By: Jeff Chudwin
In the cookbook of handguns, steel and wood are the original main ingredients. Using these tried-and-true materials, Rock River Arms of Colona, Illinois, is producing a 1911 that is a standout in quality and performance. Known as the Basic Limited model, it is an enhanced version of John Browning’s most popular design.
In a market awash with 1911s, companies have to do something special to stand out in the crowd. In speaking with Steve Mayer at Rock River, he explained that while, yes, the 1911 market is huge, there is a niche for quality, built-to-order handguns. That is what the Basic Limited is about: a 1911 with many high-end features that are found on pistols costing far more.
The Basic Limited is a Series 70 1911, the original Browning design. Series 80 guns incorporate a firing pin safety to increase drop safety, but to the chagrin of many 1911 fans, this additional safety makes the trigger pull worse.
With its Series 70 gun, Rock River has adopted an extended and heavy-duty firing pin spring and a lightweight firing pin to provide increased drop safety while not compromising trigger pull. I have carried a Series 70 for more than 30 years and have no qualms about it.
The first thing that caught my attention is the high-quality blue work on the slide and frame that is reminiscent of the old Colts I have owned. Basic Limited pistols are finished in RocKote, a durable baked-on coating, but Rock River also offers a more traditional blue finish for purists like me.
Features include a BoMar-style adjustable rear sight machined in a low-mount position. The BoMar design has been the most popular rear sight for competition guns since the early days of practical shooting, and Rock River’s copy is true to form. It is click adjustable and holds solid zero even in the face of the recoil of the heaviest 230-grain +P loads.
The front sight is semi-ramped with a dovetailed base that blends in with the top of the slide. The width of the front sight is 0.12 inch and offers a good sight picture, with enough light on both sides, as seen through the rear sight, to work well on both close- and long-range targets. Both sight surfaces are serrated to reduce glare and offer a crisp sight picture.
The slide and frame are forged 4140 steel and hand-fitted to provide glass-smooth movement. All sharp edges have been beveled or blended. The slide has slanted cocking serrations located at the rear and also the front for shooters who prefer to do press checks and other slide manipulations from the forward portion of the slide.
The ejection port is cut lower, and a flared relief cut is added at the back to allow unimpeded ejection of fired casings. The frontstrap of the frame is undercut at the junction of the trigger guard to allow the highest grip position. Both the frontstrap and the mainspring housing are checkered at 25 lpi. The checkering is machine cut and perfectly executed, and when you combine this with the checkered double-diamond rosewood grips, you get a comfortable yet positive gripping surface.
A beavertail grip safety adds to the high grip position, and a raised speed bump allows for positive disengagement even when wearing gloves. The magazine well is relieved and beveled for easy magazine insertion.
The Basic Limited comes with one eight-round magazine. I asked why only one was included. Mayer told me it’s because many shooters have a decided preference for a particular magazine and including a second magazine they may not want or use is an unnecessary extra expense.
The five-inch barrel and bushing are by made by Kart, a name that tops the list for highly accurate and durable barrels. The Kart barrel features a polished feed ramp. The barrel and bushing are hand-fitted, and disassembly requires a bushing wrench.
A note of caution for first-time 1911 shooters: When disassembling the pistol and rotating the barrel bushing, the recoil spring cap will release forward under great spring pressure. It must be controlled by your fingers to prevent it launching at high speed. In my early years my oily fingers fumbled the disassembly more than once and launched the cap. Always wear protective glasses and point the end of the slide in a safe direction just in case the plug gets away from you.
I cycled the slide on the Basic Limited and slowly released it forward to test the lockup. It moved fully into battery with a soft click. This is the way I was taught to fit a barrel by the old-school master gunsmiths, who called it a “hard-fit” method so when the slide and barrel are fully locked into battery the pistol is bank-vault solid.
The Basic Limited clearly shows its hand-fitting, and there’s zero play between the barrel, bushing, slide and slide stop. The full-length recoil spring guide is a threaded two-piece model. This is one feature I would change because you need a hex wrench for disassembly—and you won’t always have one on hand. Further, two-piece units inevitably shoot loose and unscrew in recoil. This happened to my sample in the first couple hundred rounds of testing, and I used some blue thread locker to keep it tight.
The ambidextrous safety is properly fitted and clicks on and off positively. The edges are smooth and rounded so there will be no thumb bite. The safety is the original Swenson design, and the thumb ledges are wide enough for fast access but are not overly obtrusive.
The steel slide stop and magazine catch are both serrated. The magazine catch button is slightly extended for easier access. The match hammer is the open loop Commander type, and it is mated to a match sear.
All fire-control parts are tool steel. The factory specs call for a 3.5-pound trigger, and the sample on mine measured 3.75 pounds. There was no creep or overtravel. The lightweight aluminum speed trigger can be ordered in four different lengths—short, medium, long and extra-long—to fit the shooter’s hand.
This is a great option because one size does not fit all, and kudos go to Rock River for recognizing this important aspect of matching pistol to shooter. The foundation of accurate pistol work is pressing the trigger straight to the rear with no sideways pressure, and for this to happen consistently, the gun must fit the shooter. If the shooter has too little or too much finger on the trigger, accuracy problems follow. This often causes a right-hander’s shots to go low left and lefties the opposite.
The Basic Limited has a pinned and extended ejector that moves the empty casings out of the ejection port earlier in the cycle than the original standard-length ejector, a feature that brings greater reliability. Also, Rock River uses a fitted and polished extractor. This is key to top performance and typically found only on top-tier custom 1911 pistols.
Over multiple range days, I shot more than 1,000 rounds of both ball and hollowpoint .45 Auto through the Basic Limited. With my custom-built 1911s I often found there was a break-in period, and with the tightly fitted Basic Limited I was not surprised to experience several failures to extract and eject.
I spoke with Rock River and explained what had happened, and the folks there asked me to return the pistol to the factory for inspection. Within a week it was back, and I continued my accuracy and function testing. The Basic Limited found its groove after that, and it cycled problem-free in subsequent range sessions with all bullet types.
To start the testing, I fired 400 SIG Elite 230-grain full metal jacket rounds. I ran the strings of fire in close—five to 10 yards—and fast. Round after round tore small ragged groups. I then extended the distance and added the other loads I had on hand, which are listed in the accompanying accuracy chart—in addition to 200-grain semi-wadcutter handloads.
I have to say the 230-grain +P loads are hard recoiling and a real handful. Noted 1911 gunsmith Ned Christiansen says the increased slide velocity and recoil of the 230-grain +P can be a source of problems in 1911s, but the Basic Limited handled the +P loads with no problem.
Accuracy for the Basic Limited is guaranteed to be within 2.5 inches at 50 yards with Federal’s 185-grain match load. My testing was done off a rest and sandbags at 25 yards in sub-freezing winter cold. I don’t claim to be able to shoot at the level of the Rock River guarantee, but even under tough conditions, the Basic Limited produced two- to three-inch 25-yard groups with all ammo tested. Results are shown in the accompanying chart.
My smallest group of the day came with SIG V-Crown 200-grain hollowpoint: 1.5 inches. It’s also worth noting my handloads fed flawlessly, which indicates the chamber dimension was properly finished.
In addition to the Handguns five-round testing standard, I also spent a day firing 10-round groups. This is a more difficult task because it requires great focus, and a flyer or two is often the result of inattention to the basics. The 10-round groups opened a might, but most would easily fit in a palm-size group.
I have used a 1911 pistol as my primary handgun from my earliest shooting days—both in competition and on duty. I have experienced what works and what doesn’t. The Rock River Basic Limited is a handgun that could serve as a competition single-stack pistol and also as a defensive carry pistol for those who don’t mind the size and weight of a full-size 1911.
In this era of polymer frames and dark nitride slides, there remains a special place for superbly crafted, blued handguns. Rock River’s Basic Limited is both a shooter and a beautiful example of the pistolsmith’s craft. It makes the cut for those looking for a high-end 1911 at a reasonable price. And it’s one that can be delivered in months, not years.
Rock River Arms
Type: Series 70 1911 w/2-piece guide rod
Caliber: .45 ACP
Capacity: 8-round magazine supplied
Barrel: 5 in. Kart w/polished feed ramp
OAL/Height/Width: 8.75/5.3/1.3 in.
Weight: 38 oz. w/o magazine
Construction: 4140 forged steel National Match frame and slide
Finish: blue (as tested)
Grips: double-diamond checkered rosewood
Sights: BoMar rear, 0.12 in. blade front
Trigger: RRA Match aluminum, 3.75 lb. pull (measured)
Safety: Swenson-style ambi thumb, beavertail w/speed bump
Manufacturer: Rock River Arms,