What's New with the 1911 Commander?
July 16, 2013
Of all the many variations of the Government Model 1911 format that have come and gone over the past 102 years, the Colt Commander is by far the most enduringly popular. Virtually all Model 1911 manufacturers — well over a dozen — currently offer "Commander format" versions, including at least three new name-brand models announced this year. The Commander's popularity has always been something of a mystery because the only obvious difference between it and a "full-size" Model 1911 is 0.75 inch in barrel length: a 4.25-inch barrel instead of a 5-inch barrel. That shouldn't make any significant difference in performance or carry between the Commander and a standard Model 1911. Right? Certainly not enough to account for its huge popularity. But the full story behind the Commander and its appeal is a bit more complex.
The Commander's story begins immediately after World War II, when the U.S. Army sought a sidearm that would be lighter and easier for officers to carry than the full-size all-steel model 1911. In 1949 it called for industry samples of pistols chambered in 9mm (Parabellum), 7 inches or less in overall length, and 25 ounces or less in weight. The candidates submitted included variations on the Browning 9mm Hi-Power from Canada and Belgium and Smith & Wesson's prototype 9mm double-action Model 39. Colt's entry was a Model 1911 chambered for 9mm, modified with a 4.25-inch barrel, a nine-round magazine with a spacer down the rear to accommodate the shorter 9mm round, and an aluminum-alloy frame (called "Coltalloy"). Tests conducted at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds and Fort Benning yielded no decision, and it would be nearly another 40 years before the military would finally replace the full-size Model 1911.
Having invested money and time on the develop-ment, Colt made the decision to offer its candidate on the commercial market and announced the new Model 1911 Commander in 1950. The first year's production run included 9mm, .38 Super, and .45 ACP versions — all with aluminum frames and a nominal weight of 26.5 ounces. (A full-size steel Model 1911 weights 35 ounces.)
For firearms historians, this represented several notable firsts. The 9mm Commander was the first 9mm pistol of any kind ever manufactured in the United States. (Yes, folks, it was a Model 1911.) It was also the first aluminum-frame, full-size pistol ever manufactured in the U.S. A commonly held belief is that the S&W Model 39 holds both titles, but the Model 39 was not put into commercial production until 1954. However, the Model 39 was the first double-action semiauto pistol made in the U.S.
The new Colt Commander was immediately popular, and the .45 ACP outsold the other chamberings by a huge margin. Customer demand for a heavier version to help moderate .45 ACP recoil led Colt to introduce the all-steel Combat Commander, with satin nickel as a finish option, in 1970. At the same time the official name of the aluminum-frame model was changed to Lightweight Commander. Before 1970 it had merely been called the Commander, with an "LW" suffix following the serial number.
The fact is, many shooters were not confident about the durability of aluminum-frame .45-caliber pistols. Their fears were somewhat unfounded, as demonstrated by Shooting Times's legendary Handgun Editor Skeeter Skelton, who put 5,000 rounds through an aluminum-frame Commander .45 ACP in the first "torture test" appearing in these pages (the September 1972 issue). At the finish the frame had cracked near the slide stop pin hole in a nonload-bearing area, but the gun was still fully functional and safe to fire. The aluminum alloys used in today's pistols are a lot stronger. (Incidentally, the only Commander in .38 Super I've ever handled was a collector's 1950-production pistol with a three-digit serial number and the LW suffix. Oddly enough, it had a steel frame. Whether Colt made some of the very first .38 Super Commanders with steel frames because of that round's sharper recoil I don't know, and nobody now at Colt seems to know, either.)
Both the aluminum-frame and steel-frame Commanders have remained in the Colt catalog ever since; numerous variations — such as the Commander Gold Cup and Commander Combat Elite — have come and gone at intervals. And it is worth noting that Colt has scrupulously retained its rights to the "Commander" trademark through all those 60-plus years. This is why all other manufacturers of 4.25-inch-barreled or 4-inch-barreled Model 1911s still refer to their products as "Commander-format" or "Commander-type" pistols and not as "Commanders." Only a Colt can be a "real" Commander.
45 Years with My Own Commander
My love affair with the Colt Commander began in 1968, when I was a young infantry sergeant in training at Fort Benning, Georgia. I was under orders for deployment to Southeast Asia and wanted to take a personal sidearm. The rules at that time were that officers were issued Model 1911s and that NCOs could carry a personal sidearm in combat so long as it was chambered for either .45 ACP, 9mm, or .38 Special — the only handgun cartridges the Army issued. Ordinary enlisted men were not permitted to carry sidearms, although a lot of the troops managed to find or acquire them somewhere.
I wanted a Model 1911 .45 ACP (no pipsqueak 9mm or .38 Special for me, thank you), so I went looking. At the Phenix City Gunshop, across the river from Fort Benning, in Alabama, I found a new (1966 manufacture) Colt Commander. I'd never handled one, and it instantly appealed to me. It would be a lot lighter to carry than a full-size Model 1911 (which we'd fired in training), and the rust resistance of the aluminum frame would be a godsend considering where I expected to be operating. I bought it on the spot, trading my Belgian Browning 9mm Hi-Power straight up. And I've had it ever since.
I left the Army, but the Commander saw a lot of rough use as my pickup-truck gun over the next 25 years. It was box-stock, with only a right-handed safety (I'm a leftie), and the short-spur grip safety and bobbed hammer would pinch the bejeezus out of the web of my hand if I wasn't careful. (I had a permanent ridge of scar tissue there for many years.) About 15 years ago I persuaded Dick Heinie to put an ambidextrous safety on it and a beavertail. It is nice having one of the nation's foremost Model 1911 pistolsmiths living the next town over.
The Commander came back to me six months later, and I saw that Heinie not only had added the safety and the beavertail, but also had given it the full Heinie PDP treatment: match-grade barrel and all the fittings, Heinie Straight Eight night sights, 30 lines-per-inch grip checkering, precision trigger job, and matte Black-T finish. No frills but everything to make it a real working gun. It's been my front-line carry gun ever since, and I've shot the dickens out of it in training as well as USPSA competitions, even in the Single Stack Division National Championships. I've lost count of how many thousands of rounds have gone through it over the last 45 years. I mention that for only one reason: It still has the original 1966-manufacture aluminum frame, which shows no signs of any more wear than a steel frame of the same vintage.
The Commander Today
By now it should be fairly apparent I'm a fan of the aluminum-frame versions of the Commander-format Model 1911s. Seems to me that a steel-frame Commander defeats the purpose because a steel Commander weighs just 2 ounces less than a steel 5-inch Model 1911. If you're going to carry that much weight, or want to moderate the .45 ACP recoil, why not have the additional 0.75 inch of barrel as well? Nonetheless, most of the new Commander-format Model 1911 pistols introduced this year have steel frames.
Partly, this is because manufacturers are not set up to manufacture aluminum Model 1911 frames; the other reason is that most Model 1911s are purchased by people who don't care about carry weight. These buyers are looking for power and authority not a lightweight pocket pistol and appreciate the additional heft. I'm not bothered by the aluminum frame .45 ACP Commander's recoil, and I appreciate the half-pound less weight on my side. The three newest Commander-type 1911s to land in my shop this year are the Ruger SR1911 CMD, the Remington R1 Carry, and a prototype Nighthawk Custom Heinie Signature Edition. And, yes, all are steel-frame guns.
The Ruger SR1911 CMD is a 4.25-inch version of Ruger's full-size SR1911, made to original Colt Commander specifications, with no features or additional accessories other than what are standard on the 5-inch SR1911. However, these features include a hammer-cupping, memory-pad beavertail grip safety; Novak three-dot sights; rounded and skeletonized Commander-style hammer; and a match-type adjustable trigger. What it does not have is an ambidextrous thumb safety, so if this left-hander were going to carry it, he'd be making another visit to the local pistolsmith. I've liked the SR1911 since Ruger introduced it. It's everything you'd expect from a Ruger product: rugged, dependable, and accurate.
Remington has gone a slightly different route with its new Model 1911 R1 Carry. The R1 Carry is available in 5- and a 4.25-inch lengths. Unlike the previous standard version R1s, which are very "GI" in format, the R1 Carry is loaded with usability features. It has a beavertail grip safety with 25-lpi checkered memory bump, 25-lpi checkered frontstrap and mainspring housing, ambidextrous thumb safety, Novak three-dot sights with tritium front night sight, machined skeletonized aluminum match trigger, lowered and flared ejection port, stainless match barrel with target crown, and premium checkered cocobolo grip panels. The slide and frame are dehorned and smooth-edged overall for ease of carry and draw.
The trigger pull on the R1 Carry is far crisper and cleaner than the average factory production Model 1911. Accuracy was likewise excellent. Anyone still wondering if Remington's growing family of Model 1911s is up to marketplace expectations for a premium product can stop.
And then there's the 4.25-inch .45 ACP Nighthawk Custom Heinie PDP Signature Edition. No, they're not calling it a "PDP Commander," but that's what it is, dressed in no-frills, duty-ready fashion, with all the same special touches. All carbon steel in a variety of finishes or all stainless steel. The finish is smooth and rollmark-free, except for the Heinie logo on the rear of the slide behind the cocking serrations. External features include Heinie Straight Eight sights, special scalloped frontstrap and mainspring housing, widened and lowered ejection port, hand-serrated rear of slide and slide stop, beveled and contoured magazine well, extended combat safety (ambidextrous, your option), tactical magazine release, and cocobolo grips with the Heinie logo.
The real performance enhancements are all inside, using Heinie's own-specification parts and handfitted. These include a Heinie match hammer and sear, Heinie match-grade barrel, Heinie thick bushing and plug, and Heinie aluminum trigger set to 3.75 pounds — plus a highly polished feedramp, slightly radiused tool steel firing pin stop, and tool steel extractor. The Nighthawk Heinie PDP 4.25-inch Model 1911 is for the Commander-lover who wants a true custom pistol with premium features at a premium price. It's worth it.
I put all three of these new Commander-format 1911s through a standard four-load range protocol at 25 yards and charted them along with S&W's4.25-inch scandium-aluminum frame SW1911SC (which I have previously reviewed) and my own venerable (but well cared for) vintage Colt Commander. Bottom line? They all function flawlessly, and they all shoot under 3 inches at 25 yards from a sandbag benchrest with open sights and my retirement-age eyes. A word about that. I have no doubt that from a perfect machine rest some of these pistols would outperform some others. Given the price differential, they should. I also have no doubt that a champion shooter, say, Doug Koenig or Rob Leatham or Todd Jarrett, would shoot them better than I can. But when I review a pistol for its life-preserving qualities, I want to know how well it will do in the hands of an ordinary shooter, not in a machine rest. I'm about as ordinary as you can get. For that purpose, under 3 inches at 25 yards makes me happy.