What to Know When Building a Fully Custom 1911
December 20, 2018
There is a lot to be said for the current generation of factory-built and semicustom catalog 1911s; many of them are exemplary and represent a real value. However, there comes a point in a shooter’s life when they decide they need to move up to a custom build. How does that differ from the factory offerings? What does one look for, ask for and insist upon?
The Right ’Smith
The first thing to realize is that a pistolsmith has their own tastes and skills. Insisting that someone who specializes in “golfball” nonslip panels do a 40-lines-per-inch (lpi) checkering pattern on your pistol is asking for trouble — or to be turned down. So, first, do some research on pistolsmiths.
Once you find the right ’smith, decide on what level of build you want, for what purpose and with what details. If you want a custom carry gun, then you need performance. You will get looks, but performance comes first. If you are after an “apex custom” then you want every single surface — every curve and every part — worked over and perfected. Function will be perfect, and the price will reflect that perfection. The wait times and prices of each grade, and with each pistolsmith, will vary greatly. But your custom 1911 will be yours, and it will have all the details you want.
One detail that has changed utterly since the “good old days” is the method used to fit slides to frames. Back in the Neolithic era of practical shooting, we peened rails. We’d measure the slide rail height, then fit a spacer into the frame slot that was that size, then literally pound the frame rails down to that gap. Then we’d file and lap, peen some more, and produce a more-or-less tight fit that would loosen up in a few hundred thousand rounds.
Today, the best ’smiths weld or have a precision welder on call. This calls for some (actually a lot of) extra work — more on that in a bit. They also do many other jobs on your 1911 with power assist. In many shops, the days of doing everything by hand are gone. Some things are still done by hand, but there has been much improvement by adding the precision of a lathe or mill to the process.
What do you look for in a full-custom build to tell if it is what the seller says it is or that you’ve gotten what you sent it off for? How do you judge the sample gun at a gun show or a big match to see if the pistolsmith you are talking to is the one you want working on your 1911? The first thing to check is the cosmetics. Are the straight lines straight? The flats flat? If not, then someone either goofed or is puffing up their work.
One detail that shows a lot is the “dehorning” line on the bottom of the slide. This is a bevel done to remove the sharp edge on the bottom of the slide. Is that bevel flat and straight? It must be. Does it smoothly curve or angle up to leave the slide-stop slot with a full shoulder? Yes or no on that one — it must be cleanly done and not sloppy. That bevel takes a lot of work and skill to get right, and if it isn’t right, it shows.
Five Surface Fit
One big aspect of full-house custom work is the slide-to-frame fit. We all know the frame rails have to fit the slide, right? Did it occur to you that there are five surfaces to be fitted? OK, call up an image of the rail in your mind. The five surfaces, in order: the top deck, the outside rail, the rail underside, the bottom of the slide slot and the curb, or lowest edge of the slot in the frame. How many of them matter? A true master pistolsmith doing a no-holds-barred build will fit a slide to all five. Why? The more surface area, the slower the wear, and that means hundreds of thousands more rounds of service life over the old peening method.
Back in the old days, we’d peen the rails, hammering them until we got at least two surfaces to fit. Now, the masters will weld rails and use a surface grinder to bring them to “spec.” They may only make two or three of the edges fit perfectly. You can see this at the rear of the slide. While no fit can be made so the joint is invisible, a perfect, modern fit does not show a gap, and the apparent width of the line of the fit is the same on every length.
Why not fit all five on every 1911? Because the last two offer only a marginal improvement in longevity (like getting service life past 500,000 rounds) and fitting the last two takes as much work each as the first three combined. That service will cost you.
Oh, and your pistolsmith will spend an entire day doing nothing but measuring your frame and slide. Consider this: When the rails on the frame are enlarged, they can pull the slide down onto the frame. Will that cause headroom problems for the barrel? Will there be enough room for it to link down? Will the barrel seat — the round groove the barrel rides in when unlocked — have to be deepened to create clearance?
That’s why master pistolsmiths have notebooks full of dimensional drawings and reminders of past corrections for specific problems — and it is also why they will spend a full day or two doing nothing but measuring the slide and frame to see where and how much metal they have to add to produce a perfect and dimensionally correct fit. And if it can’t be done, or the work will cost too much, the pistol will be rejected.
What about barrel fit? Barrel fit is only partly tested by pressing down on the chamber. Instead, pull the slide partway back and let the barrel link down to the unlocked position. Look closely at the fit of the feed ramp on the frame to the feed ramp on the barrel (we’re talking classic 1911 here, not one with an integral ramp). There must be a gap at the top of the frame ramp before the beginning of the bottom lip of the barrel ramp. If that is all one smooth curve, it’s wrong. You need that gap to “hide” the bottom edge of the barrel ramp from the oncoming bullet nose. If someone has made it all one smooth curve, the bullet will catch on the barrel lip and slow or stall; find another pistolsmith.
The barrel timing check requires a firm grip. Hold the pistol in your firing grip. Now reach your hand underneath and retract the slide to inspect the feed ramp, then let it slowly slip through your fingers and close. Open again, then close, all in slow motion, watching the timing of the barrel as it unlocks and relocks to the slide. You are looking to see that the barrel lugs smoothly and completely unmesh from the slide as the barrel links down. If the slide has to force the barrel out of the way on the last part of the unlocking, then you have problems.
What you want to see is the barrel moving down completely out of the way while unlocking and the slide smoothly riding over it. Then, on closing, the slide goes past the barrel locking lugs by a small margin before the breechface picks it up, and the barrel links up to lock into place.
If there is any hitch, kink, catch, hesitation or other motion besides smooth-as-butter back and forth, then the barrel hasn’t been properly fitted.
One thing to look for is the final lockup. If the barrel, as you let it ooze forward between your fingers, won’t fully lock up, then the builder has created their “fit” by wedging things into place. It is possible for this to work, but it isn’t right. The barrel should lock up completely and tightly, even when you have eased the slide forward as slowly as possible.
One custom builder who gets complaints about this is Les Baer, but he doesn’t deserve it. His guns are built so tight that when you go to open it, you have to “pop” the slide open. You can’t just ease it back. Brand-new, a Les Baer 1911 is difficult to open with just finger pressure to perform this test. But here’s the interesting part: They all close up completely when the slide is “oozed” forward. It may have to be forced open, but it never has to be forced closed.
Timing problems usually arise when someone has used the length of the link to change the fit of the barrel to the slide. This typically involves using a taller link to force the barrel into the slide to lock it up tighter, and it is wrong. The problem is that the longer link brings the barrel down later and farther back than it is designed to. If the link is too long, the barrel doesn’t have room to get out of the way of the slide on unlocking, and that is the binding you are looking for with the ooze test. This is not proper on a full-custom build. The pistolsmith should have fitted the barrel to the slide and slide-stop shaft by cutting the locking lugs (top and bottom) to fit and time correctly. On a proper build, the link only pulls the barrel down on unlocking. Nothing else.
Timing problems on a demo gun or a custom build that left the pistolsmith’s bench are an indication to move on.
Check the checkering, or whatever nonslip pattern that pistolsmith produces. Checkering, golf balls, Conamyds or whatever pattern they use must be even, straight and not “fall off” the edges of the frame. That is, the checkering has to be centered. A lot of checkering is done by a machine, but if it still needs to be cleaned up by hand, then it should be. And that’s where the slight dimensional problems of factory guns should be corrected. If they haven’t been, you’ve got to ask why it took a couple of years to get your 1911 back, right? The masters will go so far as to fixture the frame even before they checker (or other pattern) and clean up the frame. The fixture (each has their own hardware and approach) holds the frame so the milling machine can be used to ensure the frame is straight, the radius is consistent and that the resultant checkering will not cause cosmetic problems because of dimensional problems.
One detail I am particularly sensitive to is the trigger. Not the weight — no, that I’m really accommodating about. Anything clean, crisp and not over 5 pounds I can live with. What I need is hammer-strut clearance. The hammer is driven by a strut that runs inside of the grip safety. The curve of the strut must clear the inside of the grip safety. If it does not, it will hit the grip safety, and I can feel that. You might not, but if/when you do, you’ll get picky about it, too. After all, you’ve waited years and spent thousands of dollars on your 1911 — it should be right in every detail.
What gun should you build on? Some pistolsmiths insist on Colt. They do this despite the sometimes-horrendous dimensional problems Colts present for one simple reason: Despite all the work, once the pistol is done, it says “Colt” on it. They figure if they are going to go to all that trouble anyway, they might as well have the traditional name on it and not some relative newcomer.
Ask what brands they are willing to work on. If the answer is Colt and you really want that particular pistolsmith to be doing the work, then find a Colt. You’ve got time; all the really good ’smiths have long lead times. Some don’t even regularly accept work because they are so booked. Don’t complain and don’t try to talk them into an XYZ because “it is just as good.” Get a Colt.
If they will work on other brands, then get one that you feel happy with and be ready to ship when the call comes. That’s right — they don’t want your pistol there until they are ready (or almost ready) to begin work. Why would they? They don’t want their safe stuffed with the next year’s worth of projects just sitting there. Besides, you have to track down the other parts you insist on in your build.
Don’t be surprised if it gets sent back. A pistol that is too far out of spec, one that simply cannot be returned to factory blueprint dimensions, will be returned to you. Suck it up, buttercup. But you better get another one to send in quickly or you’ll lose your place in line.
The last part is procedural but important: be specific and detailed. When you send the pistol in for work, list everything you want done, everything you do not want done and all the parts you are including. Even take a cellphone picture of the pistol and parts for reference.
Calling on a regular basis for “progress reports” is going to interrupt the work, get you a reputation for being a nag and risk the return of pistol and parts, undone. No joke. I’ve known of pistolsmiths who got tired of being asked “Is my pistol done?” before the quoted deadline and just sent everything back. Being a nudge isn’t going to speed things up.