August 2000

Non-1911 .45 ACPs: Heresy, Or Are They Here To Stay?

John Browning’s beloved 1911 semi-auto design isn’t the only game in town for launching the big Automatic Colt Pistol round. We test five non-1911s to find out what’s right—and wrong.

[IMGCAP(1)] The .45 ACP cartridge is most widely found chambered in semi-auto handguns that derive from John Browning’s original 1911 design, which has undergone a rebirth in the last decade thanks to improved machining methods. But there has also been an evolution in semi-automatic pistols that, in many ways, are an outgrowth of politics. With some exceptions, this parallel class of .45s doesn’t allow for cocked-and-locked operation, a mode which is perfectly safe, of course, but which worries some law-enforcement agencies and self-defense shooters, since it means the 1911 gun is at the ready with the flick of a safety and the press of a single-action trigger squeeze.

Thus, the aficionado’s 1911 isn’t the only game in town, as a recent test of five non-1911s showed. In this test we saw different implementations of the .45, ranging from the concealable Glock 36, $668, to the $599 CZ97B that is a “daily-wear” version of CZ USA’ s ST model that is currently going head to head with hi-cap 1911s on the practical shooting circuit. In between is the revolver man’s semi-auto from Smith & Wesson, the $897 4586TSW, an upgraded 4586 with increased slide-to-frame contact. As well, K.B.I., aka Charles Daly, imports the Bul CS from Israel and calls it a DDA 10-40/45. This $499 gun has an ultra-light receiver and CZ-type controls. Likewise, Ruger’s KP97DC, $460, is a combination of polymer frame and steel slide. With the exception of the Glock and Smith & Wesson, each pistol offers both double- and single-action modes of fire, but the Ruger relies upon a decocking system rather than the option of cocked-and-locked carry.

Immediately upon receiving these guns, we noted several items that were relevant across the board. Are these frame designs merely beefed up from earlier models meant for lighter calibers? Not only do we ask if they can take it, but are they really suitable when it comes to throwing the heavy 230-grain .45 slugs downrange? How comfortable are these guns to fire? Is a high differential of frame-to-slide mass going to affect reliability, or can we actually get away with a lighter gun that is easier to carry? Or, is an all-steel gun more effective overall? Finally, with fast-action training games in mind, how fast and how aggressively can these guns be fired? We love finding the answers to such questions, so we got busy.

Range Session
Finding .45 ACP rounds is not a difficult task. So many types of bullets with a variety of profiles and contours are available that one could argue this is reason enough to buy a pistol in this caliber. There is lead round-nosed ammo commonly referred to as ball ammo, also a full-metal-jacket version of this mortar shell, and hollowpoints ranging from the infamous 225-grain all-lead “flying ashtray” to expanding and fragmenting multi-core slugs. Then there are the semi-wadcutters favored by target shooters because the big shoulders of this round cleanly cut the biggest hole reaching out for the edges of the nearest X-ring. For our test we relied upon the 230-grain lead roundnose for break-in shooting, except for the Glock 36. Due to the 36’s rifling, Glock warns against it. For accuracy shooting, we chose the Sellier & Bellot 230-grain FMJ, Speer’s 200-grain Gold Dot Hollowpoint (GDHP), and Federal’s high-energy, low-recoil personal-defense round, the 165-grain Hydra-Shok JHP.

Click here to view the Accuracy Data Chart for the guns tested

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We also worked out with these guns using a Bianchi Cup–style 8-inch plate rack that we purchased from Porta-Target ([407] 725-9911). The game we chose was draw from low ready, down three plates, reload, and down the remaining three. What we sought to find was how easily each gun could be indexed, fired, reloaded, re-indexed and fired again. Here’s how the contestants fared in these various tests.

Glock Model 36
Our recommendation: Conditional Buy. If you are already shooting a Glock, you may want to add this $668 gun to your collection. However, the original design of this package is built around the 9mm round that offers less recoil and higher capacity. Whereas the Model 36 functions fine with the .45 ACP round, enduring it is not especially comfortable. For many, the lure of high capacity in the 9mm package was enough for them to overlook the shortcomings of this design. But at only 6+1 and so-so accuracy, a revolver at two-thirds the price is likely a better choice. The GL36 is a long awaited pistol. We first saw a prototype at the 1999 SHOT Show in Atlanta. This pistol sought to address the one glaring weakness of all Glock pistols—their sheer bulk. That problem has been successfully addressed, in our view, but others have sprung up to bedevil the 36. [IMGCAP(3)]

When we first acquired this gun, frankly, we didn’t like it. As expected, recoil was the sharpest among our test guns and balancing this with the long spongy trigger made offhand shooting a chore. After a couple of hundred rounds the trigger either became more livable or perhaps we adjusted to the gun.

The GL36 exemplifies our point when we say that each of these guns demand your undivided attention to be shot accurately and safely. By this we mean that you have to program your muscle memory to ignore any impulse connected with any other gun. This was especially evident in the practical phase of our range session when we attacked the plate rack. Each pistol has a trigger with unique feel and a different break. Tracking the sights also requires a sense of timing, and the shooter’s ability to track and time is tied closely to the sight design. J. Michael Plaxco says in his book, Shooting From Within, “Tests done by the military showed that the optimal sight picture was achieved when at least one-third of the perceived width of the front sight is seen through the rear notch as a light gap on either side of the front sight.” The average front blade measures 0.125 inch, but Plaxco recommends 0.100 to 0.110 inch for really fast, accurate shooting. The Glock front sight is approximately 0.150 inch wide and seems to take up at least 80 percent of the rear notch. For a small gun the GL36 actually has a fairly long sight radius at 5.9 inches, but Glock asks you to default to its system of a white outline on the rear notch and white dot up front. We’d rather deal with a traditional system that is cued by light bars. As a result of both the blade width and sight configuration, the gun provided relatively slow sight acquisition, we thought.

While the upper portion of this pistol is closer to medium size, the grip is very short and must be completed by an inserted magazine. The front lower lip of the mag is, in effect, the third finger groove. The rear of the magazine is supported by the backstrap. In the past, a mania for loading full-size mags into Glock compact models resulted in uncertain reliability that was blamed on the magazine being unsupported by the shorter grip frame. Our research found that recoil spring rates and underpowered ammunition contributed to this condition, so we would not recommend trying to improve or enlarge the GL36 just by adding a longer mag.

With the 36’s poor sight picture, short grip, and mushy trigger, the best we could do at 25 yards from a rest was an average five-shot group size of 2.7 inches firing the Sellier & Bellot 230-grain FMJ. This isn’t bad for a compact pistol, in our view, but we were disappointed in its performance with more-modern defense-specific loads. The Federal Hydra-Shoks shot 3.7-inch groups, and subsequent tests with other modern rounds showed that some cartridges had difficulty grouping at all, such as the 185-grain Winchester Silvertip. The most punishing round to shoot in the GL36 was the Speer 200-grain GDHP, but it did average 3.0-inch groups.

Standing and shooting the Glock, the key is to hold on tight and offer a stable platform while you squeeze the trigger. The common mistake with this type of pistol is spoiling the hold by unconsciously pulling the trigger with the entire hand. Once we were conditioned to shooting the GL36, we had to take a break. With the Glock program emblazoned on our synapses, we couldn’t immediately pick up another gun with a more subtle trigger.

Charles Daly DDA 10-40/45
Our recommendation: Don’t Buy. Attempting to offer 8+1 rounds of .45 ACP in the lightest package possible has some pitfalls. Slide velocity, slide mass, and reduced grip area made for a reliability equation that this $499 pistol could not solve. The DDA 10-40/45 is a good looking, if not provocatively styled pistol. The frame is a neatly molded space-age design. Mated with a lighter slide that functions flawlessly, this pistol would be a good buy. [IMGCAP(4)]

Once you open the box and find the owner’s manual, you find that this is the Bul Storm Compact made in Israel. Some of our staff have shot Bul products extensively, most notably the Kimber Polymer Target, or the Bul M5. This turned out to be a very good pistol.

In the case of the Storm Compact or DDA 10-40/45, we were disappointed. So what is the difference between it and the M5? Perhaps the components are solid, but assembly is weak, in our view. Whereas the Bul M5 is a full-sized 1911, this gun is built around the CZ linkless design and faces the additional challenge of shorter slide travel, where there is less opportunity to pluck a round from the magazine. The frame is ultra-light, weighing just 9 ounces. The top end weighs 16 ounces. This makes the gun go top-heavy as it empties. Also, the DDA 10-40/45 cycles with a high degree of “slide slap.” That is, it appears to bang up against the slide stop and hesitate when it hits the most rearward position and then return to lock up with an equally unceremonious landing. There isn’t much mass beyond the payload for you to team up with, so a locked wrist and strenuous grip is necessary at all times. This was especially evident during our time at the plate rack, when we often waited for the slide to complete its cycle.

In reviewing the accuracy tests, we noted average group size ranged from 2.1 to 3.0 inches for all shots fired. More problematic was that we experienced a failure to feed with virtually all brands of ammunition fired.

In contrast, the gun’s shortcomings don’t extend to its ergonomics. The gun is comfortable to hold at rest, and all controls are easily in reach. The accuracy testing was performed in single-action mode, wherein the safety can be activated for cocked-and-locked carry. The first shot may also be performed double action, but this requires the tenuous practice of releasing the trigger while controlling the hammer, gently letting it come to rest in a half-cock mode. A firing pin block is included to prevent the ignition of a loaded round in this condition. We hope this is more reliable than the rest of the pistol. A third carry condition is to have a loaded magazine and empty chamber. Provided the feeding problem is solved, this could be a very good way to carry the DDA 10-40/45 because the rear cocking serrations are generous and the pistol handled well when we tried it.

Ruger KP97DC
Our recommendation: We’ve received a great deal of mail about the P97s because consumers wanted to know if they offered real firepower for little money. We think the $460 KP97DC delivers enough accuracy per dollar to make it a bargain. The grip frame is very light, but excellent ergonomics should help you hold on. At roughly 7.5 by 5.5 inches, this is a very handy pistol, big enough to handle without compromise and small enough for briefcase, holster, or glove box. Buy It. [IMGCAP(5)]

In the case of the Charles Daly DDA 10-40/45, we felt that reliability was hampered by the weight differential between a light frame and a very heavy slide. The result was slide slap that asked perhaps too much of the shooter’ s grip. The Ruger KP97DC’s grip frame is also light, but here the cycling mechanism is sure and the frame is an excellent complement to the human hand.

With pistol in hand, we felt a sense of slide inertia, but we tried shooting strong and weak hand and even introduced a limp wrist, but reliability was 100 percent with all ammunitions. From the bench this model was fired single action only, and its average groups varied barely 0.5 inch in size for all brands. The best performer was the Speer 200-grain GDHP at 2.2 inches (featuring a couple of sub 2-inch groups).

In our practical shooting game, we found the key was holding tight and letting the front sight be our speedometer—that is, target acquisition initiated each shot. With Ruger’s new mag release, our magazine changes have never been faster. The mags drop free happily, the button is fast but out of the way of unintentional operation, and the size of the mag well is generous and clean.

To begin the plate testing, we came up firing single-action, since we wanted to avoid having to transition from double to single action. As mentioned before, each of these guns require motor skills specific to their action. If we had spent enough time practicing the transition from DA to SA, our first-shot times would likely have improved. As a safety mechanism the ambidextrous de-cocker found on the Ruger is snag free, easy to find and use, but, frankly, under stress we are not a fan of a two-trigger arrangement on any gun. (There’s also a double-action-only model.) The option of cocked-and-locked carry is best for a heightened state of alert, but decocking is a safe way to carry the extra round in the chamber.

Smith & Wesson 4586TSW
Our recommendation: Don’t Buy. As good as this gun looks and as good as it feels in the hand, $897 is way too much for what we think is a very mediocre performer. The Mississippi Highway Patrol Pistol team, led by Bianchi Cup Champion Phillip Hemphill, shoots a DAO pistol similar to the 4586TSW. We can see where the 4586TSW does have potential. Narrow like a full-sized 1911, the gun’s ergonomics are correct. The previous model, referred to merely as the 4586 (which we tested and liked), didn’t have the slide graphics and rails in full slide-to-frame contact. Both the base model and TSW upgrade have heavy DAO triggers that make them tiring to shoot. Actually, the new TSW is easier to operate, but in neither case was recoil hard on the shooter. With a light trigger (it is already smooth), the shooter could likely improve his accuracy simply because the gun would be easier to control. [IMGCAP(6)]

Designed as a self-defense gun, the rear sight is compact. We feel the sight picture could be improved on the front end, however, by thinning the front sight. Upgrades from last year, beyond frame to slide fit, are mostly cosmetic. For an extra $77 you get the aforementioned graphics, contrasting trigger, and slide stop. Underneath the dust cover is a Weaver-style accessory base. Unfortunately, for all this the older model was a better shooter at the bench. Granted, we didn’t use the same ammunition as in the previous test (March 2000), but we’ll stick by those results because the groups from this latest test were so disappointing. The average group size firing the 230-grain FMJs snuck in at just under 3 inches.

During our plate-rack session, however, the 4586TSW began to shine with its very good sight acquisition and recovery that was easy to time by taking up the trigger between shots. Being all steel, the gun seemed balanced. At no time did we feel the recoil of the pistol was controlling us. Dropping the mag was quick since it would shoot out of the grip. Re-inserting took more time because the narrow frame must be indexed before slamming the magazine home.

One safety feature carried over from the old model is that the hammer will not fall without a magazine in place. Another safety device which is perhaps more useful is the chamber indicator, which is nothing more than a hole cut into the barrel hood to show a chambered cartridge.

CZ CZ97B
Our recommendation: A Best Buy. This $599 product was the easiest gun in the test to shoot fast and accurately. It’s a little large, but it has a lot of features that are subtle and easy to take for granted. The CZ 97B is perhaps the best alternative to the 1911 design to date. The CZ is a well thought out basic pistol that offers what a shooter really needs: reliability, simplicity, accuracy, and additional potential at a very good price. [IMGCAP(7)]

Currently, top practical shooter Ted Bonnet is successfully campaigning a CZ pistol very similar to the 97B against stiff competition. His pistol is the ST model in .40 S&W, which still costs less than $1,000. The 97B is the stock version of this gun in .45 ACP, but it actually differs little from the racer. His gunsmith, Tony Kidd ([830] 560-1044) said that most of the work he did on Bonnet’s gun was adapting the grip to Bonnet’s small hands.

Upon receiving our 97B, we were surprised how plain it was compared to so many other pistols (the 4586TSW is a case in point) that exhibit graphics and multiple colors. Instead, the CZ97B is black polymer-coated steel, similar to Metalloy’s Armortuff and contrasts that utilitarian look only at the steel hinged trigger and checkered wood grip. The 97B is also devoid of fancy checkering, preferring basic lining in the frontstrap and backstrap and on the mag release, safety, and rear serrations of the slide. We didn’t find any real necessity for checkering or grip tape as the natural heft of this all-steel gun, combined with excellent wooden grip panels, takes care of any excessive recoil.

Our first impression of the sights were that they were too narrow, but among all the guns in this test, the perceived width of the CZ front sight is the only one that displays enough light to be truly useful. All the rage on the Practical Shooting circuit today is a long dust cover, that portion of the frame that extends beneath the slide all the way to the muzzle. The Smith & Wesson pistol has it, so does the Ruger and even the Glock, but in this case the heavy steel construction makes best use of the design, getting controlling ounces of weight underneath the muzzle.

Safety features include a popup-style chamber indicator and a firing-pin block that allows you to carry the 97B with the hammer down and a round in the chamber. While this pistol can be prepared for a quick draw by being carried cocked and locked, it may also be prepared for first shot double action. If there is one drawback (as seen through Naderesque eyes), it is that the hammer must be lowered manually while releasing (touching) the trigger. We have no qualms about carrying this pistol with hammer back. The detent strength of the thumb safety is more than adequate, and its profile is snag free, reducing the possibility of accidental disengagement to zero. This may be less risky than lowering the hammer for DAO first-shot firing.

In our tests from the bench, the 97B put the other pistols to shame. Speer’s 200-grain GDHP wasn’t quite the handful it was in the other pistols and produced groups ranging from 1.0 to 1.5 inches. At this point we wondered how a good old-fashioned match load under a 200-grain SWC would shoot. The CZ handled the Federal Hydra-Shoks to the tune of 1.8 to 2.0 inches. It is interesting to note that the CZ was nearly last firing the Sellier & Bellot round, with an average size of 2.8 inches. But at the same time the variation in group size between all brands fired for this pistol was 0.5 inch for the Speer, and 0.4 inch for both the Federal and Sellier & Bellot. One of the reasons this pistol is so accurate out of the box is the bushing in the end of the slide and a guide rod plug that helps it seat without the need for tools. Before our test session we took down the 97B to oil it and in our ignorance failed to seat the bushing with the guide rod arc in line. A little mashing at the edge of the bushing was the result, but we saw no interruption in service once it was properly re-installed.

Firing at the plates from low ready, it looked like we were getting ready for a match things went so smoothly. Still, we’d like to have Kidd make two modifications on this gun before we hit our next USPSA match. One, we’d like the thumb safety made easier to reach so more shooters can flick off the safety with the strong-hand thumb. Also, we’d want the leaf spring that prevents the magazine from dropping free to be re-contoured so we can let it fly when it comes time for more rounds. The MecGar magazine carries 10 rounds in a double-stack shape with a tapered top, so a special mag well or guide is not necessary.

Gun Tests Recommends
Charles Daly DDA 10-40/45, $499. Don’t Buy. We’re not going to kick its looks or design or capacity or accuracy, and you can’t kick about the price. It just didn’t function reliably in our tests.

Smith & Wesson 4586TSW, $897. Don’t Buy. There is just too much promise and not enough delivery here. These days $900 should buy a far more competent weapon.

Glock 36, $668. Conditional Buy. We're not sure a 6+1 .45 ACP pistol is something every Glock aficionado really needs.

Ruger KP97DC, $460 Buy. Whether you choose this model or the DAO version, there is enough reliability and accuracy here to recommend it. At this MSRP, no one should have to go without a pistol in the .45 ACP defense caliber.

CZ CZ97B, $599. A Best Buy. You do not have to be a competitive shooter to get the most out of the CZ 97B. If a pistol makes fast and accurate shooting easy and affordable, buy it. That’s what this gun is all about.