Concealed Carry & Home Defense

Beer Budget 1911s

Mike Piccione Editor, Guns & Gear
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By Pat Cascio, American Handgunner Magazine

Reader Steven Dimino asked we take a look at some of the lower-priced 1911s out there. Easier said than done! We put this together at the end of the giant gun buying frenzy not long ago, so it was like asking for blood out of that proverbial turnip from some of the makers. We did the best we could, but if we deincluded your favorite, we’ll try again later now that the pipeline is filling up nicely.

I really appreciate highly customized 1911s just like anyone else does; however, like most folks I’m on a budget, and more often than not, my budget is a beer budget — not a champagne one. I like to get  more for my money when I’m out gun shopping, as do most folks. Honestly, though, I was really impressed with all these “economy” 1911s we tested. All were plenty accurate, with most groups in the 4″ range at 25 yards. Best of all, are the prices. Most of the guns sell for around $525 in my neck of the woods, with the exception of the Rock Island Armory that goes for slightly under $400. I’d take any one of them, tuck it in a holster and carry it for self-defense, without ever looking back.

Here’s what we learned.

Springfield Armory GI

The GI model comes in a nice plastic carrying case with a mag pouch, holster and cleaning rod. The parkerized finish was evenly applied to the frame and slide and looked darn good. I particularly liked the hard wood grips with “U.S.” engraved on each grip — they looked very military if you ask me. Trigger pull was right at 5.5 pounds.

I really liked the looks of the GI; it reminded me of my days in the US Army. The one thing I didn’t care for, but comes with the design of the gun, were the very smallish front and rear sights. Again, this gun is made up to, look like the original 1911A1, so I knew beforehand the sights would be smallish. For my aged eyes, shooting this gun was a real chore but it wasn’t the gun, it was my eyes.

I fired a variety of 230-grain .45 ACP ammo in the GI, from Black Hills and Winchester, and even the JHP fodder functioned perfectly. The one minor glitch came with the first two mags of ammo: the empty brass was coming down on top of my head. But for some reason after the first two mags, the brass ejected cleanly off to my right. It ran just fine the entire test and felt like a “real” gun!


I received two almost identical 1911s from AO. One was their standard parkerized 1911A1 with brown plastic grips, and the second basically the same gun, with the exception the slide was marked “100th Anniversary” in recognition of 2011 being the 100th year of the 1911.

As with mil-spec 1911s, both samples had those smallish sights that took all the concentration and focus I could muster to see them. Both samples also had the standard short trigger and small thumb safety. I can live with both though, not a problem.

I did like that both AO samples had throated barrels, and both fed 230-grain JHP and FMJ ammo straight out of the box. The slides of both AO samples had 1911A1 and “U.S. Army” stamped on the slides. The grip safety, as on all milspec 1911s, is the long type and curved slightly downward. If you’re going to shoot a lot during one session, be prepared for some soreness in the web of your hand. Hey, it’s part of the gun of the original design, eh?

Rock Island Armory

I was only able to lay claim to a Commander-sized 1911 for this article. This gun is made in the Philippines (as are many 1911s marked with other makers names), and overall quality seemed just fine. Again, we have a basic, no-frills 1911A1 pistol with a 4.25″ barrel instead of the full-length 5″ barrel found on the other Gov’t- sized 1911s tested. Personally, I like the Commander-sized 1911 as it offers a better balance in my hand than the full-sized guns.

The RIA 1911A1 had an evenly applied parkerized finish and good fit. Again, those dreaded small front and rear sights adorned the slide. Nice wood grips were on the frame, and this was my one major complaint: they were smooth instead of checkered. I found the grips extremely slick-feeling in my hand. Were this my gun, I would immediately replace the grips with some type of textured ones for a more secure hold.

The gun was tight and I expected some malfunctions because of it, but that didn’t happen. I fired a godly amount of Black Hills and Winchester 230-grain FMJ and JHP through the gun, without a hiccup.

Metro Arms

The Metro Arms American Classic II is another full-sized 1911A1 made in the Philipines. My sample was made in stainless steel, and it had all the bells and whistles you’d want, including a lowered and flared ejection port, hi-visibility front and rear sights, extended thumb safety, long trigger and beavertail grip safety.

The frame on the Metro Arms was obviously cast, as there were a lot of casting marks they didn’t polish out of an otherwise outstanding 1911. Trigger pull was right at 4 pounds, as well as being crisp and smooth. Actually, the trigger was better than those seen on much higher priced 1911s. The one thing I didn’t like on the Metro Arms were the wood grips. I eventually bought this gun, and the first thing I did was remove the grips and throw ’em in the trash, replacing them with the Mil-Tac “Code Zero” 1911 grips of my own design.

I put a lot of trigger time on the Metro Arms. The gun simply amazed me, never missed a beat and was just as accurate as any number of my higher-end 1911s. Some groups were down there at 2″ at 25 yards. This gun never gave a hint of any problems; it just shot all the world like a custom 1911 would. I even fired some Buffalo Bore +P 230-grain JHP ammo through this gun, without any problems at all. A full-length guide rod is standard on this gun. I can take ’em or leave ’em these days, as they just complicate takedown and cleaning.

Para USA

The GI Expert is sort of a cross between a basic no-frills 1911A1, and a gun in transition to being a little something “more.” We have a basic 5″ Gov’t style frame and slide to start with. Then Para added 3-dot sights, which I sincerely appreciate. The grip safety is of the old Colt-style used on their old Commander sized guns. It has a small upswept tang, and it tends to bite after a lot of shooting.

Still, I preferred this to the older Gov’t style long tangs. The thumb safety snicked on and off with authority, and the entire gun was nicely fitted.

The GI Expert comes with a pair of black plastic grips. I didn’t like ’em, and replaced ‘em with a pair of my Code Zero grips for a better purchase. I also applied some skateboard tape to the frontstrap of the grip, which is a pretty common practice I do to a lot of 1911s that feel a bit slick in my hand — a poor man’s checkering and something to keep in mind. The GI Expert has the Para Kote black finish on the frame and slide, and it’s tough stuff to be sure.

Interestingly, I had a few instances where the slide would lock open during shooting with rounds still in the mag. This was caused by 230-grain. FMJ ammo. The bullets were just barely kissing the inside of the slide stop, causing it to lock open prematurely. This can actually be a common problem with 1911s so keep your eye open for it. A few minutes with a file solves the problem.

Some Final Thoughts

What really amazed me was all of the samples fed and functioned with jacketed hollow point ammo, right out of the box. There’s often some small break-in period for any new auto, like the Springfield Armory tossing brass on top of my head, clearing up after two mags. So don’t panic until you have about 200 rounds or so through any new auto.

While this wasn’t a comprehensive test of affordable 1911s out there today, I think we learned you don’t have to spend a thousand dollars or more to get a very functional 1911, if that’s all you’re looking for. And any of these would be just fine as a base gun for a custom model, or to add a few custom touches to. Shop around, and you’ll find something to suit your needs — at a beer budget price, too!

Thanks to American Handgunner Magazine for reviewing these 1911s for us!