August 14, 2012
By Layne Simpson
Rock River Arms (RRA) is back in the 1911 business, and the company's new 1911 Poly is the latest polymer-frame 1911 pistol to be introduced by various companies during the past 20 years or so. It has a few new touches, but it's a real chip off the RRA block in terms of performance.
The idea of a polymer-frame 1911 first appeared on the American scene in 1991 when a company called STI International introduced its 2011 pistol. Its insert — comprising slide rails and dustcover — is made of steel, while the grip section is molded of fiberglass-reinforced plastic, or polymer as the firearms industry prefers to call it.
Another poly-bottom pistol called the M5 is manufactured by the Israeli firm of Bul Transmark Ltd. and was first introduced to American shooters by a Texas-based importer around 1992. The Kimber Polymer built on the M5 frame came along in 1997, and it was later renamed the Kimber 10. Several variations were offered before it was discontinued around 2006. The Israeli-built M5 appeared once more in 2008 when KBI began importing it under the Charles Daly banner, but it went away when the company did.
The RRA Difference
There are two major differences between the Rock River Arms Poly and the others. One is overmolded rubber grip panels attached to its frame versus molded-in checkering on the grips of the others. This gives the owner the option of using panels of various colors or those made of other materials. Easily switched out, they are held in place by screws turned into threaded steel bushings press-fitted through holes in the walls of the magazine well. The Poly also utilizes John Browning's original seven-round, single-stack magazine, whereas the other guns use double-stack magazines of higher capacity.
The grip of the RRA 1911 Poly is considerably larger than that of a single-stack gun. Grip panels available for the typical single-stack 1911 pistol vary a bit in thickness, but grip circumference usually runs around 5.25 inches. In comparison, the grip of the RRA Poly measures 5.63 inches, or only 1/16 inch smaller than the grips of the high-capacity STI Eagle and Kimber Polymer. With its grip panels removed, the grip of the RRA gun is still slightly larger than a standard single-stack grip wearing panels of medium thickness.
Why would RRA go with a double-stack-size grip on a single-stack gun? The word I got from an RRA official is it was done to increase strength and rigidity and to prevent warping during the injection-molding process. The extremely thick wall of the grip also offers a great deal of protection for a shooter's hand in the event of a blown case during firing.
Whether or not grip size really matters depends on several things, including personal preference and what the gun will be used for. I own several high-capacity 1911 pistols, some used a lot back when I was seriously into USPSA/IPSC competition, while others continue to serve as personal-defense guns. I enjoy shooting them more than the single-stackers simply because a wider grip distributes recoil over a larger surface area of the hand. That alone makes the double-stacker a bit more comfortable to shoot, and when a polymer grip — with its recoil-absorbing characteristic — is added to the equation, a gun becomes even more shooter friendly. And let's face it, full-size 1911 pistols are typically shot a lot more than they are carried.
On the other side of the coin, a thick grip is more likely to print through clothing in concealed carry, which is why mine are mostly relegated to car and home duty. There is also the fact that shooters with smaller hands usually prefer a slimmer grip.
The steel insert of the RRA Poly has integral slide rails and serves as an anchor point for the ejector, hammer, slide stop, grip safety, plunger tube, disconnect, and thumb safety. It is attached to a polymer lower unit made up of the grip, trigger guard, and dustcover. Most component parts adhere to the original 1911 design, although some are later versions that originated at Colt or in the shops of various pistolsmiths. An example of this modernization is a beavertail-style grip safety that helps eliminate hammer-bite and also has a speed bump on its lower end to assure proper disengagement with the high-hand hold made popular by competition shooters. A Commander-style hammer, sharp checkering on an extended magazine catch, and a lightweight aluminum trigger also grace the RRA Poly. Thumb safety shape is much like the one John Browning came up with a century ago.
Molded-in checkering on the polymer mainspring housing and frontstrap to the tune of 20 lines per inch along with the usual tacky feel of overmolded rubber grips add up to a gun that refuses to shift around during recoil even when the shooting hand is wet with perspiration. The beveled mouth of the magazine well assures smooth reloads at any speed. The recoil spring and its guide and plug (all made of steel) are true to 1911 design. Same goes for the extractor. A black Parkerized finish on all metal parts except the trigger and hammer add to the no-nonsense appearance of the gun.
A slightly extended ejector combined with a lowered and flared ejection port in the slide usher a fired case out of the way long before a fresh round is speeding toward the chamber. The 5-inch barrel is stainless steel with a 1:16 right-hand twist, and its bore is smooth and shiny with no visible tool marks. Correct throating of the barrel along with a feedramp of the right shape in the frame insert make the gun compatible with a wide range of bullet shapes. And since the feedramp is steel, it won't suffer peen damage from bullet nose impact as can happen with an aluminum frame.
Slide-to-frame fit on my sample was custom-gun tight, but I could detect a tiny bit of looseness in the barrel when pressing down on its hood. Sights are a drift-adjustable Novak-style at the rear and a 0.120-inch blade with its angled surface serrated for glare reduction up front. Both are dovetailed to the slide. With a 0.125-inch square notch in the rear sight, the amount of daylight on both sides of the front sight makes for the perfect sight picture, fine enough for accurate shooting but coarse enough for getting off snake-eye, double-taps at warp speed.
The frame of the first guns built is black, but something tells me we may eventually see olive drab, desert tan, and possibly other colors. My postal scale put weight distribution at 14.75 ounces for the lower assembly (including the magazine) and 18 ounces for the upper, for a total heft of 32.75 ounces. Weights of steel-frame 1911s will vary depending on sights, recoil spring guide style, and a few other things, but most will weigh in the neighborhood of 36 to 38 ounces. A 5-inch-barreled gun with an aluminum frame, such as the Taurus 1911AL, weighs around 33 ounces.
The gun I received was serial numbered P0002, so I would not have been surprised to discover a bug or two lurking inside. As it turned out, I experienced only one small issue. When inserting an empty magazine, I could feel its right-hand feed lip bump harder than normal against the nose of the magazine catch. Some contact there is a common trait of the 1911 pistol, but there was more interference than necessary in the Rock River gun. Fully loading a magazine spread its feed lips far enough apart to prevent it from moving past the catch, although depressing the catch allowed the magazine to seat fully into the gun. A bit of work with a file would have fixed it, but since I had also taken along a steel-frame 1911, I installed its magazine catch in the Rock River gun and that took care of the problem during my shooting session. I am sure this glitch will not appear in production guns.
When received, the Poly was extremely dry inside, so I field-stripped it and applied a thin coat of Shooter's Choice FP-10 to all moving parts. I then rapid-fired 100 rounds of various test loads to see how it functioned with a variety of bullet shapes. In addition to shooting it with a normal hold, I shot it right side down and left side down.
Then I put it to a side-by-side recoil comparison with a steel-frame 1911 weighing 38 ounces. Probably due to differences in weight distribution between the two, the Poly seemed to torque around a bit more, but recoil felt just a bit lighter. Several other gun club members were on the pistol range that day, so I asked two of them to shoot both guns with 230-grain hardball and then tell me if there was any difference in felt recoil. One declared no difference whatsoever, while the other picked the Poly as "slightly" more comfortable to shoot. Two out of three in favor of the poly-frame gun for comfort is not bad when we consider that the steel-frame gun outweighed it by a quarter of a pound.
I then settled in behind the sandbags and proceeded to shoot five, five-shot groups at 25 yards with eight different factory loads in bullet weights ranging from 165 to 230 grains. During my entire test session of more than 300 rounds, the gun gobbled up everything except a single round of Black Hills ammo loaded with a 200-grain SWC lead bullet. That particular cartridge was about halfway down in a fully loaded magazine, and when its turn came to feed, the flat nose of its bullet skidded to a stop in the roof of the chamber, momentarily tying up the works. That cartridge was among the last 25 rounds I had planned to fire in the gun, so the chamber had become quite dirty. Thoroughly cleaning the barrel resulted in smooth sailing for an additional 50 rounds of the SWC ammo.
The 1911 Poly comes in a hard case along with two magazines with bumper pads, a magazine loader, and a paddle-style polymer holster from the Israeli firm of IMI Defense. Called the Z1030 Retention Roto Holster, the one sent to me was a pilot model with its retaining latch and dustcover channel sized for the thinner dimensions of a steel-frame gun. When trying the holster with one of my guns, I found the retention system to be quite secure, with its release lever tab located exactly where it should be during the draw. With a bit of practice I found speed draws from the holster to be about as smooth and quick as from a holster with no retention system. Easily cant-adjusted with an Allen wrench, the holster can be rotated on its paddle for about any carry position one might want or need.
Rock River Arms has a reputation for building great AR-15 rifles for the money, and from what I see the 1911 Poly is a chip off the same block.