July 2009

Two Affordable 1911s: Rock Island Armory Beats Firestorm

The RIA Tactical is an affordable performer. The Firestorm 45 has promise, but a simple flaw gave us enough trouble that we graded it down and wouldn’t buy it. You might, however.

There are many renditions of the Government Model 1911 45. Some have every feature and improvement known to man. Others are more utilitarian. You pay your money and you take your choice. There is certainly a market for a workingman’s 45 with good features above those of the GI pistol, but which remains affordable. After all, many top-quality 1911 pistols start around $1000. There are a number of good GI pistols for under $500, but few 1911s below $500 also feature good sights and other advanced features.

Affordable 1911s

These two handguns share the same homeland—the Philippines—and are comparable in many ways. They are enjoyable to fire, accurate, and comfortable due to their steel frames and full-length slides. Our team said attention to detail favors the Rock Island Armory 45 ACP, left.

However, we found two such affordable upgraded 1911s: The Rock Island Armory Tactical 45 ACP, $499, and the Firestorm DLX 45 ACP, $482. Each features Novak sights, or an approximation. Each features a custom beavertail grip safety and extended slide-lock safety. Beyond that, there are individual features and detail differences that may appeal to one shooter more than another.

We tested the two handguns with three types of ammunition, Black Hills 230-grain jacketed hollowpoint +P, Fiocchi 230-grain ball, and Winchester 230-grain Personal Defense jacketed hollowpoints. The results were interesting and conclusive.

Here’s what we found:

Rock Island Armory Tactical 45 ACP, $499

The pistol is sometimes difficult to pin down as to exact list price as it is handled by several distributors, but we paid $499. The RIA Tactical is an upgraded version of the RIA GI 1911. The GI pistol has a generally good reputation, although the pistol has been largely ignored in the popular press. The RIA GI pistol features a scalloped or lowered ejection port and good feed-ramp finish. The Tactical pistol features additional improvements the buying public has proven it is willing to pay for. Most noticeable are the Novak sights. Most shooters agree that Novak sights are the standard by which all combat sights are judged. It is interesting to note that the front sight installation differs among the Smith and Wesson, SIG and Springfield pistols. A true Novak features a pin that helps secure the dovetailed front sight, but this is not strictly necessary and perhaps saves a few dollars in a bargain handgun. The finish of the Tactical pistol is parkerized, although some of the RIA pistols have a finish that more closely resembles the now defunct Bunkerizing. The RIA pistol features a well-designed grip safety that all of us found comfortable. The slide-lock safety is ambidextrous. On the safety, overtravel is controlled by an elongated sear pin. The trigger appears adjustable, but it is not. It is simply stylish. The RIA pistol comes with a locking hard plastic case and two Novak magazines.

The plain grips have been modified to accommodate an ambidextrous safety, and they seemed a tad small for the frame. According to the RCBS registering trigger compression gauge, the RIA pistol’s trigger tripped the sear at 5.25 pounds. Fit and feel are subjective, but when we racked the slide, the fit of the barrel, locking lugs and bushing seemed good to us. Controls were crisp.

Before firing the pistol—which was delivered dry—we lubricated it. We began the firing exercise, and some of our raters who were familiar with the 1911 remarked that the test was "boring," simply because nothing untoward happened. The RIA 45 never failed to feed, chamber, fire, or eject.

The pistol came sighted for 230-grain ammunition, and we found accuracy was generally good. Shooting Black Hills 230-grain bullets, we got a best group of 1.8 inches, compared to the Firestorm’s 2.0-inch smallest groups, and an average group size of 2.3 inches for the RIA versus 2.5 inches for the DLX. The Tactical held that slim edge with the Fiocchi 230-grain Ball, shooting a smallest group of 1.8 inches compared to the Firestorm’s 2.0 inches, and developing a slightly wider average-group-size advantage of 2.0 to 2.4 inches. Likewise, shooting Winchester 230-grain JHP Personal Defense fodder, the RIA shot smaller groups, 2.0 to 2.5 inches, and held a narrow lead in average-group size, 2.4 to 2.6 inches.

Our testers said recoil was not uncomfortable, but then this is a steel-frame 45. The Black Hills load is rated at +P and generated more push, but this is a good gun to use this load in. Elsewhere, the pistol received high marks for function. Some of the raters remarked that if they purchased the pistol, they would probably change the grip panels, saying that the grips felt too small. A feature that split the raters was the full-length guide rod. A full-length guide rod is considered an aid to function when using full-power loads and perhaps even an aid in accuracy by some, while others believe a full-length guide rod only adds to complication in field-stripping the pistol. Regardless of which camp you sit in, the RIA Tactical Model proved accurate and reliable, but how much of this is related to a full-length guide rod is anyone’s guess. The full-length guide rod is easily removed and a standard recoil guide and spring set-up substituted, if desired.

Affordable 1911s

Here’s where some of the similarities can be seen, most of which didn’t cause functional differences in the two imports. On the left is the RIA. Slide serrations, Novakstyle rear combat sights, relieved hammers, extended beavertails made these nicely appointed guns for $500 or less.

Our Team Said: There are 1911 pistols with more features, and many that are more accurate. But here, in which pricing was a controlling factor, we think the RIA is an affordable pistol with good features. The sights are good, the trigger and controls are crisp, and the pistol features an ambidextrous safety. The pistol is reliable and accurate as well. The locking hard case and spare magazine are rock candy to the deal. If you want more features and a better finish, you will have to spend considerably more money.

Firestorm DLX 45 ACP, $482

The new Firestorm replaces the previous version, a Spanish pistol similar to the Llama types. The new 45 is produced by Metro in the Philippines. An important difference between this pistol and the previous Firestorm is that the new pistol is GI or Series 70 spec. It will accept drop-in 1911 barrels with a minimum of fitting, and other aftermarket parts designed for the 1911 are easily adapted to this handgun—which is also true of the RIA pistol. The Firestorm features a nice blued finish and forward cocking serrations. The cocking serrations are rather shallow and reflect more style than substance. The sights are Novak-like in appearance, but with a strange difference. The sighting notch is 1⁄16 to 1⁄8 inch further forward on the sight block than a true Novak, resulting in a slightly shorter sight radius. The sights do feature a white three-dot configuration. Detail differences such as this and slight differences in the beavertail showed clearly that the pistol is indeed produced by a separate Philippine entity than the RIA pistol.

Affordable 1911s

How much quality is enough? On the accuracy front, both of these 45s had plenty of accuracy for selfdefense work, as the offhand group above shows. Once loaded, both guns ran without incident, using the array of loads we fed into them.

The DLX features a lowered ejection port. When racking the slide and feeling the motion of the locking lugs, the DLX seemed tighter than the RIA pistol. The DLX features an extended slide lock, extended slide-lock safety and beavertail safety. They are similar to the RIA but not identical. The fit of the safety is not as crisp as the RIA pistol, our team said, but they deemed it acceptable. We performed the same safety and fit test with each 1911, cocking the hammer and pressing the hammer to the rear. We listened for sear slip, and found none. The pistols passed the safety test.

The DLX appeared to have an adjustable trigger with a setscrew, but the screw is actually set at the factory and Loctited in place. The travel of the trigger is set when it bumps the magazine release. The DLX trigger broke at a clean 3.9 pounds. Since the trigger was so light, we dropped the slide on an empty chamber several times to test the trigger. An improperly done light trigger will allow the hammer to jump the sear and fall forward under such abuse. The DLX held. Someone knows what they were doing in fitting these triggers.

The grips are a good fit, and are checkered as a bonus. The checkering is not very deep, but it serves the purpose. There is no full-length guide rod, and the pistol came supplied with a single ACT MAG magazine. The pistol came greased, so we simply wiped the slide and frame before loading and firing. (And checked the barrel for obstruction!) We found the DLX to be much the same as any other steel-frame 45. Our team liked the white-dot sights.

So far, we had a favorable view of the DLX, but we later found a defect that had two consequences. We found the slide would not lock back on the last shot with the supplied magazine or with any other in our range box, including Metalform magazines and other quality types. Even more disconcerting, when we inserted a loaded magazine fully home, the slide ran forward, loading the chamber abruptly. This was not desirable at all. Our testers are familiar with the 1911 and quickly traced the problem to a poorly designed extended slide lock. An extended slide lock often gives trouble, and we were surprised to see this item on the Firestorm. A common complaint is that the support-hand thumb will contact an extended slide lock during recoil, but this was not the case with our pistol. We were able to obtain a Wilson Combat standard-configuration slide stop from Brownells and quickly fixed the problem. However, this is not something the average buyer of an inexpensive 1911 will wish to do, and a beginner may have trouble tracing the problem down.

On the other hand, there were no failures to feed, chamber, fire, or eject, and accuracy was acceptable, running about a quarter-inch bigger groups than the RIA overall.

As noted above, we went the extra mile to be fair to the Firestorm and fixed the problem its slide lock caused, and we noticed another area in which the pistol needed more development. After field-stripping the handguns at the end of the test, neither showed eccentric wear, only the normal brass marks on the cocking block. But the Firestorm dropped its link on the desk as we removed the barrel from the slide. The link needed to be peened in place, our team said.

Our Team Said: The DLX hit the gate running with a good start with good fit and finish. The pistol is accurate enough and reliable in a conventional sense, but the slide lock defect really soured us on this handgun. The loose link was also surprising. The first-time buyer would be frustrated if he purchased the gun, we believe. Though the pistol seems to be made of good material, the final execution left us unimpressed.

Rock Island Armory Tactical 45 ACP

Firestorm DELUXE DLX 45 ACP