By Wayne Lincourt
The model 1911 pistol has been in demand for more than 100 years. That should tell you something about its design and capabilities. It was the official sidearm of the US Army from 1911 until 1985, when the Beretta 92F was adopted. The 1911 is still in use by elite units, however, like the Army Delta Force, Marine Special Operations Command and the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment. These are the best of the best, who use their firearms in the most demanding situations. Buying a 1911 puts you in some very good company. If you happen to be interested in acquiring a quality 1911 at a value price, the Para Elite Commander deserves a look. When I say “value” price, I don’t mean the cheapest 1911 available. There are plenty around for less money. In fact, PARA even has a line with a lower price-point. What I mean by “value” is a 1911 with all the enhancements you’d want for top accuracy and consistently dependable operation, at a reasonable price. The PARA fits that bill. There’s even a way for you to save an extra hundred bucks off of the best price you can negotiate with your dealer. Read on to learn how.
The PARA Elite Commander has the classic good looks that the 1911 is known for. The Commander size is also the most popular model of 1911 by far. Like the original 1911, the Commander came about from an Army set of specs for a somewhat more compact and lighter gun than the full-sized 1911 A1. Colt developed the gun accordingly with a steel barrel and slide shortened by ¾”, and an aluminum alloy frame to meet the lower weight requirement. The Army didn’t buy it right away, which didn’t stop Colt from selling it to the commercial market beginning in 1950. By 1970, Colt had bowed to demand for a heavier model to better deal with the recoil of the .45 acp cartridge. It went to an all-steel version that they named the Combat Commander. The original Commander then became known as the Lightweight Commander.
The PARA Elite Commander is a version of the Combat Commander with a number of popular upgrades. To get this level of function in earlier times, you had to buy a stock 1911 and then turn it over to a gunsmith to rework the trigger, custom fit the slide to the frame, install a match grade barrel, etc. There are still custom gunshops that turn out some exceptional 1911s, provided you have the cash. But starting in the ‘90s, manufacturers began offering some of the most popular upgrades as standard in their higher-priced production models. This trend accelerated with the advent of new 1911s making their debut on the 100th anniversary of the Browning design (the Colt 1911, of course, was designed by John M. Browning). Cost shouldn’t be your number one concern when selecting a sidearm. You first want dependability and accuracy. Of course, we don’t all have liquid-cooled wallets, so cost is, unfortunately, an important consideration. This is where PARA shines.
Let’s start with the materials used in the Elite Commander. The frame, barrel and slide are all stainless steel. The dark gray color you see in the photos is the result of a coating process called Ionbond PVD. The PVD stands for Physical Vapor Deposit. It’s applied in a vacuum chamber under high heat, where tungsten carbide binds to the original metal surface. It’s only a few microns thick (about .005”), which means you can maintain tight tolerances. It’s also much harder than the underlying stainless steel, has a lower coefficient of friction for smoother operation of sliding parts, and exhibits excellent corrosion resistance. Because it becomes part of the metal surface, it won’t peel or chip. Some gun owners swear by hard chrome plating, claiming it’s the ultimate gun finish. Hard chrome is an industrial type of chrome that is hard, improves corrosion resistance slightly although it will rust, and has a lower coefficient of friction than the underlying metal. It’s a time-tested finish. Ionbond is newer, but has been around long enough to have proven itself. It’s as hard as hard chrome and has a slightly lower coefficient of friction and far better corrosion resistance. It absorbs oil quickly and releases it slowly, providing excellent lubrication over extended shooting periods, like at a competition event. To get an Ionbond coating on an existing gun, you’d pay in the neighborhood of $200-300 extra.
The original GI model 1911 had a stub guide rod with a serrated cap over the end of the recoil spring plug, a cup-shaped piece that holds the recoil spring in the slide. The absence of a full-length guide rod allowed the spring to move slightly from side-to-side while it was being compressed. This could affect felt recoil as well as the consistency of slide cycling, especially with a loose slide-to-frame fit. Installation of a full-length guide rod (flgr) keeps the spring centered so that the spring coils compress evenly and consistently, providing a smoother absorption of energy generated by the recoiling slide. Other benefits include more consistent cycling of the action and, in some cases, improvement in a shooter’s ability to place shots accurately. As often occurs with the 1911, there’s some controversy here. Roughly half of 1911 owners see no need for a flgr. Their argument is that if your slide-to-frame fit is good, you don’t really need it. In addition, you lose the ability to cycle the action one-handed by pressing the lower part of the slide (where the recoil spring plug cap is located) against a hard surface. They’re right in both cases, depending on your individual gun. If you have a gun that you’ve spent enough money on to make it utterly dependable, you probably don’t need a flgr. Regarding the one-handed cycling of the slide, you can’t do that with a Commander-length barrel, even with the short guide rod, because the slide is not long enough to completely cycle the action before you hit the frame. Therefore, in the case of a Commander length barrel, the argument is moot.
Another argument against a full-length guide rod is that a 1911 so equipped takes longer to field strip. This is based on the fact that a gun with a short guide rod has a cap over the end of the recoil spring plug. You simply depress this cap with your thumb in order to compress the recoil spring enough to turn the barrel bushing, which is a necessary step in the field stripping process. A full length guide rod has an open end instead of a cap because, as the gun cycles, the rod protrudes from the front of the slide. So instead of pushing on a flat cap to turn the barrel bushing, you have to push on the narrow edge of the open recoil spring plug. (It’s easier to see in the photos.) Para includes a barrel bushing wrench for this purpose although the wrench isn’t really needed. You can depress the guide rod plug cap with your thumb or the end of your thumbnail to turn the barrel bushing. It doesn’t take any more time to do that than it does to perform the same action on a short guide rod equipped gun. A few manufacturers use a two-piece full-length guide rod that does complicate tear down, but the Para guide rod is a one-piece, full-length stainless steel part. A flgr would cost about $30 extra if you were doing an upgrade yourself.
The next major upgrade is a match-grade barrel. Match barrels are made to tighter tolerances, including the rifling and chamber. Standard barrels made today are pretty accurate thanks to the advances in modern machining, but match barrels go even further to ensure that you have the most accurate, best-fitting barrel you can get. Personally, I’ll take all the help I can in the accuracy department. To upgrade from a standard barrel, you’d pay around $250 for a ramped match barrel and fitted barrel bushing. More if any gunsmithing was needed to fit it to your gun.
Other upgrades incorporated into the PARA Elite Commander include a skeletonized Commander-style hammer, skeletonized match trigger, lowered and flared ejection port for more reliable case extraction, the addition of a heavy-duty extractor to further assist in extraction and reliability, a low-profile two-dot rear site, fiber optic front sight, and tactical extended combat safety. The trigger also has an adjustment screw for overtravel, meaning you can adjust it to minimize the amount of movement the trigger makes after the shot breaks. This provides a shorter distance to reset the trigger for quicker follow-up shots. Two 8-round magazines are included.
The fit and finish on this gun is excellent, including the slide to frame fit. The Cocobolo hardwood grips are in the traditional double diamond format with checkering that provides a good grip without being too sharp. The flat mainspring housing (backstrap) has good checkering as well. The front strap is smooth. I prefer checkering on the front strap,
but it would cost PARA more to make it that way. A strip of sand paper glued to the front strap works perfectly well should it be needed, but there seems to be an adequate amount of grip to shoot well with it as is.
The trigger broke cleanly at an average weight of 6 lbs. 2 oz. That’s fine for self-defense or combat use, but a lighter trigger weight is preferable for precision work. There was also an almost imperceptible amount of creep before the sear release. Para recommends a 500-round break-in period, so I’ll wait until then before making any adjustments to the trigger. The weight of the gun with an empty magazine was 36.5 oz. Shooting the PARA with 230 grain bullets, the recoil was comfortable and controllable. The weight of the gun was definitely a plus. It was also easy to get back on target quickly for fast double taps. The sights were right on for the 10-yard range used for evaluating the gun’s accuracy.
I used ammunition from three different manufacturers: Federal Premium 230 grain Hydra-Shock, TulAmmo steel cased 230 grain full metal jacket, and Winchester Personal Protection 230 grain jacketed hollow points. They all performed well with no malfunctions of the gun or the ammo. It was easy to consistently put five rounds offhand into 1 ½” from 10 yards. You could probably do better with more familiarity with the gun.
Bottom line, the PARA Elite Commander is a quality 1911 that looks good and is accurate, and, so far, reliable. It is well made, with the best upgrades for reliability and accuracy included and a premium finish to keep it looking good, and it’s made in the US. After I put more rounds downrange, I’ll update this article to let you know about the long-term functioning. This gun should serve you well in duty, home defense, competition, or concealed carry.
The PARA Elite Commander has an MSRP of $949, but street prices are much less. For what you get, it’s an excellent value. If you were to buy a cheap import gun for $400 and add the upgrades that the PARA comes with as standard, it would likely add up close to the MSRP and you’d still have a cheap, low-quality gun from a company that may or may not be around to support it. PARA is owned by the Freedom Group, the company that owns Remington, Bushmaster, Marlin, et al., so PARA is going to be around for a long time, which is a good thing since they back their guns with a lifetime warranty. Better yet, PARA has a 2014 spring rebate program for the next few months. For every new PARA 1911 bought between 01/01/14 and 05/31/14, you can get $100 cash back through a mail-in rebate, regardless of what price you paid for it.
You can find more information on the rebate at http://para-usa.com/2013/support/promotion-and-rebates.php.