by Gene Shuey
AGI Instructor and Master Pistolsmith
Building a custom 1911 pistol can be a very worthwhile experience. It can help a shooter maximize his abilities, produce a working pistol exactly matching his needs, create pride of ownership, or perhaps a $5,000 functional work of art. However, it can also be a time-consuming, money-draining misadventure if not done properly. I will explain the different factors that the gunsmith needs to address when planning such a project.
Fundamentals — The Customer
There are several questions the gunsmith should ask when talking with a customer about building a custom 1911. Some of the first questions I’d ask are, “Do you have a 1911 now?” If the customer has one, I’d also ask, “What kind is it?” and “How often do you shoot it?” If not, I’d ask him, “Why do you want a 1911, specifically?” I’d also ask, “What do you want the gun for?”
What we’re trying to do is learn about the customer’s level of experience and his perception of what he may want, so pay close attention to his answers. The customer may have extensive knowledge of the 1911, or he may have gotten his knowledge from reading magazine articles and talking with friends. If the customer wants a 1911 to carry for self-defense, we’re going to approach the project differently than if he wants a 1911 for competition. We need to tailor our approach to the customer — the most important aspect of a custom 1911 project.
Fundamentals — Caliber and Size
Once we find out the customer’s background and purpose for owning a 1911, we can address some fundamental questions regarding the gun’s caliber and size.
While 1911s are well known for the .45 ACP cartridge, there are other options, caliber-wise. 1911s are available in calibers from 9mm to .38 Super to .40 S&W, and many others. Similarly, 1911s are available in a variety of sizes, from full-size Government Models down to compact Officers Models. This is where the gunsmith’s knowledge can help guide the customer to an optimum combination.
For example, if a customer had a slight build and didn’t have much experience shooting 1911s, I might recommend a smaller caliber because it’s easier to control and would be less of an issue for someone who may be sensitive to recoil. If this same customer intended to wear his 1911 with a suit or jacket, I might recommend a Commander-sized pistol. I might recommend a Government Model-sized pistol if the same customer said he wears jeans and works outside. Similarly, if a customer says he wants an ultra-light, ultra-compact 1911 in .45 ACP for shooting in open class IPSC matches, I’d explain the difficulty in controlling such a small, lightweight gun when firing a powerful round and guide the customer to another choice. It’s important to consider these factors because, when it comes to custom 1911s, one size does not fit all, and the customer may not know what’s best.
A good way to address these issues is to have a variety of 1911s in different configurations on hand so the customer can experience the differences himself, which allows him to make better choices as to what suits him.
Now I’ll explain some more specific aspects of building a custom 1911, starting with reliability and safety.
Reliability and Safety
Reliability and safety go hand-in-hand as compromises with one could lead to compromises with the other. The gunsmith needs to be aware of this and work to make sure every gun is both reliable and safe. An unsafe, unreliable gun is a liability that neither the gunsmith nor the customer should accept.
The key to building a safe and reliable 1911 is to understand how it functions. Now, a lot of people say they know how the gun functions, but when you press them on it they’ll likely say they understand how to load and fire it. They don’t really understand how the link system works, how the disconnector works, how the sear works, how feeding works, etc. If you╒re interested in building 1911s, the first thing you need is to fully understand how they function.
Feeding, Extracting, and Ejecting
Let’s look at the fundamental aspects of reliability: getting the live round chambered, extracting the fired case, and then ejecting the fired case. One of the things we need to look at is the barrel throat. If the barrel throat/feed ramp area follows the standard military style, it may not feed non-ball ammo, like hollowpoints or semi-wadcutters. A three-point bind may result, which is when the cartridge goes part of the way into the chamber, but the slide won’t close.
Two things should be done to address this issue. First, the feed ramp and barrel throat need to be opened up and polished, but this must be done very carefully. Second, the extractor should be tuned. The tension should be adjusted to properly hold the fired case in place and the hook should be polished.
While we’re on the subject of extractors, it’s important to mention that 1911s should be chambered from a magazine. Never insert a round in the chamber and then close the slide. This will cause excessive wear on the extractor as the hook snaps over the case’s rim, eventually causing it to fail.
Another important aspect of feeding reliability is the magazine. Problems can come from incompatible magazines and bullet shapes. For example, if you have a magazine with long feed lips, that are straight and parallel, loaded with hollow points, feeding can be tricky. It must be remembered that the slide strips the round from the magazine. The round moves forward, comes up into the feed ramp, transitions to the barrel throat, and then enters the chamber, all while the case slides under the extractor. This process should be as smooth and seamless as possible. It’s not complicated, but it does require care and attention.
Now that we’ve gotten the round chambered and fired, we need to get the empty out of the chamber and out of the gun. This is where the ejector comes in. Tuning the ejector requires a visit to the range. The gunsmith needs to pay close attention to how the fired cases are being ejected from the gun. Cases that just fall out of the ejection port may indicate a recoil spring that’s too strong, whereas cases that fly halfway across the range may indicate a recoil spring that’s too weak. Test firing is also a good way to evaluate the overall functioning and quality of the gun, such as the trigger pull quality, the fit of the safeties, and how well the gun cycles when firing. This could lead to identifying other areas that need to be addressed.
It may also be a good idea to observe the customer shooting the gun, if at all possible. This can help the gunsmith identify any issues that may come up for that particular customer. For example, a shooter who doesn’t have a particularly strong stance or grip, potentially leading to limp-wrist malfunctions, may require a lighter recoil spring to achieve the best possible functioning for that shooter. At the very least, the gunsmith should evaluate the gun’s functioning using the ammo and magazines that the customer will use.
Next we’ll cover the trigger, since it’s a big part of not only allowing the customer to shoot accurately, but also to shoot safely. I’m going to divide this into two discussions, the trigger action and the trigger itself.
The most important thing with regards to the trigger action, safety-wise, is proper sear engagement. First, if you don’t know the difference between positive, neutral, and negative sear engagement, you shouldn’t be working on the sear. With that said, you should always ensure that you have positive sear engagement. Anything less than that is unsafe. If the hammer of the gun falls into the safety notch (or, worst case, all the way down) after the gun fires or you rack the slide. This is a very unsafe condition for the gun to be in. It’s also important to make sure the disconnector is working properly. The disconnector prevents the gun from firing when it’s out of battery, which is a serious safety issue.
Now we can pay attention to the quality of the trigger pull. If done correctly, the trigger pull should be about 4 pounds. However, it should feel like 2-1/2 pounds with a very sharp break. This will provide the customer with a safe, yet high quality, trigger action. This requires a good working knowledge of the hammer/sear engagement, as well as a few fixtures and jigs to perform the work correctly. It’s important not to take any shortcuts here. If you’re going to be doing trigger jobs, learn how to do them correctly.
Another important aspect to consider is the fit of the trigger to the customer. 1911 triggers come in a variety of lengths and styles to fit a variety of shooters. For example, I would recommend a short trigger for someone with short or pudgy fingers, a medium trigger for someone with average-size fingers or a long-trigger for someone with long fingers or large hands. Of course, if the long-fingered customer will be wearing gloves, I would recommend the medium or short trigger. Flat or curved triggers don’t really affect the fit of the trigger to the shooter.
Safeties and Grip
The safeties on a 1911 are important not only for safe functioning of the gun, but also to allow the customer to shoot the gun for its intended purpose. Is the customer left-handed? If so, installing an ambidextrous thumb safety is something to consider. Is the gun intended to be carried? Then the size of the lever(s) comes into play. If an extended lever is wanted, then care has to be made in its selection. Some levers are too long, while others are too wide.
Something new shooters may be uncomfortable with is carrying a loaded 1911 with the hammer cocked and the safety engaged, i.e. “cocked-and-locked” or Condition 1 carry, even though that’s the recommended method for carrying a 1911. One option is to use the Safety Fast System, or SFS, from Cylinder and Slide. This is how it works. After you load the gun, you move the hammer forward while keeping your finger off the trigger. This locks the hammer, locks the slide, and raises the thumb safety lever up. Lowering the thumb safety lever causes the hammer to fly back and you’re ready to fire. When you decide you don’t want to shoot anymore, you move the hammer forward while keeping your finger off the trigger; you don’t touch the thumb safety.
The grip safety is another safety device on the 1911, but it also affects how the gun feels in the shooter’s hand. Installing a beavertail grip safety drops the gun down in the shooter’s hand, reducing recoil. I’ll also undercut the trigger guard to help lower the gun in the hand. One thing I do is reshape the beavertail for carrying. Most of them have a hook shape on the end that serves no purpose. I trim it down to eliminate as much interference as possible when carrying and drawing the gun. On a carry gun I’ll also radius and polish the heel of the frame, the part by the magazine well, so the customer’s concealing garment glides over it.
The shooter’s grip on the gun is very important, not only for recoil control but also consistency. In addition to the grip safety and heel modifications, I’ll also add texturing, such as checkering, to the grip frame to improve traction. Grip repeatability improves muscle memory, which allows the shooter to draw the gun, bring it up, and put the front sight on the target automatically, regardless of how much ambient light is available or the position of the shooter’s body.
To be continued…
In Part 2 Gene will cover sights, accuracy, finish options and other touches to build a professional 1911 package.