We think the Olympic/Safari Arm’s handgun is a better IPSC choice than Springfield’s Trophy Match and Colt’s $1,550 Special Combat Government Model.
In the May issue of Performance Shooter, we looked at two pricey pistols from Springfield and Olympic/Safari Arms to see how they performed as IPSC Limited-class competition firearms. Restrictions on Limited Class firearms include that a gun must be a “factory-produced, caliber-specific pistol or revolver of at least 9mm caliber, available to the public for at least 12 months and that has had a minimum production run of 1,000 firearms during that period.” In addition, it may not be ported or have a recoil compensator, electronic or optical sights, external weights, or be of a caliber other than that for which it was originally designed. It may have various cosmetic and functional modifications to improve accuracy, reliability, shooting comfort, or visual appeal. It may also have replacement metallic sights, safeties, grips, hammers, barrels, slide stops, magazine wells, and triggers and may have modifications such as trigger jobs, checkering, enlarged ejection ports, extended ejectors, and functional internal modifications to improve reliability or accuracy.
We tested two guns last month that fit those restrictions: the Olympic/Safari Arms Matchmaster and Springfield Armory Trophy Match .45 ACPs. We preferred the Matchmaster over the Trophy Match because it required less aftermarket gunsmithing to make it competition ready. Next, we wanted to see how Colt’s Special Combat Government model, available from the Colt Custom Shop, fared in the same sort of hard-nosed evaluation.
Here’s what we found.
Out Of The Box
While the Special Combat Government does not come in a fitted box, when we lifted it out of its tasteful, foam-lined box, we noticed a great deal of attention to detail. The stainless-steel pistol had a high-luster, brushed finish on the flats of the frame and slide and a well-executed bead-blast finish on its rounded surfaces. The finish was offset nicely by a pair of dark hardwood grips with the Colt medallion inset on both sides.
It also had all the bells and whistles to complement the performance of a top IPSC competitor. The front strap of the frame was vertically grooved, and the flat mainspring housing, integral with the enlarged magazine funnel, was fully checkered. The full beavertail grip safety was well fit with clean lines that blended evenly with the frame contours. The thumb safety was ambidextrous, and its edges and serrations were smooth. It was a pleasure to grip the Special Combat firmly, and we noted the absence of sharp edges and corners and liked how easy it was to manipulate its controls.
The rear sight was a low mounted unit from Bo-Mar, and the front was a serrated semi-ramped blade set into a lateral .300 inch by 60-degree dovetail. This feature is a definite upgrade from the usual staked-on sights, which can work loose or shear its tenon under extended heavy use. Also, the front sight can be easily replaced by carefully tapping out the old and tapping a new one into place. Several variations of the sight, such as white dot, Patridge, and tritium night sights, are available from aftermarket sources to fit the dovetail.
This pistol came from the factory with an excellent trigger action which retained the Series 80 firing pin block. The firing-pin safety block is reputed to make a good trigger pull difficult, but our test gun came with a crisp, predictable trigger and a pull of 31/2 pounds. About 11/2 pounds took up the slack and another 2 pounds of pressure made the gun fire.
Other features included a commander hammer, long adjustable trigger, extended ejector, wide extractor, a flared and lowered ejection port, and wide magazine funnel. Two Shooting Star eight-round magazines were included with the pistol and had bumper pads already installed to ensure full seating into the deep magazine funnel. Overall, the fit, finish, and features were excellent.
Despite its good first impression, the gun did exhibit some potential problems when examined further. When we hand-fed the lead Hensley-Gibbs semi-wadcutter bullets from Black Hills Ammunition, the rounds tended to nose down into the feed ramp, giving a noticeable hitch in the feeding cycle. The reason: A rather short feed ramp in the frame. This could cause feeding problems, especially with semi-wadcutter and hollow-point ammunition. Hand-cycling was considerably smoother with round-nosed ammunition.
The slide-to-frame fit, while not excessively loose, showed no special effort to eliminate the normal play found in a factory pistol, we thought. In terms of barrel fit, there was .010 inch vertical movement of the hood when fully locked, and while the barrel fit firmly in the bushing, the bushing itself could be moved .008 inch in the slide. While this amount of free-play does not always correlate to inadequate accuracy, a knowledgeable 1911 pistolsmith wouldn’t bet on it either. If five-shot groups no larger than 2 inches at 25 yards are required, a firm barrel-to-slide fit is a necessity. We also noted that the barrel lugs did not bear against the slide stop pin, but maintained barrel lock-up on the link. This is not technically desirable in maintaining consistent lockup.
Was It Accurate Enough?
While we were aware that the potential feed problems might resolve under dynamic, live-fire conditions and with a little break in, we were eager to see how the Colt would perform in the same testing program used to evaluate the Springfield and Olympic/Safari Arms offerings.
On firing, the Colt felt smooth and comfortable in the hand. We noticed no rough serrations and no sharp edges or corners to cause discomfort or abrade the skin. We did find, however, that with semi-wadcutter ammunition, Special Government had an annoying tendency to pause in the feed cycle as the rounds’ travel from magazine to chamber was interrupted by hanging up on the short feed ramp, giving the feed cycle a noticeable hesitation. The round-nose ammunition, however, fed flawlessly without the jerky hesitation noted with the semi-wadcutters. This is typical performance for 1911-type pistols that have not had the frame “ramped and polished” and one reason that most factory-produced pistols are only guaranteed to function with military-type ball ammunition.
This limitation is notable in that many competitors prefer the Hensley & Gibbs 200-grain semi-wadcutter bullet for its general good accuracy and the clean scoring holes it cuts in the targets. Many Limited Class shooters also carry their pistols for personal protection, where the use of hollow-point bullets is the norm and a short feed ramp is notorious for failing to feed many of the high-performance hollow points.
In terms of accuracy, we would have to call the Special Combat Government mediocre. With the three loads tested, the best it could do was a group of 2.83 inches with the handload using the Montana Gold 230-grain bullet from BDX Manufacturing, far short of our 2 inch minimum requirement. A close second was the Black Hills Ammunition 200-grain semi-wadcutter competition load at 3.14 inches. The 220-grain handload turned in a disappointing five-shot group of 3.86 inches. To cross-check these totals, we shot a newly accurized World War II vintage 1911-A1 with the same ammunition. We were rewarded with groups of 1.46 inch, 1.24 inch, and 1.79 inch, respectively.
While the Special Combat Government was not particularly accurate, its good feel, smooth controls, and high performance features really showed their worth in our other tests. The pistol came quickly and comfortably to the hand, and the safety swept off smoothly with no disturbance in alignment as the sights tracked into the A zone of the IPSC target.
Draw-to-first-shot times reflected this, with an average time for eight sequences, as registered on our PACT timer, of 1.00 seconds from the audible signal to the draw and shot, which must be in the A zone at 7 yards to count. The fastest time was .93 seconds and the slowest 1.07 seconds. These times correlate with the average that our test shooter is capable of and indicated that the firearm operated smoothly.
In the Bill Drill test, the procedure is to attempt draw on the signal and fire six shots into the A zone at 7 yards in 2 seconds or less. To accomplish this, the shooter must be relaxed, the pistol’s controls must operate effortlessly, and the sight must return quickly to target. It requires a draw-to-first-shot sequence of one second or less and a controlled aimed shot every two-tenths of a second after that. In this test, the Colt allowed our shooter to perform at his normal level, with an average time for eight attempts of 2.01 seconds, with a low of 1.96 seconds and a high of 2.11 seconds.
The Special Combat Government acquitted itself very well in the reload tests as well. In this test the shooter starts with the pistol holstered and four loaded magazines on his belt. At the signal, the timer starts and the shooter draws and fires one round into the A zone, reloads, fires another shot, reloads and fires again until four cycles are completed. This exercise was done twice to give us eight cycles for an average reload time of 1.51 seconds. Again, this was the normal time expected by our shooter when using his own custom 1911.
Isn’t That Special?
It was obvious from our test results that in a race gun for IPSC Limited Class, small details do make a difference. The Colt Custom Shop’s Special Combat Government’s attention to detail had all the features and smooth handling qualities that make a difference when tenths of a second matter. It was the only test unit we tried with which our shooter could achieve peak performance in draw times, Bill drills, and reload drills as it came from the box.
But the Colt was not without problems. With its short feed ramp it gave an unpredictable, jerky feed cycle when firing semi-wadcutter ammunition. We know from experience this problem is just a hairs breadth away from causing unacceptable jams. While it never actually jammed during our tests, the Special Government’s hesitation did cause an interruption in our shooter’s concentration and rhythm. For this reason, we would recommend it in factory condition only if it was to be fed a diet consisting of round-nosed bullets similar to G.I. ball in configuration.
Our only other concern was accuracy. Of the three pistols tested, the $1,550 Colt was the most expensive and the least accurate. In fact, with what appears to be no fitting of the barrel to the slide and frame, its best group did not approach our minimum criteria of 2 inches at 25 yards for five shots.
While 3-inch groups are an acceptable standard in an untuned factory pistol, they are marginal for IPSC competitions when the range exceeds 25 yards or the scoring zones are partially obscured, leaving only a fraction of the A zone or the 6-inch-square B zone to aim at. It is these more difficult shots that really separate the master from the novice, and as any IPSC competitor can tell you, a single miss may cost you the match. Using a pistol shooting 3-inch groups, you simply cannot call your shots well enough to be sure of your hits on the more difficult shots.
It is unusual to find a fully equipped pistol like the Special Combat Government, with its otherwise excellent aesthetic and handling qualities, come up short in the accuracy department. Usually, when this much quality is incorporated into a pistol, the barrel fitting is of similar quality. This shortcoming should have been taken care of at the factory.
For the gun to be made right for competition, the owner would have to extend and polish the feed ramp and the barrel would have to be fitted by a competent 1911 pistolsmith to give the accuracy level necessary for a top-level competition pistol. The cost for these modifications would run around $275. The result would be a top-flight IPSC pistol for $1,825—about $675 less than a fully custom built unit.
In the course of our testing we tried three pistols that we felt had possibilities for use in the IPSC Limited (stock) division. We tested the Springfield Trophy Match, an Olympic/Safari Arms Matchmaster, and the Colt Custom Shop’s Special Combat Government. Though all had many features that are deemed necessary for top-level competition, each also had shortcomings that would need to be considered and corrected before they could be considered capable of performing at the highest levels.
The retail price of a standard, blued Colt Series 80 Government Model is currently $700. At the other end of the spectrum, a custom-built 1911 runs in the neighborhood of $2,500. These three semi-custom items fall in price somewhere between. While each tested pistol would require some additional modifications to become match ready, they still represented a significant savings over a full custom unit.
Still, each product had problems that needed fixing. To wit:
The Colt Custom Shop Special Combat Government pistol’s overall fit, finish, competition options, and handling qualities made it the Cadillac of the tested products. But it wasn’t accurate enough.
The Springfield, while accurate, needed some smoothing of the controls for comfort and function, the addition of a beavertail grip safety, a magazine funnel, and would require the chamber to be reamed to reach an adequate level of reliability before even considering shooting it in competition. Being of blued carbon steel, it would also need refinishing after modification.
In terms of cost versus performance, the least expensive Olympic/Safari Arms Matchmaster, at only $770, functioned reliably with adequate accuracy as it came from the factory once its magazine was replaced with an undamaged unit. With the exception of the reload drills, it allowed performance very close to what our shooter normally expects with a fully tuned pistol and just slightly behind the Special Combat Government. Still, it would require some smoothing of the thumb safety’s edges and surfaces and a recontouring or even removal of the finger groove feature to make it comfortable enough to shoot for extended practice sessions. Due to its utilitarian finish, any polished or machined areas could be inexpensively refinished by bead blasting the stainless steel to match the original finish. The addition of a magazine funnel to improve its reload times is a simple no-gunsmithing operation and the accuracy, although adequate with some loads, could be improved by the addition of a match-fit barrel bushing. At $770 retail, it is only $70 more than Colt’s plain Government Model. Even with an extra $200 in refinements, it would still come in under $1,000 for a match-ready pistol.
In our view, for IPSC Limited Class competition the Olympic/Safari Arms Matchmaster offers the best combination of performance and price of these three pistols.