July 2014

1911s: Buy New or Used? We Test Three 45 ACPs to Find Out

We pitted a pricey (when new) SIG C3 versus the American Classic Commander and the Rock Island Armory Tactical II. Outcome: It’s easier to make a silk purse out of silk.

Many of us fancy a 1911 for defense use. The problem is that top-quality 1911 handguns are becoming increasingly expensive. Finding a quality new 1911 from well-known makers like SIG Sauer, Kimber, or Springfield at a fair price isn’t easy. And on the used market, you have to be careful not to buy a pig in a poke. Used pistols are not always what they seem, and some defects are more difficult to discover during the first appraisal. The question that we are attempting to answer this month is this — given a finite amount of cash, should we purchase a used SIG or a new Philippine 1911? The only way to answer this one is to obtain examples, work them out on the range, and do a careful comparison of features. There are intangibles such as pride of ownership and longevity that are difficult to qualify with less than a thousand rounds through each pistol. But if you are looking for a solid 45 ACP workhorse to defend the home, a used handgun just may be the best bet. To examine the premise of a quality used handgun against a new economy handgun, we tested a used SIG Sauer 1911 C3 #1911CO-45-T-C3, ~$650, against the American Classic ACC45B, $515, and the Rock Island Tactical II Compact #51479, $590.

The American Classic, left, was comfortable to fire and was accurate enough when it functioned. The American Classic and the SIG, right, have similar features, but function was not equal. Below, this was a common malfunction in the AC.

Why compact handguns? Many of us believe that a 1911 45 Auto is the best mix of controllability and wound potential available in a handgun. A criticism of the 1911 Government Model that is difficult to argue against is that the piece is long and heavy. It is thin, however, and with a bit of intelligent design and proper execution, a compact version of the 1911 is an ideal carry gun for those who practice. The American Classic is a Commander-length handgun. The RIA pistol is an Officer’s Model length with abbreviated grip frame as well. Splitting the difference, the SIG C3 features a Commander-length slide and Officer’s Model frame. We might also learn if one frame size is superior to the other for concealed carry.

SIG Sauer 1911 C3 1911CO-45-T-C3 45 ACP, ~$650
As we noted, the C3’s grip frame is the Officer’s Model type, which means that it holds six shots. It is shorter than the Government Model frame, and this means better concealment. The pistol is lighter than the Government Model as well. The slightly shorter slide is a compromise length that maintains a reasonable sight radius for accuracy while clearing leather sharply and handling more quickly overall.

A close examination of the C3 shows good attention to detail and high quality manufacturing. Beginning with the handle, the issue grips are excellent examples of purpose-designed concealed carry grips. They are thin enough for ease of concealment and the grip checkering gives excellent adhesion. In our example, the previous owner had fitted Hogue grips. We cannot fault this choice. They gave excellent hand fit. The beavertail grip safety felt right in the hand and was properly fitted, releasing its hold on the trigger about half way into compression. It isn’t always noticed, but a poorly designed and badly fitted beavertail grip safety may be counterproductive and increase trigger reach.

Elsewhere, the mainspring housing was steel, which we like. The front strap was checkered. It wasn’t true custom grade work, but it served the purpose.

The SIG C3 handled well on the range. The Commander-length slide gives good hit mechanics. The SIG’s short grip offers good concealment.

In a test of the sharp edges found on the pistol, the C3 rated high, with little to no snag. This is important on a handgun to be carried under covering garments. The Novak Low Mount sights were excellent. The front sight was dovetailed in place, and the rear sight was anchored by a set screw. The C3 featured a lowered ejection port in the popular fashion and the proven SIG external extractor. The slide was matte stainless in contrast with the anodized aluminum frame. The slide was the distinctive SIG profile similar to the P-series slide. This is done for several reasons. There is little means at our disposal to discover if the design is stronger, but it is different and meant to give the pistol a similar look to the recognizable P220, P226, and P229 series. A drawback is that this slide doesn’t fit all 1911 holsters. Most, but not all, makers offer SIG-specific holsters. Our Ross IWB holster, a top-quality holster from South Africa, accommodated the SIG. Our holster guru tells us that many supple leather holsters will accommodate the SIG and work well after a modest break in period. But after this break in, they will be a loose fit for any other 1911 handgun.

The pistol features a positive firing-pin lock of the Series 80 type. Trigger compression was smooth and crisp at 4.75 pounds. It felt a bit lighter, possibly due to the leverage of the long trigger. The pistol handled well and cleared leather quickly. The sight picture with the Novak sights was excellent. The shorter frame was no drawback, we felt, and did not feel uncomfortable when firing. If the shooter uses a firm two-hand hold and the proper shooting stance, firing from the Weaver or a strong Isosceles, the pistol is controllable. And this control in combat-type shooting is really what we are looking for. The balance with the Commander length slide was exceptional.

As for absolute accuracy, the SIG was the winner. While it was accurate with all three loads tested, like all handguns the C3 preferred one load to the other. The pistol uses the original barrel-bushing design rather than bushing-less lockup. This works out well in this case, as the handgun seems more accurate than we are able to hold. The pistol did well from bench rest testing. Recoil was noticeably stronger with the C3 than a Government Model, but not uncomfortably so. It kicked more than the other two handguns tested, our testers said. Since this is a lightweight defensive handgun, we avoided the heavy 230-grain +P loads in favor of reliable practice and defense loads. The single most accurate loading was the Fiocchi 230-grain Extrema, with a five-shot group average less than 2 inches. None of the loads strayed over the 2.5-inch mark — very consistent, we thought.

Our Team Said: The SIG C3 is well worth its price. In this case, we were able to obtain a flawless gem of a used gun for a very good price. The SIG gets a solid A rating. If you can find one close to this price, buy it and you will not regret it. The only thing it gave up to the other pistols was that the C3 has more felt recoil, a product of its lighter weight.

Rock Island Tactical II Compact #51479 45 ACP, $590
Purchased from Cheaper Than Dirt, the newest Rock Island pistol was an elevated example of the original GI type “Rock.” This version is a true Officer’s Model with 3.5-inch barrel and short grip frame. While Armscor has long offered a tactical version of the GI 1911 with Novak-type sights, the newest pistol seems better finished, tighter, and better appointed. The finish was the same dull Parkerized exterior that is serviceable, if not exciting.

The pistol was fitted with a set of VZ G10 grips. The contrast to the dark finish was pleasing to the eye. The grips afforded a practiced shooter excellent adhesion when firing this short 45. There was a modest magazine well that proved to be an aid in rapidly changing magazines. The trigger and hammer were each skeletonized in tactical fashion. The beavertail grip safety was well made and released the trigger about halfway through compression.

The pistol was the only one tested that featured an ambidextrous safety. This safety design was a good one, with excellent support on the right side of the frame. The safety indent was the tightest of the three. The mushy feel of the American Classic, in particular, suffered in comparison. A good tight safety isn’t likely to rub off in a tightly fitted holster. We confirmed this by wearing the RIA Tactical II in a well-turned-out IWB design from Jason Winnie. This proved to be a good combination. The RIA pistol seemed to be the faster from leather of the three pistols. Trigger compression was smooth and crisp at 5.25 pounds. This trigger exhibited little take-up and no creep. The sights were particularly improved compared to earlier RIA pistols. The front sight was a red fiber optic. One of the raters noted that he did not care for such sights when he was young. He preferred a solid black front post for the well-defined sight picture he preferred.

Now over 50, he appreciates the red front sight. In any case, for rapid target acquisition the fiber-optic front sight received high grades. The fully adjustable rear sight also received high marks, but only after an acclimation period. This is subjective, but most shooters prefer a high-profile fixed sight for defense use. The RIA is accurate enough to make use of an adjustable sight if the sight proves durable. As delivered, the sight was in its highest position and the point of impact was 4 inches higher than the point of aim at 15 yards. The adjustment screw would not back down and lower the sight. Before we rated the pistol down on this regard, one of the raters discovered that the rear leaf has a little spring, or give in it. Rather than using a mechanical advantage and gears, the single screw works against a rear leaf that is basically spring loaded. By first depressing the rear leaf, we were able to run the set screw in all the way. Next, it was a simple matter to move the screw slightly to set the sights for elevation. The sight isn’t a Bo-Mar, but it works fine once you understand the operation.

It is good to have a pistol that functions right out of the box. Malfunctions, even one, means that we will expend more ammunition tracing the malfunction down. It is magazine related? Ammunition related? A fault of the pistol? The RIA pistol never failed to feed, chamber, or fire. However, it did fail to eject. A cartridge was left in the chamber on one occasion during the first 50 rounds. The nose of the following round butted into it. This was the only malfunction. A break in malfunction, perhaps, in a brand-new pistol, and perhaps even ammunition related, but not welcome. The extractor appeared to exhibit the proper tension and the hook appeared sharp. Just the same, the SIG C3 did not exhibit any malfunctions of any type with the same ammunition.

The RIA 45 exhibited good practical accuracy. The pistol cleared leather quickly, and we liked the results on man-sized silhouette targets. The RIA compact kicked less than the C3 due to its slightly greater weight, and the balance of the short slide and steel frame added to the pistol’s comfort. Muzzle flip was more than the SIG, and that is a trade-off. The American Classic kicked less and was more accurate by a margin, and would have proven more consistently accurate, we believe, without the cessation during firing some of the groups. The Rock Island Tactical II does not incorporate a firing-pin block into the action.

Our Team Said: The RIA pistol has features the American Classic does not, including a magazine well and an ambidextrous safety. More important, the Rock Island Armory gun worked. The C3 bested the RIA on overall performance, and exhibited flawless reliability. But if you like a fully adjustable rear sight and fiber-optic front sight, the RIA has a lot going for it. In the end we had to rate the RIA down a point due to the single malfunction. Compared to a new SIG at $1042, we would have to consider the RIA, but at $60 less than the used SIG, the RIA comes out in second place.

American Classic Commander #ACC45B, $515
Also purchased from Cheaper Than Dirt!, the American Classic Commander is a true Commander-size pistol. The slide and barrel are the same length as the C3, but the frame is the same height as a Government Model. The American Classic is a steel-frame pistol, so it is heavier than the C3, at 35.5 ounces versus 29 ounces for the C3. Still, the Commander is a popular concealed-carry handgun, and the American Classic had promise.

Our raters said the pistol was well finished. There were internal tool marks, but the overall fit, finish, and feel met our testers’ critical standards. The slide rolled over the locking lugs smoothly. The trigger compression was heavier than the C3 at 5.5 pounds; however, it is lighter than a number of expensive 1911 handguns we have tested. Trigger compression was smooth with little creep. The fit of the barrel bushing was on the tight end of finger tight. The sights are not quite Novak sights, but similar. The design makes the sight radius slightly shorter than a Novak fitted to the same slide length, because the rear posts begin just a bit more muzzle forward than the Novak. This should not matter at combat distances. The front post was dovetailed in, and the rear sight was drift adjustable. The ejection port was lowered for positive ejection and superior administrative handling. The beavertail safety functioned properly, but it must be fully depressed to release the trigger. We prefer a slightly earlier release.

The hammer was rather odd in appearance, with a lattice-work design in the interior. The safety indented properly, but it was not as tight as the C3 and was considerably looser than the Rock Island. There was no firing-pin block. The extractor and ejector seemed properly fitted. The grips were OK for an economy grade handgun, thin and lightly checkered. The pistol was supplied with a single ACT MAG magazine. The slide lock was the extended type we have come to despise on carry guns.

However, in this case we were able to keep our fingers out of the way of the slide lock, and the pistol functioned normally as far as that goes. In one case we did allow the support thumb to lock the pistol open during a firing string by hitting the extended slide lock.

As we have often mentioned, during initial range work and in combat firing exercises, we use a variety of ammunition and magazines, and we often use loads for the benchrest firing to get the best absolute accuracy. As an example, the piece may be fired primarily with inexpensive ball ammunition for combat practice and fired with a number of JHP loads left over from other tests to confirm reliability. Since the pistol was supplied with a single ACT magazine, we added Wilson Combat and Metalform magazines to the test, mixing magazines with different loads. The American Classic Commander suffered six malfunctions in the first 50 rounds. Each showed a cartridge sitting nose down against the feed ramp malfunction, or a failure to feed with the nose of the JHP bullet banging against the feed ramp. Half occurred when attempting to load the first round, half occurred during firing strings.

The ammunition included the Remington 230-grain HTC Subsonic, Remington 185-grain Golden Saber, HPR 230-grain JHP and HPR FMJ. The single malfunction with ball ammunition was a nose down against the feed ramp. We cannot recall seeing a 1911 of any type suffer such a malfunction with ball ammunition. However, with seven magazines fired, three of the magazines showed no malfunctions. The malfunctions were experienced with the ACT Mag, Wilson Combat, and Metalform magazines. The magazines that did not malfunction were Wilson Combat. This is completely unacceptable in any firearm but particularly one destined for personal defense. In dry runs, we did find that locking the slide back and releasing the slide caused the most malfunctions. By loading the magazine and then racking the slide, the pistol fed reliably, but we still encountered firing-string malfunctions.

The pistol seemed accurate enough when it ran, so we went ahead with bench rest accuracy testing. A combination of good sights and a fair trigger gave good results. The most accurate combination was the Remington 230-grain HTC Subsonic, with a 2.5-inch 25-yard group. However, sight regulation could have been better. While dead on for windage, the pistol’s point of impact was 2 inches lower than the point of aim. We could have filed the front sight to regulate the point of impact, but it wasn’t worth the trouble. During the bench rest testing, we carefully prepped the pistol as described by racking the slide over a loaded magazine. The magazines were loaded with the five rounds fired during the string.

Three five shot groups were fired with each of the three loads, for 45 rounds, and we used the magazines that had previously not exhibited a malfunction. We suffered two additional hangups, one with the Remington 230-grain HTC and one with the HPR loading. Accuracy might have been better on average without the need to clear the pistol and fire again.

Our Team Said: All our shooters liked the balance and heft. They said the sights were good, and the beavertail safety and the slide-lock safety operated as designed. Trigger compression was good, and accuracy wasn’t bad. But the malfunctions were unacceptable. Folks purchasing an inexpensive 1911 are probably on a budget and are not looking for a project gun — just a reliable one. The American Classic we tested wasn’t reliable. The only reason it did not receive an F grade was because it isn’t unsafe.

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

SIG Sauer 1911

Rock Island Armory Tactical II

American Classic ACC45B 45 ACP

Range Data