Jun 15, 2009
Wilson Combat is committed to building the best 1911s. And doing it the old way

Sometimes knowing something is a hindrance to learning something. I’ve had a nodding acquaintance with Bill Wilson for 25 years. He is one of the earliest IPSC competitors and one of the few top-ranked IPSC competitors I haven’t beaten. Not that I’ve beaten the top guys (or gals) all that often, but Bill shifted his focus from shooting to building his company before I started getting moderately good. In all that time, I thought I knew what went into making a Wilson Combat pistol. I’d shot them, abused them, taken them apart and studied them. But what I didn’t know then was that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.
To correct that oversight, I dropped in on Wilson Combat in Berryville, Arkansas, and got a grand tour. To keep me from bothering the craftsmen too much, the Custom Shop manager led me around the plant. What I found were individual work stations, called “houses,” where each fitter did his part to one of the guns.
The first thing you might not know is that every single Wilson gun is hand-built. That’s right, someone fits every part by hand. I was expecting a row of CNC machines, spitting out slides and frames to be checked for fit. Not so. Wilson gets some parts from vendors, and those parts as well as the ones made in-house are made to exacting and oversize standards. So much so that not a single slide or frame in the assembly building will fit together without work. Ditto the barrels, the internals for the trigger fit, grip safeties and so on.
I watched a slide-and-frame fitter going about his work. He was near the end of the fitting process. Having gotten the slide to the point where it could be wrestled onto the frame, he took it off and polished the rails with a fine-grit cloth on a flat wooden backer. He then wrestled the slide and frame back together, took off the slide and looked at the rails. It was clear he was looking for the high spots the same way I had nearly 30 years ago.
The process of learning to build guns for Bill is not a fast one. In fact, it can take five years. The new guys learning the biz start out in the test-fire range. There they check the fit and function of everything before shooting, and if the pistol fails, it gets bounced back for reworking. Then each gun goes through a grueling functional test-fire process. The shorthand, memory-jogging version of it, posted on the wall, takes a full page.
Then they shoot it for accuracy. If at 15 yards the test-shooter can’t shoot a group he can cover with a quarter, the gun goes back. Anyone who wants to buy a Wilson Combat pistol new and unfired in the box will never get one. Even the minimum test-firing schedule takes nearly two boxes of ammo, and some can take more.
Trigger work takes a year to learn; slide, barrel and frame fitting is another year; and, well, you get the idea. Once someone has gone through the full process, like old hand Vic Tibbetts, he knows how every detail on a 1911 works. Then employees work on the top-tier grades of the Wilson Combat shop like the Super Grade and full custom guns.
Now, “hand-built” does not mean “no power.” There were plenty of power tools to do the heavy work, but they’re used with a light touch. I watched several of the Wilson craftsmen using hand-held belt sanders to clean up the grinding or filing they’d done to blend parts together. Once they were done, there would be no way to tell whether those parts needed any more than a kiss to be fitted. Also, since each craftsman has worked into the system backward, he knows both the people and the tasks to be done after a pistol leaves his bench. As a result, he makes sure it is done right.
I also couldn’t help but notice that there weren’t any cluttered, messy benches either. Each pistol had its own box, and the pistols went in or out of the vault in a box. There was only one pistol on a bench at a time, and the parts were not simply tossed aside during work. As someone who struggles with Messy Bench Syndrome, all I can say is, had I a hat, off it would be.
The coatings stations are in a different building. The idea was to keep the coatings away from the work in progress, but my impression was that it was to keep the coatings guys from being distracted. While I was there, the two sprayers shuffled dozens of parts in and out of the spray booth and oven, all the while gently applying coatings of the Wilson Armor Tuff finish and not paying any attention to me, my wife, the camera or anything but the work they were doing. I couldn’t help but think, Man, I want someone that focused working on the finish of my gun.

Over in the parts department I found that Bill and his merry band had not let the landscape of 1911 parts grow beneath them. Not only do they ship orders pretty much the same day, they are designing new parts as well.
One I found very interesting is the new magazine. Yes, they managed to improve the nearly indestructible Wilson-Rogers 47D. The new 500 holds eight rounds of .45 ACP, with a longer and stronger spring, stiffer tube, marked number counts on the side and an an improved follower, baseplate and retaining plate. Wilson Combat is also making parts in-house, in its new building, on its three new CNC machining stations, plus extra individual machines.
I had brought along my CQB, the one I have tortured for nearly 10 years. That poor gun has seen 30,000-plus rounds and been fired underwater; buried in mud, dirt and sand; and treated to sugar, talcum powder and anything else I could think of.
I figured it might be fun to have the guys give it a look-over. So it was off to the test-fire shed, where almost the first thing shooter Scott Fisher said was “When did you bend the front sight?” He then gave it the quick function test, loaded it up and settled in to shoot a group.
He shot a few, but as it was at the end of a long day, he wasn’t able to shoot as well as he wanted, and he offered it to me while he took a break. So I gave it a try. Ladies and gentlemen, I failed the test as a Wilson Combat test-shooter. I was unable to shoot a passing group. Now rested, Scott sat down and shot five shots into two overlapping holes, and thus my abused old CQB passed the test.
Think about it a high-mileage gun, after being buried, shot dirty, shot underwater and generally traveled around the country, is able to still shoot groups you can cover with a quarter.
Should you buy a Wilson Combat pistol? That depends. If you think a polymer pistol with a striker is plenty good enough and begrudge the extra money a Wilson will cost you, the answer is probably no. But if you want a hand-crafted pistol that will likely outlast you and still be working just fine years from now, then the answer is obvious. And unlike the one-man custom shops who can do stellar work but take years to deliver, Wilson Combat can have a custom gun in your hands a lot faster than you’d think.

Read more: http://www.gunsandammo.com/content/pistolcraft-0?page=2#ixzz1BMCNmmV9