February 2010

Fine Factory 1911s: S&W, STI, Springfield Armory Battle

The three 45 ACPs all performed well, but each proved to have its own personality. Your choice between them comes down to which bells and whistles you preferóand the size of your checkbook.

No pistol in current production has evolved into as many variations and price points as John Browningís 1911. We have looked at some entry-level models (July 2009) costing around $500. This month we look at three 1911s that occupy the upper tier of the factory-gun category. They represent some of the top-end production models of each company, offering significant upgrades to a standard 1911, but are normally available as off-the-shelf stock. All of our test guns had 5-inch barrel models and featured niceties such as front- and back-strap checkering, adjustable sights, stainless-steel match-grade barrels, front and rear slide serrations, skeletonized triggers, and hammers with cocking serrations.

Bottom to top: The three contestants in our match-up were Smith & Wessonís top-end stock unit, the Model MSW1911 No. 108284, $1256; the $1919 burly, black Springfield Armory TRP Light Rail Model; and STI Internationalís Sentinel Premier. Itís legal for Production Class ISPC and USPCA competitions. The version we tested cost $2413, which includes an optional hard-chrome finish.

The three contestants in our match up were the Smith & Wesson Model MSW1911 No. 108284 ($1256), their top end stock model; Springfield Armoryís TRP Light Rail Model ($1919), a burly gun in basic black; and STI Internationalís ISPC- and USPCA-legal Sentinel Premier. The hard-chrome model came in at a wallet-draining $2413.

Testing was conducted in two locations. Our first stop was the indoor range at Bass Pro Shops in Grapevine, Texas. There we conducted our team inspections of the guns and our accuracy testing. A second and third round of reliability shooting, along with our chronograph work, was performed at the Arlington Sportsmanís Club, www.arlingtonsportsman.com, one of the largest memberís-only clubs in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.

We started our evaluation at the time we opened the case, checking off what accessories were (or were not) included with our pistols. Next, we field-stripped each gun and lubed and prepped them for use, noting the ease or difficulty of this process. Once our guns were ready for use, we fired some initial rounds to get some break-in time for each weapon, and to get a feel for each gun. We used three types of ammunition for our testing: Winchester USA 230-grain FMJs, Monarch Brass Case 230-grain FMCs, and a Winchester USA Personal Protection 230-grain JHP load. Our choices were limited to what we could scrounge off the shelves after visiting a number of sporting-goods and gun stores in the area.

Also, we ran a few hundred rounds through each gun in an effort to get some sort of malfunction. Each gun ran smoothly, exhibited good accuracy, with zero malfunctions. Based on these facts, one might think this evaluation was easy to perform. However, it actually proved to divide our testers over each gunís ranking. This was due to the fact that each gun had a distinctly different feel when operating it. None of them were bad, but it was apparent that there were three different design philosophies in place for each gun. Weíll discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each gun, and how these characteristics would factor into your decision in purchasing one of them.

STI International Sentinel Premier 45 ACP, $2243

The most expensive gun in our test came from Georgetown, Texas-based STI International. STI has built quite a reputation in competitive shooting, and their pistols have become a frequent sight at events throughout the country. Their Sentinel Premier is the flagship model and carries both USPCA and ISPC certification.

Our test gun gun arrived in a smallish plastic case. We found it contained our pistol, some small wrenches, plastic bushings, and a bushing wrench. We also found a single, but very nice, stainless steel Wilson Combat Elite 8-round magazine, which had viewing slots on each side of it. We personally believe that any gun, particularly in this price range, should have at least two magazines. After a small amount of grumbling, we began the inspection of our gun.

The Sentinel Premier comes fully loaded with only a couple of options available. Our gun had one of them; hard-chrome plating which added $300 to its price tag. All of the metal components featured this finish, except for the sights. The sides of the slide were polished bright, with the frame a dull matte finish. Ambidextrous safety levers are also available for $45 as well, but much to our lefty testerís dismay, our gun had only the single-lever version. The thumb lever was extended in length, and the edge had been smoothed to eliminate any sharp edge, with serrations on top to aid in its activation.

The STI has a ramped, fully supported barrel held in a place by a match-grade bushing. We noted that the muzzle of the Sentinel Premier was crowned to fit flush with the bushing, giving it a very clean appearance and also helping protect it from edge damage. The STI had both front and rear cocking grooves which were smartly formed, allowing the slide to be worked easily. The mag release button protruded far enough from the frame to be accessed freely, but not so much to be a magnet for accidental activation. The bottom of the grip frame had been ramped to act as a magazine guide to assist in reloading. There was 30-lpi checkering adorning both the front strap and mainspring housing, making for a very solid gripping area. The grip panels were checkered black G10 polymer and emblazoned with the STI logo, giving the gun a clean appearance, our testers said. The Premier Sentinel also had a high beavertail safety, and we noted that material under the trigger guard had been relieved to allow for a higher grip on the pistol.

The sight picture on the STI had received extra treatment as well. The top of the slide had been flattened and grooves had been cut lengthwise to reduce glare from the bright finish. A fully adjustable Dawson/STI rear sight was coupled with a ramped STI/Trijicon front. Both sights had Tritium inserts, making it suitable for low light conditions, and were mounted low to reduce the risk of snagging. This combination of features proved to be very effective, and our testers all agreed that the STI provided the best overall sight picture of the three guns tested.

Disassembly of the Sentinel Premier proved to be the easiest of our three test guns to perform. Pulling the slide back to the disassembly notch allows the slide stop lever to be pushed out and removed. The slide can then be removed from the frame. The Recoilmaster guide rod/twin recoil spring assembly is removed as a single unit through the use of a provided plastic bushing that snaps in place to captivate the parts. Keeping track of extra parts is not our strong suit, but we did like the ease in which the gun could be broken down, particularly when compared to our other test guns. Now that our gun prep and inspection was complete, we set about measuring the gunís performance.

It was evident upon the first time we racked the slide that the Sentinel Premier was a well-fitted gun. Its assembly and recoil spring design allowed an easy cocking action. The trigger pull on the Sentinel Premier was a light and crisp 4 pounds. Overall, its action was precise, smooth, and refined, attributes we would expect from a gun in its price point.

The Sentinel Premier did not disappoint at the range either, racking up the best overall accuracy numbers with each ammo tested, including an average 0.8 inch group size with our Winchester 230-grain FMJ loading. Our testers felt the sight picture afforded by the STI allowed them to accurately line the gun up with the target. The light and responsive trigger also contributed to these results. Recoil was very manageable even though the STI was the lightest gun in our tests. The Recoilmaster spring assembly is claimed to help reduce felt recoil, and did seem to help in this regard. We also found the gun easy to put back on target during our rapid fire tests, finishing second to the significantly heavier TRP. We were able to be aggressive with the gun while still maintaining good accuracy.

Reloads were assisted by the funnel-shaped mag well. We noted that rounds were ejected consistently, but at a slightly flatter angle than our other guns. This caused an issue with Lefty, who had a particularly high grip on the pistol. Several rounds nicked his thumb when they were ejected, causing a bruise.

Our Team Said: In our final grading, the testers were unanimous in their praise of the Sentinel Premier, with the only dissent coming from slightly dinged-up Lefty. We found that the STI delivered a high level of performance, and was very capable as both a competition and carry gun. Our only qualm about the gun was its high price, which starts to reach the level of a custom-grade gun.

Smith & Wesson SW1911 No. 108284 45 ACP, $1256

The test gun from Smith & Wesson represented the top-end model of its standard 1911 offerings. There are other, more expensive, models that can be special ordered from the Performance Center, but we wanted to test guns available off-the-shelf. For $1256 our model came well appointed with a matte stainless-steel frame and slide, ambidextrous safety levers, checkered wood grips, stainless-steel barrel, beveled magazine guide, and an adjustable rear sight.

Our test gun came in the usual lockable padded case, although it was the nicest of our test trio. In addition to the SW1911, we found two 8-round magazines with round count holes located in their sides. Oddly, they were black plated, rather than the stainless models we would have expected. We also found a bushing wrench, padlock, and a round fired from the gun.

The SW1911 had a smooth matte stainless finish that was consistent and attractive. Smith & Wesson chose to use black plating on the beavertail, safeties, and mainspring housing, magazine release, and hammer rather than matte stainless hardware. This provided a nice contrast to the stainless frame and slide, our testers averred. The checkered wood grip panels were nicely crafted and accented. A couple of our testers felt the SW1911 was the most attractive gun in our test.

A close inspection of the SW1911 revealed a significant difference from the other guns we tested. Smith & Wesson uses an external extractor which requires the use of a mounting rivet in the top of the slide. Some may not like this design, but it is very reminiscent of the original Browning High Power design. An external extractor is also easier to service and does allow the use of a harder alloy steel which should prolong its lifespan. Our test groupís overall opinion trended toward neutrality on this design, and we experienced no malfunctions in our testing.

The SW1911 also uses a ramped, fully supported barrel with a tightly fit barrel bushing. The S&W front and rear cocking grooves were well-formed, both easily allowing us to work the slide. The mag-release button protruded a bit more than our other guns, but it did not cause an accidental magazine dump in our tests. The grip frame also had a slight bevel to aid in reloading, and magazines loaded and dropped freely from our gun. The 20-lpi checkering did not extend the entire length of the frontstrap. A fully checkered strap or a 30-lpi pattern would have been better for use in harsh conditions, we believe. The beavertail safety allowed for a high grip, and the ambidextrous safeties could be accessed easily and engaged smoothly. The sights on the SW1911 were solid black, with the rear sight featuring serrations and a squared sight channel.

Field-stripping the SW1911 required a bit of manual dexterity. The bushing wrench was used to depress the recoil spring retainer and rotate the barrel bushing a quarter turn. You must manually capture the recoil spring retainer at this point or count on searching for it as itís sent skyward by the recoil spring. After capturing the retainer, the spring tension can be manually released and the spring removed.

The slide stop can then be removed and slide separated from the frame. The guide rod is then pulled out past the barrel link. The barrel bushing is then removed and the barrel pulled out the front of the slide.

The trigger on the SW1911 measured a consistent 4.7 pounds, ranking just behind the STI with our testers. The trigger had some side-to-side play that didnít affect the trigger pull, but we noticed it nonetheless.

Shooting impressions of the SW1911 were remarkably consistent among our testers. Everyone was satisfied with the gunís performance, but felt it lagged slightly behind our other two guns in smoothness. Accuracy also lagged slightly as well, achieving its best group of 1.3 inches with the Winchester 230-grain FMJs. Testers felt the squared sights gave a little wider sight picture than was optimal for precision work. We would also prefer tritium inserts for low-light performance.

The recoil impulse was controlled, and the gun remained steady in our rapid fire testing. Magazine reloads were consistent, with the small bevel aiding in finding the mag well more than we initially expected.

Our Team Said: If the STI was the sports car in our tests, the Smith & Wesson SW1911 would be the comfortable SUV. It offered very good value for the money, but it really cried out for some gunsmith work to wring out its potential. With a price that came in $700 less than its competitors, you could afford to do an action job, upgrade the sights, and still have money left over for ammo.

Springfield Armory TRP Light Rail Model

PC9105LP 45 ACP, $1829

The Springfield TRP (Tactical Response Pistol) came bristling with features in an intimidating package. Clad in a black Teflon finish called Armory Kote, and sporting an accessory rail, the gun had a look that was all business. The gray G10 grips were heavily textured and had a relief area to help access the magazine-release button. The only contrast to the basic black look came from the lightened trigger, guide rod, and the silver stub of a stainless match-grade bull barrel that extended from the slide.

Standard equipment also included ambidextrous safety levers, and an extended beavertail safety was mounted high and tight to the frame. The gripping surface was further enhanced by 20-lpi checkering on both the frontstrap and mainspring housing. Front rear and rear cocking serrations were sharply formed into the slide. An adjustable sight in the Bo-Mar style with tritium inserts was accompanied with a matching low-profile tritium front. We found this combination gave us a sight picture that ranked second to the STI, primarily because the inserts were smaller.

The TRP uses a key-activated integral locking system instead of the usual padlock arrangement. A small key fits inside a tiny recess located on the rear mainspring housing. When rotated to a horizontal position, the action is locked, and the gun wonít work. We were ambivalent about this feature; in fact, weíd be worried that we might run off without a key and not notice the small locking system was engaged.

Besides the two locking keys, the plastic gun case also contained a right-handed belt holster, and a dual magazine carrier made from molded plastic. Both the holster and magazine had adjustable tension screws for optimizing their fit. A bore brush, along with some adjustment wrenches, a disassembly pin, and a spent casing from the gun were also included. Two stainless-steel magazines were included; oddly, they were only 7-round models rather than the 8-round versions we found in the other guns.

The guide rod on the TRP was a one-piece design utilizing a reverse plug, which is a sleeve that fit over the guide rod. Field stripping the gun required us to remove the slide stop and separate the slide from the frame. The next step required us to improvise a small tool to break the gun down. To remove the guide-rod assembly, you must compress the spring with your thumb to expose a small hole in the guide rod. A pin has to be inserted into the hole to capture the reverse plug and the recoil spring. This is where we encountered a problem. A pin was supplied to insert into the hole, but it was too large to fit through the slide loop. We used a paper clip bent in a 90-degree angle to compress the spring and allow us to remove the assembly from the slide. We feel this is serious shortcoming in the TRPís design.

We measured the trigger pull at a slightly-heavier-than-advertised 5.4 pounds. It proved to be crisp, but not as responsive as either the STI or Smith & Wesson models, our testers opined. This is probably in part to its design as a tactical service weapon.

Since we used car analogies to describe the other two guns, weíll use a similar term to describe the feel and operation of the TRP: It was all Abrams tankósolid, heavy duty, with a built-to-last feel. Racking the slide had a much heavier feel than our other test guns. The grip serrations and aggressive diamond texture of the grip panels made the gun stay put in our hands no matter how much perspiration we worked up while shooting. It may be too much texture for some delicate hands, however.

In our tests, the TRP ate everything we fed it without a single hiccup. The gun was the quickest to come back to target and had the least felt recoil, primarily because of its heavier weight, particularly balanced forward with extra bulk of the accessory rail. The heavily beveled mag well gave us the quickest reloads of our contestants. Accuracy ranked just behind the STI, averaging 1.1 inches with both Winchester loads.

We also had the opportunity to adorn the accessory rail with a Surefire X300 and Insight Tech-Gear WX150 weapon light. The WX150 featured a strobing mode for flash-blinding an assailant. Both units fit tightly to the rail, and their controls were easily accessed with the light mounting close to the trigger guard.

Our Team Said: The TRP would be a good choice as a self-defense weapon. Its weight doesnít make it as an ideal a choice for everyday carry, however.

STI Sentinel Premier 45 ACP

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA

Smith & Wesson MSW1911 No. 108284 45 ACP

Springfield TRP Light Rail Model PC9105LP 45 ACP,

GUN TESTS REPORT CARD SUMMARY