Range Report Part 1: Rock Island Armory Rock Ultra MS

posted on March 3, 2019

By and large, the folks reading this article are going to be well-versed in the storied history and military prowess of the M1911, and the current market of pistols descended from John Browning’s valiant service sidearm. The platform’s record, lineage and current crop of production models are well documented on our website and throughout the pages of American Rifleman magazine. One thing I’ve found in this particular category, though, is that it is very easy to become enamored and distracted by the beautiful, fully-loaded, custom-built top end of the market—firearms largely unobtainable by the average shooter. And don’t misunderstand, those guns deserve, and indeed demand, attention. They are marvels of machinery drawing on more than 100 years of refinement based on user input and developments in manufacturing and material processes. The best are incredibly reliable, exceedingly accurate and heirloom quality pieces of art, to boot. But the average American interested in shooting for recreation or personal defense is not likely to invest thousands of dollars into a single pistol, let alone work such a pistol to the bone through daily carry and frequent trips to the range. So, for this installment of Range Reports, an extended 2,000-round evaluation, I’ve opted to test an everyman’s gun, a working-class M1911 that is not only affordable, but will hopefully turn out to be a true value through its performance and reliability. I’m testing the Rock Island Armory Rock Ultra MS, a Commander-size 1911 in .45 ACP that features some excellent upgrades and a surprisingly low MSRP of $731, with shop prices even lower, often well below $600.

Rock Island Armory (RIA) is the American firearms brand for Philippines-based Armscor, which is no stranger to building 1911s—the company is among the largest producers of “the .45” and its offspring, and serves a robust domestic market in the Philippines, as well as many international markets, including the United States. In recent years, Armscor has substantially expanded its commitment to the American market, opening an ammunition plant in Stevensville, Mont., and a firearms manufacturing facility in Pahrump, Nev., the company’s stateside headquarters.

The subject of this review, as previously stated, is Rock Island Armory’s Rock Ultra MS—MS is for midsize, referring to the gun’s abbreviated slide and barrel, compared to FS, or full-size models. The heart of the pistol is the 4.25” barrel, button-rifled with six-grooves and a twist rate of 1:400 mm which, converted, equates to 1:15.75”, very close to the 1:16” standard. The barrel has a semi-belled profile, flaring toward the muzzle to facilitate lock up with the slide—the gun does not use a barrel bushing, and the recoil spring rides along a full-length guide rod. Beyond the barrel and recoil spring’s contemporary arrangement, purists will be glad to know that the Rock Ultra MS operates using series 70 lockwork. The pistol’s manual thumb safety is an ambidextrous component, with bilateral levers on the left and right, and the grip safety features the enlarged memory bump for sure activation. Other features include: a fiber-optic front sight paired with an adjustable LPA rear; a lowered and flared ejection port; skeletonized hammer and trigger; gray-black G10 stocks with good, semi-aggressive texturing; checkered mainspring housing; vertical serrations on the frontstrap; and a carry-profile extended magazine well. With its matte black Parkerized finish, the gun is well appointed and has a very business-like appearance. The Commander-size dimensions make the gun well-suited for carry, while its all-steel construction and 40-oz. heft help it absorb some of the .45 ACP’s recoil. Included with the pistol is an eight-round magazine with a polymer basepad made by ACT-MAG of Italy. Considering it’s the same magazine that comes with many custom 1911s, I trust it will work just fine. Overall, it’s a very nice package, especially for the price.

270 Rounds (270 Total)
My first time handling the Rock Ultra MS, I'll admit I was impressed. The machining is good, the finish is clean and the action of the slide riding the frame rails is smooth, very smooth actually. Make no mistake, it doesn’t possess the fit and finish of a $3,000 custom build, but I’ve handled other value-priced 1911s—some with dubious reputations, well-earned in my experience—and the Rock Island just feels better built than many of its price-point competitors. So, to the range we went for its first shooting session.

Being the product of a firearm and ammunition manufacturer, the Rock Island pistol was in for a healthy helping of Armscor’s 230-gr. FMJ ammunition. Firing the first 150 rounds without a hitch, I really started getting excited about the gun. Particularly with M1911s, pistols with mechanical issues tend to reveal their flaws almost immediately, and guns that work tend to get better with the first few hundred rounds as the metal components really start to wear into shape. The RIA was off to a good start. Around the 90th shot, the left stock panel did begin to feel a little bit loose, but this is very common with new M1911s of any price, and is easily remedied with a drop of thread locking compound.

Moving on, I wanted to give the gun a dose of one of my favorite .45 loads, SIG’s 185-gr. V-Crown JHP. In total, I shot 120 rounds of the SIG ammunition and experienced no issues with the gun’s functionality. However, around the 190th shot the right stock panel started feeling loose as well. No worries, the gun worked great, seemed to be accurate—though this was primarily a familiarization shoot—and the stocks would be easy enough to tighten down.

At the bench, I gave the gun a once over, and besides the loose stocks and some brass impact marks just forward of the ejection port, the gun looked to be none the worse for wear. Unfortunately, this is where everything went sideways. I must have overtightened one of the right-side stock screws after applying thread lock, because the head sheared off rendering the screw, and likely the bushing, out of commission. The repair would have been easy to accomplish at home in short order, and given Rock Island’s warranty and commitment to customer service, I have no doubt the company would have sent replacement parts or offered to do the repair at its facility. However, this being a T&E loaner gun, RIA opted to have the gun returned, and chose to send a second gun posthaste so testing could continue. It was a bittersweet exchange, I hate to give up a gun that had surprised and impressed with its performance, but, if the second gun exhibited similar quality, it would speak volumes of the Rock Island line.

200 Rounds (200 Total) 
It was only a matter of days before I was back on the range with the new Rock Ultra MS. Turning the round-counter back to zero, I set about firing four boxes of the 230-gr. Armscor FMJs. Based on appearance and handling, the new gun looked and felt just as good as the first. And like the first, it handled its first range session with aplomb, easily running through 200 rounds. Within the first few magazines I did feel the left stock panel coming loose, but the right side remained secure throughout.

After shooting, I inspected the gun and found no concerning wear marks. I also tightened and locked down the loose stock screw—this time without incident. All in all, it was a successful first outing for the second pistol, and I’m optimistic that the gun could be a good performer.

Be sure to stay tuned for updates as I continue this extended range review of the Rock Island Armory Rock Ultra MS in .45 ACP.

Additional Reading:
Dual Citizenship: The Rock Island Armory Story


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