Colt Rail Gun .45 ACP Pistol:
By David Tong and the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
While the Beretta USA produced M9 service pistol has been standard issue for the conventional U.S. military forces for nearly 30 years, the majority of our elite Special Operations personnel have taken a consistently differing view. Both the U.S. Army Operational Detachment Delta and the Marine Corps’ Special Operations Command have insisted upon officially fielding modernized versions of the century old Colt/Browning 1911 pistol in .45 ACP caliber.
Mostly, these pistols have been custom built items that drive up expenses and maintenance requirements. The Marines, in particular, have long used their “Precision Weapons Section” in Quantico, VA for the construction of mission specific arms from sniper rifles to sidearms.
These pistols have been constructed from (mostly, I gather) un-issued or lightly issued original 1911A1 pistols constructed during WWII. They are completely disassembled and virtually all the parts (save the receiver and slide) are discarded. Through 2003, only WWII era receivers were used, which is a testament to the durability of the design and the quality of manufacture.
Slides are fitted to receivers, match grade barrels and bushings fitted to the slide and then all three component groups are fitted to each other. The barrels have been manufactured by Bar-Sto Precision Machine, now located in South Dakota. These are broach-rifled stainless steel and arguably the best 1911 barrels in the world.
Hammers and sears, the heart of the fire control group, are made from wire electrical discharge machined steel by Nowlin Gun Manufacturers for consistent durability. Generally, a widened and lengthened “beavertail” grip safety is fitted for comfort’s sake, self-illuminating sights are installed and, because older 1911 pistols lack the MIL-STD M1913 Picatinny rail for the fitment of white or IR lamps and lasers, a Dawson Precision rail is attached to the pistol’s rounded dust cover.
It is said that such pistols, with additional refinements I am unfamiliar with, are capable of over 3,000 mean rounds before malfunction. There are those, with justification, who state that modern pistols (including the Beretta M9/M-92F) can exceed this figure by a wide margin, right out of the box. However, most who rely on a sidearm for personal security are unlikely to let them go that long before a thorough cleaning and re-lubrication.
One bit of grand news: as of July, 2012, the Marines Special Operations Command have officially adopted the Colt manufactured M45 service pistol as their go-to sidearm. Colt was able to successfully compete in the testing and contact bidding process against other (un-named) domestic manufacturers. The five-year, $22.5M contract calls for up to 12,000 Close Quarter Battle (QCB) pistols, plus extra magazines and spare parts, with over 4,000 to be delivered as soon as possible. (22,500,000/12,000 = $1875 per pistol with extra magazines and spare parts.) The Colt Rail Gun is the nearest civilian equivalent to the M45 military pistol and Colt states that all of its 1911 service pistols are manufactured to military specifications and tolerances.
The Colt Company has had a very long relationship with the military establishment. It has been their strategy for over 140 years to cater to both the military and civilian markets for handguns and, latterly, rifles. This has manifested itself in the dual corporate structure present today. Colt Defense LLC is the corporation responsible for law enforcement and military contracts, while Colt’s Manufacturing LLC is the separate civilian focused entity.
Colt has been unwilling (or unable) to exchange the vaunted “hand craftsmanship” so revered by collector’s, for the adoption of modern CNC machining equipment and cast or MIM parts in their 1911 pistols. The Company was late in providing the trendy "enhanced" features that nearly every manufacturer of 1911 pistol copies has offered in the past 20 years. For approximately the last fifteen years, since becoming an independent firearms builder--rather than a “subsidiary” of Colt Industries--the Company has embraced some modern digital production technology, while still completing their product with the handwork for which they are known.
The XSE Enhanced pistol served as the basis of the Rail Gun. It has all the features of the Rail Gun except for the Picatinny rail, although the Rail Gun deletes the full- length guide rod (a plus in our opinion) and offers surface finish options better suited for hard use than polished blue. Rail Gun finishes include matte black Cerakote (#01980RG), brushed/polished stainless steel slide and matte stainless frame (#01070RG) and the attractive version tested that came with a brushed/polished stainless slide and blued frame (#01970RG).
Colt has offered a so-called “enhanced” 1911 for over ten years. The Rail Gun follows this trend with such features as a lowered and flared ejection port to preclude denting the case mouth and front and rear slide serrations. Extended ambidextrous safety levers and a straight, grooved mainspring housing are part of the package, along with a three-hole aluminum trigger. Another "feature" is an upswept beavertail grip safety tang with palm swell and a "burr" hammer. This precludes hammer bite for those who allow the web between thumb and forefinger to override the tang, while increasing the pistol's overall length and interfering with manually cocking the hammer. Rather than the original pinned front sight blade, both front and rear sights are dovetail mounted on the Rail Gun. This allows drift adjustment for windage, makes it easier to change sights, allows night sight fitment and prevents the front sight from breaking off under recoil. The provided Novak Low-Mount front and rear sights with white dots slightly increase sight radius and are very rugged. A National Match barrel is standard equipment. The final major change is the incorporation of an integral M1913 Picatinny rail in the frame just forward of the trigger guard. The Colt Rail Gun takes its name from this rail. Like all Colt 1911 pistols, the Rail Gun incorporates a forged steel receiver, forged steel slide, forged stainless steel barrel and forged steel slide stop.
Colt Rail Gun Specifications:
As one can see from the suggested MSRP, although it is hardly inexpensive, this genuine Colt 1911 enhanced pistol is similar in price to its quality competition. Neither the Springfield Operator nor the Kimber TLE / RL II are one iota less expensive. When one considers the $900 plus for a SIG-Sauer, or $1,000+ for any Heckler and Koch product, the cachet of owning a real Colt doesn’t provide quite the economic heartburn it did years ago. The Rail Gun is roughly $100 more than the very basic stainless 1991 Series Government Model and only $61 more than a blued Series 70 GM.
The barrel’s feed ramp is an oddity. I had noticed the same unusual, multi-cut design on a previously reviewed XSE Combat Commander Stainless several years ago. Rather than the more typical single smooth ramp cut pass, the Rail Gun has what appears to be one larger cut, with a smaller concave cut added to its center, from approximately 5:00 to 7:00. The transition between the top of the ramp and the chamber itself is properly and subtly radiused. I’m not sure why the factory has executed this in this fashion, as the vast majority of modern 1911's, including earlier Colts all the way back to the original Series ’70, has used a single continuous ramp design that provided good chamber support and reliable function. Perhaps the company has tested this new design and decided it has merit.
So, what do you get for your hard-earned dollars? Per an initial inspection, the pistol seems well fitted. The slide and frame have minimal play in both lateral and vertical dimensions. The barrel fits both components well and its bushing is a snug fit, without requiring slight slide retraction, or a wrench, for disassembly.
The trigger pull of a good 1911 continues to delight a semi-auto user. The total trigger travel is approximately 1/8”. Our test pistol has somewhat less than 1/16” of take up, no over travel and a crisp release of about five pounds.
Other pistols may provide greater safety, equal crispness, equal reset and equal pull weight, but not all of the above. None have the same straight-line action. This is primarily why the 1911 is still preferred by some experienced autoloading pistol fans.
There seems to be a closer fit between the OD of the barrel and the ID of the slide, than prior guns (especially GI models). While this does cut down the amount of dirt clearance and could be the cause of more malfunctions, cycling the slide feels reassuringly smooth and slop free and may improve accuracy.
The receiver and slide rails appear smooth and generally feel this way when hand cycling. Some evidence of hand polishing is apparent on the bottom of the slide rails.
I appreciate the forged and machined steel construction. Colt’s commercial post war 1911 pistols have always featured good quality steel and heat treatment. It is not uncommon for them to run over 100,000 rounds of full power ammunition with only routine parts replacement. The slide stop is part of the recoil absorbing function of a 1911 and it is good to know that the company is still using this forged and machined construction. I also appreciate the return of the non-extended pinned ejector and the standard recoil spring guide and plug; neither modern “enhancement” is required.
The extractor, a spring steel part by 1911 original design, appears to have sufficient tension for proper function. A loaded hardball round is “just” retained against the breech face of the stripped slide, which is the usual “test” of this.
The ambidextrous thumb safety levers are nicely contoured, not too large and are positive in operation in either direction without being too light. One can shoot “thumb high.”
One additional new feature is the revision of the eight round magazines supplied with the pistol. The new magazine incorporates a patented, round front, anti-tilt follower for sure feeding and no visible welded seam along its rear spine, as seen in the Metalform manufactured magazines the company previously used for over 20 years. The “C” manufacturer’s mark stamped on the magazine floorplate stands for “Checkmate Industries.” It is interesting that this supplier was selected, as their GI issue magazines for the Beretta M9 have not had a great reputation in the field. The floorplates are still spot welded in place, so stripping the magazine for cleaning is less easy than the norm these days.
The standing breech of the slide could have a higher level of surface polish. It is adequate as delivered, although not as smooth as some comparably priced competitors' pistols.
The magazine well has been beveled, but the execution leaves something to be desired. The single stack magazine of a 1911 wants a wide beveled edge leading to the well. The tentative-looking deep bevel without the broken full width edge more commonly performed by other manufacturers and custom gunsmiths does not work as well.
The Rail Gun has sharp edges on the forward, rear and ejection port areas of its slide; along the bottom of the magazine well; front strap and mainspring housing areas of the receiver and some noticeable machine cuts in the barrel tunnel of the slide. Some of these edges are sharp enough to cut fingers. The corners of the locking lugs on the barrel, as well as the lug recesses in the slide tunnel also have sharp corners that can act as stress risers. A very simple edge breaking and chamfering removes this issue in a few minutes.
Overall, we would rate the Rail Gun as above average in terms of detail execution and quality.
Shooting results and handling observations
Preparation for test firing included field stripping, the use of Birchwood Casey Barricade aerosol and a G.I. M16 toothbrush to remove dirt and lubricant. Tetra Gun Oil and Grease was applied to all sliding surfaces. With older pistol designs that require lubricant for reliable function, I have used this product for the past eight years on the rails, barrel and bushing, locking surfaces, link, hammer and sear. It has the highest shear strength of any common firearms lubricant and stays where you put it.
As usual, we did out test firing at the Izaak Walton outdoor shooting range south of Eugene, Oregon. This facility provides covered shooting benches and target stands at 25, 50, 100 and 200 yards. We shoot handguns for record at 25 yards. A Pistol Perch rest was used with the Rail Gun and we shot for record at Hoppe's Competition Slow Fire Pistol Targets. Owner/Managing Editor Chuck Hawks, Editor Gordon Landers, Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hayes, Chief Technical Advisor Jim Fleck and (yours truly) Contributing Writer David Tong shot the Colt Rail Gun for record. The sunny summer weather featured a high temperature of 85 degree and no wind. Ammunition fired included Remington/UMC 230 grain MC (ball), Winchester/USA 230 grain FMJ (ball), Winchester/USA Personal Protection 230 grain JHP with the following results:
We feel this is good accuracy for a stock 1911 service pistol shooting budget (rather than premium or handloaded) ammunition. Certainly its accuracy is more than sufficient for "close quarter battle," whether military or civilian. Reliability was also better than average for the 1911 pistols we have reviewed. The gun's only bobble was one failure of the slide to lock open after the last shot. This time out, David and Chuck tied for the honor of shooting the smallest group.
The trigger pull, though crisp, should be lighter. We think the trigger pull of a 1911 service pistol should not exceed four pounds. Chuck particularly felt that the trigger pull was excessive and detrimental to accuracy. In addition, he much prefers a spur hammer and a smaller beavertail on any 1911 pistol.
Even without a lighting unit, laser or other accessory on the rail, the rail itself adds about an ounce of mass up front, which slightly reduces muzzle flip and aids the steadiness of hold. Most of us do not like ambidextrous safeties and, if we owned this pistol, we would delete the ambidextrous safety.
The basic 1911 design has a relatively low geometric bore height, which reduces muzzle flip during recoil. Recoil is there, of course, in any .45 ACP pistol, but none of us found the Colt Rail Gun's kick bothersome.
The square cut Patridge sights are mounted in the dead center of the slide top at the factory and fit very tightly in their dovetails. The Novak rear sight has an undercut rear face to eliminate glare. David prefers a simpler Heinie-style dot over dot “straight 8” pattern that is less busy looking than the Novak three-white-dot sight accents. Everyone else liked the sights as supplied.
Some belabor the obvious fact that, while advanced when it was adopted by the U.S. military prior to WWI, the 1911 pistol is fundamentally obsolescent by contemporary design and manufacturing standards. It is more expensive and time consuming to manufacture than modern service pistols. It is big, heavy, lacks repeat strike (DA) capability, double stack magazine capacity and is more difficult than modern pistols to take apart and maintain. All of this is true. It is also true that with modern JHP ammunition (depending on the specific load selected), the .45 ACP cartridge is no more effective a man stopper than several other handgun calibers. However, with FMJ military ball ammunition, bullet diameter (assuming adequate sectional density) is the only way to increase stopping power and the .45 ACP uses a fatter bullet than the 9x19mm NATO, 9x18mm Makarov or any other common military pistol cartridge.
The Rail Gun is not quite the pretty, classic J.M. Browning pistol of 101 years ago, although our test gun is decidedly more attractive than most "enhanced" 1911 pistols. The Rail Gun reflects a century of Colt 1911 use and evolution. It has morphed from being a cherished collector’s item into something once again relevant to its primary purpose of putting down an adversary with a minimum number of shots. The United States Marine Corps, no less, has officially found it relevant to the 21st Century CQB mission. The fact this is also a Colt firearm of quality and substance makes it worthy of consideration for use as a recreational firearm.
Its acquisition price is a pittance compared to the decades of pleasure and service it can provide. (Especially considering the greatly reduced value of the inflated dollars it costs.) Our country faces many military challenges in the 21st Century and we at Guns and Shooting Online are pleased to think that some of our best and brightest will have in their holsters Colt's 1911 implement of freedom when venturing into harm’s way.
Copyright 2012 by David Tong and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.