Black Label Magic: Browning 1911-380
May 02, 2016
Behind locked doors in a picturesque little town high in the Rocky Mountains, Browning's wizards have been creating magic — Black Label magic, that is. This new pistol is part of Browning's Black Label line, and it melds the genius of John Browning's 1911 and one of his later cartridges, the .380 ACP, into the Browning 1911-380.
Scaled-down to fit the .380 like full-size 1911s fit the .45 ACP, the new Browning 1911-380 is roughly 15 percent smaller than a traditional government model. Doesn't sound like a lot, but it is. The pistol fits medium to small hands perfectly and is just barely large enough to be comfortable in my beefy hands. Weight, empty, is only 17.5 ounces.
I expect hard-core 1911 enthusiasts to drool with trembling hands over the sleek, scaled-down pistol, but lest you get blindsided, here's a disclaimer: There are some fairly significant design updates on the Browning 1911-380.
Arguably the most radical yet least intrusive to design is the fact that, like its little rimfire 1911-22 sibling, the frame of the Browning 1911-380 is made of composite material. And although such material has resoundingly proven itself ever since the first Glock was introduced, detractors will still sneeringly refer to it as a "Tupperware gun." In the case of the 1911-380, the glass-filled nylon offers very real advantages. It's lighter, it's less expensive to produce, it's less maintenance-needy, and it's very robust.
A nicely machined steel insert is imbedded into the upper portion of the frame and serves to interface with the slide. Rails are full length, moving metal parts attach directly to it, and the serial number is marked on a portion of it visible just in front of the ambidextrous safety lever on the right side of the handgun.
While we're on the subject of composite, the sights are also "plastic," but they are nicely designed, low in profile but very visible, and tough. So is the recoil spring guide rod.
Inside the pistol are some additional design differences; most interestingly, the barrel link isn't a link at all — it's a camming slot in a fairly sizeable knuckle where the link on most 1911s functions. It actually makes it rather easier to reassemble the pistol; no more peering through the slide stop hole and jiggling the gun in an attempt to align the link with the hole and pin.
As far as I can tell, the Browning 1911-380 is a proper tilting-breech design that locks up when the slide stop pin cams the barrel hood up and it engages the front shoulder of the ejection port; however, the 4.25-inch barrel does not have locking lugs as on traditional .45 ACP-caliber versions. When pressed firmly with the thumb atop the barrel hood, there's a bit of discernible play in the hood when locked up — arguably advantageous to reliability but potentially harmful to accuracy.
At the forward end, the little pistol is pure 1911. A good old-fashioned bushing supports the muzzle end of the barrel inside the slide and is manipulated in traditional fashion for disassembly and reassembly.
After handling the Browning 1911-380 extensively — fieldstripping and reassembling it many times and shooting several hundred rounds through it — I'm just fine with all of the above variations from traditional 1911 design characteristics. The one difference that I dislike is the presence of a magazine disconnect. That's right. The Browning 1911-380 can't be fired with the magazine removed. It's a "safety" feature dear to attorneys and one that presents no real issues with recreational or trail-gun-type use, and rumor has it that some police departments prefer guns with such disconnects. But for personal defense, I'd rather have a gun that I can still fire while executing a defensive reload.
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The skeletonized aluminum trigger has a smooth face — considered helpful for sustained rapid fire — and the hammer is a classic skeletonized combat-style. The magazine release is small in diameter, but it's an extended style and is easy to access and activate. Empty magazines drop freely when it's pressed.
Likewise, the slide stop lever is small but extended, making it easy to operate. My thumb is long enough to ride it just a bit, resulting in the slide occasionally failing to lock open on an empty magazine after the last shot. Not the gun's fault — just the result of a thumb too big to get out of the way.
The beavertail-equipped grip safety has a checkered speed bump to assist with positive disengagement — and it's necessary. I never have trouble with the grip safeties on common full-size 1911s, but I did occasionally experience a not-quite-disengaged grip safety when shooting the Browning 1911-380 two-handed.
The frontstrap and magazine housing are nicely checkered at about 22 lines per inch, offering a nice secure grip that aids recoil control. Not that recoil is anything to worry about — the Browning 1911-380 isn't a micro pocket pistol in which even the mild-mannered .380 ACP cartridge feels zesty. It's actually quite easy to shoot.
A month or so before Browning announced the new .380 I had the opportunity to join ST Editor in Chief Joel Hutchcroft and a few other gun writers at the Browning facility in Morgan, Utah, for a prelaunch look at the new Browning 1911-380. Engineers answered all of our arcane questions, we coon-fingered prototype samples to our hearts' content, and shot several pistols until they were too hot to touch.
That's where the shootability of the little 1911s first impressed me. The little 1911s tore ragged silver-dollar-sized holes from 7 yards; they cleaned various steel plate racks; and shooting against the clock they dumped full eight-round magazines in less than a couple seconds.
As the sun declined and shooting became desultory, I took a pair of the 1911-380s to the shooting line and tried an old trick shot that — for whatever reason — I've always been able to pull off. With a gun in each hand I aimed simultaneously at two steel plates separated by several yards — eyes flickering back and forth between the guns — and triggered both when it felt right. Both plates rang and dropped. The trick is easiest with full-size guns with tuned triggers, so I was particularly pleased that I was able to repeat it at will with the little, lightweight Browning 1911-380 pistols.
Trigger pulls were quite good. They averaged 4 to 5 pounds and were crisp.
Throughout the shooting I saw only one of the prototypes choke, and that particular pistol tended to stovepipe a round every other magazine-full or so. The other Browning 1911-380s ran flawlessly with both the bulk FMJ and the hollowpoint ammo.
After the event I persuaded Browning's Paul Thompson to ship me a pistol on short-term loan for further testing.
From a sandbag rest at 25 yards, accuracy was adequate but not spectacular. For personal protection use at distances to 15 yards or so, the Browning 1911-380 would do well, and it's plenty accurate enough to tip over a pop can at that distance, too.
Shooting at targets of opportunity, running informal drills, and point-shooting the Browning 1911-380 to evaluate its balance and ergonomics, I discovered that it points remarkably well. In fact, I was able to point-shoot it well at close-range dirt clods and whatnot.
During my shooting session, the pistol functioned flawlessly other than one half-hearted stovepipe. It was alleviated by simply drawing the slide rearward slightly and releasing it, which chambered the recalcitrant cartridge.
Some might ask, Who's the 1911-380 for? My response would be that it's for anyone who likes 1911s, particularly anyone who has ever wished for a smaller, lighter version for teaching youngsters, wives, and girlfriends to shoot. It's a small single action that offers the legendary ergonomics of the 1911 handgun and is chambered for a cartridge that recoils politely yet provides just enough terminal performance to qualify as a bona fide personal-protection cartridge.
As a nice side benefit, most accessories — holsters, grips, etc. — made for Browning's popular 1911-22 pistols work with the 1911-380. Imitation aged ivory grips are available for $78, and they really dress up the svelte 1911.
At $670, the Browning 1911-380 isn't overly expensive. It's unique enough that every serious 1911 aficionado should have one in the collection. But most of all, it's a particularly fun little pistol that is very comfortable to shoot. And for those who are wondering, yes, it's made in the USA.