June 2013

1911 Value Shootout: Standard GI, or Kimber Custom Eclipse?

A difficult question often posed to the staff concerns subjective aspects of the handgun. Is the Italian Beretta a better handgun than the U.S.-made pistol? Is the pinned and recessed Smith & Wesson revolver the better shooter than the modern slip-barrel revolver? Among those that seem to invite the most comments is the difference between GI 1911 pistols and the semi-custom factory pistols. By semi-custom we mean pistols with high-profile sights, a custom grade beavertail safety, extended controls, and claims of superior fitting in the barrel, bushing, and barrel hood. The plain old GI pistol that served without complaint in two world wars is seen as the underdog in such a match up. The GI pistol cannot possibly play on an even field with the modern enhanced 1911, can it? The answer is, it depends.

It is all in the skill of the user. Test team member Captain Matthew Campbell found each 1911 had good trigger reset and handled well.

It depends on what you are doing and what you expect from the pistol. How many shooters can take advantage of the advanced features, and how many of these shooters can shoot up to the pistols’ capabilities is the question. But there is also the bottom line, and the bottom line is often personal defense. Many shooters swear by the 1911 GI pistol and want nothing else. One of our raters is quick to point out he knows the 1911, and as much as a person can feel emotional attachment toward an inanimate object, he loves the 1911, including all its eccentricities.

The 1911 is individual enough that hand-fitting can make a difference. The closer the tolerances, the less slop and the less eccentric wear on the pistol. On the other hand, the GI pistols were fitted well in the locking lugs and barrel bushing, and that was all that mattered for acceptable accuracy. One of our testers had a conversation with an importer regarding the Philippines-made pistols. The businessman did not like the rater’s review of a certain pistol. The importer noted that the rater liked the RIA pistols, but not another pistol brand with more advanced features. The importer noted that the pistols come off the same assembly line — or at least the same factory, and the more advanced pistol went on for special handling. Also, the more expensive pistol had more features — yet, our tester did not like it. Our tester replied that yes, the RIA was a fine GI pistol, mainly because what features were on the pistol were done well. The other pistol included more stuff, but it took more finesse and greater skill to fit a custom beavertail and ambidextrous safety, and the pistol with superior features just didn’t come out as well, in the opinion of our testers.

In other words, you may purchase a good GI-grade pistol on the cheap, but if you are going to obtain an advanced-grade 1911, then it may not be advisable to go cheap. So can the discriminating 1911 shooter be happy with either a bargain-basement 45 ACP or a customized factory pistol at three times the price? To answer a number of questions concerning the performance of the 1911 pistol, our South Carolina test unit obtained both a Rock Island GI pistol and a Kimber Eclipse Target II.  There are plenty of other pistols that could have stood in for these choices — the High Standard GI pistol might have just as easily been selected as the baseline, or the Springfield Loaded Model as the advanced pistol. But, in the end, we wanted to know if the Kimber Eclipse II would so outshine the RIA GI that buying the more affordable handgun would seem like a waste of money. Or would the simplicity of the GI show us that spending more on the Eclipse was just spending more?

Rock Island Armory Standard GI No. 51421 45 ACP, $410

We had this pistol on loan from its owner, who said the gun was stock except for a set of Punisher No. 5 grips from Gungrips.net. Compared to the original wooden grips, the aluminum Punishers offered much better traction. We found the RIA pistol at just a bit under MSRP and also a little over at a few shops, but compared to the already high and increasing manufacturer’s list prices of many pistols, this is insignificant.

The RIA was finished in a type of Parkerizing that resembled a matte-blue finish, and it seemed evenly applied. The grips were OK, just slabs of wood, but they did fit the grip frame. The fit of the barrel hood to the slide and the locking lugs to the slide were tight enough to promise good accuracy, we predicted. The barrel bushing and extractor were also well fitted.

The barrel bushing was only finger tight, which allowed rapid field stripping and good routine maintenance. There once was a time when a good hand could break down a 1911 in a few seconds for routine cleaning. Today, with the tighter barrel bushings and full-length guide rods, tools and a few minutes are the rule.

The trigger compression was smooth and broke just over 5 pounds and felt relatively crisp, our shooters said. The sights of the RIA pistol were pure General Issue, which means small. However, once we began the firing test, we noted that the sights were well regulated for 230-grain ammunition. The standard GI sights were designed to lob the old pumpkin ball high at 25 yards and nearly dead on at 50 yards to give soldiers a fighting chance at the longer distance. The sight picture and point of impact of the RIA were nearly ideal for personal defense because the pistol did fire high at close range.

Five inches at 25 yards was the accuracy standard for these sidearms, and in our shooting, we found our test gun’s accuracy to be better than the GI standard. It shot best with the Winchester 230-gr. PDX round, notching 2.9-inch groups, followed by 3.3-inch groups with the Hornady 200-gr. XTP load, and 3.5-inch groups with Black Hills 230-gr. FMJs. In all cases, the Kimber Eclipse clearly outshot the RIA, narrowly preferring the Hornadys (1.3-inch average groups) over the Black Hills FMJs (1.4 inches) and the Winchester PDX load (1.5 inches). We should also note the Kimber maintained slightly higher velocities with all three rounds, with the biggest difference being a 2.6% edge with the Black Hills load.

One of our raters is left handed, so we ordered a southpaw Wright Leather Works holster for the speed-shooting segments. This is a well-fitted holster as good as any we have used. The lefty rater did manage to disengage the RIA 1911’s one-side-only safety, but it was slower than the dual safety lever of the Eclipse Target II.

The RIA pistol did not need a break-in period; it came out of the box running and continuing to run well. Feed reliability with older SWC or JHP ammunition and 1960s-era GI pistols was once a problem. When personal-defense JHP loads were introduced in the 1960s, many were poorly designed for reliability, with wide-open bullet noses and an overall cartridge length that was too short. Now these pistols usually feed modern hollowpoints as long as the feed ramp exhibits the proper 1/32nd-inch gap between the two parts and the bullet is the same or nearly the same OAL as hardball. (1.250 inch seems to be the magic number.) This example fed the Winchester PDX hollowpoint perfectly, as well as a Black Hills 200-grain semi-wadcutter and limited quantities of Remington Golden Saber, Hornady Critical Defense, and Speer Gold Dot. Proof the load you intend to carry, of course.

Our Team Said: In the end, was the custom-grade pistol a better performer than the GI pistol? Of course it was. But was the GI pistol suitable for personal defense? Yes. When drawing and firing at maximum speed at close range, our shooters said the GI pistol sometimes came to the target more quickly. As long as the shooter knew to properly depress the grip safety, no problems were experienced. The standard GI slide-lock safety did not earn any criticism. The simplicity of the GI pistol in field stripping and maintenance are also a practical consideration that advocates for the RIA GI product. Without a doubt, the GI pistol is an adequate personal defense pistol with some advantages.

Perfect function with better-than-expected accuracy —  the Rock Island Arms Standard GI is not in the tackdriver category, but it’s far from being a casual plinker. We would have no hesitation recommending this pistol for the shooter on a budget.

Kimber Eclipse Target II 45 ACP, $1393

The Eclipse is among the most popular Kimber pistols. Its appearance is striking. The flats of the slide are brushed stainless, while other parts are treated to a black-out treatment. Before we go any further, it is obvious that a large component of the popularity of this pistol lies in pride of ownership. This is a pistol that the user will derive some joy from simply in having in the safe. Performance is the bottom line, however, and the Kimber pistol certainly has that as well.

The pistol demonstrated excellent fit and finish. As one of the raters noted, the less slop in the fit of a pistol means the less chance for eccentric wear, and in the long run, the greater the longevity of the pistol. The fit of the barrel bushing was tight, so we had to use a tool for disassembly. The barrel hood was well fitted, and the locking lugs mated with precision. The slide rolled smoothly over the link. This pistol was fitted with adjustable sights, allowing the owner to zero the pistol for his choice of load. The grips were nicely checkered and well fitted. The ambidextrous safety was well designed and operates with a positive action. The beavertail grip safety was ideal. This grip safety solved problems for those shooters who allow the palm to come off the grip safety when implementing a two-handed thumbs-forward grip. Using this grip with the GI pistol, the palm sometimes rose off the smaller grip safety, disengaging this important device and making the gun go on Safe rather than Fire. The Kimber safety solves this problem. The raters noted that the primary advantage of the Kimber’s slide safety seemed to be in applying it. It was much easier to quickly place the pistol on Safe due to the paddle-type shape.

The trigger action was very smooth and completely free or any creep or backlash, breaking at a smooth 4 pounds. This helped the Eclipse excel in accuracy, as the table shows. The sights are fully adjustable, so point of aim and point of impact will at most be a temporary problem. This example also sports tritium night sights. To use, these sights seem at least as good as the legendary Bo-mar sights. (Unfortunately, Bo-Mar is out of business.)

However, when firing combat drills, drawing from a professional grade Wright Leather Works holster, the difference between the RIA and the Eclipse was far less. At close range, 3 to 5 yards,  sometimes the simpler pistol was faster to an accurate first shot. At ranges past 7 yards, the superior sights of the Eclipse came into play, and sometimes the frontstrap checkering was an aid in controlling the pistol during rapid-fire strings.

The Eclipse also features a firing-pin block, which the RIA does not. Some decry the complication, while others prefer it. As long as the block doesn’t interfere with a smooth trigger action, we will take the increased safety. The beavertail safety on the Kimber did spread recoil out in the palm more so than the GI pistol, but the raters do not feel that a steel-frame 1911 with standard-pressure ammunition is a problem to control in rapid fire.

One obvious advantage of the Kimber is its barrel quality and fit. Beyond any question, the superior fit of the barrel, its locking lugs and barrel bushing added to the accuracy of the pistol. The smooth trigger compression was an aid in practical accuracy, while the fit and quality of the barrel aided intrinsic accuracy. In the end you get what you pay for, and the Kimber delivers in that area.

Our Team Said: In the end, the Eclipse proved itself with first-class accuracy, excellent handling, and excellent fit and finish. At long combat range, 15 yards or so, the superior sights of the Kimber began to be a greater advantage. Elsewhere, the frontstrap serrations aided in gripping the Kimber, and for those who use the thumbs-forward grip and sometimes raise the palm off of the grip safety, the beavertail grip safety is an advantage.

Written and photographed by R.K. Campbell, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers.

Rock Island Armory Standard GI No. 51421 45 ACP

Kimber Eclipse Target II 45 ACP

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA