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S&W Performance Center 1911s

S&W Performance Center 1911s
The Boomers Brothers. High-End Custom Meets Affordability.

Okay, settle down, folks; I know they’re awfully pretty, but take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and let’s clear the air, okay?

I suspect like me, many of you have developed a love-hate relationship with 1911 pistols over the past decade or so. Since everybody in the world with access to a machine or two have started making them, including outfits like Fred & Earl’s Fine Lawn Furniture & Firearms, we’ve seen iterations of the classic which would make ol’ John Moses weep with pride — and, in some cases, just plain weep. I’m no longer anxious to examine “new” 1911s. I figure, like new model trucks, if they last a season without massive recalls and catastrophic failures, then I might check ’em out.

However, assignments are assignments, and for the first time His Illuminated Immenseness Roy-Boy wasn’t even snickering or sneering when he said, “I think you might like these.” He didn’t sound medicated, either … just sorta semi-normal. “Huh?” I thought.

With all the variances in quality I’ve experienced, pretty appearances don’t count for much. But I can learn a lot from pickin’ ‘em up, pointing and swinging them, racking the slide, shaking them side to side like a dog shakin’ the water off, clickin’ the controls and then carefully and repeatedly pressing their triggers. I liked what I learned.

The Boomer Brothers

Released simultaneously from Smith & Wesson’s Performance Center, we have the Custom SW1911, an all-stainless 5″-barreled platform optimized for competition, and the Round Butt SW1911, a scandium alloy-framed lightweight packin’ pistol with a 4.25″ barrel and a trimmed backside that slides smoothly under garments.

Both are chambered in .45 ACP and share the full range of Performance Center upgrades.

Both have match-grade barrels with hand-cut chambers, appropriately throated, with hand-polished feed ramps, precision-crowned muzzles and Briley spherical bushings. The barrels have a sleek, slick, hard black finish unmentioned in the documents. I asked a Smith & Wesson executive about it. He said it’s “…a stainless steel blacking process we call Black Magic” — and that’s all I got. There are several goops and an oxide process using that name, but who knows? Hmm …

The slide and frame rails are hand lapped, with no wiggle, no slop; not even the faintest hint of inconsistent tightness throughout the full slide travel of both our test samples. Both have match grade hand-tuned triggers with over-travel stops, skeletonized speed hammers, gracefully upswept beavertail grip safeties dished to accommodate the hammers, ambidextrous thumb safeties, and angled lightening cuts in their slides. They also share oversized external extractors, visible loaded-chamber indicators, full-length solid steel guide rods, and we note that even the butts of the guide rods, like the grip safeties and several other parts, are gently radiused and smoothed.

Like all Performance Center firearms, the exacting tolerances are further enhanced by the personal attention of Smith & Wesson’s master gunsmiths, producing expertly tuned actions and precisely mated components.

An industry professional who can’t be named because of his affiliation with other makers examined them and concluded, “Well, what you’ve got here is upwards of $2,500 worth of gun and custom shop work for about $1,500. A pretty fine deal, I’d say; the advantage of having a dedicated performance shop operation in-house.”

Brothers — Not Twins

The slide and frame of the Custom (the big one) are bead-blasted for glare reduction and a nice matte appearance. The sights are bold and black, with the front sight’s forward-angled face and the rear sight’s big, rearward-angled surface horizontally fine-line grooved to minimize any reflection. The front sight is drift adjustable horizontally, and the rear is micro-adjustable both horizontally and vertically.

Distinctive fish-scale slide cocking serrations provide an excellent grasp. The lightening cuts, three diagonal ports on each side of the slide, are nice looking and serve their weight-reducing purpose, but I wouldn’t use them for press checking. Their angle and position isn’t right for that, and I’m sure the Smith & Wesson engineers didn’t intend them to be used that way. The ambi-thumb safeties are ample without excessive projection.

The frontstrap has extremely fine 30 LPI checkering from its base right up to where the middle finger snuggles under the triggerguard, where it’s smooth and relieved. The flat mainspring housing has slightly more aggressive checkering, in exactly the right balance with the finer checkered frontstrap. The blue G10 grips are “decoratively functional”; smooth where the trigger finger and thumb need a little freedom, checkered toward the lower front and grooved toward the lower back, right where you need more and less firm purchase.

A black metal magazine well extension is generously flared and perfectly mates inside with the frame’s flared mag well. It extends downward about one-quarter inch, and is open at the front. This brings the rubber base pad of the supplied magazines almost, but not quite, flush with the bottom of the extended mag well, and leaves the toe of the base pad available. The magazines, which are seamless stainless steel 8+1s, punched out smartly and dropped freely, but if one stuck you could pinch the protruding toe of the mag base pad and pull it out — a nice touch.

Inside, in addition to the polished feed ramp, the interior and exterior of the muzzle bushing is well polished, as are the locking lugs on the barrel, the lug recesses and the cocking surface of the slide. The result is a smooth, superb lockup, made even more consistent by the Briley spherical bushing.

The trigger pull is just outstanding for competition; no creep, virtually zero take-up, and a miniscule reset. Measured with a Lyman electronic gauge, the very crisp trigger pull was 3 pounds, 12 ounces.

Talk about attention to teensy little details: Y’know the slide-stop lever shaft, which protrudes slightly from the right side of the frame? I noticed there was a tiny flat machined on the end. Every one I’d ever seen was simply rounded. I had to ask my go-to gunsmith/consultant Kenny M about it. He fingered it and chuckled.

“It’s the kind of thing only a nit-picky master ’smith would think of,” he said. “See, if you ever had to put a punch to it, you’d have a nice flat surface to mate with, so there’s less chance of slipping and marring the finish.”

At 8.7″ long and weighing 40.5 ounces dry and 49.5 ounces fully loaded with nine 230-grain rounds, it’s not a candidate most might carry, but for match shootin’, the heft, hold, balance and all the competition-oriented enhancements seem perfect.

The Feisty Little Brother

Oh, dudes, now we’re talkin’ fighting pistol! At 7.9″, 29.6 ounces dry and 38.6 “wet,” if the Custom is a lion on the firing line, the Round Butt is a saber-toothed tiger on the prowl. The difference in weight — attributable to the anodized scandium frame — and length, is only the quantifiable difference, and not as significant as the difference in balance, agility in the hand and fast pointing and handling; the essential determinants of what really distinguishes a carry-and-fighting pistol. The RB feels live, alert and wired, and points just like pointing my index finger.

Select a target, like a 4″ circle at 10 yards or 2″ at 5 yards. With the pistol in hand at low ready, focus on the target, close your eyes, point the pistol and open your eyes. How close are you to “on target,” and more importantly, how straight and even is your sighting plane aligned? The RB is an ace for me; a natural pointer, and it moves from target to target, well, like it’s wired. It’s almost embarrassing, like I gotta ask myself, “Are you blowin’ smoke up yer own skirt, dude?” Nope.

All the Performance Center enhancements are present on the Round Butt too; so let’s examine the differences, from top to bottom. The sights are classic carry: a three white-dot system, low profile but highly visible, and quick on pickup. The front post is drift-adjustable, as is the rear sight, which is also secured with a setscrew. The top of the slide has a lowered and flattened track with fine, machined lengthwise grooves. Between lowering the reflecting surface and striating it, the effect minimizes glare. On either side of the skeletonized speed hammer, the butt-end sides of the slide are similarly grooved horizontally, again, to minimize glare. The top edges of the RB’s slide are far more beveled and radiused than those on the Custom, lessening bulk, aiding a smooth draw, and gliding better under fabric.

I’ve had very little experience with rounded-butt 1911s, and they were briefly borrowed hand-built custom jobs way beyond my reach. But having handled this one and feeling the difference, I’m sold. Losing the sharply defined back corner of the frame tucks the butt a bit further into the meat of the heel of my hand, yielding more comfort, control, and I think it contributes significantly to the RB’s superb pointability. I handled those custom round-butts a long time ago and memory fades, but it seems to me Smith & Wesson got the geometry just right with this one.

For most handgunners, I think all it would take is placing a traditional squared-butt 1911 side by side with the Round Butt, then alternately gripping and pointing them, simulating recoil effect by having someone reach over and cycle the slide. Whether you’re in the market for a Round Butt or not, it can be a revealing experience. Trying it, an old shootin’ buddy said, “It makes the grip feel more like my favorite round-butt revolver.”

The RB’s G10 grips look like thin laminated sheets of orange and dark wood, and the flowing basically vertical grooves and dimensions promote a grip that’s “sticky without stickin’,” if you know what I mean. At centerline they are minimally thicker — a millimeter or two — than the Custom’s grips, but significantly more tapered down in the forward and rearward thirds. The bottom ends of the grips are well tapered and the mag well is adequately beveled, and leaves the mag base pad completely exposed for grabbin’ — a good thing on a fighting pistol.

The crisp, fine-tuned trigger correctly has just a bit more take-up than the Custom’s, and broke clean at 3 pounds, 14 ounces to 4 pounds. Reset is short and sweet. If you’re thoroughly accustomed to a short take-up, creep free, relatively light trigger pull, you’ll love it. But if you’re used to a longer pull and heavier press, this ain’t a trigger to immediately start carrying into possible lethal threat stress situations. Train that digit with lots of practice first, okay?

My highly technical and scientific assessment: The Custom makes you want to go out and punch some bull’s-eyes with a smug, serene smile. The Round Butt makes you wanta blast the blazes outta multiple surprise pop-ups and smash a line of steels while grinnin’ like a polecat.

Briley Bushing Brief

If you’re not familiar with the Briley spherical bushing, I’m not an expert but I’ll give it a shot: It’s like a bushing within a muzzle bushing. Take a closely fitted muzzle bushing and machine a circular race into the inside surface just a tad back from the exit. Into that race, place a precisely machined ring of a steel alloy given a titanium nitride treatment. This produces a super-smooth extremely hard, virtually friction-free surface. Now your barrel rides on and is centered by the inner bushing while being stabilized longitudinally by the conventional bushing. Friction and wear is reduced, and the possibilities of play diminished.

There were no instructions on the Briley spherical bushing in the included manual. Smith & Wesson might fix that by the time you read this. Thankfully it’s not hard to figure out. When the piece is disassembled, stick your finger into the bushing until you’ve got a light “compression hold” on that titanium-nitrided ring. Slowly and gently rotate the ring while applying light upward pressure. You’ll feel the ring clear two recesses and you’ll pull it right out. I asked my gunsmith pal what kinda fancy specialized tool he uses for that. He smiled and held up his trigger finger.

“Standard Index Digit, Mark I Mod Zero, Service Issue,” he said. “Want the NSN number? Brownells carries it.” Smartass …
Reinsert the same way, gently rotating until the ring slips back into the race. I recommend sparingly lubing the end of the barrel and interior of the muzzle bushing (including very lightly wiping the interior of that race) with a high-quality, thin, light lubricant, because tolerances are precise. Don’t worry about the ring poppin’ out of its race under fire — it won’t.

The Range Report

Do not buy a Custom unless you’re really, really good, or purty dang good and trying hard for “really-really.” Otherwise it will drive you screamin’ bugnutz not being able to shoot up to the capabilities of this gun. There we were, the Rat Canyon Crew, less the “Over The Hill Gang” as in the Dragged-Over-The-Hill Gang, held shakily upright by bolts, staples and duct tape, tryin’ to shoot like Camp Perry competitors. I’m a service-issue gun guy, all about getting on target fast and shootin’ fast enough, good enough, and the others?

“I don’t shoot groups at 25 yards; I shoot patterns,” sez one, the other adding, “I shoot 1-hole groups — with one shot, maybe.” We were cussin’ ourselves and each other before it was over, only later realizing that first, for us, we were doin’ great! — And second, we just weren’t up to the gun.

We shot freestanding, no rest or bracing, 2-handed at 25 and 20 yards, 1-handed at 15. If you took out called flyers we woulda scored some 1.75″ to 2.5″ groups at 25. Yeah, I know: woulda, coulda. The pistol loved Hornady’s HAP Steel Match 185- and 230-grain loads, with the 230s having a little edge over the 185s.

It was infuriating. Pop this puppy in a Ransom Rest or even into the hands of a Master Class shooter and I’ll bet she’ll tear single ragged holes. We did however get some nice groups at 20: a 1.25″ group with Black Hills 230-grain ball, and a ragged 1-holer measuring an honest 1″ center-to-center with AYSM 230-grain JHP Tactical XTP. Almost outta ammo at 15 yards, we got a sweet 1-handed 1.75″ group with 230 HAP. Those let us sleep that night, but still … Grrrr …

The Round Butt will probably shoot better than you can hold it too. Shot 2-handed at 15 yards firing “cadenced” at one to 1.5 seconds per shot, we got some 2″ groups, and 1-handed at 7, we got one down to 1.10″. We were shooting Federal HST Tactical 230-grainers, Black Hills 185-grain Barnes Tac-XP+P and CorBon 185-grain DPX; all ferocious butt-kickers, about equally accurate. Light as it is, the RB definitely has some torque with these loads, but thanks to the fine grip, it’s surprisingly controllable.

Personally, I was most impressed with the RB’s rapid-fire performance. Once you get used to the short reset on that light, crisp trigger, rapid doubles at 7 yards were only an inch apart. Cool, huh?

And by the way, there were zero failures to feed, extract or eject with either pistol, with any ammo — maybe not a surprise. But remember, even my group of less than steller hole-punching miscreants know how to provide a rock-solid platform for an auto, and even we have enough sense to use good maintenance techniques and good ammo. Do the same and I’you’ll have equally reliable work out of this pair.

Okay; time to put this behind me and go back to my “Lance-Corporal-in-a-Mudhole-Class 1911.” Connor OUT.

For more info: www.americanhandgunner.com/smith-wesson, (800) 331-0852

By John Connor

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