Well-known and ‘unobtainable’ pistolsmiths all start somewhere. It might as well be with your 1911.
There are now varying ranks of custom gun work to be had, or “echelons of elite,” if you will. At the highest level, there’s the “bespoke” 1911. You arrange a time and a cost with a well-named pistolsmith, and then deliver the base gun and deposit. You wait to get to the head of the line, and you wait for the return of your prize. You have spec’d everything on it. From start to finish, it’s the product of one pistolsmith, and it’s your pistol.
It might be one of a kind, or it might be like every other high-end gun that particular pistolsmith produces. But, it’s yours.
This 1911 of mine is kinda-sorta one of those one-of-a-kind projects, but with a difference: You can duplicate the details, but you cannot duplicate the exact pistol. Why? It’s what I call a “committee gun.”
A committee gun is one you send to multiple pistolsmiths to have one thing done by this one, something else by the next one, and so-on. This is not possible with some pistolsmiths — not just because they’re retired or deceased, but because many are booked to the end of their working careers. Or, they have a closed client list … or they do not do a-la-carte work. A-la-carte? They only do the full job, not just this or that. Honestly, they often don’t have the time and, frankly, it’s a hassle. Why do just a checkering job, which takes as much time and effort to book, manage, schedule and deliver, as a full-house project?
This particular 1911A1 of mine is a result of decades of reputation, contacts, patience — and just being a nice guy.
Make It A Heinie
The base gun is a Springfield 1911A1 in .45 ACP, which is their loaded model. It arrived here for an article, review or test — I honestly can’t remember. As testing showed and the results came in, it was a very accurate pistol, and it was one of the fastest-barreled 1911s I’ve tested. So, I prevailed on Springfield, got the friendly gun-writer price, and I sent them a check.
At the next year’s Single Stack Classic (now the USPSA Single Stack Nationals), I was talking to Richard Heinie about his sights. His Straight-8 sight design was selling like hotcakes (and they still are). “Is it really better than three-dot sights?” I wanted to know. We proceeded after the match to walk out to the ranges. There, I shot his personal 1911. (Well, one of them, I’m sure he has a bunch, but that was the one on his hip that day.)
“I’d be happy to put a set on one of your guns,” Heinie said. No fool I, I pitched the idea of testing the Heinie sights to my editors, and when one said yes, I then had a dilemma: All my 1911s had good sights on them. Digging into the safe, I came across the Springfield. Knowing many pistolsmiths had preferences, I phoned up Richard. “Sure, I work on Springfields.” So, I shipped it.
Lest you ask, Richard Heinie is booked to the end of time. And this is ironic, because I remember talking to him at one of the USPSA Nationals in the early 1990s and finding out he had a 48-month delivery time. Yes, 48 months! I couldn’t wait that long and didn’t send him another gun to work on. Soon after, the only way to have owned a Heinie full-custom gun was to win one at the Single Stack Classic. Nope: I never managed that one, either. But Heinie does make his excellent Straight-8 sights, and you can have Heinie Specialty Products install them on your 1911.
Soon after, I took the Springfield to a tactical medical class, which was a week-long medical-and-live-fire-training class, where we spent time crawling through the Tennessee mud. Despite being caked with mud, the Springfield worked flawlessly, so it earned a permanent place in the safe.
I teach Law Enforcement Patrol Rifle classes in the warm-weather months. Actually, I’m one of the stand-by armorers for officers whose rifles break down, and I teach shooting when I’m not fixing. We also shoot handguns — the instructors do, anyway — because, well, the courses are easy enough to shoot a perfect score every time with a rifle.
The lead instructor wrote the course outline to require that each instructor fires the qualifying course for record, for each class, so we’re on record as being able to do what we teach. We also started shooting the qualifying course with handguns, which is a task that calls for hits out to 65 yards against tight time limits. We then began shooting the 300-meter Army RETS course with handguns. The top instructors have all shot passing scores in both courses, with handguns.
At one class, friend Ned Christiansen was curious about the Heinie sights, and he handled and shot my Springfield. “There’s something about the barrel,” he said. “Let me take it home.” I don’t know what he did, because I couldn’t find any traces of work (Ned is like that), but the barrel fit is better. And while he was at it, he cleaned up the already-nice trigger. It’s still a duty-level weight, but the trigger pull so clean that you’d swear it was a pound-and-a-half lighter than it actually is.
Christiansen usually has a closed list, as in he’s booked up for longer ahead than he sees daylight, so you won’t get this from him. But, he makes specialty tools for the 1911 and the AR-15, and when next his list opens up — or when he takes a breath and accepts small jobs like trigger work — you can get on board.
Chen’s Custom ‘X’
The next pistolsmith was Stan Chen, who left soul-killing corporate America to pursue his dream: building custom 1911s. What he ended up doing was building blueprinted 1911s from scratch. Like a number of other custom pistolsmiths, Chen found the work of rebuilding (measuring, plotting, welding, machining, hand-fitting) existing frames to be taking up so much of his time that it was easier to just make frames to go with his perfect slides. So, he did.
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- Tips For Getting Your Perfect Custom 1911
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If you have a full-house Chen Custom 1911 built on a non-Chen frame, you have a rarity. Or, soon-to-be-rarity, because he’s now making only full-house custom guns, using only on his frames and slides.
But, Chen also makes magwell funnels for installation on non-Chen 1911s. He and I discussed his mag funnels and frontstrap non-slip grip pattern for another article project, and I sent him my Springfield for the Gen 2 mag funnel. I again chose that gun mostly because it was, as it had been with the sights, the only one I had that wasn’t already worked-on.
After it arrived, Chen phoned me. “You didn’t tell me that it was one of the ‘fat-frame’ Springfields.” My heart sank. Darn, I’d have to find a different gun. “That actually makes it easier,” he reported.
Fat frame? For a number of years, Springfield 1911s had frontstraps that were thicker and wore a different radius than the original 1911s. This was due to a machining step that made production easier: The cutter radius for the dustcover, trigger guard and front strap are all supposed to be different, but Springfield just used the same cutter for all. This left the frontstrap and dustcovers thicker and with more-defined corners.
Chen’s non-slip grip pattern is an array of diagonally-oriented round-bottomed cuts, with an “X” pattern left in the middle. Called his Progressive Traction Checkering (aka, ProTrac), it’s unlike anyone else’s. This pattern is duplicated on the mainspring housing, and the pattern carries over onto the frame from the mainspring housing. That, with the Gen 2 blended magwell funnel, produces a distinctive appearance while being low-profile. It isn’t a competition look, but it is a competition-level performing setup. Part of the ProTrac machining also involves “lifting” the frontstrap where it joins the trigger guard.
Stan also knew I like the look of the original slide contour, also known as ball-end cuts. So, he machined the slide and then dehorned the edges before re-parkerizing it and sending it back. He only does full-house custom guns built on his slide and frame sets. However, you can get the ProTrac frontstrap and mainspring housing done on your gun, you can have one of several of his magwell designs done, and you can get your 1911 back in 6 months or so.
These days, the finish on my committee gun isn’t pretty. I’ve shot, used and abused this gun a good bit. It has rattled around in the unpadded plastic storage case Springfield shipped it in. One of these days I’ll get it re-finished and give it the case it deserves.
Foreseeing The Future
Now, why tempt you with work you can’t get, with pistolsmiths who don’t know you? Simple: Dick Heinie, Ned Christiansen and Stan Chen didn’t start out as demi-gods of 1911 work: They all started out working and learning. (They are still learning, of course, but they’re learning on top of an encyclopedic base of knowledge.) There are many very good pistolsmiths out there who will be the Heinie, Christiansen or Chen of the future.
You can have your own committee gun just by finding them and shepherding your 1911 through their shops in turn. What do you want? What do you like? Tell them, plan the work and get it done.
Just be sure and find a solid base gun to build on, because no-one likes the grunt work of correcting errant dimensions. That search is even easier than it used to be, because we can now expect good base 1911s, and we won’t pay for anything less.
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