I often hear comments like “I only trust a full size 1911 because they are more reliable”. Well folks I’m here to tell you this statement isn’t necessarily true. While it is true some ultra compact 1911s with barrel lengths under 3.5” often have reliability issues, there are other important factors involved such as spring weights, firing pin stop dimensions, ammunition selection and whether or not the pistol will push feed.
The basic functional difference between a full size (as John Browning designed it) 1911 pistol and a compact version with a 4.25” or shorter barrel is slide mass and speed. Basically anytime you reduce mass and propel it with the same energy you will get faster cycle speed. Why does this matter? The pistol needs a certain amount of time to eject a fired case, allow the magazine to lift, position the next round for proper feeding and chamber the round. When slide mass is reduced and therefore slide cycle speed increased there may not be time for this to all happen properly.
So we must slow the slide cycle speed down and this is accomplished by a combination of the following:
It’s much easier to slow the slide down by making it harder for it to cock the hammer than it is to just add poundage to the recoil spring. What we’re doing here is increasing the force needed to cock the hammer with a heavier spring and reducing the slides ability to cock the hammer by lowering the leverage point on the hammer, thus slowing slide cycle speed.
All the mechanical changes are important, but the biggest factor is ammunition selection because it affects both slide cycle speed and the magazine’s ability to lift the cartridge into position for proper feeding. Ammunition loaded with 230gr bullets generate more recoil impulse (especially +P loads) than 185gr loads and 7 rounds of 185gr ammunition weighs 315gr less than 7 rounds of 230gr ammunition making the column of ammunition easier for the magazine spring to lift. I hope you see where I’m going here? With modern hollow point bullets we have LOTS of bullet choices of 200gr or less that have proven to be VERY effective in regards to terminal performance.
Here are my personal ammunition choices for compact 1911s:
At Wilson Combat we have also pioneered the use of modern flatwire recoil springs in Compact 1911 pistols. These springs will enhance your overall reliability since they hold their overall length and tension many times longer than standard round wire springs since the coils never go into bind.
After extensive testing we now put them in all our compact pistols.
This brings us to push feed. 1911 pistols are designed for controlled round feeding which means the cartridge is supposed to slide under the extractor hook as it feeds into the chamber. However all 1911s don’t always do this, especially when slide speed is increased. This is really no big deal as long as the pistol is set-up to push feed. This is simply the shaping of the front of the extractor hook so it can snap over the case rim without undue resistance. This is easy to check by putting a empty case in the chamber, slowly lower the slide until the extractor contacts the case rim, then snapping the slide shut. You should be able to do this fairly easy with your thumb. If the slide won’t close or it takes both thumbs to close the pistol, it probably won’t push feed properly and the extractor needs adjusted.
I began shooting 4” compact 1911s almost exclusively in the late 90s primarily due to my failing eyesight, it just became easier for me to get a good focus on the sights with them closer together. 100's of thousands of rounds later and several major IDPA match wins I can assure you a properly set-up and fed compact 1911 is every bit as reliable as any full size. As a final testament to my faith in a 4” compact, I carry one on my hip EVERY day, usually loaded with 160gr or 185gr Barnes TAC XP bullets.