June 2001

Lightweight .45 ACP Officer’s Models: Potent Carry Pieces

If it were our money, we’d buy the Para Ordnance P12-45 first. But consider Smith & Wesson’s pricey 945 semiauto, too.

Para-Ordnance P12-45

The Para-Ordnance P12-45 emerged from this test as the clear winner: Solid overall function, sensible price, and manageable carry profile.

Small semiautos that match the physical dimensions of two pistols we tested recently—the $1,695 Smith & Wesson 945 and Para-Ordnance’s $740 P12-45—are usually referred to as compacts or sub-compact. But when pistols of this size class are miniaturized 1911s, the tag of “Officer’s models” is hung on to them, even though they may not exactly fit the mold of the original Colt’s Officer’s model. In fact, the Smith & Wesson 945 stretches the designation even further by offering a variation on John Browning’s action lock up. Still, the physical operation the 945 affords is decidedly 1911 in nature, since it shoots the .45 ACP and can be carried cocked and locked.

Manufacturers are taking a fresh look at the Officer’s model for a number of reasons. For one, the 1911 pistol has legions of fans inside both competitive shooting and law-enforcement circles. Also, many military and ex-military personnel recognize the .45 ACP’s superiority over the 9mm Parabellum, a cartridge choice often perceived as NATO’s intrusion into American affairs. Once the United States government set a capacity limit for civilian handguns, the trend has been toward larger-caliber rounds, even when this means lower total capacity. Traditionally the Officer’s model offered a six-round magazine, like the 945’s. However, the Para Ordnance P12 integrates a double-stack or staggered-round magazine that in civilian trim will hold the full ten-round legal limit.

We wanted to see if these guns occupying the so-called Officer’s niche were worth buying. Specifically, we wanted to know if the higher-cap mag affected the concealability of the Officer’s-style pistol, a feature that is its very hallmark? Also, how accurate are these smaller pistols? Do their shorter sight radii slow down target acquisition? Do their shorter barrels curtail velocity and make the .45 ACP round less effective? Here’s what we round:

Accuracy and Chronograph Data

Due to the job for which these pistols were designed, we tested at 15 yards—45 feet is well beyond personal combat distance. We fired two Winchester “white box” full-metal-jacket rounds, the 230-grain roundnose and the 185-grain truncated-cone cartridges. Winchester’s 185-grain SilverTip HP was our third choice. With little in the way of frame material to brace our pistols, only a brief sandbag was necessary to hold them.

Five-shot groups were measured center to center for accuracy, and velocity was measured using an Oehler 35P print chronograph. Break-in shooting consisted of stand-and-shoot drills at 10 and 15 yards and even the occasional shot at incidental targets such as debris on a distant berm some 65 yards away.

Para Ordnance P12-45, $740

Unlike the Smith & Wesson 945, the P12 has been around a while and is essentially bug free. It fits the hand surprisingly well and points easily. Function was 100 percent despite warnings from some gunsmiths who seem weary of semiautos fitted with short slides. The P12 action also includes a Series 80–style firing pin block. This mechanism is not a favorite with 1911 purists, and some gunsmiths have a difficult time refining the action with this feature in place. But the P12 did not suffer any malfunctions because of it. Our only complaints were the trigger. It was smooth but heavy, and this, coupled with a front sight blade that was too tall (approximately 0.153 inch) made for hits that printed low. We felt that having to hold the muzzle up when firing offhand was also having a negative effect on trigger feel, but each of these complaints should be easily remedied.

A coupon for one legally obtainable 12-round magazine from the factory is included along with one 10-round magazine. The supplied magazine comes with a base pad that offers a small forward lip that does add control without getting in the way of concealment. The aforementioned sights are a three-dot design, highly visible with the rear unit in the configuration of the (Richard) Heinie Slant-Pro. This means the face of the unit is slanted forward to offer better concealment. To ward off glare, the surface that faces the shooter is lined, and its profile is rounded for snag-free handling.

Another feature that only a short time ago was a custom part is the Ed Brown Memory Groove grip safety. This raises the area so that contact and compression is sure to deactivate the grip safety and enable the gun to fire.

Unlike the Smith & Wesson 945, the P12 was the only gun in the test that did not require special attention to placement of the web of the hand to make the gun go bang. The plastic grip panels are extremely thin and give the receiver a solid look and feel, but from there on no attempt was made to make the P12 look fancy. For example, Para Ordnance could easily charge more for the P12 if only it had a skeletonized trigger and enlarged the hole in the hammer tang, even if such modifications did nothing to enhance performance. Slide serrations are rearward only, which in our opinion is just as well given its small size. Using any other method other than the pinch technique to rack the slide or check the chamber would likely place the hand over the ejection port or in front of the muzzle. Checkering on the front strap might be a worthwhile addition.

At the bench our P12 turned out to be an old-fashioned 1911, meaning it favored the venerable 230-grain roundnose ammunition. While it did turn in a very good 2.1-inch average firing the 185-grain FMJ round, the combination of the P12 and Winchester’s 230-grain FMJ brought us groups ranging from 0.8 inch to only 1.1 inches for an average of 0.9 inch at 15 yards. This was very reassuring. Results when firing the 185-grain SilverTip rounds were low on everyone’s scorecard, but the P12 handled them as well as the Smith Wesson pistol with average group sizes right at 3.3 inches. The P12 produced more velocity than its competitors, as much as 862 fps when firing the 185-grain Winchester Silvertips. This results in the production of 305 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. Comparing our Officers models to the full-sized pistols we evaluated in our May issue, subtracting about 1 inch of barrel length did little to handicap velocity or power. Firing this same round, velocity ranged from 867-897 fps in the big guns, compared to a range of 836-862 fps in our Officer’s pistols. It would seem that after 3 inches of barrel length, each additional inch of barrel length produces roughly 30 fps.

Lockup on the P12 was solid, with only a hint of play achieved with the use of a conical barrel matched to a bushing. The guide rod is a full-length two-piece affair. Would trigger work have improved our results? Possibly. But we would have to say that the biggest gain after action work would be seen from the standing position rather than from a sandbag rest. The standard trigger was more of a detriment to offhand shooting, where we found it more difficult hold the gun steady while controlling the trigger. Besides a weighty 8-pound pull, the standard trigger has a little up-and-down slop that just adds one more item to deal with.

One item that should not be overlooked is how much a pistol weighs when loaded. Naturally, a standard alloy Officer’s model with only 6+1 rounds aboard will be lighter than a pistol that accepts ten in the magazine. With ten rounds of 230-grain FMJ, the P12 weighs 36 ounces, versus the Smith & Wesson 945 with only 6 rounds, 33 ounces. Contrast these numbers to an all-steel model we have in house. A Springfield V-10 with an extra-capacity single-column seven-round magazine from Wilson Combat ([800] 955-4586) stoked with the 230 FMJs weighs more than 40 ounces. The P12 may be hard to beat.

Smith & Wesson 945, $1,695

The more expensive pistol in our test is also the fanciest and comes in a lockable aluminum flight case medallioned with the Performance Center insignia. Our pistol was a first run of this new model, so the number 945-1 was inscribed on the side along with some rather impressive graphics.

The 945 is chock full of custom features. The alloy frame is matte gray with a satin stainless-steel slide. Parts that contrast in black highlights include a full-length guide rod, slide release, thumb safety and connecting channel, magazine release, which is checkered, Ed Brown Memory Groove grip safety and aluminum mainspring housing. The front strap sports 20 lpi checkering, and the mainspring housing boasts checkering of 30 lpi. Grip panels are a dark fancy wood contoured and fully checkered. The externally mounted ejector is also black anodized, and rear cocking serrations are of Smith & Wesson’s own design, resembling fish scales. The barrel is ramped and supported by a Briley spherical bushing up front.

Digging for the owner’s manual underneath the heavy gray foam inside the case, we found that the inside surfaces of the case were lined with shock-absorbing material. The corners of this beautiful case are rounded and inlaid with polymer for impact resistance. If we didn’t buy the gun, we would certainly buy the case.

We warned you before that this was not a true 1911, and indeed once you have removed the 1911-like slide lock, the top end comes off to reveal a linkless system. Once removed from the slide, the barrel seems terribly short, combining a 1.35-inch-long chamber with 1.9 inches of rifled barrel. The guide rod is encompassed by a flat wire spring. The Briley bushing pivots in place, but stays put inside the slide. Directly beneath the Novak rear sights (the 945 offers a three-dot system dovetailed front and rear) is one more black anodized part. It appears as a circle and reminds us that a decocking unit may have once lived there. Actually, this is the block that captures the firing pin. The 945 also offers a firing pin block. With the slide stripped from the frame, it is easy to see how much the ejection port has been relieved. A hundred and fifty degrees would be a rough estimate.

Slide-to-frame contact was large, almost 3.7 inches of the frame’s 5.7 inch length was railed. Viewed from the rear, the gun’s slide-to-frame fit was as near seamless as a pistol can get. Only the $5,000 Korth pistols hide the mating of frame and slide better, in our estimation.

Without the magazine in place, the 945 (unlike other Smith & Wesson models) will readily fire, but the shooter would have trouble holding on to it, in our view. The basepad is in fact an integral part of the grip. It remains to be seen if higher-capacity magazines will be available for the 945 as are the aforementioned units from Wilson Combat. The stumbling block, as we see it, is the size of the follower used in Smith & Wesson pistols. Note the distance on either of the two supplied magazines from the bottom hole on the mag and the base pad. The tall follower takes up a lot of space.

As we mentioned at the beginning, the 945 is not a true Browning 1911 design, but the hand must operate it the same nonetheless. The grip safety must be depressed and the thumb safety released for it to fire. The trigger is a skeletonized unit adjustable for overtravel, but when the hammer falls it makes that strange “boingy” sound that the Smith & Wesson pistols are famous for.

All three of our pistols were fitted with notch-and-post sights that were clearly visible. How fast you may acquire the front sight and to what level of clarity is needed for a specific situation is up to the vision of the shooter. Certainly these short-barreled guns steer quickly. For fine benchrest shooting, we took great care to adjust our corrective lenses to produce a clear vision of the front sight and the lightbars that surround it.

Though both the 945 and the Para Ordnance P12 shot the Winchester SilverTips to nearly a dead heat, the 945 was more consistent than the P12 firing the 185- and 230-grain jacketed rounds. Test firing of the lighter slug tied the 945 with the P12 for smallest group at 0.8 inch and produced an average group size of 1.2 inches. The 945 lost out to the P12 loaded with the 230-grain rounds, but still managed an excellent average group of 1.5 inches at 15 yards.

Our only complaint in handling the Smith & Wesson 945 was on the draw. We have found it is not always possible to get an optimum grip on any gun, but in this case it meant that upon draw we weren’t always sure our hold would deactivate the grip safety. Sometimes it felt like we were depressing the trigger and then the grip safety which, of course, is in reverse order. Otherwise, this little pistol was a joy to shoot.

Gun Tests Recommends

Smith & Wesson 945, $1,695. Conditional Buy. Despite a shortcoming—its 6+1 capacity (and little hope of finding extra-capacity mags aftermarket)—this is a well made, handsome and accurate pistol we enjoyed shooting. But its price gave us pause. You’ll have to decide if the case and features are worth the bucks.

Para Ordnance P12-45, $740. Buy It. Take some care matching the front sight to your ammo and you’ve got the highest legal capacity of .45 ACP in a small but manageable package.Heck of a carry piece, and our first pick in this test.

Also With This Article

Overview: GT's .45 ACP Handgun Picks and Pans