Buying or building a custom 1911 is exactly like buying a new puppy: Take your time, weigh your options and ask the right questions.
Some things to consider when buying or having someone build a custom 1911:
- Choose the right gunsmith (do you want a semi-custom or fully custom gun?)
- Determine the intended use (will it be a race gun, a showpiece or a defensive gun?)
- Inspect the work (visually and physically inspect the finished custom 1911 for errors)
- Be ready to wait/spend a pretty penny (custom 1911s are expensive and it takes time for their production)
Many different handgun designs have been introduced since the 1911 appeared more than 100 years ago, but the 1911 pistol is still wildly popular and is probably the most customized handgun in existence. In fact, most of the major firearms manufacturers produce a 1911 even though they make handguns of a newer design, and most of those 1911s have features that years ago were seen only on very expensive customized 1911s. Despite this, the demand for the custom 1911 remains very strong.
But don’t you dare go in blind.
Choosing The Right Gunsmith
Because not all gunsmiths do the kind of work expected on a custom 1911, the first step in customizing one is to find the right gunsmith. Complicating the selection is that some custom shops have a stock of 1911s that have been built with certain features. We’ll call them production custom guns, and generally, they’re available on short notice or will be built once an order is received.
But each of these guns from a single shop will be the same, although some shops might allow the customer to request minor variations in features. Other gunsmiths do not make production custom guns and instead build guns only to the customer’s specifications — true customization on an a la carte basis. And then, complicating things further, some gunsmith shops provide both production custom guns and true custom guns.
ROBAR, located in Phoenix, Arizona, is a gunsmithing shop that does it all. With seven gunsmiths on staff, the shop is licensed as a manufacturer, not just a gunsmith operation, and offers true a la carte custom gunsmithing services as well as a production custom 1911 called the RC-1911. ROBAR will customize a 1911 provided by the customer or take an order for a customized 1911 and also supply all the parts including the frame, slide and barrel. ROBAR will even use parts from manufacturers specified by the customer.
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Marty Enloe, head gunsmith at ROBAR, says there are several good base guns on which a custom 1911 can be built. These include Colt, Springfield, Kimber, Dan Wesson, Auto Ordnance and Ruger. He added that some aftermarket parts are not compatible with some gun makes, so the customer should listen to the gunsmith’s advice about what parts work best with a particular model of base gun.
No reputable gunsmith will build a gun that will be unsafe, and some gunsmiths will not build a gun with certain features that the gunsmith dislikes either for aesthetic or other personal reasons. So, when searching for a custom gunsmith, the customer should have in mind the types of features wanted, and then get recommendations from trusted sources and friends. The customer should also try to find out how a gunsmith handles complaints. One of the best references are professional trainers because they might see many different 1911s come through classes and develop an opinion of how well a particular gunsmith’s guns perform.
Determine The Intended Use
There are many 1911 options and features, so when selecting which to include, first decide what the gun is going to be used for. Will it be a competition gun where accuracy is the primary concern? Will the gun be used for serious work, such as for self defense or duty?
Reliability often comes at the expense of accuracy, and an accurate gun is often less reliable. Tight tolerances on super-accurate guns make them less tolerant of dirt and debris that can cause the gun to stop working, whereas a duty or defense gun has greater tolerances, making it less sensitive. A gun that stops working in a competition might cost points, but one that stops working in a gunfight might cost lives.
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Find out if the gunsmith has any specialties. For example, ROBAR builds very few competition or race guns and instead focuses on duty or defense guns. ROBAR’s guns will still have close tolerances, but they might not be as close as on a race gun.
And ROBAR will not build a gun with a trigger pull weight less than 4 pounds, where a race gun owner might want a lighter trigger weight. A well-made custom 1911 should have a clean, crisp trigger that breaks at the weight the customer wants. And the customer should get to decide the length of the trigger. Again, it’s personal preference and the use to which a gun is going to be put should help the customer determine the features and specifications.
Other features that should be considered include the slip resistance of the grip. Some people might have extremely sweaty hands or are concerned about having to shoot the gun in a fight where mud or blood might make the grip slippery. Others might want a gun that’s more comfortable to grasp, so they might opt for a less aggressive texturing.
Gun makers recognize this and have developed a wide variety of slip-resistant treatments for grip panels, frontstraps and mainspring housings. A good custom gunsmith can help you decide which grip treatment is right for you and help you pick out one that suits your needs.
Inspecting The Work
Quality of work varies among gunsmiths, as it does in any business, so some guidelines can help determine if the finished custom handgun is up to the standards advertised by the gunsmith, but more importantly the standards expected by the customer.
A close visual inspection is a good place to start. Sharp edges should have been removed, and the bevels or rounding applied should be even along the entire length of the edge. Checkering should have straight lines and the points should be sharp, unless the customer has specified the points be blunt to reduce coarseness. If the gun has been polished, the manufacturer’s logo and other detail marks should still be crisp and there should be no thin spots.
The edges of the joints where the mainspring housing fits the frame should be parallel and straight, and the grips should be flush with the frame and have no high spots or gaps. The metal finish should also be evenly applied and contain absolutely no visible blemishes.
While a custom gun is expected to have a flawless appearance, more importantly — especially in a gun built for carry or duty — it must be reliable. And to get a gun to work correctly, parts such as the barrel, slide, extractor and safeties must fit properly. Feed ramp angles need to be correct. It’s nearly impossible for most 1911 owners to check all these things, but with a little work the owner can easily and quickly check the function of the gun.
To do so, the gun must first be broken in. Follow the advice of the gunsmith here, because some guns will need a longer break-in period than others. Then, using the type of ammunition that will be used when running the gun for real — this is especially important for a duty or carry gun — test fire it using every magazine that will be carried concealed or used for competition.
At least one authority says that for a duty gun, a 1911 should malfunction no more than once in every 1,000 rounds. Others say less. Make sure the safeties work, the slide stop catches the slide only when it is supposed to, and the magazine release when pressed allows magazines to drop freely whether loaded or not.
Now Comes The Wait
Once you have decided what features are wanted and have found a gunsmith you’re sure can do the job, place the order, pay the money and be prepared to wait. Sometimes the wait can be quite awhile because custom shops are in high demand and the work gets backed up. In fact, some custom shops are not currently accepting new orders because of a massive demand backlog.
And custom work is expensive. It takes time to do all of the fitting. Much is done with soot from a candle to identify high spots, and a hand file to slowly remove metal. Costs for a custom gun can range from $2,000 to much more. Add more features and the price goes up. If you want engraving, add even more to the cost and don’t be surprised at a five-figure bill for the best of the best.
Owning a customized 1911 can be a very satisfying experience. Even if all you want is a feature or two added to your gun, or the trigger pull improved, custom work enhances the joys of ownership and can be worth every penny.
Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from the January 2018 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.