April 19, 2023
There are those who think the .45 ACP has “too much recoil.” My pity for them does not rise to the level of that of B.A. Baracus, but I have been known to become a bit derisive. Oh, I draw the line on recoil, but for me it starts up where handgun cartridges use half-inch diameter projectiles or generate more than a ton of kinetic energy. So, the 10mm is a nice, peppy, cartridge by my standards.
I was first introduced to it by Dan McDonald, the gunsmith who taught me the trade, who had by some miracle acquired a Bren Ten. With a magazine. (Or two, I don’t remember that part as well.) The only ammo at the time was loaded by Norma, and someone, somewhere, had misplaced a numeral or something during its development. The supposed 200-grain bullet at close to 1,200 fps was actually (chrono’d later) going closer to 1,350. That is on the low end of .44 Magnum power, and more than the Bren was capable of. It was also a lot more than what the FBI was willing to entertain. With the Bren Ten a non-starter (people don’t buy pistols they can’t get magazines for) and the FBI spurning the 10mm almost as fast as they adopted it, it looked like the 10mm cartridge was going to go the way of other flash-in-the-pan proprietary cartridges like the .401 Herters Powermag.
Then Colt stepped up. The Colt Delta Elite came out in 1987, and it was a marvel. Finally, we could load a 1911 pistol up past the limits of the .45 ACP, and not have to wince a little on each shot, expecting a blown case. With the recent interest in the FBI in the 10mm, all the ammo companies had a full lineup of loadings (well, full by the standards of the late 1980s, anyway) and the brass was hell for stout. With a pressure ceiling in the mid-30,000 PSI range, you could get excellent performance out of the 10mm and still expect a good long case life. In fact, I do not recall ever having a case crack in the years of loading 10mm ammo. The 10mm was an excellent cartridge, the Colt version more than strong enough to hold up to it, and ammo was plentiful. The world was a 10mm oyster. So, what happened? The 40 S&W is what happened.
Most shooters were looking for thug defense, not bear defense. They didn’t need, nor want, a 200-grain bullet at 1,200 fps, where a 180 at 950 was plenty good enough for their needs. And the added bonus that they could have that in a pistol that held 15 rounds in a magazine, one no bigger than a 9mm pistol sealed the deal. The general gun-buying population turned away from an all-steel heavy-hitter, and the 10mm was left to wander in the wilderness. Which is where it excels. As often happens, the wheel turns, and hunters and those exploring the backwoods found they needed more than what a .40 could deliver. Yes, there was the .44 Magnum, but that held six shots, and double-action shooting is not so easy to learn. So, the 10mm creeps more and more into the minds of shooters, and makers re-introduce it to their lineups.
Enter the Colt Delta Elite. The original was brought out in 1987 and lasted until 1996. Colt brought it back into the lineup 2009, and then did a facelift to it in 2015. They sent me one of the new ones for this review, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Colt takes the basic 1911A1 platform and updates it as well as building it to handle the 10mm cartridge. On top, we have a round-top slide contour with a set of Novak sights. These are the classic 1980s three-dot sights, white paint and no tritium. Also, in keeping with the 1980s, the slide does not have front slide serrations. This is something that modern 1911s apparently have to have, but I am happy to do without. The serrations that are there are square-bottomed grooves, seven of them (just like a classic Jeep grille) with ridges in-between that are narrower than the grooves.
OK, first complaint: the grooves are sharp. As in sharp and they are not the only edges on the Delta Elite that are in need of de-horning. The round top of the slide is matted, and the flats are polished stainless steel, which is why the edges are sharp. Colt polishers take great pride in polishing pistols without rounding corners, even when those corners and edges probably should be rounded. Not buffed off, but at least beveled. Or broken. Or melted. Whatever adjective you care to use. Colt has also taken the opportunity to update the roll-marks on the slide. My old Delta is marked differently than the new one, on both sides, but not in such a way that you’d confuse either with a non-10mm pistol.
The barrel uses a regular barrel bushing, no cone lockup here, and there is a regular recoil spring assembly inside, no full-length guide rod. I know I’ve said this before, but if Browning had wanted a full-length guide rod, he’d have put one in there in 1910. The recoil spring is noticeably stronger than on a pistol in .45 ACP, and that is a good thing. The ejection port is lowered and scalloped, but it is not as low as I would like to see on a modern 1911. I’m of the opinion that the scalloped part on a slide is pretty much for looks. I’ve seen scalloped slides that dinged brass, and non-scalloped that didn’t, and it is more a matter of using a correct weight recoil spring for that brass-handling part, and a lowered ejection port side wall, than a scallop on the slide. A too-high sidewall is more of a brass-mangler than the lack of a scoop on the back end.
OK, second complaint: the barrel is a standard feed ramp to barrel setup. Given that the 10mm is the platform you’d choose for a heavy-duty critter-stomper load, a fully-supported chamber, with a barrel that had an integral-ramp design, would be my first choice. I would rather the Delta Elite had an integral feed ramp, but it doesn’t. Oh well, I am not going to be feeding it enough max-end heavy-bullet hard-cast loads that I have to worry about using up my brass supply should I bulge case heads. And, being realistic, the number of shooters who will need an integral ramp is most likely small, indeed.
A change Colt made back when they started 10mm production, that they have continued with, is on the left-hand rail. You’ll notice that the rail has a gap in it right at the spot where the slide stop passes through. That part of the rail really doesn’t do much of anything, and it is not unusual to find it cracked on high-mileage 1911s in .45. In 10mm, they crack pretty quickly, so Colt, to keep shooters who don’t understand it from complaining, just milled the rail away there. It doesn’t weaken it, it doesn’t hinder accuracy or reliability, it is just a way to keep the un-informed from complaining. I suspect that had anyone pointed it out to old JMB, he would have said “No problem, go ahead” and then designed three more pistols that were improvements and didn’t have that minor cracking non-problem.
As mentioned, underneath the barrel Colt has not gone with a full-length guide rod. Instead, they have a two-spring system that uses a polymer guide rod. The two springs add up to 23 pounds of recoil spring. Now, the initial spring force seems pretty much on-par with a standard Government model. Then you hit the second one, and the force goes up. Why? Well, to get the slide unlocked and the empty extracted, when you are dealing with 35,000 PSI as the maximum average pressure, you’d want a slide that starts out briskly. Then, once you have that task handled, you want to buffer down the slide impact on the frame, both to add to longevity, and to dampen felt recoil. The polymer guide rod is part of that. I’m sure there will be plenty of experts who tell you the first thing you have to do is to replace the “crappy” polymer guide rod for a steel unit. Sure, but you’ll make the felt recoil harsher, if you do. And perhaps decrease longevity. The “solution” to that will next be to add in a shock buffer, to dampen recoil. But now you are shortening the slide stroke, and that’s not good either. Nope, stick with polymer, and replace it every five or ten thousand rounds. In case you are worried that the polymer will get chewed up and mangled by the slide, Colt faces the guide rod head, front and back, with a sheet metal overlay. That overlay takes the hit of the slide and the frame and distributes it across the polymer head.
The firing controls are pure 1911. The trigger is a lightweight body with three holes through it, and then on the back end there is a grip safety. Not the grip safety of the original 1911, 1911A1 or Delta Elite, but a modern beavertail with speed bump grip safety. Colt has wisely left the slide stop alone (the extended “combat” slide stop is one “modern” change they have never, ever, gone with as far as I can recall, good for them) and behind the slide stop is an extended thumb safety. The trigger pull is clean and crisp, and the grip safety has a comfortable engagement. It clears the trigger bow at about halfway through the grip safety travel, so you have a little bit of leeway if your grip isn’t perfect. I’ve seen some non-Colt 1911s that had grip safeties timed so late that you have to have a crush-grip on the pistol just to ensure the grip safety was free of the trigger.
Behind the trigger is the magazine release, and in-between there are black composite grips with the Colt Delta logo inset into them. On the bottom rear, Colt has installed a flat, grooved mainspring housing. Back in the old days we used to obsess over the size and shape of the mainspring housing. Arched, flat, grooved, checkered, wedge-shaped, “ergonomic” you name it, someone tired it. (Hey there wasn’t a lot we could do to the 1911 back then.) These days, I really don’t care. In fact, in a lot of instances I don’t even notice the mainspring housing shape until I start writing up the details. I have found that flat or arched makes no difference to my shooting. Now, if it does to yours, the mainspring housing is one of the easiest parts to swap out. You could even use a mainspring housing swap as a test. If someone is so mechanically inept that they can’t manage that task, then you really need to be arming them with an aluminum baseball bat, and not a firearm. But I digress.
On the bottom, Colt has done a useful and low-profile bevel job on the magazine well opening. The Delta Elite comes in a lockable hard plastic case, with one magazine, lock and owner’s manual. Magazines are not difficult to come by, ranging from the standard eight-shot to premier magazines such as Wilson Combat, that hold nine rounds each. When I mentioned to my test-fire crew that I had a Delta to test, one tester in particular wanted to be at the range. Always a 10mm fan, Rob had an unaltered Delta Elite from the 1990s, as I did. So I had a chance to compare the new Delta Elite 10mm to two first-era-run pistols. The first thing that jogged my memory was the grips. Rob still had the rubber wrap-around grips on his.
Mine, I found the grips were so hideous to my hands that I could not swap them out fast enough. So, mine bears smooth wood grips with the Colt medallion inset, while his is original. His was made in 1988, mine in 1989, so we have a pretty good read on what was going on in Colt then. The current Delta has checkered composite grips, with the Delta red triangle medallion inset behind the magazine button. They are much more comfortable than the old rubber wrap-arounds, and more non-slip than my smooth wood ones. The second jogging detail were the sights. For 1988–89, the Delta Elite sights were pretty darned good for factory sights. Gone were the low, thin, front blades and rear notches to match. However, even though by 1988–89 improved dovetail sights were known and being used, Colt went with a staked-in front blade and a standard rear blade. And blued, both on Rob’s blued Delta, and my stainless one. Third were the grip safeties. While the Delta was an interesting change by Colt back then, using a commander-shaped hammer on a government-sized pistol, they did not go with any kind of new-and-improved beavertail grip safety. They simply milled a clearance arc on the top rear of the standard safety and called it “done.” So, the modern grip safety on the current Delta Elite is a big step up. It is fitted a bit loose, with noticeable play in it, but it works as a grip safety and it is timed properly.
The real big change was one both Rob and I noticed when checking the pistols before shooting: the triggers. Now, the current Delta Elite uses a Series 80 trigger system. This involves a lever linked to the trigger bow. When you press the trigger it lifts the lever, which presses spring-loaded plunger in the slide. The plunger blocks the firing pin travel until it has been lifted enough to provide clearance for the firing pin. When it came out, we all hated it. The trigger pulls sucked by various amounts, and there were other problems. That all came back when we dry-fired the old and new Deltas. The old Deltas had the same not-good trigger pulls, from six pounds or almost six and a half pounds. The current one? Four pounds, ten ounces, clean and crisp enough that you wouldn’t know it was a Series 80 unless you looked.
The real test is in the shooting, so we proceeded to send lead downrange. The current Delta Elite worked just fine with all the ammo as long as I used the magazine that came with it. This is not a criticism of the Delta, the other 10mm magazines on hand I have accumulated in the 30 years or so since I won mine at the Second Chance bowling pin match have all been tuned to my pistol. Once I figured out that the odd behavior was magazine-related, we stuck with the one sent and had no problems. Later, I found that the Delta and its higher sidewall and ejector shape liked to toss empties up more than over. So, when I was standing under my home club’s baffle system, the overhead sometimes bounced an empty back to me. Again, not a problem Colt has to consider, and if you were out in the wilderness dealing with angry critters, you wouldn’t either. Accuracy was plenty good for a hard-hitting pistol like this. I would not expect Bullseye-level accuracy from a factory pistol, especially at this power level. Even at the moderate 10mm power levels, you are dealing with .45 ACP+P recoil, and it will have an effect. (Think otherwise and you are just fooling yourself.) Group size going up as recoil goes up is more a matter of the shooter than the pistol. After all, a 200-grain bullet at 1,200 fps is hard on the heels of an Elmer Keith-level .44 Magnum load in power and recoil. Back when I was learning IPSC and building 1911s, Colt had apparently forgotten how to make a good barrel. That was part of the reasons so many barrel makers got into the business of making 1911 barrels. Well, Colt has figured out accuracy again, because despite the relatively loose fit of the Delta Elite (well, loose compared to the custom 1911s I’ve been testing lately) this is one nicely accurate pistol.
One detail that came to the fore when we tested the old and new side-by-side was the grip safety. Yes, there is a reason the whole world has gone to a beavertail grip safety since the 1980s. With the milder (in a 10mm context, of course) the difference wasn’t much. But when I moved up in power, the old grip safety was noticeably less comfortable than the new one. Were mine not a historical example by this time, I’d have fitted a beavertail grip safety just as soon as I could manage it. I still might.
The question of ammo choice and use will of course be a subject of much debate. You can, if you wish, use regular-power level ammunition for self defense. When I traveled to South Africa for the World Shoot, back in 2002, my competition gun was a hi-cap in .40 (I shot in the now-gone Modified Division) I packed as my “backup” this 10mm, with three magazines worth of XTPs as part of my ammo load-out. Looking back, I would have probably been better off with the hi-cap and JHPs for it. But I used what I had, and could leave behind if needed. As a defensive choice now, the 10mm is just fine. The Hornady Critical duty, a 175-grain bullet at a tested 1,159 fps, is one of those .45ACP+P equivalent loads I spoke of. If you need more then the Federal HST is a 200-grain bullet at a tested 1,099 fps. And if you really need to smack something, hard, with a self-loading hand cannon, then the Buffalo Bore Heavy 10mm Outdoorsman, a hard-cast 220 grain truncated cone, at a tested 1,195 fps, will put the hurt to pretty much anything, two-legged or four.
The hard part will be hanging onto the back end during loud-noise events, because a 220 at 1,200 fps is a handful. I know, I learned that lesson back in the middle of the 1980s, when Sonny Crockett was supposedly hiding his 10mm underneath a silk sport coat. The modern iteration of the Colt Delta Elite is a good-hearted attempt by Colt to bring the pistol fully into the 21st century. As much as I love to hate the Series 80 trigger system, Colt clearly has it figured out. The modern grip safety makes the full-power 10mm ammo a lot more fun to shoot than the old guns wee. You want power, Colt has it. The new Delta Elite is a definite good choice for being in the back woods and having a backup handgun with you at all times.
Colt Delta Elite Specs
- Type: Hammer-fire, recoil-operated pistol
- Cartridge: 10mm
- Barrel: 5 in.
- Length: 8.5 in.
- Height: 5.1 in.
- Weight: 35 oz.
- Trigger: 4 lbs., 10 oz.
- Finish: Stainless steel
- MSRP: $1,200
- Contact: Colt
About the Author
Patrick Sweeney is a life-long shooter, with more than half a century of trigger time, four decades of reloading, 25 years of competition (4 IPSC World Shoots, 50 USPSA Nationals, 500+ club matches, and 18 Pin Shoots, as well as Masters, Steel Challenge and Handgunner Shootoff entries). He spent two decades as a professional gunsmith, and two decades as the President of his gun club. A State-Certified law Enforcement Firearms Instructor, he is also a Court-recognized Expert Witness.
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