Why a Rock Island?
Let’s face it — the gun reviewed here isn’t particularly sexy. There’s no big marketing push, so there are no ads in magazines, and the night-time gun-review types on TV aren’t featuring it. What we’re talking about it a budget gun with a budget price and very few frills.
So why review it? Because I run THR, and we frequently see posts by users asking for an “affordable” 1911 that they can buy in order to evaluate the platform. RIA is one of the most affordable options out there, is widely available, and as such is often recommended to people just starting with the 1911 platform.
The gun being reviewed is a Rock Island Armory 1911A1-FS. This is one step above the baseline gun — the additional $50 gets you Novak-style sights, an ambidextrous safety, a beaver tail safety, and a few other small touches that are probably worth the upgrade price. The price wasn’t bad at all — my local gunshop had this in stock and sold it to me for $529. If you’ve got someone to do your transfers for free then you can find this for ~ $420 online.
Here’s what it looked like out of the box:
The big thing to note here is the grips — I won’t call them “huge,” but they are the thickest grips I’ve seen on a 1911. One of the other reviewers I took to Gunsite guessed that this is the blank that checked grips are made from, and as such has a lot more material than one would expect. Regardless, I replaced them with thin grips while at Gunsite, and you can see the difference between the two here:
I was quite pleased with the smaller grips, but then I tend to prefer thin grips and single-stack magazines anyway. If you are more tolerant of wider pistols then you might not have the same complaint.
The Goals of the Test
I was trying to answer this question: does RIA make a pistol that’s worth recommending to shooters on a budget? Discussions on budget 1911’s tend to offer mixed opinions ranging from “anything that costs less than $1,200 will never feed properly,” to “the RIA and other guns from the Philippines are fine guns,” all the way to “no 1911 will never run reliably, especially when dirty.”
So the test was this: use the gun for Gunsite’s 250 course, don’t clean it, and see how it performs.
This was the part of the test I was most interested in. How will one of the least inexpensive 1911’s on the market hold up to over 1,000 rounds in a week without being cleaned? The answer was “much better than I expected based on what I’ve read about the platform.” The maintenance routine looked something like this:
- Shoot 50 rounds before Gunsite to make sure everything feeds properly.
- Shoot an additional 200 rounds on Monday. Clean the gun Monday night because the cleaning habit is hard to break.
- Shoot an additional 1,200 rounds over the rest of the week, lubing the pistol a bit on Thursday night because I couldn’t stand not to (6 drops of CLP total).
That’s as close as I can remember getting to running a dirty weapon, but the RIA didn’t seem to care at all. I had two malfunctions the entire time. Both were from short-stroking the slide — once because I was working on a new way of manipulating the weapon while under stress, and the second time was at night (again) performing new procedures while (again) under stress.
The pistol had no identifiable reliability issues the entire week.
Not bad for a cheap 1911.
Here is where we see some of the trade-offs involved in choosing a lower-priced 1911. The overall fit of the gun was decent, but not nearly on the same level as some of the other pistols on the course.
There isn’t much to be critical of here. The trigger was crisp, if a little heavy at a measured 5 pounds. The on-site Gunsmith commented that trigger work wouldn’t make the trigger any better, but he was able to adjust the sear spring down to 4 pounds in about three minutes.
The sights were Novak style. The gun shot point of aim and I have no complaints — I had a very clear picture even during night shooting with the stock sights, and (unlike the Kimber I tried on the first day) I didn’t tear my hand open while working the slide as forcefully as we were taught to do.
In a word, “ouch.” The ambidextrous safety that came from the factory was easy to manipulate and engaged cleanly, but when shooting 200 rounds per day the sharpness of the safety was enough to tear into the web of my hand, so I completed the course using a mixture of surgical tape, moleskin, and bandaids on the web of my hand.
I had the on-site gunsmith replace this safety with a Gunsite lowered safety and was much happier.
The build quality was surprisingly good — the Gunsite gunsmith was even impressed. I don’t know how to say this other than “the parts fit together well.” One item of note: if you look at the photo of the safety above, you can see the pin on the front of the safety. When I swapped the ambi safety for a single-sided the gunsmith ground that pin down so it would fit flush and noted that the steel was stainless rather than something less expensive. Just like on the higher-end brands.
I was drawing from a Kydex holster throughout the week, and there was some resulting wear on the finish. It’s blued, so that’s to be expected, but the wear was higher than on an STI we brought along to review as well.
I’m not experienced enough with holsters to say whether this is a Kydex issue or an issue with the finish from the factory, but you should be aware of it if you’re planning on using a Kydex holster. The following photo is from an STI Trojan that was taken to Gunsite as well. It saw about 80% of the use that the Rock Island did, but the finish seemed to wear quite a lot less. It’s still noticable, but not nearly as much.
At the price level, this pistol is quite well featured. The safety was set up so that left-handed and right-handed shooters could manipulate it. The sights were non-adjustable, but this is a good thing for a defensive firearm in my view. The beavertail safety is sufficient and reasonably comfortable as well.
Conclusion: would I recommend this to someone looking for a first 1911?
Absolutely. This was reliable, accurate, reasonably full featured, affordable, and only became uncomfortable with extended shooting — much more than casual shooters are likely to engage in. The changes I felt the need to make (grips and safety) cost about $140 in parts and labor, which still makes this considerably cheaper than the STI Trojan we brought along. Now, it’s not as nice a gun, but if you’re looking for a reliable and affordable 1911 I have no qualms with recommending this pistol.
Except possibly one. There is a question as to whether I got lucky with this gun or not. If I was buying an Ed Brown or a Wilson 1911 I would have the expectation that every gun that leaves the factory meets their quality standards. With a gun in the $400-500 range I’d expect that many manufacturers would leave the more difficult quality control to the buyer, with the expectation that the gun would simply be returned under warranty if it wasn’t up to par. This is similar to the expectations one might have when comparing a two-star hotel to a five-star hotel — the the latter case you’re paying to make sure the towels have no holes, the TV remote works, the fridge is plugged in, and so on. With the two-star these failures aren’t a big deal, and you’re supposed to call and get the problems fixed. It’s about expectations.