September 24, 2010
A sextet of sound-barrier-busting cartridges for John Browning's Government Model
Many attempts have been made to "improve" upon the ballistics offered by the original .45 ACP. The .400 Cor-Bon was the first of the proprietary cartridges discussed here to have factory ammo available. It is still one of the most useful of these cartridges.
I am a compulsive improver. I freely admit that I have never been able to accept the status quo in regard to most any tool in general and firearms in particular.
I can't recall ever owning a firearm I didn't eventually make some improvements on. Seldom have I been deterred by fears of diminishing the firearm's value or feelings of my own ineptness. With each new firearm there was always the proper period of respect, a few days to admire the polish of the blue or the shimmering swirls of the walnut, then I boldly ventured where the meek dare not tread. To the workbench! I learned a lot in the process and felt a sense of pride in most of my improvements, but in my early years I confess I did improve one or two firearms right into the spare-parts bin, not to mention various household appliances and a '67 Chevy.
My improvement compulsion has not been confined to the mechanics of firearms. I have also sought to improve on ballistics. Take the .45 ACP, for example. In its original configuration it has survived and prospered for 97 years with no help from me, yet, like many others, I have tried to improve it. I first climbed aboard the souped-up-.45 bandwagon in 1987 by cutting down .45 Winchester Magnum cases to .45 ACP dimensions and stoking the cases with heavy doses of medium-burning powders.
The bandwagon was already quite crowded at the time. Other improvers had been wildcatting the .45 for decades, and many were toying with stronger cases and higher velocities. Writer Dean Grennel was working along the same lines I was in the mid- to late '80s, only he was using .451 Detonics cases and achieving more spectacular results.
It was, after all, the short-lived firearms manufacturer, Detonics, that showed us what kind of performance could be wrung from a .45 caliber 1911 by strengthening the case. The .451 Detonics was basically a .45 Win Mag case shortened to fit in a 1911 magazine, yet long enough that it would not chamber in a .45 ACP barrel. It was a logical step. The .45 Win Mag operates at 41,300 CUP, and the case has proven to be strong enough to handle these pressures in guns where the case head hangs unsupported over the feed ramp, as is common with the 1911 design.
This doesn't mean there are not risks involved with high-pressure cartridges. The .45 Auto operates at very mild pressure and thus has a large margin of safety. The rounds we are about to discuss use up some of that safety margin. Any handgun cartridge that operates at 30,000-plus psi, as most of our modern autoloading cartridges do, is more likely to have dangerous pressure spikes from bullet setback, improper loading and other ailments. No need to panic. It is just something you should be aware of.
There was quite a stir in the gun press when the .45 Win Mag was introduced in 1979, but it is interesting to note that the cartridge was already 20 years old at that time. It is dimensionally and ballistically identical to a cartridge introduced in Canada in 1959 called the .45 NAACO. The .45 NAACO was intended as a military cartridge, and a robust autoloading handgun was developed to fire it. The cartridge was short-lived, however, and was dead and forgotten when Winchester resurrected it as the .45 Win Mag. As to my own experiments in the late '80s, I was a rank amateur compared to improvers like Grennel and timid in my expectations. I set my cutoff point comparatively low: a 185-grain hollowpoint at 1,150 fps.
Barrel makers have profited from the influx of new cartridges. Shown here is an aftermarket barrel for the .40 Super installed in a 1911.
Don't laugh; that was sizzling by factory standards back then. This was before we had +P .45 factory loads. A look at a loading manual of the time would show darn few, if any, loads breaking the 1,000-fps mark, even with the lightest bullets available at the time. I wrote about my experiments and sent the manuscript off to one of the major gun magazines. The response I received a few weeks later was notable, for me at least, in that it was my first rejection letter. The editor was nice and wrote a lengthy reply as to why he could not share my genius with the world. He did say he liked the article, but the loads were just too hot to publish.
We have come a long way.
The .45 Super
Dean Grennel's efforts to increase the performance of the .45 ACP were brought to the public's attention in a 1988 Gun World article by Tom Ferguson. The .45 Super was originally based on .451 Detonics cases trimmed to .45 ACP length. Grennel reasoned that a case of the same external dimensions as the .45 ACP made more sense than Detonics' elongated one, as standard loads could be used in the gun without sacrificing the accuracy advantage of correct headspacing. If .45 Super loads were shot in .45s not set up for the hotter round, they would likely pound the gun into an early demise, but they would not blow it up.
Custom pistolsmith Ace Hindman worked with Ferguson and Grennel and designed a 1911 that would handle the added recoil of the Super cartridge. This entailed not only a heavier recoil spring but also modifications to the firing pin to alleviate primer flow.
|.45 Super |
185 grain at 1,300 fps
200 grain at 1,200 fps
230 grain at 1,100 fps
Ace Custom continues to produce .45 Super handguns under the guidance of Ace's son, Garey Hindman. Garey trademarked the .45 Super name in 1994, and the cartridge evolved from being a wildcat to commercially loaded status due to an agreement
between Ace Custom and Triton Ammo. This agreement came to an end, and production of the cartridge by Triton ceased early in 2000. Factory ammo for the .45 Super is available from Texas Ammunition, a company co-founded by Garey Hindman.
It is worth mentioning that neither the .45 Super nor any of the proprietary rounds covered in this article would be available in factory-loaded form were it not for the Starline brass company in Texas. Before Starline started making custom brass available in relatively small quantities, introducing a new cartridge was an enormously expensive undertaking. The big ammo companies like Federal and Winchester will not fire up the equipment for a piddling 100,000-case order.
The .450 SMC
In the later part of 2000, Triton announced a new cartridge based on the .45 ACP case head. The .450 SMC is basically a .45 Super with a small primer pocket. A smaller primer pocket means more brass in the web area, but I am not sure if the added strength is really needed here. There may also be some ballistic advantages, and small rifle primers are not as prone to primer flow in these cartridges. But I suspect one reason for the small primer is to make the round visibly different from the .45 Super.
165 grain at 1,450
230 grain at 1,150
Of course, Triton could have just marketed the .45 Super under a different name, as Garey Hindman has no lock on the design itself, only the .45 Super name. Still, having a visibly different case more clearly separates the .450 SMC from the .45 Super.
External dimensions of the .450 SMC are the same as the .45 Super and .45 ACP. Factory ballistics are quoted by Triton to be slightly higher than the .45 Super.
Triton has just changed owners and reportedly is still committed to the .450 SMC concept. It is an interesting variation on the .45 Super, and we will just have to wait and see if the cartridge makes it in the marketplace.
135 grain at 1,800 fps
165 grain at 1,600 fps
200 grain at 1,300 fps
The .40 Super
This Triton cartridge did make it into production. STI produces complete handguns for the .40 Super, and aftermarket barrels are available from sources such as EMF Firedragon. I recently tested an EMF barrel in this caliber and was impressed with the velocity and consistency turned out by the Triton factory loads. A 135-grain bullet at 1,800 fps is quite an accomplishment in a conventional-size autoloader.
This cartridge is not simply a .45 Super necked down to .40 caliber. It uses a longer case, which makes for a longer neck to hold the bullet firmly, and, as mentioned, it uses a small primer pocket. Small rifle primers are recommended.
185 grain at 1,550 fps
200 grain at 1,450 fps
230 grain at 1,340 fps
The .460 Rowland
The .460 Rowland, developed by Johnny Rowland and Clark Custom Guns, is a sixteenth inch longer than the .45 ACP to prevent chambering in unmodified guns. This is a very powerful cartridge with recoil to match. Clark Custom offers a conversion kit consisting of a barrel with compensator and a 24-pound recoil spring to reduce battering of your 1911. This cartridge is the most suitable of any mentioned here for hunting medium game, provided you can find a suitable bullet that will feed well yet hold together at high velocity.
The .400 Cor-Bon
The .400 Cor-Bon is one of the more useful of the current crop of .45 ACP offspring. There are faster rounds, but the .400 Cor-Bon is simply easy to get along with. You don't need extra-heavy springs or tricked-out guns for this round--just drop a .400 Cor-Bon barrel in your favorite .45 and you are good to go.
It is nothing more than the .45 ACP necked down to .40 caliber. Cor-Bon recently switched to small primer pockets, but it works fine with the large primer pockets. Cases are easily formed by running a .45 ACP case through a .400 Cor-Bon sizing die.
135 grain at 1,450 fps
150 grain at 1,350 fps
165 grain at 1,300 fps
Performance is on a par with the 10mm, yet pressures are much milder. Factory ammo is loaded to +P .4
5 levels, but the lighter bullet weights make recoil comparable to .45 hardball loads. Felt recoil is a little sharper but still very controllable.
In the 1963 issue of Guns & Ammo, a new wildcat cartridge, the .38-45 Clerke, was first introduced to the general public. It was simply the .45 Auto case necked down to accept .355-inch bullets. It might seem logical to assume the idea was to get higher velocities from the Colt handgun, but the cartridge was actually developed as a light-recoiling target round. It was so light-recoiling that many 1911s would not function if the loads were kept within .45 ACP pressure limits, which most were. Remember, this was the pre-Detonics era. The .38-45 concept was soon gone but not entirely forgotten.
Dick Casull gave new life and a large boost in power to the .38-45 concept a couple of years ago with the introduction of the .38 Casull and a specially designed 1911 to propel it. The Casull cartridge has the usual beefed-up case and accepts small rifle primers, plus the rim is slightly rebated to aid in reliable feeding. The Casull Model CA 3800 has a ramped barrel to more fully support this stronger case head and a heavy six-inch slide and 30-pound recoil spring to soak up recoil.
124 grain at 1,800+ fps
147 grain at 1,650+ fps
Now that we have looked at the current cartridges offered to improve on .45 ACP ballistics, the question is raised: Are they really an improvement? This admittedly unreformed improver would have to say no in regard to self-defense. In my opinion--and feel free to disagree--the .45 ACP still offers the best combination of power and controllable recoil for defensive use against two-legged adversaries. The hotter rounds do expand the capabilities of the .45 platform, however. For example, I use the .400 Cor-Bon when I want more expansion and a flatter trajectory (read: more velocity). In other words, the .400 Cor-Bon makes for a dandy short-range varmint load when I am hiking around in the desert.
This is not to say that the .40 caliber is not a formidable man-stopper. If you subscribe to the theory that the fast, little .40 is better than the big, slow .45, then the .400 Cor-Bon or .40 Super would be an improvement for you.
Or, you may feel .45 is the right caliber but it just needs more speed. Then the .45 Super and .450 SMC would be improvements by your standards. Be prepared to sacrifice controllability, though, meaning slower follow-up shots due to increased recoil.
I personally only carry one of the hot .45s when the threat includes four-legged beasts. A .45 Super with 230-grain Hornady XTPs, or perhaps flatnosed nonexpanding bullets, can be a real comfort on a dark night when camped in black bear country. Likewise, if you want to seek out four-legged critters and insist on using a 1911 for hunting, the .460 Rowland delivers even more power. For the record, some who peddle these rounds have advertised them to deliver the power of a .44 Magnum. They don't.
Most of them do deliver substantial power and, as a result, substantial recoil. The .400 Cor-Bon is the most controllable of the bunch, while the recoil of the .40 Super, .45 Super or .450 SMC is quite stout. Even with the built-in compensator, the .460 Rowland is a handful.
This not only makes for slow follow-up shots but can also damage a handgun not properly set up to deal with the extra power. Heavier recoil springs and Shok-Buffs offer protection for the frame from the rearward motion of the slide, but the heavy spring also slams the slide forward with more force, which can increase the odds of bullet setback. When using these heavy recoil springs, do not press the slide release and let the slide slam forward. Grasp the slide with the off hand, pull rearward and release. This will save wear on the slide-release notch.
The trick is to use a recoil spring that matches the load. A good indicator is to see how far your empties are tossed. Shoot some full-power hardball loads in your gun with the factory spring, and see how far the cases are ejected. Since the ejector and extractor are the same, cases should not be tossed much farther with the hotter loads and a proper spring. I say "much farther" because slide velocity increases in proportion to muzzle velocity, which tends to add more snap to the ejection. A .40 Super, for example, will toss cases farther than a .45 Super even with proper recoil-spring tension.
There is one other potential problem with these hot proprietary rounds. Most of the bullets available for them were designed to expand properly at lower velocities. If you take a .40 caliber bullet designed to expand at 1,000 to 1,400 fps in a .40 S&W and push it to 1,650 to 1,800 fps in a .40 Super, don't be surprised if that bullet disintegrates on impact.
Those who accept the fact that there is no free lunch and who realize that the extra power of these cartridges comes at a price can get along quite well with any of the hot rounds listed here. I am sure that none of them will ever approach the popularity of the venerable old .45 ACP, but they have their uses and bring a new level of power to the 1911 and other midsize autoloaders.
If you are the kind of shooter who must have magnum rifles, 300-horsepower automobiles and 100-proof whiskey, then you may oil up the standard .45 ACP barrel and tuck it into storage. The rest of us, though, will still shoot the .45 most of the time and only trot out the hot ones when we are feeling adventurous or genuinely need the extra power.