1911 Reliability Overview: The Extractor, by John Travis
The internal extractor has been called the "Weak link in the 1911 Design," but it's actually one of the strong points, provided that it's made of the right materials, correctly heat-treated...and properly adjusted. The reputation for unreliable extractor function is a fairly recent one, and is largely due to the manufacturers' attempt to cut costs by taking short cuts on the materials, the manufacturing process, and the final adjustments to the parts before shipping the guns. If there was ever a part on the 1911 that must be right, the extractor takes several of the top honors.
The extractor must be hard enough to be durable for thousands of rounds, yet not so hard that it won't spring open and allow the cartridge rim easy access to the breechface. It must be rigid enough to maintain control of the round after it leaves the magazine until the empty exits the port, but flexible enough to let go of the empty case after hitting the ejector. In other words, the extractor must be a spring. In order to be a good spring, it not only requires precise heat-treatment and drawing the part, also called "Tempering." I t must be made of the proper material so that the part CAN be correctly tempered. Which brings us to...Materials!
Original design specs called for 1065 to 1090 special steel of not larger than 6 or 7 austenitic grain size. I won't go into the metallurgical aspects of that, but I'll add that I'd prefer 1075 or 1090 for the best steel to use. When those "Special Steels" were heated-treaded and drawn to correct temper, they became extractors that took a lickin' and kept on tickin'. In fact, I have two Colts--one commercial and one military contract--that are approaching 90 years old. The original extractors are still in place, and they still work perfectly.
Modern metallurgy has produced some of the finest steels ever. The one that most present-day extractors are made from is 4340--which is very good--but it's a little too rigid to make a proper extractor from once it's spring-tempered. It's a spring, but it makes for a very stiff spring. This makes it difficult to get just the right tension for reliable extraction and strong ejection, and still avoid failures to go to battery due to too much tension. The stuff just doesn't spring open readily, at least not without a few modifications that anyone can do.If the extractor is made of the "Right Stuff" and correctly fitted and tensioned, it will very likely last for the life of the gun without needing further attention other than periodic cleaning.
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.