RUNNING OFF THE RAILS:
Comparing Six Rail-Gun Pistols

Photos by Liam Clendenen

I’m not a great fan of weapon-mounted lights for most situations. With good training, there are a boatload of techniques that allow a shooter to manipulate a pistol or carbine and a light, and even a pump shotgun and a light, though that’s more difficult.

A patrol officer in Washington State had to be disciplined for using his Glock-mounted light to illuminate vehicles on all traffic stops, since everyone in the car was muzzled on the stops (see rule #2).

If you are an actual, for-real Delta troop, SEAL Team Six operator, or full-time SWAT guy from a major department who shoots 50,000 rounds a year, you may be able to get away with it.

For us mere mortals, it might not be the best idea.

One major exception, depending on where and with whom you live, would be your home-defense pistol. If you have five teenagers and an open-door policy for their friends, no. If you’re an over-55 empty nester, or a prepper who lives remotely, yes.

The bottom line is that friendly fire isn’t, and none of us want to explain to the police why we killed the drunk neighbor from next door. Identification of the potential threat is critical before the gunfight commences.

With about 80% of assaults on police officers occurring between 2000 and 0200 hours, we have reason to need light to fight in the dark.

Pistols used in evaluation, left to right, top row: Roberts Defense with SureFire XC1, Browning Black Label with Streamlight TLR-6, Colt M45A1 with SureFire X300. Bottom row: Roberts Defense 9mm, STI 9mm, Colt Rail Gun with SureFire X200.

Pistols used in evaluation, left to right, top row: Roberts Defense with SureFire XC1, Browning Black Label with Streamlight TLR-6, Colt M45A1 with SureFire X300. Bottom row: Roberts Defense 9mm, STI 9mm, Colt Rail Gun with SureFire X200.

I went through the SureFire Low-Light instructor class several years ago at Gunsite. It was an eye-opener—human eyes suck in the dark, and most animals see better than we do.

Color, the ability to see small details, depth perception, and focus are all greatly affected by the dark. Our eyes dilate so they can gather more light, which equals information, then we can make the right decision. Add a serious level of fear and stress, and things can go south quickly.

My preferred home-defense weapon is a Vang Comp Systems 870 shotgun, 14.5-inch barrel, with a SureFire forend light and four rounds of 00 buckshot in the magazine. But that gun resides in a Tactical Walls safe across the room from the bed. My Nighthawk Recon .45 with SureFire X300 light attached is within reach when I’m flat on my back.

I tend to be a .45 guy, but lots of folks prefer a 9mm. I discovered that there aren’t too many 1911 rail guns in 9mm. Colt doesn’t make one, but I found three that filled the bill. I also found the Browning Black Label compact in .380 with a rail.

1911s WITH LIGHT RAILS

Add a Gemtech GM-45 suppressor to a rail gun with mounted light and you have a gun that should handle any mission.

Add a Gemtech GM-45 suppressor to a rail gun with mounted light and you have a gun that should handle any mission.

I’m a die-hard 1911 and revolver shooter, so I decided to see what was out there in quality 1911 defensive handguns with light rails. I fully understand that all the plastic guns have rail models, but I stayed with what I know and trust.

Colt, Nighthawk, Browning, Roberts Defense, and STI all ponied up so I could pass on the information to S.W.A.T. readers (Kimber and Dan Wesson declined to participate). After cleaning, each gun got an initial 200 rounds of ball and 100 rounds of JHP. Black Hills, some reloads, Remington, CCI, and Winchester were fired later.

Just to be critical, I also shot two magazines of 185-grain Match wadcutter through each .45. I used only Black Hills 230-grain JHP and 124-grain JHP ammunition, respectively, to test accuracy, so each gun got the same chance.

One thing that chaps my butt is a quality gun with cheap magazines. I don’t expect to buy a $2,500 U.S.-built pistol and get a $3 Italian magazine, but it happens, and Colt still sends a seven-round magazine.

I leveled the playing field and used only Chip McCormick CMC mags. Chip has been making quality magazines for over 30 years, and they keep getting better.

The new Railed Power Mags (RPM) for .45s have patent-pending “feed rails” that are up to four times stronger than standard feed lips. The mag is all new, from the improved baseplate to the three extra coils of rocket wire to the rails, and I’m happy to report that they performed as advertised. Chip believes these are the best 1911 magazines ever built, and I tend to agree. I used McCormick Shooting Star mags for the 9mm pistols.

Since your life may depend on a quality gun that feeds well, don’t scrimp on the mags!

Pistols with light rails need lights. I have both SureFire X200 and X300 lights but wanted to expand my horizons a little.

A stop at the Streamlight booth at SHOT resulted in two pistol lights: the model TLR-6, one in black and one in bronze. Like every other Streamlight I’ve used, these lights were outstanding. The compact TLR-6 includes a laser sight, which some shooters will really like. In today’s 10,000-lumen light craze, the 100-lumen light on these models sounds puny, but it’s more than enough to ID a threat across the bedroom.

I also reached out to SureFire for an XC1 and another X300.

BROWNING

McCormick magazines fed and ran perfectly with all loads except Match wadcutter.

McCormick magazines fed and ran perfectly with all loads except Match wadcutter.

The Browning Black Label compact .380 was a hoot. Like the other Black Labels I’ve tested, the little rail gun ran and shot very well. But like the others, the memory bump on the grip safety is problematic. 1911 shooters should keep the thumb on top of the safety when shooting. The bump allows the grip safety to remain depressed while the thumb is up on the safety. I have to either adjust my grip or put my thumb under the safety, which might cause me to turn the gun off when I need it the most. This one feature needs some work.

That said, the Browning would be a good choice for recoil-sensitive shooters, keeping in mind that the .380 is at the bottom of the power curve. With the Streamlight TLR-6 mounted, and fully loaded, the gun weighs only about 20 ounces. The 90-grain Black Hills JHP shot very well and thumped the steel, so this gun would be an acceptable choice for some folks. The 100-lumen output is enough to ID a threat across the room, and the laser could be a plus under stress.

COLT

Author’s personal choice of guns tested was the Colt Rail Gun—accurate and reliable, regardless of the load.

Author’s personal choice of guns tested was the Colt Rail Gun—accurate and reliable, regardless of the load.

Colt sent me an M45A1 and a two-tone commercial model, the Rail Gun, which I decided to buy. The M45 is a civilian version of the USMC pistol, without USMC markings and with a bronze Cerakote finish. Very few Colt 1911s come with a Series 70 action—the Wiley Clapp models and the Gunsite pistol are about it.

The two rail guns have the Series 80 action, which adds a third safety to the world’s safest pistol. This abomination can be removed and replaced, so I got two Nighthawk trigger groups and sent the guns to Sheepdog Knife and Gun.

Jon Grossman’s expert installation of the top-quality parts gave me two guns with clean and crisp 3.5-pound triggers. I sent both slides to Heinie and added Heinie tall suppressor sights, since I plan to shoot them with my Gemtech GM-45 suppressor. I also changed the thin stock panels for Hogue grips, allowing a grip that fits me better.

Once de-fornicated, both Colts did as they should and were reliable and accurate. I did not have a single malfunction with ball and hollow points, and they ate almost every round I fed them. The M45 didn’t feed the Match wadcutter, but the Rail Gun did. The M45 fit my hand differently than the Rail Gun, mostly due to the ambi safety on the M45 and the Smith & Alexander magwell I added to the Rail Gun.

If you can live with the Series 80 safety, the guns are well priced. MSRP on the Rail Gun is $1,199.00 and the M45 is $1,699.00. The trigger job outlined above adds about $250 to the cost, which puts the total cost in the upper teens. It’s worth it to me, and a good value either way.

NIGHTHAWK

If you’re flush with cash, Nighthawk makes one of the best 1911 pistols on the planet. I’ve owned several, and the GRP Recon has been on my nightstand for ten years. Like all Nighthawks I’ve shot, the gun is 100% reliable, incredibly accurate, and has a trigger that “breaks like a glass rod.”

The gun sits on the windowsill with a SureFire X300 light and 11 rounds of Black Hills 230-grain JHP .45 ACP (I use a McCormick ten-round mag in this gun, since I probably won’t be dressed when I pick it up.). MSRP is $3,295.00.

I did get the chance to test the new Nighthawk Silent Hawk suppressor-ready 9mm. Why a suppressor on a home-defense pistol? So you can hear something other than bells after the first shot!

It would be nice to hear the dog barking, kids screaming, the dirtbag yelling “Don’t shoot” … and later, the police telling you to put the expletive-deleted gun down. But the can adds weight and bulk, so it’s not generally on the gun.

The Silent Hawk was mechanical art. I only had one day with it and the outside temperature was 18 degrees, but with a couple of pauses to warm my hands, the gun was outstanding. I fired 200 rounds of ball, but the gun didn’t like the reloads, resulting in six failures to eject. Factory ammo ran perfectly.

I think a 9mm should use a JHP/JSP for defensive carry, so I loaded up some Black Hills 124-grain JHP and shot a 48-round qual. The four head shots went into one hole, and only one round dropped from the “A” zone. After a few minutes inside to warm my hands, the gun put five rounds into a nickel-sized group.

The Silent Hawk is one of the best pistols I’ve ever shot, but the $4,200.00 price tag made me send it back right after testing.

ROBERTS DEFENSE

Wide variety of ammo was used in evaluation.

Wide variety of ammo was used in evaluation.

Roberts Defense is a new kid on the block. I met them at SHOT in 2017 and was immediately impressed with the fit and finish, and the clean triggers. While new to the 1911 market, Roberts has been in the business of fine machine work for over 100 years.

The frames and slides are 80% guns, purchased from a major manufacturer. The smaller parts and barrels are also contracted but everything on the gun should be built in-house by this year.

I’m usually leery of tight 1911s as being unreliable, but these guns did pretty well. My rule of thumb on the barrel bushing is that it needs to be finger tight, not requiring a bushing wrench. RD supplied a wrench with each gun, which was sorely needed. I suggest a standard drop-in bushing—who carries a wrench in the field?

The company sent a full-size Desert Operator in .45, Desert Tan/Black, and a Commander-size Dark Ops Custom with rail in 9mm—I was in 1911 hog heaven. I asked for Heinie tall suppressor sights and a threaded barrel on the full-size gun, which were no problem to provide.

The Desert Operator was really a good pistol. I had a couple hundred rounds through it when I went to Thunder Ranch for my annual “vacation.” We spent a day on the main range with pistols, plus a run through The Terminator shoothouse. The main range is lead-free frangible only, and the big pistol ran flawlessly. It also ate 16 rounds of Match wadcutter without a burp.

I only had one stoppage, shooting a reload with the suppressor mounted. I used a Streamlight ProTac HL X 1000 Lumen handheld light due to the problem outlined below, and the 1,000 lumens did the job very well. This would be a great combination for SWAT teams.

But I didn’t like the ambi thumb safety—wide as an aircraft carrier deck and slightly curved downward, which hampered my grip while riding the thumb safety.

One serious flaw was the single notch on the rail for the light. Most rails have three or four notches, to mate up with different lights, and my X200 light would not lock in. The X300 would lock if slammed to the rear but was then difficult to remove. I was able to mount the SureFire XC1, which worked well but isn’t the ideal light for a tactical pistol.

A light needs to lock on or unlock easily, and this is a real problem, since you buy a rail gun to mount a good light. I contacted Roberts and was told that the slot was carefully measured and the X300 should work. I laid the GRP, both Colts, the STI, and the Desert Ops side by side and it appears that the notch is slightly misplaced, a fraction of an inch too close to the trigger guard.

If these two glitches were corrected, this pistol would be near top of the heap of quality defensive 1911 pistols. However, RD considers more slots to be a custom feature requiring a special order. Bovine fecal matter—do it right! As tested, MSRP is $2,500.00. I can’t recommend this gun until the problems are fixed.

I ran the snot out of the 9mm rail gun. The SureFire X200 and X300 as described above would not lock on, given the single slot and the length of the frame.

I shot ball, hollow points, soft points, weights from 115 to 147 grains, fed it everything I had, and had no complaints except for the wide safety. My best five-shot group with Black Hills 124-grain JHP rounds was the size of a quarter at seven yards.

STI

STI makes a really nice pistol. The tested model, the Tactical SS 5.0, came without a magazine, but the McCormick mags worked very well. The non-standard barrel (no bushing or guide rod) and recoil spring/guide rod require a tool to disassemble, which I didn’t care for. When examined in the light, faint tool marks were visible on the front cocking serrations—unacceptable, and the trigger was made of plastic! In a pistol this expensive, that won’t do. Having said all that, the gun ran completely reliably and was scary accurate.

After dialing in the adjustable sights, I ran a plate rack at 40 yards, six for six. The steel pepper popper at 100 yards was a piece of cake, holding high chest. Singles, pairs, triples, failure drills, anything out to 15 yards resulted in one large hole. The gun feels great in the hand and was well balanced, but seemed more appropriate for competition than for duty use. It would be a great home-defense pistol, since it wouldn’t carry well in most holsters.

MSRP on STI guns is around $2,500.

MAN CAMP

Colt Rail Gun, great mags, ammo, and light—solution to problems that happen at night.

Colt Rail Gun, great mags, ammo, and light—solution to problems that happen at night.

I took all the guns to Man Camp, an annual gathering of like-minded souls. I placed them all on a table, laid out boxes and bags of everything I had ammo wise, including “bastard bags” (ammo of unknown parentage). I told anyone who wanted to shoot them, do it—just keep track of which rounds caused problems.

The STI won the popular vote. Shooters were shooting mag after mag at a 12×12 steel plate at 50 yards. It was really smooth, really accurate, and really easy to shoot. In .45 ACP, the Colt Rail Gun carried the day. When I shot it for accuracy, it was the most accurate—five rounds through one hole at seven yards.

Revolver guys don’t need to feel left out. The S&W Thunder Ranch Model 325 was designed by Clint Smith, a true revolver master, to meet the needs of a true defensive revolver. It uses the M1917 full-moon clips, has a mid-size grip, a smooth double-action trigger, and will mount a light on the under-barrel rail.

Many younger shooters have little or no experience with revolvers, but lots of Old Guys grew up on them. A well-built gun with good ammo added on to training and experience makes the revolver a good choice for some. The fact that the 325 mounts a light makes it very viable for home defense.

Some will scoff at six rounds when most auto-pistols hold more, but if you can’t solve the problem with six across the bedroom, get more training or a Claymore mine.

For me, the pick of the litter was the Colt Rail Gun. It was accurate, 100% reliable, accepted a light without a problem, and is very affordable. With the added cost of the trigger job, final cost was just under $1,500. Heinie suppressor sights and a suppressor barrel add cost, but if you don’t need them, you win.

I did order two Ed Brown “drop-in” threaded barrels from Brownells. I use quote marks since both barrels needed hand fitting, but they were as accurate and reliable as the stock barrels.

The military standard of RAMD means reliable, available, maintainable, and durable. Add an “A” for affordable and the Colt Rail Gun runs the table. I’ve owned a lot of expensive guns and still have a couple, but find that they are mostly not worth the money.

If a $1,500 gun performs better than one at twice the price, with all being equal, spend the extra money on training.

We all know a guy who has to have a “better” (more expensive) gun than you. Good for him. For me, something that performs like the Rail Gun, from a company that has been the world standard since 1911, works.

I’ll use the extra cash for another trip to Thunder Ranch.

SOURCES


BLACK HILLS AMMUNITION
(605) 348-5150
www.black-hills.com

BROWNELLS INC.
(800) 741-0015
www.brownells.com

BROWNING
(800) 333-3288
www.browning.com

CMC MAGS
(830) 798-2863
www.cmcmags.com

COLT’S MANUFACTURING COMPANY LLC
(800) 962-2658
www.coltsmfg.com

HEINIE SPECIALTY PRODUCTS
(217) 228-9500
www.heinie.com

NIGHTHAWK CUSTOM
(877) 268-4867
www.nighthawkcustom.com

ROBERTS DEFENSE
(855) 762-1911
www.robertsdefense.com

STREAMLIGHT®, INC.
(800) 523-7488
www.streamlight.com

STI
(512) 819-0656
www.stiguns.com

SUREFIRE, LLC
(800) 828-8809
www.surefire.com
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