Nearly a century ago John Moses Browning, the United States' most prolific gun inventor, started work on a semi-automatic .45 handgun. Eventually issued by the military as the Model 1911 pistol (for its year of adoption), the basic design remains immensely popular today.
There are a lot of reasons Browning's 1911 design is still in use by men who go in harm's way. The gun has a very comfortable grip angle and feels good in the hand. It fires a potent cartridge, and it is reasonably accurate.
It's a great gun, but for many officers it's too heavy for all-day wear. If you've ever carried a 1911, you know that by the end of the day, you develop a noticeable list to your gun side.
Colt recognized this shortcoming and introduced the Colt Lightweight Commander in 1953. Not only did this gun feature an abbreviated slide and barrel—4.25 inches compared to the Government Model's 5-inch barrel—it also used an aluminum frame. This change shaved more than a half pound from the gun's weight. That's not an insignificant reduction, especially if you're the one wearing the gun.
Reports of the alloy frames cracking after voluminous firing caused the wary gun-buying public to look at the LW Commander with a jaundiced eye. And it didn't help that in the early 1970s there was at least one company producing aftermarket aluminum frames of suspect quality. Assembled by kitchen-table gunsmiths, these guns failed often, and this added to the stigma of the aluminum frame.
Even though in more recent years, the alloy frames appear to be a non-issue, one 1911 producer took a good idea and made it even better. Last year Smith & Wesson introduced its SW1911PD pistols that feature scandium frames.
Scandium, discovered in the late 1800s, is as costly as gold to mine and almost as rare. A component of tin and tungsten ores, it takes tons of ore just to get a small amount of scandium. But the results are worth it. When alloyed with aluminum, scandium produces a tensile strength two to three times that of aluminum by itself.
I received two test pistols from S&W: one a full-size gun with a 5-inch barrel and the other a Commander-size gun with a 4.25-inch barrel. Both guns are the PD model (Personal Defense), and the smaller gun was equipped with an optional set of Crimson Trace Lasergrips.
Improving Browning's Design
I think that you'll have to agree that there is a certain amount of irony in seeing a 1911 wearing the S&W logo. After all, it was Colt that brought the gun to market and produced millions for the military and for civilian consumption.
But S&W didn't just copy the original design. It has made some changes to the time-honored 1911 to update the gun.
The most readily visible update on the SW1911PD is the extractor. The original extractor fit internally in the slide and required the tuning of a gunsmith to work reliably. Eventually, the part lost its tension and needed to be replaced and tuned. The new S&W guns use an external extractor that doesn't require tuning.
Some 1911 purists scoff at this change, which is common in many contemporary 1911 models. In fact, one 1911 manufacturer took so much heat for it that it went back to the original internal extractor. But S&W autoloaders have used external extractors, and they seem to work well.
Another design flaw in the Original Colt 1911 pistol was that it would sometimes fire accidentally when dropped on its muzzle. Even though the hammer may not have fallen, the firing pin contacted with and detonated the primer, causing the gun to fire. This problem was corrected by Colt with its Series 80 firing pin safety that mechanically blocked the firing pin until pressure was put on the trigger. Unfortunately, this safety device adversely affected trigger pull and was largely criticized by 1911 shooters.
S&W has also incorporated a firing pin safety on its new 1911s, but the design does not affect the trigger pull. In this case, the mechanical block to the firing pin is deactivated when the shooter depresses the grip safety. S&W's safety provides the same function as the Colt safety but in a different way.