It was hot and humid at the range. Even though Gustav is still near Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, the humidity can already be felt in North Louisiana. That's going to be a bad one, and it looks like it's planning to check Bobby Jindal's resolve. At the hospital, we are already planning to take in evacuees from down South.
I shot OK, but the heat was getting to me. As I was waiting out a target swap, talking to another shooter, I realized that I had the means of demonstrating the different 1911 sizes right before me. I waited around until everyone had left except myself and another shooter I knew. Then I broke out the camera. The 1911 comes in three basic popular versions, the Government, the Commander, and the Officers. If you have ever wondered just what those names mean, but were afraid to ask, here we go.
The Government ModelThe Government Model is the original size of the 1911, as mandated by US Army stipulations for the M1911 and in 1924, upgraded to the M1911A1. When the pistol was placed into commercial production, it was simply called the Government Model. It has a five inch barrel, and a full sized grip that carries a single stack seven round magazine, or an eight round magazine of modern design. The Government Model is the timeless 1911, the one most people think of when old slabsides is mentioned.
The "Gubmint" is a balanced handgun with an optimal ratio of grip length to slide length. It shoots easily, transmitting a push like recoil to the shooter's hands. The full sized 1911 was meant to be a pistol carried on the hip. It can be concealed rather easily due to it's slim profile. Many find that the longer slide helps keep the butt of the gun tucked into the kidney region, making it disappear underneath a jacket.
Virtually every manufacturer of 1911s makes a Government Model. It is the standard by which other 1911s are judged. It comes in target sighted versions, fixed sighted versions, and almost any permutation a buyer could imagine. Springfield calls their version the "Full Size." Kimber does not have a specific designation, nor do other manufacturers, except Colt, who still uses the term Government Model. The Government Model just is.
The CommanderThe Commander was introduced in 1952 by Colt. It has a four and a quarter inch barrel, and a full size grip. The original Colt commanders had an aluminum grip frame. They were chambered in .45 ACP, 9mm, and .38 Super. In 1970, Colt introduced the Combat Commander, which was basically the same pistol, but with a forged steel frame.
Because the Commander has a full sized grip frame, it shares grips, magazines, mainspring housings and grip safeties with the Government Model. All parts with the exception of the barrels, slides bushings and recoil springs, plugs and guides swap out between the two. Although on a quick inspection, it appears a Commander slide can be placed on a Government Model frame to convert the gun, the dust cover of the Commander frame is shorter to correspond with the shorter slide. The slide will fit, but the dustcover will be too long. If the reverse swap is done, the recoil spring will be exposed.
The Commander was originally designed to be a lighter pistol of military issue for officers, but the military never proceeded with the idea. Instead, Colt pushed the Commander into commercial production, and one of the finest carry guns ever designed was born. The Commander carries extremely well, with all the favorable aspects of the Government Model, with less weight and more importantly, a shorter slide/barrel combination that makes sitting with the pistol on your hip effortless. Many shooters find the Commander to be quicker out of the holster and on the target.
The Commander has a bit more snap to the recoil than the Government Model, but the recoil is not excessive. Springfield calls their version the Champion, Kimber calls their's the Pro. Kimber's version is an even four inches.
The Officer's ModelThe most diminutive of the 1911 pistols is frequently called the Officer's ACP or "Officer's Model." The original Officer's ACP was introduced in 1967 with a three and a half inch barrel, and an attenuated grip frame housing a six round magazine. Subsequent versions would have the barrel length trimmed even more, to three inches total.
Because the grip frame is of a different length, the Officer's Model uses it's own magazine and grips. It has it's own mainspring housing. The grip safety thumb safety and fire control parts are the same as that of other 1911s, however. Many of the three inch 1911s have proprietary parts that do not swap over to other pistols, even those 1911s of similar size. To achieve a functional pistol of this size, each manufacturer had to incorporate their own tricks, and the parts interchangeability reflects that. Also, as the barrel length falls below the Commander's length, the timing of the recoil cycle is altered and the reliability becomes more hit and miss. Some versions will be reliable, others will not.
Springfield calls their little 1911 a Micro or an Ultra, while Kimber designates it the Ultra. Colt's version is the Officer's ACP, the Compact or the Series 90. Each manufacturer has had varying degrees of success with the mini 1911s, but it seems as though Colt has discovered the right formula in the Series 90. The smallest 1911s are concealed carry guns meant for dep concealment. They have a recoil impulse that can be too stiff for some shooters. Many have lightweight frames to enhance carry, and this, too, increases perceived recoil. They are not pistols to acquaint a new shooter with the 1911 or the .45 ACP.
SummationThere are other combinations and lengths of the 1911, although they are not as pervasive. Of note is the six inch "Long Slide," and the Colt CCO, a combination of a Colt Commander slide on an Officer's frame. The three size combinations here are the most common though. Each decrease in barrel length shares common characteristics, benefits and detriments.
If a person new to the 1911 were asking which pistol to buy, my first advice would be a Government Model. If they were planning on carrying the pistol concealed, I would suggest a Commander, with the caveat that they should learn the 1911 platform well first. Only when they are familiar with the pistol, and only if they need a gun that can be deeply concealed would I suggest the smaller pistols.