March 03, 2011
By Patrick Sweeney
Think nothing new can be done to a 1911? Check out the redesigned E series.
By Patrick Sweeney
You'd think, a century on, that there wasn't anything new to be done to the 1911. Well, you'd be wrong. Smith & Wesson has a slew of handgun models besides the 1911 that it manufactures, and it takes a while for the folks there to get around to all of them. When they managed to get back to the 1911, they decided to make some big changes. As in replace them all.
First of all, the company bought all-new CNC machines and installed them in the S&W plant up in Houlton, Maine--a quiet town on the border with New Brunswick to which the company has moved all its "metal" pistol production.
Along with new CNC machines, S&W took a look at the details of the 1911 and decided to make a few minor but important changes. I've had a chance to look at the four new models S&W has come out with, and the changes will be carried over to all the replacement models of the new E model line.
First off, gone is the firing pin block. It's been replaced with a titanium firing pin and stronger firing pin spring. I have conducted or participated in more than one 1911 drop test in an attempt to get primed cases to ignite, and I don't see the firing pin block as necessary. S&W obviously agrees and feels that a lighter firing pin is the solution.
The company kept the external extractor, but it subtly reshaped the ejection port for even more reliable ejection and less brass denting. "We probably watched way too much high-speed video, but we feel the changes matter," long-time S&W engineer Herb Belin told me.
The slide's good-looking top rib is one that custom gunsmiths might well be copying in a short while.
S&W also applied for a patent on a change and improvement in the trigger design, one that allows a more consistent, cleaner, trigger pull.
The first E-series models will be a pair of Government-size pistols--one with a rail and one without--and a lightweight compact. Well, the latter isn't really a compact in my opinion but more of a Commander size.
|Smith & Wesson SW1911SC|
|Construction/finish:||Melonite-finished stainless slide, hard-anodized scandium alloy frame|
|Sights:||Novak 3-dot w/tritium insertsTrigger: 41â'„4 lb. pull|
|Manufacturer:||Smith & Wesson, smith-wesson.com|
I tested this midsize 1911, the latest lightweight .45 ACP. The slide is stainless, the frame scandium/aluminum alloy, and the looks are all Smith. The slide top has grooves between the sights that are very much like the 39/59 series pistols, with Novak front and rear sights showing tritium inserts. A very classy look, one I find I like a lot. You can spend a lot of money on a custom 1911 and not have a slide-top treatment as good looking as this. The top rib will rest between tritium night sights on all of the models.
The slide has the S&W external extractor, the subject of some controversy a few years ago. There were some makers who were new to external extractors and found it difficult to make them work. S&W was not new to them and has had no problems.
The slide has cocking "serrations" that are overlapping semicircles machined into the flats. While I looked at them, I groped for a term to describe them. "Fish scales" came to mind, and when I asked Herb about them, it turns out that's exactly what S&W is calling them.
To my eye they clash a bit with the 25 lpi checkering of the frame and the 25 lpi lines on the rear of the slide. The scales are good looking, but I'd rather have either checkered slide and frame or scaled slide and frame. (Scales on the rear of the slide? Now that would be interesting.) The midsize carry gun has the fish scales both front and rear, but not all models will.
Inside the slide is a match barrel, with a recessed crown and an observation port at the chamber to be used as a loaded-chamber indicator.
The frame is anodized gloss black, and it sports an ambidextrous thumb safety as well as a beavertail grip safety, both finished black to match the frame. The fish-scale treatment is carried over to the grips, which are smooth except for fish-scale inset panels and are bolted down with Allen-head screws.
The gun sports well-done ambi safeties, an external extractor and a subtly redesigned ejection port for better ejection and less denting of brass.
The thumb safety clicks up and down with the proper authority--no sponginess here--and the grip safety is well-timed. I find ambi safeties a pain sometimes, particularly when the grip safety is timed late an
d must be fully depressed to cede its duty. The S&W ambi is low profile enough that it didn't get in the way of my knuckle (the usual binding spot), and the grip safety never gave me any problems.
The new 1911s will be available in both all-stainless and stainless slide over aluminum frame, and the all-stainless will be either bright or black. All the stainless parts will be treated with Melonite, so they are plenty hard. You won't be wearing these out.
The newly design trigger is what you'd expect of a 1911: clean, crisp, a bit heavy right out of the box. But having dry-fired it and spent a weekend at the range with it, I find it is cleaning up nicely. I figure that once it is broken in, the trigger will settle down to about 41/4 pounds, perfect for a carry gun.
One of the big changes S&W made was to radius the frame to what it calls a "round-butt" configuration for better concealed carry.
When S&W set up the new CNC machines, the machines had to have the cutter paths programmed. This is the process where the machine selects each cutting tool in turn and makes a cut of such-and-such depth along a particular track at a particular rate. A good programmer will make your life easy; a bad programmer can put you out of business.
S&W has been at this a long time, and it knows the ins and outs of programming. One decision it made was to leave the frontstrap of the frame with a "flat" radius. That is, the corners of the frontstrap verticals do not follow the curve of the interior and are a bit more of a corner than you might expect. This is to provide a better "bite" for the frontstrap checkering and thus give you a more secure grip.
The big news is the frame or, more precisely, the bottom corner of the frame. The frame and mainspring housing on the SW1911SC are radiused in what S&W calls a "round-butt" shape. Like its round-butt revolvers, this makes it a lot easier to carry concealed.
To do this, the retaining pin had to be relocated and the internals of the mainspring housing modified a bit, but the end result is a carry gun that doesn't poke at your clothes.
One of the drawbacks of the 1911 is that the corner of the frame can cause clothing to catch and drape over it, letting the world know you're packing some artillery. The round-butt contour removes that corner and allows your clothes to slide off it and hang normally.
The shape of such modified frames is a subject of almost as much discussion as guide rods. Some like radiused frames, some hate them, and some don't notice them. I like the ease of carry they offer, and my shooting hand does not notice the difference at all.
The magazine well is lightly beveled--not so much that a competition shooter will notice but more than generously for a daily carry gun.
Despite the light weight, the midsize 1911 was well-behaved with even the stoutest of ammunition.
On the models with adjustable sights--meant to be offered to the target- and competition-shooting crowd--S&W has a new, two-piece magazine button. You will be able to swap out the mag-button head for one that is compact for carry or bigger for competition. Depending on just how easy that particular part is to make, I can see the aftermarket providers offering buttons so huge you could lose your car keys underneath them.
Inside, the SW1911SC features a standard feed ramp and a one-piece full-length guide rod inside of a full-power spring. Again, S&W considered this subject carefully. Shooters seem to be split right down the middle on guide rods, and S&W chose the full-length guide rod for the simple reason that switching to the original design is easy and not likely to cause problems.
Had the company gone with the original design, the expectation was that at least a few pistols would be returned because they weren't working properly with a user-installed full-length guide rod. S&W installed the rod itself to avoid that.
As I have gotten more conservative in many things, I find that my early love of guide rods has faded. And since the bushing on the E is a standard bushing, I could change the recoil spring setup to a standard one with a cap and guide and no rod in between. I'm considering that, you see, because I spent a weekend shooting this beast, and I find it will be difficult to send it back.
The expenditure of more than a case of ammo--of various loadings and power levels--was not a chore. Despite the alloy frame and the relative light weight, the recoil was not a problem at all. Sure, with +P defensive loads it came back briskly but not such that I found myself needing a break or wishing for a lighter load or heavier pistol.
The author's test SW1911SC shot great right out of the box and functioned flawlessly.
The sights were regulated perfectly for elevation and would need only a slight tweak of windage for me, and I did not bother with any adjustment in the testing. Despite that, I was able to ring the 100-yard gongs at the club without a problem.
The recoil spring is obviously correct, as the brass is extracted and ejected just fine but was not hurled into the next shooting bay. The lowered ejection port and the extractor team up to work just as the design team intended--leaving brass without any creases and ready for easy reloading.
And then there is the accuracy. Now, I can't promise that your SW1911SC will shoot this well, but this one shoots. The first group I fired, just to check zero, was a bragging group. Subsequent groups did not let me down.
As I mentioned, S&W is replacing the whole 1911 line with the E series, and in due time the series will offer all the options you could want: full size, medium size, all-steel, lightweights, two-tone, all-black or all-stainless.
Had you said a few years ago that the next new 1911 pistol we'll see will have the S&W logo on it, I would've dismissed you as loony. And had you said just recently that there is no way to improve the 1911, it turns out you would have been wrong as well. Competition improves the breed, and this new line of 1911s from the long-time revolver maker will do just that.
|Accuracy Results | Smith & Wesson SW1911SC|
|.45 ACP||Bullet Weight (gr.)||Muzzle Velocity (fps)||Standard Deviation||Avg. Group (inches)|
|Hornady FTX|| 185 || 829 || 8 || 2.0 |
|Hornady TAP +P|| 200 || 867 || 17 || 2.5 |
|Winchester SXT|| 230 || 767 || 28 || 3.0 |
|Black Hills JHP|| 185 || 943 || 20 || 3.0 |
|Speer Gold Dot HP|| 185 || 929 || 22 || 3.0 |
|WARNING: The loads shown here are safe only in the guns for which they were developed. Neither the author nor InterMedia Outdoors, Inc. assumes any liability for accidents or injury resulting from the use or misuse of this data. NOTES: Accuracy results are averages of four five-shot groups at 15 yards off a sandbag rest. Velocities are averages of five shots measured on a PACT MkIV chronograph centered 15 feet from the muzzle. Abbreviations: HP, hollowpoint; JHP, jacketed hollowpoint.|