The 1911: Why We Fit Barrels
December 12, 2014
The mechanical accuracy available from a 1911 pistol is primarily the result of barrel fit or lack thereof. The barrel must lock up in exactly the same position after each shot so there can be no tolerance between the bottom lugs of the barrel and the slide stop and the barrel locking lugs and slide. A properly fitted barrel does not reduce reliability and may actually enhance it. Loose barrels may peen slide locking lugs damaging both the barrel and slide.
The 1911s sold today in the 21st century are the best, on average, that have ever been produced. This increase in quality and accuracy is due to intense competition in the crowded 1911 marketplace and modern manufacturing methods that allow tighter tolerances.
In 2013 I toured the Smith and Wesson factory in Houlton Maine. CNC machining centers were lined up like huge tombstones in the center of the plant. A worker would load a carrier with raw forgings from Springfield and it would disappear into the bowels of the machine. What emerged were 1911 slides that looked almost finished. The machines were so sophisticated that they displayed the percentage of useable tool life left for each cutter so the operator could change them as necessary. No manual broaching or milling machines on that production line. Smith and Wesson had obviously invested millions of dollars in this facility on the Canadian border because they intend to become a top tier manufacturer of this pistol that is over 100 years old and refuses to die. I'm sure Colt, Springfield Armory, Kimber and other major manufacturers are similarly equipped. They have to be if they want to be taken seriously in today's marketplace.
But'¦..there are a lot of older pistols out there that were not produced with the benefits of computer controlled machinery. As a gunsmith I see a lot of lemons. Many pistols will function ok but may not be particularly accurate. My customers tend to be shooters and to paraphrase Col. Townsend Whelen "only accurate pistols are interesting."
One of my regular customers stopped by a couple months ago with a used Colt Combat Commander he had just purchased. Not only was it a nice looker but it was chambered in 9mm, making this pistol much less common than the .45s I regularly encounter. He wanted higher profile sights and a lighter, smoother trigger. No problem.
Fast forward a few weeks later and I'm at the range test firing the completed pistol. I carefully fired a few rounds to check zero and'¦..there wasn't really a group. A "pattern", maybe, but not what I would call a group. Wow. This one was bad. Really bad. People around here would say it wouldn't "shoot into a bucket" and that really wasn't much of an exaggeration.
When my customer picked up his pistol I discussed the problem with him and I told him a new barrel would have to be fitted if he wanted the pistol to shoot well. It would be expensive. I even told him that his best option was to cut his losses by selling me the sick Colt but he didn't take the bait. Damn. I tried.
He returned with the pistol a few weeks later after verifying my diagnosis by shooting the gun himself and we ordered a barrel. We chose Bar-Sto as our barrel maker based on the positive results I had with their 9mm 1911 barrels in the past.
I carefully fitted the barrel to the Colt with the help of my Weigand fixture and milling machine. This fixture allows me to gradually cut the barrel bottom lugs with a 5mm end mill, removing the barrel from the fixture and test fitting it to the pistol after each cut without losing zero. Brownell's sells a newer version of this fixture for gunsmiths.
My standard for accuracy is one inch 5-shot groups or better at 25 yards. I fired the pistol hand held from a rest with a 4X Weaver handgun scope temporarily attached to the frame via an Aimtech grip mount. This setup isn't as consistent as the machine rest but its handier for a quick trip to the range and I can shoot pretty decent groups after a few rounds to get my grip and trigger control settled down. Ambient temperature was about 30 degrees with a light breeze and my hands were going numb but I fired half a dozen groups of roughly an inch to verify this pistol was now officially a shooter. Just before I packed up and headed for the warm truck I fired 5 final rounds into a little knot and kept the target. This last group measured ½" center to center.
The first question I get when showing someone that group is "where do you get 9mm ammo that shoots like that?" Good question. As I was re-barreling this pistol the same question popped into my head. I have standard accuracy loads for .45acp but I didn't stock anything special for 9mm and when evaluating a firearm you need the most accurate ammo available. I asked Pat Sweeney for ideas and he suggested Stan Chen's Asym Precision ammunition. As usual, Patrick was right.
I purchased Asym 115 gr. JHP Match from Brownell's and the results speak for themselves. It is the most accurate factory 9mm ammunition I have ever fired.
This Combat Commander should never have left the Colt factory in 1987. In a perfect world some QC guy would have kicked it back to Production so it could be fixed. But, I find every major manufacturer puts out occasional lemons and 15 — 20 years would pass before Colt went all in for computer controlled manufacturing. As for my customer, I expect he will be happy even though he had to invest well over $300 in parts and labor to make this Colt a tack driver. Kudos to Bar-Sto and Asym for outstanding products.
Admittedly, this pistol is an extreme case of a gun that needs a gunsmith but it's also a perfect example of why we still fit barrels.