The logic of a small, concealable handgun packing the wallop of the wide-body .45 ACP cartridge is obvious. But beyond the need for a pocket full of power we suspect there is another reason why we are repeatedly asked to revisit the little frame/big bore category. Remember the first time you saw a little transistor radio? In short, we are all fascinated with the miniaturization of machinery.
Pint-sized guns have come a long way from simple designs such as the Derringer. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that most abbreviated semi-autos raised doubts about feeding capability, structure and overall reliability. Certainly, the influx of foreign pistols, such as the Glocks, that were sold with the reputation of running under the most extreme conditions pushed other manufacturers to raise production standards and make reliability their top priority.
Colt’s Manufacturing, a name synonymous with American firearms, offers the Defender, a 1911 snubby, if you will. Springfield Armory’s Parkerized Ultra Compact is just a hair larger but features night sights as a bonus. The Taurus line of subcompact Millennium pistols is topped by the PT145, which carries 10+1 rounds and adds a thumb-operated slide safety to a polymer double action-only design. Would these charismatic pistols lose their charm by way of malfunction? Here’s what we found out.
On the basis of available sight radius, we chose to benchrest these pistols at a distance of 15 yards. Special care was taken in choice of sandbags to support the frame without interfering with the movement of the slide. The Taurus PT145 offers a full-length dust cover, so we feel it adapted the best to bench work by offering more area on which to make contact with the sandbags. There is more available frame on the underside of the Springfield than with the Colt, but we still had to work with more hand-to-sandbag contact than we normally prefer.
Each gun was afforded a minimum of 100 rounds break in before recording accuracy or chronograph data. We fired our break-in shots at 10 and 15 yards standing, only to find that each of these guns were fun to shoot. We chose the Winchester 185-grain full metal jacket rounds (FMJ) in the white box for this casual session. From there we went to our Natchez Shooters Supplies catalog, (800) 251-7839, and found a 117-grain hollowpoint manufactured in Mexico by Aguila. Perhaps this unusual round would trip up our test pistols, we thought. We also chose a more sedate 230-grain FMJ from Aguila and were pleasantly surprised at the quality and performance of these budget rounds. As much fun as we had in our casual session we recognized the purpose for which these pistols were designed and approached our bench sessions with all the seriousness and emotion current events have mustered.
Colt Series 90 Defender, $840
In our opening comments we referred to the Colt Defender as a snubby, even though this term is generally reserved for short barreled revolvers. We chose this word because, to our surprise, its 3.2-inch barrel was not only shorter than that of the Springfield models but also even shorter than the Smith & Wesson 945 we reviewed in June 2001. However, capacity does not suffer. While these other pistols offer 6+1 capacity, the Defender has a flush-fitting seven-round magazine. The length of the magazine bodies of the Springfield and the Defender are otherwise equal, so the difference would appear to be in follower design.
The Mec-Gar magazine that Springfield employs is topped with a solid stabilizer on the forend. The follower in the Colt is scissors-like in design and will compress enough to allow a seventh round to enter. It is worth noting that the surface of the Defender’s follower is coated with orange plastic but we surmise that the coating is added merely for identification purposes (signifying magazine empty) rather than to improve function. The extra round is such a plus that we recommend the Wilson Combat 7+1 mags for the Springfield ($27.95 from Brownells,  623-4000) to make up the difference.
One other subtle, but important, feature are the edges fore and aft on the slide, which have been beveled so there are no sharp corners to snag clothing or bite into the lining of a holster. This is usually a custom feature.
Blowback operation is modulated by a two-piece guide rod. This includes a dual spring system. One spring remains captured and mates with the forward section of the guide rod in plunger-like fashion. The larger spring is removable, fits over the forward portion of the guide rod and compresses within the slide in normal fashion.
The barrel is a variation on the bushingless design in that it includes a bull barrel that has been scalloped from its muzzle, probably to reduce weight. This reduction of mass is most likely intended to speed lock time and reduces the necessary force to complete the cycle. The trigger mechanism includes a firing pin block operated by plunger beneath the slide, much the same as the Series 80 Colt.
Both the 1911s in this test come with the Hogue rubber grip that wraps the frontstrap with three hefty finger grooves. The dimensions of the front and rear straps (grip areas) are nearly the same. The grip safeties differ in that the Springfield offers the Ed Brown Memory groove and the beavertail flares upward with relief for the hammer tang. The Defender’s grip safety follows the contour of the backstrap. The movement it takes to compress the grip safeties are markedly different as well. The Colt’s requires a compression of only 0.09 inch. The Springfield recedes into the frame nearly 0.106 inch.
At the range, the Springfield averaged 2.7, 2.8, and 2.9 inches per five shot group with each ammunition. This is the model of consistency. Yet, the Colt was more accurate, even though the Colt’s slide-to-frame fit was not quite as tight as the Springfield’s and the Colt’s trigger (5 pounds) was indeed heavier. What was the source of the Defender’s advantage then?
To begin with all short guns react quickly and negatively to any deflection of the sights during trigger press. The fact is a shorter sight radius provides an inherently coarse adjustment. Our theory is that we achieved more consistent groups with the Colt’s because the sights were easier to work with. The Springfield pistol is likely more accurate when one aligns the 3 tritium dots rather than the light bars produced by its notch and post.
The Colt’s Defender adapted best to the special 117-grain Aguila hollowpoints, averaging 1.8 inches with little variation. These rounds, although low in mass and aggressively cut, follow the profile of the common 230-grain ball ammunition so they fed 100 percent reliably in all three guns. Firing the 185-grain Winchester FMJ rounds, the accuracy of the 1911s was basically a tie that was surprisingly and convincingly broken by the Taurus PT145. The biggest surprise of the test was the way the Defender handled the Aguila 230-grain roundnose ammunition. It has been widely said that shorter semi-autos will function more reliably with hotter ammunition (less bullet weight for more case volume and a larger powder charge) to ensure full slide movement. But all three guns ran 100 percent with the 230-grain rounds. Not only did the Defender run reliably with the big bullet, it shot the only sub 1-inch group of the test.
Springfield Ultra Compact Lightweight, $817
Springfield Armory has steadily maintained a consistent level of quality, and when its competitors began catching up, the Geneseo, Illinois-based firm began offering its pistols with nearly every after-market option as standard equipment. While the alloy-framed lightweight version of the Ultra Compact pistol we tested does not come with the word “Loaded” next to it (the word Springfield Armory has adopted in its ad campaign) we note that in terms of features it would qualify as such. The Parkerized finish is distinctive and absolutely non-glare. The trigger is skeletonized and adjustable for overtravel. The hammer is relieved, and the slide features rear only serrations. These last two features are shared with the Colt’s Defender, but instead of only vertical serrations like on the Colt’s, the mainspring housing is checkered at 20 lpi. Other “custom” features include the Ed Brown Memory Groove grip safety and tritium night sights backed by a Novak rear sight. The front sight is dovetailed cleanly into the slide and pinned in place. Care was taken to fill the pin channel for improved cosmetics. Purchased separately, this sight system generally sells for about $150 per set, plus installation. Without the tritium dots in place we would prefer lower mount sights. But the presence of the night sights would surely make this pistol the hands down winner in situations beyond the means of point shooting.
The difference in weight and thus ease of carry between the lightweight model and the stainless-steel model seems much greater than the measured 4 ounces. Springfield has cleverly integrated a key-operated lock into the grip to lock the mainspring. This should satisfy the requirement of an internal locking system as per the “Smith & Wesson agreement.”
The barrel is a bull design controlled by a single-spring short-guide-rod design. Assembly and reassembly of both the Colt Defender and the Springfield Ultra Compact require emptying the pistol and pulling the hammer back. The slide is then moved rearward so that the slide stop may be aligned with the notch on the slide. After pushing the pin out from the left side the top end slides off. The guide rod, spring and barrel can then be removed. In each operation a fair amount of strength is required due to the hefty recoil spring rate that needs to be overcome to align the slide with the stops. Since the Springfield’s recoil spring and guide rod are separate and the rod is short, care must be taken not to bend and kink the spring during this operation. The bull barrel is slightly tapered but not scalloped.
We found the Ultra Compact more accurate to shoot standing than from a rest, probably due to getting a more consistent grip when firing off hand. As mentioned before, our accuracy data suffered because of variation in the elevation of our hits. We are sure that point of impact (POI) in this case was determined by strength of grip. Held loosely, the recoil added height to the POI. Held tightly, the shots printed much lower. When standing we found it easier to maintain a consistent grip resulting in tighter groups. This is one of the rare occasions where we feel that we could have had better results for our accuracy chart had we tested firing offhand. It is hard to pinpoint why, but our experience with the Ultra Compact series has been better when simple wooden panels were in place. Even without careful modulation of grip strength, the Springfield Armory Ultra Compact was capable of shooting groups averaging 2.75 inches at 15 yards reliably.
Taurus PT145, $490
The maverick of our trio is the Taurus PT145. This is the largest-caliber version of the Millennium (PT) pistol series. The PT line is descended from the Glock design much like the Ultra Compact and the Defender are related to the Browning-designed 1911. The Taurus holds 10+1 rounds in its polymer frame and relies on a striker system rather than a hammer to ignite rounds. A thumb-operated safety that locks the trigger and the slide is mounted on the left side, offering a familiar feel to 1911 lovers. Taurus did a very good job of molding a comfortable grip and “checkering” it with a useful pattern. The frame is undercut to lower the bore line in the hand and offers additional control with a beavertail. The dust cover of underside of the frame runs the full length of the slide, which on a 1911 would be referred to as “slabside.” Slide-to-frame fit on our pistol was rock solid, and barrel lock up at the hood and muzzle (this is a linkless design) had no play. The extractor was externally mounted, and a key-operated slide lock was accessible from the right side. The magazine uses a flared basepad that completes the contour of the grip, and the release is lined and easy to use without getting in the way. Graphics and two-tone color made for a handsome pistol, we thought. In short, this cleanly constructed polymer pistol was as good we have seen in terms of quality.
At the range this pistol performed in some ways as expected and in others it gave us a surprise. First, most double action-only pistols can be tiring to shoot. At the bench, where our controlled press is a concentrated search for the break point, the longer DAO triggers are demanding. The pistol must be held firmly for what seems to be a long time while the trigger finger performs a fluid movement. The trouble is DAO triggers on semi-automatics tend to stack and require additional force as you near the break. The key is to learn a trigger movement wherein the finger moves at the same speed and over the same distance forward and back.
This gun’s sight system is a three-dot design, and it may be the only clue that this is a $490 MSRP firearm. The front unit is a big white dot and the rear unit is a variation of the Novak design that looks like it was left in the dryer too long. But, frankly, they are adequate for this pistol. This means they can be modulated clearly while pressing the trigger.
The PT145 was at its best during standing and shooting rapid fire. At the bench, under the super-slow controlled press, we suffered our only failure to fire throughout the test. It is our experience that striker-fired guns, when triggered slowly, will sometimes not deliver the necessary momentum to strike the primer with adequate force. This happened on a single occasion with the Winchester 185-grain FMJ rounds. This cartridge features the gold anodized primer, and we mention this because several of the handloaders on our staff have mentioned that the Winchester gold anodized primers purchased as components for home reloading have suffered a mysterious pattern of failure to ignite, even in proven pistols. This may or may not have bearing on the Taurus PT145 or other striker-fired pistols, but we felt it was worth mentioning.
Overall, all the pistols in this test transmitted the most comfortable impulse when firing the 185-grain rounds. In the case of the PT145, the 185s were also the most accurate. While the 117-grain Aguila round produced 3-inch-plus groups in the Taurus, the PT145 averaged 2.4-inch groups (second place) firing the 230-grain ammunition. Despite the single malfunction, this pistol proved to be the most accurate with the 185-grain Winchester ammunition, averaging groups measuring 0.7 inch smaller than its next competitor. Pistols of this size are often designed around a specific bullet weight, and in this case we feel that 185 grains was the obvious choice.
One aspect of the PT145 we found confusing was the array of levers on the left side of the pistol. Nearest the hand is the thumb safety. Then the slide release and then the breakdown pin or rather the “slide disassembly latch.” It is possible for the shooter’s thumb to confuse the slide disassembly latch with the slide release. Removing the top end of the PT145 starts with removing the magazine and emptying the chamber. The slide is then locked back. The slide disassembly latch must now be rotated and pried from the frame. The top end can now be released and slid forward off the frame. The two-piece guide rod resembles the unit on the Colt Defender, but none of the parts remain captured upon removal. Reversing the process to reassemble the pistol requires careful reinsertion of the latch. Even in polymer form, the PT145 is only a few ounces lighter than the other pistols in this test, but its cost is considerably less.
Gun Tests Recommends
Colt Defender, $840. Buy It. We felt this was the top performer in the test. It was small and carried an “extra” round in its flush fitting magazine. Based on the quality of this gun, we feel that Colt’s Manufacturing is currently producing its best firearms in at least 10 years.
Springfield Armory Ultra Compact Lightweight, $817. Buy It. The Ultra Compact Lightweight is packed with features and is easier to shoot than many all-steel guns. Long term use of its sister model has proven the Ultra Compact a worthy companion and dependable product.
Taurus PT145, $490. Conditional Buy. It is hard to find a .45 for under $500, especially a 10+1 model. The PT145 may not perform like the more expensive pistols, but it easily outperforms its relatively low price. If you’re on a budget, this gun is worth a look.