By R.K. Campbell
The high and ever increasing numbers of Americans exercising their rights and obtaining concealed carry permits are also looking for credible defensive handguns. There are many good choices, but in the end not everyone is going to go the distance and purchase a Commander .45 or attempt to conceal a high capacity 9mm. Those at risk are looking for something that is light, reliable, hard hitting, accurate enough for the task at hand, and well finished enough that there is some pride of ownership involved in owning the piece. There are any number of cheap guns available and some of them are pretty miserable. There are also exquisite pieces that are sterling examples of the gunmaker’s art. There is a demand for a handgun with a proper balance between ironmongery and being unobtainably expensive.
Many of the new buyers have gone through the NRA certified basic handgun course. They are intelligent and interested but they are not gun cranks in the manner many shooters are. They want something that works, is durable and reliable, and gives them an advantage in a lethal situation. It may not be glamorous or at the top of the list for investment or recreation, but if you need it, you need it badly and right then. A good handgun is a wise investment.
One maker has consistently exhibited good results beyond what one would have expected from the modest price. Bersa firearms offers affordable handguns that, when weighed in the balance, leave little to be desired and in fact sometimes offer superior performance to handguns costing much more. Bersa offers an alternative to much costlier firearms in the same class offering features not quite found elsewhere. The most common Bersa product in the United States are the Bersa Thunder .380 pistols. These are double action first shot .380 ACP pistols with the typical blowback action, slide mounted combination decocker and safety lever, and single column magazine. The size and caliber are popular and is one handgun that usually outperforms more expensive handguns. The Bersa is most comparable to the SIG P 230 in reliability and accuracy, but the Bersa costs much less. A sure sign of cost cutting is a heavy trigger action, but the Bersa pistols uniformly feature a smooth and reliable trigger action. The Bersa pistols do not fall short on function and reliability; however, the finish may not be as well polished as the Beretta or SIG as examples. But then the Europeans often demand twice the modest price of the Bersa product.
The subject of this report is the Bersa Thunder .45 pistol. The Bersa Thunder is an under-appreciated jewel of a firearm. Bersa doesn’t spend a great deal of money on advertising and perhaps this is one reason the pistols remain affordable. (An executive of a major manufacturer once let slip to me that their price leader, a polymer frame pistol intended to compete with the Glock, cost only about eighty nine dollars to manufacture. The rest, he lamented, was marketing costs.) The Bersa .45 is an interesting confluence of design. Let’s begin with the slide. The slide isn’t quite as bulky as most modern self loader slides. Rather, the slide tapers to the front. The sights are dovetailed in place in the modern fashion. These sights are excellent examples of combat sights, quite useful for most short range course shooting and accurate fire to 25 yards. The generous ejection port insures positive ejection of spent cartridges and facilitates administrative handling of full length cartridges. The lockup is the SIG type in which the barrel hood butts into the ejection port. This type of lock up has proven to be reliable and to produce good accuracy. The barrel is belled at the muzzle to provide a tight interface with the slide. A dual recoil spring wraps around a full length guide rod. This dual wound recoil spring is instrumental in maintaining positive function and keeping recoil at a manageable level. Firing tests confirm that the recoil exhibited by this handgun is less than we would expect from such a light and powerful handgun. The dual wound design has proven effective in controlling recoil and ensuring reliable function. The frame is aircraft grade aluminum. The trigger action uses an external drawbar that transfers energy from the trigger to the hammer. This is a proven system used first in the Walther P 38 and famously with the Beretta 92. It is a little shorter and faster than the Beretta rendition and smoother as well. The Bersa features a frame mounted safety. Slide mounted safeties are notoriously slow and fumble-prone to manipulate. They are for administrative handling and not well suited to combat operations. The Bersa safety falls under the thumb readily and positively locks the trigger out of battery. This safety cannot be applied when the hammer is cocked – there is no cocked and locked option. The Bersa may reasonably be carried on or off safe as the user prefers, but there is little, if any, speed penalty in carrying the pistol on safe. The safety also acts as a decocker. This combination does not always work out well; however, in the case of the Bersa design, the spring that powers the reset on the safety is sufficiently stout to prevent the thumb from inadvertently activating the decocker during a firing string. The Bersa features a conventional slide stop/ slide lock and a well designed take down lever. Field stripping is easily accomplished by rotating this lever downwards and then releasing the slide lock to allow the slide and barrel assembly to run forward. Next, simply pull the recoil spring assembly out of the barrel notch and then remove the barrel. There are no discernible tool marks on the interior of the Bersa slide. Overall, the impression is of quality manufacture.
The grip frame is a bit fatter than some of us like, but it is short and compact and contains a seven shot magazine. If there is anything to nit-pick over it is the width of the grip frame. Just the same, an eight round cartridge capacity (7 + 1) is achieved as efficiently as possible. The grip panels are modern plastic that serve the purpose as well as any other. The magazine release is the archetypical Browning design. The magazine is easy enough to load with the first six rounds but, like many of the type, the final (seventh) round requires considerable effort. The tapered magazine does make for ease of insertion and allows rapid magazine changes. Replenishing the ammunition supply is something we all need to be concerned with and the Bersa .45 with a spare magazine allows the concealed carry user to deploy fifteen rounds of .45 ACP ammunition.
In evaluating the Bersa we elected to take the pistol on its own merits and not to compare to compact 1911s or the Glock Model 36. After all, the primary advantage of the pistol is economy but the pistol is also an alternative to the various single action and double action only pistols. There is still a market for a double action first shot handgun. Some shooters feel more comfortable with a visible hammer that requires a long press of the trigger action to cock and drop for the first shot. In keeping with the inexpensive theme of the pistol, the initial testing was performed with the least expensive ammunition currently available: Wolf Ammunition’s 185 grain JHP, the Winchester 230 grain FMJ USA load, and the Fiocchi 230 grain JHP. First, the gun was lightly lubricated and the magazines loaded. The initial testing began with the handgun holstered in a lightweight fabric holster from ABM. This maker offers affordable range holsters that seem to hold up well enough. A silhouette target was hung at 7 yards and began the evaluation by drawing and taking a double action shot, then decocking, and taking another double action shot for several magazines. Good X-ring hits were possible with the smooth trigger action. Using the 185 grain Wolf load, function was good but recoil light. Next I moved to firing double action first shot and making the transition to single action fire. Firing double taps and alternately emptying the magazine, results were good. The 230 grain FMJ loads generated more recoil but simply grasp the pistol firmly; pay attention to the basics and you will get a hit. Moving to ten yards, a Bulls Eye target was set up and five rounds were fired as quickly as the sights could be recovered after each shot. The cadence of fire is never set by how quickly you are able to press the trigger but by how quickly you are able to recover the sights. The results were good. Two rive-shot groups were measured and the following are the averages.
Ten yards, rapid fire five shot groups:
Wolf 185 grain load 4.0 inches
Winchester 230 grain ball 2.9 inches
Fiocchi 230 grain JHP 3.75 inches
This type of rapid shooting will save your life. The absolute accuracy of a piece is always interesting but often less important than getting the pistol into action quickly and getting a good hit. Just the same, it is desirable to properly sight the pistol and also to confirm the accuracy potential. The pistol was bench rested at 15 yards with a variety of ammunition. The results were encouraging. It is noteworthy that even when firing from a secure position off of the bench, recoil was manageable.
Fifteen yards, average of three five shot groups:
Winchester USA 230 grain ball 2.0 inches
Fiocchi 230 grain EXTREMA XTP JHP 2.0 inches
Fiocchi 230 grain JHP 2.45 inches
Cor Bon 160 grain DPX (Short Barrel Load) 2.25 inches
Accuracy is easily good enough for personal defense, perhaps more than expected from a short barrel .45 caliber self loader. The next concern is wound potential. While there is nothing wrong with a 230-grain jacketed bullet that creates a long wound channel and produces a large hole when it exits, the modern JHP bullet has much to recommend. Cor Bon offers a short barrel DPX load that builds upon the performance of the modern Barnes X bullet. This load offers light recoil, good accuracy and a good balance of penetration and expansion. Velocity is nearly 1,000 fps from the Bersa’s short barrel. This loading is a rule beater that uses modern projectile technology to increase wound ballistics without compromising penetration. This load is a true custom load but one that is quite versatile. As for the other loads, the 230 grain .45 exhibits about 770 fps from the Bersa. While slower than the average from longer barrels, penetration remains adequate and the JHP bullets retain a measure of expansion. Whatever load you choose, the bullet begins its travel at .451 inch. Expansion is simply a bonus. The Bersa Thunder pistol combined with the .45 ACP cartridge makes a good combination for personal defense. The pistol has proven reliable in digesting some 750 mixed loads but more importantly the company has earned an excellent reputation. The Bersa is a good bet not only for those on a budget but anyone wishing to own a credible defensive handgun.
Bersa was founded in the mid 1950s by three Italian immigrants, Benso Bonadimani, Savino Caselli, and Ercole Montini. They originally made parts for other manufacturers but eventually began to produce their own firearms, including inexpensive shotguns and .22 caliber rifles. Montini once worked for Beretta in Italy. It may be said that he did not copy or clone Beretta pistols but was influenced by both Beretta and Walther pistols. By 1989 Bersa had introduced a workmanlike full size 9mm pistol. This pistol was followed by both small frame .380 ACP pistols and large frame pistols in 9mm, .40 and .45 caliber in the ‘Thunder’ series. A reputable endorsement of the Bersa pistol came in the 1990s when both the Argentine Federal Police and the Argentine armed forces replaced their Browning 9mm pistols with the Bersa Thunder 9 pistol.
- Caliber(s): .45 ACP
- Action: DA/SA
- Capacity: 7+1
- Barrel Length: 3.6 inches
- Front Sight: Interchangeable SIG Sauer type
- Rear Sight: Interchangeable SIG Sauer type
- Finishes: Duotone or matte black
- Grips: Checkered black polymer
- Construction: Alloy frame/steel slide
- Safety: Integral locking system, manual, firing pin
- Weight: 27 oz.
- Length: 6.8 inches • Height: 5.1 inches
- Width: 1.45 inches
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