Is there a best personal defense handgun? I doubt it; the competition is fierce, and many handguns have their good points. We also have personal needs and personal worst-case scenarios. As long as the handgun is a quality design, well executed with good reliability and is accurate and powerful enough for the task, the rest is up to you. My personal favorite carry gun is the 1911 single-action self-loader in .45 ACP. There are many variants, and while some are ironmongery, many are well made of good material.
The only legitimate complaint I have with the 1911 is that it is long and heavy. While I have carried a full-size Government Model for more than 30 years, as time goes on and a number of fights and near misses have taken their toll on the lumbar, a lighter handgun is increasingly attractive. I am not willing to lose my life by gaining a few ounces of comfort, so I choose my personal defense handguns with a mind toward function—what works and has worked.
The .45 ACP cartridge is a proven cartridge with excellent properties. The cartridge is accurate enough, usually demonstrates a clean burn even in short-barrel handguns and features low operating pressure. I am not interested in seeing just how small a handgun I could stuff the .45 into; that is not always the best program. I want to find a reasonably sized 1911 for daily carry—a rough-and-ready handgun demanding little maintenance and care that will come up shooting on demand. Weight is not as important as compactness, so a steel frame is no drawback. After carrying a 40-ounce 1911, a 30-ounce pistol would be a pleasant break. However, I would want it shorter and lighter than the Government Model or even a Commander.
The .45 ACP is not dependent on velocity for wound potential. The .451-inch bullet cuts a full-caliber swath through the target, regardless of expansion. With 1.6 inches of frontal diameter, the cartridge presents a formidable working surface. A typical 230-grain hardball load breaks about 830 fps from a 5-inch 1911. From a 3.5-inch barrel, that same load will break 770 fps, which is still faster than the .45 Schofield or .455 Webley—cartridges with a good reputation. Plus, it cuts a .451-inch hole going in and produces a larger hole on exiting. I would pursue superior wound ballistics, and the 230-grain military ball performance was a baseline.
The pistol must be reliable, above all else. The National Institute of Justice specifies 300 rounds between cleaning as a reliable standard, although that seems undemanding to me. The NIJ defines reliability as the propensity of the handgun to fire with each pull of the trigger and continue firing with each pull of the trigger. In a compact pistol, 300 is a lot of .45 ACP and a serious proofing job.
I have had good experiences with the Rock Island 1911 pistols. So, I obtained a compact version to investigate the feasibility of using it for personal defense. This handgun features a short-grip frame housing a six-round magazine. The slide and barrel are shortened, resulting in a 3.5-inch barrel. When Army gunsmiths developed the Officer’s Model pistol, they used considerable machine work and modification. Some of the finest gunsmiths in the world performed all that work by hand.
They shortened the 1911 barrel and slide; however, preserving reliability and allowing the barrel to tilt in recoil sufficiently for reliable operation was not possible if the 1911 barrel bushing were to be retained. The 4.25-inch Commander barrel was as short as was possible to keep the original system. Rather than using a barrel bushing, they modified the Officer’s Model to use a belled barrel that locked into the slide. Additionally, they deleted one of the locking lugs, allowing the slide to recoil proportionately further to the rear. Shortening the grip frame was simple in comparison.
The result was the Officer’s Model. Colt offers the type in a production model, and other companies have produced, more or less, close copies. The Rock Island Compact is an Officer’s Model-type pistol. The barrel is 3.5 inches long, and the abbreviated handle uses a six-round magazine. I have used several variants, including one with the full-size Government Model grip frame and the short barrel. While the standard handle and short slide are attractive in many ways, I settled on the short-grip pistol for daily use.
Upon examining the handgun, the initial appraisal was favorable.
- Fit and finish are good, with dull Parkerizing evenly applied.
- Trigger compression is especially good at a crisp 5 pounds. I often see Rock Island pistols with good-to-excellent trigger action, and this handgun is no exception.
- This pistol also exhibits good slide-to-frame fit.
- The safety indents in a positive way.
- The grip safety properly releases the trigger about halfway into compressing the grip safety.
The feed ramp seemed smooth enough. The Rock Island Compact has proven feed reliable with every cartridge fed into the magazine. There were no failures to feed, chamber, fire or eject. The handgun is compatible with handloads, which is always important. To be able to master the pistol within the budget, handloads are a must. You will spend the same on ammunition and shoot more, and that just makes sense. The Rock Island 1911 gives good performance with lead-bullet handloads.
It takes practice to learn to master the short grip of the compact .45. Quickly lining up the pistol demands practice. Just the same, a compact 1911 is faster into action than practically any 9mm compact or a short-barrel revolver. It simply takes acclimation to master the type. When you have a pistol that is the blue-steel equivalent of the Golden Ratio, or even approaching the Divine Angle, well, perhaps you should hesitate to change the geometry. Just the same, the compact 1911 comes off well. It simply takes a bit longer to fully master the handgun.
When firing the compact version of the Rock Island, I acclimated quickly. Standard 230-grain loads are controllable in this steel-frame pistol, and the recoil is not objectionable. In fact, recoil is surprisingly light. The slide has less mass than a Government Model .45 and does not have quite the jar at the end of its travel. At least that is one opinion.
Federal American Eagle 230-grain loads gave good results in factory ammunition. The pistol has been around for some weeks now and has fired about 500 rounds without any signs of trouble or excess wear. The only modification has been to change the original smooth grip panels for Hogue finger groove grips. The fit and feel are better, and the pebble-grain finish gives the shooter excellent adhesion.
For a carry load, I prefer a general-purpose load. As an example, you might carry a frangible load for use inside the home or a high-penetration load for defense against animals. A general-purpose load, featuring a good balance of expansion and penetration, is adequate for most scenarios. A loading that leans toward the home-defense scenario is the Federal Guard Dog. That load is aptly named. I have tested the Guard Dog for expansion, and it has never failed to plump it. Yet this 165-grain load is not a hollow point; it is a special loading, featuring a hollow segment inside the bullet that expands after the nose meets resistance.
The Guard Dog originally was designed for use where hollow points are illegal or politically unacceptable. Due to the nose profile, the Guard Dog is as feed reliable as ball ammunition. Feed ramps in aluminum-frame 1911 handguns often take a beating, so this load would be at the top of the list for such use. In the steel-frame Rock, it is still a good choice.
A load that is effective for a wider range of scenarios, with a balance of expansion favoring penetration more so than the Guard Dog, is the Speer Gold Dot in 230-grain. This load breaks about 780 fps from the Rock’s 3.5-inch barrel, and I prefer it overall to the 900 fps Guard Dog. (Each is faster from a full-length barrel due to a more complete powder burn.) There is also a short-barrel, Gold Dot load designed to expand more reliably at lower velocity. It is good if you can get it, but the standard load works just fine.
When firing these pistols, I have found the standard grips are OK for most use, but I prefer something with better adhesion. As an experiment, I fitted one of the compact RIA pistols with the Crimson Trace Lasergrip. That addition gives the user an excellent all-around laser sight with good optical cohesion and very visible red beam. I also fitted the pistol also with a Wilson Combat mag chute, an excellent set up for personal defense that suits one of my family members well.
I fitted the second pistol, which has a compact grip frame, with Hogue grips. The pebble-grain Hogue grips give every advantage. The pistol performs beyond expectation and overall is a good defense gun at a fair price. For carrying the RIA compact, I chose an inside-the-waistband design.
When bench-resting a service pistol, I often fire the requisite groups at 25 yards. However, this compact pistol has small, snag-free sights and a short sight radius. In deference to the pistol and the author, I conducted the bench-rest testing at a realistic 15 yards. At the typical combat range of 7 yards, the pistol puts an entire magazine into a single hole, although it is comforting to know it is capable of striking a man-sized target well past 25 yards. The fact is that we will not always have a man-sized target. Often enough, the adversary will be behind cover or partially obscured. The Rock Island Compact is accurate enough for most events, but it is essential that you practice and master the piece.
When all is said and done, the RIA compact .45 is a quality handgun with much to recommend.
Accuracy Results, 15-yard group
Average of two 5-shot groups
|Federal 165-grain Guard Dog||2.0 inches|
|Federal American Eagle 230-grain FMJ||2.25 inches|
|Speer Lawman 230-grain FMJ||2.5 inches|
|Speer 230-grain Gold Dot||1.75 inches|