LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
The U.S. Army changed the firearms world forever when it adopted John Browning’s semi-automatic .45 caliber pistol in 1911. Gaston Glock changed it yet again when he introduced his polymer-framed pistol in 1982, and ignited a debate which continues to this day. Which is better?
The M1911, and M1911A1, served the American military for 74 years until replaced with the Beretta M9. It is still used by various elite U.S. military and law enforcement units, and shows no sign it will disappear from the market anytime soon—if ever. What made the 1911 a legend?
The 1911 proved more reliable than other auto-loading pistols in the early twentieth century. Mauser and Luger produced guns with very close tolerances to aid accuracy, but dust and mud had nowhere to go in the mechanism—jams were frequent under adverse conditions.
John Browning built “wiggle room” into the 1911 on purpose. He reasoned a military sidearm didn’t need match-grade accuracy; it only had to stop an enemy at close range. He also knew military guns were used under extreme conditions: snow, rain, mud, dust, bitter cold, and high heat. If the bullet never made it out the barrel, the pistol became a liability.
Previous pistol designs were complex and/or bulky. Browning created a sleek, simple weapon with two locking lugs machined into the barrel and corresponding slots in the slide. These locked the breach during firing, and allowed a more compact pistol with the barrel centerline lower to the grip which reduced muzzle flip under recoil. When fired, the barrel moved back with the slide a short distance and then a swinging link drew it down to mate with the cartridge feed ramp machined into the frame.
Swinging Link, Weak Link
While much simpler than previous designs, the swinging link did depend on two pins which could wear and fail. The barrel-to-feed-ramp fit left a small step the bullet nose had to traverse as the cartridge entered the firing chamber, which proved a non-issue with full metal jacketed, round-nose bullets.
The 1911 used a seven-round, single column, detachable magazine made from stamped sheet steel. Although it held one more round than most revolvers, the magazine’s lips were prone to damage if the magazine struck a hard object, which rendered it, and the pistol, useless. Despite this, the magazines enabled fast reloads for a higher rate of fire than other automatics or revolvers.
A Place In History
All in all, the 1911 took a massive step forward, and when combined with the hard-hitting .45 ACP cartridge, the gun proved its worth from Belleau Wood to Khe Sanh.
Modern Challenges for the King
As time progressed, the 1911 began to show its age. It struggled to reliably feed the hollow-point bullets which became common from the 1970’s forward—bullets John Browning could not have envisioned. The barrel throat needed to fit tighter to the feed ramp so hollow points wouldn’t catch as the slide shoved them from the magazine into the chamber. A military specification 1911’s loose, combat-friendly tolerances were suddenly undesirable and an entire cottage industry sprang up with pistol smiths tightening and polishing 1911’s to feed the latest ammo.
Enter the Glock
In 1980, Austrian engineer and industrialist Gaston Glock decided to enter the Austrian Army’s contest for a new service pistol. Although neither he nor his company had ever built firearms, Glock wanted to apply his skills with polymer technology to the problem.
Channeling John Browning
Glock’s engineers designed a new trigger mechanism, but copied proven features from other pistols, such as the integral camming wedge in John Browning's last pistol design, the P-35 Hi-Power. The wedge functioned like the 1911’s swinging link, but with fewer parts and tighter barrel-to-frame fit. The P-35 also included a feed ramp machined into the barrel throat. This solved the hollow point feeding issue.
The Glock Revolution
Glock developed a polymer frame for the new gun. A revolutionary design, this ultra-light frame would not rust. A shooter could grip it without gloves in sub-zero cold or tropical heat, and it flexed a small amount during firing which absorbed recoil.
The Austrian Army adopted Glock’s pistol in 1982 and the world took notice. Within twenty years, the Glock became the most widely used military and law enforcement pistol in the world.
Combined with ferritic carburizing to protect the steel parts, a Glock is almost impervious to corrosion and functions in the most extreme conditions. It is so good, many special operations units use it, and the FBI adopted it in 2016.
Steam Age vs. Computer Age
So which is best, the tried and true, all steel 1911, or the futuristic Glock? Let’s compare them area by area.
The Glock’s frame is superior in almost every way. It is rust proof, impact resistant, and lightweight, needs only minor lubrication, and fits both large and small hands. Modern 1911's with stainless steel frames now rival the Glock in corrosion resistance. A steel frame’s only theoretical advantage is it would not melt if exposed to fire, although it would lose its heat treatment and become unsafe to use. The polymer frame enables a .45 caliber Glock 21SF loaded with thirteen rounds to weigh less than an unloaded, steel framed 1911.
2. Barrel Lock-Up
While Browning’s swinging link and barrel lugs improved over previous designs, the Glock is a step forward from there. The Glock’s barrel locks into the slide’s ejection port which places it lower and closer to the hand than the 1911, a feature developed by SiG in the mid-1970s. Combined with the frame flex, the Glock has low perceived recoil and less muzzle flip, which improves rapid-fire accuracy.
3. Feed System
Glock uses the Browning P-35’s barrel cam system. Combined with the feed ramp integrated into the barrel’s breach, the Glock is renowned for smooth, reliable operation with hollow points.
Some modern 1911 clones have P-35-like feed ramps and also handle hollow points reliably--an improvement over the original 1911.
Mil-spec Glocks and 1911’s both have poor, two-stage, military-style trigger pulls. The Glock has a spongy take up followed by a firm, but not crisp, five-pound release. The 1911’s trigger is creepy with an often heavy final release. Both guns were meant to resist a nervous soldier’s itchy trigger finger. A competent gunsmith can improve either gun’s trigger pull.
Premium 1911’s from companies such as Kimber and Springfield Armory offer semi-custom production pistols with excellent triggers.
Even with re-work, the Glock’s trigger is not as precise as a well-tuned 1911, because its trigger both cocks and releases the firing pin. The 1911’s trigger just releases the hammer so it has a short, single action pull.
Both guns are very safe if handled correctly.
The Glock’s patented “Safe Action™” has no external safeties. The gun will only fire when the trigger is pulled all the way to the rear—similar to a double-action revolver. If the shooter keeps their finger off the trigger, the gun will not fire. This is a distinct advantage in a shootout since the operator doesn’t need to remember to disconnect any safeties.
The original 1911 has two user-activated safeties. All Series 80 1911’s also have a passive safety—the firing pin block plunger. To fire any 1911, the shooter must get a firm grip on the pistol to depress the grip safety located on the frame’s back strap, and then insure the thumb safety is in the down, or “fire,” position. This requires hands large enough to manipulate both safeties.
Both pistols are designed and tested not to fire if dropped. The 1911 is safe either cocked or uncocked, per the U. S. Cavalry’s requirement. The Glock meets, or exceeds, the Austrian Army’s drop-test protocols.
As military service pistols, both the Glock and 1911 were intended for “condition three” carry (chamber empty and action decocked) since this is how most armies mandate troops carry a pistol. They are, however, safe in “condition one” which is chamber loaded and action cocked, if certain rules are observed.
The 1911’s thumb safety should be engaged for condition one carry, and the user must train to make safety engagement/disengagement an instinctive action. The Glock must be carried in a holster which covers the trigger guard to prevent anything from pressing against the trigger. Glocks should not be carried condition one in a waistband or any other method which does not shield the trigger.
6. Accuracy and Reliability
The Glock and 1911 are accurate enough to accomplish their primary mission: close-quarters battle. Tuned 1911’s often have match-grade accuracy, and Glock offers target models which rival any competitor’s product. Both can benefit from high-visibility after-market sights.
An operator can cycle either gun’s slide one-handed. However, this is not possible with any recoil spring guide rod equipped 1911, unless it has a special aftermarket rear sight.
Factory Glocks will feed any commercial ammunition except cast lead bullets. Mil-spec 1911’s are only reliable with round nose, full metal jacketed bullets. Only 1911’s designed for hollow points are reliable with them.
The 1911 and the Glock have different grip angles. Which points better is a matter for each shooter to decide. Gen 4 Glocks have adjustable grip panels, but they do not alter the basic grip angle. Glock controls are ambidextrous and manipulated with one hand. The basic 1911 is right-handed only, and small-statured users often need both hands to operate the gun. Lefties must either buy a purpose-built ambidextrous 1911, or modify a standard gun.
8. Combat Effectiveness
A .45 caliber 1911 holds seven rounds in the magazine; eight with after-market mags. A Glock 17 chambered in 9x19mm holds seventeen in the magazine. Glock offers replacement mags which hold up to thirty-three rounds. Their .45 ACP models hold up to thirteen.
Glock’s ammunition capacity gives it considerable advantage in a fight. Glock’s steel-reinforced polymer magazines are almost indestructible, unlike sheet metal mags.
The Glock also field strips faster and easier, and has no small parts that can get lost. Neither pistol requires special tools to field strip.
The 1911 is a legend. It has performed well in every environment on Earth, but the design is over one hundred years old. John Browning made some compromises, which he corrected in the P-35.
The Glock is a modern weapon made with aerospace quality materials and methods. It is the most popular pistol in the world. Easy to shoot and maintain, it has proven itself in the most extreme conditions.
Ultimately, whichever gun bests fits a person’s shooting style and needs is the one they should use. A well trained 1911 user is a formidable opponent, but the gun requires diligence to master. Its crisp single-action trigger improves accuracy, and it fits shooters with the right sized hands well.
The Glock is best for people transitioning from double action revolvers. It is simpler to use than the 1911, and once the trigger is mastered, is just as accurate in combat. Glocks can fire tens of thousands of rounds without malfunction or damage, and are more corrosion-resistant than the 1911. It is also less expensive, on average, than the 1911, and fits small-statured shooters better.
The 1911 is a classic; the Glock is becoming one. Two great pistols from two distinct eras, and anyone is well armed with either.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 LJ Bonham
LJ Bonham (author) on June 08, 2018:
John R. Wilsdon, thanks for the complement. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. I assume you're referring to the belt-slide holster. I don't know what brand it is, but most major holster makers offer similar products. I'd suggest a quick web search for "belt-slide holsters." I'd start with DeSantis, Bianchi, and Galco.
John R Wilsdon from Superior, Arizona on June 03, 2018:
This is a very good hub. Thanks for all the info. Where can I get a holster like the leather one featuring the 1911 above?