Nearly a century ago John Moses Browning, the United States' most prolific gun inventor, started work on a semi-automatic .45 handgun. Eventually issued by the military as the Model 1911 pistol (for its year of adoption), the basic design remains immensely popular today.
There are a lot of reasons Browning's 1911 design is still in use by men who go in harm's way. The gun has a very comfortable grip angle and feels good in the hand. It fires a potent cartridge, and it is reasonably accurate.
It's a great gun, but for many officers it's too heavy for all-day wear. If you've ever carried a 1911, you know that by the end of the day, you develop a noticeable list to your gun side.
Colt recognized this shortcoming and introduced the Colt Lightweight Commander in 1953. Not only did this gun feature an abbreviated slide and barrel—4.25 inches compared to the Government Model's 5-inch barrel—it also used an aluminum frame. This change shaved more than a half pound from the gun's weight. That's not an insignificant reduction, especially if you're the one wearing the gun.
Reports of the alloy frames cracking after voluminous firing caused the wary gun-buying public to look at the LW Commander with a jaundiced eye. And it didn't help that in the early 1970s there was at least one company producing aftermarket aluminum frames of suspect quality. Assembled by kitchen-table gunsmiths, these guns failed often, and this added to the stigma of the aluminum frame.
Even though in more recent years, the alloy frames appear to be a non-issue, one 1911 producer took a good idea and made it even better. Last year Smith & Wesson introduced its SW1911PD pistols that feature scandium frames.
Scandium, discovered in the late 1800s, is as costly as gold to mine and almost as rare. A component of tin and tungsten ores, it takes tons of ore just to get a small amount of scandium. But the results are worth it. When alloyed with aluminum, scandium produces a tensile strength two to three times that of aluminum by itself.
I received two test pistols from S&W: one a full-size gun with a 5-inch barrel and the other a Commander-size gun with a 4.25-inch barrel. Both guns are the PD model (Personal Defense), and the smaller gun was equipped with an optional set of Crimson Trace Lasergrips.
Improving Browning's Design
I think that you'll have to agree that there is a certain amount of irony in seeing a 1911 wearing the S&W logo. After all, it was Colt that brought the gun to market and produced millions for the military and for civilian consumption.
But S&W didn't just copy the original design. It has made some changes to the time-honored 1911 to update the gun.
The most readily visible update on the SW1911PD is the extractor. The original extractor fit internally in the slide and required the tuning of a gunsmith to work reliably. Eventually, the part lost its tension and needed to be replaced and tuned. The new S&W guns use an external extractor that doesn't require tuning.
Some 1911 purists scoff at this change, which is common in many contemporary 1911 models. In fact, one 1911 manufacturer took so much heat for it that it went back to the original internal extractor. But S&W autoloaders have used external extractors, and they seem to work well.
Another design flaw in the Original Colt 1911 pistol was that it would sometimes fire accidentally when dropped on its muzzle. Even though the hammer may not have fallen, the firing pin contacted with and detonated the primer, causing the gun to fire. This problem was corrected by Colt with its Series 80 firing pin safety that mechanically blocked the firing pin until pressure was put on the trigger. Unfortunately, this safety device adversely affected trigger pull and was largely criticized by 1911 shooters.
S&W has also incorporated a firing pin safety on its new 1911s, but the design does not affect the trigger pull. In this case, the mechanical block to the firing pin is deactivated when the shooter depresses the grip safety. S&W's safety provides the same function as the Colt safety but in a different way.[PAGEBREAK]
Fit and Finish
Cosmetically, the frames of both of my test pistols are as nice as I have ever seen on an alloy-framed gun. Even when I disassembled the gun, I was unable to find any machine or tool marks. In fact, the frames feature a highly polished feedramp, something you don't usually see on an aluminum frame.
The SW1911PD features a standard unsupported barrel just like the original 1911 design. It is throated for reliability with hollow points and has a small window cut at the rear end of the barrel's hood so that the shooter can see if the chamber is loaded. A stainless steel bushing is used on the guns and a full-length recoil spring guide rod is used as well.
Like a number of other manufacturers, S&W builds its pistols with MIM (Metal Injection Molded) parts that are nearly as dense as traditional tooled-steel parts. MIM parts are incredibly consistent and this advantage ensures that the manufacturer does not have to do hand fitting of parts like sears, hammers, and disconnectors. This helps keep the cost of the gun down.
Shooting Small Groups
You'd think that shooting a gun that runs a half-pound lighter than a steel-framed pistol would be painful, but I am glad to report that is not the case. Recoil with both guns is very manageable. In fact, I could barely discern any difference between the full-size scandium-framed gun and a steel-framed gun. My Commander-size gun was a bit more lively to shoot but was by no means hard to control or punishing.
I did all of my accuracy testing from a seated position utilizing a Millett BenchMaster for support. I fired five rounds to a group with my targets set out at 25 yards. Both guns are fitted with the excellent Novak Lo-Mount carry rear sights and dovetailed front sights. They present a very crisp sight picture that aids in shooting small groups.
The other thing that aided me in shooting these guns accurately was their crisp triggers. Both guns' triggers broke at 4.25 pounds—probably the ideal weight for a gun that would be used for defense. S&W uses a long, lightweight trigger adjustable for overtravel on the PD models. Both pistols display an uncanny degree of accuracy and produced some really nice, tight groups.
It isn't very often that I receive a pistol for evaluation that produces groups under two inches with all ammunition. But that's exactly what these two S&W models are capable of. Certainly the degree of accuracy that these guns possess not only makes them a top choice for personal defense but also for sport shooting.
I probably put more than 200 rounds through each of these guns during my evaluation with some pretty potent defense ammo and had zero malfunctions with either weapon. I credit the well-polished feedramp, external extractor, well-throated chamber, and quality magazines for the guns' flawless performance.
As I mentioned earlier, the Commander-size gun was outfitted with a set of Desert Tan Crimson Trace Lasergrips embellished with the S&W logo. If you look at the pictures that accompany this article, you can see that the black molded rubber pad on the frontstrap is the activation button that the middle finger of the shooting hand will depress when a firing grip is taken. At the top of the right side grip is the module that produces the laser beam. There are small set screws that allow the shooter to adjust the laser for windage and elevation. Since my iron sights were on the money it took just seconds to adjust the beam to sit above the front sight.
The Crimson Trace grips are easy to use and certainly have a place on a defense gun, especially for low-light situations. It's also hard to dismiss the deterrent effect that the little red dot has when it's placed on a bad guy's chest.
I'm impressed with the S&W SW1911PD pistols. They're accurate and reliable and possess an exacting degree of fit and finish. Owners of these guns can also retrofit them with a number of aftermarket parts should they choose to do so, as almost all parts will interchange with a 1911 pattern pistol from other manufacturers. The obvious exclusion would be the external extractor and firing pin safety.
S&W also produces its 1911 pistols in a variety of configurations—some with light rails, some constructed from stainless steel. You'll need to look at them to decide which pistol best suits your needs.