July 2000

Clones Take On Colt’s Stainless 1911: Subtle, But Significant Improvement

Colt’s $610 stainless 1991A1 is still a good working tool, but it finishes behind two “clones” from Kimber and Springfield that continue to refine and improve the .45 ACP niche.

[IMGCAP(1)] For many of us, the first contact we had with firearms was the 1911 .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) that our fathers brought home from World War II and Korea. Since then, this pistol has been both celebrated and maligned, depending on the shooter’s viewpoint. For one, the quality of its function is directly linked to the quality of its components and the careful assembly thereof. The 1911 pistol is capable of both reliability and superb accuracy because it has relatively few moving parts. Why then did it lose out on the U.S. military contract and for a time all but disappear from holsters of self defense–minded civilians? Politics, both domestic and international, played a part, but a bigger issue was quality, in our view. For many years, untuned 1911s were unreliable, not all that accurate, and expensive.

In the 1990s, however, the 1911 was able to catch up in the quality race due to new manufacturing techniques like Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) machines that produced components with the exact tolerances that this design demands. Kimber, with the help of Chip McCormick, was one of the first to adapt this machinery to full-scale 1911 production, and others have followed. Since then, Colt’s, the original manufacturer of the 1911, has been under fire from more and more “clones” of the original Government model and its variations. Today, in fact, it is evident that Colt’s Manufacturing is giving up on the civilian market. Many factors have contributed to this decision, we are sure, but we believe quality is one of the big ones. Smaller, more nimble firms like Kimber and Springfield are turning out guns that make Colt’s 1991A Series 80 gun pale in comparison, as a recent test of three such products showed. Though Colt’s $610 No. 01091 stainless 1991A1 is still a good working tool, it finishes behind two clones—Kimber’s $823 stainless Custom Classic (No. 3000007) and Springfield’s $648 Parkerized 1911A1 PX9109, in our view. Here’s why we make this call:

Range Session
Though some pistol designs require little in the way of lubrication, the 1911 design depends on a lot of metal-to-metal contact to function. All three pistols needed attention in this area, so our first task was to separate the top ends from the receiver and make sure the barrel lugs were full of Cylinder & Slide oil and that the rails were protected as well. We also oiled the disconnector, the hammer and the barrel feet and lugs. After reassembling the pistols, we fed each of them about 300 rounds of 230-grain lead roundnosed ammunition using both controlled-press and rapid-fire trigger action. Elsewhere, accuracy data was compiled from 25 yards, with the shooter seated at a bench with a sandbag rest. We chose to fire Black Hills’ 200-grain semi-wadcutters (SWC) and 230-grain full metal-jacketed (FMJ) rounds.

Winchester’s 185-grain Silvertip hollowpoints were chosen to represent defensive ammo. Velocities were recorded using an Oehler P35 chronograph. In terms of function, we recorded no failures of any kind, even though the guns were fired over a period of 10 days, during which time they were not cleaned or oiled again.

Colt’s 1991A1 Series 80 Stainless No. 01091
Our recommendation: The fact that we would choose either of the other two pistols over the $610 Colt should not lead the reader to believe this is a poor product. It offers the availability of upgrades for an attractive base price.

Click here to view the Colt 1991A1 Series 80 Stainless features guide

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In guns of this type, mating the slide to the frame and fitting the barrel play a huge part in how well, or poorly, the gun shoots. After each shot the gun goes through a cycle that unlocks and resets the relationship of the barrel and the sights, which are fit onto to the slide. Two ways to get the right fit: A master gunsmith can hand-fit the slide to the frame, or the pistol can get a head start on this process with the accuracy of CNC machining.

Whatever process Colt is using, we found the frame-to-slide fit to be slightly loose, while the fit on the other two pistols was rock solid. Accuracy at 12 yards unsupported was about 2 inches, but consistently high.

Our only real complaint was in the action of the thumb and grip safeties. The thumb safety was a little stubborn to apply and took some breaking in before it would completely fill the notch in the slide. It never did snap on and off happily. The beavertail grip safety is flat in profile, so if you have a hollow profile to the palm of your hand, it may be more difficult to completely deactivate. We could feel a direct interaction between the grip safety and the trigger as we held the gun. This is a minor detail that interferes with take-up and let-off that can be remedied by a competent gunsmith. Of course, both would add to the gun’s cost. The 1991A1’s finish is a matte or sandy stainless. We like it because it has the advantages of stainless steel without the glare. The front and rear sights are a contrasting black. The rear unit is drift adjustable for windage, and the front sight is press fit into place. The black grips also contrast nicely, featuring the Colt logo and checkering cut into a rubber compound that was cool to the hand and did not snag clothing.

Being the least expensive of the three pistols, it is devoid of the racier features found on the Kimber and Springfield, but the package still works. Slide serrations are to the rear of the ejection port only, but we felt they were best of the bunch. The ejection port is neither lowered nor flared, which resulted in a slight flattening of the case mouth on ejected shells. This gun uses a standard short guide rod that, we feel, does not aid control as much as a full-length unit when the shooter is hammering the trigger. The trigger is fashioned from alloy, but it is neither skeletonized nor adjustable. Without the hop-up features that have evolved on the 1911, here is what we did get in this basic Colt 1911 with upgraded finish. We experienced 100 percent reliable delivery of a formidable ballistic payload. This is a pistol that is easily and quickly reloaded. It includes two safeties that deactivate the trigger. Even in its most basic form, the 1991 pistol can be operated with one hand without requiring a change of grip to manipulate triggers and safeties. Basically, the Colt 1991A Series 80 is a competent platform that can be upgraded, modified, and rebuilt with readily available parts.

Kimber Custom Classic Stainless
Our recommendation: The stainless finish adds durability and style to the $823 Custom Classic base gun. It’s a good package.

Click here to view the Kimber Custom Classic Stainless features guide

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The Kimber also proved to be 100 percent reliable, and it accomplished every task the original-design 1911 undertook. The Kimber just does the job better. Albeit more expensive than the Colt, it wasn’t long ago that the Kimber would be considered a custom pistol, not a mid-level stock gun shipped directly from a manufacturer. These features include a dovetailed front sight, slide serrations forward and aft, lowered and flared ejection port, non-snag rear sight, skeletonized hammer, ventilated adjustable aluminum trigger, full-length guide rod, and checkering on the backstrap, mag release, and slide release. Grip screws on the cherrywood grip are allen heads. (Believe it or not, this option alone can cost $15 if purchased separately.)

We found the checkering makes the gun easier to hold on to and the special controls easier to operate. The skeletonized hammer speeds up lock time, and the full-length guide rod helps the slide lock up truer and more consistently. The trigger is adjustable, so overtravel can be a modified for a consistent press that avoids a deflection of aim brought about by a sudden, uneven movement of the grip or trigger finger. Fit on this product was better than on the Colt, and if you add these items up, you will see the reason why the Kimber is more accurate than the Colt 1991A. While the Colt achieves satisfactory “defensive” accuracy (meaning you can cover the group with your open hand) the Kimber enters the exalted realm of “target” accuracy. At 25 yards the Colt was around 3.5 inches, when firing both the Winchester Silvertips and the Black Hills FMJ ammunition. Only Black Hill’s 200-grain SWC, a favorite of target shooters, shot 3 inches or better in the Colt. With this same ammo, we shot a 2.0-inch group with the Kimber, four shots of which measured 1.8 inches.

Beyond any superior lock up or mechanical fit, the Kimber shot better because it had a better sight picture, and its trigger allowed the shooter to control any deviation of that sight picture during a controlled press. Firing the 200 SWCs, what most consider to be a competition or match-grade load was only slightly more accurate (1.8 inch average) than when we fired the full-house Silvertip load (2.1 inch average).

Springfield 1911A1 Parkerized
Our recommendation: Choosing between the $648 Springfield and the Colt, we think a lot of shooters will go with the Illinois-made product because of its great handling, accuracy, and deep feature set. So many otherwise fine-shooting pistols are hindered by additional safety mechanisms or dual trigger designs that require a change of grip between shots. It’s nice to find a weapon that doesn’t tax one’s muscle memory.

Click here to view the Springfield 1911A1 Parkerized features guide

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Often, our test staff is forced to choose single over double action on the same gun just to come up with acceptable shooting results. Never mind that the first shot, the most important one, is going to be fired double action since today’s typical defense gun must be decocked to carry safely. We do try to shoot groups using both actions separately, whenever possible, to balance the picture, but in our opinion one feature that makes a gun safe is that it can be readily and easily used to protect its owner. To this end, the 1911 design offers one short trigger stroke that requires little strength or dexterity to operate. Unlike a hinged trigger that introduces an unnatural arc-like movement, the 1911 trigger slides straight back, so there is less opportunity to misalign the sights.

Despite the easy to use trigger, the guns is doubly safe anyway. Unless the thumb safety on the slide is lowered, the gun will not fire. Even if the safety is disengaged, the gun won’t fire unless it is held properly by depressing the beavertail grip safety. Moreover, if the hammer is left down with a round in the chamber, the firing pin is blocked and cannot be forced to strike the primer of the loaded round. All three guns have these same features.

The Springfield we tested has a Parkerized finish that is very tough. Parkerizing is a process that modifies the surface of the metal, not just coats it. We like it because it is easy to keep non-glare and low profile, and it reminds us of the flat black color we used to paint hot rods to achieve bad-boy status. Even better, Parkerizing is less expensive than a stainless-steel finish, and it winds up being one of the reasons we make the Springfield our first choice.

We can adjust the difference in price between the Kimber feature by feature, and if you take out the finish, the press fit instead of dovetail front sight, and the lined, not checkered, backstrap, the price difference on paper could be reconciled. But comparably-priced blued packages from Kimber, the Custom Classic or Custom Walnut models, are still more expensive than the Springfield.

Beyond price, however, we think the Springfield edges out the Kimber because we felt it sat the lowest in our hands for better control, offered the best sight picture, and produced the best-feeling trigger. Part of this was due to the rear sight on the “Springer” being a genuine Wayne Novak sight that costs more than Kimber’s copy. Ditto the Ed Brown grip safety with “memory-groove.” These subtle parts differences did make a difference to us.

By the numbers, the Kimber beat out the Springfield when firing the 230-grain FMJs by delivering them into sub 2-inch groups to lower its average size five-shot hole to 2.3 inches vs. 2.5 inches for the Springfield. But the Springfield gets equally narrow victories with the remaining two test ammos.

Gun Tests Recommends
Colt’s Manufacturing 1991A1 Series 80, $610. Conditional Buy. Even without upgrades, this proved to be a reliable defensive tool that is ultimately more usable than many of the latest “wonder” guns. The nostalgia of a vanishing breed is another good reason to buy it.

Kimber Custom Classic Stainless, $823. Buy It. You can’t go wrong spending money on a very good pistol with the durability of stainless steel.

Springfield 1911A1 Parkerized, $648. Our first choice. You can always spend more on a 1911 because the option list is endless. However, if this model doesn’t have it, you probably don’t need it.