A Fresh Crop of Full-Size 1911s: We Choose the Para-Ord SSP
The handsome Para-Ordnance SSP asks, “Why pay more?”, and we reply, “Why indeed?” We prefer the SSP over the Sigarms Revolution and STI’s Lawman in a head-to-head .45 ACP bout.
In this review we will evaluate three 1911 45 ACP pistols relatively new to the market. Each one was manufactured by names first associated with pistols other than the single-stack Browning design. For instance, Para-Ordnance is a Canadian firm most famous for introducing high capacity to the 1911 by enlarging the receiver to house a double-column magazine. STI International is known for its modular design melding a polymer grip to a set of rails to produce a high capacity pistol also fed from a double stack magazine. Sigarms has been making a single stack .45 for many years, the P220. But the P220 is closer to Browning’s BDA design, operating with a traditional double-action trigger. Sigarms’s single-action gun, the GSR Revolution, costs $1,049 and this puts it squarely between the $1,344 STI Lawman 5.0 and the $899 Para-Ordnance SSP.
We began our tests by removing the top ends of each gun and making sure they were properly lubricated. All three guns were function fired with a variety of ammunition left over from other tests, then loaded with at least 200 rounds of a handload featuring the 200-grain lead-swaged bullet from Precision Bullets (www.precisionbullets.com) that offered molybdenum coating to minimize deposits. Alliant Power Pistol smokeless powder was the propellant, ignited by Winchester large primers. We recorded accuracy data at an outdoor range from a 25-yard bench rest with this round plus three factory loads. They were 200-grain +P Speer Gold Dots, Federal’s 165-grain Hydra-Shok JHP rounds, and the Atlanta Arms and Ammo 185-grain JHP match ammunition, (www.atlantaarmsandammo.com). This is the same load used by the United States Army Marksmanship Unit, (AMU). Our test team members believed that any full-size gun in this price range should deliver five-shot groups measuring approximately 2.5 inches or less and run without any problems. Let’s see how these new .45s did when examined by our critical group of shooters:
Now in its second full year of production, the Sigarms series of 1911 .45 ACP pistols has been expanded to include no less than 16 different models. This includes smaller-framed models as well as full-size pistols with options such as Picatinny rail underlugs, rounding the edges of the frame and slide, plus a variety of finishes, grips and sights. As of spring 2006, suggested retail prices will range from $859 to $1,299.
Our pistol, made in late 2005, had a 5-inch non-ramped barrel with a matte-finish stainless steel slide and frame. The underlug was smooth, not cut for mounting a light or laser. But there was 20-lpi checkering on the back of the grip and 25-lpi on the front. The grip panels were a handsome wood held by Allen screws and the grip safety was raised with a peak that ran parallel to the frame rather than spanning from side to side. The trigger was adjustable for overtravel and like the grip safety had a unique look about it cut with three triangles. The trigger guard was not undercut but the angle of the grip was coordinated with the cut of the slide to produce graceful sweeping lines. The slide offered rear cocking serrations that showed an externally mounted extractor inset on the right side. The external extractor has been criticized for taking strength away from the slide but we did not encounter any problems and the application appeared to be flawless. There appeared to be a firing pin locking system accessible also from the right side of the slide. But, we could not find a key for it inside the pistol case and the owner’s manual did not refer to it. A cable lock and two keys were supplied, however. Thumb safety was left side only but Novak night visible sights were dovetailed into place with the front sight staked by a roll pin. Their daylight usability was good but we felt the rear sight was a little bit busy and distracting. The tritium pods however produced small but decidedly sharp dots in dim light. Two stainless steel magazines that utilized a flat follower and held eight rounds were supplied. The manufacturer was Act-Mag of Italy but stamped with the Novak trademark. The bevel on the magazine well was perhaps shallow but ran cleanly around the rear corners as well as the sides. The magazines had heavy base pads that were removable, so that with the addition of a magazine well extension or guide, they would still be usable.
Our Sigarms Revolution pistol was the only one of our trio that utilized a short guide rod and full spring cap. This meant a bushing wrench was not necessary to compress the recoil spring and turn the bushing. The barrel bushing was flush with the end of the muzzle. The gun felt wide and the view from behind the square looking slide gave us the feeling of shooting a substantial piece of hardware. The front strap was pointed rather than broad, and the heavy grips filled our hands. With the top end removed, we found an extra lever to the right of the disconnector. This was part of the trigger-controlled firing-pin safety that distinguished the Revolution as a Series 80-type pistol.
We stuffed all manner of jacketed hollowpoint and lead ammunition into the gun and began shooting at an Action Target dueling tree (www.actiontarget.com), knocking 8-inch plates from side to side. The Sigarms presented a crisp trigger with a hard break, giving little clue that the trigger was also keying a safety before releasing the hammer. The Para-Ordnance was also a Series 80 design, but we could feel the double function of the Para-Ordnance trigger.
Two ammos that shared a similar conical profile, the 165-grain Federal Hydra-Shoks and the 185-grain Nosler JHP rounds loaded by Atlanta Arms and Ammo, each registered comparable groups measuring about 2.2 inches on average. But the Federal rounds flew much faster, averaging 1006 fps compared to 770 fps. Our handloads topped with Precision’s moly-coated lead bullet also averaged 770 fps in the Sigarms pistol and shot the best groups ranging in size from 1.2 to 2.1 inches. But the Sig also produced the worst groups when matched with the 200-grain Speer +P GDHP rounds.
The only other downside we found to the Sigarms Revolution was that it would not fit into a lot of the 1911 holsters currently available. The frame and slide were cut a little too wide and square. Holsters designed for guns with a rail underlug fit this gun more easily.
The Para-Ordnance SSP was the least expensive gun in our group, but many of our testers thought it was also the best looking. Stainless-steel colored accents included the hammer, grip safety, thumb safety, barrel, magazine release and slide stop. Stainless Allen screws held the colorful wood grips on. A gold colored Para-Ordnance logo graced the grips themselves.
The black Para Kote frame and slide contrasted with these parts. After the test, we noted only minor holster wear at the forward tip of the slide. The economical SSP lacked front-strap checkering. Other cost cutting measures were house-design low-snag sights and the use of white dots fore and aft rather than name-brand night sights. But the SSP did include a full-length guide rod and a fully supported, ramped barrel. Field stripping was not markedly different from a short guide-rod model, and only a little more trying when putting the provided bushing wrench to use.
The Para-Ordnance SSP utilized a firing-pin safety controlled by the trigger in a similar manner to the Colt Series 80. But unlike the Sigarms Revolution, the action of the safety, combined with the act of releasing the hammer, produced a soft let off. The slower we pressed the trigger, the more noticeable it became. The left side-only thumb safety showed some overtravel movement in the down position that was distracting at first, but did not affect function. The magazine well was beveled, but only slightly, and unfortunately there did not seem to be much material left to machine ahead of the checkered mainspring housing. (Adding a magazine guide that was pre-fit and contoured, such as part No. 185, $22 from <www.clarkcustomguns.com> would be a good idea.) The gun came with two flush-fitting seven-round magazines, but we also tried the eight-round mags supplied with the STI and Sigarms pistols, and they worked perfectly in the Para-Ordnance. However, the other pistols didn’t like the polymer follower on the Para-Ordnance mags. It had a tendency to tip up past the feed lips of the magazine and jam the last round.
At the range our Para-Ordnance proved easy to shoot. Our handload averaged 2.8 inches for a five-shot group. The SSP handled the hot Speer rounds, printing an average group measuring 2.3 inches @ 997 fps. The Federal Hydra-Shoks landed average groups of 2.1 inches. The Para-Ordnance stood out with a 1.4-inch group firing the Atlanta Arms and Ammo Match rounds to produce an average group of 1.8 inches.
The STI Lawman is not the only single-stack 1911 that STI makes. Better known for its modular-framed high-capacity pistols that have come to dominate Practical Shooting, STI now offers 12 steel-framed single stacks. The Lawman pistol is a result of the acquisition of Lone Star Arms about two years ago. The Lawman is available in two tone finishes, combining either brown and green or black and tan. Arriving shrink wrapped in a plastic bag inside a hard plastic case, our Lawman 5.0 was all black with the slide showing a gloss finish on the sides and a matte finish on the top. The only parts that contrasted via a natural metallic finish was the barrel, the sides of the relieved hammer and the aluminum trigger, which was shorter and more open than the ones found on our other two pistols. Novak low-mount sights, drift-adjustable for windage only with three white dots, added to the low profile of this gun. Exterior upgrades amounted to front and rear cocking serrations, superb 30-lpi checkering front and rear, and slim-profile composite stocks that were pebble finished rather than checkered. The gun did not come with a magazine guide but a hole had been drilled and tapped into the bottom of the mainspring housing. The mouth of the magazine well was lightly chamfered. It would be easy to blend in a magazine guide. The thumb safety was left side only, and the grips were held on by slotted screws. The gun felt great in the hand, with the classic natural index that the 1911 is famous for. When we worked the slide, we noticed the gun’s great fit.
At the range we proceeded to field-strip and lubricate the STI Lawman. A bushing wrench was supplied for removing the recoil assembly in the traditional manner, but it was not required. An alternate method was to remove the top end as one piece. After setting the slide assembly upside down on a bench, we pushed the guide rod forward until the capture hole in the guide rod appeared ahead of the recoil spring retainer. Then we inserted a makeshift pin. We’ve seen people use a staple in a pinch, but we used a small section of paper clip bent into a right angle. Inserting our pin into the hole we captured the guide rod, recoil spring and spring retainer. This enabled us to lift these pieces out as one unit. The bushing was then free to be removed by hand. We noticed that unlike the Sigarms or Para-Ordnance pistol, the action did not use an internal safety interacting with the trigger. The trigger on this pistol was set dead on at 5.0 pounds, and our staff judged the gun’s trigger pull to be the best of the trio.
After firing at the plates at 15 yards, we settled in at the bench for collecting accuracy data. The first rounds we tried were the Atlanta Arms and Ammo Match ammunition. This ammunition featured Starline brass and the Nosler 185 grain hollowpoint. Our groups ranged from 0.8 inches to 1.7 inches. This was excellent, but the gun shot about 3.5 inches low from our 6 o’clock point of aim on the MidwayUSA (www.midwayusa.com) pistol target. Given the fixed sights on our Lawman, we called STI in Georgetown, Texas, and asked them what round they had used to proof the Lawman .45 ACP pistol. They said the gun was zeroed at approximately 20 yards with Federal American Eagle 230-grain FMJ, a fast heavy round. This combination would naturally lead to a higher point of impact than our mild 185-grain target load. The 165-grain Federal rounds landed about 1 to 2 inches low. The 200-grain handload was closer to point of aim, and the Speer +P loads were dead on.
Overall, the STI Lawman produced the best accuracy. We calculated a 1.8-inch average group for all recorded fire.
Despite these positives, there were a couple of troublesome problems with the STI Lawman. First, it produced lower velocities than the other guns. Second, and more problematic, we experienced back blast of unburned powder, which caused minor injury to our shooters. Proper eye protection prevented disaster, but this did not occur with either of our other two pistols.
We tried to find out why this was happening, since the unburned powder problem was enough to make us pass on the gun. Given the level of accuracy displayed by the Lawman, we felt we could rule out premature unlocking of the barrel due to a weak recoil spring. Next, we noticed that loaded rounds inserted into the chamber moved around more in the STI than in the other pistols. But this could have been a product of the throating contour. Measuring inside diameter at a point about 0.75 inches from the mouth of the chamber the STI was the largest, however. We also observed that the rounds were seating well below the hood of the barrel compared to our other two guns. Measuring chamber depth with a dial caliper confirmed our suspicion. Our best guess is that the excess chamber depth was allowing rounds to shift during ignition and let expanding gases travel back towards the breech face and out the ejection port. As it was, we couldn’t recommend the STI, but the STI Lawman was covered by a lifetime warranty, and perhaps this problem could be repaired.
Gun Tests Recommends
• Sigarms GSR Revolution .45 ACP No. 19GS0001, $1049. Conditional Buy. A little bulkier than other 1911s, the Revolution is nonetheless a precision made pistol with above average accuracy in most cases. But in our view, the SSP is just as good, and it costs $150 less.
• Para-Ordnance SSP .45 ACP PX745E, $899. Best Buy. Our least expensive pistol was a pleasure to shoot. Accurate and reliable, it was also the most handsome, we thought.
• STI Lawman 5.0 .45 ACP, $1344. Don’t Buy. Outstanding feel and accuracy were spoiled by a tendency to blow debris backward toward the operator. Barrel replacement on this individual pistol may be necessary under STI’s lifetime warranty.
Written and photographed by Roger Eckstine, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers.