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