1911 Handguns: How to Fit a Barrel

Measuring a 1911 pistol with an electronic caliper

OK, you ordered your Storm Lake or Wilson Combat Barrel—what comes next? The 1911 is easily our most popular handgun, and without a doubt, the most modified. While the Browning Hi Power, Tokarev, CZ 75, and Beretta 92 have also been built in the millions, none have been modified as extensively as the 1911 handgun.

Measuring a 1911 pistol with an electronic caliper
Be certain of your measurements before you begin.

1911 handguns are available in low- and high-end types, something that wasn’t the case when Colt was the only maker. There was Colt, and then there was the Spanish ironmongery. Today, there are pistols with cast slides and frames, and generally unserviceable handguns that I do not care to bet my life on. There are also very good 1911 handguns being made.

Among the few complaints concerning the handgun is the sometimes heavy or gritty action. This may occur, even with Colts, although it is seldom, if ever, seen on Les Baer pistols and the like. Accuracy is another complaint. To my understanding, and certainly my personal experience, it is true that those desiring a more accurate 1911 are usually accomplished shooters who know just what edge the handgun they are firing doesn’t have.

They have a good trigger and sights, but want more. Everyone wants a good trigger, but an accomplished shooter wants a better barrel too. The bottom line is that custom-grade fitting ensures the pistol returns to battery in exactly the same place—time after time. This not only increases accuracy, eccentric wear is also virtually eliminated.

Bar Sto 1911 pistol barrel
This is a beautifully finished Bar Sto barrel.

I’ve fitted many 1911 barrels. There have been more than a few well-worn GI guns that needed a barrel. Normally, the barrels were corroded or the owner simply wished to improve accuracy.

The following procedure works for me. First, lets take a measurement of the slide. Use a quality caliper to compare the slide measurements to the barrel. We measure the breech face to the back edge of the upper lug that rides at the very top of the slide. (At this point I also examine the breech face. It isn’t unusual for one or the other makes to have a less than smooth breech face. This area should be polished. Feed reliability and break in time will prosper from this polish.) The measurement is most often 1.315. With these measurements in hand, you will be able to be certain you have a properly fitting barrel by filing the oversize portion of the gunsmith-fit barrel.

You may choose to hold the barrel in the slide, square to the slide, and file the barrel as needed. You may use a marker or paint to mark the back of the barrel hood and carefully, lightly tap the hood to the breech face, and carefully file the hood by hand. I use what I call cut and dry. I file, just a little, then check the fit and return to filing as necessary. Although I have a good eye and hand for fitting—given my years of experience fitting barrels—I do not get in any hurry.

1911 pistol barrel showing upper and lower lugs
The upper and lower lugs may need attention for a perfect fit. Drop-in barrels may need a bit of fitting, as 1911 handguns are not exact in every dimension from piece to piece.

With the hood now at the correct length, you will check to see whether the barrel will lock up properly. A true, match-grade fit most often will require fitting. Generally, the rear lug will be a bit long and require some filing. What you want is the maximum lug length and engagement while maintaining function.

If the barrel is properly fitted, the firing pin will strike the center of the primer each time. Sometimes, the firing pin strike is a little off with match grade barrels. Sometimes the point of impact, compared to the point of aim, also changes with a fitted match barrel as the fitting changes the barrel and slide relationship. You should end up with a lug engagement of .045, down to .040. At the longer end (.045), the firing pin may be offcenter, but the firearm will function well.

Barrel binding, or springing, as the barrel is pressed into place should be watched. This can affect your measurement. A gunsmith may cut the bottom lugs with a mill or a lug cutter, but I prefer the hand method. After all, I am not tasked with turning out a match grade barrel fitting job every week, I only do so occasionally and can take my time.

1911 pistol barrel with barrel bushing
This barrel is supplied with a fitted bushing.

The lugs are cut square to the slide lock pin, so the bottom lugs will make contact. A good trick is to fit the barrel tight, so that the slide lock safety will not engage. Keep filing, and when the barrel lugs just allow the slide lock to snap into place, you are very nearly done. The professional will properly cut the lugs to a tight fit. There should be filing and polishing toward the end of the course to achieve a good tight fit. The fit is done until you have a solid lockup but not quite a binding lockup.

An important step is to measure the space from the barrel link hole—the slide stop pin runs through this link—to the lugs as they rest on the slide lock pin. The link should be ordered for this distance. Do not under any circumstances enlarge this pin. Consider the arc the link moves in when you file the barrel lugs. The lugs should be left as long as possible, as they should be tight, but not binding. A word on lockup: When the sides of the barrel bind, I have removed minute amounts of metal from the side of the slide to correct the issue.

The barrel bushing must be tight. Sometimes, match grade barrels are delivered with a fitted barrel bushing, and that is ideal. Often, simply fitting a National Match-type barrel bushing makes for a more accurate handgun. The barrel bushing should be .001 larger than the barrel—a good, snug fit. By carefully fitting the barrel and bushing without hurry, and by carefully following directions, you will own a handgun that is as accurate and reliable as a machine can be.

Les Baer 1911 pistol right profile
The Les Baer pistol is delivered with a match grade barrel. You can easily fit a Match barrel to your own 1911.

I have enjoyed excellent results with Bar Sto, Storm Lake, and Wilson Combat barrels. When testing for accuracy, I use the Federal Cartridge Company 230-grain MATCH loading.

Do you have a favorite match grade barrel? What’s your favorite hand-fit pistol? Share your answers in the comment section.


About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (15)

  1. I am not quite up to speed on some of the nomenclature(i.e. lug engagement measurement) Is there any chance that a drawing could be found showing exactly where measurements are taken? Thanks. A couple of things you mention, I already have done. Great article by the way.

  2. My gunsmith builds race guns for some of the top shooters in the country.
    I’ve noticed he is often sent brand new Colt, Springfield, Kimber, etc.. 1911’s.. along with a new Kart, Storm Lake, Nowin, or Bar-sto barrel to
    be fitted to the new pistol. He commented that IF they (owners) paid him to properly fit the oem barrel to the pistol, they could save themselves considerable money. I took him up on this, & had him fit my barrel on a Springfield 1911 I’ve had for > 20 yrs..which had not had a lot of rounds through it. Sure as his word, after fitting, it was more accurate than it ever had been. Had him fit a Nowlin 40 S&W to a Delta Elite & it’s one of my most accurate pistols.

  3. In spite of doing a little customizing work myself in the past, I relied on a good friend who was the head pistol-smith at a well-known facility who had built many custom 1911’s that were used by some of the best competition shooters around at the time. He did the custom work on all my on-duty pistols and my off-duty well. All have flawless function and reliability, and are superbly accurate – even to this day. I consider myself very lucky to have had such a talented gunsmith as a close personal friend. Also, I agree (and know firsthand) that the barrels made by Irv Stone at Bar-Sto are super-high quality top-notch barrels, and are probably about as good as you can get – at least that has been my experience. While it can be fun to tinker, I have found there is no substitute for quality work done by a highly skilled craftsman – especially if the piece is used for defensive purposes.

  4. Great artical Bob!
    One of your suggestions IÔÇÖm going to use on
    My next build!
    A question for you….
    IÔÇÖm a big fan of the IMI Baby Desert Eagles an carry both the compact .40 an full frame .45. The octagon cut rifling makes them one of the most accurate out of the box pistols withou custom work available anywhere.
    I have often hoped to find a 1911 Barrel rifled in the same configuration as the BDE. Sadly, have never run across one. Have you or do you know of such a Barrel for the 1911 with the Octagonal rifling?
    IÔÇÖd even have one made if I could find someone todo it.
    Thanks for the tips, my next build is a long-slide .38 Super Comp pistol. Hope to hear back from you soon.

    1. Pete
      Thanks for reading.
      I believe Lothar Walther makes such a barrel.


      Bob Campbell.

  5. Not to rain on your parade,but here’s what I’d do:1.make the safety abidextrous for us southpaws[Colt was too cheap to do that on the their 80 series Govr mdl],2.put bright adjustable sights,3.a lanyard loop,4.possibly rebarrel to 460 Rowland and correspondingly heavier springs.
    Once[if ever??] I get my NICS back,I’ll do that to a full size Block 21[at a minimum-24 lbs springs and a Lone Wolf barre for unjacketed projectiles,and a bright tritium front sight]lh

    1. college of hard knocks.Be sure that your barrel will handle un jacketed projectiles[and if they’ll accommodate 250gr slugs-yes you can use 250-260gr slugs in a 45ACP.Hexagonal rifled barrels e.g.Glock,won’t.I went with a Lone Wolf barrel to eliminate that problem.

    2. Why are you writing about Baby Eagles and Glocks? The article is about fitting a barrel to a 1911. Are you just looking for any excuse to run your mouth?

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