Commander-Sized Poly 1911 .45s: Kimber, Wilson, and STI Face Off
In this test, 11 rounds of .45 ACP came in good, better, and best platforms according to price: Kimber Pro Ten II, $875; Wilson KZ 45 Compact, $1125; and the STI VIP, $1725.
If you find the range in prices for the very similar guns described in the deck above to be shockingly wide, then you had the same reaction as our staff. After all, each gun has a polymer body. You know, plastic, the material that was supposed to reduce cost. But atop each plastic grip frame is the 1911 action, and as we have said before, this is a design that requires some real hands-on work to make it accurate and smooth. Even if you replace most of the work with a machine, there is still hand fitting, and those darned CNC mills are pretty expensive as well.
At $875, the Kimber Pro Ten II was the lowest priced of our three test guns. STI, which originally stood for Strayer-Tripp International, offers designs so advanced it refers to its line of Browning inspired pistols as 2011s. The VIP model is twice the price of the Kimber at $1,725. In the middle at $1125 is the KZ45 Compact from Wilson Combat, the first series of plastic guns to come out of the Berryville, Arkansas, shop and also their least expensive model.
Given the price range of these guns and the reputation of their manufacturers, we figured it would be a surprise if any of them malfunctioned. What we were looking for was any substantial difference in performance among the three. Also, we wanted to know if polymer played a key role in the success or failure of these pistols.
STI VIP .45 ACP, $1,725
The STI VIP is a compact version of the 2011 pistol popular in Practical Shooting. The primary difference between Practical Shooting and other handgun sports is that elapsed time becomes part of the competitor’s score. This sport does not involve simply standing and shooting at a stationary target within a specified time period. Rather, shoot targets must be identified by the competitor, organized into a pattern of engagement and scored upon in the fastest time possible.
So, what does the STI VIP 2011 pistol offer in the way of improvements over the standard 1911? Fundamentally, recoil control and increased capacity. In the STI system the slide mates to a metal sub-frame. In the case of the VIP (unlike the STI competition models), this sub-frame is alloy. This lowers overall weight but still offers the advantage of a metal-to-metal fit. Controls such as the beavertail grip safety and the thumb safety levers however, are steel. The grip and trigger housing is one-piece polymer construction bolted to the frame. (The lower grip screw is strictly ornamental.) With this design the polymer section is subjected to less stress during firing but still offers the advantage of soaking up shock to the hand. Nearly the entire surface of the wide body grip was checkered. Despite having the widest grip in the test, the VIP was judged to be the most comfortable. The other two pistols seemed to draw undue pressure upon the shooter’s hands at the front and rear of the grips. This lead to a sensation wherein the Wilson and Kimber grips actually felt hard. We think the STI’s grip felt softer because it seated more evenly at all points within the hand. The trigger face itself is polymer to make it lighter and to some degree offers a self-lubricating surface. STI's full-size guns with steel sub-frames come in a variety of lengths including models that extend the dust cover all the way to the muzzle to place more weight up front and fight recoil.
Faced with building a carry gun such as the VIP, a reduction in overall weight became essential. Even when extended to just 0.8 inch from the muzzle the alloy dust cover does not have much effect on muzzle flip. Perhaps it is the weight of the bull barrel, the geometry of the frame, the superior grip, or a special guide-rod assembly, but we thought the VIP recoiled noticeably less than our other two pistols.
A special tool is needed to break the gun down. We checked the supplied manual, but instructions specific to the VIP were not included. The VIP came in a little box with the pistol shrink-wrapped to show that no one had played with it since leaving final inspection. Under the foam was a form-fitting shim that was obviously meant to trap the compressed guide rod for removal. We found it very difficult to lock back the slide manually without inserting an empty magazine. Putting in a call to STI, we learned that the slot needed to be enlarged at the outer edge. A simple flat file would do the trick. Removing the top end to clean and service the barrel and guide rod assembly begins with pulling back the slide to match the slide lock with the breakdown notch. With the lock removed, the slide moves forward off of the frame. The guide rod is pushed forward to compress the recoil spring, and a tool (in this case the custom shim) is inserted, enabling you to remove this assembly as one piece. The barrel can now be removed from the slide for cleaning. Of the three pistols, only the STI VIP utilizes a ramped barrel with fully supported chamber. This makes it better able to withstand higher pressure.
Other features include a flat-topped slide, relieved hammer and (Richard) Heinie snag free rear sight with serrated face. The front sight is dovetailed into place but was left without serration. We felt this made shooting accurately more difficult because the low mount front sight picked up glare from the top of the slide. There is no telling what kind of accuracy we could have registered with only this simple modification applied to the VIP. As it turned out, the VIP, despite having the shortest barrel and slightly less sight radius, was the accuracy champ of this test. We were able to register several sub 2-inch groups at 25 yards with both the 200-grain Speer Gold Dot and 230-grain Winchester jacketed hollowpoints.
Oddly, our handloaded round produced chronograph results identical in the STI VIP and the Wilson KZ pistols. Velocity from the Kimber was also very close. But the VIP made the most of these rounds, producing groups in the 2.6- to 2.7-inch range. A look at the velocity chart shows the Speer Gold Dot Hollowpoints produced the most muzzle energy in the KZ, but the STI VIP nonetheless fired with the most accuracy, comfort, and control.
Wilson KZ45 Compact .45 ACP, $1125
The KZ line from Wilson Combat is the company's first foray into the world of polymer, and it is reportedly a hot seller. At “just” $1125 it is about half the price of the next least expensive Wilson pistol.
Just like STI, the Wilson guns have benefited from the research and development that only competition can offer. The difference is that Bill Wilson's product line has delved little into the high-capacity market and stayed true to the original single-stack design. But the KZ series may change all that.
The polymer body, which was designed in South Africa, measures nearly the same in width as the typical single-stack 1911 yet holds 10+1 rounds of .45 ACP. The grip gives the hand a rectangular shape to hold on to. Another immediate impression is just like all Wilson guns, it feels broken in yet tight and fresh. The gun comes complete with inspection documentation, a detailed owner's manual with color photos, and a three-shot target indicating it has been zeroed at 15 yards. We measured the group, which used a custom load, at 0.5 inch center to center. Outdoors at 25 yards in less than ideal conditions, we managed a best five-shot group of 2.6 inches on two occasions.
The Wilson KZ 45 Compact finished ahead of the Kimber in accuracy, but on average it was about one-half inch behind the STI VIP in accuracy with our choice of common factory rounds. Still, at a little more than half the price than the STI, there was no denying that the KZ45 Compact pistol is an excellent choice.
The gun is narrow and almost entirely black. It comes with an excellent set of night sights. The rear unit is a no-snag design that blends in close to the slide and is mounted as far back as possible to provide maximum sight radius. The hammer is relieved to speed lock time, and like the slide wears a coat of black Armor Tuff, a super resistant Teflon-like finish. Slide to frame fit is very tight, but working the slide by hand is easy and smooth. The lower sub-frame is machined from one piece and this includes the ejector, which is normally cut separately and attached later.
The trigger is aluminum and adjustable. The extractor is mounted externally. Like the STI pistol, the barrel locks up in the front without the use of bushing or long guide-rod. Without the extra weight of a guide rod up front, this may be what contributes to an increase in muzzle flip. However, this design also means that field-stripping can be accomplished by hand without the need to carry an extra tool or pin. This is a real plus in terms of real-world duty. Each gun offers a left-side-only thumb safety. The beavertail grip safety offers a raised area for sure contact with the inside of the hand. The magazine release is perfectly placed, accessible without being in danger of dropping the magazine prematurely.
The magazines are not drop-free models anyway. The bottom lips of the supplied magazines complete the profile of the front strap. One shortcut inherent in making polymer frames is that contours can be molded in from the very start. De-horning or removing squared edges is a common practice among custom gunsmiths. Even if you machine a steel or alloy frame from exact specifications, there is always finishing work to be done. But with polymer, gentle sweeping lines such as those found on the Wilson KZ pistols are simple to produce. However, regarding the grip we feel the molded checkering is somewhat sparse and unimaginative especially at the front strap.
We also think the squared front edges felt slightly out of place, causing some minor distraction. But looking at the field of available pistols designed primarily for self-defense and weighing how the bulk of them compromise in capacity or operational features, we applaud Wilson Combat for coming up with what we feel is a superior yet affordable everyday weapon.
Kimber Pro Carry Ten II .45 ACP, $875
Kimber was the first manufacturer to bring a 1911 .45 with plastic body to the American public on a regular retail basis. The current grip frame is checkered front and rear, but it features a pebble finish throughout the rest of its surface that gives it a sweeping look and good fit to the hand. We did feel, however, that the magazine release stuck out a little too much, but it operated as intended nonetheless. Like the Wilson pistol, tritium night sights were supplied. Originally, this pistol series was able to use Para Ordnance magazines, which was a plus due to their higher capacity. We were told by a number of gunsmiths that this is still the case, but a slight modification to the magazines is necessary.
Our pistol was purchased as “almost new,” and we wondered why this gun had been turned in so soon after its original purchase. Out of curiosity we asked Kimber when this particular gun was made and submitted the serial number. The Ten II series is a newer model, and our pistol was manufactured in July 2002. The suffix “II” indicates that the Schwartz safety system, which is activated by the grip safety, is in place. This means the firing pin is free to move forward and strike only when the grip safety is compressed. Unlike our experience with this system in a first-production-run type II pistol, we were never aware of the Schwartz system while shooting.
We were surprised to find how close in price the Pro Carry Ten II was to the Wilson KZ Compact. We either had to view the Kimber as overpriced at $875 or consider the Wilson as a bargain at $1125. Based on how the Pro Carry Ten II performed, it is a little bit of both. At the range the Kimber produced five-shot groups that averaged 3.4 inches for all shots fired. This is adequate performance, but we generally like to see averages of less than 3 inches from our guns. We could not pinpoint one specific area that would unilaterally improve accuracy. In terms of price we understand there is little “wiggle room” on the Wilson pistol. The listed MSRP is likely the retail price you will pay. In terms of the Kimber, Master dealers may be able to sell it for less than the $875 tag price we paid. While accuracy may vary from gun to gun, the Pro Carry Ten II is a higher capacity 45 with steady if not stellar performance.
Gun Tests Recommends
STI VIP, $1725. Our Pick. Very Impressive Pistol could be what VIP stands for. We'd pay more to get this far up the pyramid of accuracy, capacity and control in a concealable package. Is it too costly? We think you'd be better served replacing your next two inevitable purchases with one VIP.
Wilson KZ 45 Compact, $1125. Best Buy. Just when you thought you'd never be able to afford a Wilson pistol, along comes polymer. This gun offers high capacity and the best 1911 features. It is far more capable than many current pistol systems.
Kimber Pro Carry Ten II, $875. Conditional Buy. Better accuracy (or a lower price) would make this gun a solid buy in our book. But it would be hard to pick almost any gun over the Wilson that sells within $200 of the KZ. However, you still get a reliable .45 with the advantages of 1911 controls.
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