|Home - Volume 3 (2008) - Issue 1 (Winter '08) - Pistol Review: Rock River Arms Tactical|
Rock River Arms Tactical
A 1911 with an integral light rail ... at a premium price
A Gun Test by Harwood Loomis (Hawkmoon, )
Most of the best-known upper tier makers of 1911 pistols who also offer other types of firearms are best known for their 1911s, and may not be the first name that comes to mind in thinking about AR-15 pattern rifles or tactical shotguns. There are a very few firearms manufacturers, though, who are widely known for their AR-15 offerings but who are not well known for making and selling 1911-type pistols. One such company is Rock River Arms. Their AR-15 ads can easily be found in virtually any firearms periodical, but the company doesn't appear to advertise heavily the fact that they also build and sell premium 1911s. M1911.org recently had an opportunity to test an example of one of their models, the Tactical Pistol.
The RRA Tactical Pistol is a Government-size (5-inch slide and barrel) 1911 distinguished by an integral light rail built into the dust cover at the front of the receiver. With more and more gun scribes joining the bandwagon and writing articles decreeing that a light rail is now an "essential" for a tactical pistol, it should not be a surprise that the folks at Rock River Arms have responded with such a pistol.
Our effort to review this pistol began with some communications lapses between M1911.org and Rock River Arms. When they contacted us and told us they could make a pistol available to us for testing, John Caradimas naturally said we would be interested, and he then turned the contact over to me to arrange the details. I was asked what we wanted to receive with the pistol, and my response was "Whatever a typical buyer would receive." It seems there is no such thing as a "typical" buyer for Rock River Arms, because that simple statement threw them into a quandary. In the end, when the FFL called to inform me that the test pistol had arrived, what I found waiting for me was a pistol in a plastic, clamshell case, with a spare magazine tucked under the foam padding. This was a surprise, because RRA's specifications say that their pistols (including the Tactical Pistol) ship with one magazine.
What was not in the package, however, was any sort of instruction book, warranty card, bushing wrench, Youth Handgun Safety notice, or trigger lock. None of the things, in other words, that are found with virtually every pistol sold in the United States ... some of which things are required by law. After a call to Rock River Arms to ask about what we felt were missing items, I was told that in the rush to get the pistol out to us they must have overlooked those items. A few days later I received a care package from Rock River Arms containing: A steel bushing wrench, of the type that has one end configured for a Government 1911 barrel bushing and the other end configured for the barrel nut on an AR-15 rifle; a reprint copy of an official U.S. military field manual for the M1911 pistol; a supplemental instruction sheet for disassembly of a 1911 with a full-length guide rod (which our test pistol did not have); and a massive, keyed trigger lock completely encased in a plastic display packaging such as you might find hanging on a sales display rack at the local gun shop. All of this did not inspire confidence, as it appeared obvious these items were not customarily included with Rock River Arms pistols but they grabbed whatever they could lay their hands on and sent them to us because we seemed to think the pistol should have come with them. As a result, this reviewer cannot with any confidence predict what a buyer might receive with a pistol from this company, and we suggest that it would be prudent to ask at the time of placing an order.
Overall, the RRA Tactical Pistol is a standard, Government size package. Mercifully, the pistol omits many of the frills that some manufacturers seem to believe are mandatory on a "tactical" pistol; the operating controls on this pistol are, for the most part, simple and basic. In this reviewer's opinion, that's a good thing. The slide stop, for example, is a conventional slide stop. The thumb safety is of the extended type, but the paddle is not so massive that it is likely to get in the way or to increase the risk of the safety being accidentally disengaged while the pistol is holstered. The trigger has a fairly standard aluminum shoe with three holes for weight reduction, and an overtravel set screw.
The magazine release button is slightly extended, compared to a GI-spec pistol, but it is not equipped with an oversized button that's likely to be pressed by accident and release the magazine at a time when the user would prefer to have the pistol loaded and functional.
The Tactical Pistol has a straight mainspring housing, with both the mainspring housing and the front strap nicely checkered at what appeared to be 30 lines per inch. (Rock River's specifications say that checkering at 20, 25 or 30 lines per inch is optional.) The slide includes front and rear cocking serrations.
The barrel is a Kart National Match barrel. The specifications say that the sear is also a "match" sear ... whatever that is.
The hammer is an ultra-light, elongated oval "Commander" type hammer. In fact, calling hammers of this style "Commander" hammers is incorrect, because the Colt Combat Commander hammer has a round spur with a round hole. However, Rock River Arms is not the only manufacturer to apply the misnomer to this style of hammer. The hammer in this pistol, though, has less metal and a larger opening than any this reviewer has encountered to date. RRA calls it a "match" hammer. Certainly the light weight makes, perhaps, for a marginally quicker lock time. The practical side of my nature wonders, however, if the world's fastest lock time is the optimum setup for a "tactical" pistol, or if it wouldn't perhaps be better to leave a bit more substance to the hammer in deference to reliability and durability rather than "optimizing" the pistol for a purpose other than what its name suggests is its primary mission.
The hammer when cocked nestles into an upswept beavertail with a raised "memory groove" pad at the lower end. The fit of the grip safety to the receiver was very well executed.
Grip panels (or "stocks," to the purists) are double-diamond checked Rosewood, with a full border. Rock River's specifications call them "Super Rosewood." They are beautiful examples of the stock maker's art. The practical side asks, again, if stocks such as these are the best choice for a "tactical" pistol. In our opinion, a material less susceptible to damage from heavy use might be more appropriate, and there are many choices for such grips (stocks) available from companies such as Hogue, Pachmayr, and Pearce Grips. Fortunately, replacing the grip panels with something more appropriate to the pistol's mission is easily accomplished.
The initial appearance of the Rock River Arms Tactical Pistol is very impressive. The flats are polished to a mirror surface and the entire pistol is finished in a luxurious, deep blue such as is almost never encountered today. In general, the pistol appears to have the right parts for the job (with the exception of the aforementioned hammer and grip panels). And the sights are fixed, with tritium night sight vials, as befits a tactical pistol. Digging a bit deeper, we found a completely conventional recoil system, with a standard GI-type (short) recoil spring guide rod and a conventional recoil spring plug at the front of the slide. This, too, we deem to be "a good thing." However … that was about as far as we could proceed with looking "under the hood." In attempting to field strip the pistol, we found that the bushing to slide fit was so tight that even using a steel bushing wrench it was impossible to turn the barrel bushing. The actual range portion of this review was shot in North Carolina, while on a visit to my M1911.org colleague Hunter Lee Elliott. Hunter is younger than I and a former Marine, so I asked him to try removing the barrel bushing. He, too, was unable to turn it. After a few unsuccessful attempts we gave up, out of concern that we might damage the pistol.
As a result of our experience with the barrel bushing, we didn't attempt to detail strip the receiver. In all likelihood we would have encountered no problems, but "once bitten, twice shy." We simply did not wish to risk damaging or marring a $2,000+ pistol.
The integral light rail, we were interested to discover, is not a Caspian. It would be more correct to say that the configuration of the rail indicates that the receiver is not a Caspian Recon Rail receiver. For comparison, the following photos show the RRA Tactical Pistol next to a custom pistol built on a Caspian Recon Rail receiver.
The magazines have a capacity of eight rounds, and the stainless steel followers are fitted with a skirt on the front to prevent the follower from tipping forward as the last round is fed.
The trigger felt crisp, with about 1/16 of an inch of take-up and no creep. The trigger pull, measured with an RCBS analog scale, was consistently 4-1/4 pounds. This is a departure from Rock River's specifications, which state that the trigger pull is 3-1/2 pounds. While we are not impressed by a finished product that misses the specification by 20 percent, we are also of the opinion that 3-1/2 pounds is too light for a "tactical" pistol and that a trigger in the range of 4-1/2 to 5 pounds is more appropriate. So although the test gun missed the mark as far as being built as advertised, the trigger as delivered was better suited to the intended purpose of this pistol than what the specifications promised. This anomaly suggests that prospective purchasers of this model from Rock River Arms should discuss with the manufacturer what the trigger pull should be, and have the weight stipulated in the contract to purchase.
A key point that should be mentioned is that the RRA Tactical Pistol does not utilize a firing pin safety. It is our understanding that this renders the pistol unacceptable for sale in California and Massachusetts.
How does it shoot?
In a departure from the norm for this reviewer, rather than shooting this pistol at our usual indoor range I took the Rock River Tactical Pistol with me on a visit to North Carolina. This allowed my colleague, Hunter, to also look over the pistol, and it allowed two of us to participate in the actual shooting. The shooting portions of the review were shot at the outdoor range to which Hunter belongs, in rural North Carolina. Testing was conducted at 25 feet for familiarization and self-defense drills as well as for the velocity measurements, and at 75 feet for accuracy. Velocity testing was conducted using a Competitive Edge Dynamics (CED) Millennium chronograph, set 15 feet from the muzzle. For the accuracy testing, we fired from a bench rest. We both also tried firing from the prone position, which Hunter favors, but I found that I attained better results shooting from the bench.
We arrived at the range at about 11:30 a.m. The temperature was about 50 degrees, under mildly overcast skies. Wind was very light, and the range on which we were shooting was surrounded by trees that act as a natural windbreak. In short, good conditions for shooting. We began by both running several magazines of Winchester USA and some of Hunters cast lead bullets through the pistol to warm it up and the accomplish a brief initial break-in. We then set up the chronograph and conducted the velocity portion of our testing, before moving everything back to the 25 yard line for the accuracy portion of the shooting.
In our initial shooting, from the 25-foot mark, both Hunter and I encountered a few stoppages. These were all when using Hunter's hand loaded, cast lead ammunition. Since we had no stoppages with factory ammunition, we didn't regard this as a problem. What we did regard as a problem, however, was that the pistol was grouping about 2 to 3 inches high and an inch left for both of us. This didn't seem to vary much with the ammunition. How bothersome this could be was made painfully clear when I settled down and started shooting the velocity tests. About a third of the way through that segment of our testing, I suffered the ignominy of shooting through one of the sky screen supports on Hunter's C.E.D. Millennium chronograph. I have no idea how many hundreds of rounds I have run through my own C.E.D. chronograph with no "oopses," so to do this to my colleague's equipment right off the bat was very embarrassing. The lighting outdoors was considerably better than that to which I am accustomed at the indoor range, so I don't think it is unfair to suggest that I scored a direct hit where I should not have because the pistol wasn't shooting where it was aimed.
The following table sets forth our results:
Once we finished up the velocity testing and moved back to the 25-yard line for accuracy testing, things didn't get better. Both Hunter and I found the pistol was still hitting about 3 inches high and an inch left of the point of aim, with all ammunition. Moreover, while Rock River Arms advertises this pistol as guaranteed to shoot 2-1/2" groups at 50 yards, we weren't able to achieve similar results at half that distance. To be completely accurate, the Rock River web site says the pistol is guaranteed to shoot 2-1/2" groups at 50 yards using Federal Gold Medal Match 185-grain SWC ammunition. We didn't have any of that. I did have, though, a box of UltraMax 200-grain LSWC, which has generally proven to be accurate in other pistols. In the RRA Tactical pistol, the UltraMax was better than most of what we shot, but not the best of the day. With most of the various rounds we had available producing groups on the order of 3 inches, we were not especially happy.
In fact, Hunter gave up and left me to complete the accuracy portion of the testing myself because his groups were no better than mine, and in some cases they were worse. For myself, I was increasingly disappointed until I shot the UltraMax and felt the resulting 2-inch group was at least good enough that I didn't have to feel that I wasn't shooting up to par. Surprisingly, the next in the testing sequence was the Hornady TAP +P 200-grain round, and I was able to turn in a 1-1/2" group with that for the best of the test. Both Hunter and I were surprised that a +P self-defense round would be the most accurate of the eight types of ammunition we tried. 1-1/2 inches at 25 yards extrapolates to 3 inches at 50 yards, all things being equal, so we surmised that if it were shot using a Ransom rest and the specified ammunition the pistol might live up to the accuracy guarantee.
But this "accuracy" as it related to our test pistol was only "precision." Yes, we were finally able to put several successive shots into a small group. However, the fact that the center of this group was 4 inches high and an inch left of the point of aim means that, in strict semantic terms, the pistol was "precise" but not "accurate." A firearm that consistently puts the rounds somewhere other than the point of aim is not especially useful, and the less so when the sights are not adjustable for elevation. It was discouraging to find that, on top of not being able to disassemble the barrel bushing from the slide, the pistol also arrived with the sights far from being properly regulated.
One other annoying aspect about the pistol was that the grip screws repeatedly loosened up during shooting. I was, perhaps, overly cautious about not wanting to over tighten the screws and split one of the Rosewood stocks, but I had to stop shooting three times during the day to tighten the grip screws because the stocks were loose and moving on the receiver as I shot. This is something I have not encountered previously, with wood, plastic, or rubber stocks, and I cannot understand what might cause it to have happened repeatedly with this pistol.
The Rock River Arms Tactical Pistol is a beautiful example of the 1911 platform, superbly finished, and carrying a suggested list price that clearly places it in the premium pistol class. And the Rock River Arms web site lists all their 1911 pistols in an area titled "Custom Pistols." Out of the box (or case), the Tactical Pistol is an impressive and attractive piece of hardware. However, my late grandmother often told us to remember that "Handsome is as handsome does." In the case of the RRA Tactical Pistol, unfortunately we did not feel that the pistol "did handsome." Flaws in fitting of parts are perhaps understandable (albeit not really "acceptable") in a budget, assembly line pistol. To receive a custom pistol with a price tag of over $2,000 that has the barrel bushing fitted so tightly that it was literally an interference fit is simply inexcusable. Equally inexcusable in a custom pistol is shipping the weapon without having the sights regulated to shoot to point of aim. We are certainly aware that differences in eyesight and hold may result in minor discrepancies if more than one person shoots the same pistol, but in the case of the RRA Tactical Pistol, both Hunter and I found that it printed significantly higher than point of aim, as well as to the left. Since most 1911s shoot very close to point of aim for me, I have to attribute the poor results experienced with this pistol to lack of attention at the Rock River Arms shop.
Overall, despite this pistol being beautiful to behold, we found that in this case the beauty was only skin deep. The performance of the pistol did not live up to its appearance, or to its price tag. Further, the confusion over what should be included with the pistol to make our test sample representative of what a customer could expect to receive simply did not inspire confidence in the ability of Rock River Arms to pay attention to details.
Finish: Blued Steel
You may discuss about this pistol, ask questions or in general discuss about this review, in this thread in our Forums Site:
Rock River Arms, Inc.
Web site: http://www.rockriverarms.com
Competitive Edge Dynamics USA
Orders: (1) 888-628-3233
|Home - Volume 3 (2008) - Issue 1 (Winter '08) - Pistol Review: Rock River Arms Tactical|