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The Battle of the American .45 ACP Pistols of the late 80s to early 90s

By Luis Valdes


The late 1980s and early 1990s was an era of rapid transformation and transition. The last final gasps of the Revolver as the Primary Duty Sidearm of American Law Enforcement was being heard. Criminals, Cops, and Citizens alike were rearming themselves with the latest and greatest of the Wonder-Nines. This article is in no way about those guns. Instead, this article is going in a different direction. The same direction that some Police, Citizens, and Ne’er-do-wells went. Today, we’re talking about the .45 ACP, or more importantly. Two pistols of the era that were chambered in them.

Yes, you read that right. We’re goig to discuss the two guns chambered in the cartridge that Americans romanticize about but has always been treated as the stepchild in the Law Enforcement world. The biggest hurdle that the .45 ACP has always faced has been its size. Many love the 230gr behemoth because it harkens back to the days of cavalry charges with sabers and shooting a horse out from under its rider. But that also was its detriment. The size of the .45 ACP meant it was and is a big mamajama of a cartridge and to fit it in guns, you need a big old honking chunk of steel. And today we’re looking at two massive chunks of American made steel.

Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut has been making guns in .45 ACP since 1905. They invented the bloody thing. So it makes since that one of the guns we’d be looking at is a Colt. I know, some here are gonna ask, “is it the Colt Series 90 Double Eagle?” Alas dear reader, no it is not. For you see, I am poor and have not found one yet at poor people prices. No, the gun we’re discussing today is a gun made for poor people like me; the Colt 1991A1 Government Model.

Colt took the basic MK IV Series 80 Government Model 1911 and looked at what could be changed to lower manufacturing and production costs. One of the things Colt learned from their competitors was that at the time, the no-nonsense military look was actually selling well. Both the Norinco and Springfield Armory made guns looked like WWII era USGI contract guns. Luckily for Colt, that meant less time finishing the guns. Instead of the polishing and blueing; a “no frills tough guy attitude” set of features was included.  A matte parkerized finish was applied, black plastic grip instead of woods, a nylon mainspring housing and trigger pad instead of alloy, a set of plain black sights, and they shipped from the factory with two seven round magazines.

Also, with a bit of clever marketing, a simple “COLT M1991A1” slide rollmark and the serial number range picked up where the original USGI contract pistols left off in 1945. Colt even cashed in on the general gnashing of teeth that former service members and gun aficionados had towatds towards the adoption of the 9mm and the Beretta as the new military service pistol and had it all ready for release by it’s name sake, in 1991.

The other gun we’re looking at is a gun of 80s Reaganesque Awesomeness that comes to us by the Smith & Wesson Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. S&W had some history with the .45 ACP, but prior to 1985, all of the company’s endeavors with the cartridge was with N-Frame Revolvers like the M1917, Model of 1955, and the Model 25 & 625. S&W was doing fairly well with their 1st and 2nd generations of their DA/SA 9mm guns. But the market was demanding something in .45 ACP. So after some fiddling around with math, science, and gun alchemy. The Mod 645 was born in 1985 and replaced in 1988 by the 3rd generation Model 4506.

Taking everything S&W learned from their 9mm guns, they produced a hell of a gun in stainless steel. Everything on it is stainless steel except the plastic orange insert in the front sight and the carbon steel rear sight. Shipping from the factory with two eight round magazines and wearing a set of plastic checkered grips. You got a hell of a gun.

But this gun was not cheap new, even in 1980s Cocaine Fueled Economic Stimulus Money. S&W pushed this gun heavily and it even became the “star” of Miami Vice in season 3 & 4. This gun was marketed as being so cool, it required a windbreaker.

Yup, that’s what is being compared to today. A 1980s Movie Star and a 1990s Grizzled Old War Vet. But both have their share of charms in their own way. The Colt weighs in at 2.3lbs and the S&W just tops it at 2.4lbs. Both sport a five inch barrel and have been slightly changed by me.

My Colt is wearing a pair of period Hogue wrap around grips the the S&W is wearing a pair of Pachmayr Signature grips. I also swapped out the main spring housing on the Colt for an arched one. You can clearly see the 1911 inspiration in the 645. The slide profile and general layout shows it, but with the modern touches like a ambidextrous slide mounted safety/decocker and squared off combat trigger guard that was all the rage then. The sights are similar too, but the S&W just has a little bit more flair in theirs.

Neither are bad and my blind self is able to see the sights clearly and feel confident and comfortable in using both.

Another difference between the guns is the extractors. The Colt has the ever classic internal extractor while the S&W has an external one. Both guns are reliable enough that they feed and extract empty shell casings.

Capacity is what you’d expect. The factory shipped the Colt with seven round mags, but I have a pile of Colt eight rounders. So both guns are equal with an 8+1 capacity. Also, both mags are all metal with metal floor plates.

Both guns take down in a similar fashion too. Unload, remove the magazine, pull the slide back about half way, and drift out the takedown/slide stop pin.

The Colt breaks down into nine parts. The Colt likes to eject the recoil spring plug half way to the Moon.

The S&W breaks down into seven parts. It has no recoil spring plug and no removable barrel bushing. But it sure does love to launch the guide ride to Pluto.

Okay, now that we got the nitty gritty techno junk out of the way. Let’s look at what’s really important. Worthless personal opinions from a cop who’s professionally carried nothing but GLOCKS in 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 GAP in his entire decade and a half career!

So, the Colt of course being a Series 80 1911, it has the firing in block safety installed and that is something true dyed in the wool 1911 aficionados hate. Why? Because they claim it ruins the sweet succulent pull of a 1911’s trigger. Me personally, I don’t care much and can’t really tell the difference. Having cut my teeth as a wee pup on guns like a Beretta 92FS and a S&W Mod 64. I pretty much don’t begrudge what some consider a bad SA trigger pull.

Honest, I don’t mind the factory trigger on a Series 80 1911. The gun shoots fine to me for its intended task. Being able to sling 230rd chunks of copper jacketed lead at paper and bad guys. Being a SAO gun, I’m fine with that too. But I can tell you this, Agency Administration would have a heart attack for the most part in seeing a cocked and locked 1911 in a Patrolman’s holster. Yes, I know some agencies allow 1911s to be carried for work. But some agencies also allow Firemen into the squad room for some reason and it isn’t for hazing or ridiculing them either. So for the most part, a 1911 is verboten for police work. But I wouldn’t feel under-gunned with one if allowed.

Now, the S&W was made specifically for Law Enforcement and the Agencies that have mental conniptions towards 1911s that rival those of a college student when you tell him he actually has to get a job and pay for his own things.

The S&W being a 2nd generation DA/SA from Big Blue means that there was still a lot of refinements needed to be made. Those were fixed with the 3rd generation. But I feel there were more issues with the 9mm guns than the .45 ACP guns. Comparing my 645 to my 4506-1.

The changes were not as dramatic with the .45 ACP guns as they were for the 9mm guns. The 645 and 4506-1 are pretty much the same except the 3rd gen gun was a post 1998 model so the trigger guard was rounded instead of squared off and the sights are Novak pattern. The original 4506 had a very similar appearance to the 645, except it had the one piece wrap around grips that also worked as the mainspring housing instead of the two piece panel grips and a separate mainspring housing. I actually find the grip profile of the 645 to be better than the 4506-1.

Another good thing about the 645 was that since it was replaced by the 4506, that means in the early 1990s. You can get a new 645 for a good price since dealers were trying to clear out their inventory to sell the new hotness that was the 4506.

The trigger pull on the S&W is very good for a DA/SA. Smooth in DA and a very short reset and pull in SA. And that means the gun can be carriered with one in the pipe, hammer down, and safety off. And for police work, that’s damn good because there is no safety to fumble with. Sure, I personally feel confident with a 1911 and having to disengage the safety. But we all know that not every cop is a gun guy just like not every soldier is a Green Beret.

Personally, the S&W edges out the Colt on the fact that it is a DA/SA gun. Like I said, I grew up shooting them and I like not having to fiddle with a safety if I don’t have too. Not that I have anything against the 1911, I’d feel completely confident with it and I do carry them off duty from time to time. But the S&W to me just had that little bit of difference enough that if I were poor and broke rookie in 1992 and could only afford one gun. I’d go with a S&W 645.

(Wrong conclusion, but not everyone is perfect -Shawn)

6 thoughts on “The Battle of the American .45 ACP Pistols of the late 80s to early 90s”

  1. “Honest, I don’t mind the factory trigger on a Series 80 1911.”

    Heresy!

    OK, objectively, if you want to improve the Series 80 trigger, this can be done with some nitrided parts from C&S:

    https://cylinder-slide.com/Item/CS0003

    These parts make a Series 80 trigger “suck less.” Not “not suck,” but “suck less.”

    Reply
    • I personally have zero problems with the series 80 FCG myself and have never understood the over hyped whining about it. It’s a bit of a pain when detailed disassembly yeah. But for how it feels I have no complaints about it on a carry gun. I wouldn’t pick it for bullseye but for duty use I think its just fine

      Reply
      • The early ones, with Colt’s finishing going to hell at the time, could have some really rough trigger pulls as all those parts shifted in the frame or slide.

        If you have a smooth hole in the slide, and a smooth firing pin block, and the two parts for the FP safety are smoothed off and lubed a little bit, then it’s not too bad. Most people have never felt a really well tuned S70 or earlier 1911 trigger. When they’re done correctly, and polished just so, they’re a trigger pull that is difficult to replicate on most pistols.

        In that period of time, Colt had some bad ideas (the S80) and good ideas (the S70 Collet Bushing, which made ‘normal’ 1911’s pretty darn accurate. Colt got to re-learn the lessons that the gun-buying public had taught Winchester after 1964…

        Reply
    • What’s most silly about that ad is that in the 80’s, you could carry in so few states.

      Most states were “may issue,” and with the exception of Vermont, there were no other Constitutional Carry states out there.

      Talking to folks here in Wyoming, even Wyoming used to be pretty darn restrictive about giving out CCW’s in the 80’s. Wear it open carry? Sure. CCW? Nope.

      Reply

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