In a world where technology is evolving at break-neck speed it’s astonishing that a gun invented before the Model T Ford is as popular as ever. (You certainly can’t say that about the Model T).
I’m talking, of course, about the 1911 which was originally developed late 1890s. The genesis for this iconic gun was the Philippine–American War. The US Army needed a self-loading (semi-automatic) pistol to replace the variety of revolvers then in service. In particular, American units fighting Moro guerrillas in the southern Philippines found the then-standard Colt M1892 revolver (.38 Long Colt) to be unsuitable for dispatching the Moros who exhibited a fury in battle that American soldiers had never seen. (It’s no coincidence that the origin of the term amok, as in run amok, comes directly from the Malay amuck which means to “attacking furiously” or “attacking with uncontrollable rage”).
The powers that be wanted soldiers to be armed with a gun that had stopping power and they had one in a 1911.
Building your own (custom) 1911
The first step in determining what kind of 1911 to build is to ascertain the purpose of the gun.
I knew I wasn’t planning to use my 1911 for jungle combat in Mindanao (which unfortunately seems to be back vogue) nor was I intending to build a “carry gun” (which are not permissible in Hawaii). The 1911 I wanted to build was a government-sized target pistol chambered in 9mm. I wanted to build a “tack driving” Bullseye-style 1911 with a red dot.
Why build one in 9mm? Call me a masochist but I like a challenge, and shooting a 9mm for accuracy is no mean feat.
I had originally contracted out this build with a well known shop but after some delays, I decided not to go with the “name brand” company. I opted instead to work with a gunsmith here in Hawaii who specializes in 1911s.
My humble local gunsmith assured me that he could build a gun that was just as good, if not better, than a “brand” name.
And why not?
I decided to take him up on his offer. The next step was to begin sourcing parts.
The buyer has some basic decisions to make prior to even beginning a build. Some choices are aesthetic such as determining the finish (blued, stainless, combination of the two, special coating, ie CeraKote, melonite, nickel, etc.) whereas other decisions revolve around more technical issues.
Aaron Tidwell, spokesman for Tripp Research a custom 1911 shop that also designs magazines, suggested some basic questions that a prospective owner should consider:
- What kind of sights do you want? 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.
- What kind of grip safety do you need? 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. Big meaty bear paws may necessitate a wider grip. To ascertain this, observe if the web of your hand interacts with the slide during function. If that’s the case, you’ll want to get a wide safety that will keep the flesh away from away from moving parts.
- Size of hands will also dictate a great deal in the choice of grips for the frame. There are the standard “one size fits all” and there are choices on thinner, or thicker options. Ideally, you want the pistol to feel “snug” and comfortable in your hand.
- What kind of hammer do you want? They come in a number of styles. A hammer for a concealed carry gun is flat in reference to the back of the slide and will not catch during removal. If you’re going to be cocking the hammer as part of your routine, you may want a hammer that is easier to get a purchase on. Part of the choice may be aesthetics. For example you may dig the “skeletonized” look. I ended up choosing the “Cammer Hammer”, a custom part that makes the gun easier to rack and reduces muzzle flip.
- What style trigger do you want? 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. A google image search of 1911 trigger images or a visit your local gun shop to test drive a few triggers are a good ways to do research.
- Consider your mainspring housing (aka MSH). Will it be smooth, serrated, checkered, curved or flat? Sometimes the MSH can have a screw-on magwell or even integrate the magwell. Competition shooters often favor an oversized magwell/mag chute, while conceal carry shooters prefer a small or no magwell flare.
- What kind of slide serrations do you want? (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. Do you want serrations on the front or the back of the slide or both?
- Do you want checkering on the front strap of the gun?
- Do you want to go “tacticool” and opt for an accessory rail to mount tactical accessories such as a light? Some people prefer a tactical rail on their frames so they can attach aftermarket lights/lasers for nighttime and/or tactical shooting.
- A “slide racker” might also be a consideration if you have a strong spring and/or if you have a red dot and want avoid using the optic as your point of purchase.
It’s best to go over these issues with your “brain trust” ahead of time.
Start with the Slide and Frame
Whatever type of 1911 you want to build you know from the get-go you’ll need to buy good quality parts.
For the frame and slide, I went to Caspian Arms out of Wolcott, Vermont. I’ve done rebuilds with Caspian components before and their quality is first rate. I opted for their “Foster” brand frame instead of the “Caspian” for a simple reason. Foster frames are identical to the Caspian except (as their web site states) for “minor cosmetic blemishes”. If you examine the Caspian frame side by side with a Foster, you’d be hard pressed to find any noticeable aesthetic imperfection. You can buy a Foster at a steep discount. (A Government Foster receiver goes for $148 whereas a similar Caspian sells for $214). I own an extremely accurate .45 built on a Foster frame and it’s one of my most prized possessions.
I knew I wanted to build a “Government” sized 1911 and the first thing, Ellen Fradette, the Caspian rep asked me was what material I wanted to choose for the frame and slide? Caspian had either carbon or stainless steel.
In Hawaii, the humidity and salt air are pernicious enemies of any kind of ferrous material so it seemed a toss up to me. Thus I got stainless (both slide and frame) for durability of finish and ease of maintenance but highlighted it with blued parts such as the slide stop, beaver tail and safety. My smith assured me that so long as you wipe the gun down after using it you’ll keep the oxidation away. He also highly recommended that I put the gun in a partially open plastic bag (when in in the case) so that it doesn’t come in contact with the foam–a sure way to promote rust.
You’ll need plenty of other parts
Although the “glamour” side of the 1911 parts business (if I may call it that) revolves around the frame and slide, the quality of internal parts are equally important. If you don’t have well engineered/machined items such as ejectors or extractors made from good quality steel, your high end frame and slide will be pretty much worthless. Kind of like building a fancy home on hazardous waste site.
Here’s the basic list:
Barrel, Barrel Bushing, Barrel Link, Barrel Link Pin, Disconnector, Ejector, Ejector Pin, Extractor, Firing Pin, Firing Pin Spring, Firing Pin Stop, Grip Bushings, Grip Safety, Grip Screws, Grips, Guide Rod, Guide Rod Plug, Hammer, Hammer Link Pin, Hammer Pin, Hammer Strut, Magazine Catch Lock, Magazine Catch Spring, Magazine Catch/Release, Mainspring, Mainspring Cap, Mainspring Housing Pin, Mainspring Plunger, Detent, Plunger Tube, Plunger Spring, Recoil Spring, Sear, Sear Spring, Sear Pin, Slide Stop, Thumb Safety and Trigger.
So what do you need to know about these arcane little items? The main lesson is what to avoid.
Conventional wisdom among gun cognoscenti eschews MIM or cast parts in favor of parts machined from bar stock. Cast and MIM parts can be more prone to break.
Aaron Tidwell, spokesman for Tripp Research made these very astute observations regarding MIM parts:
“MIM parts do matter on some parts and this is due to the nature of injection molding and how it sometimes leaves “bubbles” in parts. If these bubbles end up in high stress areas it can become a weak point. When machined from bar stock there are no bubbles to make weak points. The reality is that for a lot of parts it doesn’t matter as much. Sure a hammer and sear need smooth strong surfaces and MIM is a horrible idea but for a MSH, slide stops, mag wells….these parts aren’t under stress really or are over-sized for the stress they do receive. Thus breakage isn’t even a slight issue.
Making the case for EGW Parts
For this reason, one of my collaborators on this project, Bruce Cockerham, co-inventor (and co-founder) of Cammer Technologies suggested that I acquire my parts from a Quakertown, Pennsylvannia company called EGW or Evolution Gun Works. I took his advice. All of my internal parts, with the exception of the barrel, guide rod, sear and hammer came from EGW.
Cockerham (along with his business partner and co-founder, Robert Corkrean) are intimately familiar with EGW’s work because EGW manufactures OEM parts such as hammers and other related items for Cammer Technologies.
Cockerham spoke effusively about EGW’s founder, George Smith. “George knows how a gun works. He was a fiercely competitive shooter and understands a competitor’s expectations. He knows where you expect to see cracking or failures and designs parts to mitigate these issues. As an example, Cockerham said that EGW has re-designed the geometry of EGW barrel bushings so that they are offset in keeping with the angle of the barrel on the recoil cycle.”
Why would the redesign of a bushing matter?
If, for example, you use a suppressor, the EGW bushing affords greater reliability and less barrel/bushing wear. There are a myriad of other techniques and processes that all add up to making EGW a solid choice. Making the right decisions when it comes to material selections and heat treat selections can impact the durability of parts. In the latter case, Smith said, “quenching parts in an oil bath tends to be very ‘violent’ whereas vacuum-quenching provides better control and is less stressful on the materials.”
Smith founded his company in ‘91 making competition guns and segued into OEM manufacturing for companies such as Sig and other large arms manufacturers. Parts are sold directly to the public as well as through distributors such as Midway, Brownells, etc.
Said Smith, “We make parts for people who want to win, as opposed to people who shoot for fun. It’s a completely different mentality.”
The Cammer Hammer
That brings me back to Cammer Technologies which is where I acquired my hammer and sear. Cockerham has engineered his own 1911 sear and hammer for several reasons.
First off, he emphasizes 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 have to 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”. Cammer Hammers are easier to slide back.
There are other benefits. Using the Cammer Hammer diminishes muzzle flip which is more acute on shorter barreled guns but also works with standard length 1911s. (Cockerham measured a 7.9% reduced rise on a 5” .45 when testing on a ransom rest).
Finally, according to Cockerham, the Cammer Hammer vastly improves feeding and reliability on “sub 45 caliber 1911s”.
Feeding and reliability can be the Achilles heel of the 9 mm 1911 which can be notoriously finicky when it comes to gobbling up rounds dependably from the magazine. The 1911 was designed to accommodate the big fat .45, not the tiny, tapered 9mm round so your gun has to be put together with great precision to work reliably.
The Nowlin Barrel
The conventional wisdom is that if there’s one modification you can make to improve accuracy (other than tweaking the trigger) it’s getting a barrel upgrade. There are several manufacturers out there and on the high end of the spectrum so in a sense it’s hard go wrong. To make my choice easier, an industry colleague suggested a 9mm barrel from Nowlin Arms, a family owned company out of Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
You don’t hear too much about the company nowadays but in its heyday Nowlin was very popular with competitive shooters. Its custom pistols were top rated and the FBI once used Nowlin barrels for their SWAT team 1911’s. The U.S. Marine Corps also favored their barrels and other parts in their MEU-SOC 1911’s favored by elite units.
When the founder, John Nowlin Sr, died in 2002 the company went through a reorganization and for a number of years business activity slowed.
Five years ago, Nowlin went through a kind of resurrection.
John Nowlin Sr.’s oldest daughter, Angela Reagan, and her husband Jerry Reagan, Jr. took over the company with the intention of furthering the family legacy of producing quality barrels and other 1911 parts. Angela retired as a Deputy Warden from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and together with Jerry, a Captain with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, now produce the same quality barrels as her father did in years past.
Nowlin’s 1911 Match barrels are made from 416R S.S. bar stock. The shop uses electro-discharge cathode machining (ECM) and modern C&C technology to create very precise rifling. With this method, groove and bore tolerances are held to .0002”. Angela told me that the smoother bore boosts velocity for all barrel lengths.
One of the keys to accuracy in the 1911 pistol is in the lockup and the need for the barrel to return to the same place after every shot. Nowlin has its own proprietary, pre-cut design of the top lugs ensures maximum lug engagement and aligns firing pin dead center on primer.
Nowlin claims their barrels they shoot less than 1/2″ @ 25 yards out of the company’s barrel test machine. (Twist rates are 1:14 for the 9mm / 38 Super and 1:16 for the 45 / 10 mm / 40).
In addition to barrels, the company manufactures tools, trigger kits, guide rods, ejectors, extractors, springs and other 1911 parts. They also produce Glock barrels and accessories.
Optics, Opting for the Razor
If you’re going to mount a red dot optic on your 1911 there are several ways to approach this.
EGW offers several mounting options for popular red dots:
Caspian also sells an optics-ready 1911 slide. (See Rock Island 10mm Upgrade and Review: Caspian Slide + C-More RTS2 optic + Magpul grips). Caspian will machine a platform, along with the appropriately tapped holes whereby you can easily place a red dot mount directly on the slide.
Of course you can always opt for the traditional Weaver type rail so that any red dot can be used. (There’s a lot to be said for having “options”). On the other hand, placing a mount for a specific red dot sight was cleaner and aesthetically superior.
The Razor and the C-More occupy a sort of high mid-range on the red dot price spectrum. Both are exceptionally light and of superior quality compared to the next lower tier of optics such as the Bushnell Fastfire, the Vortex Viper and even the Ultra Dot HD Micro Red Dot.
The features on both products are nearly identical as is the price. The Razor has an excellent warranty—lifetime, unlimited, and unconditional. That means Vortex will repair or replace your product—at no cost. (More on this optic in an upcoming review).
Grips are a very personal decision. It comes down to feel, comfort, function and aesthetics. I’ve used both laminate, polymer and wood grips on my 1911s, all with success. You can get decent grips, $35 and up.
They come in varying widths so again, the size of your hand will determine what’s most comfortable and practical. One important thing to keep in mind: It’s probably best to buy grip bushings matched with your grip. Thus if you get a “skinny” grip, you’ll need the smaller bushings–the larger ones simply won’t work.
My gunsmith advised against wood grips because in his experience they could be “slippery” in Hawaii’s hot climate.
I wasn’t going to argue with him but I’d never found this to be the case. All of my Colt 1911s had wooden grips and they worked just fine.
But what brand to get. I did remember that one of my 1911s had VZ grips. They weren’t the most expensive but they were comfortable. I decided that I’d get wooden grips from VZ, so I went to their website and chose a “Double Diamond Marblewood” which sell for about $80.
Call me a traditionalist but I decided not to heed my gunsmith’s suggestion. I figured if wood was good enough for all those Colts, I’d be fine with them too.
They were gorgeous and the fit and function suited me perfectly.
Putting Humpty Dumpty Together
The best way to describe my gunsmith is an autodidact–a fancy term for a self-taught person. He readily admitted that he has little formal training. This never bothered me and I would suspect many gunsmiths fall into this category. He had been recommended by the best shooter in the state (a former Camp Perry champ) and that was good enough for me. I had complete confidence he’d do the job.
I showed up at his shop, a cubicle in his home, crammed with a drill press and other tools. It was in a covered, outdoor patio that had been a a garage at one time. There were a few benches, a tiny koi pond (yes fish) and a menacing dog, fortunately on a chain about 20 feet away.
I handed him a cardboard box of full of bite-sized plastic envelopes, each one containing an EGW part. He proceeded to scrutinize every piece. Inevitably something was missing or mis-ordered and he scribbled instructions and lists on minuscule pieces of lined paper from a tiny spiral notebook. His final invoice was also presented in a similar fashion.
Assembling the parts took about three times longer than I anticipated, but building a 1911 can’t be hurried and besides my smith had other customers lined up ahead of me. If he wasn’t in demand, what kind of gunsmith could he be?
His to do list included:
- Fit slide to frame.
- Fit barrel and bushing.
- Machine sight cuts if required and install sights.
- Fit trigger, hammer and components.
- Install Vortex Razor Mount for Novak
- Fit grip safety and radius frame if required for a beavertail safety.
- Fit ejector to frame.
- Fit thumb safety.
- Fit firing pin, stop and magazine release.
- Fit extractor
After the gun was finished I asked him if building this particular gun was easier that usual, given the high quality parts provided. He shot me an incredulous look and shook his head as if I were a moron. “This is not an easy thing to do, period. Every gun I work on is an all-consuming process.” End of discussion.
His final test was to load the gun with a few empty cartridges loaded with primers to test the firing pin. He placed the gun in an unzipped guncase and put the whole thing in a paper bag. “Gotta be careful about the neighbors complaining,” he intoned.
The three rounds went off with a muffled poof, poof, poof.
He handed me the cartridges as souvenirs.
The results were very pleasing. The blued parts set off the stainless and he blended the butt-end of the gun–the frame, slide, beavertail and extractor seamlessly. There was no slop in the barrel yet it slid effortlessly in the slide. Lock up was great and the trigger broke like proverbial glass.
But how will it shoot?
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series