Building an entry level 1911 is a hell of a thing.
The 1911 is a pistol known for its accuracy. It’s not necessarily the most mechanically accurate gun; certainly a tightly fit bushing and a quality barrel offers some level of control over the exact orientation of the barrel, but there are lots of ways to ensure tight lockup. The real secret is the trigger: it can be made so short and light that the shooter basically lacks the ability to screw up the shot. You can jerk the trigger and flinch and get everything wrong, but it’s such a short amount of time before the gun goes off, you probably won’t disturb the alignment of the pistol enough to really ruin the shot. Besides which, if the trigger is light enough, you won’t be muscling the gun around as you clamp down with your trigger finger. Essentially, the 1911 allows you to cheat.
Of course, the design is over a century old. It was created by a mechanical genius who worked with hand tools and fitted everything together one part at a time, and at the time that he died, the word “computer” was still primarily used to describe a human being who used instruments to calculate equations. It would be another decade before another genius, this one of the mathematical variety, Alan Turing, would write the seminal paper “on computable numbers,” in which he theorized about the possibility of machines which could solve any problem that could be represented as an algorithm. Yet another decade would elapse before these ideas truly took shape, but the influence of this paper on the mathematicians and engineers of the day would ultimately give rise to the modern computer.
In John Moses Browning’s day, therefore, CNC machining was still a little way off.
Despite the antiquity of the design, we’ve somehow become accustomed to the idea that a 1911 represents the ne plus ultra of handgun accuracy and mechanical perfection. No doubt this belief comes from the wealth of American pistolsmiths who fixated on the 1911, building works of art that changed the scope of firearms history.
But these vaunted masterpieces cost thousands of dollars. The entry-point to the limited production 1911 world starts at around $2000 and climbs rapidly from that point. Even the most basic Colt is a thousand dollar gun in this country, and unless you have the web of your thumb surgically removed, that’s a tough sell with the modern thumbs-forward grip technique. And the sights…should GI sights be renamed, considering lots of people can’t actually see them? What’s a low-buck 1911-loving pistolero to do?
The simple answer is: go downmarket. These days, there are a lot of offshore 1911 builders making pretty decent copies, and as long as you can accept the fact that you’re not buying a Wilson Combat for the price of a single car payment, some of them are getting pretty good.
Let’s take a look at Canada’s latest supplier of entry-level 1911s: Seraphim Armoury.
The Seraphim Armoury lineup currently features five models, one of which, their flagship Archangel model, is available in a blued or stainless finish. We took all six pistols for a workout at the range and had a good hard look at them before and after. What’s the verdict on Canada’s newest supplier of 1911s?
These are handsome pistols that are clearly the product of skilled hand-fitting. Across the board, barrel to bushing fit was reasonably tight, barrel hood to slide fit snug, feed ramps in the right place (don’t laugh, we’ve seen this done wrong more often than you’d guess) and, while we don’t consider this nearly as important as some people seem to, slide to frame fit is tight but smooth. That’s more of an aesthetic factor than anything else, the slide to frame fit not being critical for accuracy or reliability, but it does give a pleasant shooting experience, so all else being equal it’s certainly a factor we appreciate.
Slides and barrels are forged. Frames are cast and parts are metal injection moulded, or MIM, of course, but that’s a reality at this price point that is difficult to avoid, unless you want to start with a forged Norinco and then spend ungodly amounts of time tuning and massaging the gun if you want it to feel anywhere near as smooth as a Seraphim Armoury. It can be done, of course: we’ve got a Norinco frame and slide in the Calibre vault that’s been fitted with Colt and Wilson parts and has about fifty hours of labour in it. It’s an impressive machine and you can have one just like it if you don’t mind spending twice the price of the most expensive Seraphim just to get all the parts, and you have the skills to reshape the frame and slide and get the parts to interact correctly. That’s not an option for very many people, though, and these days, we’re too busy to do it again ourselves even if we like the work.
We’ll list the MSRP for each pistol which is the most accurate current information. Some people will have seen previous pricing which was admittedly lower, but unfortunately like everyone else in the import business, Seraphim Armoury has been stung by the low Canadian dollar. On top of that, recent tax revisions in the Philippines have made exporting guns from their factory more expensive. There is an IOP program for police, fire, and past and present military buyers, although Seraphim will not publicly disclose that pricing.
Going model by model, we started with the GI, which is a no-frills, 1911A1-style machine with an arched mainspring housing, classic grip safety, no extended controls, GI sights…the whole bit. Ironically the GI we fired was chambered in 9mm. These start around $450 and for the money, it’s tough to do much better. If you’re someone who wants to do handgun shooting on the cheap and you have a serious itch for a 1911, a 9mm GI is going to make your life pretty easy.
Stepping up the trim package ladder, the big upgrade to the five inch pistol is the Warfighter model. The big functional improvements are the Novak-type rear sights and fiberoptic front, the mildly tuned trigger and the quite well-blended beavertail grip safety. The trigger itself is skeletonized and the top is flattened and serrated, which are nice cosmetic flourishes although they won’t help you shoot any better. Listed at seven hundred bucks, the upgrades are worth it if you can swing the extra cash.
The two compact models are interesting; one, the Crusader, is functionally extremely similar to the Warfighter. The Crusader is a 4.25” Commander-style pistol with the same sight layout as the Warfighter, the same beavertail, the same flat mainspring housing, the same skeletonized trigger. The only high-dollar feature missing is the flat serrated slide top; not everyone will miss that, so if you’re satisfied with a Commander-sized pistol, listed at $600, we think this feature set is really maximizing your dollar.
The Ghost is the higher end compact, with an MSRP of $800. The frame and slide are the familiar Commander pattern, which is to say shorter slide on a Government frame, but the barrel is a threaded 4.75” suppressor-capable version. The frame is railed and the controls are extended, both slide stop and safety. Some people like an extended slide stop and some don’t; it’s certainly easy to manipulate but some people find it a little too easy to unintentionally activate. We generally prefer an extended thumb safety and GI slide stop, but not everyone will share our specific demands, and even for 1911 obsessives like us, none of this stuff is a deal breaker.
Finally, the flagship Archangel, available in Seraphim’s jet-black blueing, or a polished stainless that would make your grandmother blush. Well, our editor’s grandmother used to make a lot of strange references to gussied-up pimps at garden parties, so she might not blush. But most would.
The Archangel is sporting some pretty serious features. The big steps up from the Warfighter and Crusader grade guns are the hand checkering of the front strap, which is a high-dollar feature if you ever choose to have it done after the fact; the ambidextrous thumb safety, and the magwell. Other major changes are an adjustable rear sight and a rail; whether these are features you value depends on your particular inclinations.
The Archangel is a pretty impressive budget-priced 1911, with a street price comparable to a lot of entry-level base-model guns with nowhere near the features list. MSRP is 900 for blued and 1000 for stainless, and we think that positions them very competitively against other 1911s with this kind of feature profile.
Across the board, these guns shot well under all normal circumstances. Ejection is mildly erratic in orientation, with some spent cases tracking a little more vertically than we’d like, with a bit of a midair tumble. That’s generally indicative of low extractor tension, and we verified this theory by applying one of the fundamental standard tests that every 1911 should be put through: the Hackathorn Extractor Test. This test has in recent years become associated with 1911 builder Hilton Yam as well: two magazines’ worth of cartridges are fired, one round at a time, with the magazine removed.
This test is significant because it removes the upward pressure applied to the spent brass by the magazine follower or subsequent round. A perfect extraction cycle will be reflected in a 100% extraction-ejection rate. Failures to extract or eject will frequently indicate insufficient extractor tension; the internal extractor of the 1911 is failing to pin the case head to the breech face hard enough to ram it into the ejector with authority and at a consistent angle. The brass is being held loosely, and interacting with the ejector in an unpredictable manner.
The Seraphim Armoury guns all exhibited low extractor tension. With the magazines removed, they would not reliably eject spent brass and we saw repeated stove piping.
How worried should you be about this? Honestly, not very. It could mean a couple of things, and neither of them are deeply troubling.
The extractors could be losing tension after heavy use: these are, after all, their testing samples, and have been used not only by journalists but also during open house events at ranges and some have fairly significant round counts. If that’s the case, you have nothing to worry about, because the Seraphim Armoury staff we deal with are absolutely committed to ensuring that their customers are satisfied, and we’re confident in saying that owners will receive excellent support if there are issues which develop over time.
If the extractors are insufficiently tensioned from the factory, you have nothing to worry about for completely different reasons: for one, the observation that the extractor tension was low resulted in an immediate commitment from Seraphim Armoury to address these issues with the factory, and for another, if you end up with an insufficiently tensioned extractor, it’s a two minute fix that requires no tools. Simply remove the extractor about halfway from the slide, bend it inwards slightly, and reinstall. You’ll know if the tension is sufficient if the extractor will hold a loaded cartridge in place on the breech face while the field stripped slide is shaken firmly. We have no doubt that if you have issues, Seraphim will correct them for you, but the fix is so easy we decided to simply explain it here for the benefit of owners of any 1911.
It’s perhaps also worth pointing out that we have seen many, many 1911s fail the Hackathorn Extractor Test. There is a very large number of 1911 shooters out there with guns that would certainly fail it if it were applied, but who have shot hundreds if not thousands of trouble-free rounds through their guns. It’s less an indicator of a gun that will function, and more a guarantee that a gun will function under adverse circumstances.
Nevertheless, we’d recommend checking extractor tension and adjusting as necessary, even if the gun runs fine as is.
Look, here’s the bottom line. These are attractive pistols that compare very well to many mainstream American options. They’re built in the Philippines by the same company that manufactures a lot of the familiar entry-level 1911s, the differences being subtleties of inspection and parts configuration spec’d out by Seraphim to suit their requirements. They are absolutely getting some skilled hand labour applied to them at the factory, that much is clear. The machining quality is fairly good throughout and while it’s not going to compare to high-end 1911s, you’re not paying anything remotely close to high-end prices for the Seraphim guns.
The small parts are MIM, but that shouldn’t worry anyone; that process is used throughout the firearms industry and as long as it’s done well it’s easily up to the tasks assigned it. The specific configurations will suit users differently but there are enough options from which to choose that the product line should have quite broad appeal.
The extractor tension is a little weak, but most users wouldn’t notice this; it’s just that they happened to go up against a dyed-in-the-wool 1911 fanatic who carries an arsenal of platform-specific diagnostic tests around in his brain. And the fix is available at zero cost and near-zero effort if it’s necessary.
For the price point, we don’t think 1911s can be done any better than this. Unless you want to step up to Colt prices and beyond, these guns are very difficult to beat.