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. AGI Instructor Gene Shuey explains how to do it well in Part 2 of this educational article. Click Here if you missed Part 1.
continued from Part 1…
It’s important to remember that sight selection can be very subjective. The best set of sights for one customer may be the worst set of sights for another. It’s important for the gunsmith to understand this, and to make sure that he communicates with his customer about it. A customer with poor eyesight may require different sights than someone with perfect 20/20 vision. A customer who uses the isosceles stance, with the sights further from the eyes, may require different sights than someone who uses the Weaver stance, with the sights closer to the eyes.
There are basically three types of sights: black sights, fiber optic sights, and night sights. If the customer is only going to shoot during the day, and doesn’t require any additional help seeing the sights, then black sights are a good way to go. If the customer has poor vision, fiber optics may help. If the customer may need to use the gun in low-light conditions, such as in a self-defense situation, then night sights may be needed. The ideal situation would be to provide the customer with a variety of sight types, in different configurations, to see what works best under the conditions the customer expects to use them. There are other sight options, but they may not be the best choices for new shooters.
Sight picture isn’t the only consideration when selecting sights. How the gun will be used may affect the types of sights selected. For example, let’s assume the customer is expecting to draw the gun rapidly from a holster, whether for competition or self-defense. In this case, a tall, sharp front sight may be easier for the customer to see, but it could also snag on the holster, causing either a slow draw time or, worst-case scenario, cause the customer to fumble, dropping the gun. If the gun is intended to be carried concealed, then large, high-visibility rear sights may snag on the customer’s concealing garment.
The best possible sight picture, with the best possible shape and profile, is worthless if the gun won’t shoot where it’s aimed. Zeroing the sights is an important aspect of building a 1911. Again, the customer is an important factor. You want to make sure that the sights are zeroed for the customer when shooting the loads he intends to use.
Even though many customers place accuracy at the top of their requirements, I’ve placed it low on the gunsmith’s priorities simply because most factory-produced 1911s are more than accurate enough for most people. With that said, accuracy improvements can be beneficial, particularly for competition shooters.
First, slide-to-frame fit has very little impact on accuracy. The barrel fit is the most important aspect of a 1911’s accuracy. A properly fitted barrel can improve accuracy by 45-50%. Why is this? The sights are what allow us to hit the target. Consider where they’re located, on the slide. If the barrel is loose, it may not align the same way each time the gun cycles, meaning the sights are going to be a little bit off for every shot. By properly fitting the barrel, the gunsmith ensures that the barrel and slide will lock up consistently, making the point-of-aim line up more consistently with the point-of-impact.
Properly fitting the barrel relies on a few different elements. First is the barrel’s fit to the lugs under the slide. The fit should be precise, but not too tight. Think of it in terms of shoes that fit your feet really well. They’re snug, but they’re not uncomfortable. This is where most of the accuracy from barrel fit comes from.
The fit of the barrel in the bushing, as well as the fit of the bushing in the slide, is also important. Remember that the barrel locking up consistently is important for accuracy. A proper barrel-bushing-slide relationship adds to this consistency, by ensuring the muzzle lines up in the slide the same way for every shot. It’s also important for the fit to be precise, but not too tight, as with the barrel-slide lug fit.
To a lesser extent, the fit of the barrel hood to the slide should also be considered. This is the extension at the top of the barrel that fits into the top-rear portion of the slide’s ejection port. Again, the goal is consistency. Removing any for and aft slop in this area also gets rid of “loose breech,” which will greatly contribute to the life of the barrel/slide combination.
Here’s a way to evaluate all three elements. First, with the gun assembled and unloaded, press down on the barrel hood/chamber. There should be little, if any, movement. Next, place your thumb in the muzzle and try moving it around. Finally, take the slide/barrel assembly off the frame, hold it up to a light, and see if there’s any visible light between the barrel hood extension and the slide. The more movement or light you perceive, the less accurate the gun will be.
There are a variety of finishes available. Blue is a traditional finish, but is not very wear resistant. If the customer is going to wear the gun frequently, hard chrome is a good option. It’s light in color and can be either bright or dull in finish. Parkerizing is another option for those who prefer a dark-color finish.
There are some non-traditional finishes, too. Some are spray-on finishes, like KG Gun Kote, DuraCoat, and Cerakote. One exotic finish that is worth mentioning in detail is DLC, which is short for Diamond-Like Carbon. It’s a very hard finish, with a hardness rating just under diamond or sapphire. It will never wear off or rust. If the surface is polished before being finished in DLC, it can reduce the amount of lubrication needed for optimum functioning.
There are some special considerations if the customer’s base gun is made from stainless steel. Guns with stainless steel slides and frames can gall, which means the mating surfaces can develop surface irregularities, leaving those surfaces rough in texture and appearance. The best way to prevent or minimize this problem is to use what’s called “dissimilar surfaces.” This is done by finishing the stainless steel so that the mating surfaces are different. A good example would be to apply DLC to the slide and hard chrome to the frame. This concept can also be applied to stainless steel controls on a stainless steel frame.
Carry vs. Competition
Most of the information I’ve covered can be applied to either carry or competition guns. Now I’ll discuss considerations for the competition gun, specifically an IPSC limited class gun.
For starters, I’d use a high-capacity 1911 with a 5″ barrels such as those produced by STI. I would also use adjustable sights as they provide a good, high quality sight picture as well as allow for better precision when zeroing the gun to a particular load. I would install a high-ride beavertail grip safety and undercut the trigger guard to set the gun as deep as possible in the shooter’s hand. I would use the same trigger work as mentioned previously, but I would have the trigger set up with a short take-up, short travel, and a very crisp break at 2 lbs. I would go as high as 3 lbs., but it would feel like 2 lbs. Basically, just a little bit of pressure from the trigger finger will fire the gun.
Accuracy requirements can be very high for competition guns, particular when 1st and 2nd places in a match are separated by fractions of an inch and fractions of a second. Balancing accuracy and reliability can be tricky. To do that properly, we need to look at two different concepts, dynamic weight and static weight.
Dynamic weight is the mass that moves, in this case the slide assembly. The slide moves back and forth as the gun cycles. The slide develops momentum while moving in both directions. The momentum when moving back isn’t much of an issue as it’s incorporated into the recoil felt when firing the gun. The momentum generated when moving forward can be an issue, though. That forward momentum can cause the gun to dip forward when the slide stops abruptly at the end of its travel, at slide lock-up. One thing I would do is go to a bull barrel. This eliminates the need for a barrel bushing, which is part of the moving mass of the slide assembly and allows us to cut some weight in this area.
Static weight doesn’t move when the gun is fired, such as the frame assembly and the recoil spring guide rod, and can help stabilize the gun in the shooter’s hand when firing rapidly. Combining the bull barrel with a full-length recoil spring guide rod adds mass to the front end of the gun, changing the balance slightly. This slight change in balance can help reduce felt recoil and muzzle flip, allowing the shooter to better track the front sight when firing rapidly and/or engaging multiple targets.
Part of this balancing act is ensuring the gun will function properly. I want to make sure that the gun will reliably strip a round from the magazine, chamber it, lock up precisely for accuracy, fire, eject the spent case, and strip the next round to start all over, all while causing minimal disruption to the sight picture.
After these major considerations have been addressed, it’s important to pay attention to the smaller details when communicating with your client. It’s easy to forget something easy, like making sure the magazine release works properly. It’s also important to work out details like barrel profile, recoil spring guide rod length, or magazine well modifications. Attention to detail is what makes a gunsmith a professional.
The Professional Package
I want to conclude this article with an explanation of what it takes for a gunsmith to produce a professionally-done pistol. I see such a gun as the product of an equilateral triangle, with each leg equally important. The first leg is reliability. The second leg is accuracy. I’ve already addressed these two legs. The third leg is craftsmanship. This is the quality of the work done and the distinction that comes from the way that work was executed. There are gunsmiths that can do one or more of these legs. One gunsmith may be able to build a 1911 that works every time, but may not be very accurate or pleasing to the eye. Another may produce a beautiful work of art, but it doesn’t function very well. For example, a gun that’s been “melted,” that is, had all of its external edges completely rounded off, may be practical in terms of handling characteristics. However, a gun that has had its sharp edges tastefully broken, retaining the original lines without the sharpness, is both practical and aesthetically pleasing. It displays a high level of craftsmanship. A professionally-done pistol will have all three qualities present. Keep this in mind whenever you work on a 1911.