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Colt Delta Elite 10mm [Review]

I approached my shooting bench with a bit of trepidation. I was holding an original, older Delta Gold Cup that belonged to a friend of mine who’d loaned it to me for this article. As you can see from the photo above, it is a beautiful pistol. He has had it for many years. He is in another line of business now but once had an FFL and bought and sold guns.

I sat down and put the gun on the rest. I was shooting PMC’s 200 grain FMJ truncated cone ammo, with a website-stated velocity of 1050 fps, which should yield in the neighborhood of 500 ft/lbs. of energy. I was just hoping those 500 pounds were going to emerge at the muzzle and not into my shooting hand.

gold cup right side

10mm in a 1911?

This was my first real experience with a 1911 10mm (read my best 1911 comparison here) and I was a bit curious as to what was going to happen.

ammo box on target
The SECOND target I shot…the first one embarrasses me…

I fired the first shot and was pleasantly surprised to find the recoil impulse pushing the gun pretty much straight back into my hand as opposed to raising the muzzle skywards. Repeat seven more times. Gather up target. Notice group is more of a pattern. At least I got most of them on the paper at 25 yards. For those of you who shoot a 10mm regularly, you may have an idea of what I’m talking about. The stainless steel frame doesn’t flex a bit like polymer can. The second target shown above was shot from around 15 yards, standing with a two-hand hold. I didn’t use the bench for this one. The rear sight is obviously adjusted for my friend’s eyes, not mine, but at least it falls into the “group” classification. The recoil seemed more manageable offhand, as it often does. The bench sometimes magnifies recoil since your arms and hands are pretty much held captive by the rest(s) you’ve got the gun on and all that recoil energy comes back at you. I also chronographed this load and discovered that PMC is very optimistic in their velocity printed on their website – 1050 fps – as I averaged less than the advertised velocity out of this particular GC Delta (more on that below). It’s still a thumper in my book. And, a 200-grain bullet at around 1000 fps makes a great close-to-medium range deer load, at least in my experience. You’re still getting 500 ft./lbs. of energy, which is not bad. I have more on shooting this great gun below.

cailber engraving on barrel

Is There A More Forgiving Platform?

Not having shot a lot of 10mm through a Glock or an EAA Witness with polymer frames, I can only imagine the difference. With the stainless steel 1911 frame and its non-flexing-characteristics, I figured the 10mm would probably be a handful. I’ll talk more about this specific gun later, but first let’s talk about current production guns and how they’re built.

Colt Delta Elite
Current production Delta Elite

Colt’s Current Delta Elite

The Colt Delta Elite (DE) 10mm 1911 was the gun that really helped put Colt back on the “map” of gunmakers and almost single-handedly saved the 10mm cartridge. These are strong statements, but I think that they are true to a certain extent. First, Colt was not exactly teetering on the edge of collapse – nothing as apocryphal as that – but their sales in the latter part of the 1980s were not all that could be hoped for. The second part of the statement is a little easier to “prove”, if that’s the right word. The only other 10mm gun around at that time (ca. 1986) was the Dornhaus & Dixon/Jeff Cooper Bren Ten that had been introduced in 1983. That was the first pistol to fire what became the 10mm cartridge, but had its share of production issues that led to its demise. (For an overall look at 10mm guns, check out my article on that topic here). Colt was the first major, mainstream gun manufacturer to put a 10mm into production.

A Bit Of History

I always like to know the backstory of things, be they old movies, warplanes or guns and ammo. It makes for interesting reading (hopefully!). The road that the DE has traveled is fairly long, with some potholes along the way.

The gun was first introduced in 1987. Named for the famous Delta Force (1st Operational Special Forces Detachment-Delta) of the U.S. Army, Colt set the bar high for the gun. As stated above, it was only the second 10mm pistol to be put into production, and then became the only one going after D&D went out of business. The gun was made in a few variations until 1996, when it was discontinued due to lack of sales, coupled with the availability of smaller guns with greater capacity in .40 S&W. The 10mm cartridge had not caught on with shooters at that time, but that would change. It didn’t help that the F.B.I. dropped the 10mm in favor of the .40 S&W. It is interesting to note that the original DEs experimented with a bushingless system for the barrel/slide lockup. This didn’t last very long due to so-so accuracy, and the gun’s design was returned to the traditional barrel/bushing system soon afterwards.

Colt Delta Elite Logo

The gun was re-introduced on March 31st, 2009. It was a better seller than it had been before, as shooters were discovering the advantages of the 10mm round for hunting and defense. (A full-charge 10mm load can deliver energy levels approaching a .41 Magnum). This made the DE into a pretty popular deer and hog gun, among other uses.

Colt Delta Elite Grip

Variations

At last count, I discovered twelve variations of the DE, starting from its introduction through current production. Variations include guns made from carbon steel and blued, stainless steel, different sight configurations, different dust covers, and other changes. There were even a run of Gold Cup National Match models made – that’s the one I shot.For a more detailed list of those variations, check this information out. There was even a version made for a distributor that included parts so as to enable the .40 S&W to be fired, in addition to 10mm. We see that there were several variations made over the years, which leads us to the present-day DE. The Colt web page now shows just two models – the standard stainless 1911 model and one with a rail underneath for mounting a light, although the Lew Horton distribution company shows a two-tone model available. This gun is offered in a two-tone black Ion Bond Slide coupled with a stainless frame. This is not shown on Colt’s site, but it shows up for sale on internet seller sites.

Now is a good time to look at the specifications for the DE – these were taken from Colt’s web site and other sources.

Length:8.3 inches
Height:5.7 inches
Width:1.26 inches
Weight:35.9 ounces empty
Barrel Length:5 inches
Action:Single Action
Capacity:8 + 1
Finish:stainless steel
Grips:black composite with Delta medallion
Sights:Novak white dot front, Novak Low Mount Carry, rear
Safeties:thumb, grip, Series 80 firing pin
Features:upswept beavertail with Commander-style rowel hammer; 3-hole aluminum trigger, extended thumb safety, 23# double recoil spring; two 8-round mags
MSRP:$1199 ($1299, railed version)

I also found that real-world pricing on DEs tends to hover around the $1099 mark…not much discount on these guns.

Now, let’s look at a couple of issues that might have prevented some from buying an early DE but have since been addressed and rectified, if necessary.

The Battered Frame Syndrome

A few of the early DEs were prone to flex-induced slide rail stress cracks at the slide stop cutout, as the early DEs had a “bridge” of metal over that cutout. The frame would suffer stress-induced cracks at one end of it or the other. The solution was to remove that segment of metal above the cutout, which allowed the frame to absorb more of the rather-hefty recoil forces.

To reiterate, this was a problem in the very beginning of the DE’s production run and was solved pretty quickly. They simply removed the section of metal above the slide stop cutout so it couldn’t crack. They’re made this way today, with that section removed.

Here’s a shot of the gun I shot, from the inside…you can clearly see that the frame has the cutout, right above the end of the slide stop:

frame cut shown from inside

Optional: Shock Buffers

Another issue that crops up with some pistols is the need to use shock buffers to help protect the frame from slide battering. Although this is not a factory issue, as the frame cut above was, it is still an issue for some shooters. This is not only a 10mm 1911 issue…buffers have been used for many years with .45 ACP pistols. Some 10mm shooters use them as cheap “insurance“ against frame damage. My friend who loaned me this very early (S/N under 3000) DE told me he’s gone through three buffers, and he doesn’t get a lot of free time to shoot. Now…that doesn’t mean that if you are not using these buffers you are hurting your pistol. It’s like I said above, some shooters just use them to guard against possible frame-battering issues. Here’s what one brand looks like:

shock buffers

These are molded from poly fiber and are 1/10 inch thick. The cost on the website where I found these was under $7 for the six of them. That‘s why I used the term “cheap” above. Shoot the gun until the buffer is worn, then swap it out for a new one. How? Slide the recoil spring off its guide rod and push the buffer all the way to the rear end of the rod, then reinstall the spring and put it back in the gun. Pretty simple, and they will work to lessen the impact of the reciprocating slide against the frame. (One video I saw had the gunsmith tell us to “put the writing on the buffer towards the back”, although I’m not sure what beneficial effect that would have).

Guide Rod

guide rod

DE guide rods are made from a durable plastic substance called Delrin, a high-quality compound made originally for the medical industry. Colt’s thinking on this (as far as I can tell – they didn’t consult with me) was that the short guide rod was plenty strong enough for the task at hand but would flex to help absorb recoil and would break before the gun broke in the event of an “issue” or just plain wear. Some folks thought that the rod should be metal, so they replaced them, as is the case of the one I borrowed. Unless you have issues with the guide rod, the Delrin rod and two-spring setup seems to work as advertised (from what I could find and from talking with folks who owned them).

My Personal Experience With The DE Gold Cup

I do not own a DE, but was able to borrow one from my above-mentioned friend. He has a very early model (as I said, the S/N is under 3000), so if there were to be any shenanigans with frame cracking or whatever, this gun would be a candidate. All has been good with this gun since he bought it – no frame problems (or any other problems, for that matter). He does use frame buffers in his gun.

Gold Cup Delta

left side slide engraving

This particular gun was made in 1990, according to Colt’s serial number lookup. It has several features that the current production models do not have…first off, it’s a Gold Cup. What does that mean? Gold Cups are top-end target 1911s that Colt has made for many years. They have adjustable rear sights (Millet, in this case). a flat-topped, square-faced target front sight, a National Match barrel, and (in the case of the .45 versions) some really nice a-cut-above grips. The internals are polished, and the action is tuned. They are truly fine guns. Colt introduced a Delta Elite version Gold Cup for target work, but I’d bet it saw (or sees) a lot of hunting action as well. The original Gold Cups were used in bullseye competition and were very accurate out to 50 yards with the shooter’s pet handload. I have a friend whose dad owned an older Gold Cup and I believe he has it now. I’ve shot it – what a sweet-shooting pistol!

rear sight detail

OK…back to my experience…I was handed the pistol box by my friend and was told to keep it however long I needed it and to adjust the rear sight if necessary (which I will not do). He told me, in the store (he has a gun safe right behind his desk and it isn’t a gun store), that he had replaced some parts and had some work done to the gun. I asked what had been altered, and he said:

  • Action job
  • Replaced recoil guide rod/spring with stainless steel rod and…get this…a 28-pound spring
  • Other internals polished
  • Overtravel trigger stop installed

The Spring’s The Thing

The spring thing was a killer for me. I recently injured a finger, and with my arthritic hands, could barely rack the slide to chamber a round. I knew there was no way I was going to break it down for cleaning/photography and then be able to get the recoil spring, plug and barrel bushing back in place, so that explains the lack of internal parts photos…that spring makes the slide a … well, insert your favorite naughty word here… to rack. To my old hands, it’s about like having a car suspension spring in there. I do think the factory ones come with a 23-pound spring, if I’m not mistaken. This 28-pounder should allow you to shoot anything in 10mm short of howitzer shells and not batter the frame.
Alright – I get eight PMC rounds in the mag, get it seated past the mag well he’d installed (no bumper pads – these mags do not come with those), and get the chamber loaded. I “pull down” as they used to say on the target, line up the sights, sign my last will & testament and pull the trigger…and pull hard…and pull…nothing. Long story short, the overtravel stop was screwed out too far. I screwed it in a turn or two, dry-fired, and “click” as the hammer dropped. So…back to the bench…

Finally – Shooting The Beast

I’ve already given you some preliminary information about my initial bench shooting experience with this gun, and told you that I won’t show my first target as I was getting used to the 10mm in a 1911 format, the 28-pound spring, etc. It was not pretty, to say the least. The second target (the one pictured above) was shot, as mentioned, offhand at about 15 yards. The group is low/left, but like I said, I’m not going to mess up his sight adjustment. At least I got them on the paper. And, like everything else, once I got used to the “straight-back-into-your-hand” recoil, I was OK. I even managed to put a few rounds over my chronograph’s sensors without destroying it (it wouldn’t be the first). I WAS surprised a bit, though, about the results from the chrono session. After averaging out the velocities, I came up with only 982 fps for the 200-grain PMC FMJ-TC load. They claim 1050 on their website – not in this case. Even so, it would make a decent deer load (with the proper bullet, of course – FMJ bullets are verboten in my state) out to 50 yards or so. That’s still almost 500 ft./lbs. of energy, not bad. I could continue to “run numbers” on this load until the cows came home, but I think we all know that this would be a practice load, mostly, and that there are better loads out there for serious hunting…just ask Ted Nugent.

I was only able to obtain the one box of 10mm ammo from my local dealer due to time constraints and the fact that this was a borrowed gun. I was happy just to have something to put downrange. I know for a fact that Underwood, Double Tap, Hornady Critical Defense, etc. loads would clock closer to 1100-1200 fps with similar-weight JHP or hard-cast bullets, but that’s OK. I wanted to write about a Delta Elite and I came up with a rarity, an almost-30-year-old top quality 10mm from the first major manufacturer to make a 10mm. That makes me feel pretty good, because we can be fairly sure that the current ones coming off the assembly lines are made to pretty much the same quality as the one I shot. After all, it’s a real Colt.

In Summary

This was an interesting review to write, from my standpoint. I normally write about guns I own or do general “round-ups” of the best of a certain caliber gun. This time, I had actually gotten my mitts on a true classic to write about. The Delta Elite in its modern version(s) is quite a piece of ordnance. Factor in being loaned a piece of Colt history almost 30 years old in Gold Cup format, and the Delta Elite truly takes on a new perspective. I was totally impressed by the solid feel of the gun, the quality construction, the very subtle pressure it takes to drop the hammer, and the way the old girl handled the recoil. This is not a “stick-it-in-the-safe-and-never-shoot-it” gun – my friend has put hundreds of rounds through the barrel (which is just as shiny inside as it was when it came from the factory). Speaking of factory, that’s where he got this Gold Cup Delta – not from a distributor. Coming directly from Colt adds just a little more to its story.

After my rather limited experience with this particular historic Delta Elite and knowing Colt quality, I would highly recommend one to a prospective 10mm shooter who can afford it. They are not cheap – nothing of any real quality is – but this gun will last you and will be able to be handed down from generation to generation if cared for.

I started out a little leery of the vaunted 10mm cartridge in a 1911 and ended up a big fan of the platform. We do need to remember that Colt’s Delta Elite was THE only 10mm in production for a while after Dornhaus & Dixon shuttered their windows and the Bren Ten died…that says a lot, that the gun has been resurrected and is selling just about as fast as Colt can make it. A lot of people in the know give Colt kudos for single-handedly resurrecting the almost-defunct-at-that-time 10mm cartridge and making it viable commercially. If you want an heirloom that you can take to the field with confidence, check out the Delta Elite. I’m glad I got to shoot one – it’s a truly classy piece of pistolcraft.
Let me know what you think below, or if you’ve had experience with a Delta Elite. As always, stay safe and keep shooting!

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Michael Murphy
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Michael Murphy

Colt DE was the first handgun I ever bought. I shot a lot of ammo out of it, and it got me into handloading, too, (it gave me a chance to learn a lot about loads) because back in the late ’80s commercial 10mm was very pricey. They’re still not cheap, but proportionately cheaper than they used to be.

Shot my first two deer with it. I still have one, but I’ve tricked it out a bit.

Rick
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Rick

Why buy this when Glock holds 15 instead of 8 rounds..

bill
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bill

because it is a COLT and not a glock

Walter
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Walter

Very good work! 👍😉 Kongrat Mike!

Ric
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Ric

bought one in Montana when they first came out, waited two months before I could find ammo, took up reloading and shot thousands of rounds in that shooter. That Colt got away from me in 92 in Alaska. Found another early model in mint condition up around Fairbanks in 2019. These days I lean to using a long slide Springfield 1911 in 460 Rowland, its gotta a lot more snap to it, the ten is handy but the Rowland is a dandy.