September 24, 2010
A first look at SIGARMS' rock-solid new 1911
The Granite Series pistols are appropriately named because they are designed and built in New Hampshire independently of SIG Sauer. The series was conceived from scratch as robust, high-grade service pistols "capable of exceeding the harshest demands of military and law enforcement," in the words of SIGARMS marketing director Paul Erhardt. OK, every advertising guy from Astra to Zastava has used that macho line, but Erhardt really seems to believe it. Does the GSR measure up to the hype? In a word, yes. SIGARMS' bold entry into the savagely competitive 1911 arena doesn't disappoint.
When the firm decided to enter the 1911 market, SIGARMS wisely rejected the let's-go-it-alone approach and instead sought out a top custom pistolsmith to bring the program from R&D to production. This allowed SIG to fully exploit 30 years of proven 1911 development by competitive practical shooters while avoiding the oddball design pitfalls and quality-control problems that doomed some previous efforts. I believe the company couldn't have done better than to retain former IPSC World Champion and meticulous 1911 builder Matt McClearn. Not only have I had the pleasure of working with McClearn back in the early '90s, he has also wiped up the range with me quite a few times in competition. I was gratified to see SIGARMS entrust this project to my talented old rival.
While in Phoenix to introduce the Granite line at an industry trade show, McClearn came out to the Rio Salado range to pass around a pair of early-production GSR .45s to some of the 400 IPSC shooters attending the USPSA Desert Classic. With considerable effort we pulled him away from the crowd for a quick interview, some photos and an opportunity to fire a few rounds.
At first look the Granite GSR .45 looks very clean and impressive. SIGARMS has incorporated some sexy design work and top-quality components with a few smart innovations like the Wilson external extractor to produce a thoroughly American interpretation of the classic 1911 that still fits right in with the company's decidedly Eurocentric product line. We'll thrash over the few details I'm not sold on, but first let's get into what makes the Granite such a refreshing departure from other current-production 1911s.
In contrast to the traditional slab sides and top .5-inch radius of 1911 slides, the GSR is neatly profiled with compound curves and relief cuts for a distinctively precise SIG appearance. That stylistic nod to SIG Sauer continues in the frame, with its reinforced dustcover and elegantly shaped Picatinny equipment rail. GSR pistols are made entirely of stainless steel; the black version wears the same proprietary Nitron finish SIGARMS applies to the stainless components of its other pistols.
I asked McClearn how the Granite series was developed. "SIGARMS knew it needed a 1911 to fill out its line, but the company wanted it to look like a SIG, and it had to be of equal quality to SIG Sauer service pistols. The task of SIG-styling and initial engineering was handled by Chris Aiston and Kevin Webber of Makers Industrial Design. I think they did an awesome job.
The stainless steel GSR is available with the same durable black Nitron finish SIGARMS applies to the stainless slides
on the P-226 and its other pistols.
"SIGARMS wanted a serious, top-quality service pistol, not a compromise gun to hit a certain price," said McClearn. "I was asked to use my pistolsmithing and competitive shooting experience to select the best components available for the GSR, not just the cheapest. You can imagine how good that made me feel about this project," he said, grinning. I understood exactly what he meant: I hate to tell my customers that I have to discard most of the parts in their new 1911 clone to build a truly durable, high-grade custom pistol that can be guaranteed not to go down. The opportunity to develop a production 1911 with competition-proven components is every pistolsmith's dream and McClearn's lucky reality.
"I bypassed the imported MIM and cast stuff used by other makers, and I went to the best sources of competition parts for each of the components we needed for the GSR. Every critical working part in this gun is machined from solid stainless steel. I think a pistol is more than the sum of its parts, but you won't have to toss anything away to custom-tune a GSR for heavy shooting," said McClearn with obvious pride. To put his assertion to the test, we went over each part.
The Lo-Mount sights and magazines were obviously from Novak, and I recognized the excellent Grieder Precision slide-stop lever, tactical magazine release and skeletonized trigger as parts I often build with myself. What about the other internals? "Pins, recoil-spring plug and guide, the disconnector and the very cool EDM [electrical discharge machining] hammer are from Performance Engineering. We specified .029-inch-tall hammer hooks for drop-dead safety of our factory-adjusted five-pound trigger pull. Lawyers."
Fair enough; five pounds is fine for a true service pistol anyway. I could feel the deep sear engagement when dry-firing, but these sample trigger pulls were indeed suspiciously good for production guns, particularly given the GSR's trigger-actuated firing-pin safety. I had to ask how this was possible. "The Performance Engineering hammer mates perfectly to the Evolution Gun Works hard sear and Wolff spring set we specified for the GSR. We got around the usual crunch associated with this style of firing-pin safety mechanism by using Thomas Engineering's laser-cut actuating levers, which we then detail polish. All these parts will clean up really well, but this pull quality is what we get as we are building them."
McClearn continued to read from a Who's Who of top parts makers, including Caspian Arms and Wolff Gun Springs. He was right: Every component was one I would have selected myself. I did think I had him on the barrel bushing, however, recognizing it as a drop-in part from EGW rather than the oversize version I'd fit in the shop. "We specified .699-inch O.D. and .578 I.D. for the bushing, giving us a .001-inch fit after deep-hole polishing of the slide-bore" McClearn said. I fieldstripped the stainless-finished sample for photos and found the bushing fit to be pretty darn good indeed. I'd still hand-fit a new one if I were taking it to the Bianchi Cup but maybe only because my ego requires I replace something.
That brought our discussion to accuracy. The slide-to-frame fits on both sample GSR pistols were excellent, and the barrels locked up with no discernable vertical play. I figured these things would shoot like the devil. "We have gauges to help us match up our parts sets and then hand-lap the slide-to-frame fit. We're still finalizing our barrel dimensions to maximize our fits, but these [early-production samples] lock up on the lugs with .043-inch slide engagement and no more than .004-inch barrel-hood end shake," said McClearn. Those values should translate to very go
od accuracy and durability. I would expect a GSR to hold up exceedingly well under heavy use.
I was curious why SIGARMS dispensed with the full-length recoil-spring guide rod so ubiquitous to other upgraded 1911s. "We just didn't see the benefit of a full-length rod in a tactical pistol," was McClearn's simple reply. I'm inclined to agree since such rods invariably complicate disassembly and maintenance, a real issue for law enforcement and the military.
In a laudable departure from other makers, SIGARMS selected competition-grade, all-machined internal components in an effort to enhance the GSR's durability and performance.
Yes, there were a few things I didn't like about the GSR. The first is a purely practical concern for owners of fitted 1911 holsters: The GSR likely won't fit your expensive cowhide due to the equipment rail and unique slide profile. I can live with that.
I had two niggling complaints about the Novak-rear-sight installations. One is my personal dislike of three-dot sights, but a world full of people who won't focus on their sight alignment demands them. I know when I won't win an argument. However, the Novaks were obviously installed with a lot of pressure, leaving lightly galled tracks in the rear dovetails. McClearn assured me they were working on sight-cut specs and tooling to correct this in full production. The good thing about the GSR's sights? Each pistol will be hand-zeroed.
My principal technical concern has to do with the method used to retain the firing-pin safety. Colt and Para-Ordnance both use a modified extractor to retain their Series 80-style firing-pin safety plungers in the slide whereas going to the Wilson external extractor for the GSR required an alternative method. I was frankly incredulous as to why the Granite Series needed to be the only service 1911 out there with a non-user-serviceable spanner screw in the side of the slide. This little screw looks like it was borrowed from a Leica rangefinder camera and is the one feature of the GSR that doesn't seem well thought out to me. However, I find it equally difficult to imagine the GSR design team didn't have a very good reason to do it this way.
Will this cause real trouble for hard users in the field? Probably not as McClearn assures me the material specifications for the plunger and firing pin are optimal for durability. Might this detract from the GSR's ease of maintenance? I suspect it might. In any event, this funny little screw is the only potential technical demerit I can find in a too-brief afternoon with the new SIGARMS GSR. How big a deal is it to me?
Well, my friends know who's on the very short list of other top pistolsmiths whom I would ask to build me a gun without reservations. It looks like McClearn finally did.