February 2002

Foreign Surplus .45s: Bargains, Or A Waste of Your Money?

Looking for the cheapest .45 ACP you can find? Look past the dated $299 Pistola Sistema Colt 1927 and the $190 to $200 Argentine Ballester-Molina pistols.

surplus .45 acp

A recent test of "surplus" .45 ACPs held out the hope of finding a serviceable 1911-style autoloader for not much money. The three pistols were single-stack .45s, and included the $299 Pistola Sistema Colt 1927, basically the same gun as the 1911A1 used in WWII, but produced in Argentina.

In our search for the least expensive, but still functional, .45-caliber semi-automatics, it was inevitable we would finally bottom out with guns in the $200 to $350 price range. If you’ll recollect, we tested two guns in that dollar span in the September 2001 issue, the Llama MAX-1, $298, and the Firestorm 45, $329, two of the lowest cost 1911s we could find. They were so badly flawed we said “Don’t Buy” to both of them.

But there is another very broad category of low-priced .45s awaiting the adventurous consumer under the “C&R,” curio and relics, heading. At this point we reached a crossroads. The question was, if certain pistols were indeed curios, then why bother to fire them? Certainly, as collectibles their value would immediately be diminished by taking them out of the box and shooting them. But, this is Gun Tests magazine, not Blue Book. In order to win a “Buy” rating in these pages, a gun has to be tested, that is, fired by us. Then we tell GT readers how well the guns worked, or not, and some of you actually go buy guns based on what we write. We function just like any other consumer, buying and trying guns and forming opinions about whether we want to keep them, or sell them to someone else, or use them as trotline weights.

So when we approached a recent test of “surplus” .45 ACPs, we had a faint, fond hope of finding a serviceable 1911-style autoloader for not much money. We understood going in that samples of these surplus .45s will vary widely in quality, but that was okay. If we bought and shot dogs, or found diamonds in the rough, you’d have a better idea of what was available in the marketplace, and if those products were worth your dollars.

Our test pistols were single-stack .45s. The $299 Pistola Sistema Colt 1927 is basically the same gun as the 1911A1 used in WWII, but produced in Argentina. Also, we shot two versions of the Ballester-Molina .45, one wearing its original finish and selling for $190, and an arsenal-refinished Molina that costs $200. Likewise, they were “fabricada” in Argentina, according to their slide markings. In terms of design and execution, the Colt Sistema mainly differs from the other two by utilizing a 1911-style trigger and complementary grip safety.

In choosing C&R guns like the Molinas and the Sistema, the purchaser doesn’t have the benefits of righteous improvements that have since made 1911-style pistols safer and more accurate. Also, since they are basically military surplus pieces, how much value could they have as collectibles? We understand the desire to add guns to your collection, and we respect that interest.

But from our perspective of seeking functionality, if a gun can’t shoot, then it’s not worth collecting. Thus, as we unboxed our test samples, we wondered if these inexpensive .45s would be fun shooting tools whose datedness only made them more interesting, or if they were simply old guns which just took up space in our safe. Here’s what we found:

Range Session

Our trio of pistols was tested on three successive afternoons under three different weather conditions. Day one featured gentle sunlight and pleasant temperatures. We were able to enjoy this “get acquainted” day with a variety of different ammunitions fired downrange at two different Bianchi plate racks set at distances of 10 and 15 yards. Not really satisfied with the results, we then spent a good deal of time shooting from a sandbag rest at 15 yards.

Accuracy and Chronograph Data

Our initial concern was being able to manage the limited sight picture that each pistol offered. Though sight radius was more than adequate, the combination of a brief front sight and shallow rear notch was limiting, but with practice we decided to shoot groups at the standard distance of 25 yards. Day two was not as well lit, and blustery winds interfered with our accuracy testing, so we added a third day of shooting, which featured neutral light, low wind and mild temperatures. We were able to leave the range feeling confident that our data reflected what a buyer could reasonably expect from these pistols.

Sistema Colt Cal. 11.25 (.45 ACP) Mod. 1927, $299

When we think of a 1911 .45, we think of a semi-auto with a sliding trigger, a thumb-operated safety that notches into the slide, and a beavertail grip safety. The Sistema Colt has each of these. It also sports very nice wood grip panels that are checkered in a diamond pattern. The front strap is smooth but the backstrap or, rather the mainspring housing, is not only checkered but also raised. You can get a nice sense of history with this pistol, since both the thumb safety and the hammer are antiquated. That is, you never see such an abbreviated slide safety any more. Today, they are smoother to discourage drag and longer to promote a grip that rides the thumb on top of it to increase control. Also, today’s hammers are rounded and often skeletonized, both designed to lower the incidence of snagging cloth or skin and also to reduce weight. Reducing weight allows the hammer to move faster so that part of the cycling process occurs faster. This is what is meant by the oft-heard phrase “lowered mass to reduce lock time.”

Sistema Colt Cal. 11.25 (.45 ACP) Mod. 1927 Features Guide

Even though a modern hammer might be a better choice for performance, we prefer the old-fashioned tang on this gun for comfort and leverage when thumbing it back. But the modern profile of the Sistema is further bolstered by a checkered magazine release, beveling and contour of the grip to expose the mainspring’s roll pin, and rear cocking serrations on the slide.

But things go downhill from there. The lanyard loop at the bottom of the grip seems like an afterthought. The loop hole faces forward, making the insertion of lanyard more difficult than a side-facing hole. The sights look pitiful and out of place. The front blade looks more like a remnant than a necessary part. It’s thin and short. The rear sight looks like it was cut with a worn hacksaw blade. It’s scooped more on the right side than the left, and the sight forms neither a U or a V shape, but rather something in between. It is difficult to tell where the most desired reference point is.

But even with a modern set of Bo-Mar sights, this pistol would still suffer some real shortcomings. For one, the grip safety is designed for a rare set of hands. Some shooters couldn’t get it to activate without lowering their grip or applying so much pressure that they suffered inaccuracies common to the mistakes of “palming” the gun. Perhaps it was designed to be held only with the older technique of offhand shooting, wherein there is a push/pull front-to-back pressure between the hands. We found it so difficult to fire this gun with today’s preferred grip that offers firm, even pressure all the way around that we finally taped the grip safety down. Trigger pull weight, by the way, was heavier on this pistol than its competitors, weighing in as high as 8.5 pounds.

At the bench we were unable to get what we consider to be satisfactory performance. We knew on the first day we were in trouble when we found it difficult to down 8-inch plates at 30 feet. In theory this means it would not shoot an 8-inch group at 10 yards. With practice from a sandbag rest, which neatly removes most external factors beyond trigger control, we were able to finally print 5-inch groups at 25 yards. Looking for a reason why this pistol delivered such sub-standard performance (anything around 3 inches would have been acceptable) we checked the slide and barrel fit. The slide was loose, not so much side to side but up and down. Naturally the sights weren’t helping, but we felt we were seeing enough to guide the shots. The standard deviation readings on the Oehler 35P chronograph were not way out of line, so we feel the chamber of the barrel was in good shape. Perhaps worn rifling was not inducing enough spin to stabilize the bullet? No, a check with a Hawkeye borescope showed what we thought was good, but not great, lands and grooves.

Our best guess: We would have to blame inconsistent lockup for the big groups. Since the sights are attached to the slide, and the slide position changed minutely from shot to shot since it wasn’t tight enough, the point of impact would change.

In terms of reliability, the Sistema suffered the same problems as the other two pistols in this test. About 30 percent of the time all three guns would not eject the last round of the magazine, usually, creating a horrendous jam. The slide would be locked back with the case mashed between the breech and the upper lip of the chamber. The magazine would then need to be pried from the grip. We were able to minimize the occurrence of this problem by substituting higher-quality mags by Wilson Combat. This dropped the number of malfunctions to about 10 percent—better, but still too many.

Pistola Automatica C.11.25 Ballester-Molina, $190
Pistola Automatica C.11.25 Ballester-Molina, $200

We tested two versions of this gun, which differed only in finish treatment. Each of these pistols is identical in operation and design. This even applies to the wooden grip panels.

C.11.25 Ballester-Molina (original finish) Features Guide

C.11.25 Ballester-Molina Features Guide

The grip panels on the original-finish model ($190) were well worn and gave the impression of being softer or broken in. These guns are extremely close in profile to the Sistema pistol, but there are at least two exterior differences. First, the cocking serrations on the slide are different; the Ballesters feature slide serrations of 3/3/2, separated by smooth steel, rather than the contiguous 19 slits in the Colt. Also, the texture of the Molinas’s magazine release has a circular, bullseye-like pattern rather than checkering like that found on the Sistema.

More important, however, is the Ballesters’s grips are not relieved for access to a roll pin. This is because the mainspring housing is solid. It is raised like the Sistema, but the beavertail is static as well, since there is no grip safety. Also, these pistols utilize a pivoting trigger disguised as a modern sliding trigger. The first giveaway is the pin that protrudes on each side just above the trigger. Thus, we doubt this trigger could be improved with aftermarket parts, and it’s equally unlikely you could improve it by merely refining its current mechanism.

As previously stated, all three pistols in this test are more than willing to eat the case of the last shot fired and put the gun totally out of commission. Perhaps with a little tuning and the use of better magazines this could be overcome.

Accuracy-wise, each of these pistols would print five-shot groups in the 3-inch range with at least one of our selections of ammunition. The refinished Molina shot better than the others, averaging 3.5 inches with both the Federal American Eagle 230-grain FMJ rounds and the softer shooting 185-grain FMJ rounds from Winchester. The original finish model shot the best overall with the lighter 185-grain rounds. You will notice that we used quality ammunition throughout to minimize any problems that could occur from the use of improperly manufactured ammunition.

In the section devoted to the more modern Colt Sistema, we mentioned the Sistema’s accuracy problems possibly being the result of it not having good rifling, though we guessed that inconsistent lockup was the more likely culprit in causing the gun to shoot poorly. With the Molinas, however, ineffective rifling might be the cause of bullet tumbling, which resulted in tears in the targets.

The Molinas’s accuracy numbers were usually better than the Sistema. Firing Sellier & Bellot 230-grain FMJ rounds in the original finish Molina, we managed a very small 1.9-inch group, which featured a 0.7-inch cluster of three shots. Subsequent groups were in the 2.5-inch range. At 25 yards, the two Molinas outshot the Sistema nearly every time. The original finish gun was more than an inch better with two rounds (American Eagle and Winchester), and slightly better with the PMCs. The refinished gun was 2 inches better with the Winchesters, 0.7 inch better with the Eagles, and not quite as good with the Starfires.

Gun Tests Recommends

If you want these pistols to complete, or begin, a collection, then our tests of them have little or no bearing on what you should do. If you simply want a historical artifact showing the many different forms of the .45 ACP over the last century, then you can pick what you want.

However, if you hold the delusion that .45 ACPs of the vintages we tested are appropriate for today’s self-defense climate, we would like to dissuade you of that view. If you can only spend $300 to $350 on a 1911, we’d prefer you buy a used low-end 1991-model gun, which will more likely run better than these C&R guns out of the box, have better sights, and have an upgrade path in which you can continue to improve your 1991 as your budget allows. Thus, our ratings of the tested guns are as follows:

Sistema Colt Cal. 11.25 (.45 ACP) Mod. 1927, $299. Don’t Buy. To bring this gun more on par with a base model Colt 1991A1, it would need a refit of the slide to frame mating, a new barrel, and better sights. You would have then spent much more than the cost of a new gun that will shoot “lights-out” in comparison.

Pistola Automatica C.11.25 Ballester-Molina, $190 (original finish) to $200 (arsenal refinish). Don’t Buy. There is no easy or economical way to improve these outmoded pistols. If dependable function and reasonable shooting performance are your needs, we suggest you look elsewhere, and for guns of more recent vintage.

Also With This Article

Overview: "Gun Tests' .45 ACP Handgun Picks and Pans"