June 2002

A Balky Trio: 1911 Pistols Chambered for .40 S&W

Whether you spend $430 for the Armscor FS, $812 for a Springfield 1911A1, or $1,024 for an STI Trojan, your .40 S&W single stack will likely need an extra visit to the factory.

The $1,024 STI Trojan was beautifully fitted
and very accurate, but it didnít run right.
It would need further factory tuning before
we could unconditionally recommend it.
There were similar problems with .40s from
Springfield and Armscor.

First manufactured in 1907, a John Browning-designed pistol was forever christened the “1911” when it was chosen in that same year to be the sidearm of the American armed forces. Another name for the unit that sports a 5-inch .45 ACP-chambered barrel is the Government model. Since then the 1911 has also been available in 9mm Parabellum, but with much less popularity. Said simply, the mating of the 1911 and .45 ACP was perfect. The big nose of the .45-caliber bullet slides forgivingly when feeding from a wide-mouthed chamber set in a narrow frame and slide. Fully loaded, the heavy bullets counterbalance the mass of the big steel pistol and the slide. Also, not being asked by this lower-pressure round to move terribly fast, the slide is able to cycle with glove-like precision.

But when 1911s aren’t chambered for the .45, manufacturers have been posed with both a challenge and a mystery when tuning the single-stack. For example, the 124- to 135-grain .38 Super round works efficiently in the 1911, but the similar 9mm cartridge proves balky. Moreover, it seems even harder to adapt the .40 S&W cartridge to this design, as a recent test of three .40s showed.

Despite its popularity in other pistol designs, the forty has yet to catch on in the 1911 single-stack configuration. To find out why, we acquired three .40s: a Springfield Armory 1911A1, $812; an Armscor 1911A1 FS Two Tone, $430; and an STI International Trojan, $1,024. From the outside, it’s next to impossible to tell them apart from 1911s chambered for .38 Super or .45 ACP. We didn’t expect any problems with the proven 1911 design, but that assumption turned out to be wrong.

Range Session
Our goal was to perform a straightforward test that would verify the equality of our forty-caliber pistols with other 1911 chambering. Tear the guns down, oil them, shoot some casual rounds and break them in. Move over to a sandbag rest and print five-shot groups at a distance of 25 yards. Pass these same rounds, five at a time, over our trusty Oehler 35P chronograph and return to the office.

Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

We chose ammunition that had been fired with success in previous tests. This included Remington’s Golden Saber jacketed hollow point in the classic .40 S&W weight of 180 grains. Its profile is somewhat rounded. Also, 165 grains has become popular in this caliber, and one of our favorite rounds for accuracy and pleasant recoil has been the Winchester USA 165-grain FMJ TC (full-metal jacket, truncated cone profile). Along this same line is an aggressively shaped hollow point from Black Hills also weighing 165 grains known by the addition of the suffix EXP. This round provided the most velocity.

But we had an unusual test in that none of the guns functioned properly initially, as we detail below. Ultimately, the question of reliability among our three pistols is a tie. Each of them needed additional warranty work to become reliable.

We feel all three guns fell prey to problems commonly faced by 1911 pistols chambered for .40 S&W. Problem one is feed ramp angle and how rounds are presented to the ramp. This includes magazine design . At the rear of the .40 S&W magazine is a plate that shortens the interior of the magazine so that rounds are not flush with the rearside wall of the mag. This is sort of a spacer, which gives the impression that the pistol has been compromised by being forced to use an adaptation. Magazines vary and this effects feed angle. Each of our supplied magazines varied in width at the rear portion of the mouth and at the front as well.

Why does the single-stack 1911 lag so far behind in reliability when chambered for .40 S&W? Certainly other designs went through growing pains when new chamberings were tried. Pistols originally designed for 9mm, for example, were later chambered in .40. But, those problems were mostly durability related, and beefing up the frames was a simple solution. Reliable feeding was a stumbling block conquered long ago in the European designed guns. Para-Ordnance, on the other hand, has not suffered so much in the production of its .40 S&W 1911s. But, like the Glock, HK, CZ, and others, the Para Ordnance feeds from a double-stack or staggered-column magazine.

The one conclusion we can draw is that in the manufacture of a single-stack 1911 chambered for .40 S&W, more care and testing is required than in the production of this same pistol in other calibers. There never was a shortcut to a good 1911, and evidently choosing .40 S&W makes it harder still.

Springfield Armory 1911A1, $812
The catalyst for this test was a letter we received from a reader regarding his purchase of this very same Springfield Armory pistol. He had purchased an all-stainless “Loaded” 1911A1 in .40 S& W caliber, and after discovering it would not feed reliably, returned it to the manufacturer. The letter praised Springfield’s handling the problem.

Click here to view the Springfield Armory 1911A1 features guide

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We grew curious about the gun and asked its owner to loan it to us for testing. We received the original work order on the gun and saw where Springfield adjusted the extractor, polished the inside of the slide and feed ramp, and tested the gun with 100 rounds of ammo. There was no charge for the work. Thus, when we received the pistol we found it to be fully sorted out, reliable and accurate.

The one characteristic we felt distinguished the .40 caliber model from the Springfield Armory .45s we have tested is that it recoiled more sharply. But it was to be our experience that due to the nature of the cartridge that this was common to all three of our test pistols.

This pistol was beautifully made with genuine Novak sights, including a front sight blade that was positioned by dovetail, pinned and serrated. There were cocking serrations fore and aft with a lowered and flared ejection port. The hammer was relieved and serrated and the trigger was skeletonized and adjustable. The finish was shiny on the sides but matte atop the slide and beneath the dust cover. The grips were sharply cut checkered wood with standard slotted screws holding them in place. The beavertail grip safety was raised and the thumb safety appeared only on the left side.

All three test guns were weighty, but this pistol was the heaviest at 44 ounces, due in part to a two-piece full-length guide rod. All three guns use a bushing to lock up the muzzle, but only the Armscor maintains a short guide rod. While the STI requires a makeshift pin to lock back the recoil spring, the Springfield can be disassembled much like a short-guide-rod model. The first step is to insert the proper Allen wrench into the tip of the guide rod and unscrew it. Once the guide rod assembly is removed, the pistol comes apart with the use of a bushing wrench. During reassembly it is important to lock the slide back before torqueing down the guide rod completely.

The two supplied magazines were also stainless steel in finish, and according to the marking on the base pad are from the same manufacturer as the one that came with the Armscor pistol. The STI magazine is a Mec-Gar product. We could not help but notice that the spring rates in all the forty mags were very heavy.

We encountered no malfunctions during our test procedures. Evidently, the factory fixed its feeding problems. But the fact remains that all three guns were unreliable initially. Common malfunctions were rounds nose-diving inside the magazine, especially during initial charging of the gun. Downloading to seven rounds instead of the full capacity of eight usually solved this, but when we first started trying to shoot the Armscor and the STI we had to start with even fewer rounds. The Springfield’s problems had likely involved a slight change in the angle of the feed ramp. Magazines from each gun were mixed and matched with pistols and ammunitions, but the Armscor and the STI guns were still balky.

In terms of accuracy, the Springfield was the most consistent. We were able to average group sizes of 2.5 and 2.6 inches respectively firing the Winchester 165-grain FMJ and Remington Golden Saber rounds. The Black Hills 165-grain JHP-EXP were its most accurate choice with an average of 2.1 inches measured across the five five-shot groups at 25 yards. Velocity was also the highest from the Springfield, the margin of which was 20 fps in most cases.

Armscor 1911A1 FS Two Tone, $430
By the end of our session the Armscor proved more eager to feed than the STI. As noted above we had to start with one round in the mag to get them to load; then two then three as the guns “broke in,” for lack of a better term. (In our estimation guns that perform like this are broken, but as demonstrated by the repair of the Springfield Armory pistol they can be fixed.) By the end of our testing the Armscor would feed the initial round even when the magazine was filled to capacity. But even with feeding problems solved, this gun was still only marginally accurate.

Click here to view the Armscor 1911A1 FS Two Tone features guide

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Perhaps we’re spoiled, but overall this gun averaged 4.0-inch groups at 25 yards. We did discount some groups that were unmeasurable in the early stages of the test when we were trying to shoot despite continuous malfunctions. Compared to the .45 ACP cartridge, the rim of the .40 case is sharp. Several times a stoppage consisted of a round stuck inside the extractor having traveled straight up. Perhaps the extractor just wore itself into the proper contour. In fairness, after 200+ rounds the STI still wouldn’t feed the first round, but somehow the Armscor had gotten over it. Neither gun would lock back when empty, and the Armscor always needed its magazine pried from the frame.

With so many variables, it is difficult to determine what may have caused the Armscor’s poor accuracy. The quality of the rifling may be one factor, and the absolute vertical cut of the crown may be another, but the quality of lockup is still the largest factor. With the gun cocked or hammer relaxed, we found it possible to move the barrel up and down at the muzzle. Once a malady like this is discovered, it is just not possible to expect accuracy from a pistol.

In terms of standard features this model offered a blued slide and satin stainless frame. The grips were wood, and the thumb safety was ambidextrous, a feature left off the other guns. Just like on the Springfield, the Two Tone had cocking serrations on the front and rear of the slide and a dovetailed front sight. A Novak-style rear assembly was held in place by an Allen screw, which was loose when the pistol arrived. It never stayed put even with the help of Loc-Tite. Other upgrades comparable in design if not execution to the higher priced guns included a raised grip safety, skeletonized trigger, relieved and serrated hammer, plus a lined and extended magazine release.

Gun Tests has now evaluated two Armscor 1911s, one in .38 Super and this one in .40 S&W, and we didn’t particularly like either gun. Perhaps in the more forgiving .45 ACP the attributes of this line of budget 1911s will come together.

STI International Trojan, $1,024
With this price tag, there better be something special behind the muzzle, and the fact of the matter was that this pistol shot the only sub-2-inch groups of the test. We had one really “bad” group of 2.4 inches firing the Black Hills ammunition and several 1.4-inch groups going, but pulled a shot here and there to expand the average to an even 2.0 inches.

Click here to view the STI International Trojan features guide

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The big difference we felt between the other pistols and this one was that we didn’t seem to have to work so hard to get the most out of the pistol even with the skinny grip panels, which we do not favor. (As expensive as these rosewood panels may be, if you do not have a meaty hand you probably won’t like them either.) But there are some subtle features that we like.

The grip was checkered to the rear and the front strap had gentle but effective stippling. The trigger guard was undercut, lowering the boreline in the hand for greater recoil control. The trigger was the ultra-light polymer design that is race proven on STI’s competition guns. The machining and pinwork was flawless. The front sight was a tall, narrow target blade dovetailed and pinned into place. The rear unit was STI’s version of the fully adjustable Bo-Mar design, which offers a serrated rear face to reduce glare.

Removal of the top end was also in line with current technology favored by custom gunsmiths. To field-strip the gun, first release the magazine and make sure the chamber is empty. With the left thumb inside the trigger guard, slide the top end to the rear until the release aligns with the notch located just under the “N” in Trojan. Push out the release pin from right to left and slide the top end forward off the frame. To release the guide rod and remove the barrel, push the guide rod forward to expose the small hole midway down the rod. Place a paper clip bent in a right angle inside the hole.

This will capture the spring. Remove both the guide rod and spring assembly. Turning the bushing in standard fashion will now release the barrel.

This type of assembly is typical of bushingless designs such as in the use of bull barrels that are now in vogue for all types of 1911 top ends. We noticed that the bushing fit was quite tight and lockup was hard and consistent.

When handled empty, the slide of the STI Trojan was also prone to sticking open, as if it had reached its lock-back point early, a distance of about half the length of the locking notch. This is enough to add a stutter in the picking up of the first round. Any problem with feeding is bound to be multiplied by this interruption of movement.

Gun Tests Recommends
Springfield Armory 1911A1, $812. Conditional Buy. Offered with nearly every available option, this would seem to be good value. But according to the Gun Tests reader who supplied the gun, it needed warranty work (which we documented) right off the bat.

Armscor 1911A1 FS Two Tone, $430. Conditional Buy. There are a lot of options on this gun, but the resulting quality is questionable, in our estimation. Even the most expensive 1911s have a problem in this caliber, so we feel you are taking a chance all the way around by choosing a gun that’s not topnotch to begin with. However, the price is very attractive.

STI International Trojan, $1,024. Conditional Buy. If Springfield can solve its pistol’s problems, we’d guess that STI could as well. Depending on how the MSRP translates to actual retail price, you may be better off with a slightly more expensive gun built and tested by a custom gunsmith.