March 2010

Full-Size 9mm 1911-Style Pistols: Kimber, Springfield, STI

Kimberís Custom Aegis II, Springfield Armoryís Loaded 9X19, and the STI Duty One favor personal carry, target shooting, and law enforcement, respectively. All three are worth a look.

It could be said that the Browning 1911 pistol has evolved more than any other design. The operating principal remains the same, but alternate configurations have been applied to nearly every facet of its execution. In fact, it is now commonplace to buy over the counter what not long ago would have been considered a full-blown custom pistol. We all know about beveled magazine wells, frame checkering, undercutting the trigger guard for a higher grip, high-arch memory groove grip safeties, extended magazine releases, aluminum triggers adjustable for overtravel, light rails on the dust cover, extended and/or ambidextrous safeties, checkered slide stops, skeletonized hammers, titanium firing pins, front and rear serrations on the slide, weight reducing slide cuts, lowered and flared ejection ports, full length guide rods, bull barrels, multi-spring recoil systems, external extractors, spring-loaded internal extractors, ramped barrels, adjustable sights for target, adjustable low-mount sights for carry, light-gathering-filament sights, or self-illuminating modules for front and rear sights.

Full-Size 9mm 1911-Style Pistols

When we loaded our trio of modern 9mm 1911-style pistols with Black Hills ammunition the results showed that each gun was accurate and appealing. All three carried a list price of just less than $1300 and produced comparable accuracy. But the guns also offered different features that set them apart. Our Kimber Custom Aegis II, right, was narrow, snag free, was fit with night sights, and weighed much less than either the STI Duty One (center) or the Springfield Armory Loaded Full Size Stainless Steel 9x19 pistol. In our view, these characteristics make the Aegis a better fit for concealed carry. The STI Duty One carried an accessory rail. This gun felt like it was overbuilt, and as the name implies, ready for carry by law-enforcement personnel. The Springfield Armory Loaded was, in our view, the quintessential 1911.

In this test we will evaluate three full-size 1911-style pistols that include several of the above-mentioned features. A few years ago we would have called them factory customs, but that term is obsolete. The most distinguishing characteristic of our trio was that all were chambered for 9X19 shells, aka 9mm Parabellum or simply 9mm. They are the $1299 STI Duty One, Springfield Armory’s $1277 Loaded Full Size Stainless Steel 9X19 No. PX9130LP, and the $1277 Kimber Custom Aegis II. All three guns shipped with and fed from identical 9-round MetalForm-brand single-stack magazines. Otherwise, there were significant differences between the pistols. Each gun represented a different viewpoint of what a 9mm 1911 should be. As a result, each gun had a slightly different personality, which we took into account in our grading.

The holiday season was upon us and the radio was playing old favorites like "Baby It’s Cold Outside." So we accepted an offer from Houston’s Top Gun Training Center to conduct our test indoors. The range was under renovation, so while the ActionTarget.com folks were working their magic on one shooting bay, we set up targets at the other end of the building. Test distance was 15 yards and Black Hills ammunition was used exclusively in our tests. For break in we opened a case of 124-grain FMJ ammunition packed in blue boxes (remanufactured). Both our 115-grain FMJ and 124-grain JHP rounds were new manufacture (packaged in red boxes). We brought in a portable shooting bench and went to work firing five-shot groups. Here is what we learned.

STI International Duty One 9mm, $1299

STI International, located in Georgetown, Texas, is one of the more accomplished small companies that produce and sell custom components as well as completed guns. The Duty One is a single-stack 1911 with several competition-grade modifications plus a dustcover machined as an accessory rail. A tour of the STI Duty One from the ground up begins with a beveled magazine well. To either side of the grips were wide-gauge composite panels held in place by Allen screws colored dark blue to blend with the rest of the pistol. The panels featured scrolled stippling top to bottom (save for the STI logo), and a dished relief to enhance access to the magazine-release button on the left side. The front strap was treated to 30-lpi checkering. The backstrap featured a flat-profile mainspring housing checkered at 20 lines per inch. Above the mainspring housing was an oversize grip safety with raised surface to ensure contact with the shooter’s hand. Thumb safeties of equal width platforms on both sides of the frame were applied.

The magazine release was brief but effective. It was also drilled and tapped should the operator prefer an extension. The hole left in the release was not necessarily an eyesore because it managed to offer a finished look. The bottom outer radius of the trigger guard was relieved in the manner one might refer to as dished or concave. If it were a barrel we’d call it fluted. We thought it was a nice visual touch and perhaps an attempt to reduce weight. Nevertheless, the Duty One was the heaviest of our three pistols. Aside from the extra material at the dustcover, much of the STI’s weight could be found in its bull-barrel system. Keep in mind that the smaller 9mm bore leaves behind a heavier barrel than would a 45 caliber model. Another source of weight was likely the slide. Our staff reported that the width of the slide as viewed from behind the grip was larger than those found on our other guns. Some members of our staff thought it was distracting. Atop the slide was a set of (Richard) Heinie sights. Perfectly matched, their profile was streamlined. Sans indicators such as white dots, the faces of each sight front and rear were lined to diffuse glare. Clarity of the sight picture was superb.

Full-Size 9mm 1911-Style Pistols

The Kimber Custom Aegis II 9mm was slim in profile and featured a lightweight alloy frame, making it a good choice for concealed carry. Putting the fun in functional is a brandnew rig from Bob Mernickle of Reno, Nevada. The CMO6MR (REF 1) is a camouflage pattern mid-ride leather holster that sells for $100. The three-piece set, consisting of belt, dual magazine pouch and holster, sells for $210.

The recoil system was a multi-spring and plunger unit referred to as the STI Recoil Master. Compared to a simple coil spring over a solid rod, this design looked more like a shock absorber that might be found on a race car. For a quick look at the frame we could simply pull back the slide to match the breakdown relief and push the slide-stop pin out from right to left. But if we wanted to remove the barrel, the use of a special jam, or stop, was necessary. STI supplies a plastic part that locks the outer spring in place and allows the unit to be removed as one. The preferred method is to lock back the slide and snap on the jammer. But it is also possible to remove the top end first and use your thumb to push the assembly forward far enough so that the inner rod is exposed and the jam can be applied. Naturally, the jam only covers about 180 degrees of the Recoil Master. Rotating the assembly so that the open side is facing you as the Recoil Master is pulled out will help get it past the yoke on the slide.

At the range we found that the STI Duty One recoiled less than our other guns. This could be attributed to the Recoil Master or merely the extra weight. We liked the 4.5-pound trigger, too. The wide grip panels helped fill our hands and as previously noted the sights were very clear. We began collecting our accuracy data by firing the remanufactured Black Hills 124-grain FMJ rounds. Accuracy was consistent with groups ranging in size from 1.3 to 1.6 inches across. The new manufacture Black Hills 115-grain FMJ rounds were even more consistent. Groups measured 1.4 inches, 1.6 inches and then 1.5 inches. But here is where our test of the STI Duty One came to a halt. During the third group of 115-grain FMJ rounds we began to see the empty cases being ejected with less and less vigor. With the gun emptied we worked the slide and discovered it was having difficulty moving, especially just before going into battery. We removed the top end to inspect the frame and slide and discovered that the ejector was bent. The ejector on a 1911 design is mounted on the platform above the grip just rearward of the magazine well. It sticks up about one-quarter inch and rides inside a channel cut into the bottom of the slide just to the left of center. As the slide moves rearward carrying the shell from the chamber, the ejector, which simply put amounts to being a poker, punts the spent shell out the ejection port. This clears the way for the extractor to pick up a fresh round from the magazine.

You might ask why we simply didn’t bend the ejector back into line. The fact is that doing so in a precise manner would have been difficult at best. As it was, the bend prevented us from replacing the slide without damaging additional parts. Above all our main concern was why did it happen to a gun that, up until failure, was shooting lights out? We did observe that the ejector on our STI Duty One was substantially longer than on either the Springfield Armory or Kimber test pistols. Approximate length of the ejector that crossed over the magazine well was 0.13 inch for the Springfield and about 0.2 inch for the Kimber. The ejector on the STI pistol protruded about 0.38 inch. Was this by design or was the wrong part installed? For answers and a warranty repair, we returned the pistol to STI. The STI Duty One was received at the factory on Friday, one week prior to Christmas Day, 2009.

We had the pistol in our hands the following Wednesday morning. We returned to the range to finish our testing. This included shooting more groups and launching rounds over the sensors of our Oehler chronograph. Function was now 100%. We expected nothing less because the enclosed work order, (signed and dated), said that the pistol had test fired 45 rounds successfully. The ejector had been replaced and several other points had been addressed. These included polishing the feed ramp, tuning the safeties, refinishing the breech face, and hand-fitting a fresh Recoil Master. In our view this followed reasoning that machine parts are interdependent and must be in tune with multiple components. You could say that our pistol simply received the 10,000-round tuneup a little early.

On the telephone we learned that the original ejector was indeed too long. After servicing, the tip of the extractor now reached across the magazine well about 0.27 inches. This was a reduction of about one-tenth of an inch. No further malfunctions were experienced. Beginning where we had left off in our bench session, accuracy with the 115-grain FMJ ammunition was still in the 1.3-inch to 1.6-inch range with the new extractor in place. Firing the 124-grain jacketed hollowpoints, the STI Duty performed slightly better with groups measuring just less than 1.4 inches across on average.

Our Team Said: The STI Duty One is obviously aimed at the law enforcement market. It benefits from the addition of an accessory rail, and like so many STI products incorporates features learned in the rough-and-tumble world of competitive Practical Shooting. Formed to fit low in the hand, the Duty One displayed a muzzle-heavy bias that smothered recoil. This low-profile-finish, sophisticated pistol was pleasing to shoot. An early problem was solved quickly by attentive customer service.

Springfield Armory Loaded Full Size Stainless Steel No. PX9130LP 9mm, $1277

The model name above, garnered from the pull-down menu under the heading "1911 Pistols" on the Springfield Armory website, is obviously on the long side. The key word to look for is the term "Loaded." It means that Springfield Armory has chosen to signify that the pistol was constructed using "precision fit forged frames, slides and barrels," in a package that includes most, if not all, of the universally recognized upgrades that can be applied to a 1911. Here are some important upgrades we found on our test pistol.

We found a fully adjustable rear sight of the famous Bo-Mar design positioned for maximum sight radius. The oversized beavertail grip safety with raised contact area was machined deeply into the grip frame, and there were cocking serrations front and rear along the flat highly polished sides of the slide. The top of the slide was matte to reduce glare. Thumb safeties were ambidextrous, and the edges of the magazine well were beveled deeper into the frame than we have seen on previous Springfield Armory pistols. The mainspring housing was flat in profile and offered 20-lpi checkering. One of the newest additions was the use of a titanium firing pin. The lighter pin not only travels faster from rest to reset but its reduced weight makes it a safety feature, too. Since the pin is lighter, a direct hit from the hammer is required.

The Springfield Armory Loaded pistol utilized bushing support at the front of the barrel. A two-piece full-length guide rod was in place. Long guide rods have been found to guarantee fluid action of the recoil spring and add additional weight to the front of the pistol. But they also change the way a gun is broken down, sometimes making it more difficult to rotate the bushing into place. To address this, Springfield Armory has installed a two-piece guide rod. Although we found it possible to break down the top end of the Springfield without removing the forward length of the guide rod, here is the recommended procedure: Lock the slide back. Insert an Allen wrench into the tip of the guide rod and loosen it by turning counter clockwise. Release the slide to its closed position. Next, continue turning the guide rod until it separates and pull it out through the front of the pistol.

Further disassembly was in the manner of breaking down a short-guide-rod 1911. Press down on the reverse spring plug and rotate the bushing to about 8 o’clock. Pull out the recoil spring. Move back the slide so that the takedown notch allows the slide stop to be removed from the left side of the pistol. Remove the top end. Reassembly will require keeping the recoil spring from kinking as you apply it to the top end. After inserting the front half of the guide rod, final tightening should be performed with the slide locked back.

The cocobolo wood grip panels on our Loaded 1911 pistol were checkered and carried the Springfield Armory logo. Their profile was quite wide, priming the gun to completely fill the hand. But a clear sense of index was supplied by the narrow contour of the front strap, which resulted in linear pressure that instinctively told us where the gun was pointing. Despite the lack of checkering on the front strap, our shooter felt in complete control of the Springfield pistol. Displaying little more than a moderate weight bias toward the muzzle, the Springfield Armory Loaded 1911 wedged itself into our grip. This made firing with one hand rather enjoyable.

At the range our Springfield showed a distinct preference for the 115-grain ammunition. Firing the 124-grain FMJ and JHP rounds, the Springfield produced groups measuring about 1.5-1.6 inches across on average. All three of our guns could guarantee similar performance, but firing the Black Hills 115-grain-grain FMJ rounds we had our only 1.0-inch group of the test. Final average was 1.3 inches in width inflated by a single group that we measured to be about 1.6 inches across.

Our Team Said: Springfield Armory made its name producing 1911-style pistols. We found that the Full Size Loaded pistol in 9mm is a standard bearer with little pretention. This is an impressive looking sidearm with an even more commanding view from behind the grip. Consistent and reliable, this gun offers what most buyers are looking for in a 1911.

Kimber Custom Aegis II 9mm, $1277

The Aegis collection of pistols includes a subcompact model, a mid-size model closer to the famed Commander length 1911, and the full size Custom II we tested. Whereas many Kimber pistols offer more than one chambering, the Aegis pistols were chambered solely for 9mm ammunition. The Kimber Custom Aegis II was noticeably lighter than our other test pistols, weighing about 10 ounces less. That is because the Springfield and STI models are essentially 1911 45s rebarreled to chamber 9mm. The Aegis was constructed with an aluminum frame and thin redwood grips. The thumb safety was left side only with only a brief platform to take commands from the operator. The steel slide was flattened on top to make it lighter. It would seem that in building the Custom Aegis II, the theme was to build no heavier than necessary and create a nimble, concealed carry worthy 1911.

Despite the thin wood grip panels, positively wafer like compared to those found on our other two pistols, we measured the grip circumference to be almost identical for all three guns. The wide flat grip on the Aegis offers one distinct advantage in our view: It has a natural index. The overall feel of the Aegis pistol was knife like, with moderate weight biased towards the muzzle.

The Aegis Custom II had several small details that either spiced its appearance or made it more efficient. The back strap, or rather the surface of the mainspring housing, was machined with 20-lpi checkering. The front of the grip was cut with 30 lines per inch. The aluminum trigger showed a grooved face and was adjustable for overtravel. The body of the trigger was not relieved, nor skeletonized. We thought this offered an edgy retro look. So did the aforementioned thumb safety. We liked the way the magazine release was beveled on its forward edge and the way it visually blended with the "architecture" of the area surrounding the trigger guard on the left hand side. The frame was finished using Kimber’s Silver Satin treatment and the slide was coated with a dark blue, enamel-like finish called KimPro II. Grip for cocking the weapon was assisted by widely spaced grooves on each side of the slide front and rear. Night-sight modules enhanced by white outlined cups were installed into the low drag sights. The rear sight was mounted flush with the back of the slide to produce maximum sight radius. The front of the barrel was supported by a removable bushing. Recoil was handled by a one-piece full-length guide rod that passed through the reverse plug spring retainer. The guide rod was left short enough so that with the help of a bushing wrench (supplied), normal field stripping procedure could be followed.

At the range our test shooter took pleasure in seating the Aegis in his hands. Average size groups measured 1.5 inches, 1.6 inches and 1.7 inches firing the 115-gr. FMJ, 124-gr. FMJ, and 124-gr. JHP rounds, respectively.

Our Team Said: The aluminum construction allowed more felt recoil than the steel frames, but the way the gun stuck to our hands made shooting it enjoyable. The Kimber was slim and lightweight. It was fit with snag-free sights and controls. Handsome and sophisticated, the Aegis was a good choice for concealed carry.

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA

STI Duty One 9mm

Springfield Armory Loaded Full Size Stainless Steel PX9130LP 9mm

Kimber Aegis II 9mm

GUN TESTS REPORT CARD SUMMARY

GUN TESTS VALUE GUIDE: NON-45-ACP SINGLE-ACTION PISTOLS