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View Full Version : The El Comandante 9mm



Harwood Loomis
21st August 2009, 23:33
The M1911.ORG El Comandante Model

Rebirth of a near-classic

Reviewed by Harwood Loomis

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Two-plus years ago a gentleman from Athens, Greece, by the name of John Caradimas made a trek to the United States to partake of that uniquely American phenomenon known as the S.H.O.T Show, which that year was being held in Orlando, Florida. After having worn himself out wandering the floor of the exhibition hall, Mr. Caradimas decided to spend a couple of days recuperating at my home before returning to the rigors of taking care of twin sons. Naturally, during his stay we had to visit the local shooting range so that John could keep his hand in, and try out a couple of pistols he hadn’t seen before.

One of the pistols we took with us to the range that day was an older Colt Combat Commander, chambered in 9mm Parabellum. It had been shot (a lot) and abused (badly) by at least one previous owner before it came into my possession. In fact, it initially wouldn’t function at all; it was characterized upon delivery by persistent failures to extract. I managed to get it running reliably and to return it fairly close to its original configuration, with the exception of replacing the monumentally ugly target sights on it with current production Colt white dot sights rather than the smaller (and harder to see) GI-style sights that should have gone on it. The grip safety that came on it was not the original Combat Commander style but the type Colt’s currently uses on their blued 1991 series Commanders. I happen to like that style, so I saw no reason to change it. The pistol had been refinished anyway, so there was no point in trying too hard to be 100 percent “authentic.”

The Combat Commander in 9mm is a sweet-shooting configuration and that poor old pistol is now one of my favorites. John had seen a Combat Commander in 9mm in a gunshop in Athens, but had never shot one, so he had to try it. Once he shot it, I had to pry it out of his grubby mitts to put it back in the case and bring it home. I had already contacted Colt’s Manufacturing to ask if there was any possibility of adding a 9mm version of the Combat Commander to the current 1991 lineup, and Colt’s told me no. John also tried, and he received the same answer. But we both agreed that it’s such a great configuration that someone should be offering it. At the time, nobody was … and we couldn’t find anyone whom we could interest.

As a result, John decided that he would explore the possibility of re-creating the configuration on a limited basis and, if we could not find a manufacturer to build them, have them built on a limited production basis for sale through (but not by) the M1911 Pistols Organization forum.

The goal was to create a true Commander size pistol, with a 4-1/4” barrel and traditional configuration. No front cocking serrations on the slide, no “zoomy” serrations, no fancy target sights. Just a classic Combat Commander pistol … in 9mm. Finding a source for the receiver and slide was no problem. Caspian Arms offers true Commander frames, with the rails set to the correct length, and true 4-1/4” Commander slides with the option of classic, vertical cocking serrations. Several aftermarket barrel makers offer 4-1/4” barrels. After some comparison shopping, John settled on a Storm Lake barrel as being a good compromise between quality and cost. The parts were ordered. Caspian pre-fit the slide to the frame before shipping.

Sourcing most of the small parts was, likewise, comparatively simple. There are lots of companies offering high quality small parts for the 1911. John agreed with me that the current production white dot “combat” sights from Colt’s are vastly superior to the original military style sights that would have been “period correct” on older Combat Commanders, and genuine Colt’s sights are available through Brownells. Problem solved. The most difficult parts to find turned out to be the grip safety and the teardrop style thumb safety. The thumb safeties are available, but from most sources they are MIM parts, and John didn’t want to use any MIM. The grip safety was almost impossible to source, and for a long time we were looking at using a standard GI/Government model grip safety and machining the scallop cut into the top of it.

Ultimately, the parts were all procured. Then came the problem of who would actually assemble the pistol. After a lot of back and forth and false starts, the folks at Nighthawk Customs agreed to take the parts and build the prototype of the El Comandante. By this time Nighthawk had already introduced their own Ladyhawk model, which is a 9mm Commander-size pistol, so they weren’t interested in signing on to produce another model that would largely duplicate one of their own models. But they understood the desire to re-create the classic 9mm Commander so they agreed to build the prototype. Which they did.

The next problem was that John Caradimas lives in Athens, Greece. First, Greek citizens are not allowed to own more than two handguns. Second, the bureaucracy that would be involved in exporting the prototype to Greece would have been indescribable (not to mention expensive, and time-consuming). As a fallback, then, John arranged to have Nighthawk Custom ship the finished prototype to me (through a local FFL, of course). It arrived, it is every bit as nice as we hoped it would be, and we have been putting it through its paces in order to bring our members and readers a complete evaluation of it.

Out of the Box

Nighthawk Custom sent the prototype to us in one of their standard ballistic nylon pistol cases. We won’t expend any discussion on that because what might come with a final production version will certainly be determined in large measure by who builds the pistols. There were two magazines, one a Springfield Armory 9mm magazine with the integral “ramp” at the front, the other a conventional 9mm 1911 magazine of indeterminate manufacture. We shot the pistol with both magazines. Function was 100 percent with the unknown magazine, but with the Springfield “ramped front” magazine I encountered occasional misfeeds. The problems were not nearly as frequent as a previous example of this magazine I tried with another 9mm pistol but, given that this magazine is promoted as being THE cure for feeding problems with 9mm 1911s, the fact I have now seen two out of two that would not feed reliably leaves me wondering how I missed to Kool-Aid pitcher.

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The details are essentially as specified. The goal, as described above, was to re-create a classic Combat Commander. To achieve that, the El Comandante prototype is a bare bones, classic pistol. The starting point was a carbon steel Commander frame and Commander slide from Caspian Arms, specified with classic, vertical slide serrations and a standard GI-pattern dovetail for the rear sight. Caspian also engraved "EL COMANDANTE" on the side of the slide. The pistol is equipped with a long, solid trigger (which appears to be a standard Colt’s 1991 nylon trigger); a classic “rowel” style Commander hammer; arched, serrated mainspring housing (I generally prefer straight, but Colt’s never sold the Combat Commander with straight mainspring housings); smooth front strap; and classic double diamond checkered grips (these have a minor embellishment but remain true to the overall design). Inside, the recoil assembly consists of standard-length recoil spring guide, conventional recoil spring plug, and conventional barrel bushing.

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The pistol after which the El Comandante is modeled is a deep blued finish. Nighthawk Custom does not offer bluing, so the El Comandante is finished in their standard PermaKote finish, in a matte black. Somewhat to my dismay, the barrel bushing that arrived on the pistol was a thick-flange, stainless steel bushing that was totally incongruous and out of place on this pistol. Apparently Storm Lake ships their barrels with a pre-fit bushing, so that’s what was used. I couldn’t stand it. “Garish” is the word that first comes to mind, although I’m sure I could come up with some other, more descriptive terms for it with a few minutes of effort. It simply didn't belong; it wasn't "right." It had to go, and go it did. I had a used, blued Colt’s Commander barrel bushing in my parts bin, so it went onto the pistol before it had been on-site for an hour. At some point I will find a machinist to shave the Storm Lake bushing’s flange down to standard thickness, then I’ll get it blackened and put it back on the pistol. The interesting thing is, as the range results will show, swapping out the barrel bushing doesn’t appear to have hurt the accuracy at all. In fact, during the accuracy portion of our testing with the prototype I shot the best 25-yard group I have ever shot with a handgun … using the “wrong” barrel bushing.

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"Tear drop" style thumb safety and classic, vertical slide serrations

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Combat Commander style hammer, and Colt 1991 style grip safety

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Plain, "long" trigger

Trigger pull, as measured with an RCBS analog scale, averages 3 pounds 4 ounces. That’s a bit lighter than I prefer, but the trigger is excellent, with no discernable creep, and it’s heavy enough that I don’t have the uncomfortable feeling that the gun is going off “before it’s supposed to.” The slide-to-frame fit is excellent. In battery there is no discernable slop, either vertical or horizontal. With the slide locked open, there is no horizontal play, no vertical play at the rear of the slide, and just barely perceptible play at the front of the slide. But the fit is not tight enough to drag; the slide moves smoothly and freely.

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The Storm Lake barrel is full-diameter, unlike the Colt 9mm which used a thinner, smaller-diameter barrel

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The El Comandante prototype has been 100 percent reliable throughout our testing, as long as I use the standard 9mm magazine. I even took it to the range one evening when I knew I was going to be “showing the ropes” to a pair of novice women shooters, who were curious to try several different pistols to try to assess what might feel the most comfortable to them. Both women shot the El Comandante, and neither experienced any malfunctions due to limp wristing.

I was disappointed to find that the Springfield Armory “ramped front” 9mm magazine was not reliable. As noted above, I had previously tried one of these in another 9mm 1911 and the results were so bad that I immediately returned it to Brownells in exchange for a genuine Colt 9mm magazine. Perhaps it is a testimonial to the workmanship and fitting of the El Comandante that it was better with the Springfield magazine than my other pistol had been … but even the El Comandante was far from perfect with the ramped front magazine. I know some people regard these things as THE answer to shooting 9mm through a 1911, so I am unable to explain why they don’t seem to work for me. Fortunately, conventional 9mm magazines function fine through the El Comandante, so the solution is simple … set the Springfield magazine aside and hope it doesn’t mate when I’m not paying attention.

On the Firing Line

Shooting the El Comandante is an absolute joy. The pistol cycles smoothly, and with standard-power factory ammunition the recoil is so light as to be virtually unnoticeable. It isn’t really much different, in fact, than shooting a 1911 with a .22LR conversion mounted to it … except that the El Comandante is heavier due to the steel slide and frame. Both women enjoyed shooting it and they agreed that their initial hesitation to shoot a 1911 because of all they had heard about how “45s” recoil made the El Comandante quite a pleasant surprise. The ladies also agreed, however, that (again due to the weight) the El Comandante would not suit either of them as a carry weapon. For that, they both seemed to prefer a Kel-Tec P3AT in .380 Auto that the range has available for rental. The younger woman, however, found the Kel-Tec to actually be “snappier” in recoil despite the less powerful cartridge, and it rubbed the web of her hand (between the thumb and first finger) raw rather quickly. She was surprised to find how much more comfortable the more powerful El Comandante was to shoot than the little Kel-Tec.

The ballistics chart tells the tale. The El Comandante is a true 4-1.4” pistol, and our protocol here at M1911.ORG is to shoot 4-1/4” and longer pistols at a distance of 25 yards (which happens to be the maximum distance available at the range where I shoot the tests). The Storm Lake barrel clearly prefers some ammunition types over others, perhaps being a bit more picky than most 1911s I have shot. I shot all the groups off the bench, using a pistol rest … but not a Ransom rest. This is the same way I shoot all tests. The initial groups were decent, but I didn’t think they were spectacular. (I guess I am becoming more discerning, too, because a few years ago I would have regarded a 2-1/2 inch, 25-yard group as very good. Now, a group like that rates a “yawn!”) As the test progressed through the varied assortment of ammunition I was able to scrounge up, though, the results got better and better. When I saw the results with Winchester’s 147-grain Silvertip, my jaw just about hit the floor. ALL the groups with that ammunition were spectacular. The best was a 5-shot group in an honest 1-inch, and after discarding the “flyer” the remaining four shots measured just a half inch. My second-best effort with the Silvertip put five rounds into an inch and a quarter, and measured an even one inch after discarding the “flyer.”

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These results were obtained at an indoor range under “less than optimum” lighting conditions. I don’t know if the pistol could shoot any better than that best group, but I am confident that with better lighting it would be possible to match those results with the El Comandante pretty much at will. The 3-dot “combat” style sights are more than adequate for good shooting. The front dot is slightly larger and seems a bit brighter white than the two rear dots, so finding the sights even in the poor lighting of the range was not an issue. In daylight or normal room light, I can’t imagine ever needing anything more exotic in the way of sights. For a nightstand gun, of course, some kind of luminescent front sight would be an advantage. Having a night sight installed on the slide of the El Comandante would not be difficult or exceptionally expensive. However, night sights were not among the parameters for this “retro” model prototype. Since the original Colt Commanders and Combat Commanders used tiny, hard-to-see GI style sights, John’s choice of the newer 1991 combat style sights was in itself a compromise. The 3-dot combat sights look “right” on the pistol while providing a far better sight picture than the original Colt’s Commander sights.

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Summary

There you have it: a first look at the El Comandante prototype. As the owner of the pistol that started the ball rolling that lead up to this prototype, I am very impressed with the result. The pistol is a joy to shoot. As John and I seem to agree, the Combat Commander balances (in our opinion) better than a Government model. Combined with the reduced recoil of the 9mm platform, the ideal balance of this pistol makes it easy to shoot well, and easy to get back on target after a shot. Having been "in on" this project from the outset (as well as being the proud owner of the pistol that inspired it), I was very enthusiastic about having an opportunity to check out the prototype. After putting it through its paces, I am even more enthusiastic. As much as I like my old Colt, previous owners were not kind to it and it has seen better days. I have always been reluctant to shoot it much, or to risk higher-power loads through it. Knowing that the El Comandante prototype was built from the ground up as a solid pistol meant to be shot, I had no such reservations or hesitation in conducting the testing. I only wish it might have been possible to obtain samples of more types and brands of ammunition. Under present market conditions, though, I consider myself fortunate in having been able to scrounge up as much as I did. The El Comandante is begging for more. ("Soon, Grasshopper. Soon.")

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The question is, are we (John and I) the only two advocates for a 9mm Commander-size pistol, or are there other people out there who would like to own such a pistol if it were commercially available? We want to find out, because your feedback will be invaluable in determining whether or not it makes sense to seek out a gunsmith or manufacturer to produce the El Comandante as a standard, limited production pistol.

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Notes

First, my thanks to M1911.ORG forum moderator Wichaka for helping to procure enough 9mm ammunition to be able to conduct a meaningful test. Without ammunition, the nicest-looking 1911 in the world is nothing but a half-decent paperweight.

As always, we are also grateful to Chris' Indoor Shooting Range (http://chrisindoorrange.net) in Guilford, CT, for the use of the facility, and especially for allowing us to close off half the range in order to conduct the chronograph portions of our testing.

Speaking of chronographs, the ballistics measurements were made using a CED Millennium chronograph. The CED Millennium is ideal for our testing because it has a remote control module that allows reading the results and controlling the unit directly at the bench, without any need to go in front of the benches and be downrange. Also, due to the lower light levels of the underground range, the optional infrared skyscreens on the Millennium are invaluable.

Please post your comments about this review here (http://forum.m1911.org/showthread.php?p=701195#post701195).

It would be a tremendous help if comments include some indication of whether or not you might be interested in purchasing a pistol such as the El Comandante, if John can find a maker who will produce it. If you are interested, what do you think the optimum price point should be?

Specifications:

Caliber 9mm Parabellum
Trigger Pull SA 3.25 lbs (2.05 – 2.50 kg)
Overall Length 7.70" (195.6 mm)
Overall Height 4.75" (120.7 mm)
Overall Width 1.37" (34.8 mm)
Barrel Length 4.25" (108.0 mm)
Sight Radius 5.70" 144.8 mm)
Sights 3-Dot Combat style
Weight w/ Mag 38 oz (0.42 kg)
Magazine Capacity 9 Rounds
Grips Custom Rosewood Grips
Finish Permakote
CA Compliant NO
MA Compliant NO
MSRP To be determined