With a box of parts from Wilson Combat and a frame and slide from Caspian Arms, I was about to begin building my own custom 1911 by hand. Thankfully, I was at the Brownells 1911 Builders Course, which is part of the NRA Summer Program held at America’s oldest gunsmithing college, Trinidad State Junior College (TSJC) in Colorado. This is an intense one-week course in the art of building a rock-solid 1911.
To instruct this course, Brownells sent its best: Mike Watkins. Mike is a senior gun technician at Brownells, and his accolades include membership in the elite American Pistolsmith Guild. He has been the guild’s president and Pistolsmith of the Year, and he’s currently chairman of the scholarship committee. Mike also teaches and builds the 1911 the old-fashioned way—with files.
In fact, filing was Mike’s highest recommendation for learning how to successfully build a 1911. To him, filing makes or breaks a custom 1911. And you can build any style of 1911 in the course, but it is set up to take a gun all the way to a base model IPSC pistol with a compensator. I chose to build a simple carry gun instead, so I ordered a frame and slide from Caspian Arms. The frame sported a rail for accessories. Wilson Combat was an easy choice for parts, and when it came to putting the gun together, I was almost disappointed—the parts were too good. Several didn’t need any fitting right out of the box.
Mike identified a few points that are critical to creating an accurate 1911, including how the barrel interfaces with the slide and how the slide and frame fit together. He also insisted that the barrel bushing should require a tool to be removed. And just as filing was a good recommendation for preparing the parts, deburring was a close second. Burrs created from the machining process can create havoc when it comes time to hand-fit each part. Mike repeatedly encouraged students to ensure that machining burrs were knocked off all of the edges and that all holes were cleaned, countersunk and, if necessary, reamed before starting on the build.
The frame rails were trued with a smooth file until the rear of the slide would just start on the front of the rails. Now for some advice: Make sure you invest in permanent markers. You should use a marker to black the frame rails, and then, when you try to install the slide, if any black is scraped off, that’s where you need to file.
When I had the slide completely on the frame, lapping compound was applied. The Slide Lapping Tool from Brownells helped to gently move the slide back and forth until it ran smoothly. With the lapping compound removed, the slide fit just right. Next up was fitting the barrel.
Initial Barrel Prep
Match barrels have oversized hoods. They are too long and too wide, so, once again, you must use a file. The sides of the hood are carefully filed to leave an ever-so-slight gap between the sides and the slide. The sides are touchy, but the length is critical. The goal is to have the back of the hood completely touch the breech face. Mike displayed some of his personal guns, which had shiny arcs at the top of their breeches. This was polishing from the tight fit he had accomplished.
Cutting the barrel feet to lock up on the slide stop pin instead of the link is accomplished with the Brownells 1911 Lug Cutter. This tool cuts a curve across the feet to match up with the slide stop pin. The slide is pressed against the turning cutter until the thumb safety can engage. But don’t let the tool throw you—hand filing is still required.
Mike explained how to select the proper barrel link. You start by measuring the barrel feet height. Then measure the web between the link holes and choose a link set one size larger than the barrel feet. There is still some fitting to go, but this will get you close with the least math and extra material to work with. The Wilson Barrel Link Kit contains links in five sizes. You can always measure and order the proper size, but that will add extra shipping costs and time while waiting on the part to arrive.
A note about a match barrel where “gunsmithing is required”: The chambers on these match barrels are cut short. You will have to ream the chamber to the correct depth after you have otherwise completed the fitting. This requires a reamer in the proper caliber. It is not a difficult process, but the reamer is a unique tool that you must have access to.
The last step here is fitting the barrel bushing. Match-grade bushings are oversized, and the class used a lathe. The outside diameter is turned just until the bushing barely fits inside the slide. Remember, your goal is to have the bushing so tight that you must use a bushing wrench to turn it. The inside diameter is turned for a 0.001-inch clearance. This is done using a boring bar in the lathe.
Fitting the fire control group and safeties came next, and the quality of the Wilson parts made this process a snap, as very little fitting was required. Fitting the sear, which should have been difficult, was very easy thanks to the Brownells Ed Brown 1911 Sear Jig. Installing the trigger and thumb safety was a matter of working a fine file on very fine surfaces. The grip safety highlighted my weakness with precise measurements. I could have taken off a big chuck of metal right off the bat, but I filed a little and fitted it repeatedly until I almost went crazy. I made a four-hour job out of a 30-minute one. Lesson learned. Blending the grip safety to the frame is a personal choice, and it takes a lot of elbow grease and patience.
I installed Novak sights on the slide. Caspian already cut the front and rear dovetails for these sights. After deburring the dovetail cuts, most of the fitting is done to the sights, not the slide. This makes it easier to adjust or replace the sights in the future. I used my thumb to press the sights halfway into their dovetails so that only a light tap with a hammer would drive them each fully into place.
Much of the remaining assembly process was simply deburring and fitting parts like the firing pin and stop plate. The extractor is nothing but a spring that must be adjusted to function in this environment. Wiegand makes an adjustment tool that assists in properly bending the extractor, and its tension gauge allows you to set the weight precisely. The ejector is easy to fit but difficult to retain. It’s held in place by a very small cross pin that requires a notch to be filed in the ejector leg. Mark it and file it. Don’t try to do this with a drill or even a mill, as you might walk off the hole and damager your beautiful frame.
Fit & Finish
Although my new 1911 could be finished in any number of styles, I decided to tip my hat to John Browning. The exterior finish is one of the only aspects not covered in the Brownells course, so I sent my gun to Cerakote, which has in-house trainers that teach and certify Cerakote appliers nationwide. I challenged them to apply an aged, vintage finish to my custom 1911, and they succeeded magnificently. Finally, I added a set of double-diamond-checkered rosewood grip panels from VZ Grips. At first glance, my 1911 could be a beautifully preserved 100-year-old piece.
I asked Mike about the common discussion regarding the differences between a competition 1911 and one carried for self-defense. Mike is an avid IPSC competitor and points out that a simple malfunction can use up enough time to put a shooter out of the running and that his competitive gun fires some 25,000 rounds a year without a failure. A 1911 built to this competitive standards should be reliable enough for a self-defense gun. Mike did add a caveat, however, that if you live in dusty West Texas as he did for 50 years, your pistol might need to have slightly looser slide tolerances.
So, what was this all about? Well, I wanted to know if I could actually build a 1911. Turns out I can. I wanted to do more than laying my money down and walking out the door with someone else’s idea. Undoubtedly, I got that in spades. I wanted more enjoyment out of life. I got it. This was quite an adventure. I highly recommend this course.
For More Information
This article is from the November/December 2017 issue of “Combat Handguns” magazine. To order a copy and subscribe, visit outdoorgroupstore.com.