This 1911 custom build began with the idea of tweaking a safe queen that I never quite warmed up to. Built from a Springfield GI model, it simply have the accuracy that I believed it should have had. My first thought was to re-barrel it. However, the consensus among my brain trust was that it would be better to do a custom build rather than trying to create a proverbial silk purse.
Before getting started on a project like this, common sense dictates that you should know exactly what you want.
In my case, that was easy. I wanted a Bullseye style, Government 45, accurate to 50 yards. Of course, it would have been easy to buy something off the shelf. Nothing wrong with that. Companies such as Wilson Combat, Les Baer, Ed Brown, etc make excellent guns.
For most people, a stock, semi-custom gun is more than accurate enough. Most range goers will drag out their Les Baer a few times a year, show it off to friends, punch a few holes in paper and lock it away.
I wanted more. It was time to build my own gun, to my own specs.
That’s what this piece is all about. Hopefully it will be instructive to others.
Those who build their own pistols (or have them crafted by a gunsmith) do it because they need to customize their rig.
You may prefer a particular style of trigger, a brand of barrel or perhaps splurging for a fancy red dot.
Discriminating shooters also understand that to get a gun to perform to a certain standard, they are going to need more than a semi-custom can offer. A ‘semi-custom’ gun is just that. Depending on the model and price point, there may be some hand fitting, but a mass produced gun will not have the attention to detail that a true custom build will have.
With a custom build, you’re going to get exactly what you want. Not only will a gun be built to your specs, you’ll know exactly the quality of parts inside. Many of the companies producing semi-custom guns use good quality parts but some people cut corners in order to keep the prices down. It’s hard to know the provenance of parts.
If you build it yourself, this is not going to be a factor.
In the end, you’ll not only have a pistol that will be accurate, durable and perhaps most importantly, dependable.
And what will it cost?
It’s always a bit tricky to generalize, but depending on the configuration, an off the shelf, high end 1911 will cost around $2000 and up. If you build it from scratch figure on spending anywhere from $1500 to $2000 on parts.
A gunsmith’s labor will add a minimum of $750. It will also depend on how much detail you want from your gunsmith. Dave Salyer, a South Carolina-based master gunsmith takes the minimalist route. “I save my customers money and turn guns out within less than a month because I do not do external polishing, bluing, checkering nor stippling anymore. Just a perfect tool, not a shiny work of art.”
The Caspian Formula
From the get-go you’re going to have to figure out where to source the parts. The main constituents in this formula are the frame and slide.
I opted for a frame and slide combo from Caspian Arms, which has been making first class 1911 kits for many years. Founded by Cal Foster, the company began life as a machine shop manufacturing gun parts back in the 1970s but shifted gears in the 1980s, selling 1911 parts to commercial, law enforcement and military customers. Caspian now focuses strictly on in-house made 1911 components for enthusiasts who wanted to build their own guns.
One of the elements that I like about Caspian is that their parts have a direct lineage to the original schematics of the Government model 1911 pistol (which were last amended in 1936). They were never meant for today’s Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines but Caspian has very successfully adapted modern day manufacturing processes to the venerable designs. (This entail parts interchangeability).
Modern metallurgy also comes into play. The company has labored to develop a cast frame from stainless steel, aluminum and titanium which offer lighter weight and corrosion protection.
Ordinarily these types of metals are not used because they don’t stand up to the wear and tear (called ‘galling’) that results from metal on metal stress. Caspian prevents galling by micro-welding tungsten carbide into the rail at the frame/slide interface. The embedded tungsten carbide produces a super tough surface to create a smooth-running fit. (Caspian is so confident of their product line that they warranty it for life).
Another big plus about Caspian: According to Dave Salyer, “once carefully built they work well and last a very long time between rebuilds, due to their harder frames than from the rest of the industry.”
In addition to the slide and frame, the company also fabricates components such as the ejector, plunger tube, grip screws, extractor, firing pin, pins, hammer strut and trigger. I ended up acquiring many of the internal parts (such as those mentioned above) as a natural complement to the Caspian-made frame. (They also offer their Foster line of receivers which are the same as Caspian except for minor cosmetic blemishes, at a 30% discount).
I also opted their newly designed Trik Trigger which is equipped with an aluminum shoe, stainless steel bow and a drag strip on top and bottom for less friction.
Sterling Luna, long time gunsmith at X-Ring Security in Waipahu (on Oahu) is a believer in purchasing as many internal parts from one manufacturer as possible. “A manufacturer fabricates components that are made to work with each other, so it makes sense to use them for your build.”
Fitting a gun is everything.
The consensus among gunsmiths is that tightness in the right places and, the right time is what counts. Guns can be too tight when in battery and still function, however, accuracy can suffer. The right places for a stable fit are front and back of the barrel in relation to the slide and slide stop pin. Slide tightness is less than 5% of accuracy except from a machine rest. (It doesn’t matter how loose the gun is when out of battery).
Choosing a barrel
My barrel choice for this build was KKM Precision. Why? I happened to be at the range one day, shooting with a gunsmith friend. He was testing some ammo with a 1911 that he had fitted with a brand new KKM barrel. He handed it to me, and I was soon punching holes in the 10 ring at 50 yards.
Was it my lucky day? Maybe, but I’d never shot as well in my life. Hardly evidenced-based science, but suffice it to say, I was sold on KKM.
KKM makes custom barrels for the Marine and Army marksmanship programs so it’s no wonder they have a reputation for accuracy. I was told that 50% of their 1911-barrel sales are OEM. Thus, when you’re buying a name brand 1911 there’s a good chance that KKM may be the source. (Of course, the company building the name brand pistol does not want you to know about that).
KKM was founded in 1991 by Kevin McIntyre, for competition shooters. They offer a variety of twist rates and custom dimensions. They use a button rifling technique which entails a carbide button that is pulled through the bore. They utilize ordinance (barrel grade) 416 stainless steel that is heat treated to above 40 Rockwell which will ensure that if there’s a squib the barrel will expand, but not blow up.
Luke McIntyre, the son of the founder explained that the company has automated the entire manufacturing process. That means they don’t use multiple machines for drilling, rifling, turning, etc, which would necessitate multiple set up and jeopardize consistency. Luke says the result is a bore that is perfectly straight and concentric with a mirrored finished.
The Cammer Hammer
I went to Cammer Technologies for my hammer and sear. This is the second build where I’ve used this product. The founder, Bruce Cockerham, engineered his own 1911 sear and hammer for several reasons. First off, he underscores that the hammer and sear are the heart of the trigger pull. For that proverbial breaking glass feel when the hammer drops, the geometry of sear and hammer must be perfectly matched. That’s where he believes his product excels.
By mating the sear and hammer (which EGW manufactures for him) a gunsmith has minimal work to get that perfect breaking trigger.
Another reason for the re-designed hammer is to reduce “racking force”. I can attest that pistols with Cammer Hammers are easier to slide back.
There are other benefits. Cockerham says the Cammer Hammer diminishes muzzle flip, which is more acute on shorter barreled guns but also works with standard length 1911s. (He measured a 7.9% reduced rise on a 5” .45 when testing on a ransom rest).
Cockerham, also says his Cammer Hammer vastly improves feeding and reliability. (More on that later).
Then there’s all those other parts that inhabit a pistol
To keep track, Brownells has a handy parts list and excellent reference materials compiled by their 1911 whiz, Mike Watkins who works on the tech support line. (Brownells deserves a presidential award its great tech support or at the very least, a Harvard Business School study).
You can go do an individual fabricator such as Wilson or EGW to source parts but I prefer going to Brownells because they stock parts from everyone and, it’s all good stuff. (They don’t sell junk).
Are you better off acquiring parts from one manufacturer?
There is a school of thought that says keep it simple stupid. (Many of my parts were Caspian). Sterling Luna, long time gunsmith at X-Ring Security in Waipahu (on Oahu) is a believer in purchasing as many internal parts from one manufacturer as possible. “A manufacturer fabricates components that are made to work with each other, so it makes sense to use them for your build.”
Then there’s another school of thought. Dave Salyer says, “I have no single favorite provider of parts.” He also added, “Highly advertised parts are not always the best.”
Thus, you’ll have some decisions to make prior to beginning a build. Some will be aesthetic such as determining the finish (blued, stainless, combination of the two, special coating, ie CeraKote, melanite, nickel, etc.). In my case, the frame, slide, etc will need a finish because they are manufactured from carbon steel (as opposed to stainless).
Other decisions involve both technical and practical issues:
- What kind of sights to use? Iron sights, night sights, adjustable sights or a red dot? That choice will also determine what kind of cut (ie Novak, Bomar, etc) your smith or the manufacturer will have to render on the slide. (I tried the new diamond sight from Caspian).
- What type of grip safety? There are several options (aside from a standard Beavertail or GI safety to consider). Do you want a .250 cut, a JEM .250 cut, a Wilson/Caspian cut or a .220 cut? The size you want/need will be commensurate with your hand size. (I ended up going with a Wilson Combat Beavertail safety).
- What about grips? There’s the standard “one size fits all” route or choices for thinner, or thicker options. Ideally, it’s all about feel and comfort. I chose Caspian’s one size fits all in a Bubinga hardwood in a fancy single diamond pattern.
- What trigger to choose? Will it be a Gold Cup variant, a flat serrated style or the one with the tank tread? This is where function/feel and aesthetics come into play. As mentioned above I decided on Caspian’s Trik Trigger, a fairly new design equipped with their own “drag strip” on the top and bottom for less friction.
- What type of mainspring housing (aka MSH)? Do you want it smooth, serrated, checkered, curved or flat? Competition shooters often favor an oversized magwell/mag chute. I opted for the classic blued checkered look from Baer Custom. For the definitive discourse on MSH’s see Mainspring Housing Replacement on Brownells site
- What about slide serrations? You can get a smith to copy whatever you like. Caspian tends to prefer the high number narrow grooves or perhaps you like the “STI” style, which features a low number of wide grooves. Or…maybe none.
Visiting the range
As everyone knows, a new build is often a work in progress.
Before a visit to the range we needed to know if it could pass a preliminary “feeding test”. To do that, my smith removed the firing pin and loaded several magazines. He then inserted a magazine and began to rack the slide to see how it would feed and then extract the round. It went perfectly. Each round flew out of the ejection port and plopped happily into a net.
The gun will need to be broken in and then sent off to the mainland to have a protective coating applied.
Naturally, I couldn’t wait to get this out to the range.
There were a couple of issues.
The main one I experienced was that the slide would not always go into battery after ignition. Often it would get stuck a quarter to one eighth of an inch off. Usually I could remedy that by coaxing the slide into battery to get it functioning. I consulted my brain trust and determined it was an ammunition “issue”, rather than the throat of the barrel being overly tight. The truth is, I simply hadn’t crimped the case to spec (.471).
The second problem was that the brass, instead of plopping out of the ejection port, was catapulted 15 feet. This was not kosher. I realized the spring was on the light side. I’m not sure what spring was in there but I happened to have a 12 lb Wolff recoil spring in my range bag. We swapped it out and that did the trick.
Upon correcting the above, the gun functioned perfectly. Rather than bench testing, I decided to shoot offhand and see what the gun could do. At 25 yards it was extremely accurate. The bullet would go where I pointed it.
But what could it do at 50 yards?
The target above tells the story. It was only my second outing to the range with the beast. Six of ten rounds were in the ten ring. Could this be tightened up? Of course. I’m still learning how to shoot this pistol.
The trigger pull and break was excellent, but I’m not quite used to the flat surface on the Trik Trigger.
I’ll get used to it.
The powder I loaded, Accurate #2, is not well known among Bullseye shooters but it should be. (Most Bullseye shooters are generally fans of Bullseye, Clays, Titegroup and the like). Guess, what? There’s a big world out there. I can’t imagine that my accuracy would have been better without another powder.
I see AA #2 as a sort of Rodney Dangerfield in the Bullseye space. I think it deserves a lot more respect. In the future I intend to collaborate with an former Camp Perry champ on an article about #2.
I used a 200 gr SWC bullet cast locally and Starline brass.
I couldn’t be happier with this build. Stay tuned for more adventures.
Addendum–Opting for a different trigger and…let’s not forget the magazine
Putting this gun together was a learning experience. One of things I learned was that I wasn’t paying full attention to the ergonomics of the trigger. In other words, the size and shape of the trigger I had originally chosen could be improved upon. I realized that I needed a trigger similar to, if not exactly the same as the ones on my 1980’s era Clark Custom 1911s (which fit me perfectly).
I called Clark Custom and was told the shop that produced the original triggers (King’s Gun Works) had gone out of business and Clark currently purchased their triggers from Greider Precision, a California-based company that manufactures a product nearly identical to King’s. Greider sells their triggers (that’s all they make) to a number of high end 1911 builders. (They are available on Brownells site).
I started doing to some research on the company (which has no website) and found them in a town called Escondido (near San Diego). Escondido means “hidden” in Spanish and it couldn’t be a more appropriate description. I spoke to the co-owner, Ginny Greider, who runs the CNC machines that keep this family-owned business humming along. Grieder is a classic example of a successful mom and pop company that focuses like a laser beam on a specific niche and is able to compete with the big boys.
I installed their 1911 V-SERIES MATCH TRIGGER and it worked like a charm. I don’t have big hands and the curve is a natural fit for me than the flat trigger from Caspian. In essence, I found the Greider product much easier to control. They offer both a serrated and smooth version as well as different styles (and sizes). Prices range from about $21 to $29 depending on the style you choose.
In retrospect, this company really doesn’t need a website.
Feeding the Beast
Finally there’s the magazine, which for many may seem like a commodity. Think twice, it’s an extremely important component. I opted for the venerable Cobra mag from Tripp Research, which in my experience builds some of the best. The superior fit-and-finish is evident, they are easy to load and, there was never an issue with feeding. You can’t ask for more…
Research Notes If you want to do research you can check out several books and videos. Jerry Kuhnhausen’s book, The Colt .45 Automatic and AGI’s Video Armorer’s Course are several good sources of information. Kuhnhausen’s books are excellent for Colt 1911 types, and some derivatives. He covers the theory of operation, detail disassembly, checking the firearm parts and assemblies for proper fit and function. He also delves into trouble shooting, and instructions for reassembly. The cross section illustrations and photographs are first rate.