The makers of 1911s all fall into three general categories – production, semi-custom, and custom. What is it that differentiates these groups and why should you care? The most significant and obvious difference is the cost.
Production guns are from the names you may know the best in the industry – companies such as Colt, Springfield Armory, Rock Island Armory, and Dan Wesson. There is variation in quality across the companies, but the common thread is that each model comes with the features it comes with. If you don’t like that group of features, you’ll have to choose a different model or different manufacturer. You’ll be able to buy a new production gun for around $500 up to maybe $1,500.
Because production guns are less expensive (at least by 1911 standards), their quality levels are from pretty basic to pretty good. Rock Island Armory will give you a serviceable weapon, but the fit and finish will be serviceable as well. At the top of the heap in production guns (in my opinion) is Dan Wesson; they are very well made and can approach the quality of some of the semi-custom makers.
For those who want to choose from among a set of options for their 1911, semi-custom pistols would be the way to go. These makers sell a number of standard models but offer many options to customize the gun to your taste and needs. You might want ambidextrous thumb safeties in place of single-sided, or chain link pattern front and rear strap treatments rather than checkered. Perhaps a flush cut and reverse crowned barrel looks good to you.
Lots of possible options come to mind, but those options are limited to only what the semi-custom manufacturer offers. They may allow you to choose slide top serrations in 30 lpi (lines per inch), but not 15. If you want snakeskin patterned strap treatments, you may have to choose a different manufacturer. And each of the available options may come at an extra cost.
Speaking of cost, the semi-custom 1911s are a big step up in price from the production models. A gun from Wilson Combat, Nighthawk Custom, Ed Brown, or Guncrafter Industries can run anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000! But the quality of the parts, the fit and finish of a completed pistol, and the customer support available are all a big step up, too. Once again, we find that you get what you pay for.
Delivery is another difference in semi-custom 1911s. You may find a production model at your local gun shop, or they can get it for you in a couple of days. A semi-custom pistol is likely to take three months, or more, to be made. But if they are building a pistol “for you” with the options you’ve chosen, they will start from the frame and slide and build it to your order.
At the top of the cost, quality, delivery, and options list are full custom makers. These are typically individual premier pistolsmiths with a vast knowledge of 1911s and an artistic flare to complement their world-class skills. They will create the 1911 that you want, exactly like you want it, and offer suggestions for options. Any feature is available that is not patented by another builder.
The names of these custom builders are legends in the 1911 community – Chuck Rogers, Jason Burton, Steve Owens, Stan Chen, and John Harrison to name a few. Their work is a combination of near-perfect hand filing, precision machining, and impeccable finishing. If there is art in a pistol, these men are 1911 artists. And, as artists, their guns reflect their personal style.
To produce fully custom work at this level of quality is not cheap and it is not fast. A cliché that applies is cheap, fast, good – pick two. These guns can cost from $7,000 to beyond the limits of your checkbook and waiting lists may run into years. But what you will get at the end is a one-of-a-kind work of pistolsmith art made to suit your exact tastes.