June 29, 2020
Recently I was having a conversation with my fiancee’s twenty-something son, giving him some history on Flint and Detroit of which he was completely ignorant, mostly because modern news media at all levels is, with very few exceptions, an idiot echo chamber and a parade of tabloid propaganda that deliberately keeps its viewers ignorant of facts and history. But, that conversation with him was a reminder to me of the phrase, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
For example, most people think of Rock River Arms (RockRiverArms.com) as an AR company that also makes 1911s. I’ve got enough gray in my beard/miles under my tires/pick a euphemism that means old/ that I know Rock River Arms is a 1911 company that jumped on the AR bandwagon just at the right time, and lately has been getting back to its roots.
I’m been shooting USPSA matches since 1993, and I remember back in the day RRA was known as a company that made single stack 1911s which were held in very high regard, hovering in that realm somewhere between factory and hand-built custom. Competition guns were moving toward high-cap 1911s at the same time that ARs were going mainstream, so perhaps RRA picked just the right moment to diversify, but single-stack 1911s are going as strong as ever these days, and Rock River has renewed their commitment to this classic American design. They currently offer seven different 1911 pistols, and I secured a sample of the Basic Limited to test.
I referred to the 1911 as a “classic American design”, and holding RRA’s Basic Limited in my hand I got a huge feeling of nostalgia. It is a spot-on version of the kind of custom 1911 that was considered the go-to back in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Before I dive into the specs let me remind the viewers at home that Rock River’s 1911s still fall into that “better than factory but not quite hand-built custom” niche in both quality and price. Actually, maybe just price — after spending some time with the Basic Limited, I have to say it seems to be the equal in fit, finish, and features of some of the “old school” 1911s put out by the well-known custom houses. While being $500–$1000 cheaper.
The Basic Limited is a full-size Government Model 1911. It is available in any caliber you want as long as it’s .45 ACP, and any finish you want as long as its blued.
Actually, simply describing this finish as blued doesn’t do it justice. RRA refers to this as a “lustrous blued finish”, and I don’t know if the photos will show just how fabulous this blued finish is. It is rich and deep and perfectly done. The sides of the frame and slide are polished to a satin finish, while the top of the slide is matte to cut the glare when you’re aiming.
The only downside to bluing? It isn’t nearly as tough as most of the modern corrosion resistant finishes. But it is much better looking.
Rock River starts out with a forged National Match slide and frame. Back in the day every part of a 1911 was machined on analog machines, and then needed to be hand fit. With modern CNC machining companies are able to get tighter and more consistent slide-to-frame fits than ever before. However, even CNC machines work to tolerances, and the best pistols always benefit from extra attention and hand-fitting. When you start out with tighter-fitting parts it takes much less work to make a production pistol as tight as a custom gun, and this 1911 was rock solid.
The slide to frame fit was, as they used to say in the gun magazines I read growing up, “bank vault tight”. There was absolutely no side-to-side play between the frame and slide, and no discernible movement when I pushed down on the barrel hood. FYI that’s one quick way to check barrel fit on a 1911, with its swinging link. If by pushing down on the barrel hood you can get it to move when the pistol’s in battery, that means it won’t be as accurate as it could be.
That tightness didn’t mean the slide was hard to rack — on the contrary, the slide cycled smoothly. Any custom shop that makes 1911s meant for carry (as opposed to bullseye guns) so tight when new that you have to fight to cycle them is doing it wrong. I don’t care if that’s your trademark.
Rock River Arms guarantees this pistol will shoot 2.5-inch groups at 50 yards with 185-grain Federal Gold Medal Match semi-wadcutter ammo. That is amazingly accurate, and far more accurate than most people are capable of shooting a handgun. I didn’t have access to a Ransom Rest or that specific ammo so don’t expect to see that kind of results, but let’s just say I knew right where the bullet was going to go with every pull of the trigger.
While they don’t mention it on the website page detailing the specs of this pistol, the Basic Limited is fitted with a Kart National Match barrel. For those of you not up to speed on who makes the best 1911 match barrels, Kart is right at the top of a very short list. These barrels are made oversize, and have to be fit to the gun. The front of the barrel is slightly flared to mate perfectly with the bushing, which is also a Kart National Match piece. Like I’ve been saying, the Basic Limited is between factory and full-house custom in price, but tends toward the latter in quality, fit, and finish.
As for the National Match bushing, the mark of true 1911 craftsmen is building a custom-grade 1911 with a bushing that allows no play between the barrel and slide, yet is removable by hand — “finger tight” is the phrase. You’ll find such a bushing on the Basic Limited, however…because the pistol doesn’t use a standard “GI” recoil system but rather a full-length guide rod with a hollow recoil spring plug, you’ll need to use both an Allen wrench and a bushing wrench to take the pistol apart for cleaning.
The recoil spring system John Browning designed for the 1911 consists of a recoil spring guide that is about an inch and a half long and a solid flat-faced recoil spring plug. What you have on the Basic Limited is a full-length recoil spring guide rod that actually protrudes out the front of the recoil spring plug. To take the pistol apart you first have to stick a 5/32 Allen wrench in the end of the recoil spring guide and unscrew it. The forward two-thirds of the rod will come out the front of the gun, and from there the pistol can be disassembled (and reassembled) as you would a GI gun.
Because the recoil spring plug doesn’t have a flat face but is hollow and has sharp edges at the front you’ll want a bushing wrench to push it down and turn the bushing. I recommend polymer bushing wrenches, and you simply can’t scratch your gun with them, and they’re inexpensive.
The slide has old-style angled serrations, but with an addition you see more on modern guns — serrations at the front as well as the rear of the slide. These angled serrations aren’t as aggressive as the more modern flat-bottomed serrations, but they look classier and definitely fit the old-school look of this 1911.
The Basic Limited has no firing pin safety. In 1911 lingo, it is a “Series ‘70” as opposed to a “Series ‘80”. This, technically, means that the Basic Limited — like every 1911 issued by the U.S. Government — is not drop safe. However, it takes a long drop directly muzzle down onto a hard surface to even hope to get an AD, and Rock River Arms like most modern 1911 makers have reduced the chances of that happening with reduced weight firing pins.
The rear sight is described as RRA’s “low mount hidden leaf rear sight”. It is the RRA version of the legendary Bo-Mar BMCS (Bo-Mar Combat Sight), buried into the slide as is most common these days, and is as good a copy as I’ve seen. The BMCS was the original adjustable 1911 sight deemed tough enough for combat/defensive use and now that BMCS has closed its doors everybody is making a copy of this sight. It is click adjustable for both windage and elevation.
The front sight is a plain black serrated ramp, dovetailed into place. The front of the sight post is full width, and closer to the muzzle it is narrowed to give you the crispest sight picture possible. This “plain black front sight” is actually much more high speed than it first appears, and while not as fancy as modern hi-viz sights it definitely gets the job done. I carried and shot a 1911 with black sights for years and didn’t feel disadvantaged. Then again, I practiced my draw for hours every week, so my muscle memory put those sights exactly on every time even if the black was a little hard to pick up — a reminder that practice and training can usually overcome “inferior” equipment.
The hammer is a stainless “Commander-style” model. Here’s a 1911 refresher for you newbies — all the original Government model guns came with spur hammers, which don’t work when you want to put in a high-ride beavertail grip safety. With the Commander model Colt introduced a rounded/rowel-style hammer, and now just about every 1911 except for retro/GI models use them, as just about every 1911 but retro models these days wears a beavertail grip safety.
The match grade hammer is mated to a match grade sear, both manufactured using steel far superior to what was available just a few decades ago. That means the hooks on the sear won’t wear down in a thousand rounds, causing hammer follow.
The beavertail grip safety on this pistol is a copy of the Ed Brown model, which puts the hand higher on the pistol than any other non-custom beavertail. It features a raised bump at the bottom of the safety to ensure deactivation. The mainspring housing is steel and checkered 25 lines per inch (lpi).
A lot of people would describe the profile where the trigger guard meets the frame on this pistol as an “undercut trigger guard” but they’d be wrong. However, don’t think this is a criticism but rather a clarification.
Compared to an original 1911 there is a big difference — the original GI gun sports a long gentle curve down from the trigger guard to the frame. The trigger guard on the Basic Limited goes straight back until it hits the line of the front strap, but it is not undercut. The frame cut on the Basic Limited allows your hand to sit nearly an eighth of an inch higher on the gun — which might not sound like much but is — it’s just not undercut. Truly undercut trigger guards sweep upward toward the trigger before curving back down, and most of the time you can only find that on truly custom 1911s. And sometimes not even then.
Just about every proven enhancement to the basic GI 1911 design that originated in the 1970s and ‘80s you can find on this gun, from the long three-hole trigger to the trigger guard cut straight back to the frame, to the flat 25 lpi-checkered mainspring housing and frontstrap on the gun. Of course, front straps in the 70s, 80s, and 90s were all checkered by hand, and these days they’re all done by CNC machine, but that just means checkered guns are more accessible to the general gun-buying population.
If you haven’t looked at an old or authentic reproduction of those original 1911s lately you probably might not notice the other differences that set the newer guns apart and make them more reliable. Things like the lowered and flared ejection port on the Basic Limited. Internally it sports an extended ejector, which has been found to enhanced reliability. The extractor has been tuned and polished. The feed ramp angle is different than those original GI guns only designed to feed FMJs, and the ramp has been polished. The barrel mouth has been “throated” to improve reliability with non-FMJ rounds. The magazine well in the frame has been nicely beveled to smooth reloads.
The last time I reviewed a RRA 1911 was close to two years ago, and one of the few complaints I had with the pistol was that it was only supplied with one 7-round magazine. 8-round magazines have been the standard for .45 ACP 1911s for close to two decades. That oversight has apparently been corrected, as the Basic Limited is supplied with one stainless steel 8-round magazine.
You will note that this pistol has no forward tactical rail. There is both good and bad to that. Good in that I think the traditional rail-less 1911 frame looks better aesthetically, and they are lighter. Over the course of 10 years or so I carried and shot competitively two .45 ACP single stack 1911s, and neither of them had frame rails, and I didn’t feel compromised by not having the ability to slap a tactical light on my sidearm. But that is a negative with a rail-less frame, and the added weight of those rails are exactly what some people like. Heck, check out modern high-cap competition 1911s, they all sport frames with extra wide dustcovers that run all the way out to the muzzle for more recoil-absorbing weight. But they look hideous (at least in my humble opinion) compared to the lines of a classic 1911 like the Basic Limited.
Continuing with the classic looks of this pistol are double diamond checkered rosewood grips. Not as grippy or “tactical” perhaps as some of the newest G10 grips on the market, but definitely classy.
A bilateral extended thumb safety is standard on the Basic Limited. A piece like this is far superior to the original GI design, and allows you to carry the pistol cocked-and-locked without worry that you will miss the safety if you’re in a hurry.
The thumb safety on an expensive 1911 is often where the rubber meets the road, as people older than me liked to say. By that I mean it is often at the rear of the thumb safety where you’ll find out if the people who put the pistol together are regular and avid 1911 shooters. 1911 shooters tend to shoot the gun with a thumb-high hold (right thumb atop the safety lever to keep the thumb safety from getting bumped up during firing). This only tends to jam any corner or edge at the rear of the gun harder into your hand.
Poorly built 1911s have edges and/or corners at the fear of the frame near the safety or on the body of the safety. A properly built 1911 should sport a nearly constant curve from the back of the beavertail grip safety to the side of the thumb safety, and that’s just what you’ll see on the Basic Limited.
My only real complaint with this pistol comes from a decade of carrying custom 1911s, many of which I customized myself until they were exactly how I wanted. I prefer a thumb safety that has very positive clicks which you can both feel and hear as you move it up and down. I want someone standing across a crowded room to hear my thumb safety coming off. That way, in the heat of the moment as I’m doing a house clearing or maneuvering to put my car between me and a bad guy, my lizard brain knows whether or not that thumb safety is ON or OFF. The thumb safety on the Basic Limited clicked softly when being deactivated, and there was no click at all when engaging it with my hand in a firing grip. I know how to adjust the safety click volume/resistance in just a few minutes with a hand file, I was just disappointed that the pistol wasn’t 100% perfect, but rather just 99% (at least according to my individual specs).
Between the time I got this pistol in and was able to head to the range with it, I did a little TV filming. We were in Georgia filming the next season of Handguns & Defensive Weapons on the property of Pendleton Safes/Revolution Targets, and I was saying good things about this pistol to one of the employees, who is a gun guy/1911 fan/combat veteran.
“Do you really think it’s the equal to a Wilson Combat or Nighthawk Custom?” he asked me dubiously, meaning accuracy.
“Well, I haven’t shot it for accuracy yet, but the truth is most people can’t shoot well enough to even know if there is a difference between a two- or three-inch gun (at 25 yards), much less between a one-and-a-half and two-inch gun. When you get to a certain price point, you’re just paying extra for the name on the slide,” I told him. Considering Rock River Arms guarantees this to be a 1.25-inch gun at 25 yards with the right ammo, I’m pretty sure that extra $$$ is just going toward the name on the slide….
This pistol was just a joy to shoot. I had a good time punching holes in paper and knocking down steel plate racks at the local range. I shot it off sandbags for accuracy and the results were impressive. I like using sandbags as opposed to a machine rest because you’re actually aiming the gun and pulling the trigger. I’m sure if I did stick it into a Ransom Rest it would have come close to that advertised accuracy with some of the loads I used.
A Government Model in .45 ACP has some serious recoil, but once you factor in the checkering and high cut frame and beavertail the gun behaves very consistently, with the front sight dropping back down in the notch of the rear sight every time. And that checkering and higher grip on the gun actually helps mitigate some of the muzzle rise when compared to a GI pistol.
Back when I worshipped at the altar of the 1911, and the .45 ACP, I carried a 1911 like this for years. It is big, and heavy, but because it is so flat, if you’re not small and you choose a good holster/belt combo, you can conceal a full-size 1911 surprisingly well. Personally I recommend a Beltman belt (TheBeltman.net) and a Kramer Vertical Scabbard in horsehide (KramerLeather.com), but there are dozens of quality choices out there.
Every 1911 I’ve tested from Rock River Arms over the past few years has just been an excellent piece, and the Basic Limited is no exception. If you’re in the market for an old-school custom 1911 with a price that won’t give you heart palpitations, give it a look.
James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. He is also the author of several books, including CARNIVORE, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current novel, Waiting for The Kick, is available now through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Rock River Arms Basic Limited 1911 Specs
- Caliber: .45 ACP
- Capacity: 8+1
- Barrel Length: 5.0"
- Overall Length: 8.5"
- Height: 5.5"
- Width: 1.34"
- Weight: 37 ounces
- Slide Material: Steel
- Frame Material: Steel
- Grips: Rosewood
- Safeties: Grip safety, ambi thumb safety
- Sights:Serrated ramp front; fully adjustable rear
- Trigger: 4.0 lbs (as tested)
- Accessories: One 8-round magazine, trigger lock, case
- MSRP: $1950.00
- Contact: Rock River Arms; 309-792-5780; RockRiverArms.com
Rock River Arms Basic Limited 1911 Accuracy Results