September 2003

Specialty .45s: Great Shooting, or Signature Editions to Lock Away?

In this rarefied class, we found three good $1,000 to $2,000 pistols: Springfield Armoryís $925 Black Stainless, the $1,900 Rob Leatham TGO II, and Kimberís $1,300 Team Match II.

007-K model holster from the Don Hume Company

The $47 007-K model holster from the Don Hume Company (800-331-2686) and the Springfield Armory Black Stainless make an irresistible combination.

It is not unusual to open the pages of a gun magazine and find advertisements for guns adorned with a celebrated name or a limited-run designation—some might call them “signature” or “specialty” guns because of their unique production status. We recently tested three such pistols from two makers, Springfield Armory and Kimber. Our Springfield products were the $925 Black Stainless model and the $1,900 Rob Leatham TGO II. From Kimber, we evaluated a $1,300 Team Match II, all in all a pricey trio of .45 ACPs.

When we received our Rob Leatham TGO II signature model from Springfield Armory, we wanted to know if this was a match-ready custom pistol or a collectible. The same goes for Springfield’s Black Stainless model, which was absolutely striking. It featured a combination of brushed stainless steel surfaces contrasted with an artfully applied flat-black finish. We couldn’t help but wonder if this pistol was meant for “serious” work. Another 1911 .45 single stack that captured our imagination was Kimber’s USA Shooting Team Match II. In terms of serious 1911 features, it seemed to have all the right stuff plus red, white, and blue checkered grips. But it takes more than fancy grips to produce excellence. We wanted to know if these pistols were shooters or showpieces. Certainly, these guns will maintain or even gain value simply by putting them in a glass case, but Gun Tests is not about the Blue Book. We are about the banging and the clanging, hitting the center of the target fast and true. In a time when custom variations of the .45 ACP 1911 abound, we wanted to find out if these guns were truly special. Was the Kimber worthy of an Olympic shooting team endorsement? Would Rob Leatham, arguably the greatest practical pistolero of all time lend his name to anything less than a stellar 1911 .45? Was the beauty of the Springfield Black Stainless only skin deep? We shot them to found out:

Springfield Armory Black Stainless PX9152L, $925

The Black Stainless model is the least expensive pistol in our test, but its $1000 price tag would make it overpriced in many shooters’ view. Not to us. The 1911 design requires personal attention for precision metal-to-metal fit in numerous areas, and employing skilled technicians costs money.

Looking at the Black Stainless from the bottom up, we noted that the magazine well was flared and mated to an extension that is pleasantly wide. Curiously, the mag guide on the more expensive Rob Leatham model is not as funnel like, and the inside of the magazine well on the “Robbie” gun is not flared at all. So, of the two Springfield Armory models, the Black Stainless is easier to reload. The grip panels are checkered and thin, formed from black polymer instead of wood. These are the first polymer grips like this we’ve seen and we liked the feel of this polymer over other types of plastic. Torx screws hold on the grips, a nice upgrade from slotted screws. The grip safety offered a raised surface that works well for all size hands. The thumb safety was ambidextrous but abbreviated on the right side. The hammer was skeletonized to reduce weight and the trigger was aluminum, grooved, ventilated and adjustable for overtravel. Many of these improvements are now standard on other 1911s as well.

Elsewhere, we thought the fully adjustable night sights that performed in daylight with match-grade efficiency were a real bonus. All three guns have a notch cut into the rear of the barrel hood, so looking down at the gun does let you know if there is a round in the chamber. The two Springfield pistols used two-piece full-length guide rods, which makes field-stripping easy. Most shooters will find that after unscrewing the two-piece guide rod, a bushing wrench helps, but isn’t a necessity, in disassembling the top end.

Even with these upgrades, what really sets this gun apart is the finish. The sides of the frame and slide are brushed and polished stainless steel, and the gun is accented with a black-oxide finish. Is it functional? Yes. Is it distinctive? Absolutely. The undersides of the frame, including the trigger guard area, are blackened. So are the front strap and the underside of the slide. A truly nice touch is the inlay of the black oxide upon the cocking serrations that are cut into the slide. Parts such as the aforementioned magazine guide, checkered mainspring housing, grip and thumb safeties, slide stop and magazine release are also black. The rear faces of the slide, including the extractor and firing pin stop, are blackened to reduce glare.

Click here to view "Accuracy / Chronograph Data."

At the range we had our best results shooting the rounds with the least recoil. In this case it was the 185-grain jacketed hollowpoint from Black Hills. Despite a velocity of nearly 1000 fps, we were able to control the Black Stainless best firing the lighter projectile. The sights were excellent, and all three guns offered triggers that broke at an average of 5.5 pounds pressure. But we did experience more flyers with this gun than with the other two. Although it is reasonable to believe that the fit of the more expensive TGO II model was more exact, we feel our group-spoiling shots were most often affected by poor follow-through. We felt the lack of checkering on the front strap allowed the gun to move in our hands on ignition. Adding to this were the slim grips, which put more emphasis on grip pressure on the front and rear surfaces. Slim grips work best for shooters with fleshy or meaty hands. The idea is to make full 360-degree contact with the grip, and in the case of our test shooter, the slim grips decreased the amount of contact area between shooter and gun. For many shooters, they will just need to change the grip panels to fit their hands to make the Black Stainless a better shooter.

Springfield Rob Leatham Model TGO II PC9106L, $1,900

Who is Rob Leatham and why is Springfield Armory making guns with his name on them? Leatham is a four-time IPSC World Champion and has won the Bianchi Cup, the Steel Challenge and the USPSA Nationals all in the same year. Springfield Armory currently employs Leatham, so the TGO II Signature Model has a lot to live up to.

The TGO II differs from the Black Stainless pistol in several ways. First, the two-tone color scheme is a classic combination of a matte stainless frame and deep blue slide. The rear sight is a genuine Bo-Mar target sight, click adjustable for windage and elevation. The front sight blade is approximately 0.02 inch thinner than a standard blade, producing a finer aim and more peripheral vision. What the smaller blade gives up in rapid acquisition, it regains by adding a red fiber-optic filament. The fiber optic gathers light and creates a glowing red dot at the center of the front sight. For speed shooting you can rely solely on the dot, and for fine shooting, the edges of the blade are clearly visible. Although this type of sight blade is longer front to back, the reduction in sight radius is minimal.

Other differences that distinguish the Rob Leatham Signature model from the Black Stainless are the checkered front strap and an unbeveled magazine well. We feel this is an oversight. The final visual differences between the two pistols are the fancy wood grip panels left smooth and bearing the champion’s signature. These grips are very thin and likely best suited for Leatham himself. Buyers of this pistol who purchase it for shooting and not collecting will most likely remove them and put them in a glass case. The replacement grips should be similar to those found on the Kimber Team Match II pistol, in our view. Grips that are too narrow can expose the web of the strong hand to the edge of the thumb safety, producing a painful blister. In terms of control, the checkering helped us hold on, but we feel our control (and accuracy) was compromised by not having the right grips.

This pistol was the accuracy winner, and it shot the two 230-grain slugs best. The difference between smallest and largest groups occurred when we shot the 230-grain JHP rounds, which produced the most recoil. A best group of 1.6 inches and a worst of 3.2 inches mean one thing, shooter error. There are two basic mistakes you can make gripping the gun. One is to overpower the gun, which is in effect squeezing the trigger while closing the entire hand. The other is letting go of the gun upon recoil. We plead the latter. In tracking the sights upon ignition, we saw too much movement on some shots for a consistent point of impact. To shoot this gun really well, we would need to replace the grips.

Kimber USA Shooting Team Match II .45 ACP, $1,300

Kimber developed the Team Match II for the USA Shooting (Olympic) Rapid Fire Pistol Team. Actually, this pistol was not intended for use in Olympic rapid-fire competition, but for a series of action pistol events such as those found in USPSA/IPSC. At some point a decision was made that Practical Shooting would be a valuable addition to their regular training. The Team Match II pistol is also available to the public, and for every pistol sold Kimber will donate $100 to support the team.

Casting a critical eye, we had to ask if this pistol was indeed a good buy for the average consumer. The Team Match II is a full-size 1911 with Bo-Mar style target sights. The front blade is plain black and serrated to match the rear sight. The hammer is skeletonized and blackened as well to reduce glare. The remainder of the pistol is finished in matte stainless. The slide offers cocking serrations front and rear, and the ejection port is lowered considerably. The grip frame is checkered front and rear, and the wood panels that display the white USA Shooting Team logo are colored a subtle red and blue with diamond pattern checkering. Allen- head screws hold the panels in place. Avoiding the use of a slotted screw prevents the possible marring of the wood with a screwdriver.

Another detail that adds strength and precision to function and maintenance is another Allen screw that holds the magazine release in place. In terms of a competition gun, little things like this add up to a trouble-free service life. The magazine guide is very wide, and the well is aggressively beveled. In fact we found this Kimber to be the fastest reloader of the trio. The trigger is grooved and was the most heavily relieved of our test pistols. The Team Match II uses Kimber’s Tactical Extractor, which combines elements of internally and externally mounted extractors. Like the standard internally mounted designs, it is anchored by the firing pin stop. However, much of its construction is visible from outside the slide, and when the chamber is loaded the edge of the extractor is raised, which is both visible to the eye and easy to feel with the trigger finger in the dark.

The Team Match II is sprung with a solid full-length guide rod, but we found it was still very easy to dismantle. Slide-to-frame fit was very good. In past years it was rumored that Kimber was purchasing slides and frames from a variety of machining houses. Some felt that this resulted in a variation of quality. Since then Smith & Wesson has been casting for Kimber, and this relationship has steadied and refined the consistent quality of Kimber pistols.

Although the grip safety on this pistol does not feature a raised surface such as the “memory groove” design found on the Springfield pistols, the safety does sit high enough so that deactivation is never a problem. In fact, ergonomics are perhaps this pistol’s strongest point. At the range, this allowed us to make the most of this gun’s potential. We found it easy to be very consistent, and results were not far behind the more expensive Springfield Armory TGO II pistol. Overall average group size was 2.4 inches for all shots fired. The low and high were groups measuring 1.9 inches and 2.9 inches. The TGO II varied from 1.6 to 3.2 inches for an average group size of 2.3 inches.

Also, the Kimber Team Match II was noticeably more eager to reload on the go. Likewise, magazine function separated the Kimber and Springfield models. Springfield Armory supplied seven-round magazines that include a dimple on the surface of the follower. Under certain conditions these magazines (by MetalForm) would not feed the last round into the Kimber. However, the supplied eight-round magazines from Kimber worked in all three pistols, as did aftermarket magazines from Wilson and Chip McCormick.

Gun Tests Recommends

Springfield Armory Black Stainless .45 ACP PX9152L, $925. Buy It. In the $800 to $1000 niche of 1911 pistols, Springfield Armory has managed to offer a gun that is distinctive. Replacement grips, if needed, would make it a great gun for a lot of people.

Springfield Armory Rob Leatham Signature Model TGO II .45 ACP (PC9106L), $1,900. Our Pick. This is a very good production gun. We’d be willing to spend $1899 on this pistol and a little more to change the grips and enlarge the magazine well. We’d shoot the heck out of it.

Kimber USA Shooting Sports Team Match II .45 ACP, $1,300. Best Buy. If you have never owned a 1911 before, spending a little more for this one might spoil you.