A Colt 1911 With History
January 04, 2016
Regular readers may have recognized a Colt 1911 that has been in a previous column. I have to thank that pistol and Colt, for it was that pistol that put me on the path to gunsmithing and into these pages.
The year was 1981, and I attended the TargetWorld Indoor IPSC Nationals, Targetworld being a range just outside of Cincinnati. Things were a lot more casual back then, and when I saw the names signed up and the categories they had signed up for, I calculated that my odds were actually better shooting in the Pro division.
It turned out that my shooting was good and my division selection even better, as I won a Colt Series 70 blued 1911, new in the box. The same score in Amateur would not have netted me anything but an "attaboy." You thought gaming the system was a new thing? That it was invented recently? Please. I was so proud.
I took the Colt 1911 with me on my next range trip (a gravel pit outside of town), and I was soon crushed. Out of the box, it would not go a full magazine without malfunctioning. The problems were never the same, always something different than what had happened in the previous magazine. I said "magazine," not box of ammo or practice day.
I had to learn some basic gunsmithing and gun plumbing just to get it to work. Once I got it going, I found that it was, at best, casually accurate. By this time, I had laid hands on a Ransom Rest, so I tested the Colt 1911. With Remington match wadcutter ammo, it could barely keep five consecutive shots on a piece of typing paper at 50 yards. For those who are so digital you've forgotten what paper is, that means it was, at best, shooting 8- to 9-inch groups at 50 yards from a machine rest. Nothing personal, Colt, but it is easy to see why there were so many people starting to pop up to build, and later make, 1911s back in the 1980s and so many gunsmiths willing to work on them.
I saved my hard-earned radio DJ money and sent off my Colt 1911 to a name 'smith for accuracy work. He gave it the full state-of-the-art build, circa 1982. He welded and refit the barrel, peened the rails and lapped the slide to them. He fit a bushing to the slide and barrel that was so tight you could see oil oozing out when you turned the bushing into place. It was cutting-edge work and expensive, taking an agonizing five months to complete. Upon the Colt 1911's return, in the Ransom Rest it could barely keep five consecutive shots on a piece of typing paper at 50 yards. (Admit it; you saw that one coming.)
By this time, I knew a local gunsmith. He was always behind in his work, and I asked if he needed help. He did, I joined, and I apprenticed for a year. In that time, I discovered how to do many things, including how to fit a 1911 barrel. One thing I discovered was that I simply needed a drop-in Bar-Sto barrel to make that pistol a tackdriver.
Soon after, I discovered bowling-pin shooting. Pin shooting was simple, five bowling pins on a steel-topped table. On the start signal, shoot them off the table faster than anyone else. The times of your best five of six runs totaled was your score. The fastest shooter gets first pick of the loot and all the glory. In order for me to be competitive, the Colt 1911 got extras added. The grip safety is a Safari Arms, the best to be had back in the Neolithic era. The sight is an original-design Novak. It has a King's thumb safety. The best parts, the ones that shaved extra tenths of a second off each table, are the porting and the guide rod.
The Colt 1911's guide rod first. You can't get anything like it anymore. It is a Harrt's Recoil Reducer, and the interior has mercury and a couple of ball bearings to work as baffles. The mercury, sloshing around inside of the tube, dampens recoil, and it adds a smidgen more weight. At this point, the EPA is probably scrambling a quick-reaction team to airdrop on my address, as mercury is hazardous. You've heard the phrase "mad as a hatter"? Mercury was used centuries ago as a product to finish hats, and those poor slobs who made hats went crazy due to their mercury exposure. It worked, but it was dangerous, and if it leaked, you had mercury all over the place.
The second is the Mag-na-porting. A Stock gun in pin shooting is one that does not have a muzzlebrake on it and has the same general outline as a factory pistol. If I were to put a muzzlebrake, or comp, on the Colt, it would be a Pin gun, but to port it through the slide does not change the contour, and it remains a Stock gun. My Colt 1911 is a Stock gun in much the same way that a NASCAR vehicle is a stock car.
The last addition I put on the Colt 1911 is a mag-well funnel. This I soldered on by myself and contoured to work. The whole shebang then got a plating job from Robbie Barrkman of ROBAR. The NP3 plating is tough as nails and makes the pistol unchangeable unless I'm willing to bust through the plating. Since I didn't plate it until I was done upgrading it, that isn't a problem.
So, what you see is a 1911 made at a time Colt wants to forget, enhanced with parts that are in many cases no longer available and built for a competition that has faded into history, which is a shame. Harrt's is no longer around, as the owner died. Safari Arms is still around, but it is a brand owned by Olympic Arms, and there are better grip safety designs to select from. Ditto availability of the King's safety; yes it works, but there are better ones now.
There are some survivors, though. Mag-na-port is still porting through slides and doing other good work, and Robbie Barrkman is still plating well.
Pin shooting? One of the great aspects of bowling-pin shooting was that there was no need for things such as chronographs, target overlays or arbitration committees. The pins took care of all that. You had to use ammo stout enough to push a pin 3 feet, straight back. If you didn't, your time suffered, as did your score, and soon after, your community standing. The commonly accepted threshold was a power factor of 195. That meant a 200-grain JHP (the most common .45 projectile) going at least 975 feet-per-second. Less than that and you risked leaving pins on the table. Extra shots cost time. Guys shot loads up in the 220s for power factor. Much more than that and you shot slower from recoil. This was not wimpy ammo, and most of the time my loads broke the 1,000 fps mark, practice and match. When it came to pins, there was no such thing as "softer" practice ammo. You practiced with reload equal to competition ammo, or you settled for a lack of loot on the last day of the match.
That Colt 1911 digested 15 years' worth of practice and completion ammo. Now it sits in the safe, coming out from time to time for old times' sake, usually with lesser ammo, only because I have very little of the old pin load left. It is still a tackdriver, it is still soft in recoil, and it is still a firearm I owe a great debt to.
Without that Colt 1911, I would not have been propelled along the path to gunsmithing. Without it in its fixed and reliable state, I would not have been able to dive headfirst into pin shooting. (At the end of the annual World Championships, to compete in all categories, you would have to arrive in Northern Michigan with no less than two-dozen firearms.) That furnace of competition, that wide-ranging need for skills, knowledge, practice and ammo, would not have led me here.
When I die, this Colt 1911 will head down one of a very few paths. It may fall into the hands of someone who knows what it represents, who previously owned it and thus appreciates its performance. Or it may simply be listed by the auction house as a "heavily customized Colt 1911 .45, unknown vintage of work" and given a paltry price. Someone will steal a gem. Me, I really appreciate what this pistol has done for me through the decades.
So, as a compliment, back-handed or otherwise, I have to thank the Colt 1911 QC inspector who let this one get out of the factory in late 1980. Without him, I'd be someplace else, having a lot less fun and with fewer stories to tell.