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THE COMPLETE BOOK OF THE

MODEL 1911
THE CUSTOM EDITION

ED BROWN CENTENNIAL

WILSON COMBAT
CONTEMPORARY CLASSIC
CENTENNIAL

FROM THE PUBLISHERS OF


GUNS & AMMO ANNUAL

USA/CANADA
$8.99
DISPLAY UNTIL 11/07/2011
LES BAER CUSTOM
CENTENNIAL
GARTHWAITE’S
PISTOLSMITHING
CLASS
Learning to build a custom 1911.
BY DAVID KENIK

R
eaders of this magazine usually have a love/hate relation-
ship with the 1911. The issue is that the 1911 is a finicky
design and has earned itself a reputation as a handgun
that may or may not run properly out of the box. When
my interest in 1911s started decades ago, I learned not to even
waste my time and ammunition test firing them because, chances
were, they wouldn’t work reliably. Instead, I took them from the
gun store counter to a gunsmith for a reliability package. Usually,
a trigger job and some component changes.
Tom Givens, owner of Range Master in Memphis, Tennessee,
its lead instructor and 1911 aficionado, recently proclaimed, “The
1911 design does not lend itself well to modern manufacturing
methods. Most over-the-counter 1911s still need some attention
from a qualified hand-fitter [pistolsmith].” That may be a bit
extreme, as manufacturing techniques have improved and most
contemporary 1911s work just fine. But there is a quantitative
benefit to hand-building a 1911.

The Mystery
It’s easy to build a reliable 1911. It’s easy to build an accurate
1911. However, it takes the skill and handwork of an experienced
artisan to obtain the ultimate accuracy out of the 1911 while
maintaining complete reliability. The proliferation and success of
high-end, high-cost, custom 1911s is a testament to that fact.
The exact process of accurizing and increasing reliability has al-
ways been shrouded in mystery to me. I understood the concepts,
but not the details. Perusing the Web site of custom gunsmith Jim
Garthwaite, I noticed that he offered a 1911 pistolsmithing class.
Having met Jim at several training events, I knew of his work and
jumped at the chance to attend.

Jim Garthwaite, Pistolsmith


Jim opened his shop in 1978 with a specialty in defensive Model
1911s and Browning Hi-Powers. He continues to be a one-man
show. Every facet of the work is done personally, and every gun
he works on is treated like his own. As a founding member of the
American Tactical Shooting Association, he is a practicing tacti-
cian and the lessons he learns perfecting the craft go into every one
of his guns. As a self-taught ’smith, he takes special pride in his
selection as the American Pistolsmith Guild 2004 Pistolsmith of
the Year.

78 BOOK OF THE 1911


GARTHWAITE’S PISTOLSMITHING CLASS

Jim Garthwaite limits the number of students in his class to six so that everyone gets personalized Students learn firsthand how custom pistolsmiths fit and blend parts such as a
attention. The project started with a 1911-A1 from Springfield Armory and included many new, over- beavertail grip safety and internal components such as the barrel lugs and barrel
size components that would have to be hand-fitted. Although the slide and frame already worked link. Although much of the work is done by hand, Garthwaite still uses machinery
together, more work was required to tighten the rail for better accuracy. for certain aspects of the build process.

Pistolsmithing Class satisfaction of hand-fitting and assembling slides, as he finds them easier for students The height of the front sight was pur- play was left, Jim stated that the minimal rial for hand-fitting. This greatly speeds up
Jim’s class runs five days in his central it themselves. to fit and work by hand. posely left taller than needed so its height residual movement would be removed the workflow, yet leaves the final fitting to
Pennsylvania shop and is billed as provid- could be adjusted during test firing to once the barrel was fit. Surprised again, be perfected by hand.
ing “a thorough knowledge and under- Springfield Armory Components On the Bench match our carry ammunition preference. my slide was not that far off, and the After the excess barrel hood material
standing of the procedures to build and All Garthwaite pistols start life as a fully Prior to the start of instruction, Jim re- I have to admit that I thought that sight fitting process was much easier and faster was machined, the final portion was
maintain the Browning-designed pistol.” assembled, bare-bones, basic Springfield moved the factory sights, milled dovetails installation was one of the easier jobs for than I anticipated. However, that’s not hand-filed and -lapped. With the barrel
The tuition includes a forged 1911 frame Armory pistol. Jim works with Springfield in the slide for the new sights and widened a gunsmith, but it turns out to be much always the case. Sometimes the factory installed and held in battery, the barrel
and slide, Kart or Bar-Sto match barrel, Armory because of his opinion of the qual- and flared the ejection ports of each stu- more involved than I imagined. The price slide fit is quite loose, and the tightening lugs were then hand-cut. This was done
Heinie or Novak fixed rear sights, all com- ity and consistency of its products. dent’s pistol. He also recontoured the rear a good gunsmith typically charges for the process becomes lengthy. with both the slide and barrel positioned
ponent parts, cocobolo stocks, Teflon coat- Jim starts with complete guns since they sights to allow the slide to be racked by the service is certainly justifiable. In addition to the quality of the barrel on the frame. We used a lever to aid in
ing or bluing, and personal instruction. are no more expensive than purchasing the front edge of the sight. Job two was fitting the slide to the itself, one of the most important elements pushing the slide and barrel into the spe-
Scheduled four times a year, the class parts separately. Besides the forged slide Day one started off with a hands-on frame. Since the gun started as a finished of a pistol’s accuracy is the fit of the barrel cial lug cutter as it was rotated by hand.
is limited to six participants so Jim can and frame, firing pin, guide rod, magazine demonstration of a complete 1911 disas- pistol, the slide did fit onto the frame. to the slide. Extraneous movement must This ensured that the lugs were cut to the
offer plenty of personal attention. The catch, springs and pins, all factory compo- sembly and reassembly. We then moved The process entailed measuring the be eliminated so the barrel returns to bat- correct position and enabled the thumb
class I took started on February 14 of this nents are replaced with oversize parts that onto fitting a Heinie rear sight and MGW height of the rails in the slide, shimming tery consistently with every shot. safety to be engaged. Again, hand-filing
year, which, by coincidence, was the 100th are meticulously hand-fitted for perfect fit blank dovetail front sight. The dovetails, the rail slot in the frame to match the rail Starting with an oversize Kart match and -lapping finished and smoothed out
anniversary of John Browning’s patent for and function, which affords Jim’s pistols like all machining that was to be done, height and planishing down the frame’s barrel, the first step was to measure the the operation. After fitting the barrel
the 1911 pistol. their superb accuracy and reliability. The were cut slightly undersize so we could rails with a hammer until the slide fit was hood width and length and compare it link, the last process in the barrel instal-
The primary lessons of the class include class was to follow the same path, with hand-file them for a perfect fit. We kept tight, even and without wiggle. Next we with the breech face to determine how lation was the sizing and fitting of the
sight installation, frame-to-slide fitting, each of us learning the hand-fitting process filing and fitting until light no longer filed off the misplaced steel and lapped much material needed to be removed. barrel bushing. The barrel fitting was a
precision barrel fitting, trigger work, of every part. filtered through between the parts. the slide and frame together with 600- Rather than doing all the work manually, time-consuming process, but absolutely
component shaping and malfunction In Jim’s work he uses various materials, Both sights need to be snug enough grit aluminum oxide compound. The pro- whenever possible Jim prefers to do about necessary to assure accuracy.
diagnosis. Participants thus learn to cus- depending on client requirements, but for that they don’t drift, yet loose enough to cess was repeated several times until the 90 percent of the cutting by machine and With the barrel fitting completed, we
tom fit a 1911 and leave the class with the the class he prefers carbon steel frames and be able to make windage adjustments. slide fit properly. When just a touch of leave a few thousandths of an inch of mate- were able to assemble the barrel and recoil

80 BOOK OF THE 1911 gunsandammo.com gunsandammo.com BOOK OF THE 1911 81


GARTHWAITE’S PISTOLSMITHING CLASS

10 Karat .080 Gold


Bead Custom Insert

As part of tuition, students


get the choice of finishing
their 1911 with a black oxide
or black Teflon coating. The
author chose black Teflon for
its low reflectivity and high lu-
bricity. The front sight features
a brass bead, and the rear
Heinie sight can be used for
one-handed slide manipula-
tion. Everything down to the
fitted Kart .45 National Match
barrel suggests that this was
built by the hands of a well-
trained 1911 pistolsmith.

Building a custom 1911 in Garthwaite’s pistolsmithing class is more than how to make it aesthetically pleasing. He teaches how to make the
pistol function safely, reliably and accurately. Before the class is over, students take their 1911s to the range to fit the sights to a particular
load. A sight adjustment tool joins the class on the bench for any necessary windage adjustments.

spring within the slide and mate it to the ensure that we didn’t cut too deeply, we how the firearm feels in the hand.
frame to check the function. This step was reamed it in multiple steps until the bar- With all the hand-filing we did, I
encouraging, as we saw for the first time rel locked perfectly with the go gauge in received plenty of experience with a gun-
that the barrel lowered and returned to the chamber. smith’s best friend, Dykem. This colored
battery perfectly with the cycling of the Installing a Wilson Combat grip safety liquid is applied along parts that need to
slide. It was also exciting to see that the fi- was next on the list. The contour of the be fitted together. Quickly drying to a very
nal fitting of the barrel tightened the slide grip safety that surrounds the hinge loca- thin coating, the Dykem is removed where
fit to the point that there was absolutely tion was smaller and shaped differently the parts rub together, leaving a visual
no extraneous movement—a hallmark of a than the frame, so we used a bolt-on jig as indication of the exact location where
well-built pistol. a guide and removed most of the excess additional filing is required. Difficult-to-
Checking the head space with go/no- frame material with a belt sander. The fit parts such as the grip safety required
go gauges, we determined that the cham- frame and entire length of the grip safety numerous applications.
ber in my barrel needed to be reamed to were then reshaped by hand-filing until After shaping and fitting the safety,
fit the cartridge properly since we reduced they melded together perfectly. Though the fire-control parts were installed. We
the barrel hood length. We increased the not necessary for reliability or accuracy, a started by cleaning out the frame’s trigger
chamber’s depth by hand-reaming it a custom-fit grip safety gives the pistol a pro- bow slot and fitted an oversize trigger,
few thousandths of an inch deeper. To fessional presentation and greatly affects making sure it functioned with a magazine

82 BOOK OF THE 1911 gunsandammo.com gunsandammo.com BOOK OF THE 1911 83


GARTHWAITE’S PISTOLSMITHING CLASS
in place. Those that didn’t had their bows made the final functional adjustments to properly within the frame and achieved this article would have turned into a book.
adjusted. The hammer, sear and disconnec- the safeties. a positive lock on the case edge without The attention to detail required to build a
Few things are as rewarding as
tor that we used are specially built for Jim The mainspring housing needed major being overly tight. pistol of this quality is astounding. Every
carrying a capable defensive
to his exacting specifications. In addition reshaping to meld the edges of the hous- With all the integral components pistol built by your own hands. component, save for the firing pin and a
to being used in his custom pistols, they ing to the frame so it looks and feels like reshaped, fitted and installed, the frame’s few springs, was modified, and in most
are also available through his Web site. a single part. Like the grip safety, the slide rails and the rear of the slide, along cases several functional modifications were
We first tested the sear engagement housing is not responsible for increasing with the extractor, were filed and reshaped made to each part in addition to reshap-
to the hammer with the use of jigs that accuracy or reliability, but it greatly affects until they were flush fit. ing. This class has instilled in me a tremen-
mounted onto the frame for easy inspec- how the pistol feels in the hand and its The final part to be fitted was a set of dous appreciation for the knowledge and
tion of the parts. The jigs inserted into the visual appeal. Craig Spegel cocobolo grip panels. We skills needed to hand-build a pistol of this
sear and hammer pin holes so they held To reduce the possibility of an ac- confirmed that the screw holes were sized quality and forever deepened my respect
the parts outside the frames in the precise cidental discharge of a live round hitting and located correctly and did a small for John Browning’s design, which has
relationship they will be in when installed. the ejector and eliminate a common snag amount of carving to the left panel to not just survived a century, but continues
As it turned out, the sears and hammers point, the angle of the ejector was reshaped clear the rotation of the safety. Once this to serve as a primary gun for our military,
needed almost no adjustment due to the and the overall length was shortened to was completed, we were finally able to put police and the armed citizen.
outstanding precision of the Electrical allow a cartridge to be ejected with plenty the fully assembled and fitted product in
Discharge Machining (EDM) used in of clearance past the barrel opening and our hand. I might be biased, but it was Parting Thoughts
their manufacture. With the fire-control ejection port. Depending on the design, the best-fitting 1911 I have ever held. The I would be remiss if I did not admit that
system in place and the trigger breaking the ejector was then reinstalled with a difference between our handiwork and my I was somewhat apprehensive about
clean at about four pounds, we adjusted pin or Loctite. Likewise, the extractor other 1911s was clearly the work we put spending a week behind a bench, but
the trigger’s takeup and overtravel and was tuned to ensure that it located itself into melding and reshaping the grip safety Jim’s teaching and personal attention
made it easy and the hours flew by
quickly. Jim not only taught us what we
and mainspring housing to the frame. file onto the front sight and on a spacer needed to do, but why it was necessary,
CARRY IN STYLE This was also our first opportunity to
test feeding reliability. Taking the pistols
that sat atop the rear sight. The use of the
spacer formed a slight angle on the front
and he demonstrated how each part
worked and interacted with the rest of

E
l Paso Saddlery (EPS) makes classic carry. The matching belt is a tapered, 1¼- The belt, being what the public views, outside where it was safe, we cycled, sight so the shooter only sees the front the system. This information is not only
holsters, cowboy rigs, concealment inch design and is also leather lined, as is handily belies its true purpose with its col- without firing, FMJ and several types of edge of the sight and not the top. The filing useful in building pistols, but for diag-
holsters, duty holsters, military-style the magazine pouch. orful, exotic skin; slender, tapered design; hollowpoint ammunition to test function. was done in several steps, with us stopping nosing malfunctions as well. If you own
and hunting holsters, and what caught my I can’t say that I was surprised when I and fancy, silver-toned buckle set. The belt Feeding was without failure. The pistol to test fire with each increment until the a 1911, you will find this class invalu-
eye: exotic-skinned holsters for stylish first held the holster in my hand. I was ex- offers the support needed to comfortably was finally ready for live-fire testing. point of impact was exactly where we able in understanding the function and
carry. In addition to holsters, EPS offers pecting a gorgeous holster set, and that’s carry its charge, yet features an appear- With just an hour left of day four, we wanted it. During the accuracy bench tests operation of every component.
belts, magazine holders, scabbards, saddle exactly what I received. The skin is incred- ance of the finest dress design. finished with a hands-on demonstration of I found that feeding was an issue with the In addition to the knowledge and
bags, pouches, slings and ammunition car- ible, the molding and stitching are equally All too often a product doesn’t come checkering. The thought of doing such pre- Cor-Bon DPX ammunition I carry due to experience gained, I am now the proud
riers. Each of these categories has numer- impressive, and the tension is perfect close to matching its marketing, but I can cise work by hand initially raised a concern, its very wide mouth. We tested the pistol owner of a well-built defensive pistol that
ous incarnations to fit just about anyone’s right out of the box. Likewise the belt and report that this is not the case with El Paso but I found the process less complicated off the bench, and it fed flawlessly when I painstakingly fit and assembled myself.
tactical, sport or practical desires. A few magazine carrier. One comment, however, Saddlery’s holsters. If you are looking to than I had anticipated. Simply stated, handholding. We made note to adjust the This will be remembered with each pull of
clicks on the EPS Web site will take you is that the carrier fit a bit looser on the carry in comfort and style, consider El Paso hand-checkering is done with special files barrel ramp slightly when we returned to the trigger for years to come.
through a series of drop-down menus and belt than I am accustomed to, but I did not Saddlery. For more information, visit ep- cut at the specific line spacing required for the shop.
reveal a vast catalog of offerings. find it to be an issue with use. saddlery.com or call 915-544-2233. —DK it. For the front and rear straps, a 30-lpi file The rest of the range time was primarily
Located in El Paso, Texas, El Paso Saddlery is run back and forth along the grip along devoted to function testing. We shot two- SOURCES
was started in 1889. Not a misprint: 1889. a guide to keep it straight to cut approxi- handed and one-handed and purposely
Today it employs the work of 16—the cut- mately 10 30-lpi grooves simultaneously shot limp-wristed in an attempt to foul the HEINIE SPECIALITY PRODUCTS
ting, stamping, carving and fitting are all in the frame in a single direction. The file gun’s function, but the pistols took all we 217-228-9500
done by hand. All holsters and other products is moved over sideways to cut additional could dish out without hesitation. heinie.com
are made to order. It can accommodate just grooves, and the process repeats until the Final cleanup of scratches and rough
KART PRECISION BARREL CORP.
about every model handgun, and its work entire grip is cut. Grooves are then cut in edges was done back at the shop after the 910-754-5212
typically takes about six to eight weeks. the perpendicular direction to form the range session. After that, all that was left
For my custom 1911 project, I ordered a checkering. While Jim made it look simple, was surface blasting with aluminum oxide MGW PRECISION
holster, belt and magazine pouch done in the this process is definitely an art and experi- to smooth the surfaces, application of 706-793-1770
mgwltd.com
Exotic Crosshairstyle in brown Spanish Bull. ence is the best teacher. the finish, setting a gold bead in the front
Spanish Bull is also available in black. Other The morning of the last day of class was sight and pinning the sight to the frame.
PISTOLSMITH
exotic-hide offerings include black or brown the live-fire testing. We started on the Jim completed these on his own after the 570-538-1566
ostrich; black, cognac or chocolate crocodile; bench with a rest to check accuracy and class due to time constraints. As part of garthwaite.com
black or chocolate shark; and stingray. sight alignment with each participant’s the tuition, we had a choice of black oxide
The Exotic Crosshair holsters are leather choice of carry ammunition. Jim brought (bluing) or black Teflon coating, both of SPRINGFIELD ARMORY
lined, and both the front and back are cov- along a sight pusher, and we made wind- which Jim does in-house. I chose black 800-680-6866
springfieldarmory.com
ered with the customer’s choice of skin. A age adjustments right there at the range. Teflon because of its low reflectivity and
user-adjustable tension screw combined During the fitting process, we purposely high lubricity, which reduces the need for WILSON COMBAT
with hand-molding securely cradles the left the front sight heights tall so we could oil and helps keep the pistol running. 800-955-4856
gun. The holster is designed with a flat adjust them on the range. The process There were lots of steps that we per- wilsoncombat.com
back, which increases comfort for all-day was quite simple, with Jim setting a hand formed that I did not detail here. If I had,

84 BOOK OF THE 1911 gunsandammo.com BOOK OF THE 1911 85