To put it succinctly, Canada has a spotty history when it comes to the production of handguns. Sure, we did a great job with those Browning Hi-Powers churned out en masse by the Inglis factory, but ever since then we’ve struggled to find our footing. Perhaps it’s the difficulty Canadians have with acquiring restricted firearms, or perhaps it’s merely the different manner in which Canadians use pistols , but we just don’t seem to be an environment that’s proven conducive to the production of civilian guns.
Not that we haven’t tried. Since the closure of the iconic Inglis plant, the Canadian manufacturing of handguns has been championed by various firms great and small, with the most notable one being a company by the name of Para-Ordnance. Started by a pair of childhood friends in 1985, and with its headquarters residing in Toronto (of all places), Para-Ordnance was simultaneously one of the most revered and hated 1911 manufacturers on the market. As the story goes, they were long on creativity and short of gunmaking skills; pioneering such impressive creations as the double-stack 1911 (which was their first product) and the light double action 1911, or LDA. However, for as promising as their innovative designs were, rumours abounded of problematic quality controls and unreliability. As a result, sales waned, and faced with an ever growing onslaught of political pressure, lower sales, and the tragic loss of one of the founding partners, Para-Ordnance announced it would be migrating its manufacturing and corporate headquarters to Pineville, North Carolina and would eventually be sold off in its entirety to the Freedom Group (most well known for owning Remington) in 2012.
Those are the facts. But as Canadians are wont to do, there’s more than a fair amount of gossip and rumour that surround those facts, the most pertinent of which relate to Para’s quality both then and now. We’ve heard many a patriotic pistolero proudly proclaim their Canadian Para-Ordnance 1911 runs just fine, while others are quite keen to denounce all Para products to be little more than cleverly disguised shades of poo-brown taking the form of a handgun. So which is it? Eager to find out, we sourced out an old Canadian made Para 1911, forked over the $800 asking price, and pitted it against its modern equivalent.
It’s certainly an oldy. But is it a goody?
In order to make this comparison happen, we obviously needed to find an older Para pistol that hearkened back to an era when the firm still made their pistols on a 72,000 square foot shop floor in the heart of Liberal-land. That, surprisingly, proved more difficult than we anticipated… and we did have a few criteria beyond the country of origin. Although well known for their LDA and double stack P14 models, we wanted to source out one of the less common single-stack models, as they are easier to compare to any other 1911… after all, how many other guns can you reasonably compare a Para LDA against?
Thankfully, we stumbled across a used Para LTC Stainless model for sale with a listed price of $800, and that was near enough to be transferred into our name and arrive in time for this issue’s submission deadline. Fortuitous indeed, we thought. Attractive to look at and coming with a few spare parts and even a set of faux ivory grips, it looked in decent shape, and most importantly fit with our timeline for this issue. So an EMT was sent, a call was made, the CFC’s terrible on-hold music endured, the registration secured, ATT applied for, and voila, as easily as that we were the latest owners of a piece of Canadian pride.
But before we delve into our specific gun, perhaps we should recount what the LTC model represented for Para when it was new. One of the last models made when the company was still under Canadian ownership, the LTC was Para’s match-grade, Commander-size model. With a retail prices hovering just below $1,000, it was not a cheap gun by any stretch, and was frequently compared to guns from Kimber and the like. It came with a skeletonized spur hammer and an adjustable skeletonized (plastic) trigger, extended beavertail and grip safety, three-dot Novak-style sights, and a match barrel. Contemporary reviews of the gun were generally favourable.
Ours appeared to have been relatively well kept with a surprising lack of scratches on the brushed stainless finish on the slide and a reasonably well maintained look. The machining of things like the slide serrations is very nice, the rosewood grips with their gold Para inlay are perfect, and when in battery the barrel locks up tight as a drum. Shaking it back and forth trying to find any sort of rattle is more likely to lead to a dislocated arm.
And that’s where any and all praise stops. This gun is junk, and taking a closer look reveals that the root cause seems to be partly with the pistol’s manufacture, and partly due to some issues brought about by previous owners. The first clue that something has gone wrong sits at the back of the slide… or rather in the distance between the back of the slide and the frame. Slide-to-frame fit is one of those magical 1911 things that people envision coming from the hands of some wizened and grizzled figure that mystically laps a frame and slide together in a poorly lit workshop somewhere. A slide that comes to rest about a half millimetre forward of the guide rails’ terminus is not what people picture. Furthermore, the ejector isn’t installed correctly and protrudes another half millimetre from the back end of the gun. Hell, even the extractor, which is a signature Para part (their oversized “Power Extractors” supposedly gave more reliable function) sticks out the back!
Down on the frame, things aren’t much better. Sure there are the owner-installed frustrations, like the telltale 1911 takedown scratch, but it’s worse than that. The most obviously ugly thing done by the manufacturer is the etching on the dust cover. Belying this gun’s origin as one of the last Canadian-made guns manufactured, the “Para USA Inc” that’s either electro pencilled or laser etched on the side looks like it was done by someone that watched too much Wheel of Fortune and hoped to save some money on their vowels by only using half of one; there are literally just four poorly-etched dots comprising the “I” in “Inc.” But even worse than that is the manner in which the dots are. There’s not the slightest semblance of consistency! Dots form letters in the most random manner possible, and the whole script isn’t even aligned straight with the frame; something we as publishers simply cannot abide. By the by, the “Made in Canada” script on the dust cover is similarly horrid.
It would also appear that the machinist responsible for the frame’s production wasn’t any better than the fellow in charge of the lettering, as it too bears the marks of some pretty half-assed workmanship. The area where the grip tapers inward towards the trigger, for example, is uneven and looks like it was finished with a file. And on the right hand side of the frame, the point at which the dust cover transitions to the vertical was obviously finished with some fort of heavy grit sandpaper, which left fine scratches on the first two inches of the frame. Oh, and the pin that protrudes through the right side of the gun opposite the manual safety is bizarrely long.
Not surprisingly, disassembly does not assuage any concerns that Para’s early reputation isn’t wholly deserved, as the bottom of the slide rails bear a bunch of marks where they were obviously lapped on a gritty surface and never polished. The hole through which the take-down pin is inserted has also been chamfered on the left side, most likely in order to ease the pin’s installation… but it has clearly been done so with an oversize drill bit and a hand-operated drill press. As a result, the chamfering is uneven, filled with burrs, and ugly. And below lies the worst offender of all: the feed ramp and its surrounding area. Being a single stack firearm, you’d think machining a proper feed path would not be overly difficult, as the round does not need to angle any direction but upward to be carried forward into the chamber. Of course, it’s not actually as simple as that, so 1911 manufacturers usually take a lot of time to ensure their feed ramps are properly machined for the utmost reliability. Para quite obviously just turned a guy loose with a Dremel. And we don’t say that with even the slightest whiff of sarcasm or hyperbole. We’ve used a lot of Dremels and die grinders in our past, and we know exactly what sort of tool marks they leave. If you don’t, take a look at the accompanying picture. The same guy must have also been in charge of deburring the topmost portion of the frame at the rear of the magazine well, too, since it’s covered in Dremel marks.
As a result, we were not surprised to find this gun to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast in function tests. Yes, it hurled lead at paper with excellent accuracy; a testament to its well-fitted match barrel. But it certainly wasn’t pleasant. The trigger, for example, can be depressed with the hammer down. And we don’t mean slightly; it can be brought fully to the rear with the hammer down. Of course, there’s a moment’s hesitation as the trigger assembly binds up, but it doesn’t take an untoward amount of force. But it gets worse. Even though the slide comes into battery slightly forward of the end of the frame, it also travels too far to the rear during operation, as one can feel the recoil spring stack up before the slide bumps up against a proper mechanical stop. This is obviously beating up more than a few things internally, and the forward edge of the slide stop notch on the frame has begun to get peened over. This is most likely the result of the slide not being slowed enough on its rearward travel as the slide stop moved upward on an empty magazine, causing the front of the slide stop notch to slam into the very beginning portion of the leading edge of the slide stop itself, then catching on its rear as the slide rebounds forward.
But none of that was why we put our own $800 Para down on the range bench in utter disgust. No, the reason for that was the completely piss-poor machining of the frame around the grip safety, and the literal pain it caused. See, when the grip safety is depressed, the radiused and bevelled edges of the frame that transition from the grip to the beavertail are designed to flow with the depressed grip safety and provide one smooth surface for the shooter’s hand. Our gun doesn’t do this. On the left side, the frame’s radius is at least flush with the grip safety (if somewhat poorly cut, but that’s an aesthetic issue), but on the right the frame is formed so that the grip safety actually falls recessed below the level of the frame’s radius. This exposes a sharp edge on the rear of the pistol right where you hand is tucked up the tightest. And granted, it’s only slightly exposed, but it’s really more a matter of principle. This was not some gun cobbled together in the Khyber Pass; it’s a modern gun marketed as a premium version of a firearm who’s design has been around for over 100 years and… and yet it doesn’t even have a symmetrically machined frame!? Perhaps we should be glad the “Made in Canada” script on the dust cover is barely legible.
So, having developed the opinion that at least some of the Para-hating gun owners in Canada are right, we were somewhat trepidatious about taking delivery of our LTC’s contemporary, the Elite Commander. Essentially the same gun as the LTC (which, in case you were wondering stands for Lieutenant Colonel, which is the corresponding US Army rank to the Naval or Marine Corp rank of Commander; a term that also happens to colloquially refer to a 4.25″ barrelled 1911 with a full size frame), the Elite Commander’s most obvious difference is that it takes the stainless steel finish of the LTC and covers it in what Para calls their “Ionbond” PVD finish, but don’t be mistaken; it’s still a stainless steel gun underneath.
Other changes are much smaller. While the LTC’s slide serrations were a sort of rounded sharktooth shape, the Elite Commander’s are much more geometric, with simple flats milled between raised ribs. The Elite Commander also uses better Cocobolo grip panels in place of the original’s Rosewood pieces, which provide more traction for the hand thanks to their thin matte finish, but lack the small golden Para medallions laid into the LTC’s. The sights are slightly better as well, with a serrated and ramped rear working in concert with a very bright (if somewhat exposed) fiber optic front. Likewise, the grip safety is slightly improved with an extension on the bottom to ensure more reliable operation.
Examining the handgun closely, it admittedly lacks the wow factor of the exposed stainless steel finish of the LTC, and it’s odd that Para does not currently offer a Commander-size pistol with that lustrous finish. But, we’ll happily trade the LTC’s looks-cool factor for the slide fitment of the Elite Commander. This is how a mid-grade 1911 should be built. Although not as tightly fitted as a “custom” gun from someone like Ed Brown or Les Baer, the Elite Commander at least features a slide that sits flush with the frame at the rear, and even features both an ejector and extractor that do not protrude… will wonders never cease! Side to sit fit is also very good and far more consistent than the LTC’s, which fit quite a bit tighter on one guide rail than the other.
And the frame is equally well made. Long gone is the terribly done electro pencil or laser etched markings, replaced with properly etched engravings that declare this to be a product of Para USA, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Unfortunately, it does bear the additional QR code, or 3D barcode that so many new guns seem to have, and that’s a bit large and unsightly… but at least it’s straight! And try as we might, we could not find a file mark, scratch, or errant tool mark on the thing. Even the parts seem to be better made, with the slide stop specifically being much smoother than the LTC’s piece and bearing none of the striations that the older gun’s slide stop bore.
Taking the Elite Commander apart was the final step in confirming our suspicions that this new gun and our old LTC shared nothing but their brand name and basic design. And we were right. Poring over the slide and frame alike for any sign of the lazy manufacturing we saw with the LTC yielded nothing. Zip. Zero. Zilch. What we found instead was a thoroughly well made frame that appears to have been entirely computer cut. The guide rails show only the slightest tool marks where the mill removed material, and should polish themselves flat in no time, while the feed ramp bears none of the terrible markings we found inside the LTC. The slide stop hole is slightly bevelled, but done cleanly, and the rear of the frame shows no signs of having ever even seen a file. Overall, it’s great. Just about the only thing we found amiss with the fit and finish of the frame was the manual safety pin that protrudes out of the right side… or rather, doesn’t. On the LTC, that pin protruded too far and looked downright goofy, but on the Elite Commander it doesn’t protrude at all. It should stick out just enough for the edge of the radiused head to sit flush with the side of the frame. Furthermore, our argument that this is not proper is furthered by the slight burr on the frame around that hole. Obviously something went slightly amiss in manufacturing. However, it’s not something to lose sleep over, and it’s not terribly noticeable.
The slide is much of the same. No errant tool marks, just a uniform grey finish applied over a well-machined piece. In fact, the only thing we found inside the Elite Commander was a slightly more aggressive wear pattern on the bottom of the slide where the hammer rides; specifically on the left side. However, being a new gun, the two pieces should polish together in no time and we’d expect to find the same wear pattern on any 1911 this side of $3,000… and even some over that price point.
So, how does it work? Well, if the level of craftsmanship exhibited by the LTC’s manufacturer predicted its performance, the Elite Commander’s certainly did the same. With the same high quality match barrel and even better fitting the Elite Commander didn’t just prove more accurate but it also proved more enjoyable. Which isn’t a surprise given everything actually worked as it should with this gun. With the excellent single action trigger that’s kept the 1911 held in such high regard for so long, and some seriously great sights (that big exposed fiber optic is as bright as they come!), shooting the Elite Commander reminded us of how much fun a 1911 can be to shoot. They just have such a great feel in the hand and balance to them, not to mention that big push the .45 ACP round provides over the snap of most nine millimetres.
It’s hard not to reach the inevitable conclusion that, sadly, Para USA is doing it better than Para-Ordnance ever did when they remained a Canadian company. There’s literally no comparison between the LTC and Elite Commander. Sadly, while we’ll probably enquire about having the gun repaired at Para’s warranty centre, Para’s lifetime warranty applies only to the original purchaser, so it looks like we’re out $800 for a gun that needs everything from a new frame to… well… just about everything else. Cue the sad face.
But, while the old Para may be a hunk of unequivocal poo, the new one is undeniably impressive. Having recently made the switch to forged receivers and frames (some older models used cast slides) for the majority of their models and exhibiting an impressive level of quality, we wouldn’t hesitate to purchase this Elite Commander. The only trouble is, the 1911 market is overflowing with similarly high-quality guns at roughly the same price as the roughly $925 Elite Commander; Remington’s own R1 Enhanced with many of the same features, such a match-grade barrel and trigger and fiber optic front and adjustable rear sights can be had for just $889 (but only carries a two year warranty) and Ruger’s SR1911 Commander comes in at just $849 with a lifetime warranty, albeit without many of the extra features of the Elite Commander. And if you opt to dole out even just $100 more… well, you know how that argument goes! But, choice is not a bad thing; none of the other guns that hover about the Elite Commander’s price point have the exact same combination of features. In fact, next to the Ruger SR1911 Commander, options are actually somewhat limited, if you’re committed to a 4.25″ barrel and even moreso if you want a Commander-size 1911 with the premium features of the Para product. So undoubtedly, for someone, this is the gun for them. Sadly, unless you’re a glutton for punishment, the same simply cannot be said for our old “Made in Canada” Para LTC.