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Colt M1911 Gun Showdown: Series 80 vs Series 70 vs Pre-Series 70 – What’s the Difference?

M1911. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Modern version of the historic Colt M1911 pistol

As this gun writer has mentioned previously, Colt Manufacturing Company, LLC hasn’t been the dominant producer of the legendary M1911 single-action semiautomatic pistol in quite awhile. Competitors like Springfield Armory, Sturm, Ruger, & Co, and Wilson Combat (to name just a few examples) have been cleaning Colt’s clock for over three decades. 

That said, the company was the original maker of John Moses Browning’s most popular handgun invention, and the brand name still carries a bit of sentimental value to us old-school shooters.

With that in mind, this is as good a time as any to take a look at the history of the Colt Government Model and the different iterations of it that have come out over the past 102 years. 

Pre-Series 70 Colts (1911-1970)

Okay, this is a pretty broad-based category here, but I’ll try to cram in much as I can.This one takes us all the way back to the very inception of the design, i.e. the true original M1911 as opposed to the M1911A1, which still also falls into the pre-70 category as it debuted in 1929. There’s not much about the original Colt M1911 I can say now that hasn’t already been said. This gun was made famous by the American doughboys of the First World War, particularly Sgt. Alvin York – but perhaps I haven’t touched enough upon the changes from the M1911 to the 1911A1, as well as the reasons for those changes. The late great Dean A. Grennell elaborated in his 1989 book “The Gun Digest Book of the .45”: 

“[S]ome [of the changes were] purely cosmetic and others desperately needed…The worst trait of the M1911 was its dogged penchant for biting the hand that fed it – and fired it. As the rearward-moving slide came back to re-cock the hammer it was swept back a trifle farther than really necessary…In so doing, it was notoriously prone to nip a goblet of flesh from the web between thumb and palm of the shooter’s hand…Curing that problem turned out to be largely a matter of lengthening the tang on the grip safety…The original M1911 trigger was a lengthy affair, soaking up a lot of space within the confines of the trigger guard, In producing the M1911A1, they pared it back by the better part of more than a quarter of an inch to improve the fit and feel in the shooting hand by substantial amounts.” 

The more compact (as in 4.25” bbl, as opposed to the 5-incher of the full-sized pistol) Colt Lightweight Commander made its debut during this era (1949 to be exact), as did the very first “factory custom” version of the pistol, the Colt National Match, which first came out in the middle of the Great Depression and was rebranded as the Gold Cup in 1957. 

Series 70 Colts (1970-1983)

Many of my fellow Colt enthusiasts consider these – the full-sized Government Models and the Commander version alike – to be the best iterations of the gun that Colt ever made, especially in terms of the quality of trigger pull. About the only knock on the Series 70 guns was the so-called “Accurizor” finger-style collet barrel bushing; some old-school shootists like the late great Chuck Taylor complained that these bushings were more fragile than the longstanding solid barrel bushings that preceded it (and which regained prominence in the 1990s anyway) and therefore compromised reliability for the sake of an academic increase in intrinsic accuracy. Other equally highly-respected experts, like my friend Lou Chiodo – former USMC officer, retired CHP firearms instructor, and current President of the Gunfighters Ltd. self-defense school – swear that they never had any issues with the collet-type bushing.  

Just my luck that the one genuine Series 70 pistol that I owned – a Combat Commander – turned out to be a lemon, but my ordeal was the exception and not the rule for most Series 70 owners. For those of you who don’t have the time or extra dough to hunt down a true vintage pistol from this decade, a few years ago Colt wisely decided to start reissuing pistols to throwback specs, labeling them the Traditional Series

Series 80 Colts (1983-Present)

This, by contrast with the Series 70 predecessors, is the most controversial batch of 1911s that Colt has ever produced.  

Some gun experts, like self-defense guru and street-hardened law enforcement veteran Massad F. Ayoob, spoke highly of the Series 80 Mk IV stainless steel Government Model; in his 1987 book “The Semi-Automatic Pistol in Police Service and Self Defense,” Massad – who was still an active-serving police officer at the time – stated that “I have trusted, and would trust, this pistol with my life.” Other fans of the Series 80 guns were Jan Libourel and the late Dave Arnold of Petersen’s Handguns (nowadays known as Guns & Ammo Handguns) Magazine, both of whom were very complimentary of the pistols’ trigger qualities. And my own initial experiences, with the .45 ACP Government Model and 10mm Delta Elite alike, were positive. 

However, plenty of other shooters had gripes about the Series 80 Colts. Besides the allegedly more fragile collet bushings carrying over the Series 70 guns, the biggest kvetch was the passive firing pin block, which on the plus side prevented accidental discharges when the pistol was dropped, but on the minus side led to suboptimal trigger pulls (contrary to the aforementioned assertions of Messrs. Libourel and Arnold). Weird thing is, plenty of other semiauto pistols contemporaneous to the decade of the 1980s like the SIG Sauer P226Beretta 92F, and Glock 17, also had (and still have to this day) passive firing pin blocks, yet still came away from the factory with consistently decent or better trigger pulls…which in retrospect, was a pretty sad reflection of the deterioration of Colt’s quality control during this time period, and in turns helps explain why the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1992.                               

Christian D. Orr is a Senior Defense Editor for 19FortyFive. He has 34 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011.

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Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).