November 12, 2020
By James Tarr
Stand by as I commit blasphemy—I am going to start a review of one product by mentioning not just a completely different product, but one made by a direct competitor, something you’re never supposed to do. However, we can’t honestly talk about the modern 1911 market, or the new retroish Springfield Armory Ronin Operator, without mentioning what Kimber did in the 1990s.
In the factory 1911 market of the 1990s, in the minds of the average Joe, there was Colt, and there was everyone else. In truth, Colt was coasting along on name recognition alone, having done little to update its 1911s in decades. It was also pretty much ignoring the commerical market while it focused on its military contracts, making a few anti-gun missteps to appease the Clinton administration along the way. At the time the country was full of the best 1911 gunsmiths in the world, and in fact Springfield Armory itself had an amazing custom shop—just ask Rob Leatham, who has been using their products to win national and world championships since roughly the Jurassic. But custom shop guns come at a price.
Then, roughly 25 years ago, Kimber turned the 1911 world on its ear by offering 1911s straight from the factory loaded with what, at the time, were features only available from gunsmiths or custom shops—combat sights, properly fit beavertails, extended thumb safeties, etc. But that’s not the biggest thing to set them apart—these tricked-out pistols, offering most if not all of the modern upgrades Jeff Cooper by that time had been promoting for twenty years, were priced competitively—not to custom guns, but instead to factory 1911s. They were roughly $700 if I remember correctly, which was far less than what a custom 1911 with the same features would cost.
It took Colt ten years before they started offering similar pistols, and by then they had lost a huge percentage of their market share—the consumer had moved on, now desirous of modern features on their 1911 instead of needing a specific four letter word on their slide.
Springfield Armory did and in fact still has their world-class custom shop, but Kimber’s entry into the market with darn near full custom 1911s at factory prices forced them to up their game even further—a rising tide lifts all boats, as they say, with the consumer being the winner (FYI this is exactly what Springfield did to the AR market with their Saint five years ago).
In the twenty-five years since, Springfield Armory has continued to be a major player in the handgun market. Their factory models now, in fact, are equal in fit and features to the guns coming out of their custom shop thirty years ago, making best use of the efficiencies and tighter tolerances of modern manufacturing, which has moved from analog to digital (CNC).
However, as more and more “custom” features became standard on 1911s, prices continued to rise. Manufacturing costs of all-metal guns (like the 1911) are inherently higher than that of polymer-framed guns, and the price gap between America’s pistol (the 1911) and the very popular polymer-framed striker-fired pistol designs (Springfield XDM, Glock, S&W M&P, etc.) has grown larger.
Enter the Springfield Armory Ronin Operator series.
Springfield’s Ronin Operator series is meant to offer shooters all the features they need in a pistol with somewhat retro looks (think 1980s-era custom carry guns) at the lowest possible cost. As a result, every model of the Ronin has a suggested retail price of just $849. If you do the reverse-inflation calculation, that means this same pistol in 1995 would have cost just $500, blowing the above-mentioned Kimbers out of the water—while offering tighter CNC tolerances (more on that in a bit).
The series now consists of four pistols—you’ve got your choice of 5- or 4.25-inch barrels, chambered in .45 ACP or 9mm. For this review I secured one of the brand-new 4.25-inch barreled Commander-size 9mms, which is fed by nine-round stainless steel magazines.
The word ‘Ronin’ has been used before. It is an excellent action movie from 1998, and the one of the best graphic novels from the 1980s from Frank Miller (Sin City, 300). The word ronin is Japanese, and means masterless Samurai.
In their marketing materials Springfield says that the Ronin offers “classic styling.” They are talking about the two-tone finish of the pistol, which is designed to mimic the blued-over-stainless look of 1911s from the 1970s and ‘80s. These are meant to be defensive pistols, built for carry, offering everything you need in a 1911 to get the job done…with a little two-tone good looks thrown in for good measure.
Let’s talk about why that two-tone look existed. Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, when the 1911 became the go-to choice of professional pistoleros, many of whom lived in the hot southwest, they knew bluing did a very poor job of preventing rust. Stainless steel of course existed, but the stainless of the day was not the same as the stainless of today, and when trying to construct any semi-auto pistol with both a stainless steel slide and frame the manufacturers encountered what is called galling.
The stainless steel of the day did not play well with itself, and if you had a stainless slide moving against a stainless frame it would stick against itself, causing cycling issues. Thus, the two-tone 1911 was born. It paired a stainless steel frame, which would resist the salts of your hand and body, with a blued slide.
All versions of the Ronin feature slides which have been hot salt blued. The sides of the slide have been polished, and the rest of the slide has been left matte. The end result looks very classy, and classic. While bluing isn’t as corrosion resistant as many modern finishes, it is less expensive to apply, and I remind you to look at that $849 MSRP.
The full-size five-inch versions of the Ronin sport stainless steel frames. The 4.25-inch barreled lightweight Commander models have aluminum frames with a satin Cerakote finish. The end result, at least in 9mm, weighs 30.4 ounces with an empty magazine in place according to my digital scale. I imagine the .45 ACP version would be slightly lighter, as the barrel walls would be thinner and it has no integral steel feed ramp on the barrel.
Back in the 1980s, the Colt Lightweight Commander was considered by many to be the ultimate carry gun for professionals, pairing an aluminum frame with a 4.25-inch barreled .45 ACP top end. The 4.25" Ronin Operator is the modern version of that, and this 9mm version is, perhaps, the ultimate iteration of the 1911 Commander package.
A slight detour: if you’re familiar at all with Springfield Armory 1911s you might be looking at photos of this gun and be confused as to why it is called the Ronin Operator. Traditionally, Springfield applied the term ‘Operator” to those of its 1911s with tactical rails on the frame to which you could mount a light or laser. None of the Ronin Operator models have a frame rail. I reached out to Springfield and learned that beginning with the Ronin, they will be using the term Operator any damn way they want. AND HOW DARE YOU EVEN QUESTION THEM?
They just decided to do something different, that’s all. Back to our regularly scheduled programming:
The steel front sight has a red fiber optic insert, and spare inch-long lengths of red and green fiber optic rod are provided with the pistol. The rear sight is steel and serrated, with white dots on either side of the flat-bottomed notch. Springfield calls this their “Tactical Rack” rear sight, and the front of it is vertical, allowing you to rack the slide-one handed on a hard surface in the event one of your hands is disabled.
Personally I prefer a plain black rear sight, but if this was my pistol I could fix that quickly with a paint pen. Remember, the rear sight is a window frame—you’re supposed to be looking through it, not at it, so any details or colors on that rear sight which draw your eye should be avoided. That said, because the front sight insert is a different color than the dots on the rear sight, you won’t have to worry about confusing one for the other as is sometimes the case with three identical white dots.
The slide serrations are narrow, but instead of the original classic angle grind they are flat-bottomed, making them a bit more aggressive. On the left side of the slide you’ll see RONIN OPERATOR laser-etched in small letters, and on the right is Springfield Armory, with their crossed cannons logo.
The 4.25-inch forged barrel is stainless steel. The last half inch or so is slightly oversized to more tightly mate to the stainless steel bushing, which at least in my sample was loose enough to be removed by hand, I didn’t need a bushing wrench. The barrel has an integral ramp which has become the go-to design for the utmost reliability with 9mm. The chamber is also fully supported, something you want with the high pressure 9mm, but which isn’t so important on the lower pressure .45 ACP (even though the .45 ACP has far more recoil).
There is a tiny notch at the top rear of the barrel hood which serves as a loaded chamber indicator, and allows this pistol to be sold in those states whose bureaucrats believe they know more about gun safety and manufacturing than the actual gun makers themselves….
This pistol has a standard short recoil spring guide, and a lighter recoil spring than what you’ll find in the .45 ACP versions. That is another selling point of 9mm 1911s, especially for people with compromised grip strength—less force is needed to cycle the slide.
As for slide to barrel to frame fit, it is excellent. There was just the tiniest bit of play between the frame and slide, and when pushing down on the barrel hood when it was in battery there was only the slightest nearly imperceptible bit of movement. For a $849 1911, this is excellent.
Seriously, look around the internet at 1911 prices. Between the cost of materials and machining time, you will be hard-pressed to find a 1911 made in America for anything approaching the cost of the Ronin that isn’t a piece of junk. Ruger is the largest firearms manufacturer in America, and even with their volume their equivalent 1911 models are over $100 more expensive than the Ronin, while exibiting much looser fit.
Modern CNC machining produces far tighter tolerances than what used to be possible with analog machines—if that’s what you program into them, and Springfield does. Custom 1911s of the 1970s and ‘80s were hand-fit to make them as tight as possible without sacrificing reliability, but that often took a lot of work. With modern CNC machining, not only are the guns tighter, but the parts are more consistently machined, and consistency is the heart of reliability.
The composite wood grips of the Ronin are half checkered and have the Springfield crossed cannons logo. The checkering is positioned so that it will be under your fingertips whether you are right- or left-handed. While these are not officially “thin” grips, they are on the narrow side as 1911 panels go, which I think fits in perfectly with the CCW bent of this pistol. They make the pistol feel very thin.
The polymer trigger bow on the Ronin is skeletonized and extended. The mainspring housing, hammer, slide release, magazine release, thumb safety, grip safety, and hammer and sear pins are all stainless steel. The mainspring housing is checkered. The thumb safety is single-sided and extended. The magazine well opening in the frame is nicely beveled.
The hammer spring on my sample was quite strong, resulting in a slightly heavy but very crisp five pound pull. No matter the type or brand of pistol, as trigger parts wear in the trigger pull lightens up somewhat. I’ve found with 1911s that after 1000–2000 rounds the trigger pull weight will drop 1/4–1/2 pound and then stay there forever.
This pistol has a full-size “Government length” frame, and as such is fed by a full-size magazine, in this case one designed for the 9mm cartridge, with a polymer basepad for positive seating. You get one nine-round magazine with the pistol, although Springfield thoughtfully provided me two additional magazines for testing. While all of them worked just fine…the current standard capacity for full-size 9mm 1911 magazines is 10 rounds. 10, not 9.
Since you only get one magazine with your pistol, and you should always have at least two, I suggest buying some of the fabuous 10-round 9mm 1911 magazines on the market. You’ve got a lot of choices, all of them good. Check out Wilson Combat (WilsonCombat.com) and Chip McCormick (CMCProducts.com) for starters.
You want to know what you couldn’t get in the 1990s? A 1911 chambered in 9mm that was reliable. In fact, back then you’d be hard-pressed to find a 1911 chambered in 9mm at all. 1911 fans worshipped at the altar of the manstopping .45 ACP and had nothing but scorn and derision for the pipsqueak 9mm. Shooting someone with a 9mm, you’d be lucky to even hurt their feelings. If you wanted a 1911 in a smaller caliber, you were stuck with the oddball .38 Super, which was a semi-rimmed cartridge built to the same length as the .45 ACP.
I checked—no manufacturer would provide me hard sales data, but from hints here and there it seems that these days, 9mm 1911s are at least as popular as .45 ACP models, if not outselling them. There are two main reasons for this, higher capacity and lower
recoil. There is also another very important reason—it is no longer the 1980s. Improvements in bullet technology have made modern 9mm hollowpoints as effective as the vaunted .45 ACP. While offering less recoil and higher capacity.
All that aside, the main reason you either couldn’t find or didn’t want a 1911 chambered in 9mm up until the past decade or so was because they simply weren’t reliable. No matter who made them. That has changed, but let me explain the issue:
The 1911 was designed around the .45 ACP cartridge which has an OAL of 1.275". The 9mm cartridge is not just subtantially (20%) narrower, with an OAL of 1.169" it is also markedly shorter. That .106" difference in length might not seem like much, but it actually is huge when it comes to firearm function. It’s only been in the past decade or so that 9mm 1911s have become as reliable as their .45 ACP counterparts. While the widespread use of ramped barrels has helped, these reliability improvements are equally due to improvements in magazine design.
9mm cartridges in a standard 1911 magazine body have a lot of room to move, and will slop back and forth under recoil. Having every cartridge in a different position as the slide cycles back and forth will not make for a reliable pistol. In addition to indenting the sides of 9mm 1911 magazines so the cartridges cannot move side to side, magazine manufacturers began altering their magazines to keep the cartridges from moving forward and back.
Most 9mm 1911 magazines (such as the one provided with this pistol) now have a steel spacer welded inside the rear of the magazine to keep the cartridges positioned forward. This keeps the front of the 9mm cartridge not just the same distance from the feed ramp every time, but the same distance from the feed ramp as you’d get with a .45 ACP cartridge. This means cartridge movement to the feed ramp is ideal, the cartridge leaves the magazine feed lips when it should, etc etc.
The front of the magazine body comes up higher than you’ll see with .45 ACP magazines. This helps prevent any nosediving of the bullet, and the front of the magazine actually works as a sort of additional feed ramp to the cartridge as it exits the magazine.
At the range the Ronin provided no surprises. It was very soft-shooting, and when I didn’t jerk the trigger, the bullets went exactly where I was aiming. Accuracy was equal or better to most non-custom 1911s I’ve tested over the past few years.
In .45 ACP I might have some worries, but in 9mm the lack of checkering or any sort of texturing on the front strap of this pistol was not a concern. It didn’t move in my hands.
I decided to do a little experimenting at the range, working on my “hammers”. Jeff Cooper originally used the term “double tap” to indicate shooting the same target twice in rapid succession, but later realized that term wasn’t specific enough. He separated it into “controlled pairs”— shooting twice as quickly as you could, but reacquiring your sights for that second shot, and “hammers”— using your sights for the first shot, but firing the second one as fast as you could without specifically reacquiring the sights.
At ten yards I found that I could keep both hits in the A-zone of a USPSA target. This was in part because I’m just not that fast on the trigger (I was averaging .20-second splits), but it was also (and mostly) because the recoil impulse with this pistol is so gentle.
A brief aside, if you’ll indulge me: the Ronin Operator pistols are meant to be defensive pistols. However, 1911s like the Ronin are single-action pistols. If the hammer isn’t cocked, it is just a very expensive paperweight. And whatever pistol you carry should be carried in such a manner that you can draw and fire it smoothly with one hand.
Which means, if you’re not going to carry a 1911 in Condition One (hammer cocked, thumb safety engaged), carry a different kind of pistol. You shouldn’t be carrying a 1911.
I don’t care if that cocked hammer looks scary—it isn’t. In fact, a 1911, with its grip and thumb safety, both of which have to be disengaged for the pistol to fire, is mechanically safer than the average striker-fired pistol which only has one external safety lever, the one on the trigger. Accidental discharges with striker-fired guns when something gets inside the trigger guard during the draw or reholstering are common—that shouldn’t happen with a 1911, whose thumb safety should be engaged until the sights are moving toward the target, and whose grip safety is always on except when you’re gripping the gun. A 1911 only looks scarier and less safe than a Glock/XDM/M&P/etc., but it is in fact the opposite.
While I wish Springfield supplied more than one magazine with this pistol (or that it held ten rounds instead of nine) I understand they were aiming for a certain price point. However, they do provide a nice black nylon carrying case. I wouldn’t call it a discreet carrying case as it is emblazoned with the Springfield Armory name and logo, but it is a nice extra, and there is a separate pocket inside the case for a magazine.
If you’re looking for a classicly-styled 1911 with solid fit and performance, from one of the category leaders, you should check out the Springfield Armory Ronin Operator.
Springfield Ronin 9mm Commander Specs
- Caliber: 9mm (as tested, .45 ACP also available)
- Capacity: 9+1
- Barrel Length: 4.25"
- Overall Length: 7.9"
- Height: 5.5"
- Width: 1.3"
- Weight (unloaded): 30.4 ounces
- Slide Material: Steel, blued
- Frame material: Aluminum, satin Cerakote finish
- Safeties: Grip safety, thumb safety
- Sights: Red fiber optic front, Tactical Rack rear
- Grips: Wood laminate
- Trigger: 5.0 lbs (as tested)
- Accessories: One 9-round magazines, cable lock, soft case
- MSRP: $849.00
- Manufactuer: Springfield Armory; Springfield-Armory.com
Springfield Ronin 9mm Commander Accuracy Results