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Optimizing Old Iron-Sides: Optimizing a Duty-Use 1911

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Not too long ago, we had the opportunity to take a pistol class from a group called Blue Green Alliance. BGA is run by a pair of active-duty Force Reconnaissance Marines who have brought their training and operational experience to the LE and armed citizen communities. Part of that unique experience is that, even as you read this, the 1911 continues to ride in their duty holsters on deployments all around the world. While Browning’s legacy currently lives in Force Recon armories in the form of the Colt M45, it got us thinking about leveraging the Marine Corps’ recent, if not niche, experience running single stacks on duty and revamping our own slab-sided safe queen. While the setup you see here is by no means the only right answer, we hope to provide you some food for thought on optimizing the single-stack .45 for carry or bedside use.

We started with the author’s personal Kimber Warrior. This model is Kimber’s commercial offering which nearly mirrors the guns they built for the very first Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MCSOCOM) unit — known as MCSOCOM Detachment 1, or “Det 1” for short. The original guns were known as the ICQBP (Intermediate Close Quarters Battle Pistol). The ICQBPs were custom built by Kimber for Det 1 to Marine Corps specifications. They utilized Kimber’s “Series 1” safety system, equivalent to the Colt Series 70 safety system. MCSOCOM chose to forego the Series 2 or Swartz Safety, which includes an additional firing pin block slaved to the grip safety. A Dawson Precision rail was attached to the frame to mount a light.

Duty-Use 1911
Serrated mainspring housing, VZ Gunner Grips, and some grip tape give this pistol rock-solid purchase in the hand.

The Warrior benefits from the advent of integral Picatinny rail frames. It also includes Kimber’s low-profile, three-dot tritium sights, reminiscent of the Novak version on the original ICQB pistols, and a Series 1 safety system. (It is, to our knowledge, the only Kimber 1911 still in production that doesn’t include their Series 2 safety system.) Out of the box, the Kimber Warrior makes a strong bid to ride in your duty holster. But, as with most stock guns, the aftermarket offers room for improvement in some key areas. 

Our first change came to the recoil spring. The accepted standard for a traditional recoil spring in a 5-inch, .45-caliber 1911 with GI-style guide rod is 16 pounds. We upgraded to an 18.5-pound variable recoil spring from Wolff Gunsprings. Wolff has an entire section on their FAQ page to explain the difference between a traditional and variable power spring. The bottom line is that a traditional spring holds energy at uniform rate — let’s say 1 pound for every inch of compression. A variable spring may hold 1 pound for the first inch of compression, 2 pounds for the second inch, 2.5 pounds for the third inch, and so on. Loading the spring on a graduated curve like this can reduce felt recoil and improve things like unlocking, feeding, and breaching. Recoil spring weight and configuration largely boil down to your most commonly used types of ammo and personal preference. Don’t be afraid to experiment, but test extensively before committing to frontline use. 

Next, we added two products from Nighthawk Custom. Long known for their high-quality, hand-built pistols, they’re now offering a line of aftermarket parts for direct-to-consumer sales for modifying and upgrading your existing 1911-style pistol. The first Nighthawk add-on was their one-piece magazine well with integrated lanyard loop. The magwell assists greatly in getting a narrow magazine into a narrow frame quickly and consistently.

Duty-Use 1911
The high-polish Nighthawk hammer is a stark contrast to the well-worn frame.

The 1911 pistol doesn’t sport a natural wide mouth like many modern polymer-framed guns, so the guiding hand of a quality magwell can make a noticeable difference for fast reloads under duress. While we don’t regularly use retention lanyards on our personal guns, the ability to add one as needed is a “better to have it…” feature that, in this case, costs no extra money and is essentially invisible to the natural lines of the pistol. If you carry a 1911 professionally, your unit, team, or agency may require one. If so, the Nighthawk magwell allows you to maintain this capability. The second Nighthawk product is their recently released drop-in trigger pack. 

Those who run AR rifles or Glock pistols have long been spoiled with these types of triggers that can be installed by popping out a couple pins and swapping a single self-contained unit to offer a greatly enhanced trigger pull. Before now, those wanting the same improvements on a 1911 trigger had to enlist a professional gunsmith to install and hand-fit several different parts. 

Nighthawk has created an option that offers improvement to the pull weight and “clean” feeling of a custom trigger without the labor and cost intensity of traditional trigger jobs. The unit consists of a hammer, hammer strut, and sear in a self-contained housing, with a replacement sear spring included as well. This is a uniquely innovative product in the 1911 world, and our experience so far has been very positive. This unit gave us an average pull weight between 3.75 and 4 pounds — even that feels about ½-pound lighter than what was measured, with a gentle but palpable reset of about 2 millimeters.

Unfortunately, our test unit didn’t quite plug-and-play exactly as hoped. The trigger pack itself was fine. Nighthawk advertises that some modification to your thumb safety may be required to work with this drop-in unit, and they’ve released both written and video instructions on how to do this. No big deal. Unfortunately, the particular safety we were using (a Gunsite pro shop model with lowered thumb lever) had to have so much material removed that it no longer stopped the sear, even when set in the “safe” position.

Duty-Use 1911

We notified Nighthawk of the problem and, after some mulling about why the Gunsite safety combined with the Kimber Warrior host pistol was having this issue, opted to use one of their own safeties to replace it. Once fitted and installed, the whole system worked together just fine. After consulting with gunsmith Jim Gritus, he showed us that the existing Gunsite safety had been welded up and repaired previously — and poorly. If you have a thumb safety in good working order that hasn’t already been tinkered with, the odds of the Nighthawk drop-in trigger set functioning with your existing parts is pretty high.

We capped the Nighthawk trigger unit with a shoe from 10-8 Performance. The wide body and flat face of the 10-8 trigger shoe minimizes trigger wobble inside the frame and enhances the crisp, carrot-like break afforded by the Nighthawk drop-in pack. The 10-8 shoe also stands apart in its truly customizable over-travel stop. Most 1911 trigger shoes include a set screw that can be turned in or out to set the amount of over-travel in the trigger. But the 10-8 unit features a fixed nub in the back of the shoe. 

The downside to this is that it requires a professional gunsmith to hand-file the nub down to the appropriate length based on how you want your trigger to feel. The upshot is that once this fitting is done, it’s permanent. No need to use thread locker or manual staking like you would on a set screw. A set screw that isn’t properly set or secured can have catastrophic effects on your pistol’s functioning, as was the case when an incompetent gunsmith previously installed a traditional trigger shoe in this gun without paying proper attention to this one tiny screw, inadvertently converting it to full auto. 

Finally, the grips are VZ Simonich Gunner grips. VZ offers a wide array of 1911 grip sets in a dizzying number of colors, textures, thicknesses, and profiles. They’re also the only manufacturer licensed to reproduce the Gunner Grips pattern designed by Rob Simonich. Since the custom Det 1 pistols came with original Simonich Gunners, and the Kimber Warrior is a direct descendant of those guns, we chose to use the VZ Gunners as the closest we could get to reproducing the look and feel of the ICQBP. 

Duty-Use 1911

All told, our upgrades cost just over $600 in parts. The Kimber Warrior was purchased used for about $900. Combined, we were able to produce an optimized, updated homage to the MCSOCOM legacy sidearm for little more than $1,500, labor notwithstanding. Financially, it’s not an impulse undertaking. But in the realm of reliable, durable 1911-style pistols, the ones we’d stake our safety and survival on, this is easily on the bottom half of the cost spectrum. 

Purchasing the parts piecemeal over time will help disperse the financial burden and allow you to cherry pick the components that best fit your needs and preferences. With the Marine Corps reconnaissance community being one of the last modern military units carrying the Duty-Use 1911 into battle, we felt that their template was one of the best ones to build off of. You need not be tied to this legacy, so long as you spend the time and money to do your research, and make a commitment to quality over convenience. If you follow those principles, a well-appointed 1911 platform could be the last pistol you ever need. 

[Editor's Note: Photos by Niccole Elizabeth.]


All of the fitting and gunsmithing work required on this pistol was performed by Gritus Precision — a small shop based out of Phoenix, Arizona, formed by Jim and Jodi Gritus. We met both Jim and Jodi when they were working at the now-defunct Robar Precision shop. Robar was, for many years, a staple in the custom gunsmithing industry and their work, much of it performed by Jim and Jodi, has been repeatedly featured in several RECOIL titles. When Robar closed its doors, Mr. and Mrs. Gritus, along with former Robar Master Gunsmith Marty Enloe, struck out on their own. They specialize in working on 1911 and Browning Hi Power pistols — both of which require serious expertise and attention to detail to work on effectively. If you use either of these pistols and need repairs or upgrades, Gritus Precision can do the job. They can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 602.358.6693.


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