November 2005

Alloy-Frame 1911s: We Choose Kimber’s Tactical Custom II .45

Springfield Armory’s Lightweight Champion GI wouldn’t shoot hollowpoints, and we didn’t like the laser grips on Smith & Wesson’s 1911PD. The Kimber had but one easy-to-fix flaw.

Carrying an alloy-framed 1911 gave us .45 ACP power and surprisingly easy carry. The Kimber Tactical Custom II (left) will save about 8 ounces over a steel-framed model. The Springfield Armory Lightweight Champion GI (right) was a mix of old features and new technology. The Smith & Wesson PD (center) was overpriced, due in part to $300 laser grips, which we took off. The Kimber Tactical Custom II is fitted into an IHG Operator holster $75. The Lightweight Champion GI rides in a CON218H holster by Galco, $90. The S&W gun fits the Don Hume 009K holster nicely, $60.

Weight is one key reason why polymer pistols have put a dent into the steel-frame 1911 pistol market, but alloy frames in 1911 guns offer the promise of lighter carry while not giving up the 1911’s shootability, accuracy, and power.

In this test, we shot and evaluated three alloy-frame 1911 pistols chambered for .45 ACP. They were the Kimber Tactical Custom II, $1,100; Springfield Armory Lightweight Champion GI No. PW9143L, $502; and Smith & Wesson’s 1911PD No. 108296, $1,330.

The Kimber weighed in empty at 32 ounces. With a seven-round magazine loaded with 185-grain bullets, the overall package weighed 39.1 ounces. Kimber claims the aluminum frame shaves about 7 ounces off the weight of steel-framed models, but we found the difference to be more than 8 ounces. Also, compared to a fully loaded Walther America P99QA .40 S&W polymer pistol tested elsewhere in this issue, the .45 weighed only 6 ounces more.

There were three different 1911PD pistols listed on the <> website. Our 4.3-inch 1911PD was the most expensive of all the Smith & Wesson 1911-style pistols. We traced the source of the extra cost to the gun’s Crimson Trace Laser grips, No. LG401, which sell for $329 (<>). The 4.25-inch-barrel SW1911PD weighed in at 28 ounces, 11 ounces lighter than the 5-inch stainless SW1911PD No. 108295, which also incorporates laser sights. S&W doesn’t make a 4.25-inch-barrel steel 1911 that offers a straight-up weight comparison, so it’s fair to say some of our test gun’s weight savings are the result of the shorter barrel and slide, and some are the result of the scandium-alloy frame (which also contributes to the gun’s cost).

At half the price, or less, than the other two guns in this test, we had to wonder how the Lightweight Champion GI would perform, mainly because it lacked many of the custom-upgrade features found on the other guns. Weight-wise, however, it actually felt lighter than its 27.5 ounces, which was about the same as the Smith & Wesson scandium pistol. Compared to the same-size steel model (No. PW9142L), which weighs 34 ounces, the Lightweight’s aluminum-alloy frame saved 7 ounces.

In addition to our normal bench testing and defensive-shooting protocols, we also carried these guns extensively, taking special note of their weights and whether they caused sagging, gapping, or undue strain on the shooter going about an everyday routine.

We liked carrying the Kimber Tactical Custom II in a low-ride pancake holster because it kept the gun close to our bodies, and the muzzle back cant minimized printing by the butt end of the grip. The key to comfort with this full-size gun was to keep the belt line level with the tops of our hips.

An Askins-style holster was a good choice for the 1911PD because it accentuated its compact size. The gun felt rooted because its vertical drop minimized the PD’s slide-heavy weight distribution. Near-point-of-the-hip carry proved suitable for both seated and standing positions.

The shortest gun, the Lightweight Champion GI, also offered the best weight distribution. Therefore, we could hang it on our belts with a heavily canted holster shaped with the flat side against the body without it flopping around.

Elsewhere, here’s what we found:

Kimber Tactical Custom II .45 ACP, $1100

This was a full-sized pistol with a 5-inch barrel. The bottom of the receiver was finished with a magazine guide held in place by an Allen screw. The magazine well of the frame was beveled extensively, but the two pieces were not blended together. Still, the beveling helped speed reloads.

The magazine guide was dark, which matched the mainspring housing, which was checkered at 20 lpi. This same color continues in a line through the beavertail grip safety, the outer surfaces of the skeletonized hammer, and the slide. The slide stop, checkered magazine release, and the ambidextrous thumb safeties also matched the slide. The front strap matches the rest of the frame and was checkered (30 lpi), as was the underside of the trigger guard.

The trigger was a competition-style aluminum item, relieved for lighter weight and adjustable for overtravel. The handsome wood grip panels were wide, to fill out the space between the magazine well and the magazine guide. The top end of the Tactical Custom II housed a standard contour barrel held by a bushing and tracked by a full-length guide rod. Windage-adjustable night sights were dovetailed into place front and rear. A set screw held the low-drag rear sight in check. Both sights had horizontal lines cut across their faces to reduce glare. The gun had an external extractor.

At the range

we quickly discovered one fault in this pistol: We quickly developed a sore spot on the inside of the right-hand thumb, at the spot where the side panel met the contour of the beavertail. We compared the thumb safety of the Kimber to other 1911 pistols, and the only obvious difference we could find was that panel on the Kimber Tactical Custom II was much wider. Other than changing the left-side thumb safety or modifying it, we had no option but to tape up our thumb and carry on with the test.

The results were rewarding. Our test ammunition consisted of one budget round, (Winchester’s 230-grain FMJ “Q” load), and jacketed hollowpoints from Black Hills and Winchester. The 185-grain hollowpoints from Black Hills gave us five-shot group averages of 2.5 inches and the most muzzle energy in the test. Both Winchester ammunitions produced groups measuring less than 2 inches across, with the old-fashioned FMJ rounds proving to be the most accurate (1.8 inches on average).

Aside from the blistering on our thumbs, the Tactical Custom II was a pleasure to shoot. The 5-inch barrel not only brought with it extra sight radius but a long, slower-moving slide. The easy sight picture and mild follow through gave us a lot of confidence.

Smith & Wesson 1911PD .45 ACP No. 108296, $1330

In addition to the laser sights, our 1911PD included white-dot Novak snag-resistant sights, a full-length guide rod, externally mounted extractor, front and rear cocking serrations, relieved hammer and aluminum trigger, and 20-lpi checkering on the backstrap.

The beavertail grip safety acted as the release for the firing pin safety, but the lever that connected the grip safety with the operating plunger mounted in the slide differed from that of the one we found in the Kimber Type II pistol. This lever added a step to reassembly, however. We had to be careful it remained fully in the down position when reapplying the slide. This meant holding the grip safety completely open after setting the control lever flush with the frame. The thumb safety was left side only.

The magazine well showed a mild bevel, and a magazine guide was not supplied. The 1911PD came with two eight-round magazines made by Act-Mag of Italy.

Before going to the range we zeroed the laser dot for a modest 10 yards. We used the needle thin Allen wrench that came with the package to adjust elevation by inserting it into the small access hole on the top of the grip. Windage was adjusted through the hole on the side. This process was as easy as sighting and steering the red dot until it rested dead center atop the front sight. In dim light we readily found the dot. In brighter light, clarity depended on the color of the target object. (This becomes more important if you are red/green colorblind.) We also took care to place our trigger fingers lower along the side of the frame when holding it outside of the trigger guard for safety. This was because holding it too high would block the laser.

In our view, the Crimson Trace Laser Grip was bright enough for its intended purpose, and it adjustability was simple and secure. But at the range we found a flaw in its design that made shooting difficult. The CT Laser Grip has one on/off switch to ready the laser and another to project the laser. The ready switch was located on the lower left-side panel and consisted of a typical hard sliding switch. The projection switch was pressure activated and located on the front strap underneath the trigger guard. We soon found that the projection switch interfered with our shooting. The pressure switch presented a lump on the front strap, preventing us from applying enough grip pressure, especially with the middle finger. Also, we found ourselves splitting our attention between projecting the laser and firing the shot.

In our view, the laser grips disqualified the gun from further consideration, but we were curious if standard grips would improve our shootin, so we installed a set of Hogue fancy wood grips. Thereafter, we really began to enjoy the 1911PD. The new grips made the gun smaller, more compact, better looking, and easier to shoot. All three selections of ammunition poured into groups that averaged less than 3 inches. Recoil control was very good, but we think our recovery time during our rapid fire drills would have been better had we also changed the sights.

The Novaks may be snag-free, but we would have preferred a more refined sight picture. With not much light visible around the front blade, the sight picture seemed cluttered, in our opinion.

Springfield Armory Lightweight Champion GI No. PW9143L, $502

This gun included many “old-time” features, such as a lanyard ring, full tang hammer, solid body trigger and a pinned front sight backed by a rear blade matched to a centering notch in the slide. But there were some trick features as well.

The gun’s 4-inch barrel (which we measured as 3.9 inches) came with a ramped bull barrel, a smart upgrade because the ramp will save wear on the alloy frame. Also, the guide-rod assembly consisted of a two-piece plunger unit with the interior spring captured. The outer recoil spring was seated into the dustcover.

This setup solves reliability problems related to slide velocity. Also, this arrangement was easy to disassemble, and we needed no tools to remove the top end. Another hidden feature was the beavertail grip safety, which was left narrow at the top to resemble a vintage part, but the lower section was just as wide and smooth as the same part on the Kimber Tactical Custom II.

At the range we discovered one other “mal”-functional feature of the early 1911s had also been preserved. Our pistol would not chamber or cycle any of the JHP ammunition, so we shot only FMJ loads in it. Of these, the Winchester 230-grain Q loads shot respectable 3.1-inch groups, almost identical to the Magtech 230s. Our best choice for accuracy was the 185-grain FMJ (truncated cone) rounds from Winchester (USA45A).

Otherwise, the two most glaring problems we found in the Springfield Armory Lightweight Champion GI were the sights and the thumb safety. There was nothing good about the old-fashioned sights, other than they were nearly indestructible. Any modern replacement sight would have paid big dividends in the accuracy test. We’re partial to the Heinie Slant Pro night sight, $122 from Brownells, (800) 741-0015. The thumb safety worked, but in the off, or down, position, the thumb safety would not settle to a solid stop.

Gun Tests Recommends
• Kimber Tactical Custom II, $1100. Our Pick. If not for the uncomfortable grip, this lightweight Government model would be one of the most desirable sidearms we’ve tested. We’d buy it anyway and modify the grip ourselves.

• Smith & Wesson 1911PD No. 108296, $1330. Don’t Buy. The laser grips worked, but standard grips made the gun easier to shoot.

• Springfield Armory Lightweight Champion GI, $502. Don’t Buy. Our gun wouldn’t cycle hollowpoints, we didn’t like the sights, and the safety felt sloppy. It’s okay as a project gun, but for out-of-the-box use, we’d pass on it.