Modified Rock Island Arms 1911 becomes consistent 1-inch pistol
by R.K. Campbell
For the better part of 30 years I have been in pursuit of a 1911 handgun that would group five shots into one-inch at 25 yards on demand. No matter what the difficulty in assembling first class ammunition, nor the expense, I wished to see my expectations met. Of course, expense is related to budget and some have more time and a larger budget. I am well aware of the mechanical accuracy ability of all of the popular handguns, and most are more than accurate enough for their intended task.
But the one-inch group at 75 feet was my lofty goal and one not easily met by man or machine. I could have cheated and dropped the requirement to three shots in one inch but then I would not have had a standard by which to compare results I began compiling in the late 1970s. No, five shots in one inch at 25 yards was the goal. Along the way I have come heartbreakingly close. I have fired the occasional one-inch group but true constituency and accuracy on demand have eluded me. One reason that the goal was so difficult was that I also demanded reliability. I simply was not willing to sacrifice reliability. I had seen too many too tight 1911 handguns hang up on the range and seen extractors give out in some of these pistols as well. My one-inch pistol would also be a reliable handgun. The 1911 is among the most reliable handguns ever designed as well as the most robust. Once I had my pistol set up properly I could expect the piece to last for many thousands of rounds. The pistol would be one for a shooter who practices and fires thousands of rounds in the course of a year’s time.
Another advantage I was not willing to compromise on is the 1911’s controlled-feed design. Some modern pistols have provided unsupported chambers and other short cuts to reliability. But the 1911 cuts no corners. The cartridge is loaded in the magazine and the magazine feed lips retain control of the cartridge until the cocking block moves the cartridge forward. The bullet nose bumps the feed ramp and the case rim is firmly snugged into the extractor and the case head is snugged against the breech face. The cartridge nose bumps up a little and the cartridge chambers. On firing the extractor brings the case out of the chamber and the ejector bumps it from the pistol. Those who understand the 1911 as I do are loath to polish a feed ramp or interfere in any way with this controlled feed design.
For many years my 1911 handguns were service pistols for serious duty. Today they still may be, although the threat profile is much lower. I like to tell students your probability of engagement may be low, but the possibility is endless. I am unfettered by some of the practical restraints I once adhered to. But the pistol would be a one-inch pistol with sterling reliability.
My train of thought led me to the Camp Perry matches and the pistols that won these matches. Now, there is accuracy! The first National Match pistols were basically heavy duty 1911 handguns with superb barrel-to-slide and bushing fit. Since the later model National Match handguns used adjustable sights, then my pistol would have adjustable sights as well.
My choice did not require much thought. The Bomar sight is vault tough and features excellent adjustment. Unfortunately this fine company is now out of business. The ability to precisely adjust the sight would prove important when testing loads with bullet weights of 185 to 260 grains. I had my dream sighting equipment when I added a Novak front post.
Next I considered the barrel. The barrel would be a Bar Sto Precision Machine match-grade, gunsmith-fit barrel. Long experience and excellent results in any number of 1911 handguns gave me little choice. Bar Sto it would be. I considered other criteria and dismissed the full length guide rod. There are genuine advantages of the FLGR as well as drawbacks. I like removing the slide, guide rod and spring intact and also like the rigid fit of the FLGR in most cases. But for ease of maintenance the FLGR world be deleted. I foresaw firing lots of ammunition and cleaning the piece frequently.
Next I considered the trigger. I desired a smooth trigger compression of 4 pounds even, perhaps just a little lighter. I used a new maker on this one, Dave Berryhill, with good results. The beavertail would be Smith and Alexander and the slide lock safety, Ed Brown. These parts were chosen from good experience in the past. I also added a Wilson Combat slide locknot extended!and a Wilson Combat Bullet Proof extractor.
As I was compiling my wish list, I realized that it was time to concentrate upon the frame and slide. I wished to own a traditional 1911 in appearance without any design feature to detract from a traditional look. Once I learned that Rock River Arms frames are strengthened in comparison to other 1911 frames, there was no real choice. I have seen 1911 frames cracked and the pistol just keeps shooting, but I recall immense remorse when I cracked the frame of a nickel-plated Series 70 some 20 years ago. That is what thousands of rounds of pin loads will do for you. I also used a duty load composed of a Hornady 250-rain XTP over enough Unique powder for 938 feet-per-second (fps). The frame had to give and while I feel I have matured and no longer contribute to the delinquency of handloaders, my match loads scattered the pins like nobody’s business.
My Rock River Arms pistol was ordered bare. The slide was virgin with no sight cut and the frame was bare, although I received the pins and bushings. The slide and frame were well fitted and glided smoothly over each other. While Don Williams of the Action Works machined the slide for sights he also gave the frame a flat top cut similar to the Gold Cup but with much more style. This cut is reminiscent of the flat top first introduced on the Randall 1911 and followed by the Colt Enhanced Model, but Action Works does a better job. I like the overall effect. The pistol was delivered with front strap checkering. You really need checkering for good adhesion during combat drills. But it is overlooked that such checkering aids in maintaining a consistent purchase on the handgun time and again, shot after shot. Patience was needed in accumulating the parts, and the Action Works is a shop in great demand. From the time I received the Rock River Arms frame and slide and began ordering the appropriate parts to the time the piece was in my hands and complete was four years. I did some of the work, but Don Williams did the barrel fitting and machine work. Jim Dunbar did the action work.
When completed, the pistol was not the overly tight type you sometimes see. The pistol is very smooth, with the Bar Sto barrel and bushing offering a good tight fit. The slide and frame move together smoothly but the three-point pedestal fit of the barrel, hood and locking lugs is just right. As for feed reliability, the gap between the two parts of the feed ramp, the barrel and frame portion, are perfectly set at 1/32 inch. After some time with tactical pistols, I did not include a magazine guide into the design of my pistol. I elected to use Wilson Combat ETM magazines for service use. The less variables to consider, the better.
I also did not consider the ambidextrous safety as I do not need it. Forward cocking serrations may seen extraneous but they are very finely done. In this day of large, broad forward cocking serrations that are primarily ornamental, the Rock River Arms slide cuts are exceptionally well done. The final step was to order a set of Paladin grips with my initials and the famous Paladin Knight emblem. These grips are smooth but offer some purchase by virtue of the raised emblem. These well designed 1911 grips offer practical fit and, with the checkered front strap, sufficient adhesion for repeatable accuracy.
Firing the pistol was greeted with some anticipation. Not long ago I tested a high-end factory pistol that dumped its magazine catch early during the testing. I experienced a break-in period with others. The Rock River should not have experienced any problems and it did not. My first firing sessions began with a magazine of Winchester 230-grain hardball blasted into the berm as quickly as I could press the trigger. We were off to a good start with a smooth barrage. I have to admit I virtually skipped the combat shooting, fast shooting at steel targets and the like that I usually subject the newest 1911 to. I moved to a number of handloads that have proven accurate in any number of other 1911s. The rear sight picture was perfect as I focused on the bold front post and squeezed off several rounds. With the six o’clock sight picture, the bullets struck the X ring at 15 yards without adjustment.
My first group, using the Montana Bullet Works 200-gr. LBT bullet over enough Tite Group for 850 fps, sailed into one inch at 15 yards. I fired a represenative sample of loads, five rounds at a time, and discovered that quite a few went into less than one inch at 15 yards. The other 30 feet is the challenge. With sufficient time on the trigger and acclimation to the sights, I felt that I was ready to address accuracy at a long 75 feet on the next outing.
With a beautiful sunny day and some anticipation, I settled into the benchrest with a number of proven loads. I did not go cheap by firing three-round groups or firing the first round into the berm to set the action. No flyers or one round out of the group excuses. I was testing the handgun in one regard but also my mettle as a shooter and handloader. Owning the piece did not make me a shooter any more than my RCBS Rock Chucker makes me a handloader!
The first test group was fired with the Black Hills 200-grain SWC. The average of the first three groups was 1.25 inches. I settled down, rubbed my wrists, and fired a string with the CorBon Performance Match 230-grain ball loading. I was rewarded with a 1.2 inch standard. I also had on hand the FBI service load, Winchester’s 230-grain Bonded Core. This one went into 1.8 inches, excellent for a full power service load. The thought struck me that perhaps the pistol would be superbly accurate with anything! Not so! I loaded the piece with Wolf 230-grain ball, a reliable and affordable practice load. While 3.5 inches isn’t bad with this load, this is not tack-driving accuracy. One of my bulk loads using the Oregon Trail 230-grain RNL bullet with enough WW231 for 790 fps fell into a 2.25-inch groupvery nice for an economical high production practice load.
A handgun such as the Rock River Arms is purchased partly based on performance and partly based upon intangibles. Subjective factors are equally important. Made in America, hands on, by people who know pistols, is another component of pride of ownership. Being pleased with the pistol and its initial results I undertook a hand loading project. I carefully worked up loads that met the magic one-inch standard consistently. The results I was looking for are there. The Rock River Arms custom pistol began with good material from a respected maker and, with a little help from reputable pistolsmiths, it did the business. While the pistol prefers one load to the other, it is severely accurate with a variety of good service loads. That is all we may ask.
||25 yd. group
|Oregon Trail 200-gr. SWC, 4.5 Bullseye, 840 fps
|Oregon Trail 200-gr. SWC, 5.5 WW 231, 866 fps
|Sierra 200-gr., JFP, 5.0 Titegroup, 853 fps
|Nosler 185-gr. JHP, 8.2 WSF, 1,020 fps
||25 yd. group
|Cor Bon Performance Match 230-gr.
|Cor Bon 230-grain +P
|Black Hills 200-gr. SWC
|Black Hills 230-gr. JHP
|Winchester 230-gr. Bonded Core
|Winchester 230-gr. SXT
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