The Art of the 1911
April 22, 2011
The author's latest custom .45 stands out from the crowd.
Though high-cap, polymer pistols have taken a huge share of the pistol market, those plastic arms can never match the classic 1911's rare combination of elegant lines, everyman ergonomics and sex appeal. Modern polymer pistols may shoot just as well as a 1911, but they don't appeal to shooters with an eye for the clean lines and character of John M. Browning's greatest creation.
1911 lovers are blessed with an incredible variety of excellent factory pistols, but for many 1911 devotees, only a true one-off, hand-built, full-house custom from a top maker will do. I've been fortunate enough to handle 1911s from some of the greatest pistolsmiths of the last 50 years, and one whose work I think exhibits a rare combination of innovation and Old World craftsmanship is C.T. "Tim" Brian of Tempe, Arizona (ctbrian.com, 480-275-2164).
Tim has been a full-time pistolsmith since the mid-1980s. He doesn't install parts or do package work; he just builds full-house customs, though he first came to mainstream prominence as a builder of intricate, chopped-down 1911 carry guns. His ability to make those tiny guns run with relentless reliability caught the eye of many 1911 shooters, but it was the intricate handwork on his full-house customs that impressed the 1911 cognoscenti.
I've lusted after one of his hand-built pistols since I first laid my eyes on one in the mid-1990s, but it was more than a decade before I got one of my own. I chose a Colt Series 70 pistol for my base gun because it's tough to beat for beauty, and that rampant pony adds considerably to any custom pistol's resale value. Tim can make any size 1911 sing, but I thought it only fitting that he make mine a Government Model.
Tim scrapped everything but the slide and frame. He uses Wolff and ISMI springs and makes the pins himself, hand-fitting oversized pins to the tightest tolerances.
The top of the slide was flattened and serrated at 40 lines per inch in CT Brian's No. 4 pattern.
Tim built up the frame and then used a file to cut 30 lpi checkering in the front- and backstrap. The checkering is flawless, with perfectly straight lines; crisp, sharp points; and nary a hint of crosscuts or overruns.
Next, he rounded the bottom of the backstrap to give the gun a pleasing contour that also serves to keep the gun from printing. Tim also cut down the frame a bit and fitted his proprietary magazine well. I usually don't order mag wells on concealed carry guns, but this one doesn't add a bit of length or width to the butt and is fitted beautifully. It also speeds up mag changes considerably.
The grips are hand-carved, exhibition grade, French walnut grips with lots of figure. They feel great in the hand and enhance the pistol's appearance. Tim carves his own grips because every frame has slight dimensional differences. By making his own, he can make sure all the lines are perfect.
The controls all start out as top-quality, machined products from big-name makers, but Tim modifies them to his own specifications. The extended magazine release and thumb safety are Ed Brown parts. He contours the edges of magazine release and completely reshapes the extended thumb safety.
The Ed Brown thumb safety, Chip McCormick grip safety and the EGW slide stop were re-contoured.
Although Ed Brown offers a smaller tactical-style safety, Tim likes to bring down the oversized part to his own shape, size and contour. The result is a smooth, snag-free lever with just the right shelf on which to rest my thumb without digging into my side when I carry the pistol inside my waistband. The safety engages crisply and positively, with just the right amount of effort and a nice tactile and audible "click."
The slide stop started out as an oversize Evolution Gun Works part. Tim fitted it and then re-cut the serrations on top to make them sharper and added serrations to the underside of the slide stop at 40 lpi. He also flush-fit the pin and recessed the hole, which gives the pistol a more refined look. The machined Nowlin plunger tube has extra-length staking studs to keep it locked in place.
The high-swept beavertail grip safety is a modified Chip McCormick part. Tim shortened the rear of the safety until it was just long enough for the Commander hammer and re-contoured the entire safety, to include reducing the bump.
The frontstraps on the shortened frame are hand-checkered with a file. The mag release is a re-contoured Ed Brown part.
The new profile looks and feels great. There isn't a sharp spot or snag to be found, and the gap between the safety and the frame is perfectly uniform and razor thin. Even though it's been reduced, the bump at the bottom of the grip safety makes engaging it from the holster pretty much a sure thing. The high-swept design promotes a very high grip on the gun for better ergonomics and recoil control, while shortening the beavertail makes it a bit easier to conceal.
The fire-control parts include a Commander-style hammer from Cylinder & Slide and a sear and disconnector from EGW. I have small hands, so Tim installed STI's polymer short trigger. The unit is adjustable for overtravel and has an electrical discharge-cut stainless steel trigger bow, which makes for a durable, repeatable trigger pull. This one breaks at a crisp and clean three pounds, four ounces.
Tim found the slide-to-frame fit on the Colt a bit too sloppy for his tastes and asked if I would be okay with him sending it off to master pistolsmith Bob Krieger so he could install his Acc-U-Rail system, a proprietary process. Acc-U-Rails are the only thing besides tritium sight inserts, bluing, hard chrome and anodizing that are not done in house.
Once it was back from Krieger, Tim beveled the bottom of the slide and executed some attractive Browning Hi Power-style cuts on the
front. An American border around the slide flats makes the highly polished flats really pop. Those three treatments make the pistol look more refined and modern than traditional 1911s.
Tim also worked over the top and back of the slide. After he flattened the top of it, he serrated it at 40 lpi in a unique, attractive pattern.
The contour at the back of the slide has been re-cut to match the contour of the rear sight as well, so the entire back of the slide--from the top of the rear sight to the bottom of the slide--appears as one continuous, straight-line piece. The 40 lpi serrations and contours are flawless, which is amazing when you consider it was all done by hand.
The recessed crown and Browning Hi Power cuts on the slide give the gun a distinctive look you won't find on a traditional 1911.
The front and rear sights are neatly dovetailed into the slide top. The front is a simple serrated black blade. The rear is a Heinie sight that Tim modified by machining away a great deal of the metal on the top of the rear sight to make the front half of the rear sight sit very low atop the slide. The sight's rear face is serrated at 40 lpi, the pattern flowing right into the serrations on the back of the slide.
The Colt's barrel is a stainless, five-inch match-grade tube from Kart. Tim worked on fitting the barrel, link and oversized EGW bushing until the gun locked up perfectly. He finished off the barrel and bushing with a recessed barrel crown. To ensure flawless reliability, the feed ramp is throated and polished, and the extractor is polished and tuned.
Once all that work was completed, Tim detailed the pistol. The carry bevel was executed by hand with a file, giving each sharp edge an identically angled cut to straighten the pistol's lines. Then he removed the factory machining marks and hand-polished the slide flats prior to bead blasting the top and bottom of the gun. The pistol was then sent to Glenrock Blue for a Master Grade bluing job.
I waited a long time for the gun to be finished, but I was blown away by the quality when I got it. The attention to detail is obvious, with little touches like the recessed slide stop pin and hand-carved grips making it clear that this is no ordinary piece.
On the range, the pistol proved that pretty is as pretty does. I was able to shoot tight groups right from the start, but I wasn't surprised after seeing the test target Tim fired from a Ransom Rest: a 0.63-inch, five-shot, 25-yard group with Federal 230-grain Hydra Shok.
The French walnut grips extend to the very bottom of the frame. The magazine well is a CT Brian part.
The trigger is among the best I've ever felt, and the gun runs flawlessly--feeding, firing and ejecting everything from 185-grain hollowpoints to 230-grain ball.
The smooth grips and carry bevel package make it a joy to carry concealed, and its mag well is easy to hit under stress. The fine checkering is just aggressive enough to give me a great grip without being too abrasive, and the custom beavertail allows me to get a nice, high grip to better manage the .45's recoil.
Owning a one-of-a-kind, full-house custom 1911 with a waiting time of several years may not be your cup of tea. But if you have an eye for the kind of craftsmanship that can produce a firearm so fine it should qualify as art, you would do well to commission CT Brian to build your dream gun.