Friday, February 10, 2017

Rock Island 1911 FS GI 9mm Review

Rock Island 9mm with some minor modifications

I picked up a Rock Island Armory 1911A1 5" FS (full-size, i.e. 5" Government Model) GI 9mm pistol from Sarco for about $430 with tax and transfer.  It's basically a replica of a Colt Series 70 pistol, not really a replica of anything that was issued by the U.S. military, at least not in large numbers.  I didn't want the Tactical model, because the grip safeties do not fit very well, the triggers are not adjustable for pre-travel, and I didn't want to use Novak-type sights.  The GI model is more of a blank canvas.

Why 9mm?  Well, I already have a 1911 in .45ACP, and I shoot a lot more 9mm, like 12 times more.  I have buckets full of 9mm brass.

The pistol came in a plastic hard case with one Mec-Gar 10-round magazine, and a chamber flag.  That's all.  The recoil spring is about 12 pounds, and the bushing is loose in the slide, so you really don't even need a bushing wrench.  A G.I. style L-shaped tool (as shown in photos above, purchased separately) with a slotted screwdriver and pin punch would be a nice and inexpensive addition for detail stripping and tightening grip screws (more on that a bit later).

Out of the box, I measured the trigger pull at 4 pounds, 10 ounces, which puts it about half way in the advertised range of 4-6 pounds.  A trigger job got it down to a crisp 3 pounds, 10 ounces.  I couldn't get any lower without hammer follow or making the reset weaker than I would like.  The hammer and sear are cast or probably Metal-Injection-Molded (MIM).  The hooks on the hammer were not terribly long, but they were pretty rough, and hooked (not 90-degrees).  The sear had a smooth edge, but no break-away cut.  I'm not sure how long that trigger job will last.  Hammers and sears EDM cut from hardened steel will last much longer than cast or MIM parts.

Stocks are completely smooth, plain wood with a surprisingly low density.  They almost feel like balsa wood.  I think they are comfortably sized, but provide no traction.  I did have the grips screws (plain slotted) loosen frequently with the wood panels, and I believe this was due to the screws sinking into the soft wood over time.  I know these are only a cheap placeholder, so that's all I'll say about the grips.

The pistol passed safety checks - thumb safety blocks the sear, and grip safety blocks the trigger.  I have not had any trouble disengaging the grip safety.  Thumb safety is single-side Colt Series 70 style.  The thumb safety firmly snicks on and off.  Not sure if the firing pin spring is extra power or not, but the firing pin is steel.  I'm not sure that the firing pin would pass a drop safety test the way the Springfield 1911s with titanium firing pins will, although it seems that RIA .38 Super and .45ACP pistols pass the safety test for sale in California, so I could be wrong.

The GI grip safety is not terribly comfortable, even on a 9mm pistol.  The tail on the grip safety is narrow, and is not at all rounded.  I didn't know what was going on, at first.  It seemed like the pistol was kicking far more than a 9mm full-size all-steel 1911 should.  After several shooting sessions, I noticed a callus had developed on the web of my hand.  The hammer was biting me, but not drawing blood.  Bobbing and rounding the hammer and "melting" the underside of grip safety tail make it a much more comfortable pistol to shoot.  After this modification, I fired over 200 rounds in one session with no discomfort.  It's like a completely different experience.  Changing to a commander hammer, and notching the grip safety to clear is a common fix for the same problem.

Although the barrel seems to lock up pretty well, the bushing is quite loose in the slide.  The slide also rattles on the frame a bit.  Best groups were about 3" offhand groups at 50 feet, which is about on par with most service pistols, but not as good as a match pistol.  A bushing that fits tighter to the slide and barrel would likely tighten up groups significantly, and a rear sight with a smaller notch would also help.  There is a lot of light showing on either side of the skinny little front sight.

First groups were about 2 inches high, and an inch and half to the left.  It is my intention to take or send the slide to a gunsmith to have it milled for a Bo-Mar adjustable sight, and have it flat-topped and serrated.  I can drift the rear sight for windage, but have no way to fix the elevation other than filing down the rear sight.  I tried 115, 124, and 147 grain bullets, and it always shoots high.

Reliability with standard velocity round-nose ammo is 100%, apart from magazine-related issues.  147gr flat-points were jammed hard into the ramp at the bottom edge of the barrel.  I got a couple of the flat-points into the chamber to fire, but I gave up after about 6 3-point jams.  The barrel appeared to be throated, and thus you would think would feed flat-point bullets.  That ramp at the bottom edge of the barrel is nearly vertical and the flat points just run right into it and stop dead.  Apparently this is not uncommon, as the manual says to use FMJ only, and other users report that their RIA 9mm pistols won't feed flat-point or hollowpoint ammo.  This is not exclusive to RIA pistols, as there are others with 9mm 1911s with non-ramped barrels reporting the same problem.

I'm debating whether I'm really that interested in buying a ramped barrel.  A good semi-drop-in barrel, with bushing pre-fit (Bar-Sto, Kart, Nowlin. . .) runs more than 50% of the price of the pistol.  The tools to gunsmith-fit a match barrel and bushing alone would cost more than the initial price of the pistol.  Take these costs into consideration when you look at pricing of something like a Dan Wesson, Les Baer, or STI pistol which might set you back $1200 or more.

My three magazines drop free - 2 of the Metalform 9-round ramped magazines and the 1 Mec-Gar that came with the pistol.  Getting the slide to lock back with the Metalform magazines required bending the tab on the follower out to the left side.  The steel follower of the Mec-Gar has the same problem, but can not be adjusted.  I may try to get Mec-Gar to send me one of the newer plastic followers, and see if that works better.

Modest bevel on the bottom edges of the slide, except for the slide catch notch, which is left square.

The ejection port is lowered and flared.  The magazine well is modestly beveled.  The bottom edges of the slide also have a small bevel - a nice touch.  Ejector is extended, but I believe that all 9mm ejectors are extended.  The pistol comes with a flat steel (not plastic) mainspring housing without any silly lock, although I changed it out for an arched Colt mainspring housing, because I'm used to the Glock grip.

Finish is a decent-looking and even dark-grey phosphate (Parkerized), at least it was before I clamped the slide in a vise and had to wail on the rear sight for 25 minutes to get it to move just a little to the right.  The matte black, "murdered out" look is kinda growing on me.  I added an extended Wilson slide-stop which is a matte blue, and it's a little darker in color, but you'd have to look pretty close to notice.  When I bobbed the hammer and "melted" the tail on the grip safety, I refinished with cold blue, and again, it's not something most people would notice without looking closely.

The bore was also phosphated, which I wasn't crazy about.  After 700 rounds, I thoroughly cleaned the barrel, including running the Lewis lead remover through a bunch of times.  The barrel now has a dull shine with a couple dark spots that I can't seem to remove.  The rifling is sharp and well-defined.  It's not up to the level of an old Colt or Smith & Wesson, or a match barrel, but let's remember that I bought the pistol new for less than $430 out-the-door.

Fortunately, RIA no longer puts a giant Rock Island billboard on the left side of the slide.  There is only a small white logo on the left side behind the cocking serrations.  This I will polish out eventually, before I get the slide blued.

As the base for a hobby gunsmithing project, it's a pretty good place to start - that's really why I bought it.  For a range pistol, it's okay, but you're probably never going to draw a crowd unless you paint is pink or zombie green.  For action matches, it will probably do well-enough with an adjustable sight, as bullseye accuracy isn't usually necessary.  The stock sights being actual G.I. style, are notorious for being hard to find.  Because of the feeding problem with non-round bullets, I don't recommend taking it out of the box, and using it as a defense pistol.  Keeping the bargain-basement price in mind, I guess it's not a bad deal.  It's only about 60% the price of a Springfield Range Officer, so you have some money to buy grips, a larger thumb safety, maybe a magazine well and beavertail grip safety and jig, and fit a tighter bushing, if that's what you want.  The Range Officer does come with an adjustable rear sight, fiber-optic front sight, and a ramped barrel, however.

Modifications as pictured - Wilson Combat extended slide stop lever and magazine catch.  Wolff 17 pound mainspring*.  Wolff sear spring.  Colt arched mainspring housing.  Ed brown reduced power mag catch spring.  Nowlin long match trigger.  Fusion small-radius stainless firing pin stop.  ProMag Tough Grips.

I'm not even close to being done with this pistol yet.  My intention is to build an 80's style custom pistol, complete with period holster rig.  Think along the lines of Pachmayr custom shop, Jim Hoag, and Richard Heinie.  Something that would've made Magnum P.I. drool, and considering trading in his Ferrari to free up some cash to get work done on his plain vanilla Mk.IV.  Maybe one of the dumbest ideas I've ever had, because I'll probably never be able to sell it, much less get out of it what I put into it in the 21st century.

Related Links:
Building a Low-Buck Shooter
Brownells Gun Tech - Jack Weigand 2 1/2 pound trigger pull instructions
Armscor/Rock Island Armory Home Page

* - Discovered that the Rock Island 9mm mainspring is 18 pound.  Didn't really need to change it, but I already had a 17 pound spring, and I didn't have to disassemble the mainspring housing, which is a little tricky.

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