A Tad Shorter Can Be Better!
That ¾” affects weight, balance, sight radius, bullet velocity, muzzle jump —
also how the pistol holsters and hides.
Barrel lengths for pistols have ever been slaves to habit. In fact, standard measures of barrels for black-powder Colt revolvers remain standard for modern single-actions across brands. The 5″ barrel of the Colt 1911 Government pleased its inventor. Who was to question John Moses Browning?
No doubt some tried lopping the barrels of early autoloaders. But the 1911’s slide and manner of function made this change a lot harder than stubbing off revolver barrels. Then there was the loss of ballistic muscle and recoil control with frisky .45 ACP loads.
Still, the vision of a shorter 1911 took physical form as early as 1929, with the introduction of the .38 Super. The Super was essentially a hot-rodded .38 Colt Automatic, with same-weight (130-grain) .356″ bullets. Kicking those bullets out at 1,300 fps instead of 1,040, the Super had a definite edge — especially if the target was inside an automobile. During the Depression, when bank heists by the likes of Dillinger could erupt in volleys of rifle and pistol bullets and leave multiple corpses, penetration mattered as much as firepower. Colt evidently built a few .38 Supers, and at least prototypes with barrels shorter than the 5″ 1911 standard. Robbing banks eventually took a civil turn, and in 1935 the .357 Magnum upstaged the Super ballistically. Colt re-focused on the .45 ACP.
This Metro Arms 1911 is of Government-model proportions. The 5″ barrel is still most common.
Bullet velocity difference between 5″ and Commander-length 4 ¼” barrels? Figure 50 fps.
Wilson Combat offers carriage-class 1911’s in both lengths, alloy and steel, 9mm, .38 Super and .45.
A New Need
At the close of World War II, the US armed forces shifted to less urgent projects, one of which was replacement of the full-size 1911 pistol with a lighter, shorter handgun. Specs called for a 9mm pistol no longer than 7″ and no heavier than 25 ounces. Initially, it was to be a double-action self-loader, but that requirement was either shelved or skirted as ordnance officers requested entries from a handful of manufacturers. The short list of handguns included Browning’s High Power, the Smith & Wesson Model 39 and an alloy-frame Colt 1911 with 4 ¼” barrel.
Tests at Fort Benning and Aberdeen Proving Grounds brought no consensus from Army brass; a new official sidearm for Yanks in uniform was still 40 years away.
But in 1950 Colt started manufacturing a new Combat Commander on an aluminum “Coltalloy” frame. With a 4 ¼” barrel, it measured 7 ¾” and weighed just 26 ½ ounces — nearly 10 ounces less than a steel-frame Government model. Chambered also in .38 Super and .45 ACP, it became the first US pistol in 9mm Parabellum (9×19). In 1954, after rejection by the Army, Smith & Wesson’s Model 39 emerged as the first 9mm double-action manufactured Stateside.
Firing at distant steel from prone, a long sight radius makes sense. But ¾” won’t help you much.
With iron sights, Wayne gets 25-yard groups like this from Commander-length and 5″ barrels.
A “shoot house,” here at Gunsite Academy, tests your speed. Short barrels can prompt faster shots.
Early Combat Commanders bore an “LW” for “lightweight” after the model inscription. In 1970 Colt announced an all-steel version, re-naming its alloy-frame pistol the Lightweight Commander. Just three ounces lighter than the original 1911, the all-steel option made sense to Colt because Commanders were selling briskly — and overwhelmingly in .45 ACP. Recoil was more manageable with the heavier frame. The all-steel Commander came with either blued or satin nickel finish.
Colt has guarded its trade-marked Commander name. But the configuration has been adopted by most makers of 1911 Government models. Frames, incidentally, are the same; only the barrel, slide and slide components affected by the length reduction differ. The Commander’s hammer spur was designed to limit snagging, a change that can make it a bit elusive for a gloved thumb.
Some purists have questioned the durability of an alloy frame under a steady diet of full-power loads. But alloys have improved over the decades. Lightweight Commanders endure rigorous shooting schedules without failing. A frame crack near the slide stop pin has appeared after torture tests. But such fatigue has also plagued all-steel 1911’s. It’s not a serious problem and does not alone impair function.
Wilson Combat produces both steel- and alloy-frame 1911’s. “Steel is most popular, but I carry an alloy Compact,” Bill Wilson tells me, “Alloy frames should last 10,000 shots. We’ve never had to replace one.”
Ruger’s new stainless Commander-length SR1911 ranks among top bargains in a full field of 1911’s.
Ace pistol shooter Bill Wilson likes the 9mm as well as the .45, and alloy frames as well as steel.
In practiced hands like Bill Wilson’s, Commander-length pistols are controllable in recoil, accurate.
Too Many To List
Pistol catalogs now bulge with Commander-length 1911’s. They span a wide price range. Among new offerings: Remington’s R1 Carry. More refined than the R1 that eased Remington into this market, it features a beavertail grip safety, machine checkering on the front strap and mainspring housing, lowered and flared ejection port and Novak rear and tritium front sights.
I adore my Commander-length Smith & Wesson Scandium-frame 1911. This mid-weight .45 scales a tad less than 30 ounces. Another that hikes my pulse is the new all-steel Springfield Range Officer with 4″ barrel in 9mm. It weighs 31 ½ ounces. A series of SIG 1911’s under the “Carry” banner feature 4 ¼” barrels. Ruger now has an all-stainless 4 ¼” SR1911. Kimber’s list of alloy- and steel-frame pistols on this enduring design boasts compact models with 3″ barrels. Kimber labels these “Carry.” Its 4 ¼” guns comprise a “Pro” series.
This Commander-length .45 from Roberts Defense is one of Wayne’s favorites. Fine workmanship!
Both Government- and Commander-length pistols fit this fast but secure Galco Silhouette holster.
Like 5″ guns, Commander-length 1911’s merit trials with many types of ammo to find best loads.
Pro’s And Con’s
What do you lose with a shorter barrel and slide? Bullet velocity and sight radius come quickly to mind. But to say a Commander-length pistol is less effective or less accurate is a leap in logic. “Our tests show a loss of roughly 50 fps with stout .45 ACP loads in the 4 ¼” barrel, compared to the 5″,” says Dave Emary, senior ballistician at Hornady. Unless you’re out to topple distant steel, that difference is hardly significant. As for accuracy, reducing sight radius does affect aiming precision. But crunching numbers, I found the effect surprisingly small.
While sight radius differs slightly with sight type on same-length handguns, 6 ½” is a useful average on 1911 Government models. Figure ¾” less on Commander-length pistols. To show how error in sight alignment affects bullet displacement on target, I computed lengths and distances in quarter-inches. Thus, a 6 ½” barrel has a measure of 26, or 3 greater than the Commander’s 5 ¾” radius. A target at 25 yards is 3,600 “quarter-inches” away. An alignment error of .01 puts your bullet 1.385″ off-center from the Government model, 1.565″ off from the Commander. A .03 error moves impact 4.155″ and 4.695″ from the middle; .05 misalignment shifts it 6.925″ and 7.82″. Less than an inch difference for hands-width error at the target!
At 15 yards (2,160″) shot displacement is, of course, less: .831″ and .939″ for .01 error in alignment, 2.493″ and 2.817″ for .03 error. If the sights wobble .05″ out of line, bullets will strike 4.155″ and 4.695″ from center, for 5″ and 4 ¼” barrels — just half an inch difference!
Intrinsic accuracy from the short barrel should equal and may exceed that of the long one, as short barrels are stiffer. That’s why in some chamberings bolt-action pistols can outshoot many rifles. Perhaps more importantly, Commander-length 1911’s can be easier to aim. More of the weight is over your hand, where it’s easier to support. A long barrel’s generous sight radius can also work to your disadvantage, as it can delay your shot. A delay tires your arm.
Wobbles increase as you try to refine an ever-less-tractable sight picture. Try aiming, unsupported, a handgun with a 10″ barrel. It’s a challenge akin to that of using an exceedingly powerful rifle-scope. Hunters so equipped have lost their opportunity while trying to restrain dancing reticles. “I can see the target better with more magnification” is thin comfort when your sight jumps so wildly with every muscle tremor and heartbeat you can’t milk the trigger’s last ounce.
My substantial inventory of 1911’s reflects an early addiction. Most have 5″ barrels, but I’ve become increasingly fond of Commander-length guns. They balance well in hand, are lighter on my hip and ride more comfortably in my Galco Combat Master and Yaqui Slide holsters — less interference with automobile seats. Shooting paper, I find no significant difference in the average sizes of groups. On good days from bags, I can hold shots inside 2″ with irons. Same as with 5″ barrels.
Between 1902 and 1911, John Browning and Colt came up with a marvelous pistol. After solid service in two world wars, and a colorful half-century with criminals and law officers, it lost ¾” of what many shooters now think was unnecessary steel. A small change, if enough to generate yet more manuscripts on 1911’s.
By Wayne van Zwoll
Kimber’s 3″ Ultra Carry frame is smaller than that common to Commander and full-size 1911’s.
A 3″ 1911 is easy to conceal, but Wayne thinks the 4 ¼” more versatile, easier to shoot well.