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Old July 6, 2010, 08:30 PM   #1
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Building a 1911 - Costs and Benefits

Hey everyone,

I've been looking at Brownells and I see that they're really pushing the "build your own AR-15" . I don't know if there's the same for a 1911 pistol but I am sure one can build it.
I am interested in doing it as a project to occupy my time and have some fun. However, I want to know whether I'm getting into some ugly territory, so I have a few questions since I am not a gunsmith at all, but I am a do it yourself kind of guy.

1) Is it financially beneficial to build a pistol myself? Can I build a good value pistol at a better price than I can purchase it ?

2) Will I need a lot of tools?

3) Do I need special skills to get decent performance ? I know that trigger jobs and such might be more complex.

I would appreciate any insight from anyone, especially if you've experienced building it yourself. I prefer building the pistol from absolute scratch, even if they do seem to sell (for the AR-15 at least) some complete subassemblies.

Thank you
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Old July 6, 2010, 08:38 PM   #2
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If you are building a plain jane, basic 1911 style pistol, I think you could buy a Springfield, Rock Island, etc. for the same price, or less, than what it would cost you to build one.

Start upgrading a little bit (better sights, match barrels and bushings, magwells, fancy MSH, custome finish vs. home blue or park, etc.) and you could probably save money (depending on what parts you upgrade, and what brand you use) over buying an off the shelf pistol with the same features.

Just my opinion, from when I was looking to build one myself, but, then I found my Springfield for just over $500 out the door.

Having never built one, I imagine you would need some baisc tools, but have no idea what is really needed.
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Old July 6, 2010, 08:44 PM   #3
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Today's drop-in parts are much better than they were 20 years ago, so I would say you could do it without too many "specialized" tools.

Will you save money? I seriously doubt it, but you'll likely get better parts for the same money.

Can you do it? I don't know, but you might want to search a bit on the web for a few hints and tips, as there are a few "tricky" spots in such a project.

One more thing: Mistakes can be very costly, which will add to the costs. If you go slow and do your research, you'll probably only make minor goofs, which can be over-come without more high-cost parts.

Good luck.
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Old July 6, 2010, 08:56 PM   #4
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My opinion? There are so many custom and semi-custom makers that can deliver your pistol exactly the way you want it, that it makes little sense trying to build a mix-master 1911 yourself. I did it, and love my pistol, but it took a long time and a lot of work, and if I hadn't done it DIY, would have cost a whole lot more than just buying a brand new pistol equipped the way I wanted it.
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Old July 6, 2010, 09:25 PM   #5
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A decent carbon steel frame and slide will run about $600+. $150ish for a barrel, another $150 for a fire control set, and a few hundred for the rest of the small parts... you're into parts for at least $1k. You'll need to apply a finnish of some sort. If you don't have tools, you'll spend a few hundred more. So its not really 'cost effective'. You can get a good production gun off the shelf with all the bells and whistles for the same money or less.

The pros of a DIY 1911:
- you'll have an intimate knowledge of how a 1911 functions, and how all the parts interact
- pride in knowing its 100% yours
- the enjoyment you'll get during the build process

The cons:
- a well built 1911 requires fitting the parts; even 'drop in' aren't always drop in
- lots of frustration as you fit and re fit parts, or have to replace them because you made an error
- blood pressure meds are expensive

If you have above average mechanical skills, and have or are willing to get the tools needed, it can be a rewarding project, even with the issues you'll probably encounter
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Old July 6, 2010, 09:33 PM   #6
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When it comes to building your own, AR's and 1911's are two entirely different animals. A 1911 takes a lot more fitting, and a lot more know how to get it right. If you're going to do it, the first thing you need is to read Kuhnhausen's shop manual Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. The second thing you need is a big pile of money. If you want to do it right, you will spend a lot more money than you would just buying a production 1911.

Originally Posted by jj381
1) Is it financially beneficial to build a pistol myself? Can I build a good value pistol at a better price than I can purchase it ?
Generally speaking, no. Could you buy cheap parts and get by? Maybe, if you want a piece of garbage that will likely never run. Remember that when it comes to 1911's if a part says "drop in", it sucks.

Originally Posted by jj381
2) Will I need a lot of tools?
Depends on how in depth you want to get. If you truly want to build a 1911 not just modify a base gun, then yes you'll be needing several tools.

Originally Posted by jj381
3) Do I need special skills to get decent performance ? I know that trigger jobs and such might be more complex.
Again, it depends on how far you're wanting to go with it. You could buy a bunch of drop in parts and slap them together, but you're almost certainly going to end up fighting tolerance stacking issues and never having it run correctly. To do it right, building a 1911 takes a great deal of hand fitting. It isn't necessarily difficult, but you do need to know what you're doing.
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Old July 6, 2010, 10:53 PM   #7
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I have built 2 1911, one 45 on caspian frame and 10mm on fusion frame/slide/barrel combo.

1) Is it financially beneficial to build a pistol myself? Can I build a good value pistol at a better price than I can purchase it ?

No, especially at beginning, you'll ruin parts no matter how smart or skilled you think you are. There are special operation during fitting that require special jigs/tools/gages that together cost almost as much as pistol itself.

2) Will I need a lot of tools?

Yes. Not even going to the sear/hammer engagement surfaces you'll need gages and tools to cut lugs on barrel, fit the barrel in slide, slide to frame, barrel to frame ... files, stones, cutters, jigs and gages

3) Do I need special skills to get decent performance ? I know that trigger jobs and such might be more complex.

Again, forget the trigger job, you can buy high quality parts that already have proper angles and engagement surfaces done. But fitting barrel and slide and getting timing right is way more difficult. for first timer it is quite a job even with proper tools. Fitting of thumb safety and grip safety is challenge as well because you can ruin the part with single stroke of file.
And don't forget final finish, you don't wanna your gun that you have spent over thousand, shed tears and bled all over look like Saturday special.

This is not to discourage you (it sure didn't discouraged me :-) but just pointing out that you'll need to do some extensive study before you touch the files. AR15 are child's play of lego compared to 1911
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Old July 6, 2010, 10:58 PM   #8
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Thanks a lot for the comments and suggestions. It seems that the consensus is not to do it to try and save money but to learn.
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Old July 6, 2010, 11:13 PM   #9
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It seems that the consensus is not to do it to try and save money but to learn.
Absolutely. And one more thing, stay away from cheap parts. They are often out of specs ( that is why they are cheap) and will cost you more on long run anyway. If I would be building my first gun I would get fusion frame/slide/barrel combo that is already "prefitted" and require only minor fitting. For 7-8 hundred bucks you'll have great start on building your piece.
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Old July 6, 2010, 11:15 PM   #10
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After being aways from 1911s for about 30 yrs I decided to get back into smithing. Rather than start with a complete build I elected to buy an SA Mil-Spec and do a complete upgrade. I paid $675 for the SA then spent another $600+ on Ed Brown parts for the upgrade except for the Beavertail Safety which is Wilson Combat. The main work was fitting the new barrel bushing, trigger, firing pin, thumb safety, extractor, ejector & beavertail. I also did complete trigger work and some work on the barrel lugs for better lockup. The only parts of the pistol that are original are the frame, barrell & grips. I own other 1911s that I paid $2000 for and my SA MS upgraded shoots just as good and I have the satisfaction of doing the work myself. I probably should note that I had previous experience from years ago. My project next winter will be a complete Caspian build.

Last edited by rptrower; July 7, 2010 at 10:26 AM.
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Old July 8, 2010, 09:57 AM   #11
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Based on my own personal experience, you would be way better off buying a working RIA for ~$500 (or a Norinco if you can find one unmolested) and upgrading it over time rather then buying a pre-fit Fusion kit. First, the complete gun is less than the Fusion, and you can use a lot of the parts from the original gun (pins, guide rod, etc) that you would otherwise have to buy.

Over time you can add parts as you see fit, depending on your evolving preferrences in a 1911. You can even get the gun refinished at the end, and you'll still be way ahead of the Fusion in terms of cost. Finally, my own Fusion had to go back to the shop several times to get problems fixed. I think in terms of quality control, you'd be better off buying a RIA (the wait would be shorter, too).
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Old July 8, 2010, 10:45 AM   #12
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I've built three 1911s, the first one from a box of parts, the second one a tear-down and rebuild of a complete gun, and the last based on a complete gun less frame, rebuilt on a new frame. If you are going to spend $1000-$1500 on a 1911 anyway, you can build a pretty nice gun; that is, you are going to spend that much on parts, tools, services. If you don't want to do much fitting, your gun is going to be very similar to a $600 Springfield. If you buy oversized parts and properly hand-fit them (my first project required some amount of filing/stoning/polishing on every part save the plunger tube and front sight), then you can end up with a gun that's very nearly the level of quality of a gun purchased over the counter for the same price. At the same time, you run the risk of ruining every one of those parts as you're fitting it, since the first time around, it's all new. Get the Kuhnhausen shop manuals, and I also recommend Hallock's .45 Auto Handbook. Read those cover-to-cover, at least once, before you start making metal shavings.
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Old July 8, 2010, 12:26 PM   #13
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I've been into 1911s for almost 3 decades and can honestly say I didn't really understand what was going on until I started building them. By far, my third one is the best BUT it is still not even close to matching the tolerances of my Les Baer or Wilson. No where as expensive either! $900 will get you a REAL nice quality home built can dancer that has everything you want and easily give 2" groups @ 20 yards.

Using your EZ-boy/TV time to measure, file, and polish is a great hobby and serves you in the end with a quality piece of satisfaction. Typical statement of getting out what you put in applies on a 1911 build, BIGTIME. I tried to cheap out on my second one using an Essex frame and ran into some ramp issues. Not all are created equal. ALWAYS measure a dozen times or more!!

Read a lot on the barrel lockup, link and frame bridge fitting. Makes all the difference in the world on how it shoots in the end. Reason I say that is the Kart barrel I installed measures lockup for the top of the barrel by taking metal off the lug area. Most other barrels use a longer link to tighten upward on lockup. Total different philosophies that impact your point of aim.

Like you, JJ, I didn't want to jump into trigger sear angles and chose to go with Cylinder & Slide for the whole group. Think it was $125 for the 4.5# tactical and I have not regretted that decision on any of the three pistols.

Sorry for the long post. Just want you to enjoy the project if you decide to go with it. Just remember you wont stop with just one.

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Old July 8, 2010, 12:35 PM   #14
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Do it as a project --- not to save money.

I'd recommend the 4 DVD set from Wilson Combat - customizing the 1911 / to really learn some of the techniques to fit a trigger, etc .....and if nothing else, its just a great set of DVD's. Brownells has them as a set or individually ....
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Old July 8, 2010, 02:19 PM   #15
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Heck, you can buy a Rock Island tactical from SARCO ( for $405.


* High Quality and Great Traditional Appearance
* Beautiful GI Style Parkerized Finish
* SPECIAL - 8 Round Magazine with Finger Rest
* Combat Sights
* Beavertail Grip Safety
* Skeletonized Trigger and Hammer (Target Grade) - Consistent 51⁄4 to 51⁄2 Pound Trigger Pull
* Ambidextrous Thumb Safety
* Flat Steel Grooved Mainspring Housing
* All Steel Ordinance Grade 4140 Steel - Made on Computerized Numerical Control CNC Machines

I'd buy that and then diddle with it to learn. Upgrade parts as wanted. Starting from scratch will probably yield 2-3x the money outlay and the same or lower overall quality.
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Old July 8, 2010, 04:33 PM   #16
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perhaps check out this website. you may be able to find all the information about a 1911 from one of the videos here
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Old July 8, 2010, 11:04 PM   #17
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"Practically" it probably dosen't make sense to build one. It's can be lots a fun though, and that's worth it IMO. I'm taking a Machine Tool class at the local community college this fall just for hoots! Is it practical? Nope. Fun? yup!
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Old July 8, 2010, 11:36 PM   #18
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I have rebuilt a number of basic 1911's; Auto Ordnance, Springfield etc. Of course this was back when you could score a used one for $300 or a tad more, as in the case of the last Auto Ord which I got new for $335 because it had some handling marks.

I'm not sure you'd save money by building from components, but there is an advantage to building frame-out in any case. The quality of the small stuff- hammer, trigger, related pins, fire control components can all make the difference between an 'OK' 1911 that runs most of the time, or a dead-reliable service grade gun that will feed buckets of 200 grain SWC's and print 3 1/2" groups at 50 yards.

The 1911 is a superb, reliable design but ony when carefully assembled from quality components. If you build it, you control what goes into it.
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Old July 9, 2010, 06:35 AM   #19
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I have "built" several firearms ie rifles & pistols. Or more correctly had them built with the design and components I wanted. All but one were quite good. The thing is they all LOST me quite a bit of money on resale. Many people will purchase a name brand or semi-custom brand long before they will touch a custom of any kind. For example I have a full custom 1911 by 10x that I specd every part, and various things done to the slide (flat serrated top, no front serrations etc.) under cut trigger, checkered front strap etc.etc. Even has my name as the serial number. Absolute great pistol, accurate, reliable, beautiful. I doubt I could sell the thing for what a Wilson, Baer, Springfield Pro would sell for. I'd tell anyone that a semi-custom is the better financial deal by a long shot. If you build one make sure, absolutely sure that you wish to keep it forever. Or you will lose money, a lot of money, on the deal.
That's been my experience, but your mileage may vary.
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Old July 9, 2010, 06:56 AM   #20
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The "build" in "build your own AR15" is like the "build" in "build your own Lego model". You assemble an AR not build it. And you can assemble a good 1911 these days too.

mes228 hit it on the head, had you better want to keep it, On a GOOD DAY, a pistol that was "built" by a home gunsmith MIGHT recover the base price of base gun even with $500.00 in additional parts. Outside of complete "production" models, even work by named gunsmiths rarely recover 50% of the money spent over the price of the base gun. Look at the for sale ads and the prices with the shopping lists of parts and see what sold for at the end.

And, with no offence meant as I have found them to be quite good parts these days, Auto Ordnance and Essex parts had such bad early reputations that it will be more cost effective to burn your money to heat your house with it than to try and recover it selling the gun.

I "built" quite a few when I was collecting military models as you ended up with a lot of take off parts and altered slides from other "gunsmiths" work. That was then, I shake my head at the prices they want for these Bubba specials now.

Last edited by TX15; July 9, 2010 at 07:19 AM.
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Old July 9, 2010, 08:08 AM   #21
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I built my own target .45 about 20 years ago.
I did it in a manner to get what I wanted in the pistol.
I used a Caspian frame & slide that I paid Caspian to select & fit together as a target grade pistol. Caspian also installed & staked the safety / slide lock spring tube. The fitted frame & slide was then sent to Irv Stone of Bar-Sto for fitting / installation of one of his match barrels. The balance of the pistol was finished with top grade components to fit my desires. Hammer & sear came from Austin Behlert. I used some GI parts I had in stock for the disconecter and grip safety, sights are Bo-Mar front & rear. I did all the polishing, smoothing, de-burring throughout. Overall, I got a high quality hand fitted pistol that still shoots Xs today, as well as it did 20 years ago. My intention then was to build the pistol using the highest quality parts available this I did. It's no showpiece and the grips have been "adjusted" target use and to fit my needs, but shoot it does.
Today, you can buy off the shelf a stock pistol that will be almost as good as what I built. However it won't have the satisfaction of havng done it yourself.


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Old July 13, 2010, 11:27 AM   #22
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It all depends what your goal is. If you simply want to have a nice 1911, then no, you'd be better off saving your money and buying one. If you want to learn how to build a nice pistol, then go for it. You'll likely mess up a few parts, but you'll learn a lot. It's hard to put a dollar figure on learning.
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