When considering the purchase of a USGI or other older 1911-type pistol, one fact must bear in mind: regardless of condition, they are all used. Even if it's supposedly like new in the box, somebody else still previously owned it. Maybe just the government, maybe the war vet who bought it home, maybe ten bajillion other collectors before you. In any event, when inspecting a firearm with an eye for possible acquisition you'll need to determine its true condition. This applies not only to the usual items (remaining original finish, correct parts and markings, etc.) but also its mechanical condition. You certainly don't want to buy a gun that's only useful as a paperweight or wall hanger, even if you don't intend to ever actually fire it. Mechanical condition also affects value, for obvious reasons. Even if the pistol appears to be in like-new shape, if it has suffered some sort of damage or isn't in safe working order it won't be worth much to anybody.
The following information, while pertaining mostly to USGI guns is still applicable to any used 1911-type pistol, commercial or military.
The first thing to look at is the overall condition of the outside of the pistol, including underneath the grips (take a screwdriver with you when you go shopping). Things to check for:
*Original finish and correct parts. Non-original finish, incorrect parts or obvious modifications are something to be wary of.
*Correct assembly. I've seen several 1911s where the mainspring housing pin and hammer pin were switched, which is easy to do and a sign of incompetent assembly. While in itself not a big deal and easily recified, it may be a sign that somebody was messing with things they shouldn't. Check that the plunger tube and grip screw bushings are securely staked in the frame.
*Finish wear. If the finish is worn in the usual areas (front strap, sharp edges, etc.) there's nothing to alarmed over. However, lack of finish in areas that don't normally see wear, when the other high-wear areas are fine indicates something isn't right. Be advised however that some areas typically show finish wear for reasons that new collectors may not recognize. An example is on the right side of the frame in front of the serial number. Often the finish will be worn in that location because of the brass flap hold-down button on the M1912 leather holster abrading it over time (a sewn-in piece of leather protected the pistol from the brass button, but the pressure eventually wore the finish anyway). Another example is the front left side of the dust cover, which also receives an abnormal amount of contact wear from the rough leather inside the holster.
*Rust, pitting, or corrosion. The three are different forms of damage, but they are all a bad thing. Rust is obvious, a reddish-brown crusty matter resulting from exposure to moisture (or some acids) that destroys the finish and begins to attack the metal underneath. Once this happens the result is pitting, the tiny "potholes" formed in the metal after it gets eaten away. Corrosion is like rust/pitting, but it is usually the result of exposure to strong acids or other chemicals, or even blood. It can leave small pits, or it can also eat up a large surface area at once.
*Cracks or peening damage. Look closely at the slide and frame for signs of cracking. See photo below for areas to inspect.
*Excessive component wear. It's common knowledge that military 1911s weren't fitted together nearly as snug as modern commercial pistols, however normally they weren't rattle-traps either. Some play of the slide and frame (both vertical and horizontal) is normal, but excessive movement may indicate badly worn parts. The barrel and bushing were also less than snug, but again excessive play should be noted. If the pistol seems extremely loose yet there is almost no finish wear to the contact areas it's time to look even closer (i.e. the pistol may have been refinished). Verify that the rear of the slide is relatively flush with the frame. If not, then the bottom feet of the lower barrel lugs are probably worn.
To do a more thorough inspection will require field-stripping the pistol. It's not necessary to completely detail-strip the pistol, but if you are able to, do so by all means! For instructions on how to field- or detail-strip a 1911, close this window and return to M1911.ORG, then select "Disassembly" from the menu in the left column of the site.
*Check internally for signs of cracking or peening damage. Check the breechface, barrel lugs (top and bottom), internal slide lugs, disconnector cutout, and slide/frame rails. Slight peening of the slide stop notch in the slide is normal on early production guns, but severe peening isn't.
*Check for signs of abuse. Make sure the pistol shows no evidence of a blowup (kB, or kaBoom!). If the slide or frame appears slightly bowed the pistol may have suffered a kB at some point. Other signs of abuse include deep gouges or peening marks on the slide and frame around the slide stop. It tells you that an incompetent person once tried to remove the slide stop using brute force, without understanding how to properly field-strip a 1911-type pistol.
*Check for signs of rust or pitting. It is particularly important to look underneath the grip panels, as moisture often collects there to form rust. Other vulerable areas include inside the slide recess, the magazine well, inside the frame under the mainspring housing, and any bare unfinished areas.
*Inspect the barrel. Check the condition of the bore, and examine the barrel in and out for cracks or peening damage. A loose barrel link pin is common, but really should be tight or at least staked in place.
*Look at the interior markings (if any) very closely. Fortunately most counterfeiters are somewhat lazy, and they'll often fail to either apply or remove authentic-looking inspection marks inside the gun. It is at this point that knowledge of what markings are normally found inside a particular pistol is important. Either refer to one of Charles W. Clawson's excellent books, or else seek the advice of a more knowledgeable collector. However, if you're the type who buys first and asks questions later you might not be too happy further down the road.
*Don't forget to look at the small parts closely. They can suffer from rust, cracks, peening, and wear just like the more important parts like the slide, frame, and barrel. While they may be comparatively easy to replace, finding an identical replacement part is often a real challenge at this late date. If you do manage to find another part expect to pay a premium for it as well. Some early parts are virtually impossible to find anywhere, at any price.
*Last, but certainly not the least important, look for signs of alteration, modification, or attempts to repair defects or damage. You'd be surprised what some folks will do to a poor unsuspecting pistol, and later what they'll do to cover it up when it comes time to sell the gun. Feed ramps can be ground on, trigger shoes added or removed, big sights brazed on then later removed, milling work done then later welded back up, or markings ground off or altered. Assume nothing, suspect everything.
Once the initial checks have been completed, the next task is to verify soundness of function. You probably won't have a chance to actually fire live ammunition through it, but even if you have no plans to ever shoot the pistol its functionality is important. Work the slide action, looking for signs of binding or ill-fitting parts. Operate all controls, cock the hammer, pull the trigger (by the way, making sure it's unloaded first is probably a good idea too). Most important though, make sure all parts work properly and safely. A fairly complete function check can be performed by using the guidelines provided here:
M-1911 Function Check
Last, but definitely not least.....
buy the gun, not the story!"