1911 Reliability Overview: Introduction To The Magazine, by John Travis
Reliability with the 1911 pistol largely depends on three things: Good magazines. Good ammunition. A good extractor. While absolute reliability is a mathematical impossibility, it can be closely approached with a little understanding and attention to detail. Let me make three flat statements:
Reliability isn't about absolutes. It comes from attending to the whole system, and is more about reducing the odds of a malfunction than of making false claims of guaranteed reliability. No machine is fail-safe.
The farther that you stray from original design parameters, the more likely you are to have reliability problems with any 1911 pistol, assuming that the gun is mechanically sound and in-spec.
Just because the gun is operating--even reliably--isn't a guarantee that it's operating correctly. The 1911 is a design that allows a generous window of opportunity to work even when things aren't just right. It will, however, suffer failures in the long run with hard use. When the gun is operating correctly, you'll go broke trying to buy enough factory ammo to cause it to fail, and you'll be able to count the lifetime malfunctions on the fingers of one hand without using your thumb.
In the first of this series, we'll be looking at magazines. Since there are several points to consider, this segment would probably be better broken down into three parts in the interest of keeping each article from becoming overly long and losing the reader's attention. In the first installment, we'll study magazine timing and how it relates to the timing and speed of the slide. The two are closely related, and tending to one without considering the other is akin to buying a car without a fuel tank.
Many mistakenly consider the magazine an accessory to the pistol, but nothing could be further from the truth. The magazine is an integral, removeable part of the system. Let that sink in so that understanding the magazine as a vital part of the system will become more apparent. Understand also, that expensive, "trick" magazines are not necessary to the system, and many can, in fact, be a detriment to reliability. Whenever a feeding malfunction is involved, the magazine is the first suspect, and the easiest to troubleshoot. If the gun doesn't feed, try another magazine.
While the same malfunction with another magazine doesn't absolutely nail it --because you can easily have two bad magazines--it tends to narrow things down a bit. Let's say: Try a known good magazine instead, even if you have to borrow one. I can't recall how many unreliable pistols that I've "fixed" by handing the owner a good magazine and having him try again.
The timing of the magazine is broken down into two parts: Feed timing and release timing. Release timing is the point at which the cartridge gets loose from the feed lips and under the extractor. Most modern designs have pretty much become standardized on this release point and, for the most part, are all about the same. This timing is controlled by the shape and location of the feed lips. There are slight in geometry between manufacturers, but the release point itself is fairly consistent and seems to work pretty well across the board.
The feed timing is much more critical, because the round not only has to get into position early enough, it must also be in the right place relative to the release point. This will vary with the amount of spring tension available to push the next round into feed position. This variation will occur from one magazine to another, but more importantly, it changes as the magazine goes from the top round to the last. Maximum tension vs minimum tension. The spring must be strong enough to get the last round up in time and hold it there under the forces of recoil, but light enough to permit easy loading of the magazine and stripping of the top round. Too much spring tension is just as bad as too little.
With too much tension, the frictional resistance of the top round can reduce the slide's speed and momentum necessary to chamber the round and go to full battery. Too little tension allows the slide to actually outrun the magazine on the last round or, if low enough, on the last two rounds. This produces two different, but similar malfunctions. One is the Bolt Over base Feed, in which the breechface catches the round in the extractor groove and causes it to stand nearly straight up, caught between the slide and the barrel hood. Also commonly known as a "Live-Round Stovepipe." This malfunction can also be caused, or contributed to, by using an overly strong recoil spring, but the magazine timing is the main culprit.
The Rideover Feed is similar in that the round doesn't get into feeding position in the magazine in time to meet the slide. The slide catches it forward of the extractor groove, and actually rides over the round, jamming it hard betwen the breechface and the feed ramp. Not as much potential for detonation here, but it still exists. In any case, the Bolt-Over Feed has the potential to be a much more dangerous event in that, if the case should be caught near the head section, and the primer pressure-detonates, you have a small fragmentation device going off less than two feet from your face. The cure is usually very simple. Replace the spring. Wolff magazine springs are virtually guaranteed to correct any magazine feed timing issues that you are likely to have. If you still have these issues after installing the Wolff springs, you have other problems to attend to.
John Travis is a North Carolina gunsmith who has spent decades studying 1911 pistol problems. He regularly takes questions on TheHighRoad.Org forums, where he posts under the username 1911Tuner. Reprinting or redistribution of this article without John Travis' permission is expressly prohibited.