The Pros and Cons of Aluminum Framed Handguns

By Bob Campbell published on in Firearms

After deploying a steel frame handgun for many years I have come to appreciate lightweight (LW) frame handguns. Aluminum frame revolvers and self-loaders have become trusted companions. I am not one to save a few ounces at the cost of my life, yet I do not wish to carry more weight than necessary. A good handgun, holster and spare magazine, not to mention the knife and combat light, add up.

Lightweight Aluminum Framed Handgun with a holster and Hornaday ammunition

The markings on the slide say it all – LIGHTWEIGHT

I won’t try to convince you an aluminum frame handgun is as durable as steel or that the handguns are as easy to shoot well, although the trade-offs are acceptable. If you are both practical and serious concerning personal defense, you may come to the same conclusion I have: Aluminum-frame pistols make sense. You simply have to understand the breed, and give your personal best to mastering this type of gun.

There are other lightweight alloys although the most common and most suitable for personal defense handguns is aluminum. Aluminum was once a precious metal, then advanced mining and processing techniques changed the world. After World War II aluminum frame technology—developed for aircraft—changed the handgun world. Today, aluminum-frame handguns have a half-century service history that’s unmatched by any other lightweight gunmetal. The aluminum frame handgun is usually a doppelganger to the steel frame pistol, identical in appearance and made of a different framer or receiver material.

The Colt Commander was among the first widely popular, lightweight frame handguns. It was similar to the Government Model although it  has a barrel and slide .75-inches shorter than the GI .45. The pistol weighs 28 ounces versus 39 for the Government Model 1911.

The Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special was among the first new handguns to be offered in both steel-frame (Model 36) and aluminum-frame (Model 37) versions. These revolvers weigh 20 and 12 ounces, respectively. Before guns such as these were developed and introduced, carrying an effective handgun meant carrying more weight.

Gunsmiths cut down big bore revolvers and were moderately successful, although by and large smaller guns were the norm for concealed carry. Those looking for a lighter carry gun were likely to choose a .32 or .380 automatic or a small-frame revolver. The new breed of handguns introduced after World War II were as light, or lighter, than those small-caliber guns, although they offered the power and reliability of their service-grade actions and cartridges. These handguns made it possible to be well armed with a degree of comfort, at least as far as carry is concerned. However, due to their light weight, aluminum-frame handguns exhibit more recoil than their steel-frame counterparts, and this increased recoil is the primary drawback.

Black SIG Ultra barrel to left on white background

This SIG Ultra is reliable and comfortable to fire but very light thanks to an aluminum frame.

In order to refresh my memory and to validate my perceptions, I fired several handguns in preparation for this report. I fired both steel frame and aluminum frame .38 caliber revolves and self-loading handguns in 9mm and .45 caliber. I believe, as a general rule, an aluminum-frame handgun requires about 25% more practice to achieve the same level of proficiency as a comparable steel-frame handgun.

You must understand this rule and accept the fact that you’ll either have to practice more or be less capable. In my opinion, more shooters are poorly armed due to a lack of practice than incorrect handgun choices. Aluminum-frame handguns demand shooters who actually practice with their handguns.

Other Considerations

Springfield 1911

This Springfield 1911 is showing a bit of wear in the anodizing.

Sharp or rough edges are more likely to prove uncomfortable when recoil is heavier. When firing a revolver it is common for shooters to receive cuts on the thumb from the cylinder latch. A self-loader’s action absorbs recoil in comparison to the revolver as the recoil spring brings the slide back smartly and aids in recoil control if the pistol is properly sprung and regulated.

You must choose a revolver with an efficient rubber grip for control and comfort with heavy loads. A number of shooters have commented that a lightweight revolver bites with the first shot, while the autoloader sneaks up on you. The first few magazines fired in a lightweight 1911 are not uncomfortable, although after a long practice session you’ll be rubbing your wrists. Be certain your practice sessions are well spent.

When firing the revolver, it is common for the knuckle of the third finger of the firing hand to be rapped by the trigger guard in recoil. Modern grips address this concern, and so does a proven technique. By extending the third finger to a position under the trigger guard, you may avoid the rap and enhance control.

Only use standard-pressure ammunition in lightweight handguns. Even if the handgun might endure continued use of high-pressure loads, the lack of control from the extra recoil skirts the edge of acceptable limits—even for experienced shooters. Aluminum-frame semi-autos present a longer list of technical and mechanical considerations. GI-type grip tangs sometimes exhibit uncomfortably sharp edges.

Modern lightweight-frame pistols are equipped with beavertail grip safeties. This spreads recoil out rather than concentrating recoil force in one area, prevents the gun from biting the hand and subtly lowers the bore axis. The 1911 handgun is highly developed.

The SIG P series and the Beretta 92 also use aluminum frames and are models of reliability.

Lightweight, 1911

The 1911 is a controlled-feed handgun that keeps the cartridge under control of either the magazine lips or extractor during every stage of the feed cycle. Cartridges loaded to around the magic 1.250-inch overall cartridge length feed best. Cycle reliability is best served with 230-grain loads—the bullet weight for which the .45 ACP was designed. Winchester 230-grain SXT or 230-grain Bonded Core are excellent choices.

Lightweight .38 and Ammunition

If you are going to use a LW .38 – lay in more practice rounds.

Modern, well-designed JHP loads cure a problem that has dogged the aluminum-frame 1911 handgun, because longevity and strength are not the same. An aluminum-frame service pistol may have the same service life as a steel-frame pistol. Either will withstand many thousands of rounds of ammunition. But aluminum-frame handguns will not withstand abuse as well as a steel-frame handgun.

At one time, ammunition companies produced bullet shapes that required the feed ramp of the 1911 to be modified or throated, and quite a few 1911 handguns were subsequently throated by amateurs and resulted in disastrous consequences. Original design specifications called for a 1/32-inch gap between the frame ramp and barrel ramp. Even more importantly, the slight bump as the cartridge runs across the feed ramp serves to snug the cartridge into the extractor during the feed cycle.

Plunger tube

Where the frame meets the plunger tube is a cause for concern with aluminum frame handguns.

The best solution is to incorporate a ramped barrel into every aluminum-frame handgun. My Springfield Lightweight Loaded 1911 (which is 25 percent lighter than a steel-frame Loaded 1911) also features a ramped barrel. There is simply no concern about feed ramp damage with this design. With a little attention, you may avoid the major disasters that occur with aluminum frames.

As an example, take special care when disassembling an aluminum-frame pistol. If you detail-strip the pistol, prying the safety from the frame may damage the frame. Any time one part is steel and the other a softer alloy, use special care.

The plunger tube is another concern. Be certain your grips properly support the plunger tube as per the original design. When you fieldstrip the pistol, snapping the slide lock back into lockup too sharply may stress the plunger tube and cause it to wallow in the frame. I have seen these problems, and they are difficult to repair. Avoid 10-thumbed handling and your aluminum-frame handgun will stay the course.

Lightweight concealed carry handguns are a good choice, simply maintain the pistols and understand their limitations. Practice hard and learn the requirements of maintaining the handgun. Do this, and they will serve well.

Parting Thoughts on Service Pistols

Blond woman in blue shirt shoots aluminum framed handgun

A steel frame gun is nice to shoot but gets heavy on the hip.

Aluminum frame handguns are not simply for concealed carry. For home defense, service use and police use, the aluminum frame SIG P226, Beretta 92 and Colt LW frame Government Model are good choices.

Durable? I doubt whether anyone even gives a second thought to the aluminum frame of the Beretta 92 or the SIG P226. I am pretty certain the single reason the CZ 75 isn’t as popular is because it is heavy.

What do you think of aluminum-framed handguns? Do you use one? Share your experiences in the comments section.

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SLRule

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

View all articles by Bob Campbell

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Comments (25)

  • Treavor Coats

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    Really appreciate and agree with your insight on light weight frames as I also design, sell and use 1911. They have been most enjoyable.

    Treavor Coats
    Coats Carbine Company

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Treavor Coats.

      You might try another weight saver metal MAGNESIUM. 1/3rd the weight of Aluminium, just as strong Aluminium, if not stronger, bacteria resistant.

      Reply

  • Craig

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    I prefer the aluminum frame 1911 mostly because of the weight loss in the material itself. but if considering an aluminum frame firearm no matter if its pistol or long gun. the alloy is important. 7075 is the preferred alloy. its tensile strength is much higher than the more common 6061 alloy. this is very evident in machining the material. the 7075 cuts more like steel than aluminum. its much harder than the softer 6061. I would never consider 6061 as an alloy suitable for firearms but you do find some low grade firearms made from it. these I would avoid.

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ Craig.

      Better Anti-Bacterial Growth Protection as well…

      Reply

    • Don

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      Hee-Hee-Hee… You know Secundius, I love reading your posts. They always make me laugh. Here we are talking about handguns and you pop in to add a comment for the OCD germaphobes out there… Hee-Hee-Hee

      Reply

  • Cobra

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    Been carrying the same Colt Cobra w/a 2 in Barrel for 45 years. My wife has always been an anti gunner but respected my carry. Thirty years ago I talked her into shooting the Snake. I coached her on the sighting, hand grip and firing in the cocked position for the best first shoot. I set a can on a fence post at 20 yds, One shot and the can flew off the post and she said, ” that’s enough”, I know what I need to do! I myself take out cans and oil filters @ 50 yds with the little snake. I do carry with +P but only shoot w/38 spl.loads.

    Reply

  • Lopaka Kanaka

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    I purchased a used Colt 1911 A-1 in 1975 and it was a Aluminium frame and steel slide and it was a little harder to hold the muzzle down on the recoil.I have since purchase two stainless steel and two carbon steel 1911 A-1 and much easier to hold the recoil down with Magna ported and ported barrels also with compensator.at the end of the barrels.

    Reply

  • Secundius

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    What some people don’t realize, depending on the type of ALUMINIUM used bacteria can actually take hold, live, grow and thrive on aluminium. An Aircraft-grade of billeted 7000-series Aluminium, is probably your BEST BET if you can Find-It and/or Get-It. Also worth noting some Aluminium’s are NOT, Salt Water Neutral (will actually corrode, when exposed to salt water).

    Reply

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