After World War II the US military had so many 1911 pistols in inventory that they saw no need to buy any more. Ever. (Although the USMC very recently did buy a small quantity of 1911 pistols from Colt) The wartime production had pretty much flooded the market with 1911 pistols and post-war prosperity made surplus guns relatively cheap and readily available. Market prices for a good do not always reflect the quality or costs of producing the good in question. If you happened to be the guy who bought a Gibson Les Paul in 1956 or a 1971 Hemi-Cuda in the Maliase era days, you’re quite happy about that.
People bought the 1911 pistols but they often wanted the guns to have better sights, better accuracy, and maybe not draw blood when you shot them. NRA bullseye pistol competitions led to modifications of the 1911 pistol in an effort to wring more accuracy out of the guns. The fit of the slide, frame, and barrel within the slide is crucial to producing superior accuracy…but the original 1911 wasn’t originally manufactured with that in mind. Because the pistols were made out of high quality steel, though, they took to modification quite well. There are a number of different processes involved in improving the fit between a 1911’s parts to eliminate extra play, but to give you an idea of the work involved here’s a quick video showing one of the ways to modify the fit between the slide and the frame:
Jim Clark, Jim Hoag, Armand Swenson, Bill Wilson and other talented gunsmiths rose to prominence by modifying 1911 pistols to make them more accurate, more reliable with different types of ammunition, or more ergonomically friendly. The work they did was often quite labor intensive. To give you some idea of what “labor intensive” means, Jim Clark had been experimenting with the idea of longer barrels in 1911 to give better accuracy and ran across a barrel full of 1911 slides that had been “de-commissioned” by being sawn in half. He bought the entire lot of what was probably intended to be scrap metal and would use them to manufacture his “long-slide” conversion guns. He would actually take another 1911 slide and then very carefully weld the end of a chopped slide onto it. The resulting joint would be ground down and polished until it looked like the slide had been made that way in the first place.
In the earliest days of customizing the 1911 there was no big Brownell’s catalog full of drop-in parts for the 1911. Parts had to be manufactured one at a time through labor-intensive processes and then carefully fitted to a customer’s gun to have it work properly. When you actually stop and think about it, it’s amazing what those guys managed to achieve with lathes and welders as their primary tools.
This work wasn’t cheap. It was understood that custom work was labor intensive and, as a result, expensive. Folks who wanted it paid and folks who didn’t think it worth the cost didn’t. The explosion of practical handgun competitions and the seemingly endless features on custom 1911 pistols in gun magazines (not to mention Jeff Cooper) created a desire in the market for custom 1911’s beyond those who had identified a specific need for one. Anybody who spent time reading American Handgunner prior to 1995 probably has visions of custom 1911 pistols dancing in their head…but when you actually found out how much it cost to have that kind of custom work done it was a shock to the system. I distinctly remember being in a gunshop when someone was taking delivery of a custom 1911 pistol and another patron asked the impolite cost question. The owner answered truthfully. His questioner, utterly shocked, blurted out “I could buy a good used car for that kind of money!”
With the utterly awful and completely useless Clinton Assault Weapons Ban in effect limiting magazine capacities, suddenly the 1911’s single stack capacity wasn’t so bad. Springfield and Kimber burst onto the scene purporting to give custom 1911 features at production 1911 prices. Others followed and now there are more 1911 pattern pistols on the market than you can shake a stick at. Brownell’s has an entire catalog dedicated to just 1911 parts…so the uninformed consumer might see the price tag on a truly custom 1911 pistol and think it’s insane.
In truth it’s no different today than it has ever been with custom 1911 pistols. A great deal of what smiths like Clark, Hoag, Swenson and Wilson did with customer guns was fix or improve what the factory put out. Sure, there’s a whole catalog full of 1911 parts but those parts vary wildly in quality and even if you buy the very best quality parts to assemble into a 1911 they don’t all play together nicely. Frame rails still have to be peened, (in some cases even welded) barrels still have to be fitted, feed ramps and barrel throats still have to be set up right, etc. Correcting factory shortcomings or mistakes is as labor intensive today as it was when Jim Clark or Jim Hoag were welding slides together or having frames and slides welded to tighten the fit.
In isolation the price tag on that kind of work seems astronomical, but when you realize just how much labor is going into the end product it suddenly makes a lot more sense. The good gunsmith isn’t charging an arm and a leg because he’s trying to get rich…he’s trying to cover the cost of the time he’s put into making the gun right. I encourage you to go take a look at Heirloom Precision’s Facebook page sometime. From time to time Jason Burton will post pictures of in-progress builds. He’s done a number of square trigger-guard guns lately which involves basically chopping the trigger guard off of a frame, welding on a 90 degree piece of steel, and then carefully shaping and contouring that piece of metal until it looks like the frame was originally made that way…and that doesn’t even touch the other work he does to the frame to improve the fit, the cosmetic appearance, or usability of the pistol. The process of putting out an Heirloom gun is as labor intensive today as producing a good custom 1911 ever was. The tools of the trade are more precise these days and some of the parts available are better than the make-do stuff the old school guys had to use, but in the end the final product still depends on a skilled smith getting everything right. That isn’t cheap.
…but with the wide availability of 1911 pattern pistols today, does anyone really need a custom 1911? Does anyone really need to pay that premium? Isn’t it all pretty much the same?
More on that next time.