The .45 ACP:

A Shooter’s Retrospective

by Mike Cumpston

photography by Mike Cumpston

(Click on the thumbnail images for a larger photo.)

Much nonsense has entered the popular culture in regard to the Government Model 1911 -11A1 and its primary cartridge. The mythos of the arm is so complete that for just about every factoid attached to the subject there is another truism refuting it. The seeker of knowledge walks a ragged edge of fact and fiction and most shooters wind up defining their own separate reality in regard to the pistol and its cartridge.

My introduction to the 1911 came in 1960 when my dad traded for a well-preserved Remington Rand that a local NRA member had purchased through the DCM for $17.50. As we drove toward the Central Texas Rifle and Pistol Club dad explained that I would probably not be overly impressed with the performance of the pistol. His wartime training had been confined to firing a few rounds on a range- sans ear protection - and his most extensive shooting experience came when he rode guard on a donkey cart in Italy and expended a sackful of ammunition plinking away at hawks and vultures circling about over Il Duce’s erstwhile fiefdom. In the back seat was a neighbor along for the ride who had bragged that he was an expert with the .45 during his stint as a police officer . He regaled us with his adventures in tracking the Barrow/Parker Gang and the gory details of the final ambush. Dad had confided that he had invited him along just to let some of the wind out of his bag by letting him shoot the .45. Arriving at the range, I proceeded to fire a few magazines at the full sized 25-yard target. Hits were pretty well scattered all over the paper and elsewhere. Dad’s shooting was about the same. We then invited the windbag to demonstrate his expertise:

“Well, when I was in the po-lice, they always told us to hold on the bulls eye and then walk the shots into the center-Egad!” He inserted the magazine, dropped the slide and assumed the traditional one-handed position. The first shot as I recall hit about three o’clock in the seven ring, the next was closer- probably an eight. The next five rounds impacted neatly in the 5.5” black portion of the target. So much for hoisting braggarts on their own petard. The gory and then-unprintable details of the Barrow/Parker ambush turned out to be historically accurate too. An early lesson for a fledgling shooter that things and people are not always what they seem and that the 1911 had potential worthy of further exploration.

silhouette shooting

The ACP on a pair of silhouette targets

Over the past several decades, I’ve had a number of 1911 variations, seldom missing an opportunity to trade one for a revolver but ultimately learning that I couldn’t go very long without having one at hand. Part of this stems from being bitten by the mystique that surrounds the old service pistol. Such cinematic efforts as Last Man Standing (shooting orchestrated by Thell Reed Jr.) and Road to Perdition provide the occasional booster shot to sustain interest. A large part of the continuing attraction comes from the capacity of a well set-up Government Model to perform auto pistol chores as well as any other self-loader design, and to excel in some areas. A 1911 that works as it should is a delight to the senses. An accurate example will perform routine handgun chores to the fifty yard mark and beyond and the primitive placement of the locking lugs - top of barrel and inside of slide - makes the government model easy to carry about discretely compared to the thick profiled modern designs that lock up with the chamber block/ejection port system. The .45 ACP round is as effective, possibly more so, than the smaller, high intensity numbers, doing its job within a significantly lower pressure envelope. It is re-load and cast bullet friendly and its progressive feed functions with loads ranging from under 10,000 PSI to the 18,500 SAAMI standard to 20,000 with the +P factory examples. The basic pistol is a challenging beast when you are trying to shoot respectable scores on the standard bulls eye targets but is extremely well adapted to laying rapid, repeat hits on combat type targets at close range.

A decent concealed carry rig

The low-profile ACP & Uncle Mike paddle holster

My interest centers on the standard size 39 oz variations that closely resemble the original 1911 A1 in overall profile and commonality of parts. I am less interested in modifications that make the pistol a single purpose tool whether it be a dedicated bull-eye pistol or the smaller versions aimed at the concealed carry market. I’ve had a number of wartime A1s, a Springfield Armory, a Colt Series 70 and a pair of Series 80 Enhanced models-one in stainless and the other, the Gold Cup I am using at this time.

Of the lot, the two series 80’s have proven the most reliable. This can probably be attributed to the lowered ejector port and chamber throating that has now become standard even on the retro 1911s the various companies create in the image of the original. The Series 80s also possess properly tensioned and beveled extractors- a nicety absent on the old Series 70s unless corrected by their owners.

The .45 disassembled

Diagram of the disassembled .45's various parts

The decades have well defined my performance expectations from the pistol. Any example worthy of safe space will deliver 100% reliability with ball ammunition (which usually carries over to the current generation of factory JHP rounds). This translates to 99% + reliability with my hand loads. The chosen pistol will deliver head shot accuracy at 25 yards meaning that I can put almost all of my rounds in one of the standard combat silhouette targets in the head of the target standing one handed. Given that level of performance, the accuracy is usually sufficient to take rabbits at that range and slightly beyond when a two-handed hold is adopted. I have also come to expect reliable torso hits on the same targets fired one handed at fifty yards. When the self -shucker will do these things, it will do everything I am capable of with the semi auto pistol. More importantly to me at least is that it allows me to shoot the pistol well enough to enjoy the process (but not nearly so well as a dedicated NRA Bulls Eye competitor who can eat the ten and X ring out of a timed and rapid fire target in short order).

This level of performance is generally available in the basic 1911’s from a number of sources. It can be demonstrated with the 5-6+ pound trigger pulls that seem standard and demonstrated more reliability when the trigger is tuned to the 4 - 4.5 -pound range. It is seldom necessary to go to extremes to achieve this kind of accuracy. My factory-new basic 1911s have done it with most loads without any attention from a gunsmith. The Series 80s were x-ring accurate with 185-grain factory wadcutters and hand loads using 200 grain lead bullets but required the attention of a gunsmith to get reasonable groups with ball. My most recent surplus Remington Rand enjoyed those “generous tolerances” often mentioned and had a great deal of downward play of the rear of the barrel. It was shooting six by eight inch groups at 25 yards until I dropped in a Wilson-Dwyer Group Gripper -instantly reducing the bench groups to the two and three inch range. The general excuse for the sloppy fit of the government pistols was that such loose tolerances would allow them to function while full of sand or mud or some such. I got out in a heavy rainstorm with my pre-Group Gripper Remington Rand one day and managed to wash all lubrication from the pistol. It then did jam on its guts becoming just as non functional as a tighter example might have done under the same circumstances.

Offhand practice

Shooting the .45 off-hand

The series 80 Colts have a couple of features anathematic to the 1911 purist. The Stainless Enhanced version had a plastic trigger pad, while the Gold Cup Variety had a plastic mainspring housing. Both were equipped with the passive, trigger actuated firing pin lock safety - a set-up hated by the 1911 orthodox but not a bad idea as far as I’m concerned. They also had the beaver tail grip safety that eliminates the erosion of the shooting hand often presented by the standard 1911 A1. Both of these showed atrocious accuracy with ball ammunition I had the Gold Cup worked over by Alex Hamilton of Ten Ring Precision and is now quite accurate with all loads.

The Government Model is an enjoyable shooter and the round count builds up pretty fast. The bulk of my shooting is done with whatever functional lead bullet can be had at the least expense and best availability. A couple of staple loads use the long nosed 185 and 200-grain bevel based cast semi-wadcutters available from a number of commercial casters. These clock about 850 fps loaded over 4.5 Bulls Eye and are very accurate. According to the Lyman Handbook, operating pressure is low and the mild nature of these loads should contribute materially to gun life.

Another favored combination consists of the Hornady 200 grain lead truncated cone bullet over 6 grains of WW 231. This is a full power load, doing over 900 fps. It is accurate and a proven small game getter in my guns.

PMC and Blazer 230 grain ball ammunition both deliver velocities in the mid 800 fps range and are proven accurate and reliable. Both meet my accuracy criteria from the modified Gold Cup and turn in consistently fine bench groups from my convertible Ruger revolver. Various 230 cast or swaged round nosed designs over 5.8 Unique make a decent soft ball equivalent. These run in the < 800 to 850 fps range and are at the low end of standard ball performance.

25yd head-shot group using PMC ammo

A head-shot silhouette group at 25 yards

Current premium factory JHP loads have proven out 100 percent reliable in my recent pistols and I have found a number of loads that produce regular 1.5-2” 25 yard groups in my Gold Cup. Unlike early generation hollow point loadings for the ACP, these show marked expansion when recovered from wet pack, or when fired through such things as water jugs and raw beef brisket. Favored load include the Federal Hydra-Shok 230grain. It usually records velocities in the high 800s and low 900s. The 165 Grain Federal Personal Protection load is very accurate and does 1068/488-foot pounds of energy from the Colt. The 200 grain Speer Gold Dot starts out at 1091/529 from the ‘Cup and does 1150 from my 9.5” Custom Blackhawk Convertible. This load is rated +P while the Blazer load with the same bullet clocks about 70 fps slower and still shows dramatic expansion in brisket and wet pack.

Speer 230 grain soft ball group

Shooting the Speer 230 grain soft ball 

The Triton Quik-Shok triple fragment round does 977/495 and performs identically on impact at ranges from fifty feet to fifty yards.

The most energetic load I have tried to this time is the Cor-Bon 185 JHP from a 1994-dated box. Rated at 1150 fps, this load did 1195 /588 from the Gold Cup and 1294 from the long barrel revolver. It also turned in consecutive 1.67” five round 25-yard groups from each handgun.

Comparing groups

Group comparisons using the Cor-Bon ammo

Whether or not the Government model and its cartridge is the last word in handgun design or is superceded by more current developments is infinitely arguable. It is certainly the semi-auto most likely to find favor with tradition bound shooters who generally prefer the revolver. Elmer Keith, the quintessential revolver man, shot the 1911 extensively and wrote of knocking squirrels off of high, swinging branches with a tight, early-production GI example.

All hype aside, the 1911 .45 ACP is at once a century-spanning relic and a practical tool for the present time.

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There are at least a few current, credible sources for information on the practical use of the 1911-.45. Charles Petty, a careful and technically-capable researcher, has done much to shed light on the practical aspects of both gun and cartridge. Alex Hamilton of Ten Ring Precision , member of the American Pistolsmith’s Guild, practices and in fact developed many of the standard procedures for maximizing function and accuracy in the 1911 and all its varied forms.

Both men presently have columns in American Handgunner Magazine.

Hit Counter since the website crashed AUG 2003, original publish date was 26 Aug 2002