Monday, November 20, 2017

What it takes to build a custom 1911

Another guest build. This enthusiast decided he was going to be a gunsmith and went head first into the trade without hesitation or trepidation.
This is one of his first 1911 builds, unfortunately he didn't take pictures of every step, but what he has provided tells a story, the italicized words are his:

I used to wonder why 1911 pistols had such a wide range of prices and why some people would pay thousands of dollars. Then I found out how much work it takes to make one. Or at least I thought I did. It wasn't until after I took Bob Rodgers' class, did I gain a better understanding of everything I thought I knew, wasn't everything that I should have learned. Early last year I set out to make a couple 1911 style pistols from 80% frames and on a mill. I'd never used a mill. A combination of sadness from loosing my grandfather to old age, still being pissed about 594 passing, and the blessing that grandpa left for me, drove me to it.

I'll tell you what. Pistolsmithing is just as much rewarding as it is frustrating. "Why am I having to file so much?" "Did I just mill that slot at an angle?" " tenth of an inch below spec. " Those are just some of the highlights. I've learned some some lessons along the way. Such as:
You can beat $175 sights into submission with a brass punch and have punch marks all over them.
Heat guns are your friend.
Heat guns cost less than a matched pair of Tritium sights.
You can remove some brass kisses with WD-40 and 0000 steel wool.
If your custom 1911 maker says they have 40hrs into the finished's not really that custom.
There are some tools on the market that are truly just gimmicks.
A crossing needle file is a magic wand.
How to talk your friends and neighbors into helping you move a mill.

Again, those are just some of the highlights.

I started making 1911s without knowledge of the differences between good parts and cheap parts. The first 1911 I made was a 5" model based on a 80% frame and a Sarco parts kit. You get what you pay for. This time around I had done some research and was interested in the taking Larry Vickers' 1911 pistolsmithing class. At that time, he listed on his website the parts and tools required for class. Since the Sarco kit was a drop in kit, I decided to buy all the parts and tools he listed, plus a few additional tools just because they came in kits from Brownells and the cost was less. In addition to the Caspian frame and slide he listed, all the parts were Wilson Combat except for the barrel which was a Kart barrel. Before ordering I had decided that I was going to build on a 80% bobtail commander frame but, still order the Caspian slide.

The frame came from I choose the 80% Carbon steel bobtail commander that came with a mainspring housing. Later I was surprised when a standard government/commander mainspring housing spring and cap would not fit. The seller didn't notate that the bobtail design required an officer sized spring and cap. I had tried all kinds of things until I sought answers from the internet. Some kind folks at helped me out. The parts I ended up initially buying directly from Wilson are as follows.

6BN                  Thumb Safety, Tactical Lever, Blue   
563B                 Beavertail Grip Safety, Concealment,
337BC                Hammer, Concealment, Bullet Proof®,
25C                  Full-Length Guide Rod, Commander     
34                   Extended Ejector, .45 ACP, Full-Size,  
415-70               Extractor, 70 Series, .45 ACP, Bullet
31T                  Magazine Release, Tactical, Blue
R15B                 Magazine Catch Lock, Blue 
399B70S              Firing Pin Stop, 70 Series,
315B                 Complete Pin Set, Blue
R10,38               Firing Pin, .38 Super/9mm, 70 or 80 Ser
681B                 Hammer Strut, Bullet Proof®, Blue
684B                 Grip Screw Bushing, Blue, Package of 4
313B                 Grip Screws, Hex Head, Blue, Package of 4
314                  Deluxe Bullet Proof® Sear, A-2
316C                 Complete Spring Set, Commander
190S                 Trigger, Ultralight Match, Short Pad

Now some of these parts were bought multiple times or replaced with another part. Particularly, the thumb safety. I had a very difficult time with fitting. Later I found out the sear I had fitted was cut too short and that tolerance along with all the other stacking tolerances, lead to me filing quite a bit on the thumb safety lug for a proper fitting. As I recall, I went through three safeties before I got it right. Another part that was later replaced was the full length guide rod. It was too long. I had the great idea to cut it with a Dremel. That was a bad idea. I ended up with a standard length guide rod from Wilson. I also didn't like my work on the grip safety and replaced with Wilson that had a higher sweep.

Then there was an order from Brownells. Apparently it was so large they thought it was appropriate to call and verify. I didn't believe them and called their 800 number. I got the same woman on the phone that had called me. They also sent me a Thank You letter. That order had the other parts you need such as the disconnector and barrel link kit, both Wilson. An MGW bushing was selected for this build. Did you know there's a different size bushing for a Government and Commander? I didn't. I ended up with a Government bushing and milled it to fit. I still had trouble with fitting and found out that EGW will mill the bushing to fit your barrel and slide with the appropriate inner angle for the barrel. I decided that was the best route for me and also selected one of their spring plugs to match. Somehow I had initially missed buying a plunger tube and included it in that order.

The bushing came it sure was nice. What was not nice is that I had a horrible time fitting the Kart barrel and royally messed it up. So then I had to wait for another one on back order. Guess what! I messed that one up too! One barrel, I cut the radial lugs too deep and in the wrong areas. The other I over headspaced so much that was also rendered a learning experience. Enter Ed Brown to the rescue! Ed offers a semi custom fit barrel with a bushing I was sure I could do a semi-custom fit. The only thing was the bushing wouldn't match my other parts and I decided to keep the EGW bushing in play since it the Ed Brown barrel was close the Kart barrel's outer dimensions. It works. I wasn't building a bullseye gun. I just wanted a gun that worked by this point. Many of the other parts had all ready been fitted.

You know what else is a pain to do when you don't know what you're doing? Installing dovetail sights. I ordered that Caspian slide with the Novak cuts. They leave the cuts small so you can fit them to your choice of Novak sights. Or at least I assume so. I didn't know I needed to fit the dovetails even more to the sights. I have a few beaten up sights, that were not cheap, sitting on my work bench as a reminder. Eventually I learned, because I was taught by Bob Rodgers, how to fit sights without damage. Currently it is sporting a new set of Novak night sights with an adjustable rear sight. I have yet to sight it in but, soon I will.

There is much to cover when it comes to talking about fitting parts for a 1911 and it's not something I can cover in a blog post. The main things I wanted was a reliable carry piece, with a fit that didn't rattle and is pleasing to the eye and also a light trigger. The gun is currently resting at 2.25 pounds for the trigger pull. Some say it's too light. I say, I like it that way. Why do I like it that way? Because I set out to do it and accomplished it. No hammer follow through, no movement of the sear when the safety is engaged, and it checks out on all the other safety checks. In all it's taken me over a year to get this pistol built and running like a champ, and because of that, many of the small parts appeared worn. I learned about cold bluing due to that and a friend offered to parkerize it for me. I took him up on that offer and am quite pleased with his work. Having learned many things from Bob Rodgers, I came home and made some more changes such as the sights, clearancing the dust cover and slide, and I made some changes to the barrel hood and throat. Throating is another great place to screw up your barrel! Dremels are great but, they can get you in a world of trouble too.

When it was built and ready to shoot, it looked like this:

 build pictures, machining the frame

cutting the slide channel

Fitting the grip safety

Sandblasting prep for parkerizing

During the build, I spent so much time assembling, disassemble, and reassembling the gun, by the time it was ready to be parkerized, the small parts looked less than new and I needed to strip and blue the small parts. I did that by immersing them in apple cider vinegar for a half hour and neutralizing with water and then immersion in acetone and letting dry before cold blueing with Birchwood-Casey Super Blue.