Toward the end of each year, I survey the work R.K. Campbell, Roger Eckstine, Austin Miller, Robert Sadowski, David Tannahill, Tracey Taylor, John Taylor, Rafael Urista, and Ralph Winingham have done in Gun Tests, with an eye toward selecting guns, accessories, and ammunition the magazine's testers have endorsed. From these evaluations I pick the best from a full year's worth of tests and distill recommendations for readers, who often use them as shopping guides. These choices are a mixture of our original tests and other information I've compiled during the year. After we roll high-rated test products into long-term testing, I keep tabs on how those guns do, and if the firearms and accessories continue performing well, then I have confidence including them in this wrap-up.
The compact self-loading pistol is easily the most popular personal-defense handgun in America. Shooters realize that small-bore handguns may not have sufficient potential for personal defense. The 9mm Luger is the baseline for personal defense in most shooters' eyes. The 40 S&W isn't as popular due to the stout recoil it produces in compact handguns. After all, many 9mms and 40s are built on the same frame. The 45-caliber compact is slightly larger, and the lower-pressure 45 ACP gives a hard push in recoil rather than the sharp jolt experienced with the 40.
To see how our shooters rated a trio of smallish 45s, we acquired three handguns based on the service-size Glock 21, Springfield XD, and S&W M&P handguns.
l From Glock comes the single-stack polymer-frame G36, which is popular, reliable, and well suited to personal defense. The Glock G36 PI3650201FGR 45 6R FS, $561, isn't the most popular Glock by a long shot, but a number of Glock fans, as well as 45 ACP fans, like the Glock 36 handgun for its simplicity and ease of use.
l Another gun in the test was Springfield Armory's XD-S, a downsized XD with a slim single-stack grip. The Springfield Armory XD-S 3.3 XDS93345BE 45 ACP, $419, is even more compact than the Glock, with a short grip frame and a five-round magazine.
l The latest arrival in the polymer-frame 45 single-stack scene is the Smith & Wesson M&P45 Shield 180022, $399. The Shield series have been popular and well accepted by concealed carry handgunners, so making a 45-caliber version of it is a natural choice.
We test-fired the pistols with a total of five loads. The first was a handload with Magnus Cast bullets (#803 225-grain Flatpoint) and 4.8 grains of Titegroup powder. Our other test loads came from CheaperThanDirt.com. One was the HPR 230-grain JHP 45230JHP ($38/50 rounds), a Hornady 200-grain XTP ($15.28/20), a Hornady 230-grain XTP +P 9096 ($16.25/20), and a Fiocchi 230-grain Extrema JHP 45XTP25 ($17.24/25). We fired the handload during the combat firing test stage, shooting 50 cartridges in each pistol. We also fired a magazine of the Hornady 230-grain +P in these stages to evaluate recoil in each handgun. The HPR 230-grain load, the Hornady 200-grain load, and the Fiocchi 230-grain Extrema were used in accuracy testing. During the course of our testing, the three pistols never failed to feed, chamber, fire or eject, so reliability isn't an issue.
As may be expected, these compact 45s are popular with fans of each company's full-size 45s. But that isn't the whole story. As we discovered, fans of the full-size Glock may prefer the XD-S and our Springfield XD fan preferred the Glock 36 compact, and so it went. The primary difference was in handling, we found. Here are our findings.
In this installment, we pit two practical target guns against each other. By practical target guns we mean accurate and useful 1911 handguns suitable for personal defense, hunting, and some forms of competition. They are not so specialized that they are not holster guns or unreliable for general use. Some target guns simply are not as robust as these handguns.
Fragile sights that overhang the slide too far, as an example, are counterintuitive in an all-round packing gun. If an adjustable sight loses its zero in competition, you will lose the match. Losing zero in a personal-defense situation carries a stiffer penalty for failure. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, fiber-optic front sights are not always desirable in a hard-use handgun because they tend to be fragile, even if they deliver superior targeting performance.
On the other hand, a service pistol or a hunting pistol with adjustable sights is desirable given the wide range of bullet weights and velocity available with the 45 ACP cartridge.Gun Testsreaders already know that the 1911 Government Model platform is a versatile, go-anywhere do-anything handgun; but the question is, can target performance translate to defensive reliability and handling?
When the National Matches got into full force after World War One, improvements were undertaken on the 1911 handgun. Barrels were welded up and carefully fitted, and high-profile sights were fabricated. These improvements led to the Colt National Match pistol's introduction in 1933. The National Match featured a hand-honed action and two-way adjustable sights. Law officers and outdoorsmen also adopted this relatively expensive handgun. Changes and modification led to the Colt Gold Cup. The sights were fragile in many renditions — not the case in the newest models — so the shooter wishing to own a service-grade handgun with target sights had to take the custom route. Expedients, such as fitting Smith & Wesson revolver sights to the 1911 slide, were not always successful, but the Bo-Mar sight was an excellent addition to any 1911.
High-visibility adjustable sights are a good thing to have, provided they are reliable in keeping zero, are not fragile, and aren't likely to be damaged. Today, we have the best adjustable-sight 1911 pistols yet from the factory, and our two tests guns put them to excellent use. Here's how they performed.
The high-end 1911 handgun continues to be popular, so popular, in fact, that folks are willing to drop well over one thousand dollars to gain what they hope is superior performance. On a high-end pistol, "performance" often means features, such as good sights, forward cocking serrations, a good trigger compression, and attention to detail. The discerning shooter is looking for reliability first, then handling, accuracy, and fit and feel, and four handguns that are reputed to have those qualities at various price tags come from Colt and Springfield Armory.
We recently tested two sidearms chambered in 45 ACP from each company that would interest nearly any buyer who was in the market for a self-defense arm. The products were Springfield's Loaded Model PX9109LP, $790; and for hundreds more, the company's Tactical Response Pistol, the TRP PC9108LP 45 ACP, $1347. To fit in that sizable price gap in the Springfield lineup, we selected Colt's Combat Elite 08011XSE, $1015, and the Rail Gun XSE 01070RG, $1199. These are actual counter prices from BudsGunShop.com, and our intent was to survey a range of pricing to see if additional dollars translated into additional performance that would matter to our test team of shooters.
Among the most popular sidearms in terms of numbers sold are the Colt Combat Elite and the Springfield Loaded Model. A Colt Rail Gun variant is used by the U.S. Marine Corps, and the Springfield Bureau Model, similar to the TRP, by the FBI SWAT team. All four are combat guns intended to give the user an advantage in the field, so our thorough test involved a number of trained shooters who were asked to push the pistols to the limit, so we could discover the boundaries of control, combat accuracy, and absolute accuracy. We should also note that the Loaded Model was a rater's personal carry gun. The rater stated it came out of the box running and has never given a complaint, and it has some 5,000 rounds through it. Cosmetically, it was hard to assess the status of the Loaded by just looking. The pistol is finished in a dull, non-reflective Parkerized finish that doesn't show wear very much. The other pistols were new out of the box.
At this point we will mention the holsters used, as the Rail Gun demanded rail-specific holsters. The other three guns were easily passed around to the raters and standard holsters were used for them. For the Rail Gun, we had to invest in two holsters specific to it, with three raters doing most of the firing. We used Ted Blocker's X 16 holster in both standard and 1911 rail-gun types. The holster was used both strong side and crossdraw, with excellent results. We also used a ZZZ Custom Kydex strong-side holster, which gave a good fit on the Colt's long bearing services and is relatively compact for a rail-gun holster. The other holster was a Sweetwater Saddlery strong-side pancake design that hugs the body.
At the range, we used three loads. The Black Hills Ammunition 200-grain lead semi-wadcutter bullet was our training and practice load. Next, the Hornady American Gunner 185-grain XTP represented a lightweight-bullet defense load, and the Winchester M1911 230-grain jacketed hollowpoint stood in as a heavy defense load. These are affordable 45 ACP choices likely to be used by shooters. We expected that heavy bullets with a long bearing surface would demonstrate good accuracy, but in this case, the lightest bullet weight gave the best accuracy. Also, our shooters noted the heavier push of the 230-grain load. Following are objective data about each handgun, as well as the subjective opinions of our shooters based on head-to-head firing tests.
The team was split even before we put in any trigger time, with the 45 ACP aficionados against the 9mm clan. But as range testing progressed, we found ourselves liking the 9mm more. At first, we expected the XD Mod.2 pistols would shift in our grip during recoil, but we found quite the opposite to be true. The grip textures offered good friction against our hands without abrasion.
We also saw the sights were large and offered fast target acquisition. The pistols likewise pointed well for close work and continued to perform out to 25 yards. Most felt the pistols acted like full-size pistols.
Recoil felt less stout in the Mod.2s compared to other smaller pistols we are familiar with. We attribute this to the grip, lighter slide, and dual-spring recoil guide rod. There was some take up on the triggers — which is fine considering these are defensive pistols — as long as the breaks were consistent, which they were.
With average accuracy of about 1.5-inch groups with the 9mm model and 2-inch groups with the 45 ACP at 25 yards, we were happy. The Mod.2 in 9mm was more pleasant to shoot than the 45 ACP, though the 45 ACP was nowhere near the brute we though it would be. We could also recover faster using the 9mm model, so a follow-up shot was quicker.
Springfield did more than just reduce the grip and barrel and slide length like they did with the XD 3-inch subcompact, which is another pistol we have given Buy It rating to in the past. With the Mod.2 series of pistols, Springfield addressed ergonomics in small pistols, which are usually difficult to shoot due to their small grips. Add in powerful rounds like 147-grain 9mms and 230-grain 45 ACP FMJs, and the shooter finds the pistols can easily move and shift in the grip, mainly because subcompacts do not have a lot of grip to hold onto in first place. We all know consistency is the key to better and more accurate shooting, and a good grip is the foundation of that concept. Springfield tackled this issue with the Grip Zone, or three different types of textures placed in strategic places. The three zones of texture provide different types of adhesion. Zone 1 texture is located on the frontstrap and backstrap and provides a good anti-slip surface. Zone 2 texture is the most aggressive and is located on the side panels. Zones 1 and 2 are a type of stippling that our team felt offers good adhesion without being uncomfortable to grip firmly. Zone 3 texture covers the remainder of the frame and has a slight pebble texture.
The compromise that shooters have to deal with in choosing a concealed-carry sidearm is this: A smaller pistol that is easier to conceal is usually more difficult to operate and shoot; and a larger pistol that is easier to operate and shoot is more difficult to conceal. A line of guns retailers have told us are popular carry pieces are the newest Springfield Armory XD variants, the XD Mod.2 series.
They are supposedly redesigned XD subcompacts that have better ergonomics, more useful sights, and slimmer profiles. If you are looking for a concealed-carry handgun that offers a super-slim profile, less weight, and better concealability, we suggest you stick with a single-stack pistol like Springfield's XD-S 3.3, which we reviewed in February 2015 (Grade A). On the other hand, if you want a pistol that is still concealed-carry friendly but has nearly double the magazine capacity with the feel of a full-size pistol, the Mod.2 pistols are supposed to fill that ticket. So we tested the two most-popular chamberings of the Mod.2 pistols in 9mm Luger and 45 ACP to see what all the fuss is about. The question that needed to be answered is, are these new guns so good that we would recommend you considering switching from your favorite carry piece? That is a super-high barrier for any handgun to scale, and, ultimately, each concealed-carrier has to make the decision to try them on his or her own.
The trend these days with law enforcement is to move to the 9mm cartridge, and many agencies we are acquainted with are using 147-grain ammo. So we selected 147-grain cartridges from Atlanta Arms as well as 115-grain rounds from Black Hills and Hornady. For the 45 ACP, we stuck with the most popular bullet-weight choice, 230 grains, selecting FMJs from Perfecta and Federal and hollowpoints from Atlanta Arms. We had no experience with Perfecta 45 ACP ammo, but found it at a big-box store and thought we'd try it.
We fired for accuracy at 25 yards using the provided flush-fit magazines and a rest. We also fired for speed at 15 yards with both magazines, and with the flush-fit magazines drew from concealed carry using the included belt holsters and a Fobus IWB holster that uses either a large or small universal shell. The flexible backing of the Fobus ensures the pistol stays secure when worn. We practiced dry-firing drills with both pistols using both holsters and progressed to live fire. By no means could these pistols be dropped in a pants pocket; they need a holster.
Walther's new PPQ in 45 ACP is the first true production Walther in that chambering in the company's history, Walther says. The gun is equipped with the Carl Walther quick defense trigger, traditional front and rear slide serrations, and ambidextrous controls like other PPQs. The PPQ 45 Auto will hit the market and be available in retail stores on October 1, 2015.
Cyndi Flannigan, Walther Arms' vice president of sales and marketing, says of the new pistol, "This new caliber and product offering is a benchmark for Walther and the PPQ. We have built it to the same exact German standards that have made this model so well received, and it is a superior choice for home defense and personal protection." We'll soon see about that.
Although many 1911 shooters are concerned with personal defense, a market clearly exists for target-sighted 1911 handguns. Makers who offer a 1911 of any type often provide an upgraded target model for those wishing to use the pistol in competition. Many of these are a far cry from the old warhorse that fought in two World Wars and many skirmishes elsewhere. In this shoot-out, we have included a classic target-grade 1911, the Colt Gold Cup Trophy against a Metro Arms long-slide 1911 offered as a factory product in the extended version that many shooters appreciate. During the course of the test we learned something about accuracy and came away with respect for each handgun. But one handgun was clearly better and more practical for most shooters:
Colt started to put adjustable sights on its single-action revolvers around 1890 to fill a need for target shooters. Most single actions of the day, and, in fact, to the present, feature simple fixed sights; a blade front and rear consisting of a groove milled along the top strap. These sights suffice for most shooters, though some Kentucky windage and elevation are required with some models that did not shoot to point of aim. Adjustable sights take out the guesswork since they can be adjusted to any load being fired. Colt named the single action with adjustable sights the Flattop Target Model, and these First Generation revolvers were shipped from 1888 to 1896 with fewer than 1,000 made. Obviously, they are quite rare. Bisley models were also offered as Flattop Target Models, and even fewer of these models were produced. What these first Flattop revolvers featured was a replaceable front-sight blade to adjust elevation and a rear sight that was drift-adjustable for windage. Since the rear sight groove was not needed, the top strap of the frame was machined, flat hence the name "Flattop."
The two flattops we tested recently were a used Third Generation Colt New Frontier and a new Lipsey's exclusive Ruger New Model Blackhawk. Both wore aftermarket grips, and from outward appearances, looked nearly identical. What piqued our interest in these two revolvers was they were also convertibles with an extra cylinder. One cylinder was chambered in 45 Colt (sometimes called Long Colt to ensure it doesn't get confused with a shortened pronunciation of Automatic Colt Pistol) and the other was chambered in 45 ACP. Both cartridges are very popular, and 45 ACP made these six-shooters compatible with ammo normally used in a semi-automatic pistol.
The operating systems of each revolver are what distinguish them. The New Frontier is an old-school single action with no built-in safety, so it must be carried with the hammer resting on an empty chamber to guard against discharges if dropped. The Ruger New Model Blackhawk incorporates a transfer-bar safety mechanism that allows the revolver to be carried with all chambers loaded. The Colt uses a flat mainspring and flat springs throughout, and the Ruger uses a coiled mainspring as well as coiled springs throughout.
We used a revolver range rod and rod head combo from Brownells in 45 Auto/45 Colt (080-617-045WB, $42) to check each chamber for alignment with the bore. We found no issues. Next we looked at headspace—the space between the recoil shield of the frame and the rear of the cylinder—and assumed all would be fine since the Ruger was new the Colt looked unused. Again, our assumption was confirmed with Clymer No-Go gauges from Brownells in 45 Auto (184-000-041WB, $60) and 45 Long Colt (184-100-511WB, $30). Both cylinders for both revolvers have non-rebated cylinders. The headspace check process was a bit different for each revolver. For the Colt, we put the hammer on half-cock and opened the loading gate; for the Ruger, we just had to open the loading gate and drop the No-Go gauge into a chamber. If correct, the gauge stops the cylinder's rotation. This was repeated with all 24 chambers;12 for both 45 Colt cylinders and 12 for the two 45 ACP cylinders. With the Colt, the No-Go gauge is removed only after removing the cylinder. The process is tedious, but it's warranted to ensure the safety of a used revolver. The Ruger has a reversing pawl, like Ruger's Vaquero models, so the process is quicker. So is unloading the Ruger, but we'll get to that. Finally, we checked the cylinder-to-barrel space, aka cylinder gap, using a Brownells feeler gauger (606-950-252WB, $28). The space should spec out between 0.004 to 0.006 inch. We found the dimension on the Colt was 0.007 inch for each cylinder. On the Ruger, the 45 Colt cylinder gap measured 0.005 inch and the 45 ACP cylinder was 0.006 inch.
With the pistols all checked out, we were then able to get to the fun part and begin shooting them. Here's how that went:
Readers will recall our May 2015 test of Ruger's new SR1911 CMD-A, a Grade A lightweight Commander-style 45 auto. To sum up that test, we consider the new Ruger lightweight Commander-type auto to be one of the finest self-defense handguns available today. The gun has just what it needs and no extra nonsense. It has excellent sights. It does not have a firing-pin block, nor a full-length guide rod, which some of us despise. That means you can take the gun apart easily with no tools. The slim and attractive wood grips seem to be an aid to pointing the gun, and also contribute to concealment. We found the two-tone finish appealing, and the factory dehorning was mighty good. The original trigger pull was very much acceptable, as was the accuracy. The integral plunger housing cannot come loose. Finally, those with fat hands will like the full-size grip of the LW Ruger better than the shorter one on guns like the Colt CCO. It makes for a better grip, and speed reloading is easier.
But even good products like the CMD-A can be improved, so Senior Technical Editor Ray Ordorica bought it for himself with an eye toward making it resemble his Colt CCO. He slicked the Ruger up, included beveling the front of the frame, eliminating all the sharp edges around the ejection port, knocking the sharp bottom off the mainspring housing, removing metal from under the trigger guard to get the hand higher, checkering the front strap, and rounding the sharp edges at the sides of the grip safety. The steel parts were reblued as needed with Formula 44/40 Instant Gun Blue, and the aluminum parts were reblackened with Aluminum Black, both available from Brownells. And as the previous photo shows, he engraved the gun.
One of the main performance goals was to improve the Ruger's already good trigger pull, so he contacted master gunsmith Ned Christiansen at Michiguns and asked about getting a trigger job. Instead, Christiansen recommended we try an "ignition set" offered by John Harrison (HarrisonCustom.com). Harrison offers a complete line of gunsmithing services along with a not-quite-drop-in kit called the Harrison Custom HD-120-TR Extreme Service Ignition Package, Strut, and Trigger, $186. We chose the carbon-steel version in white, though the parts are also available with a black coating or of stainless-steel construction. At Harrison's suggestion, we opted for the True Radius sear, which has its contacting surface ground on an arc centered on the pivot pin. He also sent along a hammer strut and a replacement trigger a bit shorter than the Ruger's. Our task was to fit all the parts and see what dropped in and what did not, and of course evaluate the products. Here is what we found.
The 1911 handgun has survived for more than one hundred years based on excellent ergonomics, great reliability, and its ability to chamber a fight-stopping cartridge. Modern 1911 handguns are much evolved from the Colt 1911 first issued to Army troops in 1911. However, a doughboy going to Europe in 1917 would be able to instantly load, make safe, fire and use a modern 1911 handgun. The ability of the platform to accept a weapon-mounted light was an inevitable part of the 1911's evolution, because a gun-mounted combat light is a good tactical addition. They allow for the identification of a threat, illumination of an area, and make fail-safe identification possible.
Two so-equipped full-size 1911s are the SIG TACOPS and the Smith & Wesson 1911TA E Class. The SIG Sauer 1911 TACOPS 1911R-45TACOPS, $1213 list, is a no-nonsense black tactical pistol. We found it at DefenderOutdoors.com for $1,080, at BudsGunShop.com for a cash discount price of $1,062, and for $910 at GrabAGun.com. Our test gun is part of the larger SIG 1911 family, which at our last count, had 31 members. Generally speaking, SIG 1911s have done very well in our evaluations. In the October 2014 issue, we graded a 1911 Carry Scorpion 1911CAR-45-SCPN as a B+. In the November 2013 issue, a 1911 Carry Stainless 1911CA-45-SSS earned an A- grade and a "Best Buy" nod. In the February 2009 issue, a 1911 C3 No. 19GS0031 earned an A grade. In the May 2006 issue, a Sigarms 1911 GSR No. 19GS0001 earned a Conditional Buy, mainly because of its price, not its functionality. We'd translate that to a B+ today.
S&W's SW1911 "E" Series pistols are supposed to be "enhanced, with tight tolerances, precision-fit trigger, chamfered and recessed muzzle, "fish-scale" scalloped slide serrations and other premium features commonly found on custom-made firearms. The standard E-series 1911s come in blued or stainless steel, and the model number with "SC" appended have scandium-alloy frames. The blued version we tested is #108409, while the stainless model is #108411. List for our test gun is $1399, and we saw it for sale at DefenderOutdoors.com for $1140, TombstoneTactical.com for $1099, and at BudsGunShop.com for $1065.
Smith 1911s have not matched SIG's level of performance in our tests. In the April 2010 issue, the S&W Model SW1911 No. 178017 in 9mm got a B+. A 45 ACP Smith & Wesson MSW1911 No. 108284 earned a B+ in the February 2010 issue. In March 2006, a 1911SC No. 108289 got a "Don't Buy" rating, as did a 1911PD No. 108296 tested in the November 2005. Way back in April 2003, we tested the first-year version of the company's 1911 and said "Buy It" to a Smith & Wesson 1911 45 ACP.
But history isn't necessarily destiny at Gun Tests. Out of the box, the Smith & Wesson had more bling and eye appeal, no denying that. And at the heart of each pistol was a tight barrel-to-slide fit, which provided X-ring accuracy without sacrificing reliability. Just like you, we prefer to shoot good guns, and what we found here were two pretty good ones, though our team had its preference at the end.