In 1929, an audacious new chambering was introduced in the 1911 pistol. This was the first time the big semiauto was available in any caliber other than .45 ACP, and it was one of the first steps into the coming era of high-velocity, high-pressure cartridges. The round was the .38 Super. It was the 357 Magnum of its time and, even today, is one of the dominant calibers in IPSC competition, where the 1911 continues to reign and a certain power factor beyond the practical limits of the 9mm Parabellum must be reached in order to effectively play the game. Most enduringly, because of bizarre laws against civilian ownership of military-caliber weapons like the .45 ACP south of the border, the .38 Super has long been the classical Latin version of the 1911, and has saved many individual lives throughout Mexico, Central and South America over the years. Springfield Armory has captured the quintessential character of this emblematic sidearm in an elegant new production of its .38 Super 1911A1.
The big 45-caliber Government Model having proved itself in two world wars, smaller and lighter versions of the 1911 defined a major developmental direction beginning 50-odd years ago. Colt shortened the barrel and the slide, called it a Commander, and the race was on, accelerating to full-tilt during the last decade which has seen shall-issue concealed-carry laws become almost universal throughout the United States. Kimber has now introduced what is arguably the ultimate of that smaller, lighter 1911 genre, the Ultra RCP II.
Both of these pistols represent the best of their divergent breeds, grand examples of the virtually unlimited versatility inherent in John Browning’s enduring design.
At the time of its introduction, the .38 Super was promoted as the most powerful auto pistol cartridge in the world. It was, indeed, capable of churning out a few more foot-pounds of kinetic energy than the .45 ACP. Though, even in those days (or, rather, especially in those days) it was widely recognized that kinetic energy is not the crucial factor in stopping power. The .38 Super is a semi-rimmed cartridge originally designed to headspace on its very small rim. Since the late 80s, however, manufacturers have chambered their pistols to headspace the .38 Super on its case mouth instead, like most other auto pistol cartridges, and a vast improvement over its previously so-so accuracy has been the result. Pushing a little 125-grain 9mm bullet in the neighborhood of 1200-1250 feet per second in factory loads, the .38 Super is flat-shooting as well as accurate. And, with a case length .14-inch longer than the 9mm Parabellum, combat shooting competitors have discovered that they can hand-load the .38 Super as hot as they wish without exceeding IPSC-legal chamber pressure and make “major” caliber in a gun that not only has considerably less recoil than a .45 but also operates a compensator more effectively because of its higher pressure.
The most important legacy of the .38 Super is not on the competition course but on the streets of Latin American cities, in the hands of civilians whose defensive use of the .45 ACP is still prohibited by their governments. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the .38 Super cartridge, folded into the ultra-efficient 1911 design, has sufficed in this self-protection role quite nicely. The big pistol was and is carried by many with unabashed pride, a caduceus of freedom and independence as well as a weapon, its visual presence underscored rather than subdued. The Springfield Armory rendition is a classic one, with highly polished chrome plating and dazzling mother-of-pearl grips on the traditional and unmodified 1911A1 frame. The result is a pistol of simple if not exactly quiet dignity, at once conservative and bold in its beauty. Most importantly, all the controls on the Springfield work quite nicely and, like most Springfields of my acquaintance, the gun shoots.
Recoil of the .38 Super in a 2½-pound Government Model 1911 is so insignificant I found myself double-checking the first few rounds to make sure the little 125-grain bullets weren’t just rolling out the end of the barrel, even though the chrono told me they were exiting quite rapidly at 1250 feet per second. The synthetic pearl grips functioned as well as the authentic kind in their practical application of preventing the grip from slipping in even a sweaty palm, which is the reason pearl grips were used so often on early target pistols. It was also comforting to see a hammer that looks like a hammer. Despite the protestations of ham-handed gunwriters, the spur hammer even with the original grip safety does not bite the web of most hands. It never did. Beavertail grip safeties for Commander-style hammers were not invented to solve this rare problem, but to provide a higher grip.
I admit I’ve always had a weakness for flashy guns, and the big Springfield is as flashy as they come. You’ll want to fit it in a fast-draw belt holster of good leather to show off its eye-catching good looks, because it would be a waste to conceal all that fire and ice even under an Armani suit.
The Kimber Ultra RCP II, on the other hand, looks like it was made with an Armani suit in mind, or one just as expensive and as rigorously tailored. This is a gun to be seldom seen in the light of day and only heard from in the case of a dire emergency occurring no more than about seven yards from its gaping 45-caliber muzzle. I’ve never carried a .45 that was so concealable, handled one that was so fast and handy, or fired one that was so shootable and controllable for its small size.
The RCP (Refined Carry Pistol) is a product of Kimber’s Custom Shop and it’s easy to see where all that money goes. All the crucial controls are properly shaped and precisely tuned, including a quick and positive thumb safety, a bobbed beavertail that doesn’t remind you of a 50s-era Buick, and the proverbial glass-rod-breaking trigger. The fluted black micarta grip panels, ultra slim and smoothly integrated with the fluted front strap, are a true advance in grip technology if there is such a thing. Kimber must have some ergonomic genius on staff, because this 26-ounce aluminum-frame belly-gun-size pistol with a three-inch barrel does not assume that if you’re shooting a miniature gun you’re a miniature person with miniature body parts, it does not disregard the important job your little finger is meant to perform, does not make you feel that it would just as soon jump out of your hands and surrender to the enemy if given half a chance, and does not bite, scratch, strike or sting with any part of its rounded-in-all-the-right-places body.
The RCP actually feels friendlier in my hand (normal size, of course) than a full-size .45, fits so well that felt recoil is no more than the big 5-inch all-steel guns. It’s the only big-bore pistol of this size I could easily shoot all day long in complete comfort. In fact, I did just that -– feeding it a mixed assortment of all the 45 ammo I had on hand, making myself dizzy with extremely rapid fire and fast reloads – all in a vain attempt to get the gun to malfunction. Unlike its operator, the gun didn’t choke, stumble, whine or grumble. Not once. All in all, the new little Kimber might be absolutely perfect. Except for one thing.
It doesn’t have any sights.
That aforementioned ergonomic genius must have had one too many the night before he machined a channel down the top of the Kimber’s sleek steel slide in the manner of a 25-caliber pocket pistol and called it a “sighting trench.” The fact is, you can’t hit anything with it beyond the statistically sanctioned seven yards. I dare you to try. Granted that most encounters calling for the participation of a powerful little gun do take place at some average distance in this close neighborhood, the haunting fact remains that the one you walk into one day may not. The superb handling and shooting characteristics of the RCP that encourage you to reach out and shoot happy faces on various objects at 50 yards are wasted if you don’t have anything to line up with the target. Forget your training in the Modern Technique -– you can’t focus on the front sight if there is no front sight to focus on. Thus, one of the potentially finest 1911s ever to come down the pike is reduced to the primitive state of a pointing weapon, suitable only for extremely close-range work.
The thing is, there is no earthly reason for it. You might reason that front and rear sights could snag in your pocket if you carried the gun there, but this is no pocket pistol. It’s a 1911 with a hammer, though a minimal one, which is supposed to remain cocked at all times which means that it has pocket-snagging ability in its DNA and therefore requires a holster anyway. (A slim little lightweight Kydex would be ideal.) All decent holsters these days have built-in sight channels because all decent holster-makers recognize that guns have sights. Come on Kimber, don’t be so cute -– just put some sights on the damn gun so we can shoot it.
If there’s something about the sightless Kimber that catches your eye -– and you’d have to be blind yourself or suffering from a terminal deficiency of passion if it didn’t -– you might wonder how the gun compares with other little lifesavers, like the mini-Glocks, particularly the 40-caliber G27, or even the old reliable .38 Special J-frame Smith. Well, I’ll tell you.
The critical dimensions of the RCP and the G27 are within tiny millimeters of each other. In perhaps the two most important, weight and width, the Glock is three ounces lighter and the Kimber is a little thinner. The staggered-magazine Glock gives you 9+1 rounds of .40, the single-stack Kimber 7+1 rounds of .45. The Kimber’s grip accommodates your little finger without the necessity for a magazine grip extension, and the Glock has sights.
The J-frame is, of course, a smaller, lighter gun whose rounded shapes conceal easily and whose cylinder holds five rounds of .38 Special. The little J-frame also has a “sighting trench,” but it’s been cut to provide a square notch at the rear and ramped up to a post in the front, a system that has proved itself virtually snag-free in a lot more pockets than all the Kimbers and Glocks combined and which is quite capable of making happy faces at 50 yards, which some consider the best possible use of its five rounds of .38 Special.
Both Springfield Armory and Kimber are making so many different 1911s today, and introducing new lines and new models and new variations so fast, that it’s exceedingly difficult if not virtually impossible to sort them all out. I just hope that buried somewhere within that astounding mountain of high-quality hardware is a Springfield 1911A1 with my name on it and a Kimber Ultra RCP II with sights.