Jumbo Shrimp .45s: Factory, Factory Custom, or Custom?
Do you really have to spend $1,000 or more for a “You Bet Your Life” mini-1911? Based on our testing of three ultra-compacts from Springfield, Kimber, and Cylinder & Slide, we answer yes.
When it comes to the argument over which is the best defensive handgun caliber, shooters bent on the survival of the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) will defend their favorite round’s honor to the death. Even after the U.S. military switched to 9mm and word comes of electronically ignited firearms, it is likely that the .45 ACP will live on into the next millennium. In the next century, your grandchildren will likely read in their daily electronic newspaper about a battalion of lost soldiers found in a cave reloading this venerable round for their aging 1991A1s. Such is the strength of allegiance this caliber attracts.
Not surprisingly, then, .45 ACP shooters want to see the round’s usefulness expanded past the dimensions of full-size guns, especially into the realm of concealed carry guns. Some of the smallest such products, which we describe here as ultra-compacts (even smaller than sub-compact guns), could more informally be called jumbo shrimps: big bullet, tiny package.
Such guns, including the custom-made Adventurer from Cylinder & Slide, $1,475, the factory-production Springfield Ultra-Compact, $699, and the factory-custom $1,085 Kimber Ultra-Elite, pack as little capacity as 5+1 (Adventurer). But in terms of downrange performance, these pistols still offer nearly the same knockdown power as that of their bigger brothers. However, these relatively small guns suffer from limitations that show why the ultra-compact design for the 1911 is not more widely manufactured.
Perhaps the main reason can be found in how the 1911 design operates. To allow the extractor to pick rounds from the magazine and seat them fully into the chamber, there has to be a certain amount of slide travel and momentum that in the case of smaller semi-autos is limited by the abbreviated length of their slides. In the ultra-compacts the travel of the slide just barely clears the mag when fully to the rear, and that doesn’t give the round much time to get into the correct position before the slide slams forward. If the round is not in just the right position before the slide returns forward, failure to feed will become a common occurrence. How successful are Springfield, Kimber, and Cylinder & Slide in overcoming this and other obstacles? Furthermore, is the necessary reduction in capacity a worthwhile trade for a larger-diameter projectile? We shot these guns to find out.
Considering the guns shared the same operational design, we were surprised to find that each pistol had a personality all its own. All three presented the same size and relationship between their notches and post sights. Had they all had plain sights, or as in the case of the Kimber night sights, the initial impression of target acquisition would have been identical. Beyond that, however, the shooting experience was markedly different.
All three had distinctively different grips and pattern of recoil. The Adventurer is unique in that the pinky will not fit onto the grip. Adding an extended base-pad might be the answer for some, but such a move would neutralize one of its strongest points, concealability. Once the shooter pressed the trigger, the gun recoiled straight up. The sensation was of the bore line staying horizontal as the entire pistol moved upward. The Adventurer just seems to go pop and become momentarily weightless, without transferring much shock to the hand. In contrast, the Kimber bucks straight back in the most typical muzzle-flip profile, making the Kimber’s recoil feel the sharpest, reflecting its narrow profile and low weight. We didn’t want to spend a lot of time shooting this gun. In our view, the Springfield absorbed recoil shock the best. The shooter could almost feel the shock dissipate in a wave-like pattern through the frame to the base of the grip. Said otherwise, the Springfield has a cushioned feel, an almost reassuring thump when the gun goes off.
Even though these three guns shoot differently, in each case the keys to accuracy with each one are hold firm, watch the front sight, and fire with resolve. This is a nice way of saying what Cus D’Amato always told his protégé Mike Tyson: “Throw punches with bad intentions.” In short, these short-barreled wrist cannons generate a hefty power factor and leave big holes in their wakes. The appeal of the .45 ACP round as a carry weapon is its comparatively lower pressure and blast than smaller rounds such as .357 Magnum producing the same power. This said, we tested each gun by firing at targets placed 15 yards down range from a sand bag rest.
Prior to this we spent a minimum of 300 rounds on each pistol for the purpose of breaking them in. We feel our selection of ammunition is representative of typically available .45 ACP rounds. For the large part of our break-in ammo, we concentrated on firing the dependable and economical 230-grain round-nosed bullets from Sellier & Bellot. We all know about the 200-grain lead semi-wadcutter, so we included this slug loaded by Black Hills. Also from Black Hills was our choice of a 185-grain JHP with moderately higher velocity. For an all-out defense round we chose Speer’s 185-grain Gold Dot Hollowpoint. Overall, this round was the most accurate in all three guns and would probably be the most effective defense round due to expansion and a power factor of 165-166 points. It should be noted that in IPSC or Practical Shooting, a sport rooted in combat drills, a power factor of 175 is considered “Major” and awards the shooter extra points for off-center hits to compensate for handling the additional recoil. This was originally derived from the power displayed by 230-grain military ball ammo from the original GI 1911 pistol. The 200-grain SWC from Black Hills was consistent in the Kimber with groups from 2.1 to 2.5 inches. Somehow it was erratic in the Adventurer but spectacular in the Springfield, with one group as small as 0.80 inches and a power factor of 174.
Here’s how the guns performed in more detail:
Cylinder & Slide Adventurer
Our recommendation: Good gun, but expensive. It’s worth the dollars if any of its custom features are must-haves for your personal needs.
Our overall impression of this custom gun is that it was either chopped down in true hot-rod tradition or boiled in the cauldron of a head-shrinking witch doctor. It’s built for concealment, and with its minimum length grip, the Adventurer succeeds admirably. In fact, this pistol fits into a rectangular box measuring only 6.9 by 4 inches.
The Adventurer’s appearance is discrete and understated. Its matte finish blends well with the tightly checkered wood grip. The hammer is relieved with only a small hole, nor is the trigger skeletonized. We judged hammer drop to be on the heavy side. Front and rear sights are by Novak set into the slide via dovetails. The front sight is staked into place but shows no dot or luminous capsule such as one by Trijicon. However the plain front blade is easy to pick up, thanks to an adequate sight radius. The short barrel is a BarSto product. The backstrap consists of a 1.5-inch line mainspring housing. The short grip makes using the pinky impossible for all but the smallest hands. The front of the grip lacks serration, and all edges are smooth. The finish seems to resist abrasion.
When a gun shoots this well you always want more, which was problematic since only five rounds fit in the mag. Moreover, the mags can be difficult to load at first, but we never encountered a malfunction. The mag is perforated with counting holes, but its follower design does not allow for full capacity. It seems this may be a full-sized mag that has been chopped down. Inside is an old-school follower, including full-length backing that provides extra stability to prevent rounds from nose diving. But this also limits capacity to five rounds. Though we found it difficult to load the first round into the mags due to the stubborn followers, the remaining four went in easily, and the Adventurer ran virtually trouble free. Controllability is better than it should be with the short handle, as the mechanics of the gun make recoil easy to predict and manage. Perhaps this is due to the weight of the pistol, a hefty 34 ounces but all wrapped up in a tight center of gravity.
Kimber Ultra Elite
Our recommendation: It looks great, and runs flawlessly. The melted-down exterior handles smoothly. Buy it.
This is one of the prettiest guns ever to come out of a factory custom shop, a package we refer to as factory custom, meaning such guns have a higher production rate than purely custom guns like the Adventurer. It includes a slick “melt-down” appearance, checkering fore and aft, matching wood grips, Novak-style sights lined on the rear face with luminous three-dot inserts, fully radiused frame and slide, ambidextrous slide safety, skeletonized hammer and trigger topped with a two-tone finish. A little bigger than the Adventurer, it is evenly proportioned and fits inside a rectangle measuring 6.9 by 5 inches. Despite being the largest gun of the trio and holding the most rounds (7+1), the Ultra Elite proved to be the lightest in terms of handling qualities. This gun offers natural ergonomics, and there is room for all three support fingers on the grip. Checkering at the rear on the mainspring housing is 20 lines per inch surrounded by a border. This produces a pyramid-shaped stippling. The frontstrap is a combination checkering wider than it is high to produce a variation of a pyramid with a more rectangular shape. Together with the wood grip with classic checkering, deep beavertail and ambidextrous safety, the hand that is accustomed to the feel of a 1911 style pistol will feel right at home.
We found the size and weight of the Kimber to be just right for concealment. In short, we feel this is the most concise reproduction of a 1911 .45 ACP firearm we’ve had the pleasure of testing to date.
All average group sizes came in at less than 3 inches, well above the old standard of defensive accuracy—if you could cover it with your hand, the groups were acceptable. Shooting from a standing position, we found the Kimber shot close to point of aim regarding elevation. As with all three short-barreled guns, avoiding shots to the left or right was a matter of matching trigger control to a short, tricky sight radius. We found it less tiring and more successful to mount the gun expecting the sights to be off, and rather than be overly critical of our hold, we just tried to break the shot as the front sight crossed the bull.
The Kimber shot to point of aim, while the Adventurer shot low, and the Springfield just about shot one hole at 12 yards offhand, but 6 inches high. Both the Kimber and the Adventurer were close in terms of raw accuracy and displayed trouble-free operation.
Our recommendation: This gun needs work to function with complete reliability. We’d pass on it.
Of the trio, the Springfield Ultra-Compact has the feel closest to a full-size .45 pistol. Selling for a little more than two-thirds of either the Kimber or half the Adventurer, it is designed to do the same job as these guns but with fewer frills. Plain but effective Novak sights are standard. The mainspring housing is lined but not checkered, the frontstrap treated only to a satin finish. The trigger and hammer are both relieved, but neither the slide nor the Brazilian-made stainless steel frame has been radiused or “melted down.” We noticed several sharp areas on the gun. Operationally, a full beavertail safety is supplied, but the slide safety is for right-handed shooters only. The grip is an inexpensive, heavily grooved wraparound rubber grip from Hogue, which is not necessarily a treat for the eye but makes for a full-handed, solid feel. The stainless finish is up to Springfield’s usual high standard.
In terms of our ongoing search for value, we wondered if the Springfield would do the job as well as the others, because if it did, it would have a huge price advantage. As we noted, a number of external niceties account for the price disparity between the Springfield and the Kimber and Adventurer. For many shooters an upgrade to fancy wood grips is the first option. Fine checkering would be necessary to replace the big finger grooves, but merely applying grip tape is another economical option. Complete de-horning would be our next choice. Adding night sights via inserting “glow-worm” dots should just about bring this model Springfield into the same price range as the other two guns. While it is obvious where the extra cost is in the case of the fully tricked out Kimber, the Adventurer’s added cost includes the labor necessary for extreme reduction in size.
The big catch was with the less expensive, less refined Springfield. This gun’s accuracy proved markedly better than the others, but it nonetheless displayed two flaws. For one, it had the habit of throwing empty cases straight back, repeatedly striking the shooter in the forehead, eyes, and nose. Checking with several independent gunsmiths, they felt the remedy would be to lower the ejection port. (Add this to the price). The other problem was a failure to go into battery. When we received this pistol, we noticed that the slide-to-frame fit on the Springfield Ultra Compact was much tighter than on either the Kimber or the C&S pistol. Initial failures of the slide to go fully forward left approximately 0.4 inches of slide hanging over the back of the frame. After 200 rounds of Sellier & Bellot ammo, this distance was reduced to 0.1 inch but persisted. Would many more shots downrange cure this? We can’t be sure, but we wouldn’t bet our lives on it.
These function problems are a reminder; the main problem with building a small 1911 is matching slide velocity with the time it takes to complete the cycle of reloading. It would seem to us that the builders of the Springfield got caught up in making the most accurate gun they could. It had the tightest slide-to-frame fit and by the way, the best trigger. But after having a look at the accuracy chart, we would have traded another half-inch of accuracy for total reliability.
Gun Tests Recommends
When it comes to choosing a gun specifically for self-defense concealed carry, we are betting our lives on our gun choice. People who choose .45 ACPs are serious, and cost is not likely their first concern. Certainly, there are a good many .357 Magnum and even .44 caliber revolvers on the market that offer similar capacity and power at a lower price. To match the reliability of a revolver with the same rounds and capacities, these small 1911s must be carefully built and maintained. Still, the lure of a flat profile for easy concealment of both weapon and spare ammunition, plus the knockdown power of the .45, has a lot of appeal. But do these guns have what it takes to earn our recommendation? The results are mixed.
Springfield Ultra-Compact, $699. Pass. We don’t need fancy tooling or grips like on the others, and the Ultra Compact’s 6+1 capacity is close to the original 1911’s, so we might have considered this model for our “one and only gun.” Visually and ergonomically, this gun is just fine. But it wasn’t 100 percent reliable, and it irritated us by shooting hot brass at our head. Otherwise, it might have been our first choice, even at a higher price.
Cylinder & Slide Adventurer, $1475. Conditional Buy. Price is our only concern with this gun. Its 5+1 capacity may not seem like much, but even a +P .38 Special revolver can be far more bothersome to shoot and carry than the Adventurer. Ours proved 100 percent reliable. We can think of a hundred ways to conceal it, if we could afford it.
Kimber Ultra-Elite, $1085. Buy. How pretty, how concise can a 1911 pistol get? Here is one answer. Ironically, a concealment gun doesn’t need to be this good looking, but why not? Its 7+1 capacity is remarkable for a package this size, and it all flat-out works.
The 1911 aficionado will love this gun.