RIA 1911 Project: It’s What You Do. But Should You?

New textured grips with the maker’s Mark I put on knives. Made from Goncalo Alves wood.

So last week I laid hands on a bog-standard RIA 1911A1 GI in 9mm. I test fired it and it worked fine. It shot a little low and left as I had been told it would, but it wasn’t bad. Other than that it did everything you’d expect about the way you’d expect from a full-size 1911A1 in 9mm. Accurate and soft-shooting. Respectable performance right out of the box.

OK, I like shooting Action Shooting International matches. It’s a combat pistol competition organization with stages like pretty much any combat pistol league. Except there are to shooter class ratings, no prizes or any of that. They don’t even post rankings at the match; if you wonder you have to go to the website later and see. Frankly I’ve never bothered; I know how I did and where I need work. It’s all about fun and personal improvement.

They do have different classes for different pistols, but people largely ignore them. They have caliber restrictions, which are also ignored; I’ve seen people shooting tricked-out Ruger .22s. I think if your gun or caliber is outside the classifications you don’t get ranked. No one cares.

In the spirit of fun I have shot matches with guns like my Detonics Combat Master .45 and Webley Mk.1 .45 revolver. But last year I decided to build a Race Gun to compete with, and it works very well. Mind you with one thing and another I haven’t gotten back to actually shooting matches since COVID, but I intend to. The .45 is really good, but I found myself thinking ‘Wouldn’t it be better in 9mm?’ So when the chance to swap for a stock RIA 9mm came up I leapt upon it with glad cries. Within hours of test-firing the gun I went to work. You can read about the start of the project here: https://tinkertalksguns.com/2023/05/11/ria-9mm-project-begins/

There are things we do when we set up a 1911A1 for Practical Pistol matches. Commander hammer, beavertail grip safety, trigger with an overtravel stop, full-length guide rod and maybe a fancy recoil spring, adjustable or high-visibility combat sights, an ambidextrous safety, a trigger job and any number of other bells and whistles. Many modern guns, even budget 1911s, come with a lot of these features these days but this one was GI, with the spur hammer and milspec grip safety. I immediately assembled a must-have parts list and realized I didn’t know how I was going to budget for it. OK, start with what I can do myself and piece the rest together as budget allows.

First thing the grips had to go. Not only were they tacky but they did not provide the level of grip I desired. I grabbed some Goncalo Alves wood and made replacements with the sort of texture I like and the Maker’s Mark I use for my handmade knives on one side.

Lots of texture courtesy of my Foredom tool and a 2.5mm carbide ball burr.

I had already radically flat-topped the slide, undercut the trigger-guard and did hand-cut 20 LPI checkering under the trigger-guard and front of the grip-frame. I had also blended the flat mainspring housing to the frame, and since the first post it has also received 20 LPI checkering. On to the new stuff…

This was meant to be temporary, but I am not sure I see a need to replace it. It’s fast and the bullets hit where I’m aiming. This picture also shows the bobbed hammer off nicely.

Someone gave me an H&K adjustable rear site and I planned to put it on this gun, but it just wasn’t suitable. The GI sight now stuck up much further because of the flat-top so I enlarged the notch, flattened the back and cut 30 LPI serrations. Came out to be surprisingly effective. I fabricated a front sight from aircraft aluminum and cut a new dovetail for it. My match ammo will be cheap 115gr range ammo, and to my shock it shoots precisely to point of aim with both Fiocchi and Magtech at seven yards. OK then!

7-yard double-taps and a triple-tap. Nothing wrong with that! Slow-fire had already demonstrated that the gun shoots to POA, so this is centered right because of me.

OK, about that hammer and grip safety. The grip safety was not as comfortable as it could be, so until I decide whether to get a beavertail I cut it higher and reshaped it a tad. It’s a lot more comfortable now and allows a higher grip on the gun. I also bobbed the hammer and cut 30 LPI checkering across the top. This not only lightens the hammer and fractionally reduces the lock-time, it will keep the spur from chewing a hole in my hand (which it would sooner or later.) This is the only GI-style 1911A1 that didn’t do that to me, but I don’t trust that to continue.

Top is the modified hammer and grip safety, bottom is stock.

I had a long aluminum trigger lying around so I fitted that. I have long fingers and it’s just better for me. The magazine well was only technically beveled and I had a Klonimus mag-well funnel in the bin so I fitted that and reshaped the back to my preference.

Much better.
Top of the slide, crew-cut with new sites and a ported barrel.

Oh yeah, I also cut a port in the slide, solid bushing and barrel. I cut this well back from the muzzle to increase venting duration. Rifling continues past the port so there is plenty of time to vent gasses before the bullet stops plugging the barrel. This was all done with files and hand-tools. The front sight is mounted behind the post so it doesn’t get blasted and lose the orange paint every time I fire. Yes, this shortens the sight radius to about Commander length. This might matter shooting at 100 meters or in Bullseye competition but since I don’t intend to do either of those things I don’t care.

The port works good. In the photo you can see a ghost-image of the gun halfway through recoil. This gun shoots seriously flat, which is very good for split-times between shots. A full-size 1911A1 in 9mm shoots pretty flat to begin with, but this is on a whole ‘nuther level.

Damn! I mean, Damn!
Third shot of a triple-tap. Note the position of the brass from the previous two shots.

The trigger-pull is 4.5 lbs, which might be OK for a carry pistol but it’s way too much for a competition pistol. My 1911 race-gun has a 1-3/4 LB. trigger. As a first step I installed an EGW sear spring, which instantly dropped the trigger-pull to 3 lbs. It also instantly made the hammer start sporadically falling when the slide slammed home. Usually this means you have to manually cock the gun between shots. Occasionally it means the gun goes into ‘Giggle Mode’ for a couple of shots while you are test-firing it. Yeah, no. I put the stock sear spring back and that solved the problem.

I also did something I’ve never done before and frankly question the value of in an action-shooting pistol: I tightened the slide to frame fit. I did this by the simple expedient of very carefully squishing the slide at the bottom side-to-side in a vice. Ever-so-slightly. This reduced the ‘rattle,’ which was not excessive to begin with, by about 50%. I question the value of this because what matters most is that the barrel maintains a consistent relationship to the sights, which is mostly dependent on the barrel-to-slide fit, and unless a gun is alarmingly loose it won’t have much effect. It also tends to make guns more sensitive to dirt, but this isn’t a service pistol so I decided to give it a go. I suspect that if it makes any difference I am not a good enough shooter to benefit from it.

Here’s The ‘So Should You?’ Part

OK, the conventional wisdom says a race-gun has a beavertail grip safety, a full-length guide-rod, commander hammer etc. Long experience has shown this to be true for a reason, especially in .45 ACP. But with this gun I find myself questioning that.

Yes, the ambidextrous grip-safety is a must. Sometimes you need it on a stage, and while you can do without it it’s a game of 1/10s of seconds and it’s significantly slower without it.

But despite the stock trigger the gun already shoots so well I question whether there is any real benefit to be gained with a beavertail grip safety with this particular gun in my hands, and right now saving money is a priority. Likewise a Commander hammer is a necessity because GI spur-hammers don’t work with a beavertail. I’ve already significantly lightened this hammer and shortened it enough that if I do opt for a beavertail it will work. Besides, I rather like the look of it, so more savings there.

I am also questioning the need for a guide-rod. Normally these add a bit of weight at the muzzle and keep everything running smoothly but with the porting and the way it shoots already I don’t seem to need more weight at the muzzle, and the stock set-up seems to be doing just fine. Perhaps this is another place to save money.

Despite the Patreon contributions from my wonderful supporters and other channel benefactors my budget is very tight right now, so saving money is definitely a thing. Some things like the trigger with an overtravel stop and take-up adjustment and the ambidextrous safety need to happen and will just have to wait for some disposable income. But other things? If they don’t seem genuinely necessary I’m just not going to do them. This pistol is about performance, not having the bells and whistles that bring the boys to the yard. If I get the performance I desire without bending the budget it’s all good.

That trigger though, that definitely needs work but I am going to wait for the permanent trigger before I mess about with it.

So that’s the state of the gun as I write this. I’m pretty happy with where it’s at so far, but there is still a way to go. There’s probably at least one more post before it’s finished.

Stay safe and take care,

Michael Tinker Pearce, 14 May 2023

A Story With a Moral

It’s not enough to be armed and equipped; if you don’t keep your head in the game you’ll never get to use all those tools.

No pictures this time, just a story that illustrates the need for situational awareness, the need for mental preparedness, considering how your actions look to others and something about not giving away an advantage.

In the days before cellular phones were common my friend Kevin and I were having pizza with our girlfriends in a bar off Pioneer Square. We had finished eating and in the course of after-dinner conversation I noticed a man with a nylon tactical bag in the parking lot across the street. He stopped at my girlfriend’s car, set the bag on the hood and knelt behind the car. Kevin looked to see what I was looking at and we exchanged a look. Our girlfriends sensed something was wrong and I explained, saying that Kevin and I would investigate. I flipped open my cell phone, dialed 911 and handed it to my girlfriend with the instruction to hit ‘send’ if anything bad happened.

At that time Kevin and I were pretty much of a piece, both 6’4″ and about 220, though we had different features and hair color. We were both veterans and moved athletically. We were both in nice casual clothes and had well trimmed goatees and ponytails.

The bar was on a street corner with the parking lot on the corner across from us. I quietly said ‘Laugh like I said something funny’ as we crossed the street and he did. I signaled Kevin to turn right on the sidewalk and then cut in. We exchanged cheery goodbyes before he turned right and I went straight.

The car was about twenty feet into the lot, and at the entrance I abruptly turned in, striding forward purposefully. Keven arrived 90 degrees away from the street side as the man stood up. He was medium height, solidly built, dark hair and mustache. jeans, flannel shirt and down vest. He saw me approaching, then caught Kevin out of the corner of his eye. I saw the look on his face. It said Oh God I’m screwed.

As I approached I extended a hand and with casual friendliness said, “Hi, I’m Mike Pearce.” There was a flash of relief on his face as he automatically took my hand. I gripped his hand firmly and stepped closer and the look of relief instantly morphed into sick realization. That look said I’m screwed and I just gave him my gun-hand.

Keeping his hand I said, still in a relaxed tone, “This is my girlfriend’s car, and we were sort of curious as to what you were doing.” Looking at me warily he raised his left hand slightly, then carefully used two fingers to pull back his down vest, exposing the badge clipped to his belt.

I released his hand and his relief returned. “I was wondering who had me boxed in!” he admitted. He went on to explain he was waiting for his ride and needed to change the batteries in his radio. He didn’t want people to see so he’d knelt down. At this point he was shaking a little from the adrenaline dump.

Kevin assumed a friendlier expression and moved closer. The poor officer was almost babbling from released tension, and I didn’t blame him. We chatted for a moment, then wished him a pleasant evening and started to move away. He finally said, “Who are you guys?”

I smiled and said we were just concerned citizens. Kevin and I returned to the bar and let the girls know everything was OK. After a few minutes a sedan pulled up, the officer got in and it rolled away.

Call it a Teachable Moment

His first assessment of the situation was correct: he was screwed. If we had been bad guys that wanted him we’d have had him. He was between cars; he could not move forward or back. If he moved left he would be fully in my fire lane. If he stayed where he was or went right he was in Kevin’s field of fire. Kevin and I were ninety degrees apart from him, we both had clear fields of fire and he could not engage both of us. Trying would have been very foolish; he had two alert, athletic men who were significantly larger than him who were already too close. We also pushed the pace of the encounter and kept him off-balance, giving him no time to panic and no leisure to come up with anything clever.

Fortunately for him we were not bad guys. Let’s look at some of his mistakes.

  1. He drew attention to himself by acting suspiciously. His actions in setting a his bag on the hood of a random car then kneeling was not within the bounds of expected actions. He could easily have waited for his ride and changed the batteries in the car. Instead his behavior stood out and provoked the incident.
  2. He compromised his situational awareness by engaging in an activity that required his full attention. He didn’t see the situation developing until it was too late.
  3. He allowed me to control him by giving me his strong-hand. It was a natural reaction, but if you don’t know what’s going on physical contact is a mistake. Once I had his hand Kevin could have gunned him down and there would have been nothing he could do.

He very much did something right though. He didn’t panic. Yes, we tried hard not to give him time to panic, but it’s still to his credit. Bear in mind we did not know who he was or what he was doing. If he’d panicked and tried to draw without identifying himself he’d have been shot. The next thing he did right was that once the situation developed he moved slowly and kept his hands in plain sight. He had no idea who we were or what was happening and he had no good options. Sometimes all you can do is wait for your moment. The situation resolved itself well before that moment came, which was very much the best thing for all of us.

There are more lessons here, but those are the high points. Most important is that if he had not acted suspiciously none of this would have happened. Had it occurred to him to think about how his actions would look to others he could have saved himself a lot of discomfort.

We all get distracted. I mean, we’re only human. Most of us occasionally act thoughtlessly. But if you are in a vulnerable situation you cannot afford it. This officer found himself in deadly peril because he wasn’t thinking, and he was damn lucky we were men of good will with no desire for violence.

Mindfulness is key, and situational awareness isn’t just paying attention to what’s going on around you; you need to pay attention to what’s going on in your brain as well and keep your head in the game. Bad people look for people that aren’t paying attention or are distracted. If you are surprised they get to control the encounter and you really do not want that.

Anyway, it’s just some food for thought. Stay safe and take care.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 12 may 2023

RIA 9mm Project Begins

The grips weren’t my idea, I swear.

My background check was approved today and I trotted my butt straight over to Rain City to pick up this RIA 9mm 1911. A buddy of mine offered it in trade for a custom knife and that was a deal we were both happy with.

It’s a pretty GI-looking thing but that’s not entirely accurate. The first thing that might jump out at you is the flat mainspring housing, which you would not have on a GI 1911A1. Then when you get into the innards you find a ramped barrel with a full-support chamber. That’s all to the good of course, and saves me from putting in a flat mainspring housing and cutting the frame for a ramped barrel. Thank you RIA!

I suspect they may have tweaked the geometry of the grip-safety and hammer a bit too; this is the first GI-style set-up I’ve fired where the hammer didn’t chew a hole in the web between my thumb and fore-finger. Not going to complain about that!

The gun is well made. I mean, it’s a base-model RIA with the standard Parkerized finish; it’s nicely done but it’s not an exemplar of the gunsmith’s art. It’s smooth, no conspicuous tool-marks inside or out. Fitting is better than you might expect; it’s all decently tight. Trigger is good for a stock service-type pistol, breaking decently cleanly at around 4 to 4-1/2 pounds. Sights are authentically awful.

How’s It Shoot?

It’s fine. The original owner told me it’s reliable and shoots a little low and left. I tested this, and it was reliable and shoots consistently a little low and left.

7-yards, one shot/second. Not too shabby.
5 Rounds at ten yards, deliberate fire. That’s alright, especially considering the sights.

1911’s in 9mm are cheat-mode in the recoil department; every one I’ve fired has been a pussycat and this one is no exception. It’s very pleasant and entirely met my expectations.

So then, Ditch the Tasteless Grips and Leave it As-Is?

BAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Have you met me? Of course I’m not going to leave it alone! What a silly thought. I mean, the gun has been in my possession for hours. You can’t expect it to stay pristine forever!

First things first. I detail-stripped the gun, pulled the firing pin etc from the slide and flat-topped it using my 2×72 belt grinder initially, then moving to my big Diamond-Hone sharpening stone to get it really, really flat.

That came out nice!

Naturally I’ll have to cut dovetails for the sights, but that’s a job for another day. Next I moved on to the frame. I undercut the trigger-guard, then got started on the checkering. I cut deep enough to get it well-established, but stopped before fatigue set in. 20 LPI on the front of the grip-frame and under the trigger guard.

Mind you this is just roughed-in; I’ll need to come back to it later to sharpen it up.

Checkering is tiring and I’m not as young as I used to be so I stopped when my shoulders start tightening up too much. I like to use an engraving ball-vice to hold the gun. This lets me turn it and tilt the work-piece any way I need to, but the trade-off is that I have to hold the vice in position while I am cutting. Like I said, fatiguing.

When I’d done about as much as was prudent I moved on to the flat-mainspring housing. It’s flat and has vertical serrations already, but that’s not good enough. I ran a scribe down the edges, then went back to the belt sander to start blending the edges to the frame. After a little grinding I moved on to files, then hand-sanding until is was nicely blended.

Much better. A little Oxpho Blue to keep it until I get back to it.

This isn’t just for looks; with the mainspring housing blended I can cut nice, aggressive checkering without having a saw-like edge at either side. This is something Tim Bacus showed me many, many years ago and I’ve always liked it. Anyway, I was already done checkering for the night, so I left off there.

Anyway, it’s a start on what is likely to be a long process of converting this into the gun I want it to be.

Where to From here, Tinker?

Well you’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you? Trust me. I, Tinker, have a Cunning Plan. Stay tuned for further developments.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 10 May 2023