Concealable Pistols: Foreign 9mms Vs. Domestic 45 ACPs
We pitted two economical Nines from Caracal against a pair of compact big-bore guns from Springfield Armory and Dan Wesson. The outcome: Carry recommendations at several price points.
If Gun Tests’ reader mail is any indication, the 9mm vs. 45 ACP debate is still a hot topic. Twenty years ago, the discussion might have been limited to arguing more rounds versus more effective ammunition. Whereas unexpanded 45 ACP slugs have an initial mechanical advantage — they measure about 0.451 inches across — the controlled expansion and fragmentation of modern 9mm ammunition has closed the gap in terms of terminal effectiveness. Still, questions about which round stops a fight the best will rage on, but for the purposes of this test of concealable handguns, our ballistic judgments will be limited to computing and comparing muzzle energies.
Instead, what we attempt to do here is resolve, in an admittedly small way, the classic gun-counter conundrum that readers constantly ask us about: When you’re ready to plunk down hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a carry pistol, should you buy a simple-to-use polymer 9mm or a solid metal-frame 1911-style 45? This is such a personal decision that we know we cannot factor in all the variables that might come to bear, but in the broadest sense, the topic is worth tackling.
To represent the two calibers, we chose two lightweight 1911 45s. The $1076 Springfield Armory Lightweight Champion fires from a 4.0-inch barrel and offers an accessory rail. The $1662 Dan Wesson ECO also features an alloy frame but is smaller than the Champion. Barrel length was 3.5 inches. Standard magazine capacity for both pistols was seven rounds. To represent current 9mm technology, we acquired two high-capacity Caracal polymer pistols that are new to the scene. Imported by Steyr Arms from the United Arab Emirates, the Caracal F pistol was the larger of the two with a barrel length of 3.96 inches and magazine capacity of 18 rounds. The Model C, for Compact, operated with a 3.5-inch barrel and came with two 15-round magazines. Base suggested retail price for each model was $499, but our pistols had a $25 upgrade. Whereas both 1911s offered night sights, both of the Caracal pistols featured the Quick Sight system, wherein the rear sight was integral with the slide and its notch was located directly in front of the ejection port. There was a telltale cap on each Caracal where a traditional rear sight would be mounted.
Of course, the basic question the buyer has to resolve is whether he or she wants fewer big bullets or more smaller bullets. There are advantages to both strategies. But before you consider how the fight might end, we believe you should consider several other practical issues first, such as how a pistol carries and conceals, how well you shoot a particular handgun, and can you deliver an effective and fast first shot.
Before we get into the details, we wanted to note two points in particular. In terms of just plain old weight, everyone knows an empty polymer pistol like the Caracal is lighter than an empty 1911. But once loaded, it can end up being as heavy as a steel-framed 1911 45. Also, surprisingly, although the widths of high-capacity 9mm pistols have been shrinking, the 1911 still has the advantage of being narrower and easier to conceal.
In addition to evaluating our four main test guns, we wanted to further investigate the 9mm vs. 45 ACP question. Separately, we also shot two custom guns, the First 500 1911 45 from Cylinder & Slide and a custom-built Commander-sized 1911 chambered for 357 SIG. The Cylinder & Slide pistol was a replica of the first 500 Browning 1911 45 ACP pistols delivered to the military in the year 1911. Its basic feature package provided a backdrop illustrating the advances in sights, operational features, and weight reduction offered by our two test guns from Springfield Armory and Dan Wesson. The 357 SIG Custom Commander built by Ross Carter demonstrated the kind of power that can ultimately be produced driving a 9mm-sized bullet and showed how much weight could be saved by filling the magazine with 124-grain bullets rather than 230-grain slugs. Our impressions of those two firearms are included in an accompanying sidebar.
How We Tested
Our procedure for testing accuracy consisted of firing with bench and sandbag support from a distance of 15 yards. We had to wonder what effect, if any, the reduced sight radius of the Caracal Quick Sights would have on our ability to land tight five-shot groups. To test in a more practical atmosphere, we took the guns to Tactical Firearms in Katy, Texas. Tactical Firearms houses a high-tech indoor range equipped with turning targets that can be programmed for duration of exposure. In the past we have performed similar action shooting tests triggered by an audible start signal. Instead, this test would begin with visual recognition of the target. Whereas both methods of start signal can startle the shooter, we think visual recognition is more realistic when it comes to responding to a threat. Start position was with the shooter resting the gun on the waist-high shelf that ran wall to wall within an individual shooting lane. Start position for the targets left only the edge facing the shooter, making it almost invisible in the intentionally reduced light. (The Tactical Firearms range offers a variety of lighting levels per shooting lane for enhanced training). The supplied target was the Birchwood Casey Shoot-N-C White/Black Silhouette Targets, chosen not only for its qualification-style humanoid profile but also for its ability to splash the hits and make them more visible. Eighteen repair pasters were supplied with each target. Scoring rings were X, 10, 9, and 8 covering its 18-inch height and 12-inch width. Distance to target was 7 yards. The targets were programmed to turn and face the shooter for 3 seconds, then return to edge for 3 seconds. The object was to recognize the “threat” and land as many shots as possible on target before it turned away. We decided to perform this test beginning with each gun loaded to full capacity despite the fact that the 9mm pistols would allow for three target exposures, but the 45s only two. We thought it was important to experience the gun throughout any change that might take place as payload was subtracted. This was of particular interest because all shots would be performed strong hand only to replicate a really bad situation. In this case, our right-handed shooter would point and shoot each gun held in the right hand only. The 9mm pistols were shot first. Since the shooter had virtually no practice firing any of the guns before this test we wondered how many shots could be landed on average during a 3-second exposure.
Three of our 9mm test rounds were from Black Hills Ammunition. They were the 115-grain JHP EXP rounds, 115-grain TAC +P ammunition, and the 124-grain JHP +P rounds. We also fired 115-grain FMJ Winchester white-boxed bulk ammunition. The 115-grain Winchester rounds were also used in our 9mm action tests. The 45s were bench tested with Winchester white box 230-grain FMJ bulk ammunition, Black Hills 230-grain JHP rounds, Hornady’s 185-grain JHP XTP ammunition, and 185-grain Speer Gold Dots. Our 45 ACP action tests were performed firing Remington UMC 185-grain MC rounds, item number L45AP.
As you can see, this test is more than a contrast of two calibers. High-capacity pistols offer more follow-up shots. But do the ergonomics of the grip that surrounds the necessarily wider magazine interfere with one’s ability to land the most effective first shot or control recoil? Is the trigger simple and precise enough so that the first shot is your best? Indeed, firing one 1911 is much the same as another. But learning to shoot a polymer handgun with a hinged rather sliding trigger can ask the shooter to learn a number of systems such as DA/SA, DAK, DAO, Quick Action, or, SafAction; striker-fired or hammer-fired and with or without “double strike” capability. The 1911 trigger is closer to a light switch or button with a short press that is directly rearward. The fact is that the hinged trigger keeps the finger in motion over a much longer period of time and under greater resistance. If you have arthritis in your hands, operating the 1911 is much more comfortable. But operators of polymer pistols prefer not having to worry about turning off a safety lever before firing. Yet, adding this skill to muscle memory is simply a matter of repetition and riding the platform of the safety can also aid in recoil control. In addition, safe handling of the 1911 can be assured by placing the thumb beneath the safety with the paddle in its Safe position.
Few polymer guns have anything but a passive safety, with little or no feedback evident to the shooter. Finally, polymer guns require less total lubrication, less maintenance and are easier to disassemble. Will our tests end the debate between calibers and launch platforms? Let’s find out.
Caracal F Quick Sight 9mm, $524
Caracas C Quick Sight 9mm $524
Caracal is a subsidiary of Tawazun Holdings, a strategic investment company focused on defense and specialized manufacturing. Caracal was established in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in late 2002, . Abu Dhabi is a port city with a population of about 1.5 million people located east of Saudi Arabia across the Bay of Oman and south of Iran. According to the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE-Embassy.org), the UAE is the United States’ single largest export market in the Middle East. Data provided by the Foreign Trade Division of the U.S. Census Bureau published in the July 2012 issue of Shooting Industry Magazine showed 285 pistols were imported to the United States from the UAE in the year 2011, but none the year previous. Caracal is also the parent company for Merkel, the German rifle and shotgun manufacturer. It is Merkel’s connection with Steyr Arms that has brought the Caracal products into the U.S. (Taxonomic note: A caracal is a wild cat native to Asia and the Middle East that typically preys on birds.)
A milestone in the development of the Caracal pistols was the successful completion of independent testing by the Federal German Armed Forces Testing House (WTD91) in Meppen, Germany and certification in May of 2006. This means the Caracal pistol meets the necessary standards of structural and operational service for delivery to military and police. According to the manufacturer on the Caracal.ae website, the Caracal F pistol met the criteria for “functional fitness-for-purpose.” We like this terminology. ISO 9001 certification was awarded in 2008.
Caracal pistols are available in two sizes, F for Full size and C for Compact. Introduction of a subcompact SC model offering 13-round capacity is slated for fall 2012. The only available options at the time of this writing are standard notch-and-post sights or the Quick Sight configuration.
The 3.96-inch-barreled Caracal Model F displayed graceful lines. Held vertically, the grip frame had a wing-like appearance. The grip was somewhat long front-to-back, offering a long palm swell that swept to a position about 0.8 inches beneath the slide. From the undercut to the face of the trigger, we measured a span of about 2.7 inches. But at the butt of the grip there was about 0.6 inches of empty space from the rear of the magazine well to the surface of the backstrap. The magazine well was treated to a reverse bevel. This means the exterior sidewalls of the grip rather than the interior of the magazine well was beveled to let the operator grasp the basepad should the need arise to rip a magazine from the gun. The front and rear straps offered a checkering-like pattern, and the sides of the grip were slightly raised with a mild pebble-like finish. The remainder of the frame surface was treated to a lesser pebble finish, giving the plain black polymer a subtle sparkle and making the gun less slippery.
Both Caracal pistols had ambidextrous magazine-release buttons. The only other external control was the slide latch/release. This consisted of a small sheet-metal tab. The tab was easier to use as a lock than it was as a release. From what we were able to learn about military training in the Middle East, protocol rarely, if ever, calls for pressing the slide release rather than by drawing back the slide to send a round into the chamber.
The dustcover was fashioned to accommodate a light or laser with one crosshatch or slot. Distance from the front of the trigger guard to the edge of the crosshatch was only about 0.05 inches longer on the F model, but we were able to attach a Streamlight TLR-3 without problem as well as the Safariland RLS tactical light to either gun. Overall, the Model C was about 0.55 inches shorter in length and measured about 0.6 inches less in height. Otherwise, the contour and finish of the grip was identical.
Takedown of the Caracal pistols required that the magazine be removed and the chamber emptied because the next step was to press the trigger. This released pressure between the trigger bar and striker. The takedown lever was found inside the trigger guard on the underside of the frame. Pulling down on the tabs simultaneously from each side of the pistol freed the top end. The residual pressure of the flat wound recoil spring captured on its polymer guide rod popped the slide forward. Pulling the recoil system free, the linkless barrel was pulled up from the slide. With the top end reassembled, running the slide on to the steel rails embedded into the polymer frame completed reassembly.
The traditional sight picture should give the shooter a crystal-clear front sight, lesser definition at the edges at the rear notch, and a somewhat fuzzy image of the target. But the Quick Sight put the front sight blade and the ears of the rear notch on approximately the same visual plane. This made the rear sight almost as clear as the front sight, with the desired effect being faster visual recognition. The rear face of the slide was grooved to diffuse glare. The rear of the striker was visible when the action was cocked. The Caracal offered a passive safety that consisted of a spring-loaded blade hinged inside the face of the trigger that prevented rearward movement of the trigger until the blade was compressed. Trigger pull was measured to present about 3.75 pounds of resistance for the Model F. The compact Caracal Model C registered only about 3.25 pounds on our Chatillon trigger-pull scale.
Despite the short 2.2-inch sight radius of the Model F, we were able to decipher a marked difference in definition between the full-size Caracal and the 1.8-inch sight radius of the Model C. From the bench, alignment seemed slower but more precise. Firing the Compact was more treacherous, not only because of less material to support the pistol but also because the short 1.8-inch sight radius made alignment a little more twitchy at ignition.
The Model F managed to register five-shot groups that measured 2.0 inches or less with three of our four test rounds. But results could have been better. That is because our first shot consistently registered low of subsequent shots by about 1.5 inches to 2.0 inches. This is a problem that used to be more prevalent, particularly among pistols that utilize a linkless barrel with lockup above and below the muzzle end of the barrel and at the barrel hood. In our experience two factors are suspect. First, working the slide to fill the chamber simply does not produce the same impact as slide movement produced by an ignited round. So, after the first shot, the slide, the sights, and the barrel are in a different position. Firing a round into the berm to set lockup made the next hit more in line with subsequent shots. But some operators may not notice this problem if they always begin with a fully loaded magazine and one round in the chamber. That’s because the fully loaded magazine becomes a rigid object that supports the slide and minimizes the problem. Our accuracy data reflects a variety of groups fired after hand cycling and groups shot after the gun had already been discharged. We think that’s why group sizes varied from 1.0 inches across to 4.0 inches across throughout our tests.
The Compact Model C pistol also shot its first shots low. In addition, we suffered several malfunctions as the C model failed to fully eject spent cases of the 115-grain TAC +P ammunition, jamming the pistol. Overall, we had to work harder to complete the tests and keep our average group size below 3.0 inches for each choice of ammunition. But we did find one load that despite one low flyer proved accurate and consistent in the Caracal Compact. That was the 124-grain JHP +P rounds from Black Hills ammunition. Most of our shot groups measured less than 1 inch at 15 yards. We suspect its chamber must have been a little tighter than the larger Caracal because velocity was within 3 fps despite the shorter barrel when compared to the Model F. Producing 386 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, only the 115-grain Black Hills JHP EXP rounds fired from the Model F produced appreciably more energy, about 412 foot-pounds.
At the firing line for our action test we felt that the advantages produced by the sight radius was the opposite from what we experienced at the bench. Once the sights of the Model F were off line it took more time for us to realign the sights. It was as if we had to “unfold” the longer gun between shots. With the shorter gun, we felt it was more rigid and seemed to follow the natural alignment of our hand. The good news was that since we began each relay with a fully loaded magazine, we didn’t have to worry about first shots printing low. Combined with a target distance of only 21 feet, this malady may have gone unnoticed had this been our only method of test.
Results from our turning-target session at Tactical Firearms were as follows. In a succession of three 3-second target exposures, we fired an average of four shots per each exposure. We counted 11 shots on target from the Model F, including a dead-center shot with a clean hole and a skid trail that indicated it had landed as the target was either turning to face the shooter or turning away. We think the latter. Target scores were one X, three 10s, five 9s, and two 8-point hits. The Caracal C target also showed 11 hits. But its scores were better, with three X-ring shots, three 10s, four 9s, and one 8-point shot. Our calculator showed that in each case we were able to land 3.66 shots per 3-second exposure.
Our Team Said: Both Caracal pistols were easy to shoot. Grip angle and size afforded plenty of support. We might have preferred target sights on the F model to maximize the potential of its longer sight radius. But when it comes to a fast-action CQB pistol, it’s hard to beat the Caracal C with Quick Sights. It was like punching your fist at the target. Firing each pistol, we read little change in control from fully laden to last shot fired. The triggers might have been too light, but we liked the near vertical rest position and how easy they were to read in terms of reset. The first-shot-low syndrome may vary from pistol to pistol, but keeping the magazine fully loaded should minimize the problem.
Springfield Armory Lightweight Champion
Operator PX9115LP 45 ACP, $1076
Springfield Armory offers two lightweight 1911 45s, each with a 4-inch barrel. One is the $1031 Loaded Lightweight Champion PX9149LP, and the other is our test gun, the Lightweight Champion Operator. Visually, the primary difference is the OD Green-colored frame of the Loaded model and the addition of an accessory rail to the Operator. The Operator also comes with cocobolo wood grips instead of rubber grip panels. We acquired the Operator because few 1911s (and even fewer compact models) offer an accessory rail. Two 7-round magazines were supplied, but the grip was long enough to consume 8-round magazines without the basepad protruding from the grip. In addition to regular testing, each of our test rounds was fired through the Operator via 8-round magazines from Wilson Combat and Chip McCormick. Despite being fired weak hand only, strong hand only, and from support, our Lightweight Champion Operator worked without malfunction throughout every aspect of our tests.
Sheathed in black Armory Kote, the frame of the Lightweight Champion Operator offered a Picatinny accessory rail along its 2.1-inch dustcover. The cocobolo grip panels were heavily checkered, save for the traditional diamond-pattern flats and the Springfield Armory logo. Held in place by Torx screws, their profile was very tall, and we could feel a large contrast with the tightly peaked radius of the front strap, which was smooth rather than checkered. The lower portion of the backstrap consisted of a checkered mainspring housing with flat profile. The full-width beavertail grip safety offered a raised section for positive engagement. The interior of the magazine well was beveled to about a 45-degree angle. The hammer was skeletonized, and the aluminum trigger was ventilated with three holes. The natural color of the aluminum trigger contrasted with the otherwise shadowy appearance of the frame and grips. Trijicon-branded night sights were dovetailed into place front and rear. The front blade had score lines to absorb glare as well as the tritium module. The slide offered only rearward cocking serrations. Ambidextrous thumb safeties were in place. The right-side paddle was slightly smaller by about one line of serration in width. Overall, the only imperfection we found was the edge of the left thumb safety, which we thought was a little too sharp.
Both 1911s operated with a bull barrel, negating the need for a barrel bushing. This meant take down required capturing the spring action of the recoil system before the barrel could be removed. In the case of the Operator, the recoil system consisted of a plunger or shock-absorber style, requiring a special tool for disassembly found in the airline quality hard attaché case. (Also included in the case was a belt slide holster and a dual magazine pouch with Picatinny rails along the edges for securing a laser or weapons light. Both units were tension adjustable). Step one of takedown was to lock back the slide. Then snap the takedown piece, a plastic half-radius bushing, over the exposed section of the recoil assembly. Due to the long dustcover, we had great difficulty getting the takedown piece past the front of the guide rod and into position. In addition, reassembly was hampered by the difficulty of then removing the takedown piece. A better takedown procedure was to first separate the entire top end from the frame. Next, push on the rear of the recoil assembly to compress the spring and expose the area where the takedown piece was snapped into place. With the recoil assembly secured, it was easily removed. The key to reassembly was to make sure the recoil unit was seated fully into position against the barrel feet so the slide could pass easily across the frame.
Bench shooting is supposed to be slow fire, but the gun’s ultra-clear sight picture and the precise 5.5-pound trigger made it hard to slow down. We had to resist the urge to let the trigger snap with each flash sight picture. The result was groups that ranged in size from 0.8 inches to 2.0 inches across for all shots fired. The Hornady Custom 185-grain JHP rounds were the most accurate, with five-shot groups averaging just 1.1 inches center to center. The most powerful ammunition was the Speer Gold Dot rounds, registering 377 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.
In our action test we fired eight times over the course of two target exposures. All eight shots landed on target, scoring three 10s, three 9s, and two 8s. Shooter impression was somewhat of a shock after finishing up with the 9mm pistols. The nature of the recoil was different from the Caracals, presenting torque or twisting of the gun as well as muzzle flip. Remembering to switch off the safety made the shooter a little more self-conscious. During dry fire, it began as a distraction but may ultimately have provided a key moment focusing the shooter’s attention before firing. The high thumb position riding the safety opened the grip up, and the shooter felt that the relation to the wrist position was noticeably different than when holding the striker-fired pistols with the thumb wrapped around the grip. But we think spreading out the hand made it easier to isolate the trigger finger from the rest of the grip. The sight picture was clearly keyed on the front-sight blade, which unlike the Quick Sight stood out like a pointer. The short snappy movement of the trigger was in great contrast to the Caracals, which seemed to demand a gathering rather than a pressing motion. At first, this tempted us to somewhat overpower the trigger during the action test and pull shots low.
Our Team Said: The Springfield Armory Lightweight Champion Operator proved as accommodating as a butler. It made every shooting chore ridiculously easy. We didn’t have to struggle with choice of ammunition, sight picture, loading, controlling the trigger, or recoil. We have to credit the recoil assembly for its soft shooting. We wish there was some method of toolless takedown. Still, this is one of the best compact 45s we’ve tested.
Dan Wesson ECO 01969 45 ACP, $1662
Dan Wesson is a subsidiary of CZ USA located in Kansas City, Kansas. Its catalog is based exclusively on the 1911 platform, and few of the company’s guns can be considered standard fare. The smallest Dan Wesson pistol is the ECO. Firing from a 3.5-inch bull barrel and listed as an Officer Size 1911, we think the ECO was the best-looking gun in our test. It was also the most concealable pistol. It was only about 1.15 inches across the grip with nary a sharp edge. The magazine release was left side only, as was the abbreviated thumb-operated safety that was effectively grooved to make up for its diminished size. Maximum width was about 1.35 inches.
We especially liked the buffering at the bottom of the grip frame and the soft but skid proof 25-lpi checkering on the front strap and the mainspring housing. The laminate grips were distinctive and blended perfectly with the frame. The magazine well was beveled in a continuous U shape around the sides and rearward wall. The stainless-steel skeletonized hammer has a satin finish, and its tang was ribbed for positive grip. The solid-faced aluminum trigger broke at 4.0 pounds, just as advertised on the CZ-USA.com website. The slide offered rearward cocking serrations only and was topped by a special set of Trijicon tritium night sights. The front sight was more or less standard in design, but the forward portion of the rear sight offered an abrupt vertical drop that could serve as a catch point should the slide need to be worked against a belt. Facing the shooter at the rear of the unit was a single tritium module centered below the center of the notch. The ears of the rear notch were bold and the surface was grooved to reduce glare. Between the front and rear sight units was a flat surface running parallel to the bore and grooved to diffuse glare. We couldn’t help but notice the tight fit of the barrel and guide rod at the muzzle end. The crown was recessed slightly to protect the rifling.
Takedown of the Dan Wesson ECO began with pulling back the slide about one inch to match the relief in the slide. With the slide stop pulled from the left side of the pistol, the top end was removed. The thumb was then used to push the butt end of the guide rod forward, compressing the flat wire spring. With about 0.7 inches of the guide rod exposed, the recoil spring could be captured by sticking a piece of wire through the hole in the guide rod provided specifically for this purpose. No takedown piece was supplied, but all that was needed was a wire the gauge of a heavy paper clip bent in a right angle so that it could pass through the guide rod but ride low enough so that the guide rod, spring and cap could pass through the yoke of the slide.
At the 15-yard range we were able to deliver groups that averaged between 1.2 inches and 1.3 across with three of our four test rounds. Only the 185-grain Speer Gold Dots created groups that measured between 2.0 and 2.8 inches across. But, the Gold Dots did produce the most power, (about 362 foot-pounds of muzzle energy). However, during the test we experienced as many as four failures to feed with the 230-grain Winchester ammunition. On a hunch we switched to using the 7-round magazines supplied with the Springfield Armory pistol and we were able to finish the test without further malfunction. These 7-round magazines were standard Colt-like components. But since the little ECO is an Officer Model-sized pistol, the grip was short enough so that the full-size mags protruded from the grip. We also had trouble firing the Hornady rounds in the original magazines, but the Speer Gold Dots were the most reliable. They even ran in the ECO when we tried 8-round compact magazines built by Wilson Combat (part number 47/DOX, $38 from WilsonCombat.com). But the ECO kicked the hardest of any gun in our tests, so we had to hang on.
At Tactical Firearms no malfunctions occurred during our action test of the Dan Wesson ECO. Perhaps it was because in this circumstance the guns were fired with strict focus and an intense grip. The thumb safety worked flawlessly with a clear detent. Riding the paddle in the Fire position felt natural, and the impression was that the gun was tucked firmly inside the hand without worry of slippage. The little Dan Wesson landed all eight hits on target, scoring two 10s, four 9s, and two 8-point hits. We had no X-ring shots, likely because we felt like we were unnecessarily overpowering the trigger, and at times the shooter was unsure whether to slap the trigger or stay connected, reading the reset after every shot.
Our Team Said: Small 1911s such as the Officer-sized ECO are among the most difficult to build. The ECO was more picky about choice of ammunition, demanding a certain amount of slide velocity and, in our opinion, somewhat shorter overall cartridge length. The profile of the 185-grain Gold Dots proved to be an excellent choice. But we had the sense that tolerance for a wider variety of ammunition was improving with break in. We think much of the price was driven by thoughtful details that were so well integrated they could go unnoticed.