New Breed Colt Commander Becomes Favorite Carry Gun

by R.K. Campbell

When it comes to Colt pistols, there are two types of handgunners. Some are fiercely loyal to the Colt and others "just don't get it." This trite statement sums the situation up well.

The man who believes the SIG pistol or Glock is the better choice generally owns one or two examples. The Colt man will own a baker's dozen if finances and matrimonial harmony allow. That being said, I have noticed that most of us tend to own Government Model handguns.

The more we shoot our guns the more we enjoy the soft and gentle shooting characteristics of the full-length Colt 1911. I am never more pleased than when firing a full-length Government Model loaded with a mild 200-grain SWC loading. Practical considerations and reality dictate other choices for concealed carry and personal defense. I load full-power loads in the 1911 and sometimes carry a short, light 1911 variant when self-defense is the mission.

My situation has changed dramatically in the past few years. After 23 years as a peace officer, I am now a private citizen. During my police career, I most often carried a full-size 1911 on duty and off. The acclimation period can be daunting and is not to be made light of. I had good reason to desire to carry the same pistol on a 24-hour basis. Quality arms are not inexpensive, and I did not desire to invest time, money and training in a second quality handgun. Times changed, but I maintained this philosophy throughout my career.

I understand those who carry a smaller gun off duty. The difference between hanging a gun on a well-designed harness and actually wearing one on the body, concealed, is profound, but I did so for many years. Episodes such as finding myself on the "hit list" of a Neo-Nazi group did little to make me wish to carry anything lighter. I discovered the Commander early in my career.

The Colt Commander is a 1911 with inch off the barrel and slide. The pistol also has an aluminum frame. Weighing but 27 ounces, this is a capable, reliable handgun that is easier to carry for extended periods than the Government Model. It is considerably more difficult to control in rapid fire than steel-framed variants and is seldom as accurate as full-size pistols, but serves a real need.

For various reasons, I experimented with the Commander but kept the Government Model on the front line. The shorter Officer's Model pistol was also examined but never adopted. The short 1911s are truly a different sort of gun I have not come to fully trust. The difficulty in producing a reliable short slide gun is not insurmountable, but a daunting proposition.

The original General Officer's Model handgun was developed for issue to officers of that rank in the US military. US Army gunsmiths-some of the finest workmen in the world-first applied full-length guide rods and alternate bushing systems to the short 1911. Removing a barrel lug and opening the front of the slide allowed the slide to recoil further to the rear relative to the size of the gun, and the full-length guide rod aided in keeping the spring from kinking up.

Reservations
While the technology seems mastered today, when I first examined short 1911s, this was far from the case. For simplicity, I prefer the original barrel bushing. This bushing did not allow the severe tilting angle needed to properly function a short 1911. I followed the development of the 3°-inch barrel guns and did not find early reports encouraging, and did not enjoy the added complication of these guns. I clung to the Government Model and sometimes gave the Commander house room.

I did own a number of Star PD .45-caliber pistols. In their day, they were good guns. The Star used a very short barrel bushing and a type of recoil buffing guide rod. I often carried mine as a backup or when on special assignment. It spoke in my favor twice. I could find no fault with the Star PD except that under a moderate practice regimen it wore quickly. Still, when wearing a jacket, the full-size .45 was my choice. The PD rode under a T-shirt, in a Summer Special holster, of course.

This brings us to my current carry pistol. I might mention that I have had but one fistfight in my adult life outside of the color of law. I would be happy to keep it that way. There is no profit in fighting as the scars on my face and aches in my body attest, but it seemed the thing to do at the time. Still, I have seen the depredations of hardened criminals and the insane actions of our thug and gang-banger class. I don't wish to be helpless.

I sometimes carry a snub .38 loaded with Glaser Safety Slugs but otherwise the handgun on hand is a full-size .45 or .38 Super-or a single-action .45-caliber revolver. Recently, I tested a handgun that has changed my opinion of Commander length .45s. The pistol is a Colt, worthy of note in this day of clone pistols. Despite predictions of Colt's demise, Colt appears healthy and to be shipping 1911s in a timely manner. I have even heard a new term coined for these pistols-Keys' Guns.

The new CEO at Colt has a reputation for demanding quality, and the latest guns show this determination to keep Colt on top. My example is a type that Col. Jeff Cooper himself does not approve of. While I respect the man, this opinion did not give the Combat Commander a death stroke. Cooper's disdain of the Combat Commander was published soon after its introduction in the Series 70 line.

Cooper's Comments
Cooper's logic is always unassailable, as I have said myself. He felt that the loss of the collet bushing was pointless in a gun only -inch shorter than the Government Model, without the weight advantage of the Commander. (Cooper wondered how this gun was suited for "Combat" any better than the other 1911s.) All Colts received a general tightening in Series 70 versions but only the Government Model received the collet bushing which tightened the barrel to slide lockup.

The Combat Commander shot well enough, but not as well as the new Government Model with it's billboard-size slide markings.

Cooper's observations seemed quite on the mark. But there are times when intangibles overcome logic. The Combat Commander bears the same relationship to the Government Model that the Beretta Brigadier does to the full-size Model 92. The difference in length and balance makes either pistol a bit quicker into action and better balanced than the full-size parent gun for some shooters.

The Commander-size pistols are well-suited to the appendix carry known as the New York Undercover. The Combat Commander is just short enough to allow this carry comfortably for most people. There are a number of shooters who have brought forward a theory that the shorter slide of the all-steel Combat Commander produces less momentum and hence less recoil or "slap" in shooting. This goes against equations of recoil energy versus weight, but opinion and perceived advantages mean much the same.

Full-Length Grip
I find the Combat Commander easier to shoot well by a margin than the Commander, but not as easy to shoot well in rapid fire as the Government Model. I do find the full-length grip of either of the three far more comfortable to use than the Officer's Model. It is quicker to clear leather than either an Officer's Model or a Government Model, in the first case due to a longer grip and in the second due to a shorter barrel.

After decades of controversy concerning the Combat Commander, today we have more pistols of the type than ever. When Colt introduced the 1991A1 budget pistol, the Commander-size gun was introduced only with a steel frame. It is in fact a Combat Commander. It is a good buy.

The top-of-the-line Enhanced pistols are the home of the modern Combat Commander. I have seen quite a few Enhanced models in shops, most of them in stainless steel. Recently, I was able to obtain a pistol for testing that was surprising. My test gun was manufactured sometime in 2003, and it is of stainless construction.

I came into police work just as stainless steel handguns swept the market. I prefer a deep rich blue by and large, and Colt certainly knows how to do it. But stainless is a better choice for a hard service gun. Stainless is just that-stain-less not stain proof, but modern alloys are good choices. My experience is that stainless Colts are good performers. Perhaps the added difficulty in machining and fitting stainless results in a superior handgun.

My pistol is not an Enhanced Model, however, but a simpler Series 80. It has the firing pin block or drop safety but does not have the rib on top of the slide, the cut out under the trigger guard, or the beveled magazine well. But no, it is not a 1911A1. The slide is marked Commander, but it is a steel frame Commander. I have seen this often, with some guns marked Combat Commander and many simply marked Commander, regardless of the frame's construction.

There is nothing wrong with a Series 80, many of us favor the configuration. My gun was supplied with two magazines, a welcome addition to a $700 handgun. The pistol is not what we have come to refer to as a Tactical Pistol. It lacks Novak, Heinie or McCormack sights, a wild beavertail or a match-grade barrel.

Consensus Gun
It is more in line with what we call the Consensus Gun. It has a good set of sights, a safety of appropriate dimensions and a usable trigger; all that is really needed in a quality 1911 destined for defense use.

I cannot fault the fit and finish of this pistol. The fit of the barrel was good. When racking the slide, the locking lugs and link fell into place correctly. The trigger broke at a smooth 5° pounds after a bit of use. There was a minimum of take up and no creep or backlash. A good trigger for a factory gun as we say, it smoothed with use.

The pistol was supplied with black composite grips that properly support the plunger tube. The magazines are seven-round units, which I prefer for reliability. Overall, the gun was pleasing in finish and critical aspects.

Stainless steel once had a reputation for galling in constant use. Much of this difficulty has been solved by subtle changes in alloy, including using different alloys in the slide and frame. Before testing my Colt, I lubed it heavily with Birchwood Casey gun oil, expecting a break-in period.

The traditional 1911 break-in period requires 100 or more rounds be fired before the gun is in perfect firing order. A flat spot, a too long link or a burr may need to be worked in. Few modern 1911s require this break-in. My experience is they come out of the box shooting. My pistol was no exception.

Testing Ammo
I loaded my range bag with an eclectic supply of ammunition and magazines from Colt and Wilson Combat. I try to use four types of loads in 1911 pistol evaluations. I use cast bullet handloads first. If it does not work with these, then I will not be able to use the gun economically.

Next, I use hardball or the equivalent handload. If the gun will not feed hardball, it is sick. Then, I try a number of factory JHPs to test feeding and +P loads to test function. Quite a few normally reliable handguns began to malfunction with +P loads, so this is the "acid" test.

A self-defense handgun need not be fired for groups. I sight the gun in properly, but then it is best to fire the firearm quickly at man-sized targets and also small difficult targets to achieve proficiency. Quality guns are not inexpensive, but proficiency at arms is purchased with a different coin. Just the same, I included the results I obtained firing from a barricade­not a benchrest-at the police club. Preferring to stay in touch with reality, I do not own a machine rest.

The first 200 rounds were very pleasant. I had to touch the rear of the slide once to budge it forward but that was the extent of the "break-in." The pistol was pleasant, but I could tell I was shooting a gun lighter than my government-length pistol. More concentration was needed to hit the mark. Just the same, at 10 yards the pistol could place five bullets in one ragged hole. There was no four and one syndrome, which means the gun was properly fitted and that it was firing quality ammunition.

Quicker on Target
Moving to hardball and service ammunition, I drew and fired at man-sized silhouette targets at seven and 10 yards. The gun is a bit quicker on target than the Government Model. The holster used was from High Noon, a well-made scabbard, one of the better designs in America.

By shooting the elbow to the rear and scooping the gun from the holster, I was able to quickly place rapid hits on the target. I even did the Applegate Point on a few targets. I drew and fired as soon as the sights broke the plane between my eyes and the target. The gun performed well.

When firing +P loads, the gun definitely bucked more than the Government Model, bringing theories of slide momentum into question. The 1911 has a low bore axis. There is little angle for the muzzle to flip upwards. In a short pistol, this axis is off center, so to speak, so the equation is corrupted. I like this Commander, but it does kick more than full-size pistols. And it ran well with eight-round magazines, something all short slide guns do not do. Cor-Bon ammunition, my +P handloads, and the Federal Match loads performed well.

Overall, I like the gun very much. Enough to invest in a set of Bar S "ivory" grips which set the stainless finish off well. These grips feel warm in the palm after use, which I like very much. They won't fool a collector but they look nice. This pistol suits my personal tastes and has become a favorite defense handgun. This is a good gun, a keeper and one of the better versions of the 1911. Best of all, it is a Colt.

Sources

Colt's Manufacturing Co. Inc.
PO Box 1868, Dept. GWK
Hartford, CT 06144-1868
phone: 800-962-Colt
on-line: www.colt.com

High Noon Holsters
PO Box 2138, Dept. GWK
Palm Harbor, FL 34683
phone: 727-786-7528
on-line: www.highnoonholsters.com

Bar S/Tru Ivory Grips
#147
303 91st Ave. NE, Dept. GWK
STEG701
Everett, WA 98205
phone: 425-397-3595
on-line: www.truivory.com

25 Yard Barricade
(Fired weeks into evaluation, with over 800 rounds fired)
Load Velocity Group in inches
Cor-Bon 185-grain JHP 1,090 fps 4.0
Cor-Bon 200-grain JHP 1,011 fps 4.5
Wolff 230-grain FMJ 809 fps 5.0
Black Hills 230-grain RNL 770 fps 3.9
Black Hills 230-grain JHP 847 fps 3.5
Handloads
Oregon Trail 200-grain SWC/Titegroup 856 fps 3.0
Oregon Trail 200-grain SWC/Titegroup 779 fps 3.6
Oregon Trail 230-grain FP/Titegroup 801 fps 4.0
Sierra 230-grain FMJ/Bullseye 830 fps 4.25
Sierra 230-grain JHP/Unique
( A classic heavy +P handload that breaks 920 fps in full-size .45s)
877 fps 3.7


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