Rock Island Armory’s Nickel GI M1911-A1FS
I should know, by now, that there are just some guns I can’t get along without. A good Winchester 94, a .45 Colt Single Action and a caplock rife are necessary personal effects. So it goes with the 1911A1- and I’d been a couple of years without one. So I loaded the mule with trade goods and headed off to the rendezvous. A new Rock Island ‘GI’ in bright nickel was the result and it just about defies photography, at least at my skill level. As it came from the box:
The slick OEM grips were immediately swapped out for some GI brown plastic. Not so pretty, but much easier to shoot well.
When I was a kid, you’d occasionally see USGI surplus .45’s which at some point, had been handed off to cousin Larry who worked at Acme Chrome Plating. Larry would sneak it into work and plate it with the next batch of bumpers that went through. Eventually these pistols ended up gunshops, where kids like me would slobber all over the display case until somebody ran us off. I think I am genetically predisposed toward redheads and nickel plated handguns.
Shots Fired! Well, sort of…
Got a box of ‘Precision Cartridge’ 45 ACP with the gun and ran a couple of mags through it this afternoon. Or tried to. Banga-choke-banga-banga-choke-choke. Failure to return to battery combined with push-feeding ahead of the extractor- which was obviously tensioned way too tight. The RIA factory ‘ACT’ (up) mag also does not impress, and presents the round low into the feedramp. I was getting pissed… it was cold, windy and yet another brand-new 1911 had failed to function well enough to empty a magazine. I fired one ‘single feed’ 20 yard group. Looks like it shoots a tad right.
Or not… Speaking of sights, the guy who polished this pistol missed the flaw on the front strap; but he thoughtfully turned the front sight into something resembling those mirrored-ball pedestal ornaments you see in little old ladies’ yards. I shot it again the next day, with the sun directly overhead, it printed right on the sight. Function was still lousy, but I single-loaded the piece and shot a couple of standing unsupported groups at 25 yards, about like one pictured. This with a 7 pound (scaled) trigger, nonetheless.
Under the Hood
Even with CMC Powermags and different ammo, I got a number of FTRB’s as soon as the gun got a trifle dirty. I googled around a bit and it seems that a number of barrels with tight chambers slipped through QC. This Rock Island’s chamber doesn’t even mike a full .480 at the rear, so my usual luck is holding. Lordy, I should open a lemonade stand. I certainly have a gift for finding raw material.
There are other gremlins in the shiny corn-sheller, which became apparent upon disassembly. The extractor was so tight in its tunnel I that I had to drive it out with an old aluminum cleaning rod. Perhaps they didn’t account for surface build-up from the plating on both parts. Regardless- instead of correcting an obvious problem, somebody just pounded the extractor into place with his little leather hammer.
I freed the offending part, worked the shank down on a 400 grit diamond stone and reset the tension. Ball and 230 Golden Saber hand-cycled ‘just OK’ when fed from a decent magazine. A second tune-up of the extractor involved filing proper feed and clearance bevels on its nose and groove; this helped a bunch and hand-cycling became downright slick. The extractor itself seems to be of good quality steel and judging from the effort taken to reset it, I’d say the heat-treating is excellent. I generally replace low-buck extractors with an Ed Brown unit, for peace of mind.
When your new pistol has problems, it would be easy to overlook its good points; so let’s touch on some of those. To Rock Island’s credit, the firing pin stop plate is literally perfect. I’ve fitted many an oversize stop plate and they simply nailed this one. This is desirable because when properly fitted, this part stabilizes the extractor itself and promotes good, consistent extraction and ejection. It is refreshing to see this in a budget 1911A1. Random micrometer readings around the frame, slide and internals indicate a commendable effort to follow the blueprint. The slide to frame fit is considerably tighter than your typical 1911 knock-off. I’d rate this one as good or better than the last few Springfields I’ve had in my hands. In parts of the slide and frame you don’t see, when the gun is assembled, this Rock Island blows Springfield out of the water. These surfaces are literally finished as well as any production 1911 I’ve ever seen- and that says something.
Outwardly, the Rock Island barrel is excellent. It mics a proper and perfectly-round 0.580” at the muzzle and reduces to 0.575” about three-quarters of an inch back; essentially ‘match’ barrel external dimensions. Internal and external finish, lugs the upper and lower lugs are very well executed. The rifling is a tad shallow- our only clue that we aren’t looking at a match barrel, after all. The ‘wadcutter throat’ on this barrel is odd, running up the impact surfaces of the barrel further than it needs to; it also stops short of the bottom of the barrel. But the bore is very well finished and doesn’t look like it will collect lead. I see nothing in the barrel that says it won’t meet my personal carry gun accuracy standard of 4” @ 50 yards.
Sorting it out…
I’ve mentioned this gun’s sluggishness, in failing to return to battery. Even sparkling clean, this was evident in hand cycling certain ball rounds. I originally attributed this to excessive extractor tension, but I was only partially correct.
Something else was going on here and in an effort to identify ‘what’, I dug out an old Auto Ordnance barrel I’ve had laying around for years. It ran like a top, but had chatter marks in the rifling so I’ve never used it for serious shooting. Take a look at the front of the chambers on both barrels. The Rock Island barrel is on the right:
As mentioned, I think A/O did a much better job with their ‘wadcutter throat’; but I digress. A closer look at the Rock Island chamber, here:
There is next to no leade into the rifling, which is bad ju-ju for the wadcutter loads I shoot by the bucket-fulls. I grabbed a few oddball rounds which include Winchester USA, Winchester SXT Federal FMJ and Wolf FMJ, all of which are 230 grain. I also added my 200 LSWC reload (1.250” OAL) and a reload using a 255 grain semi-wadcutter intended for the .45 Colt, loaded to 1.175” OAL. ALL these loads have proven reliable in various 1911’s I’ve had.
I began by measuring the length of the barrel, including the hood. I then dropped each of aforementioned rounds lightly into the chamber, and measured the barrel again. A properly-cut chamber will admit in-spec .45 ACP ammo dropped into it and the case head will be flush with or at most, 2-3 thousandths below the hood. This barrel is short-chambered and various loads protruded 15 to 30 thousandths ABOVE the barrel hood.
The final confirmation of this materialized when pushing the ‘high’ rounds on into the chamber, flush who the hood. Resistance was felt as they seated and it was necessary to pluck them from the barrel. This was particularly apparent with the 200 grain LSWC load and the leading shoulder of the bullet showed bright marks where in encountered the sharp edge of the chamber. These loads in particular have proved reliable in other 1911’s I’ve owned.
I plugged the Auto Ordnance barrel into the Rock Island and shot three 8 round CMC mags of Federal ball through it. It is the first three magazines the pistol has cycled without failing to feed. At a little over 50 yards, they were all over an ‘Osama’ target- but at least they were feeding and firing. I’m confident that the bad chamber in the OEM barrel was 95% of this gun’s problems.
So what to do? First, I have the old Auto Ord barrel plugged into the gun; so I’m not stuck with a pistol I can’t shoot. Second, the gun was sold through Davidsons and I’m told it can be exchanged through them without problems. Finally, Rock Island’s customer service is said to be good and I could probably return the gun to them for correction. I’m anxious to get a good barrel in this gun. I googled all over creation for “Rock Island 50 yard Group” and found practically nothing. That deficiency will be corrected at the first opportunity.
I called Rock Island and explained the situation to Shawn in RIA’s gunsmithing section. I also emailed photos and a synopsis and included a copy with the barrel, which I shipped on January 10th. In a phone conversation later that week, Shawn assured me if he received the barrel by Friday, he’d ream it or replace it and get it out ASAP.
My barrel arrived on January 17th. Its chamber was reamed to 0.482” which is, coincidentally, roughly the maximum dimension per the blueprint. The chamber was nicely polished and a perfect wadcutter throat has also been added. Any and all loads dropped easily into the chamber, and they drop right back out when the barrel is inverted. Further, the ‘breakover point’ at the bottom of the chamber has been perfectly radiused.
This is exactly the chamber and throat I would have produced, if I had two uninterrupted hours and tools already on the bench. This significance of this, from a customer service standpoint, cannot be overstated. These results are not possible unless the service representative is knowledgeable, skilled at his trade, and pays close attention to the service problem and is motivated to make it right- ASAP.
The fact that the barrel was back in my hands in seven calendar days—during a week with a holiday and RIA’s Shot Show preps—is nothing short of amazing. It speaks volumes about Rock Island Armory’s commitment to customer service. To Shawn and Rock Island Armory- thank you.
And Finally… Some Shooting!
Some days I could shoot the Rock Island’s nickel sights just fine and other days, I couldn’t. It’s getting a set of high hardball sights at minimum, maybe a glow dot up front; but I haven’t settled on them yet and I wanted something usable on it for the time being. So I dug through my parts box and found a half-dozen blue GI rear sights, some of which are new. Next up was to pad the jaws of my 6” drill press vice, to avoid marring the slide’s finish. Since I was going to use a hammer, punch and potentially a file, I covered the slide in a double layer of masking tape right up to the edges of the sights. With that all done, I carefully mounted the slide in the vise and set to work.
The 1911’s rear sight drifts out from the left, looking down the sights, and a few light raps on the punch brought it right out. I measured its height and selected the replacement with the cleanest notch, which was still within 0.005”of the original. Here’s where it got interesting because the replacement wouldn’t even start in the dovetail. So out comes the file and I started by removing material off the bottom of the sight. Once it started in the dovetail, I removed equal amounts off the sight’s dovetail about eight file strokes at a time until it went about halfway in. Normally, you’d touch it up with cold blue at this point. Since this was all experimental, I centered it as best I could and touched it up with a marker. I also very carefully serrated the front sight with a small triangular file, which turned out to be an exercise in futility. In fitting the rear sight, I had shortened it and later had to shorten the front sight anyway. Such is life.
I did at least kill the glare and end up with something more akin to a normal, GI .45 sight picture.
On ‘Zero Day’ I loaded up the folding table, hunting chair, gun tool box, vise, range bag and ammo and headed down to the log pile. I always zero service pistols at 50 yards, for a couple of reasons. First, I’d like to be able to punch some lowlife through the gourd at 50 paces, if that’s all he gives me to shoot at. Second, I like to play at bullseye shooting and a 50 yard zero is necessary. When I’m zeroing, I shoot from the table with the gun held normally and my hands rested over the range bag. This is to remove as much human error as possible and focus on where the gun is printing.
Early shooting was low-left; so I pulled off the slide, mounted it in the padded vise and tapped the rear sight over just a froghair. This had to be repeated once and when the windage was set, I re-masked the slide again and carefully applied ten light file strokes to the top of the front sight, keeping it as square as possible. The point of impact moved right where it belonged and the last 50 yard group was 3 rounds of Tula hardball, topped off with a couple of Remington 230 grain Golden Sabers. I was pretty happy to see this when I walked down to check it.
Success- and not a single scratch on the finish. This will hold me until the permanent sights are decided upon. I’m also please to report that the gun chugged through another 100 or so rounds of mixed hardball, JHP’s and a few 200 grain semi-wadcutters I’d loaded over four grains of W231 for 626 feet per second- cat loads. It plugged the SWC’s into over-lapping holes, right on the front sight, shooting two-hand unsupported at 25 yards. Now to get busy reloading.