masters of the 1911 system. The magazine Shawn recommended for this gun was the Wilson ETM (Elite Tactical Magazine), and I found it to work superlatively.
In Single Stack 1911 Magazines, Overall Length Matters!!
The reason is if you have a short-butt 1911 like the Colt Officers and you slam in a full-length Government Model magazine, and the slide is locked open empty, the magazine can over-travel and prevent the slide from closing (see image above). If you’re fighting for your life, this is a potentially fatal lockup. (Please, do not tell yourself that you’ll just count your rounds and only reload when the slide is forward on the last round in the chamber. In a long lifetime of debriefing gunfight survivors, I can count on my fingers the number who were able to keep count of the shots they had fired once it went past three or four, and each time there was some unusual circumstance in play that allowed them to keep that count accurately.)
If you carry a short-butt 1911, make sure you have spare magazines that are not long enough to over-travel. When I carry my Nighthawk T3, my Colt Defender, or one of my Colt CCO pistols with short grip frames, the only magazines in my spare mag pouch will be an
When I say “subjective,” I’m talking about opinions formed from personal experience and observation. With that in mind, I respectfully offer mine for your consideration.
.45 1911 Magazines
In a full-frame pistol (Government Model or Commander size), I will use Ed Brown or recent production Colt seven-round magazines if I need a flush fit at the butt to maximize concealment. I don’t trust any of the flush-fit eight-round magazines for this. Cramming eight fat .45 rounds in the space designed for seven takes all the flex out of the spring, and in an emergency reload you have to pound the damn thing in to achieve full insertion. Some have also found spring longevity issues. “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” and it’s not usually smart to try to one-up John Moses Browning. For an eight-rounder, I’ll use Wilson ETM or Dave Lauck’s deservedly-expensive D&L magazines. These project somewhat from the butt when in the gun; choice is a balance of concealment needs versus perceived round-count needs.
The first really successful eight-round .45 1911 magazine in my experience was the Bill Wilson/Bill Rogers design, which evolved into the current 47D series. Wilson Combat still offers your choice of the 47D in seven- or eight-round capacity in the same overall shape and style. My problem with the eight-round was that if the slide is forward in a tactical reload, the eighth round has eliminated so much flex from the cartridge stack that you really have to hammer the magazine into place to make sure it seats, and under extreme pressure that’s not something I want to deal with. With either the seven-round Wilson 47 series magazine or the eight-round version loaded only with seven cartridges, there’s enough flex in the stack to be sure of positive seating even with the slide forward. “Seven for sure beats eight maybe.”
For the short-butt 1911s, I generally have all Wilson 47s charged with seven rounds of .45 ACP, and if I can’t afford any butt protrusion at all, there’ll be a flush-bottom Colt mag in the gun, filled with six.
9mm 1911 Magazines
OMG: this one with a shim down the spine of the magazine to make up for the shorter cartridge length, or that one with a dimple down the front length of the mag to do the same? All I can say is that 9mm seems to be the toughest full size 1911 to find a mag for. I’ve found the Wilson ETM and the Mec-Gar to be equally reliable, and still carry a full complement of ten instead of only nine rounds. If you do a speed dump of a depleted magazine to slap in a fresh one, the topmost round may be a little forward and hang up, requiring you to manually pull it out of the mag chute to get the full one in. The Chip McCormick Shooting Star ten-round 1911 9mm magazine seems to be the most forgiving in this regard, and it’s the choice of a shooting champion I respect very highly, John Strayer.
For double-stack 9mm 1911 magazines, the STI brand seems to be the primary go-to.
10mm 1911 Magazines
…and I don’t have enough time in with .38 Super and .40 S&W 1911 magazines to address the topic.
With most auto pistols, the conventional wisdom is, “Use what the manufacturer sends with the gun or Mec-Gar.” (The latter advice because Mec-Gar is the vendor of “factory magazines” for so many respected brands.) The 1911 has been around for so long that multiple reliable aftermarket sources have been developed for them which stood the tests of time and hard use. It’s a corner of the firearms industry that continues to evolve. Wilson Combat recently acquired Chip McCormick’s respected brand.
If I haven’t mentioned your favorite brand, it may not be that I think it’s junk; it may simply mean that I haven’t worked with enough of that brand to get a feel for it one way or the other.
The brands I’ve recommended, I recommend with confidence born of almost six decades of experience with 1911 magazines, most of it with .45 ACP.
Photo Credit: Gail Peppin
Massad “Mas” Ayoob is a well respected and widely regarded SME in the firearm world. He has been a writer, editor, and law enforcement columnist for decades, and has published thousands of articles and dozens of books on firearms, self-defense, use of force, and related topics.
Mas, a veteran police officer, was the first to earn the title of Five Gun Master in the International Defensive Pistol Association. He served nearly 20 years as chair of the Firearms Committee of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers and is also a longtime veteran of the Advisory Bard of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association.
A court-recognized expert witness in shooting cases since 1979, Ayoob founded the Lethal Force Institute in 1981 and served as its director until 2009. He continues to instruct and advise through the American Law Institute, BAR Association, and Armed Citizens Legal Defense Network.