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Why They Changed the 1911: Smith & Wesson 1911 E-Series Review

by G&A Staff   |  March 24th, 2011 7

Smith & Wesson's E-Series Lineup

 

When Smith & Wesson’s Herb Belin showed me pictures of the new E-Series SW1911 pistols with a big, bold letter E centered on their figured wooden grip panels, my initial question was, “What’s the ‘E’ stand for?”

“Pick what you like,” he said. “Just think top-of-the-line. Like a Mercedes E-Class.” Well, whatever it stands for, S&W’s reconfiguration of its entire 1911 line in the centennial year of John Browning’s masterpiece certainly represents the most evolved stage of a world classic. It would be a gross overstatement to call the E-Series a reinvention of the 1911 itself, and S&W would never consider doing so, but in terms of the SW1911 product line as it existed before, it is just that.

As of this year, Smith & Wesson has discontinued all previous versions of its existing SW1911s, except for three SKUs that will remain cataloged to meet California’s legal requirements. The rest of the original-generation SW1911s will now be replaced by the E-Series, which will initially be available in four basic models.

The entry-level Model SW1911 full-size five inch will be offered in stainless steel only at an MSRP of $924. The full-size stainless Model SW1911CT will include a Crimson Trace LaserGrip and is priced at $1,085. The full-size Model SW1911TA (Tactical Accessory) will include an integrated 1913-spec Picatinny rail, with your choice of all-stainless or black Melonite finish, both costing $1,324. The Commander-size Model SW1911SC (Scandium Carry) features a 41/4-inch barrel; lightweight, round-butt, black Scandium-alloy frame; and choice of black Melonite stainless slide or two-tone with black frame and natural matte stainless slide. Both finishes go for $1,372.

These introductory E-Series versions are all chambered in .45 ACP. Other calibers, barrel lengths and frame sizes will be forthcoming. All E-Series SW1911s will also now be entirely manufactured in Smith & Wesson’s Houlton, Maine, facility, which has been completely revamped and reequipped with state-of-the-art computerized production machinery. The E-Series SW1911s are all still true Government Model pistols. However, externally they look significantly different from the previous SW1911 line, and internally they all incorporate new engineering and design features that collectively set them apart from all other factory-production Government Model pistols currently available.

A Matter of Distinction
Today, nearly everybody in the industry is making “factory custom” 1911s, and they all look pretty much the same. Even a built-to-order 1911 from a famous pistolsmith that costs you upward of $3,500 looks just like all the rest–the only thing that sets it apart is probably the name engraved on the frame. So one of S&W’s primary considerations when it began to create the E-Series package–in addition to its mechanical elements–was to have the new pistols be distinctive in appearance without being gaudy. When a customer scans the plethora of 1911s lined up in a gunshop display case, S&W wants its versions to stand out from the rest without seeming out of place or overdone. To my admittedly nonartistic eye, they’ve succeeded.

All E-Series versions will carry deep fish-scale scallops on the front and rear gripping surfaces of the slide to aid in manual cycling. On the stainless-finish models, the operating features–beavertail safety, manual safety, magazine release button and slide release lever–are a contrasting matte black, as are the steel three-dot front and rear sights. The slightly flattened frontstrap of the grip frame and the mainspring housing are aggressively checkered for a secure grasp. The slide top surface on all versions is grooved full-length with S&W’s classic revolver barrel-rib pattern.

Altamont laminated wooden grip panels are figured with a fish-scale pattern that matches the slide-grip surfaces, and they have the signature diamond-centered big, bold “E.” Specially made synthetic Crimson Trace Burlwood Pro-Custom LaserGrips match that pattern on the SW1911CT version.

Other details vary on different models without detracting from the overall family appearance. The sides of the stainless steel slides are bright polished on the basic SW1911 and the LaserGrip-equipped SW1911CT, but they are satin-finish on the tactical SW1911TA and round-butt Commander-format SW1911SC. The rear surface of the slide is serrated on the SW1911TA and SW1911SC; it’s smooth satin on the SW1911 and SW1911CT.

The sights on the SW1911 and SW1911CT have white dots; the SW1911TA and SW1911SC have tritium night sights. Full-size E-Series pistols come with two eight-round magazines with buttpads. The more compact SW1911SC comes with one seven-round flush-fit magazine and one eight-round magazine with buttpad. Ambidextrous safeties are standard on the SW1911TA and SW1911SC, but not on the SW1911 or SW1911CT. You can contact S&W customer service for aftermarket ambidextrous safety installation on the SW1911 ($110, plus $14 shipping), but it’s not available at all for the SW1911CT due to the configuration of the LaserGrip. (However, you can buy a specially configured stainless or black-finish Wilson ambidextrous safety for LaserGrip-equipped Model 1911 pistols direct from Crimson Trace and have a professional gunsmith install it.)

The overall effect is a very distinctive look for the E-Series line, while retaining their clear identity as classic-form Government Model 1911s.

Tweaking a Trigger
Foremost among the mechanical innovations and refinements in the E-Series is a new patent-pending S&W Model 1911 trigger, invented by a creative young S&W engineer named Seth Joubert. Model 1911 triggers have always presented a problem in terms of their fitting to the frame, and even the best have been subject to criticism for perceived excessive vertical and front-to-back freeplay in the frame slot, as well as slack in their contact with the disconnector. Top-level pistolsmiths can do tune-ups using custom aftermarket M1911 triggers, but it’s a time-consuming and expensive task.

Joubert’s elegant solution is twofold. To eliminate vertical play, the trigger shoe body has a small, raised fitting pad on its top rear, which allows the assembler to adjust the height of the shoe to match the mating trigger slot without removing a lot of material. Invisible when assembled in the gun, it also reduces fitting time because there is only one point to adjust, and it leaves the top finished surface of the trigger shoe untouched. A special assembly fixture allows the pad to be shaped consistently, parallel to the top of the trigger shoe.

To prevent the trigger bow from losing contact with the disconnector as it moves forward in recovery (and creating that perceived front-to-back freeplay), the forward stop surface of the trigger bow slot in the frame has been moved rearward. This keeps trigger bow movement within the rotation limits of the disconnector before it contacts the sear, yet ensures that the sear is not still engaged by the disconnector when the trigger bow is fully forward. During assembly, a trigger bow location gauge verifies that the forward location of the trigger bow is not too close to the sear engagement point.

Overall, the Joubert system allows the trigger to be precisely hand-fitted instead of simply installed during the assembly process without adding undue time to the process. Simply put, it’s the most precisely fitted trigger available on any factory-production 1911 gun, better than a lot of pricey custom triggers. It also has an adjustable setscrew for overtravel.

More Internal Evolution
A second significant element in the overall E-Series redesign is a lightweight, low-mass titanium firing pin with heavy-duty springs, which are not prone to inadvertent muzzle-drop inertial discharge and will pass existing safety drop tests. Previous SW1911s utilized a simplified refinement of the 1937 Swartz-type firing-pin block that was patented by Performance Center gunsmith Dick Mochak in 2002. That system has now been eliminated from the SW1911 line (except for the three remaining California original SW1911 SKUs).

Some may ask, “If the grip-safety-activated Mochak firing-pin block on previous SW1911s doesn’t compromise trigger-pull quality like the trigger-activated Series 80 firing-pin blocks do on Colt-type M1911s, why do away with it at all?”

Overall, safeties are definitely good things. You can’t have too many of them. Unless they’re unnecessary. Or redundant. Or until they wear out or break (as everything mechanical does eventually). Or unless they add cost to the gun because of the extra parts and fitting they require. So, unless a particular safety device actually does reduce the likelihood of an inadvertent discharge, there’s no reason for it.

The final major reengineering element of the E-Series line is an extra-heavy-duty external extractor and a redesigned ejection port to guarantee reliable and consistent case ejection with all varieties of ammo. Experienced 1911 shooters are quite familiar with random brass scars around the ejection port caused by fired cases whacking different portions of the slide on their way out, deflecting them in all directions. Plus, all 1911s have long been subject to jammed empty cases due to inconsistencies in ammunition pressure, varied slide velocities or a failed grasp on the case by the hook of the extractor.

Less-Beaten Brass
To address this, S&W engineers recorded ultra-slow-motion close-ups of 1911s with varied ejection-port configurations firing every conceivable type of available .45 ACP ammo to assess exactly where brass might contact the slide during ejection. The result is a uniquely sculpted Combat Ejection Port, featuring a deep dish in the slide above the extractor at the upper rear of the port and a substantially lowered contour for the front and forward bottom of the port–very different from other 1911s. Plus, a new extractor has more than twice the mass and width of previous SW1911 extractors, gripping the case much more securely. The result is more reliable ejection.

There are other refinements as well. For one, the muzzles are chamfered and recessed with a target-type crown to protect the forward rifling edges. Features continuing from the previous SW1911s include a full-length steel recoil-spring guide rod, open-end guide rod cap and a visual loaded-chamber window at the rear top of the barrel hood. The humpbacked beavertail safety cups the hammer to keep it from biting your hand. The manual thumb safeties have extended combat-type levers. The two eight-round magazines that come with the full-size versions have extended bumper pads. The seven-round magazine for the lightweight Commander-length round-butt SW1911SC is flush-fit for concealed carry, and there’s also an eight-round bumper-pad magazine in the box.

Opening Shots
Guns & Ammo received preproduction review samples of the four initial E-Series pistols, including a natural-stainless SW1911TA and a two-tone SW1911SC, as well as the standard stainless SW1911 and SW1911CT. Only the SW1911CT Crimson Trace sample was in a preliminary configuration, as it had satin-finish (not polished) slide sides and was equipped with rubber Olive Drab LaserGrips instead of the figured Burlwood versions that will be shipped as standard.

I put the five-inch tactical SW1911TA and the 41/4-inch Commander-size SW1911SC through a 25-yard accuracy and ballistics evaluation using six varieties of commercial .45 ACP ammunition in each. The only difference in the loads used in the two guns was that I employed lower-velocity short-barrel Remington and Speer loads for the 41/4-inch SW1911SC (see accompanying charts). First, there were zero malfunctions. Second, they both shot very well for out-of-the-box, factory-made 1911s.

It’s been said that a new and unaltered match-grade Colt Gold Cup should shoot 21/2 inches at 25 yards with competition ammo. By that standard, the heavy-frame, integral-railed SW1911TA is Gold Cup quality with combat ammunition. The Commander-length SW1911SC was nearly as good. And that’s from a shooter whose eyes aren’t able to crisply resolve the front sight any longer.

The new Smith & Wesson E-Series pistols are comprehensively well-thought-out packages, and as factory-production Government Model 1911s, they’re well worthy of their ancestry. Elite. Elegant. Exceptional. And most definitely “E-volved.”

Author Dick Metcalf Shooting the Smith & Wesson E-Series.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dan.ess.56 Dan Ess

    Have the 2-Tone SC version, compared to my all steel Rock Island it's a bit snappy being Scandium, but is extremely comfortable to hold and accurate. I really like the way the Fish Scale grips feel and the rounded heel fits in the hand much better than a standard heel. Shop around, the prices are reasonable vs Kimber, Sig and Colt comparable items. With 500 rounds of FMJ I had zero malfunctions. Next time out I will test a variety of Non FMJ ammo. This is definitely a keeper.

    • bruce

      which e series s&w did you buy?
      how much?

    • Thomas S

      I've already decided the E series SC will be my next purchase. Picked it out and have it on hold at my local gun shop. Love everything about how it looks, feels, and shoots.

  • RSagun

    I have a S&W 1911 Sc 4 1/4, etched on left side of the slide is an atomic sign (tiny S&W logo inside) and 1911 Sc, serial letters JRE, made in MA. Can you tell me if Guns&Ammo made a review when they were offered to the public and how many were made by S&W? Thanks.

  • Andrew

    Excellent review. I purchased an early, basic E-Series. It has been a great pistol, but has needed a lot of my attention. The MIM pieces have been failing over time; I have owned the pistol for 2 years and 5000 rounds. I have replaced a broken safety, slide stop, grip bushings, all-coiled springs and polished the feed ramp. I added a few pieces and new grips. For the last 1000 rounds it has functioned without a hitch. I was told by a S&W tech that early springs and controls were shaky as they were using new equipment to manufacture the pistols. I love my SW1911 and have put a lot of time into it. I don’t think that I would buy one again, but I would never part with it either. I have heard that all above statements are corrected. Thanks for reading my self-indulgent story!

  • Efishant

    yep , I bought an early E series to shoot USPSA competition. I basically ended up removing every component of the gun and replacing them with custom parts. Bottom line ; many production 1911′s have crappy parts in them. The trigger group in The E series was pretty shabby. The external extractor was way to stiff. On a positive note; the slide to frame fit was great for a production gun!
    So, you have to be realistic about what you’re getting with any production gun. They are over sprung to be reliable and the manufacturer knows that most people are never gonna really push the gun to it’s limits. If ya don’t shoot fast and ya only go to the range once a week this gun will perform just great. It’s a great looking 1911 too. The slide cuts are very cool!

  • Cymond

    Here we are 3 years later, and 4 models have become 6. Of the 2 “new” models, one is simply a different finish, and one has Crimson Trace lasergrips. Where are those other frame sizes and calibers they talked about?

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