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Power Factor of 45: S&W Pro Series Review

by Patrick Sweeney   |  March 17th, 2009 2


Back in “the day,” a gunsmith had to do a lot to get noticed. Contrary to what you might have heard, not every gunsmith could make a pistol reliable or accurate, and not all pistols were worth the effort. There were (and still are) some hacks who could be counted on to tart up your gun with chrome and bling but not make it more accurate or reliable. And others who could make it accurate, but only at the cost of reliability—and vice-versa.

But to really get noticed, a gunsmith had to do more. After proving he could manage both reliability and accuracy, an aspiring gunsmith who wanted to get noticed on the national stage had to make a compact pistol out of a full-sized one. So hundreds— perhaps even thousands—of pistols were “chopped and channeled.” (We’re talking mostly 1911s, but a lot of others went under the mill, too.)

Shortening the frame was the easy part, relatively speaking. It was the slide and barrel that caused a problem. A lot of problems. Make the slide much shorter than than on a Commander, and you had problems with the bushing crashing into the locking lugs. And just how do you make a recoil spring short enough to fit the compact pistol and yet do its job?

There was enough of a demand for compact carry guns that the manufacturers took notice. First into the market was S&W, and when they began to offer short pistols the whole compact custom pistol market collapsed-—at least at the gunsmith level. We all just shifted to working on the compact guns that were factory-made, making them better-suited to our clients’ tastes. After all, once a factory makes it short, the problems are solved, right? Not really. There have been a number of attempts to make compact, reliable, and accurate pistols, especially the 1911. Not all of them have been successful.

S&W, however, is not new to this, and they took the time to make sure they had the details ironed out. Let’s take a look at the pistol as a whole before we dive into the compact specifics. Up top we have a set of Novak sights, front and rear. Expected, since Novak designed them for S&W more than 20 years ago. On the side of the slide we have only rear cocking serrations. There isn’t room up front for them, and they aren’t really needed. The huge external extractor is stoutly sprung, and the barrel hood has an oval opening to be used as a loaded-chamber indicator.

It has a high-ride Wilson-style grip safety, commander hammer, lightweight trigger, and right-handed-only thumb safety that looks very much like a Chip McCormick. The mainspring housing is flat, the magazine well is gently beveled, and the grips are a pebble-texture rubbery plastic. If this were a government-size pistol we’d best describe it as our British cousins might (at least those who still remember anything about handguns) we’d call it “bog-standard.”

But it is compact, with only a three-inch barrel and a slide to match. The frame is not only the very tough S&W Scandium alloy, but it is shorter than a standard frame by about half an inch; this loses you one round in capacity. The frame is still big enough to get all your fingers on, unlike some ultra-compact models. Those size details make it an excellent lightweight compact carry gun for the 1911 aficionado. The three-inch barrel makes for a number of mechanical changes. First, there is no barrel bushing.

Second, the barrel only has two locking lugs, not three. The barrel can’t have either and still be that short. Were there a bushing, it would crash into the second locking lug long before it had cycled far enough to pick up the next round—probably before it could even eject the empty. Since there is no bushing, the recoil spring has to be kept in place some other way. The recoil spring retainer is what is called a “reverse plug,” in that during reassembly you shove it into place from the breechface end of things, not the muzzle end of the slide. As is commonly found in compacts, it has a recoil spring guide rod.

On a full-sized pistol I view such things as fripperies, but on a compact gun they are needed to prevent spring kink and bind. The spring, as such things are, is noticeably stiffer than on a full-sized pistol. On a government model the standard tension/weight is a 16.5 or 18-pound spring, although some competitive shooters run much softer springs in their guns. On a compact like this, Wolff (the replacement spring makers many shooters turn to) recommends a 22-pound recoil spring.

In stripping the S&W to see what it was like on the inside, I received a surprise not the standard spring package. In designing their compacts to be reliable and durable, most engineers use a nestled spring setup a smaller-diameter spring, coiled in the opposite direction, inside of the larger spring. The S&W does not use that-—instead, the spring is a flat coil. Instead of being wound with wire, they have wound a flat piece of spring steel sideways, to produce a spiral of steel that looks like the ramp inside a tower.

As a firm believer in Murphy’s Law, I expect compact pistols to wear out springs faster than full-sized ones do The smaller, the faster. When the spring wears, reliability can suffer. Just in case, were I shooting the Pro Series compact a lot, I’d make sure I had some extra springs on hand from S&W. In the smallest pistols, I’ve found that springs can give up the ghost in as little as 1,500 rounds. Springs are cheap, so if you’ve shot that much ammo (which would be as little as $200 in ammo costs if you load your own) then $10 on a new recoil spring is cheap insurance.

The short slide and the alloy frame make the new S&W a light pistol. At only 27 ounces, it is light in the hand and on the belt. One concern many have is that something so light will be harsh in recoil. Maybe it is a matter of taste or experience, but I did not find the Pro Series Compact to be all that bad. Yes, you’ll know when you touch off a +P round, but it won’t be a limb-jerking, life-altering experience. I also found it to be utterly reliable. It didn’t care what I fed it hollowpoints, full metal jacket, lead-bullet reloads; it worked with them all.

The magazine that came with it is from ACT-MAG, an Italian company that knows its business when it comes to producing bullet-feeding devices. It held seven rounds, but the Pro Series compact works just as well with full-size magazines. If you plan to carry this one, you’d have eight in the gun in your holster, and you could easily have another 16 rounds in eight-shot full-sized magazines. And 24 rounds of .45 ACP+P can go a long way toward getting you out of a pickle.

In the short time I had this Pro Series, the temperature dropped and we received a foot of snow. So I wrote off the brass I shot, and figured I’d find it in the spring thaw. But I managed to take advantage of the opportunity to give the gun a taste of snow exposure Despite being dropped in snow and fished out, it worked just fine. Leaving it in a snowbank while I ate lunch and warned myself up produced a 1911-sicle, but one that fired and functioned every time despite the mild abuse.

The trigger on the Pro Series compact is just fine for daily carry light and crisp enough for good shooting, but not so light that you might find yourself in trouble from a delicate trigger. Once I had dry-fired it a few times I didn’t pay any attention to it, and I had no need to notice it in the test-firing. One thing you’ll notice when shooting a compact pistol like this (or any short sight radius handgun) is that the sights don’t seem to move. If you aren’t careful, the apparent lack of motion will lull you into bad habits. I’m convinced that is exactly how some shooters convince themselves short-barreled handguns can’t shoot accurately. These guns do, however, often have a greater sensitivity to ammo.

The S&W Pro Series compact I have shows what it likes and what it doesn’t. One of the loads it likes is Hornady’s 200-grain TAP+P.  What it doesn’t like is my IMI 230-grain hardball, which is a shame, as I have several hundred pounds of it holding down my storeroom floor (pounds, not rounds). Oh, well. As with any carry gun, you must first find out what your particular pistol likes and shoots well, and then test it with at least 200 rounds’ worth before holstering and depending on it. For this particular S&W, the answer is either Hornady 200-grain TAP,  or Fiocchi 230-grain XTP. And if I can’t find any of those, Gold Dot would be a thoroughly acceptable substitute.

Yes, when you use such a short barrel as your launching platform you have to give up some velocity. However, the .45 ACP does its good work mostly through bullet weight and frontal diameter, not velocity. If you really think that a “mere” 700 fps from a 230-grain bullet is inconsequential, you definitely need a reality check. And you can get more than that—you just have to be willing to pay the price in recoil.

Since it is a 1911, there is nothing new to learn about form or function. And as it comes from S&W there is nothing to worry about as far as quality, durability, and accessories are concerned. You know finding a holster will be a cinch, and you’d practically have to win the lottery just to buy one each of every magazine anyone has ever made that will fit it. As for the Pro Series compact itself no lotto win is required. All you have to do is practice.

Small yet shootable, S&W's Pro Series Compact 1911 is a carry gun for the 21st Century.

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