|Home - Volume 3 (2008) - Issue 3 (Summer '08) - Pistol Review: STI SteelMaster|
M1911.ORG tests a dedicated steel shooter
A Gun Test by Harwood Loomis (Hawkmoon, )
What the heck IS this thing?
Once again, my assignment as a firearms tester for the M1911 Pistols Organization has taken me (not unwillingly) into uncharted waters. John Caradimas, the motive force behind M1911.ORG, had told me that STI was sending us a new pistol to test, and that he'd like me to do the testing. And awhile later I received a call from the FFL that a care package had arrived from STI. I was expecting that. "What the heck IS this thing?" he continued. "It looks like something out of Star Wars." I was NOT expecting that, so I was exceedingly curious to see just what it was that had arrived in our midst.
Star Wars revisited?
As soon as I was able, I made my way across town to Chris' Indoor Shooting Range in Guilford, Connecticut, to see what had Chris so excited. What it was, was the new STI SteelMaster, which is essentially a compensated, Commander-length (almost), full race 1911 chambered in 9mm Luger. The SteelMaster is built for one purpose and one purpose only: shooting steel plates as fast as humanly possible. To that end, all details of the pistol have been carefully thought out and optimized to minimize recoil and muzzle flip in order to allow the shooter to rapidly and concisely transition from each plate to the next in a smooth, uninterrupted rhythm.
The pistol is built on STI's proprietary 2011 polymer, double stack, "modular" receiver. For anyone not already acquainted with the STI 2011 receiver, the grip portion of the frame is constructed from a fiber-reinforced nylon composite, and the grip is then mated to a machined steel "upper" that houses the actual fire control parts. STI has been building pistols on these frames for a number of years, but for the SteelMaster they pulled out the stops and went for broke.
The slide of the SteelMaster is uniquely finished. The rear cocking serrations are formed out of intersecting arcs, forming a series of criss-crossing curves. STI's name for the design is "Sabertooth." Aesthetically, in all honesty I haven't decided if I like the treatment or not. Ergonomically … it works. The intersecting arcs allow for a good grip on the back of the slide. And a good grip is necessary, because the SteelMaster doesn't have conventional "iron" sights. In fact, the flat top of the slide is not machined for sights at all. Instead, a sight mounting bracket is attached to the left side of the receiver and to that is mounted a C-More red dot, holographic (reflex) sight. The mounting bracket incorporates a blast shield to protect the optical glass from muzzle blast and powder residue. The blast shield is an absolute necessity, because the muzzle is fitted with an integral compensator of STI design and manufacture. We found that the front edge of the blast shield was thoroughly blackened after about 100 rounds or so, and after 200 rounds it was difficult to clean up the shield enough to make it look "pretty" for our photographs of the pistol.
Having good, functional grasping grooves at the rear of the slide is necessary because, thanks to the sight mount and top-mounted reflex sight above the slide, it is not possible to use an "overhand" hold to rack the slide on the SteelMaster. The slide must be grasped from the rear in a pinch between the thumb and the first finger. Fortunately, due to a combination of light weight and light springs, the pistol requires considerably less effort to rack the slide than any "standard" .45 caliber 1911 pistol.
The hammer on the SteelMaster is about as abbreviated and skeletonized as is probably possible. It can't get much smaller without becoming a spurless hammer such as used on the Para-Ordnance LDA double action models.
The slide itself is lightened. Inside, behind the breech face some of the cuts are made wider and deeper than on a typical 1911 slide in order to remove material and reduce weight. At the front of the slide, instead of front cocking serrations the cuts go through the entire thickness of the slide walls, in what STI calls "gill" cuts.
The pistol does not use either a "standard" 1911 recoil spring, guide and plug system, or a full-length guide rod. The SteelMaster is equipped with an STI RecoilMaster spring and guide rod assembly. Interestingly, while the SteelMaster has a 4.15" long barrel, STI uses the RecoilMaster assembly from a full-size (5") 1911, resulting in the front portion of the recoil assembly extending well beyond the end of the slide. In fact, the underside of the compensator is fluted to provide clearance for the recoil assembly.
The magazine well of a double stack pistol is inherently "enhanced" for magazine insertion because the upper end of double stack magazines tapers to the width of a single cartridge at the feed lips. Adding to that, STI has equipped the SteelMaster with a cavernous add-on magazine chute to ensure rapid magazine changes during competition.
The pistol is equipped with an extended, ambidextrous thumb safety, beavertail grip safety with palm swell ("speed bump"), extended magazine release, lightened skeleton hammer, and a trigger with a skeletonized polymer shoe and overtravel adjustment screw. Even the beavertail portion of the grip safety has been optimized for weight; the sides of the beavertail have been slightly carved away, leaving enough metal to protect the shooter against hammer bite … but no more. The hammer itself has been reduced to the smallest possible profile, and the exposed portion has been shaved for clearance and to reduce weight (and lock time).
The magazine catch button is slightly extended compared to a standard 1911 magazine catch. The magazine catch on the SteelMaster does not have an over-sized button, but the extended catch is drilled and tapped to facilitate the installation of a button if the owner desires to do so.
Another thoughtful touch is a small shelf just above the trigger, providing a place for the shooter to rest his thumb. I found that this last piece was extraneous for me due to my grip, but shooters whose grip is the "two straight thumbs" style may find that the shelf aids in achieving a consistent grip each time they shoot the pistol.
How does it shoot?
All the nifty features in the world are of little consequence unless they add up to a pistol that shoots well. There was considerable interest among the "regulars" at the range by the time we geared up to do any real testing. Initially, we considered simply asking one of the better shooters at the range's regular, weekly competitions to shoot the SteelMaster. However, the pistol ships with only a single magazine, and that would not be enough to carry a competitor through a complete course of fire. And nobody had a holster designed for a 1911 with a compensator and a reflex sight mounted.
On the other hand, because of the very narrowly defined purpose of this pistol, we also realized that subjecting the SteelMaster to our usual protocol of shooting a variety of different ammunition for groups off a rest, and taking chronograph readings in the process, would be … frankly … a bit silly. The SteelMaster was designed around the use of light 9mm ammunition, with the intent of having it be suitable for shooters whose loads are toward the low end of minor power factor. One of the range regulars, in fact, mentioned multiple times having read that the SteelMaster was specifically designed around 115-grain, Winchester USA FMJ ammunition. Although I have not seen that confirmed in writing, that's what we used for our testing. I did find a comment on Brian Enos' web site to the effect that modifying the pistol for use with major power factor ammunition "may" void the factory warranty. Although we have not seen this confirmed from STI, in consideration of the lightening of the slide such a policy would be completely logical.
Realizing that our usual test protocol was irrelevant to this pistol, I decided that a more realistic test and evaluation might be to invite some of the better shooters from the weekly competitions at Chris' Indoor Shooting Range to meet me at the range, shoot a couple of series of steel plates using their own pistols, and then shoot a few more series with the SteelMaster to obtain a direct comparison. We invited four shooters to take part in this impromptu shoot-out; two accepted the invitation. I met them at the range on a Saturday afternoon, when Chris generously closed an entire half of the range in order to allow us to set up the plate rack and fire away.
Of the two volunteers, although both have been shooting competitively for a long time only one is experienced with 1911s. "Mr. K" owns several 1911s, including a recently acquired STI Edge in 9mm. Our other volunteer, "Mr. B," carries the nickname "Mr. Beretta" because that's what he shoots, that's what he carries, that's what he talks about. Thus, we would be subjecting the STI SteelMaster to the combined evaluations of one true believer and one heathen. We expected it to be interesting … and it was.
Because nobody had a holster that would accommodate the SteelMaster's optical sight, we shot all sequences starting with the pistol held at a low ready, with the muzzle resting on the barrel seen in the foreground of the photos. We quickly discovered that everything you may have heard about "muscle memory" is true; muscle memory exists, and it works. All three of us initially found that moving the pistol from the low ready to the firing position resulted in … no sight picture. The red dot simply wasn't there. What was happening, of course, was that we automatically raised the pistol to align the axis of normal "iron" sights with the shooting eye. The visual axis of the reflex sight is nearly an inch higher off the slide than that of iron sights, so we were actually looking under the sight axis. It took a few practice attempts to get the hang of it, after which it ceased to be an issue. This is not in any way a criticism of the pistol or the sight; it is simply something that anyone contemplating one of these pistols (or anything similar) needs to consider. There is a slight learning curve involved.
All of us agreed that, even for a 9mm pistol, recoil is negligible. And, since all of us own all-steel 9mm pistols, we have to conclude that the compensator is effective. Certainly, gasses are being ported through the slots; our difficulty cleaning the accumulated powder residue off the front of the blast shield for our photographs is the best possible proof of this.
To end the suspense, here are the results of the shootout. Bob and Kerry both began by shooting a couple of series with conventional, open sighted pistols. Bob's 9mm Beretta was unavailable so, rather than compare the SteelMaster to a .40 S&W Beretta, Bob also shot Kerry's STI Edge for the baseline times. Since he had not shot that pistol before, it was not surprising that his times were slower than Kerry's. The averages were:
Kerry: 4.16 seconds
The shootout then moved on to the SteelMaster. Kerry shot first, and immediately experienced functional problems. The fired rounds were jamming in the ejection port.
We suspended the timed testing briefly while Bob and I each took a turn with the SteelMaster. Neither of us experienced any malfunctions, so Kerry tried again. This time he made a conscious effort to hold the pistol more securely, and he found that he experienced no problems. With that behind us, we returned to the timed testing and Kerry had no further problems for the duration of the afternoon. After shooting several series of plates, their average times with the SteelMaster were:
Kerry: 4.03 seconds
If we drop each tester's worst time with the SteelMaster, the averages were:
For both shooters, the times with the SteelMaster were significantly better than shooting a similar pistol equipped with open sights and no compensator. The differences in Bob's times are perhaps the most impressive. The test pistol has been residing in the safe at the range and Kerry has participated in some of the "break-in" shooting we put the pistol through prior to the timed evaluation. Thus, the SteelMaster was not completely foreign to him. Bob, on the other hand, had never even held the pistol before the day of the shootout. With Kerry's STI Edge Bob was not as fast as Kerry. After a couple of series with the SteelMaster, Bob became the master of all he surveyed.
Both shooters decided that they were very impressed with the pistol. Both agreed that, with some practice to become better familiarized with the pistol's action and, particularly, the reflex sight, the STI SteelMaster would be an awesome pistol for use in steel competitions.
After we wrapped up the shooting portion of the test sequence, I asked Bob and Kerry for some comments to summarize their impressions of the SteelMaster.
B: "It was hard to get used to the light slide because it runs so slowly. It felt like shooting a gun made out of Jello."
K: "The slide runs slower than my STI Edge. It seems more susceptible to limp wristing. I had to concentrate on holding the pistol firmly."
B: "I like the reflex sight, but it takes practice to be able to pick up the red dot quickly."
K: "The sight bracket makes it difficult to lock the slide open to show clear after each round of fire."
Kerry also said he prefers the shape of the SteelMaster hammer to the more squared-off shape of the hammer on his STI Edge. Here's a photograph comparing the two:
The SteelMaster came with only one double stack magazine. During the testing, we used some of Kerry's magazines for his Edge, including a mix of both two 126-mm magazines and three 140-mm magazines. All the magazines functioned flawlessly throughout the testing.
Both Bob and Kerry agreed that the compensator reduced recoil. Surprisingly, since the compensator directs some of the muzzle blast upward and out to the sides, they also agreed that the SteelMaster was quieter than the Edge. The key point they both mentioned is what this pistol is all about: "The compensator works to keep the sights on the target."
We are especially grateful to our volunteer testers for this review, Kerry K and Bob B, both of whom gave up a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon to hide out with yours truly in a concrete box buried a story deep into the earth in an effort to make our review of the STI SteelMaster as relevant as we could. I could have done the same comparison myself, of course, but my experience in shooting at steel plates is extremely limited, and I didn't feel it would be fair to the pistol for me to try to conduct such a comparison by myself. Both Kerry and Bob stressed that they aren't nationally ranked shooters … but they are among the top shooters at Chris' weekly competitions so they aren't rookies, by any definition.
And we are especially grateful to Chris for making the range available to us on a Saturday afternoon. Saturdays are often extremely busy at Chris' range, and the day of this shootout was no exception. When I arrived at the facility, customers were lined up at the counter about four deep, and the two people behind the counter were looking a bit frazzled. Chris' willingness to shut down half the range in order for us to set up and shoot the plates was extremely generous, and without his cooperation this review would have been considerably less complete and informative.
On behalf of The M1911 Pistols Organization, I would also like to thank STI Incorporated, for allowing us to have this pistol for an extended evaluation period. It is an innovative package and seems to be one that is likely to be met with considerable interest among competition shooters. We were honored to be afforded an opportunity to put the STI SteelMaster through its paces, and we hope that this review will be of use and interest to those readers who might be considering this pistol.
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|Home - Volume 3 (2008) - Issue 3 (Summer '08) - Pistol Review: STI SteelMaster|