The new Kimber Solo looks a lot like a scaled-down Model 1911, actually more like any number of 1911-style subcompacts designed to fire .380 ACP, but the Solo is a 9mm that measures a mere 5.5 inches in length, 3.9 inches in height and a scant 0.995 inches in width. With a weight of just 17 ounces empty, it ranks as one of the smallest 9mm semi-autos in the world. But that is not what makes the Kimber Solo “innovative.”
The Solo has, in a variety of ways, redefined how semi-autos are designed through the implementation of improvements in internal and external operating features that allow the gun’s compact dimensions to be achieved without sacrificing either ease of use or, more importantly, creating a handgun that delivers excessive recoil with heavy-duty defensive ammunition. In fact, the Solo is designed specifically to fire premium, high-pressure defense ammunition in the 124-to 147-grain range, which is pretty much what you want to carry.
The compactness of the Solo is striking as it is not much larger in overall dimension than most .380s, and it is by far one of the smallest 9mm pistols on the market. Since Kimber was heading into uncharted waters, the design team began with a clean sheet of paper and no preconceived ideas on how the gun would be built. The parameters were to design an ultra-compact 9mm that would be suitable for carry, either in a pocket or worn in a belt holster. Sounds simple enough, but the developmental process took over three years from concept to the Solo’s introduction in January 2011.
In order to achieve the dimensions of an ultra-compact 9mm, everything had to be proportionately scaled down, but not to a point were external controls became awkwardly small, such as the ambidextrous thumb safeties, which are among several specially designed components on the Solo into which a great deal of time was expended. The frame contours, while reminiscent of a Model 1911, are all smoother and more rounded; in fact, there is isn’t a hard line on the gun with the exception of the muzzle, bottom edges of the slide and magazine floor plate.
“Exterior contours were one of the features that kept coming up in dealer and consumer surveys,” explained one of the design engineers. “The demand was for a gun with no hard edges. This was very high on the list, so it became a design element planned from the start.” The eye is quickly drawn to the scalloped ejection port, for example, which assists in smoother case ejection as well as adding to the exterior aesthetics of the gun. The same goes for the lower edges of the slide, which are curved inward ahead of the frame, again creating soft, visually appealing contours that also add some small advantage when re-holstering, by eliminating another hard edge. A Kimber engineer noted that each of the scallops on the slide contribute to reducing weight without compromising function.
The ambidextrous magazine releases are also interesting. They are easy to operate with either the off-hand thumb or trigger finger without needing to pull the gun off target. The specific shape, angle and placement of the releases were among key engineering requirements for the Solo. In our field test, this was to be one of several strong features that make this gun easy to operate with either hand. This also applies to the ambidextrous thumb safeties. They are angled to be easily activated by the side of the thumb on the draw, and just as easily reset. The unusual curvature of the thumb safety reduces the effort required to work it, and while small, it is ideal for almost any hand size. The angle and surface curvature also make it less likely to catch on clothing, particularly when drawing or re-holstering from a trouser pocket.
The Solo certainly takes its basic design cues from the legendary Model 1911. That was deliberate, and includes a close approximation of the grip angle and feel of a scaled down 1911, but that is where the similarities end. Rather than going with a 1911-style trigger and hammer design, the Solo utilizes a unique striker-fired system and what looks like a DAO trigger, which it is, technically speaking. When the slide is cycled and a round is chambered, the striker (firing pin) is between 88 to 90 percent pre-tensioned. The trigger pull necessary to discharge the Solo then is only 10 to 12 percent of the total effort needed to stage and release the striker.
The basis for the Kimber’s trigger and action is the way in which the Solo is intended for carry. The designers wanted a modern striker-fired action, thus the absence of a 1911-style hammer and grip safety. There is only the ambidextrous thumb safety for secure carry, and this would be much more acceptable to the general market than traditional 1911-style “cocked and locked” carry. “In truth,” explained one of Kimber’s lead engineers, “the Solo is not a single-action, it just feels like one. It is actually a double-action.” Kimber literature nevertheless refers to the Solo as a single-action striker-fired pistol, not a DAO. The best explanation is that since there is no way to decock the Solo after a round is chambered, it becomes a single-action, even though the trigger is used to finish staging the striker before firing the gun. Kimber may have to invent a new term for it.
The Solo is intended for self-defense ammunition, high-pressure loads of 124 to 147 grains. In designing the gun, the “distance component” wasn’t really an issue, but the “accuracy component” was, and the guns were initially tested at 25 yards from a rest. Although most confrontations occur at far closer distances, the Solo is factory sighted in for 25 yards. If it is accurate at that distance, it is accurate at 25 feet.
Being a short-recoil design, one would expect the Solo to have quite a kick, but it’s surprisingly manageable even with 147-grain JHP. Make no mistake, it’s not gentle, but it’s nowhere near what you would expect from a 17-ounce gun spewing out high-pressure self-defense ammunition. My choices for the Solo were Speer Gold Dot 147-grain GDHP, Federal Premium 147-grain Hydra-Shok JHP, and a lighter than recommended load, the 115-grain Hornady FTX, which clocked the highest velocity from the Solo’s 2.7-inch barrel at 985 feet per second (fps). Speer cleared the ProChrono traps at 920 fps, and Federal Premium moved at 910 fps.
The standard magazine holds six rounds and requires a solid push when being inserted. Pulling the slide back to chamber the first round (or clear the gun) also demands a strong hand due to the Solo’s heavy double recoil spring and pre-tensioning the striker. This is the most physically demanding aspect of handing the Solo.
The overall dimensions fit the average hand comfortably, with the small finger resting under the magazine floorplate. The magazine and slide release fall easily at hand, operate smoothly (particularly releasing the slide after inserting a fresh magazine), and the ambidextrous safeties work seamlessly. Although right-handed, I shoot with the off-hand as well and found the Solo one of the easiest guns to manage as a southpaw.
The Solo is a very different kind of semi-auto to carry compared to other striker-fired pistols, especially when you have it in a pocket holster. It has a combination of safeties; the ambidextrous thumb safety, a 10 to 12 percent remaining load on the striker as you pull the trigger, and a drop safety/firing pin block. Carrying the Solo “cocked and locked” is nothing like a 1911.
Trigger pull on our test gun averaged 7.1 pounds, and as anticipated, was much lighter than expected until you take up that last 10 to 12 percent load on the striker. Then boom! The Solo goes off sharply, there is a swift muzzle rise and then the gun is ready to go again. The action of any short-recoil, striker-fired pistol is remarkably fast—the Solo is faster. This is due in part to the unusual contours of the barrel. As one Kimber engineer noted, “Internally, you can’t get into the Solo design without touching on a patent-pending feature.” One of the most obvious is the barrel. The exterior configuration, which resembles a Coke bottle shape, assists with barrel oscillation. As it moves rearward after discharge, the contoured barrel locks dramatically in a very short distance, just 1.5 inches of travel. The Kimber short-recoil system has been engineered to overcome some of the feeding and extraction issues previously inherent with this type of design and it appears to work. During our range test there were no problems.
On the rapid-fire 25-foot range test, which required emptying a full magazine as quickly as possible, all hits on a B-27 silhouette target were within the central body mass 9, 10 and X rings with groups (two or more) as close as 0.38 and 0.63 inches. The average spread at 25 feet for five rapid-fire rounds was 2 inches.
Stepping back to 50 feet, using a Weaver stance and two-hand hold, the best five-shot groups on a Champion 50-foot Slow Fire Target averaged 1.25 inches. The big surprise came at 25 yards, shooting from a rested position. Although we had two flyers out of seven rounds (which still struck within the 10-ring on a B-27 silhouette), we managed four rounds overlapping at 0.44 inches, with a fifth just 0.63 inches to the left. For a semi-auto with a barrel length under 3 inches, it was impressive.
Being innovative is risky. Kimber went out on a limb, a darn thin one at that, in developing a new model unlike anything they had previously manufactured. This is the kind of commitment that can either be a success story or bring a company to its knees. Ask anyone in the automotive industry how that works. In the firearms world, the risks are even greater and that redheaded cousin “compromise” often has to enter into the picture.
Kimber went the distance on this one, without compromise, and it shows in the quality, design, accuracy, and in your hand. This is one of those rare guns that you pick up and know, almost instinctively, that it is going to be good. This certainly has a great deal to do with how the Solo looks, but also in what it brings to the table in terms of concealment, ease of use, and firepower. There’s an old shooter’s axiom that says, “Always bring enough gun to the fight.” The Solo is enough gun. See for yourself at kimberamerica.com or call 800-880-2418.
The new Kimber Solo looks a lot like a scaled-down Model 1911, actually more…
by John Fasano / Oct 8, 2012