Over the last five decades, the Model 1911 and I have developed a warm camaraderie. We shot bullseye competition during my years in the Air Force, chased rabbits and javelina around Arizona during handgun hunting seasons, worked a wide variety of events together at Gunsite Academy, and comforted each other during moments of potential stress in certain social situations. Two of the three handguns listed on my California CCW permit are 1911s, one of them a Springfield Armory EMP in 9mm. It was a “no-brainer” when Editor, Sammy Reese asked if I would like to take a look at a pair of Springfield’s new Range Officer Elites. Specifically, I received a Range Officer Elite Compact in 9mm and a Range Officer Elite Operator in 45 ACP. While the two guns have some different features, there were a few similarities that grabbed my attention right out of the box.
First to catch my eye were the Black T finish and slim G-10 grip panels on both pistols. I liked the looks of the black finish, (which has absolutely nothing to do with how well a pistol shoots,) but the finish does provide some enhanced protection from wear and tear on the gun during operation and everyday carry. Also under the heading of cool embellishments, I like the etched “RO Elite” on the right rear of the slide. From a more practical point of view, the multiple serrations by the etching were a truly functional addition in terms of manually operating the slide. On the 9mm serrations are limited to the rear of the slide while the 45 has additional cuts near the muzzle. The scalloped pattern on the G10 grip panels combined with the checkered back strap offered more than adequate grip retention during rapid-fire strings even with the smooth front strap.
I’m not a fan of aggressive checkering on the front strap of a carry pistol, especially one chambered in the relatively mild 9mm, since it can grab the cover garment as you sweep it backward and away from the gun during the draw stroke. If you don’t carry strong side in an outside the waistband holster as I do, this is less of a concern. There is a dished out area in the left grip panel just behind the mag release button that provides easier access to the mag release with the thumb. I still have to move my dominant hand slightly to operate it, but the additional clearance does allow me to apply more pressure.
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I remain ambivalent about ambidextrous thumb safeties on a pistol meant for concealed carry. Yes, it does provide easier operation with the weak hand in the event your dominant hand/arm is injured, but in my Avenger style holster, the outside lever is exposed to bumps and bangs in normal motions that can disengage the safety. The large beavertail grip safety provides a pocket for the skeleton style hammer and does a nice job preventing slide bite while the enlarged bump reliably allowed safety disengagement on every presentation. The magazine well is slightly beveled facilitating smooth reloads while the cutout in the front strap allowed for flush seating of the magazine, a good thing on a concealed carry weapon. There are a couple holes in the bottom of the magazines, and you might consider installing bumper pads on your spare mags to ensure positive seating during those stressful speed reloads.
Unlike their EMP family of 1911s chambered in 9mm, Springfield has not reduced the grip frame size of the RO Elite, so 9mm magazines have the same front-to-back dimensions as the .45 caliber model thus requiring a spacer plate in the rear of the magazine to accommodate the shorter length 9mm cartridges. Both 9mm and .45 caliber guns have long, skeletal triggers and feel identical in size (but not weight) when you’re holding the weapon in the firing position.
The 9mm RO Compact has a lightweight alloy frame and steel slide bringing the gun’s weight to just under 30 ounces. (In .45 caliber, the Compact model weighs one ounce less.) It has a 4″ stainless steel match barrel with full support ramp. The recoil system uses a flat wire spring with a full-length guide rod. The gun is sold with two 8-round magazines.
On the .45 caliber RO Operator, both slide, and frame are steel with a weapon light rail as an integral part of the frame. The gun’s resulting weight is 41 oz. with one empty magazine regardless of whether it’s chambered in 9mm or 45 ACP. The gun uses the standard GI style recoil system and has a stainless steel, match grade 5″ barrel but no integral ramp. There are 2 7-round magazines delivered with each gun, and like the 9mm magazines, there are two holes in the bottom of each magazine in case you choose to add butt pads.
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What impressed me the most on my two test guns were the sights. Both guns were set up with combat sights as opposed to target sights, meaning they are not fully adjustable but do allow for windage corrections. Front and rear are solidly mounted in dovetail slots. The front sight has a red fiber optic insert for enhanced visibility in low light while the rear sight has two white dots and a set screw which, when loosened, allows the sight to be moved left or right. What’s unusual is the shape of the rear sight; Springfield calls it their “Tactical Rack” sight. The front face of the rear sight has a vertical surface that’s flat for about 3/16″.
If you’re injured and lose the use of one hand or arm, the Springfield’s slide can still be manually operated by placing the front face of the rear sight against the edge of a firm surface and pushing the weapon in the direction of the muzzle. The edge of a wall or table will work unless it’s rounded. In training classes, I’ve seen students drop to one knee and push the gun against the raised heel of their boot. Again, the resisting surface must be relatively firm; soft rubber sole shoes probably won’t work. If you’re married, I don’t recommend you practice this technique on the wood furniture at home.
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It was the smaller details in the sight system that dazzled me once we hit the range. Every edge of the RO sight that is utilized in a conventional sight picture was flat with corners cut at 90 degrees. In adequate lighting, the flat top of the front sight could be placed perfectly in line with the flat top of the rear sight for correct elevation, and the light intensity on both sides of the front sight blade could be clearly seen and automatically “equalized” by the brain to ensure correct windage. As the light fades, the round fiber optic front sight could be seen and placed in between the two round white dots on the rear sight for a reasonably precise and quickly acquired sight picture useful at closer ranges for immediate threats. This is a simple concept, but many of the defensive handguns I’ve worked with lately have placed all the emphasis on fast acquisition of the front sight with no consideration for the kind of sight picture that would allow for precise shot placement out past 15 yards.
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Today’s training of private citizens focuses on personalized crime where an individual is singled out for a specific criminal act, but today’s examples of terrorist shooters don’t fit into that pattern. When I attended Gunsite Academy’s Active Shooter Terrorist Response class we were shown video footage of the Nairobi shopping mall massacre and practiced various survival drills. I learned the snub nose revolver I was carrying was not adequate for facing a rifleman who was only interested in amassing body count and had no interest in closing with me personally. That lesson was reinforced by the subsequent terrorist shooting of congressmen on the baseball field in our nation’s capital.
My test protocol for these two Range Officer Elites was considerably different from my normal routine and considerably more fun. I picked up the .45 caliber the day before starting a writers’ event at Gunsite that involved .45 caliber handguns exclusively. I had also just received Surefire’s new polymer holster that will host one of their new model X300 or X400 weapon lights with whatever gun is attached to it.
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When I strolled onto the square range the first morning with all my new hardware, we were faced with Gunsite’s standard silhouette target but with a small black dot added to the center of the chest. We were told to draw and place one shot into the dot. When we had done this three times, we went forward to “evaluate and paste.” The single ragged hole just below the dot clearly stated that the RO Elite and I were “simpatico!”
As the day progressed, the .45 caliber RO smoothly devoured the Federal and Remington ball ammo with no hiccups. I did have a problem when I switched to some reloads with the extremely short 150-grain cast bullets that are sometimes used in speed competition events. The ammo cycled the slide, but there were numerous failures to feed as the gun built up gunk from the cast bullets. A return to standard ammo and happiness was restored. All shooting was during daylight hours, and between the excellent sight pictures and crisp Gen 2 triggers on the RO Elite, it was a great day!
The Elite 9 mm had a much longer test. I was preparing for a three-week trip that included some time in WY feeding the predators, a little vacation visit with family and friends in Idaho, and some equipment pickups and deliveries in AZ. Since my out of state CCW does not limit my carry options to 3 guns, and since my primary CCW holster from Rafter L Combat Leather is made for a 4″ barreled 1911, Springfield’s RO 9mm was drafted into service. Lest you think I trusted my life to an unknown/unproven weapon, I did put in a couple hours at my favorite range before making the decision. As the picture shows, the sights and Gen 2 trigger on the 9mm proved just as capable as the 45. At 25 yards I put a string of shots across the forehead of the designated villain target. Yes, one drifted a bit high, but then I’m not the same handgun silhouette shooter I was 40 years ago. And while that 5th shot might not have ended the threat, it likely would have provided me some exit time.
Once outside California, I carried the 9mm Compact Elite every day for three weeks straight over dirt roads looking for prairie dogs and paved roads looking for good places to eat. The only cleaning treatment was me blowing the visible dust from the rear of the slide around the firing pin and hammer. After three weeks of daily carry in some really dusty conditions, I fired a few mags through the dirty gun and it functioned perfectly.
Three weeks of day in and day out carry convinced me the Compact RO would be an excellent CCW gun. With the extra 3/4-pound and rather bulky light rail, the 45 caliber Operator might be a bit difficult to carry concealed, but it would make a heck of a duty, home or car defensive handgun. And no accessory makes more sense to me on a home defense weapon than a light rail with a weapon light permanently attached. Good sights, good trigger, good performance. Good job, Springfield.
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