Gun Review: Kimber Custom II vs. Smith & Wesson M&P Pro 9

I’ve been carrying a Smith & Wesson M&P 9 Pro for years. I stake my life and my family’s life on the polymer pistol. And yet, like most “old timers,” I never felt comfortable with the weight and balance of a polymer gun. So when I decided to liberate some funds for a new gun, I did something I haven’t done since Thriller owned the charts, when I bought a Beretta 92FS . I purchased an all-metal gun . . .

The Kimber’s workmanship is easy to see and feel.  Everything fits together and functions perfectly. In terms of finish, I give the Kimber Custom II only a grade of B+; their Parkerizing process seems a bit thin in many places. I’m also not a big fan of rubber grips (which are being replaced with G10 this week) or Kimber’s short MIM (metal injection molding) slide release (which has already been replaced by a Wilson Combat extended release). But the Custom II’s overall look and feel is top notch.

Now take a look at the two photographs below. The Kimber Custom II with night sights (first image) and the Smith & Wesson M&P 9 Pro (second image) cost about the same amount of money: eight bills and change. Both perform their intended function: accurate, dependable, self-defense. Both are used by law enforcement agencies throughout the world, and both are manufactured by well-respected firms within the United States.

The image above: a field-stripped Kimber Custom II after cleaning. Notice the simple and elegant design of the 1911 and the obvious choice of materials and workmanship. The 1911 is an engineering marvel. As a former engineer, I’m amazed at the fact that we’re still ogling a design that is over 100-years-old. Say what you will about modern technology, the 1911 has withstood the test of time.

Now look at the Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm Pro Series in the same field-stripped condition (image below). The slide, barrel and recoil spring are very similar to the 1911. That’s where the comparison stops. Polymer guns are just plastic reinforced with a metal frame. Made from injection molded “Zytel” (DuPont’s trade name for nylon), one of the least expensive and lowest strength engineering polymers on the market today. Not exactly a material that I prefer to bet my life on.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is definitely a place for polymer-frame firearms in today’s huge market. My own FNH PS90 personal defense weapon would be impossible to manufacture without plastics. But I look at a handgun as a weapon of last resort; it had better work 100% of the time. And then there’s recoil . . .

My Kimber Custom II’s recoil feels significantly less than the recoil I feel shooting my M&P 9mm. It’s exactly the opposite of what I expected when I first picked up the Kimber Custom II. I always thought shooting a .45 ACP round would be much harder to control than my usual 9mm NATO round. The only explanation I can come up with relates directly to the gun’s center of gravity.

In a polymer-frame pistol [above] the center of gravity should be almost in the center of the slide which is well above where your hands grip the gun. In engineering terms this should create a “moment arm” causing the weapon’s barrel to rise when shooting. The whole idea of a recoil spring is to help reduce these forces.

In a metal-frame pistol like the 1911 [above] the center of gravity should be slightly below the slide and very close to where your hands grip the gun. If I’m correct, this should create a smaller “moment arm” and reduce the forces that cause the barrel to rise.

For me, the Kimber Custom II’s ergonomics are superior to M&P’s. The offset-stacking in the M&P 9mm allows me to carry seventeen rounds in each magazine—at the expense of grip size. My small hands always have trouble correctly gripping the M&P and I find myself adjusting my grip between shots. Not the best situation for any gun.

Although the single-stack magazine in the Kimber holds only eight rounds, the overall thickness of the 1911’s grip (even before adding slim bushings and grips) allows me to create a secure two-handed grip and fire off eight rounds without needing to adjust my grip. The checkering on the main spring housing and the texture of the grips (even the stock rubber grips) really feels more secure than the stippling on the M&P’s “grip”.

The knurled extended magazine release on the Kimber Custom II is a huge improvement over the plastic release on the M&P. Doing a tactical reload with the M&P is a major pain in the butt due to the release button. On the Kimber it’s quick, simple and efficient.

The Kimber’s single stage, match grade aluminum trigger is a joy to pull after years of mushy plastic triggers on polymer guns like the M&P. The 4 – 5 lbs pull is even and smooth and the reset is short and crisp. This is a gun that you can actually “feel” when you’re getting a nice, straight-back trigger pull and this action really does help prevent the amateur’s “low and left” tendencies. The Kimber Custom II has one of the cleanest trigger pulls I’ve ever seen.

I’m not a big fan of thumb safeties and was happy to find that the Custom II has a single side thumb safety instead of the more common ambidextrous paddles. The grip safety on the Kimber is great feature and the high-ride beavertail really sets me up for a positive grip as close to the slide as possible. Yet another reason why the 1911’s recoil is more controllable. The beavertail on the M&P is functional (protection) but makes it hard to achieve a really good grip.

The sight picture on the Kimber 1911 is significantly better than on the M&P series. Kimber provides night-sights with some Custom II models and they are larger and much easier for these tired, old eyes to follow. The night sights on my M&P are so small and tough to see that I’ve been thinking about buying a set of Hilton Yam’s (10-8 Performance) sights with the big brass dot on the front sight.

The Kimber’s match-grade barrel is beautifully machined and polished to a mirror finish. In contrast, the blued stainless steel barrel found in the M&P Pro Series seems “cheap” by comparison. And speaking of comparisons, let’s leave the Smith alone now and put the Kimber Custom II though its paces.

At the Range

Like any other brand new gun, the Kimber Custom II needs a 500 round break-in period before it should be used as your primary carry or duty weapon. I fed this little beauty a steady diet of Winchester “White Box”, 230 gr FMJ ammo for the first 500 rounds and found that it settled down after only 200 rounds into a very reliable firearm, even when dirty. In contrast, my Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm Pro Series will still throw an occasional FTF or stove pipe if its magazines become too dirty.

Recoil

Yes, it’s THAT important. The Kimber’s extra weight (38 ounces) and slimmer shape made it easier for me to control on the range than the Smith & Wesson M&P Pro 9 (26 ounces). Again, recoil has always been my largest complaint with polymer-frame pistols. Their lack of mass and higher center of gravity creates a lot of upward force when shooting. The weight and mass of the steel frame on the Custom II seems to help alleviate muzzle climb for me.

Handling

Since this was my first Kimber, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in terms of accuracy, recoil and handling but after only 150 rounds of Winchester 45 ACP ball ammo I can tell you that I’m very pleased with my purchase. I’ve got a whole lot more shooting to do with my Kimber Custom II before handling it becomes second nature but it certainly is a joy to shoot.

It’s also a weapon that requires a strong grip, a solid stance and a firm commitment to proper technique. Shooting a 1911 takes more “effort” than shooting a polymer gun. I hadn’t realized how sloppy my grip, stance, posture and technique had become shooting a lightweight gun like the M&P 9mm. It took me more than a few stray rounds at first to remind me of just how important a proper two-hand grip and aggressive stance is to accuracy.

Believe it or not, shooting the Kimber Custom II was easier on my lower back and legs (I have a chronic & inoperable nervous disorder) than shooting my M&P 9 Pro. The weight and mass of the gun’s steel frame and slide honestly didn’t seem bother me at all and the gun felt much “steadier” in my hands than my M&P did.

Accuracy

Once I got the hang of shooting a .45 ACP round again, I was pleased with my groups at seven yards and 15 yards. The Kimber Custom II’s  5″ barrel (versus 4-1/4″ on the M&P 9) and larger front sight made it quick target acquisition east. After shooting small 9mm NATO rounds for several years, it’s kind of nice to see those large .45 ACP holes appear in the center of the “Shoot*N*C” targets. It’s also gratifying to be able to put eight rounds in a 3″ circle consistently at seven yards.

The factory magazine of course, had to go. If Kimber is going to ship their pistols with a single magazine, it sure would be nice if it actually worked. Luckily I was prepared with a set of Wilson Combat 47Ds and after comparing the design and quality of the two magazines, it’s easy to see why Bill Wilson does so well in this market.

Fun

I didn’t buy this little beauty for carry purposes (I’ve got a Tactical II Ultra for that); I bought it for fun. There’s nothing quite as fun as pulling out a black, full-size 1911 at a range full of Glocks, M&Ps and Sigs and putting your first eight rounds on target in a tight little group. Heads turn and folks begin to stare when those .45 ACP casings come flying out of that 1911. Even a old guy like me loves to see that center red dot and 10 circle disappear after 50 rounds or so. It’s also nice to hear folks saying “nice gun and nice shooting” as you pack up to leave.

Conclusion

The M&P is an excellent handgun. For me it lacks the charm and accuracy of the Kimber Custom II 1911. I would shoot the M&P in a self-defense situation if I had to, without any worries or qualms. But when I want to shoot, the Kimber Custom II is my weapon of choice.

SPECIFICATIONS

Caliber: .45 ACP
Height 90° to barrel: 5.25 inches
Weight with empty magazine: 38 ounces
Length: 8.7 inches
Magazine Capacity: 8 + 1 in the chamber
Recoil Spring: 16 pounds
Full-Length Guide Rod
Frame: Steel; Matte Black / Parkerized; Width: 1.28 inches
Slide: Steel; Matte Black / Parkerized
Barrel: Steel, match grade / Stainless Bushing; Length: 5 inches; Twist Rate: 16 (Left Hand)
Sights: Fixed Low Profile Night Sights, Radius: 6.8 inches
Grips: Black Rubber / Double Diamond Pattern
Trigger: Aluminum, Match Grade; Factory setting: 4.0 – 5.0 pounds
MSRP: $825.00

RATINGS (Out of Five Stars)

Accuracy: * * * * *
Shooting .45 ACP ball ammo this gun is deadly accurate.

Ergonomics: * * *
It’s a full size Government model 1911 with 100+ years of ancestry. What more could you ask for?

Ergonomics Firing: * * * *
Crisp trigger and reasonable recoil. All the controls are right where they should be. A joy to shoot.

Reliability: * * *
Like any 1911, you’ll need to break-in the Kimber Custom II. After 200 rounds it’s nearly perfect.

Customization: * * * * *
It’s a 1911 so (almost) everything is customizable from the grips to the barrel.

Overall Rating: * * * *
The Custom II is a real value in Government model 1911s. You could spend over $3000 for a Wilson Combat or save $2100 for a good holster and ammo.