Monday, February 21, 2011

Well, it only took 20,000 rounds or so....

That, would be my Yost Custom commander length 1911; built out of an early 2000s production stainless Springfield Champion.

I've had it for about 7 years now; and I'd estimate I've put 20,000 rounds through it. I'm on my 4th recoil spring, and as of a recent training class it was clear this one is shot out as well, as I had a failure to return to battery with no real cause except insufficient spring pressure (I've got a couple of replacement springs in the air as I write this).

I bought it some time in early 2004... around March, but I don't remember the exact date. It was the first 1911 I'd purchased since returning from Ireland (my first 1911 was a Wilson Combat 5" custom that I bought for myself in Kentucky, on my 21st birthday); and I bought it knowing I was going to mess with it.

I experimented with some parts and configurations, and with the assistance of Gunsmith Ted Yost came up with the final configuration of it in late 2005.

I've done rather a lot to it over and above a basic Commander. Some of the mods came with the Champion (an early 2000s production model when they were still using premium 3rd party components, instead of in house parts), some I did, some Yost did:
  1. Ramped, throated, polished, and hand fitted, fully supported Nowlin match bull barrel
  2. Titanium firing pin (there is no firing pin safety mechanism. It's a series 70 equivalent)
  3. Yost Bonitz Custom Ignition System (sear, hammer, disconnector), just under 3# pull
  4. Ed Brown, ultra short, ultra light, adjustable stop, serrated face trigger
  5. Tuned Ed Brown Hardcore extractor
  6. Tuned Wilson Bulletproof extended ejector
  7. Dual captured recoil system (Wolff 24# primary spring and 8# secondary)
  8. Full Wolff spring set
  9. Tightened, trued, and machined frame and slide rails, with polished contact points
  10. Smith and Alexander fine checkered arched mainspring housing
  11. Smith and Alexander magwell, hand blended into the frame
  12. Lowered and flared ejection port
  13. Lowered, extended, and thinned Wilson safety (switched out an ambi because it caught on stuff)
  14. Lowered, extended, and thinned Wilson slide stop
  15. Mild dehorning and edge breaking
  16. Slide and frame flats trued, polished, and brushed (the rounds are bead blasted)
  17. Recessed angle cut muzzle crown
  18. Novak lo-profile combat sights with tritium inserts.
  19. Wilson mags (47d) with steel ultrathin base plates
  20. Wraparound Hogue finger groove grips, with torx head grip screws (I've got big hands)
An aside: I plan on putting a set of the new 1911 Crimson Trace laser grips on it when they come out this March. I've been waiting for them to revise the line, and I really like the new lower profile configuration and look of them.  
I've had guide rod lasers before, and don't like their switching mechanism, and that they get very dirty and eventually obscured while firing. Now that the new laser grips are smaller, lower profile, and better looking, I'm going to pick up a set for each of my 1911s (when I can afford it anyway... they're about $300 a set).  
I like having a laser as a training aid, and for use in the dark; especially since I wear glasses. It's a lot easier and faster to pick up the laser dot, when your groggy at 3am, and you can't find your glasses; than to get a good sight picture with a set of tritium 3 dots. I don't advocate using a laser as your primary sighting method, but it's a nice extra to have.
The Champion was my daily carry gun from early 2004, until I picked up my Yost Custom Colt Defender in mid 2007 (with a similar set of modifications). From then I alternated between the Champion and the Defender (at least until I got my 340pd as a pocket gun in 2009. I generally feel adequately armed with a .357 in my pocket and don't need a .45 to go along with it)... but the Champion has been my number one shooting handgun the entire time I've owned it.

I just like commander length 1911s. I like the length, the feel, the look, and the balance of them. I actually prefer them over 5" guns... yes, I know, blasphemy, heresy etc... 4" guns (or 4.25") feel better in the hand, and better on the belt; at least to me.

The Commander has been around since 1951; I think 60 years is enough of a history to call the short models "traditional" as well.

Also, I don't currently have a 5" 1911 in .45 (... blasphemy again... I have a 5" gun, but it's in 10mm); so the Champion gets the majority of my .45acp practice. I shoot it probably five times as much as I do any other centerfire gun (and I have four .45s).

I shot probably 15k rounds through it in the first three years I owned it; and 5,000 in the last four (ammo prices, health, family issues etc...). Most of that was +p+ level carry ammo, or reloads designed to replicate the carry ammo. Think 185gr at 1150fps from a 4" barrel, or 200gr at 1100fps (I've gone back and forth between 185gr gold dot, and 200gr xtp, with my carry ammo preferences).

It seems that finally, after about 20,000 rounds, I've managed to shoot it loose.

I was detail stripping it on Friday; and I noticed, the lockup wasn't exactly rattly, but there was definitely more than "minimal discernable movement" when locked up. Worse, there's movement at both ends. Not much, but enough to feel it when specifically checking for it.

I have noticed a falloff in accuracy; but frankly, with as little practice as I've been getting lately that may be me... or it may not be, because I saw it even when I was firmly rested. It's not a huge difference, but it's a difference.

My first thought, is that my link is a little bit egged out and/or a little bit stretched; and that's causing the looseness. The muzzle end also seems a tiny bit too loose (it's a bushingless bull barrel), and the locking lugs maybe just a tiny bit too worn; but all that might just be the link.

Looking at the slide, it seems alright. The locking lug cuts are still crisp; and the muzzle end doesn't seem to be worn; all the wear seems to be in the barrel. It's noticeable, but doesn't LOOK to be excessive... it's just a tiny bit too much play in the lockup that makes me think it might be too worn...

Unfortunately, it being a conical bull barrel, at a "proprietary" length (Colt commanders are 4.25" this is 4" flat) with an integral Wilson/Nowlin type ramp, it would be somewhat difficult to replace.

I think storm lake does them now, but I don't know who else might have a replacement barrel for this configuration of Champion anymore (some production models use a standard bushinged barrel, some ramped, some with a standard frame ramp).

I'm thinking I might try a new, long link (It's currently fitted with a medium link; a #3 I think) and see if that fixes the lockup; but I may need to source and fit a new barrel.

The slide is properly cut for a bushing (since some variants of the champion and compact use bushings and some don't, and they all use the same slide) and I may end up finding a ramped, bushing barrel instead.

I'm ABSOLUTELY going to fix it though... this is still one of my favorite guns, and I want to make it right.

Now, some may say "you're having a problem after only 20,000 rounds... buy a Glock" or to the other extreme "Ehh, you're just being prissy. The gun runs fine, and a tiny bit of accuracy loss is no big deal; why bother".

Ok, valid points both...

To the first point:I do a lot of rapid fire, with very hot loads, from a 4" gun. In an average shooting session, I might put 150 rounds through the gun, in less than 30 minutes (I've got 10 mags, and I usually shoot through all of them, reload, and shoot through them all again except my two carry mags). Given that I'm shooting well outside the original design parameters of the weapon; frankly I'm surprised the barrel hasn't loosened up long before this.

I'm willing to bet that if I was just shooting 230gr hardball at 850fps, from a 5" gun, I'd have a barrel life measured in high fractions of infinite. That's not what I'm doing. This is a 4" gun. Colt Commanders had a barrel system (barrel, bushing, and link) design life of 10,000 rounds, with straight standard pressure hardball. I'm pushing that designs performance envelope with every round; it's not exactly surprising it will wear out eventually.

To the second point: like I said, the wear isn't severe. It's not causing the gun to malfunction (it just eats recoil springs every 5000 rounds, which is normal for a commander length gun shooting +p); it's just enough to be noticeable. I think the looseness is caused more by the link loosening up than the barrel to slide fit... but the barrel to slide fit definitely has noticeably loosened.

This is a high dollar custom buildup, done to my exact specs; any degradation in performance is unacceptable to me. I just don't like feeling that slop, even if it is just a tiny bit.

So yeah... I AM being a bit prissy... it's my gun and I'll be prissy if I want to.

...So anyway, I was thinking on it more; and I decided to do some testing at the coffee table tonight while watching Sunday night TV.

It seems that the slide is definitely not worn significantly; as there are only a few very small indications of wear-in on the inside of the mating area. There is however much more pronounced (not excessive, but definitely noticeable) wear-in on the barrel itself.

This is actually both an expected thing, and a good thing.

It's expected, because 1911 slides are hardened to between 45 and 52 rockwell c (depending on the manufacturer and the time period), most between 45 and 50; and 1911 barrels are generally hardened to between 40 and 45 hrc (other hard parts, such as pins, sears etc... are typically hardened to between 50 and 56 hrc).

Also it's expected because barrels are final machined and final fit after heat treating (leaving a slightly softer steel at the mating surfaces which are ground and polished for final fit); while slides on production guns are generally heat treated after final machining (custom guns are often hand fit on the slide, bushing, and barrel; all after final heat treating).

It's a good thing, because it means I have more options available to me if I have to replace the barrel.

As I noted above, the slide is properly cut for a bushing; and because the internal mating surfaces are not excessively worn, I can still very easily fit one. This means I can use either a replacement bull barrel, or I can fit a barrel with a standard bushing.

I verified that a standard bushing will still fit tonight, test fitting with a bushing and barrel from a different gun.

That's good, because it's actually rather difficult to find a 4" bull barrel that will work; and as this particular Champion is cut for a Wilson/Nowlin ramp, the potential selection of stocked parts is reduced even more.

I could get it directly from Springfield, but since I purchased my gun, they have moved barrel production away from Nowlin and Ed Brown (the two OEMs who did their outside barrels when the were still match grade. Mine is a Nowlin); first to several generic OEMs, then recently to Storm Lake (at least according to the various gun forums).

Now, there's certainly nothing wrong with parts from any of those manufacturers; but none of them stock the part for retail sale... and besides if I'm going to replace the barrel, I want to do it with a barrel of as high quality as I possibly can right?

With a standard bushing type barrel, you can pretty much get whatever length you want, and then cut it down, re-crown it, and fit it to a bushing. Unfortunately, because of the geometry: with a bull barrel, you have to find one that close to the right length to begin with. You can't cut down most 5" bull barrels, because the taper begins about 1/2"-3/4" behind the muzzle (some even less, just 1/4"). If you cut it down to 4" you'd already be in the conical section, with a reduced diameter and no flat mating surface for fitment to the slide.

There are however several manufacturers that sell commander length bull barrels that will work, as they are only .25" over (actually less than that, but it's .25" nominal) ; and while some manufacturers (Kimber and Wilson for example) only provide a little more than 1/4" of mating surface before they start to taper, most give more than 1/2", or even a full inch. I'll just need to have the barrel cut down to match the slide; something any gunsmith should be able to do for whatever their minimum charge is.

That said, I'm not sure if that's the best long term solution.

I'm really seriously considering moving to a bushing and standard barrel.

For one thing, it means I'll never have to worry about the slide itself wearing out. If there's a problem, it's most likely going to be with the bushing, not either the barrel or the slide; and the bushing is the easiest part to replace of the three.

Also, it just really widens my barrel choice.

Right now, the only Nowlin/Wilson ramped, commander length, bull barrels I can find stocked anywhere are from Briley, and Storm Lake.

That's not a bad thing, Briley makes excellent barrels and would certainly be on my list, and as I said above, I think Storm Lake also makes good barrels... but I don't like having just those two choices. Though, on the plus side, Storm Lake ramped bull barrels are only $160 (the Briley ramped bull barrel runs $200).

Oh and yes, even though Storm Lake OEMs the barrels for Springfield (or at least they did... they may have changed again since the last time I checked); they don't stock 4" barrels for retail sale.

Bar-sto will make one for me, but for a ramped bull Commander barrel they charge about $260, and have a minimum 16 week lead time (I checked, they don't stock the part)... though they will at least make it a 4" with a proper crown for me, so I don't have to go to a smith to get it done afterwards.

Wilson makes bull barrels, and ramped barrels, but they don't make a ramped bull barrel in Commander length (which is amazing, since they were the first to do it in the 80s). They even make a 4" bull barrel, but it's not ramped (it's for Kimber compacts).

Clark and Kart don't make bull barrels (they do make ramped barrels though). Nowlin (who made the original barrel for the gun) makes bull barrels, but not ramped bull barrels. Ed Brown no longer makes ramped OR bull barrels (at least not for retail sale. They use them in their own custom 1911s if ordered).

On the other hand, if I go with a bushing barrel, basically all of the major manufacturers except Ed Brown are available to me; again, with just a re-crown down to match the bushing, or possibly a 3/4" trim and then a re-crown; either of which any gunsmith can do.

... or for that matter, I could buy a threaded barrel and not worry about a re-crown; in case I feel like buying a .45 can (which I am thinking hard about doing at some point). Nowlin, Briley, and Storm Lake all stock threaded barrels for use with a bushing (and Bar-sto, Clark, and Kart will make one on request). Nobody but Schuemann stocks a threaded bull barrel (a few custom makers will make them, for threaded compensators though not cans), and they charge almost $400 for it; plus the threads are weird and incompatible with standard cans (because they're made for compensators), requiring a thread adapter.

Also, if I stay with a bull barrel, I'm restricted to keeping the current proprietary Springfield Champion double captured recoil spring setup. I happen to LIKE the recoil setup; but I can only get replacement bits from Springfield (though Wolff does stock the springs). If I switch to a bushing barrel, I can use any recoil spring and guide rod setup I please.

Now, I personally think an FLGR is a good thing for a commander length gun; especially if you're running a heavy spring for use with +p+ ammo (and I do; a 24lb spring in fact); so I'd probably stick with a full length rod, but there are a number of options out there if I want to change.

With a bushing, you need to use a spring plug that sticks out about 3/32" from the front of the slide, so that the plug engages the halfround cut in the base of the bushing, to keep it from rotating (as with a standard, non guide rod type spring plug). Thankfully, the hollow plugs used by full length guide rods (which engage the bushing) are now a standard part stocked by most anyone.

In Champion form, the recoil system uses a reverse cut spring plug (as do Colts bull barrels guns, Kimbers, and other manufacturers), which has a small flange that mates with a recess cut into the barrel hood, so the plug wont slide out forward; and the plug and guide rod are both trimmed to end flush with the slide. This plug style won't engage a bushing, so an alternate spring plug solution would need to be found. Thankfully, I verified with testing today, the original Springfield system works just fine with a standard hollow spring plug used with any standard guide rod and bushing setup.

Though actually, I'm thinking about doing something non-standard.

I'm actually very seriously considering a Briley Spherical bushing; not because I think they're more accurate than a well fitted standard bushing (it's been proven with repeated testing that they are as accurate, but not more so), but because they have very desirable wear and reliability characteristics.

With a spherical bushing, the wear point isn't a sharp edged fulcrum as it is with a standard bushing, it's a full on, low drag, smooth and flat, and independently gimballing bearing surface that can maintain a shear film (yes, that's correct. Not a "sheer" film; shear as in slicing off) of lube. Then, as things wear down, you don't need to replace the barrel, or the bushing; just replace the spherical ring (which they sell for about $20).

If I do go with Briley, I may just buy a matched barrel and bushing set from them. They fit the matched sets down to 1 thousandth (instead of the standard 2 thousandths for solid bushings on a standard barrel), and guarantee them as fully functional and reliable; and the set runs about $240, with minimal smithing required (I'm fully capable of - and have the tools necessary for- fitting my own barrel and bushing into a slide). Otherwise, the bushing alone (with a ring) runs about $60.

Given that a solid bushing runs between $10 and $20, and any gunsmith is going to charge at least a half hours labor to fit a bushing; and that I don't have the right tools to properly fit the inside of a bushing to a barrel (at least not at match grade tolerances... anyone can fit a "drop in" or "semi-drop-in" bushing, but you never know how accurate that will be) I do rather like that option.

And of course, with the Briley setup, I don't have to worry about precise multi-angle cuts as I would on a solid bushing (that would be the tooling I don't have); and I can just buy whatever barrel I want, mic it, and buy the Briley bushing that fits closest to two thousandths clearance.. or if the barrel is consistent enough, even down to a thousandth. Briley makes bushing rings with inside diameters between .577 and .583, in increments of a thousandth.

'course I can also just get a prefit barrel and bushing set from most any manufacturer, and not have to worry about the fitment... some will even fit it the barrel and bushing down to the same 1 thousandth as Briley.

I wouldn't do that with a standard solid bushing, because of the multi angle cuts at fairly tight tolerances required for proper match grade fitting (there are smiths that fit solid bushings to 1 thousandth, but you really should fit them to 2 thousandths to ensure reliability and prevent excess wear); but with the spherical bushing, you don't have to worry about binding or barrel spring, so as long as your barrel is of sufficient quality, you should be OK with a thousandth of clearance... just make sure you get a really good and consistent barrel measurement (another reason I may want to go with a matched set from Briley).

Quick and dirty method of averaging out the errors to make sure you get the right sized bushing: Make 10 measurements of your barrel, with the caliper/micrometer at different points around the circumference (but make 2 measurements at each spot... or as close to it as you can get); then drop the highest and lowest, and average the rest. 
If any of the normalized measurements is off from its pair by more than one thousandth, start all over again. If it's still off, either your instruments can't produce repeatable measurements, or you've got an issue with that barrel.

Oh and it's not really a major consideration; but bull barreled Commanders are not IDPA legal; because the IDPA considers a bull barrel in a 4.2" or longer gun to be a muzzle weight, and Commanders have a 4.25" barrel. Switching to a bushinged barrel, or as with a Champion having the barrel be under 4.2" (the exemption was actually explicitly created for the Champion, and the Kimber compact; both of which have 4" bull barrels) makes the gun IDPA legal for the enhanced service pistol class.

Originally, there was no exemption for guns under 4.2"; all bull/conical barreled guns were banned. The popularity of the Kimber compact, and the Springfield Champion as carry guns; and the creation of the special competitons for short barreled guns, where officers length bull barrels are very common (thus 3.8" or less bull barrels being legal in the "back up gun" category); caused a LOT of bitching. 
This eventually (it took years) forced the IDPA to re-evaluate and create the under 4.2" exemption (and yes, they deliberately left it at under 4.2" to exclude commanders with bull barrels... They've got 4.25" barrels by default; but can be cut down flush with the slide face to be legal IF the bull barrels was initially offered by the factory). 
Initially the exemption for barrels under 4.2" was only for the Custom Defensive Pistol class; but that ended up pitting compacts and Champions, against high end custom 5" competition guns; making them essentially useless for IDPA competition. 
Again this caused mutch bitching, and really didn't make any sense; so they finally extended the exemption down to ESP. 
Unfortunately, the IDPA still bans all true 1911s from the lowest "Stock Service Pistol" class, simply because they have a single action trigger (para-ordnance LDA pistols are SSP legal... showing just how non-sensical the limitation is).
I like my bull barrel...

I like the way it looks. I like the fewer parts involved in cycling the weapon, and there being one less bit to break. I like the tiny bit of extra rigidity of lockup it offers (when it's properly fit and isn't worn out). I like the little extra bit of muzzle weight to aid in recoil control. I like not having to deal with a stiff or stuck bushing; or with losing a bushing when field stripping. I like not having to worry about losing a spring plug, because the spring plug is captured in the slide (I think any long time 1911 shooter has lost at least one... flown across the room, or the range)...

... but maybe going to a bushing, especially with the Briley option; is the better choice for a replacement?

Hell... if it weren't for the ammo cost and availability (the reason why in three years, I've only managed to put about 1500 rounds through my 5" gun...) I'd use this as an opportunity to convert the thing to 10mm.