August 16, 2022
By Patrick Sweeney
For the longest time, the 9mm 1911 was the red-headed stepchild of the shooting world. This was in part due to everyone being focused on, and desirous of, a 1911 in .45 ACP. (Well, not the revolver shooters, but they weren’t interested in anything 9mm, so no change there.) The 1911 shooters who chose “other” would usually pick the .38 Super. And the reason for the Super was, in the beginning, because of reliability. You see, the 1911, having been designed for the .45 ACP, wasn’t all that happy about having to handle a shorter cartridge. Then, when IPSC shooters found the advantages of the pair-up of the .38 Super and comps, there was no interest in a 9mm 1911. It couldn’t make Major (and back then, Major was a 180 power factor/PF, not the 165 it is now) and in the early-to-mid 1980s, reloading reliable 9mm at any power level was, shall we say, a hassle. By comparison, getting Major out of a .38 Super was easy.
Well, things change, and the Springfield Emissary makes change all the easier to accept. The base pistol is a 1911 (obviously) but Springfield went and added in some details that make this one an exemplar of a 9mm delivery system. First, two-tone. The slide is blued steel, the frame stainless. We did this in the old days by having the frame hard-chromed once we had it detailed, so as to keep it from rusting from the relentless handling it took to get good at shooting. Springfield takes care of us here in both aspects. One, the frame is fully featured, and the stainless isn’t going to rust, at least as long as you are only sweating on it.
From the Top Down
The slide, blued steel, is machined with a tri-top contour instead of a radiused curve. This puts a fraction more steel into the slide, and this helps handle recoil. (We’ll gush over that in a bit.) The nose cuts are of the style known as ball-end cuts, and thus less steel is also removed here compared to the regular cuts. Again, more steel, less recoil. The front cocking serrations are placed on the angled flats of the slide, not on the side flats, while the rear ones are on the side flats. That creates an interesting appearance, and it also makes the front serrations ready for your hand if you use the “match chamber press” method. This method involves, when you want to see if there’s a round in the chamber, of holding the pistol in your firing grip, and placing the thumb and base of your thumb’s support hand over the top of the slide, and then easing the slide back to check. The cocking serrations of the Emissary are perfectly placed to make that easier. If you favor the older methods, then the rear cocking serrations are right where you expect them to be.
In addition to the tri-top machining of the slide, Springfield added lengthwise grooves on the top flat, to cut down on glare. I don’t know how much glare there is, or it actually cuts, but damn it looks good. The sights are a tritium night front, with a large yellow-green ring around it, and a semi-circular U-shaped rear notch. The notch has a ring of white paint around it. This is a wicked-fast when needed, and still plenty precise aiming method. Also, the rear sight has a squarish shoulder on its front face, so you can use the rear sight as a slide-racking feature, should you need to do that one-handed. This is a technique you should be trained on, and practice with, before you need it.
The barrel on the Emissary is a bull-barrel contour. This means that there is no barrel bushing, so instead the front of the barrel is machined as a cone, and the cone locks up inside the slide as the slide goes to the front. This does two things. First, it reduces the number of parts needed to make the Emissary, and also the number of machine cuts required to fabricate the slide and barrel. It also puts more steel into the lockup part of the cycle, without adding that weight to the movement part of the cycle. When the Emissary fires, there is more mass that has to be moved back and unlinked. But once unlinked, the slide does not have to transport that extra mass, and the slide thus can cycle normally. A bull barrel does, however, add to the work of disassembly, something we’ll get to then.
The muzzle is deeply coned, to protect the crown of the bore, and the shooting residue clearly displays the number of lands and grooves after a bit of use. The five-inch barrel has an integral feed ramp, which means the frame has to be machined to take the ramp, unlike your standard 1911 frame. This isn’t new, as one of the first steps to upgrade the .38 Supers back in the day was to fit them with an integral-ramp barrel. This provides more support to the case, to better handle +P pressures. It also provides the feed ramp geometry, so it is better suited to the 9mm, versus the .45 ACP. Oh, and the barrel hood has an observation port, to let you chamber-check if you wish to. Just look in to see if it is loaded.
The extractor and ejector are pure 1911, the extractor a springing steel part inside the slide, and the ejector is a fixed blade pinned to the frame. Nothing new here, nor need there be anything new. The frame is where all the other goodness resides. As mentioned, the stainless steel of the frame, which is given a soft matte finish once it has been machined to dimensions. Out front, the dust cover has an accessory rail. The rail lets you mount a light, a laser, a combo unit, or a bayonet perhaps or even a cup holder. (Okay, a bit of humor there. Who wants a bayonet on a 1911?) This also adds weight. The front edge of the dust cover is machined at an angle to match the trailing ball-end cut of the slide, and the contour is distinctive and attractive. The dust cover is also made wider, to match the width of the accessory rail, and that width is carried back until just before the slide stop shaft hole. This adds a bit more steel as well.
The trigger guard is squared-off. The corner has a small radius to it, it isn’t a sharp-edged ninety degrees, but it is square, and the front of the trigger guard is vertical. OK, a bit more history. Many of us tried that back in the very early 1980s, and some had even tried it back in the Disco Era. The idea is simple: get the index finger of your support hand up on and wrapped around the trigger guard, and you have more leverage to deal with recoil. Except, it doesn’t work. The very first video recordings (Done on tape, of all things. “Tape,” look it up.) showed my index finger coming off of the trigger guard during recoil, no matter how hard I tried to hang on. I’m sure there’s an internet “expert” who will tell you it is the latest, greatest, invented by SEALs thing, but that ain’t so. Oh, it looks good, and I like it, but it isn’t a recoil-mitigation feature to depend on.
The trigger is flat-faced, with slight bevels at the top and bottom. This too was something experimented with back in the old days and found to be beneficial. A flat-faced trigger offers your trigger finger less leverage to pull up or press down while pressing the trigger back, this benefit aids in slightly decreasing group size. The bevels on top and bottom act to channel your trigger finger towards the center of the trigger face, increasing consistency of pull. As a single-action pistol, the 1911 is known for its light, crisp and short trigger pull and short, quick reset. In this regard, Springfield again did not see the need to reinvent the wheel, and the Emissary sent is an exemplar of the 1911 trigger pull.
Competition shooters can be real trigger snobs. Fellow gun writer Jim Tarr is an example here. His scorn over mushy, spongy, gritty triggers has been at times epic. This isn’t one he could complain about. Me, I’m both a snob and not. Like my coffee, I really appreciate a top-performing sample of java or trigger, but I can work with awful triggers when I have to. (Ever shoot a rack-grade M4? Oh, the horror.) I can drink really bad coffee, too, a learned skill from my radio days. On this pistol, I don’t have to worry, and I can be snobbish. It delivers.
The controls on the 1911 are all customarily on the left side, and here Springfield decided to show some contrast. The slide stop, thumb safety, magazine button, plunger tube, hammer and grip safety are all blued steel, and show up nicely against the stainless of the frame. The slide stop is standard, no extended lever here. (Which is almost always a bad idea, by the way, do yourself a favor and pass on the foot-long slide stop levers.) The thumb safety is extended, it has an arc to it, and it clicks up and down with distinct settings on each. The grip safety is what we used to call a beavertail, but now we call “standard” in that it protects your hand completely from the hammer arc. There is a pocket in the grip safety for the hammer to move in to when it cycles, and the bottom of the grip safety has a speed bump, to increase the leverage of your hand depressing the grip safety when you need it to.
The front strap and the mainspring housing are machined with a square-shaped non-slip pattern of raised blocks. This is interesting, and effective, but one detail that caught my eye was where the grooves for the pattern end. Springfield doesn’t pull the cutter all the way around on the frontstrap, but instead ends each cut just before it comes to the grips, which is an interesting look. I’m not sure if there’s a mechanical or non-slip texture advantage, or it avoids a disadvantage, but it is interesting. The square-block pattern carries over onto the flat mainspring housing, and on the bottom of the frame the mag well has been given a subtle but effective bevel, for faster reloads.
The grips, made by VZGrips of alternate-color, gray and white, layers of G10, has the same square-block nonslip pattern, but the detail that really caused me to notice is that they are flat. They are thinner than the standard grips and make the grip of the Emissary more rectangular in outline. This is another detail I had found back in the 1980s, and once I discovered it provided me an advantage, I made sure I put it on all my competition and carry 1911s. Flat grips give you (or at least, me) a better index. Not that I’m point-shooting, but with the front sight more on-center on the draw and presentation, I have less to do to get things fully lined up.
The Emissary came with a pair of nine-shot magazines, but it is easy to find lots of other magazines, and you can even score ten-shot mags for the 1911 in 9mm.
Now, the disassembly of a coned-barrel 1911 with a full-length guide rod? It requires a special tool. All of us who have such a beast have an assemblage of bent paperclips in our range bags, because you need one. Springfield includes a special-made tool for just this purpose. The tool looks like an allen wrench with a short leg. (And yes, some of us made our disassembly tool from Allen wrenches of the right size.)
To disassemble. Unload the Emissary and remove the magazine. Lock the slide back. Take the special tool and insert the short leg of the tool into the hole drilled through the guide rod. Now release the slide and ease it forward (this takes some practice, don’t be alarmed if you fumble it the first few times) until the slide stops against the tool, trapping it in the guide rod. The recoil spring tension is not captured. Move the slide until the takedown notch in the slide lines up with the slide stop tip, and press the slide stop out. Now pull the slide assembly forward off of the frame. Pull the recoil spring assembly out the rear of the slide, and the barrel out the front, and you’re done.
The extra steel here and there, the accessory rail, it all adds up, and the empty Emissary in 9mm weighs 44 ounces. This may seem a bit much for a carry gun, and it might be, but a good holster will make it ride a lot lighter than it tips the scales at. What you do get is a soft-shooting pistol. So soft that it might even be considered cheating. The 9mm doesn’t recoil all that briskly, but the +P loads up the recoil ante. Well, put +P ammo in an all-steel 1911, and you are right back to “soft to shoot” territory. And the +P loads get their bullets to the targets right now. On the 100-yard range the gongs let out a brisk ring when hit (and the Emissary hit them on pretty much every shot) and on the handgun range the pepper poppers didn’t just fall over, they practically leapt over. Someone watching would have been hard-pressed to tell if I was whacking poppers with a 9mm or a .45.
Once I had determined just how soft to shoot the Emissary was, I set aside the standard 9mm ammo and my reloads and dug into the shelf of +P ammo. Even at that, it wasn’t as hard in recoil as a similar pistol would be in .45 ACP, and it remained fun to shoot. I’m glad I changed to just the hot ammo, because this gun liked hot ammo. And the hotter the better, with really small groups from all. Some of these loads are LE-only, others are regular items, well, regular in today’s world of ammo shortages means when you can find them. But worth finding.
Now, it is possible that if you have a soft grip on your pistol (hey, I’m not judging, I’m just saying) then you might find that you’ll need to back off a step-in recoil spring weight to keep it functioning with the softest-recoiling 9mm ammo. If you are in the habit, say, of loading your practice and competition ammo right down to the threshold of Power Factor, the factory recoil spring might be too light. I never had a problem with the Emissary, and it locked open even with makes-Minor loads, but that’s just me. And if you are feeding it the hottest defensive ammo, there’s no need to step up. The Emissary can take it.
OK, the match method is one that some new shooters have a problem with. “My hand is near the muzzle.” Yep, and your hand is near the muzzle every time you hold a handgun, also. But your hand is behind the muzzle, and perfectly placed to control things, should something go wrong. On top, recoil can’t make it rise, you can easily push the muzzle back down. With your hands in this configuration, it is nearly impossible to point the muzzle at yourself (something other methods make easier) or someone else on the firing line (something some methods make almost certain).
Also, you lack leverage. This means you are going to have a greater tactile sensitivity to anything being amiss. If a round is a tight fit and wedged into the chamber, you’ll feel it this way, where other methods have enough leverage that you might not notice it.
A press-check is a rare thing or should be. Once you have even a small familiarity with your firearm, you can hear when a round is being chambered. You can see that one is missing in the magazine when you go to top off. There’s only one place that “missing” round can be, so you really don’t need to press-check then. But people do it, so you should do it safely. The Emissary makes it easy to do it safely.
Modern shooters have it so lucky. One of the upgrades that resulted from the fractious adoption of the M9 back in the 1980s was the marked improvement in 9mm ammo. And its continued improvement afterwards. One aspect of the adoption back then was the assertion that the 1911s in government inventory were “worn out” and “inaccurate” and the government “just had to do something” about that. As with so many things that “everyone knows,” it wasn’t true. The Air Force (they first had the task of adopting a new pistol) stepped right in, and quickly found out that the “worn out” 1911s, fed vanilla-plain ball ammo, were more accurate than the 9mm pistols being offered for adoption. Basically, the 9mm ammo of the time sucked. Well, at least the FMJ they used.
That a 9mm pistol was going to be adopted was a done deal, so the Air Force dropped everything, and immediately began the work of creating match 9mm ammo, to feed the 9mm pistols. Once that was done, the 9mm pistols being tested were at least as accurate as the rattly old 1911s being dissed and were planned to be soon discarded. They hung around for a long time, however.
Once the 9mm was the clear future, and police departments were going to look at it, every 9mm ammo maker had to step up their game. After all, no department was going to adopt a 9mm pistol if it meant decreased qualification scores.
The 9mm is now as accurate as anything. But it isn’t head-and-shoulders better than a quality .45 ACP load or pistol. Just softer to shoot.
Springfield Armory Emissary 9mm Government Model Specifications
- Type: Hammer-fired semi-automatic
- Caliber: 9mm
- Capacity: 9+1 rounds
- Barrel: 5 in.
- Overall Length: 8.4 in.
- Height: 5.25 in.
- Width: 1 in.
- Weight: 44 oz
- Finish: Black oxide steel slide, stainless frame
- Grips: G10
- Sights: U rear, tritium front
- Trigger: 3.8 lbs.
- MSRP: $ 1,349
- Contact: Springfield Armory, (800) 680-6866, Springfield-Armory.com