Downsizing The .45 ACP Part 1

By John Taffin

After WWII the US military decided it was time to come up with a smaller, lighter 1911, and also one chambered in 9mm to match our NATO allies. Colt went to work on the Government Model shortening the barrel and slide, replacing the steel frame with an alloy version, and chambering it in 9mm. Unlike 1986 when the military dropped the .45 and adopted the 9mm Beretta, this 9mm was not accepted by the government and the decision was made to stay with the standard .45 ACP.

Fortunately for shooters Colt decided to build the new model for the civilian market. I was still in grade school when Colt came out with their first Lightweight .45 ACP. They cut the barrel and slide length of the standard Government Model by just under 1″ and went with an alloy frame, resulting in the Commander, which at 26 ounces is 2/3 the weight of a standard 1911.

In early 1950’s I first saw this new pistol in the Gun Digest when it was known as “The New Lightning Colt — The Zephyr Commander.” Go into your local shop and ask to see a Colt Zephyr and see what kind of looks you get! The new Commander was not only offered in the originally designed 9mm and .45 ACP but also .38 Super as well. Although the military was looking for something smaller and lighter they did not accept any of the various versions which were offered.

My first 1911 was a military surplus .45 ACP I picked up sometime in 1956-57. That was the only 1911 I had until 1968 with the passing — by Congress in their ultimate wisdom — of the GCA ’68. We really didn’t know what effect this all-encompassing law would have so many of us bought as much as we could before it went into effect. For me it meant opening a charge account at a local department store. In those days virtually all our Idaho department stores and grocery stores had gun departments, and bought not one but three Commanders. They had a Lightweight .45 ACP as well as 9 mm and .38 Super Commanders, and I bought them all. Unfortunately, I let the 9mm get away in a trade, however the other two have been companions now for more than 45 years.

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Iver Johnson’s Hawk shoots very well and is quite affordable.

The Family Grew

Over the years I’ve added other Colt Commanders. One very special one is an all-steel Custom Colt Commander by the late Jimmy Clark. Jimmy fitted it with adjustable sights, Beavertail safety, group tightener, trigger job, satin nickel finish — essentially everything to make it a first-class pistol. It shoots like a target gun and I completed the job by adding very attractive staghorn stocks. This is one of the best carry pistols I have ever encountered.

Two other Colt Commanders have also been added, both chambered in the marvelous .38 Super. The Commander in .38 Super is the equivalent of a short-barrel .357 Magnum sixgun and does it with almost double the capacity.

Bill Wilson’s version of the Commander is The Professional. My original Colt Commander was, and is, a good pistol. It did, however need help to make it really usable. That help consisted of high-visibility fixed sights, a beavertail grip safety and polishing of the ramp to allow it to handle anything other than hardball. In today’s dollars, that 1968 Colt cost me more than the price of the Wilson Professional Model which needs absolutely nothing to make it perfectly reliable and perfectly usable, except possibly custom grips. Since this is now my personal pistol, I have fitted it with skip-checkered grips from Herrett’s.

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Wilson’s Professional Model is reliable
and exceptionally accurate.

Shooting Wilson’s

The Professional Model from Wilson Combat has a barrel length just over 4″, the weight is a gnat’s hair under 36 ounces according to my postal scale, and the trigger pull, which is guaranteed to be between 31/4 and 33/4 pounds comes in at 35/8 pounds. Next comes the easy handling features such as the Wilson Combat High Ride Beavertail grip safety, the Extended Tactical thumb safety, the Ultralight Trigger and matching Commander style Ultralight hammer, and the 30 LPI checkering on the front strap and mainspring housing. The fine line checkering allows for a very secure feeling while shooting. The ejection port has been lowered and flared for ease of ejection of fired brass and the rear of the slide has serrations for easy cocking. It’s also been neatly de-horned.

Sights on the Wilson Professional Model are a perfect choice for this .45, consisting of Wilson Tactical Combat sights. These also serve well as night sights with three tritium round dots, one on each side of the rear notch and one in the face of the front sight. The finish is Armor-Tuff, a chemical and heat resistant thermally cured finish that provides a satin matte surface. Test shooting revealed it to deliver reliable 11/4″ to 11/2″ groups at 20 yards.

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Taffin’s .45 Commanders include a Lightweight
factory version and a custom by Jimmy Clark (right).

The Hawk And Ruger

There are many manufacturers offering their versions of the Commander. The Hawk is Iver Johnson’s Commander-sized 1911 and, except for the sights and shorter frame and slide, it has all of the same features as their full-sized Eagle 1911. The sights are combat style mounted in dovetails and provide a large black, easy to see sight picture. Mine came in the matte finish which makes it a natural for packing in an inside the waistband holster. Originally, the Hawk had a much too heavy trigger pull at 8 pounds; even so I managed to get some excellent groups with it. The best factory loads for the Hawk proved to be Black Hills 230-gr. JHP +P at 926 fps and the CCI Blazer 230-gr. FMJ at 888 fps; both group in 11/2″; my two handloads with the RCBS #45-201 also do well with groups at 13/4″ or less.

The importance of the 1911 is easily seen by the fact Ruger brought out their full-size 1911 for the 100th Anniversary celebration and then followed up with their Commander. In the twilight of my life the most important feature on any handgun is the sights. I can live with a heavy trigger and overcome it, however there is no overcoming hard to see sights. The sights on the Ruger 1911 are excellent and the same sights have been carried over to their stainless steel Commander version. Both the front and rear sights are set in a dovetail and can be adjusted for windage. They are Novak-style, set low, and there are no sharp edges on the rear to injure the hand when a quick positive operation of the slide is used to chamber a cartridge. Sights are black with white dots and provide a good square, easy to see, for me, sight picture.

Ruger’s 1911 trigger is skeletonized aluminum with, if you desire such a thing, an adjustable over-travel stop. My original SR1911 has a clean, crisp trigger which measures 43/4 pounds. That on the Commander is about 1 pound heavier and was a little gritty to begin with. The latter has been worked out with several shooting sessions.

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Ruger now also offers their
SR1911 in a Commander style.

Fixing Fixed Sights

One of the problems inherent with fixed sights is the fact that all loads do not shoot to the same point of impact. With adjustable sights it simply requires a few clicks of the rear sight screw to compensate. With the Ruger 1911 I found most loads shot 1″ to 2″ high at 20 yards for me, which can easily be addressed by replacing the front sight with a taller version. However with the sights just as they are this 1911 shoots right to point of aim with 230-gr. round-nosed cast bullets at 850 fps. With the Commander I found just the opposite, and most groups printed just slightly lower than point of aim. In fact all I possibly need to do to adjust both pistol’s sights is to swap front sights.

The Ruger SR1911 Commander never failed to feed, fire, or extract; performance was absolutely perfect. My most accurate handload is the Oregon Trail 200-gr. SWC over 5.5 grs. of Bullseye for 915 fps and a 20-yard, 5-shot group of just 3/4″! The two most accurate factory loads are both designed for target shooting, the 1965 Match and Winchester 230-gr. FMJ. They clock out at 808 fps and 848 fps respectively with both loads placing their five shots into 11/4″ at 20 yards. Every load tested exhibited more than adequate self-defense accuracy. For every day carry with the .45 Ruger Commander I would go with Black Hills 230-gr. JHP +Ps at 875 fps or Buffalo Bore’s 200-gr. JHP +Ps at just over 1,000 fps.

The Colt Commander was only the beginning when it came to downsizing the .45 ACP. In Part Two we’ll look at the Star PD and the Colt Officer’s ACP and many of the really compact firearms that followed.

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