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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rock Island Armory’s Nickel GI M1911-A1FS

I should know, by now, that there are just some guns I can't get along without. A good Winchester 94, .45 Colt  Single Action and caplock rife are necessary personal effects. So it goes with the 1911A1- and I'd been a couple of years without one. So I loaded the mule with trade goods and headed off to the rendezvous. A new Rock Island ‘GI’ in bright nickel scratched my '1911 Itch' this time. The shiny sumbuck just about defies photography, at least at my skill level. As it came from the box:

…and here, with the slick OEM grips swapped out for some GI brown plastic. Not so pretty, but much easier to shoot well.

Bumper-Chrome 1911’s

When I was a kid, you'd occasionally see USGI surplus .45's which at some point, had been handed off to cousin Larry who worked at Acme Chrome Plating. Larry would sneak it into work and plate it with the next batch of bumpers that went through. Eventually these pistols ended up gunshops, where kids like me would slobber all over the display case until somebody ran us off. I think I am genetically predisposed toward redheads and nickel plated handguns.

Shots Fired! Well, sort of…

Got a box of 'Precision Cartridge' 45 ACP with the gun and ran a couple of mags through it this afternoon. Or tried to. Banga-choke-banga-banga-choke-choke. Failure to return to battery combined with push-feeding ahead of the extractor- which was obviously tensioned way too tight. The RIA factory 'ACT' (up) mag also does not impress, and presents the round low into the feedramp. I was getting pissed… it was cold, windy and yet another brand-new 1911 had failed to function well enough to empty a magazine. I fired one ‘single feed’ 20 yard group. Looks like it shoots a tad right.

Or not... Speaking of sights, the guy who polished this pistol missed the flaw on the front strap; but he thoughtfully turned the front sight into something resembling those mirrored-ball pedestal ornaments  you see in little old ladies' yards. I shot it again the next day, with the sun directly overhead, it printed right on the sight. A little careful file work on the front sight eliminated the glare problem. Function was still lousy, but I single-loaded the piece and shot a couple of standing unsupported groups at 25 yards, about like one pictured. This with a 7 pound (scaled) trigger, nonetheless.

Under the Hood

Even with CMC Powermags and different ammo, I got a number of FTRB's as soon as the gun got a trifle dirty. I googled around a bit and it seems that a number of barrels with tight chambers slipped through QC. This Rock Island’s chamber doesn't even mike a full .480 at the rear, so my usual luck is holding. Lordy, I should open a lemonade stand. I certainly have a gift for finding raw material.

There are other gremlins in the shiny corn-sheller, which became apparent upon disassembly. The extractor was so tight in its tunnel I that I had to drive it out with an old aluminum cleaning rod. Perhaps they didn't account for surface build-up from the plating on both parts. Regardless- instead of correcting an obvious problem, the assembly-chimp just pounded the extractor into place with his little leather hammer.

I freed the offending part, worked the shank down on a 400 grit diamond stone and reset the tension. Ball and 230 Golden Saber hand-cycled ‘just OK’ when fed from a decent magazine. A second tune-up of the extractor involved filing proper feed and clearance bevels on its nose and groove; this helped a bunch and hand-cycling became downright slick. The extractor itself seems to be of good quality steel and judging from the effort taken to reset it, I’d say the heat-treating is excellent. I generally replace low-buck extractors with an Ed Brown unit, for peace of mind.

When your new pistol has problems, it would be easy to overlook its good points; so let's touch on some of those. To Rock Island’s credit, the firing pin stop plate is literally perfect. I’ve fitted many an oversize stop plate and they simply nailed this one. This is desirable because when properly fitted, this part stabilizes the extractor itself and promotes good, consistent extraction and ejection. It is refreshing to see this in a budget 1911A1. Random micrometer readings around the frame, slide and internals indicate a commendable effort to follow the blueprint. The slide to frame fit is considerably tighter than your typical 1911 knock-off. I'd rate this one as good or better than the last few Springfields I've had in my hands. In parts of the slide and frame you don't see, when the gun is assembled, this Rock Island blows Springfield out of the water. These surfaces are literally finished as well as any production 1911 I've ever seen- and that says something.

Outwardly, the Rock Island barrel is excellent. It mics a proper and perfectly-round 0.580” at the muzzle and reduces to 0.575” about three-quarters of an inch back; essentially ‘match’ barrel external dimensions. Internal and external finish, lugs the upper and lower lugs are very well executed. The rifling is a tad shallow- our only clue that we aren’t looking at a match barrel, after all.  The ‘wadcutter throat’ on this barrel is odd, running up the impact surfaces of the barrel further than it needs to; it also stops short of the bottom of the barrel. But the bore is very well finished and doesn't look like it will collect lead. I see nothing in the barrel that says it won't meet my personal ‘carry gun accuracy standard’ of 4” @ 50 yards.

I’ve mentioned this gun’s sluggishness, in failing to return to battery. Even sparkling clean, this was evident in hand cycling certain ball rounds.  I originally attributed this to excessive extractor tension, but I was only partially correct.

I also noted that the chamber dimensions were tight, but even a tight-chambered 1911 will usually run for 200 rounds or so before it gets sluggish. My old ’45 Ithaca had a tight-chambered, 7-digit stainless National Match barrel, yet in four days I burned over 700 rounds of 200 LSWC reloads through it at NRA LE Instructor School (Topeka, 1991) in near 100 degree temps, with no malfunctions at all. That particular gun had the full AMTU treatment at some point in its life. I did a similar rebuild on a Colt Combat Commander in the late 70’s; fitted Bar-Sto barrel, tightened rails, the works. This was back when I still had eagle-eyes and that gun produced more than a few 5-shot, 2 ½”50 yard rested groups. It ran great, too. So I know that ‘tight’ guns can be reliable.

Something else was going on here and in an effort to identify ‘what’, I dug out an old Auto Ordnance barrel I’ve had laying around for years. It ran like a top, but had chatter marks in the rifling so I’ve never used it for serious shooting. Take a look at the front of the chambers on both barrels. The Rock Island barrel is on the right:

As mentioned, I think A/O did a much better job with their ‘wadcutter throat’; but I digress. A closer look at the Rock Island chamber, here:

There is next to NO leade into the rifling, which is bad ju-ju for the wadcutter loads I shoot by the bucket-fulls. I grabbed a few oddball rounds which include Winchester USA, Winchester SXT Federal FMJ and Wolf FMJ, all of which are 230 grain. I also added my 200 LSWC reload (1.250” OAL) and a reload using a 255 grain semi-wadcutter intended for the .45 Colt, loaded to 1.175” OAL. ALL these loads have proven reliable in various 1911’s I’ve had.

I began by measuring the length of the barrel, including the hood. I then dropped each of aforementioned rounds lightly into the chamber, and measured the barrel again. A properly-cut chamber will admit in-spec .45 ACP ammo dropped into it and the case head will be flush with or at most, 2-3  thousandths below the hood. This barrel is short-chambered and various loads protruded 15 to 30 thousandths ABOVE the barrel hood.

The final confirmation of this materialized when pushing the ‘high’ rounds on into the chamber, flush who the hood. Resistance was felt as they seated and it was necessary to pluck them from the barrel. This was particularly apparent with the 200 grain LSWC load and the leading shoulder of the bullet showed bright marks where in encountered the sharp edge of the chamber. These loads in particular have proved reliable in other 1911’s I’ve owned.

The ‘Fix’

I plugged the Auto Ordnance barrel into the Rock Island and shot three 8 round CMC mags of Federal ball through it. It is the first three magazines the pistol has cycled without failing to feed. At a little over 50 yards, they were all over an ‘Osama’ target- but at least they were feeding and firing. I’m confident that the bad chamber in the OEM barrel was 95% of this gun’s problems.

So what to do? First, I have the old Auto Ord barrel plugged into the gun; so I’m not stuck with a pistol I can’t shoot. Second, the gun was sold through Davidsons and I’m told it can be exchanged through them without problems. Finally, Rock Island’s customer service is said to be good and I could probably return the gun to them for correction.

Actual Customer Service!

I’m choosing ‘none of the above’. I don’t buy guns to ship them all over the country. I phoned Rock Island and after short wait, was transferred to Shawn in the gunsmithing department. I explained the problem and was pleased to find I was speaking with someone who fully understood my explanation of the chamber problems. He was polite and downright anxious to resolve the matter; even offered to look my slide over and correct any other deficiencies he found. I opted for sending only the barrel. I also emailed Shawn a detailed explanation with photos and enclosed a printed copy with the barrel, before I boxed it up.

I’m anxious to get a good barrel in this gun. I googled all over creation for “Rock Island 50 yard Group” and found practically nothing. That deficiency will be corrected at the first opportunity.


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