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Dyspeptic Gunsmith Comments On Tight Fit 1911 Article

DG added his comments to yesterday’s article on custom 1911s made to a hard/tight fit and why I think they are overrated. It was good enough to become it’s own follow up post.


OK, some comments on tight 1911’s, accuracy out of 1911’s and tight allowances/tolerance in guns in general. I’ll try my best to make this as succinct as possible on a subject where I could carry on for quite some time…

First, to the “reputation” by younger shooters that the 1911’s is a “jam-o-matic.” Well, this isn’t true, as veterans from the era when the 1911 was the issue sidearm already know. Further, the acceptance test of March, 1911 required the entered pistols (the Browning design built by Colt, and Savage’s entry) to be able to fire 6,000 rounds with breaks every 1,000 rounds for only “cooling, light maintenance (like a quick wipe-down) and oiling” – which the 1911 passed with flying colors. The Savage did not – it suffered broken parts, as it had in the 1910 trials. The .45 ACP Luger didn’t even make it to the 1910 trial. Lugers are notoriously finicky about their cleanliness, but grown men are just obsessed with them. It’s like putting a supermodel in the midst of a bunch of men – put a Luger on a table in front of grown men and they cannot help but ogle, ooo, aaahh, and want to fondle it endlessly. But are Lugers “reliable?” They’re just as reliable as a high-maintenance woman. They’re reliable until something small goes wrong, and then they have a hissy fit.

So when I hear Glock (it isn’t always Glock owners, but it seems most often to be) owners claim that the 1911 is a jam-o-matic, I ask if they know how the 1911 came to be adopted by the US Army as their sidearm of choice. Invariably, they know nothing about the 6,000 round test without breakages, stoppage, jams or other malfunctions.

Second, many of the changes custom pistolsmiths make to 1911’s for “custom” or “match” guns have rather little to do with accuracy – or, should I say, they are not major contributors to accuracy. For example, tight slide:frame fitups – in my experience (and I’m going to use that qualifier a couple more times) do not contribute that much to accuracy (or more mathematically, precision) in the 1911. But holding the muzzle end of the barrel snugly within the slide? Oh, now we see significant improvements in group size – even with a looser slide:frame fit.

So how to provide a snug fit of the muzzle inside the slide? Glad you asked. I would ask readers to open a new window and use your favorite search engine to find “Colt 1911 collet bushing” and see what the solution was: a spring steel collet barrel bushing. The “fingers” of the bushing were sprung inwards, so as to center and hold the barrel without slop whilst the gun was in battery. When the gun fired, the spring properties of the collet fingers would allow the barrel to drop at the rear and the collet to slide backwards on the barrel.

Third, the barrel fit to the lugs in the slide, and the rear hood into the breech slot are of less importance, but still give return for the effort… and this is where the tight fits cease (IMO/experience) making a return worth the decreased reliability. Think of the whole situation for a second here: If you have a barrel that repeats to the same lock-up points fore and aft in the slide, and your sights are mounted on your slide (and only your slide), what increase in accuracy/precision can tightening the slide onto the frame provide? Think about it in terms of other guns: How much accuracy (precision) do you gain on an AR because your upper fits onto your lower like a bank vault? Not much. Your sights (be they telescopic or iron) are on the upper receiver, your barrel is mounted on the upper, the BGC is held in lockup inside the upper… how much accuracy/precision are you going to gain because your upper closed onto the lower with absolutely no wiggle or slop? A little. In my experience, you gain much more from putting a quality barrel on an upper that has been trued with a gas tube that fits perfectly centered into your gas key and then getting a quality trigger/hammer set. But that’s just me.

It’s the slide/frame slop (or lack of it) that, IMO/experience, robs 1911’s of their reliability, usually by slowing down how fast the slide is running forward due to excessive friction. Suddenly the slide/barrel won’t finish going into battery – or the round being picked off of a full magazine added enough more friction to make it an issue. Some reliability can be lost if the front bushing is too snug, or the rear of the barrel requires a scrupulously clean chamber/hood area. But it’s usually these wickedly snug & polished slide/frame fits that cause the gun to not go into battery because of some dirt or grit (or lack of lube).

OK, some more details about the Series 70 Colt collet bushings: These were an elegant engineering answer to the issue of accuracy/precision on Government-model 1911’s without paying big bucks for hand-fit parts. The idea went like this: The barrel was turned to a slightly smaller diameter behind the bushing lock-up area. The spring collet bushing was put onto the barrel – and the bushing should not be removed from the barrel after that. To break down the gun, you take the barrel out with the bushing at the same time. The bushing was basically a set of four spring ‘fingers’ that would hold/center the barrel in the bushing, and still allow the barrel to slide through the bushing easily. It didn’t require hand-fitting to individual barrels, to get the lock-up snug – all it required was a small reduction in barrel OD behind the lock-up area. Some people claim the collet bushing was “failure prone.” Really? Colt made 70’s with that bushing for 15+ years. Most failures of which I’m aware were on guns where the owners pulled the bushing off the barrel and tried to force it back on by hand, without using some guide to assure even pressure applied to the collet all the way ’round. BTW, you should not try to put a collet bushing onto a barrel that doesn’t have a bit of diameter removed behind the lock-up area.

Later mods to 1911 barrels and bushings attempted to snug up the muzzle’s fit in the bushing without sacrificing reliability. Barrels were made with spherical ends, conical ends, that would fit into slides without bushings, etc. IMO, the collet bushing was the simplest, easiest and most cost effective way to increase the accuracy/precision of the 1911. One of the more reasonable attempts to deliver real results with less work is the Briley spherical bushing setup. Look on Brownells’ web site for it. It’s not that expensive in the overall scheme of things. On my 1911’s, I was taught to fit an oversized bushing into the barrel, then to the barrel straight-on. Then I go in with an abrasive bob on a Foredom tool and carefully remove some material from the inside bottom of the bushing rear of the center of the bushing, and some material from the inside top of the bushing, so the barrel can tilt down as the slide comes rearward and the rear of the barrel drops. When the slide comes forward, the barrel then gets centered by the small “band” of metal that is concentric with the outside of the bushing. For someone like me, this is trivial work. For someone who doesn’t do gunsmith-type fitting of parts on a regular basis, this is a bunch of try-n-fit work that usually exceeds their patience.

Lastly, I want to talk for a second about how reliability goes down, in general as allowances/tolerance disappear. I’ve made several rifles (for myself and others) that have “zero headspace, tight bolts, bushed firing pins” etc, etc – in addition to having a top-quality barrel. These rifles have to be treated like a finicky baby, cleaned assiduously or else, the bolt starts become quite difficult to close. Remington 700-style rifles where I make the barrel’s bolt nose recess allowance only 0.001″ over the bolt nose diameter, zero headspace, lapped bolt lugs, a sleeved bolt, etc, etc – damn, those are finicky rifles. Accuracy/precise? Sure. But I wouldn’t ever take one to a shooting course or competition where I can’t clean it every 10 to 30 rounds.

Guns, all guns, need at least a little bit of slop in order to handle the reality of the world – ie, that real-world shooting situations mean some grit, some dust, some dirt, some carbon/powder residue, etc. That’s the real world. 1911’s that have their slide/frame fits so exquisitely tight that a little bit of grit will make it no longer go into battery is a gun for the pampered match range, not a shooting course in the dirt/dust, nor CCW carry. It’s the same thing with benchrest rifles vs. hunting rifles. Take a benchrest rifle hunting, and you’ll likely find out just how finicky these rifles are. Take an original Mauser, 1917 or 1903 hunting, and you can’t kill that rifle, and it will always work

3 thoughts on “Dyspeptic Gunsmith Comments On Tight Fit 1911 Article”

  1. I took my highly tuned 1911 target puncher with light target loads to a match on Saturday where the temp was about one degree above 0 degrees celcius…right on freezing. I had so many malfunctions I had to withdraw from the match.

    I took the same gun to the range today to test it using the same batch of handloads at about 13 degrees C and I put 100 rounds throught it without a problem.

    One noticable feature of the malfunctions was lots of unburned powder inside the gun. I guess a combination of the powder not fully burning at freezing point and a tight gun in very cold conditions taught me a new lesson in how to stuff up a match. 🙂

  2. I’ve always thought the “horrible accuracy” stories to have originated from minimally trained GIs. Shooting essentially a couple boxes of ammo a year is what amounted to proficiency for the majority of those serving. The pistols may have been old and tired but for “combat accuracy” they were more than capable of the job.

    I don’t understand the fascination with the super custom 1911 but I don’t begrudge anyone pursuing their own goals with their own money. I think nostalgia plays a large part.

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