A True Heirloom in the Making

1-Nov-12 – 08:01 by ToddG

Of all the guns I own, very few are meaningful enough to me that I wouldn’t sell them. Guns, to me, are tools rather than commodities or keepsakes. The first gun I ever bought — embarrassingly a Taurus PT-99 — was sold within about a year of purchase. The same could be said for the next half dozen guns I bought from Browning, Glock, HK, and SIG. Bought ’em, shot ’em, sold ’em.

But earlier this year, when I began thinking about a 1911 test gun I reached out to friend Jason Burton of Heirloom Precision for advice and the possibility of having him build the guns. I first met Jason through our mutual friend SLG at the SHOT Show and was immediately impressed by his approach to building 1911s. While Jason’s guns are beautiful and precisely built by hand, they are first and foremost working guns. Jason himself is an avid shooter and firearms instructor whose personal guns see tens of thousands of rounds of use. Jason understands how to make a gun that runs… and runs and runs and runs.

So the challenge I placed before Jason was this: build a 1911 truly optimized for 9mm and appendix carry.

Over the past few months, Jason and I had a number of lengthy discussions about exactly what the gun should be. With most of the big picture finally figured out, building will begin soon. Jason normally builds one gun at a time… his wait list is exactly that, waiting for your place in the queue. Once he starts your gun, no other major work goes to his bench until your gun is complete. For our project, however, Jason is taking a different approach. Work on this gun will happen in phases, literally fitting in between other customers’ orders. By working on my gun as a side job it gives Jason the chance to record what he’s doing step by step.

That should make for an interesting series of posts here on pistol-training.com. Readers will get to follow along throughout the whole process, getting a chance to experience vicariously something few will ever do themselves: commissioning a truly unique custom hand built gun.

The Story So Far

First, Jason’s response to my request was to recommend a full size .45 instead. Once we got past that…

The gun will be built on a true 4.25” Commander platform. There are two reasons for this. First, the Commander length slide is better suited for running a 9mm due to its lighter weight (the Commander was, after all, originally built to be a 9mm from Colt). Second, I travel to Canada every year or two and their strange gun laws require at least a 105mm barrel on pistols. A 4” gun is illegal, but a 4.25” gun is fine. Thanks, Canada.

Frame will be steel. We discussed the possibility of aluminum or even something more exotic like titanium but in the end Jason’s recommendation for best durability was steel. I’ve been carrying a bigger, heavier steel 5” railed 1911 for months without trouble so the weight savings of a lighter frame just weren’t worth the potential reduced durability. Keep in mind this gun could easily see 100,000+ rounds in its lifetime.

Now for what will likely be the biggest controversy after the caliber choice. The gun will be a Series 80. While many see the Series 80 firing pin block as an abomination, the redundant layer of protection for a gun that will be pointed, cocked and locked, at my femoral artery 12+ hours a day seemed like a good idea to me. Jason had no objection and stated that, properly done, the difference in trigger pull and reliability would be non-existent. He did mention, though, that the Series 80 components would require a little more preventative maintenance in terms of keeping the gun clean. Oh, well.

With all of that decided, Jason’s recommendation was to find a decent used Colt 9mm Commander as a base gun. But I don’t do used guns… I always worry that the previous owner is as irresponsible about maintenance and care as I am. So that left us needing a NIB gun.

That led us to Caspian Arms. Caspian has been making frames and slides for decades, and they’re often the supplier to smaller custom shops. They happily build Series 80 versions of all their offerings. Another benefit of the Caspian build it that Jason can easily spec out exactly how he wants the frame and slide made. For our purposes, that means:

  • Commander length “basic”receiver in carbon steel
  • No feed-ramp cuts
  • No cuts for ramped barrel
  • No pre-cut beavertail radius
  • No integral plunger tube
  • No mag-well
  • No front strap texture
  • No “dehorn”
  • Commander 9mm slide in carbon steel
  • 9mm breechface
  • No lowered or flared ejection port (they may call it “high port” or “standard port”)
  • No slide top work such as serrations, etc.
  • No sight cuts
  • Not pre-fit to frame
  • No “dehorn”

As you can see, Jason does all of the detail work himself.

The barrel will be a Kart, 9mm obviously, with a Clark/Para-style ramp.

As for internals, Jason spoke very highly of Wilson parts and chooses them for most of his work.  The great folks at Wilson Combat graciously donated the following parts to build the dream gun:

  • 298BBP – Bulletproof Grip Safety, blue
  • 34S – Extended Ejector 38/9mm/45ACP CMDR
  • 415,S80 – Bulletproof Extractor, Series 80, 38/9mm, blue
  • 31TBP – Bulletproof Magazine Release, blue
  • 314 – Bulletproof A2 Sear
  • 573 – Bulletproof Disconnector
  • 337B – Ultralight Skeletonized Bulletproof Hammer, blued
  • R10,38 – Firing pin 38/9mm
  • 315B – Pin Set, blue

The gun will also be running Wilson 10rd 9mm ETM magazines that Wilson has already provided for the current Springfield/Warren test gun. They have been without question the most dependable 9mm 1911 magazines I’ve used, and they also happen to be the same magazines that Burton recommended from day one.

There are a couple of questions I bet you still have.

First, how long will it take? Keep in mind that this project actually began back in May. We’ve been discussing the idea for more than six months. Over the past six or eight weeks Jason and I have probably spent more than five hours on the phone talking about the gun. Another couple dozen emails have gone back and forth hammering out the little details. Because it’s going to be built “along the way” instead of as a dedicated bench project, delivery is a big question mark. For what it’s worth, when I first inquired back in May, Jason said he was quoting delivery dates in July 2013. That’s fourteen months.

Second, what will it cost? Frankly, I have no idea. Jason and I have never once discussed price. You don’t go to a place like Heirloom Precision if you’re looking for a bargain. This will be a genuine one of a kind pistol, build by hand by a master craftsman just for me to the exacting specifications that I choose. It’s not just a gun. It’s not just a tool. It will truly become a family heirloom.

Train hard & stay safe! ToddG

Thanks to the pistol-training.com Heirloom Project sponsors:

  1. 28 Responses to “A True Heirloom in the Making”

  2. With all this 9mm 1911 talk, I wonder how long until there is a “PT Commander” from one of the custom production shops like Wilson or a production run like the Springer Warren? You are certainly doing a good job of laying out the reasoning for the choices and while they aren’t all the decisions I would make, they’re as close as it gets.

    By Joe on Nov 1, 2012

  3. Wow. You went from non-1911 guy to guy who climbs to the top of the mountain to seek out the masters of the arcane art pretty damn quick, dude.

    By TCinVA on Nov 1, 2012

  4. It is a well know fact that 1911’s impair judgment. People on 1911’s tend to:

    1: Deny they covet the 1911.

    2: Spend unnecessary and excessively to maintain their 1911’s.

    3: Ruin relationships (argue) with others over 1911’s.

    4: Become angry/sad/happy over their 1911 (mood swings).

    5: Believe they shoot better because of a 1911.

    6: Believe they can “shoot just one” 1911…socially.

    7: Shoot other 1911’s (regret). Then shoot two 1911’s.

    8: Say things/do things they will have to explain later when no longer shooting a 1911.

    This list is not exclusive and you/we know the dangers caused by 1911. Todd; I wish you the best and I want you to know I’ll be here when you finally realize the mistake your making.

    My name is Matt…and I’m a 1911aholice (in recovering now…2.5 years!)

    By Matt S. on Nov 1, 2012

  5. This looks like a fantastic project. A reliable Commander-length gun in 9mm is a great idea. Can’t wait to start reading more about it.

    By Robinson on Nov 1, 2012

  6. Are you kidding me??!!!

    By Ketan Chand on Nov 1, 2012

  7. Ketan — Can you be more specific?

    By ToddG on Nov 1, 2012

  8. Todd sold HK? Blasphemy :-D.

    By MKabar on Nov 1, 2012

  9. Does the heirloom pistol mean the end of endurance testing other pistol variants post 2013?

    By jwperry on Nov 1, 2012

  10. Heck, I don’t think I’d carry a non-Series 80 1911 AIWB, and I don’t, in general, like the Series 80 setup.

    (And it’s absolutely true that anyone who claims to notice any real difference in trigger pull on a properly set-up Series 80 gun is most likely full of it. My objections are mostly based on simplicity and lower parts count…)

    By Tam on Nov 1, 2012

  11. I hope you defeat the 1911 virus as quickly as you caught it.

    By Marc on Nov 1, 2012

  12. jwperry — Not at all. There is already one non-1911 in the pipeline for the 2014 timeframe, but I can’t discuss any more about that for now.

    Tam — a Jennings .25 has a lot fewer parts than a Mercedes, but I know which one I think is more reliable.

    By ToddG on Nov 1, 2012

  13. Ha, love it

    By Rob E on Nov 1, 2012

  14. Tam — a Jennings .25 has a lot fewer parts than a Mercedes, but I know which one I think is more reliable.

    It’s not a reliability thing, it’s just that I think the added bits in the Series 80 don’t really add anything vital…

    …unless you’re carrying the pistol pointed at your femoral artery, and then it’s definitely worth the trade-off of a little extra hassle when detail stripping. 😮

    By Tam on Nov 1, 2012

  15. Congratulations, Todd!

    It’ll be interesting to see what, if any, AIWB-specific customizations there are. The quoted wait time is surprisingly short.

    Any tips on how to get my next 1911 sponsored (aside from shoot like TLG)?

    By Vinh on Nov 1, 2012

  16. Tam — Understood and sorry for the misunderstanding on my part. I’m in full agreement on the Series 80 stuff and obviously carry the SACS/Warren in an aiwb without it. But might as well have that benefit if I can. If the only things I incur are (1) need to keep the innards a bit cleaner, (b) a little more hassle keeping the innards cleaner, and (iii) trouble if I have to swim the gun in rough sandy water, I think I’ll be all right.

    Vinh — At this point, no one is giving me anything for the way I shoot a 1911. Except possibly grief.

    By ToddG on Nov 1, 2012

  17. Just in complete shock and awe. You’ve become a 1911 fan it seems!

    By Ketan Chand on Nov 1, 2012

  18. Ketan — I’d never recommend it as a practical option. But the Springer test has shown me that you can get one running reasonably well. That opened the door to the obvious question: just how good could it get?

    By ToddG on Nov 1, 2012

  19. Mrs. SecondsCount’s 9mm CCO is built on a Caspian slide and frame with a Kart barrel. So far so good.

    By Kirk in Utah on Nov 1, 2012

  20. It sounds like an interesting project, but it might make your blog a little less… accessible.

    While your shooting and training advice is excellent, I initially heard about your blog through your pragmatic torture tests of guns I might actually buy myself. I still find your tips on how to effectively shoot and tweak handguns amongst the most eloquent and well-reasoned I can find on the Internet.

    The trouble being, if the gun you’re talking about shooting and tweaking has about a 0.01% chance of ever ending up in my hand, I don’t know that the information is useful anymore. I’m a little concerned that if you start dedicating your time, ammo and blog posts to the highly esoteric world of 1911’s, you’re going to start drifting away from the practical world of us Glock / P30 guys.

    By Chance on Nov 1, 2012

  21. Chance — Understood, and plenty of people made similar comments when this year’s gun was announced. Hopefully, enough folks will find the Heirloom journey interesting for its own sake.

    By ToddG on Nov 1, 2012

  22. Actually documenting the painstaking detail that goes into building a top quality 1911 and how smiths of Burton’s caliber go about their dark art is pretty darn unique. It’s something that only a relative handful of people out there really know because very few have gone to the top of the mountain.

    If nothing else it will go a long way to demonstrating to the under-informed why that snazzy looking Kimber sitting on the gunstore shelf isn’t the same animal as something that leaves Jason’s shop.

    This process won’t be news to Ken Hackathorn. For everybody else there’s some learning to be done.

    By TCinVA on Nov 1, 2012

  23. NIce choice Todd.

    1911’s rock.

    I am not a fan of the series 80 I do own them and cab’t tell the difference between trigger pull if I found a nice pistol series 80 would not be a dealbreaker.

    I just like old school pistols.

    I will be following this.

    By dbateman on Nov 2, 2012

  24. You didn’t mention if the slide was shipping sans cocking serrations, although I’d assume that it is.

    By Tam on Nov 2, 2012

  25. No prior cocking serrations in place means the classic Colt pattern vertical cuts could be made thereby pushing aesthetic appeal off the charts.


    By Tim on Nov 2, 2012

  26. Will it be rounded a bit on the edges for your obvious carry use, or do you prefer the sharper edge classic lines? I have some good photos of a Colt Gold Cup with real nice rounded carry cuts that don’t soften the profile of the gun much at all.

    It’s seems pretty cool to me that you’ve been a REAL non 1911 guy for so long and now you are so dedicated that you want a pistol designed so you can carry it to Canada instead of just grabbing a Glock or HK since you are obviously proficient enough with them defensively. You want ONE PERMANENT carry gun and now it’s a 1911? Open mindedness is the key to knowledge. My favorite pistol used to be a Wilson Combat Tactical Elite. Now its a slightly worked on HK 45.

    For what it’s worth (I’m not Jason Burton) IMHO there is really not much of a cleaning difference between a series 70 and 80. Anyone that can pass an HK armorer’s class can detail strip a series 80 very easily. And in my experience those little safety parts really don’t gunk up any faster than the other series 70 parts. I know cleaning and maintenance are not your first choice of activities detail stripping and cleaning a 1911 can get addicting. It’s part of the fun of checking out the parts you wanted on your gun and maintaining them.

    Finally, you should check out the Wilson Combat Bullet Proof Ambi Safety. It has a strong design, less prone to breakage. It does require a bit of a different assembly on a detail strip, but well worth it. I think they were coming out with a wider option too.

    Good luck with this project. Will you posting updated photos of the build anywhere?

    By Kevin 61 on Nov 3, 2012

  27. While I can appreciate not wanting a used gun, your concerns seem odd in this case since you’d be immediately turning it over to a highly qualified gunsmith for a complete refurb. Surely he’d catch and address any problems.

    By eXceLon on Nov 3, 2012

  28. I absolutely love the idea.

    Todd, correct me if I’m wrong:

    He not a “1911 guy”, or will he ever be. But there is something in a custom built 1911 that cannot be resisted, and frankly…

    Nobody has ever done a complete series of in depth posts about what goes into a COMPLETE (I mean… the gun doesn’t even have a lowered ejection port…) custom build, especially in a steel 9x19mm carbon steel 4.25 1911.

    I’ve honestly been interested in having one built for me in exactly this fashion for a while.

    And I’m a die-hard Glock guy. (Gen4 G19 shooter.)

    I love the idea, and I can’t wait to see what the gun turns out like.

    By Robert on Nov 4, 2012


    By muther_beetches on Nov 5, 2012

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