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Rock River Arms Elite Commando: A 1911 Built To Perform

by emily fortier   |  January 3rd, 2011 1

Many shooters may think Rock River Arms only builds AR-type rifles, and if they do, they are missing out on some very fine 1911s.


Despite the 10 degree F. temperature, I was having a great time as I ran another transition drill. Huffing for air, I moved away from the “threat” targets as my Rock River carbine spit empties at a frantic rate. Swinging the carbine towards yet another target I tried to be mindful of my footing while heading for cover. Winter was sitting on Maine, and my range was covered in a layer of crusty snow. But that became the least of my worries when my carbine’s bolt abruptly locked back. At times like this silence can be the loudest sound in the world. There was still a target up and I was in the open, so this was hardly the ideal time for a magazine change. So rather than trying to get the carbine back into the fight, I transitioned to my sidearm and kept moving. Bringing the 1911 up, I fired three rapid shots with one hand while scrambling for cover. Once there I quickly reengaged the last target, assessed the situation, and reloaded my carbine. Then I checked the targets, and did it all over again. And again.

What made things really interesting during these drills was the Model 1911 I was using. Like the carbine, the pistol was stamped “Rock River Arms.” I was already familiar with the firm’s rifles, so I was running these drills to gain greater insight on what kind of pistol Rock River Arms (RRA) is capable of building. With .45 ACP empties peppering the snow, I was becoming more and more impressed by its performance.

Many people assume Rock River Arms (Dept. ST, 1042 Cleveland Rd., Colona, IL 61241; 309-792-5780; www.rockriverarms.com) only sells AR-type rifles along with parts and accessories. But that’s incorrect. For years RRA has also offered very high-quality custom-built 1911 pistols. Currently 80 to 90 percent of RRA’s output is dedicated to rifles, but the other 10 to 20 percent of production capability is devoted to 1911 pistols. The line consists of five basic models: National Match Hardball, Elite Commando, Basic Limited Match, Limited Match, and Bullseye Wadcutter.

Of these the National Match Hardball is guaranteed to shoot three-inch groups at 50 yards with Federal Ball ammunition. As its name suggests, this model is legal for NRA competition and Leg Matches. The Elite Commando and Basic Limited Match pistols are guaranteed to shoot 2.5-inch groups at 50 yards, and the Limited Match and Bullseye Wadcutter models are guaranteed to shoot into 1.5 inches at 50 yards. Red-dot sights have taken over in Bullseye competition, so the Bullseye Wadcutter model comes without sights but with a rugged optical rail mounted.


SPECS
RRA Elite Commando
.45 ACP Semiautomatic Pistol
Manufacturer: Rock River Arms
Model: Elite Commando
Operation: Single-Action recoil-operated autoloader
Caliber: .45 ACP
Barrel Length: 5 inches
Overall Length: 8 5/8 inches
Weight, empty 36 ounces
Safety: Manual slide lock thumb safety, grip safety
Sights: Novak or Heinie tritium rear; ramp front with tritium insert
Sight Radius: 6.5 inches
Stocks: Rosewood
Magazine Capacity: 7 rounds
Finish: Blue
Price: $1725

Perusing these models it immediately becomes clear that Rock River Arms, unlike many other companies, has a strong emphasis on NRA Bullseye competition. While IPSC and IDPA may get most of the glory in the firearms press, 2700 still remains hugely popular across the country. So RRA not only builds dedicated models ready to race out of the box, but the company also makes the trip out to Camp Perry every year. During the Nationals Rock River Arms owners, Mark and Chuck Larson, bring a team to support the competitors. They do this by doing upgrades as well as tweaking and repairing competitors’ match pistols (as well as rifles during the rifle phase) at their booth.

While RRA is very vocal in its support of NRA Competition and competitive marksmen, don’t think that the company only builds match pistols. Company technicians are also very adept at building very practical carry guns for personal protection–pistols that are not only reliable and accurate but good looking as well. To illustrate this Chuck Larson shipped me a five-inch RRA Elite Commando in .45 ACP for review, and it was the pistol I used in the shooting drills I described earlier.


The Rock River Arms .45 ACP Elite Commando comes with a National Match Kart barrel, radiused dovetail front sight, Novak or Heinie tritium rear sight, Ed Brown Beavertail Grip Safety, and extended manual thumb safety.

BUILT FOR RELIABILITY
What arrived was a simple and well-thought-out self-de
fense pistol that immediately caught my fancy. As with all other RRA 1911s, its foundation is the Rock River Arms forged National Match frame. It is high cut and sports machine cut checkering on the frontstrap. Customers can choose from 20, 25, or 30 lines-per-inch (lpi) checkering to suit their individual tastes. Fitted to the frame is the RRA Match Commander hammer and Match sear. These pieces mate to an aluminum speed trigger that features an adjustable overtravel stop. Trigger pull is set to 3.5 pounds, although a customer may request a different weight. (For example, I prefer a slightly heavier pull on a carry gun, and Rock River is glad to accommodate my tastes.)

An Ed Brown Beavertail Grip Safety is carefully fitted to the frame, and a flat (or arched) checkered mainspring housing is installed. To enhance reliability an extended ejector is fitted, and to make the pistol more user friendly an extended safety and a “Tactical” magazine release are installed. To ensure reliable functioning the feedramp is carefully polished and contoured.

Carefully mated to the frame is a forged National Match slide with front and rear cocking serrations. To increase reliability the slide features a lowered and flared ejection port. Handfitted to the slide is a National Match barrel made by Kart. Each barrel’s chamber is hand reamed and then carefully throated for reliable feeding. The barrel is mated to the slide with a hand-fit National Match barrel bushing. To increase reliability a tuned and polished extractor is fitted. Then, to keep things simple and reliable, a standard recoil system (no full-length guide rod) is fitted. A 16.5-pound recoil spring is standard, but Rock River will set the pistol up to match your intended carry load.

My review gun was topped with a Novak rear sight; a Heinie sight is also available. The Novak is a simple and rugged design with nothing protruding to catch on clothing and no sharp edges to dig into flesh. It is mated to a serrated front sight dovetailed to the slide. After being fitted, the front sight’s dovetail is carefully radiused to match the contour of the slide, and this gives it a distinctive look. Because this model is intended for self-protection rather than competition, tritium vials from Trijicon are installed in the sights, and they ensure a usable sight picture will be available even in low light.

When the pistols are completed they are then checked for reliability and accuracy at 50 yards. If any functioning problems are encountered the problem is diagnosed and the pistol is reworked. If the pistol should fail to meet its accuracy requirement, in this case 2.5 inches at 50 yards, it is reworked. During test-firing the sights are also aligned with the point of impact. Normally this is done at 50 yards, but a customer may choose another distance.


The Elite Commando’s recoil spring system is integral to the pistol’s superb reliability.

There are many small operations, such as the slide stop holes are all undersize and reamed by hand to fit each slide stop, and each Elite Commando takes approximately 12 hours to hand fit and assemble. Because this model is intended for concealed carry, it is totally dehorned. Finish on the review pistol was a deep blue complemented by handsome rosewood double-diamond stocks. The pistol shown in the accompanying photos is a standard model, but Chuck Larson made it very clear that RRA is happy to meet the specific needs and desires of a customer.

CAPABLE OF IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCE
My initial impressions of the Elite Commando were quite positive. The pistol seemed to be aesthetically pleasing with commonsense modifications. The sights were simple, rugged, and straightforward. I liked the front and rear cocking serrations on the slide. The single safety lever was unobtrusive yet easy to manipulate. I liked the high-cut frame and checkered frontstrap. Working the action, I noted the slide mated perfectly to the frame with zero play, yet it reciprocated smoothly and easily. Pushing down on the hood of the Kart barrel showed zero movement. Dry-firing it revealed a crisp 3.5-pound trigger with just a hint of creep. Magazines inserted easily, thanks to a nicely beveled well, and ejected cleanly with a push of the button.


Other nice touches on the Elite Commando are its 3.5-pound trigger pull, checkered frontstrap, flat mainspring housing, and rosewood stocks.

To be frank, though, this is really to be expected of a high-end 1911. So I scrutinized the Elite Commando a little closer. The machine cut checkering was attractive, perfectly executed, and provided a secure grip without being so sharp as to tear flesh. The beavertail was nicely fitted, and the rear of the slide matched the rear of the frame perfectly. The barrel bushing was too tight to remove by hand, so I popped it out with a wrench. Examining the slide and barrel, I checked how the lugs were cut and the lockup. Everything looked nicely done. All in all, the Rock River Arms Elite Commando was impressive to the eye and pleasing in the hand.

When it comes to personal protection, I am somewhat leery of a run-of-the-mill 1911. Before you drop this to fire off hate mail to Shooting Times Editor Joel Hutchcroft, let me qualify my statement. I feel the Model 1911 has proven to be such a fine design that its success and continued popularity have actually hurt the breed to a degree. Down through the decades 1911-type pistols have been made across the United States and around the world. Due to the sheer number of manufacturers, quality on these pistols has ranged from superb (early Colt) to awful (many Filipino models).

Complicating this is the wide number of aftermarket parts available, which also vary in quality, and the amount of gun plumbers of varying skill eager to work on 1911s. These factors have all contributed so that it’s now relatively common to come across a problematic 1911 on the firing line (or for sale in a gunshop). In fact, at our weeklong editorial roundtables held twice a year, I’d venture to say that during the manufacturers’ demos new-production 1911s have more reliability issues than all other designs combined.

This isn’t to imply that I don’t like the 1911, or that I think it’s a poor design. Rather, I am just adamant that any firearm chosen for personal protection must be monotonously reliable. If you are going to choose this classic big-bore fighting pistol to protect your life and the lives of your loved ones, you want a well-made example of the breed. Then you’ll want to feed it quality ammunition from high-quality magazines. Plus, any work performed on it should be done only by a truly qualified gunsmith. These are my personal feelings, and you are welcome to disagree.

So, being admittedly more than a little jaded, I was interested to see how the RRA Elite Commando would perform. To do this I selected a wide variety of .45 ACP loads ranging in
weight from 96 to 230 grains. I then checked practical accuracy by firing four five-shot groups off sandbags at 50 yards with each load. Velocity readings were taken 12 feet from the muzzle with an Oehler Model 35P chronograph at an ambient temperature of 10 degrees F. Next, I shot the pistol casually at 50 and 100 yards on steel LaRue silhouettes. I followed this up by running various drills at distances from two to 30 yards.


SHOOTING ROCK RIVER’S .45 ACP ELITE COMMANDO
Factory Load Muzzle Velocity (fps) 50-yard Accuracy (inches)
MagSafe 96-gr. +P Defender 1811 6.00
Magtech 165-gr. +P SCHP 1180 4.50
Magtech 185-gr. +P JHP 1081 4.00
Black Hills 200-gr. Lead SWC 882 2.50
CorBon 200-gr. +P JHP 1082 2.37
Hornady 230-gr. FMJ 841 3.00
Wolf 230-gr. FMJ 840 2.75
NOTES: Accuracy is the average of four five-shot groups fired from a sandbag benchrest at 50 yards. Velocity is the average of 20 rounds measured 12 feet from the gun’s muzzle.

Seven loads from six different manufacturers were used during testing. They consisted of MagSafe’s 96-grain +P Defender, Magtech’s 165-grain +P SCHP and 185-grain Guardian +P JHP, Black Hills’s 200-grain lead SWC, CorBon’s 200-grain +P JHP, Hornady’s 230-grain FMJ, and Wolf Performance’s 230-grain FMJ. From the bench I expected the Elite Commando to shoot well for one simple reason: It had come packaged with a very impressive test target. From a Ransom Rest it had put seven rounds of 185-grain Federal Gold Medal Match into a 0.73-inch (center to center) cluster at 50 yards. Egad!


The review sample Elite Commando’s factory-fired 50-yard test target measured 0.73 inch center to center (mounted in a Ransom Rest, firing Federal Gold Medal Match .45 ACP ammo). David test-fired the sample pistol with a variety of factory loads from the bench and during action shooting drills.

I wish I could say this lowly scribe came close to the factory test target firing off sandbags, but such was not the case. Yet even with my poor performance thrown in the pistol still shot extremely well. With CorBon’s hot 200-grain +P JHP load I posted a best of five shots into 2.00 inches. This load averaged 2.37 inches at 50 yards at an average velocity of 1082 fps. Not far behind this load was the Black Hills 200-grain Lead SWC, which averaged 2.50 inches at 882 fps. Also of interest was MagSafe’s 96-grain +P Defender load. This lightweight frangible load screamed out of the Elite Commando’s five-inch barrel at a blistering 1811 fps.

It was time to become better acquainted with the Elite Commando. For these drills I used a number of Blade-Tech single magazine pouches as well as a Blade-Tech belt holster. Both of these designs are well thought out, comfortable to wear, and easy to draw from. They both feature dual adjustable retention screws, are IDPA approved, and are available in five colors. I like Blade-Tech gear a lot and use it for concealed carry on a daily basis. I also tested out a new Model 6004 tactical holster from Safariland. A drop-down rig worn on the thigh, this model is well respected among professionals. Constructed from thermal-molded Safari-Laminate, it’s rugged and protects the pistol well. As it’s lined with a soft orthopedic suede material, it’s also easy on the gun’s finish. Retention is provided by Safariland’s Self-Locking System, which consists of a “hood” that can be released only by being simultaneously pushed down and rotated forward. For those who need a drop-down rig of this type, the Model 6004 provides quick access to one’s sidearm and is comfortable to wear.

The Elite Commando was accurate and reliable on my running drills. Loaded with Black Hills 200-grain Lead SWCs recoil was very mild, and shot-to-shot recovery was excellent. Stoked with CorBon’s hot 200-grain +P JHPs, the pistol became harder to control. Practical accuracy, though, was excellent, even firing offhand at LaRue targets posted on the 100-yard line. I did experience feeding problems with Magtech’s 185-grain +P JHP. The pistol just didn’t like this particular bullet design, so I stopped using the load and no other problems of any kind were encountered. The Elite Commando happily burned through hundreds of rounds as fast as I could load magazines.

I ended the testing session by checking the flash signature of all seven loads in low light. One magazine of each load was fired, with the flash size and intensity observed. It was interesting to note that the two loads I expected to display the largest flash, CorBon +P and MagSafe +P Defender, were in line with the rest. A small but noticeable spherical ball of fire was exhibited at each shot. However, both Magtech loads displayed noticeably larger and brighter muzzle signatures than all the others. That’s something to be aware of if you plan on choosing either of these loads for self-protection.

Gripes? As good as the Elite Commando was, all was not perfect. Nitpicking, I would have to say that I would opt for a standard magazine release over the extended “Tactical” release mounted on my review pistol. It’s all too easy for an extended release to be activated when driving in a car or sitting in a restaurant and eject the magazine just enough so that it won’t feed. Reliability of the RRA Elite Commando was flawless except with the previously mentioned load. Speaking to Chuck Larson about it, he said RRA is happy to set up a customer’s gun to feed any load they want, no questions asked. Finally, both stocks loosened up during testing and needed to be tightened.

My thoughts? Rock River Arms’s Elite Commando is a handsome and well-made 1911 pistol sure to invoke pride of ownership. It’s more accurate than I can hold, and with all but one load it proved eminently reliable, even in temperatures well below freezing. Here is an upper-crust 1911 that will impress your friends, defend your home, and if you do your part it’s more than capable of winning matches. Price? $1725. No, it’s not cheap, but great art never is.

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