Smith & Wesson Model SW1911 .45 ACP
by Jeff Quinn

photography by Jeff Quinn & Boge Quinn

February 25th, 2003



After 92 years, the classic John Browning design for a semiautomatic pistol still remains one of the most popular. The 1911 basic design has been built by the millions for both military and civilian use in several different countries, and by countless manufacturers.  It has been manufactured by some of the largest gun makers, and also in several small one-man shops. An entire cottage industry has emerged and prospered just to service the custom 1911 parts market. It is the most popular pistol design used in the fast-action pistol shooting games, and also continues to dominate bullseye target shooting.

The tide of popularity of the 1911 has receded and swollen over the years, but it is now more popular than ever. Aside from the tremendous popularity of the design among competitive shooters, many elite law enforcement units have also adopted the 1911 as their primary fighting pistol.  Why, after all these years, do so many prefer the old slab-sided warhorse as their pistol of choice? Because no one has yet developed a better design!

In the late 1970s and 1980s, the high-capacity auto pistol was going strong. It seemed as if every pistol factory in the world was cranking out a nine millimeter pistol that would hold almost half a box of ammo in the magazine. Then, with the passing of the magazine capacity limitation of ten rounds, suddenly the modern "wonder nines" lost much of their appeal. Shooters soon realized that they would prefer to carry eight or nine .45s instead of eleven 9mm cartridges.  This has led to a proliferation of choices in a 1911 style pistol, and with competition, the quality keeps getting better.

One of the finest 1911 pistols yet produced is the subject of this article: the Smith & Wesson SW1911.

S&W has produced several great auto pistol designs for many decades, and even has an excellent double-action .45 auto pistol, but this is their first entry into the true 1911 pistol market, and it appears that they got it right.

These days, competition in the 1911 market is fierce, and if you donít build it right, shooters will buy elsewhere. This was not always the case. I remember that back in the Ď70s and 80s, shooters would plunk down several hundred dollars for a new Colt .45 ACP, and then go spend another couple of hundred dollars to make the thing work reliably with modern ammunition. After that, another hundred bucks for a decent set of sights resulted in a fine weapon. Standard pistolsmithing packages included tuning the extractor, opening the ejection port, throating and polishing the barrel and feed ramp, and replacing the barrel bushing and maybe the springs on a new Government model, along with a trigger job and new sights. It was pretty easy to end up with over a thousand bucks in your new .45 Colt, and this was back when a new pickup truck was under 6500 dollars.

Shooters today looking for a new 1911 have it much better. A new single action .45 auto can be purchased  that is entirely reliable and accurate right out of the box, as is exemplified by this new SW1911 from Smith & Wesson.

The SW1911 is a true 1911 design, with a couple of improvements. The most noticeable change is that of the extractor design. The Smith uses an external pinned extractor in place of the internal design of the original. When properly tuned, the "classic" 1911-style internal extractor works great, but can  give feeding problems if not set up properly. I have experienced this myself. I once had a 1911A1 that drove me crazy with feeding problems until I finally figured out that the extractor was the culprit. The external extractor on the SW1911 is an improvement over the earlier design. Before some of you want to slay me for blasphemy, remember that John Browning himself abandoned the internal extractor in his later pistol designs, in favor of the external extractor.

Another unique feature of the SW1911 is the use of a firing pin blocking automatic safety. Colt tried a similar design on their Series 80 pistols, but many shooters objected that it adversely affected the trigger pull. Smith & Wesson got around that problem by linking the firing pin safety to the grip safety, thereby leaving the trigger pull unaffected, while adding a useful safety device in the event that the pistol is dropped upon its muzzle. Great idea!

Along with these two unique and useful improvements to the classic 1911 design, Smith & Wesson has adorned the SW1911 with top quality features to make the pistol almost perfect right out of the box.  I will start first with my only complaint. The gun has no manual left-handed safety. I am left-handed, so that makes me prejudiced, but on a pistol of this quality, an ambidextrous safety would be a nice feature. In the shooting sports, many games require the shooting from either hand. This gun is ready to be competitive right out of the box, without any other custom work, except for the ambidextrous safety.  Perhaps S&W will offer it as an option later. That is my one and only gripe with this pistol, and it is admittedly a small one. Every other feature of the pistol is just as it should be.

The fitting of the slide to frame and slide to barrel is as tight as any production 1911 that I have ever handled. The fit and finish of the SW1911 is excellent. The gun has many features that are custom options on other pistols, if available at all. The Smith wears a set of Novak sights that are dovetailed into the slide, with both the front and rear being windage adjustable, and the elevation can be adjusted by replacing the front sight. These sights are made of steel, are of the three-dot configuration, and are an excellent design for a fighting pistol. The rear sight is of the low mount design, and is about as rugged as an anvil.

The satin finished stainless slide has almost vertical serrations on either side at the front and rear, with sixteen groves in each location. These are helpful when working the slide to chamber or eject a cartridge. The front serrations are particularly helpful in ejecting a live round into the palm of the shooterís hand.

The slide is laser-etched with the S&W logo and the SW1911 model designation on the left side.

The SW1911 has a lightweight skeletonized trigger and hammer, and a high-ride beavertail grip safety that is very comfortable to the web of the hand and prevents any chance of hammer-bite. The trigger is adjustable for overtravel. The thumb safety is of the extended easy-to-use style that is preferred by most shooters. The synthetic rubber grip panels, along with a serrated front strap and checkered mainspring housing, provide a positive non-slip hold on the weapon.

For functional reliability, the SW1911 has a full-length stainless guide rod, and a throated and polished feed ramp. The gun is supplied with two eight-shot magazines that are polished blue with an extended polymer floorplate for positive insertion, and the magazine well is beveled for faster reloads.

I used several different varieties of .45 ACP ammunition for both function and accuracy testing of the SW1911. The pistol never malfunctioned during the formal testing sessions, nor has it done so since in a couple of months of shooting since. This 1911 is set up to feed anything, even an empty case. I have found that if a new pistol will feed an empty case from the magazine, it will offer no problems with loaded ammo. I fired everything from lightweight hollow points to military hardball to target wadcutters through the SW1911. It never failed to feed, fire, and eject with any cartridge, even fifty year old World War II surplus.  As expected, my target handloads turned in the tightest groups, with five shots going into one and one-quarter inches at 25 yards. Also as expected, the excellent Cor-Bon Pow-R-Ball turned in exceptional performance, grouping into one and three-quarters inches.  In fact, every load tested shot very well in the SW1911, but I could get by with just the wadcutters for targets, and the Pow-R-Ball for everything else. As Iíve stated before, I believe the Cor-Bon Pow-R-Ball to be the best .45 ACP ammo available for social work. The trigger pull measured five and one-half pounds when new, but has since settled into a nice, crisp, four and one-half pound pull. Excellent for a fighting pistol.

With a  five-inch barrel and a weight of 39 ounces, the SW1911 is a full-sized combat 1911 with the built-in accuracy to double as a target gun. It comes complete with a hard plastic carrying case, two magazines, a cable lock, bushing wrench, and instruction manual. The list price is $932, but the actual in-store price will probably be less. Still, even at list price, the gun costs no more than a 1911 and the necessary custom work of thirty years ago, and the SW1911 is a better pistol.

Check out the SW1911 online at:

For a serious 1911 .45 auto that is built like a custom gun right out of the box, I highly recommend the SW1911.

Jeff Quinn

Got something to say about this article? Want to agree (or disagree) with it? Click the following link to go to the GUNBlast Feedback Page.

All content © 2003 All rights reserved.

Click pictures for a larger version.


Author considers the Smith & Wesson SW1911 pistol to be one of the finest production .45s ever made.



The SW1911 comes with a cable lock, plastic case, two magazines, and a bushing wrench. The basic design is 1911A1, with a few real improvements.



The SW1911's most obvious design improvement is the external extractor.



The SW1911 comes standard with many features most often found on more expensive custom guns, such as a lightweight trigger with adjustable overtravel stop.



The SW1911 features a first-class set of "combat" sights, consisting of a steel Novak windage-adjustable rear sight and a dovetailed front sight. The front sight can be easily replaced if needed to "dial in" your favorite load.



Along with the excellent Novak rear sight, the SW1911 also features a nicely-fitted high-ride beavertail grip safety, extended thumb safety (which, at least for now, does not accommodate Southpaws like the author), and a skeletonized hammer.



The SW1911's firing pin safety is a real improvement over previous designs, which used the trigger to actuate the firing pin safety. S&W's solution intelligently operates the firing pin safety via the grip safety so trigger pull is unaffected.



Reliability of the SW1911 is enhanced by use of a full-length guide rod, which is another option often seen on expensive custom pistols.



"Gun control" is assured by a checkered flat mainspring housing and synthetic rubber grips.



Author never thought he'd encounter a production 1911 that would shoot with his favorite .45, an old custom National Match, but the SW1911 proved itself worthy.



Jeff tested the SW1911 with a wide variety of ammunition, including WWII surplus hardball, commercially-loaded ball, his favorite target semi-wadcutter load, a variety of Cor-Bon loads, and Cor-Bon's excellent Pow-R-Ball defense load. The SW1911 digested them all without a hitch, and Jeff couldn't even make the gun jam by feeding empty cases!



As Jeff expected, best accuracy was turned in by his favorite 200-grain lead semi-wadcutter target loads. Close on the heels of the target ammo was the Pow-R-Ball, with all ammunition, even the 50-year-old surplus ball, shooting well out of the SW1911.



Smith & Wesson's decades-late entry into the 1911 market was well worth the wait. Bottom line: the SW1911 is a fine .45 defense/service pistol that is capable of target-grade accuracy without ruining your "bottom line"!