May 2010

Wild Bunch Pistols: Colt 1918 Leads The Pack, But At A Price!

In this five-way test of legacy guns, our team liked the Black Army a lot—but its $1000 price tag gave us pause. Instead, we said Springfield’s Mil-Spec was a Best Buy at hundreds less.

While it seems as if the 1911 self-loader lords over most competition courses, there are certain games in which the 1911 is prohibited. There are revolver-only matches and long-range matches in which the 1911 is not a player. Among the greatest games going is Cowboy Action. Cowboy Action Shooting gets the old guns of the West and their modern replicas burning powder again. This is a great chance for lots of fun and an opportunity to meet some nice folks with an interest in shooting. The game is challenging, and there is a set of rules that dictates what you may use. As an example, the traditional revolver class includes original Colt Single Action Army revolvers and replicas such as the Ruger Vaquero. The modern class makes allowances for adjustable-sight single-action revolvers such as the Ruger Blackhawk. There is always a lively debate as to the relative merits of each firearm, but it is pretty obvious in competition which holds up the best.

Springfield Mil-Spec

Top: The Springfield Mil-Spec gave good performance. This would be a great all-round carry gun, but it is also useful in many types of competition. The Springfield was a pleasure to fire with Wild Bunch lead handloads. Right: The Colt 1918 was everyone’s favorite pistol—provided you are flush with funds. Original Colts are probably well worn—a new pistol is a better bet for the heavy use of CAS.

 

A widely popular new match prompted us to our latest shooting review. The Single Action Shooting Society published rules for a special "side match," or a special match in addition to regular competition. (We almost said entertainment. Cowboy shooting is competition if you are shooting, and entertainment if you are watching.) This match is called the Wild Bunch match. You may have guessed that this match is in deference to the wildly popular Sam Peckinpah western, The Wild Bunch. The movie is set in time just after the introduction of the Colt 1911, and much of the action takes place in revolutionary Mexico. The 1911 Colt is very much in evidence in this movie.

Interested competitors contacted Gun Tests with a request to test several of the likely 1911 45 automatics to rate which of the pistols may be the best buy for such competition. A common thread among SASS members is sticker shock. They ask why one 1911 costs so much more than the others. They also wish to nail down the models suitable for the Wild Bunch shoots. Since SASS competitors tend to fire lots of ammunition in mastering their handguns, longevity is an issue.

Colt Black Army

There are two classes set forth for 1911 handguns, which roughly correlate to the traditional and modern single-action class. While the 1911 in original form was in use in the Wild Bunch days, we think that the modern class is fair because quite a few SASS members probably already own such a handgun, and interested shooters from other disciplines may jump in. Knowing these men and women as we do, it is an even bet that a diehard SASS member will opt for a handgun as close to the original as possible.

We don’t think that obtaining an original-period Colt 1911 is the best route. They are expensive, with even a beater or shooter grade beginning at $1000. The pistols were of softer steel than we use today, and commonsense tells us a shooter pistol from the era is probably well worn.

There is a wide choice in 1911 handguns suitable for CAS, so we split the test program into two categories, traditional and modern 1911 types. We leaned more heavily toward the traditional type and tested five examples in this category this month and three popular pistols in the modern type next month. Some we have tested before, but we began fresh with new loads and new criteria. Some of the handguns had been tested with modern jacketed ammunition, but since SASS rules demand lead bullets at less than 1000 fps, the rules were different. Personal defense was not a consideration, and neither was jacketed hollowpoint bullet performance. Since SASS rules specify a 5-inch barrel Government Model handgun, no Commander, short-barrel or aluminum-frame handguns were tested.

Our five traditional GI-type handguns came from Springfield Armory, High Standard, and Colt. Prices ranged from $500 to $1000, a fairly large spread. In fairness we could not eliminate the high-priced Colt for reasons we will enumerate. The Springfield pistols included the GI Model, a stainless GI, and the Mil-Spec. The High Standard pistol is the 1911A1, and the Colt, the 1918 Black Army.

As many of you are aware, the pistols in use in the Wild Bunch era were 1911s, not 1911A1 pistols. After World War I, the Army instigated an improvement program that led to the 1911A1. All 1911 handguns today are 1911A1 types, although we call them 1911s. Even the Colt Black Army, for all intents and purposes a 1911 in appearance, is a 1911A1 under the skin. More about that later.

Here’s a partial verdict up front—none of these pistols gave any hint of being a Don’t Buy. All seem well made, and each is accurate enough for the intended task. For a more detailed examination, read on.

Test Ammunition

Since the Single Action Shooting Society specified lead bullets for these guns, the choices among factory ammunition are limited. We chose a proven 230-grain roundnose lead load from Black Hills. Black Hills also offers a 200-grain semiwadcutter we used during the test of these legacy guns.

We used a third combination, a handload using the Oregon Trail 200-grain semiwadcutter over 5.5 grains of WW 231, a proven accuracy load. It was essential each handgun perform well with these typical match loads.

Springfield Armory GI PW9108LP 45 ACP, $643

The Springfield GI is the archetypical Wild Bunch pistol, meeting the rule specifications to a "T." The pistol features fixed sights, standard controls, and checkered plastic grips. (Plastic or wood grips are allowed, but synthetic is not.) There are no extended safeties, no beavertail and no magazine funnel. Magazines with a bumper pad are not allowed. We used the supplied Springfield magazine backed up by Metalform 7-round magazines. The Springfield is Parkerized. This finish is more resistant to the elements than a blued finish, and while not attractive, it is business like in appearance. The Springfield features the original GI sights and a small slide window or ejection port. All controls were crisp and positive. Trigger compression registered 5-pounds even and smooth, with no creep or perceptible overtravel. Firing tests were uneventful. No sharp edges were detected, and the pistol came out of the box shooting without any malfunctions. The sights were well regulated, with 230-grain loads striking two inches high at twenty-five yards and the 200-grain loads firing to the point of aim. Accuracy was adequate, with the best groups recorded at 25 yards settling into 4 inches. The largest was 5 inches.

 

Our Team Said: We believe we could have taken the Springfield GI pistol right out of the box and gone to the range and competed successfully in a CAS match. That’s high praise from our team.

 

Springfield Armory Stainless GI PW9151LP

45 ACP, $693

The pistol is identical in features to the Parkerized GI pistol reviewed above. For a modest additional cost, the stainless GI pistol offers an excellent appearance. Our testers said it was easily the best-looking handgun in the matchup. The Springfield US ARMY grips are well cut and checkered of good quality wood. The controls were crisp, with the safety perhaps a bit tighter than the other GI pistol. Trigger compression was closer to that typical of a WWII GI pistol at 7 pounds. This heavier trigger compression was not as noticeable offhand, but it affected our benchrest shooting. As the accuracy data show, the stainless GI was the least accurate GI type tested. The slide felt tight, which can be good, but in this case the tighter fit did not lead to greater accuracy.

Also, we suffered a dozen or more failures to feed during the first 50 rounds of Black Hills 230-grain ball. No other handguns tested suffered break-in malfunctions. We expended an additional 50 rounds of the RNL load before the pistol stopped short-cycling. After this initial 100-round break in, the pistol didn’t malfunction again. At one time such a break-in period was standard procedure with a 1911 to seat a link or wear off burrs. It is seldom seen in modern production.

Sight regulation was similar to the Parkerized GI pistol. Groups at 25-yards ranged from 4 to 5.25 inches.

Our Team Said: This pistol got a lowered grade based on its poor accuracy and initial malfunctions.

High Standard 1911A1 HSTX1911 45 ACP, $480

The primary difference between the High Standard 1911 and the Springfield GI is that the Philippine-produced High Standard uses a cast frame and slide versus the forged frame and slide of the Springfield pistols. How important this is is debatable, but at this point we have seen cast-frame pistols with round counts in excess of 10,000 rounds without any problems. However, we have seen none with 50K rounds or more as we have with the steel-frame 1911. The High Standard features Parkerizing that is different in color tone from the Springfield. The High Standard is a GI type with checkered wood grips that fit well and offer good adhesion. The 1911 also features a lowered and scalloped ejection port. Fit and finish of the High Standard is adequate. There are rough marks around the ejection port that are part and parcel of the casting process. The controls were tight, and the safety snapped crisply into place. Trigger compression was a smooth 4 pounds. The pistol proved to be sighted for the dead-on hold for 230-grain loads at 25 yards, ideal for the sport shooter. The 200-grain load fell 2.5 inches below the point of aim. There is scarcely adequate front sight height to file the sight to sight the piece for lighter bullets if desired. The High Standard came out of the box running. Like all test pistols the High Standard was lubricated and then tested with the Black Hills 230-grain load. We recorded four failures to feed with 200-grain SWC handloads, with the sharp shoulder of the bullet catching on the feed ramp. This did not occur with the Black Hills 200-grain SWC. Accuracy was good to adequate, ranging from 3.5 to 5 inches.

 

Our Team Said: The High Standard was not the best-finished pistol, but it worked and gave adequate accuracy. Casting marks and failures to feed rated the High Standard down, but we believe it is worth the money.

Colt Black Army 1918

No. 01018 45 ACP, $1000

The Colt is the most expensive pistol tested at twice the tariff of some GI pistols. Just the same, the pistol could not be excluded on that factor. The Colt Black Army is a close copy of the original as it was manufactured in 1918. The Black Army was a wartime variant with a finish darker than blue-finish handguns. This was in the days before Parkerized 1911A1 pistols. The Black Army features correct (or nearly so) scroll markings and military acceptance marks. The sights are GI types, although the rear sight is a pleasantly configured U-notch type, which some of the raters found gave excellent results in rapid speed shooting. The Black Army is identical to the original pistols at a glance. However, the dust cover and lockwork are 1911A1. The Black Army does not have the finger grooves, improved hammer and short trigger of the later 1911A1. In short, we believe this is the only true 1911 currently in production. The pistol comes in a nice royal blue Colt pistol box. Enclosed, in wax paper, is a spare magazine. A reproduction of a period training manual is included. It is a period-correct pistol with great appeal. The finish and fit are flawless, or as one rater put it "spectacular." One of our raters, a Series 70 fan disappointed in the performance of many of the 1990s-era Colt pistols, noted that "Colt got it right" with the Black Army. The controls feel right and the fit of the barrel is excellent. The three-point pedestal lockup was checked and is equal to the close fit of a Colt Gold Cup also on hand. The pistol may be field-stripped without tools. The only limiting factor in accuracy was the sights. All controls were crisp and positive. Trigger compression was excellent, with a smooth 3.5 pounds required to break the sear and no takeup and no discernable overtravel. The sights were well regulated in the GI fashion, with the Black Hills 230-grain load landing approximately 2 inches high at 25 yards. Accuracy was good, but we felt that we were not getting all the pistol was capable of due to the sights. Still, the best group was just under 2 inches and the worst, 4 inches.

 

Our Team Said: In our view, the Colt is a great pistol and is best suited to Wild Bunch matches by pedigree and appearance, but it is expensive.

Springfield Mil-Spec PB9108LP

Parkerized 45 ACP, $753

The Mil-Spec pistol features high-visibility sights and a lowered or scalloped ejection port. The pistol was delivered with the same attractive grips found on the stainless GI pistol. A bonus was a plastic holster and dual magazine carrier, as well as a spare magazine. The Mil-Spec seemed to be fitted better than the GI pistol, our team said. The controls were crisp and positive, and the trigger broke at a nice 4.25 pounds. The 1911s demand hand fitting, and some variances are allowable, but the Mil-Spec seemed to enjoy more hand fitting and attention than the GI pistol. Mil-Spec sights seem to offer less advantage to some shooters than others, but this group of raters all commented favorably on the Mil-Spec sights in comparison to the GI-type pistols. These sights proved well regulated for 230-grain ball, striking about 2 inches above the point of aim at 25 yards. This is the traditional sighting in measure for 1911 pistols, allowing a good chance of connecting with man-sized targets to 50 yards. The lighter-kicking 200-grain loads struck an inch low with the Mil-Spec, a product of the higher sights.

 

Our Team Said: The Springfield Mil-Spec proved to be the most accurate pistol tested. We fired one remarkable 2-inch 25-yard group, with the average group just over 3 inches. This would be acceptable accuracy for more expensive pistols. There were no malfunctions of any kind. In our opinion, the pistol demonstrated ideal performance and accuracy.

The Springfield Mil Spec has superior features to the GI guns from the same company and also the High Standard. Improved sights and a great set of grips were among the improvements. Accuracy, trigger compression and control function were flawless. Performance was not marred by a break-in period or by malfunction. The Mil-Spec is superior to the Colt in all areas except finish. Despite what was perceived as a looser fit than the Colt, the Mil-Spec displayed greater practical accuracy. The Mil Spec also came with a spare magazine—the Colt was the only other pistol that came with a spare magazine—and the Mil-Spec came with a holster and magazine carrier. The holster and carrier are not allowed in Wild Bunch matches because they are plastic, but they are useful nonetheless.

Accuracy And Chronograph Data

Springfield Armory GI PW9108LP 45 ACP

Springfield Armory Sta inless GI PW9151LP 45 ACP

High Standard 1911A1 HSTX1911 45 ACP

Colt Black Army 1918 No. 01018 45 ACP

Springfield Mil-Spec PB9108LP Parkerized 45 ACP

GUN TESTS REPORT CARD SUMMARY

GUN TESTS VALUE GUIDE: 45-CALIBER COWBOY ACTION HANDGUNS