September 24, 2010
A handy guide to the extensive lineup of 1911s offered by one leading maker.
A bomb-proof design, with rugged parts and a grip and balance that made it a natural extension of the hand, ensured the initial success of John Browning's 1911 pistol. Its longevity derives from something less tangible. Call it a gunny appearance, military heritage or the eerie conviction you get when you heft it that this is the way all pistols should feel. Custom shops have exploited the design for decades, turning out 1911s that offer not only the reliability of Browning's first pistol but greater accuracy, smoother function and stunning good looks.
Similarly, a number of gun making companies have entered the high-end 1911 market over the years, but Les Edelman didn't buy Kimber to produce pistols. The company, founded by Jack Warne and his son Greg, manufactured carriage-class .22 rifles and, later, centerfire rifles in western Oregon.
In 2008 Kimber teamed with Crimson Trace to offer the Crimson Carry, with laser-grip sighting.
Kimber's fortunes faded during the 1980s. The Warnes were forced to sell the firm to an Oregon lumberman, who in turn went bankrupt — leaving Jack and Greg Warne with use of the Kimber name.
Three years later Greg assembled the machinery for a comeback, and Edelman, then president of a major sporting goods wholesaler, bought controlling interest, adding Daewoo firearms and an assembly line to sporterize M96 and M98 Mauser rifles.
Then, at the 1995 SHOT Show, he tested the pistol market with a nicely appointed 1911. Speed-shooting champ Chip McCormick endorsed it. Lukewarm dealer response didn't deter Edelman, who bought a factory in Yonkers, New York, committing to a run of 5,000 pistols. His projection proved conservative; in no time, Kimber was shipping eight times that many pistols annually. Initial demand was so strong that many sold for more than the $550 list price.
And the demand is still there. "In 2009 we'll sell as many 1911s as we can make," a Kimber rep told me earlier this year. "Many will go to people who own other Kimbers. The question for us is: What can we offer that hasn't been offered before? How can we enhance a timeless design without changing it?"
Edelman has hewed to strict quality standards to produce handguns that have distinctive looks but are predictably reliable, accurate and finely finished.
The formula has worked spectacularly for Kimber, whose pistols cost more than basic 1911s but a lot less than full-custom guns. The company's designers have deftly detailed the pistol to create seductive new cosmetic effects. Whatever your tastes, you'll find what you want in a Kimber. If you're a late-comer to the line, you may also find the selection overwhelming.
While space won't allow detailed descriptions of every Kimber pistol, here's a synopsis of the dozens that have appeared in the last decade.
The Eclipse Ultra II is a stainless 1911 with polished flats and blackened detail, and it's murder on steel plates.
By 1997, Kimber had allocated six full pages of its catalog to 1911s. At that time there were six Classic .45s, all full-size. The Gold Match and a 13-shot polymer-frame pistol with stainless steel insert were new. Kimber offered carbon and stainless slides, plus an all-stainless gun. Grips, sights and finish helped define the models. Slides, barrels and steel frames were machined forgings. The trigger group, thumb and grip safeties, ejector and extractor were "match-grade McCormicks."
In 1998 the number of Kimber catalog pages committed to 1911s doubled. A new Compact series featured four-inch barrels and a grip .40 inch shorter than standard. Magazine capacity: seven. At 34 ounces, steel-frame compacts weighed the same as full-size polymer guns — four ounces less than steel five-inch pistols.
You could trim another six ounces with an alloy-frame compact. The very hard 7075-T6 alloy, machined from bar stock, carried a bull barrel fitted "directly to the slide with positive full ring contact." Front-end weight kept lift to a minimum and "the slide in battery as long as possible, increasing accuracy." The Compact featured a single recoil spring, beveled slide serrations and magazine well, and low-profile sights. Kimber's Custom Shop could add other refinements. The line boasted 15 models in all, including a Custom Target version.
In 1999, the 1911 roster comprised 35 models, including 12 in .40 S&W. You could special-order pistols in 9mm. Ramped barrels ensured positive feeding.
The new Ultra Carry weighed only 25 ounces. Its polymer frame carried a three-inch barrel — short by any standard for a pistol on the Browning design. But it claimed the longest cycle time of any three-inch 1911 and functioned reliably. It had double springs and a "ball joint spherical cone" in place of the barrel bushing.
Over the years, Kimber has ventured into many 1911 projects. This stainless gun is in .17 Mach 2.
Kimber combined the four-inch barrel of its Compact pistols with a full-size alloy frame to produce the 28-ounce Pro Carry, in .40 and .45. The High Capacity Polymer line was extended to include a four-inch version and sub-.45 chamberings that put magazine capacity as high as 18.
Single-stack models got alloy triggers and hex grip screws. Stainless bushings became standard. For the first time, the Custom Shop listed four guns as catalog items: the Combat Carry, Gold Combat (and Stainless) and Super Match.
By 2000 Kimber had become the "world's largest manufacturer of 1911 pistols." That year it came out with a full-size Classic with alloy frame, a 31-ounce .45 with Carry bevel treatment, Meprolight sights and a checkered front strap.
The new Pro Carry HD wore a four-inch bull barrel and a stainless slide like the Stainless Pro Carry but also a stainless frame. Big news for Kimber was a firing pin safety, planned for all Classic pistols. This safety
system employed the movement of the grip safety to override an internal block, so trigger pull was not affected, and the new device didn't alter a gun's appearance. Kimber cataloged each 1911 so equipped with a "II" suffix and changed the slide stamp accordingly.
The lightest Kimber listed, the 24-ounce Ultra Ten II, came with a stainless Ultra Carry slide on a short polymer frame incorporating an alloy insert and a 10-shot magazine. By this time, magazines in full-size polymer frames held as many as 14 .45 ACP rounds.
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In 2001, Kimber introduced one of its most striking cosmetic treatments, finishing stainless slides and frames with a black oxide, then buffing the flats bright. Laminated gray-and-cream grips completed the pistols. Cataloged as the Eclipse series, it comprised an Ultra II (small frame, three-inch), Pro Target II and Pro II (full-size frame, four-inch) and Target II and Custom II (full-size frame, five-inch).
Super Match II pistols, in stainless steel, got a KimPro black matte slide finish, to contrast with a satin-beaded frame. Kimber put its reputation for accuracy on the line with a guarantee of one-inch 25-yard groups for the Super Match II.
The Custom Defense Package or CDP II pistols arrived, courtesy the Custom Shop, in 2002. They featured brushed stainless slides with satin-black-anodized alloy frames checkered 30 lines per inch on the frontstrap. A "premium aluminum trigger" was standard, so too was full bevel treatment on edges. Checkered rosewood grips and a flat, checkered mainspring housing complemented a high-ride beavertail grip safety and ambidextrous thumb safety. CDPs were available in all three frame/barrel combinations — as was the Ten II High Capacity line, with stainless slide and polymer frame with insert.
In 2003 Kimber announced a rimfire conversion kit for its 1911s in both matte and silver, Custom and Target versions (for single-stack, full-frame versions only). It also listed complete .22 rimfire pistols.
A new Tactical series married 7075-T7 frames with blued carbon-steel slides and checkered, laminated grips straddling a checkered strap. The premium aluminum trigger came standard on these guns, as did a loaded chamber indicator port and three-dot Meprolight night sights with tritium inserts.
A new external Tactical Extractor became a signal feature on the 10-shot Ten II. By this time, the Kimber pistol line numbered 57 models, including the Custom TLE II built in the image of Kimbers adopted by LAPD's SWAT team. The Team Match II was a likeness of Kimbers used by the USA Shooting rapid-fire pistol team preparing for the 2004 Olympics. The company has since donated $100 from the sale of each of these pistols to the U.S. team — nearly $700,000 to date.
Rimfire shooting affords quiet, inexpensive practice, and Kimber offers several rimfire 1911s.
The company's extensive lineup includes small-frame guns such as the Ultra Covert II.
In 2003 Kimber began replacing the internal extractor on all .45s with the shorter, beefier external version. All were eventually so equipped. Then, in 2006, the Yonkers factory returned to the internal hook and has since kept faith with John Browning's original design.
The external claw is stout. Some shooters point out that if you drop a round into the chamber, then let the slide slam, the lighter, longer internal claw stands a greater chance of damage. But that's not the way to load a 1911; besides, there's little evidence to indict the original. Browning designed it to be repairable on the battlefield. If the internal extractor failed, any doughboy could bend it and get the pistol back in service. While shooters are split on this issue, those preferring Browning's hook have won out at Kimber.
The last five years have sped by. Kimber has added to its centerfire rifle line, dropped its rimfires and high-end imported shotguns. Its 1911 stable continues to grow. I've shot many Kimbers and have yet to find one I didn't like.
But every 1911 enthusiast has favorites. I favor checkered hardwood grips and neatly checkered straps. A long grip fits my hand better than an abbreviated version. Two-tone steel may remind some of 1950s-era sedans, but I like Kimber's renditions.
While the heft and balance of steel-frame guns appeal to me, I'd choose a Pro Carry if I wore a pistol every day. Last year Kimber made alloy frames even more attractive by attaching a Crimson Trace laser sight to specific models.
A Crimson Trace laser is, in my view, your best option for low-light shooting. Unlike rail-mounted units, it won't affect balance or slow deployment. I expect the Crimson Carry pistols will sell briskly, as Kimber has priced each well below the combined retail costs of the gun and sight.
Other popular Kimbers include the 10mm Eclipse II, introduced in 2004. The Warrior appeared in 2004 as well, faithful to a Kimber adopted by the Marine Expeditionary Unit. This carbon-steel pistol has a Pictinny rail and a bumped grip safety, plus a lanyard loop — but no firing pin block.
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Kimber didn't shy away from the demands from the target shooting market with introductions such as the Gold Match.
The Desert Warrior, in dark earth finish, followed. In 2007 the .40 S&W found a new home in the KPD, a 12-shot, 25-ounce 1911 with a light rail and interchangeable backstraps on a reinforced polymer frame. That year, Covert models with three-, four-, and five-inch barrels showed up in tan digital camo.
Tactical and military-style 1911s are hugely popular for Kimber, so the strong demand for SIS pistols surprised no one. LAPD's Special Investigation Section then asked for a pistol. Kimber complied last year with four stainless models wearing gray KimPro II finish and stippled grips. They also feature night sights, a cocking shoulder, an ambidextrous safety and a lightweight hammer. One of the two five-inch versions wears a Picatinny rail, the three-inch a rounded butt.
Among the 79 (count 'em.) 1911s in Kimber's 2009 catalog, you'll find a Team Match II in 9mm. The Stainless Ultra Raptor has an alloy frame, the Stainless Pro Raptor a stainless frame. Both come from the Custom Shop with night sights, ambidextrous safety and zebra-wood grips.
The Tactical Entry II and Tactical Custom HD both have carbon-steel slides and stainless frames with checkered frontstraps, night sights, ambidextrous safeties, extended magazine wells.
In sum, if you can imagine it as part of a 1911, Kimber has considered it. If it's useful, attractive and doesn't compromise balance or function, chances are you'll find it on a Kimber.