To many handgunners, the numbers 1, 9, 1 and 1 means only one thing: a classic semi-automatic handgun that was adopted by the military in 1911.
Another related thought that usually pops into his or her mind is that the gun was chambered in caliber .45 ACP. As the original chambering of the vaunted 1911, the .45 ACP cartridge is to be forever linked with John Browning’s magnificent creation.
So why are we talking about that time-tested pistol chambered in another caliber, 9mm?
Because the 9mm 1911 is one of the better-selling guns today, that’s why. More and more companies who before only built 1911s in .45 ACP are introducing (or have introduced) their guns in 9mm. It has become a very popular caliber for the 1911 pistol.
A Little Background
Where did the 9mm 1911 come from? In 1949, Colt was trying to design a lighter, shorter-barreled 1911 for officers’ use. They came up with what became known later as the Commander. This was a 4.25-inch barreled 1911 with a rounded, rowel hammer designed to help reduce snagging and a frame built from aluminum alloy which brought the gun’s weight down to 27 ounces.
Enter The Commander
In 1949, Colt made sixty-five 9mm 1911 pistols that were designed to entice the government to offer a production contract for the military. The contract did not materialize, but the guns were destined to be kept in production. In 1950 Colt decided to release the shorter, lighter 1911 in 9mm (plus .45 ACP, .30 Luger and .38 Super) to the public. The first gun to be produced for the public carried the serial number 66LW, taking up where number 65 left off . It was at this time that Colt officially named the gun the Commander.
The Revolver Was King
This was during a period in American shooting history that the revolver was the handgun of choice. Police carried them, security guards carried them, they were issued to certain military units, and civilian competitive shooters used them. The semiauto was pretty much limited to FMJ ball-type ammo for feeding purposes. Modern-type expanding self-defense ammo at that time was virtually non-existent. Autoloaders were not overly popular then, and the Commander fell victim to that lack of popularity. Couple that with the fact that the Colt Commander was the largest gun to date to use an aluminum frame (which the shooting public may have found a little hard to trust at that point in time) and its sales did not set any records. Even so, the lightweight aluminum alloy (“Coltalloy”) guns have been in production since 1950 and have been steady sellers.
Re-Enter The Commander…Steel Frame Version
In 1970, a new Commander was introduced. This one used a steel frame and was nine ounces heavier than the aluminum-framed version. To distinguish between the two, the lightweight model was called (interestingly enough) the Lightweight Commander while its heavier cousin earned the name Combat Commander. A quick perusal of Colt’s website shows both of these models in 9mm are still being made, each with an MSRP of $999. Variations on a theme exist, which we’ll get to later. It is good to know that something in the ever-changing gun sales world that was introduced over 65 years ago is still with us.
I owned a steel Commander (in .45 ACP) for a while and it was a shooter, to be sure. There’s just something about a “real” Colt pistol that makes an impression on me. I can’t put my finger on it – maybe it’s the rampant colt logo or the battle-scarred reputation that Colts have earned over the years – I just know that they feel and shoot a little differently for me. I think the reason I traded it was the lack of an ambidextrous safety on the factory-stock Commander. Being a lefty, it was a little inconvenient reaching around the gun to release the safety. I owned this Commander many years ago, before my knowledge of guns and modifications was what it is today. If I owned a similar 1911 today, I would simply install an ambidextrous safety and be done with it. Back then, that seemed like wizardry…I never even thought about it. Anyway, it was a great gun with a high-quality blued finish. I’m sorry I traded it. That was my personal introduction to Colt pistols and their build quality. That reputation was enhanced when I got to shoot my friend’s Gold Cup many years ago. Talk about an accurate gun – the Gold Cup was the bullseye gun at that time. It was chambered in .45 ACP.
Why A 9mm 1911?
There are some advantages to owning a 9mm 1911. For one thing, it’s a 1911. If you’ve never shot one, you need to do so. In this day and age of “plastic wonders”, as some folks call striker-fired polymer-framed pistols, the 1911 is different. It is a true old-fashioned single-action pistol made (for the most part) out of steel or aluminum.
Think of the opening of the old TV show “Gunsmoke” when Sheriff Matt Dillon is facing off against the ill-fated bad guy right before the title credits. He draws and cocks his Peacemaker so fast you hardly see him do it.
He shoots (after the bad guy shoots first and misses-remember it was the ‘50s and Matt was a gentleman) and it’s over.
What has the old Peacemaker got to do with our 1911? You have to cock them both before you can fire them. No striker-fire, or no trigger-cocking, double action style. So you must carry the 1911 cocked and locked (a round the chamber, the hammer cocked and the thumb safety engaged) if you want it capable of immediate action. This was called, by Jeff Cooper and others, Condition One.
First, Why A 1911?
- The 1911 is fast to get into action. It is ready to go with a swipe of the thumb safety to the “off” position. The light, crisp single-action trigger then was pressed to fire the gun. That is one of the main reasons shooters like the 1911 – the glass-rod-breaking trigger on a high quality gun is exceptional. That great single action trigger is one of the main reasons that they are still used.
- The single-stack 1911 is a thin, easily-concealed gun (in terms of width).
- Accurized 1911s have been used in competitions for decades, and they still are a viable gun to compete with.
It’s interesting to note that a few companies who are known for their striker-fired polymer pistols are just as well known for their quality 1911s. Some of these companies would include, Springfield Armory, Ruger and Smith and Wesson, to name just a few. Old Slabsides is, if possible, more popular than ever.
If you use television shows as a barometer of pistol popularity, look at CBS’s “Criminal Minds.” Joe Mantegna’s character David Rossi carries a Sig Sauer 1911 TACOPS in .45 while those around him have their Glocks.
It’s only a TV show, but Joe is a true gun guy and probably insisted on carrying a 1911 in the series. The old warhorse is, arguably, more popular among civilian shooters now than at any other time in history.
Like it or not, the 9mm is definitely here to stay. It was not very popular in the first half or so of the 20th century, but has grown in popularity. One main reason for this is the availability of better defensive ammo. When war trophy 9mm pistols were brought back after both World Wars, the only ammunition even moderately available was FMJ ball rounds. “Available” was the catch – there was not a lot of any kind of 9mm ammo in quantity for many years. It wasn’t until 9mm pistols started really gaining in popularity that ammo companies started producing a wider assortment of ammo for them.
When the F.B.I. went with the 9mm in the early 1980s after moving away from the S&W Model 13 revolver, that boosted its popularity. In typical fashion, local and state police units adopted the 9mm after the F.B.I. gave it their stamp of approval. The Illinois State Police adopted it along with the S&W Model 39 pistol in 1968. It was all downhill from there in terms of acceptance by the shooting public. For an excellent reference concerning the history of the 9mm cartridge, read this article. It is very informative).
Another reason that 9mm 1911s (among other types of handguns) are popular is ammo cost. 9mm costs less to shoot than .45 ACP. You can get good buys in either caliber but by and large the 9mm is going to be cheaper to buy ammo for. There tends to be more surplus-type ammo online available for the 9mm than I’ve seen for the .45. It’s just a cheaper caliber to shoot, whether you buy factory ammo or roll your own.
I know from my experience that I get more 9mm 124-grain bullets out of a pound of alloy than I do .45 caliber 230-grain bullets. This isn’t exactly rocket science. Divide 7,000 grains (one pound) by 230 and you get (rounded off) 30; divide it by 124 and you get 56. So, even by making my own bullets, it’s still cheaper to shoot 9mm than .45 ACP.
One other factor that some might overlook is the actual weight of ammo that is carried with a pistol. A loaded 1911, in its original chambering of .45 ACP, is heavier than a 1911 stoked with 9mm cartridges.
We could get very detailed and figure out how much each cartridge weighs but suffice it to say that the 9mm gun with a couple of extra magazines (or even an extra 50-round box) shooting standard 124-grain bullets is going to be lighter than the same type of gun/extra ammo in .45, with its typical 230-grain bullets. With only one extra magazine, it probably won’t be much lighter but for some people every ounce counts. That ammo weight reduction over the .45 is another reason that folks carry 9mm 1911s.
As far as effectiveness, there’s nothing mystical about stopping power, incapacitation, etc. – either one will do the job if the shot is placed where it should be. Weight of gun and ammo is important, but it isn’t the end of the argument. It all boils down to what you shoot the best, and for a lot of shooters that’s the 9mm.
One final note about using the 9mm in the 1911, a pistol originally designed for the larger .45 ACP round, is magazine size. The 1911’s magazines were designed for the longer, wider .45 ACP round (1.275 vs. 1.169 overall cartridge length for the .45 and 9mm respectively, bullet diameter difference of .097). They need some help in order to feed the smaller 9mm round effectively. Most makers in the past have simply placed a block in the rear of the magazine to push the 9mm rounds towards the front of the magazine. Now, more and more manufacturers are including magazines designed from the start to work with the 9mm cartridge which eliminates the need to modify magazines originally designed for the .45 ACP. There are several 1911s out there that are made specifically with the 9mm in mind that feel great in the hand and handle like a dream. We’ll look at some of them.
We will look at five of the best 9mm 1911s out there in an overview format, not an in-depth, nuts and bolts review. Here are my top five picks to wear that “best-of” crown (in no particular order):
- Springfield Armory EMP
- Kimber Aegis Elite Pro
- Colt Defender
- Ruger SR1911 9mm, Full-Size and Compact
- Remington R1 Enhanced
Springfield Armory EMP (Enhanced Micro Pistol)
Springfield Armory is known for its 1911s (not to mention its XD line of polymer striker-fired guns). The EMP was designed to be a gun that gave the shooter a quality, well-built gun that was reliable and concealable. Barrel lockup is very tight, fit and finish are superb, and overall tolerances are excellent. Manufacturing processes are top-notch as well. You will very seldom see a Springfield Armory 1911 with machining marks or over-buffed lines and angles. The fiber optic front sight coupled with the combat-style two dot rear sight gives a very clear and precise sight picture…this is a trait of every Springfield I’ve ever shot, 1911 or XD.
The EMP is one of Springfield Armory’s better sellers. To look at the EMP is to look at a gun that just looks “finished”. I don’t mean in terms of what covers the metal parts, although the blued models show a deep, rich-looking luster. I mean finished as in there are no mods that the gun needs, no extra parts, no third-party pieces needed to bring it up to snuff. From the more-than-adequate ambidextrous safety levers to the checkered, engraved wood grip panels this gun looks ready to go out of the box. When you hold one, the weight is apparent but not oppressive. The aluminum alloy frame provides a lot of the heft, with the “Black Armory Kote” slide and stainless barrel adding a bit more weight. This gun is a pleasure to fire because of its weight and balance. The optional four-inch barrel gives just a bit longer sight radius and velocity but for maximum concealment, the three-incher is king.
When you build a 1911 with a short barrel such as the EMP’s three-incher, you have to do your homework in terms of design considerations. Function (feeding, extraction, firing) has to be the top goal in the designer’s mind. This gun has it in spades. It is reliable. I once owned another brand of three-inch .45 ACP that was very reliable but wasn’t much fun to shoot…if it had been in 9mm, I’ll bet I would’ve enjoyed it more and may have kept it. The EMP is good to go with just about any 9mm load you’d care to put through it. My point is that (in spite of early reliability issues) a shorty 1911 is now functional, fun to shoot and great as an everyday carry weapon. With the 9mm, recoil is not as stout as that of the .45 in most any gun, but in a short-barreled 1911 the lesser amount of recoil is doubly appreciated. This gun is an investment that you make, not just another purchase. You are investing in something that should hold its value (if not increase) and be there when you need it for many years. The EMP is one great carry gun, no matter what its price.
Kimber Aegis Elite Pro
Mythologically, the term was used to describe a shield or breastplate emblematic of majesty that was associated with Zeus and Athena. A shield. A protector. Now we use the term to imply that it means “under the auspices (protection) of” some thing or organization. Maybe this is why Kimber named their 9mm 1911 the Aegis…the carrier of the gun is under the auspices (the protection of) the Constitution (in particular the Second Amendment) not to mention the gun itself. It is designed to protect those who carry it and those around him or her.
Why the English lesson? I think it’s interesting to understand how and why products are named. This one is definitely off the beaten path in terms of how gun manufacturers typically name their products but it fits. The Aegis Elite Pro makes one dandy protector.
Kimber started out building accurate rifles. They then got into making handguns, in particular 1911s. They just recently branched out into revolvers with their K6S .357 Magnum, but they are known by and large as a 1911 manufacturer. Here are some rather impressive numbers about how deeply Kimber is in the 1911 game. Their website shows 18 categories of 1911s that they make, with each category broken down. I won’t take the time or space to list them all but their production includes 19 9mm models and 5 Aegis guns alone, with a total of 132 different models that they make.
The 9mm Aegis Elite Pro is an example of one of their better-known products, out of that multitude of guns. The Aegis Elite Pro utilizes G-10 grip panels and a rounded mainspring housing to allow you to get more of your hand on the gun and to control recoil better.
Other features include 24 LPI checkering on the front strap and a full-length guide rod with its 16-pound recoil spring, just about right for run-of-the-mill 9mm ammo.
This is an accurate gun that as a rule doesn’t care what you feed it. Sometimes, 1911s can be a little picky about the brand and type of ammo you choose, but here it really doesn’t matter, for the most part. For those of you who are Kimber fans out there, this is nothing new to you. For those who may not be familiar with their 1911s, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
The Colt Defender is the quintessential short-barreled 9mm 1911. With its three-inch coned (no bushing) barrel and stubby grip, this little gun looks like it would fit in a pocket. And at only 24 ounces, it just might. A better bet would be an IWB-style holster, or even an ankle holster. Sometimes it’s easier to carry and/or shoot a slightly larger gun than one so abbreviated but in the Defender’s case, we will make an exception. Here is a gun worth packing.
Features & History
The Defender was derived from the Colt Officer’s Model with its 3.5 inch barrel. The Officer’s Model was not overly successful, as companies were still figuring out the geometry necessary in order to make a stubby-barreled 1911 work. In 1998, Colt unveiled the Concealed Carry Officer’s (CCO) Pistol, which was basically a Commander-length slide and barrel mated to the short Officer’s Model frame. It met with some success, but was never adopted fully by the shooting public. So, in 2000 a new pistol was introduced with a 3.0-inch (not 3.5) barrel and matching slide. It was called the Defender. It was more successful and the rest is history, as the saying goes.
Novak Low Mount Carry sights adorn the slide and as mentioned above, there is no barrel bushing as the barrel is flared to mate with the slide at the muzzle. The gun is a Series 80 model, with its internal firing pin safety. Some folks like this modification, others not so much. It does work well with this gun.
Another factor is recoil management. The Defender uses an aluminum alloy frame which, although not as heavy as steel, is still heavier than polymer. This helps keep the gun’s muzzle down in recoil. A decent, under-five-pound trigger rounds out the package. The gun is attractive, with its checkered G-10 Black Cherry grip panels and pleasing finish.
For Colt fans out there who want something smaller than a Commander that has more punch than a .380, the Defender is the way to go. It is also available in .45 ACP.
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Ruger SR1911 Full Size and Lightweight Commander
As has been stated many times before, Ruger guns tend to be over-built and are very strong. Made of stainless steel, their full-size 9mm 1911 is one shootable, accurate 1911.
- deluxe checkered G-10 grip panels
- integral plunger tube – it’s not staked (I’ve had them come loose before so the permanently-attached integral plunger tube is good)
- no barrel bushing. The black-nitrided barrel locks up on its own
- skeletonized overtravel-adjustable trigger
- titanium firing pin
- ambidextrous thumb safety
In addition, the steel-framed full size SR1911 and the Lightweight Commander are Series 70 pistols, which pleases a lot of shooters. Some people like a full-size, full-weight 1911 with a five inch barrel while others want to save a little weight and have a shorter barrel. With these models you can do either.
Here we have the two main types of original 1911s…a full-sized, 5-inch-barreled model and a lighter, shorter-barreled Commander. There are many similarities between the two guns, but there are some differences.
So, no matter which style you want, Ruger has you covered. I’ve mentioned in other articles that Ruger’s customer service is excellent. I know this from personal experience. They take care of their guns. However, if ever there was a gun that probably won’t need to visit the Ruger factory, it would be their 1911. These guns have developed a very good reputation all their own. I was in my local gun shop recently and was talking to another fellow who owned many guns. He told me that, of all the 1911s he’s owned or shot, he liked his Rugers the best.
If you are looking for a well-built, nice looking 9mm and like the 1911 platform, give the Rugers a look. One thing about Ruger is that they are continually building guns for distributors. This opens up the customization door without having to pay a pro shop to do the work. So we have one more reason to look at Ruger 1911s. Check one out – it will worth your trip to to gun shop.
Remington R1 Enhanced
I recently wrote an article about the best 1911s in .45 ACP. I included the Remington R1 Enhanced in that article, and I’m including it again in this one. I believe that the Remington 1911s are good guns, especially so at the prices you can find them advertised for. I know that Remington has had its share of troubles recently but they seem to be coming out of it. Their 1911s have always held their own against others in their price range. Few people remember that, at a time when Colt couldn’t meet demand for M1911s during WWI, Remington was the first company to step in and build the guns for Colt under license. Consequently, Remington has been building 1911s almost as long as Colt has.
The R1 Enhanced has a few features that help it stand out a bit against similarly-priced guns…
- adjustable rear sight with a fiber optic front sight
- front and rear slide serrations
- beavertail safety with a checkered memory bump
- flat, checkered (20 LPI) mainspring housing and serrated front strap
- adjustable match trigger
The R1 comes in three basic styles. There is regular R1 with plain combat three-dot sights and a few other cost-saving features. Another version is the Commander version. The only R1 available in 9mm is the full-size Enhanced model. Because of that, the 9mm buyer gets the best that Remington has to offer and that’s a lot. The Remington 1911s feel good in my hand. Most 1911s are built, obviously, like most others due to the type but there are always a few that just feel better than some of the others. The R1 is one of those guns. If you are looking for a well-built gun with some great sights, front slide serrations for press-checking, a wider thumb safety for a sure grip and an adjustable match trigger, here is your next gun. The R1 is at home on the range, in competition or in a concealed-carry holster. It’s a lot of gun for the money.
To Sum Up
The 9mm cartridge in a 1911-style gun is a natural match. No matter what your purpose for owning such a pistol, the caliber and the platform work very well together. They have done so for 69 years, when Colt first mated the cartridge to its new aluminum-framed 1911. Although some companies may have come to the 9mm/1911 party a little later than others, they are catching up and are building truly remarkable guns. If you are looking for a companion piece for your .45 ACP 1911 or are just wanting a single-stack thin 9mm, give the 1911 a try. Then, maybe the next time someone mentions the numbers 1, 9, 1 and 1 your first mental image will be that of your new 9mm, with the .45 coming in second. What a great excuse to own two 1911s!
Mike has been a shooter, bullet caster and reloader for over 40 years. Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, he is often found at his reloading bench concocting yet another load. With a target range in his backyard and after 40 years of shooting, his knowledge of firearms and reloading is fairly extensive. He is married, with four sons and daughters-law and 7-and-counting grandkids.