Rock Island Ultra MS 1911 – The Price is So Right and So is the Gun

Rock Island CommanderSome of my buddies have owned Rock Island 1911s and I’ve seen some pretty impressive targets as a result of their shooting range adventures. Recently I saw one of the Rock Ultra series Commanders at an “I don’t see how they can do that!” price. If you’ve read any of my stuff previously, you know Commander-size 1911 pistols are among my favorites. My “I don’t need any more guns” resolve seems to be short-lived, so naturally I gave in. The gun is classified as a Rock Ultra MS and it came with the features I like such as a skeletonized hammer and trigger and ambi-safety. It has what appears to be a very durable Parkerized finish. The sights are not my favorite, I like night sights, but the ones on this gun are visible and snag-free. The factory picture shows it with a fiber optic sight on the front, but mine doesn’t have that. The sights are black all over.

I changed the grips when I got it home. The gun came with a set of very aggressive G-10 grips. I had some not-so aggressive ones on hand, so I did a switcheroo with the grips, wiped off the shipping oil and put the gun and a box of 45 hollow points in the Jeep so I could try it out during the next trip to the range. That trip turned out to be a CHL class and since we had several instructors on hand, I set up on one of the lanes with a B-27 target, the Rock Island Commander and a box of 45s, planning to shoot part, if not all of the Texas CHL Shooting Proficiency test.

Target After the 1st 10 Rounds

After ten rounds I was disappointed. This is not how I shoot. I was confident that every time I squeezed the trigger my front sight was on the X and was properly aligned with the back sight, but my shots were going wide. You’ve seen my 1911 Commander targets. I generally obliterate the center of the target, especially at close range. The distance here was only 9-feet!

I shot another ten rounds and then we moved the targets out to 21 feet. By the time I’d fired 30 rounds total, I figured I was done. I pulled the target back in, and left some ammo so the other two instructors could try their hands at the gun. When the target got close to me I was surprised. The last 15 rounds or so, even at 21 feet were right in the center of the target, where they should be. That was more like it! When the other two instructors shot the gun, their shots were grouping well, but they both said their shots were impacting a little below their point of aim.

As we were discussing our thoughts about the gun later, one of them mentioned he had read that Rock Islands tend to get better after a little break-in. Funny, I read in the manual where they recommended a 500 round break-in period before making any kind of warranty claim. I’ve never been much on these break-in period claims. Most of my guns have cycled and fired right out of the box just like I wanted them to. But in this case, this particular gun’s accuracy did improve after a few rounds had been put through it.

Bull Barrel vs. Barrel BushingThere was another reason besides the price that I wanted to try this gun. It has a bull barrel as opposed to the  barrel bushing arrangement on every other 1911 I’ve owned or shot. I’ve handled other 1911 style guns with bull barrels and noted they’re a little more challenging to take apart for cleaning, but had no information about whether one was better than the other. Comments I’ve read say that it adds a little more weight up front, which might help with recoil and it results in less parts to wear out. Another reason I’ve read is that in some of the early short-barrel 1911s the bushings had to be thinner and tended to break. I think that was a Colt issue with some of the earlier Commander or Officer firearms. Once the accuracy of this particular firearm improved to the point it became a non-issue I can’t tell the difference between shooting it and shooting a standard 1911 with the barrel bushing.

Workmanship on the Rock Island is superb. I find nothing to indicate its lower cost results in lower quality. From what I’ve read about Armscor, the maker of the Rock Island guns, they have state-of-the-art CNC machinery and they make the guns from the same 4140 steel as the best made guns from American manufacturers. I originally thought I might try this gun, write about it, then sell it, but for now I’ve decided to hold onto it. I’ll probably make it my “truck” gun, only now I drive a Jeep, so I guess it will be my “Jeep” gun.

Would I recommend it to others? If price is an issue and that stands between you getting a good 1911 45 versus some other gun, I would certainly suggest it with no reservations. Currently, I believe the Ruger Lightweight Commander 1911 is the best 1911 value on the market, with the Remington R1 Carry close behind. If you’re willing and able to spend more money there are a number of options. But this Rock Island is nothing you would be ashamed to own, carry, even show off!

Update 11/13/2020:

For more on my experience with Rock Island pistols, see my review of the Rock Island MAPP MS in the Mar/Apr 2019 issue of American Handgunner and a review of the Rock Island XTM-22 1911 in 22 Magnum in the December 2019 issue of GUNS Magazine.

Slide Lock or Slide Stop?

Sling Shot Method of Slide Release
Racking the Slide Using the Sling-Shot Method

Early in my training to become a handgun instructor, I was taught to place a semi-automatic handgun into battery by pinching the rear end of the slide between the thumb and forefinger of my support hand, pulling back on the slide with the support hand while pushing forward on the grip with my shooting hand, then releasing the slide when I felt it stop, which happens in something like an eighth of an inch on most semi-automatics. For a slide that is difficult to pull back, an alternative to pinching the slide with between the thumb and forefinger is to reach across the rear of the slide with the heal of my hand on the left side of the slide and my fingers on the right side (I’m right-handed), squeeze tight and pull the slide back and release it that way. Either of these methods is commonly called the “sling-shot” method by most instructors. To me the terms “sling-shot” and “rack” the slide are synonymous in this context.

The reason most commonly given for doing it this is that it is easier on the gun and won’t wear the slide-lock notch out like just thumbing the slide lock does over time. Since my initial instruction in this regard, I’ve heard it from instructors and gunsmith’s alike and have adopted it as the method I teach. When I see old-time shooters releasing the slide lock with their thumb, I usually at least make them aware of the alternate method while saying something like “I know the military teaches using your thumb to disengage the slide lock, but they have armorers who can fix their pistols when the slide lock notch wears out.”

In studying the issue more carefully, I’ve discovered some other reasons for using the sling-shot method as opposed to thumbing the slide lock. One of these is that this method provides the gun with a stronger, cleaner push into battery, as long as you don’t ride the slide forward with your hand. That’s the important part. Whether you pinch the slide or reach across it with your hand to grasp it, you must let it go as soon as you feel the slide stop in its rearward move. This will happen with very little rearward movement. When you let it go, let it go like it was hot and burning your hands. If you need to reach across the slide to grasp it, avoid the ejection port as this is a place on the gun that can easily pinch you, perhaps even drawing blood.

Thumbing the Slide Lock
Using the Thumb to Release the Slide Lock

The sling-shot method works on all semi-automatics, pretty much the same. Slide lock levers are all over the place from gun to gun. Some are small, some are large, some are way forward, some are near the rear of the slide, maybe not the notch, but the lever (I’m thinking in particular here of the Sig Sauer SigPro 2022). Maybe you’re left-handed and the slide lock lever is on the side opposite your shooting hand thumb. If you use the sling-shot method, you don’t have to worry about where the slide lock is and if you can get your thumb on it.

Strength is sometimes an issue when racking a slide, especially for women or anybody with hand issues such as arthritis or any of the issues that come with long-term and frequent computer use. Using your thumb to release a slide lock can have the same issues. Regardless, I won’t do it with my guns because I want them to last a long time, plus I find it much quicker to just sling-shot the slide.

When it comes to racking slides and locking them back for the range safety officers or to load the gun, new gun owners are often confused with the internal slide lock associated with an empty magazine. Practically all semi-automatics are designed such that when a magazine is emptied the follower inside the magazine engages a notch inside the gun that locks the slide back. This is how you know the gun is empty and requires reloading before you can continue shooting. This internal slide lock can frustrate your attempts to sling-shot the slide, because with an empty magazine in the gun, you must also be pushing the slide lock down at the same time you’re racking the slide. This should be done with the thumb of your shooting hand if you’re holding the gun correctly.  Just remember, if the gun has no magazine in it or a magazine with ammunition in it, simply pull the slide back slightly and release it to get the slide to go forward with the proper strength and velocity for it to go into battery. But with an empty magazine, you must also push the slide lock down while rack the slide.

It’s Not Bragging if You Have the Pictures!

Sig Sauer Emperor Scorpion CommanderWe had finished the range portion of the NRA Basic Pistol class Phil Epps and I had taught Sunday and had the range for a few more minutes. This gave me the opportunity to do a little follow up testing regarding my Sig Sauer 1911 Scorpion Commander. On a recent trip to test various magazine/ammunition combinations I had discovered that Fiocchi jacked hollow point rounds did not feed reliably in that particular gun. Since every other type of ammunition I had tried worked fine, I was puzzled. When I got the gun home and began looking for the source of the problem, I didn’t find one. In fact, when cycling the gun by hand, it fed those rounds with no problem. So, now back at the range, I ran a target out to ten feet or so, loaded eight Fiocchi hollow points in one of my Colt magazines and left whatever was already in the chamber there. Why was one in the chamber? It was my carry gun for the day.

Sig Sauer TargetI started shooting with my typical two-hand grip, unsupported and after 4 shots there had been no issues with feeding the rounds. But there was something else. The target had a single quarter-sized hole in which all four rounds had converged. I called Phil over and got him to take a picture with his IPhone. After getting that benchmark, he snapped a photo after each of the remaining shots in the magazine. After all nine rounds, it was a pretty impressive target.

Sig Target AFter 9 rounds

I went on to shoot some more and a couple of our students who had hung around to watch were given the opportunity to shoot the gun as well. The final target had a big fist-sized hole in the center with a couple of flyers in the inner orange ring.

I could be just bragging on me a little, but what I’m really bragging on is the gun! My 67 year-old arthritic hands aren’t always able to hold a handgun absolutely steady, but I was having a pretty good day that day. The gun was having an amazing day. But, I’ve noticed that about Sig Sauer pistols, at least the ones I own. They always make me look good!

UPDATE 10/3/2015

I had a chance to shoot the Sig again today as we were wrapping up a CHL class. I had approximately 20 rounds of mix and match ammo. It included some Sig Sauer JHP, Speer Gold Dot JHP and Hornady Zombie ammo, which is basically their Critical Defense. I fired 20 rounds during the timed portions of the CHL class, 1 round every 2 seconds and 2 rounds every 3 seconds. The target was at the 9 foot range. The end result looked like 10 rounds had been fired, all well within the 10 ring. The first three shots were in a hole the size of a quarter, then I pulled the 4th one off about 2 inches. The next 10 rounds essentially filled out the first holes. This is one accurate firearm!