Gun Review: German Sport Guns (“GSG”) 1911 .22

One silver lining the recession has had is that it’s made me rediscover how much I like shooting guns chambered for .22 long rifle. Yes, the lowly .22LR. Like many shooters, I cut my teeth on a .22 rifle. In my case, it was a Ruger 10-22 that my dad bought me for my 11th birthday. Or was it my 10th  birthday? Hell, I forget. As I got older, I moved on to more “manly” guns. But by around 2009, the double-whammy of a bad economy and sky-rocketing ammo prices forced me to return to the .22LR as my primary outlet for shooting entertainment. I recently reviewed the GSG 522 SD and it was the bee’s knees. So when I saw that GSG was producing a full-size affordable .22LR clone of the venerable Colt M1911A1, I had to get my mitts on one for testing . . .

German Sport Guns is a small but growing firm based out of Höingen, Ense, Germany.  They’ve been around for about 10 years now and have seen great success with their excellent version of the HK MP5 and other interesting .22 clones. American Tactical Imports (“ATI”) is the U.S. importer of GSG products, and has developed an excellent reputation for customer service and repair of GSG guns.

In early 2010, GSG entered what was a pretty tight .22 pistol market with their 1911 clone. There’s a wide selection of excellent .22 target pistols in the $300 to $500 range including the Ruger MK III, the Browning Buckmark, the Beretta Neo, and the Smith & Wesson Model 22. The super sexy Beretta Cheetah 87 Target will set you back about $700. Older classics such as the Colt Woodsman and Hi-Standard Model 106 Military/Supermatics are also available, but expect to pay through the nose for samples in excellent condition.

But the GSG 1911 .22 is unique in that – unlike the guns mentioned above, it accurately replicates the ergonomics and manual of arms of a Colt M1911A1 pistol. If you’ve wanted a low-cost .22LR trainer to supplement your M1911 you have, as far as I have been able to tell, five options:

(1) a vintage Colt Series 70 Ace

(2) a Kimber .22 Target

(3) a Colt (Carl Walther / Umarex) Government 1911 .22

(4) a GSG 1911 .22

(5) a Chiappa 1911.22

SIG Sauer markets a .22LR based on the 1911 platform, but it is manufactured by GSG and, cosmetic differences aside, is identical to the weapon featured in this article. Similarly, the Chiappa 1911 .22 is also marketed by Legacy under the name “Puma.” Browning now makes a 1911 .22 clone, but theirs is a “mini-me” version (i.e. smaller than a real 1911). Downsizing the 1911 is a decision that I think FN / Browning will regret in due course.

Although this isn’t intended to be a side-by side comparison between these various guns, the differences between them are reflected by their price points. Starting with the most expensive, the Colt Series 70 Ace is an out-of production collector’s item that fetches well over $1300 in good condition. The remaining four options are currently in production:

  • Kimber 1911 .22:  Nicely finished, aluminum slide and frame, plastic magazines, very light at 23 ounces, slide does not hold open on last round,  street price is $650.00.
  • Colt-labelled Umarex 1911 .22: proprietary alloy slide; fixed, non-removable barrel; similar weight to an original; many proprietary parts; $400.00.
  • GSG 1911 .22: a zinc alloy slide and frame; high degree of parts interchangeability with a M1911; similar weight to an original; good workmanship, $350.00.
  • The Chiappa 1911 .22: zinc alloy slide; utilitarian workmanship; $230.00.

So based on this thumbnail comparison, the GSG is definitely one of the most affordable of the five options. The question is – is it worth 3.5 Benjamins?  IMO… Oh, hell yeah.

Features and Attributes

Taking a visual tour of the GSG, it is very difficult to tell you are not looking at a “real” .45 ACP 1911 until you look at the muzzle. Other than that, it’s a virtual dead-ringer for the big boy gun. The size is exactly the same and, as you can see from the photo below, the GSG frame is virtually identical to a full-size Springfield Armory .45 ACP 1911 (foreground).

 

The gun weighs in at 34 ounces, which makes it about 4 or 5 ounces lighter than a typical .45 1911. Thus, while somewhat lighter than a “real” M1911, the GSG weighs enough that it feels like the real thing.

As discussed in more detail below, the slide is made out of an incredibly lightweight zinc alloy. At first glance, I thought the frame was made out of Parkerized steel, but the frame does not react very well to a magnet, which indicates that it’s an alloy of some sort.

Manual of arms is exactly the same as a 1911. Importantly, the GSG holds open on an empty magazine. The magazine release and slide stop function the same as a 1911, too.  Other than the safeties (more on that later), the only major operational difference is the fact that GSG’s barrel does not tilt back like an M1911.

The GSG 1911 comes with a number of so-called “enhanced” features that used to be only found on custom 1911s including ambidextrous safeties, beavertail grip safety, extended trigger with adjustable over-travel screw, “commander” style hammer, and extended magazine catch.

And speaking of parts, one extremely cool thing about the GSG 1911 .22 is that it has a high degree of parts interchangeability with standard .45 1911 parts. This list includes: slide stop, barrel bushing, ambidextrous thumb safety; mainspring housing (and internal parts); grip safety; disconnector;  hammer and strut; sear; sear and sear spring; grips and grip screws; magazine catch; plunger tube assembly, and trigger.

Note: while some of these are true “drop in” replacements, the gunsmiths at ATI told me that some replacement parts will require some handfitting so YMMV. Also, I have seen various sources state that the GSG 1911 .22 has “80% parts” interchangeability with a standard 1911. That all depends on how to define and count the parts, though. For example, does the magazine count as one part or seven? My impression is that the 80% figure is a fairly meaningless statistic.

Despite the low price, GSG doesn’t scrimp on equipment included with the gun. It ships from the factory with two magazines, a 12mm wrench used to take the thread cap off the barrel, a safety lock (not pictured because I used it as a target one day), a replacement guide rod buffer disk, one Allen wrench needed for disassembly of the gun, two Allen wrenches needed to drift or replace the sights, a chamber flag, a chamber cleaning brush and two extra front sight posts of varying heights. These latter items are especially useful since .22LR bullets can vary greatly in velocity, causing a high degree of variability in the vertical trajectory of the bullet.

One of the best features of the GSG 1911 .22 is that it is almost suppressor-ready: it comes factory-equipped with a threaded barrel. Barrel treading will usually cost you $65-100 if a gunsmith does the work. The GSG’s barrel threads also allow you to add screw-on compensators and other similar devices.  Also, the barrel on the GSG is fixed in place (i.e. non-tilting) so there is no need for a Nielson device to assist the action when firing suppressed.

Trigger

In one GSG 1911 .22 review I read, the author was highly critical of his test sample’s trigger. I’m not sure if his sample was bad or whether he was too picky, but my test sample has a much better trigger than one would expect on a $350.00 gun.  It initially had a bit of creep, but it smoothed itself out after a thousand rounds or so.  Now it falls at about 4.5 to 5 pounds with a 1/8 inch of take-up, virtually no creep, a good let-off, and very little perceptable overtravel.

Is the trigger as good as an Ed Brown custom .45?  No, but it’s not a $3K gun, either.  I think it’s important to keep expectations in line with the gun’s price tag. Certainly, this trigger is as good or better than many triggers I’ve felt on .22 pistols. If you insist on having an Ed Brown-quality trigger, however, you can certainly swap out the parts on the GSG to your heart’s content. Or buy an Ed Brown.

Grips

The factory GSG grips are checkered, and depending on the model, are made of either plastic or wood. The wood grips on the test sample were done in the classic Colt style “Double Diamond” pattern. They didn’t exhibit much grain and were not fancy by any means. They were functional, utilitarian, and pretty good looking. Thus, while any aftermarket grips intended for a 1911 will fit the GSG 1911 .22, there is no urgent need to replace the factory grips unless you are looking to upgrade the looks of your gun.

Magazines

One definite highlight of the GSG 1911 .22 is the magazines. These magazines are designed to replicate the size and feel of a standard M1911 magazine. When you pick one up, you know immediately that these are substantial, heavy duty units.  Unlike many .22 LR magazines, these are relatively easy and painless to load. They appear to be made out of a zinc alloy. The follower and base plate are plastic. Extra magazines are $25 bucks a pop, which is in the ballpark with other .22 magazines.

One downside: the plastic base plates are rather delicate and will break if you drop them. If you are going to be doing a lot of mag changes that result in them being dropped to the ground, I highly recommend that you change out the plastic base plates with aftermarket aluminum plates.

Finish

Normal blueing won’t work on zinc or aluminum alloys, and so the finish on the GSG’s slide appears to be some sort of paint. Honestly, I have not been all that impressed with this finish, as it appears it’s not as durable as I would have hoped. The good news is that Duracoat works well on the GSG slide and since I’m going to keep this gun, it will get Duracoated at some point in the future.  ATI warns users not to heat-treat / bake the zinc-alloy parts, however. The alloy has a lower melting point than steel and apparently some folks have ruined their slides by heating them up too much.

I have not really been able to figure out the composition of the frame’s finish. Whatever it is, it looks a lot like Parkerizing, Unlike the slide, the finish on the frame is very tough, and I have yet to scratch it in any way.

Sights

Perhaps my only significant complaint with the GSG 1911 is the sights. They’re made of plastic and they are somewhat delicate. Both the front and rear sights fit in a “Novak” style dovetail cut, and are held in place with metal hex screws. The front sight screw is a microscopically small hex head deal. If your GSG is not shooting dead-center bulls right from the factory, you will have to drift these sights in order to sight it in. Be warned, you have to be very careful not to strip the threads. I was a bit of a Neanderthal and managed to strip out the rear sight when I tightened it up too much and it is surprisingly easy to do.  ATI was kind enough to send me a replacement free of charge, however.

Visually, the sights are a three-dot arrangement similar to what you’d normally see on a modern .45 1911 and I had no issues achieving good sight picture. GSG provides the user with two additional front sight blades of varying heights, in case you want to raise or lower the point of impact.

Safety Features

The GSG has more safety features than a Volvo XC60.  In the military, we were taught that in addition to the soldier’s finger, the Colt M1911A1 had five “safety features:”

  1. Manual “thumb” safety (aka: slide lock”)
  2. Manual grip safety  (prevents hammer from falling unless gun is properly gripped)
  3. Slide stop (holds back the slide on an empty magazine, allowing visual inspection of chamber).
  4. Half cock notch (arrests the hammer fall should the operator’s thumb slip while manually cocking the pistol).
  5. Disconnector (aka “sear disconnect’) (prevents the gun from firing if the slide is out of battery).

The GSG has two additional safeties beyond those listed above:

  1. “Colt Series 80” style firing pin block safety (holds firing pin; deactivated by the trigger).
  2. Magazine safety (gun will not fire without magazine in place).

A lot of folks are not going to appreciate the GSG’s mag safety, especially if you use the gun in competition. Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to replace parts and deactivate that safety.

One minor gripe relates to the GSG’s grip safety: it protrudes from the weapon more than one would typically expect on a .45 ACP 1911 and takes more force to activate than normal. Again, it’s not a deal killer, but it is noticeable. Of course, if it really bothers you, you can swap out some parts and make it precisely replicate your .45 ACP 1911.

Another slight quibble is that thumb safety isn’t radiused, so it’s slightly uncomfortable to the touch. Again, these parts can be swapped out if it really bothers you.

Problem Areas

If you spend any time reading older (2010 and 2011 era) internet reviews of the GSG 1911 .22, you’ll note consistent reports of a few key problem areas. In retrospect, it appears that the GSG 1911 .22 may have been rushed to the market.  Fast forward two years, and it appears that the gun has now been thoroughly Beta-tested.  As far as I can tell, GSG has resolved the major issues.

But far and away, the biggest problem area was the factory guide rod and its associated buffer, washer, and spring. The first generation guide rod was both skeletonized and made out of zinc alloy. As a result, they tended to snap off at their base after as few as 500 rounds. GSG has made some design changes to the guide rod and the new ones seem to be doing much better. My test gun was still going strong at 1500 rounds when I swapped the factory guide rod out for a CWA replacement.

The first generation recoil spring also caused a few headaches. GSG initially used the same tapered, directional recoil spring that they use on their GSG 522s.  If you installed the spring in backwards, it could cause havoc with the gun. Fortunately, GSG now uses a non-tapered spring and my understanding is that ATI will retrofit the older units free of charge.

The barrel bushings on the original GSG 1911 .22’s were made out of zinc alloy, and they frequently cracked. GSG’s now makes the barrel bushing out of steel which has resolved the problem.

GSG originally outfitted the 1911 .22 with a rubber buffer disk, but that has been replaced by a clear plastic disk. The stainless steel washer was also redesigned, and is now shorter and thicker than the previous washer.

The recoil spring plug was also redesigned by adding two small anti-twist “ledges” to the plug.  These feet are critical to the operation of the pistol, and therefore aftermarket plugs should not be used.

Disassembly / Reassembly

Disassembly is fairly similar to the procedure used on a government model M1911.  The only major difference is that the GSG has additional pins (in addition to the standard slide stop) that hold together slide and frame together. One of these pins – the “Barrel Fixing Pin” is actually a small hex Allen screw that helps secure the barrel to the frame.  This screw plays a key role in the accuracy of the gun, as it holds the barrel on straight and tight.

The gun comes with the Allen wrench needed to remove the barrel fixing pin. If you lose the Allen wrench in the field, you are pretty much screwed unless you have a spare on hand. Some folks will consider this a significant reason not to buy a GSG 1911. 22. In my estimation, though, it’s not that big a deal because the GSG is more of a range gun than a field / home defense gun.

One word of caution on reassembly: the barrel shroud is relatively soft metal. You have to be careful not to tighten up the Barrel-fixing screw too much. If you Cro-mag it, you will strip out the threads and you’ll have to buy a new barrel ($45.00).

Range Time:  Accuracy & Reliability

After 2000 rounds, the GSG 1911 .22 has proven itself to be very reliable, especially when feeding it the CCI Mini Mags that are its preferred diet.  Most the failures I experienced happened when I fired the first round from the magazine and were the likely result of my thumb rubbing up against the slide when I released the slide stop.  This extra drag causes the gun to lock up with less force than it otherwise would. I recommend that you either use the “slingshot” method to rack the slide, or be careful to not let your thumb rub the slide when you disengage the slide stop.

Accuracy seems to be more than adequate for a gun of this sort. I’m certainly not a crack pistol shot by any means and I was able to achieve 1½ to 3inch, 5 shot groups at 25 yards (benched) using CCI Mini Mags. A really good shooter could no doubt do even better.  I shot this 10-shot group off-hand at 15 yards:

To Zinc, or not to Zinc?  That is the Question

One thing that may make the GSG 1911 less attractive to some potential purchasers is the fact that the slide is made out of die cast zinc alloy. The use of zinc alloys is common on .22 guns that are trying to both replicate larger center-fire pistols, and also keep the price point below $500.00.

Some folks in the shooting community dismissively refer to die cast zinc as “pot metal.” These “Zincophobes” won’t touch a zinc alloy gun with a 100-foot pole. Because the .22LR can only generate a small amount of force to push the slide rearward, it is obvious that the slide on a .22 caliber 1911 clone needs to be extremely light weight. That’s why Ruger Mark II’s and other steel .22s don’t have a slide like a typical centerfire semi-auto pistol.

But if you want to replicate a modern semi-auto pistol gun featuring a full-sized, reciprocating slide, you can’t use heavy steel unless you mill out a bunch of expensive lightening cuts. Even then, reliability will be iffy.  Thus in the GSG 1911, the need for a lightweight slide means that the only three possible metal alloys they could use are aluminum, titanium, or a zinc alloy. Figure cost into the mix and zinc alloy becomes the natural choice: GSG wanted to hit a price point in that $350 range and that necessitates the use of zinc.

After putting a few thousand rounds through both the GSG 522 SD and the GSG 1911, I can honestly say that I don’t have any major concerns about the use of zinc in the slide.  Perhaps if you are going to be putting 50,000 to 100,000 round a year through your gun, you may want to buy the Kimber. (I have no personal experience with the Kimber, but I would assume that the aluminum frame and slide would wear better than zinc).  But for most people who will just use the gun for range plinking or competition a few times a month, I don’t anticipate any serious issues with longevity.

Some GSG 1911 .22 users have reported some “peening” occurring on the slide stop notch.  According to the gunsmiths at ATI, this is a cosmetic issue for the most part, but it does nonetheless indicate that the use of zinc alloy does involve some compromises. As shown below, the test gun shows some cosmetic wear after 2000 rounds, but nothing significant.

SPECIFICATIONS

Caliber: .22 LR (Optimized for HV ammunition)
Action: Semi auto, blowback operated
Capacity: 11 (10 round magazines)
Overall Length: 8.6 inches
Overall Height:   5.5 inches
Barrel  Six groove, right hand twist, alloy shroud, steel liner, 5 inches.
Weight: 2.15 lbs
Sights:  Black plastic “Novak” style with a standard three-dot configuration.   
Finish:   Slide: painted black;  Frame: proprietary finish, visually similar to Parkerizing
Price: $350 (Retail Street Price).

RATINGS (out of five)

Style  * * * * *

It’s a dead ringer for a modern 1911, so what’s not to like!

Ergonomics  * * * * *

Standard 1911 ergonomics…it either works for you or it doesn’t, but most American shooters seem to like the way the 1911 feels and handles, so I’ll give it 5 stars.

Reliability    * * * ½

After an initial break in period of 150 rounds or so, this pistol has been very reliable. The only malfunctions I’ve experienced occurred when I was using standard velocity ammunition, and even then it runs smooth about 99% of the time.  Using good quality HV ammo recommended by the manufacturer, there are very few malfunctions.  The key is to keep the chamber clean to reduce the amount of drag caused by the round as it’s inserted and extracted from the chamber. To help with this, the GSG comes with an angled chamber brush.  It is your friend, use it!  Do this every couple hundred rounds or so and you will be good to go.

Customize This  * * * * *

It’s a 1911 design, so virtually anything that will fit on a real 1911 will fit on the GSG 1911. There is one caveat, however. The slide needs to remain very light in weight in order to cycle via the blowback of a .22LR round. Chet Whistle of CW Accessories makes aftermarket accessories to trick out your GSG 1911.  Chet runs a 6 oz Leopold DeltaPoint red dot optic on his GSG 1911 .22 without any problems, but YMMV.

GSG also manufactures an assortment of accessories for the GSG 1911 .22, including a bridge mount system for optics, flashlight and laser adapters, red dot sights and fake suppressors:

http://www.gsg-waffen.de/site/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=63&Itemid=106&lang=en

Accuracy  * * * *

This pistol is surprisingly accurate. Expect 1½ – 2 inch groups at 25 yards, or maybe even better.

Overall     * * * *

GSG gets a “do buy” recommendation.   The GSG 1911 fulfills a niche that few other guns can match:  it accurately replicates the size, weight, ergonomics, handling attributes, and manual of arms of a Colt M1911, all with good accuracy and reliability. The ability to customize the GSG 1911 .22 with after-market parts is a real plus.  Also, the threaded barrel also is a key feature for those shooters seeking to run cans or compensators.

Is the GSG 1911 .22 perfect? No. The slide’s painted finish wears fairly quickly and the gun’s use of zinc makes it less rugged than standard-bearers such as the Ruger Mark III or Browning Buckmark. However, GSG has worked the bugs out this gun and if you use high quality HV ammo, keep the chamber clean and the slide slightly lubed, you will have a reliable gun that I think will go at least 10,000 rounds – if not more – before anything major wears out.

 

[Also, see this post for information about accessories for the GSG 1911 .22]