Improve Your 1911's Accuracy With A New Barrel
January 03, 2011
A lot of pistol modifications produce no tangible benefits. A barrel upgrade is one exception, and better accuracy is the result.
I doubt that many would argue that the 1911 pistol is the single-hottest-selling handgun on the market today. They are available from a host of sources, both foreign and domestic, and the guns we can get today are a far cry from those we had when Colt had the monopoly.
During range testing, barrels were changed without removing the frame from the Ransom Rest. This eliminated any possible error caused by taking the gun out of the rest.
It is so rare as to be remarkable if a new 1911 pistol--regardless of who made it--does not feed and function right out of the box, and most shoot far better than the 5- to 6-inch groups of old.
Almost everyone likes to put a personal touch on their guns, but most of the things we used to do, such as installing sights and beavertail safeties, are done for us already thanks to Kimber and Springfield. When Kimber introduced its Custom Target with a factory-installed beavertail, extended thumb safety, and good sights, the company really revitalized the 1911 market, but it also took away some fun from the home gunsmith and money from the professional. Today, guns of the pattern, such as the Loaded Springfield featured in this report, don't leave much to be desired.
But there are two things we hear shooters still complain about: accuracy and the trigger. Both are fairly easy to remedy unless the accuracy problem arises from the shooter flinching or jerking the trigger. No gunsmith can fix those issues, and if people won't believe that it's is their fault, even the best coach can't fix 'em either. I guess accuracy means different things to different people, but my view is based on the absolute certainty that we will never have an absolute answer. The choice of ammunition alone can turn pig's ears into silk purses or gilt carriages into pumpkins.
There is also a lot of mythology associated with improving accuracy in the 1911 that is either marginal or downright fraudulent. Things like group grippers, guide rods, links, bushings, and duct tape are all claimed to improve accuracy. Some do for a while, but unless the major accuracy issues are addressed in some permanent form, more often than not, it's a waste of time and money. The most important thing of all is that the barrel returns to the same place after every shot. If it does, rather pedestrian barrels will shoot well, and good ones will shine. There are three points to ponder.
The single, most important is the fit of the bottom barrel lugs to the slide-stop pin. Of lesser importance are the fit of the headspace extension on the barrel to the slide, and the barrel bushing-to-slide fit.
While the Ransom Rest does most of the work, you still have to operate it with care to be sure everything goes back to the same place for each shot. The good news is that it doesn't get tired and start jerking the trigger.
One of the myths is that if you put in a tight bushing, things will get better. Of course, if it's too tight, the gun won't work at all; if it is really binding, it can break stuff. But the bushing by itself is really only a small part of the story.
Another fallacy is that tightening the slide does wonders. Actually this is probably the least important part because if the barrel is properly fitted, it will take up much of the slide play. The only time slide fit is a big deal is in the few microseconds that the bullet is going down the barrel. As long as the barrel is locked up and stays that way long enough for the bullet to get gone, the rest doesn't matter. That time is provided by the flats on the bottom barrel lugs, which allow the barrel to move to the rear about 0.020 inch before it begins to unlock--ample time for the bullet to leave. The unlocking is done by the barrel link, whose only purpose in life is to pull the barrel down out of battery and help get it started upward on the return.
One question that comes up all the time is who makes the best barrels. I have been able to test quite a few in a fixture that allows only the barrel to be tested independent of the gun. I have concluded that there really is not very much difference between a World War II GI barrel and one of today's finest match barrels. I shot 13 different barrels and fired five 10-shot groups from each at 50 yards. The ammo was Federal Gold Medal 185-grain .45 ACP, and the accuracy range was from a smallest average of 1.36 inches to a largest of 1.99 inches. There was a difference of 0.28 inch in the averages of the top nine barrels. With things that close, it's hard to crown a winner with any degree of statistical accuracy.
I'm pretty sure that there is a barrel spirit out there somewhere who, like the Gremlins of flying lore, exists just to confound us poor shooters by making two seemingly identical barrels shoot as if they were mortal enemies--one good, one bad. I've tested barrels made by the most common rifling processes--button, broach, and ECM (electro-chemical machining)--and can detect no superior manufacturing method. There surely must be differences attributable to chambering methods and rifling design, but those typically escape the understanding of ordinary folks like me.
The author modified a manually operated target system with a battery powered gear motor to advance the paper. A 100-yard spool of phone wire allows the paper to be advanced with a button at the firing line.
In a very real way we have witnessed a revolution in the 1911 pistol that has been brought about by modern manufacturing capabilities that did not exist even a few years ago. Of course, I'm talking about CNC machining that can do with one or two machines almost all the work needed to make a 1911. This has given us more accurate and reliable pistols than we've ever seen before.
For the purpose of this report, I requested one of Springfield Armory's new Loaded 1911A1 .45 ACP pistols. The venerable 1911 is simply selling like hotcakes, and this model has most of the amenities everyone wants in a package that is ready to go when you open the box. Among them are beavertail, ambi safety, beveled mag well, forward slide serrations, Novak-style night sights, and two-piece recoil spring guide rod. Those are nice, but the really cool part is how well they are put together.
The slide-to-frame fit would make some custom 'smiths jealous because there is a virtually imaginary bit of play, and it moves freely with no hint of binding. The barrel headspace extension mates with the slide with no light visible, and the bottom barrel lugs and slide-stop pin kiss gently when the barrel locks up. All of these are highly desirable factors made possible by the state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities at Springfield's South American supplier.
The modern equipment has made it possible to refine dimensions and reduce tolerances throughout the process. Springfield's ace gunsmith, David Williams, explained that several years ago they began to work on these elements, and the improvements are obvious. There was nothing wrong with earlier Loaded guns, but these are better.
A sharp file helps keep straight lines. When filing the headspace extension, one crooked stroke can ruin a barrel.
My plan was to get a good, quality stock gun, test it, and then see what I could do to improve it, first with a drop-in match barrel and then with a barrel that required fitting. Did my new Loaded 1911 really need a heart transplant? For most purposes, the shooting results prove that it really didn't. But it certainly gave me a nice, clean starting point to show you how you can transform your old 1911 into a real shooter.
With advice from Larry Weeks at Brownells, I chose the Nowlin Pre-fit match barrel. Based on my experience, I picked the Kart Easy Fit barrel. Springfield uses hammer-forged barrels on the Loaded guns. Nowlin barrels are rifled using the ECM process, and Kart's barrels are a combination of broach and button rifling.
The Nowlin barrel truly did drop in and was ready to go with no fuss at all. When I held the slide up to the light, there was virtually no daylight showing around the hood, and the barrel went into and out of battery with no drag. At the other end, the bushing supplied with the Nowlin barrel was a good fit on the barrel and was even slightly snug in the slide. A bushing wrench was helpful, although you could turn it with finger pressure if you don't mind a little pain.
My experience with Kart barrels has been overwhelmingly positive, and the "easy fit" makes it possible to get a hard-fit barrel without having to cut the bottom barrel lugs--which is by far the most challenging part of a gunsmith-fit barrel installation. What Kart has done is build in a pair of "pads" inside the rearmost top lug, and by gradually filing these down until the barrel locks up, you can get the same accuracy outcome with considerably less work.
As the hood is fitted, you need to check frequently to make sure everything is straight. The easiest way is to hold it up to the light.
In any gunsmith fit, the first step is to cut the back and sides of the hood (headspace extension) so it will fit the slot in the slide. The ideal is for the barrel to move freely up and down in the slide but leave no space visible around the hood when you hold it up to the light. Kart's instructions permit a small clearance on the side, but I still prefer no daylight.
Once the sides are cut properly, the end of the hood is filed until the barrel can begin to go up into the slide. At this point, the fitting pads will prevent the barrel from locking up, and they must be evenly cut down until the barrel locks up. Kart also offers a tool kit for the Easy Fit barrels that includes a work bushing, a barrel-locating block (to be sure the lugs are not canted to one side or the other), and a fine file with safe edges that will just fit into the top barrel lugs so you can file down the contact pads.
A variation of this fitting method has been around for awhile either in the form of silver soldering a pressure pad inside the slide or by putting a couple of spots of weld inside the top barrel lugs. Kart estimates that it takes about an hour to do the job, and I'd say that is pretty close. It took me a bit longer because I was being really careful, and since the whole process involves cutting just a little with the file and trying it, patience is the best virtue one can have.
Basically there are three steps: fit the hood, fit the pads, and then fit the bushing. The first two are done with the work bushing in the kit, or you can use a loose GI bushing if you prefer. The final step is the new bushing.
The fit of barrel to bushing is done at the factory, but we have to make it fit the slide. On most guns this will mean that we have to remove some metal from the outside diameter, or skirt, of the bushing, carefully avoiding the locking lug that engages inside the slide.
When I began, it would not even start to go into the Springfield slide. This is one of those places where it is easy to take off too much. The easiest way is to use a belt sander or drill press where you can spin the bushing and take just a little at a time using either a file or Emery cloth. I made a tool for this purpose years ago, but you could easily whittle down a piece of wooden dowel for the job. It can also be done with a hand file. The secret to filing a round surface is to start with the file handle up at a high angle and rock it down as you push forward. That way it is possible to go around the circumference of the bushing in a series of strokes, rotating the bushing each time in the vise.
As I fitted the hood, my calipers showed that the sides were fine as they were, so I slowly began working on the back. It is difficult to cut a straight line with a file because of a tendency to tip it one way or another, so my policy is to make a very gentle cut to see that things are straight and keep doing that until the barrel begins to go up into the slide. I use a rawhide mallet and give the barrel a sharp rap. When you take it out, you can easily see where it is hitting the slide. Remove only that mark and try again. You will need to remove only a little metal, so go slowly. The goal is for the barrel to go into and out of battery with no force. I always stop with the hood just a little tight and touch up as needed after test-firing.
As it comes from the supplier, the Kart bushing will not go into the slide. The author uses a belt sander to carefully remove a little metal from the outside diameter of the bushing.
As I went along, each barrel setup was test-fired for function with ammunition representative of what would be used in the accuracy-test portion. You may notice that Federal match wad
cutter is one of those loads. Conventional wisdom says plain guns won't feed that, and you need a special lighter spring. That is bogus BS. With each barrel, the gun ran perfectly with it using the standard spring. As a concession to convenience, I did replace the standard Springfield two-piece full-length recoil spring guide with a standard guide and plug. When the actual testing is done, I like to leave the frame in the Ransom Rest and simply change barrels, and that facilitates changing--plus I am not a fan of full-length guide rods.
So here was the process I used. When the stock pistol arrived, it was test-fired with all the ammo likely to be used, and it functioned without a hitch. Then the Nowlin Pre-fit barrel was installed, and the test was repeated--again there were no stoppages. Finally, the Kart barrel was fitted and tested in the same manner as the other two. This time I carefully checked for wear or high spots on the barrel, and I took a tiny cut on the hood to make it drop freely. Since there had been an "alteration," the test was repeated. During all of this shooting, there were still no malfunctions.
The test procedure is routine for me and begins with a minimum of 15 rounds to settle the gun in the rest. This period is also used to verify the proper operation of the chronograph. Normally I chronograph each round but just report the statistics on the entire string--in this case, 25 rounds. And since one of the test loads has a lead bullet, I shoot those last and fire an extra five rounds that are not measured to be sure the bore is conditioned for the ammo change. Even though I am changing only the barrels--not taking the gun out of the rest--I still fire the settling rounds before record shooting begins. In addition, the barrel is lubricated before any shooting, and the procedure is strictly followed for the third barrel as well. This routine produces a lot of information.
Sometimes when you have this much information, it is a challenge just to figure out what it's telling you. The first thing is that you will see some rather large or small groups within any given set. This falls under the law of random distribution (the bell curve), and if we didn't have that, the data would be suspect. The information really doesn't tell us anything about the quality of the barrel itself but rather how well it fits the gun. The secret to accuracy in the 1911 pistol is in the lockup and the need for the barrel to return to the same place after every shot. The only way to judge the quality of the rifling itself is to test it independent of the gun in a special fixture.
But maybe the biggest question is one the shooter must ask himself. "Do I need to do anything at all to the gun to meet my needs?"
Not too long ago, brand-new guns often shot 5-inch groups at 25 yards and wouldn't have a prayer of working with target loads. Today, reliable function is a given, and as it came from the box, the Springfield was more than accurate enough for defense or general recreational shooting.
Shooters always want to personalize their guns, but today, there isn't much left to do, and frequently, modification is an expense that produces no tangible benefit. A barrel upgrade is an exception, and better accuracy is the result. I'm especially partial towards the Kart barrel just because it required a little work on my part. The skill required to do this job isn't great, and you can get by nicely with a good file and the installation kit from Kart. If you don't have any experience with a file, find a piece of scrap metal and practice filing a flat surface so you won't end up with the hood all cattywampus.