Colt Combat Commander [Review]

The Colt (Combat) Commander has had a long, blue-ribbon-pedigreed history. Evolving from the legendary Colt 1911, the Commander is not a lot different from that storied gun – the most obvious difference is that the Commander has a 4.25-inch barrel as opposed to the 5-inch one in the 1911 – but it has gained a reputation in its own right as a tough, reliable pistol. (For brevity’s sake, I’m going to refer to the gun as simply the Commander, as the original ones were named. We’ll see where the “Combat” part comes in a little later). The gun was similar, upon a quick visual examination, to a standard 1911 except for the barrel length and the fact that it used, as a production item, the rounded “rowel”-style hammer. It did not use the spur hammer of the original 1911. Other than those two things, the original Commander looked pretty much like a shortened 1911. Even the frame size was the same, with its 7- or 8-round capacity, depending upon the magazines you buy.

The Commander’s Popularity

The Commander has always sold well for Colt. Ever since its introduction to the public in 1950, shooters have liked the fact that it was just-a-touch shorter than the full-size 1911 but still held 8+1 rounds. With the introduction of the 3.5-inch Officer’s Model (or Officer’s ACP) in 1985, many shooters jumped on that bandwagon only to find that the shorties were very picky about what ammo would function the gun. I don’t have vivid memories of this, but I do remember seeing some of the short-barreled 1911s in used guns cases in fairly recent history. Those were traded in on either full-size or Commander-length 1911s. I’ve been told by gunsmiths who know that it’s just harder to get a three-inch-barreled 1911 to run like it should due to the geometry and angles involved. The 1911 was designed with a 5-inch barrel – once you cut it down to 3 or 3.5 inches, the possibility is there for feeding and extraction issues to crop up. The Commander seems to hit the sweet spot – better reliability than many 3.5-inch 1911s, yet not as big as a full-size gun. My friend Duane sells probably more Commander-length 1911s than the other two sizes.

What’s In A Name?

Just as the term “1911” has come to be a generic description of most any gun of that type with a 5-inch barrel, and the term “Officer’s Model” used to describe a 3.5-inch barreled 1911, the “Commander” name has stuck with 4-inch-or-so-barreled 1911 pistols. Colt has, over many years, has set the pace in terms of building the first of something and then the industry copying the model name given it by Colt for their own similar products. It was that way then and it’s still that way to this day. Look online at gun sellers’ sites and see how many of them sell 1911-style pistols that are called either “full-size” or ”M1911” (5-inch barrel), “Commander” (4 or 4.25-inch barrel) or “Officer’s Model” (3 or 3.5-inch barrel). These names and descriptions stuck and are even more prevalent today as the 1911 platform not only holds its own in terms of popularity but seems to be gaining ground over 100 years after its introduction. This means that more and more manufacturers are building 1911-style pistol models now, and they have to call them something that buyers will recognize.

Another example of Colt’s products becoming an icon…how many of us have watched a Cowboy Action competition where the participant pulls a single action army-style revolver out of his or her holster and spectators say something like “Look – A Colt Forty-Five!” even though it might be in a different caliber, and/or (more than likely) a different brand. This is especially true with people who might not know a lot about guns. This is just one more instance of Colt’s influence on the industry and the shooting world at large. This iconic nomenclature of firearms has its equal in other realms…when was the last time you asked for a ”facial tissue”? We tend to ask for a Kleenex, which is a similar situation wherein a specific brand has had its particular brand name applied to most all similar products. To sum it up… just about all 4-inch-or-so-barreled 1911s are called “Commanders”, whether made by Colt or not.

A Note About My Test Sample…

The Commander that I am going to examine in some detail was loaned to me by my friend Marty, who owns a business distinctly unrelated to firearms sales but had, at one point in time, an FFL. This allowed him to buy many different guns, which he is gracious enough to loan me for review. Another note about his collection: it consists of top-quality, name-brand firearms, which is represented by the Delta Elite 10mm he loaned me for another article and this Commander. Technically, this is a Combat Commander, since the frame is made of stainless steel, not aluminum, which is obvious in the photo. His Commander has been worked on a bit and is a hoot to shoot. More on this gun and my shooting experience with it later.

Colt Commander left side
My test sample Commander. No, it’s not the world’s only Delta Elite Commander – the owner just likes the Delta Elite rubber grips and how they wrap around the front strap. This reflects one advantage of using the full-size 1911 frame – you get to use not only grips for the larger pistol, but magazines as well. Note the custom extended magazine release.

Here are some photos of my sample gun’s components…

barrel recoil spring
Recoil spring and barrel. Note single spring and short guide rod. New ones use a dual spring.
closeup left side slide engraving
Engraving – left side of slide
closeup muzzle
Muzzle…that’s a BIG hole!
feed ramp of Colt Commander
Polished feed ramp. Note how narrow it is…even so, it had no trouble feeding SWC bullets.
field stripped Colt Commander
Field-stripped.

The standard solid bushing is obvious…some shooters have experimented with “finger”-style bushings. Also note frame cut-out over the slide stop hole by the plunger tube. This was done to prevent frame stress fractures that had occurred in very-early-production Delta Elite 10mm guns. It proved a success, so the procedure was moved throughout all 1911 production. Not pictured: the magazine I used. It did not come with the gun, but was one that I own. Again, this shows how versatile this platform is. Almost any 1911 magazine will work. (I did have one mag that was just too wide for the mag well, but another I tried worked so I used it).

Colt Commander hammer detail
Hammer detail. The deep beavertail prevents slide- and hammer-bite.
slide engraving
Engraving – right side of slide

Personal Experience With A Commander

I owned an aluminum-framed Commander once upon a time back in the 1980s. It was a plain-jane blued model with no bells and whistles. It had the factory hard rubber grip panels, black sights and no extended slide release or thumb safety. The beavertail…well, there was not much of a beavertail and no “memory bump” on the grip safety. Totally stock, early ‘80’s vintage. (Compare this image with that at the top of the article that shows the current-production Commander. The new one includes many extra features that you would’ve paid a pistolsmith big bucks to install on the gun below…better sights, adjustable trigger, extended beavertail, grip safety with a memory bump, extended thumb safety plus upgrades on the inside. The new guns are a good buy, and really don’t cost much more than guns from 1980s when adjusted for inflation. They have never been inexpensive, but you tend to get what you pay for).

m1911A1 commander
Here’s a photo of a gun very similar to the one I had, a plain M1911A1 Commander, matte finish

I kept it long enough to understand that, without an ambidextrous safety, the gun was problematic for me to carry as I am left-handed. I traded it for something a little more conducive to carry – if I had thought about it much at the time, I might’ve just had an ambi safety installed. It was a real Colt, for Pete’s sake, and I should’ve kept it. Oh well…20/20 hindsight. So, why did Colt decide to make a three-quarter-inch-shorter barreled version of their 1911? Let’s look at its history.

History Of The Commander

Not long after the end of WWII (in 1949, to be precise), the military was looking for a lighter, shorter 1911 in 9mm that could be issued as a replacement for the 1911. (I have an idea, from things I’ve read, that the original plan was to replace all of the military’s rather large, heavy 1911s. Eventually it came down to just giving it to officers). The specs were written to include, in addition to other items, an overall length of no more than seven inches, 9mm caliber and a weight of 25 ounces or less. They sent out a request for guns that met those specifications be submitted for trial. The Cold War had started really winding up and our military was seeking a gun and caliber that would be consistent with NATO specs, yet would be something that our troops would have more than just a passing familiarity with.

Colt responded with the aluminum-framed, 4.25-inch-barreled Commander in 9mm, while other guns and companies that were included in that trial included:

The Browning Hi-Power (The Inglis Company in Canada), plus another Hi-Power (Fabrique Nationale in Belgium):
Browning Hi-Power

The T3 test weapon from High Standard:
high standard T3

and finally, the Model 39 (Smith & Wesson):
Model 39 (Smith & Wesson)

None of the pistols were selected. It is interesting to note that the Commander was the very first 9mm production gun that Colt made. I can’t find it recorded anywhere, but I can only assume they wanted a shorter-barreled 9mm for two basic reasons…first, it would have been (and still is) shorter and lighter than a steel-framed 1911 and secondly, to adhere to the specifications for the standardized small-arms pistol caliber adopted by NATO. As I alluded to above, the NATO alliance was doing everything it could to present a unified front against Communism, right down to every member nation playing by NATO’s rules where calibers were concerned. So, in 1949 we had a lighter, slightly-shorter 9mm 1911 for officers. It utilized a 9-round single-stack magazine.

Fast-forward a year. In 1950, Colt put the Commander into regular production so that ordinary folks like me could buy one. Colt had already set a record within the company by making the Commander their very first 9mm production pistol, and now they achieved another first: the Commander was the largest gun made at that time with an aluminum frame. The first year’s production also included pistol chambered in .45 ACP and .38 Super.

Enter The Combat Commander

In 1970, Colt introduced a steel-framed version of the Commander and named it the “Combat Commander.” They then re-christened the original aluminum-framed gun the “Lightweight Commander.” There was also an optional model made in a satin nickel finish. My test sample is a Combat Commander.

Variations

There have been a few major variants made over the years. These included:

  • Colt Combat Elite. This was a gun made for combat-style competition shooters, with the .45 version having two 8-round magazines and the .38 Super, two 9-round magazines.
  • The “C.C.O”, or Concealed Carry Officer’s pistol. This gun mated the slide and barrel of a stainless Commander with the shorter, blued frame of the Lightweight Officer’s (3.5-inch-barreled) Model.
  • The Colt Commander Gold Cup. This pistol was designed to be National Match-ready out of the box. It included one 8-round magazine with an extra recoil spring and an additional 7-round magazine for wadcutters.

And, for those of you into a little more detail, here’s a screenshot from Sightm1911.com that explains models and variants in a little more detail:

models screenshot

Springing Forward

Here’s an interesting note about an upgrade that Colt made to its 1911 pistols’ recoil spring assembly, and in particular the Lightweight Commander. A dual recoil spring system was introduced. This spring change was part of some design tweaks that the Marine’s M45A1 pistol received in 2011. At least in part due to the success of that change, Colt began introducing the dual recoil spring into its 1911 line. The Lightweight Commander got its new spring setup starting with those guns shipped in November of 2015. The springs are counter-wound to avoid binding and they are designed to help with picking up the new round from the magazine when the slide reciprocates. They also are supposed to add some time between spring changes and to soften frame battering, which in turn leads to a softened recoil impulse. Reliability is enhanced, as the springs are very positive in their function – this was important to the Marines, as the guns would be subjected to dirt, mud, sand, etc. and reliability is obviously of tantamount importance. The assembly consists of four parts: two springs, and a specially-designed recoil guide rod and plug. If what I read is correct, Colt is in the process of introducing this assembly into most, if not all, of its 1911s. Here is what it looks like:

dual recoil spring
screen shot from gundigest.com

So, there we have the history and variations of the Commander. Since 1950, it has been a steady seller and a viable pistol for concealed carry (CCW insurance review), home defense, competition and other uses. Let’s look at specifications of the current model.

Specs of the current production Lightweight Commander (taken from Colt’s website and other sources; these are correct as of time of writing):

Barrel Length:4.25 inches
Capacity:8+1
Caliber:45 ACP. Combat commander available in both .45 ACP and 9mm, with 9+1 capacity). Lightweight Commander not offered in 9mm, according to Colt’s site
Overall Length:7.75
Weight:27 ounces
Features:Upswept Beavertail Grip Safety/ Series 80 Firing Pin Safety
Action:Single Action Hammer Fired Semi-Auto
Safety:Thumb Safety, Grip Safety, Firing Pin Safety
Grips:G10 Black Cherry Grips
Finish:Blue
Stock:Checkered Black Cherry G10 Grips
Sights:FT: Novak White Dot RR: Novak Low Mount Carry
MSRP:$999
Discount Price:$925 - $950

Shooting The Combat Commander

Having shot a Commander, albeit a Lightweight version, I was really looking forward to shooting the steel-framed version. Plus, having owned several .45s (Best .45 ACP Pistols) over the years and owning a .45 Springfield XD(M) now, I have an assortment of ammo to try in this gun.

Here’s a very quick-and-dirty video I recorded just to show the recoil (or lack of it) with a mid-range target load.

…and, a not-too-sharp screen capture from that video showing the gun in recoil…

Recoil of Colt Commander

Not much recoil here. You can see the ejected case just above the gun.

This particular Combat Commander was a joy to shoot, especially since it had been “gone over” by a gunsmith to make it even better. The trigger broke right around 5 pounds, estimated, with very little take-up. It broke, as the saying goes, like a glass rod. This was just a general “point-and-shoot” into the woods in order to get a few seconds of video showing the gun in recoil. I will shoot for groups and velocities later. Really, there was very little difference that I felt between shooting this gun and a regular, 5-inch 1911. The ¾-inch-shorter barrel didn’t feel any different in recoil and handling than have several full-size 1911s I’ve owned and shot over the years. And, while we’re talking about carrying this gun, let’s look at a point or two.

Carrying The Commander Concealed Vs. A Full-Size

The only advantage, if any, that I can see with the Combat Commander as a carry gun is that it might conceal a little easier than a full-size gun (Best Concealed Carry Holsters). But…I’ve always said that barrel length makes very little difference in the ability to conceal a pistol or revolver (within reason, of course…you don’t see too many Buntline Specials being toted around!). What would make the difference in carry attributes between the two pistols is the lighter weight of the aluminum-framed Commander. The grip length has a lot to do with concealability, too.

What makes a gun “disappear” in concealment is a shorter grip. THAT’s what will “print” through your shirt or covering garment. The regular, square-butt 1911 is really bad at this. If they had shortened the grip by one round or so and then rounded off the butt of the grip, it would make the Commander easier to conceal. (Some companies do make guns like this). I guess the advantage is that the Commander will take regular 1911 magazines, as I found out today when I dragged a couple of my old 1911 mags out and shot some SWC loads I’d had a while. No problem with functioning…all the rounds worked as planned. But, if I owned it, I wouldn’t plan to carry this gun concealed…I just felt the need to remind shooters that barrel length is secondary in the concealed-carry priority, while grip length matters more. The Commander can make a great carry gun, and a lot of folks carry even full-size 1911s and conceal them just fine, so ¾” off the barrel should be a bonus. They just don’t work for me as a concealed weapon, but that’s me. Many others out there have no trouble carrying them, I know, and I’m glad for you. It’s a heck of a gun.

The “Other” Shooting Difference…The Frame

We’ve looked at barrel length and the difference, if any, between shooting a 4.25-inch barreled gun versus one with a 5-inch barrel. Now we must consider another point if we are truly going to evaluate shooting a Commander against a regular 1911 – the frame.

The first Commanders were made with aluminum frames and still are, in their 27-ounce Lightweight configuration. The gun I tested was a Combat commander, with its stainless steel frame and 33-ounce weight. This gun weighs right at 33 ounces. If I had compared a “true” Lightweight Commander against a full-sized, steel-framed 1911 (or even this Combat Commander), I do believe my results in the recoil department might have come out a bit differently. The lighter gun will tend to have more recoil than its 39-ounce 1911 full-size cousin, or its 33-ounce stablemate. This is one area where weight (mass) does matter. The felt recoil from a 27-ounce gun has to be more, with equal loads, than that from a 39-ounce pistol…physics pretty much dictates that. I felt I needed to bring this to light, in case anyone just reads my paragraph above where I state I didn’t feel much difference between shooting the Combat Commander and a full-size 1911. If I had shot a Lightweight Commander, I’d darn well bet the subjective felt-recoil results would’ve been different. Speaking of subjective recoil results, let’s see how the steel-framed Combat Commander stacks up against a polymer-framed .45…

How Does It Compare With A Polymer-Framed Gun?

Striker-fired polymer-framed guns are all the rage these days, and a lot of shooters (especially younger ones) have gone from day one of their shooting experience without ever touching a 1911, let alone firing one. I have one of the more popular poly-framed models, a Springfield XD(M) Compact (3.8-inch barrel), so I thought I’d make a quick visual comparison between the two. The poly-framed XD(M) tends to soak up recoil a bit better in my experience than the steel-framed Commander, but both shot well. I’m just more familiar with the XD(M).

Here they are…

xdm vs 1911comparison

xdm vs 1911 comparison 2
Here we see my XD(M) .45 ACP with a 13-round magazine in place. The Springfield uses a couple of 1911-style features. First, the grip angle is pretty much the same, and…
grip safety comparison
…Springfield borrowed the grip safety. Both are top-quality guns that will serve you well.

OK, enough about comparing guns and shooting characteristics. Let’s talk about the test ammo I used.

Putting Lead Downrange

I decided to try some of my handloads with this particular Combat Commander that have proven to be fairly accurate in other 1911s I’ve shot them in, and also in my XD(M). My stock of factory .45 ACP ammo is low right now, and I figured that this gun would be like most all the other Colt 1911s of any model that I‘ve shot with factory ammo – it would do very well, especially with factory 230-grain ball ammo. Also, with current JHP loads, I’ve never had a problem with feeding so I didn’t shoot enough of those to be of significance – they all worked just fine. All the factory rounds are made to function in any 1911 chamber and most usually do in my experience. Hence, the handloads. I would venture a guess that, over the past 50 years, probably as many cast-bullet reloads have gone down 1911 barrels as factory loads, especially among competitors. So, I think it’s relevant to look at some of the more popular cast bullets.

A Little Bullet Talk…

I tried some different loads that included three of my favorite .45 ACP cast bullets: 230-grain round nose, 200-grain Lee tumble-lube semi-wadcutter, and the Lee copy of the old H&G 68 200-grain semi-wadcutter sharp-shouldered semi-wadcutter. This last bullet is a faithful reproduction of what is, arguably, the most popular cast bullet to be sent down a 1911’s barrel. None other than 1911 guru Jeff Cooper touted its benefits in addition to other experts, and it has been sent downrange with everything from light target loads to full-bore self-defense-category. I know for a fact that some shooters, in decades past, carried self-defense loads made with this bullet when the only factory load available at the time was the old tried-and-true “punkin-ball” 230 grain FMJ. Factory JHP self-defense loads had not appeared in force yet – it took the Super Vel company to pioneer high-velocity expanding bullets in the .45 ACP in the 1970s. Before then, though, the semi-wadcutter reigned supreme because it worked. The H&G 68 also proved to be the most accurate bullet I shot in my testing.

Feeding Issues

Sometimes, semi-wadcutter bullets have a tough time feeding in a .45 ACP gun. For example, my Glock 30 would not feed them until I replaced its barrel with one from Lone Wolf and even then it was iffy. (I know –cast bullets in a Glock barrel – let’s save that for another day…). My Springfield compact XD(M) .45 has a solution for the feeding problems that the sharp shoulder of the semi-wadcutter sometimes causes…you can read about it here. The 1911 has, for decades, been used in competitions where the competitor used semi-wadcutter bullets in order to cut nice, sharp holes in thick paper targets as opposed to the tearing effect on the paper that round-nosed bullets caused. Guns had been throated, feed ramps polished, and frames modified for years. Colt picked up on this and now we have factory-tuned guns like this Combat Commander that fed two different types of semi-wadcutters with nary a bobble. I guess the point is that 1911s have pretty much, at least in recent history, been right at home with semi-wadcutters.

The Bullet’s The Thing…

Here is what these bullets look like, in the order I shot them…

Bullet Comparison
screen shots from Lee Precision, Inc.

Notice the sharp driving band shoulder on the H&G 68 and the flat meplat, or nose…the Colt preferred this bullet, as does my Springfield. It has been around, as I said above, for decades. Part of the reason for its success is that it contacts the feed ramp of a 1911 as if it were a round-nosed bullet and thereby eases feeding into the chamber. This bullet, originally thrown from Hensley & Gibbs mold number 68 (out of more than 500 molds they made) dates from the 1930s (from what I can tell) and has become the gold standard of .45 ACP semi-wadcutters. It can be very accurate, at least in my experience. Notice that Lee even calls it by its original name. It is famous among reloaders (read my guide on how to reload). If anyone out there has more information about the origins of the H&G 68, please leave a comment below…I’d like to know more about it.

Here is a target I shot using this bullet and a middle-tier charge of HP 38 (Winchester 231 double). This is not exactly Olympic-level shooting, but anytime I shoot a strange gun (strange to me, that is), I’m glad to get shots on the paper at 20 yards. I can see, with a little more development, this bullet and powder really working well with this Commander. If this were my gun, I’d move the rear sight a bit to the port side, to move the group to the left. I always shoot to the right…but that’s a whole other article. Suffice it to say, I’d probably stick with this load unless I needed something with a bit more “oomph.” (The “tearing” effect is due to the paper I used to copy the target with. It’s not very thick, unlike real store-bought targets. It’s just a lot cheaper, since I design and print my own. I make different targets for different purposes).

target

Again, I have shot many better groups, but this was a quick-and-dirty accuracy check with a gun I’d never shot before, so this will work. I shot off a bag from my bench. My homemade target has an overlaid grid of one-inch squares, so you can get an idea of group size…I didn’t measure it.

Conclusion

Colt 1911s have always been accurate for me. They invented, or perfected, the 1911 over 100 years ago so I think they have things pretty well figured out. To own a Colt Commander of any type would be a good thing, especially if you are looking for a lightweight carry gun in .45 ACP and like the single action side of things.

If you want a Commander in 9mm, there’s one available, or if you just want a lighter-weight .45 Commander, that’s out there, too. This stainless Combat Commander shot a lot like a regular full-sized 1911, especially with my target-velocity reloads and JHP rounds. I think this would make a great all-around pistol, one that could fill several roles…home defense, concealed carry, target/competitive shooting, range gun…you can’t go wrong owning a gun with the “rampant colt” etched into the slide. It was that way over a century ago, and still is.

As always, I welcome comments below. Now go shoot and stay safe!

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mercdragon

Mike,
Having carried a Colt Combat Commander .38 Super since 1974, you missed a few fine points. The original Commanders and Combat Commanders used the same sights as the 1911A1. The beavertail grip safety for a 1911/191A1 will not fit correctly. You must have one designed for the Combat Commander. Ten round .38 Super magazines are available. Compatible with a 1911A1 as well. Barsto has a barrel/bushing that with a bit of fitting will turn an older .45 or .38 Super into a 50yd tack driver.

Take care and be safe
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